What’s a polity?

In his commentary upon Aristotle’s politics, St. Thomas writes that “the polity (civitas) is the end of the previously mentioned societies, which were shown to be natural. Therefore, the polity is natural. […] Since the polity is a society that has of itself what is sufficient for life, it is itself the end of the previously mentioned societies.” He concludes, “since a polity is nothing other than a congregation of men, it follows that man is a naturally political animal.”

As a political animal, Thomas notes that “men desire to live with one another and not be alone. Even if one man did not have need of another for anything in order to lead a political life, there is nevertheless a great common benefit in the sharing of social life.” This great common benefit stems from two things; first, he says, it helps the people who are living together live better, for each person contributes their own share to the common good of all. As an example, he notes the benefits of the division of labor that come with society – when lots of people can live together, one person can do one thing and another can do another. This division and pursuit of individual goods which contribute to the good of all, Thomas claims, is the highest purpose, or the end, of the polity and the government. He is careful to say that this end is for the sake both of the individuals and also for the sake of the whole community.

The second reason Thomas gives for the benefits of society and common life is that is valuable not only for living well, but also for living at all – for “mere existence.” People who are able to live in community can help contribute to each other’s happiness and fulfillment, but they can also come to each other’s aid and help preserve the lives of one another “against the dangers that threaten [them].” It is this second reason, Thomas explains, that initially brings people together to live in community in the first place. Living well and being happy is a great thing which people desire, but living life at all is desirable as well. People know that if they live together and trust each other and come to the aid of the other, regardless of whether they can help each other live well, they can at least gain a little security for their own life.  Thomas seems here to be almost anticipating the rather different and more pessimistic theories of another fellow of the same first name, Hobbes, about 300 years later. Thomas even comments that life can be very miserable and one can suffer many evils outside – echoed later by Hobbes (as he famously said in his book Leviathan, life outside of community is possessed of “no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”) without losing the “certain natural sweetness” it seems to possess which drives men together into communities in order to preserve it. It is as if, Thomas says, “life possessed in itself a certain solace and natural sweetness.” Indeed, it is more than mere appearance and “as if” – it is so. For Hobbes, though, there is no real equivalent to living well, which is central to the Angelic Doctor’s thought here.

It is particularly important to note the purpose of society which Thomas declares in his first reason for the great benefit of community – it is, in his words, that

[O]ne person serves the society by performing one function, another by performing another function, and in this manner all live well together. This, then, namely, to live well, is above all else the end of the polity or of the regime, both collectively with reference to all and severally with reference to each individual.

Observe carefully the last clause of the last sentence: “both collectively with reference to all and severally with reference to each individual.” For Thomas, there exists a separate thing called society which is not simply the sum of its individual constituents. Every person pursues their own good life and contributes to that same pursuit in the lives of others, but also contributes to a whole which sits atop the members and exists as a thing in its own right with its own goods and excellences. Thomas says, following Aristotle, “the good to which the polity is ordered is the highest human good.”

To support this argument, Thomas explains that every society exists for some purpose beyond its own mere existence – it has some goal, which he calls the good. He then notes that while polities and societies are not the synonymous, polities are a certain kind of society, so polities, too, are “ordered towards” or exist for the purpose of some greater good. Thomas describes how every person naturally does things which they think will bring about the good in their lives. Whether they’ve got things right or not, and whether the things they do are actually good or not, they still do what they do because they think that it is for the sake of the good. Seeing that every polity is ordered towards some good, that is, that it exists for a purpose, the polity which is best will necessarily be one that “seeks in the highest degree” the greatest good. So we see that the best polity is the one which seeks the highest good, and furthermore, Thomas tells us “the importance of the means to an end is determined according to the importance of the ends.” What does this indicate? It indicates that if we can agree on the importance of the “greatest human good,” we ought to be able to agree that the thing that brings it about is extremely important as well – the polity.

Thomas’s defense of the polity as being ordered towards the highest human good is buttressed from every side by the underlying principle that he is about to expound: namely, that the whole is higher than its parts. He gives the example of a wall, which is indeed a whole composed of bricks, but also a part of a house, and states that the house is clearly the higher of the two wholes. In this same sense, society is a whole composed of parts – of families and households, towns and villages. Therefore, the good of the polity which contains all these parts is greater than any individual part which is its constituent.

New Books, 6/9/17

Thorkild Hansen’s telling of the disastrous 18th-century Danish expedition to Yemen is coming back into print, thanks to NYRB Classics. NYRB is also turning out Patrick Leigh Fermor’s novel The Violins of Saint-Jacques, as well as another reissue of his letters with Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, In Tearing Haste, Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, and a fat volume of Elizabeth Hardwick’s collected essays.

The father of my friend Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., has what is sure to be an excellent book on Theology of the Body coming out this winter.

Princeton is reprinting their reprint of Steven Shapin & Simon Schaffer’s book in their Princeton Classics series, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life.

I’ve never heard of Michael Szonyi, and I am not what anyone would call knowledgeable about Imperial China, but the little that I do know about its government tells me that The Art of Being Governed will be interesting.

Lu Xun, whom I learned about only last week, is being brought to English-speakers thanks to Harvard’s translation of twenty-six of his essays.

Roger Scruton has written Our Country: A Book of Resolution and Resolve as a sort of companion volume to his Our Church, which I thought was a bit disappointing. Also new from him is the paperback edition of Politics Of Culture and Other Essays.

Margaret Willes has written a comparative biography of the two great and very different 17th-century diarists, Evelyn and Pepys.

Another forthcoming group biography, this one by Piotr Kosicki, follows the early 20th-century Polish Catholic intellectuals, among whose number we may count the future Pope St. John Paul II.

The late John Deely’s magnificent book Medieval Philosophy Redefined as the Latin Age is being reprinted in paperback. St. Augustine Press is always behind on these things, so the publication date, which used to be this fall, then was pushed to this winter, and now is set for next spring, could get moved again.

Why were the Jesuits, so influential in the 16th-century church, never allowed into the great Italian universities of their day? In what other, unofficial ways did they manage to have an impact on them?

Mark Greif’s book of essays will be released in paperback this fall.

What looks to be one of the more interesting works Etienne Gilson’s has been for the first time translated into English: Theology and the Cartesian Doctrine of Freedom.

The reigns of the 400 and the 30 in Athens after the Peloponnesian War (if I remember rightly) were some of the most brutal and fascinating regimes in classical Greek history. Maybe I’ll reproduce a little narrative I wrote about the rise and fall of the 400 on here; in the mean time, there’s a book being published about them that can’t but be good:  Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History.

Ignatius Press is publishing a book against the recognition of a ‘gay’ identity (from the viewpoint of someone who could well claim it), with a foreword by Cardinal Sarah.

Robert Bireley, S.J., the historian of the Society of Jesus during the Counter-Reformation, is reissuing his very interesting and long-out-of-print book, first published in 1990, on Machiavelli’s contemporary Catholic critics.

St. Augustine press is publishing two (actually, more) by Josef Pieper, who to English speakers seems far more prolific in death than he was in life: another book of essays and speeches and his short summary of Catholic belief.

Fr. Stafford Poole, a Vincentian priest and erstwhile opponent of the cause for the sainthood of the now-canonized St. Juan Diego, has sent to the presses a revised edition of his apparently learned book about Our Lady of Guadalupe. I do not know whether it is any good. The reviews of the first edition suggest that America magazine thinks so.

For anyone with the slightest interest in papal politics or medieval church, the I Tatti Library’s latest original book on the Avignon Papacy, by Unn Falkeid, looks promising.

Marc Barnes, the guy who used to post at the Bad Catholic blog at Patheos (maybe he still does; I haven’t seen anything of his in a long while), has written a book: A Bad Catholic’s Essays on What’s Wrong with the World.

‘Feelings-Having,’ reasons, rationale

Don’t expect this to be profound. If you know (or can guess) what ‘Feelings-Having’ means, good; if not, I will now define it for you, and won’t use the term again. Briefly:

A disposition whereby one’s emotions are the chief director of one’s thoughts, such that the basis on which an argument is to be accepted or rejected is primarily is emotional.

This is not to say that one’s feelings about a proposition are the only basis for judging, or that they are even a bad basis, but that they are the primary basis. Let’s try to illustrate it.

  • Jeremy thinks Desiderius is probably a jerk because he is from the Netherlands, where Jeremy once had an unpleasant tourist experience.
  • Duane, upon learning that Harold thinks murder is probably wrong but that we should hear all sides of the issue and decide in favor of whichever best makes its case, disgustedly calls him a monster and refuses to talk to him.
  • Harvey is being denounced by Persephone because he brashly declared his fondness for the story of Jonah and the whale, without knowing that Persephone’s mother had been swallowed by a giant fish.

I think that the operative piece in each of these decisions is different, but what is common in them is the judgement of a proposition not primarily on ‘thinking’ or some such. Putting aside whether it could be done, what is in fact happening is not a teasing out to conclusions and judgement according to principles, but a leap to a sort of shorthand (whether it be emotions, feelings, prejudices, whatever) that we hope is informed by reasons or principles.

Now, nobody except a few rationalists would say that this is a bad way to make decisions simpliciter; choosing well is not meant to be a continual rebooting of the utility-quantifier engine to scientifically weigh each decision anew, but a series of habits developed and hardened into character. When bad decisions are made this way, however, one is inclined to think that they could not have been made in any other; that the response was not formed as a shorthand for reason, but at variance with it.

People form these habits, which come in the forms I mentioned above and others, for many reasons. The most important are anthropological – that making good choices repeatedly forms good habits, which then turns you into a good person – and I’m going to skip over them. Next there is the obvious point that attempting to make every choice as if it were the first time implies a false agnosticism about right and wrong. Ethics can’t be done in isolation, and putting out of one’s mind all the prior decisions or conclusions one has made before proceeding on to another forces one to act as though none of those conclusions can be trusted. The next reason is that it is easy. Reconsiderations are not always easy to do, especially in light of stressful circumstances, and non-rational decisions bypass them without (necessarily) sacrificing reliability.

Good non-rational decisions, then, accord with good rational decisions. So the problem remains as stated above: bad decisions made this way are misaligned, and could not have been made in any other way.

Fr. Thurston contra Coulton pro Lea

G.G. Coulton is remembered most today, if at all, not for his scholarship but for his irascibility and persistence in seeking out and waging one-sided polemical wars against unwilling opponents. I came to know of him through his fights with Hilaire Belloc, who relished the exchanges as a break from his usual hackwork.

One of Coulton’s heroes was the American history professor Charles Henry Lea, who made his career publishing (what were later recognized as) lies and misrepresentations about the medieval church, and chiefly about the Inquisition. This flattered Coulton’s prejudices nicely, and he took to defending Lea stridently against all detractors, real and perceived. One such detractor was Fr. Herbert Thurston, the Jesuit priest, friend of unrepentant modernist George Tyrrell, authority on spiritualism, and controversial editor of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, who had thirty years prior produced a review article of one of Lea’s books, in which he concluded that the author was a tenth-rate historian and liar, and that it was “a safe thing probably to say that in any ten consecutive pages ten palpable blunders may be unearthed.” He followed with a challenge, asking whether the professor would “elect to stand or fall by the third volume of his Auricular Confession and Indulgences or his chapter on the causes of the Reformation in the Cambridge Modern History?

Coulton came across this, as I said, thirty years later and pressed the then-octogenarian Fr. Thurston, with a combination of insult, insistence, and sheer volume of correspondence, into taking up his side of the challenge. What followed was an erudite, convincing, and hilarious pamphlet in response, ‘How History is Miswritten’.

A poem by Sir Steven Runciman

I am reprinting here a poem from Minoo Dinshaw’s new biography of Steven Runciman, for which I haven’t gotten permission; I do it because I am doing a little puff, for which I am not being paid, for the book, which I greatly admire.

The poem was written (and, as the author remarks, curiously not destroyed) by a young Runciman upon learning that his elder brother’s betrothal to a young woman was intended to be permanent. He had a fairly dim view of their relationship.

The plains are very wide and stretch around us.
O’er the wide plains in liberty we roam.
There is no fence or barrier to bound us;
There is no limit set upon our home.

They came to take us, but they never caught us.
They set us snares in which we never fell
The only lesson that the hunting taught us
Was how we could remain untameable.

Others were fresher when the hunters chased them.
The hunters captured them with scornful ease
In gilded cages round the walls they placed them
Surrounding them with pretty luxuries.

And so the captives live laden with treasures.
They never suffer loneliness again.
But they are slaves in spite of all their pleasures,
And we are left unconquered on the plain.

O you that love, wallowing in your prison,
How is it that you ever can forget
That feeling of freedom when the sun had risen
Before you fell into the hunters’ net?

The plains are bare indeed, but they are vaster
Than we can cross by travelling all the day.
In such a world how can you bear a master?
You love; and freedom is the price you pay.

The reddening sun swings down on the horizon.
There is a chilly strangeness in the light.
The hum of daytime hesitates and dies on
Into the silent bleakness of the night.

Would it not, now, be better to be dying
Warm in the cushioned comfort of the cage
With fond attendants comforting and sighing?
This freedom is a lonely heritage.

Cry out to me, cry that I have not wasted
This only little life that I have had,
Cry, it is better never to have tasted
Wine that is poisoned, pleasure that is sad.

Soon, very soon, the cruel night will numb me,
Let me be proud and cry triumphantly
That no one knew the way to overcome me.
Much I had missed, perhaps, but I am free.

Inauspicious. Dinshaw comments, “If intended as a prophecy, this became self-fulfilling; if a credo, it was kept with ascetic and absolute determination.”