“What do we care about Ethiopia?” This exclamation, reports Yves Simon in The Ethiopian Campaign and French Political Thought, was a common reaction among Frenchmen during Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. The phrase is also sure to capture the initial feelings of many readers opening up Robert Royal’s new translation of Simon’s tract for the times long past. It is easy to see why we should care about Simon’s timeless, penetrating work on ethics, metaphysics, and political theory. But why should his views on a relatively obscure moment in history interest anyone but a burrowing biographer?
The blurb hints at the most obvious (and most marketable) answer: perhaps Simon can help us evaluate recent American military engagements in the Middle East. The book is said to offer “an interesting case study of such ethical concerns as just war theory and preemptive war, and is of particular relevance in our modern political climate.”
Simon makes several points that are of definite relevance to the moral evaluation of any invasion. All these points, it should be noted, seem to count against supporters of America’s recent military actions. For instance, Simon critiques the then-popular argument that Italy had the right, even the duty, to bring a higher civilization to Ethiopia. He grants that much about Ethiopia is deplorable, but points out that “it is always easy to move people by describing…what is most unhappy about a country, without saying anything about the favorable sides of the situation” (which, it goes without saying, are jeopardized by war); that there are low odds that a conquering nation can effect deep and lasting changes among a people “strongly ensconced in the double citadel of its mountains and age-old customs;” that efforts at pacification and reform will be “necessarily burdensome” to the natives, involving violence—perhaps on a larger scale than before.
There is an even more striking passage, which may titillate some of those who opposed the war in Iraq on moral or religious grounds:
The question which then confronted the Christian conscience was this: Would the teaching of the Catholic Church on the war be taken seriously? . . . A dishonest conscience is never embarrassed. . . Greedy merchants will always have plenty of good reasons that their profits conform perfectly within the laws of just price. . . Likewise, why bother to openly declare that one rejects the teaching of the Church on the conditions of a just war . . .? It is much cleverer to profit by the obscurities which inevitably accompany the application of a necessarily abstract doctrine. Using the cover of darkness as a means of protection is a deceptive method familiar to all marauders, pickpockets, and assassins.
Still, as gratifying a pastime as proof-texting is, it would be perverse to enlist Simon as a partisan in such a complex contemporary debate. The man who wrote that “true morality demands, when confronted with every new situation, a new effort at analysis, adapted to all the particularities of the situation” would surely be the first to suggest a large number of relevant disanalogies between Mussolini’s Italy and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia on the one hand and the contemporary United States and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the other. The Ethiopian Campaign and French Political Thought deserves to be read, but not as a work of prophesy or as a hornbook that saves us the trouble of wrestling with unique facts. We should read it with attention because it provides an inspiring and challenging model of citizenship.
A gifted philosopher, Simon was obviously comfortable with abstractions and rigid formal systems. But The Ethiopian Campaign and French Political Thought reveals a man who also energetically absorbed and synthesized the concrete, multifarious, ever-changing facts of politics and history, generating subtle and incisive analyses.
In part, this habit seems to have been characteristic of his generation. According to James McAdam’s forward, most educated Parisians of the interwar period sought to “combine the hard facts of politics with the highest human ideals.” Consequently, “thorough immersion in the political and social questions of the day was a way of life.” Although no society can hope to mass produce men of Simon’s stature (and it was France’s tragedy that men like him would prove too rare in subsequent years), his moral and intellectual grandeur is a credit to the literary and political culture that nurtured him—a culture that stands as a grim judgment on our own, sadly decayed public discourse.
But Simon was remarkable, even among his contemporaries, for his focus on political deliberation as a moral, not merely intellectual activity that demands exacting self-criticism from the individual citizen. It is crucial to recognize that The Ethiopian Campaign and French Political Thought is not a just another salvo in an ongoing public dispute. Simon certainly has a settled and undisguised view of the Italian invasion (he thinks it clearly unjust), but his object in writing his book is not to defend that opinion. Instead, he seeks what he terms the “rectifying of French consciences.”
He proceeds by surveying the public writings of French intellectuals during the Ethiopian crisis and subjects them all to searching analysis. He attempts to lay bare errors of logic and judgment on all sides of the debate. These errors, he argues, are born of partisan passion undisciplined by firm adherence to truth. He writes, “Anything that might come to trouble our lucidity of judgment would give another chance to the most immense evils that threaten us. Silence then for the party spirit, silence for nationalist passion, for anti-Fascist passion; silence for hatred, even hatred that takes as its object indisputable criminals. All political agility will be powerless if it is not ruled by a clear-seeing and honest interior attitude.” In short, Simon thinks that the sickness afflicting French (and, more broadly, European) politics is fundamentally spiritual, and he offers this book as a spiritual exercise. His attitude represents that supremely admirable political stance that is usually mistaken for glib “beyondism.”
The geopolitical situation has been almost totally transformed since 1935, but Simon’s exhortation to rectify consciences is as urgent as ever. There is much to be said in favor of the structural cynicism (the justly celebrated “checks and balances”) that is such a notable characteristic of the American system, but such provisions can only temper the effects of widespread vice and dishonesty—and only some of the time. To prevent the corruption of public thought that leads to corrupt acts, citizens must recognize political debate as a thoroughly moral enterprise. They must see it as a mutual discernment of a good, just life in common, and they must understand that this exploration that is spiritually taxing, requiring the painful subjection of passion and personal interest to truth and justice.
It is difficult to see how such a high conception of politics, with its attendant corporate and personal disciplines, can arise or long endure, unless most citizens view truth and justice as sacred. In Simon’s case, his intense focus on rectification of conscience was inseparable from his belief that the author of all reality, searcher and judge of hearts, shared his priorities. Simon therefore stands not merely as a model of citizenship in the abstract but also as proof that societies need—or, at least, can gain much from—religiously informed public philosophies.
Stefan McDaniel is an assistant editor of First Things.