William McCormick. The Christian Structure of Politics: On the De Regno of Thomas Aquinas Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
It has long been a marvel to me that, for most of our history, the most fundamentally important facets of American political life didn’t need to be discussed. Chief among these was the preconditions for reasoned debate. The question no one needed to ask: What is it that stands behind a “reason-based” politics and determines its limits? One might say that American politics today suffers from a pathology in this sense. Whatever it is that stands prior to reasonable political discourse and makes it possible has been thrown open to question. We have a “no limits” political mindset. Nowhere is this more evident in the ideological machinations that proliferate from those who would create reality anew in the image of their own ideals.
Perhaps the most damaging manifestation of this phenomenon is the Nietzschean critique that there is “nothing outside the whole.” To appeal to anything beyond the sensual, the biological, that which “is” in the shallowest, most scientistic sense, is to reach for something wholly inaccessible. In fact, these thinkers argue, to refer to such things in political debate is the root problem of all our ills. It is to decline to live in the fullest sense. “Life” must affirm itself solely on its own terms. True spirituality is to courageously embrace the absurd groundlessness of things.
To be sure, if this point of view unfolds within a pluralist liberal framework, all is well. It becomes nothing more than one point of view among many. But when it takes root in what Jacob Levy calls a “rational” liberalism, where the state is envisioned as arbiter of a political rationalism over and against diverse localisms, it presents an existential threat to civic life. It calls into question the grounds that make civil discourse about the common good possible.
One edifying analysis of and response to these problems is to be found in William McCormick’s new book The Christian Structure of Politics: On the De Regno of Thomas Aquinas.
As McCormick points out, Aquinas’s De Regno is not counted as a primary text in the Western canon. Even its most prominent medievalist interpreters sometimes question the provenance and usefulness of the text. The work has similarly been largely neglected by political theorists, due in part to certain questions raised about its seeming contradictions with other areas of Aquinas’s thought. Despite all this, the work offers certain advantages for those who would like to see what Aquinas’s political thought might mean for contemporary politics, beyond his natural law teachings.
First, the work is written in a different genre than what Aquinas normally worked with. It is a specula principum, that is, a “mirror of princes,” putting it in the same genre as Machiavelli’s Prince. In stark contrast to his habitual logical approach, Aquinas here is writing a letter of advice to a Cypriot King. His tone is therefore less rationalistic than it is exhortatory. On certain issues where he would usually state matters directly, here he is less formalistic.
More importantly, in this book Aquinas must discuss politics on its own terms. Aquinas’s goal is the practical application of his theoretical outlook to the exigencies of political life. He has to take his extensive theoretical knowledge and make it applicable to the everyday life of a king. This makes the book a standout candidate for those who would use it as a spur for thinking critically about what a Thomistic or Christian politics might look like.
Thus, despite the aforementioned problems, a sustained study of the book holds out the possibility of yielding rich rewards. McCormick’s study aims to do just that by exploring its responses to the problem of the relation of the politics to the transcendent.
On the most essential level, McCormick reads Aquinas’s text as an elegant synthesis of Aristotelian naturalism and Augustinian theology. Aquinas embraces Aristotelian naturalism by arguing that politics is oriented toward its own autonomous natural virtue which in turn is oriented toward the supernatural end of beatitude. The Augustinian element comes in Aquinas’s embrace of the supremacy of the supernatural over the temporal. The argument turns on a form of Gelasianism, the idea that there are two sovereignties, one temporal and one spiritual. Following John Courtney Murray, McCormick reads Aquinas as offering a subtle interpretation of the concept, one which includes both “dualism and primacy.” In the author’s words:
This teaching thus strikes a subtle balance. On the one hand, each power has a dignity and integrity proper to the end it serves: the temporal end of the human person by temporal authority, and the spiritual end by spiritual authority. On the other hand, the spiritual end is the one ultimate end of the human person, and so temporal goods must be brought into alignment with the pursuit of that spiritual good.
Extending from this basic Gelasianism, McCormick highlights what he calls “Thomistic Political Naturalism.” This area of his analysis seems to be tailored toward those who would react with contempt to the idea that one would consider implementing the political philosophy of someone who lived 800 years ago. McCormick argues that “Aquinas uses divine revelation to reinforce the political nature of the person . . . while the human transtemporal end might seem to undercut politics, Aquinas uses it to the contrary: revelation offers an end beyond the temporal that buttresses politics.” Aquinas’s notion of supremacy is thus meant to ensure the success of temporal politics as much as it is to ensure that the political remains within its limits.
In the final pages of the book, McCormick turns to what he calls Aquinas’s “pedagogical” approach to politics. In Aquinas’s world, the king and his subjects are on a teleological journey toward the eschatological ideal, working together to improve their natural virtues and orient themselves toward beatitude. Politics is both eschatological and teleological in that it aims to achieve an immanent ideal while being informed by a final end. It is a process that brooks no perfectionism: it does not refuse the good in pursuit of the perfect.
For Aquinas, then, politics has its own end, but it is not the final end. There must be what Pierre Manent calls a “gap between speech and action,” a tension between the transcendent and the necessities of politics in our world, such as it is. That is, in maintaining the gap that Nietzsche and his contemporary acolytes would collapse, politics remains properly ordered toward itself and whatever it is that lies beyond it. To ignore this gap is to ask questions of the political for which it cannot hope to provide answers. For McCormick, living out this tension is the basis of a well-ordered political reality. To be sure, this does not require everyone to be Christian. It simply formalizes an acknowledgement that, in the end, politics cannot save us.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More