When life in a democratic society grows morally corrupt, what are decent citizens to do?

Is democratic freedom itself the problem? Is it true that what people most need is not to learn how to use freedom well, but to be organized rationally according to what justice requires, even in an absolutist government, if necessary?

When the world is in crisis, it can be tempting to set up an authoritarian state—even a totalitarian one—to restore order. But the heritage of western political philosophy offers a more satisfying alternative, based on a realistic but hopeful understanding of human nature.

Fr. James Schall did a great service by presenting this tradition in his 1984 book, The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy, which Ignatius Press recently reprinted. It serves as an important reminder for contemporary readers about the limits of politics, and puts modern American concerns in the broader context of the history of political thought, from Plato to the present.

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Caesar Has His Place, but He Cannot Fulfill Us

According to Schall, “The feeling that law and politics can achieve our ultimate desires . . . is the most subtle and difficult temptation that man has to deal with.” Echoing Aristotle’s “most radical notion in all political thought,” Schall affirms that political science (the study of man’s natural life) cannot be the highest science, because man’s highest end (the contemplation of God) is not political. Only God can satisfy the human heart, and metaphysics (the study of being, above all, God) is the highest science. Without a revelation from God to confirm that man’s end transcends this world, politics will dominate our life and make hell on earth. But in its proper place, politics can do great good. The “abiding problem” of the “political enterprise” is to grasp this “limit of politics.”

Plato was perhaps the first to tackle this problem. Early in the Republic, his character Glaucon laments that, although humans desire justice and happiness, these seem impossible in this life: here the just get punished and the wicked prosper. Plato is surely alluding here to the historical Socrates, one of the best human beings, who died at the hands of the best regime Plato knew, Athens. Plato had no notion of original sin, but he concluded there must be something deeply wrong with human nature. A just regime would have to radically circumvent it, as the Republic does, by abolishing the family and property and rebuilding them around the state—the first totalitarian government.

When the world is in crisis, it can be tempting to set up an authoritarian state—even a totalitarian one—to restore order. But the heritage of western political philosophy offers a more satisfying alternative, based on a realistic but hopeful understanding of human nature.


Schall, like Cicero and others, thinks Plato did not really support “such outlandish projects.” He rather presented them—and their inhumanity—to suggest that politics cannot fulfill us. In the Republic’s ending, Socrates hopes that final beatitude or punishment might be found instead in our immortal soul’s existence after death.

But it took a revelation from God, in Jesus of Nazareth, to confirm Plato’s conviction that “final personal happiness” is possible, but not in this life. Like the just man described in Book 2 of the Republic, Christ, despite his goodness, died an unjust death at the hands of one of the better regimes in history, Rome. After death, however, he achieved not just happiness in his soul, as Socrates had hoped, but “resurrection, the ultimate happiness to which [humanity] has constantly felt itself called”: a transformed life of body and soul—the whole person—which grows out of earthly life but transcends it.

Earthly life, and thus politics, is important; Caesar has a legitimate role to play. But political life does not perfect a person’s happiness; God does. And after the death and resurrection of Christ, “any man in any polity,” no matter how corrupt, “was related to God directly in a relationship that was not political, though it was social.” Humanity’s first concern is with God, and the state’s authority depends on his. Those who love God will naturally also love their neighbor. Like the Republic’s ruling Guardians, they will try to improve others’ earthly lives according to God’s wisdom.

But unlike the Guardians, a person freed from sin by Christ’s new life (grace) can retain the ties of family and property without necessarily succumbing to the disordered self-interest that Plato feared. “[G]race cures nature,” enabling humans to live with earthly attachments, but as if they did not have them. Schall notes how Christian monks give up married love and possessions entirely. But, one might add, grace also operates in secular life, including marriage. By grace, people “in the world” can love their family and neighbor, and still love God first.

Finally, Judeo-Christian revelation confirms that the cause of humanity’s unhappiness is not social disorganization, but personal sin: the free refusal of God. Every being is good, because God created it so. But the human person has freedom to change himself and the world. When someone chooses evil, the sin cannot be undone. But God permits sin, despite its evil, because to eliminate evil is to take away human freedom and so to destroy virtue and happiness. Sin can be forgiven now, and partly healed, but perfect joy is reserved for heaven—and punishment for hell.

Political life does not perfect a person’s happiness; God does.


Rationalist Statism versus Freedom for Excellence

A common alternative—maybe the alternative—to Greco-biblical political philosophy is Gnosticism, “the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action,” as Eric Voegelin described it. Gnostics locate evil not in choices but in things. But being as such is not good, they say; it is made good or evil by its rational order or irrational disorder. People who live by right knowledge (gnosis in Greek) or reason are good, and those who do not are evil—and must be eliminated. And there is no “reason” higher than man’s: Gnosticism “[rejects] the historical and creative formation of man as a being subject to a God whose ways are not our ways.”

One of the most common contemporary forms of Gnostic politics is Marxism. But many Christians come close to Gnosticism when they misinterpret St. Augustine’s notion of “the City of God” to mean an earthly church or state, ordered on right principles. They do not appreciate what Christ meant when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The City of God is the invisible, spiritual union of those who love God. It exists perfectly only in heaven. As recent Christian reflections like Dignitatis Humanae have amply clarified, the civil law’s power of the sword cannot make people love God. God, not government, perfects human beings with their free cooperation.

For Augustine, states are rather mere “remedial institutions.” They prevent the worst public evils to create a peace in which people can learn to choose well—to pursue excellence. Thomas Aquinas added that “grace’s nonpolitical influences” on political life did make “living in this world different and better.” But, he cautioned, law can demand only as much virtue as “could be expected of the plurality of normal men who were not, in fact, saints.”

The foundation of good politics is the “unique sacredness” of the individual, made in God’s image for an eternal destiny. “Human personhood is essentially and mysteriously a relation to its Creator,” not to the state. Man needs the state, but not the way a limb needs a body. The society that human individuals form exists only in those individuals, and not in itself. Only in the community of God himself—the Trinity—is personal union a substantial union.

The New Gnosticism

The American constitutional regime, in its classic expression, follows this classical western political tradition. It provides a public forum of ordered liberty to serve fallen human beings’ pursuit of happiness rather than aiming at utopian schemes. Perfect justice is left for the next life. But politics must keep the next life in mind, including the fear of eternal punishment; without it, John Adams said, one would “make murder itself as indifferent as shooting a plover.”

The French Revolution, and contemporary secularists, rather follow a new variant of Gnosticism, one especially harmful because it capitalizes on Christianity’s legacy. Secularists try to “ground human reality totally upon the knowledge rooted only in human intelligence.” Evil is not in personal choice, they say, but is something embedded within “property and government relationships themselves.” Because we create those institutions, we can perfect them and ourselves. And because there is no afterlife where all wrongs might be righted, we must pursue perfection now, even “to the absolute destruction of what supposedly opposes the good.”

The seeds of this approach are in Machiavelli, the founder of modern political thought. The action of grace—charity and mercy—in medieval Christian society, he noted, raised Europeans’ expectations for how good public life could be. But he claimed their ideal was too lofty, even inhuman; to achieve it, one could not but “undertake power fanatically.” He therefore argued for a “lowering of sights,” setting “justice” alone as society’s aim.

Machiavelli had a point: to try to force people to be saints is inhuman. But the older tradition already knew this, as we saw. Machiavelli’s true innovation was to treat charity, and not sin (the lack of charity), as the root of religious persecution and of other wrongs committed in religion’s name. Therefore, he proposed to forbid “faith, sacrifice, and sacrament” in public life, even though people’s elevated hopes remained. “Thus, having been once told that mankind could anticipate, even on earth, a life of peace and brotherhood, political philosophy was left with the ideal but not the biblical means”—grace—“to achieve it.”

The results were disastrous. As western peoples abandoned Christianity, they expected from public institutions the services that Christians’ initiatives—schools, hospitals, businesses, etc.—had provided before. To replace them, nations set up lumbering social-service bureaucracies and socialist states, animated not by the wisdom of mercy, but by paid labor, law, and an increasingly inhuman secularism. When these failed to meet expectations, citizens demanded still more government interventions. Their logical outcomes were the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and today’s state-sponsored promotion of ideologies that are sometimes worse than what Plato imagined in the Republic.

Machiavelli had a point: to try to force people to be saints is inhuman. But the older tradition already knew this.


True Political Realism

Sound thinking and social structures are important, Schall says, but in the end, “If nations fail to develop, it is largely because of their choices.” Nature, ideas, and laws condition who we can be, but our choice—our love—finally determines who we actually are.

We need to live better—to put ourselves in order, cooperating freely with our Creator. No one else can do it for us. The state can help, but only in a secondary role. The more honest and humane we are in business, family relations, and civic life, the less we need the state to police us, the more freedom we gain to develop our potential, and the wiser we become to craft laws and institutions that serve human dignity and the common good. The external order of society begins in the internal order of each individual person.

Non-religious conservatives, Schall notes, appreciate many of these points and the contributions of biblical thought to western political life. But they wrongly think that merely a return to the Greco-Roman tradition of “moderation” could restore society. They fail to see both that grace “has deepened the seriousness of [the] actions and aberrations” of political life, beyond what moderation can direct, and that “the right understanding” of the Greco-Roman tradition has come “largely, not through itself, but through revelation.”

We need good government. But no government can do what our society needs most: to convert your will and mine, to change our hearts. Only you and I—and God—can do that. And that’s the hard political reality.