The Paradox of Political Philosophy
Brian Jones, PhD Candidate
Center for Thomistic Studies
University of St. Thomas, Houston TX
Commentators across the political spectrum have agreed upon very little over the last few decades. This fact has only become more apparent, and exacerbated, in light of the global SARS-COV-2 pandemic and the civic unrest stemming from continual rioting across the Western world. At the same time, there is a certain form of agreement which admits of something deeply unsettling within contemporary democratic life. The accelerated decline of civic life, further seen in the rising rates of loneliness and the general populace’s increasing distrust of the elite and political class, has left democratic citizens in a state of grim uncertainty and fatigue. Few seem to question the fact that something is ailing our political culture.
The fundamental issue resting beneath the surface of our feeling unsettled in the present moment concerns the precise nature of what it means when we say that human beings are political animals. More central to this particular theme is whether our civic loyalties, especially our defense of modern liberal democratic regimes, necessitates an openness to seeing the limits, and even contradictions, in our own shared way of life. Is it possible, under such a consideration, that a defense of those transpolitical truths that can strengthen and preserve democratic regimes will be allowed the space to be heard and spoken? Perhaps we could rightly say that what is at stake in this discussion is the political status of truth, and the very practice of political philosophy itself.
It is within this context that we should turn to the examination of two more recent, yet little recognized, accounts of the conditions concerning political life in liberal democratic regimes. In May 2017, two different groups issued statements regarding the current decline of civic life that continues to be felt in the Western world. Speaking to the markedly low appreciation for modern democracy, The Prague Appeal sought to address how support for democratic life and institutions can be revitalized. Likewise, the Paris Statement is an assessment of the present state of European social and political life. While the document only mentions America briefly, its relevance and connection to the Prague Appeal is significant. Like the Prague Appeal, the Paris Statement is deeply concerned with contemporary life in Western democratic nations. The social and cultural fabric that once held citizens together is coming undone, and in an explicitly vitriolic, divisive way. Both documents, and their signatories, thus share significant commonalities grounded in their worries about the possibility of sustaining a civic order that can not only persevere in the current storm, but can also be passed on as a shared patrimony.
The commonality of the documents seems to come to a close at this juncture. Both statements agree on articulating a defense of patriotism, but the deepest difference concerns the kind at which we should aim. As alluded to above, the deepest current that needs to be answered, and to which both documents speak, is whether there is anything beyond the political. More specifically, what both documents shed light upon is a perennial problem once again coming to the surface for us to address, namely, whether there a standard, or paradigm, that informs and grounds democratic life but which is not principally democratic?
The Prague Appeal
The Prague Appeal, commissioned by the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal, expresses deep concern not only with regard to the threats of democracy from without, but also those that have risen internally. These internal attacks are strongly condemned as “illiberal.” The precise concern with this internal notion of democratic dysfunction stemming from “illiberalism” is that it explicitly links the condition with that of xenophobia. In this light, the Appeal can rightly be interpreted as saying that those who are critical of modern liberal democracy, even friendly critics, are fueled by fear and hate, hence the reason for employing the term “xenophobia.” In other words, to express a certain discontent with the present liberal order more than likely places one on the outskirts of what the political philosopher John Rawls called “public reasonableness.” What is needed, according to the Appeal, to overcome this “illiberal” threat is a recovery of a cultural memory that is tied to an abiding sense of faith:
In other countries—even long-established democracies—support for liberal democracy has eroded in recent years, especially among younger people who have no memory of the struggles against totalitarianism. Faith in democratic institutions has been declining for some time, as governments seem unable to cope with the complex new challenges of globalization, political processes appear increasingly sclerotic and dysfunctional, and the bureaucracies managing both national and global institutions seem remote and overbearing.
The signatories are right to draw our attention to the continual decline of a palatable trust between democratic citizens and political leaders. Without civic trust, calls for political and institutional renewal will only fall on deaf ears, and further solidify social instability. At the same time, the document leaves out any acknowledgment of the potential destabilizing effects surrounding those calls for restoring “democratic faith.” The restoration of a cultural memory promotes a particular image that the document vividly portrays: liberal democracy is the lone bulwark, the singular pillar that can withstand, and eventually defeat, totalitarianism. The totalitarian reference is ironic for, once again, it does not adequately recognize the deeply serious, and persuasive, concerns of those who have argued for the “totalitarian temptations” of modern liberal democracies.
There is, nonetheless, a call to engagement at the level of principles and ideas, an invitation to a mode of public discourse that is more philosophical in nature. And yet, this approach is rather quickly called into question, since the document’s conclusion affirms the goal of the Democratic Coalition for Renewal as aiming to “defend democracy against its critics,” and thus,
fashioning persuasive arguments for liberal democracy that can shape the course of public discussion. It will also be necessary to go on the offensive against the authoritarian opponents of democracy by demonstrating solidarity with the brave people who are fighting for democratic freedoms.
The underlying, yet subtle, assumption here takes us back to the definition of an “illiberal” alluded to in the beginning. A critical engagement with ideas entails, in charity and truth, a realization that one’s own regime and way of life may entail serious defects. This is not to deny what is true and noble in one’s way of life, but to see both as co-existing together. Examining a regime at the level of principles is fundamental to its preservation.
The examination of regimes as a way of life recalls the tradition of classical political philosophy, especially as found in Plato and Aristotle, which contends that all political regimes are defective and imperfect. This claim, nonetheless, features a nuance that can be all too easily be overlooked.
The contention regarding regimes was based upon the observation of human imperfection. At one and the same time, political regimes could not embody the fullness of justice, but they did at least contain some real aspect of justice. The grounding of classical political thought in this way was not intended to provoke despair, leading to a sort of withdrawal and an apolitical stance. The realism imbedded in the position was to provide insight about the proper place of politics in the order of things. An account of politics, either explicit or implicit, that did not attend to its limits was the grounds for its elevation to something beyond its scope. As such, politics would be dangerous because it was self-enclosed, refusing to be open to anything outside of itself, and reducing everything to be seen under its lens.
The political character of regimes means that they are concerned with establishing and preserving particular institutions, governmental safeguards, and policy decisions reflective of its own constitution. More than this, a regime points to principles and a conception of human nature that draws us beyond merely the consideration of politics and political life. The imperfection of human nature, in addition to the fact that social and political life are intrinsically good, but not ultimate, is the intellectual framework for classical political philosophy. At the heart of political philosophy, and its necessary practice, fundamentally rests upon the claim that the question of the best regime, one that can secure a modus vivendi most fully in accord with human nature, is not only highly unlikely, but impossible. To claim the possibility of its likelihood, or even desirability, would entail fostering what would be considered the most abiding threat to the health and legitimate purposes of actual societies. To echo the thought of Leo Strauss, we could say that this affirmation concerns the very political character of philosophy before the city.
According to the Prague Appeal, liberal democracy is not considered to be a legitimate regime among a variety of possibly other good political orders. Instead, liberal democracy is framed more as the best regime per se. The document lends itself to this conviction, arguing “that liberal democracy is the political system that can best safeguard” human dignity and “allow it to flourish.” Even those countries yearning for political freedom, are seeking “democratic freedom,” which only furthers the claim that democracy is not simply good, but the ideal. Freedom is even given the qualifier “democratic.”
This account is reminiscent of Francis Fukayama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Interestingly enough, Fukayama is one of the signers of the Prague Appeal. For Fukayama, history has not come to an end, as if it will no longer continue; the reference to “end” is in teleological terms. More specifically, it is Fukayama’s contention that the narrative referring to the “End of History” has given the world modern liberal democracy. The best regime is no longer an ideal in speech, once understood and articulated as a model for the order of one’s own soul in the pursuit of the Good. Now, the best regime has been reduced from potency to act. This is the telos of history and progress. Modern liberal democracy has solved the perennial human problem and its political consequences of living together in this world.
The Paris Statement
The anxiety and existential unrest that pervades our daily lives is something the Prague Appeal and the Paris Statement aim to address. As mentioned above, the activity of diagnostician is a common ground that is shared between the two, and the differing circumstances of each continent mirror each other.
That being said, the Paris Statement seems to be antithetical to some of the principles at the heart of the Prague Appeal, especially when considering passages such as the following:
The patrons of the false Europe are bewitched by superstitions of inevitable progress. They believe that History is on their side, and this faith makes them haughty and disdainful, unable to acknowledge the defects in the post-national, post-cultural world they are constructing. Moreover, they are ignorant of the true sources of the humane decencies they themselves hold dear—as do we. They ignore, even repudiate the Christian roots of Europe. At the same time they take great care not to offend Muslims, who they imagine will cheerfully adopt their secular, multicultural outlook. Sunk in prejudice, superstition and ignorance, and blinded by vain, self-congratulating visions of a utopian future, the false Europe reflexively stifles dissent.
The “superstitions of inevitable progress” echoes Fukayama’s account of the dialectic regarding the “end” of history. There does not seem to be anything feasible in the mode of resistance or critique. Peace and social harmony will prevail only when the assent of faith is given. The Paris Statement argues that, from this perspective, no other course is possible, and it is irrational to resist. Things cannot be otherwise. Those who object are said to suffer nostalgia—for which they deserve moral condemnation as racists or fascists. As social divisions and civic distrust become more apparent, European public life grows angrier, more rancorous, and no one can say where it will end.
Civic participation and loyalty are not “democratic” in principle; the cart cannot come before the horse. To love one’s country does not presuppose that it can only be the result of the democratic ideal. The Paris Statement does not deny the possibility of real progress, but argues that it can only be understood in the context of the particularity of persons and the forms of love they enact in their proximate associations. Against the prevailing abstractions of “History” and “Progress,” the signers of the Paris Statement portend that a more feasible spirit “of progress is born out of our love for and loyalty to our homelands.”
One of the more striking features of the Paris Statement concerns its treatment of Christianity, especially considering the relationship between politics and religion:
The autonomy of what we call civil society became a characteristic feature of European life. Moreover, the Christian Gospel does not deliver a comprehensive divine law, and thus the diversity of the secular laws of the nations may be affirmed and honoured without threat to our European unity. It is no accident that the decline of Christian faith in Europe has been accompanied by renewed efforts to establish political unity—an empire of money and regulations, covered with sentiments of pseudo-religious universalism.
According to the signers, Christianity fostered legitimate diversity and instantiations of subsidiarity. The political order contains its own goodness. Christianity did not aim to crush this truth, but affirm and heal it. Unity in diversity is the hallmark of the Christian doctrine that God is a Trinity, three distinct persons, yet consubstantially united by the fact that each possesses the Divine Nature entirely. Diversity, thus understood, is the result of the Divine intention itself. Differences are good because they express the Wisdom of the Creator. However, the attempt to create unity can come at the cost of undermining particularities. A crushing and monolithic unity under the guise of promoting diversity cannot be overlooked. In fact, Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the ever-pervasive threat of liberal democracies is that they will seek uniformity and equality to such a degree that it will lead to their enslavement. In this nightmarish vision, democratic citizens will choose oppression so long as they have universal equality tout court.
The notion of a “pseudo-religious universalism” is indicative of the concern with something akin to “democratic faith.” The fact that the Prague Appeal excludes any serious consideration of religion, and its possible necessity for a healthy social and political life, is more than a curious void. As mentioned above, the “faith” that is promoted seems exclusively political: democratic faith. The implications tend to conceive of liberal democracy, and politics more generally, as the thing most worthy of our devotion. Our most pressing concern then is to foster an unshakeable loyalty, akin to religious faith, to modern liberal democracy and politics. This is the security and preservation of our future, and of “progress.”
The Prague Appeal, in this regard, has a serious overlook. The civic and political unrest they rightly lament is only diagnosed in part. There is no mention that our political rhetoric and public discourse has become exhausted, vitriolic, and oppressing because they are often informed by a philosophical and quasi-religious presupposition that sees nothing other than politics. We cannot neglect the serious implications of this:
The universalist and universalizing pretensions of the false Europe reveal it to be an ersatz religious enterprise, complete with strong creedal commitments—and anathemas. This is the potent opiate that paralyzes Europe as a political body. We must insist that religious aspirations are properly the province of religion, not politics, much less bureaucratic administration. In order to recover our political and historical agency, it is imperative that we re-secularize European public life.
“Religious aspirations are properly the province of religion, not politics.” In one respect, the Prague Appeal and the Paris Statement agree about “re-secularizing” public life. The contrast, though, could not be more stark upon further examination. Intentional or not, the Paris Statement is certainly alluding to Augustine, and his articulating the proper spheres of religion and politics. For Augustine, and the signers of the Paris Statement, there is a pervasive concern that politics and political life can become self-enclosed, thus cut off from any other wisdom or knowledge outside its own political sources and will. The re-secularizing of political life is to prevent the “pseudo-religious universalism” that is ever lurking in the backdrop. Democratic faith has become (or maybe it is) a form of devotion that is an end game: one is either on board or is a condemned public enemy. Modern political thought has been viewed as one that cut a sword separating religion and politics. However, it seems that a more nuanced alternative is consciously emerging: modern liberal orders are tempted to promulgate a religious faith, which is that of universal democracy.
The political implications of religion stem from the heart of revelation itself. The Christian theology of Divine Revelation does not offer a comprehensive account of how adherents are to organize themselves socially and politically. There is an impetus, an orientation, to consider those sources of wisdom that are not directly included in Divine Revelation, but which are not opposed to it. This understanding of revelation is what James V. Schall calls its “incompleteness.” Revelation, especially in the New Testament, does not, nor does it intend, to address the minute details that encompass the whole of social and political life. Reason and experience are given a fair hearing, and seen as a helpmate, even though fallible and prone to error.
Nevertheless, the politicization of all forms of life is not an argument to keep religion in the private sphere, as one “right” among an equalized list of others. Instead, religion’s implicit influence upon politics is meant precisely to counter this destructive and all-encompassing tendency. Religion, in one respect, is meant to show that while political life is necessary, it is limited, and not the most serious thing. A political order that is closed off to religion, ironically, likely moves in the direction of conceiving politics in a religious way. Its defense will thus be coaxed in religious terminology, all in the name of politics and the “secularization of public life.”
Home and Civic Loyalty
For the Paris Statement, citizens of Western democracies are losing their sense and experience of home as the result of a pervasive philosophical and political liberalism. “A liberty that frustrates our heart’s deepest longings becomes a curse. Our societies seem to be falling into individualism, isolation and aimlessness.” Recovering the necessity of mediating institutions and habits, our cultural inheritance and roots, gives a deep and abiding sense of being connected and attached. Roger Scruton, one of the Paris Statement’s signatories, elsewhere argues that the alternative to a detached, global cosmopolitanism necessitates recovering, and living out, what he calls oikophilia. This “love of home” is grounded in human nature, and the natural affection reorients us towards the proximate places and persons that we regularly dwell within and associate with. We are challenged to grapple with a troubling consideration, which is whether modern democratic freedom inculcates connectedness at the particular level. Our fundamental longing is that of being bound together, in communion with others, and with the natural world.
The agrarian-poet Wendell Berry has argued that the difficulty of contemporary American life is its constant hyper mobility. According to Berry, much of our reflections upon patriotism tend to view it predominantly in abstract and universalist terms. As a result, highly mobile citizens tend “to look on their dwelling places as dispensable or disposable campsites on the way to supposedly better dwelling places.” In response to this globalizing view of citizenship, Berry proposes something quite different as the heart of patriotism. Articulating a different sort of “national defense,” Berry offers his concluding perspective:
It seems certain that people who hope to be capable of national defense in the true sense—not by invading foreign lands but by driving off invaders of their own land—must love their country with the particularizing passion with which settled people have always loved, not their nation, but their homes, their daily lives and daily bread.
This defense of the home as the foundation of citizenship thus brings intelligible light to bear upon the Paris Statement, and the Prague Appeal as well. If it is true, following upon the tradition of classical political philosophy, that the oikos is the first principle of the civic community, then defending the integrity of the home would be of the utmost importance for national health. Thus, it is not surprising that the Paris Statement appeals to marriage and family as the basis civic order. The home is the first polis, a mini nation if you will, the place of affection and right order that spills over into all of our associative forms of life. This is the received patrimony, a positive account, that we want to pass on to our children. The joy of being a patriot springs, not as the result of freedom but, as R.R. Reno wrote, from the reality of home.
The Limits of Political Life and Being Open to a Wider World
The question of citizenship provides a clue to the perennial paradox that is at the heart of our political lives. Citizenship is a condition of being human, but is not sufficient, for it is limited by something that transcends the political. It is for this reason why the practice of political philosophy in this discussion about contemporary democracy is critically important.
The role philosophy plays in a polity can be, in one respect, articulated more in negative terms. In other words, a more philosophical politics is aimed at preventing, or limiting, the sort of discord and strife that eviscerates the preservation and decency of political life. Furthermore, philosophy’s object is a universal good transcending the individual good that a list of “rights” could itself tend to perpetuate. In other words, truth as the object of philosophical inquiry is something that can be shared, participated in by those who pursue it without diminishing what is known. This pursuit is one that necessarily entails communion with others, and so opens the possibility to a further consideration of something that seems needed, yet which is absent in much of our present discourse: the question of friendship.
Justice is the virtue of the political community, but the consideration of friendship seems to call into question whether justice is sufficient for a healthy society. The possibility of friendship points to something beyond the political, but for which the political order needs even to be what it is. The notion of home, and oikophilia more properly, is more in accord with friendship than what has been laid out in the Prague Appeal. Yet, friendship is something that aims, not to undermine the laws of a society, but to secure them more fully in a manner that is aligned with those higher goals of human life.
Friendship and its relationship to the political order connotes a real sharing of life, goods, and the places within which we dwell. Friendship opens the human person to something, and a someone, outside of himself. The Paris Statement expresses this insight quite succinctly:
The public parks, central squares and broad boulevards of European towns and cities express the European political spirit: We share our common life and the res publica. We assume that it is our duty to take responsibility for the futures of our societies. We are not passive subjects under the domination of despotic powers, whether sacred or secular. And we are not prostrate before implacable historical forces
There is an important feature in this remark that is worth highlighting. First, one of the underlying concerns for the Paris Statement is that of empire, whereby citizens live under the “domination of despotic powers.” The relationship between despotic rule and empire are indicative of an understanding of politics and political life that is not limited by something higher than the political. In regimes characterized by empire, or despotism, there is no account or standard of what is good that can provide guidance for a definitive judgment about its own way of life that is outside the political and conventional will. Despotic regimes, whatever their type, leave little to no room for friendship and its inculcation. More than likely, citizens will come to find their “friends” residing in the abstractions social media, history and an ever-intrusive State apparatus.
The truth that seems to be the architectonic principle of the Prague Appeal is that modern liberal democracy is outside the forces of despotism and disorder, that democratic societies and their problems can be resolved by a more firm commitment, and application, of liberal democratic principles to solve their problems. Broken regimes, even liberal democratic ones, need more liberal democracy, not less.
According to the Paris Statement, “patriotic love and civic loyalty open out to a wider world.” As we attempt to live out the vocation of beings citizens, in a variety of regimes, we are confronted with this paradoxical tension of political philosophy that the Paris Statement alludes to. We are in need of defending the political order; we are neither apolitical beasts nor gods, as Aristotle once quipped. Human beings are ordered to live in community, under the reason and rule of law. Apart from this, human beings cannot flourish. And yet, human nature is uniquely characterized by those inclinations that move us towards what transcends the political. It is not coincidental that the following section of the Paris Statement’s remark about politics opening citizens “to a wider world” treats of Europe’s Christian roots.
To speak of the Christian roots of Europe, or the Puritan founding of America, should be approached with great prudence and a deep caution. The temptation that needs to be explicitly alluded to is that pertaining to a sort of “re-enchanted” nationalism. The City of God is not an attempt to undermine the need for the embodied realities of home and political life. Rather, the nuance or caveat is to say that the City of God offered by Christ as witnessed in the Gospel is ultimate. The desire and orientation towards this Ultimate Home can become eclipsed, even in the attempt to recover the goodness of home and attachment in this world. Even a Christian re-enchanted world is a temptation that can never be neglected, for doing so could lead to the attempt of making the earthly home the totality. The political philosopher David Walsh has expressed the heart of the problem quite succinctly: The transcendent character of the transcendent is eclipsed by its absorption ever more massively within time.
The present state of things is rather painfully, yet thankfully, illuminating. Unrest and rampant disregard for law brought about through the plethora of rioting has the safety and devotion to cities left in suspension. Likewise, increasing signs of misinformation and the suppression of truth regarding SARS-COV-2 has not only eviscerated the political legitimacy of trust. More than this, the rioting and pandemic has demonstrated the presence of a soft totalitarianism lingering beneath the quest for democratic freedom. Only a certain kind of political orthodoxy is approved, in speech and in action. Once again, the paradox of political philosophy comes to the surface in an acute way, wherein we need to defend political life by seeing politics does not exhaust the totality and fullness of human life. There is a perennial sense in which we will never be made entirely whole hic et nunc, for this is the nature of being pilgrims in this world. Without the presence of this paradox, we can be easily tempted to believe that a system of social order and politics, one which can solve and answer the problems of living together in this world, is the greatest need. Such a loss would make it difficult to actually discover the real potential of democratic life, what is good and decent in actual regimes. A disordered account of citizenship is not just a temptation for modern democratic societies, but is the perennial temptation of human life in this world.
Brian Jones is the Coordinator of Liturgy at St. Anthony of Padua in the Woodlands, Texas. He is also a philosophy PhD student in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have been published in New Blackfriars, Catholic Social Science Review, and Modern Age.