The Object of the Moral Act

1. Acts are determined by their objects. The etymology of “object” suggests something thrown against. The object of an act is that against which or on which the act acts. The object of seeing is color. And color determines seeing; it makes seeing into the kind of act that it is. The object of hearing is sound, the object of eating is food, the object of nursing is a baby, the object of killing is a living thing. And in all these cases the object determines the act, makes it to be the kind of act that it is, gives it its nature. Continue reading

Political Authority in Homer’s Odyssey

The Symbolism of the Loom and the Mast

by Jeffrey Bond

A PDF version of this essay is available here.



Then, Glaucon, said I, when you meet encomiasts of Homer who tell us that this poet has been the educator of Hellas, and that for the conduct and refinement of human life he is worthy of our study and devotion, and that we should order our entire lives by the guidance of this poet, we must love and salute them as doing the best they can, and concede to them that Homer is the most poetic of poets and the first of tragedians, but we must know the truth, that we can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men. For if you grant admission to the honeyed Muse in lyric or epic, pleasure and pain will be lords of your city instead of law and that which shall from time to time have approved itself to the general reason as the best.

Most true, he said.

Let us, then, conclude our return to the topic of poetry and our apology, and affirm that we really had good grounds then for dismissing her from our city, since such was her character. For reason constrained us. And let us further say to her, lest she condemn us for harshness and rusticity, that there is from of old a quarrel between philosophy and poetry… But nevertheless let it be declared that, if the mimetic and dulcet poetry can show any reason for her existence in a well-governed state, we would gladly admit her, since we ourselves are very conscious of her spell. But all the same it would be impious to betray what we believe to be the truth. Is not that so, friend? Do you not yourself feel her magic and especially when Homer is her interpreter?

Greatly.

Then may she not justly return from this exile after she has pleaded her defense, whether in lyric or other measure?

By all means.

And we would allow her advocates who are not poets but lovers of poetry to plead her cause in prose without meter, and show that she is not only delightful but beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man. And we shall listen benevolently, for it will be clear gain for us if it can be shown that she bestows not only pleasure but benefit.

Plato Republic 607b-e

OdysseusSirens2

Socrates’ critique of Homer and poetry in Plato’s Republic culminates with the poets being banished from the city founded by Socrates and his friends. Nevertheless, Socrates leaves a way open for Homer’s return if the argument can be made that Homeric poetry is “beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man.”1 The first principles of such an argument are set forth by Aristotle in the Poetics, which, among other things, defends the art of poetry against the Socratic critique of poetic imitation. Not only does Aristotle point out that the Socratic dialogues themselves are a form of imitation (1447b), but, more importantly, Aristotle also notes that poetry is natural to man because man learns by imitation, and that “to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind” (1448b4-15). Although it is not my intention here to use Aristotle’s Poetics to defend Homeric poetry against Socrates’ charges, nevertheless I do hope to provide support for such a defense by presenting an interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey that focuses on the meaning of Homer’s epic poem itself. I intend to argue that Homer’s teaching on political authority is indeed “beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man,” and that Homer’s teaching rests upon a cosmology and metaphysics which is best revealed through a study of the loom and the mast, both of which Homer employs as symbols of the cosmic order.

Before proceeding directly to an investigation of the loom and the mast, it is necessary to understand, and may even be evident, that the metaphysical concepts of the ancient world were often not formulated in theoretical language. Instead, symbol and myth created a complex system of coherent affirmations about the ultimate reality of things. In Homer, for example, we find little or no theoretical language; therefore, it is useless to search his lines for terms such as “being” and “becoming,” “real” and “apparent,” “essential” and “accidental,” or “form” and “matter,” terms made familiar to us by subsequent analytical traditions of thought beginning with Plato and Aristotle. Nonetheless, these nakedly rational notions are given presence and appearance in Homer; that is, they are manifested, visualized, or revealed by symbolic vehicles, the careful and consistent organization of which constitutes the structure of the Homeric epic.

One of the Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria, explained the nature of Homeric poetry as follows:

The ancients taught their wisdom by means of a suggestive symbolism, and I am thinking when I say this of Orpheus, Linus, Musaeus, Homer, and Hesiod, and of all other such men as were possessors of wisdom. For the great multitude their poetic psychagogy was like a concealing curtain.2

Clement not only points us in the right direction for understanding Homer, he also teaches us why we should strive to do so. The Greeks, according to Clement, because of their love of wisdom,

followed that inward vision of theirs which was aimed at the truth, and this they did, not without help of God; and so in certain things they were in agreement with the words of the prophets. They searched through truth in part and in whole and honored it by the formulations of their thought which were in clear harmony with the intelligible nature of things; for they had received an intimation of that which is related to truth itself. Thus the Greek love of wisdom is like unto a lamp whose wick has been lit by men skillfully borrowing light from the rays of the sun. Yet it was only when the Logos of God had been proclaimed that the full holy light blazed forth. From this we see that the borrowed light is useful in the night, but when it is day all flames are outshone; for the night itself has been made day by the mighty sun of spiritual light.3

If Clement is correct in suggesting that the ancient lamps were lit by the sun of spiritual light, who is none other than our Lord, Jesus Christ, then we, as Christians, are well-equipped to discern those first rays of divine light in Homer, for we share with him the truth that the world is one of objective order, purpose and meaning. Thus it is incumbent upon us to penetrate the curtain of Homer’s symbolism if we are to discover his perennial wisdom concerning the metaphysical order of things, and the nature and end of political authority.

Simply put, to read symbolically is to attempt to view the invisible world through the visible, to see the inner meaning, the soul, as it were, as manifested in the literal text or body. Homer must be read symbolically because, as I hope to show, he presents us with a universe subject to superhuman authority, where the material world is shaped by and infused with the transcendent principles of order and generation that underlie all things. The Odyssey itself, therefore, works both allegorically and naturally as form relates to matter. That is to say, the allegory, expressing the general meaning of the story, determines and shapes the human and environmental material of the story and is, hence, manifested by it. The allegory must be grasped before the story can be properly understood generally or in the particulars. In fact, it is only on the allegorical level that the apparent naivete and inconsistencies of the literal or natural level can be resolved.

Consider, for example, the obvious implausibility of the account of Penelope’s weaving and unweaving in order to deceive the suitors, the famous ruse which is crucial to the plot and meaning of the Odyssey. While we might believe that the suitors were foolish enough to be deceived by this trick for three days, it is impossible that they would have failed to notice the lack of progress in Penelope’s weaving for three years. The reader must choose, then, either to conclude, as many have, that Homer was more myopic than the suitors, or to seek, as Homer no doubt intended us to do, for the symbolic meaning of Penelope’s weaving and unweaving, the cosmological and metaphysical significance of which we will soon consider.

Those who are dubious of a symbolic reading of the Odyssey would do well to consider that Homer’s characters find symbolic meaning in nearly everything around them: birds, lightening, dreams, an exclamation, and even a sneeze. Indeed, much of the meaning of the action in the Odyssey turns upon the contrast between those who notice things and discern their inner meaning and those who either fail to notice or fail to understand what they do see. The opening scene of the Odyssey, in the human world at any rate, presents this very contrast in the persons of Telemachus and the suitors: Telemachus sees the disguised Athena at the door and welcomes her inside; but the self-satisfied suitors fail to take full note of her until after she has left. As a fellow participant in the human world, the reader begins with Telemachus in a more profound way than simply that this is where the story begins. It is as if we, too, in beginning to read the Odyssey, are visited by Athena, or wisdom, who patiently waits at the door of our house to be invited inside. Certainly the fate of the suitors – the exemplars of those who neither see nor seek to understand what they do see – should serve as ample warning to those who fail to detect the invisible in the visible, and thus neglect to welcome in wisdom.

With this in mind we are prepared to recognize that the central symbol of the Odyssey is Odysseus himself. As the first word of the poem indicates, the subject of the Odyssey is “man” (andra). The hero Odysseus, the focus of Homer’s teaching on political authority, is not mentioned by name in the invocation of the Muse; instead, Homer asks the Muse to tell him of the polytropos man, the “man of many ways.” This suggests that the peculiar epithet “polytropos” serves as more than the defining characteristic of the individual man, Odysseus; polytropos somehow characterizes all men, the very nature of man. As exemplified by the wily Odysseus, man is defined by his “many ways,” his ability to think and to follow the seemingly innumerable ways his thoughts lead him. Man can apparently go anywhere, be and do anything. However, polytropos can also be translated “many turns” or “much-turned,” in which case the “many ways” of man are those in which he is turned and pushed in life rather than those of his own choosing. Although these two meanings of polytropos are opposed, their opposition is also complementary. In fact, polytropos aptly characterizes man because the word imitates man’s paradoxical nature by uniting what appears to be fundamentally opposed. Man is a creature both active and passive, a creature of “many ways” but also “much-turned.” Odysseus, the paradigmatic man, is the wisest of men (i. 65-66), the man of many ways without equal, but also the man “who was driven far journeys” and whose sufferings are beyond all others. Odysseus, whose name is perhaps best translated as “Pain,” is the last of the Achaians to return home from Troy (i. 11-14). As Zeus proclaims in the first spoken words in the Odyssey, man is, all protests to the contrary notwithstanding, responsible for his own worst sufferings (i. 23-43). Apparently man is “much-turned” because of his “many ways.” Man’s intellect allows him to do as Odysseus does, to journey far from home, to travel to other cities, to learn the ways and minds of other men and, possibly, to go astray and lose his homecoming. As the audience is warned at the beginning of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ companions are destroyed by “their own wild recklessness” (i. 7).

In the invocation of the Muse, Homer describes the polytropos man as struggling for his soul (psyche) (i. 5). Odysseus’ physical journey is in fact the journey of the soul in which the various episodes in the Odyssey represent exemplary psychic “episodes” in the soul’s quest for “home,” that is, knowledge of man’s place within the cosmic order. Odysseus represents a man who endures and successfully completes the soul’s painful journey of life. Odysseus’ journey, which involves the loss of his companions and the destruction of the suitors, culminates in his reunion with Penelope and his fitness for rule as king. If we are to understand the meaning of Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope and the basis of his political authority, it is necessary to examine the structure and rhythms of the Homeric cosmos as summarized in the symbolism of the loom and the mast.

SarpedonHermes

For Homer, the whole or cosmos is comprised of the relationship and coordination of its fundamental parts. The fundamental parts of the Homeric cosmos consist in three continuous worlds: the vertical, the horizontal, and the human. By the vertical we mean the immutable and hierarchical order of being which culminates in the celestial, the transcendent and eternal realm of the gods. The horizontal world, on the other hand, is the terrestrial and level world of becoming and passing away, potentiality, change, and multiplicity, the visible manifold of being. And the human world is the world of man himself, the nexus between the vertical and horizontal worlds.

In the Odyssey, Homer uses the loom and the mast to express the relationship among these three worlds. In fact, Homer uses the same word for both “loom” and “mast”: histos. The loom and the mast are linked etymologically because both are things that stand vertically, histos being derived from histemi, to set up, rise or stand. More significantly, the loom and the mast are linked symbolically because Homer uses them as symbols of what has traditionally been called the axis mundi, or “world axis.”4

The existence of a stationary and invisible vertical world axis is part of the natural experience of mankind, for its presence is implied by the circular motion of the constellations around a fixed point. When Odysseus leaves the island of Kalypso, he navigates his course by means of the Bear,

who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orion,
and she alone is never plunged into the wash of the Ocean (v. 274-275).5

The motion of the constellations would appear random and chaotic to man if there were no motionless center of reference that determined and made possible the perception of their circular pathways. Odysseus – that is, man – can only find his way through the changing world and achieve his homecoming, the highest actualization of his nature, by taking his bearings from the unchanging, the eternal. The vertical world axis, standing at the center of all things, unifies and orders all other worlds to itself, thus making a whole or cosmos possible and actual. To do this it must penetrate the planes of the lesser worlds. Hence, it is like an axis that runs through everything determining the character and station of all it sets in motion while itself remaining unmoved or unchanged.

The pole star, around which the Bear and the other constellations revolve, is a visible image, a sign, of the celestial culmination or zenith of the vertical world axis. This axis is itself the symbol of immutable Being, the actual, which is never “plunged” or dispersed into horizontal multiplicity, contingency, generation and decay, namely, the formless, potential and chaotic world of the ocean. Nonetheless, the world axis penetrates the mundane horizontal world and turns or draws it to its center, to fullness of Being. As the motionless center of all motion, the world axis is analogous to Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” which is itself motionless or unmoved, but is nevertheless the cause of all motion. That is to say, the world axis represents “pure act”: the axis itself is “actionless,” but it is the center of all activity and that which causes all other things to act.6

The significance of the world axis and the pole star is identical to that of the divine and transcendent Olympus, which rests at the summit of reality, motionless, eternal, and immune from the imperfection and corruption of the horizontal world:

So the grey-eyed Athene spoke and went from her
to Olympos, where the abode of the gods stands firm and unmoving
forever, they say, and is not shaken with winds nor spattered
with rains, nor does snow pile ever there, but the shining bright air
stretches cloudless away, and the white light glances upon it (vi. 41-5).

In determination and guidance of the mortal sphere the immortal gods descend from and ascend to Olympus. As the story of the Odyssey makes clear, submission to and union with the vertical world is the path that secures man’s wholeness and his salvation. How man is to achieve this union and completion of his being is expressed not only through occasions of piety and outward deference to explicit manifestations of the divine (as in the visitations of Hermes and Athene), but also through the symbolic association of characters with signs of the vertical, in particular, the mast and the loom, and finally through the spiritual reunion of Odysseus and Penelope.

In order to illustrate the various ways in which Homer employs vertical symbols to express the relationship between the divine and human worlds, we will consider first the great loom of Penelope, which is the central symbol of the world axis in the Odyssey. In all three accounts of Penelope’s famous ruse, she is said to weave on a great (mega) loom,7 which distinguishes her loom and her weaving from the many other looms and weavers portrayed by Homer. Moreover, Penelope’s unique status as a weaver is even displayed in her name, Penelope being a combination of pene, the thread on the shuttle or woof, and lopizein, to cover or to wrap up.

PenelopeLoom

In weaving the vertical threads are called the warp and the horizontal threads the woof. The warp never changes, it provides a base or support for the woof, and it must be present before the woof can begin to form. As a symbol, the warp represents that which is always present, that which is prior to the existence of any other thing, and that upon which all other things depend. While the great loom of Penelope represents the world axis or Being in its essential unity, the vertical threads, which are hung on the loom prior to weaving, represent the vertical descent and influence of Being through all levels of existence. Thus the vertical threads can be said to correspond to the essential qualities or forms of things, things that never change. The woof, on the other hand, which is wound alternately around the warp, represents matter that is ordered into sensible forms by the permanent and motionless vertical threads of the warp. As such, the woof symbolizes an endless potential to embody the immutable essences. The warp, when covered with the woof, represents the forms of things when they have taken on the dimensions of time and space. In Platonic terms, the vertical threads are to the horizontal threads as the Forms are to the multiplicity of things that “participate” in them; for regardless of the manner in which a Form is particularized, the Form remains as itself; it has an existence of its own behind the overlay of the woof. The woof can be unwoven and the warp still remains. Accordingly, the vertical threads represent what is eternal and absolute in the cosmos while the horizontal threads represent what is changing and varied. In this context, then, the vertical threads represent the active or masculine cosmic principle, which is immutably present in the world just as the warp vertically penetrates through all levels of the woof as it structures it. This makes the woof symbolic of the feminine or material cosmic principle since it is passive or receptive to the ordering agency of the warp.8

Through the symbolism of weaving, Homer portrays the cosmos as a great web, and Penelope’s ruse of weaving during the day and unweaving at night represents the rhythmic process that characterizes the cosmos. By bringing together the woof and warp and then separating the two, Penelope’s weaving and unweaving mirrors the cosmic joining and separating of matter and form; form and matter unite only to separate, or, they separate only to unite anew.9 Penelope symbolizes the force that is responsible for this rhythmic process; she is Nature who weaves on the cosmic loom, who joins and separates the “vertical” and the “horizontal,” the immutable and the variable. This force of Nature is evident in the realm where there is birth and death, light and darkness, and where there is a rhythmical change from one state to the other.

Just as Penelope weaves and unweaves in order to prevent the suitors from uniting with her, so Nature continuously joins and separates the vertical and the horizontal worlds to prevent an imperfect union from lasting. Thus the essence of Nature is exhibited through two aspects: one maternal and the other destructive. Penelope is the mother of Telemachus and the weaver of a shroud for Laertes; she brings life to Odysseus and death to the suitors. And just as Penelope weaves up the vertical threads in order to bring her web into fuller existence, so Nature is continuously joining herself to the vertical and giving birth to material reality through her receptivity to the vertical order. And yet, in order to prevent unworthy suitors from permanently attaching themselves to her estate, Nature has an equivalent descending movement that separates the horizontal from the vertical, much as Penelope unravels at night what she has woven during the day. Thus Nature shows herself through two complementary movements: one ascending and the other descending, represented by weaving and unweaving, respectively.

It should be remembered that in both weaving and unweaving, the movement of the horizontal thread, which follows the to-and-fro motion of the shuttle, is ordered and regulated by the “actionless” influence of the permanent vertical threads, just as the movement of the constellations is ordered and regulated by the “actionless” influence of the pole star. Thus the motionless and immutable presence of the world axis determines the two movements of Nature, who winds herself up and down the world axis. This relationship is succinctly expressed by the staff of Hermes, or caduceus: the world axis is represented by the golden staff while the two movements of Nature are represented by the two entwined snakes which wind themselves in opposite directions around the length of the staff. We can understand, then, why Penelope, who is often found near a pillar, a symbol of the cosmic axis, is continually depicted as either ascending or descending the stairs leading to her upper chamber.10

HermesCaduceus

Homer represents the ascending and descending movements of Nature as being present in all things, for even the realm of Poseidon manifests her rhythmic process. Charybdis, one of the many faces of Poseidon, exhibits on the level of absolute necessity the two movements of Nature. This is made clear when Circe warns Odysseus as follows:

There is a great fig tree grows there, dense with foliage,
and under this shining Charybdis sucks down the black water.
For three times a day she flows it up, and three times she sucks it
terribly down; may you not be there when she sucks down water
for not even the Earthshaker could rescue you out of that evil (xii. 101-7).

Here the world axis is represented by the great fig tree, which, standing above Charybdis, provides a measure by which the continuous flowing up and sucking down can be determined. Like the tide of the ocean, even the terrible motion of Charybdis reveals the orderly pattern of ascension and descension by which one can perceive the essence of Nature.

As a creature of Nature, man also exhibits her characteristic movements as is evident from such involuntary rhythms as inhaling and exhaling, waking and sleeping, coming to be and passing away. Like the horizontal thread, man himself is woven into the cosmic web by the to-and-fro motion of Nature’s shuttle,11 and therefore he is polytropos or “much-turned,” governed as he is by the natural processes of generation and decay. Nonetheless, Nature does not rule men tyrannically, but only those men who would tyrannize her. The suitors of Penelope, whom Homer first characterizes by their dice-playing (i. 107) – a game of chance – view the world and nature as ruled by Fortune rather than by a natural and divine order to which they are subject and must submit. As such, Nature is to be controlled and exploited to satisfy self-serving and profane desires and pleasures; that is, Penelope is to be conquered.12 The suitors, therefore, are appropriately portrayed as eating up the home of Penelope, taking what Nature has to offer in terms of food and drink only. When the suitors discover that Penelope is unweaving at night, they force her to finish her weaving; they want her to weave but not to unweave. Because they see Nature as random flux and therefore malleable to man’s will, they try to deny that they are subject to Nature’s rhythm and must pass away. Thus the suitors force Penelope to complete her weaving, but they fail to force Nature to conform to their desires because the completed garment is a shroud. Despite the efforts of men like the suitors, Nature retains her passing away side, and the completed shroud foreshadows the death of the suitors.

Ironically, those men who attempt to compel Nature not to destroy them are thereby destroyed by Nature, as the suitors themselves testify in Hades (xxiv. 125-8). Odysseus, on the other hand, represents man’s potential for joining with Nature as husband with wife. Penelope promises that she will marry when the shroud is completed, and she finishes it on the very day that Odysseus returns to Ithaka (xxiv. 147-50). Penelope’s promise indicates that Nature’s two fundamental aspects cannot be separated: marriage brings life while the shroud implies death; the one cannot be without the other. Whatever comes to be must pass away, but for Homer this process is not futile, for it allows for the possibility of a true union between man and Nature. Penelope weaves and unweaves in order to prevent a union with an unworthy suitor. Likewise, by ending whatever she begins, Nature is protected from men like the suitors who would force her to be other than what she is. The same process, however, provides the possibility for a man to “marry” Nature, for she is always bringing man into being. Paradoxically, Nature herself frees man from the very rhythm to which she initially subjects him.

Homer’s account of the wanderings of Odysseus through the horizontal realm (as depicted by the vast expanse of the ocean), suggests that there are everywhere vertical “links” with the world axis, as indeed the symbolism of weaving implies. In three of the episodes in the Odyssey, Homer depicts Odysseus’ relationship to the world axis by means of a ship’s mast: Odysseus puts out the eye of the Cyclops with a great bludgeon of olive wood which is likened to the mast of a ship (ix. 319-25); Odysseus is able to listen to the song of the Sirens while standing tied upright to the ship’s mast (xii. 179); and Odysseus saves himself by lashing together the ship’s mast and keel after his ship and crew are destroyed by Zeus (xii. 424).

In the Cyclops episode, Odysseus discovers the mast-like beam of olive wood in the Cyclops’ cave, and he hides it beneath all the dung that is everywhere lying about (ix. 329-31). This indicates that the world axis is immutably present in all circumstances, however base.13 But the Cyclops, whose single eye is an outward sign of his solipsistic perspective and radically individualistic way of life, places himself at the center of all things, and therefore he is blind to the presence of the world axis, it being necessarily hidden from his self-focused and self-centered view. As the son of Poseidon, Polyphemos’ extreme individualism mirrors the chaos of his father’s realm in that each individual being becomes the measure of reality in the denial of any universal standard or measure.14 As a result, the Cyclopses are apolitical:

These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsel;
rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed
among the peaks of high mountains, and each one is the law
for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others (ix. 112-5).

Each Cyclops is his own law; that is, they are lawless.15 Polyphemos denies that he must submit in any way to Zeus (ix. 273-80). Nonetheless, when filled with the divine wine Polyphemos is made passive; and while lying horizontally on the ground (ix. 371) his single eye – his “world view” – is penetrated by the vertical world axis. By having Odysseus put out the single eye of the Cyclops with the mast-like beam, Homer fittingly demonstrates the inherent “blindness” of the Cyclops’ perspective in the presence of the world axis.

As opposed to Polyphemos, who must be forced to be passive because he refuses to be ruled by what is higher than himself, Odysseus chooses to be passive in his manner of escape from the cave. Odysseus explains his plan as follows:

There were some male sheep, rams, well nourished, thick and fleecy,
handsome and large, with a dark depth of wool. Silently
I caught these and lashed them together with pliant willow
withes, where the monstrous Cyclops lawless of mind had used to
sleep. I had them in threes, and the one in the middle carried
a man, while the other two went on each side, so guarding
my friends. Three rams carried each man, but as for myself
there was one ram, far the finest of the flock. This one
I clasped around the back, snuggled under the wool of the belly,
and stayed there still, and with a firm twist of the hands and enduring
spirit clung fast to the glory of this fleece, unrelenting.
So we grieved for a time and waited for the divine Dawn (ix. 425-36).

OdysseusRam2

The above passage is presented by Homer is such a way as to call his audience’s attention to the peculiar fact that Odysseus and his men spend the night underneath the rams. In addition, earlier in the episode, Homer makes a special effort to mention the presence of the male sheep (ix. 237-9, 337-9), and here again he emphasizes the role of the male sheep in Odysseus’ escape. Taking these seemingly insignificant details together, it appears that Homer intends to suggest to his audience that Odysseus and his men have spent the night in the feminine or passive position in sexual intercourse beneath the male sheep. The adoption of this position is significant not only strategically, but also symbolically. The sheep, which descend into the dark cave every night (ix. 336) and then ascend into the daylight every morning (ix. 307-14), exhibit and represent the two movements of Nature. As the sheep leave the cave with Odysseus and his men underneath them, Polyphemos

felt over the backs of all his sheep, standing
up as they were, but in his guilelessness did not notice
how my men were fastened under the breasts of his fleecy sheep (ix. 441-444).

Polyphemos’ “oversight” reflects his single-minded understanding of the relationship between man and Nature. A Cyclops, who sees himself as the complete master of his own world, can only conceive of active domination of Nature rather than passive submission to Nature’s rhythm. Therefore, Polyphemos assumes that Odysseus would only ride on top of the sheep rather than underneath them. Odysseus’ willingness to be passive to Nature, which foreshadows his coming to Penelope as a beggar, allows him to escape from the world of the Cyclops, such an escape being possible only when man places himself in harmony with the rhythm of Nature, that is, “marries” Nature, just as Odysseus adapts his plan to the descending and ascending movements of the sheep.

Despite his willingness to be passive to Nature’s rhythm, it is important to note that Odysseus initiates the confrontation with the Cyclops. From the moment they enter the cave of Polyphemos, Odysseus’ companions beg him to take the cheeses, lambs and kids and to leave the cave before the Cyclops returns (ix. 224-6). But it is Odysseus’s desire to learn the nature of the Cyclops which brings them into the cave in the first place and which causes them to wait for the Cyclops’ return:

The rest of you, who are my eager companions, wait here,
while I, with my own ship and companions that are in it,
go and find out about these people, and learn what they are,
whether they are savage and violent, and without justice,
or hospitable to strangers and with minds that are godly (ix. 172-176).

Odysseus’ companions, who beg him to flee, do not share Odysseus’ desire to know and his sense of wonder (cf. ix. 190).16 It can also be said, however, that they do not share Odysseus’ hubris and vanity. Odysseus remains in the cave for the return of the Cyclops not only because he wonders about the nature of the Cyclops, but also to see if the Cyclops will give him gifts (ix. 229). Odysseus’ arrogance is matched only by the arrogance of Polyphemos whom Homer employs as a mirror of Odysseus’ soul. Having just left ten years of fighting at Troy, Odysseus’ first act is to sack Ismaros (ix. 39-40), thereby manifesting his Cyclopean perspective, having an eye only for war. Indeed, in the Cyclops episode Odysseus violates the cave of Polyphemos (ix. 216-33) and hubristically vaunts himself before the Cyclops by boasting of the number of Trojan men to whose death he has been a party (ix. 259-71). In this way, even while in the position of a suppliant, Odysseus vainly exalts himself and the Achaians and implicitly challenges Polyphemos to demonstrate that he is superior to the Achaians in the same way that the Achaians were superior to the Trojans. Polyphemos, of course, immediately accepts Odysseus’ challenge by killing and eating two of his men.

Just as the man of many ways is also much-turned, so Odysseus’ vanity is the reverse side of his desire to know. Man’s intellect not only characterizes man as man, a being capable of finding his home in the cosmos, but also allows him to go astray, to lose his homecoming, to fail to achieve the very thing of which his intellect makes him capable. Vanity presents this danger to the soul because it blinds man to the reality outside of himself. The arrogant man fails to achieve his homecoming because he fails to understand his true place in the world. By representing the internal danger of vanity to Odysseus by means of the external menace of the Cyclops, Homer uses the Cyclops episode to dramatize the confrontation within the soul between vanity and the quest for self-knowledge. Because Polyphemos is a reflection of Odysseus himself, Odysseus’ desire to learn the nature of the Cyclops indicates his desire to know himself, to confront and overcome those aspects of himself that are Cyclopean: his vanity, arrogance, and brutishness. And because Odysseus’ struggle is with his vain desire for glory, Homer appropriately names the Cyclops “Polyphemos,” which means “much-fame.”

In each man’s symbolic confrontation with the Cyclops, he must either “blind” his vanity or be destroyed by being blinded by it. Odysseus’ companions, who beg Odysseus to avoid the Cyclops, represent those men who do not seek self-knowledge: they are afraid to confront the Cyclops within themselves. Those who are killed in their confrontation with the Cyclops represent men who are destroyed by their own Cyclopean tendencies: to be eaten by the Cyclops is to be symbolically “consumed” by one’s vanity. Odysseus, however, who discerns the presence of the world axis within the cave of Polyphemos (ix. 318-31), grasps and employs the mast-like beam as a weapon to penetrate the Cyclops within himself.

In overcoming Polyphemos, Odysseus saves his companions as well as himself by tying them underneath the rams. Odysseus is able to “cling fast” to Nature without the need for conventional “ties,” but his companions must be bound to Nature if they are to be saved. While Odysseus “grasps” the essential unity of Nature, the companions are attached to a plurality of three rams tied together in a clumsy imitation of one. Unable to confront directly and to overcome the Cyclops, the companions are dependent upon artifice to escape. But because Odysseus himself is joined to Nature, his art is informed by Nature and therefore it is not arbitrary or “Cyclopean,” that is, the whim of an individual man. As the natural ruler, Odysseus’ political authority is grounded in Nature, and the restraints imposed upon the companions bind them to Nature’s rhythm; they are necessary for their survival.

In the episode of the Sirens, the second episode in which a ship’s mast plays an important role, it is Odysseus who is tied to the mast while his men remain untied. Here, however, the bonds have been self-imposed, and Odysseus’ open ears must be contrasted with the closed ears of his men. Having been initiated by Circe, the meaning of which we will discuss below, Odysseus is able to take the necessary precautions that he explains to his men as follows:

but only I, she said, was to listen to them, but you must tie me
hard in hurtful bonds, to hold me fast in position
upright against the mast, with the ropes’ ends fastened around it (xii. 159-162).

Odysseus chooses to be bound “upright” (orthon) and “immovable” (empedon) to the mast rather than to the Sirens whose name literally means “binders” or “entanglers.” Homer seems to suggest that man, the creature who stands upright, is an axis akin to the world axis, which is likewise “upright” and “immovable.” The human axis and the world axis can be as one. The alternative is offered by the Sirens who seek to entice Odysseus with their sweet song:

Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,
and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing;
for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship
until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues
from our lips; then goes on, well pleased, knowing more than ever
he did, for we know everything that the Argives and Trojans
did and suffered in wide Troy through the gods’ despite.
We know as much as comes to be over the generous earth (xii. 184-91).

The Sirens promise Odysseus that he will know more (pleiona) than he did before listening to them, and the word “as much as” (hossa) further emphasizes the quantitative nature of the knowledge they promise. According to the Sirens themselves, their knowledge is limited to the things of the earth, that is, the things in the realm of multiplicity, the things that “come to be” (genetai). In direct contrast to divine Being and the qualitative “vertical” knowledge symbolized by the mast, Homer uses the Sirens to represent the specious allure of “horizontal” knowledge and the world, which is signified here by the beach before them “piled with bone heaps of men now rotted away” (xii. 45-46), for most men are enticed to bind themselves to the things that come to be and pass away rather than to Being itself.

Through the episode of the Sirens, Homer teaches that the human axis is an image of the world axis, and that man can comprehend within himself the full “vertical” dimension of the cosmos. Man’s upright posture, which allows him to look up as Odysseus looks up to the guided by the pole star, is an outward sign of his inward affinity with what is above the things of the earth (cf. v. 272-5). For Homer, man has access and is uniquely suited to what is outside and above himself. While this gives man his unique status in the natural world, it also presents the possibility for man to see himself as the world axis, as “the measure of all things,” and not simply as its image or reflection. The Sirens represent the overwhelming attraction that this possibility holds for man, no man being capable of resisting this temptation unless he has been properly initiated, as is Odysseus, or restrained, as the ears of the companions are filled with wax. The Sirens represent the same danger to the soul as the Cyclops: intellectual vanity. They flatter “honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,” promising him knowledge of the horizontal world. Indeed, the Sirens sing their sweet song in the souls of all men, seductively suggesting that there is no higher knowledge than each man’s own.

Odysseus’ willingness to be bound with hurtful bonds upright against the mast saves him and his companions from the otherwise irresistible Sirens.17 Paradoxically, man becomes truly free only when he submits himself to what is higher than man. And the paradox inherent in the idea of “enslaving” oneself in order to become free is made even more paradoxical by the fact that the man who rejects “horizontal” knowledge for “vertical” knowledge also gains “horizontal” knowledge, that is, a proper appreciation of the value and meaning of temporal things, for Odysseus is the only one who is able to listen to the Sirens without being destroyed.18

Odysseus is able to sail past the Sirens because he is initiated by Circe. Prior to his initiation, however, Odysseus must confront and overcome Circe who has turned his companions into pigs. On his way to the house of Circe, Odysseus encounters Hermes who gives him the mysterious moly:

So spoke Hermes, and he gave me the medicine,
which he picked out of the ground, and he explained the nature
of it to me. It was black at the root, but with a milky
flower. The gods call it moly. It is hard for mortal
men to dig up, but the gods have the power to do all things (x. 302-6).

It should first be noted that the moly exhibits the ascending and descending movements of Nature: its black root grows downward into the darkness while its white flower grows upward to the light. Therefore the black root, which actively seeks nourishment from the dark earth, is seemingly opposed to the white flower, which mysteriously ascends out of the descending root and passively receives the light of the sun. Nonetheless, it is only through the nourishment acquired through the dark root that the white flower can bloom. Like the moly, man is rooted in the darkness and yet longs for the light; he stands on the earth and yet looks up to the heavens. The human axis, like the world axis, participates in both the high and the low. Man stands between the darkness and the light, and this is exactly the situation in which Odysseus and his men find themselves when they first arrive on Circle’s island, Aiaia. Odysseus says to his men:

Dear friends, for we do not know where the darkness is nor the sunrise,
nor where the Sun who shines upon people rises, nor where
he sets, then let us hasten our minds and think, whether there is
any course left open to us. But I think there is none (x. 190-193).

Just as the white flower of the moly is dependent upon the black root, so man’s quest for self-knowledge is paradoxically fueled by his vanity. However, man’s black root can ultimately be dug out of the ground, although he cannot dig himself out by his powers alone. As the passivity of the flower suggests, man is dependent upon help from above if he is to transcend the darkness, and this help is only forthcoming when man recognizes his need for it, just as Odysseus here acknowledges for the first time that there is no course left open to him (x. 193).

Odysseus refers to the moly as medicine (x. 302). The moly is a spiritual medicine to heal the divided nature of man and to make him whole. In giving the moly to Odysseus, Hermes, who carries a golden staff, a symbol of the world axis (x. 277; xxiv. 3), presents an image of Odysseus’ true self to him. By digging the moly out of the ground, Hermes dramatizes the symbolism of the moly by freeing the flower from its dependence upon the root, just as the moly itself saves Odysseus from Circe, who turns men into pigs by putting drugs in their food and drink. Odysseus’ companions are turned into pigs because, like the suitors, they relate to Nature only on the level of food and drink. The companions are not married to Nature as men but as animals: they are “married” to their material desires. Circe represents this lower aspect of Nature that seduces man through that aspect of himself. But Circe can be seduced herself, and when this happens she leads man toward the higher aspect of Nature. Like man and the moly, Circe, as the offspring of Helios and Perse, daughter of Ocean, is herself a divided creature who initially serves the dark powers of Poseidon, but who can be forced to serve the light of Helios. Man is a part of the realm that is symbolized by the moly’s black root, but when he sees that the black root nourishes a white flower, he can overcome his enslavement to the root by realizing that the root is there for the sake of the flower. Odysseus, who is taught the nature of the moly by Hermes, is able to overcome Circe as a result of his knowledge that the lower aspect of Nature is not the whole of Nature. When man acknowledges his need for the reality outside of himself, he can bring himself toward it through the lower aspect of Nature.

Circe represents both the malignancy and benevolence of Nature: she is injurious to those men who are prone to dissipate themselves or indulge their material wants in her material abundance; but she also contains the secrets of the horizontal world, the science of which is necessary for man’s homecoming. It is only by uniting with Circe in the “bed of love,” not by exploiting her material plenitude, that Odysseus acquires knowledge of the realm of Poseidon, the horizontal world, and of the underworld: the Sirens, Skylla, Charybdis, Thrinakia, and Hades. Circe’s instructions to Odysseus are vital to his self-mastery, to his victory over cupidity, fear, and false self-reliance, which are put to the test by his voyage to Hades and the subsequent “horizontal” trials. The abandonment of the appetitive self and vanity in favor of the attachment to the vertical becomes the pattern by which Odysseus is continually saved from the ravages of the horizontal world and its temporal allurements.

But if Odysseus is to be saved and have his homecoming by learning and incorporating what is above, the divine light, he must first come to know what is below; he must experience or suffer darkness and death and thereby entrust himself to the wisdom and guidance of the divine. In following Circe’s instructions, Odysseus demonstrates his unity with Nature not only by heeding her teaching, but also by participating in her mode of being. The descent and ascent from Hades reflects the rhythms of Nature who continuously brings forth life only by a prior return to receptivity, potentiality, or death – a passive or quiescent state which anticipates the penetrating creativity of divine being and intelligence, and the vital determination by the cosmic axis – hence the cycle of the seasons. Nature herself is continuous and only those who stand in permanent opposition to her, like the suitors, will suffer destruction without regeneration. By experiencing the realm of the dead, Odysseus reaches that psychic state of quiescence, which parallels nature’s receptive mode, and anticipates intercourse with the divine and thereby transcendence of the natural per se and natural decay. Thus, in Hades Odysseus meets the prophet Teiresias who, like Hermes, carries a golden staff which symbolizes the world axis, for the vertical or divine being which orders all things is present also at the nadir of the cosmos, that is, the underworld. Teiresias, who alone possesses intelligence in Hades (x. 494), imparts his “vertical” knowledge to Odysseus, which reveals the way home. Through the reception of this “vertical” knowledge, Odysseus returns to the realm of the living and escapes death because he shares in divine being. The way beyond Nature, then, is through Nature. And man must descend before he ascends or transcends. It is fitting, then, that when Odysseus returns to Circe’s island after having descended into the darkness of Hades (xi. 14-19), Odysseus reports that he came back to the island of Aiaia,

where lies the house of early Dawn, her dancing
spaces, and where Helios, the sun, makes his uprising (xii. 3-4).

Having been ignorant upon his arrival at Aiaia of where the darkness or sunrise is, or where the sun rises or sets (x. 190-193), Odysseus now knows that the sun makes his rising at Aiaia. Having stood between the darkness and the light, between Circe and Hermes, Odysseus, like the dug up moly, has transcended the darkness and emerged into the light.

The last episode in which a ship’s mast plays an important role is the destruction of Odysseus’ ship and his men after they eat the oxen of Helios. Odysseus, who stands alone against the self-destructive wishes of his companions, is compelled by their greater numbers to give in to their desire to rest on the island of Helios (xii. 297). True to their nature as revealed by Circe’s transforming them into pigs, the companions cannot endure their hunger and they violate their oath to Odysseus not to eat the oxen of Helios. Here Homer presents the essential tragedy of political life and demonstrates the limits of Odysseus’ political authority. Odysseus’ authority is based upon his superior knowledge, not his brute strength; therefore, his rule must be accepted by the many who are in need of it. However, because the many lack “vertical” knowledge themselves, they are unable to recognize it in Odysseus.19 As the audience is told in the invocation of the Muse, Odysseus cannot save his companions from themselves:

Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun of God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming (i. 6-9).

When Odysseus goes off alone to pray to the gods, his companions devise a plan to eat the cattle:

Then I went away along the island in order
to pray to the gods, if any of them might show me some course
to sail on, but when, crossing the isle, I had left my companions
behind, I washed my hands, where there was a place sheltered
from the wind, and prayed to all the gods whose hold in Olympos (xii. 333-337).

In his absence, Odysseus’ companions are left to their own devices, and they soon undertake their own destruction. Odysseus, by his very nature, literally and symbolically leaves his companions behind in his quest for divine assistance and knowledge.20

Significantly, Zeus’ assault on the ship begins with the toppling of the mast (xii. 405-10). With Odysseus’ men having ignored the repeated warnings from those possessing “vertical” knowledge, that is, Circe, Teiresias, and Odysseus himself (xii. 266-76), the vertical link between the men and Zeus is leveled. Indeed, Homer drives this point home in his account of the mast’s destruction:

and the blast of the stormwind snapped both the forestays that where holding
the mast, and the mast went over backwards, and all the running gear
collapsed in the wash; and at the stern of the ship the mast pole
crashed down on the steerman’s head and pounded to pieces
all the bones of his head, so that he like a diver
dropped from the high deck, and the proud life left his bones there (xii. 409-414).

The steerman, who represents here the false course chosen by Odysseus’ companions, has his head appropriately crushed by the mast, for man cannot find his way without the “vertical” knowledge of the world axis. Ironically, that which ought to be man’s salvation becomes the destroyer of his “proud life” when man uses his intellect to turn away from the divine. Odysseus, who alone does not perish after the apocalyptic eating of the oxen of Helios, lashes together the mast and the keel (xii. 424). While Homer distinguishes Odysseus from his men in every episode, here, at the crucial point when all the others lose their homecoming (xxi. 417-9), Homer has Odysseus attach himself once more to the mast, albeit in a submerged or horizontal state. By bringing together the mast and the keel, the vertical and the horizontal, Odysseus imitates the weaving of Penelope, that is, he imitates the rhythm of Nature who brings together the “vertical” and the “horizontal” on the cosmic loom. As a creature of both worlds, man finds his salvation in his ability to imitate Nature in reconciling these two worlds.21

Floating upon the mast and the keel, Odysseus is once again swept into the face of the twin dangers of Skylla and Charybdis. He escapes the rhythmical flowing up and sucking down of Charybdis (the natural cycle of generation and destruction) by grasping the fig tree above (the world axis):

I came to the sea rock of Skylla, and dreaded Charybdis.
At this time Charybdis sucked down the sea’s salt water,
but I reached high in the air above me, to where the tall fig tree
grew, and caught hold of it and clung like a bat (xii. 430-33).

Like a bat, man is blind and turned upside down in the face of divine reality; and yet, by viewing the descending and ascending movements of Nature from a more detached position, Odysseus is able to save himself by harmonizing his movements with those of Charybdis, just as he did with the sheep when he escaped from the cave of the Cyclops. Thus, when Charybdis vomits the mast and the keel back up again, Odysseus drops down “between” the two long timbers, once more finding his proper place between the two worlds which he must reconcile (xii. 437-444).

Odysseus’ arrangement, however, is finally artificial. Man cannot, it seems, hold the two worlds, upper and lower, together on his own. He cannot contrive reconciliation with the divine, such efforts being ultimately futile without direct assistance from above. Hence, according to Kalypso, she saved Odysseus “when he clung astride the keel board all alone” (v. 130-132; vii. 251-254). Odysseus, all alone in the vast expanse of the ocean, was unable to keep the mast and the keel lashed together in the journey from Charybdis to Ogygia, home of Kalypso. In this way, Homer indicates that all man’s attempts to imitate Nature are subject to decay, and that man must wander in the horizontal world until he reunites with Nature herself, namely, Penelope. But now, as is suggested by his clinging to the keel board without the mast, Odysseus finds himself in the embrace of the horizontal world as embodied in the voluptuous appeal of Kalypso. Nonetheless, Odysseus’ orientation to the vertical and his longing for home and Penelope, brings him to eventual dissatisfaction with the mere sensuality of Kalypso and drives him away from her false promise of immortality. This promise, like the false promise of the Sirens, involves the seeming immortality that follows from making one’ self the measure of reality, thereby creating the illusion of having achieved divinity. But, as the entire thrust of the Odyssey makes clear, man can only reach the safe haven of home, the salvific favor of the divine, by trial and submission to the supreme cosmic authorities, not by languishing in sensual pleasure and solipsism. As is evident from the council of the gods, Odysseus must fulfill the supreme and absolute purpose of Zeus and Athena (i. 32-95).

Now, just as Odysseus is in need of Penelope (to whom he returns as a beggar) in order to fulfill his nature, so too Penelope (Nature) needs Odysseus to be completed herself. According to the suitors after they have been sent down to Hades, Penelope does not complete the great web until the very day Odysseus returns to Ithaka:

Then she displayed the great piece of weaving that she had woven.
She washed it, and it shone like the sun or the moon. At that time
an evil spirit, coming from somewhere, brought back Odysseus
to the remote part of his estate, where his swineherd was living (xxiv. 147-150).

Penelope’s completed web is said to shine like the sun or the moon. As a symbol, the sun corresponds to the active or masculine cosmic principle in that it is a source of direct light, the form of which never changes. The moon, on the other hand, corresponds to the passive or feminine cosmic principle in that its light is indirect, reflecting the light of the sun in a form that is ever-changing. In terms of the symbolism of weaving, the sun and the moon stand in the same relation to one another as do the vertical and horizontal threads. Therefore, for Penelope’s web to be described as shining like the sun or the moon implies that the duality of the two fundamental cosmic principles has been synthesized into a higher unity, just as the vertical and horizontal threads combine to make a single whole. For to say “sun or moon” as opposed to “sun and moon” indicates that the light from the web does not come from two distinct parts, but that the light cannot be distinguished as coming from one or the other. This relationship of the sun and the moon is also expressed in the repeated description of a golden pitcher and a silver basin:

A maidservant brought water for them and poured it from a splendid
and golden pitcher, holding it above a silver basin
for them to wash, and she pulled a polished table before them. (i. 136-138)22

Here the active and passive poles of existence are represented by the golden pitcher and silver basin, respectively, gold being related to silver as the sun is to the moon; for gold seems to contain light within itself, thereby being a source of direct light, while silver passively reflects light like a mirror. The golden pitcher fills the receptive silver basin from above while man, who stands between these poles, is cleansed by their interplay.23

That Penelope does not complete the great web, her “great piece of weaving” (xxiv. 147), until Odysseus returns to Ithaka suggests that the primordial wholeness of things has been restored – “it shone like the sun or the moon” – the universal contraries have been unified, earth and heaven reunited, the horizontal and the vertical reconciles, cosmic integration reestablished out of relativity, fragmentation, and opposition, a state contrary to Being and the ultimate good. That there is a need for reconciliation of the fundamental components of the whole implies that there is a certain opposition between them, between man on the one hand and Nature and the cosmic order on the other, and that for Being and universal happiness they must return to their original union. This opposition is symbolized by Odysseus’ departure from Penelope to go to Troy. Certainly Homer emphasizes the connection between Odysseus’ departure and his return to Penelope by having his departure discussed by the disguised Odysseus and Penelope when they first speak together after having been apart for twenty years. In testing the truth of Odysseus’ claim to have seen Odysseus, Penelope asks him to describe the clothing that Odysseus wore. Odysseus then gives the following description:

Great Odysseus was wearing a woolen mantle of purple,
with two folds, but the pin to it was golden and fashioned
with double sheathes, and the front part of it was artfully
done: a hound held in his forepaws a dappled
fawn, preying on it as it struggled; and all admired it,
how, though they were golden, it preyed on the fawn and strangled it
and the fawn struggled with his feet as he tried to escape him (xix. 225-232).

The two folds in the mantle, the double sheathes of the pin, and the struggle of the hound and the fawn all stress duality and opposition. The struggle of the hound and the fawn especially represents the fundamental opposition between and activity and passivity or receptivity, which characterize Odysseus and Penelope, respectively.

Because Homer uses the story of Odysseus and Penelope to demonstrate and celebrate the return and marriage of man with Nature (the reconciliation of the active and the passive), Homer largely employs the Telemachy to portray their prior opposition. At first man is united with Nature as her child or offspring, and then there must be maturation and separation before he can become her husband. Telemachus leaves the home of his mother to search for his father, that is, to seek his origins, the nature of his being and therefore of Being in general. Man’s verticalness causes him to question and to search for the truth, which requires some separation from his natural and conventional circumstances. Odysseus must go to war to learn to control the disparate forces that seek to rule his soul, a process of self-overcoming and cleansing in the quest for what is real, of greatest worth, and abiding. But the answers and the ends toward which Telemachus and Odysseus jointly strive are above the human world. Hence, both their realization and the cleansing of the psychic obstacles to that realization are ultimately a matter of divine assistance and human cooperation as attested finally by Athena’s help in the cleansing of Odysseus’ home (soul) of the suitors (the acquisitive, appetitive, and self-serving elements within the soul which stand in permanent opposition to Nature and seek only to exploit her). Such assistance is possible only if man becomes open to the divine, if man unites with Nature thereby incorporating her femininity or receptivity as Telemachus and Odysseus return to the side of Penelope.24

When Telemachus leaves home in search of his father, Penelope grieves and anxiously awaits his return, just as she grieves for long absent Odysseus. Likewise, Nature “grieves” when Man does not unite with her, for she is not complete until he does so. On the other hand, man is not complete until he has joined with Nature, for until he does so he does not understand his place in the cosmos. While the departure of Telemachus and Odysseus represents the opposition between man and Nature, this separation ultimately serves to establish a true union. As seen by the symbolism of the moly, man is both a part of and apart from Nature: he is part of Nature in that he is a creature of the earth who is ruled by Nature’s rhythm; but he is apart from Nature in that his capacity for “verticalness” allows him to view Nature from outside of her domain. As the highest creature of the natural world, man is paradoxically endowed with the natural capacity to separate himself from Nature, which frees him to understand Nature as she really is. In freely choosing to “return” to Nature as Odysseus returns to Penelope, man fulfills his natural end by completing Nature and being completed himself. This is true in two senses: first, Odysseus as a symbol of the vertical and Penelope as a symbol of the horizontal require each other since Nature without the divine is void and the divine without Nature is unmanifested; and second, the natural condition of man is one of complementary balance between activity and passivity, the masculine and the feminine. Man is therefore the key, for through him the natural and the supernatural worlds are held together in harmony, or they are broken in strife, as effected by Odysseus’ companions and the suitors.

Man’s central position in Nature is further illustrated by Homer in the following description of Odysseus’ arrival on the island of Phaiakia, which foreshadows his return and homecoming to Ithaka:

In the division of his heart this last way seemed best,
and he went to look for some wood and found it close to the water
in a conspicuous place, and stopped underneath two bushes
that grew from the same place, one of shrub, and one of wild olive,
and neither the force of wet-blowing winds could penetrate these
nor could the shining sun ever strike through with his rays, nor yet
could rain pass all the way through them, so close together
were they grown, interlacing each other; and under these now Odysseus
entered, and with his own hands heaped him a bed to sleep on
making it wide, since there was great store of fallen leaves there,
enough for two men to take cover in or even three men
in the winter season, even in the very worst kind of weather.
Seeing this, long-suffering Odysseus was happy,
and lay down in the middle, and made a pile of leaves over him.
As when a man buries a burning log in a black ash heap
in a remote place in the country, where none live near as neighbors,
and saves the seed of fire, having no other place to get a light
from, so Odysseus buried himself in the leaves, and Athene
shed a sleep on his eyes so as most quickly to quit him,
by veiling his eyes, from the exhaustion of his hard labors (v. 474-494).

The image of the two bushes which grow so closely together that they grow alternately (epamoibadis) into one another is reminiscent of Penelope’s web (woven as a shroud to protect the body of Laertes) (ii. 99-103) in which the vertical and horizontal threads are likewise wound alternately together. Moreover, the growth of the two bushes mirrors the growth of the relationship of Odysseus and Penelope who, having so grown that they can embrace each other, reunite on a higher level where their prior opposition is transformed into a complementary union. Just as the two bushes grow from the same place and then separate into two distinct parts only to be jointed again, so the union of Odysseus and Penelope is separated and then reunited. And this union, like the union of the two bushes, provides a secure home for man who finds his home at the center of the natural world where the “vertical” and “horizontal” are reconciled. Like the seed of fire that is buried in a black ash heap, Odysseus’ soul “in” his body is kept alive at the center of Nature’s web, man’s soul being the divine spark akin to the pole star that is never plunged into the ocean.

These same themes are expressed by Homer in his description of Odysseus’ bed where the actual reunion of Odysseus and Penelope takes place. Here the world axis is signified by the immovable bole of an olive tree, which is compared by Odysseus to a column, and which Odysseus shapes into a bed post (xxiii. 183-200). The vertical world, then, intersects the horizontal world at that central point where man and Nature are joined together. By submitting to the divine through the incorporation of Nature’s receptivity to the eternal order, man achieves his homecoming, the perfection of his being, and preservation from destruction.

The reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is a true union, for they unite on the highest level that both man and Nature can attain. The suitors and the handmaidens, on the other hand, who are united on a lower level, must be killed off so that the union of Odysseus and Penelope can be pure. The suitors, who force the handmaidens to sleep with them, represent those men who are not capable of “marrying” Nature in the highest sense. The handmaidens who sleep with the suitors, and who betray Penelope’s ruse to them, represent a lower aspect of Nature, one that succumbs to seduction. When man unites with Nature on the highest level, however, he cannot force her or seduce her, but he must be accepted by her. Thus, Odysseus’ disguise as a beggar is not only strategic, but also symbolic, for is demonstrates his need for Penelope. Penelope must recognize him as worthy before she accepts him as her husband; he cannot force her, for to do so would be to act like one of the suitors. Odysseus is not simply the strongest suitor; he is different from them, and the difference lies in his knowledge of himself and of Nature.

By using marriage as a metaphor for man’s relationship with Nature, Homer is suggesting that to marry Nature is to act in harmony with the way things are. Man can never be fulfilled unless his soul is wedded to Nature, for prior to the soul’s wedding man is without a home. Likewise, a man who has achieved his natural end, who has had his homecoming, is the fulfillment of Nature. This complementariness is portrayed by Homer in the scene where Penelope fully recognizes and embraces the long absent Odysseus:

She spoke, and still more roused in him the passion for weeping.
He wept as he held his lovely wife, whose thoughts were virtuous.
And as when the land appears welcome to men who are swimming
after Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ship on the open
seas, and only a few escape the gray water landward
by swimming, with a thick scarf of salt coated upon them,
and gladly they set foot on the shore, escaping the evil;
so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him,
and she could not let him go from the embrace of her white arms.
Now dawn of the rosy fingers would have dawned on their weeping,
had not the gray-eyed goddess Athene planned it otherwise.
She held the long night back at the outward edge, she detained
Dawn of the golden throne by the Ocean and would not let her
harness her fast-footed horses who bring the daylight to people (xxiii. 231-245).

When the simile begins, the audience assumes that the subject is Odysseus, but the subject changes to become Penelope by the end of the simile. The two are not separate; Odysseus and Penelope are one; man and Nature are one. The union of Odysseus and Penelope symbolizes the union of the “vertical” and the “horizontal,” and thus Athena holds the sun in the ocean; for the sun is a symbol of the eternal, the essential, while the ocean is a symbol for the ever-changing, for potentiality.

If we return now to the first conversation that the disguised Odysseus has with Penelope after twenty years of separation, we are better able to understand the meaning of their exchange. Penelope begins their discourse as follows:

Stranger, I myself first have a question to ask you.
What man are you and whence? Where is your city? Your parents? (xix. 104-5)

Penelope asks Odysseus who he is and what kind of man he is. Penelope asks Odysseus the question that Nature poses to man: she asks him if he knows himself. In his response Odysseus does not disclose his identity, but he answers her question nonetheless by likening Penelope to a well-ruling king:

Lady, no mortal man on the endless earth could have cause
to find fault with you; your fame goes up into the wide heaven,
as of some king who, as a blameless man and god-fearing,
and ruling as lord over many powerful people,
upholds the way of good government, and the black earth yields him
barley and wheat, his trees are heavy with fruit, his sheepflocks
continue to bear young, the sea gives him fish, because of
his good leadership, and his people prosper under him (xix. 107-14).

Odysseus indicates who he is and the kind of man he is by acknowledging and praising the rule of Nature whose rhythms govern man and all the creatures and fruits of the earth, and whose rule is good and self-sustaining even in the absence of a man who has achieved his natural end. However, Odysseus’ praise of Penelope is also ironic; Ithaka, after all, is overrun by the suitors. Unlike the other creatures of the earth, man is not completely passive to Nature’s rhythm since he can, to some extent, act upon and dominate Nature. Thus Odysseus’ praise of Penelope as a king is subtle because it reveals his acceptance of the rule of Nature while simultaneously asking Penelope is she is truly self-sufficient and without need of him. That is to say, Odysseus’ praise indicates that his acquired self-knowledge includes an awareness not only of his dependence upon Nature, but also of his fitness to rule as natural king.

In answering the implicit question Odysseus has asked her, Penelope makes explicit her need for Odysseus:

Stranger, all of my excellence, my beauty and figure,
were ruined by the immortals at that time when the Argives took ship
for Ilion, and with them went my husband, Odysseus.
If he were to come back to me and take care of my life, then
my reputation would be more great and splendid. As it is
now I grieve; such evils the god has let loose upon me (xix. 124-129).

Penelope then reveals to Odysseus the story of the suitors and her weaving and unweaving as a ruse to protect herself (xix. 130-163). Penelope tells Odysseus that she has no way to avoid marriage to a suitor since the great web is finished; but the point seems to be that she needs no more wiles to stave off the suitors, for the proper suitor is at her side. By proposing the contest of the bow, Penelope gives Odysseus the means to destroy the suitors and re-establish order and political life in Ithaka (xix. 570-587). In this way Homer implies that the political order is dependent upon the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus, the wedding of the soul and Nature, a union that participates in and exhibits the order of the cosmos as symbolized by the loom and the union of warp and woof.

As made clear by the presence of the suitors in Ithaka, there is no political authority in Ithaka prior to the return of Odysseus. In fact, the assembly called by Telemachus after Athene’s visit is the first assembly in Ithaka since Odysseus’ departure for Troy twenty years earlier (ii. 25-27). While Odysseus was away, the men of Ithaka became Cyclopean, holding no assemblies and each man going his own way. The suitors, who “rule” Ithaka in Odysseus’ absence, act like Cyclopses: they are lawless, they eat and drink excessively, and Homer even implies that they are cannibals (i. 159-162).

The leader of the suitors is Antinoos whose name means “anti-mind.” The reign of the suitors is against the dictates of reason and it contrasts strongly with the rule in Phaiakia of Alkinoos whose name means “strong-mind.” Phaiakia, which means “radiant place,” represents the ideal political community where Alkinoos or “Strong-mind” rules in marriage with Arete or “Sacred” (vii. 66). Although they formerly lived next to the Cyclopses, the Phaiakians found them too overbearing and migrated to Scheria, which means “cut-off land” (vi. 1-10). The Phaiakians live apart from other men, their geographic remoteness representing the distance between all actual cities and the ideal. Ruled by Alkinoos, “learned in designs from the gods” (vi. 12), the Phaiakians live very close to the gods who always show themselves clearly to the Phaiakians and sit beside them and feast with them (vii. 201-205).

Homer most clearly distinguishes the rule of Alkinoos from the “rule” of the suitors by their differing attitudes towards their respective singers. The suitors force the singer Phemios to sing for them, and they consume his songs like food and drink.25 The Phaiakians, on the other hand, value singing above all else (viii. 579-80); they place their singer Demodokos at the center of their political community and provide for his every need. Consider Homer’s first description of the singer Demodokos:

The herald came near, bringing with him the excellent singer
whom the Muse had loved greatly, and gave him both good and evil.
She reft him of his eyes, but she gave him the sweet singing
art. Pontonoos set a silver-studded chair out for him
in the middle of the feasters, propping it against a tall column,
and the herald hung the clear lyre on a peg placed over
his head, and showed him how to reach up with his hands and take it
down, and set beside him a table and a fine basket,
and beside him a cup to drink whenever his spirit desired it (viii. 62-70).

Just as the world axis, here represented by a tall column, stands at the center of all things, so too Demodokos, who takes his place next to the tall column, is placed in the middle of the feasters. And when the Phaiakians demonstrate their skill in dancing to Odysseus, Demodokos once again moves into the middle:

and the herald came bringing with him the clear lyre
for Demodokos, who moved into the middle, and about him stood forth
young men in the first of their youth, well trained in dancing
and beat the wonderful floor with their feet. Odysseus
gazed on the twinkling of their feet, his heart full of wonder (viii. 261-4).

Demodokos is to the dancers as the pole star is to the constellations. Like the world axis, Demodokos stands at the motionless center while his singing is the cause of the rhythmic motion of those who dance around him.

The singer is not, however, the world axis itself, as Homer indicates in a number of ways. In the first description of Demodokos given above, Demodokos’ chair is propped against the tall column, which indicates that the world axis supports and sustains the singer. Moreover, Demodokos’ lyre is hung on the tall column “on a peg placed over his head,” which suggests that the source of song is located “above” the human mind, the source being “grasped” only when one “reaches up” (cf. xii. 432). That the source of song is not the singer himself is further emphasized by the fact that the lyre is hung up on the peg both before and after Demodokos sings his first song (viii. 105), thereby making it necessary for the lyre to be retrieved from the peg by the herald before Demodokos can sing his second song (viii. 245-255). This process of taking the lyre down from the peg on the tall column and hanging it up again is intended to dramatize the singer’s need to draw repeatedly upon a source outside of himself.

While the singer is not the motionless center of all things, but a “center” in the human world through which the world axis penetrates. Like Penelope, who passively receives the idea of the web from some god, Demodokos is himself stirred to sing by the Muse.26 Thus Demodokos is appropriately seated on a silver-studded chair (vii. 65), for the singer is akin to silver in that he serves as a mirror that passively and imaginatively reflects the nontemporal realities of the world axis.

Given Homer’s understanding of the singer, it is not surprising to find that he often likens Odysseus to a singer (xvii. 512-521). The well-ruled Phaiakians, who take joy in the songs of Demodokos (viii. 90-1), are likewise held in thrall by Odysseus (xi. 333-4), who tells them the story of his journey after Demodokos’ third and final song. After hearing the story of Odysseus, Alkinoos compares Odysseus to a singer (xi. 366-9). And after having killed all the suitors, Odysseus is seated like Demodokos next to a tall pillar where he waits to be accepted by Penelope (xxiii. 90). But the most revealing indication of Odysseus’ affinity with the singers occurs when Demodokos is once more placed next to the tall column in the middle of the feasters (viii. 473), and Odysseus praises Demodokos as he praises no one else in the Odyssey:

Demodokos, above all mortals beside I prize you.
Surely the Muse, Zeus’ daughter or else Apollo has taught you
for all too right following the tale you sing the Achaians’
venture, all they did and had done to them, all the sufferings
of these Achaians, as if you had been there yourself or heard it
from one who was. Come to another part of the story, sing us
the wooden horse, which Epeios made with Athene helping,
the stratagem great Odysseus filled once with men and brought it
to the upper city, and it was these men who sacked Ilion.
If you can tell me the course of all these things as they happened,
I will speak of you before all mankind, and tell them
how freely the goddess gave you the magical gift of singing (viii. 487-98).

Odysseus’ praise is proper not only for Demodokos but also for Homer, the singer of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The singer can give an account of things he has not seen because the singer’s knowledge is not determined by nor dependent upon his individual perceptions of the world; and certainly this is the meaning of Demodokos’ blindness (as opposed to the blindness of the Cyclops). In response to Odysseus’ request to hear the story of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy, the story of his greatest stratagem, Demodokos holds, as it were, a mirror up to Odysseus, presenting Odysseus with a picture of himself as he “endured the grimmest fighting that ever he had” (viii. 519-20):

So the famous singer sang the tale, but Odysseus
melted, and from under his eyes the tears ran down, drenching
his cheeks. As a woman weeps, lying over the body
of her dead husband, who fell fighting for her city and people
as he tried to beat off the pitiless day from city and children;
she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body
about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her,
hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the shoulders,
force her up and lead her away into slavery, to have
hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with pitiful weeping.
Such were the pitiful tears Odysseus shed from under
his brows, but they went unnoticed by all the others,
but Alkinoos alone understood what he did and noticed,
since he was sitting next to him and heard him groaning heavily (viii. 521-34).

Because the reality of the world axis “speaks” through Demodokos, Odysseus’ request to hear of himself represents his desire to know himself, to see himself as he really is, without the distorting lens of vanity. Having exalted himself at the beginning of his journey in the cave of the Cyclops as a result of his victory over the Trojans, Odysseus now identifies himself not with the Achaian men but with the Trojan women, not with the victors but with the vanquished. Odysseus weeps as a woman weeps, his passivity to the truth of the brutality of the sack of Troy testifying to his having achieved knowledge of himself, to having overcome his vanity. In fact, Odysseus’ own story of his journey, which follows immediately after his lament over the sack of Troy, is almost confessional in its presentation, and it is required of Odysseus before the Phaiakians will grant him conveyance to Ithaka (viii. 548-86; xi. 330-61). Before he can return to Ithaka to rule as king, Odysseus must first demonstrate, by giving an account of his soul’s journey in the presence of the ideal regime of Phaiakia, that he can rule himself.

Odysseus’ response to the song of Demodokos testifies not only to the self-knowledge of Odysseus but also to the political authority of the singer. We can understand, then, why Homer compares the great bow of Odysseus to a lyre:

So the suitors talked, but now resourceful Odysseus
once he had taken up the great bow and looked it all over,
as when a man, who well understands the lyre and singing,
easily, holding it on either side, pulls strongly twisted
cord of sheep’s gut, so as to slip it over a new peg,
so, without any strain, Odysseus strung the great bow.
Then plucking it in his right hand he tested the bowstring,
and it gave him back an excellent sound like the voice of a swallow (xxi. 404-411).

The great bow of Odysseus is first found by Penelope hanging on a peg like the lyre of Demodokos (xx. 53), and it is left leaning against a pillar when Odysseus is finished with it (xxii. 120). Most significantly, Odysseus uses the great bow to re-establish order and harmony in Ithaka by killing the suitors, just as Homer himself uses his lyre to establish order and harmony in the souls of his audience by “killing” their false conceptions of Nature. By re-presenting the order of the whole upon which the political and psychic orders are dependent, the singer mediates between human life and Being, Homer’s Odyssey itself demonstrating the true political art that seeks to guide the soul in its journey to know itself.

NOTES


  1. Cf. Plato Phaedrus 278c.
  2. Stromata v, 4.
  3. Stromata v, 5.
  4. Cf. the golden rope of Zeus in Homer’s Iliad (viii. 1-27).
  5. All quotations are from The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1965). That Homer’s teaching in the Odyssey is consistent with that of the Iliad is suggested by the fact that these exact lines appear in the Iliad where we find the famous description of the shield of Achilles (xviii. 488-489). Note that Hephaistos appropriately fixes the pole star at the center of the shield, the shield itself serving as a comprehensive symbol of the Homeric cosmos.
  6. Aristotle Physics 266a5-267b25; Metaphysics 1071b3-1073a13.
  7. Odyssey ii. 94-110; xix. 137-156; xxiv. 129-146.
  8. In Plato’s Statesman, where the Parmenidean stranger explains the kingly art of weaving the web of state, the warp and woof are likewise identified with the masculine and feminine principles, respectively: “Those in whom courage predominates will be treated by the statesman as having the firm warp-like character as one might call it. The others will be used by him for what we may likewise call the supple, soft, woof-like strands of the web. He then sets about his task of combining and weaving together these two groups exhibiting their mutually opposed characters” (309b).
  9. Cf. Plato’s Statesman: “But we must remember too the pairs of arts we found to be of universal scope, the art of combining and that of separating” (282b).
  10. Odyssey i. 330, 362; iv. 760; xvii. 36; xviii. 206; xix. 53, 600; xxi. 5, 356; xxiii. 85.
  11. Cf. Alkinoos’ comment on the life of Odysseus: “he shall endure all that his destiny and the heavy Spinners spun for him with the thread at his birth, when his mother bore him (vii. 197-198).
  12. Cf. the concluding paragraph of Book XXV of Machiavelli’s Prince: “I am certainly convinced of this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, if one wishes to hold her down, to beat her and fight with her. And we see that she allows herself to be taken over more by these men than by those who make cold advances; and then, being a woman, she is always the young man’s friend, because they are less cautious, more reckless and with greater audacity command her.”
  13. Cf. Plato Parmenides 130c.
  14. Cf. Socrates’ comment on Protagoras’ famous claim that man is the measure of all things: “In general, I am delighted with his statement that what seems to anyone also is, but I am surprised that he did not begin . . . with the words, The measure of all things is the pig, or the baboon, or some sentient creature still more uncouth” (Plato Theaetetus 161c).
  15. Homer’s portrayal of the Cyclopses anticipates the depiction of man given by Hobbes and Locke in their mythical “state of nature.” For Homer, however, the Cyclopses are examples of perverse and degenerate men, whereas for Hobbes and Locke the Cyclopses reveal the true nature of man.
  16. According to Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus, a sense of wonder is the origin of philosophy (155d).
  17. The Church Fathers did not fail to notice the striking comparison to our Lord’s passion when he was bound to the saving wood of the cross. Greek artistic renderings of this scene make this comparison all the more striking because, along with Odysseus bound to the mast, they depict the horizontal yard which, in order to support the sail, is fastened at right-angles across the mast, thus forming a cross.
  18. This same paradox is also expressed in Plato’s famous cave allegory. Although the philosopher turns away from the shadows in the cave and looks to the light of the sun, nonetheless, upon returning to the cave, it is the philosopher who can best identify the shadows: “So you must go down, each in his turn, into the common dwelling of the others and get habituated along with them to seeing dark things. And, in getting habituated to it, you will see ten thousand times better than the men there, and you will know what each of the phantoms is, and of what it is a phantom, because you have seen the truth about fair, just, and good things” (Republic 520c).
  19. Cf. Plato’s Republic 489a-c.
  20. Odysseus is like the philosophic man described by Socrates in the Republic who removes himself from the madness and injustice of the many: “Taking all this into the calculation, he keeps quiet and minds his own business – as a man in a storm, when dust and rain are blown about by the wind, stands aside under a little wall. Seeing others filled with lawlessness, he is content if somehow he himself can live his life here pure of injustice and unholy deeds, and take his leave from it graciously and cheerfully with fair hope” (496d-e).
  21. Note that at every point in the cosmic web, the union of the “horizontal” and the “vertical” forms a cross, the symbol that most succinctly summarizes not only the Homeric, but especially the Christian world view. With this in mind, we are better able to understand St. Augustine’s famous statement that the cross is not significant because our Lord died upon it, but our Lord died upon it because of its significance.
  22. Cf. iv. 52; vii. 172; x. 368; xv. 136; xvii. 91.
  23. It should be noted that Homer’s first description of the golden pitcher and the silver basin is juxtaposed to a description of the suitors’ profane washing of their hands: “Then the haughty suitors came in, and all of them straightway took their places in order on chairs and along benches, and their heralds poured water over their hands for them to wash with” (i. 144-146; cf. i. 136-138).
  24. Homer indicates in a number of ways that Telemachus and Odysseus are really future and present representations of the same thing, i.e., a man capable of achieving his homecoming: Telemachus is the only son of Odysseus, suggesting that there has been no dissolution of Odysseus’ blood (xvi. 117-121); Telemachus thus resembles his father (i. 207-209; iii. 123-125; iv. 140-154); and, most importantly, Telemachus is able to string the great bow of Odysseus, suggesting that Telemachus will fulfill his potential to be like Odysseus (xxi. 124-130).
  25. i. 150-154; xxi. 428-430; xxii. 330-353.
  26. viii. 73; 499; cf. i. 1; xxii. 347.

Nature and Art in the Village

by John Francis Nieto


The following paper was read at the conference “The Idea of a Village,” May 2016. A video of the lecture can be found here.


We of the twenty-first century look for the village in legend and folk tale, to some extent in history and there, much more as we look back, less and less as we come forward.  This is no accident, for reasons I will go on to point out.  This fact and a few others make much of what I am about to say seem ‘abstract’ and ‘ideal’.  Yet what I say here about the village is utterly ‘practical’ and ‘realistic’.  Man cannot—I propose—have healthy familial life and just political order unless these take root and find support in village life. Continue reading

Right, Left, Forward, or Back? Or Why I Am Neither Left Nor Right

by John Francis Nieto

1.  The following remarks propose to explain why I have no expectation of political gains from either right or left and why rather I distrust both movements, at least in so far as they are political movements arising within modern political theory.  Nonetheless, several things I am not claiming should be made clear in the beginning.

2.  First, I am not claiming that either the left or the right is simply speaking one movement.  Each has many elements and I have no intention of speaking to what is proper to these elements.  Rather my comments concern groups or individuals only insofar as they assent to the political principles that have formed right and left as distinct ‘sides’ or ‘factions’ in the modern political system.

3.  Second, I am not claiming there is no difference between right and left.  I shall argue that both sides work to advance things they hold in common more than those things proper to them.  These common principles (in my opinion) are or should be reprehensible to the most earnest partisans of either side.  And I do think each side has some who work with the intention of bringing about a greater good, however much I may disagree with them.

4.  Third, I therefore am not denying the need to work with one side rather than another in particular political battles.  I note however that in doing so the political battle becomes distorted insofar as the principles at hand must be conformed to those commonly accepted.  Hence, the fight against abortion becomes for the right a question of a personal right to life, since ‘rights’ are the commonly received political principle.  More fundamental in abortion is the destruction of the common good attained in sexual union.  But our political culture is too corrupt to recognize the horror of such destruction.  Again, concern for the land we live on and encouragement of small-scale farming have their champions on the left.  But this must be pursued within the exploitative, industrial conception of man’s relation to the earth that defines our political debates.  We have lost any sense that the earth provides for our needs.  Rather, we seek from it satisfaction of desires.

5.  Fourth, I do not propose these remarks with any suggestion of demonstrative certainty insofar as they contain judgments of particular political movements.  I am not surprised that I, when young, or that other young people maintain political positions with great certainty and vehemence.  I was so determined that I was willing to incite revolution, if given a chance.  But it does surprise me that many who have the air of political wisdom pronounce in the same fashion as the young.

6.  Political matters involve all the complexity of any moral judgment.  Hence, questions of motives and circumstance, concerns about consequences, dangers of misstatement and misapprehension crowd about political acts.  Further, political judgments involve the assumption of wisdom not demanded by the moral life.  Everyone must live the moral life and attempt to attain to some measure of happiness.  To go beyond the most general political truths and begin to judge in this realm is to suggest that one possesses the good attained in morality and politics in a manner sufficient to help others do so.  Even the wise must fear such a step.  (Of course, in saying this I have already opposed some principles common to both right and left.)

7.  Hence, although, in the following remarks, I will propose some things which I believe to be of complete certainty, though difficult to articulate, such things are of a general and fundamental character.  What I say against particular factions assumes that they reject, most often implicitly, these foundations of political order.  They may well assume the same things at one time or another, insofar as they lack the consistency of well conceived political opinions.  But nowhere do I claim more that a probable, reasonable certitude in judging particular political opinions or actions.  Only God can grasp these things with perfect clarity and determination.  Any partisan who claims to understand these matters without any admixture of error fools himself; as likely, he is a liar, most likely a petit-demagogue.

8.  What I propose therefore in the following remarks about particulars is incomplete, overstated somewhere, poorly substantiated elsewhere.  I would have no one agree with me by the fact that I have said it.  Rather, I urge each to reflect upon his moral and political experience, to confirm his understanding of true political principles, to judge political opinions and actions to the extent that true principles make them intelligible, and to refrain from opinions and judgments beyond these.  To the young I particularly recommend moderation.  To form political judgments is as much a burden as it is a privilege.

9.  Now to take up this burden myself.  I will first make clear in a schematic way my own associations with right and left. (10-12)  Next I will state my distrust of these movements in a general manner.  (13) Then, I will propose the political principles most necessary to true political order.  (14-26)  Finally, I will state in a specific manner how right and left reject these principles in common. (27-52)

10.  For several years, from sixteen to twenty-two, I consciously considered myself a member of the political left.  I first identified myself as a communist and a Marxist, then distinctly a Maoist—to my shame a deceived admirer of the Chinese cultural revolution—, and finally, for nearly four years, an anarchist.  As an anarchist I would have allowed myself to be called socialist or communist, so long as these terms were not taken in a particular, narrow sense.

11.  Near my twenty-second birthday I began to question various of my political principles and after several months I recognized that several were wrong, though I did not claim to know the correct principles.  Several things I never questioned: my distrust of the political influence of wealth, my sympathy with workers, my contempt for the ugliness and inhumanity of technology, my sense that man has been estranged from nature, and thus from his own nature, and so on.  This re-haul of my political thought led to a moral reevaluation and thus to my return to the Catholic faith.  But the political reevaluation came first.

12.  Returning to Catholicism, I was determined to hold to the faith in its purity.  I believed, for a short while, that this demanded I align myself with the right.  Yet I could never champion capitalism, at least insofar as the word refers to industrial or high-finance capitalism.  While I rejected the near-pacifist position central to my anarchism, I could not find enthusiasm for any of the military engagements so readily supported by the right.  And thus, for many years, since my early thirties, I failed to feel any deep sympathy with left or right.  Further, I have come to reject the distinction of right and left as an appropriate approach to political order.

13.  My sense that the distinction and opposition of left and right do not arise from the principles proper to political order coincided with the sense that left and right agree on much that each side takes for granted.  More and more it became clear to me that they take for granted an opposition to the principles that make real political order possible.  Some of these principles are found explicitly in traditional teachings about politics, especially in traditional Catholic social teaching, although others are found there only implicitly.  In effect, left and right, to my mind, are in general agreement with modern political and economic thought and disagree with how that thought should play out.

14.  To make the principles where left and right agree more clear, I shall first discuss some of the principles I understand to be central to traditional political thought.  None is more fundamental than the notion that according the very nature of man the common good gives rise to the political order.

15.  The common good insofar as it is good is a final cause.  Thus, victory is the purpose and cause of an army, and polyphonic music is the purpose and cause of a choir.  Insofar as it is common, the common good brings many into a community and orders the members of the community to it and to one another.  The nature of polyphonic music, for example, brings those capable of singing it together and makes a soprano of one, an alto of another, and so on.

16.  By means of this order to the good and to one another a society becomes one agent pursuing the good common to them.  This is to say that the common good makes the many members of the community a single agent in pursuing that good.  The common good as final cause brings into being a city as an agent cause that pursues that good.

17.  This common good must be some one thing belonging to all the members of the community.  Nonetheless it belongs to the various members in distinct ways and some share more in this good and others share less.  In the political order, the common good is nothing other than the common life lived by citizens.  This life has many elements and is conceived in many ways.  It is called ‘peace’, ‘prosperity’, ‘justice’, insofar as we pay attention to one or another of its various aspects or elements.

18.  To be a citizen, not in name alone but in reality, is nothing other than to pursue and possess this good by loving it and by sharing the power to bring it about and maintain it.  Some make laws, some enforce them, some judge those who are subject to laws, some elect those who make laws, and so on.  Each pursues and maintains the common good according to his share in political power.  But every citizen as such must love the good not merely as it belongs to himself but also as it is a whole belonging to the entire community.  Thus, he loves the common good as his own good, yet as a good greater than any private good belonging to him as an individual.  So the soldier offers his own share in the common good from love for this good as it belongs to the whole.  Likewise, Saint Paul says,

I am speaking the truth, in Christ, I am not lying, and my conscience in the Holy Spirit bears me witness: there is great sorrow and incessant pain in my heart.  I could have wished to be outcast from the Christ myself for the sake of my brothers, who are my blood kindred.

19.  While the common good belongs to the entire community of citizens, some part of the community must be dedicated to pursue and maintain this good for the whole.  This is the government, which in its very nature is ordered to the good of the whole community.  Though the government rules the community and thus some men are subject to any government, many, if not most, of those subject to government are themselves citizens.  Thus government must rule citizens not for the good of the government, but for the good of the whole citizen body insofar as they form a community possessed of a common life.

20.  Now there are many aspects of political life that must be found in all political communities: murder and stealing, for example, are wrong everywhere.  Nevertheless, since the common good is nothing other than the community’s common life, it must be determined in time and place.  Where a people lives determines many aspects of its common life: the balance of agriculture and commerce in its economy, the kinds of food cultivated, and so on.  Again, the particular history of a people influences that life.  For example, the experience of a regime particularly good or evil affects the future attitude toward that kind of regime.

21.  Two attributes of the common good demand particular attention.  The common good must be attained in a manner that is stable and self-sufficient.  These are rooted in the relation of the common good to the community that pursues it.  If it is not stable, retaining more or less the same character over time, it will not really be common to the members of the community over time.  Grandparents will not share political life with their grandchildren, or even parents with their children, but mere biological life.  If the common life is not self-sufficient, the members will depend upon other communities with which they will form a larger community.  This larger political community will possess its own life, less distinct and less in the control of the original community.

22.  Above I claimed that by his nature man is inclined to the common good.  This can be seen in many ways, but most obviously insofar as man is inclined to happiness, which cannot in fact be attained by oneself.  Man cannot be born or grow up without others.  Nor can he attain to language, knowledge, or virtue in a sufficient way without the help of others.

23.  But man cannot attain happiness, taken as perfecting himself alone or as perfecting the community, merely by means of his natural powers.  The principal cause of this lies in his passions.  Man’s sensitive desires, arising from the concupiscible and irascible appetites, respond immediately to the sensible objects that appear by the exterior senses and the imagination.  Nor are they wholly subject to reason.

24.  Hence, man needs habits in these appetites and in his will, by which he will follow the good perceived by reason, even when the sensible appetites incline toward another good.  Again, by these habits the sensible appetites will themselves incline in a manner appropriate to them toward the good perceived by reason.  Traditional political thought therefore proposes the necessity of virtue for sound political order: temperance in the concupiscible appetite, bravery in the irascible appetite, justice in the will, and prudence (which knows the good for man) in the intellect.

25.  For this reason, because the cardinal virtues are necessary in pursuing and maintaining the common good, traditional political thought suggests that good government is something rare, not to be expected everywhere, not likely to last a long time.  This is not to say that men should not aim at good government.  But they should not be surprised that good government is so difficult to bring about and they should cherish the institutions that do so, if such institutions should be hit upon.

26.  Let me underscore one point here.  No loss in political thought is greater than the loss of the understanding that happiness, whether for one man or for a community, depends upon possession of the cardinal virtues.  However bad society became in ancient and medieval times, anyone influenced by the great civilizations, such as the Greek or the Chinese, would have heard that these virtues are necessary for happiness.  A bad man might scoff at such a position, but at least he was aware of it.  And if this position is true, it is in some way a principle of action to anyone who becomes happy.  In our day few come to know of this truth and, of course, even fewer have any share in happiness.

27.  In describing the opposition to these principles common to the political right and left (at least insofar as they are movements), I shall first discuss the notion of social contract, which is at the heart of modern political theory. (28-41)  Next, I shall propose that the political thought of right and left is founded on the social contract. (42-45)  Then, I shall propose the manner in which right and left are themselves opposed while agreeing in the notion of a social contract. (46-48)  Finally, I shall make some remarks about the United States in particular: where it stands regarding this theory. (49-52)

28.  As stated above, modern political theory in common establishes political order on what is called the social contract.  These thinkers do recognize that any society works toward some kind of good.  They display various defects in their understanding of the common good.  But all these thinkers reject the natural inclination to the common good.  The common good is not a final cause by nature.  Rather, it must be established as the good of the community by some community or some part of a community, as by an agent cause.  But, as stated, these thinker hold that that agent cause cannot come into existence through the natural inclination to the common good.

29.  Instead, the modern political theorists propose that the community comes into existence through the inclination of its members to their own private good.  Each man about to enter into community recognizes that he will attain to some private good through association with others.  This agreement constitutes a contract, generally implicit, by which the city or state is constituted.[1]  So constituted the community determines some part to serve as a government and this government pursues the good of the city or state.

30.  The relation between the good of the community to the individual citizen is not described in the same way by the various philosophers.  Nonetheless, the manner of establishing the community implies that this good belongs to the government more or less as the private good of the member, the good that prompted him to enter into society, belongs to that member.  The government becomes more or less another individual pursuing its own private good, as is said most clearly by Hobbes.

31.  There results an opposition between the good of the state and the good of the citizen.  For the citizen enters into society for the sake of his own private good.  But his participation in the state and consequent enjoyment of this private good demand subordination to the good of the state.  The state will only work so as to bring about his private good insofar as citizens work toward the good of the state.  But the good of the state is not properly the citizen’s good.  Rather it is a good proper to the government.

32.  Insofar as modern governments are totalitarian, they assume supremacy to the good of the state, mistakenly understood to be a common good.  Insofar as these governments partake in ‘Western liberalism’ (which has nothing to do with ‘liberal vs. conservative’) they recognize a citizen’s ‘rights’.  Such rights are here understood to constitute a reservation of some private good against the claims of other citizens, but more profoundly, against the claims of the state.

33.  Citizens do not live in such a social order for a common life, but each lives for his own sake a life he conceives as properly his own.  He orders his action to his own success and prosperity, to his own pleasure, perhaps a bit beyond this to his family.  He sees the political order as useful to these purposes of his own.  He does not find in it an opportunity to participate in government, whether by legislating, ruling, counseling, judging, or even electing.  If he shares in any of these, he looks to his own ends.

34.  The government likewise looks to its existence and flourishing as an institution.  Those who belong to it work to maintain themselves in power and see individual citizens either as an instrument or as a threat to that power.  The citizen is promised his private good in exchange for the maintaining the government.

35.  There is nonetheless a kind of balance that can be found, at least for a time.  The exchange of private goods allows the government to pursue its power as a private good and the citizen to pursue whatever life pleases him as his private good.  They may recognize the other’s intentions; they may flatter and deceive each other.  In either way such a system can last for some time.

36.  But this is not government or politics in the ancient sense, which demands that a people organize themselves so as to pursue a common life.  Rather, the social contract introduces a system of management by which the government offers the various elements of a satisfactory private life to citizens in exchange for its own power.

37.  Those who developed the theory of social contract were certainly proponents of virtue.  Nonetheless such a system has no need of virtue.  The citizens support the government through their inclination to their own private good.  No one needs virtue to desire this in a stable and vehement manner.  The passions incline us sufficiently to what is in one way or another our own.  In a system of ‘human management’ the passions can be counted on by a government to keep citizens satisfied with various pleasures and excitements, while it strengthens its own place in the world.

38.  Virtue may, however, be necessary to distinguish and desire what is truly good from what appears to be good.  For this reason, virtue may be an impediment to such a system.  If virtue allows someone to recognize that a truly common life, a stable and self-sufficient life shared with others in one place and through time, is more desirable than the satisfaction of passions, he becomes an impediment to such government as management.

39.  Let me briefly point out some reasons such a conception of government is incompatible with the stability and self-sufficiency that are attributes of the common good.  Since what is provided to citizens is not a common life but the satisfaction of passions, which each works out in his own way, a system of human management must provide new and various satisfactions to its citizens.  Food, sex, violence, wealth become central to any system like this.  But they must have the increase and variety that keeps the senses and the passions alert and excited.  Hence the life of citizens demands constant changes and this can be supplied at least in part by import.  This alone is reason against stability and self-sufficiency.

40.  But the government also seeks to augment its own power and security.  This will always suggest further control and regulation of the citizen’s life, which will demand change of one sort or another.  But it also tempts a government to interest itself in the doings of other governments.  Greater interdependence among such governments means greater power and security, at least for the government that does the most successful meddling.

41.  Now, when government is viewed as mere management of individual satisfactions, a system that does not demand the attainment of any virtue, good government will not seem to be something rare and difficult to maintain.  Rather, it will be thought to flow according to some kind of formula from mere power and will.  Good government will bring about ‘happiness’ by managing men and goods as they already are, by ingeniously shifting them about, while traditional political theory assumed that men must become good to become happy, especially insofar as they are in community.

42.  Now I do not think it difficult to see that the political right and left, at least in our times, both accept the conception of government as a social contract.  We see both pandering to the citizen’s desires for his private good.  More and more each conceives of the political order as arising from and serving individuals and not families, neighborhoods and towns.

43.  Generally speaking, both right and left conceive or propose themselves as the true defenders of the citizen’s rights.  Both conceive the opposite side as more or less totalitarian.  And each side has some justice, since totalitarian governments have at times been on the right and at times been on the left.  In fact the opposition of totalitarianism and Western liberalism is woven into the principles of government accepted by both sides.

44.  Hence, whatever their long-term dreams and utopias, each side proposes that good government is synonymous with its own establishment in power.  Right and left each propose to solve society’s problems on the condition that it becomes the government, while the other side is destroyed or fades away into ignominy and then obscurity.  For me this makes clear that neither side can ever be successful.  Even granted that each of them changes, perhaps even to become more and more like each other, neither side can bring about what they aim at, because they cannot get rid of one another.

45.  For this reason, I believe that right and left are both proceeding ‘forward’ toward a more and more perfect system of human management.  This demands global government, a fluid worldwide economy, a thorough-going leveling of individuals through society, so that no one can remain outside the reaches of this management and thus a danger to its integrity.  Everyone can enjoy his pri­vate satisfaction so long as he submits to the system, so long as he is ‘with the program’, as it is vulgarly put.

46.  Where then do right and left differ, if they are in fundamental agreement about the social contract?  I think there are many illusions lurking here and do not have time to consider them.  Let me merely propose for the moment that the fundamental difference is this: the left holds that the original formation of society is a system of oppression and must be superseded by a true social contract, while the right accepts this original formation as a binding contract.

47.  The position of the left, described in the Second Discourse of Rousseau, holds that the conditions of man when he first ‘found’ himself in nature encouraged him to establish a system of property, racism, sexism, and so on, by which he used others for his private good.  This system must be replaced by a true social contract that orders men and wealth to bring about the private good of all society’s members.  For example, the left holds that American slavery was part of the American system at its founding.  The undoing of that slavery introduced a new element of a true social contract.

48.  The right claims that the systems in place at the time the doctrine of social contract arose were more or less sufficient to bring about that good.  They may hold at one time or another that the contract has been insufficiently fulfilled, as, for example, in American slavery, but that the principles in the American social contract are sound and capable.

49.  This leads me to speak a moment about the United States.  I speak as someone who has always looked at his own country from within and from without.  From my childhood I recognized the good that I have received and share in through the American system of government.  But I have also seen this system as belonging, at least temperamentally, to the Anglo-American race, more than to my own.  I say this merely to avoid any dissembling.

50.  I believe that any true government must be founded on true political thought.  I think that there is evidence in American history of such a foundation.  In fact, one part of this is the claim in the Federalist papers, that the members of the proposed union have the same language, culture, and political institutions.  At the same time the founders used the language of the times to explain their foundation.  Some believed it fervently; others may not have.  The people themselves, I expect, conceived the political order more or less as they had when they began to live in this country.

51.  Over time, however, we have come to live more and more by the principles enunciated in our foundation.  One of the most impressive facts about American political life, one paid only the slightest attention, is that it has in fact proceeded more or less according to the words and formulas used in its institution.  I do not deny that these have been used with more and less precision and with changes in meaning.  Nonetheless, our government has in fact gone forward more or less according to these ‘instructions’.  This is something very rare.

52.  As we have stuck to these principles, we are therefore living more and more according to the contract theory embedded by the founder’s in their account of the foundation.  Hence, we have lived more and more for the rights of individuals and we have established the government more and more as an entity that serves its own ends in opposition to our own.  As we continue forward, however much we imagine that we go right or left, we will be furthering a system of government that consists in human management.  The only true direction is back, not back in time, but back to the true principles of human political order.


[1] Editor’s note: The author is somewhat simplifying matters. There are certainly modern political theorists who do not conceive of the state as being constituted by a contract. Hegel, for example, rejects the idea of a social contract (for example in Philosophy of Right, § 75). But all modern political theorists propose something other than a natural inclination to the common good as the foundation politics. Thus, Hegel replaces the natural inclination to the common good with history. The dialectic of history brings about the political community, and this dialectic is certainly driven by “desire” for private goods, but the coming into being of the community is not based on an implicit agreement between already existing individuals (contract)— rather it is only in the community that desire becomes self-conscious and individual subjectivity comes into being. Nevertheless, the result is similar to that of social contract theory; natural inclination to the common good is excluded. — Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

On Recovering a Genuine Thomism in Our Times

by Peter Kwasniewski


“There is no doubt that Bonaventure thought of himself as a theologian, and was, moreover, seen by his contemporaries as a theologus. But, keeping in mind the whole history of philosophy, we should not neglect the fact that the model of philosophy which celebrates the so-called “autonomy of philosophical thought” is itself an historically contingent model. Can one credibly speak of “pure philosophical thought” in Aristotle, Averroes, or Albert the Great?” [1]

It takes little effort to draw out the moral of Andreas Speer’s observations. If scholastic philosophy had not allowed itself in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to become detached from the fullness of Christian life, from speculative theology as well as the communal liturgical life of the believer, if it had not over time sequestered itself in a strange nook situated between empirical science and daily life, it would not have suffered the fate of being overshadowed and eventually disregarded by its more impressive, or at least more insistent, rivals. The recovery of philosophy’s rightful place will require the undoing of many false steps, not the least of which was the divorce of philosophical exploration from theological discourse, and the concomitant divorce of systematic theology from liturgical worship and a valid and comprehensive aesthetic sense. If these diverse areas are one day to be synthesized again, they stand in need of philosophy, with the inestimable services it provides in dialectic and demonstration, method and vocabulary; they stand even more in need of sacred liturgy, the solemn worship of God, the end to which they should all be ordained on our earthly pilgrimage.[2]

It seems to me that the Christian thinker must detect and root out a lingering intellectualism, an exaggerated and therefore distorted elevation of one aspect of man. Indeed, one must recognize that such an elevation distorts the larger and more fully human framework in which Aristotle places the very nobility of intellectual activities. Aristotle had seen a part—the most important part, it is true, but not the whole—of what it means to say that man bears within him a divine spark. Book X of the Ethics marks both an advance and a regression for the theory of human perfection and the imago Dei. Compared with Presocratic panpsychism and pantheism, it is an advance; compared with Plato’s insight into the cosmic and psychic eros that urges man and even, in a way, the whole of creation, toward assimilation to God, it is arguably a step backwards. However, as Josef Pieper (and Bonaventure long before him) recognized, the Aristotelian and Platonic accounts are not rivals but halves in need of reunification. And I think Pieper is right to see St. Thomas as having effected the theoretical reunification, which took place by means of fusing Augustine, Dionysius, and Aristotle in the furnace of the Christian mystery.

These considerations coalesce around the mystery of the human body, a subject concerning which Gabriel Marcel, and more famously Pope John Paul II, have carried out incisive metaphysical and theological investigations. I say “mystery” because, though it is the soul that is enslaved to sin and cries out for the freedom of grace, it is nevertheless the body—the body of the Word Incarnate making contact with our bodies in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist—through which this salvation comes to us, with all its spiritual perfections originating in God and destined for our souls.

*          *          *

There is a still deeper problem, and I confess I do not see that it permits of an easy solution. The Church teaches us authoritatively that we are to study the works of the Angelic Doctor—there can be no doubt about her counsel, so often and so forcefully has it been repeated. Therefore we set about doing so, in full confidence that Holy Mother Church is guiding us along the right path. The question immediately arises: Exactly how are we to study St. Thomas? At our place in history, occupying a certain position with regard to all the upheavals and developments, good and bad, that have taken place in the last seven hundred years, how are we to carry out this study? It seems to me that there are two basically different ways of going about it.

First, there is the historically sensitive approach, what one might (in a generous mood) call the hermeneutics of incarnation, which attempts to place Thomas in all the right factual contexts—social, cultural, psychological, spiritual—in an effort to recover something of the immediacy of environment, subtlety of contemporaneous influence, and depth of intellectual background within and behind Thomas’s teaching. For example, one would insist on reading Thomas as a theologian first and foremost; one would understand him as not only an Aristotelian but also an Augustinian and a Neoplatonist of sorts; one would see him as a moment, albeit an exceedingly bright moment, in the larger and very complex development of medieval theology; one would make an effort to view his works steadily in the light of the Fathers, in the light of Boethius, Dionysius, John Damascene, the Victorines, Peter Lombard, and so forth, recognizing that Thomas is above all a Patristic and Scriptural author; one would take into account the extraordinary history of the Hellenistic, Jewish, and Islamic interpretations of Aristotle and other ancient authors that reached Thomas after being handled by numerous philosophical merchants and middlemen down through the centuries.

A very different approach, found in Great Books or liberal arts programs, may be styled “letting the text speak for itself. Students and teacher grapple with a text from St. Thomas, without in most cases having done the background work that the historically sensitive method would consider absolutely necessary. Partisans of the hands-on approach tend to argue that the historical method collapses into historicism and that sometimes the worst way to read an author is to submerge him, or his individuality and his works, in a network of infinitesimally charted associations. To open up a book written by a great author and simply read its contents, doing the best one can: this is taken to be not only possible but desirable, since it clears away distractions, prevents disproportionate attention to details at the expense of a general but decisive grasp of the whole, and relieves to a large extent the philosophically paralyzing pressure exerted by the demands of cultural history. The person who advocates “just reading the text” really means to say that the text is important only insofar as it raises and answers, or makes an attempt at answering, the “perennial questions”; the text as an artifact (and in a certain sense, even the author as an writer) ceases to be central, giving way to the thing itself which is being discussed. We use the text in order to find out, or come closer to apprehending, the truth about things; as Thomas himself says, we are not interested in knowing what men’s opinions happen to be, but rather what the truth of the matter is.

These two methods are compatible to some extent, as any good scholar knows. But it is obvious that they are on a collision course with one another, if one considers strictly their inner trajectory, their foundational assumptions, their systematic claims. And each method, by itself, is defective. If the goal of our studies is not to know just what Thomas says, at the same time our goal cannot be just to know the truth of a certain matter; for why, then, should we study St. Thomas’s works—why not a scholastic manual, or a catechism, or a thick book written by a German scholar who summarizes the entire history of Catholic thinking on x, y, and z? Why would the Church recommend Thomas? It cannot be simply that he has a logical mind or shows an extensive familiarity with the great sources. There are many such thinkers in our tradition. It must be something about Thomas’s personally achieved synthesis; the spirit that breathes in his works; the peculiar gifts of mind and expression that belonged to him; the insights he had, which others have not surpassed.

We do, then, want to study Thomas, both to know the truth about things and because of the special quality of Thomas’s works, or rather, the theological genius responsible for them. We are interested in the saint as well as the subject matter; we cannot divide the person who probed reality from the reality he probed. This relationship is a corollary of our belief in the living communion of saints. When we study Thomas properly, we are communicating with him in a manner difficult to put into words. That is why many Thomists I know preface their study of St. Thomas with a prayer to him. It may be no more than a silent “pray for me,” a prayer that places the thinker in the presence of the teacher who lives in eternal life. In this way, studying and teaching Thomas or any great Christian thinker can be a form of prayer, a dialogue that rises above the historical contingencies binding the student to his place and time. When we place ourselves into communion with Thomas, we are necessarily linked to his and our common Teacher, the Word “who enlightens every man that comes into the world.” In a similar vein, Gabriel Marcel writes that “to pray to God is without any question the only way to think of God, or more accurately, a sort of equivalent, raised to a higher power, of the action which would, on a lower plane, be thinking of someone.”[3]

It is difficult for me to find exact words for the notion I have in mind, but it would go something like this: we commit a fundamental act of betrayal when we treat a man or his works as a mere springboard, a set of exercises, a bag of ideas, a toolshed of mental rakes and trowels. There is an inseparable link between a person and his works (a point well developed by Wojtyła in Person and Act), but even more so between the saint and his sanctity, his theology, his life in God.

Thus the second method described above seems to prescind from Thomas the thinker, from all the ideas, books, influences, surroundings, agitations, assignments, devotions that made him who he was—and thus made his works what they are. The first method, on the other hand, never seems to ask a question or pursue a train of thought for its own sake; in fact, it appears to have a problem exactly contrary to that of the other method, namely, the problem of not being ahistorical and disinterested enough to become wholly absorbed in the matter at stake just because of what it is. And would it not be strange to claim to be studying the “real” Thomas if one did not enter wholeheartedly and passionately into the substance of what he discusses, exactly as he did? In other words, to the extent that Thomas himself was thoroughly transhistorical in his thinking, the most historically accurate appropriation of his legacy is to enter into the transhistorical domain of truth alongside him. A pure historicist could never be a good interpreter of Thomas the truth-lover, just as a pure theorist could never grasp what is contingent about Thomas the 13th-century Dominican.

The first or historical method is artificial and, at worst, servile, whereas the second or theoretical method can be naive and, when exaggerated, incapable of coming to grips with its materials. The historical attitude risks becoming a lifeless catalog of data, whereas the philosophical stance may shrink into empty disputation, pointless repetition, stony insensibility, and ultimate irrelevance. The historian may degenerate into an historicist, the philosopher into a philosophist.[4] That such degeneration frequently occurs is obvious to all; its prevention, or better, the surmounting of any reductionism, must be among the ends actively willed and worked towards by a Catholic thinker.

We are living in an age acutely conscious of history, which is as much as to say, acutely self-conscious. As thinkers we have become convinced that our judgments are steeped in temporality and contingency. Marcel expresses this point vividly, if hyperbolically:

Our appreciations of a work of art are always, say what we will to the contrary, affected by the “climate of the age,” they reflect the unconscious general assumptions which we share with our contemporaries during some given period in history; the historically conditioned attitude is something which, for all of us, is quite inescapable; and perhaps we cannot even imagine, without tangling ourselves in contradictions, a dehistoricized attitude in the name of which completely objective judgments, judgments quite untainted by the local, the temporal, the personal, and, in a word, quite free from relativity, could be made about works of art, literature, and philosophy.[5]

We cannot shirk off this consciousness as though it were a stifling garment, not only because it is a powerful and ubiquitous force but, more importantly, because it contains some truth.

How, then, should we bring together history, that is, historical consciousness with all that it implies (for example, a basic honesty and humility, an awareness of the severe limitations of any period or thinker—one cannot expect even the greatest mind or school to have asked all the questions that need to be asked, or to have given answers incapable of improvement or development), and the unhistoried act of philosophy which wells up in a soul animated by wonder and the longing for truth? Evidently, we have to aim at a difficult reconciliation: one and the same person needs to be a philosopher (who, qua philosopher, has no concern with history) and a person attentive to historical context and its lessons, or, to look at it from the other side, a historian (who qua historian is not competent to resolve questions of meaning) awake to philosophical implications and unafraid of drawing them out.

These and other problems are evoked the moment one is told to “study St. Thomas” or “follow St. Thomas as a guide.”[6] One must sort them out and arrive at an intelligent practical solution; one has to choose a line right down the middle and try to hold a steady course against the winds of either extreme. But before all else, one has to be aware of the difficulty. If, for example, a Thomist dismisses secondary scholarship, historical research, and textual criticism, he betrays the very truth he claims to be serving by failing to take advantage of ways in which he could come to understand it more deeply.[7] If a Thomist fails to realize that Thomas can be fully appreciated and thus kept within a living tradition only to the extent that he is consciously read in light of—or better, kept in constant companionship with—the Fathers of the Church and his own medieval contemporaries,[8] then such a one will perpetuate (and unless God intervenes, will even add to) the simplistic positions, peremptory dismissals, shallow appraisals, inadequate categorizations, unintelligible formulations, and unappealing lumps of detached and dessicated scholasticism with which our heritage is loaded, and in so doing, will, by an exquisite contradiction, continue to undermine the tradition to which he has dedicated his efforts. St. Thomas only lives to the extent that he is placed into dialogue with the best thinkers of our own time—or at least, to the extent that the study of his work, even when done for the sake of understanding it on its own terms, does not terminate in a kind of literary fetishism which has as its end the preservation of a secret initiatic knowledge. What is needed are men like Josef Pieper and Charles De Koninck, who, having become familiar with its fertile richness, can apply Thomas’s thought to contemporary problems, and at the same time can take modern insights and incorporate them positively into the investigation of the perennial questions with which philosophy must be chiefly occupied. As Maritain observes:

Thomism is not a museum piece. No doubt, like other systems of medieval philosophy, indeed, philosophic systems of all ages, it must be studied historically. All the great philosophies, whether of the Middle Ages or any other period, have that in their substance which to an extent triumphs over time. But Thomism does so more completely than any other since it harmonizes and exceeds them all, in a synthesis which transcends all its components. It is relevant to every epoch. It answers modern problems, both theoretical and practical. In the face of contemporary aspirations and perplexities, it displays a power to fashion and emancipate the mind. We therefore look to Thomism at the present day to save: in the speculative order, intellectual values; in the practical order, so far as they can be saved by philosophy, human values. In short, we are concerned not with an archaeological but with a living Thomism. It is our duty to grasp the reality and the requirements of such a philosophy.

This duty gives rise to a double obligation. We must defend the traditional wisdom and the continuity of the philosophia perennis against the prejudices of modern individualism, insofar as it values, seeks, and delights in novelty for its own sake, and is interested in a system of thought only insofar as it is a creation, the creation of a novel conception of the world. But equally we must show that this wisdom is eternally young and always inventive, and involves a fundamental need, inherent in its very being, to grow and renew itself. And so doing we must combat the prejudices of those who would fix it at a particular stage of its development and fail to understand its essentially progressive nature.[9]

Thomism has its timeless side and its time-bound side, just as Thomas has his unparalleled stretches of genius and his occasional weaknesses. Theology neither began nor ended with St. Thomas; even more is this true of philosophy. Too much scholastic learning leads, moreover, to “canned” or “instant” answers, where a person behaves as if, when faced with a given question, he need only select the right package and unwrap the ready-made answer. One is reminded of the way that the Cartesian or Baconian experimenter confronts nature with his calibrated instruments, ready to inject the intelligibility furnished by hypothetical ideas, already anticipating the answer to whatever questions he may pose. There is another problem with the type of philosopher at hand: he has far too great confidence in his own education and reasoning powers, as evidenced by a strong habit of answering quickly, without (one is tempted to say) really thinking. He will propose the swift and exhaustive answer, which, in one stroke, destroys not only the question as an opportunity for dialectic wherein the nature of the difficulty as well as different pathways into its resolution are glimpsed, but also all of its wonder and complexity as a question that will always recur.

Anything that is not won with labor, any fruit we taste without having earned a right to its savor, can be a cause of frustration or weariness, whereas that which is purchased with labor is used with greater enjoyment. Attractiveness, whether physical or intellectual, seems to result chiefly from the possibility of disclosing a hidden beauty whose outward contours prepossess us to want to see it naked. That is to say, we have to know that what we see is not all there is, that our sight has only glanced upon the surface; and this awareness of limitation in our knowledge of a thing impels us onward to know it in full, “to penetrate its very core,” as Thomas says when treating of the effects of love.

The origin of philosophy is wonder; and wonder naturally expresses itself in the form of questions, the most important being the “why” or “for what purpose.” Philosophy, then, expresses its origin in the question, it takes its point of departure from questioning and formulating questions. To remain true to its origins, it must never lose sight of the wonder which initially inspired the questions, the restless search for better formulation, the deeper wonder arising from the always partial answers that outline a path to fullness of truth. For philosophy to remain alive, then, it must never “settle” a question in such a way that it becomes impossible to raise the question any longer. The moment that an answer is prepackaged, provided in a bottle or given as an instant mix, it ceases to respond to the living question, and detaches itself both from the activity of philosophizing and from its goal, which is the truth seen through the medium of the question.

The “technique” or treatment of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it—right or wrong—may be given. If we are asked: “Who made the world?” we may answer: “God made it,” “Chance made it,” “Love and hate made it,” or what you will. But if we reply: “Nobody made it,” we will be accused of trying to be cryptic, smart, or unsympathetic. For in this last instance, we have only seemingly given an answer; in reality we have rejected the question. The questioner feels called upon to repeat his problem. . . . A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.[10]

A question must be invested with a personal meaning before an answer can acquire its due importance or significance. The questions make possible the answers, they are the condition for the truth’s appearing. If the questions as real questions are lost, the truth contained in traditional answers is lost as well, replaced with a simulacrum that one can only idolize or ignore—a peril to thought, in either case. The question in philosophy is like a good wine that must breathe before its full flavor can be tasted. The materials from which the question arises are like the grapes that must be crushed to yield their sweet liquid; and just as this liquid must be allowed to sit and ferment before the wine can be produced, so too the question must have time to ferment, to develop its own potencies and work upon itself, before it can acquire the flavor that invites the palate to savor it. The same is true when it comes to proposed answers. An approach to philosophy which makes it consist in a correspondence of formulaic questions and catechetical answers threatens to suffocate the motivating eros of philosophy, the loving exploration which sustains thoughtful inquiry. “Just as the imagination of a form without estimation of fittingness or harmfulness does not move the sensitive appetite, so neither does the apprehension of the true without the aspect of goodness and desirability” (Ia-IIae qu. 9, art. 1). The wise man tastes what he knows, he rejoices in the feast.

Clarity of thought, or getting a purchase on the truth about something, often requires not only distance from the object but removal from the place where one thinks one will find the answers. Instead of reading a treatise on poetry, for example, one will understand its essence better by relishing a large number of good poems and, moreover, listening to a lot of music and taking many walks in the fields and mountains. If one has not explored the thing and its cousins first, one will get nowhere with formal considerations. In like manner, one can understand St. Thomas much better by making forays into Augustine, Gregory, Dionysius, Bonaventure, and more importantly, by living (with necessary adjustments) the kind of life he lived; one will return to Thomas with brighter and keener eyes, and will discover more riches there than if one had restricted oneself to a strict Thomistic diet. It is in the same spirit that I once recommended to an overly rationalistic friend that he take a “vacation from thinking”; why not spend some time listening to Gregorian chant and Beethoven’s string quartets, or visit museums where you can gaze for hours at Rembrandt portraits?

System-building is among the greatest evils of modern philosophy. It is contrary to the genuine nature of philosophy as one sees it, for example, in Plato, Bonaventure, or Marcel. Thomas himself is not a system-builder because he does not pretend to deduce everything from a handful of first principles. He leans on Scripture; he leans on his predecessors; he leans on natural reason and experience; he leans on dialectic with others. He is not unfolding a predetermined pattern which he finds wrapped up in his own mind, à la Spinoza. The synthesis he produced is designed to be a beginning and to admit of perfecting by others, even as it perfected what preceded it. Thomas is a dialogical thinker; anyone who ponders the format of most of his works will appreciate this fact. It is a decisive fact, for it means that we must use Thomas dialogically, as a guide to the truth who wishes to apprentice us in a way of life, as did the desert fathers when young aspiring monks came out eagerly to hear their apothegms. Thomas’s most characteristic activity as a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris was to engage in quaestiones disputatae et quodlibetales, the redactions of which give us a keener appreciation for the role of living speech, dialectical encounter, in Thomas’s thinking; one sees, in the format of the actually disputed question, the open-ended nature of scholastic discourse.

That Thomas’s greatest work looked, to him, like so much straw in comparison with the vision he had been granted on December 6, 1273, does not mean that we should dispense with this masterful “summary of theology,” but rather, that we should study it in such a way as to be straining ever closer to the realities it evokes, realities which infinitely transcend the letter of the text. How absurd it would be to give any student the impression that sacra doctrina begins with the confusion of Scripture but culminates in the clarity of the Summa theologiæ! St. Thomas himself, the magister sacrae paginae, would be shocked to see his own “straw”—useful though it is as a bed on which to lay the Christ-child—taken as the centermost principle of Catholic formation, when in reality this principle is, and shall always be, the Word of God in his written tokens and Eucharistic presence. We are all familiar with Thomas’s admission that he learned more from his crucifix than from all the books he had read; we have heard that he rested his head upon the tabernacle and sought divine help whenever he encountered a difficulty; we know that he celebrated a Mass in the morning and immediately served a second Mass afterwards. Can we say the same—are we imitators of him, as he was of Paul, and Paul of Christ? The Church proposes him to us as a model of the holy theologian, and holiness counts a great deal more than knowledge, or rather, knowledge is worthwhile when it is a cause and effect of deification.

In the Summa’s structure of part, treatise, question, article, objections, sed contra, corpus, and responses, I see not a rigid systematization or ossification of inquiry but a Socratic model of amicable confrontation distilled into polished notes, seminae conversationis, condensed dialogues for the student and teacher to consult in common when they wish to open up a problem anew and come to grips with what is at stake in it. Every article is a locus meditationis, which can therefore also function as a principle of true dialogue, since all dialogue presupposes an awareness of participating in truths common to all the speakers, or put differently, speech can become philosophical only to the extent that it evokes and invokes what is truly common to many. The writings of St. Thomas, organized according to scholastic custom, should be considered loci meditationis, readily assimilable and abundantly nourishing, capable of fostering the contemplative act whereby the student rises above the text—rises, in a certain sense, outside his contingent place in the material conversation—into the heart of the problem or mystery being considered; and as this act becomes habitual to him, the student can rise past the problem, can go through the mystery, into the very Heart of Christ, towards whom everything in St. Thomas is ultimately directed.

Philosophy (a fortiori, theology) are endeavors wherein a stable depositum of questions, ranging from the highest universality to the lowest particularity, must be posed again and again, not only to make progress, but more importantly, to return to the sources of thought and life—sources to which man is always in danger of growing numb, of which he can lose sight, from which he often wanders in forgetfulness. “This perpetual beginning again, which may seem scandalous to the scientist or the technician, is an inevitable part of all genuinely philosophical work; and perhaps it reflects in its own order the fresh start of every new awakening and of every birth.”[11]

The need always to “begin anew”—which has nothing to do with the Cartesian artifice of razing the foundations and starting from scratch—stems from the inescapable task of self-criticism, the task of purging dross, reassessing terminology, weighing antitheses, pursuing new insights, and incorporating new givens. The commitment to clarity and precision forces the philosopher to question his own questions and retain an inward distance from his answers. “Let us remember that for the philosopher everything is in some way a trial; how can he fail to be almost overwhelmed by the disconcerting multiplicity of the empiric data which he has to take into account, by the fear of falling into arbitrary simplifications?”[12] In the continual striving for greater breadth and height and depth, he preserves the attitude of beginning anew even when he has gone far into the truth.

For this reason, stubborn attachment to a favored terminology or network of distinctions might actually undermine the meaning of the terms and the legitimacy of the system in use. In one of his unforgettable metaphors, Marcel says that when we adhere to certain expressions or formulae too fixedly, “what I am tempted to call a mental clot is formed, which interrupts the circulation of thought; and it is precisely this circulation of thought which we have to re-establish. I mean that the words, so to say, interpose themselves between me and the thought I am driving at; they get a bogey-like and unwelcome reality of their own; they become an obstacle instead of remaining an instrument.”[13]

Keeping in view St. Thomas’s manner of doing theology and the proper way to approach his indispensable textbook, it is evident why Marcel errs in saying, evidently with Thomists in mind, that

the very structure of duration and of life show[s] that philosophical thought is unfaithful to reality whenever it attempts to proceed from conclusion to conclusion towards a Summa which, in the end, needs only to be expounded and memorised paragraph by paragraph.[14]

If my analysis is correct, St. Thomas, the most famous Summa author of the Church, is not touched at all by Marcel’s complaint. Thomas never attempted to capture the whole of natural reality—much less the infinity of God and the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ—by “proceeding from conclusion to conclusion” so as to “sum up” everything that can be known. The fact that he has been presented in this way is a great misfortune whose evil effects we can never too diligently combat. If one bears in mind the kind of students for whom Thomas was writing—young men who would be steeped in the fruits of lectio divina, beneficiaries of a constant encounter with the word of God in prayer, in the divine office, in the sacred liturgy, in the reception of the Blessed Sacrament where the Word escapes its textual prison and comes to us in the flesh—if one bears in mind the life of these young men, and if one is careful to cultivate among modern pupils of St. Thomas a comparable discipline, it will not be difficult to see how much more subtle is the true relationship between a Summa of theology and the life of oratio et labor to which the Christian is called.

In St. Thomas’s mind, there is always something preceding and something succeeding the use of a theology textbook or attendance at a series of lectures; the theologian provides no more than an evanescent middle term between life and thought, experience and reflection. Beforehand there must be the praeparatio of prayer and penance; afterwards, there must be action and contemplation, transcendence and incarnation, a continual circulation from earth to heaven, self to neighbor to God. If there is no prayer and no active charity, the study of theology (even more, the study of a textbook or a disputation) is perfectly useless, as St. Bonaventure stressed over and over to his Franciscan brethren.


NOTES

[1] Andreas Speer, “Bonaventure and the Question of a Medieval Philosophy” in Medieval Philosophy and Theology 6 (1997): 43.

[2] From a different angle, John Inglis, in his article “Does Aquinas Do Epistemology?” (Journal of Neoplatonic Studies 5.2 [1997]: 29–57), joins a larger movement critical of the once-common effort to separate out independent disciplines, e.g., ontology, epistemology, psychology, from the writings of St. Thomas. The modern university’s division of the sciences has well-nigh destroyed the unity of ancient-medieval thought by failing to apprehend its root cause, the integral vision of “the Catholica,” which resists atomization and automation, the splitting apart and separating off of internally connected goals, methods, and activities.

[3] Being and Having, trans. Katherine Farrer (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 31. The words of Balthasar are even more pointed: “There is no truth except in prayer.” From the letter he sent to his Jesuit confreres in 1950, quoted in de Lubac, Service of the Church, 375.

[4] The historicist also tends to revel in a Walpurgisnacht of scholarly references and cross-references, infinite rounds of commentary and counter-commentary, tome-thick textual apparatuses, much like the brainy deconstructionists who delight to exhibit their linguistic and hermeneutical dexterity. Yet I have always felt suspicious of such pyrotechnical displays. I notice at any rate the great distance that separates a supreme genius like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, or Thomas from the flock of contemporary scholars with their flamboyant academic phylacteries. There is a different feel, having everything to do with the presence or absence of eros for truth and for God. There is something irredeemably empty about any act of analysis or synthesis, however brilliant it may be, when this eros is absent. “Dilettantism treated seriously, and knowledge pursued mechanically, end by becoming pedantry” (Goethe, Maxims, n. 132).

[5] The Mystery of Being, vol. I, 197.

[6] Any attempts to downplay the Magisterium’s clear and oft-repeated recommendations of St. Thomas as the foremost guide in Catholic philosophy and theology are short-sighted, harmful, and in many cases dishonest. Of course, a Catholic thinker need not style himself a Thomist. But someone who is not a Thomist, or who does not wish to be placed into a certain school, does not thereby acquire the right to attack or dismiss St. Thomas. A deep respect for Thomas’s teaching, as well as a consistent and sustained effort to consult his works, is mandated by the Church, even in the period of the Council and the post-Council.

[7] Even the simplest text has a history; and the weightier or older or lengthier the text, the deeper and more complex its history. Take the example of Thomas’s “Treatise on Law.” If you hand it to a beginning philosophy student, he will learn much from it; one can go a long way in the classroom with so rich a segment of the Summa. But consider how we excerpt that treatise and read it in isolation, from a later vantage in history, when tremendous philosophical transformations in law, society, government, nature, have long since occurred. Consider then how, owing to our tendency to isolate passages, the true context of this particular treatise, along with its presuppositions and implications—its bearing on the whole of Thomas’s theology and theory of law—have been forgotten, if not undermined. Much recent scholarship has shown how grievously the fabric of Thomas’s thought has been rent by false divisions and lack of balance, by neoscholastic assumptions and agendas, by undetected modern suppositions. What I have illustrated using the Treatise on Law could be illustrated with any commonly used (and commonly alienated) portion of Thomas’s work. Inglis gives a fine example, the attempt to carve out a formal “epistemology” from the Summa theologiae or the De veritate. To be aware of the historicity of a text also involves an awareness of its “negative history,” the story of its misinterpretations or mishandlings and the way these mistakes have given rise to the wrong questions, the wrong critiques, the wrong appropriations. Reading an old and venerable text is no simple matter after all!

[8] The writings of Josef Pieper exemplify of the kind of approach I have in mind: one thinks especially of his introduction to St. Thomas, his trilogy on the theological virtues, his work on the cardinal virtues, his little book on eschatology, and his remarkable book The Silence of St. Thomas.

[9] From A Preface to Metaphysics.

[10] Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key.

[11] Gabriel Marcel, “An Essay in Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of Existentialism, trans. Manya Harari (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 125.

[12] Marcel, Mystery of Being, vol. II, Faith & Reality, trans. René Hague (Chicago: Regnery, 1960), 160.

[13] Mystery of Being, vol. 2, 12-13.

[14] Ibid.

Contrasting Concepts of Freedom

The following paper was delivered at the Conference Heute gerecht leben: Impulse zu Ordnungskonzeptionen aus katholischer, orthodoxer und schiitischer Tradition, Vienna, September 19th, 2016.[1] A pdf version can be found at the VIQo Circle website.


That in all things God might be glorified.

1. Two concepts of freedom, two forms of culture

The contemporary world is being dominated ever more by a secular, liberal, hedonistic anti-culture that is a threat to true human happiness, and flourishing. This secular anti-culture originated in the West in a rejection of the traditional culture of Western Christendom, but it has now become a global force, and one therefore that Islam will have to contend with as well. One way of understanding the conflict between secular anti-culture and the traditional Christian culture against which it rebelled is to distinguish their very different concepts of freedom. In the following reflections I want to consider the concept of freedom found in the Bible and the Christian tradition (and to some extent in the philosophy of antiquity), and then contrast it with the secular concept, rooted in the philosophy of the so-called Enlightenment. I shall try to show why the secular concept of freedom is so dangerous.

One can consider freedom on many different levels. For the sake of clarity I shall distinguish between three such levels: 1) exterior or political freedom, 2) interior or natural freedom, 3) moral freedom. The secular and Christian concepts of freedom differ on all three levels. I shall summarize the differences briefly before considering each view more closely.

1) For the Christian tradition external freedom means not being subordinated to another’s good, not being a slave. Politically such freedom is realized by a political rule that orders people to their own true common good— a good that is truly good for them. For the secular tradition of the Enlightenment in contrast, external freedom means not being commanded by another to act in one way rather than another. Negatively this kind of freedom is realized by limiting the scope of government to the preservation of external peace, leaving each citizen free to seek whatever he thinks is the good. Positively it is realized by the participation of all citizens in political rule— so that everyone can claim to be “self-ruled.”

2) Interior or natural freedom is taken in the mainstream of the Christian tradition to mean the ability of man to understand what is good, deliberate about how it is to be attained, and choose means suitable to attaining it. Unlike the animals, man is not determined by instinct, but is able to deliberate about his actions. On the secular view, however, internal or natural freedom is taken to mean a completely undetermined self-movement of will. On the secular view man is free not only to deliberate about how to attain the good, but to decide for himself what the good is.

3) Moral freedom, according to the Christian tradition, means knowing what the true good for man is, and what means are necessary to attain it, and being able to make use of those means. Moral freedom means being liberated from bad habits and disordered passions that lead us away from what we know is the good. To be morally free is to live in accordance with the nature that God has given us— it is to be virtuous and wise. For secular culture on the other hand, moral freedom means not being determined by cultural pressures, rejecting conformity for the sake of “authenticity” and “originality” deciding on one’s own peculiar way of living human life, based on one’s own “freely chosen” (i.e. arbitrarily chosen) “values.”

2. True freedom

The Book of Exodus is a story of liberation, of attaining freedom. The people of Israel is enslaved, they are forced to work hard for the Egyptians. Their slavery is in the first place an external slavery: they are forced to work for the good of their Egyptians masters rather than their own good, to realize their master’s end, not their own end. Their liberation is therefore also in the first place and external, political liberation. They are to be liberated from the power of Egypt in order to attain to their own true good and end as the chosen people of God.

“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” (Ex 5:1) God’s message to Pharaoh demands an external, political freedom for his people in order that they might attain to their true good, which consists in worshiping God (holding a sacrificial feast in God’s honor). But it becomes clear in the desert that the people need moral freedom as well as political freedom to be able to attain to their good. They are enslaved to the false gods of Egypt and to their own disordered passions— they fall back into idolatry, and long for the fleshpots of Egypt. They are unable to live as God’s chosen people in peace and justice, worshiping Him alone.

The Ten Commandments can be seen as an aid that God gives to the people to teach them moral freedom. God introduces the commandments by reminding the people of their liberation from Egypt: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) But the commandments are meant to bring them to a truer liberation: liberation from sin.

The giving of the commandments implies that the people have natural freedom, that is, “free will.” They must be able to understand the good, and chose the means that lead to it. In Deuteronomy God emphasizes their need to make a choice:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

The law shows the way to life, to the true good, and the people are able to understand this and choose to obey the law.

In the New Testament, St. Paul, tells us that the law was not enough. Human nature is wounded by original sin. And it is too difficult for persons with this wounded nature to follow the law, even though they know that it leads to life. But the grace of Christ heals human nature, and gives it the power to obey the law, and to attain to an even greater good than the life promised in the Old Testament. St. Paul teaches that Christ’s grace frees us from the law, insofar as it enables to do the good spontaneously without need for the law. I quote a famous passage from the Epistle to the Galatians at length:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” […] But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:13-23)

The desires of the flesh prevent us from doing what we would, that is what we truly desire, what leads to our true good. But the power of the Spirit enables us to be free from the law, not because it gives us permission to break the law, but because it enables us to fulfill the essence of the law, which consists in loving the good, easily and without coercion.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches that He has come to liberate the people from slavery to sin:

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:31-34)

The Jewish leaders think that they are already free, but Jesus teaches them that true moral freedom will only come if they remain with Him, allowing themselves to be formed by Him, so that they know God as their true good and attain to unity with Him.

The vision of freedom given in the Bible was further unfolded throughout the Christian tradition. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is the first great theorist of “free will,” as a faculty of choosing.[2] This faculty chooses which of our inclinations to follow. But it is naturally inclined to happiness; it chooses to follow inclinations, only because they seem to lead to happiness. All men want to be happy. The will is not “free” to desire unhappiness. Happiness is found in wisdom, which is the attainment of God as the highest good, and no one can be prevented from attaining God against his will. Therefore, no one can be made unhappy against his will. But everyone wills happiness. So why is it that so many persons are not happy? How is that possible? How can one both will to be happy and choose not to be happy? “How does anyone suffer an unhappy life by his will, since absolutely no one wills to live unhappily?”[3] Augustine’s answer is that the will is able to err by choosing things that are incompatible with happiness, even while continuing to will happiness:

All the people you mentioned, who follow different things, pursue good and avoid evil. Yet because different things seem good to one person and to another, they follow different things. Thus anyone pursuing what should not have been pursued – even though he pursues it only because it appears good to him – nevertheless is in error. […] To the extent that all people pursue the happy life, then, they are not in error. But people are in error to the extent that they stray from the road of life that leads to happiness, even if they profess and protest that they only want to attain happiness; “error” means following something that does not lead where we want to reach.[4]

Here Augustine is arguing that those who err are deceived by a false appearance of good. But how does such deception arise? Augustine argues that there are three kinds of false appearance of good:

but the will sins when it is turned away from the unchangeable and common good, towards its private good, or towards something external, or towards something lower. The will is turned to its private good when it wants to be in its own power; it is turned to something external when it is eager to know the personal affairs of other people, or anything that is not its business; it is turned to something lower when it takes delight in bodily pleasures.[5]

The “great and fundamental good” of human beings is a common good, in the sense that “he who is unwilling to share this possession cannot have it,”[6] but for this very reason turning away towards one’s own private good has an appearance of the self-sufficiency proper to God. In the Confessions, in wondering about why he had stolen pears as an adolescent, Augustine describes this false appearance in terms of apparent freedom:

Of what excellence of my Lord was I making perverse and vicious imitation? Perhaps it was the thrill of acting against Your law—at least in appearance, since I had no power to do so in fact, the delight a prisoner might have in making some small gesture of liberty—getting a deceptive sense of omnipotence from doing something forbidden without immediate punishment.[7]

In struggling with the question of what led him to steal the pears, Augustine also explains turning toward the external and toward the lower in terms of deceptive appearances of likeness to God, and yet a mystery remains. For, Augustine teaches that it is natural for the will to be turned toward God, where true happiness is to be found.[8] The the turning away is a defect, a weakness, a sort of nothingness, a failure to be what we are: “We admit that this movement is sin, since it is a defective movement, and every defect is from nothing.”[9]

St. Thomas Aquinas further developed Augustine’s account with the help of Aristotle. According to St. Thomas, will is a faculty that is dependent on the faculty of reason. It is rational desire. Just as there is a desire in the sensitive part of the soul when we sense something pleasurable to senses (eg. when we smell good food), so there is desire in the rational part of the soul when we understand something good. And the faculty for this desire is the will. As soon as reason understands something as good, the will moves toward it. To understand something as good is to understand it as contributing to my perfection and completion. That is, as leading to the final end, which is happiness. Now since there are many individual good things that can lead to happiness, the will is free to choose among them.[10] The very highest good, the attainment of which is happiness, is God. In this life, however, the mind does not necessarily see the connection of God and happiness, and thus, while it necessarily desires happiness, it does not yet necessarily desire God. In Heaven, where we shall directly attain to God, it will not be possible for the will to turn away from Him.[11] In earthly life, however, the knowledge of God is indirect, and therefore weak.

Sharpening Augustine’s account with Aristotelian notions, St. Thomas gives two ways in which we can be deceived by a false appearance of good. The first comes from the fact that in this life all our knowledge is begins with sense-knowledge. Only with effort does the mind rise above sensible particulars to universal truths. Similarly the first goods that we first know are sensible goods, and so the desires of man are first pulled down towards those goods, and only with effort does the will rise to desire more universal goods.[12] The second way in which we can be deceived comes from the fact that the God, in Whom our happiness lies, is the common good, of all creation, but the good that is first known to us is the proper good of our nature. Thus to seek God as our good requires that we subordinate ourselves to Him, this requires a certain self-transcendence, which can fail.[13]

St. Thomas’s account of freedom was officially endorsed by the popes of the 19th century in their struggle with modern liberalism. In his great encyclical Libertas (1888), Pope Leo XIII summarized St. Thomas’s teaching on natural, moral, and political freedom. He explains that natural freedom is called natural because it is not acquired but is given to man by God as part of man’s created nature.[14] Because man has universal, rational knowledge he knows not only particular, sensible goods, but also the good in general. He therefore understands that no particular good is necessary to man, and he can then choose those particular goods that he thinks suitable means to his highest good and final end.[15] In order for a person to choose some particular good they must understand it as being good, that is, as desirable, as contributing toward the complete goodness of the final goal of life.[16] But because both reason and will are fallible, man can be deceived by a false appearance of good.[17]

Moral freedom is the freedom from such error: the ability to know what means really lead to happiness and the ability to make use of them. To attain such freedom man has a need for law, which is “a fixed rule of teaching” in which “reason prescribes to the will what it should seek after or shun, in order to the eventual attainment of man’s last end.”[18] Law is thus not contrary to freedom, but a great help in attaining it.

The most important kind of law is natural law, which is “our reason, commanding us to do right and forbidding sin.” This voice of reason has the force of an obligatory law, because it is given to us by God, the author of our nature.[19]

Political freedom is attained when the laws of a society correspond to the natural law. In such a case the laws do not enslave the people by ordering them to someone else’s good, but rather help them to attain what is really good for them— the common good in which their happiness lies— they help them to be morally free.[20] Thus Leo XIII teaches that political freedom is not dependent on any particular form of government, such as democracy. Any government that makes laws that are compatible with the natural law, whether it is monarchical, aristocratic, democratic, or some mixture of those three, gives its subjects or citizens political freedom.[21] Participation of the greater number of the members of a society in political life might be a good means to helping frame laws that are in fact ordered to the common good (rather than the private good of some faction), but such participation is only a means; the essence of political freedom consists in the ordering of the laws to the true common good.[22]

3. False Freedom

The account of freedom that I have just sketched out sees human freedom at every level as being tied to an objective order of the good. But another account of freedom came to be dominant in modern times, an account that sees freedom as independent from any objective good. Such has, of course, ancient antecedents. Even in the book of Genesis the serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit that God has forbidden by saying, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). This can be understood to mean that you will be independent of the objective order of good established by God, and will yourself decide what is good and what is evil.[23] This is tempting because it flatters human pride, giving human beings an apparently more exalted status. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that such pride is always the reason for rebellion against God.[24] The Roman poet Lucretius gave an account of freedom as “pleasure driven randomness” that is similarly disengaged from any objective order of good.[25]

But in modern times such an account of freedom became dominant. Ironically, the modern view of freedom was developed out of the view that can be found in certain late-medieval theologians, who certainly did not want to rebel against God, but rather to emphasize the sovereignty of God’s will. Peter of John Olivi (c. 1248-1298),[26] John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308),[27] and especially William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347)[28] developed a theory of free will that saw it as completely arbitrary determination, not constrained by natural desire for the good. They applied this account to God in the first place, but then also to man. According to Ockham, the choice of the will does not follow knowledge of the good, but rather precedes all other acts including knowledge: “For I can freely chose to know or not to know, to will or not to will.”[29]

But it was the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) who must be seen as the true father of the modern idea of freedom. Descartes’s philosophy of pure thought emptied the natural world of all inherent goodness and teleology.[30] The world was seen merely as material for human domination, the imposition of human will. Hence will was not seen as appetite for an objective good, but as pure self-determination. Descartes is very explicit that freedom of the will makes the human person independent of God: “freewill[…] makes us in a certain manner equal to God and exempts us from being his subjects.”[31]

Descartes’s idea of freewill was highly influential on all of modern philosophy. Modern ideas of political freedom were especially indebted to him. If the freedom of the will means the will is not determined by the good, but only by itself, then political freedom can no longer consist in having laws ordered to the true good. Instead, modern so-called “liberal” political theory understands political freedom as self-legislation. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), to take only one particularly clear example,[32] argued that a ruler who tries to order its subjects to their own true good would be acting against their freedom:

A Government founded upon the principle of Benevolence towards the people—after the analogy of a father to his children, and therefore called a paternal Government—would be one in which the Subjects would be regarded as children or minors unable to distinguish what is beneficial or injurious to them. These subjects would be thus compelled to act in a merely passive way; and they would be trained to expect solely from the Judgment of the Sovereign and just as he might will it, merely out of his goodness, all that ought to make them happy. Such a Government would be the greatest conceivable Despotism; for it would present a Constitution that would abolish all Liberty in the Subjects and leave them no Rights.[33]

In order to preserve freedom, Kant argues, the government must be limited to balancing the freedom of different individuals:

No one has a right to compel me to be happy in the peculiar way in which he may think of the well-being of other men; but everyone is entitled to seek his own happiness in the way that seems to him best, if it does not infringe the liberty [i.e. freedom] of others in striving after a similar end for themselves when their Liberty is capable of consisting with the Right of Liberty in all others according to possible universal laws.[34]

This is one side of modern political theory, and it has had tremendous consequences. One thing that it demands is the complete independence of the state from religion, since religion always proposes a definite idea of human happiness, and therefore is seen as a threat to freedom. In the West, this view of political freedom has been embedded in the laws. A particularly clear expression of it was given by the United States Supreme Court:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.[35]

But there is also another side to the modern idea of political freedom, namely the demand that each citizen participate in the framing of the laws. Kant expresses the reason for this demand as follows:

All right, in fact, depends on the laws. A public law, however, which determines for all what is to be legally allowed or not allowed in their regard, is the act of a public Will, from which all right proceeds and which therefore itself can do no wrong to anyone. For this, however, there is no other Will competent than that of the whole people, as it is only when all determine about all that each one in consequence determines about himself. For it is only to himself that one can do no wrong.[36]

This demand is fulfilled by representative democracies. Hence, in the modern view, the only legitimate form of government is democracy.[37]

It has often been noted that there is a certain tension between the two sides of the modern idea of political freedom, with some modern political movements giving more emphasis to the first, and others to the second. But almost all modern political movements accept both sides in some form or other.[38]

Another important element in the modern idea of freedom, what we might call the modern ideal of moral freedom arose out of the Romantic reaction against the rationalism of philosophers such as Descartes and Kant. The 18th and 19th century Romantics rejected the Cartesian idea of cool, dis-engaged will and reason, confronted with a neutral meaningless world of extension. But Romanticism did not return to a pre-Cartesian, teleological world-view. It wanted to preserve the sovereignty of the human subject, but in a new way. Therefore it imagined an inchoate “current of life” underlying all things that expresses itself through living things, striving for ever higher expression. Man’s spirit is stirred by the sublime in nature, and this allows him to “create” new expressions of spirit that articulate and bring into being what was only potential before.[39] This Romantic vision underwent many developments and changes over time, but what remained was the idea that for a human being to be really free they had to express themselves in their own unique way. Human desire, on this view, is not elicited by good things, but is rather a potential force that expresses itself, and brings “value” (as the good now comes to be called) into existence. Freedom means being “true to oneself” by finding an “authentic” way of expressing one’s desires, and thus creating one’s own “values.”[40]

The Romantic, expressivist idea of freedom was an important element in bringing about the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, which continues to our own day. Sexual desire being particularly strong and ecstatic, contemporary culture sees sexual expression as a key to “authenticity” and freedom. Hence the proliferation of various forms of sexual perversion, all seen as “authentic self-expressions,” giving value and meaning to human life. And hence the violent opposition to the natural law, which forbids such perversions, when it is proclaimed by traditional Christians and Muslims.

4. Conclusion: The Slave of Sin

The modern idea of freedom, and the “liberal” culture built on it, have many attractions. Their individualistic, self-determining, approach to the good does do away with some of the limits and self-sacrifices demanded by an approach based on a common pursuit of objective ends. It gives room for movement and an independence from others. Moreover, as our very own Heinz Theisen has argued,[41] such an individualistic approach can avoid some of the conflicts that arise from different views of what the objective good for man is. In our discussions he also raised the point that in such a liberal order individuals are free to accept religious teaching on God as the final end of human life, the good in whom alone we can find happiness.

But the advantages of the modern view of freedom come at a great price. The attempt to determine one’s own “values” for oneself often means that one becomes dominated by one’s own passions; the desires and loathings that arise from the sense-knowledge in which all our knowledge begins. This is not freedom, but slavery. The American novelist David Foster Wallace spoke of the “default settings” of human beings as being the “worship” of things like money, sexual allure, and power, but that the “worship” of such things will “eat you alive.”[42] To become free of such things requires great effort, and usually a communal effort.

The claim that the modern culture of liberal freedom leaves room for those who hold to an older notion of freedom as related to objective good to follow their beliefs has to be qualified. The very fact that the whole culture is based on the competing, modern, “liberal” view of freedom exerts tremendous pressure on those who would hold an older view to conform. As David Schindler put it:

Liberalism invites us to adopt only its freedom and its institutions while (putatively) permitting us to supply our own theories which will give meaning to freedom and free institutions; but liberalism does so— paradoxically— all the while hiding the very theory (of liberalism) which alone justifies this (purported) extrinsic relation between freedom institution and theory. In fact, this very extrinsic relation, which is taken to guarantee a supposedly ‘empty freedom,’ already embodies a definite, though hidden, conception of human nature and destiny[.][43]

Thus, the crisis of religious faith that we are witnessing in the West today is a logical outcome of the prevalence of this liberal idea of freedom, which inevitably leads to viewing religion as a limit on freedom. The supposedly neutral view of the good, in which each person decides his values for himself, really turns persons away from their true good, in which alone true happiness can be found. In its place it sets an ethics of arbitrary self-expression that is becoming more and more perverse and irrational by the day. This is not freedom, but slavery: “every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). I am therefore convinced that we should oppose the modern view of freedom by every possible means. The most important means of opposition is the revival of the traditional and true account of freedom.


[1] I have revised my remarks in the light of the discussion at the conference. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the organizers and participants in the conference especially Christian Machek, Taher Amini Golestani, the Johannes-Messner-Gesellschaft, the Institut für Religion und Frieden of the Austrian Military Diocese, the International Institute for Peace and Religions, and the ViQo Circle for Catholic-Shi’a Dialogue on Religion, Philosophy, and Political Theory. I would also like to thank Peter Kwasniewski, Alan Fimister, and Susan Waldstein for helpful comments.

[2] See: Johannes Brachtendorf, Einleitung to Augustinus, De libero arbitrio – Der freie Wille, vol. 9 of Augustinus Opera – Werke (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2006), p. 45; Eva Brann, Un-Willing: an Inquiry into the Rise of the Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo it (Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2014), pp. 22-37. Brachtendorf and Brann go slightly too far in saying that Augustine invented the will— the denial of the term “will” to ancient concepts such as the Aristotelian boulesis seems to me to be based on a too narrow, modern concept of will. As Brann herself admits, Thomas Aquinas’s account of voluntas (will) corresponds to Aristotle’s account of boulesis— if one can call the one “will” why not the other?

[3] De libero Arbitrio, 1.14.30.100; On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings, trans. Peter King (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 25.

[4] De libero Arbitrio, 2.9.26.100-101; trans. King, p. 50.

[5] De libero Arbitrio, 2.19.53.199; trans. King, p. 70.

[6] De civitate Dei, XV,5; The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: The Modern Library, 1993), p. 483.

[7] Confessiones, II,VI; The Confessions, trans. Frank Sheed, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), p. 32.

[8] See: William R. O’Connor, The Natural Desire for God (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1948), pp. 18-25.

[9] De libero Arbitrio, 2.19.53.200-2.20.54.204; trans. King, pp. 70-71.

[10] Summa theologiae, Ia q83 a1 c.

[11] «Until through the certitude of the Divine Vision the necessity of such connection be shown, the will does not adhere to God of necessity, nor to those things which are of God. But the will of the man who sees God in His essence of necessity adheres to God, just as now we desire of necessity to be happy.» (Summa theologiae, Ia q83 a1 c).

[12] See: Charles De Koninck, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, trans. Sean Collins, in: The Aquinas Review 4 (1997), pp. 10-71, at pp. 45-46.

[13] «Indeed, although natural inclination of the will is present in every volitional agent to will and to love its own perfection so that it cannot will the contrary of this, yet it is not so naturally implanted in the agent to so order its perfection to another end, that it cannot fail in regard to it, for the higher end is not proper to its nature, but to a higher nature. It is left, then, to the agent’s choice, to order his own proper perfection to a higher end.» (Summa contra gentiles, III,109).

[14] Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Libertas (Rome, June 20, 1888), English translation: https://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_20061888_libertas.html (accessed October 2, 2016), ¶1.

[15] Libertas, ¶3.

[16] Libertas, ¶5.

[17] Libertas, ¶6.

[18] Libertas, ¶7.

[19] Libertas, ¶8.

[20] Libertas, ¶10; cf. my essays “The Politics of Nostalgia,” Sancrucensis, April 29, 2014: https://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/the-politics-of-nostalgia (accessed November 8, 2016), and “The Good, the Highest Good, and the Common Good,” The Josias, February 3, 2015: https://thejosias.com/2015/02/03/the-good-the-highest-good-and-the-common-good (accessed November 8, 2016).

[21] See: Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Diuturnum illud (Rome, June 29, 1881), English translation: https://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_29061881_diuturnum.html (accessed November 8, 2016), ¶7.

[22] «Unless it be otherwise determined, by reason of some exceptional condition of things, it is expedient to take part in the administration of public affairs. And the Church approves of every one devoting his services to the common good, and doing all that he can for the defense, preservation, and prosperity of his country. Neither does the Church condemn those who, if it can be done without violation of justice, wish to make their country independent of any foreign or despotic power. Nor does she blame those who wish to assign to the State the power of self-government, and to its citizens the greatest possible measure of prosperity. The Church has always most faithfully fostered civil liberty, and this was seen especially in Italy, in the municipal prosperity, and wealth, and glory which were obtained at a time when the salutary power of the Church has spread, without opposition, to all parts of the State.» (Libertas, ¶¶45-46).

[23] That was famously the interpretation given by Heinrich Heine, who saw the parallels with modern philosophy in the shape of G.W.F. Hegel: «there are indeed many […] beautiful and noteworthy narratives in the Bible […] as, for example, just at the beginning, there is the story of the forbidden tree in Paradise and of the serpent, that little adjunct professor who lectured on Hegelian philosophy six thousand years before Hegel’s birth. This blue-stocking without feet demonstrated very ingeniously how the absolute consists in the identity of being and knowing, how man becomes God through cognition, or, what is the same thing, how the God in man thereby attains self-consciousness. This formula is not so clear as the original words: When ye eat of the tree of knowledge ye shall be as God!» (Heinrich Heine, Religion and Philosophy in Germany, trans. John Snodgrass (London: Trübner and Co., 1882), p. 13 (I have slightly modified the translation).

[24] «Aversion from God has the nature of an end, inasmuch as it is sought for under the appearance of freedom, according to Jer. 2:20: “Of old you have broken my yoke, you hast burst my bonds, and you have said, ‘I will not serve.’”» Summa theologiae, IIIa q8 a7 c.

[25] Brann, Un-Willing, p. 14.

[26] See: Dominic Whitehead, O.F.M., The Pre-eminence of the Will in the Philosophical Anthropology of Petrus Iohannis Olivi (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Vienna, forthcoming).

[27] See: Brann, Unwilling, pp. 60-64.

[28] See: Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), chs. 10, 14.

[29] Quoted in: Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, p. 331.

[30] See the chapter on Descartes in my forthcoming dissertation. A draft of the Descartes chapter is available online: https://www.academia.edu/13118432/Symbolic_Calculation_and_the_Scientific_Revolution.

[31] René Descartes, Letter to Christina Queen of Sweden, 10 November, 1647, in: The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham et al., 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985-1991), vol. 3, p. 326. Cf. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 1989), p. 147.

[32] Similar accounts had already been given by “liberal” thinkers as diverse as John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

[33] Immanuel Kant, “The Principles of Political Right Considered in Connection with the Relation of Theory to Practice in the Right of the State,” in: Kant’s Principles of Politics, Including his Essay on Perpetual Peace, ed. and trans. William Hastie (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1891), p. 36.

[34] Kant, “The Principles of Political Right,” p. 36.

[35] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, United States Supreme Court, 1992: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/505/833.html (accessed November 11, 2016).

[36] Kant, “The Principles of Political Right,” pp. 42-43.

[37] See: Waldstein, “The Politics of Nostalgia.”

[38] Cf. Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in: idem, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 118-172.

[39] See: Taylor, Sources of the Self, ch. 21.

[40] Cf. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[41] Heinz Theisen, “Coexistence and Cooperation of Civilizations,” ViQo Circle: https://viqocircle.org/2016/11/09/theisen-on-coexistence-and-cooperation-of-civilizations/ (accessed November 11, 2016).

[42] David Foster Wallace, “Kenyon Commencement Speech,” in: Dave Eggers (ed.), The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 (Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 2006), pp. 355-364, at p. 362.

[43] David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 33-34.

Catholics and the Ethics of Voting

by Stomachosus


The main purpose of our civic actions must be the promotion of the common good. Voting becomes a duty when the common good or the good of religion demands it:

It is the duty of all citizens who have the right to vote, to exercise that right when the common good of the state or the good of religion and morals require their votes, and when their voting is useful. (Davis, SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology, v. 2 pg. 90)

It is important to note the second qualifier “when useful.” It is fully possible that a vote might be useless—say, if all candidates were equally wicked and no write-ins were allowed.

But whom must we vote for? Well, we must choose good candidates. What makes a candidate good? Those are good “who with strength of mind, in a christian spirit, and skill in bearing affairs, exhibits knowledge of political matters and sufficient eloquence” (Prümmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, v. 2, § 608). They must be upright, capable, and have a strong backbone. Obviously, the eloquence necessary in a county clerk may  be different than that needed in a Senator, but it must be sufficient for the position they are running for. Continue reading