Jean Bethke Elshtain on St. Augustine’s understanding of the shape of human relationality
In 1995, Jean Bethke Elshtain gave the Frank M. Covey, Jr., Loyola Lectures in Political Analysis at Loyola University in Chicago. That same year, her five presentations were published by the University of Notre Dame Press under the title Augustine and the Limits of Politics. The first chapter was called “Why Augustine? Why Now?” That was also the title given to an article by Elshtain published in 2003 in the Catholic University Law Review. Below is a passage from this article, which you may download in its entirety here.
“[H]uman beings are inherently social. While created in the image of God, humans are defined by human relationships. The self cannot be free-standing. Social life, however full of ills, must be cherished. Among those social forms, civil life is not simply what sin has brought into the world, but what emerges from our capacity for love, our use of reason, as well as a pervasive lust for domination attendant upon human affairs. Augustine stated, ‘The philosophers hold the view that the life of the wise man should be social; and in this we support them much more heartily.’ Indeed, the City of God, Augustine's way of characterizing that pilgrim band of Christians during their earthly sojourn in and through a community of reconciliation and fellowship that presaged the heavenly kingdom, could never have had ‘its first start . . . if the life of the saints were not social.’ All human beings are citizens of the earthly kingdom, the City of Man, and even in this fallen condition there is a kind of ‘natural likeness’ that forges a bond between humankind. This bond of peace does not suffice to prevent wars, dissensions, cruelty, and misery of all kinds, but we are nonetheless called to membership based on a naturalistic sociality and basic morality available to all rational creatures. A unity in plurality pushes towards harmony; but the sin of division, with its origins in pride and willfulness, drives us apart.
“Yet, it is love of friendship that lies at the root of what might be called Augustine’s ‘practical philosophy,’ which involves his history, ethics, and social and political theories. Pinioned between alienation and affection, human beings — those ‘cracked pot[s]’ — are caught in the tragedy of alienation but glued by love. Human sociality is innate, and for Augustine, the question is not whether humans should be social or whether they should trust enough to love. Instead, the question is: ‘What shall I love and how shall I love it?’ Augustine’s complex ethical theory understands that political life is one form that human social and ethical life assumes. Humans are frequently contained within society and are continually seeking the consolation of others. For Augustine, society is a species of friendship, and friendship is a moral union in and through which human beings strive for a shared good. Augustine’s central categories, including the categories of war and peace, are in the form of a relation of one sort or another. And the more humans are united at all levels in a bond of peace, the closer they come to achieving the good at which they aim and at which God intends.
“For Augustine, neighborliness and reciprocity emerge from ties that bind, beginning with familial bonds and extending from these particular relations outward; the filaments of affection must not stop at the portal to the domus. Augustine writes:
“‘The aim was that one man should not combine many relationships in his one self, but that those connections should be separated and spread among individuals, and that in this way they should help to bind social life more effectively by involving in their plurality a plurality of persons.’
“The social tie is not ‘confined to a small group’ but extends ‘more widely to . . . a large number with the multiplying links of kinship. The importance of plurality, of the many emerging from a unique one — for God began as a singular form — cannot be underestimated in Augustine’s work. Augustine notably fuses together into a single frame human uniqueness and individuality with sociality and plurality. Bonds of affection tied human beings from the start; bonds of kinship and affection bound them further. These relationships became dispersed, eventually encompassing the entire globe.”
Jean Bethke Elshtain on the effects of nominalism on the Western understanding of divine (and human) sovereignty
In 2005, Jean Bethke Elshtain gave the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh. The series of lectures were titled “Sovereign God, Sovereign State, Sovereign Self.” As the title of the series suggests, Elshtain — who died in 2013 after a distinguished career in social and political ethics — was concerned with explaining how the idea of sovereignty in the West migrated from an attribute of God to a characteristic of the state and finally to the proud possession of the self.
Elshtain’s lectures were published in 2008 by Basic Books under the title Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. The first chapter describes how, in the high Middle Ages, God — the sovereign God of the Bible — came to be understood less in terms of Logos and more in terms of sheer willing. The second chapter, titled “Sovereign God: Bound or Unbound,” continues the narrative from chapter one with an analysis of the influence of William of Ockham on thinking about the nature of God’s sovereignty.
“To oversimplify, what came to be known as Ockhamism marks the shift from God as love and reason to God as command. Natural law, in the hands of Thomas and within orthodox Thomism, appealed to reason, not primarily to authority. By driving things back to Biblical texts and stripping away authoritative interpretations, Ockham spurred a resort to revelation and authority, paradoxically enough, given that it is papal power and the presumption of monistic authority that he denounces! As many have avowed, Ockham reveres and lifts up God’s sovereignty. . . but his version exacts a fairly substantial price. As God becomes more remote, it is more difficult for human beings to reason about God and to analogize aspects of their own experience — as Augustine had done so brilliantly — in order to reach conclusions about God’s divinity.
“If creation is primarily an act of will rather than reason and love, the implication is that God’s contingent will selected a particular course of action. This means that God may (or may not, depending on the thinker) have subjected himself to the laws he created. One way or the other, however, these are contingent laws. God does everything through his infallible will. Matters get very dense at this point: What, then, is within the purview of a sovereign power? If God acts outside his laws, can an earthly sovereign act outside the established laws of a polity? Yes, say the nominalists, rulers may suspend the laws if the need arises.
“This leads the great medievalist Etienne Gilson to lament that nominalism undermines the intelligibility of the world and offers a God who is cruel because he can, if he wills, damn the innocent and save the guilty. This point is disputed insofar as Gilson attributes it to Ockham, but it can fairly be said that a version of ‘Ockhamism’ comes to this conclusion. Important for future consideration is the fact that analogies are drawn between divine power and human sovereignty. In the canon-law mode, absolute power is not thought of as a realm of sheer possibility but is construed as a sphere of action within an established order. Ockham, however, insists that absolute and ordained powers are one. God can act to alter things and exercise thereby his absolute power. But God could as well do many things he doesn’t wish to do — this is the contingent feature of the created order. Absolute power remains in the realm of possibility — haunting temptation if the analogy is drawn to earthly power. The dialectic of potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata grows ever more important. Potentia absoluta is the domain of God’s unlimited freedom abstracted, finally, from his commitment to de potentia ordinata. The rejection of realist metaphysics and ontology, though a seemingly arid and arcane debate, bore strange fruit over time. It also scared the wits out of lots of people, Martin Luther among them, as we shall see.
“If God’s sovereignty is cast voluntaristically, so, too, is political authority: A command-obedience theory of secular rule takes hold. This involves a profound rearrangement of the furniture of moral and political argumentation. Ockham’s individualist ontology, combined with the divine-command argument, expands and magnifies a vision of God’s awesome power. But God’s reason takes something of a nosedive. Here competing and contrasting views on nature and natural law are critical. Aquinas, remember, holds that human beings possess a form of natural knowledge and can arrive at certain truths — natural laws — through the use of reason. This natural law involves the participation in eternal law by God’s rational creatures.
“Eternal law is not subject to the vagaries of time; rather, it refers to God’s rational ordering of things. Looking ahead for a moment, what Thomas Hobbes, the greatest of the postmedieval nominalists, does with the lex naturalis is to set forth as primary a drive toward self-preservation that is essentially individualistic for we are all monads — so many billiard balls careening out of control — until such time as our lives are ordered by a masterful leviathan. Having rejected the Aristotelianized Christianity of scholasticism, Hobbes goes for a nominalist construal with gusto. He is a canny reductionist, as we shall see. The point for now is that the use of the word nature or natural doesn’t mean a thinker is using those terms in the same way as classical natural-law philosophers and theologians.
“When nominalists talk about natural law, they mean something different from the Thomists. Although Ockham may be no innovator where a distinction between absolute and ordained power is concerned, he is an innovator in breaking up unities that natural law and nature represented. When Ockham appeals to nature and natural law, he means a law imposed on human beings and the universe by divine fiat — an outside coercive and impositional command: the primacy of will over reason. This may overstate — still, it is difficult to see how one can affirm certain dictates — for example, ‘Thou shalt not kill [commit murder]’ — and make these intelligible to human beings save as an act of obedience if we see only individuals or particulars, i.e., a series, not a community and the moral norms necessary for community to persist over time.
“It becomes more difficult for us to link such dicta as ‘Thou shalt not murder’ to well-being of a wider human community, its animating reason having been downgraded in the overall scheme of things. Medieval historian [Francis] Oakley puts it thus: ‘The order of the created world (both the moral order governing human behavior and the natural order governing the behavior of irrational beings) came with the nominalists to be understood no longer as a participation in a divine reason that is in some measure transparent to human reason, but as the deliverance of an inscrutable divine will.’ Suffice to say that with the consolidation of medieval nominalist theology, we are dealing with a voluntarist God who may bind his power via his will . . . or not, Ockham ‘being among the first that maintained . . . that there is no act evil but as it is prohibited by God, and which cannot be made good if it be commanded by God . . . this doctrine hath been since chiefly promoted and advanced by such as thinking nothing so essential to the Deity as uncontrollable power and arbitrary will,’ in the words of a Platonist alarmed by this direction of thought.”
In a footnote, Elshtain attributes this quote to Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), a Cambridge Platonist cited in Francis Oakley’s Omnipotence, Covenant and Order (Cornell University Press, 1984).
John Patrick Diggins on the fear of Henry Adams that “science will wreck us”
On volume 18 of the Mars Hill Tapes, I interviewed historian John Patrick Diggins about his book, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority (University of Chicago Press, 1994). In addition to his discussion of the ideas of prominent proponents of Pragmatism, Diggins’s book contains some extensive reflections on the thought of Henry Adams, one of the few significant American thinkers in the early twentieth century who did not embrace the philosophical assumptions of Pragmatism.
One of the works discussed by Diggins is The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, a collection of essays by Adams published posthumously in 1919. Diggins observes that “Adams was the first scholar in the Western world to relate developments in physics to the study of history.” Preoccupied with claims about the inevitability of entropy, Adams saw in the new physics of his day a repudiation of certainty, universality, order, and harmony. As Diggins summarizes, “What man had wanted from the old notion of the universe the new science could no longer provide.”
Adams believed that, in the absence of a willingness to submit to authority and discipline, modern man (in Adams’s words) “was bound to accelerate progress; to concentrate energy; to accumulate power; to multiply and intensify forces; to reduce friction, increase velocity and magnify momentum, partly because this was the mechanical law of the universe as science explained it; but partly also in order to get done with the present which artists and some others complained of; and finally, — and chiefly — because a rigorous philosophy required it, in order to penetrate the beyond, and satisfy man’s destiny by reaching the largest synthesis in its ultimate contradiction.”
Diggins comments: “The assault on nature by science, Adams observed, stemmed from both the anarchist dream of freedom and innocence and the bourgeois dream of order and inertia. Whatever the political motive, the human impulse to increase the energy at society’s disposal violated nature’s tendency to oppose any concentration of energy as alien to its will and to revert to disorder, chaos, even the destruction.
“In Adams’s era American society had seen the rise of coal, steam, and electrical power as well as dynamos, turbines, and combustion engines. All such developments signified man’s predatory relationship with an environment that had once taken its life from biological spontaneity and diversity. . . .
“Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Adams also believed that Western culture was on a catastrophic course because its inhabitants insisted that nature answer to their wishes for power and comfort. Both thinkers questioned Darwinism because they saw the drive for mastery as alien to nature and the drive for progress as conceit and self-deception. Both came to question the eighteenth-century Enlightenment assumption that scientific advancement meant moral as well as material progress. Adams chided the ‘cheerful optimism which gave to Darwin’s conclusion the charm of human perfectibility.’ Adams saw no law of progress operating in the nation’s capital, where the spirit of the Constitution was defied and the heritage of the Founders ignored. ‘The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant,’ he quipped in the Education, ‘was alone evidence to upset Darwin.’ By unveiling a universe of laws that produce chaos instead of cosmos, Adams had no trouble upsetting the easy assumptions of the ‘Gilded Age.’ The age may have celebrated population growth and the achievements of science as indicative of the success of Homo sapiens as an increasingly perfectible organism; but both the drive to grow and the drive to master could demand so much of nature as to doom the earth as a human habitat.
“Adams shared Nietzsche’s conviction that behind the drive to force nature into yielding its secrets was the human will to power masquerading as the pursuit of knowledge. . . .
“‘My belief,’ he wrote his brother Brooks in 1902, ‘is that science will wreck us and that we are like monkeys monkeying with a loaded shell; we don’t in the least know or care where our practical energies come from or will bring us to.’ Science alienated man from nature by providing them the knowledge to unleash its energies but not the values to control them. ‘Prosperity never before imagined,’ he wrote in 1904, ‘power never wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, has made the world nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.’ In one of the final chapters of the Education, aptly titled ‘The Height of Knowledge,’ Adams summed up in three words all he had learned from politics and history: ‘Power is poison.’ And in a letter written to the historian Henry Osborne Taylor in 1905, he spelled out the shuddering implications of a world experiencing the sudden birth of massive energy and the darkening twilight of authority:
“‘The assumption of unity which was the work of human thought in the middle ages has yielded very slowly to the proofs of complexity. . . . Yet it is quite sure . . . that at the accelerated rate of progression shown since 1600, it will not need another century or half-century to tip thought upside down. Law, in that case, would disappear as theory or a priori principle, and give way give place to force. Morality would become police. Explosives would reach cosmic violence. This disintegration would overcome integration.’
“The race between enlightenment and energy between education and catastrophe, became for Adams a race between authority and power. How could this process of accelerating disintegration be reversed, the process by which law would be transformed to force, morality into police? The question required Adams to return again to history, not to the American past but to the Middle Ages, the age of faith, worship, and hope. The key to the alienation of power from authority was to find that moment in history when these two forces were seen as one and the same. The challenge of overcoming alienation was to find the basis for reunifying man with nature and God, to find man feeling the presence of power within himself because he experienced the meaning of authority beyond himself. The key to authority lay in religion, or so it seemed when Adams allowed the needs of his imagination to flee the demands of his mind. Faith required a willing suspension of disbelief, and Adams was willing to try to reconstruct authority by giving his emotions full rein. If genuine authority cannot be found in [the] modern world, it may still exist as an idea, an image or symbol entertained by the imagination. Artistic effect could convey what scientific analysis would deny — that we believe in what we appreciate, value, and savor, not what we know, understand, and control.”
— from John Patrick Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority (University of Chicago Press, 1994)
John Patrick Diggins on Max Weber’s struggle to imagine social order without authority
On Volume 29 of the Journal, Ken Myers talked with historian John Patrick Diggins (1935–2009) about his book, Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy (Basic Books, 1996). In the opening pages of book's third chapter, “Authority and Its Discontents,” Diggins quotes from a letter that Max Weber wrote to his mother in 1914. At the time, Weber was 50, his mother 70 years old. In the letter, Weber commented on the domestic trials that his mother had endured because of her husband’s mercurial temperament.
“Certainly all of us have a fair view of him today, and now that all the difficult tensions have been forgotten, we can rejoice at what he was in his surely uncommon, solid, bourgeois mentality. We know that the rifts in his life were the tragedy of his entire generation, which never quite came into its own with its political and other ideals, never saw its own hopes fulfilled and carried on by the younger generation [of his era], which had lost its old faith in authority and yet still took an authoritarian view of matters where we could no longer take such a view.”
Diggins comments that in this letter we can see a reference to “the problem of authority that would haunt Weber the rest of his life. He had also lost faith in authority but, unlike his father, he could no longer carry on as though the dull comforts of bourgeois existence would provide reasons for believing and obeying. Authority for Weber became an emotion as much as an institution. In seeking to give it a rational foundation in sociology, would Weber ever be able to respect authority?
“The crisis of authority that Weber sensed reverberated throughout the intellectual world of his era. Combine liberalism with modernism and we are left with the overthrow of authority and the endless search for its substitute. Such was the dilemma formulated by the American political philosopher Walter Lippmann, who spent the first half of the twentieth century in a futile search for the foundations of legitimacy. During Weber’s period of recovery [from a long struggle with a debilitating depression], 1903–1905, he had been involved in a similar search, but the institutions and ideas that once fulfilled the role of authority could no longer command credibility. Authority was once assumed to have an objective basis in God, nature, or reason. But Weber saw authoritative institutions as historical and contingent upon the conditions of their development. He asked readers to observe how authority gets itself accepted in modern society. ‘The reason for this fact lies in the generally observable need of any power, or even of any advantage of life, to justify itself.’ Authority as power and domination relies upon reason not as critical reflection but as rationalization and conventional modes of legitimization. Forms of authority may institute themselves without reference to anything objectively true and authoritative.
“While recovering Weber had been working on his now-famous thesis, ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.’ Its author described the modern market world of business transactions as evolving from an otherworldly theological angst long lost to history. The possibility that one could reverse the process and return from economics to religion as a source of authority was foreclosed in the essay: Weber saw this as impossible in the Western world. In the past, Protestant religious convictions could inspire people to bring about a revolution in behalf of faith and to abide by church doctrines. Similarly, the authority of the State could be regarded as an ‘indispensable instrument . . . for the social control of reprehensible sins and as a general condition for all mundane existence pleasing to God.’ With the coming of the Enlightenment, however, reason would soon displace God and science dismiss sin.
“Weber had been working on methodological questions during his recovery, and it may have been his own illness that convinced him of the limits of reason, and that led him to think of the mind as more a dissolving acid than an integrating agency. Whether or not methodology would help Weber reestablish his identity, the self’s freedom still depended upon reason as an analytical faculty. Reason was once regarded as the vessel that contained truth; in Weber’s era it had become an empirical technique, a process of obtaining knowledge by eliminating error. Methodology itself could scarcely deliver the conclusive truths necessary to propping up authority. On the contrary, Weber’s idea of inquiry aimed to interrogate what passed for truth in order to demonstrate that it had a functional status only, and that its existence depended upon it being believed without question. The capacity to criticize one’s own beliefs, Weber wrote to the Dante scholar Karl Vossler, requires enduring criticisms that have no resolution. Later, in his essay ‘Science as a Vocation,’ Weber would explain how our beliefs are chosen rather than derived, and that their selection has no more basis than emotional preference. The realization that beliefs are purely subjective and personal is, he pointed out in another essay, the ‘fate of a cultural epoch that has eaten from the tree of knowledge.’ The problem of authority is the problem of unbelief.”
— from John Patrick Diggins, Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy (Basic Books, 1996)
Gilbert Meilaender on the quest for greater longevity
“On his widely read blog, known as ‘Instapundit,’ Glenn Reynolds often links to stories reporting on possible advances in scientific technologies aimed at age-retardation and life-extension. And having linked to such a report, Reynolds regularly then adds his own very brief comment: ‘faster, please.’ His is a kind of impatience with the psalmist’s description of our life as 'threescore years and ten,’ or perhaps ‘by reason of strength fourscore’; for, even if fourscore, those years ‘are soon gone, and we fly away’ (Ps. 90:10).
“To set our modern thirst for indefinitely extended life over against the psalmist’s acceptance of life’s limits suggests that reflection upon patience may be a fruitful angle from which to consider the project of age-retardation. . . .
“In the modern era, and certainly in the twentieth century, impatience marked primarily our political aspirations. Putting a human shoulder to the wheel of history in order to try to do God’s work for him, we hoped to fashion, if not a utopia, at least a better world here and now. In the twenty-first century we have focused those impatient hopes of mastery more on science than on politics, and perhaps it will prove less intractable.
“But what if hope for such mastery fundamentally misunderstands who we are? ‘Patience is,’ David Harned writes, ‘simply the embrace of what we are. We are patients, whether we like it or not; we cannot escape our own nature. We come into the world as patients and leave it as patients, but even in our days of greatest strength our condition is no different.’ This need not mean simple acquiescence in our present circumstances or the current limits of human life, whatever those may be — as if we were not also agents. It simply means that our agency is always limited, qualified by our more fundamental condition as patients needing patience. This is the lesson William Temple’s father tried to teach his son, who, as a relatively young man, impatient to be accomplishing his goals, complained of lack of time to get done what needed doing. ‘William,’ said his father, ‘you have all the time there is.’ That is to say, all the time there is for one who is not wandering but journeying, who must learn to wait for ‘the coming of the Lord.’ Our agency is not mastery but participation in a power greater than our own.
“There is in principle nothing wrong with trying to retard aging and extend human life. But as a human project to which we must always say ‘faster, please,’ it may bring with it considerable loss.”
— From Gilbert Meilaender, Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (Eerdmans, 2013)