24 Thomistic Theses

Decree of the Sacred Congregation for Studies with commentaries by Pedro Lumbreras, O.P., S.T.Lr., Ph.D. and footnotes by Dr. William H. Marshner

Thomas Aquinas from San Domenico, Fiesole Altarpiece by Fra Angelico, 1425

After our most Holy Father Pius X ordered in the Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici, on June 29, 1914, that in all schools of philosophy the principles and main teachings of Thomas Aquinas be held, some teachers from various institutions proposed some theses for this Sacred Congregation to examine, which theses they had been accustomed to teach and defend as being those of the Holy Teacher [St.Thomas], especially in metaphysics.

They are as follows:



Potency and Act so divide being that whatsoever exists either is a Pure Act, or is necessarily composed of Potency and Act, as to its primordial and intrinsic principles. *

Commentary: Every actual subsisting being—inanimate bodies and animals, men and angels, creatures and Creator—must be either Pure Act—a perfection which is neither the complement of Potency, nor the Potency which lacks further complement—or Potency mixed with Act—something capable of perfection and some perfection fulfilling this capacity. This statement is true both in the existential and in the essential order. In each of these orders the composition of Act and Potency is that of two real, really distinct principles, as Being itself; intrinsic to the existing being or to its essence; into which, finally, all other principles can be resolved, while they cannot be resolved into any other. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 77 a. 1Sententia Metaphysicae, lib. 7 l. 1 et lib. 9 l. 1 et l. 9]

* The noun ens means either “a being” or the whole set of them. A being is “a thing which is,” hence a thing which is “in being” and hence in that set. Without qualifiers, “a being” is a thing which exists. Given a qualifier, a being is “a thing which is such-and-such.”


Act, because it is perfection, is not limited except by Potency, which is capacity for perfection. Therefore, in the order in which the Act is pure, it is unlimited and unique; but in that in which it is finite and manifold, it comes into a true composition with Potency. *

Commentary: Since Act means perfection, perfection belongs to Act by reason of itself; imperfection, then, by reason of something else. Limits, therefore, belong to Act but on account of Potency. Consequently, if an Act is pure, it is perfection without limits, and gives no ground for distinction and multiplicity. On the contrary, any finite or manifold Act is mixed with Potency: for it is only as subjected in Potency that it is limited and multiplied according to the capacity of the subject. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 7 a. 1 et a. 2Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 43Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 43 q. 2]

* A thing’s “act” need not be an action it does. It can be the thing’s operative status or its current “actual” state. 


Wherefore, in the exclusive domain of existence itself God alone subsists, He alone is the most simple. Everything else, which participates in existence, has a nature whereby existence is restricted, and is composed of essence and existence as of two really distinct principles. *

Commentary: If there is any being, the actuality of whose existence—for existent means actual—is not received into the potentiality of essence, such a being subsists of itself, because it is perfection without limits; it is unique, because it excludes composition of any kind; it is the most simple Being: God. All other things, the actuality of whose existence is received into the potentiality of the essence, participate in existence according to the capacity of the essence, which limits in this way the actuality of existence. Essence and existence hold in them the place of Potency and Act in the existential order, and are two real and really distinct principles, which intrinsically constitute the compound, the existing being, in the order of existence. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 50 a. 2 ad 3; Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 38 et cap. 52 et cap. 53 et cap. 54Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 19 q. 2 a. 2De ente et essentia, cap. 5; De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 1; De veritate, q. 27 a. 1 ad 8]

* Factors are “really” distinct when they are not just “conceptually” distinct (so as to be named or described differently) but are “thing-wise” distinct, i.e. distinct as one thing from another. The adverb ‘realiter’ comes from the noun ‘res’, which means a “thing.” In scholastic Latin, not every “thing” was an object (objectum), because an object was so called in relation to a faculty: object of sight, object of thought, object of desire. A “thing” didn’t have to be the object of any such faculty.


Being, which derives its name from existence, is not predicated univocally of God and creatures; nor yet merely equivocally, but analogically, by the analogy both of attribution and of proportionality. *

Commentary: If the actuality of existence is in God a Pure Act and is in creatures an Act mixed with Potency, Being cannot be predicated of God and creatures in an identical way: God is self-existing, creatures have their existence from God. Still, because the effect in some manner reproduces its cause, Being does not belong to God and creatures in a totally different sense. Being, as predicated of God and creatures is an analogous term. Its analogy is first that of attribution, since Being appertains to creatures as far as they have it from God, to whom it appertains by essence; and is secondly that of proportionality, since the actuality of existence is intrinsic to God and creatures as existing beings. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 13 a. 5Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 32 et cap. 33 et cap. 34De potentia, q. 7 a. 7]

* A term is applied to different things “univocally” when its definition is kept constant, as in “strong ox” and “strong man;” a term is applied to them “equivocally” when it is applied under unrelated definitions, as in “fast day” and “fast car;” a term is applied to them “analogously” when it is applied under related definitions, as in “healthy man” and “healthy diet” (analogy of attribution) or when it captures a “proportion,” such as, God’s power : God’s effects :: a creature’s power : the creature’s effects.


There is, moreover, in every creature a real composition of subsisting subject with forms secondarily added—that is, accidents; but such a composition could not be understood unless the existence were received into a distinct essence. *

Commentary: The compound of essence and existence is itself the subject or Potency of a further complement or Act: this Act or complement is but an accidental perfection. The new composition is a real one, as the addition itself is real. It can be observed in every creature. Bodies have quantity, spirits have faculties and operations upon which, furthermore, quality follows; every creature has some relation to the Creator. But this real composition of accidents and subsisting compound lacks a philosophical basis if we put aside the composition of essence and existence. The subsisting being cannot be the subject of accidental Act except in so far as it is Potency; but existence is not Potency. The actuality, then, of existence and that of accident come together in the same substantial essence only because this essence is a Potency really distinct from both Acts. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 3 a. 6Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 23Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 52De ente et essentia, cap. 5]

* A “subsisting” thing is a concrete whole (not abstract and not a part) having what it takes to exist “on its own.” An accident, by contrast, is not apt to exist on its own, outside the subject in which it inheres. Typically, an accident exists by inhering. The composition of a subject/substance with its accidents enriches the being of the subject without altering its essence; hence it would be unintelligible if the subject’s being and its essence were not really distinct.


Besides the absolute accidents there is also a relative accident, or ‘toward something.’ For although ‘toward something’ does not mean, by its own nature, anything inhering in something, frequently, however, it has a cause in things, and, therefore, a real entity distinct from the subject. *

Commentary: In addition to the absolute accidents—which modify the subject in itself—there is a relative accident—which affects the subject with respect to something else. The proper nature of predicamental relation consists in the very habitude to something else; relation, as relation, does not indicate inherence in something, but reference toward something. We may think of a merely logical relation. This is not always the case. For often we have a real subject, and a real and distinct term, and a real foundation, no one of which, however, is that very habitude which relation means. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 28 a. 1]

* This thesis addresses the important contention that, while some relations are just products of thought (like x is better liked than y), others are real (like x is the father of y). The real relations are thing-like (realis) because they are “there” whether anyone thinks of them or not.


The spiritual creature is as to its essence altogether simple. Yet there remains a twofold composition in it: that, namely, of essence with existence and that of substance with accidents.

Commentary: The essence of angels is only Act, for the actuality of the form is not received into the potentiality of matter. Angels, indeed, are but intellectual substances, since to understand is a wholly immaterial operation. The last statement of the thesis has already been justified. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 50 a. 1 ff.; De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 1]



The corporeal creature, on the contrary, is in its very essence composed of Potency and Act. Such a Potency and Act of the essential order are designated by the names of matter and form.

Commentary: Besides the composition in the existential and accidental order, bodies are composed also in the order of essence. Bodies, indeed, are extended and active, divisible and yet one, multiplied in individuals while keeping specific unity, subject to substantial changes, which by different and often contrary successive properties are made known. Consequently, there must be in bodies an intrinsic principle as the basis of extension, division, numerical multiplicity, the permanent subject of the substantial change; and another intrinsic principle as the foundation of the activity, unity, specific likeness, the successive phases of the change. The first principle, passive, undetermined, incomplete, potential, the root of extension, the support of the substantial change, is material and substantial. The second, active, determining, completing, term of the substantial change, is substantial and formal. Matter and form, then, constitute the essence of bodily substance: neither one is an essence, a substance, a body: each is but a part of the compound, which is a single essence, a single substance, a single body. [De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 1]


Neither of those parts has existence, properly speaking; nor is produced or destroyed; nor is placed in a Category except by way of reduction, as a substantial principle. *

Commentary: Since existence is the Act of essence, neither matter nor form can be granted an existence of its own; the existence belongs to the compound. And because production brings things into existence, and destruction deprives them of it, the term of production or destruction is likewise the compound. Finally, since matter and form are substantial principles, they cannot be collocated among accidents. But neither can they be placed directly in the category of substance, for it is the complete substance, which is classed there. They fall, then, into the category of substance by reduction, as principles of substance, as substantial Potency and substantial Act. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 45 a. 4De potentia, q. 3 a. 5 ad 3]

* This thesis points out the deep differences between a genuine “thing which is” and a mere factor “whereby it is.” The latter is not an item of what-there-is but of how-it-is. What is produced, destroyed, and put into one of Aristotle’s ten categories is “what there-is,” not “how it is.” If Aquinas’s metaphysics had been “first order,” he would have included in “what there is” only sub-stances, and their matter and form would have been only the “how they are” of a material substances. But like Aristotle, of course, he included not only substances but also sizes, qualities, relations, etc. Thus in all ten Categories, a Thomist can distinguish what-there-is (in that category) from how-it-is. The later is called a “mode.” Thus a “heat” of 90˚ C. differs in mode from a “boiling” heat.


Although extension into integral parts follows corporeal nature, it is not, however, the same for a body to be a substance and to be extended. For substance of itself is indivisible; not certainly after the manner of a point, but after the manner of that which is outside the order of dimension. On the other hand, quantity, which makes substance to be extended, really differs from substance, and is a veritable accident. *

Commentary: To have integral parts—homogeneous, distinct and outside of each other, united together at the extremities—is a proper sequence of matter, one of the essential principles of body. Still, body as a substance implies only essential parts, matter and form—heterogeneous, within each other, united together by compenetration. Substance, of itself, is indifferent to any quantity, and may even exist, miraculously, without any quantity. It is, then, of itself indivisible: not simply as a point—unextended by privation, —but as something devoid of dimension—unextended by negation. Substance is indebted to quantity for its integral parts; but as there is a real distinction between subject-of-existence and extended-into-parts, between the persevering support of successive quantities and these quantities in succession, substance is not really identical with quantity. Faith teaches us that in the Holy Eucharist the substance of bread disappears, but not its quantity. Quantity, therefore, is a genuine accident. [Contra Gentiles, lib. 4 cap. 65Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 37 q. 2 a. 1 ad 3Super Sent., lib. 2 d. 30 q. 2 a. 1]

* This thesis is against Descartes’ identification of being a body with being extended. To be extended is to have component or “integral” parts lying outside one another, and thus to occupy “so much” space or to be “so big.” Well, a bodily substance like a rabbit can be big or small. Thus, what it takes to be a rabbit is “outside the series of dimensions.”


Matter as subjected to quantity is the principle of individuation or numerical distinction—impossible among pure spirits—whereby individuals of the same species are distinct from each other. *

Commentary: The principle of individuation cannot be the essence, for Peter is not humanity; nor some extrinsic mode added to the composite substance, for this mode, if accidental, cannot constitute an individual which is a substance and substantially differs from other individuals, and, if substantial, cannot be received but into some already constituted individual substance; nor the existence, for existence actualizes, does not modify reality and is received, moreover, into a substance which is an individual substance. Though that principle must be intrinsic to the substance, it is not the form, because form is a principle of specific and common unity rather than of numerical multiplicity and incommunicability. This principle is matter. Yet not matter of itself, since of itself it is undetermined and capable of being in this and that individual, while the principle of individuation is a determining principle, and renders the subject incommunicable. Matter, as subjected to quantity, is such a principle. For, as related to quantity, it is conceived as divisible into homogeneous parts, and, as related to this quantity, it is conceived as incapable of some other quantity, and, then, as incommunicable to anything else related to different quantity. It is because pure spirits are not composed of matter and form, but are simple forms, Act only which exhausts by itself all the perfection of the essential order, that they cannot be multiplied in the same species: the individuals, indeed, would differ on account of their form, and a difference on the part of the form makes a difference in the species. [Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 92 et cap. 93Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 50 a. 4De ente et essentia, cap. 2]

* Signate matter is the source of individuation in a kind because it is “just enough” matter to make one instance of the kind. Thus an atom of chlorine and an atom of sodium is “just enough” matter to make one instance of salt. Thus, too, a single cell with the right DNA is “just enough” matter to make one instance of a virus, or one instance of a horse.


It is also quantity that makes a body to be circumscriptively in one place and to be incapable, by any means, of such a presence in any other place. *

Commentary: Since quantity makes a body to be extended, and, thus, to have its parts outside of each other, it makes the whole body to occupy some place so that each part of the body occupies a different portion of the place. We have, therefore, some commensuration of the dimensions of the body with the dimensions of the place; and this we call a circumspective presence. But just on account of this commensuration quantity makes a body to be incapable of circumscriptive presence in more than one place; for the dimensions of the body are equal, not greater than the dimensions of the first place, and, since those dimensions are exhausted by this place, it is not possible for the same body to occupy simultaneously a second place. This impossibility is, therefore, a metaphysical one: not even by a miracle can we conceive of any such bilocation. [Summa Theologiae, IIIª q. 75Super Sent., lib. 4 d. 10 q. 1 a. 3]

* This thesis is relevant to the Eucharist, wherein Christ’s body is in many tabernacles at once but is not “circum-scriptively” in those many places, because His body’s substance is in the Eucharist without its accident of size or quantity.



Bodies are divided into two classes: some are living, others without life. In living bodies, in order to have intrinsically a moving part and a moved part in the same subject, the substantial form, called the soul, requires an organic disposition, or heterogeneous parts.

Commentary: Not all bodies are endowed with life: but some are. As living bodies, they have within themselves the principle and the term of their movement. This is to be understood, not as if the whole body, or one and the same part of the body, were both the mover and the moved, but that by nature one part is ordained to give and another part to receive the motion. The different parts, then, must be arranged into some hierarchy, and must be coordinated, not only as regards the whole, but even with respect to each other: all the parts, accordingly, cannot be homogeneous. The soul, substantially informing the organism, informs all the parts, and each of them according to the function each has in the whole. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 18 a. 1 et a. 2 et q. 75 a. 1Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 97Sententia De anima]


Souls of the vegetative and sensitive order, properly speaking, do not subsist and are not produced, but merely exist and are produced as a principle whereby the living thing exists and lives. Since they depend entirely on matter, at the dissolution of the compound, they are indirectly destroyed.

Commentary: The substantial form does not subsist in the organic bodies of plants and irrational animals, because it has no operation independent of matter; it is but a principle of substance. A principle, however, that, in giving matter the complement wanted by matter for making up the compound—which properly exists and lives—is called the principle of existence and life. Its relation to production and destruction has been previously explained. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 75 a. 3 et q. 90 a. 2Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 80 et cap. 82]


On the contrary, the human soul subsists by itself, and is created by God when it can be infused into a sufficiently disposed subject, and is incorruptible and immortal by nature.

Commentary: The human soul, independent of material conditions for some of its operations, is by itself a simple and complete substance. It is, then, produced from nothing, or created, and created by God, as we shall see. Naturally ordained to inform the human body, it is created when infused into the body. But, since the reception of any form presupposes a convenient disposition in the receiving matter, the infusion of the human soul implies a sufficient disposition of the human body. Such a disposition is not likely to be found in a body recently formed: vegetative and sensible souls would precede the human soul, as the servants precede the master for preparing a lodging worthy of him. Being simple, the human soul cannot be directly destroyed. Being subsisting, it can neither be destroyed indirectly upon the destruction of the compound. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 75 a. 2 et q. 90 et q. 118Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 83 ff.; De potentia, q. 3 a. 2Sententia De anima, a. 14]


This same rational soul is so united to the body as to be its single substantial form. By it man is man, and animal, and living, and body, and substance, and being. Soul, therefore, gives man every essential degree of perfection. It communicates to the body, furthermore, the act of existence whereby itself exists.

Commentary: Every one is aware of the intrinsic and mutual influence, which exists in man between body and soul. Their union is not accidental. Body and soul come together as two constituent principles of a single nature, that of man. The human soul, the substantial form of body, gives matter, the substantial potency of soul, the first substantial act. By itself, then, it informs and determines the undetermined matter to a particular species. It gives to the compound all the perfection, which is implied in this species. And it is subsisting; it communicates its existence directly to the compound, indirectly to the body. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 76Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 56 et cap. 68 et cap. 69 et cap. 70 et cap. 71Sententia De anima, a. 1De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 3]


Faculties of a twofold order, organic and inorganic, naturally spring from the human soul. The subject of the organic, to which sense belongs, is the compound. The subject of the inorganic is the soul alone. The intellect, then, is a faculty intrinsically independent of any organ.

Commentary: The immediate principles of operation are distinct from the soul: they are accidents, as the operations themselves. But their root is the soul, for they are vital faculties, and the soul is the principle of life. They are divided into two classes, according to the mode in which they spring from the human soul; subsisting by itself, and the form of body. In the latter case we have those faculties whose act is performed by means of bodily organs. Not only the vegetative faculties, but the sensitive likewise, are among them; for their object is extended. As organic faculties, they have for their subject the animated organism, which is neither the soul alone, nor the body alone, but the compound. There are some other faculties whose operations are far above matter, and, accordingly, cannot be subjected in the organism, even as animated: they are termed inorganic and are subjected in the soul alone. Intellect is such a faculty. Though extrinsically dependent on the imagination and indirectly on the organism, it is intrinsically independent of them. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 77 et q. 78 et q. 79Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 72Sententia De anima, a. 12 ff.; De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 11]


Intellectuality necessarily follows immateriality, and in such a manner that the degree of intellectuality is in proportion to the remoteness from matter. The adequate object of intellection is being as such; but the proper object of the human intellect, in the present state of union, is restricted to the essences abstracted from material conditions. *

Commentary: Intellectuality means ability to reproduce in oneself the forms of the objects known, without any injury to the proper form. Matter determines forms to be but in this individual: no form can be known except as abstracted from matter; no subject can be intelligent except as independent of matter. A greater intellectuality corresponds to a greater immateriality, and, since matter stands for potency, to a greater act. In the summit of intellectuality the Pure Act is fixed; next, the Act mixed with Potency in the order of existence; then, the Act mixed with Potency in the very order of essence. A form cannot be reproduced except in so far as it is. Being is knowable in itself, and everything is knowable in so far as it is being. Still, the mode of operation is according to the mode of being, and since the being of our soul, in the present condition, communicates with the body, the connatural object of our knowledge is now the forms taken from the matter. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 14 a. 1 et q. 89 a. 1 et a. 2Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 59 et cap. 72 et lib. 4 cap. 2]

* A thing’s quiddity is an answer to the question, “What is it?” Any useful answer goes beyond mere sense-impressions of the thing, so as to be a way of “understanding” it. Thus the “proper object” of human understanding in this life (where our minds are dependent on our senses) is a what-it-is of one or another empirical thing. (‘Quiddity’ is often a synonym of ‘essence’, but this is misleading unless one is working in a science, where the ‘What is it?” question is looking for an answer which is not just a “handle” on the thing but something as close as possible to its real make-up or scientific definition.)


We, therefore, receive our knowledge from sensible things. But since no sensible thing is actually intelligible, besides the intellect which is properly intelligent we must admit in the soul an active power which abstracts the intelligible forms from the phantasms. *

Commentary: Our knowledge proceeds, at present, from sensible things. This gives a reason for the union of soul and body. Upon the injury of some organs our mental operation becomes impossible; nor is it by chance that this is associated with sensible images. A sensible image, however, is not intelligible; for intelligible means immaterial. The intellect, which properly understands is a passive faculty: it receives the intelligible forms, and does not make the forms to be intelligible. The abstractive faculty, notwithstanding, belongs to the soul alone, for it brings its object to the realm of the immaterial. It is, moreover, an intellectual faculty, for its function is to make something intelligible. It is called the active intellect. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 79 a. 3 et a. 4 et q. 85 a. 6 et a. 7Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 76 ff.; De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 10]

* This “active power” is called the agent intellect. It performs an operation upon the data of the senses, called abstracting. The intellect which is “formally said to understand” is called the passive or possible intellect. It is so called because it “receives” the abstracted kind into itself (as species impressa) and is thereby put “into act” to understand this kind; whereupon it can “do” the act of understanding, in which it expresses this abstracted kind to itself as a concept (species expressa). Thus any case of understanding “what something is” is a case of bringing it under a concept.


Through these species we directly know the universal; the singular we know by the senses, and also by the intellect through a conversion to the phantasms; we rise by analogy to the knowledge of the spiritual. *

Commentary: Since matter individualizes the forms, the forms become universal when abstracted from matter: it is the universal, then, we know directly. The singular implies material conditions and is known directly by the senses, dependent on matter themselves, and indirectly by the intellect, which, in taking the universal from the individuals, perceives the individuals, which offer the universal. Starting from the material abstracted essences we arrive at the nature of pure spirits. We affirm of those spirits some positive perfections noticed in the inferior beings, and these we affirm of them in a higher degree, while we deny of them some, or all, the imperfections to which those perfections were associated in the material objects. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 85 et q. 86 et q. 87 et q. 88]

* Since the intelligible kind received and expressed is an abstracted kind, the content of a concept is a universal. Hence the understanding of a universal is antecedent to (not the sensation of, but) the understanding of a particular. A spiritual entity, however, provides no sense data, and hence “what it is” admits of no abstraction. If it is not divinely revealed, it can only be conjectured via analogical reasoning from (and with) concepts reached as discussed above.


The will follows, does not precede, the intellect; it necessarily desires that which is offered to it as a good which entirely satisfies the appetite; it freely chooses among several good things that are proposed as desirable by the wavering judgment. Election, then, follows the last practical judgment; still, it is the will which determines it to be the last.

Commentary: Will is not prior but posterior to the intellect, in dignity, in origin, in acting. The posteriority in acting is chiefly intended here. Every act of the will is preceded by an act of the intellect; for the act of the will is a rational inclination, and while inclination follows a form, rational inclination follows the intellectually apprehended form. The intellect, in presenting to the will some apprehended good, moves it as to the specification of its act. If the presented good is the absolute or universal good, the will desires it of necessity. If it is good mixed with evil, relative or particular good, it is partially attractive and partially repulsive. The will may desire it, or may not. Once the intellect has settled on the practical excellency of some particular good, the will must accept such an object. Yet, it is the will, which freely committed itself to the determination of the intellect; it is the will, which freely sustained the intellect in its unilateral consideration; and it is the will, which freely wants the process not to be submitted to a further revision. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 82 et q. 83Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 72 ff.; De veritate, q. 22 a. 5De malo, q. 11]



That God exists we do not know by immediate intuition, nor do we demonstrate it a priori, but certainly a posteriori, that is, by things which are made, arguing from effect to cause.


  • from things, which are in movement and cannot be the adequate principle of their motion, to the first mover immovable;
  • from the procession of worldly things from causes, which are subordinated to each other, to the first uncaused cause;
  • from corruptible things, which are indifferent alike to being and non-being, to the absolutely necessary being;
  • from things, which, according to their limited perfection of existence, life, intelligence, are more or less perfect in their being, their life, their intelligence, to Him who is intelligent, living, and being in the highest degree;
  • finally, from the order, which exists in the universe, to the existence of a separate intelligence which ordained, disposed, and directs things to their end.

Commentary: Since the proper object of our intellect is the essences of material things, it is clear we have no immediate intuition of God’s spiritual essence, and, consequently, neither of His existence. Since the notion we have of His essence is an abstract notion, the existence implied in that notion belongs to the essential order and in no way to the actual. Still, we can demonstrate His existence with a rigorous demonstration, which goes from the effects to their ultimate cause. St. Thomas furnishes five proofs, already classical. Things are in movement; whatsoever is moved is moved by something else; above the moved-movers is some immovable-mover. Things are efficient causes of others; they are not the efficient cause of themselves; outside the caused-causes is some uncaused-cause. Some beings did not always exist, some will not always exist: their existence is not essential to them; above beings, which do not exist of necessity, is a necessary being. Things are more or less perfect than others; the less perfect has not in itself the reason of that perfection; above things, which are limited in their perfection is some being supremely perfect. Things which lack intelligence act for some end; an intelligent being only could adapt and direct them to this end; there is an universal governing intelligence. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 2Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 12 et cap. 31 et lib. 3 cap. 10 et cap. 11De veritate, q. 1 et q. 10De potentia, q. 4 et q. 7]


The Divine Essence is well proposed to us as constituted in its metaphysical concept by its identity with the exercised actuality of its existence, or, in other terms, as the very subsisting being; and by the same token it exhibits to us the reason of its infinity in perfection.

Commentary: Nothing in the Divine Essence itself can have the character of a constituent, for the Divine Essence is most simple. It is only according to our mode of understanding that we may ask which among the different perfections attributed to God is conceived as first, so as to distinguish God from creatures and to give ground to all the other divine perfections. That first perfection is the real identity of essence and existence: the subsisting being. By that God is distinct from creatures. In that is based any other perfection belonging to Him; for existence means act, and existence which is not received into essence means act without potency, perfection without limits. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 4 a. 2 et q. 13 a. 11Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 8 q. 1]


By the very purity of His being God is, therefore, distinguished from all finite beings.

  • Hence, in the first place, it is inferred that the world could not have proceeded from God except through creation;
  • secondly, that the creative power, which directly ‘affects being as being,’ cannot be communicated, even miraculously, to any finite nature; and,
  • finally, that no created agent exercises any influence on the being of any effect except through a motion received from the first cause.

Commentary: God’s essence is God’s existence; God is distinct from creatures whose essence is potency for existence. The world proceeds from God as the contingent from the necessary being. It proceeds by means of creation, for no emanation is possible in the pure act. Since creation implies the production of being from non-being, it is contradictory to suppose a creature exercising any causality in creation; it could not exercise that causality which belongs to the principal cause, for being is an universal effect, above the proportion consequently of any particular cause; not that causality which belongs to the instrumental cause, for there is nothing presupposed to creation upon which the instrument could exercise its efficiency. Finally, since every agent, by its act, moves toward the effect, this movement cannot be conceived independently of the first mover. The agent depends on God for its existence, for its powers, for the conservation of that existence and of these powers. It depends also on God for the very exercise of these powers. Because in exercising these powers the agent passes from Potency to Act, its faculties do not move except in so far as they are moved; there must be a motion coming from the immovable mover. This motion is received into the agent previously to the agent’s motion; it is properly called pre-motion. And since it moves the agent to the exercise of its powers, it is properly called physical pre-motion. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 44 et q. 45 et q. 105Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 6 et cap. 7 et cap. 8 et cap. 9 et cap. 10 et cap. 11 et cap. 12 et cap. 13 et cap. 14 et cap. 15 et lib. 3 cap. 6 et cap. 7 et cap. 8 et cap. 9 et lib. 4 cap. 44De potentia, q. 3 a. 7]

These are the theses Catholic professors must teach. They are the foundation upon which all the philosophical teaching must be based. And if professors recommend to their students any textbook that does not correspond to these theses, they must point that out. Because Catholic professors are reminded not only that “they cannot set St. Thomas aside, however slightly, especially in Metaphysics, without grave detriment,” but also that “they did not receive the faculty of teaching to communicate to their pupils their own opinions, but to impart to them the doctrines most approved by the Church.”

Given at Rome

July 27, 1914

Benedetto Cardinal Lorenzelli, Prefect

Monsignor Ascenso Dandini, Secretary

* * * * *

The Twenty-Four Fundamental Theses Of Official Catholic Philosophy

By P. Lumbreras, O.P., S.T.Lr., Ph.D.

Nobody can deny that the Church has full authority to regulate the teaching of philosophy in Catholic educational institutions. Pope Leo XIII said: “The only-begotten Son of the Eternal Father, who came on earth to bring salvation and the light of divine wisdom to men, conferred a great and wonderful blessing on the world when, about to ascend again into heaven, He commanded the Apostles to go and teach all nations, and left the Church which He had founded to be the common and supreme teacher of the peoples.”1 And Pius X: “Let no sincere Catholic dare to doubt the truth of this statement of the Angelic Doctor: ‘The regulation of studies belongs chiefly to the authority of the Apostolic See, by which the universal Church is governed, whose welfare is promoted by general study.'”2 The reason is obvious. For since there was given to the Church a certain number of truths spoken certainly by God, but to men and consequently in our human language, it is a duty on the part of the Church, not only to keep intact such a sacred deposit, but also to explain it as much as possible, and to defend it by means of human reason. The Church, therefore, has an absolute and exclusive right to pronounce judgment on the accordance of any system of philosophy with revealed dogma; to determine which of the various philosophical systems is more suitable for the right explanation of this dogma and offers the most solid basis for its safeguard and vindication. “The Apostle warns us,” Leo XIII declares, “that the faithful of Christ are often deceived in mind ‘by philosophy and vain deceit.’ For this reason the supreme pastors of the Church have always held that it is part of their office to advance, with all their power, knowledge truly so called; but at the same time to watch with the greatest care that all human learning shall be imparted according to the rule of the Catholic faith. Especially is this true of philosophy, on which the right treatment of other sciences depends in great measure.”3 Furthermore, since the professors in Catholic institutions receive from the Church their right to teach, and teach, consequently, in the name of the Church, the Church is evidently entitled to control their teaching, and to determine for them a line of doctrine to be followed in their teaching. It is Pius X, who addressing the professors of Christian philosophy and sacred theology reminds them that “they did not receive the faculty of teaching to communicate to their pupils their own opinions, but to impart to them the doctrines most approved by the Church.”4

There arises then a true and strict obligation for all Catholic teachers, the day the Church fixes a body of philosophical doctrine to be taught by them. Catholic teachers must fulfill such an obligation, and must teach the doctrine the Church wants them to teach, and must teach it with that favor, that praise, that commendation which the Church demands.

It may be objected that this ecclesiastical interference might become an obstacle to further progress, or to any improvement in philosophical sciences. This is not true. If, as intelligent Catholics, we are sure of the divine assistance which guides the Church in all her doctrinal judgments, especially when this doctrinal judgment concerns the universal body of Catholic teachers, then it would seem that this very definite system should give us greater help and confidence in real advancement, since we know how to advance in the right way. Such a system would insure us against false progress, and ratify, assure and encourage true progress. It was in the use of such a power conferred upon the Church and in the accomplishment of his duty to teach the faithful, that Pope Leo XIII, on August 4, 1879, restored the scholastic philosophy. “If anyone look carefully,” he says, “at the bitterness of our times, and if, further, he consider earnestly the cause of those things that are done in public and in private, he will discover with certainty the fruitful root of the evils which are now overwhelming us, and of the evils which we greatly fear. The cause he will find consists in this—evil teaching about things human and divine — has come forth from the schools of philosophers; it has crept into all orders of the State; and it has been received with the common applause of very many. Now, it has been implanted in man by nature to follow reason as the guide of his actions, and, therefore, if the understanding goes wrong in anything, the will easily follows. Hence it comes about that wicked opinions in the understanding flow into human actions and make them bad.”5 And afterwards: “Here and there a certain new kind of philosophy has taken the place of the old doctrine; and because of this, men have not gathered those desirable and wholesome fruits which the Church and civil society itself could have wished. The aggressive innovators of the sixteenth century have not hesitated to philosophize without any regard whatever to the Faith, asking, and conceding in return, the right to invent anything that they can think of, anything that they please. From this it quickly followed, of course, that systems of philosophy were multiplied beyond all reason, and that there sprang up conflicting and diverse opinions even about some of the chief things, which are within human knowledge. From a multiplicity of opinions men very often pass to uncertainty and doubt; while there is no one who does not see how easily their minds glide from doubt into error.”6

Such a deplorable condition was not the exclusive lot of non-Catholic students of philosophy. For the same Pope adds: “But, since man is drawn by imitation, we have seen these novelties lay hold of the minds of some Catholic philosophers, who, undervaluing the inheritance of ancient wisdom, have chosen rather to invent new things than to extend and perfect the old by new truths, and that certainly with unwise counsel, and not without loss to science; for such a manifold kind of doctrine has only a shifting foundation, resting as it does on the authority and will of individual teachers. For this reason it does not make philosophy firm and strong and solid, like the old philosophy, but, on the contrary, makes it weak and shallow.”7

As the only remedy, the Roman Pontiff desires the scholastic philosophy to be implanted everywhere. “The Doctors of the Middle Ages,” he says, “whom we call scholastics, set themselves to do a work of very great magnitude. There are rich and fruitful crops of doctrine scattered everywhere in the mighty volumes of the holy Fathers. The aim of the scholastics was to gather these together diligently, and to store them up, as it were, in one place, for the use and convenience of those that come after.”8 And, having quoted the authority of Sixtus V, who said that God had enriched and strengthened His Church by the founding of scholastic theology, whose study must always be of great assistance, “whether it be for the right understanding and interpretation of Scripture, or for reading and expounding the Fathers with greater safety and profit, or for laying bare and answering different errors and heresies,” Leo XIII expresses himself in these terms: “Although these words seem to bear reference solely to scholastic theology, nevertheless they may plainly be accepted as equally true of philosophy and its praises. For the noble endowments which make the scholastic theology so formidable to the enemies of truth—to wit, as the same Pontiff adds, that ready and close coherence of cause and effect, that order and array as of a disciplined army in battle, those clear definitions and distinctions, by which light is distinguished from darkness, the true from the false, expose and strip naked, as it were, the falsehoods of heretics wrapped around by a cloud of subterfuges and fallacies —those noble and admirable endowments, We say, are only to be found in a right use of that philosophy which the scholastic teachers have been accustomed carefully and prudently to make use of even in theological disputations. Moreover, since it is the proper and special office of the scholastic theologians to bind together by the fastest chain human and divine science, surely the theology in which they excelled would not have gained such honor and commendation among men if they had made use of a lame and imperfect or vain philosophy.”9

The warning of Pope Leo XIII was not sufficiently heeded. And years after, his successor, Pope Pius X, was obliged to condemn an error which had spread not only among the Church’s open enemies, but among many who belonged to the Catholic laity, and, what is far more lamentable still, to the ranks of the priesthood itself, who lacked, as the Pope testifies, the firm protection of philosophy and theology. This error is known under the name of Modernism.

Now, one of the demands of the Modernists was the “reform of philosophy, especially in the seminaries: the scholastic philosophy is to be relegated to the history of philosophy among obsolete systems, and the young men are to be taught modern philosophy which alone is true and suited to the times in which we live.”10

But Pius X, a man of our days, living in our own century, and conscious of present progress, not less than of present evils, condemned such a tendency, as a Modernistic one. And coming to the remedies to be applied to such a critical situation he says: “In the first place, with regard to studies, We will and ordain that scholastic philosophy be made the basis of the sacred sciences.”11

Scholastic philosophy, however, is a very large name. For there were many who strove in the Middle Ages for the establishment of a rational philosophy in conformity with dogma and with a view of affording assistance to the theological studies. Since then we have had several systems of philosophy among the schoolmen. And each system has its opinions. And these opinions are never uniform, often contradictory.

When the Pope, therefore, decrees the teaching of Scholastic Philosophy, does he mean indifferently any of those systems of philosophy? Are all the scholastic teachings, in the mind of the Pope, on an equal basis in this regard?

Certainly not. For there is one schoolman specially mentioned in the pontifical documents; and there is a system of scholastic philosophy, which is individually praised, and praised with special recommendation by the Roman Pontiffs. “Far above all other scholastic Doctors,” Leo XIII says, “towers Thomas Aquinas, their master and prince. Cajetan says truly of him: ‘So great was his veneration for the ancient and sacred Doctors that he may be said to have gained a perfect understanding of them all.’ Thomas gathered together their doctrines like the scattered limbs of a body, and moulded them into a whole. He arranged them in so wonderful an order, and increased them with such great additions, that rightly and deservedly he is reckoned a singular safeguard and glory of the Catholic Church. His intellect was docile and subtle; his memory was ready and tenacious; his life was most holy; and he loved the truth alone. Greatly enriched as he was with the science of God and the science of man, he is likened to the sun, for he warmed the whole earth with the fire of his holiness, and filled the whole earth with the splendor of his teaching. There is no part of philosophy, which he did not handle with acuteness and solidity. He wrote about the laws of reasoning; about God and incorporeal substances; about man and other things of sense; and about human acts and their principles. What is more, he wrote on these subjects in such a way that in him not one of the following perfections is wanting: a full selection of subjects; a beautiful arrangement of their divisions; the best method of treating them; certainty of principles; strength of argument; perspicuity and propriety in language; and the power of explaining deep mysteries. Beside these questions and the like, the Angelic Doctor, in his speculations, drew certain philosophical conclusions as to the reasons and principles of created things. These conclusions have the very widest reach, and contain, as it were, in their bosom the seeds of truths well-nigh infinite in number. These have to be unfolded with most abundant fruits in their own time by the teachers who come after him. As he used his method of philosophizing, not only in teaching the truth, but also in refuting error, he has vanquished all errors of ancient times; and still he supplies an armory of weapons, which brings us certain victory in the conflict with falsehoods ever springing up in the course of years. Moreover, carefully distinguishing reason from faith, as is right, and yet joining them together in a harmony of friendship, he so guarded the rights of each, and so watched over the dignity of each, that, as far as man is concerned, reason can now hardly rise higher than she rose, borne up in the flight of Thomas; and faith can hardly gain more and greater helps from reason than those which Thomas gave her.”12 And again: “There is nothing which We have longer wished for and desired than that you (the Bishops), should give largely and abundantly to youths engaged in study the pure streams of wisdom which flow from the Angelic Doctor as from a perennial and copious spring.”13

This same principality was granted to St. Thomas’ philosophy by Pius X. “Let it be clearly understood above all things,” he says, “that the scholastic philosophy We prescribe is chiefly that which the Angelic Doctor has bequeathed to us, and We, therefore, declare that all the ordinances of Our Predecessor on this subject continue fully in force, and, as far as may be necessary, We do decree anew, and confirm, and ordain that they be by all strictly observed. In seminaries where they may have been neglected let the Bishops impose them and require their observance, and let this apply also to the Superiors of religious institutions.”14 And the Pope ends this paragraph with these precise words: “Further let professors remember that they cannot set St. Thomas aside, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment”; words which come again a short time after with some little, but meaningful modification: “Let professors remember that they cannot set St. Thomas aside, however slightly, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment.”15

Still, St. Thomas’ philosophy is not simply the chief one within the official Scholasticism, but it is the only one.

Leo XIII had expressed this before: “We, therefore, while We declare that everything wisely said should be received with willing and glad mind, as well as everything profitably discovered or thought out, exhort all of you, Venerable Brothers, with the greatest earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it as far as you can, for the safety and glory of the Catholic Faith, for the good of society, and for the increase of all the sciences. We say the wisdom of St. Thomas; for it is not by any means in our mind to set before this age, as a standard, those things which may have been inquired into by Scholastic Doctors with too great subtlety; or anything taught by them with too little consideration, not agreeing with the investigations of a later age; or lastly, anything that is not probable. Let, then, teachers carefully chosen by you do their best to instill the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas into the minds of their hearers; and let them clearly point out its solidity and excellence above all other teaching. Let this doctrine be the light of all places of learning, which you may have already opened, or may hereafter open. Let it be used for the refutation of errors that are gaining ground.”16

But it was Pius X who gave the most express and conclusive interpretation: “Since We have said (in the Motu Proprio ‘Sacrorum Antistitum‘) that Aquinas’ philosophy was chiefly to be followed, and We did not say solely, some thought to comply with, or at least not to oppose Our will in taking the philosophy of any of the Scholastic Doctors indiscriminately, even when such a philosophy was in repugnance to the principles of St. Thomas. But these their mind has greatly deceived. It is quite evident that when We set St. Thomas up as the leader of scholastic philosophy, We have wished this to be understood especially of his principles, upon which such a philosophy is established. Because as we must reject that old opinion which held as irrelevant for the faith what anyone thinks about creatures, if he thinks rightly about God—since an error on the nature of creatures originates false knowledge of God—so we must keep reverently and inviolately St. Thomas’ principles on philosophy, from which flows such a doctrine on creatures as is in harmony with faith; by which all errors of all ages are refuted; by which we are made aware of those attributes which must be given to God and to nothing else but Himself; and by which both the diversity and the analogy between God and creatures is skillfully illustrated… Neither sane reason will neglect, nor religion will allow that such a wonderful richness of science—which he received from his predecessors and with his almost angelic genius he himself ameliorated, increased and used to prepare, illustrate and defend the sacred doctrine for human minds—suffer any loss. Particularly, for if the Catholic truth be destitute of this valuable help, in vain would anyone seek help from that philosophy whose principles are common with, or not opposed to Materialism, Monism, Pantheism, Socialism and Modernism… Consequently We have already instructed all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology that to deviate a single step from St. Thomas, especially in metaphysical questions, would not be without great detriment. Now furthermore We say that those who have perversely interpreted or absolutely despised the principles and chief propositions of St. Thomas’ philosophy, those not only do not follow St. Thomas, but wander also widely from him.”17 And the Pope, overcoming some objection which could be made from pontifical documents praising some other Doctor or philosopher, adds: “If We or any of Our Predecessors have ever approved the doctrine of some other author or saint, even as to recommend and ordain its divulgation and defense, it is easily understood that the same is to be approved, inasmuch as it is consonant with the principles of St. Thomas, or at least not opposed to them.”18

Such a disposition of the Popes became finally a formal universal precept, since the promulgation of the Canon Law: “Religious who have already studied their humanities should devote themselves for two years at least to philosophy, and four years to theology, following the teaching of St. Thomas in accordance with the instructions of the Holy See.”19 And “The study of philosophy and theology and the teaching of these sciences to their students must be accurately carried out by professors according to the arguments, doctrine, and principles of St. Thomas, which they are inviolately to hold.”20

Nevertheless, St. Thomas did not write a textbook on philosophy, neither did he draw up a list of the fundamental principles of his philosophy.

Hence we have many philosophical books, which claim to reflect the mind of St. Thomas, though they contain opinions contrary to each other. We know of several scholastic doctors, who appropriate for themselves the title of Thomists and whose teaching is contradictory in many points. And we are aware that some of the doctrines, which by one school are supposed to be fundamental in the Thomistic Philosophy, are neglected and may be rejected by another school.

Pope Leo XIII had admonished on this subject: “But lest the false should be drunk instead of the true; or lest that which is unwholesome should be drunk instead of that which is pure; take care that the wisdom of Thomas be drawn from his own fountain, or at any rate from those streams which, in the certain and unanimous opinion of learned men, yet flow whole and untainted, inasmuch as they are fed from the fountain itself. Take care, moreover, that the minds of the young be kept from streams which are said to have flowed from thence, but in reality have been fed by unhealthy waters from other springs.”21

Yet, such a distinction was anything but easy, on account of the traditional prejudices of every School.

Hence a further official declaration was necessary.

The Congregation of Studies published on July 27, 1914, a document whose title is as follows: “Certain theses, contained in the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, and proposed by masters of philosophy, are approved.” Here is the introduction: “After the Holy Father Pope Pius X, by the Motu Proprio ‘Doctoris Angelici published on June 29, 1914, wisely prescribed that in all the schools of philosophy the principles and major propositions of Thomas Aquinas should be sacredly held, not a few masters, appertaining to different institutions, proposed to this Sacred Congregation of Studies for examination some theses which they were accustomed to teach and defend as conformable to the holy Doctor’s principles, especially in metaphysics. This Sacred Congregation, having duly examined the above mentioned theses, and submitted them to the Holy Father, at the command of His Holiness, replies that they clearly contain the principles and major propositions of the holy Doctor.”22

By a later document, these same theses were all officially declared to contain the genuine teaching of St. Thomas.23 And to the question whether they should be imposed upon Catholic schools to be held, the Congregation answered: “Proponantur veluti tutae normae directivae.”24 Proposed, not imposed: since it is philosophy, not faith, which is concerned.

But they must be proposed; namely, taught. For we have such an interpretation in the following words of Pius X: “The chief doctrines of St. Thomas’ philosophy cannot be regarded as mere opinions—which anyone might discuss pro and con, but rather as a foundation on which all science of both natural and divine things rests. If they are taken away, or perverted in any way, then this necessarily follows: that the students of sacred studies will not perceive even the meaning of those words whereby the divinely revealed dogmas are uttered by the teaching of the Church.”25

These theses must be taught as a sure guide of direction; sure guide of direction on the philosophical official teaching in the Church; sure guide of direction on the support, which faith derives from philosophy; and sure guide of direction on philosophical truth.

These theses are twenty-four in number. All of them are concerned with metaphysics, since it was chiefly upon the metaphysical teaching of St. Thomas that the Popes insisted. In the next issue we intend to publish a short treatise on these theses.


1 Encycl. Aeterni Patris,” August 4, 1879.

Motu Proprio “Doctoris Angelici,” June 29, 1914.

3 Enc. Aeterni Patris.”

M. P. “Doctoris Angelici.”

5 Enc. Aeterni Patris.”





10 Encycl. Pascendi,” September 8, 1907.

11 Ibid.

12 Enc. Aeterni Patris.”

13 Ibid.

14 Enc. Pascendi.”

15 Motu Proprio “Sacrorum antistitum,” September 1, 1910.

16 Encycl. Aeterni Patris.”

17 M. P. “Doctoris Angelici.”

18 Ibid.

19 Canon 589.

20 Canon 1366, 2.

21 Enc. Aeterni Patris.”

22 Acta Apost. Sedis, August, 1914.

23 Acta Ap. Sed., May, 1916.

24 Ibid.

25 M. P. “Doctoris Angelici.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on Dictatorship of Relativism

Homily at the Mass for the Election of a Roman Pontiff

Vatican Basilica
Monday 18 April 2005

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger attends Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, April 12, 2005

At this moment of great responsibility, let us listen with special attention to what the Lord says to us in his own words. I would like to examine just a few passages from the three readings that concern us directly at this time.

The first one offers us a prophetic portrait of the person of the Messiah – a portrait that receives its full meaning from the moment when Jesus reads the text in the synagogue at Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4: 21).

At the core of the prophetic text we find a word which seems contradictory, at least at first sight. The Messiah, speaking of himself, says that he was sent “to announce a year of favour from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Is 61: 2). We hear with joy the news of a year of favour: divine mercy puts a limit on evil, as the Holy Father told us. Jesus Christ is divine mercy in person: encountering Christ means encountering God’s mercy.

Christ’s mandate has become our mandate through the priestly anointing. We are called to proclaim, not only with our words but also with our lives and with the valuable signs of the sacraments, “the year of favour from the Lord”.

But what does the prophet Isaiah mean when he announces “the day of vindication by our God”? At Nazareth, Jesus omitted these words in his reading of the prophet’s text; he concluded by announcing the year of favour. Might this have been the reason for the outburst of scandal after his preaching? We do not know.

In any case, the Lord offered a genuine commentary on these words by being put to death on the cross. St Peter says: “In his own body he brought your sins to the cross” (I Pt 2: 24). And St Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians: “Christ has delivered us from the power of the law’s curse by himself becoming a curse for us, as it is written, “Accursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree’. This happened so that through Christ Jesus the blessing bestowed on Abraham might descend on the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, thereby making it possible for us to receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3: 13f.).

Christ’s mercy is not a grace that comes cheap, nor does it imply the trivialization of evil. Christ carries the full weight of evil and all its destructive force in his body and in his soul. He burns and transforms evil in suffering, in the fire of his suffering love. The day of vindication and the year of favour converge in the Paschal Mystery, in the dead and Risen Christ. This is the vengeance of God: he himself suffers for us, in the person of his Son. The more deeply stirred we are by the Lord’s mercy, the greater the solidarity we feel with his suffering – and we become willing to complete in our own flesh “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Col 1: 24).

Let us move on to the second reading, the letter to the Ephesians. Here we see essentially three aspects: first of all, the ministries and charisms in the Church as gifts of the Lord who rose and ascended into heaven; then, the maturing of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God as the condition and content of unity in the Body of Christ; and lastly, our common participation in the growth of the Body of Christ, that is, the transformation of the world into communion with the Lord.

Let us dwell on only two points. The first is the journey towards “the maturity of Christ”, as the Italian text says, simplifying it slightly. More precisely, in accordance with the Greek text, we should speak of the “measure of the fullness of Christ” that we are called to attain if we are to be true adults in the faith. We must not remain children in faith, in the condition of minors. And what does it mean to be children in faith? St Paul answers: it means being “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4: 14). This description is very timely!

How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.

On this theme, St Paul offers us as a fundamental formula for Christian existence some beautiful words, in contrast to the continual vicissitudes of those who, like children, are tossed about by the waves: make truth in love. Truth and love coincide in Christ. To the extent that we draw close to Christ, in our own lives too, truth and love are blended. Love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like “a clanging cymbal” (I Cor 13: 1).

Let us now look at the Gospel, from whose riches I would like to draw only two small observations. The Lord addresses these wonderful words to us: “I no longer speak of you as slaves…. Instead, I call you friends” (Jn 15: 15). We so often feel, and it is true, that we are only useless servants (cf. Lk 17: 10).

Yet, in spite of this, the Lord calls us friends, he makes us his friends, he gives us his friendship. The Lord gives friendship a dual definition. There are no secrets between friends: Christ tells us all that he hears from the Father; he gives us his full trust and with trust, also knowledge. He reveals his face and his heart to us. He shows us the tenderness he feels for us, his passionate love that goes even as far as the folly of the Cross. He entrusts himself to us, he gives us the power to speak in his name: “this is my body…”, “I forgive you…”. He entrusts his Body, the Church, to us.

To our weak minds, to our weak hands, he entrusts his truth – the mystery of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the mystery of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3: 16). He made us his friends – and how do we respond?

The second element Jesus uses to define friendship is the communion of wills. For the Romans “Idem velle – idem nolle” [same desires, same dislikes] was also the definition of friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15: 14). Friendship with Christ coincides with the third request of the Our Father: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. At his hour in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus transformed our rebellious human will into a will conformed and united with the divine will. He suffered the whole drama of our autonomy – and precisely by placing our will in God’s hands, he gives us true freedom: “Not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26: 39).

Our redemption is brought about in this communion of wills: being friends of Jesus, to become friends of God. The more we love Jesus, the more we know him, the more our true freedom develops and our joy in being redeemed flourishes. Thank you, Jesus, for your friendship!

The other element of the Gospel to which I wanted to refer is Jesus’ teaching on bearing fruit: “It was I who chose you to go forth and bear fruit. Your fruit must endure” (Jn 15: 16).

It is here that appears the dynamism of the life of a Christian, an apostle: I chose you to go forth. We must be enlivened by a holy restlessness: a restlessness to bring to everyone the gift of faith, of friendship with Christ. Truly, the love and friendship of God was given to us so that it might also be shared with others. We have received the faith to give it to others – we are priests in order to serve others. And we must bear fruit that will endure.

All people desire to leave a lasting mark. But what endures? Money does not. Even buildings do not, nor books. After a certain time, longer or shorter, all these things disappear. The only thing that lasts for ever is the human soul, the human person created by God for eternity.

The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls: love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching hearts, words that open the soul to joy in the Lord. So let us go and pray to the Lord to help us bear fruit that endures. Only in this way will the earth be changed from a valley of tears to a garden of God.

To conclude, let us return once again to the Letter to the Ephesians. The Letter says, with words from Psalm 68, that Christ, ascending into heaven, “gave gifts to men” (Eph 4: 8). The victor offers gifts. And these gifts are apostles, pro-phets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Our ministry is a gift of Christ to humankind, to build up his body – the new world. We live out our ministry in this way, as a gift of Christ to humanity!

At this time, however, let us above all pray insistently to the Lord that after his great gift of Pope John Paul II, he will once again give us a Pastor according to his own heart, a Pastor who will guide us to knowledge of Christ, to his love and to true joy. Amen.

On Reading of Old Books by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or[Richard] Hooker or [Joseph] Butler, but M. [Nikolai] Berdyaev or M. [Jacques] Maritain or M. [Reinhold] Niebuhr or Miss [Dorothy] Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as [Richard] Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wellsand Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, [George] Herbert, [Thomas] Traherne, [Jeremy] Taylor and [John] Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and [Samuel] Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in [Henry] Vaughan and [Jacob] Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of [Spenser’s] The Faerie Queene and [Sidney’s] the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papistwhen you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

The present book is something of an experiment. The translation is intended for the world at large, not only for theological students. If it succeeds, other translations of other great Christian books will presumably follow. In one sense, of course, it is not the first in the field. Translations of the Theologia Germanica, the Imitation [of Christ], the Scale of Perfection, and the Revelations of Lady Julian of Norwich, are already on the market, and are very valuable, though some of them are not very scholarly. But it will be noticed that these are all books of devotion rather than of doctrine. Now the layman or amateur needs to be instructed as well as to be exhorted. In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This is a good translation of a very great book. St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the “Athanasian Creed.” I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words “Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame. But this is not my immediate concern. I mention “the creed (commonly called)of St. Athanasius” only to get out of the reader’s way what may have been a bogey and to put the true Athanasius in its place. His epitaph is Athanasiuscontra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did thesame. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.

The translator knows so much more Christian Greek than I that it would be out of place for me to praise her version. But it seems to me to be in the right tradition of English translation. I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages. That is as much as the English reader will notice; those who compare the version with the original will be able to estimate how much wit and talent is presupposed in such a choice, for example, as “these wiseacres” on the very first page.

Great Relearning – 20th Century Is Over by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe

In 1968, in San Francisco, I came across a curious footnote to the psychedelic movement. At the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic there were doctors who were treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. And how was it that they had now returned? It had to do with the fact that thousands of young men and women had migrated to San Francisco to live communally in what I think history will record as one of the most extraordinary religious experiments of all time.

The hippies, as they became known, sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero. At one point Ken Kesey organized a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of returning to Anglo-Saxon civilization’s point zero, which he figured was Stonehenge, and heading out all over again to do it better. Among the codes and restraints that people in the communes swept aside—quite purposely—were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or, as was more likely, without using any sheets at all or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette. And now, in 1968, they were relearning . . . the laws of hygiene … by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.

This process, namely the relearning —following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero—seems to me to be the leitmotif of our current interlude, here in the dying years of the twentieth century.

“Start from zero” was the slogan of the Bauhaus School. The story of how the Bauhaus, a tiny artists’ movement in Germany in the 1920s, swept aside the architectural styles of the past and created the glass-box face of the modern American city is a familiar one, and I won’t retell it. But I should mention the soaring spiritual exuberance with which the movement began, the passionate conviction of the Bauhaus’s leader, Walter Gropius, that by starting from zero in architecture and design man could free himself from the dead hand of the past. By the late 1970s, however, architects themselves were beginning to complain of the dead hand of the Bauhaus: the flat roofs, which leaked from rain and collapsed from snow, the tiny bare beige office cubicles, which made workers feel like component parts, the glass walls, which let in too much heat, too much cold, too much glare, and no air at all. The relearning is now underway in earnest. The architects are busy rummaging about in what the artist Richard Merkin calls the Big Closet. Inside the Big Closet, in promiscuous heaps, are the abandoned styles of the past. The current favorite rediscoveries: Classical, Secession, and Moderne (Art Deco). Relearning on the wing, the architects are off on a binge of eclecticism comparable to the Victorian period’s a century ago.

In politics the twentieth century’s great start from zero was one-party socialism, also known as Communism or Marxism-Leninism. Given that system’s bad reputation in the West today (even among the French intelligentsia), it is instructive to read John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World—before turning to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The old strike hall poster of a Promethean worker in a blue shirt breaking his chains across his mighty chest was in truth the vision of ultimate human freedom the movement believed in at the outset. For intellectuals in the West the painful dawn began with the publication of the Gulag Archipelago in 1973. Solzhenitsyn insisted that the villain behind the Soviet concentration camp network was not Stalin or Lenin (who invented the term concentration camp) or even Marxism. It was instead the Soviets’ peculiarly twentieth-century notion that they could sweep aside not only the old social order but also its religious ethic, which had been millennia in the making (“common decency,” Orwell called it) and reinvent morality . . . here . . . now . . . “at the point of a gun,” in the famous phrase of the Maoists. Today the relearning has reached the point where even ruling circles in the Soviet Union and China have begun to wonder how best to convert Communism into something other than, in Susan Sontag’s phrase, Successful Fascism. 

The great American contribution to the twentieth century’s start from zero was in the area of manners and mores, especially in what was rather primly called “the sexual revolution.” In every hamlet, even in the erstwhile Bible Belt, may be found the village brothel, no longer hidden in a house of blue lights or red lights or behind a green door but openly advertised by the side of the road with a thousand-watt back-lit plastic sign: TOTALLY ALL-NUDE GIRL SAUNA MASSAGE AND MARATHON ENCOUNTER SESSIONS INSIDE. Up until two years ago pornographic movie theaters were as ubiquitous as the Seven-Eleven, including outdoor drive-ins with screens six, seven, eight storeys high, the better to beam all the moistened folds and glistening nodes and stiffened giblets to a panting American countryside. Two years ago the pornographic theater began to be replaced by the pornographic videocassette, which could be brought into any home. Up on the shelf in the den, next to the set of The Encyclopedia Brittanica and the great books, one now finds the cassettes: Shanks Akimbo, That Thing with the Cup. My favorite moment in Jessica Hahn’s triumphal tour of Medialand this fall came when a ten-year-old girl, a student at a private school, wearing a buttercup blouse, a cardigan sweater, and her school uniform skirt, approached her outside a television studio with a stack of Playboy magazines featuring the famous Hahn nude form and asked her to autograph them. With the school’s blessing, she intended to take the signed copies back to the campus and hold a public auction. The proceeds would go to the poor.

But in the sexual revolution, too, the painful dawn has already arrived, and the relearning is imminent. All may be summed up in a single term, requiring no amplification: AIDS.

The Great Relearning—if anything so prosaic as remedial education can be called great—should be thought of not as the end of the twentieth century but the prelude to the twenty-first. There is no law of history that says a new century must start ten or twenty years beforehand, but two times in a row it has worked out that way. The nineteenth-century began with the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth. The twentieth century began with the formulation of Marxism, Freudianism, and Modernism in the late nineteenth. And now the twenty-first begins with the Great Relearning.

The twenty-first century, I predict, will confound the twentieth-century notion of the Future as something exciting, novel, unexpected, or radiant; as Progress, to use an old word. It is already clear that the large cities, thanks to the Relearning, will not even look new. Quite the opposite; the cities of 2007 will look more like the cities of 1927 than the cities of 1987. The twenty-first century will have a retrograde look and a retrograde mental atmosphere. People of the next century, snug in their Neo-Georgian apartment complexes, will gaze back with a ghastly awe upon our time. They will regard the twentieth as the century in which wars became so enormous they were known as World Wars, the century in which technology leapt forward so rapidly man developed the capacity to destroy the planet itself—but also the capacity to escape to the stars on space ships if it blew. But above all they will look back upon the twentieth as the century in which their forebears had the amazing confidence, the Promethean hubris, to defy the gods and try to push man’s power and freedom to limitless, god-like extremes. They will look back in awe . . . without the slightest temptation to emulate the daring of those who swept aside all rules and tried to start from zero. Instead, they will sink ever deeper into their NeoLouis bergeres, content to live in what will be known as the Somnolent Century or the Twentieth Century’s Hangover.

Conservative by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. This quarrel is the subject of civil history. The conservative party established the reverend hierarchies and monarchies of the most ancient world. The battle of patrician and plebeian, of parent state and colony, of old usage and accommodation to new facts, of the rich and the poor, reappears in all countries and times. The war rages not only in battle-fields, in national councils, and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man’s bosom with opposing advantages every hour. On rolls the old world meantime, and now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities.

Such an irreconcilable antagonism, of course, must have a correspondent depth of seat in the human constitution. It is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason. It is the primal antagonism, the appearance in trifles of the two poles of nature.

There is a fragment of old fable which seems somehow to have been dropped from the current mythologies, which may deserve attention, as it appears to relate to this subject.

Saturn grew weary of sitting alone, or with none but the great Uranus or Heaven beholding him, and he created an oyster. Then he would act again, but he made nothing more, but went on creating the race of oysters. Then Uranus cried, ‘a new work, O Saturn! the old is not good again.’

Saturn replied. ‘I fear. There is not only the alternative of making and not making, but also of unmaking. Seest thou the great sea, how it ebbs and flows? so is it with me; my power ebbs; and if I put forth my hands, I shall not do, but undo. Therefore I do what I have done; I hold what I have got; and so I resist Night and Chaos.’

‘O Saturn,’ replied Uranus, ‘thou canst not hold thine own, but by making more. Thy oysters are barnacles and cockles, and with the next flowing of the tide, they will be pebbles and sea-foam.’

‘I see,’ rejoins Saturn, ‘thou art in league with Night, thou art become an evil eye; thou spakest from love; now thy words smite me with hatred. I appeal to Fate, must there not be rest?’ — ‘I appeal to Fate also,’ said Uranus, ‘must there not be motion?’ — But Saturn was silent, and went on making oysters for a thousand years.

After that, the word of Uranus came into his mind like a ray of the sun, and he made Jupiter; and then he feared again; and nature froze, the things that were made went backward, and, to save the world, Jupiter slew his father Saturn.

This may stand for the earliest account of a conversation on politics between a Conservative and a Radical, which has come down to us. It is ever thus. It is the counteraction of the centripetal and the centrifugal forces. Innovation is the salient energy; Conservatism the pause on the last movement. ‘That which is was made by God,’ saith Conservatism. ‘He is leaving that, he is entering this other;’ rejoins Innovation.

There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact. It affirms because it holds. Its fingers clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact. The castle, which conservatism is set to defend, is the actual state of things, good and bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course, conservatism always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; it must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet; whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking, and sure of final success. Conservatism stands on man’s confessed limitations; reform on his indisputable infinitude; conservatism on circumstance; liberalism on power; one goes to make an adroit member of the social frame; the other to postpone all things to the man himself; conservatism is debonnair and social; reform is individual and imperious. We are reformers in spring and summer; in autumn and winter, we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at night. Reform is affirmative, conservatism negative; conservatism goes for comfort, reform for truth. Conservatism is more candid to behold another’s worth; reform more disposed to maintain and increase its own. Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry. It makes a great difference to your figure and to your thought, whether your foot is advancing or receding. Conservatism never puts the foot forward; in the hour when it does that, it is not establishment, but reform. Conservatism tends to universal seeming and treachery, believes in a negative fate; believes that men’s temper governs them; that for me, it avails not to trust in principles; they will fail me; I must bend a little; it distrusts nature; it thinks there is a general law without a particular application, — law for all that does not include any one. Reform in its antagonism inclines to asinine resistance, to kick with hoofs; it runs to egotism and bloated self-conceit; it runs to a bodiless pretension, to unnatural refining and elevation, which ends in hypocrisy and sensual reaction.

And so whilst we do not go beyond general statements, it may be safely affirmed of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine. Nature does not give the crown of its approbation, namely, beauty, to any action or emblem or actor, but to one which combines both these elements; not to the rock which resists the waves from age to age, nor to the wave which lashes incessantly the rock, but the superior beauty is with the oak which stands with its hundred arms against the storms of a century, and grows every year like a sapling; or the river which ever flowing, yet is found in the same bed from age to age; or, greatest of all, the man who has subsisted for years amid the changes of nature, yet has distanced himself, so that when you remember what he was, and see what he is, you say, what strides! what a disparity is here!

Throughout nature the past combines in every creature with the present. Each of the convolutions of the sea-shell, each node and spine marks one year of the fish’s life, what was the mouth of the shell for one season, with the addition of new matter by the growth of the animal, becoming an ornamental node. The leaves and a shell of soft wood are all that the vegetation of this summer has made, but the solid columnar stem, which lifts that bank of foliage into the air to draw the eye and to cool us with its shade, is the gift and legacy of dead and buried years.

In nature, each of these elements being always present, each theory has a natural support. As we take our stand on Necessity, or on Ethics, shall we go for the conservative, or for the reformer. If we read the world historically, we shall say, Of all the ages, the present hour and circumstance is the cumulative result; this is the best throw of the dice of nature that has yet been, or that is yet possible. If we see it from the side of Will, or the Moral Sentiment, we shall accuse the Past and the Present, and require the impossible of the Future.

But although this bifold fact lies thus united in real nature, and so united that no man can continue to exist in whom both these elements do not work, yet men are not philosophers, but are rather very foolish children, who, by reason of their partiality, see everything in the most absurd manner, and are the victims at all times of the nearest object. There is even no philosopher who is a philosopher at all times. Our experience, our perception is conditioned by the need to acquire in parts and in succession, that is, with every truth a certain falsehood. As this is the invariable method of our training, we must give it allowance, and suffer men to learn as they have done for six millenniums, a word at a time, to pair off into insane parties, and learn the amount of truth each knows, by the denial of an equal amount of truth. For the present, then, to come at what sum is attainable to us, we must even hear the parties plead as parties.

That which is best about conservatism, that which, though it cannot be expressed in detail, inspires reverence in all, is the Inevitable. There is the question not only, what the conservative says for himself? but, why must he say it? What insurmountable fact binds him to that side? Here is the fact which men call Fate, and fate in dread degrees, fate behind fate, not to be disposed of by the consideration that the Conscience commands this or that, but necessitating the question, whether the faculties of man will play him true in resisting the facts of universal experience? For although the commands of the Conscience are essentially absolute, they are historically limitary. Wisdom does not seek a literal rectitude, but an useful, that is, a conditioned one, such a one as the faculties of man and the constitution of things will warrant. The reformer, the partisan loses himself in driving to the utmost some specialty of right conduct, until his own nature and all nature resist him; but Wisdom attempts nothing enormous and disproportioned to its powers, nothing which it cannot perform or nearly perform. We have all a certain intellection or presentiment of reform existing in the mind, which does not yet descend into the character, and those who throw themselves blindly on this lose themselves. Whatever they attempt in that direction, fails, and reacts suicidally on the actor himself. This is the penalty of having transcended nature. For the existing world is not a dream, and cannot with impunity be treated as a dream; neither is it a disease; but it is the ground on which you stand, it is the mother of whom you were born. Reform converses with possibilities, perchance with impossibilities; but here is sacred fact. This also was true, or it could not be: it had life in it, or it could not have existed; it has life in it, or it could not continue. Your schemes may be feasible, or may not be, but this has the endorsement of nature and a long friendship and cohabitation with the powers of nature. This will stand until a better cast of the dice is made. The contest between the Future and the Past is one between Divinity entering, and Divinity departing. You are welcome to try your experiments, and, if you can, to displace the actual order by that ideal republic you announce, for nothing but God will expel God. But plainly the burden of proof must lie with the projector. We hold to this, until you can demonstrate something better.

The system of property and law goes back for its origin to barbarous and sacred times; it is the fruit of the same mysterious cause as the mineral or animal world. There is a natural sentiment and prepossession in favor of age, of ancestors, of barbarous and aboriginal usages, which is a homage to the element of necessity and divinity which is in them. The respect for the old names of places, of mountains, and streams, is universal. The Indian and barbarous name can never be supplanted without loss. The ancients tell us that the gods loved the Ethiopians for their stable customs; and the Egyptians and Chaldeans, whose origin could not be explored, passed among the junior tribes of Greece and Italy for sacred nations.

Moreover, so deep is the foundation of the existing social system, that it leaves no one out of it. We may be partial, but Fate is not. All men have their root in it. You who quarrel with the arrangements of society, and are willing to embroil all, and risk the indisputable good that exists, for the chance of better, live, move, and have your being in this, and your deeds contradict your words every day. For as you cannot jump from the ground without using the resistance of the ground, nor put out the boat to sea, without shoving from the shore, nor attain liberty without rejecting obligation, so you are under the necessity of using the Actual order of things, in order to disuse it; to live by it, whilst you wish to take away its life. The past has baked your loaf, and in the strength of its bread you would break up the oven. But you are betrayed by your own nature. You also are conservatives. However men please to style themselves, I see no other than a conservative party. You are not only identical with us in your needs, but also in your methods and aims. You quarrel with my conservatism, but it is to build up one of your own; it will have a new beginning, but the same course and end, the same trials, the same passions; among the lovers of the new I observe that there is a jealousy of the newest, and that the seceder from the seceder is as damnable as the pope himself. On these and the like grounds of general statement, conservatism plants itself without danger of being displaced. Especially before this personal appeal, the innovator must confess his weakness, must confess that no man is to be found good enough to be entitled to stand champion for the principle. But when this great tendency comes to practical encounters, and is challenged by young men, to whom it is no abstraction, but a fact of hunger, distress, and exclusion from opportunities, it must needs seem injurious. The youth, of course, is an innovator by the fact of his birth. There he stands, newly born on the planet, a universal beggar, with all the reason of things, one would say, on his side. In his first consideration how to feed, clothe, and warm himself, he is met by warnings on every hand, that this thing and that thing have owners, and he must go elsewhere. Then he says; If I am born into the earth, where is my part? have the goodness, gentlemen of this world, to show me my wood-lot, where I may fell my wood, my field where to plant my corn, my pleasant ground where to build my cabin.

‘Touch any wood, or field, or house-lot, on your peril,’ cry all the gentlemen of this world; ‘but you may come and work in ours, for us, and we will give you a piece of bread.’

And what is that peril?

Knives and muskets, if we meet you in the act; imprisonment, if we find you afterward.

And by what authority, kind gentlemen?

By our law.

And your law, — is it just?

As just for you as it was for us. We wrought for others under this law, and got our lands so.

I repeat the question, Is your law just?

Not quite just, but necessary. Moreover, it is juster now than it was when we were born; we have made it milder and more equal.

I will none of your law, returns the youth; it encumbers me. I cannot understand, or so much as spare time to read that needless library of your laws. Nature has sufficiently provided me with rewards and sharp penalties, to bind me not to transgress. Like the Persian noble of old, I ask “that I may neither command nor obey.” I do not wish to enter into your complex social system. I shall serve those whom I can, and they who can will serve me. I shall seek those whom I love, and shun those whom I love not, and what more can all your laws render me?

With equal earnestness and good faith, replies to this plaintiff an upholder of the establishment, a man of many virtues:

Your opposition is feather-brained and overfine. Young man, I have no skill to talk with you, but look at me; I have risen early and sat late, and toiled honestly, and painfully for very many years. I never dreamed about methods; I laid my bones to, and drudged for the good I possess; it was not got by fraud, nor by luck, but by work, and you must show me a warrant like these stubborn facts in your own fidelity and labor, before I suffer you, on the faith of a few fine words, to ride into my estate, and claim to scatter it as your own.

Now you touch the heart of the matter, replies the reformer. To that fidelity and labor, I pay homage. I am unworthy to arraign your manner of living, until I too have been tried. But I should be more unworthy, if I did not tell you why I cannot walk in your steps. I find this vast network, which you call property, extended over the whole planet. I cannot occupy the bleakest crag of the White Hills or the Alleghany Range, but some man or corporation steps up to me to show me that it is his. Now, though I am very peaceable, and on my private account could well enough die, since it appears there was some mistake in my creation, and that I have been missent to this earth, where all the seats were already taken, — yet I feel called upon in behalf of rational nature, which I represent, to declare to you my opinion, that, if the Earth is yours, so also is it mine. All your aggregate existences are less to me a fact than is my own; as I am born to the earth, so the Earth is given to me, what I want of it to till and to plant; nor could I, without pusillanimity, omit to claim so much. I must not only have a name to live, I must live. My genius leads me to build a different manner of life from any of yours. I cannot then spare you the whole world. I love you better. I must tell you the truth practically; and take that which you call yours. It is God’s world and mine; yours as much as you want, mine as much as I want. Besides, I know your ways; I know the symptoms of the disease. To the end of your power, you will serve this lie which cheats you. Your want is a gulf which the possession of the broad earth would not fill. Yonder sun in heaven you would pluck down from shining on the universe, and make him a property and privacy, if you could; and the moon and the north star you would quickly have occasion for in your closet and bed-chamber. What you do not want for use, you crave for ornament, and what your convenience could spare, your pride cannot.

On the other hand, precisely the defence which was set up for the British Constitution, namely, that with all its admitted defects, rotten boroughs and monopolies, it worked well, and substantial justice was somehow done; the wisdom and the worth did get into parliament, and every interest did by right, or might, or sleight, get represented; — the same defence is set up for the existing institutions. They are not the best; they are not just; and in respect to you, personally, O brave young man! they cannot be justified. They have, it is most true, left you no acre for your own, and no law but our law, to the ordaining of which, you were no party. But they do answer the end, they are really friendly to the good; unfriendly to the bad; they second the industrious, and the kind; they foster genius. They really have so much flexibility as to afford your talent and character, on the whole, the same chance of demonstration and success which they might have, if there was no law and no property.

It is trivial and merely superstitious to say that nothing is given you, no outfit, no exhibition; for in this institution of credit, which is as universal as honesty and promise in the human countenance, always some neighbor stands ready to be bread and land and tools and stock to the young adventurer. And if in any one respect they have come short, see what ample retribution of good they have made. They have lost no time and spared no expense to collect libraries, museums, galleries, colleges, palaces, hospitals, observatories, cities. The ages have not been idle, nor kings slack, nor the rich niggardly. Have we not atoned for this small offence (which we could not help) of leaving you no right in the soil, by this splendid indemnity of ancestral and national wealth? Would you have been born like a gipsy in a hedge, and preferred your freedom on a heath, and the range of a planet which had no shed or boscage to cover you from sun and wind, — to this towered and citied world? to this world of Rome, and Memphis, and Constantinople, and Vienna, and Paris, and London, and New York? For thee Naples, Florence, and Venice, for thee the fair Mediterranean, the sunny Adriatic; for thee both Indies smile; for thee the hospitable North opens its heated palaces under the polar circle; for thee roads have been cut in every direction across the land, and fleets of floating palaces with every security for strength, and provision for luxury, swim by sail and by steam through all the waters of this world. Every island for thee has a town; every town a hotel. Though thou wast born landless, yet to thy industry and thrift and small condescension to the established usage, — scores of servants are swarming in every strange place with cap and knee to thy command, scores, nay hundreds and thousands, for thy wardrobe, thy table, thy chamber, thy library, thy leisure; and every whim is anticipated and served by the best ability of the whole population of each country. The king on the throne governs for thee, and the judge judges; the barrister pleads, the farmer tills, the joiner hammers, the postman rides. Is it not exaggerating a trifle to insist on a formal acknowledgment of your claims, when these substantial advantages have been secured to you? Now can your children be educated, your labor turned to their advantage, and its fruits secured to them after your death. It is frivolous to say, you have no acre, because you have not a mathematically measured piece of land. Providence takes care that you shall have a place, that you are waited for, and come accredited; and, as soon as you put your gift to use, you shall have acre or acre’s worth according to your exhibition of desert, — acre, if you need land; — acre’s worth, if you prefer to draw, or carve, or make shoes, or wheels, to the tilling of the soil.

Besides, it might temper your indignation at the supposed wrong which society has done you, to keep the question before you, how society got into this predicament? Who put things on this false basis? No single man, but all men. No man voluntarily and knowingly; but it is the result of that degree of culture there is in the planet. The order of things is as good as the character of the population permits. Consider it as the work of a great and beneficent and progressive necessity, which, from the first pulsation of the first animal life, up to the present high culture of the best nations, has advanced thus far. Thank the rude fostermother though she has taught you a better wisdom than her own, and has set hopes in your heart which shall be history in the next ages. You are yourself the result of this manner of living, this foul compromise, this vituperated Sodom. It nourished you with care and love on its breast, as it had nourished many a lover of the right, and many a poet, and prophet, and teacher of men. Is it so irremediably bad? Then again, if the mitigations are considered, do not all the mischiefs virtually vanish? The form is bad, but see you not how every personal character reacts on the form, and makes it new? A strong person makes the law and custom null before his own will. Then the principle of love and truth reappears in the strictest courts of fashion and property. Under the richest robes, in the darlings of the selectest circles of European or American aristocracy, the strong heart will beat with love of mankind, with impatience of accidental distinctions, with the desire to achieve its own fate, and make every ornament it wears authentic and real.

Moreover, as we have already shown that there is no pure reformer, so it is to be considered that there is no pure conservative, no man who from the beginning to the end of his life maintains the defective institutions; but he who sets his face like a flint against every novelty, when approached in the confidence of conversation, in the presence of friendly and generous persons, has also his gracious and relenting motions, and espouses for the time the cause of man; and even if this be a shortlived emotion, yet the remembrance of it in private hours mitigates his selfishness and compliance with custom.

The Friar Bernard lamented in his cell on Mount Cenis the crimes of mankind, and rising one morning before day from his bed of moss and dry leaves, he gnawed his roots and berries, drank of the spring, and set forth to go to Rome to reform the corruption of mankind. On his way he encountered many travellers who greeted him courteously; and the cabins of the peasants and the castles of the lords supplied his few wants. When he came at last to Rome, his piety and good will easily introduced him to many families of the rich, and on the first day he saw and talked with gentle mothers with their babes at their breasts, who told him how much love they bore their children, and how they were perplexed in their daily walk lest they should fail in their duty to them. ‘What!’ he said, ‘and this on rich embroidered carpets, on marble floors, with cunning sculpture, and carved wood, and rich pictures, and piles of books about you?’ — ‘Look at our pictures and books,’ they said, ‘and we will tell you, good Father, how we spent the last evening. These are stories of godly children and holy families and romantic sacrifices made in old or in recent times by great and not mean persons; and last evening, our family was collected, and our husbands and brothers discoursed sadly on what we could save and give in the hard times.’ Then came in the men, and they said, ‘What cheer, brother? Does thy convent want gifts?’ Then the friar Bernard went home swiftly with other thoughts than he brought, saying, ‘This way of life is wrong, yet these Romans, whom I prayed God to destroy, are lovers, they are lovers; what can I do?’

The reformer concedes that these mitigations exist, and that, if he proposed comfort, he should take sides with the establishment. Your words are excellent, but they do not tell the whole. Conservatism is affluent and openhanded, but there is a cunning juggle in riches. I observe that they take somewhat for everything they give. I look bigger, but am less; I have more clothes, but am not so warm; more armor, but less courage; more books, but less wit. What you say of your planted, builded and decorated world, is true enough, and I gladly avail myself of its convenience; yet I have remarked that what holds in particular, holds in general, that the plant Man does not require for his most glorious flowering this pomp of preparation and convenience, but the thoughts of some beggarly Homer who strolled, God knows when, in the infancy and barbarism of the old world; the gravity and sense of some slave Moses who leads away his fellow slaves from their masters; the contemplation of some Scythian Anacharsis; the erect, formidable valor of some Dorian townsmen in the town of Sparta; the vigor of Clovis the Frank, and Alfred the Saxon, and Alaric the Goth, and Mahomet, Ali, and Omar the Arabians, Saladin the Curd, and Othman the Turk, sufficed to build what you call society, on the spot and in the instant when the sound mind in a sound body appeared. Rich and fine is your dress, O conservatism! your horses are of the best blood; your roads are well cut and well paved; your pantry is full of meats and your cellar of wines, and a very good state and condition are you for gentlemen and ladies to live under; but every one of these goods steals away a drop of my blood. I want the necessity of supplying my own wants. All this costly culture of yours is not necessary. Greatness does not need it. Yonder peasant, who sits neglected there in a corner, carries a whole revolution of man and nature in his head, which shall be a sacred history to some future ages. For man is the end of nature; nothing so easily organizes itself in every part of the universe as he; no moss, no lichen is so easily born; and he takes along with him and puts out from himself the whole apparatus of society and condition extempore, as an army encamps in a desert, and where all was just now blowing sand, creates a white city in an hour, a government, a market, a place for feasting, for conversation, and for love.

These considerations, urged by those whose characters and whose fortunes are yet to be formed, must needs command the sympathy of all reasonable persons. But beside that charity which should make all adult persons interested for the youth, and engage them to see that he has a free field and fair play on his entrance into life, we are bound to see that the society, of which we compose a part, does not permit the formation or continuance of views and practices injurious to the honor and welfare of mankind. The objection to conservatism, when embodied in a party, is, that in its love of acts, it hates principles; it lives in the senses, not in truth; it sacrifices to despair; it goes for availableness in its candidate, not for worth; and for expediency in its measures, and not for the right. Under pretence of allowing for friction, it makes so many additions and supplements to the machine of society, that it will play smoothly and softly, but will no longer grind any grist.

The conservative party in the universe concedes that the radical would talk sufficiently to the purpose, if we were still in the garden of Eden; he legislates for man as he ought to be; his theory is right, but he makes no allowance for friction; and this omission makes his whole doctrine false. The idealist retorts, that the conservative falls into a far more noxious error in the other extreme. The conservative assumes sickness as a necessity, and his social frame is a hospital, his total legislation is for the present distress, a universe in slippers and flannels, with bib and papspoon, swallowing pills and herb-tea. Sickness gets organized as well as health, the vice as well as the virtue. Now that a vicious system of trade has existed so long, it has stereotyped itself in the human generation, and misers are born. And now that sickness has got such a foot-hold, leprosy has grown cunning, has got into the ballot-box; the lepers outvote the clean; society has resolved itself into a Hospital Committee, and all its laws are quarantine. If any man resist, and set up a foolish hope he has entertained as good against the general despair, society frowns on him, shuts him out of her opportunities, her granaries, her refectories, her water and bread, and will serve him a sexton’s turn. Conservatism takes as low a view of every part of human action and passion. Its religion is just as bad; a lozenge for the sick; a dolorous tune to beguile the distemper; mitigations of pain by pillows and anodynes; always mitigations, never remedies; pardons for sin, funeral honors, — never self-help, renovation, and virtue. Its social and political action has no better aim; to keep out wind and weather, to bring the day and year about, and make the world last our day; not to sit on the world and steer it; not to sink the memory of the past in the glory of a new and more excellent creation; a timid cobbler and patcher, it degrades whatever it touches. The cause of education is urged in this country with the utmost earnestness, — on what ground? why on this, that the people have the power, and if they are not instructed to sympathize with the intelligent, reading, trading, and governing class, inspired with a taste for the same competitions and prizes, they will upset the fair pageant of Judicature, and perhaps lay a hand on the sacred muniments of wealth itself, and new distribute the land. Religion is taught in the same spirit. The contractors who were building a road out of Baltimore, some years ago, found the Irish laborers quarrelsome and refractory, to a degree that embarrassed the agents, and seriously interrupted the progress of the work. The corporation were advised to call off the police, and build a Catholic chapel; which they did; the priest presently restored order, and the work went on prosperously. Such hints, be sure, are too valuable to be lost. If you do not value the Sabbath, or other religious institutions, give yourself no concern about maintaining them. They have already acquired a market value as conservators of property; and if priest and church-member should fail, the chambers of commerce and the presidents of the Banks, the very innholders and landlords of the county would muster with fury to their support.

Of course, religion in such hands loses its essence. Instead of that reliance, which the soul suggests on the eternity of truth and duty, men are misled into a reliance on institutions, which, the moment they cease to be the instantaneous creations of the devout sentiment, are worthless. Religion among the low becomes low. As it loses its truth, it loses credit with the sagacious. They detect the falsehood of the preaching, but when they say so, all good citizens cry, Hush; do not weaken the state, do not take off the strait jacket from dangerous persons. Every honest fellow must keep up the hoax the best he can; must patronize providence and piety, and wherever he sees anything that will keep men amused, schools or churches or poetry, or picture-galleries or music, or what not, he must cry “Hist-a-boy,” and urge the game on. What a compliment we pay to the good SPIRIT with our superserviceable zeal!

But not to balance reasons for and against the establishment any longer, and if it still be asked in this necessity of partial organization, which party on the whole has the highest claims on our sympathy? I bring it home to the private heart, where all such questions must have their final arbitrement. How will every strong and generous mind choose its ground, — with the defenders of the old? or with the seekers of the new? Which is that state which promises to edify a great, brave, and beneficent man; to throw him on his resources, and tax the strength of his character? On which part will each of us find himself in the hour of health and of aspiration?

I understand well the respect of mankind for war, because that breaks up the Chinese stagnation of society, and demonstrates the personal merits of all men. A state of war or anarchy, in which law has little force, is so far valuable, that it puts every man on trial. The man of principle is known as such, and even in the fury of faction is respected. In the civil wars of France, Montaigne alone, among all the French gentry, kept his castle gates unbarred, and made his personal integrity as good at least as a regiment. The man of courage and resources is shown, and the effeminate and base person. Those who rise above war, and those who fall below it, it easily discriminates, as well as those, who, accepting its rude conditions, keep their own head by their own sword.

But in peace and a commercial state we depend, not as we ought, on our knowledge and all men’s knowledge that we are honest men, but we cowardly lean on the virtue of others. For it is always at last the virtue of some men in the society, which keeps the law in any reverence and power. Is there not something shameful that I should owe my peaceful occupancy of my house and field, not to the knowledge of my countrymen that I am useful, but to their respect for sundry other reputable persons, I know not whom, whose joint virtues still keep the law in good odor?

It will never make any difference to a hero what the laws are. His greatness will shine and accomplish itself unto the end, whether they second him or not. If he have earned his bread by drudgery, and in the narrow and crooked ways which were all an evil law had left him, he will make it at least honorable by his expenditure. Of the past he will take no heed; for its wrongs he will not hold himself responsible: he will say, all the meanness of my progenitors shall not bereave me of the power to make this hour and company fair and fortunate. Whatsoever streams of power and commodity flow to me, shall of me acquire healing virtue, and become fountains of safety. Cannot I too descend a Redeemer into nature? Whosoever hereafter shall name my name, shall not record a malefactor, but a benefactor in the earth. If there be power in good intention, in fidelity, and in toil, the north wind shall be purer, the stars in heaven shall glow with a kindlier beam, that I have lived. I am primarily engaged to myself to be a public servant of all the gods, to demonstrate to all men that there is intelligence and good will at the heart of things, and ever higher and yet higher leadings. These are my engagements; how can your law further or hinder me in what I shall do to men? On the other hand, these dispositions establish their relations to me. Wherever there is worth, I shall be greeted. Wherever there are men, are the objects of my study and love. Sooner or later all men will be my friends, and will testify in all methods the energy of their regard. I cannot thank your law for my protection. I protect it. It is not in its power to protect me. It is my business to make myself revered. I depend on my honor, my labor, and my dispositions, for my place in the affections of mankind, and not on any conventions or parchments of yours.

But if I allow myself in derelictions, and become idle and dissolute, I quickly come to love the protection of a strong law, because I feel no title in myself to my advantages. To the intemperate and covetous person no love flows; to him mankind would pay no rent, no dividend, if force were once relaxed; nay, if they could give their verdict, they would say, that his self-indulgence and his oppression deserved punishment from society, and not that rich board and lodging he now enjoys. The law acts then as a screen of his unworthiness, and makes him worse the longer it protects him.

In conclusion, to return from this alternation of partial views, to the high platform of universal and necessary history, it is a happiness for mankind that innovation has got on so far, and has so free a field before it. The boldness of the hope men entertain transcends all former experience. It calms and cheers them with the picture of a simple and equal life of truth and piety. And this hope flowered on what tree? It was not imported from the stock of some celestial plant, but grew here on the wild crab of conservatism. It is much that this old and vituperated system of things has borne so fair a child. It predicts that amidst a planet peopled with conservatives, one Reformer may yet be born.

Jonathan Sacks on Creative Minorities

2013 Erasmus Lecture

Jonathan Sacks

Almost exactly twenty-six centuries ago, a man not otherwise known for his positive psychology sat down to write a letter to his coreligionists in a foreign land. The man was Jeremiah. The people to whom he wrote were the Jews who had been taken captive to Babylon after their defeat at its hands, a defeat that included the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the central symbol of their nation and the sign that God was in their midst.

We know exactly what the feeling of those exiles was. A psalm has recorded it in the most powerful way: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1, 4)

This was, of course, what Jeremiah had predicted. But there is no air of triumphalism in his letter, no “I told you so.” What he wrote was massively counterintuitive. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that it changed the course of Jewish history, perhaps even, in an indirect way, that of Western civilization as a whole. This is what he wrote:

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jer. 29:5–7)

What Jeremiah was saying was that it is possible to survive in exile with your identity intact, your appetite for life undiminished, while contributing to the wider society and praying to God on its behalf. Jeremiah was introducing into history a highly consequential idea: the idea of a creative minority.

At this distance of time, it can be hard for us to realize how revolutionary this was. Religions until then were inextricably linked to geographically, politically, culturally, and linguistically defined spaces. That is what the exiles meant when they said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” If your nation was defeated, it meant your god had been defeated, and you accepted that defeat, graciously or otherwise. If you went into exile, as the Northern Kingdom had done a century and a half earlier, then you assimilated into the majority culture and became one—or, in that case, ten—of history’s lost tribes.

Only a unique configuration of ideas made Jeremiah’s vision possible. The first idea was monotheism. If God was everywhere, then he could be accessed anywhere, even by the waters of Babylon.

The second was belief in the sovereignty of the God of history over all other powers. Until then, if a people were conquered, it meant the defeat of a nation and its god. For the first time, in Jeremiah’s telling of the Babylonian conquest of Israel, the defeat of a nation is understood as being accomplished by its God. God was still supreme. Babylon was merely the instrument of his wrath. A people could suffer defeat and keep its faith intact.

The third was the belief that God kept his faith intact. He would not break his word, his covenant with Israel, however many times Israel broke its covenant with God. He could be relied on to honor his promise, just as he had when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. In the future, as in the past, he would bring his people back to their land.

So Jeremiah, like all the prophets, was ultimately a voice of hope. The prophetic message is always: If the people return to God, then God will return to the people, and the people will return to their land. Only hope can sustain a minority in exile, and only a transcendent God, above all principalities and powers, can guarantee that hope, even if it takes centuries or millennia to be fulfilled.

Jeremiah’s letter became the basis of Jewish hope for survival in the Diaspora for twenty-six centuries until today—a fraught, risk-laden, and tenuous survival, to be sure, but a remarkable one nonetheless.

Jews were creative in three distinct ways. The first was internal. It was in Babylon, for example, that the Torah was renewed as the heart of Jewish life. We see this clearly in the pioneering work of national education undertaken by Ezra and Nehemiah when they returned to Israel. And it was in Babylon again, a thousand years later, that the masterwork of rabbinical Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud, was compiled. The encounter with Christianity in the Middle Ages led to the flowering of Jewish Bible commentary. The meeting with medieval Islam begat Jewish philosophy. Every exile led to some new form of religious expression.

Second, Jews were cultural mediators between their host society and other civilizations. Through trade, for example, they brought to the West many of the inventions of China during the Middle Ages. Maimonides occupied an important role in bringing the Islamic rediscovery of Plato and Aristotle to the Christian world, becoming the bridge between Averroes and Aquinas.

Third, when in the modern age Jews were admitted for the first time to the cultural mainstream of the West, they gave rise to a remarkable number of architects of the modern mind. Among those of Jewish descent, if not of religious affiliation, were ­Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss, and many others.

So you can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith, and contribute to the common good, exactly as Jeremiah said. It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the fainthearted. But it is creative.

Fast forward twenty-six centuries from Jeremiah to May 13, 2004, to a lecture on the Christian roots of Europe by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI. There he confronted the phenomenon of a deeply secularized Europe, more so perhaps than at any time since the conversion of Constantine in the third century.

That loss of faith, Ratzinger argued, had brought with it three other kinds of loss: a loss of European identity, a loss of moral foundations, and a loss of faith in posterity, evident in the falling birthrates that he described as “a strange lack of desire for the future.” The closest analogue to today’s Europe, he said, was the Roman Empire on the brink of its decline and fall. Though he did not use these words, he implied that when a civilization loses faith in God, it ultimately loses faith in itself.

Is this inevitable? Or reversible? Can a civilization that has begun to decline recover and revive? The cardinal suggested that this was the issue at stake between two historians, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. For Spengler, civilizations are like organisms. They are born, they grow, they reach maturity, and then they age and decline and die. There are no exceptions.

For Toynbee, there is a difference between the material and spiritual dimensions of a civilization. Precisely because they have a spiritual dimension they are open to the human ability to recover. That gift, said Toynbee, belonged to what he called creative minorities, history’s great problem solvers. Therefore, concluded Ratzinger, “Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, and help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to therefore place itself at the service of all humankind.”

This too was an unexpected response. For the Catholic Church, numbering 1.2 billion adherents, to define itself as a minority, especially in Europe, is a surprising proposition. Nor is this the only way a group can respond to the discovery that it has become a minority. There are three other ways. First, it can accommodate to secularization: the way of religious liberalism. Second, it can resist it, sometimes violently, as religiously extremist groups are doing in many parts of the world today. Third, it can withdraw into protected enclaves, much as we see happening in certain groups within Orthodox Judaism. This is a powerful strategy, and it has strengthened Jewish Orthodoxy immensely, but at the price of segregation from—and thus loss of influence on—the world outside.

The fourth possibility, to become a creative minority, is not easy, because it involves maintaining strong links with the outside world while staying true to your faith, seeking not merely to keep the sacred flame burning but also to transform the larger society of which you are a part. This is, as Jews can testify, a demanding and risk-laden choice.

Yet the future pope was speaking at a challenging moment in the history of the West. There had been a time, only fifteen years before the lecture, when the West seemed to be triumphant. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Cold War was at an end, and it seemed as if liberal democracy and the market economy—two of the West’s greatest achievements—were about to sweep the world.

Since then, however, we have seen two great civilizations, India and China, revive and begin to challenge the economic supremacy of the West. A third, Islam, is undergoing great turbulence. Meanwhile the financial collapse of 2008 revealed a whole series of economies, among them the United States and much of Europe, living beyond their means, borrowing more, manufacturing less, and sinking deep into personal and collective debt. From the inside, the West may look still strong, which technically and scientifically it is, but from the outside it has seemed to many to be already past its peak. So the cardinal’s comparison with the Roman Empire on the brink of its decline deserved to be taken seriously.

Civilizations do not last forever. Not only did Spengler and Toynbee say so. So, in the fourteenth century, did the great Islamic sage Ibn Khaldun, and in the eighteenth Giambattista Vico. So indeed has every student of long-term history. Perhaps the judgment that most resonates with where we are today is contained in the first volume of Will Durant’s epic history, The Story of Civilization: A “certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization,” Durant wrote. Religion begins “fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past” and “priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a ‘conflict between science and religion.’”

The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.

Can the decline of a civilization be resisted? That was the issue raised, in their different ways, by Jeremiah in his day and Cardinal Ratzinger in ours. To understand what this might involve, it is worth revisiting the work of Toynbee’s that brought the phrase “creative minorities” into the conversation.

I had not read A Study of History until recently. I knew that it had upset many Jews because of its statement that Jews and Judaism were “an extinct society which only survives as a fossil.” They were even more upset by his later statement, in volume 8, published in 1954, that Israel’s treatment of the Arabs in 1948, when it was fighting for survival against the armies of five neighboring states, was morally equivalent to the Nazi treatment of the Jews—a statement he did not retract but repeated in his 1961 debate with Israel’s then-ambassador to Canada, the late Jacob Herzog.

What I did not fully appreciate was that the description of Judaism as a fossil is not a stray sentence in this ten-volume work but close to the core of his argument. A Study of History is, as many have noted, less a study of history than applied theology of a distinctly supersessionist kind. For Toynbee, Western Christianity is not a development of Judaism but rather a continuation of Hellenistic society, emerging out of the disintegration first of Greece, then Rome. Judaism, for Toynbee, was not a fallen or defeated civilization. It had never become a civilization at all. Its very existence is an anomaly and an anachronism.

Reading these volumes, the first of which was published in 1934, I felt a great chill as I read a distinguished historian repeating a sentiment that had been responsible for so many persecutions over the centuries and was about to reach its tragic denouement in the Holocaust. When I realized that afterward he was prepared to consign even the State of Israel to the trash heap of history, I realized how deeply a certain attitude is embedded in the Western mind, and I want to challenge it, not because of the past but for the sake of the future, and not just because of Christian–Jewish relations but for the sake of those between the West and the world.

There is a failure of imagination at the heart of Toynbee’s study of history, and it shapes not only his attitude toward Jews and Israel but much else besides.

His argument in brief is this: Civilizations are provoked by challenge. They never emerge automatically as a result of biology or geography. What happens is that a group or nation faces a problem—economic, military, or climatic—that threatens its continued existence. An individual or small group then comes up with an innovative solution, the inspiration or discovery that opens the way to prosperity or victory. This is the birth of the creative minority.

The majority, recognizing that the minority has opened the gate to success, proceeds to imitate it. The nation, now at an advantage relative to others, flourishes, eventually expanding to become an empire, or what Toynbee calls a “universal state.” But this never lasts forever.

Eventually the minority, having enjoyed success and power, ceases to be creative. It then becomes a dominant minority, in power not because of what it is doing now but because of what it did in the past. At this point, social breakdown begins. Since the minority can no longer justify its position, it alienates the majority, or what Toynbee calls the proletariat. There is schism. The internal majority may then find solace in religion by creating a universal church. The external proletariat, outsiders who were once in awe of the established power, now lose their fear of it and engage in acts of violence and terror, giving rise, in Toynbee’s phrase, to “a bevy of barbarian war-bands.” Time, says Toynbee, “works on the side of the barbarians.” When this happens, breakdown has become disintegration.

And so it goes. In Toynbee’s judgment, “of the twenty-one civilizations that have been born alive and have proceeded to grow, thirteen are dead and buried; . . . seven of the remaining eight are apparently in decline; and . . . the eighth, which is our own, may also have passed its zenith.”

There is, however, one possibility Toynbee does not consider. What if at least one creative minority had long ago seen what Toynbee and other historians would eventually realize? What if they had witnessed the decline and fall of the first great civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria? What if they had seen how dominant minorities treat the masses, the proletariat, turning them into forced labor and conscripted armies so that rulers could be heroes in expansionist wars, immortalized in monumental buildings? What if they saw all of this as a profound insult to human dignity and a betrayal of the human condition?

What if they saw religion time and again enlisted to give heavenly sanction to purely human hierarchies? What if they knew that truth and power have nothing to do with one another and that you do not need to rule the world to bring truth into the world? What if they had realized that once you seek to create a universal state you have already begun down a road from which there is no escape, a process that ends in disintegration and decline? What if they were convinced that in the long run, the real battle is spiritual, not political or military, and that in this battle influence matters more than power?

What if they believed they had heard God calling on them to be a creative minority that never sought to become a dominant minority, that never sought to become a universal state, nor even in the conventional sense a universal church? What if they believed that God is universal but that love—all love, even God’s love—is irreducibly particular? What if they were convinced that the God who created biodiversity cares for human diversity? What if they had seen the great empires conquer smaller nations, and impose their culture on them, and had been profoundly disturbed by this, as we today are disturbed when an animal species is driven to extinction by human exploitation and carelessness?

What if these insights led a figure like Jeremiah to reconceptualize the entire phenomenon of defeat and exile? The Israelites had betrayed their mission by becoming obsessed with politics at the cost of moral and spiritual integrity. So taught all the prophets from Moses to Malachi. Every time you try to be like your neighbors, they said, you will be defeated by your neighbors. Every time you worship power, you will be defeated by power. Every time you seek to dominate, you will be dominated. For you, says God, are my witnesses to the world that there is nothing sacred about power or holy about empires and imperialism.

Anation will always need power to survive, but only as a means, not an end. In its land, Israel was, is, and will be a tiny nation surrounded by great empires that seek its destruction. Its very survival will always be testimony to something profound: the ability of a small people to outlast great powers by the sheer force of its commitment to justice, compassion, and human dignity. Whether as a nation in the Middle East or as a dispersed people in exile, it will always be a creative minority that declines the invitation to become a dominant minority. It will manifest by its very being the difficult, counterintuitive truth that it is possible to worship the universal God without attempting to found a universal state or a universal church.

Such has been the mission of Jews throughout the ages. So it is no accident that Toynbee cannot understand them except as an anomaly and an anachronism, because they stand outside his structure and fail to fit his categories. Indeed, they challenge those very categories. So there is all the difference in the world between Jeremiah’s concept of a creative minority and Toynbee’s. Jeremiah calls on his minority to pray for the city and work for its prosperity. He does not ask them to convert the city by persuading its inhabitants to become Jewish any more than God asks Jonah to convert the people of Nineveh. He wants them to repent, not convert.

Within any great religious tradition, there is more than one voice. In Judaism there are the distinctive voices of the priest, the prophet, and the sage, and they generate different kinds of literature. Within Christianity likewise, because of the circumstances of its early history, there is a Hellenistic voice and a Hebraic one. The Hellenistic voice speaks about universal truths. The Hebraic voice speaks about the particularity of love and forgiveness and about the differences that make each of us unique and that make human life itself holy.

The Hellenistic strand, of which Arnold Toynbee was an extreme example, leads in the direction of a universal church and a universal state. After all, Hellenism had already before the birth of Christianity given rise to two of the greatest empires the world has ever known. The Hebraic strand leads to the recognition that a small nation can play the role of a creative minority within the human arena, seeking influence, not power, hoping to inspire but not to conquer or convert.

Despite its claim to tolerance, Hellenism largely dismissed the non-Hellenistic world as barbarian and could not begin to understand why Jews might want to stay loyal to their seemingly parochial identity. The only explanation Hellenistic writers could give was that Jews were misanthropes who hated humankind. Under both the Seleucids and the Romans, there were attempts to suppress Judaism altogether, with tragic consequences. Any attempt to found a universal state or a universal church will always collide with Judaism’s principled particularity, and that, more than any other factor, explains the persistence of anti-Semitism throughout the ages. Jews lived and sometimes died for the right to be different, and for the belief that unity in heaven creates diversity on earth.

There are moments in history, and we are living through one now, when something new is taking shape but we do not know precisely what, when we are caught, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” There have been many warning voices, from Alasdair MacIntyre to Niall Ferguson, suggesting that the West that dominated the world from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries is in decline. Certainly it no longer commands the respect it once did. It no longer even respects itself as it once did. In his lecture Cardinal Ratzinger referred sharply to what he called Europe’s “pathological self-hatred.”

What has come to be called the Judeo-Christian ethic is under sustained assault from two quite different directions: from those who would eliminate religion altogether, and from those who seek to create a universal theocratic state that is neither Christian nor Jewish.

Three phenomena cry out for attention. First is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing currently being carried out against Christians throughout much of the Middle East and parts of Africa. I think of the Christians who have fled Syria, and of the eight million Copts in Egypt who live in fear; of the destruction of the last church in Afghanistan and of the million Christians who have left Iraq since the 1990s. Until recently, Christians represented 20 percent of the population of the Middle East; today, 4 percent. This is one of the great crimes of our time, but it has gone almost unreported and unprotested.

Second is the return of anti-Semitism to many parts of the world today, a complex anti-Semitism that includes Holocaust denial, the demonization of Jews, the return in modern guises of the blood libel and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the attempt in Europe to ban circumcision and shechitah, in effect making the practice of Judaism impossible—not to mention the anti-Zionism that leads otherwise good and decent people to call into question Israel’s right to exist, much as Toynbee did in his day. That this should have happened within living memory of the Holocaust is almost unbelievable.

The third concerns the West itself, which has already gone far down the road of abandoning the Judeo-Christian principles of the sanctity of life and the sacred covenant of marriage. Instead, it places its faith in a series of institutions, none of which can bear the weight of moral guidance: science, technology, the state, the market, and evolutionary biology. Science tells us what is, not what ought to be. Technology gives us power but cannot tell us how to use that power. The liberal democratic state, as a matter of principle, does not make moral judgments. The market gives us choices but does not tell us which choices to make. Evolutionary biology tells us why we have certain desires, but not which desires we should seek to satisfy and which not. It does not explain the unique human ability to make second-order evaluations.

The results lie all around us: the collapse of marriage, the fracturing of the family, the fraying of the social bond, the partisanship of politics at a time when national interest demands something larger, the loss of trust in public institutions, the buildup of debt whose burden will fall on future generations, and the failure of a shared morality to lift us out of the morass of individualism, hedonism, consumerism, and relativism. We know these things, yet we seem collectively powerless to move beyond them. We have reached the stage described by Livy, in his description of ancient Rome, where we can bear neither our vices nor their cure.

So the fateful question returns. Can civilizational decline be arrested? To which the great prophetic answer is “Yes.” For the prophets taught us that after every exile there is a return, after every destruction the ruins can be rebuilt, after every crisis there can be a rebirth, if—if we have faith in God’s faith in us.

But the Judeo-Christian ethic will not return until the fracture at its heart is healed, the fracture that is the long estrangement between Christians and Jews and that has caused so many persecutions and cost so many lives. I have hinted at the way this healing can happen—namely, if together we recover the Hebraic rather than the Hellenistic voice, Jeremiah’s rather than Toynbee’s view of a creative minority. This means a willingness to be true to our tradition without seeking to impose it on others or judging others harshly because their way is not ours; a loyalty combined with humility that allows us to stay true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That is what it meant to seek the peace of the city and what it now means to seek the peace of the world.

European history has had three supreme Hellenistic moments: first Athens, then Rome, and then the Italian Renaissance, and we are living through the fourth. These were moments of supreme creativity, but each ended in decline and fall. Through it all, despite many tragedies, Jews and Judaism survived. Somehow, in a way I still find mysterious, the Hebraic presence found a way of defeating the law of entropy that causes civilizations to break down and eventually disintegrate.

I believe Jews and Christians can and should work together to promote the values that we share and that we believe truly are universal: the sanctity of life as the gift of God, the dignity of the human person as the image of God, the covenantal virtues of tzedek, umishpat, chesed, ve-rachamim; fairness, justice, love, and compassion. Let us stand together in defence of the ecology of human freedom: the loving, stable family uniting parents and children in a bond of loyalty and care and supportive communities built on the principle of chesed, or caritas.

The time has come for a new meeting of Christians and Jews, based simply on the fact that a church that sees itself as a creative minority in the Jeremiah sense has made space for the existence of Jews and Judaism in a way that was not fully articulated before.

One reason I feel empowered to say this is the courage the Catholic Church has shown in the wake of the Holocaust to seek a new way in Jewish–Christian relations, begun by Pope John XXIII, continued through Vatican II and particularly in Nostra Aetate, sustained by the healing visit of Pope John Paul II to Jerusalem, and given new impetus by Pope Benedict XVI’s use of the phrase “creative minority.”

The second reason is Pope Francis, whom I have not yet met but whose words I have followed closely. I was in Buenos Aires on the day he was elected pope, and I was struck by the high regard in which he was held by the Jewish community in Argentina, a community that has felt very vulnerable since the terrorist attacks it suffered in the 1990s. I was equally struck by the warmth of his dialogue—published as a book, On Heaven and Earth—with a local rabbi.

What moved me especially were the words he used in his open letter of September 11, 2013, to Eugenio Scalfari, editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. There he wrote: “God never abandoned his covenant with Israel, and notwithstanding their terrible suffering over the centuries, the Jewish people have kept their faith. For this, we will never be sufficiently grateful to them as a Church, but also as human beings.” This is language we have rarely heard from a pope before, and it embodies a truth we all too often forget: that if you are deeply loyal to your faith, you can respect the loyalty with which others stay loyal to theirs.

If we read the Book of Genesis carefully, we see that the great threat to humanity is sibling rivalry and what René Girard calls “mimesis,” the desire to have what your brother has rather than rest content with your own. There are four such scenes in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. A superficial reading suggests that sibling rivalry is inevitable, part of the human condition. Biologists tell us it exists in other species as well. But a deeper reading emerges if we focus simply on the last scene in each story in which we see the brothers together. In the case of Cain and Abel, Abel lies dead. In the case of Isaac and Ishmael, they are standing together at their father’s grave. In the case of Jacob and Esau, they meet, embrace and go their separate ways. In the case of Joseph there is forgiveness and reconciliation, the first recorded instance of forgiveness in literature.

That last scene was memorably evoked by Pope John XXIII at the very beginning of this new chapter in Jewish–Catholic relations. Meeting a delegation of Jews in 1960, he said, in the words of the Bible itself, “I am Joseph your brother.” That, both in the biblical original and its recent reenactment, was an extraordinary scene of reconciliation. But there is in the Bible a second scene, several years later, when Joseph goes further and says to his brothers “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” What Joseph means is that by our acts in the present we can redeem the past. We can rescue fragments of light from deep darkness when we take our pain and use it to sensitize us to the pain of others—when we “save many lives.”

That second reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers was the essential prelude to the drama of redemption that took place in the Book of Exodus and forever changed the history of the world. Might it not be that Jews and Catholics are being called to their own second reconciliation as they stand side by side, two creative minorities, seeking to save many lives, including those who, like the Egyptians in Joseph’s day and the Babylonians in Jeremiah’s, are not of our faith but are nonetheless made in the image of our God? Such a reconciliation might give new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, bringing us a little closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world in which “they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

True creative minorities fight the battles of tomorrow, not those of yesterday. The Judeo-Christian ethic will, in my view, be reborn the moment there is a feeling that something new and momentous has occurred to heal the oldest injured relationship in the history of the West. When that day comes, Jews and Christians will stand together in their fight against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East; in defence of the legitimacy of the State of Israel as the place where the Jewish nation was born in ancient times, and reborn in ours; and as joint witnesses to the power of an ethic of love, forgiveness, and the sanctity of human life, to offer a more compelling ground of human hope than the new barbarisms, secular and religious. Nothing less than the future of the West is at stake.

Without Virtue There Can Be No Liberty

George Washington: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,”[1] 

George Washington: “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”[2]

Benjamin Franklin: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” [3]

James Madison: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [imaginary] idea.”[4]

Thomas Jefferson: “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.”[5]

Samuel Adams: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.  He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.”[6]

Patrick Henry: “A vitiated [impure] state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom.”[7]

John Adams: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[8]

John Adams: “Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtueand public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.”[9]

John Adams: Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence, than the body can live and move without a soul. [10]

Benjamin Rush: “Without Virtue there can be no liberty” [11]

Benjamin Rush: “In our opposition to monarchy, we forgot that the temple of tyranny has two doors. We bolted one of them by proper restraints; but we left the other open, by neglecting to guard against the effects of our own ignorance and licentiousness.” [12]

Samuel Adams: “[Men] will be free no longer than while they remain virtuous” [13]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “What is the best government? — That which teaches us to govern ourselves.” [14] 

Henry Ward Beecher: “There is no liberty to men who know not how to govern themselves.” [15]


[1] Victor Hugo Paltsits, Washington’s Farewell Address (The New York Public Library, 1935), p. 124.

[2] Washington to Marquis De Lafayette, February 7, 1788, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, (U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington D. C., 1939), 29:410.

[3] Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, (Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, Boston, 1840), 10:297.

[4] Speech in the Virginia Ratifying ConventionJune 201788. Jonathan Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1891) 3:536.

[5] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:234.

[6] William V. Wells, The Life and Public Service of Samuel Adams (Little, Brown, & Co., Boston, 1865), 1:22.

[7] Tryon Edwards, D.D., The New Dictionary of Thoughts – A Cyclopedia of Quotations(Hanover House, Garden City, NY, 1852; revised and enlarged by C.H. Catrevas, Ralph Emerson Browns and Jonathan Edwards, 1891; The Standard Book Company, New York, 1955, 1963), p. 337.

[8] John Adams, October 11, 1798, letter to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts. Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, (Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, 1854), 9:229.

[9] John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, April 16, 1776. A. Koch and W. Peden, eds., The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams (Knopf, New York, 1946), p. 57.

[10] John Adams to the Inhabitants of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay, from Papers of John Adams Volume 2, December 1773 – April 1775, (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1977), p. 245

[11] Benjamin Rush, Thoughts Upon The Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1786), in Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, (Thomas and William Bradford, Philadelphia, 1806), p. 8

[12] Benjamin Rush, An Address to the People of the United States (1787), quoted in Hezekiah Niles, Principles and Acts of the Revolution in, (W.O. Niles, Baltimore, 1822), p. 234

[13] Samuel Adams, Letter to John Scollay (Dec. 30, 1780), in William V. Wells, Life of Samuel Adams, Volume III., (Massachusetts Spy, 1778), p. 115.

[14] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe, translated by Bailey Saunders (MacMillan & Co., New York, 1906), Maxim No. 225.

[15] William Drysdale, ed., Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, Selected from the Writings and Sayings of Henry Ward Beecher (D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1887), p. 72.

Art of Making Sense Is Thing of Past: Only function of today’s barbarous academic writing is to disguise banality by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton

The politicization of higher education in America is regarded by conservatives with mixed emotions. On the one hand, conservatives are alarmed by codes of conduct that threaten to prevent us from expressing our views on campus; on the other, we are glad to see the universities making such evident fools of themselves.

It is hard to know which to prefer: a university that clings to the authority of objective scholarship while busily promoting left-wing causes, or one that places “political correctness” before truthful inquiry, and thereby ceases to be credible.

By a small margin I favor the second development. For although it spells the end of our scholarly traditions, it causes young people to apply themselves to serious pursuits like horse-breaking and lumberjacking, and to dispense with those years when, instead of learning to read books, they are taught that books are all unreadable. At least, that is what they are taught by the advocates of “deconstruction.”

In fact, the deconstructionists have a point. Books written by university apparatchiks (in particular those written by deconstructionists) are unreadable. Modern humanities departments have developed two strategies: to render meaningless the cultural heritage of which they are custodians, and to create a wholly new kind of literature, whose meaning is permanently hidden. In these two ways they fulfill their supreme goal, which is to bring the art of reading to an end.

I recently returned to some of the modern classics of philosophy. Gottlob Frege’s “Foundations of Arithmetic,” Bertrand Russell’s “Principles of Mathematics” and Gilbert Ryle’s “The Concept of Mind.” I was startled by the clarity and simplicity of their language. These abstruse philosophical discussions are written in the natural idiom of human speech and form part of a thriving literary culture. Russell, for instance, uses words with the same delicacy and alertness as A. C. Bradley, E. F. Benson, T. S. Eliot or E. M. Forster, and his prose is every bit as readable as theirs.

Turning to the “latest advances” in what my colleagues absurdly call “philosophical research,” I find a completely different style of writing, of which this is typical:

If “S” thinks that a certain pain-type is (tenselessly) horrible, he must present it in a conceptual mode, but he may descriptively identify the type via an indexical reference to a token of that type.

It is in such (tenselessly) horrible prose that contemporary Anglo-American philosophy is written. For years, I have wrestled with it; but my considered response today is that life is too short.

Even if the author of that sentence has something true and useful to tell me, the time taken to discover it could have been used to read the whole of Immanuel Kant or William Shakespeare.

Of course, there are reasons why academics write in this barbarous way. If they were to use the language that is natural to them, and to express the thoughts and feelings that are really theirs, the result would be so stunningly banal that no one would dream of employing them in a university. It has become necessary to write gibberish to gain promotion.

Moreover, the would-be professor must show that he is not going to question the system of academic privileges, or display any true independence of mind. The campus ideology provides a useful test that must be passed by anyone hoping to enjoy the fruits of scholarship. The aspirant must therefore use the feminine pronoun whenever he can; he must pepper his abominable prose with sideswipes at Reagan or Thatcher; he must labor to imply his correct posture toward “racism,” “sexism” and “homophobia,” and his impeccably liberal sentiments concerning the issues of the day. His constricted style thereby acquires a second set of shackles and clanks disconsolately down the darkened passages of his intellect, lifeless itself and resentful of life in others.

The worst of it is that academics are judged by the quantity of their publications. The more wagon loads you can tip onto Mt. Unreadable the higher you will rise. Scarcely a month passes without a new journal entering circulation, promising “feminist philosophy,” “postmodernist literary theory” or whatever other pseudo-subject that has taken root in the fertile ground of ignorance. Careers are built, universities colonized and young minds destroyed in the building of this Tower of Babel. Like its predecessor, the tower will soon collapse in ruins. But this time, God will not need to confound the language of the culprits, since they have already lost the art of making sense.

What Is Right by Nature By Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

In classical philosophy “right by nature” was a symbol, with the help of which the philosopher interpreted his noetic experience of right human action. Through dogmatization of philosophy, which began with the Stoa and has not been wholly overcome until today, the symbol of noetic exegesis was gradually separated from its underlying experience and, under the title “natural law,” turned into a topic of the philosophic schools. This topic, the idea of a body of norms with the claim of eternal and immutable validity, has had considerable effects since the seventeenth century, even though its noetic premises did not become very clear. Today the revived debate about natural law unfortunately still suffers from the topical character of its object, separated as it is from the experience containing its meaning. We shall try to get behind the topos of dogmatic philosophizing and to reconstitute the symbol of noetic exegesis.

To this end,  we shall examine the occasion on which the expressions “right” and “nature” first were related within a larger theoretical context, namely the Aristotelian physei dikaion. This case merits our attention, not only because it is the first of its kind so that we may hope to discover in it the experiential bases of the symbol, but also and especially because the physei dikaion of Aristotle is supposed to be valid everywhere and for all time but all the same is a kineton, everywhere changeable. Thus the content of the original concept varies considerably from that of the later topos. The question of the transition of the one to the other is certainly worth a detailed investigation and is still to be accomplished, but it lies beyond the frame of the present undertaking. It suffices for us here to clarify the meaning of the physei dikaion and to unravel some of its philosophical implications.

I. Physei Dikaion

The text in which the term physei dikaion occurs is so little clear that many have assumed that particular page of the Nicomachean Ethics (NE 1134b18 ss) to have come from a pen other than Aristotle’s. That may be, but I would not go as far as that. Rather it seems to be a first version, possibly a dictation. Anybody who has himself struggled with the task of penetrating a large context of thoughts will recognize a mutual contamination of different series of thoughts. The page should have been worked over once more in order to put the associative sequence in discursive order. The text is not clear because (1) the concepts burst out of the logical scheme of general and special and because (2) the term physis occurs in those few sentences in several meanings so that only the expert reader can say with some certainty which meaning belongs to which passage. The first reason has to do with the total complex of the philosophia peri ta anthropina (“philosophy of human affairs”, NE 1181b15 s), as Aristotle names the work that comprises the Ethics as well as the Politics, so we must deal with this reason first. Once the greater deficiency of clarity that affects the formation of concepts is removed, the smaller equivocations of the term physis offer no more difficulty.

The want of clarity in the concepts concerning the right by nature root in the dominant interest of the whole work in the theory of the polis and can be removed only through an interpretation of the text in the light of the larger theoretical context. To this end,  the definition in the Politics (1253a38 ss),  as well as the overall structure of the Nicomachean Ethics must be examined.

In the just-mentioned passage of the Politics, Aristotle formulates three fundamental definitions: (a) justice (dikaiosyne) is a politikon; (b) Right (dikaion) is the order (taxis) of the koinonia politike (the political community); (c) the judicial decision (dike) is the determination of what is right (dikaion). We infer from the definitions that Aristotle wanted to put the questions of justice and judicial decision into an essential connection with the polis. For justice is a politikon; the dikaion, in turn, relates only to the polis but not to any other kind of association and its order; the judicial decision, whether it is to be understood as a legislative norm of a judge’s decision, regards what is right within the framework of the community of the polis. Statements containing these concepts thus must not be generalized into an Aristotelian “philosophy of law,” nor may one conclude from the relationship to the polis that this or that statement may not be valid for other types of association. The statements must be understood as “primarily related to the polis.”

This rule of interpretation is confirmed by the curious structure of Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle begins with a distinction of justice in a general and a narrower sense; he then subdivides the latter in distributive and corrective justice. After the quite voluminous investigation has come to this point, he suddenly recalls that its object is the relation of what is generally right to what is politically right (politikon dikaion). Everything that was said after the section on justice, in general, appears as a single digression from which we now return—“we must not forget”—to the proper subject, the politikon dikaion. Together with this new beginning,  there are new subdivisions: The politikon dikaion consists of the physikon and the nomikon; the nomikon is eliminated since by definition it is concerned with the adiaphora, the essentially indifferent matters like traffic rules, measures, and weights; finally the investigation concentrates on the physikon dikaion as the right that is concerned with essentials. Within each of the two parts the formation of concepts thus clearly proceeds according to the scheme of general and special; the obscurity enters at the point of the break: there where justice in the general sense suddenly is related to the polis and the concept of the dikaion politikon is introduced.

What, then, is right in a political sense? Aristotle defines: “The just in political matters is found among men who share a common life in order that their association brings them self- sufficiency and who are free and equal, either proportionally or arithmetically. Hence, in a society where this is not the case, there is nothing just in the political sense in the relations of the various members to one another, but there is only something that bears a resemblance to what is just.” Explaining this definition, he continues: “For the just exists only among men whose mutual relationship is regulated by law, and law exists where injustice may occur.” This is possible only among men who are free and equal, for only among them there is public decision about justice (dike) that distinguishes between what is right (dikaion) and what is unjust (adikon). These sentences do not present an argument but produce a curiously floating circle of meanings in which justice is closely linked with the polis and its relations between free and equal citizens, while the relations between men belonging to other associations drop down into a just as curious shadowy condition of unreality.

The floating meanings receive a little more determination from the term nomos, which these sentences introduced. Nomos, the law, is to rule, not man. The ruler is to be no more than the guardian of the dikaion, of that justice that distributively and correctively obtains between men who are free and equal; if the ruler violates the dikaion by acting in his own interest, assigning to himself more than his equal share, he becomes a tyrant. For Aristotle, the rule of nomos thus does not cover any content whatsoever of statues or ordinances; rather one can speak of a rule of law only when the law has a definite and essential content.

Now we are in a position to dissolve the obscurities that were caused by Aristotle’s dominant interest in the polis.

Above all, one must pay attention to the several layers of meanings. Primarily the concepts refer to the polis as the manifestation of right order, so on this level, it appears as if justice, law, right could be mentioned only with regard to the polis. Since Aristotle, however, is aware that the problems touched by these terms also concern men who live in other associations than the polis, a second level of meaning is opened, in which he touches the corresponding problems beyond the polis. For Aristotle, there is not merely a politikon, but also a despotikon, patrikon, and domestikon dikaion, only it must be distinguished from the more essential justice of the polis as a homoion, a “resemblance.” Nor does he deny to the “justice” of other associations a physikon, even if it, too, is to be understood only in the modus deficiens as a “resemblance,” like the dikaion. Moreover, Aristotle has not much to say about these other types of what is right by nature, since they do not interest him in the course of an investigation of the politikon. Essential justice, then, merges with what is right in the historical-concrete polis, while the questions of right order for other types of association appear only sketchily on the edges of the investigation.

Given the dominance of the politikon, there can be no natural law conceived as an eternal, immutable, universally valid normativity confronting the changeable positive law. This is so because the justice of the polis, its nomos, insofar it constitutes the rule of law among men free and equal, is itself right by nature. The justice of the polis is not positive law in the modern sense but rather essential law within which alone there arises the tension between physei dikaion and a possible derailment into the making of laws by arbitrary human will. Of course, the law of the polis is also legislated and obligatory in this capacity, but this attribute takes second rank behind the question whether the content of the statue is physei or rather the product of human hybris. This Aristotelian conception of nomos does not seem to differ in principle from the older one of Heraclitus or Sophocles. In Heraclitus we find the sentence (B 114) that all human laws (anthropeoi nomoi) are nourished by one that is divine (theios nomos), which governs as far as it will and is sufficient for all and more than enough. And Sophocles’ Antigone speaks of the unwritten and irremovable commands (nomima) of the gods, of which nobody has seen how they arise; and she does not want to become guilty before the gods by conforming to ordinances that have sprung from the self-willed thought (phronema) of a man (Ant. 450-70). In Aristotle the place of the theios nomos has been taken by the physei dikaion, so nomos is subject no longer to the divine but to nature. Whether or what has changed through this mutation of the criterion can be ascertained only through a close examination of the concept of nature.

The second reason for lack of clarity is the changing meanings of the term physis. Now, after the first reason has been removed, we can go through the text with a view to the different meanings of physis.

Political justice is either physikon or nomikon. While physikon everywhere has the same validity (dynamis) and is independent of what men are thinking, nomikon concerns things that could be ordered one way or another, since from the point of view of essence they obviously are indifferent. After these definitions, Aristotle interrupts his train of thoughts and introduces a widespread opinion: Many people think that all law is nomikon; for while that which by nature is the same always and everywhere—as, for example, fire burns both here and in Persia—the law seems indeed to be subject to changes. Against this view, he argues that the sentence, that law is changeable, does not seem to apply to gods, while among men, even though there is something that is right by nature, it is indeed changeable. He adds that it is easy to recognize which dikaia are according to nature and which are not.

The difficulties of this text resolve themselves if one understands that the word physis has the three meanings of physical, divine, and human, without Aristotle indicating which of the three meanings he uses in each case. Furthermore, the hasty language of this passage does not distinguish carefully enough between the arbitrary making of laws characterizing the nomika and the not arbitrary but rather strictly limited legislation concerning the physica. Thus misunderstandings easily arise, when Aristotle talks of the physikon dikaion now as that which is valid everywhere (meaning in its divine essence), now as that which is changeable (meaning its realization of men in a concrete situation). When he now even begins to talk of ta me physika all’ anthropina dikaia (“what is just not by nature but by human enactment”), one can indeed not make up one’s mind whether by physika he means nature in the physical sense or the divine essence. The only thing that is certain is that the anthropina are not nomika as opposed to physika but rather the physika in the third sense of the human realization of what is by nature.

The physei dikaion, we may say by way of summary, is what is right by nature in its tension between divine immutable essence and human existentially conditioned mutability.

At the passage in which the physika is opposed to the anthropina (NE 1135a3), there begins a sentence which has got little attention because of the confusing context, even though it is of fundamental importance for Aristotalian ethics and politics. Aristotle has made a comparison (NE 1 134b35 ss). The nomika are based on convenience and utility, as, e.g., one creates various standard measures for wholesale and retail commerce. Similar to the measures that are adapted to the market situation are also the dikaia, which are not physika but anthropina, for even the constitutions (politeia) are not everywhere the same, even though only one politeia is according to nature (kata physin), namely, the best one. In this passage, as we already mentioned, the anthropina must be understood as the natural in its human realization and, thus, are not equated with nomika but only compared with them, the tertium comparationis being the adaptation to the situation.

This passage is important, first of all, because it winds up the text about politikon dikaion by referring the reader, for his information, to the best constitution, the model of which Aristotle has worked out in Politics VII-VIII. Quite unlike the later ideas about natural law as the quintessence of eternal, immutable rules, the right by nature here is identical with the paradigm of the ariste politeia. The investigation about the physei dikaion, therefore, must not be understood as an autonomous set of teachings that could be further developed into a “doctrine of natural law”, rather, it leads directly to the core problem of political science, the question of the right order of society. In as much as this passage points in this direction, it is therefore, secondly, important for the overall structure of Aristotle’s episteme politike: While the construction of the model only tries to get hold of the right by nature in its immutable aspect, the description of the different constitutions in the Politics survey the entire width of variations in the human attempts to realize the model. Both investigations together, in their relation toward each other, only make up the whole of political science.

The tensions between the immutable right of nature and the changing modes of its realization occur within the polis, the problems of which we have recognized as the dominant motive of the conceptualization. Since the polis is the community best by nature, justice as a whole has a fourfold determination as natural. First, it is right by nature insofar as the historical type of community of the polis is best by nature; second, it is natural insofar as it concerns the human essence, as contrasted with the adiaphora; third, within the tension it is the preeminently natural that is valid everywhere, akin to Heraclitus’ theios nomos; fourth, it is the mutable natural, the anthropinon, in the concrete constitutions of the polis, in this sense akin to Heraclitus’ anthropeioi nomoi.

This much for the commentary on the text about the physei dikaion.

II. Phronesis

What is right by nature is not given as an object about which one could state correct propositions once and for all. Rather, it has its being in man’s concrete experience of a justice which is everywhere the same and yet, in its realization, changeable and everywhere different. There is, thus, an existential tension that cannot be resolved theoretically but only in the practice of the man who experiences it. Mediation between its poles is not an easy task. We know Solon’s complaint on the occasion of his reform: “It is very hard to recognize the invisible measures of right judgment; and yet this measure alone contains the right limits [peirata] of all things” (Solon 4, 17). It is very easy to lose this invisible, divine measure, and then its place will be taken by a legislator’s arbitrariness pursuing his special interest. In order to deal somewhat adequately with this task, man needs an existential power, a special quality, if his action is to mediate between the poles of the tension. This power Aristotle calls phronesis.

The problems of phronesis as the power of mediation run parallel to those of the tension between right and effective order in the polis. In dealing with what is right by nature, Aristotle permitted the politikon to dominate his conceptualization; similarly, when dealing not only with phronesis but with virtue in general, he puts his conceptualization under the idea of adjustment of the existential tension. This overall notion has not received much attention, as far as I know, and yet it is this that gives weight to any undertaking of ethics, not only Aristotle’s. For purposes of characterizing its philosophical locus, it is advisable to speak on an ontology of ethics.

Aristotle’s ontological interest manifests itself when he attributes to concrete action a higher degree of truth than to general principles of ethics. In (NE 1107a28 ss), he follows up a definition of virtue as the mean between extremes with an observation about the value of general concepts in ethics. We must not dwell on the generalities, says Aristotle, but we must look at the hekasta, the concrete facts or cases. In the science of human action, the general principles may have a wider application (or: are more widely accepted; the koinoteroi is not unambiguous), but the specifics are alethinoteroi, i.e., have more truth, for in action we are dealing with concrete things (hekasta) and must adjust to them. While other sciences endeavor to attain general principles with the widest possible area of application, in ethics the generalities are relatively uninteresting (possibly because they are already universally known). It is only on a lower level of abstraction, in the doctrine of particular virtues and in casuistics, that we get to the important things, and to these lower levels Aristotle attributes the greater amount of truth.

Now it does not go without saying that the lower levels deserve the attribute of more truth. Even if concrete action is more important, why should general principles and definitions be “less true” than decisions in particular cases? In this identification of truth with the concrete, there emerges the almost forgotten knowledge of the philosopher, that ethics is not a matter of moral principles, nor a retreat from the complexities of the world, nor a contraction of existence into eschatological expectation or readiness, but a matter of the truth of existence in the reality of action in concrete situations. What matters is not correct principles about what is right by nature in an immutable generality, nor the acute consciousness of the tension between the immutable truth and its mutable application (possibly even with tragic overtones), but the changeability, the kineton itself, and the methods to lift it to the reality of truth. The truth of existence is attained where it becomes concrete, i.e., in action.

The kineton of action is the locus where man attains his truth. That does not mean that ethics on the higher levels of abstraction would be superfluous for the truth of action, for correct action in concrete situations requires the deliberation of pro and contra in the tension of what is immutably right, and the premise for rational deliberation is ethical knowledge. Precisely in this question, however, Aristotle is willing, on the basis of his experiences, to allow for other possibilities, inasmuch as he recognizes right action, which attains truth without the mediation of ethical knowledge. In the Eudemian Ethics, he speaks of tyche, the luck of right action. There would be no end of deliberation, he thinks, if reasons after reasons were to be considered and the deliberating reason (nous) did not have an absolute origin and beginning (arche) of its reasoning—the beginning of God. The reasoning about concrete action is part of a movement in being, which issues from God and ends in human action. Just as God moves (kinei) everything in the universe, the divine also moves all things in us (EE 1248a27). To be sure, the divine in us moves usually through knowledge (episteme), mind (nous), and virtue (arete), but it also can do without these instruments and move us without them, directly through enthousiasmos. Side by side with the capacity for correct action of the wise men there is, therefore, the capacity of the unwise (alogoi) to hit on a correct decision by divination (mantike). Such accuracy of true action without the instrumentary (organon) of knowledge and experience shows its possessor to be a fortune-favored one, a eutyches.

These reflections about the fortune-favored man reveal the connection between ethics and ontology, an ontology that still has a decidedly cosmological character. From the unmoved mover, as the first cause, the movement of being goes on through the cosmos down to the last thing that is moved, in the realm of humanity to human action. If what is right by nature is characterized as kineton, the translation of this term as “changeable” is correct but must be supplemented by the meaning of “being moved cosmically by the cause of all movement.” The cosmological overtones should also keep us from understanding the content of particular cases as historical singularities in the modern sense. The constitution of the polis, which Aristotle uses as examples of the changeable right by nature, do indeed belong to the area that today we call history, but to the Hellenic thinker they appeared as belonging to an ahistorical realm of being. Let us not forget Aristotle’s comparison with the market situation, to which one or another measure might be adequate. More about this question cannot be said at this time,  we are touching on a theoretical problem of the limits of history, which has hardly even been raised today.

Whatever these limits may be, for Aristotle the historical and ahistorical changeables merge into the one movement issuing from the Divine. The movement may take a shortcut from the divine arche in man to his action, or it can use the instrumentalities of reason, knowledge, and habits of virtue. The normal case is not that of the fortune-favored unwise, but rather that of the wise man. The wise man, however, deliberates on the basis of his knowledge; and this knowledge may be ordered and expressed in the lasting form of propositions of various degrees of generality, which are called ethics. Insofar as this constant knowledge is the instrument used by the divine to attain truth in the reality of action, ethics itself is a phase in the movement of being that ends in the kineton, and its creation is a labor of serving the unmoved mover. The philosophical achievement of ethics has its dignity as a part of the divine movement that leads to the truth of action.

The ground for an ontology of ethics is the insight that ethical knowledge and deliberation are parts of the movement of being. Between the mover and the moved, however, there is man who either is, or is not, permeable for the movement of being. By no means all men are either wise or fortunate; rather most of them allow their action to be determined by their lusts (hedone) (NE 113a35). The next step, therefore, is the conception of the man in whom knowledge and deliberation occur.

The degree of permeability for the movement of being determines the rank of human beings, the highest of whom is the spoudaios. The spoudaios is the mature man who desires what is in truth desirable, and who judges everything right. All men desire what is good, but their judgment of what is good in truth is obscured by lust. If we tried to find out what is truly good by taking a poll in any given collectivity of men, we would get as many answers as the characters of those we have asked (1113a32), for each character considers that good what he desires. Hence, we must ask the spoudaios, who differs from other men in that he sees “truth in concrete things” (hekastois), for he is, as it were, their measure (kanon kai metron) (111 3a34)—a principle of the method to which our “empirical” social scientists should pay attention.

The passages concerning the spoudaios show very clearly that, for Aristotle, what is right by nature cannot become a set of eternal, immutable propositions, for the truth of a concrete action cannot be determined by its subsumption under a general principle but only by asking the spoudaios. Appeal is made, therefore, not from the action to an immutably correct principle but to the existentially right order of man. The criterion of rightly ordered human existence, however, is the permeability for the movement of being, i.e., the openness of man for the divine; the openness in its turn is not a proposition about something given but an event, and ethics is, therefore, not a body of propositions but an event of being that provides the word for a statement about itself.

The ontology of ethics is completed by the theory of phronesis, that virtue that for Aristotle is the locus at which the movement of being in man becomes reality and simultaneous becomes articulate. Phronesis is the virtue of correct action and, at the same time, the virtue of right speech about action. More about the general characterization cannot be said on the basis of the text. Some Platonic premises, however, are implied but cannot be made explicit because of the dominance of cosmological thinking. Before we turn to details, a word is required about the doctrine of virtue in the Politeia and the relation to it of Aristotle’s doctrine of virtue.

Plato distinguishes the three virtues of sophia, andreia, and sophrosyne, which by their respective dominance in the soul determine three types of characters, while the fourth virtue, dikaiosyne, guards the right relation of subordination and superordination of the others—in other words, the overall order of the soul. By virtue of this role, Plato’s dikaiosyne is first cousin to, although not identical with, Aristotle’s justice “in the general sense.” Outside of the closed system of the four cardinal virtues in the Politeia, there is phronesis as that virtue that is activated in man when he attains the opsis, the vision of the good. Resulting from the opening of the soul, it is a virtue thoroughly forming all of existence, within which formation only the system of the cardinal virtues operates. In order to distinguish it from the virtues with special functions, we call it an existential virtue. Aristotle’s phronesis, too, is an existential virtue, but this character does not become sufficiently clear in the climate of cosmological thinking, for its activation through an experience of transcendence does not come up for discussion. Furthermore, its character is somewhat obscured by classifying phronesis among the intellectual virtues in Aristotle’s bipartition of virtues into ethical and dianoetic virtues. The bipartition itself stems from Aristotle’s difference from Plato, for whom the relation of action to the polis was still relatively beyond question and who, therefore, had no interest in such a bipartition. Aristotle, by contrast, places the bios theoreticos at the highest point of human existence, a form of existence that ambiguously oscillates between the primary experience of the cosmos, transcendental orientation, and immanent purposes. The equation of virtues in their bipartition between ethical and dianoetic virtues, however, does not work, as is demonstrated by the treatise on philia (NE VIII-IX), a treatise about a broadly conceived and many-layered phenomenon, the core of which is the love to the divine nous. The Platonic legacy of the experience of transcendence asserts itself and compels Aristotle to recognize the virtue he calls philia, which as noetic love comprises the love to God as well as the love to what is divine in us and in one’s fellow man. This part of the encompassing investigation must be seen as the specifically philosophical version of the imago Dei problem. Further, one notes the reemergence in the philia treatise of Plato’s direct relation between the experience of transcendence and the order of community. For the noetic philia, as love of the divine nous, which lives in all men and is common to them (here is an echo of Heraclitus’ nous as the xynon), becomes the philia politike, the central virtue of the political community. Aristotle even makes the attempt to derive types of community, and particularly types of constitution, from types of philia (the relevant chapters, VIII, 9-11, are a little “Politics”, the relation of which to the great Politics has unfortunately been hardly noted). Thus Aristotle, too, knows existential virtues but does not clearly characterize them as such or differentiate them from the other virtues. Of the three that can with certainty be recognized as existential virtues, he deals with “justice in the general sense” among the ethical virtues in NE V, with phronesis among the dianoetical virtues in NE VI, and with philia, without further characterization, in VT VIII-IX.

Let us now examine the main points of Aristotle’s investigation of phronesis. They are the following:

(1) Phronesis is a virtue of deliberation about that which is good and useful for man. Not every deliberation of ends and means, however, comes under phronesis, but only the deliberation concerning the good life (eu zen) (1140a26 ss). Through the limitation to the “eu zen as a whole,” the possessor of the virtue is identified with the spoudaios, the mature man; as the possessor of phronesis, however, he is called phronimos.

(2) Deliberation with a view to possible action can neither concern things that are not capable of being changed nor goals that cannot be realized (1140a32 s). Phronesis is not knowledge about the unchangeable order of the world; it concerns only human affairs (anthropina) and, among them, only those which can be objects of meaningful deliberation (1141 b3 ss). The “changeability” in these passages must not be confused with the kineton. What is right by nature is changeable in the sense that in each case its realization is different. In the passages concerning phronesis, however, Aristotle does not speak of a kineton but rather of the possibility of action, i.e., of something capable of being different from what it is, so action can, or can not, have a changing effect.

(3) Phronesis thus must be distinguished from the dianoetic virtues of science (episteme), which enables us to draw conclusions from principles; the intellect (nous), which enables us to recognize first principles; and wisdom (sophia), which in a combination of science and intellect refers to things divine (VI, 6-7). Finally, phronesis must be distinguished from art (techne),which does refer to things that can be changed but which produces artifacts and is not action that carries its end in itself (VI, 4)’

(4) Phronesis possesses the same character (hexis) as political science. The two are identical as virtues, even though in general language there is differentiation between action in private affairs (phronesis in a narrow sense) and political questions (VI, 8). The identification is important for the understanding of the following point, in which phronesis is to be understood as always including political science.

(5) Phronesis is not identical with wisdom (sophia), for wisdom is a knowledge about the most eminent things (timiotata). It would be absurd to assert that political science, or phronesis, is the highest type of knowledge, for man is not the best thing (ariston) in the cosmos (kosmos). Phronesis, rather, is knowledge about what is salutory and good for each kind of living being respectively, and salutory and good for men is other than what it is for different kind of animals. There is no more one kind of phronesis for different living things than there is one medical art. Nor could one claim the term sophia for human phronesis, possibly by pointing to man’s higher rank than the animals, for there are things that by nature are much more divine than man, e.g., the Highest Visibles (phanerotata), of which the cosmos is composed (VI, 7).

Combining the positive and negative determinations of these points, one may say: Aristotle’s thinking is dominated by the experience of the cosmos, in which there are different kinds of things, among them also men. Man is not the highest being in a world become immanent, in which he might be thought to rank above all cosmic things and subject only to the transcendent God; rather, he is a “thing” above which there are higher things in the cosmos, namely, the star divinities (phanerotata). Phronesis thus becomes a knowledge with the help of which man realizes his eu zen, the specifically human mode of permeability for the order of the cosmos. Insofar as man optimally realizes the permeability in his existence, he is a phronimos; he is a spoudaios only insofar as he in that respect holds the highest rank in his kind of thing. A higher rank of being, among the zoa, is held by the star gods of whom we know through the virtue of wisdom, and for that reason phronesis is not the highest (spoudaiotate) kind of knowledge. Furthermore, it is not knowledge at all, in the strict sense of a knowledge of principles and derived propositions, but only episteme in the sense of a kind of knowledge. These limitations, stemming from the pressure of the cosmos – experience, give rise within the Nicomachean Ethics, with its Platonic legacy, to certain difficulties. Phronesis, identical with political science, is supposed for that reason to be the episteme kyriotate and arckitectonike, the highest and master science of man, which alone assigns all other sciences their due places in the polis (1094a27 ss). This science, scarcely elevated to highest rank, is immediately afterwards characterized as a science of inferior precision (akribia), in which we cannot achieve more than a rough sketch of truth (1094b 12 ss). There is thus a conflict, the denigrating aspect of which is determined by Aristotle’s insistence on preserving, at all costs, phronesis as a knowledge that has its truth not in general principles but in concrete action. His investigation therefore returns to this question again and again. In NE 1141 b 14 ss phronesis is knowledge not only of general principles but of concrete things, of hekasta, and for this reason it is possible that men who are ignorant of general principles are sometimes more effective in practice (praktikoteroi) than others who do have such knowledge. Still more pointedly Aristotle insists, 1142a24 s, that phronesis regards the last concrete thing, for the praktikon, the truly effective thing, is the eschaton, the last one. (To be noted here is the meaning of praktikon: it is not a matter of the ethical but rather of the effective aspects of action, right down to effective magic.)

Aristotle’s insistence on this point elicits the final question whether phronesis can be adequately characterized at all as knowledge of right action, for this mode of expression puts between knowledge and action the subject-object of which Aristotle precisely wanted to eliminate. For him, this knowledge merges into concrete action, and action is the truth of the knowledge; what separates the two is not the distance of subject and object but a noetic tension in the movement of being. That this is indeed the philosophical intention of Aristotle is confirmed by his distinction of phronesis from synesis and eusynesia, the virtue of right understanding and judgments (NE VI, 10). Synesis has the same scope as phronesis but is not identical with it, for phronesis issues into command (epitaktike) about what is to be done and what not, while synesis is the virtue of right judgment and understanding (kritike). The synetos, the man of good judgment, knows how to assess action correctly, but he does not thereby become a phronimos, who acts correctly with effectiveness. Since synesis indeed puts the subject-object distance between knowledge and action and precisely in this is distinct from phronesis, this distance must be understood ontologically. The virtue that Aristotle calls phronesis, or political science, is an existential virtue; it is the movement of being, in which the divine order of the cosmos attains its truth in the human realm.

Sex in Literature by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

I am told that one of the causes which led to the abandonment of our older penal code was the fact that as juries grew more humane they simply refused to convict. The evidence showed beyond doubt that the famished girl in the dock had stolen a handkerchief. But they didn’t want her to be hanged for that, so they returned a verdict of Not Guilty.

That people were no longer hanged for trivial offences was obviously a change for the better. But patently false verdicts were not the best way of bringing that change about. It is a bad thing that the results of trials should depend on the personal moral philosophy of a particular jury rather than on what has been proved in court. For one thing, that procedure, though it may lead to mercy in one case, may have the opposite effect in another.

The moral seems to me to be clear. When the prevalent morality of a nation comes to differ unduly from that presupposed in its laws, the laws must sooner or later change and conform to it. And the sooner they do so the better. For till they do we inevitably have humbug, perjury, and confusion.

This applies equally whether prevalent morality is departing from that embodied in the laws for the better or for the worse. The law must rise to our standards when we improve and sink to them when we decay. It is a lesser evil that the laws should sink than that all judicial procedure should become a travesty.

If we ceased to disapprove of murder, we should, no doubt, be fools and villains. But it would be better to admit the fact and alter the law accordingly than to go on acquitting of murder those who had certainly committed it.

But this, I believe, is the actual situation as regards “obscene” or “corrupting” literature. The older law—for compromise has now begun—embodied a morality for which masturbation, perversion, fornication and adultery were great evils. It therefore, not illogically, discountenanced the publication of books which seemed likely to encourage these modes of behaviour.

The morality of the modern intelligentsia—who supply “expert witnesses”—is different. If it were fully and frankly stated it would, I believe, run as follows: “We are not sure that these things are evils at all, and we are quite sure that they are not the sort of evils the law ought to be concerned with.”

My own view—just to get it out of the way—is that they are evils, but that the law should be concerned with none of them except adultery. Adultery is an affair for law because it offends the Hobbesian principle “that men perform their covenants”. The fact that this particular breach of covenant involves the sexual act is (in the logical sense) an accident.

But I am not here arguing my own view. What I want is a straight fight between the new morality and that of the law. Do not be alarmed, my fellow authors; your side will almost certainly win.

In the meantime the situation is most unsatisfactory. Behind much discussion, and even behind the recent modification of the law, there hover two propositions that I think far less admissible than the new morality:

  1. That if a book is real “literature” it cannot corrupt. But there is no evidence for this, and some against it. No one can predict what may inflame adolescents, any more than what may frighten children; I have heard of the most improbable results as regards both. This is a stock argument against forbidding certain books. But it is equally an argument against this particular plea for tolerating them.
  2. That if a book is a great “work of art” it doesn’t matter whether it corrupts or not, because art matters more than behaviour. In other words, art matters more than life; comment on life, or the mirroring of life, more than life itself. This sounds very like nonsense.

Whatever happens we don’t want anything like the Lady Chatterley case again.1 Now that the (strangely savage) yells of triumph are dying down, it may be suggested that this was not an affair to feel very proud of. I don’t mean because of the verdict. I think it mattered very little either to our literature or to our morals how it was decided. It is the conduct of the case that disquiets me.

What was really at issue? The jury were told from the bench that “we are not sitting here as judges of taste” (p. 27 in Mr Rolph’s account). They were told later by counsel that they were “not concerned with a question of personal good taste” (p. 35). Yet in fact nearly all the witnesses were examined at great length on the literary merits of the book. How would you define taste so as to make literary merits not a question of taste?

Again, these witnesses are summoned as “experts”. The implication is that there are “experts” in literature in the same sense in which there are experts in engineering or medicine.

Now I am not at all suggesting that literature is a realm in which anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. Most undoubtedly the judgements of ripe critics should be heard with great respect. The point is that they are judgements, not statements about matters of fact. They are all reversible.

Anyone familiar with literary history knows that an almost unanimous critical opinion may prove transient. Think where Scott and Byron were once placed. I should’s like some assurance that the distinction between literary “experts” and expert witnesses ordinarily so called was clear in the minds of the jury.

The Bishop of Woolwich appears to have been cited as an expert in the general nature of good and evil.2 It maybe, for all I know, that his wisdom and sanctity qualify him for this prophetic role. But the qualification mentioned in court was that he had read ethics.

So have I and a good many others. I don’t think that discipline qualifies us to say what is or is not “sacred” more than other men. A witness put forward to tell the jury, as an expert, what is right or wrong strikes at the roots of trial by jury. Its presupposition is that twelve good men and true know that already.

The lesser of the evils now before us is to abandon all moral censorship. We have either sunk beneath or risen above it. If we do, there will be reams of filth. But we need not read it. Nor, probably, will the fashion last for ever. Four-letter words may soon be as dated as antimacassars.

  1. The publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Penguin Books in 1960 was the subject of the case Regina v. Penguin Book Limited at the Old Bailey during 20 October–2 November 1960. The case resulted in the acquittal of Penguin Books. A transcript of what was said at the trial was published under the tide The Trial of Lady Chatterley, ed. C. H. Rolph (Penguin Books, 1961).
  2. The Bishop of Woolwich was the Rt Rev. J. A. T. Robinson. Bishop Robinson said of the adulterous “sex relationship” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “I think Lawrence tried to portray this relation as in a real sense something sacred, as in a real sense an act of holy communion”, The Trial of Lady Chatterley, p. 71.
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