Aristotle: religion, politics, and philosophy

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From Perspectives in Political Science, 27 (Winter, 1998), 5-12. -- James V. Schall, S. J.
The root cause of the vagaries of modern philosophy -- and perhaps ... the reason for my dissatisfaction with philosophy as a profession -- I now believe to lie in the divorce of philosophy from theology.

-- T. S. Eliot, 1963.1

If the gods give any gift at all to human beings, it is reasonable for them to give happiness also; indeed, it is reasonable to give happiness more than any other human good, in so far as it is the best of human goods.... But even if it is not sent by the gods, but instead results from virtue and some sort of learning or cultivation, happiness appears to be one of the most divine things, since the prize and goal of virtue appears to be the best good, something divine and blessed.

-- Aristotle, Ethics, 1099b11-18.

Aristotle's scientific account of the best form of government or "best regime" in the Politics deserves serious reconsideration today because ... it brings to light a nearly forgotten but hardly settled dispute between reason and faith as to what the best way of life and its political embodiments are. In brief, can human beings by their own lights discover the good life, or are they necessarily dependent on the divine to reveal this to them?

-- Robert C. Bartlett, "Aristotle's Best Regime," 1994.2


Marsilius of Padua in his Defensor Pacis (I, 8) understood Aristotle to have presented political things properly except that the Greek philosopher could not have foreseen the disruptive forces that the Christian priesthood in particular would have in the public domain. The best way to handle this problem, Marsilius thought, was simply to declare that spiritual things had no external effect but represented purely private or abstract matters. Reduced to the internal realm, spiritual things could not interfere with the polis in its pursuit of its own common good, a common good Marsilius thought he found in Aristotle. Reason was the realm of the naturally political and the philosophical, not something belonging to both natural and supernatural realms in a non-contradictory way as it had been for St. Thomas.

For Marsilius, the solution to the political problem was to declare all questions of supernatural life or the transcendent highest good to be worthy but irrelevant aspects of the ordinary life of citizens. "Defending the peace" came to mean, as it later would in a more graphic way with Machiavelli and Hobbes, subordinating the presence of both faith and speculative philosophy to politics. Peace resulted, not from accord in truth, but from depriving speculative matters of any legal relevance. Since philosophy and religion were said to be the major causes of disruption in actual regimes, they could not be permitted a position higher than politics. The classic standards by which the practical was to be related to the theoretical were "lowered" to prevent any clash between contemplation and politics. Marsilius' Aristotle was thus deprived of that primacy of theoretical to practical life found initially in Aristotle himself and on which the integrity of Aristotelian politics itself depended.
Aristotle did, of course, have a place for priesthood in his polity and considered the legislation for the common public liturgies to be a normal political function (1328b1-5; 1331b3-5). Aristotle's priesthood was not, like his philosopher, immediately ordered to the ends of being, to knowing all things. Theoretic philosophy was superior to the civil gods who were depicted by the poets to do many irrational things. The polis did, however, have a duty to the gods that seemed to be more than just a function of civil religion discretely designed to keep the masses busy and content because they could not themselves be philosophers. But since man was a political being by nature, it was not necessary for achieving these natural ends to resort to the gods to acquire additional information about what to do in the polity or how to arrive at the conditions for living a good life. The virtues could be acquired by practice and discipline. Laws could guide and, if necessary, coerce actions that would lead to virtue or at least prevent greater harm.

The dignity of the ethical and political order seemed self-contained once the metaphysical order in philosophy was also understood.3 That is, ethics and politics, which were two aspects of the same over-all moral life, had their relative autonomy and purpose. The objects of both practical sciences, ethics and politics, were human actions insofar as they ought to come forth from human prudence and choice. Man ought to rule himself and his community in the right times and places. Moral and political life indicated aspects of reality that needed to be treated separately because they were unlike activities of the speculative sciences. These practical human actions could be otherwise. They owed their existence to human knowledge and choice seeking to do or make something in conformity with man's chosen end, insofar as he sought happiness. We could not expect more certitude in these areas than the subject matter allowed (1094b13). Even though he was quite aware that men for the most part did not act morally and rightly in their deeds, still Aristotle argued in the case of the best man that he could accomplish his ends through his own powers. He could acquire the proper habits by using his intellect and power of choice on ends properly understood according to what human beings were, neither gods nor beasts. Human beings were unique beings in the cosmos. They were the microcosmoi, the beings with something of all the grades of being in them.
Many kinds of regime, organized according to the respective numbers and purposes of the ruling element, did in fact exist. These actual regimes reflected the relatively ordered or disordered status of the souls of the citizens who composed them. But none of these existing regimes could be classified as the best regime. The variety of differing actual regimes indicated that it was at least possible by comparison to wonder about the best regime.4 The best regime, however, had a particular function, as Aristotle had learned from Plato. It kept to the forefront the primacy and intelligibility of human good and purpose that was not in fact realized in actual polities. The acknowledged defects of all actual regimes, including the good ones, did present a serious intellectual problem. Aristotle did think it was possible to speak of a "best regime" provided this best regime were conceived to be a regime composed of finite mortals. Even if the theoretical life is more "divine" than human life and even though Aristotle advised us to prefer the divine to the human, no matter how difficult it was (1178a1), still this high level of philosophic life would not be easily attained and, if attained, only by a few.
It was this position about the relatively few philosophers among us that caused Aristotle to be called an "elitist." Interestingly, it was the claim of revelation to address itself to all men, even the non-philosophers, that made medieval Christian philosophers think that revelation was in some sense "necessary" as a correction to the limits of natural philosophy. Modern political philosophy, in its turn, has sought to attain these exalted levels of well-being for everyone not by philosophy or revelation but by lowering the standards of human activity. Medieval political philosophy answered the same problem by elaborating carefully how revelation was in fact addressed to all men, even the imperfect (I-II, 91, 4). The sources of virtue and good life were available in revelation to others than the philosophers. The purpose of these revelational resources (grace, sacraments) was not directly political in the Aristotelian sense nor were these resources necessarily designed to change the definitions of the virtues as Aristotle understood them.

Aristotle himself recognized that there were regimes that might be, relatively speaking, "best" for this or that local political situation or for a polity composed of this or that type of citizen. But he also asked whether the best man and the best regime might not require one another? What was, in fact, the highest kind of life, the life of the politician or the life of the philosopher? Aristotle recognized that the life of the politician, the life devoted to political prudence and to honors, while it was a good life, contained many troubles (1177b12). Its very absorption in a myriad of affairs indicated that it would not by itself allow the leisure that was the hallmark of the philosopher who was primarily interested not in the changing things of ordinary politics but in the higher things, the things that could not be otherwise. Human life by itself continually manifested a recurrence of what Aristotle could only call "wickedness" (1267a42). Thus, it would be quite unlikely that most regimes would be good or that most philosophers, assuming their own souls to be in order, would find conditions suitable for their successful pursuit of the theoretic life.

Aristotle did not identify the politician and the philosopher as Plato had done. The very fact that he separated them indicated that he understood the different requirements for each sort of life. But this difference did not mean that the two lives were not somehow interrelated. The undisciplined politician could kill the philosopher. The good of the polis itself, however, required the existence of the philosopher.5 Politics was not the highest science as such, only the highest of the practical sciences. Without attention to the theoretical sciences, the ends of politics could not be secured. On the other hand, all lives in the polity, including the philosophical life, were to be considered in terms of the ends of the polity and its needs.6

Thus, the polis could not tell the mathematician what the object of mathematics was, but it could, if need be, command the mathematician to devote his life to the good of the polis' immediate needs in war or peace. This same principle applied to the philosopher. Socrates was a soldier in the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian War, as he tells us in The Apology. Though Socrates clearly understood, in the case of Leon of Salamis, that there were things it was wrong to do even if the polity commanded them, still, he did not object to serving in the army on the grounds that he was a philosopher. Had Socrates been killed at Delium or Amphipolis, no injustice to philosophy would have occurred. Aristotle's political views were exactly the same on this point.

When Aristotle defined man as precisely the "rational animal", he meant to distinguish him from other beings in the universe, from other living and non-living beings which lacked reason, and from the gods who evidently had reason but no bodies. Man was thus the lowest of the spiritual beings but the highest of those that included matter in their substance. The being composed of body and rational soul achieved its end or perfection when it suffused all of the actions under its real control with this very reason. But this reason had itself its own function, its own activity, over and beyond any of its other practical functions of ruling passions, families, or polities or of making things.

The designation of man as not only a rational but also political animal, moreover, did not mean primarily that non-rational forces ruled man in the city. Rather, it meant that everything in the city, including non-rational forces, even punishment and coercion, should itself be ruled by orderly reason. Indeed, for Aristotle, everyone, including children and natural slaves, that is, those actual human beings who by accident of birth or fortune were in objective fact not capable of self-rule, was to be guided and directed in each of his actions by reason, by a substitute reason that supplied what was lacking. At least one of the functions both of the household and of the polity was to provide reason when it was naturally or artificially lacking. Nothing was to stand outside reason even though not everything was reason. Aristotle did not think that the passions were evil or bad because they were not reason, only that they needed to be understood for what they were and guided towards the good of reason as it sought a proper end for each human being.


Aristotle understood that politics, the activity of ruling and being ruled as mature adults, fell under what he called practical reason or prudence. The first use of reason is simply to be itself, to do what it does, namely, to know things, to know the truth of things with no further interest but that very knowing. This is the function of the theoretic intellect. Its relation to politics is of extreme importance and is itself very much influenced by what we do with our practical choices in the cities we build with them. Man cannot properly rule himself unless he knows what he is, what the world is, what explains why he is as he is. Aristotle also saw these latter questions as the most fascinating ones, the ones that, more than others, but not excluding the practical goods of life, constituted the communication of friends with one another.

Practical reason, on the other hand, implied another way to use the single intellect we have been given. Practical reason is itself divided into two categories, ethics/economics/politics and poetry or craft, into doing and making. With any experience of ourselves, it becomes quite clear that we are given by nature a certain internal structure or form. That is, every human being, unless nature fails somehow, as it can do, will have fears, pleasures, anger, speech, relationships with others, wealth. That we have these aspects of our human being is a matter of truth, of theoretical intellect. What we do about them, once knowing we have them, is a matter of practical intellect.
Some aspects of human beings are not directly subject to practical reason at all -- how fast our hair grows, for instance. Our practical reason rules those things in us for which we are called good or bad, for which we are praised or blamed. Practical reason means using our minds to put into existence something that can only come from us at this time and this place, say a chair that we made or a modifying of our action so that we are more able to control our anger.

Our fears and pleasures, clearly, do have a certain force or reality of their own. Each human being will have a somewhat different given pressure from his fears or pleasures or angers that is his innate tendency or inclination. To control anger will be more difficult for some than others. But everyone has a problem with it to some degree. Thus, we begin to realize that we do have the capacity to control our pleasures or fears or angers. We become aware that we are blamed if we do not control ourselves, praised if we do. It is possible for us, using our intellects practically, to guide these realities that we find within ourselves. We begin to control ourselves in individual actions of courage or temperance; we learn to be just to others. That is, we can acquire virtues that are habits of action.
Virtues are a kind of second nature to us whereby we have learned to identify situations of anger or pleasure or fear and thereby to rule ourselves so that we direct these legitimate passions to our own proper end. We do not let our passions interfere with what we want and ought to do. We understand how all of our actions relate to that inner definition we have of our end, of what it is for which we do all that we do.
Aristotle pointed out at the end of the Ethics that some human beings, especially young males, begin to act outside of reason, outside of parental authority. They do not act according to reasonable community standards of proper activity; they disrupt common life. Thus, we need to have an institution of coercion to supply what reason lacks when some human beings act contrary to the good of others. Coercion is not a bad word, even though we would not have to employ it if we were at all times acting rationally to rule ourselves. Coercion is the use of force or punishment in order to insure a certain minimal standard of reason in the acts of those citizens who do abuse the good of others. For Aristotle, the use of force itself is a rational enterprise on the part of the polity when it directs itself to those who do not in fact rule themselves.
The purpose of coercion is to instill external reason in actions when inner reason proves ineffective. Punishment, likewise, is something due to someone because of the objective disorder of not ruling oneself. To accept punishment as one's due is likewise to acknowledge the legitimacy and rightness of the natural or positive law as a standard of human actions. Punishment in this sense restores order on disorder. Its perfection, as it were, is when the criminal acknowledges that he, the criminal, ought not to have done what he did and is willing to accept the punishment as a sign of the higher and prior validity of the order he should have followed in ruling himself.
Aristotle's ethical and political books are directed to a specific area of reality, that is, to those actions which need not exist, but do exist, because they flow from human beings precisely insofar as they are or ought to be rational in ruling themselves. Ethics is the rule of oneself over oneself in those things in oneself over which we have some voluntary control, more or less, at the right time, the right place, and in the right circumstances. The virtue of prudence is the intellectual virtue of the moral virtues. It is, or ought to be, present in every act of any virtue. It identifies the situation, what is going on in particular situation with which we are to deal. In this light, prudence establishes the particular act we are going to put into reality. In this sense, prudence is the highest of the moral virtues since it is the one that puts the stamp of this person, this mind, on the acts that flow forth from him. We might add, of course, that imprudence is also an act of one's mind itself putting our stamp on those acts and deeds that we wrongly do.

The good man, the man with the virtues well in hand, the magnanimous man with even a high degree of virtue and self-knowledge, needs also, to be complete, the theoretical virtues. For these, in all likelihood, he needs not only to have acquired the practical virtues but also he needs to live in a good regime that will allow him to pursue freely the highest things. The politician responsible for this regime leads, in this sense, a good life. However, this life is not the life of the philosopher. The good politician has to have enough sense to see that there are things he does not possess.
Aristotle thought that probably the politician could be prevented from himself claiming to rule all things, including theoretic intellect, by good education in music and gymnastics.7 That is, even though the politician did not have the time or even the acute intelligence of the good philosopher, still he could be ordered to a habitual or intuitional understanding of higher things even if he was not completely familiar with them theoretically. The politician can be himself a good man. He can by a kind of co-natural knowledge judge rightly about particular situations in light of the good, whatever its source. This experiential capacity is also why at times the politician is more capable than given philosophers to see what ought to be done. The politician can likewise be more capable of seeing that what comes from the gods or the supernatural order may in fact answer human issues that is existentially before him.

I have taken some time with the way that Aristotle describes the moral life in its ethical, economic, political, and intellectual aspects to show that this life can be properly and accurately described by a philosopher who did not know revelation, particularly Christian revelation.8 Christian philosophy did have certain theoretical problems with Aristotle, about creation and the eternity of the world, about whether God had any providential care of what is not God, about whether God was lonely, about whether God was capable of any efficient causality outside of Himself. Each of these points can be understood in a manner that makes it impossible to interpret Aristotle in a manner consistent with revelation. But likewise each of these issues can lead to a reexamination of the philosophical principles underlying them so that the relevant Christian position is seen not to be contradictory to Aristotle. This of course was the general burden of the work of St. Thomas.9

Even before St. Thomas, however, Christian thought had surmised that the main problem with the classical authors, especially in the area of morality, was not that these classical authors were wrong, but that somehow what they proposed was impossible or unlikely to come about by merely human resources. Ernest Fortin, writing specifically on Augustine, put the matter in its proper light:

What finally convinced him [Augustine] that happiness was not to be sought in philosophic contemplation, but in the Christian ideal of the love of God and neighbor? Augustine's works contain a variety of answers but none is more readily intelligible than his probing analysis of the internal difficulties besetting classical moral and political philosophy. Stated in its simplest terms, the argument runs as follows. The pagan philosophers correctly defined happiness in terms of virtue or excellence, that is to say, in terms of the highest goals to which human beings can aspire, but they are unable to show the way to these goals.10
Fortin pointed out that Aristotle, who brilliantly described justice and virtue, still recognized that most people were not virtuous and that those who were had a difficult time in seeing, on the basis of philosophy alone, what the purpose of it all was. The pagan philosophers could offer no adequate answers to these perplexities, but they were perplexed by them.
The best regime that the pagan philosophers recognized to be in the logic of their discussion, however, had no real existence. They themselves were the first to admit that their model of the most desirable society cannot be translated into action. It exists in speech or 'private discussion' only. De facto, one is always faced with some sort of trade-off, that is to say, with a choice among a variety of regimes none of which is superior in every respect to any of the others.11
What we can conclude from these observations of Fortin is not that classical politics and philosophy are not worthwhile, but that they both betray a certain curious insufficiency, a certain incompleteness even in their own order, even when they can understand what virtue is and what human knowledge, the search for the things that cannot be otherwise, is about. What is important to notice is that the argument with the classical writers is not whether they understood what ethics or politics or metaphysics was about. What perplexed them most was that they could neither achieve what they knew to be right and true nor understand the full import of existence and its causes.

Scholarship about Aristotle has, no doubt, a long and fascinating history. The "two truth" theory, designed to protect the autonomy of both reason and revelation, is associated also with Marsilius of Padua's analysis of Aristotle. This theory argues that the truths of politics and the truths of revelation are incommensurate with each other. Both can be true. This theory seems to have appeared again in political analyses of Aristotle. The position of Aquinas is that, with some philosophic correction, Aristotle and revelation are compatible. Indeed, they rely on each other. This compatibility is a relatively neglected position in contemporary political philosophy. One of the basic tenets of Marsilius' version of "Latin Averroism", of the two truth theory, as Pieper remarked, is the view that "there is no state superior to the practice of philosophy."12
The question can be asked, however, whether precisely Aristotle's philosopher is someone to whom this Averroist dictum applies, granting that the life of philosophy and contemplation is for Aristotle the highest human life, a life that is, when practiced, somewhat "divine"? Or is Aquinas closer to the real tenets and positions of Aristotle even when he has sometimes to disagree with Aristotle on Aristotle's own philosophic grounds?
Such questions seem pertinent in the light of Robert Bartlett's essay on "Aristotle's Science of the Best Regime."13 This interesting essay is in fact an examination of Aristotle's position about what we call today religion.14 Bartlett maintains that a certain neglect in the study of Aristotle's philosophic life has given rise to a dangerous revival of supernatural influence in politics because of the theoretical inadequacies of the modern liberal defense of the separation of church and state. Curiously, Bartlett identifies this danger to the modern liberal solution as coming from a fundamentalist Islam and the Christian right. One wonders whether his intentions are restricted to these two "dangers" or whether he intends to include all forms of supernatural consideration and if so, why he does not mention it?
Bartlett does not appear to have paid any specific attention to the Thomist tradition, nor in particular to the position of John Paul II himself who has argued quite clearly in Centesimus Annus and Veritatis Splendor, among many other places, that political and moral problems as we in fact find them today will not and cannot be solved without the presence of revelation.15 But this position about the practical necessity of revelation is not argued against the relative autonomy or worth or truth of the philosophic life, nor is it exactly the same position as Islamic fundamentalism or the so-called Christian right. Rather the argument for revelation arises directly out of the observed inadequacies of both politics and philosophy.

Bartlett, however, argues against the view that some supernatural influence or revelation is needed for man to live the good life in the public order. He makes this argument with full realization that Nietzsche and his followers have in fact undermined the validity of the original modern basis on which church and state can remain separate.16 Religion is thus no longer subordinate to politics and more and more demands a place in the public forum precisely against the moral failures observed in civil society and their philosophic origins. Bartlett even attributes the victory over communism not to religious forces that would include the Pope and Solzhenitsyn with the spiritual forces within the former communist world but to liberalism itself.17
In any case, Bartlett argues that there are antiliberal regimes (that) ground their opposition to liberalism in an appeal to religious truth, especially to Islamic law; the ordering of political life there owes, or is said to owe, its origin to the one true God whose law is as thoroughly political as any merely human law but is necessarily free of imperfection.18
These regimes deny freedom and equality, even reason, as the basis for their validity. Thus, Bartlett wants to think through the "quarrel between faith and rationalism". The drama of "reason and revelation" needs to be reconsidered at the level of politics and political philosophy. What Bartlett has in mind is an effort to recover philosophy as a counterbalance to revelation, revelation conceived, on the surface at least, after the manner largely of Islam and the so-called Christian right. Bartlett gives no real analysis of the latter. He thereby leaves the impression that Islamic fundamentalism and the Christian right are differing aspects of the same phenomenon.

Leo Strauss, in the "Introduction" to his famous book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, had approached this question with perhaps more caution. Strauss remarked that both Israel and Islam were religions of law. This theological position meant that the judge or lawyer, not the theologian, held the central position. Christianity was in a different category, a difference that is most significant for the argument I wish to make here with regard to revelation and politics. Strauss noted that Aristotle's Politics has a place in Christian philosophy that is occupied by Plato's Republic for Jewish and Islamic thinkers.19 The meaning of this difference about Aristotle's politics does not seem to have been considered in Bartlett's analysis.

Strauss remarked, speaking of Farabi's interpretation of Plato, that "philosophy is the highest theoretical art", while the "royal art is the highest practical art." The fact that both philosophy and the royal art (politics) are necessary for happiness means that philosophy is not sufficient for happiness. For Farabi what needs to be added to philosophy to make man happy is not religion, as we would expect from a Muslim thinker, but politics, in fact "Platonic politics". Politics is the substitute for religion, that is, Islam in this case. In Strauss' view, then, Farabi "may be said to lay the foundations for the secular alliance between philosophy and the princes friendly to philosophy, and to initiate the tradition whose most famous representatives in the West are Marsilius of Padua and Machiavelli.20 What starts out to be a subordination of philosophy and politics to religion ends up by submitting both philosophy and religion to politics, the modern liberal solution.
What Bartlett seems to argue is for a return to an Aristotle who is not by virtue of his own philosophy open to revelation. Bartlett is careful not to ask whether the position of Aquinas is to be identified with Farabi or Islam, or with Marsilius or the recent Christian right. He assumes that it is sufficient to handle the current problem of revelation's place in human life by identifying it with Islam and the Christian right. Does Aristotle's religion, in other words, imply that human knowledge as such is insufficient for achieving the kind of human happiness which a being of the human order can expect? "Does the expertise in political affairs and, above all, the science of the founding of the best city, rely on knowledge accessible to the unassisted human mind or supernatural inspiration?"21
Bartlett's stated project is to revive an understanding of religion in Aristotle that would allow its presence within the polis. But this religion takes the shape of modern liberalism. It does not imply by this presence that religion was necessary to contribute to the solution of actual human problems. It did not imply that revelation was in fact necessary either to achieve human individual happiness or to save the life of the city. To achieve this arrangement, Bartlett, in effect, embraces a version of Latin Averroism that would reinstate the primacy of philosophy. This primacy would allow the liberal solutions of modernity to remain intact as a general rule for everyone. But to counteract the appeal of the supernatural, Aristotle's theoretic life is proposed sufficient both in the order of polity and in the order of theory. The appeal of fundamentalism is thwarted by the lure of philosophy. "By thus thinking through our profound longings for happiness, which naturally find their first expression in the hope for a 'best regime' guided by a perfect law," Bartlett observes,

... we may come to see the transpolitical activity that is according to Aristotle their true fulfillment. We may become genuinely open to the possibility that the human mind is at home in this world, that looking upon or contemplating it is in principle sufficient for happiness, and that there is as a result no need to make further demands upon the given world.22

What is perhaps new in Bartlett's position in comparison with Aristotle himself and that scholastic tradition that has seen him to be so helpful to revelation is the stress on the sufficiency for man of his own reason.

Aristotle himself was in a somewhat different position in that he had reached the limits of what we might expect from the human intellect by its own powers. But Aristotle's political science recognized that man was not the highest being in the universe (1141a20-25) and that the divine power within him did seek to know this divine source as much as it could. Thus when Bartlett proposes to restore the "premodern understanding of political things," this view, now attributed to Aristotle, is said to imply "the sufficiency of human reason to guide political life against those who, by appealing to supernatural edicts or to special knowledge, would deny it."23

Bartlett, nevertheless, recognizes that liberalism has, by concentrating on tolerance and supplying sufficient goods, neglected the philosophical life. He wants to restore it precisely in order to derail the incursions of particularly revelational religion which ground themselves on the failures of these practical projects to satisfy the human heart. The revival of Aristotelian philosophy is thus proposed against the background of an emptiness in modern culture and perhaps against the failure of the liberal virtues to guarantee virtue itself, something that Aristotle himself was most concerned to accomplish in his ethics. Reflections on Aristotle's science of the best regime is therefore helpful in counteracting this indifference, engendered by liberalism, to serious thoughts about God..., thoughts that in every nonliberal time and place are held to be of first importance for human beings.24
Bartlett recognizes the dangers of "ideology" as itself a kind of secular religion perhaps more

dangerous than religion itself, but as ideology is now largely discredited, it is religion that is the current problem in this view.

Thus, in the end, Bartlett wants to restore philosophy, if only to a few. Such theoretic endeavor is not irrelevant to the health of liberal democracy in favor of common decency, responsible self-government, and political moderation wherever these may arise -- arguments grounded in neither party interest nor "ideology" but philosophy.25

Bartlett recognizes that philosophy cannot be founded on a "groundless act of the will." The claims of the divine, following this version of Aristotle, need philosophic accounting. Such a philosophic analysis of philosophy will presumably prevent the intrusions into liberal polities of arguments from particularly supernatural revelation that make their claims precisely on philosophic grounds as their starting points. One has the impression that Bartlett does not recognize that revelation can, in fact, have philosophical grounds, can have what Aquinas called "praeambula fidei".

What are we to make of this position? No doubt it is a responsible recognition that classical liberalism has a serious intellectual weakness before the divine, before the fact that the way we ought to act is not itself indifferent either to the gods or to the polity. It is furthermore a recognition that speculative philosophy has a serious claim to our interest, the neglect of which has led to the continuing problems with ideology in the modern era. What is to be wondered about here is whether the liberalism that Bartlett seeks to defend against the gods is not itself an ideology, or perhaps better, not itself the source of much ideology in the modern era? It is by no means clear, as Nietzsche suspected, that Marxism and liberalism did not have at some point the same philosophic premises.

The initial problem I have here is the lumping together of Islamic fundamentalism and "the Christian right" as the major enemies of the liberal state. These two designated forces make too easy targets for the seriousness with which revelation challenges modern political culture in its theoretical liberal phase. If we return to Strauss for a moment, we can see that philosophy in Christianity is not as alien as it might at first sight seem. "For the Christian, the sacred doctrine is revealed theology," Strauss wrote;

for the Jew and the Muslim, the sacred doctrine is, at least primarily, the legal interpretation of the Divine Law.... The sacred doctrine in the latter sense has, to say the least, much less in common with philosophy than the sacred doctrine in the former sense. It is ultimately for this reason that the status of philosophy was, as a matter of principle, much more precarious in Judaism and in Islam than in Christianity: in Christianity philosophy became an integral part of the officially recognized and even required training of the student of the sacred doctrine.26

The fact that Christianity -- or at least that element in Christianity that does so, we cannot forget the hostility to philosophy in the early church and in the Reformation -- can take philosophy seriously as integral to its own doctrine suggests that philosophy is not an alternative to revelation. Indeed, the classical Thomist position is simply that both philosophy in its fullness and revelation in its fullness cannot contradict each other. This relationship suggests positively that revelation may in fact be able to contribute to philosophy and even to politics precisely in their own orders which respectively reveal some inability to answer their own problems and issues.27
In light of Bartlett's thesis, Léon Elders put the matter most delicately:

For Aristotle, morality is human and intramundane instead of being founded on transcendent principles. It is nevertheless trans-immanent insofar as the place of the other is essential to it. The well-being of man does not refer itself to God. Here it is necessary all the same to note that the content of contemplation, which is our good, is clearly God. We do not accept without reservation the affirmation ... that the morality of Aristotle is anti-religious.28
The difference between Bartlett and Elders, it seems, gets to the root of Bartlett's own problem with proposing Aristotle the philosopher as precisely a counterweight to supernatural religion. Bartlett is, of course, right in worrying about a supernatural that apparently has no grounding in philosophy. But if philosophy and revelation be conceived as related to one another and not as contradictory things, it seems possible that it is the philosopher side of Aristotle that is most open to revelation. If this be so, then it would also follow that the politician himself is not to be conceived as somehow independent of or superior to philosophy or revelation as is the case in Latin Averroism and liberalism.
The notion that a philosophy content with a view of God or man that does not in principle conceive itself open to a higher end than what is available in philosophy itself does not seem to be itself an Aristotelian position. The usefulness of Aristotle to Christian philosophy is in the first place that he was a philosopher. But it also clear that Aristotle's philosophy could, following the lines of its own logic, be open to interpretations that were not available to Aristotle but are available to us. We are not, in other words, in the same position as Aristotle with regard to revelation and its seriousness.
Ismael Quiles put the matter in this way:

It is necessary to observe that the interpretation of Aristotle that is least Christian is generally supported by his own express words, in his own texts; on the other hand, the creationist and Christian interpretation is found rather on the interpretation of the mind of Aristotle and in the logical prolongation of his argument. In any case, we owe to Christian philosophy the limpid and clear affirmation of rational truths so important for completing and clarifying the partial conquest of pagan philosophy, and correcting it in its deviations.29

What this passage implies for our purposes here is that the way of philosophy is itself a noble way and one that needs to be followed, if only by a few, but that it is not sufficient in itself and cannot on its own terms exclude from consideration the claims to knowledge that arise from outside of philosophy but not in contradiction to it.30 The challenge of revelation or Christian religion to philosophy and politics, then, is that certain supernatural elements are needed for them to achieve their own ends and that philosophy and politics by themselves will not be able even to retain their hold on virtue if they are content simply with the sort of happiness that one can find in the politics or theoretical philosophy of human reason alone.
The defense of modern liberalism that would rest on a revival of Aristotelian contemplative philosophy, itself theoretically closed off from revelation, is not the same classical Aristotle himself open to whatever reality might come into being. Henry Veatch's accurate description of Aristotle's ethical and philosophical life, itself related to Aristotle's discussion of the immortality of the soul, is worth citing, in conclusion, because it states more clearly the import of Aristotelian philosophy itself. "Why not say that the chief, if not the sole end of human knowledge, is simply the knowledge of man?" Veatch asks.

... Why not say, for instance, that all of the business of research and investigation in science, far from being an end in itself, is rather the means to the final end of simply knowing the truth, and knowing it for its own sake? ... Why not say that over and above and beyond such a life of virtuous action there lies the still more ultimate end of our simply being able to contemplate the truth in a knowledge of God, of man, and of the whole nature of things?31

Bartlett wants to save this philosophical position as a bulwark against supernatural religion as a claim that does in fact bring into play answers and graces that are lacking to man as we know him even in his own order. The problem with Bartlett's position is that it closes itself off, in a way that neither Aristotle nor Veatch do, from some response to the enigmas of philosophy itself and especially to that enigma that makes the good life to belong to the few.
The answers of Christian revelation at least are not designed to doubt the worth and value of either the philosopher or the politician but to direct themselves to achieving the ends that in some sense the virtuous and philosophic lives can recognize in their own orders. In this sense, the Nietzschean attack on the modern project of man's self-sufficiency has succeeded in depriving man both of reason and grace. Bartlett's effort to restore contemplative reason would itself be more hopeful were it to restore an Aristotle not closed off from the higher things that in fact may have been revealed in the world and addressed in their own way to both politics and philosophy.

1 T. S. Eliot, "Introduction," to Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (New York: Mentor-Omega, 1963), p. 13.

2 Robert C. Bartlett, "Aristotle's Science of the Best Regime," American Political Science Review, 88 (March, 1994), 143. See also Mary P. Nichols' Response to this Essay and Robert Bartlett's Reply, American Political Science Review, 89 (March, 1995), 152-60.

3 See Richard McKeon, "Aristotle's Conception of Moral and Political Philosophy," Ethics, LI (April, 1941), 253-90; John B. Morrall, Aristotle (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977); R. G. Mulgan, Aristotle's Political Theory (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977); John M. Cooper, Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986).

4 See Leo Strauss, "On Aristotle's Politics," The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 13-49; Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, Edited by Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper (University Park, PA.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993); Susan Orr, Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss (Lanham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995); James V. Schall, "The Best Form of Government," The Review of Politics, 40 (January, 1978), 97-123; Reason, Revelation and the Foundations of Political Philosophy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).

5 See Josef Pieper, "The Purpose of Politics," Josef Pieper -- an Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), pp. 121-23.

6 See Walter J. Thompson, "Aristotle: Philosophy and Politics, Theory and Practice," Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 68 (1994), 109-24; Gerald M. Mara, "The Role of Philosophy in Aristotle's Political Science," Polity, XIX (Spring, 1987), 375-401; M. T. Owens, Jr., "Aristotle's Polis: Nature, Happiness, and Freedom," Reason Papers, 6 (Spring, 1980), 69-77; James V. Schall, "Nature and Finality in Aristotle," Laval théologique et philosophique, 45 (Février, 1989), 73-85.

7 See Carnes Lord, Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982). See also Lord's "Introduction" to his English translation of Aristotle's Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 1-24.

8 See James V. Schall, "The Role of Christian Philosophy in Politics," The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, LXIX (#1, 1995), 1-14.

9 See Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991).

10 Ernest L. Fortin, "Augustine and the Hermeneutics of Love," Augustine Today, Edited by Richard J. Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 40.

11 Ibid.

12 Pieper, ibid., p. 127.

13 Bartlett, ibid., 143-55.

14 See also Anton-Hermann Chroust, "Aristotle's Religious Convictions," Divus Thomas, 69 (Jan.-Mar., 1966), 91-97; Thomas K. Lindsay, "Politics and Religion in Aristotle's Politics," The Review of Politics 53 (Summer, 1991), 488-509; W. J. Verdenius, "Traditional and Personal Elements in Aristotle's Religion," Phronesis, 15 (#1, 1960), 56-70. I have found most useful Professor E. B. F. Midgley's as yet unpublished manuscript on political philosophy with its chapter on "Aristotle" (University of Aberdeen).

15 See James V. Schall, The Church, the State, and Society in the Thought of John Paul II (Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1982).

16 Bartlett, ibid., 143.

17 See George Weigel, The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism (New York: Oxford, 1992); Eric E. Erickson, Jr., Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World (Grand Rapids, MI.: The Acton Institute, 1994).

18 Bartlett, ibid., p. 143.

19 Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1972), p. 9.

20 Ibid., p. 15.

21 Bartlett, ibid., 144.

22 Ibid., 152.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., p. 153.

26 Strauss, ibid., p. 19.

27 See James V. Schall, At the Limits of Political Philosophy (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996).

28 Léon Elders, "Aristote et l'aristotélisme," Revue Thomiste, 84 (#4, l984), 653. (Author's translation). See also, Ralph McInerny, "Ontology and Theology in Aristotle's Metaphysics," Mélanges à la Memoire de Charles de Koninck (Quebec: Les Presses de L'Université Laval), pp. 233-40.

29 Ismael Quiles, Aristoteles: Vida, Escritos, y Doctrina (Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe, 1947), p. 118. (Author's translation).

30 See Leo Strauss, "On the Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy," Faith and Political Philosophy, ibid., pp. 217-34.

31 Henry Veatch, Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation (Bloomington, IN.: Indiana University Press, 974), pp. 125-26.

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