The Reality of Justice

In writing these blogs, I have tried to alternate those blogs which I regard as abstract and difficult to understand with blogs that are easier for folks to grasp. The difficult blogs are normally blogs on scholars or issues that are complicated and abstract, but which are important for people to try to grasp in order to understand the way forward out of the incipient nihilism of our political culture. This week, I am going to visit and, in some sense, revisit the issue of the reality of universals, specifically Justice.

To some degree, we all believe in the reality of justice. As parents, Kathy and I have raised four children. In each case, there has come a day when each child has said to us, “That is not fair.” It could be about one child getting an extra helping of food at dinner or about a gift given to one child that was larger or more expensive than what was given to another.  It could be about a family decision made by the parents. In each case, the child did not think “I don’t like what my parents have done.” They were saying, “What my parents said or did is not just.” That is to say it was not equitable and fair to the child or children impacted. We are all just like this.

When we say something like a governmental decision is not fair or just, we are not just stating our opinion, we are making a claim about the nature of reality (or at least we think we are). How are we to understand what it means to claim that something is unjust? That is the subject of this blog.

Realism and Nominalism

Let us begin with the notion of universals. There are some words that we apply not to individual material things but to categories of things or to things which are not material. For example, there is no material reality called, “Goodness” or “Truth” or “Beauty.”  There are a lot of such universal ideas, one of which is the notion of Justice. In the history of philosophy there are two basic ways of treating universals: as mere names we give to experiences (nominalism) or as realities that exist independently of our perception of them (realism). There are various schools of thought as to each of these notions, but in the end either universals are real or they are just names.

If we take universals to be mere names, then their reference has to be dealt with reductively in some way. For example, “beautiful” does not mean “You are beautiful and no one can argue with that fact.” It means something like, “I consider you beautiful.”  In the case of morals, “Chastity is a moral good” becomes something like, “I prefer chastity” but it does not refer to a real moral good applicable to all people. In the case of justice, it becomes something like “I approve of this decision because it benefits me or my group.” There is not, however, any ground “in the being of the universe” for opinions about Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Justice.

Justice and Political Life

These blogs are about political life. If you recall, the ancients believed that the purpose of government was the creation of a just social order. You might remember Augustine’s statement that without justice a government was simply a band of robbers. Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and most of the tradition of which Christianity is a part thought that justice was something real, that is something that exists independently of what I or anyone else thinks is just. They also felt that government was not simply a matter of getting and using power according to the personal preferences of the ruler or a particular political party. They felt that justice was real and that rulers could be fairly examined from the universal perspective of justice.

Plato, whose thought forms the basis for this blog, thought of Justice as a real thing. He was not, however, unaware that it was not “real” in the sense of being something material or a material force acting upon material things. Instead, for Plato Justice was a form of an invisible reality that existed independently of whatever you or I or anyone else thought was just. Justice was a “form” or a noetic (ideational) reality. This is exactly what Augustine or Aquinas would have thought, with the difference that they would have seen justice as one of those invisible realities that God has created.

What does it mean to be Real?

Plato, in one of his most famous and important passages says the following:

I suggest that everything which possesses any power of any kind, either to produce a change in anything of any nature or to be affected even in the least degree by the slightest cause, though it be only on one occasion, has real existence. For I set up as a definition which defines being, that it is nothing else but power. [1]

In order to understand exactly what Plato is saying, one needs to understand the Greek word translated “power” in English. The word Dunamis” in Greek does mean “power,” but it also means “force,” “strength,” “ability,” or capacity. “Power” can refer to material power, moral power, intellectual, or spiritual power, as it does when referring to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

We think of power as a material force. This is not at all what Plato or those who followed him would have thought. When Plato says that anything that has power has real being, he is including moral, spiritual, intellectual as well as material, physical power. He is also including ability and capacity as powers which confer reality. Thus, a concept, such as “justice,” that has the ability to shape human activity has a real noetic, intellectual reality. Its content includes but is not limited to the idea of material force as power.

The second thing to notice about this definition is that it does not restrict itself to active power to produce change in another. Things which have the capacity to be changed are also real. Thus, justice is real both because it can change behavior but also because it has the ability to be changed by the thoughts and behavior of human beings. This is another way of saying that justice is a matter of relations. [2] It is a relational concept. Its meaning can and does emerge in the context of human life and human decision-making.

This is where I would like to go back to a point made in prior blogs when discussing the work of the philosophers C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce. Beginning with Peirce, philosophers began to understand how signs and therefore human thought works in a deeper and more important way. Every claim about reality involves a sign, a signified thing, and an interpreter. If I say, “There is my daughter’s dog” I am using the word “dog” to signify a reality different than the word itself, which is my daughter’s dog. In addition, I am interpreting my complex perception that the object before me is a golden doodle owned by my daughter. Therefore, every communication has a sign, a thing signified and an interpreter.

When I say, “Murder is unjust” I am interpreting with the word “unjust” a complex set of circumstances before me an am claiming that the situation I am describing is not compatible with justice. In the same way, any claim that something is just involves a set of circumstances outside the interpreter, the words that embody the interpretation, and the interpretation of the interpreter. In addition, there is always and must always be a chance that others will look at the same situation and say, “No, this was not murder; it was justifiable homicide.”

More importantly, claims like “This was murder” occur in a particular society with a particular legal system which evolves over time. Over may years of decisions, interpreters have sensed that there are different kinds and degrees of murder. There are some murders that are justified and others that are not. There are defenses to claims of murder. In other words, our justice system is a long, multi-generational conversation about what constitutes justice. Every time a new circumstance arises, every new pattern of facts enriches and grows our notion of justice. This is not true only for our example of murder but for all the myriad kinds of situations in which the phrases “This is just” or “This is unjust” might apply.

The Eternal Conversation

Where a society has ceased to believe in the reality of Justice and in the eternal search to uncover its content and meaning, there are bound to be attempts to impose by power and deceit the conclusions of a particular group or elite. It is only when we recognize that the search for “a just society” involves a conversation concerning emerging situations to which no final answer can be found, but only gradually unfolded during the course of human history, that the wisdom and patience that sustains freedom can be maintained. We see every evidence in our society that the loss of faith in the reality of universals is impacting the honesty and stability of our political and social institutions.

Conclusion for the Week

The status of universals is important. C. S. Peirce thought that the lack of belief in the reality of universals was one of the defining weaknesses of modern thought that undermined, among other things, the search for scientific truth. Science depends upon the critical analysis of a reality that it seeks to understand that exists outside of the mind and emotions of the scientist. In the same way, the search for God, for Truth, for Beauty, for Goodness, and for justice requires that we believe that in some way we are looking for a reality that exists beyond ourselves and the manipulative potential of the human mind. [3]

I am going to be returning to the issue of the reality of universal values before this series is over because I, with Peirce and others, believe that it is of fundamental importance for the modern world and modern societies to recover a belief in their reality. To quote Michael Polanyi:

Those who declare that these ideals have no real substance and that only the interests and power of particular groups are real, inevitably attach their aspirations for equity and brotherhood to the struggle of a particular party for power. Their ultimate reliance and all their love and devotion are attached to this residue of reality, the power of the chosen party. … But if the citizens are dedicated to certain transcendent obligations and particularly to such general ideals as truth, justice, charity, and those are embodied in the tradition of the community to which allegiance is maintained, a great many issues between citizens, and all to some extent, can be left—and are necessarily left—for the individual conscience to decide. The moment, however, a community seeks to be dedicated through its members to transcendent ideals, it can continue to exist undisrupted only be submission to a single centre of unlimited secular power. [4]

As mentioned above, I will return to this theme in the course of these blogs, for it is an important theme for the development and restoration of our democracy. For the time being it is enough to understand that there are real world consequences to our societal loss of faith in the reality of unseen values. As I said in another context: “If there is no such thing as truth and justice, if we are not constrained in our political behavior by a transcendent obligation to seek truth and justice in our political lives with tolerance for other views, then the state can and must dictate these matters. A society which has lost its belief in transcendent ideals has turned onto a road leading to tyranny. If, however, a society believes in the reality of transcendent moral and ethical ideals such as truth, justice, tolerance, and charity, and serves these ideals, the foundation of a free society can be maintained even in the face of conflict and uncertainty.” [5]

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, The Sophist 247e.

[2] This particular notion was suggested to me by, among other persons, Daniel A. Dombrowske, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005).

[3] Charles S. Peirce, The Essential Writings Edward C. Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972). For Peirce, the real is that which exists independently of our ideas of it, that is independently of our perceptions, theories, or capacities. Id, at 57. These are noetic realities that exist not in material form but in the human mind. Such general ideas are not infinitely manipulatable but subject to the rules of logic and thought appropriate to the subject matter. Id, at 60.

[4] Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 78-79.

[5] G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 160.The term “reality” is used here as referring to intellectual and moral ideals which act as a goal and as an active component of decision-making. These intellectual and moral ideals, such as “Truth” and Justice,” exist independently of our subjective choice and are progressively revealed as we participate in the disciplined attempt to uncover them as part of a community of inquiry and practice.

The Mayflower Compact: Happy Thanksgiving!

This week, I decided to do a short Thanksgiving blog on what is known as, “The Mayflower Compact.” Most Americans know something about the journey to America by the Pilgrims and their ship, Mayflower. [1] The Pilgrims initially set sail from England in July 1620 together with its sister ship, Speedwell. Eventually, because of issues with the Speedwell’s seaworthiness, it was left behind, and the Mayflower traveled alone on its long journey across the North Atlantic. The journey was long and difficult. Many people suffered from sea sickness and the close quarters below the Mayflower deck.

After over two months at sea, the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. The trip had exposed differences and divisions among the various seafarers. There were differences between the Pilgrims who had left England in search of religious liberty and those who had left only seeking a better life. There were those in the group who desired to enter into the New World without any firm governmental authority.

Originally, the Mayflower was to land in Virginia, an area governed under a Crown Charter given to the Virginia Company. That area was clearly a colony of Great Britain and had a defined form of government. Unfortunately, the Mayflower landed north of the land controlled by the Virginia Company near what is today, Plymouth Massachusetts.  Within this legally uncertain situation, friction arose between the Pilgrims and the rest of the travelers, with some of the latter threatening to leave the group and settle on their own.

There were those who felt that they were free of any agreement or laws that had been imposed upon them in order to travel to Virginia. In order to create some kind of order and avoid chaos, the leaders of the group drafted the Mayflower Compact, which was signed by the travelers before going ashore.

The Mayflower Compact is only 200 words long, and reads as follows:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

 Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.

There are aspects of the Mayflower Compact that are interesting to any person with an understanding of what is known as “Puritan Covenant Theology” and anyone familiar with John Locke and the Contract theory of Government.

  1. Although the Separatists were not technically Puritans, they had much in common. While the group the Pilgrims represented (“Separatists”) separated entirely from the Church of England, the Puritans felt that they could remain within and reform the English church. Nevertheless, they had certain beliefs in common, one of which was a theological understanding of the term “Covenant” in the Old Testament. The idea of the Bible as characterized by Covenants, agreements and promises between God and human beings, was the central idea of Puritan theology. This Puritan “Covenant” theology was held by many New England colonial leaders.
  2. Covenant theology naturally found application in the notion of a “social contract,” which it did. The Pilgrims, Puritans, and others found a connection between the kinds of covenants that God creates with the human race in the Bible and the social covenants that human beings enter into with a lawful governing authority. It was natural, therefore, for the Pilgrims to enter into a social contract to guide their initial entrance into the New World.
  3. When the Pilgrims landed, they were not within the boundaries of any established colonies, therefore, they were not within the boundary of an existing or what might be called “naturally evolved” state. Therefore, they had to determine whether to go ashore without any form of political organization or to create one, “for our better ordering and preservation.” They understood, as more romantic contemporary people sometimes do not that a “state of nature” where no authority exists is likely to be a form of social chaos. They chose order over chaos.
  4. In creating their social contract, the Pilgrims acknowledged their existing religious and political alignments. They had undertaken the journey for the glory of God and as subjects of the British monarch, whom they acknowledged in the compact. The Mayflower Compact was an evolutionary document, not a revolutionary document. They signers recognized their dependence on the stream of history of which they were a part. They were about do something new, but there was continuity as well as change in the establishment of their new colonial settlement.
  5. There is no “iron wall of separation” between church and state in the Mayflower Compact. Religious and political ideas and necessities combine to form one harmonious whole. There is no indication that the Pilgrims intended to form a theocracy. They speak of “such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony” These just and equal laws, ordinances, constitutions, and officers are not described in theocratic terms, but in those terms that acknowledge a sphere of activity in which human reason is left to operate under the guidance of practical wisdom.

As I wish all my readers a Happy Thanksgiving with hopes that my articles might encourage wise and honorable government and some degree of change in the volatile political environment we enjoy today, it is enough to encourage a sense of common destiny among all Americans. We may not be voyaging over the North Atlantic Ocean in a wooden boat, but we are clearly on a voyage into a new era in American political life. We can hope that the end of our journey will be what Lincoln called, “a birth of freedom” in a postmodern age.

Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom 
beat across the wilderness
America! America! God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs

[1] The Pilgrims were what are called “Separatists.” The Separatists were a group of English protestants Christians who separated themselves from the worship of the church of England and instead held services in their homes and in other places outside of the official churches of the Church of England. This was not legal under the laws of England at the time. (In this way, England under James I was not unlike Iran and China and other nations today that do not allow house churches not recognized by the state. This seems unusual to Americans, but it is not so unusual in those areas where the state has always regulated religious observances.

A Gentle Soul: Erasmus of Rotterdam

Desiderius Erasmus (1468-1536) was a leading figure of the European Renaissance and contemporary of Martin Luther. Erasmus was born in the city of Rotterdam, orphaned at an early age, and educated by the Brothers of the Common Life. He became an Augustinian monk in 1486. Eventually, Erasmus moved to Paris, where he met William Blount, who introduced him to his friend, Sir Thomas More (who we will look at after Thanksgiving), a. leader of the English Renaissance. Erasmus was instrumental in creating a new, standard Greek New Testament. [1] Though he admired Luther, he refused to join the Protestant Reformation. During the Reformation, Erasmus engaged in a controversy with Martin Luther concerning free will and predestination, which had negative consequences for their friendship.

At this point, I want to relate a personal experience. In the late 1980’s, our church in Houston went through a divisive vote concerning leaving a mainline denomination. Many people spent a long time reading various study papers on the situation. I began my own thinking by reading Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Erasmus’ reply. I could never overcome the notion that, as impressive as Luther was in argument, Erasmus might have the better view. In the end (after a lot of study of the issues), Kathy and I formed a group that simply tried to keep our local congregation intact. Years later, we ended up leading a congregation that departed the same mainline denomination, but we did not leave with the kind of anger that characterized many departures. I credit God’s grace for this (not Erasmus), but the figure of Erasmus is one I have long admired and his example one that our society might embrace. His example has been a source of guidance more than once—and may be again.

This blog is not as detailed as some previous blogs. I decided that I would experiment with a different format. This post is largely a dialogue between Erasmus and a figure I have called, “Socrates” in honor of the dialogues of Plato in which Socrates plays such an important role.

Erasmus as a Renaissance Humanist

Socrates: My dear Erasmus: It is good to see you, for I have long desired to know more about your teaching. I understand that, like me, many people do not consider you as a technical philosopher, and systematic theologian, but as a brilliant a dilatant with an agreeable personality. In my case, many people thought me a busybody for the trouble I caused! They even put me to death! Yet, I was and am a searcher for truth, not necessarily a possessor of it.

Erasmus: I am so glad to meet you, Founder of Philosophy: My critics are correct. I was not a systematic philosophical thinker. Instead, I was what is sometimes called a “Man of Letters.” I wrote no technical philosophical treatise in either philosophy or theology. I was a Biblical Scholar, monk, moral writer, and wise counselor throughout my active life. Because of my pleasing personality and wit, I made friends easily and was an advisor to many influential people, most particularly Sir. Thomas More, who I understand will be reviewed in a following blog. In other words, like you I was a simple searcher for truth, not necessarily its possessor. Like you and your pupil, Plato, I also felt that living a set of beliefs was just as important as having them.

The Philosopher King

Socrates: I am glad to have learned a bit more about you—and I hope to understand a bit more as our conversation continues. In 1516, you published a work known as “The Education of a Christian Prince,” dedicating the treatise to Charles, King of Spain, who succeeded his grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor, as Emperor Charles V. [2] I love the book because in it you evoke my most famous student, Plato, and the idea that no government is fortunate unless and until philosophers are kings or their kings embrace philosophy. [3] Tell me more about it!

Erasmus: I certainly will. However, to begin with by “philosophy,” I did not mean the technical disciplines of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and the like, that modern people call “philosophy.”  Instead, I meant that a good king should be a lover of wisdom with the practical ability to govern wisely after the model of Christ. The figure of Marcus Aurelius is more what I had in mind than Thomas Aquinas or even my great student Plato.

Socrates: So, my friend, what did you believe was necessary in a good governmental leader?

Erasmus: Like Luther, I was Augustinian in my education. It is not surprising, therefore, that I believed that the state cannot be governed without justice and that a true commonwealth must somehow reflect the will of the people in order to be rightly and justly administered, whether by one monarch, by a few, or by the many. I was also aware, from City of God and other readings, that earthly kingdoms do not approach the perfections of Christ. [4]Nevertheless, I believed that rulers could and should emulate Christ. [5]

Socrates: I suppose you know that this idea that a prince in this world should emulate The Prince of Heaven has caused many to ignore and criticize your writing. How could any earthly ruler, for example, “turn the other cheek” to the invasion of his or her nation? This, and other advice of the New Testament, seems foolish indeed to those with a practical or skeptical frame of mind.

Erasmus: I have heard and pondered this critique. I think I can give two responses in my defense:

  1. First of all, I did not say, nor do I believe, that a Christian Prince inside of human history can perfectly perform all the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament and the Gospels are designed to show human beings that they cannot achieve justice on their own and need a savior. This includes those who have political authority.
  2. Second, to say that something is impossible to achieve is not to say that it should not be attempted. In fact, the greatest virtues of the human soul cannot be fully achieved in this life, but these values, like Justice, continue to drive us towards a better perfection. Princes may not be able to perfectly follow Christ, but they can endeavor to do so.

Socrates: Say more about this.

Erasmus: I was a Christian, and I believed then and now that even a Christian prince should seek to emulate Christ in all things. In this you may also see my background at work and my early education among the Brothers of the Common Life. [6] They were devoted to Christ and to following Christ in all things.

The basic teaching of the New Testament concerning leadership is found in the synoptic gospels in this form:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).

I knew this passage well, for I was a student of the Greek and a translator of the New Testament. Our Lord made it clear that the standards of this world would not be the standards of his kingdom, as this passage indicates. Nevertheless, Christians (even leaders) are called to undertake to conform our lives so much as we can to the teachings of the Lord. To give you another example, although perfect peace may not be possible in this world, Christian Princes should be peacemakers.

Consensus and Peace

Socrates: Indeed, one aspect of your thought that many people fail to understand is your devotion to consensus and your opposition to war, if indeed you were opposed to war. This is another area in which those of a more practical mind cannot understand your thinking.

Erasmus: In my writings, I suggest that rulers should set out to rule by discussion and consensus and seek arbitration when disputes could not otherwise be settled. As I ponder the democracies of the modern world, I think that they would do well to set out to limit conflict as much as possible and to dialogue instead of engaging in constant political debate and combat. I hope to see David Bohm in Eternity, who also believed this, and learn more about his ideas. [7]

Socrates: It is easy to see that the world would be a better place if conflict could be avoided and rulers would seek consensus. Nevertheless, I was a soldier in the wars of Athens, and so have many other people been over the years. War, it seems, will always be with us. As my pupil Plato says, “Only the dead will never know war again.” [8] I find it hard to understand your thought in this area. Can enlighten me”

Erasmus:  As you have said, my thought about war was dominated by a vision of universal peace. My pacifism is well-documented in my writings and I even wrote a treatise on the subject. Perhaps it will be easier for you to understand my thinking about war and peace if you remember my life as an Augustinian monk. St. Augustine taught that the goal of all government is peace. The goal of all conflict is peace. Even earthly rulers seek peace even as they engage in war. The Christ is referred to as “The Prince of Peace.” Therefore, it seemed to me that Christian Princes and followers of Christ should seek a kind of universal peace, even though we understand that war is inevitable.

Socrates: Why, therefore, did you not simply endorse a kind of Just War theory, as did Augustine and Aquinas?

Erasmus: My critics often mention my stated belief that some wars are justified. Where there is danger to the state or to freedom of Christian faith, my views were that war was justified. For example, in my day, the Muslim nations were seeking to invade Europe, and I justified those wars to prevent a military conquest of our homeland by a foreign religion. I am not sure how this would be applied to circumstances beyond my times.

I would say that I am something like a “Just War Pacifist.” War is and evil to be avoided if at all possible, and Christian leaders should be willing to take risks to avoid war. However, if the survival of the state and its central institutions is at risk, then war may be justified if all reasonable alternatives to war are exhausted. I know that this position will not satisfy my pacifist critics, but it is the best way to understand my thought, I think.

In my thinking about war, there is a subtle, but important, difference between my thought and that of St. Thomas and Augustine. In my mind, the great division between the kingdoms of this world and the Ruler of Heaven, which Augustine and Luther maintained, was a mistake. You might say that it was my belief that, in the persons of Christians and the Christian Prince, some small part of the heavenly kingdom was to be brought upon the earth.


Socrates: This might be a good place to stop, for our discussion has gone on longer than I imagined. However, I wonder if you might answer one more question: You agreed with much of the critique of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther, yet you were never willing to leave it. Can give us some reason why?

Erasmus: As you know, I was a critic of the church of my day, just as I would be a critic of the church of any period of human history. Some might think my unwillingness to leave the mother church was because I was an orphan and the church was my home, and so it was. More importantly, I was wise enough to see that all human institutions are imperfect. This alone, however, does not mean that good men and women should not work to improve them rather than destroy them. In my mind, my calling was to renew and restore not to tear down and rebuild. This is the best defense I can make of my thinking. Others have felt and acted differently, and I respect them all. In the place where we now dwell, Martin Luther and I have renewed our friendship, for the battles of your world are now long behind us.

Socrates: Thank you for this time we have had together today. Eternity is a big place, but I hope we will see each other again.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] On March 1, 1516, Desiderius Erasmus published the Greek New Testament’s first ever “critical edition”—a version that drew from all available Greek manuscripts to compile a text with wording as close as possible to that of the original inspired authors. That work, which went through four revisions, was the first published Greek text available to the public. It is credited with changing Bible translation, preaching and even the course of church history. David Rouch How Erasmus’ Greek New Testament Changed History” Western Recorder (March 22, 2016, downloaded November 17, 2020).

[2] Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince ed. Lisa Jardine, tr. Lisa Jardine (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997).

[3] “Desiderius Erasmus” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (downloaded November 9, 2020. This section is based upon this article.  See, Plato. Republic. From Book VII.” Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics through the Classical Sources. 5th ed. Eds. Robert C. Solomon, Clancy W. Martin, and Wayne Vaught. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2009 for further information about the notion of the Philosopher King.

[4] St. Augustine, City of God tr. Gerald G. Walsh, S.J. et all, abridged ed. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958)

[5] Avinish, Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince (August 21, 2016) found at (Downloaded November 9, 2020).

[6] The Brethren of the Common Life was a Roman Catholic pietist religious community founded in the Netherlands in the 14th century by Gerard Groote, a secular educator who had had a religious experience and preached a life of simple devotion to Jesus Christ. Without taking up irrevocable vows, the Brethren banded together in communities, giving up their worldly goods to live chaste and strictly regulated lives in common houses, devoting every waking hour to attending divine service, reading and preaching of sermons, laboring productively, and taking meals in common that were accompanied by the reading aloud of Scripture. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia November 12, 2020).

[7] The thought of David Bohm will be the subject of a later blog. I am much indebted to David Bohm and especially to the digest of his thought published as On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).

[8] This quote appears in movies like “Patton” and “Black Hawk Down”. Douglas MacArthur attributed the quote to Plato in his famous “Long Grey Line” speech at West Point. It was used by George Santayana and is found in the British War Museum, all attributed to Plato. However, scholars have difficulty actually finding then quote in Plato.

Aquinas on Practical Wisdom and Government

Each week, I try to let readers know just a bit about the person I’m reviewing. Last week, I introduced St. Thomas Aquinas to readers. Thomas was born in 1225 at Roccasecca, midway between Rome and Naples. [1] At the age of five, he was entered at the monastery at Montecassino where his studies began. When the monastery became a battle site (as it was in the Second World War), Thomas was sent by his family to the University of Naples. There that he came into contact with Christian interpretations of Aristotle and the Order of Preachers or Dominicans. Aquinas became a Dominican over the protests of his family and eventually went into Northern Europe to study, in t Paris and at Cologne with Albert the Great. Returned to Paris, he completed his studies, became a Master and for three years occupied one of the Dominican chairs in the Faculty of Theology. He spent the next decade in Italy.

Physically, Aquinas was a large man quiet and soft-spoken man, earning him the nickname “the Dumb Ox” by his classmates. The “dumb” part was clearly foolish, as he is one of the most brilliant philosophers and theologians of human history.  In 1274, on his way to the Council of Lyon, he fell ill and died on March 7 in the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova, near Roccasecca where he was born. Before Thomas died, he had a vision, which caused him to remark, “I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.”

Natural Law

Last week, we focused our attention on Aquinas’ notion of “natural law.” The idea of “natural law” is difficult for modern people to grasp. The reason for this is the difference in the way people see reality in the contemporary West and the way in which Thomas would have seen the world. Modern people think of two kinds of laws, mathematical laws, which are deductively certain and scientific laws, which are verified by scientific inquiry. Mathematical laws are certain because they are a matter of mathematical logic. Scientific laws are certain in a different way, they are certain as verified by experiment until disconfirming evidence is discovered, as it sometimes is. To the modern mind, the word “natural” implies “physical and susceptible to scientific analysis. Neither modern idea of certainty involves the kind of reason applicable in natural law theory. Natural law theory is a matter of practical reason.

Practical Wisdom and Government

In order to understand the notion of natural law, it helps to understand a distinction Aquinas makes between theoretical and practical reason. Theoretical reason proceeds from given hypotheses and reaches necessary conclusions. An example of this would be mathematical systems. Practical reason, on the other hand reasons from general principles, but deals with contingent things, like the probable result of some human action (ST I-II, Q 94).

As human reason considers precepts of natural law, it develops the habit of possessing them, so that natural law becomes a matter of character (ST I-II, Q 94, First Article). Thus, natural law is primarily a matter of rule of reason resulting in a habit of action developed by the exercise of practical reason (ST I-II, Q 94, Second Article).

This means that the truth that obtains from practical reason is of a different type altogether from the truth deduced in the process of theoretical or scientific reason. According to Aquinas, in the case of practical reason, its general principles are true for all people, but the conclusions are not. Thus, the certainty of natural law is never the same kind of certainty one has for mathematical or scientific law. The question for practical reason is, “Does this rule of action lead to the attainment of the objective that reason dictates in this situation?”

To make this a bit clearer, let us take a principle like, “It can be dangerous to borrow money.” It is a well-known fact of human existence that people who borrow too much can get into a lot of trouble. In every case, human experience shows that one who borrows money must abide by certain limitations on his or her actions set by the lender. These may be reasonable and achievable or otherwise depending upon he circumstances. It is also true that economic circumstances may change and an inability pay and even bankruptcy may result. On the other hand, in many circumstances, including to build a business or buy a home, it may be necessary to borrow money. The principle is true for all people, but the conclusions differ from person to person.

Government as a Matter of Practical Reason

Government is a practical, not a theoretical enterprise, which is why it should be conducted by persons of significant practical wisdom and experience.  The evolution, design, and conduct of government and law is not, for Aquinas, a theoretical matter. It is practical and requires skill gained by the practical exercise of wisdom. Those that govern must have sufficient practical wisdom that they can apply principles of practical reason to differing circumstances and achieve a just result for the society that they are governing.

The necessity for practical wisdom and experience flows from Aquinas’ observation that truth as to matters of practical reason is only true for human beings as to general principles (like “borrowing money is dangerous”) not as regards particular conclusions (“Our government needs to borrow money to offset the impact of Covid19”). This means that the conclusions of practical reason (unlike mathematics) will always be provisional and subject to change (ST I-II, Q 94, Fourth Article). This is very important for all governments, but perhaps especially important to understand for democratic republics like the United States of America. Without leadership with proven practical wisdom, important and damaging mistakes are bound to be made.

As to practical reason Aquinas concludes “… the truth or rectitude regarding particular conclusions of practical reason is neither the same for all persons or known in equal measure even by those for which it is the same” (ST I-II, Q 94, Fourth Article). The more complex the issue, and the more factors which practical reason must include in its pondering, the more exceptions and differences of opinion that will emerge to any inquirer (ST I-II, Q 94, Fourth Article).

In the case of a wise and well led polity, rules seek the good for the people and avoid laws and policies that are unwise or unjust. They seek the good of the entire society of which they have been made leaders. The laws of the society are not directed towards the good of a single individual (as in tyranny), or a few (as in an oligarchy), or the majority (as in a decadent democracy), but towards ideals of the public good and social peace and good order. That is to say, in a well led polity, the leaders direct their government according to wise precepts of natural law.

The Problem of Unjust Rule

As mentioned above, kings may become tyrants, democratic societies mobs, an elite and oligarchy. If a those in charge of a society make unjust laws, that is laws consistently contrary to nature, they have led their society outside of the boundaries of law and of order towards a common good. For Aquinas, whatever the form of government, the making of unnatural or unjust laws creates a form of tyranny. Tyranny is an unjust form of government, and its laws are not really laws at all (ST I-II, Q 95).

At this point, Aquinas takes a position that would have been nearly unknown and even revolutionary in the Middle Ages, and which anticipates modern developments: In the case of an unjust, tyrannical government, the subjects of such tyranny can, under some circumstances revolt and change their government. Aquinas was not inclined to justify rebellion just because a people felt one or a few proclamations of a lawful authority to be wrong.

As a general matter, however, the subjects of a lawful power owe to their government a duty of loyalty and obedience (ST I-II, Q 104). Thus, “…the order of justice requires that subjects obey their superiors, since stability in human affairs could not be otherwise maintained….”) (ST I-II, Q 104, 183). However, while human beings are morally obligated to obey God in all things, the same is not true of human rulers (ST I-II, Q 104). “Human beings are obligated to obey secular rulers insofar as the order of justice requires. And so, if secular rulers have usurped power, and therefore have no just authority, or if secular rules command unjust things, subjects are not obligated to obey them, except perhaps incidentally in order to avoid scandal or danger.” (ST I-II, Q 104, 183). Thus, an unjust, tyrannical government may be replaced.

The Role of Morality and Virtue in Government

For Aquinas, it is possible to divide the virtues into three main categories: intellectual, moral, and theological. One can easily see that the focus of character development for leaders is upon the second category, which virtues can only be developed by the exercise of practical wisdom. A wise government is oriented towards the achievement of justice and social harmony and has the wisdom and ability to achieve it.

The very use of works like “just” imply that for a government to avoid evil and destructive actions, those that govern must have a set of habits (virtues) that enable them to decide and act wisely. It is not likely that a leader can act justly in the common good without the virtue of Justice. As a result, Aquinas deals with this virtue in his Summa Theologica.

Because of the importance of virtue in leaders, a wise society encourages the development of moral virtue in those who will lead. In this regard, Thomas recovers against the modern world the notion that rulers must be morally prepared by education and the experience of life for the positions that they will have in adulthood. In point of fact, the wisdom to rule wisely is the most complete form of practical wisdom and its wise exercise the pinnacle of the life of practical reason (ST I-II, Q 50 First Article, 201).

Just War

One obvious principle of natural law with which most people agree is that violence and killing are wrong. Thus, war as a human activity is morally and practically suspect as an activity. As, Plato observed, “Every legislator will aim at the greatest good, and the greatest good is not victory in war, whether civil or external, but mutual peace and good-will, as in the body health is preferable to “the purgation of disease. He who makes war his object instead of peace, or who pursues war except for the sake of peace, is not a true statesman” [2]

Despite the universal hatred of war by right thinking humans, it is also a fact of human history and human life. Therefore, one obvious requirement for a wise ruler of practical wisdom is understanding the circumstances that might permit a war to be fought with justice.  War, if it is to be conducted at all, must be conducted with great practical wisdom and a degree of moral restraint. Otherwise, it is injustice on a vast scale.

Aquinas developed the theory of “just war” and gave it its classic form (ST I-II, Q 4, 165). For a war to be just, three conditions must be met:

  1. The ruler must have the authority to declare war. There can be no private just war.
  2. There must be a just cause for hostilities, that is to say that there must be some wrong that committed or threatened great enough to justify war. The wrong must be real and not just a pretext for going to war on other grounds.
  3. Finally, there must be a rightful intention on the part of the one commencing hostilities to promote good or avoid evil. A war designed for gain, such as to control oil fields, would not be just.

This classic statement of the basic conditions for a just war has been much developed but still influences thinkers and actors in the area of war.


As mentioned last week, Aquinas is a most difficult writer for a modern reader who is not trained in philosophy to read. His work is vast and complex. It would take a good deal more time than I have devoted to his work to more than “scratch the surface” of his thought. This week, we have expanded on his thinking about natural law, bringing into the conversation both the nature of the kind of practical reason that a wise governor needs and the characteristic virtues that a leader requires. Finally, we looked briefly at the way in which Aquinas articulates just war theory.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] This is taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Downloaded November 9, 2020).

[2] Plato, Laws Tr. Jowett (Downloaded November 12, 2012).


The Greatest Doctor of the Church Speaks: Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1235-1274) was born into a minor Italian noble family. He entered the Dominican Order early in life. Aquinas attended the University of Naples, where he first encountered the writings of Aristotle, which had been preserved by the Muslims and recently rediscovered in the West. In 1245, Aquinas traveled to the University of Paris where he studied under Albert the Great, who attempted to reconcile Aristotle’s view of the world with that of Christianity. Following Albert, Aquinas spent a good bit of his life working on his master work, The Summa Theologica, in which he created a powerful unification of Aristotle and Christian thought. Eventually, Aquinas became a Dominican teacher at the University of Paris and in Italy. He continued to study the works of Aristotle and the Muslim commentaries on them. Aquinas wrote his own commentaries on Aristotle, including one on Aristotle’s Politics.

Root of Human Government

Like Aristotle and ancient writers generally, Aquinas believed that human beings are by nature social animals and created to live in society with one another as a matter of their innate nature. Human beings also by nature seek both their own good and a common good, both of which require social interaction and some kind of public order. Thus, Aquinas believes that “there can be no good of one’s own apart from the common good, whether the common good of a household or a city or a kingdom.” [1]

Aquinas, like Aristotle, believes human society has an organic or natural origin in human nature in the family and in small villages and communities, not a contractual origin. Human families, communities, kingdoms and empires represent the gradual development of human society and polity over the course of time. Thus, contractual agreements between persons and governments are not a primary but a secondary, emergent phenomenon as regards government.

Given the diversity of human societies, it is not surprising that there are varieties of ways in which human sociality organizes itself. Aquinas, as a student of Aristotle, adopts the same typology has Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in developing his theory of human government. Aquinas holds that are three basic types of human government, rule by the many, rule by the few, and rule by a single individual. Each of these three typologies have manifestations that reflect human goodness and potential and human sin and failure. Democracy can become mob rule, rule by the wise can become rule by the wealthy or the powerful. Rule by one wise ruler can become a government of tyranny. Although there is some dispute over which form Aquinas prefers, it seems that he, like many ancients, felt that the rule of one with a degree of mixture of the forms is the best and most stable form of government. Thus, Aquinas supports kingship, but with an element of checks and balances.

Nature of Law

The basic institution of society is the rule of law. Without law, it is impossible to organize a peaceful society. Without law, violence would be the only arbiter of disputes. Aquinas outlines four basic categories of law:

  1. Eternal lawis God’s divine order, not fully knowable to humans (ST I-II, Q 92, Third Article). This eternal law determines creation, the way things such as animals and planets behave, and how people should The Word of God expresses the Eternal Word (ST I-II, Q 93, First Article). “And so, eternal law is simply the plan of divine wisdom that directs the actions and movement of created things” (ST I-II, Q 93, First Article).
  2. Divine law is that divine law promulgated by the Bible, which orders the way in which individuals seek and find a relationship with God and orders their search for ultimate ends (ST I-II, Q 91, Fourth Article). The Divine Law also gives guidance to human beings as to moral matters which human limitations find difficult to observe (ST I-II, Q 91, Fourth Article).
  3. Natural law is that law that is implanted in human nature and guides human beings in their day to day activities as they exercise their reason and conscience (ST I-II, Q 94, First Article). This law is related to practical reason, which I will deal with later in this essay.
  4. Human lawis very much like what we would call “positive law.”  It is a law promulgated by a lawful authority and varies with time, place, and circumstance. Aquinas defined this last type of law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good” made and enforced by a ruler or government (ST I-II, Q 95, First Article).

The modern world tends to ignore the first three categories and focus only on the final category of law—positive law. What Aquinas calls “eternal law” survives in secular culture only in the form of what we would term “physical law,” and even that category of law has come under attack by post-modern absolute relativists. [2] Divine law no longer has relevance in most secular discourse. For example, the fact that the Bible condemns certain sexual or other actions is not deemed to be relevant for most political discourse. The relevance of natural law is often questioned in the modern world and will be dealt with in an entire section below.

This leaves human or positive law as the only category of law remaining to impact government in its activities, except insofar as physical law might make some laws simply impossible. In addition, “human law” has come increasingly to mean “the preferences of the majority or those powerful enough to impose their will on society.” Once again, in this turn we see the power focus of modernity at work.

Aristotle would not have thought that human or positive law as simply what the majority desired to enact at any particular point in history. Again, a law promulgated by a majority that did not seek the common good, but only the good of a bare majority for the benefit only of the majority would not be a desirable law, for the law was enacted by the action of a mob not of a majority of people seeking the common good. This idea that what legislators do or should do is seek the common good is a good bridge to the idea of natural law.

Natural Law

Natural law as a moral and natural foundation for law is not widely supported by legal theorists or political philosophers. However, there is no element of Aquinas’s system more important than his theory of natural law, which is an important foundation of natural law thinking even today. Understanding Aquinas is foundational to understanding any other proposal for natural law thinking. Therefore, this week’s blog focuses on this aspect of Aquinas’ thought.

As previously indicated, the mere sociability of human beings causes human beings to create governments (ST I-II, Question 95). Human nature inclines human beings to certain kinds of actions and disinclines them from other actions, and the things to which human beings are inclined constitute the natural law (ST I-II, Q 94). Just as human beings seek their own personal good, the sociability of human beings leads human societies to seek some kind of common good, and that common good allows human society to be naturally ordered towards what is best for society as a whole (ST I-II, Q 94). This natural law is a matter of human reason, for human reason properly used seeks a common good that will properly order society towards a common good.

Natural law is not a matter of specific legislation found either in nature or divine revelation. It is a set of general principles that order a society, i.e. general ideas that most human beings would agree upon as natural to organize their society (ST I-II, Q 94, 50). Aquinas realized that not all human beings could or would agree upon these principles, for among other matters, people can simply close their hearts and minds to the natural law, which I would argue our own society has done. By habit, twisted persons do not seek the common good but only their own good or the good only of their particular group. These people have lost the ability to discern the natural law, which requires one be able to seek a common good for everyone. Finally, human beings are finite and can make mistakes and misunderstand what is best for the common good. Thus, what any given human thinks at any given time is not determinative of whether natural law exists or what its precise content might include.

Basic Principle of Natural Law

Aquinas fundamentally sees the natural law as habits of human reason that reflect the rational nature of human beings to seek virtue and goodness (ST I-II, Q 94, First Article). C. S. Lewis describes the ultimate moral and spiritual content of the natural law as follows:

It is Nature, the Way, and the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the way in which things everlasting emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every human being should tread in imitation of that cosmic and super-cosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.” [3]

What Lewis describes in mystical terms as the “Tao” is very much like what in Christian terms we might call “the ultimate content of Natural Law”.

According to Aquinas, the basic principle of natural law is “…that we should do and seek good and shun evil. All the other precepts of that natural law are based on that precept….” (ST I-II, Q 94, Second Article). Thus, Aquinas believes that the basic idea of the natural law is that human beings should seek the common good as well as their own good and avoid those things that impair individual and common good. The kinds of things that can be incorporated into the idea of natural law are (i) actions resulting from the human natural inclination to do good, (ii) natural inclinations leading to actions that humans share with animals, and (iii) inclinations to the good that are part of our reasonable nature (ST I-II, Q 94, Second Article).

Before looking at objections to natural law theory, it is important to ponder its strengths. Most human beings do not think that cold blooded murder, stealing, violence, deceit, failure to pay debts, and a variety of other actions are conducive to their own or the common good. Looking at the categories of governmental types listed earlier, most people do not think that tyranny, rule of the few for their private benefit, or mob rule are conducive to their private or the public good. In some sense it is “natural” for human beings to reject such things as a part of their social order.

In Western societies, we tend to look at the areas of disagreement about natural law and forget that there are a great many matters about which almost everyone does agree. This indicates that there are some things that most people think are right and wrong—a strong indication that there are certain notions of the public good that are universal (or nearly so) among human beings.

Modern thinkers have not been inclined to see the idea of natural law mentioned above to be self-evident. For example, many thinkers, including some Christian thinkers, do not think that there is a “natural good” that humans seek by nature. Our natural inclinations, for example sexual relations between men and women are no longer viewed as “natural” by many people. Finally, while our reason does incline human beings to ordered society, as indicated above, there are vast differences in what people think that rational order might be.

There are no easy answers to these objections. One place to begin is the notion that the fact that a particular aspect of law fails to command universal consent does not mean that it is not something that might well violate natural law. For example, I have many friends that do not think that the activities of some investment banking firms in the mortgage backed bond crisis acted in an improper manner, even when they sold their clients securities that they knew were highly dangerous and unlikely to be paid in full. Under the impact of a kind of radical free market ideal, they see nothing wrong with this kind of behavior. On the other hand, no society can really hold together when investors cannot trust their own financial intermediaries. It is my view that there is something wrong with the views of my friends, something they cannot see because of an ideological prejudice.

For Christians, the notion that all persons are blinded by sin to see the perfect content of truth and some people are blinded by persistent sin explains both the difficulty all people find in perceiving what might be the natural common good for their society and their own personal good as human beings. Finally, the fact that we human beings are finite and often err in what we believe and do, sometimes for long periods of time warns that error can and often does persist for long periods of time until human experience reveals the best content of law.


This is not the end of my time examining Thomas Aquinas. Next week, we are going to look at the role practical reason in this thought and some specific issues, such as his just war theory. This week, we have just covered the surface of his work on politics, the nature of political communities, the nature of law, and the potential of natural law theory to provide a way for human societies to seek the common good.

I want to leave readers with one aspect of Aquinas that we have lost in our society—the idea that human beings are naturally rational and sociable, and therefore are able to discern a good for themselves and a common good for their society. The notion of the common good as something we must seek to the exclusion of power is important to recover in our society.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality and Politics Translated by Richard J. Regan, Edited by William P. Baumgarth and Richard J. Regan, Second Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002), 198. The quote is from the Summa Theologica (hereafter “ST”), ST: Q 47 Tenth Article.

[2] I may return to the potential relevance of this notion of eternal law in a future blog. One interesting proposal in modern physics is the idea of David Bohm that the order we see in the universe (the explicate order) is the “unfolded form” of an “implicate order” that is beyond human perception until and unless it is unfolded” into physical reality. Similarly, one might consider that the eternal order of God, physical, moral, and spiritual, including natural law, is enfolded and implicate in the undivided wholeness of the universe and the transcendent being of God until unfolded by the progress of human society and disciplined philosophical, moral and legal inquiry in response to human contact with an emerging social and intellectual reality. See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1980).

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, Collier Books, a division of Macmillan, 1955): 28.

A Reformer Speaks: Martin Luther on Politics

Since we are getting close to Halloween, I decided to go a bit out of sequence and follow the blogs on City of God with one about Luther and his “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, which is a development of Augustine’s position.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born in what is today the eastern part of Germany, then a province of the Holy Roman Empire. His father desired him to become a lawyer. As a result of an experience during a thunderstorm, Luther vowed to become a monk, which he did. In 1505, Luther entered an Augustinian Monastery and became a monk. Eventually, he became a professor of theology. As an Augustinian, the work of St. Augustine was important to his formation as a thinker. During his formative years, be became increasingly critical of the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church of 16thCentury Europe.

The Reformation

His intellectual and moral critique of Rome culminated on October 31, 1517 when he posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg church door. These theses set out a critique of the Roman Catholic Church. The church immediately opposed Luther’s ideas, and by October 1518, the Protestant Reformation began in earnest. [1]

It is impossible to fully understand either the Reformation or Luther’s political theology without reference to the conditions in Germany at the time. While Luther was critical of the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, the princes and secular leaders of Germany were unhappy with the power of the Roman Catholic Church and the policies of the Holy Roman Empire under which they labored. They tired of the cost of supporting the Roman Church and especially the cost of building St. Peter’s at the Vatican. Many of the German princes backed Luther partly from political motives.

The Two Kingdoms in Luther’s Day

During the Middle Ages, the church and the state formed a kind of unified sovereignty in Europe. Many activities, such as marriage, divorce, family law issues, etc. that we would call secular issues, were not treated as such. The church had earthly governing powers. At the same time, particularly in Germany, tensions had arisen between the princes of Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Roman Catholic Church. One source of tension had to do with the alliance between the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, which the princes of Germany felt was not to their benefit.

Luther’s formulation of the Two Kingdoms Doctrine attempted to carve out two spheres of responsibility, what we would call the “secular” and the “sacred,” and give each its own area of sovereignty and the kind of integrity it needed to accomplish its responsibilities. [2] In so doing, Luther was anxious to allow the church to find the intellectual and moral space to overcome the corruptions he saw in the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. Fundamentally, Luther wanted to separate the activities of the church and princes so that the church might be and become the Bride of Christ it was intended to be without the corruptions of its role in the medieval state. Luther never foresaw nor would he have supported in his own day the modern notion of a “secular state.” The princes of Germany, as he saw it, were simply another set of stewards of God in earthly matters as he was a steward of God in matters of the faith.

If Luther wanted freedom for the church, the German princes had in mind a greater degree of freedom from both Rome and the seat of the empire. They wanted freedom from taxes, indulgences, and other burdens they felt were unjust. In modern terms, their interests were secular. Luther’s formulation of the Two Kingdoms doctrine was not intended to create the modern secular nation state, but in large measure he created a vocabulary and way of thinking that allowed the modern distinction between the secular and the sacred to later on develop. [3]

The Powers of Secular Rulers

It should not surprise anyone that an Augustinian monk would be influenced in his political thinking by  St. Augustine and his distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. Luther adapted the distinction Augustine drew and used it to analyze how God exercises sovereignty through both the church and its leaders and through the state and its leaders. Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, one sacred and the other secular. Luther believed that, under the overall sovereignty of God, each of the church and the state has its own sphere of sovereignty and its own duties within its sphere of responsibility and competence.

In 1523, Luther set out his political views in a tract known as “On Secular Authority.” [4] God rules the City of God through the gospel, the activity of his Spirit in history, and the church. God rules the world through his chosen earthly leaders. God has given earthly rulers the power of the sword to maintain social order and justice. According to Luther’s own thought, the citizens of the kingdom of God would need no secular authority because if the world were composed of all devout Christians, no secular authority would be needed. [5] However, because of human sin and the fact that the world cannot be ruled by grace, the power of secular government is necessary and those who rule must rule with force. [6]

The best way to think about the Two Kingdoms doctrine is to begin with the notion that God is the Lord of All. Christ was sent to save the world through the Gospel, and the church is God’s chosen vehicle for the task of redeeming humankind. This is the first kingdom, what Jesus called, “The Kingdom of God.” In addition to the task of inviting people into the Kingdom of God, their remains the task of ordering concrete human life in an imperfect world. The family, communities, and earthly kingdoms exist to order human life on this earth. God has ordained earthly government in order to maintain peace and basic justice in the world, just as God ordained spiritual government by the word and Spirit to gather men and women into Christ’s kingdom.

I think a pause for analysis at this point might be required. In my view, as indicated in the previous blogs on City of God, the hard distinction between the two cities in both Augustine and Luther, with the resulting separation of law and grace, is the fount of many problems. Had the Fall never occurred, there would still have been the need for secular laws and regulations. Society would still have to determine safe speeds for travel, how safely to design and manage cities, and a host of other problems requiring secular power. This is a part of what is entailed in “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28). The idea that human beings might have lived in a society without political organization is flawed.

Furthermore, in today’s world, the fundamental principle that underlies the doctrine: that the Christian God is Lord of All and rules the world in two orders is impossible to maintain. The fact is that large numbers of people in Europe and the United States do not recognize any god, and if they do it is not the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the assumption that “God is LORD of all” in the sense that Luther would have understood it  is no longer operative in Western culture. The  secularization of our society and culture requires a reconsideration of what the distinction between the City/ Kingdom of God and City/Kingdom of Man makes for contemporary politics.

Finally, as indicated above, there are many aspects of earthly life that impact human life that cannot be determined solely on the basis of Christian faith. To complicate matters, in our culture there are many people who consider it wrong for the church to even consider that it is responsible for the spiritual or public life of people, even in majority Christian nations.

These factors are why I prefer to think of their being One Earthly City to which all people belong and a group of persons within that Earthly City who follow the Way of Christ and serve their neighbors in self-giving love. These people are not the only members of the Earthly City, but have been set apart by God in a special way to serve the their families, communities, and state  with wisdom and Christ-like love.

The Two Kingdoms and Public Disorder

As the Reformation gained force, rebellion and violence began to spread throughout Germany. The leaders of the revolts were revolutionary and utopian, as well as, in some cases, pretty clearly mentally unhinged. [7] The result was social chaos. Luther was disturbed by this, both because it cast into doubt his own work (some of the worst offenders had been disciples of his) and because of the chaos that ensued. He wrote to the princes of the area encouraging them to act. In his Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit, he said:

Although I expect that Your Princely Graces will know better than I can advise you how to deal with this, it is nevertheless my duty to apply my submissive energies to make a contribution, and I ask Your Princely Graces most humbly to take a serious view of this, and from your responsibility and duty to exercise reasonable force to defend yourselves against such mischief and prevent rebellion. For Your Princely Graces know well that your power and worldly sovereignty are given to you by God with the command that they should be used to keep the peace and punish the unruly, as St Paul taught in Romans 13. So Your Princely Graces should neither slumber nor miss this opportunity. God will demand an answer of you if you neglect to use the sword which has solemnly been entrusted to you. And the people and the world would not forgive it if Your Princely Graces were to tolerate and suffer such rebellious and outrageous violence. [8]

Here we see at work Luther’s vision. The Princes of Germany had been appointed by God to create peace and justice within their domains. It was their duty to act to restore order, and it was Luther’s duty to point out the necessity for action. The two kingdoms were both working in tandem to secure the blessings of peace on the people of Germany. It was not long before the princes did act and violently squelched the rebellion. Before it was over 80,000 people died. Luther himself did not urge the violence, but his name has been associated with it ever since.

The Reformation is, in some ways, responsible for the revolutionary rhetoric and activity that we find present in our society today. Cut off from tradition and faith in historic institutions, a certain number of people respond with revolutionary violence, which eventually must be put down in order to restore public order and peace. Luther (and many like him today) wanted a change in his society, but he also recognized, again drawing on his Augustinian tradition, that governments exist to maintain public peace and justice—and when they fail to do so the entire society suffers.

Bonhoeffer and the Two Kingdom’s Doctrine

During the period before and during the Second World War, the German state church was complicit in the activities of the Nazi regime, eventually being effectively controlled by the Nazi regime. Some thinkers concluded that the radical separation of the roles of earthly and spiritual rulers recommended by Luther was at the root of the problem. [9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and martyr, was one of the first to see that the Nazi regime was evil and must be opposed by the church. One writer puts his views like this:

Bonhoeffer’s primary concern with the two kingdoms doctrine as it was being used in his own time was that it allowed for a kind of radical independence of the world from the church, the former understood as secular and the latter as sacred. As Bonhoeffer writes, “This division of the whole of reality into sacred and profane, or Christian and worldly, sectors create the possibility of existence in only one of these sectors: for instance, a spiritual existence that takes no part in worldly existence, and a worldly existence that can make good its claim to autonomy over against the sacred sector.” Bonhoeffer finds this division to be deeply antithetical to the biblical faith and the central insights of the Reformation: “There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world.” [10]

The quote from Bonhoeffer included above summarizes my concerns with both the approaches of Augustine and Luther: they create an artificial separation of the one reality of the world created by God, and such a dramatic separation between the sacred and the secular that it is difficult to create a theology or practice that recognizes the either the ultimate goodness of creation and human created powers or the capacity of the Word of God to work a gradual sanctification of the structures of human life. In its secular form it deprives the church and its leaders of the capacity to speak to political matters in ways that encourage secular justice and social peace.

Bonhoeffer believed that the Two Kingdom’s doctrine as it was understood by the German church resulted in its inability to stand and speak against Hitler in a unified and effective way. This failure of the German church can be present in the contemporary church, but in a different way: too close an alliance between religious and secular leaders can result in the cooption of the church and its failure to see and confront sin and evil. This capacity is seen on the right and the left of contemporary religious life and among Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious groups. On the other hand, a complete division denies the secular order the views of its religious citizens, including Christians.


As these series of blogs continue, we will return again and again to the complex relationship between churches and religious believers and secular authorities. At this point, it is enough to point out that my evolving belief is something like the following:

  1. It is a mistake to think of religious faith and political action as separate spheres without recognizing that they interpenetrate one another. Just as we live in one relational world physically, we live in one relational world politically. It is not possible to separate one’s religious beliefs and roles (or lack thereof) and secular beliefs and roles. We all should live one integrated and whole life.
  2. Religious people, including Christians, should be free to speak into the secular arena and to participate in the secular arena without artificial or secular imposed limitations.
  3. The Vision of the Heavenly City is both a vision and a transcendental ideal that Christian believers serve and seek. (This does not mean that there is no heaven or after-life, nor does it mean that there is no “Heavenly City.” It just means that, so far as our life on earth is concerned, the vision of a perfect city of peace and justice is an ideal towards which we strive, not a reality in which we can now live.) This vision of a society of peace and justice, where the wisdom and love of God rules, is a deposit of faith given to the church to guide its public activities.
  4. The Heavenly City becomes part of the Earthly City as believers conduct their public life with practical wisdom and self-giving love for the Earthly City to which we belong, including those with little or no faith or a very different faith than ours.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is not the place to outline the long history of unrest with the medieval Roman Catholic Church that preceded the Reformation. For a long time, many people had criticized the lack of Biblical fidelity and corruption of the church. Luther’s 95 Theses were a match lit on already dry straw.

[2] The very terms “Secular” and “Sacred” would never have occurred to Martin Luther. He was a fully medieval person in which the distinction we find to obvious was both unknown and impossible. His concern was to empower the church to reform itself, not to reform the Holy Roman Empire.

[3] This is not the place to engage in this line of thought, which I will develop further in future posts. The secular state is a creation of the Enlightenment and Modern World. Its gradual development was given impetus by the religious wars in Europe after the Reformation, which caused many people to lose faith and to desire some kind of separation between secular and religious leaders. Their goal was to allow for social peace in the face of religious diversity—a problem we face today.

[4] See, Martin Luther, Secular Authority: To What Extent Should It Be Followed, trans. C. M. Jacobs, in Works of Martin Luther, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1930).

[5] Id at 225-273.

[6] Id.

[7] I am basing some of this analysis on Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York, NY: Viking Press, 2017), see Chapter 16: Fanaticism and Violence, pp 311-336.

[8] Martin Luther, Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit (June 1524), (downloaded October 14, 2020)

[9] I will return to this point before these blogs are over. Not all scholars, and especially Lutheran scholars agree with this analysis. They would hold that those who were corrupted by the Nazi regime misread Luther.

[10] Jordan J. Ballor, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Two Kingdoms, And Protestant Social Thought  Today” La Revue Farel Vol. 6/7 (2011-12), 67. The citations are from Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Scott, ed. Clifford J. Green (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 57-58 ( October 21, 2020).




Augustine: A Doctor of the Church Speaks

St. Augustine (Aurelius Augustine or Augustine of Hippo) lived from 354-430 A.D. He was born in North Africa, educated in Rome, studied philosophy, and became a Christian in the year 388 at the age of thirty-one. Three years later, he was made Bishop of Hippo in what is today Algeria in North Africa, where he spent the rest of his life. He is recognized as a thinker foundational to Roman Catholic thought and Doctor of the Church.

In the year 410, when Augustine was 54 years old, Aleric the Visigoth entered Rome, and for three days his barbarian troops sacked the Eternal City. This was an event of profound importance for the Roman Empire and Western Civilization. Many histories date the decline of Rome from this event. Almost immediately, pagan writers complained that the Christian faith was responsible for the terrible event. To writers such as Volsianus, the event signaled that Christianity, with its crucified God and preference for peace, was responsible for the event. Augustine spent almost the remainder of his life writing City of God (circa 426). [1] The book is addressed to his friend, Marcellinus, who first brought the need for a response to the attacks of the pagans to Augustine’s attention.

The Two Cities

Augustine begins his analysis with his most basic and most famous distinction—a distinction between the “City of God” and the “City of Man.” The first is the city of Christ founded by love and entered by faith. The second is the earthly city founded by violence and conquest. The City of God is the Heavenly City made up of those who believe in Christ and worship him alone as its King and Founder. The Earthly City is founded on the lust for domination that has motivated the actions of human empires since the beginning of time. [2] This radical dichotomy between the City of God and the City of Man sits at the basis of the analysis Augustine offers of the Roman Empire and its decline.

Let’s begin with a short look at the notion of the church as the Heavenly City and some of the distinctions that Augustine makes in his analysis of the two cities. In Revelation, John sees a vision of the church coming down from heaven:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).

The heavenly city which John saw descending from heaven is the New Jerusalem made up of those who worship God in “Spirit and in Truth.” [3] It is the Bride of Christ, dressed as a bride make ready for her new husband, which is Christ (v. 2). It is the church. This is where another distinction Augustine makes is important: He distinguishes between the church in heaven that rests from its labors (the church triumphant), and the church on earth that continues to witness to Christ in history (the church militant). At the end of history, these two churches will become one Church Triumphant.

Here is a point that is not clearly dealt with in City of God: The Heavenly City is present in and a part of the Earthly City. The decent of the Heavenly City is the church present and active in human history. Believers in Christ are not some separate tribe or nation, one of many religions and people in the world. It is present and active among all the nations and peoples of the world. Augustine often draws too great a distinction between the two cities. The human race is one people within which those who follow Christ are to be found. If one sees Israel as the church present in the Old Testament this is also clear. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other patriarchs until the founding of the Kingdom of Israel were believers in the LORD God while sojourning and residing as aliens in other nations. The same is true during the captivity and when Israel was part of the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman empires: the people of God were part of two cities, one their city of faith and the other their city of residence.

Augustine, in my view unfortunately, draws and almost irreconcilable distinction and opposition to the character and destiny of his two cities. There were those in Augustine’s day, and there are those in our own day, who did and do not believe that secular life and the life of faith can be reconciled. This is not the case. While the Heavenly City seeks a peace that can only be found by faith, it accepts and even uses the peace of the Earthy City. [4]

The Peace of the Two Cities

The Earthy City seeks an earthly peace that is important for all people on earth, including Christians:

So, too the earthly city which does not live by faith seeks only an earthly peace, and limits to goal of its peace, of its harmony of authority and obedience among its citizens, to the voluntary and collective attainment of objectives necessary to human existence. The heavenly city, meanwhile—or rather that part that is on pilgrimage in mortal life and lives by faith must use this earthly peace until such times as our mortality, which needs such peace has passed away. [5]

The Earthly City seeks a human good when it seeks social harmony and peace through the means at its disposal. Christians, while they are on earth, seek the same kinds of peace in their human life, and so make use of these human goods for heavenly purposes. Human existence is made better and more livable by the attainment of its earthly ends. The Church seeks the good of every earthly city of which it is a part and, in many respects, the same earthly peace non-Christians seek. In other words, within any concrete society, Christians and non-Christians are often seeking the same thing: that social peace that can only be found when there is justice and a fair social order.

Because the City of Man is founded on the discipline of human striving, it is dependent upon the ceaseless vigilance of its members to retain those virtues, martial and otherwise, upon which it depends for its existence. For Augustine, the rise of Rome was an earthly blessing caused by its form of government, warlike society, and discipline. [6]The Fall of Rome, likewise is the inevitable result of the decline of those virtues that made Rome great.

This is no less true today in America than it was in ancient Rome. Christians are not only responsible to maintain Christian virtues, but responsible to be Christians while supporting those virtues that make for social peace within the society in which they are found.

The Tolerance of the Heavenly City

In Augustine’s day, as in our own, there were those who complained about the exclusiveness and the difference Augustine draws between the earthly and heavenly cities. The Heavenly City is not a closed and exclusive society. The Heavenly City is a universal city, and is held together by a common faith, not by common customs, laws, traditions and the like:

So long, then, as the heavenly City is wayfaring on earth, she invites citizens from all nations and all tongues, and unites them into a single pilgrim band. She takes no issue with diversity of customs, laws and traditions whereby human peace is sought and maintained. Instead of nullifying or tearing down, she preserves and appropriates whatever in the diversity of diverse races is aimed at one and the same objective of human peace, provided only that they do not stand in the way of faith and worship of the one supreme and true God. Thus, the heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other human beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship. [7]

There could not be a more eloquent defense of religious tolerance and the willingness of Christians to cooperate with all people of good intentions than this quotation sets out. Christians are drawn together not by racial or cultural ties, but by their common faith. The invitation to become citizens of the Heavenly City is not limited to those of one race, nation, or set of customs. The diversity of human customs, laws and traditions are human goods, part of the Earthly City.  Christian faith makes no judgement about these things so long as they are religiously neutral and not against notions of justice. Furthermore, the Heavenly City not only tolerates but works for the same human goods as does the earthly city, so long as its worship and internal customs are not at stake.

As Western society continues its process of secularization and a sometimes aggressively pagan culture emerges, Christians have much to learn from Augustine’s attitude. As members of a nation and community, we have the same desire for social peace as to non-Christians. We desire the same level of justice as do other groups. We should not only tolerate but actually celebrate the differences of custom and tradition that compose post-modern society. The only “red line” for Christians is the protection of our own freedoms to live according to Christian morality and worship God according to the customs of the Christian faith.


Next week, I will continue with Augustine’s City of God. The focus next week will be on the notion of Justice and how the idea of Peace, which lies at the foundation of Augustine’s political theology supports his notion of the kind of justice that the two cities seek for their citizens. I want to continue to analyze the way in which Augustine’s radical separation of the earthly and heavenly cities can have unhealthy implications for the way in which Christians relate to others in a secular society such as ours.

[1] St. Augustine, City of God tr. Gerald G. Walsh, S.J. et all, abridged ed. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958), hereinafter “Image Edition.” Unless otherwise specified, all quotes come from this edition. When noted, quotes may come from St. Augustine, City of God tr. Henry Bettenson (London, ENG: Penguin Books, 1984), hereinafter “Penguin Edition.”

[2] Image Edition, at 40-41.

[3] In John 4, when Jesus meets the woman at the well, she tells him that the Samaritans worship God on Mount Gerazim and the Jews on the Mount in Jerusalem. In response, Jesus says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-23). This indicates that the “New Jerusalem” will be the human heart and not a physical place.

[4] In his last communication with his disciples, Jesus tells them that he gives them peace, but not a peace that is identical to that peace that the world gives: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” John 14:27).

[5] Id, at 464.


[7] Id, at 465.

Marcus Aurelius: A Wise Emperor Speaks

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) succeeded his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, as Emperor of Rome in 161, reigning until his death in 180. As a young man, he was interested in sports and other activities, but was attracted to Stoic philosophers at an early age. He is the author of one of the most famous books of ancient wisdom, the Meditations.[1] At least a part of his Meditations was written during the last years of Marcus’ life, a period of almost constant military activity. He died in Austria during a military campaign in March 180 at the age of 58. He probably never dreamed that his little book of sayings, written for his own edification, would become a classic of ancient literature. As with Cicero, in Marcus Aurelius we experience the reflections of a person who is active in public life.

The Meditations are difficult to summarize because they consist a series of not always interconnected passages written over a long period of time. I am going to emphasize a few aspects of the thought of Marcus Aurelius important for political philosophy. Before launching into that task, it is important to begin by noting the humility of the writer. Marcus begins his Medications with a series of attributions, giving thanks for his parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and others for all the gifts and the example they set for him. In particular, he gives thanks to his father for his character and to his brother Severus, from whom he learned that classics and “received the idea of a state in which there is the same law for all, a state administered with regard for the equal rights and equal freedom of speech, the idea of kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.” [2] Here we see the view that freedom is not only to be protected in democracies but in all wise forms of government.

A Rational World

For Marcus, as for Stoics generally, there is a rational order to the world. The world embodies a “universal nature,” and everything in the world exhibits and reflects that nature, “…for the universal nature is the nature of all things that are; and all things that are have a relation to all things that come into existence. And, further, this universal nature is named truth, and is the prime cause of all things that are true.” [3] The universe embodies a created rationality that is, and should be, reflected in both nature and society.

The universal nature has both moral and social significance. Those who act contrary to universal nature or reason act with impiety and irrationally, which is bound to be destructive either of the world or of human society, which participate in this universal nature. This aspect of Stoic thought was much criticized by Cynics, since there is a great diversity both in physical nature and in the human societies built upon that nature. However, to Marcus, the universe displays a kind of order that should not be violated, and the one who violates it “fights against the nature of the universe.” [4]

A World of Relationality

There are aspects of Marcus’ thought that are surprisingly “post-modern,” contrasting starkly with the mechanical world view of the modern era. Marcus sees that all things are related and part of a whole that cannot be dissected without loss. Thus:

This you must always bear in mind: what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole, and there is no one who can hinder you from always doing and saying the things that are in accord with the whole of which you are a part. [5]

In this quotation we see much of the wisdom and understanding of the writer: First, there is an order to “nature,” defined as the system of being in which every individual is immersed. This nature is both physical and social. Second, the wise person has to understand the environment he or she is in, what makes up that environment, and what is his or her relationship to the whole.

Based on this insight, Aurelius urges his readers to;

Consider frequently the connection of all things in the universe and their relations to one another. For things are somehow implicated with one another, and all in a way friendly to one another, for one thing follows in order after another and this is by virtue of their active movement and mutual agreement and the unity of their substance. [6]

Our world is a world in which all things are related to one another, and the wise person constantly considers the nature and implications of these relationships. In addition, what will be is implicit in what already is. Present reality is constantly passing away into what will be and is implicit in the new reality to follow. Finally, there is a religious dimension to this, for “All parts of the world are interwoven with one another, and the bond is sacred.” [7] This notion that the world is relational and sacred is a part of the stoic belief that God is a part of all the entire universe.

A World of Constant Change

Another of Aurelius’ foundational ideas is found in the previous quote: the world is constantly changing. The universe and any society in which an individual finds his or herself is one of constant change. In this respect, Aurelius is an organic and process thinker as opposed to a mechanical thinker. Thus, he says:

Observe constantly that all things come about by change; accustom yourself to reflect that nature of the universe loves nothing so much as changing things that are and making new things from them. [8]

No one, not even an emperor, can be successful or wise without an awareness of the reality of constant change. One might say that for Aurelius, like modern process thinkers, the fundamental reality is change. The attempt, so common in the modern world, to achieve “an end to history,” i.e. some perfect state of political and social organization, is doomed. All that can be done is to live and govern faithfully within the boundaries of the circumstances in which one finds oneself.

For every individual, there is an arrow of time in this constant change—an arrow that leads from birth, through maturity, and onwards towards death. Just as the Psalmist urges God to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12), Aurelius urges his readers to recognize their mortality. The arrow of time for all men, Alexander the Great and the lowliest slave, is the same—an arrow of time that leads from birth to death.

A Social World

This infinitely complex and delicately interwoven world is designed for social relationships and cooperation as much as for conflict. This is true of nature and of society:

As it is with members of unified bodies, so it is with the rational beings that exist separate, but are designed for co-operation. You will realize this more if you say to yourself: ‘I am a member of a system of rational beings.” [9]

Marcus Aurelius would agree with Aristotle that human beings are by nature social. Thus, “The primary principle then in men’s constitution is the social.” [10] This insight is much different from the modern notion that the individual is primary, that society is made up of autonomous individuals, and that social life is fundamentally a constant conflict for power. Rational cooperation, not conflict, lies at the foundation of a sound social order.

The social order of the world is one of the foundations of wisdom and of morality. The wise and good person recognizes that all of his or her actions are a part of the order of the world and influence the world for good or ill:

As you yourself are a component part of the social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life. Whatever act of ours then has no reference either immediately or remotely to a social end, this tears asunder your life. [11]

Here is a relational principle that strikes at the root of the problem of the individualistic ethos of the modern era in which people see themselves as self-seeking and independent. The entire idea of the detached individual is irrational because we are all component parts of a social whole which involves our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and fellow citizens. It is not enough to think of myself or my own advantage, for every act has a social impact and therefore a social end. The idea that I can seek my personal best interests and have a society that is stable, is simply wrong.

Universal Commonwealth of Humanity.

Marcus’ subscribes to the Stoic ideal of a universal commonwealth.  He expounds on this idea as follows:

If the faculty of understanding is common to us all, the reason also, through which we are rational beings, is common. If this is so, common also is that reason which tells us what to do and what not to do. If this is so, there is a law common to all men also. If this is so, we are fellow citizens and members of some political community, and thus the world is in a way one commonwealth. [12]

This is an important stoic principle that illustrates a difference between the thought of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius from Plato and Aristotle.  The world is not fundamentally divided into Greeks and Barbarians or Jews and Gentiles. There is a common humanity, bound together by one common nature that causes us to be part of one commonwealth, whatever commonwealth we happen to be a part of at any one time. In this, Marcus and Stoic thought in general is similar to the Christian notion of the brotherhood of the human race. In this insight we see a break with tribalism as the primary form of political organization.

Marcus does not identify this universal commonwealth with the Roman Empire, which as Emperor one might think he would. Instead, Marcus is aware that though we are a part of one human race and a commonwealth of rational people, we find ourselves as part of a local political unit to which we owe loyalty.

Serenity in a World of Constant Change

A world of constant change, the way to achieve wisdom and serenity begins with accepting what comes. The wise person is satisfied with their place in life and does not hurry from place to place or activity to activity. [13] There are limits to human striving, and the wise person respects those limits. As a general matter, Marcus urges human beings to do those things that it is their social duty to do and to avoid things that are not necessary, and which lie outside their social duties.

The serene person does not think too seriously or often about what others think, especially critics. “How much trouble he avoids who does not look to what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only what he does himself that he may be just and pure.” [14] Instead of constantly desiring more and different things, true serenity is found in retiring into one’s self and being happy with the circumstances in which one finds oneself: “Remember then to retire into this little realm of your own, above all do not distract or strain yourself, but be free and look at things as a man and as a citizen and as a mortal.”  [15]

Too often, we consider striving, success, and personal accomplishment as central to social life. Our political system is based on the notion that good policy decisions are made in an essentially conflictual process dominated by irreconcilable alternatives. The nature of the process created out such a notion traps politicians and political leaders in a process and life-style that excludes the search for serenity and personal wholeness. If anyone might be trapped in such a situation, it would be an emperor of Rome. Nevertheless, by embracing an essentially rational, relational, and social notion of political life, Aurelius seems to have found serenity and personal wholeness in the midst of a busy life.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations” in Marcus Aurelius and his Times; The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, tr. George Long (New York, NY: Walther J. Black, 1945), pp 11-133). All quotations are from this edition of the work.

[2] Id, at 14.

[3] Id, at 91.

[4] Id. I believe that this idea of a rational order to the universe and to a well-founded and ordered society is an important part of any project of reconstructing a wise and moral society.

[5] Id, at 22-23.

[6] Id, at 63.

[7] Id, at 69.

[8] Id, at 40.

[9] Id, at 69.

[10] Id, at 71.

[11] Id, at 96.

[12] Id, at 34.

[13] Id, at 58-9. This is the hardest part of this blog to write. The nature of Marcus’ work means that it is filled with many aphorisms that are applicable to everyday life.

[14] Id, at 38.

[15] Id, at 34.

Cicero: A Lawyer Speaks at Last!

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-53 BC) was a Roman statesman, lawyer, and scholar who played an active role in the politics of the late Roman Republic, including during the period of the First Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus) and the Second Triumvirate (Marc Anthony, Octavian, and Lepidus), both of which he resisted hoping to restore the Roman Republic. He was killed by supporters of Mark Anthony. Thus, Cicero was the most prominent defender republican principles during the series of crises that led to the establishment of the Roman Empire.

Cicero is included in this series because of his status as the foremost Roman philosophical and legal theorist. Having lived prior to the emergence of Christianity, he forms a bridge between the classical and Christian aspects of this series of blogs. Finally, Cicero is included because he was not only a theorist but an active politician, whose views are informed by practical experience. He attained high positions in the Roman Republic and was successful in his endeavors until the emergence of Caesar and the end of the Republic.

Cicero’s “On the Commonwealth” (hereinafter, “Commonwealth”) is a dialogue between Roman political intellectuals and leaders, all practical people of the world with strong intellectual qualities. [1] The Commonwealth is characterized by its organic look at the evolution of the Roman constitution through the time of Cicero, and its defense of this historical approach. In many ways, The Commonwealth shows that it is the reflection of a lawyer. This is seen in the sometimes tedious (to the modern reader) description of the intricacies of Roman law. Nevertheless, its approach reflects the methods of a practical lawyer, who meticulously builds his case with the evidence at hand, in this case Roman Constitutional history, as well as a person with philosophical training and capacity.

The Value of the Practical Man of Affairs

As might be expected in a book by a stateman, Cicero begins by a defense of the man of practical accomplishment. The art of politics is a practical art, and theoretical knowledge is of limited value if not put into practice. A statesman is greater than a teacher because he or she puts into practice in the affairs of a commonwealth the ideas of those who have only theoretical knowledge. This is a matter of risk, for in desperate times the people of a commonwealth will sometimes turn against the statesman, and the potential for failure and tragedy is ever-present. Cicero experienced this very fate.

In defending the art of the statesman, Cicero returns to a metaphor used by Plato in the Statesman: that of a pilot. The knowledge that a statesman needs is not the intricate knowledge of philosophy that a scholar must possess, but that level of knowledge that the pilot of a ship has as to the sciences involved in sailing, i.e. sufficient knowledge to guide the ship safely to its destination. In this regard, those with purely theoretical understanding may sometimes think that they are better qualified to guide the ship of state in a crisis than the person of practical experience. This is untrue, because:

You cannot aid a state in moment’s notice or when you wish, although she is faced with great danger, unless you are in a position to do so. It has always seemed especially strange to me in the discourses of the learned, that men who admit that they cannot pilot the ship when the sea is calm, because they have never learned how nor troubled about such knowledge, nevertheless declare that they will take the helm when the waves are highest. [2]

Thus, the statesman is a practical workman with the special skills of understanding the structure and functions of government as well as the means by which it can be maintained. In order to be successful, the statesman requires both knowledge and experience such that when the opportunity for leadership arises, the statesman is ready to serve the commonwealth.

The Nature of a Commonwealth

According to Cicero, a true commonwealth is not just a gathering of human beings, but a voluntary union of a great number of people as a result of a common understanding of how they might be governed. Commonwealths are formed because of the natural instinct of human beings to seek social bonds and intercourse with other human beings. In other words, Cicero agrees with Aristotle that human beings are social animals. [3] Government does not fundamentally arise as matter of the gaining of power over human beings with an eye to defense, but out of the natural human desire for social connection with others.

For a commonwealth to exist, it must have institutions of government that reflect the will of those who brought the commonwealth into existence. Some form of appropriate deliberative authority relevant to the people and circumstances that brought the commonwealth into existence in the first place must be created. The precise nature of this form of government can, and has throughout history, been different in different historical and cultural circumstances.

This leads Cicero to the adoption of the three-fold category of governments adopted by Plato and Aristotle: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy with their three decadent forms, tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule. So long as capable and just persons rule, each of these forms can be successful, though all are unstable. Thus, there is a natural tendency for monarchy to become tyranny, aristocracy oligarchy, and democracy mob rule.

The Mixed Form of Government

This leads Cicero to the recommendation that the best form of government is mixed in its form, having appropriate elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Any other form is inherently unstable and degenerates into its own negative form. It is the mixed form in which the benefits of each primary form can be maximized, and the negative attributes of each form minimized, to the benefit of all citizens. Near the end of the dialogue, Cicero observes:

For you should master the principle that I set out at the beginning: Unless there is in the state such an equal distribution of legal rights, functions, and duties that the magistrates possess an adequate power, the council of the chief men an adequate influence, and the people an adequate measure of liberty, the balance of the commonwealth cannot be preserved unchanged. [4]

In other words, because all the primary forms of the state are essentially unstable, their needs to be a “fourth form of organization” (mixed government). Returning to the image of “statesman as ship pilot,” it is the business of the statesmen to for see the weaknesses of the constitution of the state and to remedy any weaknesses before they can become fatal:

It is the business of the philosopher to understand the order in which these changes occur; but to foresee the impending modifications, and at the same time to pilot the state, to direct its course, and to keep it under control, is the part of a great statesman and a man of all but godlike powers. [5]

The mixed state is the fourth form that can assist in maintaining the stability of the commonwealth.

In setting out the basis of a well-designed mixed form of government, Cicero begins in the place one might least expect of a Roman—with the consent of the people. There must be some representative function in the well-formed commonwealth because if the people have no say in their government it will be inherently unstable, vulnerable to tyranny and revolution. What makes monarchy and aristocracy so susceptible to corruption and ultimate revolution is the absence of real power in the hands of the common people.

Thus, a mixed form of government begins with some kind of representative democracy, because if the populace is involved in the choice of leaders and the development of policy, the state will be more stable than if the people have no say in the government—which is a form of tyranny. From this perspective, Cicero understands that democracy, with all its faults, is the foundation of any stable form of government. [6]

Despite its advantages, the democratic element cannot survive alone. For stable and wise government to exist, there needs to be a level of experience in those chosen to actively lead the state. There can be no haphazard or random choice of leaders. Those chosen must not be inexperienced or incompetent pilots, they must be capable and experienced. [7] There must be some level of experience, practical wisdom and moderation of conduct for leaders to wisely lead a commonwealth through the perils of history. While a monarchy is capable of providing such an executive function, Cicero believes that some kind of aristocracy is the best practical alternative for the wisest leaders to be chosen with the least danger of error. [8]

Times of danger are the most demanding and call for leadership of a different character than that which is necessary in normal times. In this situation, Cicero defends the practice of a constitutional dictator and the centralization of power in times of danger:

For you may play the fool as long as you have nothing to fear, as on a ship in calm weather and often in disease when it is not critical. But the passenger calls for a single skilled pilot when the seas begin suddenly to rise; and the invalid calls for a single doctor when his illness takes a turn for the worse. [9]

Democracy, in and of itself, is not stable and can and does degenerate into the worst form of government—the violent rule of the mob which has no respect for person or property. One is here reminded of the French revolution and its horrible excesses. [10] In the United States, from Lincoln through George W. Bush, wartime Presidents have often been “granted” powers that would not be given to a leader in other times. [11]

No form of government, not even a benevolent monarchy of the wise and just ruler, can provide the kind of balance and adaptability that a mixed form of government is capable of producing. Thus, Cicero concludes:

For I hold first that there should be a dominant and royal element in the commonwealth; second that some powers should be granted and assigned to the aristocracy; and third that certain matters should be reserved to the people for decision and judgement. Such a government insures at once an element of equality, without which the people can hardly be free, and an element of strength. [12]

A mixed form of government, wisely-formed under these principles has the best chance to remain strong and survive the fortunes of history. There is, however, once circumstance under which no form of government can survive: the degeneration of its leadership.

The Leadership of the Sound Commonwealth

As indicated at the beginning, one of the most attractive features of Cicero is his practical experience and lack of sympathy with some of Plato’s utopian and unworkable suggestions, such as the holding of all women and property in common, which he views as ridiculous. The best governments are not the creation of a single person, however gifted, but of the cooperative efforts and the experience of many capable people. [13] The slow generational evolution of Roman law and polity is one good example of this notion of generational cooperation. Cicero is suspicious of the innovations of a single person and inclined to trust the slow, organic evolution of governmental institutions.

Rome was made great not by individual genius but by the wisdom, discipline and cooperation of many people over a long period of time. This is a message that we, living in a “revolutionary cultural era” where the history and traditions of our own commonwealth are often denigrated in schools, in academia and in the popular media might well consider the value of the slow adaptation of fundamentally sound institutions over a long period of time. This cannot happen if we are led by the inexperienced in life, the unfaithful to our history and tradition, and the uninterested in the past and its lessons. This week, one of the major parties has been busily suggesting that massive changes might be needed in the form of our government if they do not win a particular political battle. [14]

Role of Justice in the Commonwealth

Finally, it would not be right to end this blog without emphasizing the role that justice plays in Cicero’s thought. He was well aware of the arguments of the sophists who did not think that any transcendent ideal such as justice exists. He was aware of those who thought that the ideal if justice was incompatible with the wise exercise of power by a leader to achieve goals. He was aware of the tendency to see justice as simply the utilitarian result of the balance of interests. Nevertheless, Cicero believes that justice is an important value. Because human beings are sociable, they are inevitably interested in being treated fairly, and a society based on injustice would be impossible to maintain. Self-interest is not a guarantee of a sound society. Indeed, if nothing but self-interest exists it is impossible to envision how a sound society can exist. Justice forms the basis of a sound society and is the basis upon which any sound polity is formed. [15]


It is impossible to summarize the depth and ingenuity of Cicero’s thought. He is one of the most important constitutional thinkers of world history and important to our founding fathers and to thinkers like John Locke who were important to the formation of the American democracy. His practical approach is a true “bottom up” approach to political thought.

Cicero is best remembered for his ultimately doomed attempt to save the Roman Republic from its demise under the pressure of the greed and lust for power of men like Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Octavian and the like. He was unsuccessful in his struggle against historical and political forces beyond the control of a single voice. Perhaps he simply could not see beyond the history and traditions of the Roman Republic, which he so loved, into a new era characterized by some kind of new political organization that would preserve the best of the old republican form of government while adjusting the political reality of Rome to the existence of its new empire. Nevertheless, he was one of the most important statesmen of history and a model for our day. Therefore, I will give him the last word in the explanation of his life and thought:

The pilots aim is a successful voyage; a doctor’s health; a general’s victory. Similarly, the goal set before the ideal ruler of the commonwealth is the happiness of his citizens; and he strives to make them secure in their resources, rich in wealth, great in renown, distinguished in virtue. This is the task—the greatest and noblest in human life—that I would have the governor carry through to completion. [16]

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Cicero, On the Commonwealth tr. George Holland Sabine & Stanley Barney Library of the Liberal Arts, ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1929). All quotes are from this edition.

[2] Id, at 111.

[3] Id, at 129.

[4] Id, at 185. This is the chief principle of the mixed state and of the separation of powers.

[5] Id, at 134.

[6] Id, at 135-6.

[7] Id, at 137.

[8] Id, at 139.

[9] Id, at 140. In the case of Rome, they obeyed their magistrates in times of danger and even appointed a single ruler I times of great emergency. One is reminded of the singular powers that Lincoln adopted during the American Civil War when the union was in mortal danger. At the time, he was even called a “dictator.”

[10] Id, at 148-149.

[11] The alleged misuse of the national security apparatus at the end of the Obama administration against an incoming President seems to have marked the end of the willingness of the public to grant the administrative state the relatively unlimited use certain powers which arose out of the aftermath of “9-11”. One can see in the way in which the Bush Presidency ended the historical antipathy of Americans to any kind of security apparatus that interferes with personal liberty. The recent changes in FBI and other agency policies with respect to “unmasking” citizens is a positive movement back towards some kind of “Pre 9-11” norm.

[12] Id, at 151.

[13] Id, at 155. He critiques Plato’s “arbitrary” creation of an “imaginary state.”

[14] Recently people like Nancy Pelosi, Alexandra Octavia-Cortez and others have used anti-democratic, revolutionary rhetoric in response to perceived political setbacks. The threat to impeach the President or pack the Supreme Court if the Democratic Party does not get to appoint the next Supreme Court Justice after the election  is a good example of  immature and dangerous speech and behavior. by elected officials in response to a potential political setback. The media is also responsible for this kind of immature behavior, as in Don Lemon’s recent comments on “Blowing up the entire elite” on CNN. For a stable society to exist there must be some agreed upon boundaries, especially among political contenders, that acts as a moral barrier against ultimately harmful speech and behavior. in a free society, this cannot be mandated, but it can be demanded by the public which desires to maintain free, democratic institutions.

[15] Id at 219.

[16] Id at 247.

Plato’s Statesman: Qualities of the Authentic Political Leader

This week, I want to share a few thoughts derived from Plato’s Statesman. [1] The Statesman is one of Plato’s later dialogues. Those who study the dialogue sometimes believe it reflects a decline in Plato’s dialogical style and intellectual capacity due to age. Nevertheless, the Statesman represents the fully-developed thought of Plato on matters of political philosophy. One explanation for the character of the Statesman is that it represents a mature Plato, disinclined to restate the utopian idealism of the Republic and perhaps disillusioned by the bitter experience of a long life.

Who is the Statesman?

The Greek title of the dialogue is, “Politikos,” which we might accurately translate “Politician,” except that the term as used by Plato is better translated, “Statesman,” for Plato does not mean by his analysis to talk about the technique of the politician but of the qualities of the experienced, practical and moral leader of a polity. Plato wants to talk about the ideal leader not about the run-of-the-mill politician.

In English, the term “politician” refers to anyone who is active in political life. In English, the term “politician” often has a derogatory connotation. A politician is frequently described as someone who is solely concerned with gaining public office without reference to political or moral principles. It can even mean one who in any kind of organization gains advancement in ways that are morally questionable.

The role of rhetoric in the character of the mere politician is dealt with by Plato:

STRANGER: The members of all these States, with the exception of the one which has knowledge, may be set aside as being not Statesmen but partisans, —upholders of the most monstrous idols, and themselves idols; and, being the greatest imitators and magicians, they are also the greatest of Sophists.

YOUNG SOCRATES: The name of Sophist after many windings in the argument appears to have been most justly fixed upon the politicians, as they are termed. [2]

The term “sophist” refers to a person who uses the art of rhetoric in a deceptive or misleading way without concern for the truth or accuracy of what is being said. Much of modern political thought is pure sophistry, made worse by the lack of concern for truth in the media and other institutions of society.

On the other hand, in English the term “statesman” refers to a politician who is also accomplished in matters of the state—someone with a particular kind of practical and theoretical wisdom, knowledge, ability and expertise in directing political affairs, and especially where important policy issues are concerned. For example, Abraham Lincoln was a politician with the ability to be elected President, but also demonstrated the capacities of a stateman in directing the United states though the American Civil War. A statesman is concerned with advancing the public good regardless of short-term political gain or loss. In the Statesman, Plato is concerned with the qualities that mark a true “statesman,” not a mere “politician.”

Qualities of the Statesman

As indicated above, for Plato, as for us, the defining quality of a statesman is practical wisdom in the achievement of the end of a political unit, an end which for Plato is assumed to be what we would call a well-constructed and led political unit that is able to achieve for its citizens the safety, affluence, and order that is the goal of a wise leader.

For Plato, the art of the statesman is the art of the architect and builder, that is the art of envisioning and constructing a good society. This metaphor of builder is not, however, the only metaphor Plato uses, for the statesman is also like a ship’s pilot guiding it safely through a long voyage, or like a physician that prescribes a cure for a sick patient, or like a weaver who weaves a piece of clothing. Each of these examples involve practical occupations requiring knowledge, skill and experience for their accomplishment. Thus, for Plato, the statesman is one who has the required understanding, technical ability to govern, and experience to wisely lead the state. [3]

Of the moral qualities of a statesman, Plato outlines two contrasting qualities that must find a balance in the life of a statesman: Courage and Temperance. Thus, Plato remarks:

In like manner, the royal science appears to me to be the mistress of all lawful educators and instructors, and having this queenly power, will not permit them to train men in what will produce characters unsuited to the political constitution which she desires to create, but only in what will produce such as are suitable. Those which have no share of manliness (active courage) and temperance (wise calmness in action), or any other virtuous inclination, and, from the necessity of an evil nature, are violently carried away to godlessness and insolence and injustice, she gets rid of by death and exile, and punishes them with the greatest of disgraces.[4]

The wise stateman has the capacity for courageous action and the ability to moderate action in order to achieve the harmonious goal of society. Going back to my earlier example of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg described Lincoln as a man of “steel and velvet,” a reference to his moral, intellectual, and political will and strength, as well as his compassion for those who he led.

The most famous metaphor used by Plato to describe the Greek statesmen is the metaphor of the “statesman as weaver.” This particular metaphor is developed by Plato as a way of showing the contrasting qualities of the statesman:

The rest of the citizens, out of whom, if they have education, something noble may be made, and who are capable of being united by the statesman, the kingly art blends and weaves together; taking on the one hand those whose natures tend rather to courage, which is the stronger element and may be regarded as the warp, and on the other hand those which incline to order and gentleness, and which are represented in the figure as spun thick and soft, after the manner of the woof—these, which are naturally opposed, she seeks to bind and weave together in the following manner:…” (emphasis added). [5]

According to Plato, this spinning and weaving is the activity of the divine muse in human nature guiding the statesman in his activity for the common good. [6]

The education of the stateman is fundamentally concerned with creating the proper character so that the state will be in good hands. Educators will seek to moderate in their pupils the active and the passive virtues:

I said that there would be no difficulty in creating them, if only both classes originally held the same opinion about the honorable and good;—indeed, in this single work, the whole process of royal weaving is comprised—never to allow temperate natures to be separated from the brave, but to weave them together, like the warp and the woof, by common sentiments and honors and reputation, and by the giving of pledges to one another; and out of them forming one smooth and even web, to entrust to them the offices of State. [7]

The Status of Law and the Statesman

There is no area of the Statesman in which the weaknesses of the Greek notion of the relationship between law and politics is more evident than in the critique that Plato makes of the relative importance of law and the political leader. It is this weakness that may underlie the end of the city/state and the inability of the unified Hellenist Empire to survive the death of Alexander. The Greek ideal of leaders and leadership undermined the role of law and of the maintenance of constitutional order in Greek thinking, a deficiency that was only remedied by the emergence of Roman leadership and Roman law.

Plato’s lack of sympathy for the rule of law is boldly stated in more than one place. For Example, in one interchange between the Stranger (who I take to be Plato) and Socrates it is plainly said:

“STRANGER: And any individual or any number of men, having fixed laws, in acting contrary to them with a view to something better, would only be acting, as far as they are able, like the true Statesman?

YOUNG SOCRATES: Certainly.” [8]

The ideal of the statesman who acts contrary to law is was a danger to Greek polity—and it is a danger in contemporary America.  It is no coincidence that the emergence of what is sometimes called the “Imperial Presidency” in the years after Roosevelt, and what is often called the “Activist” Supreme Court coordinates with the emergence of a willingness on the part of elites to ignore the plain wording of the Constitution and of the law to gain an advantage or address an issue. The willingness to be governed by the will of an elite as opposed to law was a threat to Athenian democracy and it is a danger to our own.

I have had other opportunities to critique the “great man” theory of history and the tendency of modern politics to revolve around a discussion of the qualities of a leader as opposed to policy matters. [9] Both the moral qualities of a leader and his or her commitment to the rule of law and the order of the political system are important. It is a mistake to think that a good leader can overcome systemic issues without great sacrifice and the constant danger of failure.

Types of Polity

Plato, like Aristotle, divides the forms of government into three types, with each type having a counter-type. The three main types are monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with each type having a degenerate from: tyranny, oligarchy (plutocracy), and mob rule. Plato, like Aristotle, is tempted to seek the best form of government as the mean (aristocracy):

The government of the few, which is intermediate between that of the one and many, is also intermediate in good and evil; but the government of the many is in every respect weak and unable to do either any great good or any great evil, when compared with the others, because the offices are too minutely subdivided and too many hold them. [10]

Plato in the Statesman is still too tied to the ideal of a “philosopher king” that we will see when we look at the Republic, some time from now. This leads him to prefer an aristocratic form of government, ignoring the practical wisdom that is often not found in those born to privilege.

Limits of the Platonic Vision

The vision of Plato and Aristotle, as previously noted, was deeply formed by the Greek City/State and by the Greek ideal of the perfect “warrior king” exemplified in the Iliad. By the time of Aristotle, that ideal had simply come to an end, for by that time the city/state was a political form passing from history with the emergence of the Macedonian and then Alexandrian empires. The limitations of the Greek city/state as envisioned by Plato and Aristotle are a particular challenge for one who, like the author, is inclined towards a communitarian, “bottom up” polity. The fate of the city/state is a warning that local governmental units, as important as they may be, are not the only important units.  The proper construction and leadership of a nation such as the United States of America, which has a world-wide economy and a web of political and economic alliances that stretch around the world, is also a matter of supreme importance.

Just as the polity of the Greek city/state had to bend before the power of Rome, Macedonia, and the example of the great Eastern empires of the Middle East, local and regional governments must be adjusted for the reality of the post-modern world and the existence of the modern state. In the attempt to emphasize the importance of the family, neighborhood, city, region, state and national government does not mean that larger political unites are not important nor does it mean that international arrangements are unimportant. The point is that their health cannot be divorced from the health of smaller units of society.

I am not going directly on to deal with the Republic at this moment in time, but will return to it later on in this series of blogs. The next blog will be on Cicero.

Copyright 2020, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Statesman tr. Jowett (Apple Books., downloaded on September 16, 2020). All references to Statesman in this blog are to this edition.

[2] Plato. “Statesman” previously cited.

[3] This is a place where I think Plato can become confused, for he emphasizes the mental qualities of the statesman in the beginning of his dialogue, sometimes to the detriment of a focus on practical wisdom.

[4] Plato. “Statesman.” Apple Books. (downloaded September 16, 2020). I have added the parentheticals “courage” and “gentleness” which are in my mind better words to describe the qualities desired.

[5] Plato, “Statesman” Apple Books. Previously cited. I do not have the time to go into detail concerning this metaphor and how it is used by Plato, but it is one of the unique features of the dialogue and unique to the Greek weaving industry.

[6] “The meaning is, that the opinion about the honorable and the just and good and their opposites, which is true and confirmed by reason, is a divine principle, and when implanted in the soul, is implanted, as I maintain, in a nature of heavenly birth.” Plato, “Statesman” Apple Books.

[7] Plato, “Statesman” Jowett tr. Apple Books. (downloaded September 17, 2020).

[8] Plato, “Stateman” previously cited.

[9] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Leading/Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love (The Tao Te Ching for Christ-Followers) rev. ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge, 2016), xxvi-xxvix, 114-119.

[10] Plato, “Statesman” previously cited.


Aristotle’s Politics: An Ancient “Bottom Up” Thinker

This week, I am looking at Aristotle’s Politics, probably the most important book on political philosophy from the ancient world. Aristotle’s views are important, not only in their own right, but because they profoundly influenced the greatest of the Middle Age philosophers, St. Thomas Aquinas, through which Aristotle has continuing influence in Roman Catholic and other intellectual circles today. Pragmatists have appreciated Aristotle’s approach to politics when compared with the idealism of Plato. A generation of contemporary ethicists and political philosophers, such as Alister McIntyre, have been influenced by Aristotle’s virtue approach to politics and ethics in attempting to address modern nihilism. In other words, Aristotle is worth reading.

Aristotle was born in Macedonia. His father was a court physician for Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedonia. Aristotle lived beyond the reign of Alexander, who was his pupil for a time. When Alexander died, his empire was divided, and the parts were eventually incorporated into the Roman Empire. As a result of repercussions of Alexander’s death in Athens, Aristotle was forced to flee in order to avoid the same fate that overtook Socrates—an untimely death.

Aristotle’s work is the concluding achievement of Classical Greek civilization. Aristotle, unlike Plato, does not begin by attempting to outline a perfect society but by describing the various kinds and types of polities with which he is familiar. In this sense, Aristotle is a “bottom up” inductive thinker. His reasoning is careful and his recommendations measured. As a result of his approach, his politics is easier to follow than that of Plato.

A modern reader will find aspects of Aristotle’s thought troubling. He defends the institution of slavery, despite misgivings. His notion of the family places males in control of family life. He is dismissive about the capacities of women. Like Plato, Aristotle inherits the ancient martial Greek ideal from the Iliad that forms part of his understanding of politics differently than that of a modern person. Nevertheless, his work is illuminating and important.

Types of Governments

The most famous observation in Aristotle’s Politics is his division of governments into three basic types: the rule of one (monarchy), the rule of the few (oligarchy), and the rule of the many (democracy). Each of these types have a corresponding decadent form: tyranny for monarchy, oligarchy for aristocracy, and mob rule for democracy. Each form in its positive embodiment tends to deteriorate into its negative form. Historically, each of the six governments has existed and continues in some form to exist today.

Graphically, one might picture Aristotle’s description as follows: [1]

Good Form Decadent form Comment
Monarchy Tyranny Rule by one
Aristocracy Oligarchy Rule by the able
Moderate Democracy Mob Rule Rule by the many

The American founders, and especially Madison and the most important framers of our Constitution, were familiar with Aristotle and with his concerns for Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Mob Rule. One reason why the notion of Separation of Powers was important to them was the desire to block the emergence of tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule.

On the other hand, the framers of the Constitution were aware of the need for a strong executive, wise and experienced counsel, and representation of all. Their initial way of assuring the positive aspects of Aristotle’s categories was the Presidency (strong executive), the Senate (wise counsel chosen by local leadership), and the House of Representatives (democratic representation). One might add that a wise federal court system is an aristocratic feature of almost every system of government, since all governments must have laws.

The Social Foundation of Government

Aristotle understood that the development of political structures is contextual and the precise nature of a sound polity will differ from city/state to city/state. Like Plato, Aristotle sees the family as the original political unit of society. After the family, small villages composed of the descendants of a single family evolved. In Aristotle’s mind, when villages gather together to form a single society, one has the best possible form of government. Such a society is on a human scale. In addition, such a society protects the family as the foundation of all healthy human society. The city/state and empires evolve from the smaller units that preceded them.

According to Aristotle, the family is the fundamental unit of any sound society. He thinks that natural parents are the best persons, indeed the only citizens who can and will properly raise their children. He thinks that those philosophers that advocate that all children in a society being in common are engaged in foolishness. As Aristotle aptly observes: “Let each citizen then in the state have a thousand children, but let none of them be considered as the children of that individual, but let the relation of father and child be common to them all, and they will all be neglected.” [2]

Aristotle believes that the evolution of the city/state was a natural result of the human social impulse. Human beings are by nature social animals. [3] Aristotle quotes Homer for the view that a human being who is without a society, without a social surrounding, without a family, is really not fully human. People who grow up without a healthy family influence are inevitably at least somewhat antisocial, quarrelsome, and socially  irrational. Those who grow up without a family or in seriously dysfunctional families lack the fundamental emotional and moral qualities needed for a sound society. Thus, it is important for to protect and properly structure human family relations. We might not agree with the precise way in which Aristotle suggests that families be structured, but his insight remains valid.

The Importance of the Middle Class

Although Aristotle appears to prefer a form of aristocracy, he actually speaks favorably about a mixed form of government containing elements of all three of his basic types. He recognizes that this kind of government is difficult to achieve without a strong, vibrant middle-class. Without a strong middle class, there is a tendency for governments to degenerate into either oligarchy or mob rule.

This is a feature of Aristotle’s thinking that contemporary Americans also need to consider carefully. Over recent decades, the American middle class has consistently shrunk as a percentage of the population. During this same period, American society has developed attributes of a kind of oligarchical rule. Under these circumstances, a vibrant democracy is difficult to maintain.

Moral Foundation of the City/State

Another feature of Aristotle’s thinking that deserves consideration is the importance of moral qualities in leaders and in society as a whole. Aristotle does not believe any form of government can succeed unless its leaders and citizens are properly educated and have the requisite skills to make wise decisions. Without literacy, judgment, and understanding of public policy, and a respect for the foundations of a society, a stable government is impossible to sustain.

Aristotle is a realist concerning human nature and human weaknesses. Human beings are flawed; and therefore, all human endeavors are flawed, including human governments. Therefore, it is not enough for those who would have a good government to concentrate of human potential. There must also be a dispassionate examination of the reality of the human situation.

Aristotle’s views of politics are related to his ethics in a fundamental way: ethics is related to politics, and politics related to ethics. Aristotle did not separate, as modern thinkers are inclined to do, the practical art of governing (“real politik”) and morality (“idealism”). Because human beings are social, there can be no division between politics and morality. As indicated earlier, the state exists because families gathered together to provide a kind of secure life impossible without social intercourse. Sound morals can only arise in sound families and societies, and sound government, can only arise where there are sound human beings. Governments, when they are good, make a good life possible for individuals. No government can endure if it is led by the violent, the immoral, or the unjust.

This is yet another aspect of Aristotle with contemporary relevance. As I have mentioned before, modern politics, and especially since Marx, has been dominated by the hope of an earthly paradise in which all the problems of human society and history are solved and a just society achieved once and for all. In this sense, modernity is platonic. Wisdom and attention to the reality of the human situation argues for another approach, embodied in Aristotle’s thought: slow, wise progress founded in an appreciation of human weaknesses as well as human potential.

The Role of Education in the Good Society

It logically flows from Aristotle’s views of the family, raising children, and the importance of character, that the education of citizens and leaders cannot be ignored. Aristotle does not believe, as moderns often do, that education is the be all and end all of human advancement. Education alone cannot create neither good citizens nor wise legislators. Thus, “…whosoever shall introduce any education, and think thereby to make his city excellent and respectable, will be absurd, while he expects to form it by such regulations, and not by manners, philosophy, and laws.” [4] Aristotle understood the limits of education, but nevertheless recognized its importance, especially for a functioning republic. [5]

The problem with relying upon education for the stability of society is that education alone cannot form character. This is particularly true for modern “value free” education. Unfortunately, our American system of education not only does a poor job of transmitting the history, traditions, and moral values of our society, it too frequently consciously or unconsciously undermines them. The problem of political violence in our culture is exacerbated by a kind of nihilist education, particularly prevalent in the liberal arts, that undermines all belief in the reality of love, beauty, truth, justice, goodness, courage and the other virtues. Aristotle, however, recognized that a stable state of whatever kind required leadership and citizenry educated in the history, traditions, virtues, and values of the society.

A Political System as Evolutionary and Adaptive

Plato, as mentioned in a previous blog, has a static view of the good society. His search is for an unchanging ideal. Aristotle has an “evolutionary” notion of society. He recognizes that change and adaptation is inevitable and necessary. Thus,

Nor is it, moreover, right to permit written laws always to remain without alteration; for as in all other sciences, so in politics, it is impossible to express everything in writing with perfect exactness; for when we commit anything to writing we must use general terms, but in every action there is something particular to itself, “which these may not comprehend; from whence it is evident, that certain laws will at certain times admit of alterations. [6]

Despite this acknowledgement of the need for laws to change because of changing circumstances, Aristotle does not think it wise to change existing laws without good cause:

“For a law derives all its strength from custom, and this requires long time to establish; so that, to make it an easy matter to pass from the established laws to other new ones, is to weaken the power of laws.” [7]

The wise legislator is both willing to change laws when necessary and reluctant to do so without good cause.

There is a balance to be drawn between the conservative impulse to maintain the status quo and the liberal impulse to change things. A wise leader and government manages the pace and degree of change with the goal of adapting the system to change as well as creating necessary and important change.

Teleology and Political Ideals

This aspect of Aristotle’s thought coordinates with his teleology. Aristotle believed that things tend towards their proper end, including human society. Modern thought tends to be interested only in material causes, powered by a kind of evolutionary faith that those who succeed are those favored by the path of survival of the fittest. Both ideas are important to consider and combine in one’s thinking.

However true in the arena of biological evolution, is a flawed approach to politics and human life. As I like to observe, “If the human race destroys itself in a nuclear holocaust, it will turn out that cockroaches and sharks are the fittest because they might survive.” Because we are conscious beings, created in the image of God, human beings have the capacity to create and form a future inspired by faith, hope, love, fortitude, truth, justice, and temperance. Thus, no purely mechanistic or evolutionary approach to human society can succeed—in fact it is doomed to create foolishness and suffering, as Communist and “Social Darwinist” regimes clearly show.

Aristotle’s approach to government begins with the “teleological” goal of a society in which people can achieve the ends for which they were naturally created—the good life. This aspect of his thought needs to be recovered in a post-modern form. Going back to an observation of a couple of weeks ago, C.S. Peirce divided evolutionary growth into three kinds: chance, order, and love. This love part he called, “agapistic” evolution. The notion that a kind of self-giving, justice-loving, truth-seeking, preserving and adapting, love may be part of the evolution of the world allows the observation that human societal evolution needs to be guided by a kind of agapistic search for a good society in which all can achieve their potential. This, however, is the subject of a future blog.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I have chosen “Moderate Democracy” for the good form of democracy that Aristotle calls, “Polity” and “Mob Rule” for the decadent form Democracy, because Aristotle’s language is so much different than modern language. He uses “Democracy” for the unbridled rule of the masses, often irrational, moved easily to violence, and imprudent. He uses “Polity” for the form of government we would call “Republican Democracy”

[2] Aristotle, Politics: A Treatise on Government Apple Books. September 7, 2020). Aritotle is dismissive of Plato’s radical and unworkable ideas concerning marriage, family, and child-raising. The parts of the Politics in which this is discussed contains some of his most acerbic comments.

[3] If Aristotle’s most famous idea is the division of kinds of political systems, his most famous quote is, “Man is a social animal.”

[4] Aristotle, “Politics: A Treatise on Government.” Apple Books. September 7, 2020).

[5] This aspect of Aristotle’s thinking is also relevant to the modern “regulatory state.” Regulations are necessary as a part of government, but they cannot by themselves create the character and circumstances in which a good society develops and endures.

[6] Aristotle, “Politics: A Treatise on Government.” Apple Books. September 7, 2020).

[7] Excerpt From: Aristoteles. “Politics: A Treatise on Government.” Apple Books. (downloaded September 7, 2020).

A Brief Look at Plato

This week, I am taking a trip into history to look at Plato’s Laws, Plato’s last work in the area of political philosophy, which may have been incomplete at his death. I am leaving his more famous work, “The Republic,” until later in this series. The Laws is not considered one of Plato’s best works, perhaps as a result of age and declining powers of concentration. (I can relate.) It is set as a dialogue between three men, a Spartan, a Cretan, and an Athenian walking from Cnosis to the Temple of Zeus on a hot summer day. As with a reading of any ancient writer, while there is much in the book to ignore or object to, there are also insights as applicable today as in the time of Plato.

Virtues and the State

As a result of the Enlightenment and the development of modern “Political Science,” there has been a tendency to ignore or push to the sidelines the moral basis of a sound political system. If one were to write a book of”scientific” political philosophy today, one would not spend  time listing virtues, and especially not on the virtues of war. However, in Plato’s day, the development of physical and emotional skills for the conduct of war and the maintenances of a state were necessary to be discussed.

We are probably very near the end of the period of history. in which the moral qualities of leaders (as opposed to development of a  “politically correct character”) of leaders can be ignored.  The decline of Western democracies, accompanied by the decline of the societies that have adopted a “morally neutral” approach to education and politics, gives every indication that the secular project is coming to its end.

The Spartan state was designed to endure a perpetual state of war. In the dialogue, the Cretan state is similarly focused. The Athenian city/state, on the other hand, was concerned with all the virtues, and not just with the virtues of war. Peace and the virtues of human society rank first in the Athenian hope for political life. Thus,

Every legislator will aim at the greatest good, and the greatest good is not victory in war, whether civil or external, but mutual peace and good-will, as in the body health is preferable to “the purgation of disease.” He who makes war his object instead of peace, or who pursues war except for the sake of peace, is not a true statesman. [1]

The modern ideal of “moral free” education, in which children choose their own “lifestyles” is far from Plato’s ideal. For Plato, the first duty of the state is to provide an education and environment in which children honor God, their parents, and the laws of their society. Education is not to create radicals inclined to defy laws and tradition, but to nurture citizens who “naturally” follow the laws, support society, and upheld the traditions of their city/sate. Moral education, together with reading, writing, music, mathematics, and gymnastics are all part of the education of a good Greek citizen. The ultimate goal of the education of the future leadership of a nation was, in Plato’s mind, the cultivation of wisdom, temperance, justice and courage, without which no state can endure.

We might make a pause to contemplate the difference between the Platonic ideal and American reality. We tend to think that education should create “independent individuals.” Often public schools, colleges, universities, and graduate schools do not consider it their responsibility to form the character of their students.  Plato, however, regards the first and primary duty of educators to be the creation of good citizens. Plato’s vision, to which I will return in analyzing The Republic, emphasizes the social and moral aspect of education in the development of the individual as a citizen, and thereby places less emphasis on individual development of the private “self,” modern education may not pay enough attention to an education that develops a good citizen.

Perhaps the there is a balance to be found between individual self-development and social cohesion. Modern “value free” education is unlikely to create citizens with the virtues of wisdom, temperance, a sense of justice, and courage. We need a new and different, “constructive post-modern” theory of education. This is also a theme to which I intend to return.

The Community of the Polis

A second aspect of the Laws that immediately interests a contemporary reader has to do with the kind of overt social engineering in which Plato engages. Once again, a critique of this method will come later when I look at The Republic, but for now, it is enough to observe that a good deal of the Laws concerns a detailed description of an ideal state in which everything is regulated by law and law provides an order for property allocation, marriage, holidays, social intercourse, public and private property, education, music, drama, and all of cultural life—and all of it regulated with a view towards creating a society that is stable, unchanging, and healthy for its human inhabitants. Plato does not give enough emphasis to freedom, change, the evolution of social institutions and the adaptation of such institutions to changing reality. [2]

While the Laws does not have the same focus on the creation of an ideal state as does The Republic, Plato is still trying to logically outline a completely structured society from first principles. This is very much unlike Aristotle, whose Politics is more oriented towards the observation of actual human societies and commentary on them. It is this part of Plato that one finds most irritating, unless one is inclined towards social engineering by elites, which I am not.

Some of Plato’s ideas were ludicrous when developed, as Aristotle observes. Others have been seen to be foolish over the long history of the human race since Plato. Most surprisingly, Plato often fails to see the value of the slow, incremental evolution of a society and polity. He is often seeking a “once forever” organization of society, which is a fool’s pursuit. This is surprising, because as is seen below, he is well aware of the gradual evolution of Greek political systems.

The Origin of the State

Plato understood that human history extends far back into time and political organizations have changed and differed from place to place and time to time. Unlike modern Americans, who tend to think of democracy as a given, Plato understands that there have been various forms of government throughout human history. Democracy is only one, and not the most common.

The first governments were those of familial, usually patriarchal rule. Plato understood that all of the splendor of Hellenist politics evolved from the family, which is the first form of human government. Generally, their laws were the customs of their ancestors, but adaptation to changing circumstances required chieftains and laws. The original, small local political units s arose out of the union of single families, who survived into larger and larger units.

As people increased in number, and agriculture developed, families joined together against danger, human and animal. Out of this primitive organization, the city/state gradually emerged. In other words, unlike the modern mind that sees a social contract and individual assent at the foundation of political entities, Plato sees that governments are organic. They have evolved from the demands of circumstances and human necessity. Although he fails to see that they will continue to evolve beyond what he sees as the best Greek model, he does see that what is has an antecedent that must be understood. Here too, Americans may have a lot to learn from Plato.

In the earliest states there was both an element of compulsion (parents, the strong and the militarily gifted ruled) and democracy (good parents are never tyrants and kings were subject to being over thrown). Thus, the fundamental forms of government are rule by the one and rule by the many, monarchy and democracy. [3] No actual government has been fully one or the other, and the attempt to create a pure form of one of the primary forms of government is unwise due to human flaws.

Interestingly, the Founders debated the issue of how much democracy and how much monarchy they desired for the new nation they were forming. Many thought Washington should, or inevitably would, become their king. Washington, however, was committed to the republican ideals of English thinkers such as Locke. At the constitutional convention, he supported, and the delegates adopted, an executive branch with a strong President, having independent powers. The President would be both the head of state and the chief executive of the nation, with all the powers of the executive branch of government, while the legislative power belonged to Congress. In this way, the Founders hoped to overcome the weaknesses of both democracy and monarchy. [4]

A Balanced Polity

Having said that there is and excessive idealistic quality about Plato’s Laws, he does have insight into the human condition and the problems of human society. Plato is aware of the defects of human nature. He outlines a theory of balance of powers based upon the tendencies he sees in human nature and in those who have access to political power. While Plato is not a democrat, or fond of democracy, he sees the need for the common people to have a say in their own destiny. On the other hand, like Aristotle (and the Founding Fathers), he is concerned about the tendency of democracy to deteriorate into mob rule and the oppression of the minority.

This is a warning we can easily apply to contemporary politics. In America, there is nothing more popular than the notion that the majority should rule. However, those who drafted our Constitution were careful to create structural impediments to the tyranny of a majority. The founders lived close to the experience of the French Revolution, and they were concerned that American not follow its example. They had read deeply in history and in political philosophy and understood that democratic majorities could often be moved by emotion and fear with terrible consequences.

One interesting facet of contemporary American political life is the emergence of a group of people who did not live through the Second World War, what is called the “Cold War,” and who have no memory of the deaths of millions and millions of people under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol, and others. In each of these cases, a majority came to power and simply obliterated anyone who stood in their way. Unfortunately, the rhetoric far-left politicians and groups today is identical to the rhetoric that brought misery and death to millions upon millions of people.

Balanced Leadership

Plato was the inheritor of the virtues of the Iliad, where the courage of the martial life was an assumed good. Nevertheless, the virtues of an Achilles were not the sole goal of Plato in the creation of a leader. Plato believed that to be a good statesman requires sober prudence, and a depth of understanding, with the goal of maintaining the peace of society. Such a person does not automatically emerge. A sound education is necessary to create the kind of character fit to lead a sound polity. The goal is “a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and how to obey” not “wealth or strength or mere cleverness.” [5] Such a person embodies the virtues necessary for a sound polity.

As becomes clearer in The Republic, Plato is inclined to see a kind of monarchy as the best form of government, in his case a “tyranny of the wise.” The problem, which Plato sees, is that power easily corrupts the virtues of prudence, practical wisdom, courage, teachability, temperance, love of justice, and the other virtues good leaders need, even among the wise and well-educated. Plato recognizes that no human leader embodies the virtues of the perfect leader—only God, he says can rule wisely and finally cleanse the human race of the evil of bad government. In this, Plato anticipates a Christian view of the secular state.

Plato also warns against a danger to which all forms of government, but particularly democracy, are subject (which is why he desires power to be separated and appropriately limited): If a faction or small group gains a monopoly on power, and refuses to share power with those they rule, there is no check up on what such a group of people can do. In Nazi Germany, in Soviet Russia, and communist China, and in other places we’ve seen the consequences of “factional rule.” According to Plato, such a government is not a polity at all, and the laws or not for the benefit of all people, instead it’s a kind of class or mob rule.

Religion and the State

Plato understands that  religion is essential to the state. It is religion that creates the virtues upon which a stable state must rest. It is only in the service of the gods, for Plato assumes the existence of many guards, that’s a good can be found for society. Thus,

God holds in His hand the beginning, middle, and end of all things, and He moves in a straight line towards the accomplishment of His will. Justice always bears Him company, and punishes those who fall short of His laws. He who would be happy follows humbly in her train; but he who is lifted up with pride, or wealth, or honor, or beauty, is soon deserted by God, and, being deserted, he lives in confusion and disorder. [6]

While no serious American thinker would want a kind of state established religion designed solely for the maintenance of the state, Plato’s ideas support the notion that religion has a place to play in the modern state—not as ruler but as a servant of the society (not necessarily the state) in nurturing the virtues of humility, love of truth, goodness and beauty, and the creation of a meaningful life. This is a matter to which I will return in a later blog.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Laws tr. Jowett, (downloaded August 28, 2020).

[2] I am preparing a blog on Aristotle’s Politics, in which he critiques this aspect of Plato and has a great deal less patience with social engineering as even potentially successful. In addition, when I discuss The Republic I intend to also look at Carl Poppers, “The Free Society and Its Enemies,” which is a critique of Plato.

[3] By the end of the  Laws, Plato has recognized the Aristotelean outline of the kinds of polities as monarchy, tyranny, democracy oligarchy, and aristocracy, though he does not develop his thought in the way Aristotle does.

[4] In an interesting aside, Plato, after discussing the figure of Cyrus of Persia and the way in which his government deteriorated into tyranny in the hands of those who followed him, says “The Persians have lost their liberty in absolute slavery and we in absolute freedom.”

[5] Laws, previously cited.

[6] Laws, previously cited.

Our Need for Statesmanship and Interpretation

Years ago, I was part of the leadership team of an organization in crisis. A strategic decision had to be made. The organization was divided up into essentially three camps:

  • The first camp included a small minority of the leadership of the organization but a large number of passive stakeholders. This group generally acknowledged the organizational facts, but did not feel there was a necessity to change strategic direction. They believed that the current situation should continue and would work out for the best.
  • The second group, which was a majority of the leadership of the organization, believed that there was a strategic problem, but no fundamental change in strategic direction was needed for the organization to reach its goals. They urged an enhancement of current tactics, but no change of strategic direction.
  • The third group, which was made up of a large minority of the leadership group as well as many active stakeholders, believed that a fundamental strategic change needed to be made.

Eventually a crisis was reached, and a decision had to be made. The organization had six-months to decide. From the beginning of the debate, the first group supported the second group, almost certainly guaranteeing the second group would continue to define the strategic direction of the organization. These two groups were not necessary aligned in their interpretation of the situation the organization faced, but they were united in opposing any fundamental change. This placed the third group in an uncomfortable position of needing to persuade a substantial percentage of the first and second group to support their cause, which they almost certainly could not do.

After months of debate, the organization made its decision by a narrow margin. As expected the second group’s vision continued to guide the organization. A large number of people left the organization, including a minority of leaders who desired strategic change. The organization entered into a period of recovery that lasted for some years.

During the entire time that the organization was making its decision, there were a number of debates. There were a great number of flyers, mailings, and other communication efforts to recruit support. The directors debated the issue, sometimes violently, at leadership meetings. There were many acrimonious meetings. Old friendships were ruined. The process was highly dysfunctional.

What was lacking was any serious conversation among the leadership groups concerning the strategic situation, the presuppositions that were driving various groups, their differing interpretations of the facts, the ways in which the various parties might compromise, or other potential alternatives to constant strife and division. There was little openness by any of the leaders of either side to the perspectives of the others. There was no consideration of the needs of those who opposed either position. There was no openness to any mediation.

Many years later, the organization faced exactly the same strategic decision. After another failed attempt to adopt a different strategic direction, a final vote was held, and the organization voted to do what it had not done over many years earlier. I view the entire episode as a failure of strategic decision-making by the leadership teams involved (of which I was a part).[1]

The Consequences of a Failure of Reason

This organization’s failure to find a reasonable and peaceful way of making a difficult decision is identical in its essential characteristics to the situation our political system faces in a number of areas. For example, the United States of America is deeply in debt. No serious analyst believes that the current rate of federal borrowing can continue forever. The debt level is so high that the debt service threatens to undermine the ability of the national government to fund important priorities. The government has a large commitment to domestic social welfare programs, many of which don’t work and are counterproductive. Much of Federal spending is “pork barrel” in nature. Strategically, the United States is overextended militarily and diplomatically. Finally, in recent years there’s been such a decline in confidence in government that the fundamental unity of the nation is sometimes question.

In the face of obvious need for important strategic decisions to be made and change embraced, one party remains captive to a policy of ever-increasing taxes on the rich and the shrinking middle class, while the other party is captive to a philosophy of cutting taxes without commensurate spending cuts. Both parties are incapable of addressing the deficit. There is a great deal of acrimonious debate in Washington, but little attempt to craft solutions. Our democratic system is in a crisis, frozen in a “winner take all” mentality and a vicious kind of electoral politics. How can we get out of the trap? The answer is, “Change the way we relate and govern.”

Signs, Conversation, and Interpretation

For the last several weeks I’ve been involved in a series of blogs reflecting on Josiah Royce’s work. Royce, in turn, was influenced by C. S. Peirce, the father of modern semiotics, or the study of signs. Peirce had the insight that all communication involves a communicator, a sign by which the message is transmitted, and a recipient, who interprets its meaning. Royce adapted Peirce’s insight and developed the notion that all communication involves the person who is communicating, signs by which the communication is made, and an interpreter who interprets the meaning. Since all thinking is done through sigs, there is always a need for an interpreter—someone who interprets the meaning of the communication. This interpreter often is the person who is receiving the communication, but there is a difference between the perception received, the conceptual content of the communication, and the meaning of the communication.

Royce uses a series of examples to show how this process works. For example, suppose I am walking home one night and see something moving in the bushes near my home. I perceive the movement and perhaps a shadow (the communication). Immediately, I suspect it is my neighbor’s dog running through the bushes near our hoses. I think to myself (the interpretation), “I need to talk to him about letting that dog run free.” Then, I think to myself, “There have been some burglaries in our neighborhood recently. I wonder of it is a burglar?” My heart begins to beat quickly. As I grow closer, I see another movement and recognize my neighbor’s children playing in their yard. I breathe a sigh of relief. My internal conversation constitutes my continual interpretation of the perceptions and conceptual results of my walk home.

This process is a universal experience. A communicator and the person to whom the communication is addressed, need the mediating event of external and internal dialogue and reason for important and difficult matters to be interpreted accurately wisely. In larger groups, the process of discernment involves at least one and often many interpreters.  Royce puts it this way:

“If, then, I am worthy to be an interpreter at all, we three, —You, my neighbor, whose mind I would fain interpret, —you, my kindly listener, to whom I am to address my interpretation, —we three constitute a Community. Let us give to this sort of community a technical name. Let us call it a Community of Interpretation. (Emphasis added). [2]

Where larger communities, like the Congress of the United States, are involved, the interpretation of events is an activity of the entire community and all of its members. It is a presupposition of the community that there are enough shared values and loyalty that the community can discuss and interpret important matters through in the context of shared values and goals. For example, in the United States of America historically shared goals included the promotion of individual liberty, protection of rights to private property, defense of religious and personal freedom, and other commonly held values. It was this cultural unity of shared life and values that enabled our political system to work.

When perceptions of the facts and interpretations of them differ, there often must be many interpreters at work, each with their own perceptions and conceptions of what ought to be done in response to a problem.

Once again, a quote from Royce:

I can at present aim to approach that goal through plans, through hypotheses regarding you which can be inductively tested. I can view that goal as a common future event. We can agree upon that goal. And herewith I interpret not only you as the being whom I am to interpret, but also myself as in ideal the interpreter who aims to approach the vision of the unity of precisely this community. And you, and my other neighbor to whom I address my interpretation, can also interpret yourselves accordingly. The conditions of the definition of our community will thus be perfectly satisfied. We shall be many selves with a common ideal future event at which we aim. [3]

In other words, when faced with difficult decisions, a healthy political community engages in the process of factual analysis, conceptual development, and interpretation while searching for the best possible solution to problems or the best theoretical understanding in order to move forward. It is this process, which Royce calls “Interpretation,” that is seriously lacking in our political discussions and debate. The Republican and Democratic parties, ideologically defined by extremes from within, endlessly continue repeat their arguments in debate after debate without any attempt to understand or compromise with the other side. The debate is both negative and destructive of the national community. Every election, one party defeats the other party, and the dysfunctional process begins again. The result has been a series of policy disasters.

A Failures of Proper Interpretation

In a prior blog, I discuss the way in which the debate over what is now called “Obamacare” was handled. It is a classic case of ideological excess with no real attempt to understand and interpret the facts, sympathetically listen to the other side, understand the important points about the dispute, adjust policy preferences, compromise, and come to a wise solution. The result was that one party pushed its agenda through, despite warnings that it was actuarily and economically unsound. The program failed dramatically and was unpopular. The party with the majority that pushed it through experienced the political consequences of a poor decision, billions of dollars in the taxpayer’s money wasted, and a continuation of the problem the program was designed to address. In the case of certain recent military escapades, the other party has been led into the same kind of failure by an inability to listen, dialogue, discuss, and reach a compromise in then strategic interest of the nation.

Increasingly, in academia and in the political arena certain voices are being silenced. In particular, on college campuses and elsewhere conservative and religious voices are being silenced, often violently. This is a great mistake. It reflects the same inability to listen and interpret information in the public interest.

The Endless Process of Interpretation

Another implication of the work of Peirce and Royce is an understanding that the processing interpretation is endless and requires various perspectives. One important development of postmodern philosophy has been an understanding that no one voice is privileged in the search for truth. There are many levels and kinds of truth, all of which form an inexhaustible web of meaning. Each interpretation brings with it the need for new interpretation and adjustment to the new state of affairs the new interpretation created.  Every interpretation creates a new perception, which in turn must be interpreted. Therefore, wisdom is found in the open search for truth involving the voices of many interpreters of the facts and concepts by which we define problems.

An Example of the National Debt.

Let’s take the national debt as an example. Legislators may have no particular expertise in how balanced budget might be arranged, but need to have the capacity to listen, understand, and interpret the facts from a policy perspective. The may listen to economists analyze the problem, and from an economic perspective, project that a certain amount of tax increases or spending cuts that will be necessary to achieve a reasonable balance.

From a religious perspective, religious leaders might issue a warning that the Scriptures teach that borrowing is a dangerous activity and should be held to a minimum. In fact, from a policy perspective, the religious leaders can warn that massive amounts of debt placed United States government in the hands of its lenders, some of them are also enemies of the nation (Proverbs 22:7). At this point, other religious leaders warned that their views are that the poor should not have important services cut in order to balance the budget. They will point out that a nation is judged by how it treats its poorest and least powerful members. Most of the arguments they will bring the beer will be religious or moral in nature.

Political leaders, from their perspective, may warn that it’s going to be difficult to be reelected unless the economy grows in a sufficient manner to overcome the deflationary impact of lowering federal spending. Theirs is pragmatic view about what Congress can actually do under the circumstances. The other hand, if they’re listening to the economist in the religious leader, they understand that they have to do something. Perhaps, the budget might be brought in the balance over a period of years under the pressure of a Constitutional Amendment to balance the budget. Perhaps some mixture of spending cuts and tax increases is the best tactic to solve the problem.

In the end, a multitude of voices should be heard by the decision-makers in Congress. All views should be considered careful, not just by those who agree with those views but also by those who find those views politically or otherwise inconvenient. In the end, Congress will have to decide. This will require debate and compromise because it is likely no firm consensus will be gathered as a result of the conversation itself.  In the process of compromise, there will have to be dialogue among the members of Congress and debates in the halls of Congress. However, if the members of Congress see themselves as stewards of a community of law and interpretation, which is trying to solve a serious political problem, there is the hope that they can a wise choice.

The art of statesmanship is the art of compromise. The art of winning election is the art of politics. The statesperson goes beyond the work of a politician. The art of the statesperson is the art of compromise and decision-making in the midst of confusing, contradictory, and sometimes in adequate information. Faced with the political fact that not everyone will be happy with a compromise, the statesperson acts reasonably and rationally to resolve public problems. In so doing, our representatives act as interpreters of the national will and the national best interest. The United States has no shortage of politicians, but a serious shortage of statesmen who can wisely interpret and respond to national problems.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The basic facts of this example are accurate, I have changed certain facts and given no names so that the organization itself could not be identified.

[2] Excerpt From: Josiah Royce. The Problem of Christianity, Volume 2 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library).” Apple Books. (downloaded August 24, 2020).

[3] Excerpt From: Josiah Royce. “The Problem of Christianity, Volume 2 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library).” Apple Books. (downloaded August 24, 2020).


The Unfolding of Beloved Community within History

As mentioned in my last blog, the term “Beloved Community” rose to popularity in late 20th Century America, due to the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. While in graduate school, King was influenced by Royce, and particularly by the notion of “Beloved Community,” which King developed and used in various ways and in various contexts during the remainder of this life. For example, one of his most beloved quotes reads, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” [1] This particular quote identifies two distinct uses for the term  “Beloved Community” that must be clearly understood, one spiritual and the other practical. For King, the Beloved Community was both a transcendent ideal and a concrete program followed in his efforts to promote racial equality.

The Dangers of a Purely Secular Use of Beloved Community

The use of “Beloved Community” as a guide to political activity has both usefulness and dangers. Its usefulness is in seeing society as an evolving reality on a pilgrimage towards a more loving, equitable, just and fair society. The danger comes in seeing what is finally an eschatological reality as capable of final realization within history. The danger of Marxism, Nazism, and certain forms of Laisse-Faire Capitalism, is that they seek a solution to the human problem and the end of history as achievable within history, as opposed to as history’s final goal and purpose. This inevitably leads to violence, cruelty, terror, and demonic pride, things that Dr. King steadfastly resisted and opposed during his life. Seeking the goal of a Beloved Community inside of history means both seeking the future, and seeking that future with love, wisdom, peaceableness, and patience, as social problems gradually give way to the search for a more just society.

The Heavenly City and Beloved Community

The Beloved Community is, however, partially realizable within society within history by the “obedience of faith, hope, and love” (See, Roand mans 1:5). The hope of the Beloved Community, in the sense that Royce conceived it, is the ideal of a universal community for which human beings hope, but do not and cannot fully realized within history.

The writer of Revelation, living in a time of religious persecution has a vision of a heavenly city coming down from heaven at the end of the trials of human history:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).

A close reading of Revelation discloses that the heavenly city is the church, the Universal Community of those who have been called into the Beloved Community of God built on faith, hope, and sacrificial love. This Beloved Community is revealed, not in the heaven and earth we inhabit, but in a “new heaven and new earth” (21:1). It is a community that exists when the old order of things passes away (v. 4). The origin of the ideal of the Beloved Community is not secular or political, but religious and eschatological.

In the hands of St. Augustine, the vision of John became a vision of the “City of God,” an eschatological reality, imperfectly realized in the church during world history. The Heavenly City is never seen in the same way as the earthly city of Rome (and all other polities) are seen, for the Heavenly City is formed and ruled by love, but earthly cities are founded and ruled by force and human ambition. [2]

From Augustine to Marx, this distinction between the heavenly and earthly city was fundamental to how Western regimes, whose history looked back into the Judeo-Christian past, were formed. In the hands of a Luther, this hard division between the heavenly and earthly city became the so-called “Two Kingdoms” doctrine that freed earthly kings to become and be a separate “sphere of influence” from the earthly and heavenly kingdoms of the church. [3]

The Modern World and the Dream of an Earthly Heavenly City

With the Enlightenment, there developed the hope of a “realized eschatological kingdom,” as the progress of science and human knowledge created an expectation of a “new heaven and new earth” within and not at the end of history, as John’s vision implied. When bourgeoisie capitalism failed to bring in the perfect world, Marxism arose, which implied that the eschatological hope of humanity for a perfect society (the universal community) would be created by the operation of mechanistic, historical, economic forces. The cruel, heartless, cold dystopias of Communist Russia, Nazi Germany Communist China, and contemporary Venezuela (to give but a few examples of the phenomena) are the results of the misguided  20th Century  attempts to bring an eschatological (and by definition not historical) hope into the present of human history. We are still not at the end of the false modern expectation of the perfect world within history. [4]

Unfolding Transcendent Ideals in Continuing History

The cruelty and evil of Communist Regimes, and the leftist violence we are now experiencing, are the result of the demonic form of the eschatological impulse prevalent in the modern world, and so dangerous in the postmodern world set free of all traditional norms. Such regimes feel justified in seeking a “kingdom of peace and plenty” by means that are incapable of doing so. Lenin’s words “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet,” while killing thousands upon thousands of Russians, are the inevitable result of the madness of the misplaced hope that is the modern ideal of a perfect world within human history.

Royce never speaks of the Beloved Community in such terms. Thus he says:

“In order to be thus lovable to the critical and naturally rebellious soul, the Beloved Community must be, quite unlike a natural social group, whose life consists of laws and quarrels, of a collective will, and of individual rebellion. This community must be a union of members who first love it. The unity of love must pervade it, before the individual member can find it lovable. Yet unless the individuals first love it, how can the unity of love come to pervade it?” [5]

Royce realized that the Beloved Community of which he spoke was imperfectly realized in the church, which is based upon voluntary love of the community,  but could not ever be perfectly realized within human history among nations formed and maintained by force. Within human history fallible human beings seek the attainment of these ideals, but the fact of human nature, with its propensity to darkness and fallibility, make the full attainment of  Beloved Community impossible within history.

Concepts like that of the “Beloved Community” represent transcendent ideals, such Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Justice, that are not fully achievable within history. Attainment of these ideals can only be approximated by progressive realization as human beings in a free society seek to solve the concrete problems of their day and time,  holding these values always before them while progressively unfolding their undisclosed content and meaning in each era of human history.

Transcendent ideals can be progressively unfolded within a society and among its members as part of the disciplined search for justice. Until the end of the history of the human race, the content of Transcendent Ideals, such as those mentioned above, will continue to be unfolded in a continual process of unfolding their content and meaning. Contrary to the modern ideal, there can be no “End of History” until the end of history. The content of Transcendent Ideals can and will  be approximated in a slow, patient, wise and peaceful process of progressive realization that will continue until their are no human societies remaining to unfold them.

Copyright, 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, (Downloaded August 13, 2020.) Dr. King had a very nuanced and complex understanding of this term. There are many places where he is quoted and in which he uses and gives flavor to this notion of the meaning of the notion of “Beloved Community.” I expect to devote a blog this fall to Dr. King and his non-violent search for the Beloved Community in the 1960’s. It seems to me that his life and ministry has much to teach contemporary American society.

[2] St. Augustine, City of God tr. John O’Meara (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1972)

[3] This is not the place for a fair exposition Luther’s two kingdom’s doctrine, which will be the focus of a future essay. For a brief introduction, seeAnders Nygren, Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdom, ECLA website 08/01/2002, (downloaded August 14, 2020).

[4] While human experience now amply refutes any expectation of an end to history within history, the burning embers of modernity, together with the moral inversion mentioned in a prior blog create a violent expectation among some, usually leftist, but not always, that the Marxist expectation fan be realized. This may be one of the last aspects of the limited metanarrative of modernity that withers away in the new era now dawning.

[5] Excerpt From: Josiah Royce. “The Problem of Christianity, Volume 1 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library).” Apple Books. (downloaded August 12, 2020).

[6] This is not the place to discuss the problem of Transcendent Ideals, and their exact content and status, which will also be the subject of a later blog. In my unfolding thought, however, there is a similarity between the notion of “Transcendent Ideals” and the traditional notion of Universals and Whitehead’s notion of “Eternal Objects.” Readers of David Bohm will also recognize that I am seeking to understand his notions of “enfold” and “unfolded” realities as I seek to understand this aspect of political theology and philosophy.

Intellectual, Social, and Beloved Communities

C. S. Pierce, Josiah Royce, and Alfred North Whitehead are three American philosophers who understood the implications of then-current science for the future of philosophy. Each developed a distinctive philosophical position that transcended simple mechanical materialism. Each accounted for the impact of evolutionary theory, and later for Whitehead, relativistic and early quantum physics. Interestingly, each were sympathetic to Christianity and religion in general. Last week, I focused on Royce’s notion of the importance of individuals in the formation of community. This week, the focus is on his understanding of the central importance of communities, and especially on his notion of “Beloved Community,” which has continuing relevance.’

Communities of Interpretation

Royce, more than any other American philosopher, emphasize the role of community for human society, human individuals, and human knowledge. Following C. S. Pierce, Royce held a theory of knowledge that emphasized the social nature and source of truth. The necessity of a sign, an interpreter, and an interpretation of experience drove Pierce (who was the source of this line of thinking) and Royce to an essentially social theory of how truth emerges from human investigation and is verified by human community. Both understood that, while science was a paradigmatic community in search for truth, are were other such communities searching for truth in their own domains. [1] In fact, any kind of human knowledge is developed within a community of inquiry.

The notion of community appears in nearly every aspect of Royce’s thought. In science, and religion, and all other forms of reasoning, Royce emphasizes the need for a community of interpretation within which rational thinking and progress in human understanding occurs. For community to exist, there must be what Royce terms “loyalty,” a common commitment to the enterprise at hand, a love for the subject matter and for the community, and a disciplined search for a proper interpretation. As seen below, healthy community cannot be forced, but is the choice of free individuals to give of themselves to a community that embraces goals larger than a single human life.

From Individuals to Community

Peirce saw that individualistic self-centeredness, selfish tendencies, and the human propensity to error had to be tempered and checked by community bonds. Peirce was especially critical of social Darwinism and what he called, the “Gospel of Greed” that Social Darwinism engendered. [2] Instead, Peirce believed that the universe, though involving chance and regularities, also involved a social, “agapistic” (love) component. This is a part of Pierce’s thought that we might need to reinternalize in an age of media and other billionaires. 

Human individuals are inevitably self-centered. Each of us tends to see the world through the physical, perceptual and interpretive center of our own self. As outlined last week, this unique “self” is the product of all of our life experiences, lessons and learning. This historically constructed, evolving self is inevitably trapped in a kind of isolation. No one else shares exactly the same perception or interpretation of reality we possess. More importantly, we do not have the same kind of access to the hopes, dreams, and knowledge of others that we have of our own hopes, dreams and knowledge. Our communication with others, even others to whom we are close, is distorted by the inevitable differences between what we intend to communicate and what another person believes we have communicated.

How do human beings overcome this natural solitude and the danger of misunderstanding and misinterpretation? The answer for Royce lies in the constant need for interpretation, correction, and reinterpretation, all of which are social enterprises. This is not just true in intellectual life, but every area of life. Human beings need the sympathetic correction of others in order to perceive the world clearly. Sympathetic correction and reinterpretation require communities of interpretation where any kind of complex subject matter is involved. Royce puts it in this way:

“In this world of interpretation, of whose most general structure we have now obtained a glimpse at how, selves and communities may exist, past and future can be defined, and the realms of the spirit may find a place which neither barren conception nor the chaotic flow of interpenetrating perceptions could ever render significant.” [3]

Both Royce and Pierce (as well as others) often use science as the paradigm of a truth-seeking community. At any given point in time, there are always things scientists believe they understand, other matters which they do not yet understand, and matters about which there are disputes within the scientific community. Eventually, someone discovers new facts or develops a new theory and publishes the results to the scientific community at large. Other scientists will do the same. Still others examine and either verify or critique the new experimental results or theory. Out of this process of research, interpretation, theorizing and publication eventually a consensus emerges concerning the best interpretation. This process, in the case of science has been going on for centuries, with many changes and improvements in our understanding of the world. This is how, over time scientific understanding grows and develops.

Communities of Interpretation and Political Practice

Where a political community is concerned, there is a similar process. For example, after the Revolutionary War, the original states were bound together by the Articles of Confederation. There were deficiencies in the system of government this agreement instituted. There was no ability of the central government to tax, and so it was constantly near bankruptcy. There was no guarantee of freedom of commerce between the states, and some states used their own state powers to prevent competition. There was no central military command structure, and so the nation was weak. Eventually, the Constitution Convention was held. In the beginning, there were vast differences of opinion about what should be done. Through a series of compromises and accommodations, the original Constitution was drafted and submitted to the states, followed by the original Bill of Rights. This process is often criticized, in my view mistakenly. What is often missed are the first words of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States.” The thirteen original states already viewed themselves as one “People,” and therefore were willing to compromise, even give up important points.  Some states e joined the union, even though they disagreed with aspects of the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention, the various state conventions that ratified the constitution, and the process followed reveals various communities of people, all gathered with a common purpose searching for a common and better solution than the current state of affairs permits. Since its original adoption, the Constitution has had to be revised on several occasions to meet the demands of the times.

Royce especially, understood that American life took for granted a certain amount of attention, struggle, search for power, differences of opinion, and jockeying for position. Left to themselves, this aspect of American life could lead to the dissolution of our national community. In fact, during the Civil War, it did. The only solution to the problem of warring factions is found in the idea of a community made out of many individuals who join together in the common search for a just, fair, and orderly society. Without the willingness to debate, discuss, dialogue, and compromise, eventually there has to be a solution imposed by force. The Civil War was an event of this exact kind.

The impulse we see at work in the violence in our politics and some of our cities today reflects a lack of trust in the American community and in its fundamental values and structures. We’ve lost our sense of being in a national community in which we do not always get exactly what we want, but are willing to join with others in the search for a solution that is as reasonable and fair as possible to all.

Royce understood that’s such a community can only be formed and maintained through a committed form of mutual respect and love he called “loyalty.” Loyalty exists when an individual voluntarily participates in a community and seeks the common good of the community with and above his or her personal preferences in an act of self-giving to the community. Loyalty involves personal sacrifice for the common good and a willingness to explore the best solution to the problem of human progress.

Community and Beloved Community

Royce sees that communities are not all alike, though they have certain features in common. For example, a community is not a melding or absorption of individuals. In any true community individuals retain their uniqueness, individuality, and perspective. A community is bound together by loyalty and love, not by absolute identity or merging of individuals. Communities look backward (and, therefore, have traditions) and all living communities look forward (and therefore are somewhat oriented towards the future. To take a simple example, a fraternity or sorority has both a tradition into which members are initiated and a fraternity or sorority is always taking in new pledges as it looks to sustain itself into the future. Royce calls these two aspects of communities, “Communities of Tradition” and “Communities of Hope. 

The search for truthful, just, and life enhancing community finds its ultimate symbol in the notion of a “Beloved Community.” There is no question but which Royce sees in the church, and perhaps in John’s vision of the Heavenly City” the root and ground of the Beloved Community and a kind of eschatological realization of the hopes and dreams of all lesser communities. In the case of Christianity, the community looks back through the Scriptures to the beginning of the world. Its tradition goes all the way back to the beginning. And, as a community of hope, it looks forward to the end of history and the renewal of all things. Thus, members of the Beloved Community look infinitely backwards and forwards in time, in both tradition and hope, to a future that encompasses all of humanity and human history. This is why Royce sometimes calls the “Beloved Community” the “Universal Community”—all people are invited to pledge their loyalty to and find meaning and purpose in the Beloved Community.

The hope of the Beloved Community is the hope of a place of perfect individuality and perfect community joined in a kind of perfect self-giving love—a love that, for Christians, mirrors the love that constitutes and characterizes the divine Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each maintaining perfect individuality and joined in perfect community. This universal hope of the reconciliation of the human race, heaven, and earth is an eschatological not historical hope. As I return to the Beloved Community in my next blog, I will talk about the dangers and impossibility of the undisciplined attempt to bring in the Universal Community that Royce envisioned by the means of violence.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This line of thinking was also followed by Michael Polanyi in his works, most importantly in his Gifford Lectures. See, Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

[2] “Evolutionary Love,” first published in the Monist introduces his theory of agapism, the cosmic principle of love. This love is a cherishing love, because it recognizes that which is lovely in another being and sympathetically supports its existence. Peirce contrasts his “agapism” with evolutionary theories based on a selfish form of love, which had resulted in social Darwinism and “the Gospel of Greed.” Agapism includes helping one’s neighbors, and is a consistent with with a Christian social ethics. See, “Evolutionary Love” at (Downloaded August 3, 2020).

[3] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Volume 2, Barnes and Noble Digital Library  (Downloaded July 20, 2020).

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