TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Revelation and Political Philosophy: An Exchange with James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall’s “Revelation and Political Philosophy: On Locating the Best City” appears in Telos 148. William Tullius follows up with some questions.

William Tullius: You wrote in your article that: “Political philosophy, at its best, is the discipline strategically located to reflect on how God, cosmos, man, and polity belong together.” Yet, fundamentally, political philosophy is “aware of its own inability to answer its own highest questions”; namely, in what does the “best city” consist. The answer to political philosophy is supplied by revelation, which answers that political philosophy is capable of recognizing as an intelligible gift. If, however, political philosophy is subject to this sort of limit from the start such that it is dependent for its own answers upon something higher, what do you see as the need for political philosophy in the first place and what does this imply for the relation between faith and reason?

James V. Schall: Political philosophy is not subject to any limits “from the start.” It arrives at its limits—my book is called precisely, At the Limits of Political Philosophy—by seeking itself to answer all its own questions. Philosophy must first be philosophy. We need political philosophy “in the first place” so that we know what it knows and, also, what it does not know but would like to know. Unless this reflection on what is known and what is not known by the discipline takes place in an inquiring mind, revelation has nothing to which to address itself. The great phrase fides quaerens intellectum means exactly that some intellect must be actively asking itself what it knows about political things. Thus, I would say that faith cannot be faith until reason becomes itself active reason knowing what it can know. Once this relationship is clarified or spelled out, we can wonder whether philosophy does not become more philosophy under this impetus.

Tullius: Often in contemporary intellectual culture, there is a temptation to discount revelation and any religiously inspired statement as flights of superstitious imagination or as politically motivated myths designed to subject people to ecclesiastical power. In contrast to this move, you make the strong assertion that revelation itself already contains logos. What tools remain accessible for us to be open to the logos of revelation in a way that is convincing to the current culture?

Schall: “Contemporary culture” would do well to suppress that temptation and leave itself open to all the evidence and reality available to it, including the reality of revelation and its content. This content in its intelligibility is what connects us with philosophy and reason. The issue of the presence and meaning of logos in revelation was the subject of “The Regensburg Lecture” of Benedict XVI. I have a book by that title on this very issue. The fact is that already in the Old Testament we find that scripture or revelation also includes things of reason which can indicate that the source of reason and revelation are in fact the same. Whether anyone can be “convinced” by the most convincing evidence is problematic.

Aristotle dealt with this issue. It brings us to the relation of ethics and how we live and philosophy or how are things? Many more intellectual problems are moral problems than we are wont to acknowledge. The “culture” is an abstraction. Only individual persons are “convinced” or “not convinced.” But your question has to do with “tools” such as the fact that logos is found in Scripture. The other main “tool,” if it can be called that, I think, is that revelation does not, nor does it pretend to answer every human question or solve every practical or political issue. It leaves these latter to human genius. What it essentially does is ask the highest question: “What is our highest end?” Once this end is seen not to be political, politics can be political and not metaphysics.

Tullius: In your article, you indicate that modern political philosophy has elevated politics to the position of the highest good, which has resulted in the secularization of politics and the replacement of the transcendent end, which had always been characteristic of politics, with a purely immanent end, while retaining “the supernatural means to this end.” The result of this movement can be seen in any number of the utopian and totalitarian regimes of the past century, and its presence continues to be felt in contemporary politics. What do you see as the way toward recapturing the transcendent end of political life for both political philosophy and for the general culture as well in today’s world?

Schall: Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi is exactly on this issue. My basic response is to return to Aristotle’s Politics. The best way to do this is through Robert Sokolowski’s book, The Phenomenology of the Human Person. The restoration of a realist philosophy, a philosophy of what is is essential. This is what Fides et Ratio was about. It is curious that the condition of philosophy as philosophy is a prime concern of the representatives of revelation, almost as if to say that philosophy will not save itself by itself. Your description of the origins of modern ideology is correct. Ironically, all the scientific and moral aberrations that seek to change human life have motivations that are better solved by the revelational answers. On every score, the revelational answer is better and indeed more noble than the alternatives proposed by the philosophic or scientific culture. An honorable death is better than keeping us alive by machines. Yet, it is not right to kill us or to ask us to commit suicide.

Politics is an ethics. It recognizes that we are mortals and that it is good that we are. Aristotle asked if we would be happy if we were someone else. He thought not. Yet, if we ask whether our loves have a touch of the everlasting in them, they do. But this is only really possible if there is a resurrection of the body. And if we want to solve the enigma of the crimes in the world, as Benedict saw in Spe Salvi, we can only do so by proposing what the Marxist philosophers proposed, again the resurrection of the body. This resurrection was intellectually possible only through the initial response of Aristotle to Plato about the reality of the human substance. So, I would say, spell out the consequences of the proposals that are in fact alternatives to the revelational implications. In every case, I suspect, the revelational answer will make more sense.

Tullius: You write, in referring to the tradition of “Roman Catholic Political Philosophy” that you intend it as a “paradox and a provocation.” In what way is Roman Catholic political philosophy paradoxical and in what way does it serve to provoke?

Schall: You can see that I am a lover of Chesterton. The paradox implies that something that appears to be not true is, when spelled out, in fact true. And what seems most to “provoke” most of all is a truth that, in our minds, should not really be true. I have a book entitled, Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, in which I try to spell these things out. But essentially, I mean that no one would expect that the enigmatic issues that keep occurring in political philosophy could ever be properly addressed by the revelation that is central to Roman Catholicism. Yet, I think when drawn out, this is ironically the case. I love the section in Aristotle in which he brings up the famous issue of whether God is lonely. It appears that he must be. He has no other “god” like unto Himself.

Yet, friendship is one of the central human goods, the one that makes all politics worthwhile. Still it is beyond politics in its highest reaches. The revelational “answer” to this wonderment is extraordinary. It is that “God is not lonely.” The Trinity, a doctrine that Aristotle did not know, is precisely in the line of his concern. So, as I say, the relation is paradoxical. And it is provoking because such a coherent answer should not exist. And that is right. It only exists if the gods reveal something to us and we listen. We do not have to listen. And this latter non-listening is probably the foundation of all subsequent hassles between philosophy and revelation. It is indeed provoking to be provoked by something we might want otherwise not to be true, but which seems to have rather more evidence for it than we might have wished.

Tullius: Finally, what do you see as Roman Catholic political thought’s most definitive contribution to political philosophy?

Schall: Its most definitive contribution is the freeing of politics to be politics and not a substitute metaphysics or eschatology in which some human “system” is put forth. David Walsh’s new book, The Modern Philosophical Revolution, is very good here, as is John Ranieri’s book, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Bible. One of my early inspirations as a thinker was Father Charles N. R. McCoy, whose book, The Structure of Political Thought, is a classic few know about. He used to talk about how politics could easily become a “substitute metaphysics,” that is, an explanation for all things. This is the primary temptation of the political philosopher, I think. Politics is the highest of the practical sciences, as Aristotle said. If man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science. But he is not the highest being. The primary contribution of Roman Catholic political thought is the explanation of the reality of what is “beyond politics,” to use Christopher Dawson’s phrase. This explanation includes the understanding of salvation and eternal life for each citizen in and through their life in the city, but not exhausted or complete thereby.

Politics is the highest end in a certain order, but is itself a means to a higher end. The refusal to know the relation of the highest end to actual political life has exposed this life to ideology. The saving of politics from ideology, especially in democratic societies, is a potential mission of this thought. But it includes the realism of Augustine, and from this angle, the City of God and the city of man look ever more directly into our eyes. Political prudence means also the need to choose particular means that lead to our highest end. When we do not choose to know the end, politics in logic ceases to be politics and becomes, as McCoy said, a “substitute metaphysics” or as Benedict says “an eschatology.”

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