For the Christians, to whom we now turn, this context is too earthly or this-worldly. To them, the ancient philosophers were pagans, lacking knowledge of, and faith in, the true God. The virtues the pagans praised, described, and studied were laden with attachments to this world, uninspired by faith in the next world; they were nothing but “splendid vices,” as Saint Augustine (354-430) might have said (but did not). Before continuing with brief remarks on Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), let me record for this quick trip through the tradition of political philosophy the vital contribution of Cicero (106-43 B.C.).
It was Cicero who kept the tradition alive by enabling it to pass from the Greeks to the Christian world. He brought political philosophy to Rome for a people whose leading lights were gifted in politics and rhetoric but despised anything that derived from the Greeks, whom they had defeated. To them, philosophy smacked of Greek softness. Cicero preserved political philosophy by giving it a Roman cast in his Republic, in which he adapted Plato’s dialogue of that name to a new setting. When the Greek text disappeared for a time, Augustine learned his Plato from Cicero; and then he in turn preserved the tradition by defending political philosophy from the hostility of some of the early Church Fathers, who found it to be carnal, ungodly, and misleading. Plato and Aristotle, we should note, were kept alive by Muslims, beginning with al-Farabi (878-950), and Jews, above all Maimonides (1135-1204), both of whom also defended political philosophy from the suspicion that it did not accord with the divinely inspired law of their respective communities. Jewish and Muslim political and religious traditions are often considered not to be Western, and that view of them makes sense. But from the standpoint of the philosophical tradition, one may hold that any nation having had contact with Greek philosophy or science belongs to the West. Certainly Muslim and Jewish philosophers were essential to that tradition not only for what they said but also for transmitting ancient philosophy to the medieval or modern West (in the political or geographical sense).
Augustine, like Plato, looked down on partisan politics. It was not that both men despised worldly goods or useful political solutions, but rather that they were concerned to emphasize the limitations of such goods and solutions. 【went so far as to say that kingdoms are nothing but grand larcenies, and ordinary larcenies nothing but small kingdoms】. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the world with a huge fleet is not essentially different from a pirate’s robbery made with a single ship. No responsible citizen or statesman could take such a view, as by itself it might lead to despondency or despair, and perhaps it is not even true. But Augustine wanted to make the point that moral virtue, contrary to Aristotle’s glowing picture, is always tainted with human self-interest, and always in need of God’s grace. Just as for Plato the only true virtue is philosophic, so for Augustine, true virtue is Christian. But whereas philosophic virtue is accessible only to a few, Christian virtue is open to everyone (though some know it better), and it is an ever-present possibility not dependent on the political situation of the moment.
To explain this possibility, Augustine developed his famous doctrine of the two cities, the earthly city and the city of God. Neither is any particular city or nation (for example, the Jewish people); the earthly city is any city, and the city of God is the community of the worshippers of the true God. The latter exists in heaven but also exists on earth to the extent that men follow Christ. It is not utopian, a city only in speech like Plato’s best regime in the Republic. Nor do the two cities necessarily conflict: they may be united under a Christian prince. The earthly city, however, is tainted with original sin and lives according to the “flesh” (in the biblical sense). It is counteracted and perfected by the human conscience, the conscience to be found in all men, good and wicked, that awakens in the soul when men do wrong. Human partisanship arising from sin has its own correction, both natural and divine, in the conscience.
With Thomas Aquinas, we enter the millennium just passed, the one containing his great summation of the tradition (his books, the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles, were summations; he also wrote commentaries on Aristotle and the Bible, among other things), and the great revolt of modern philosophers against the tradition. Thomas was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1323 and the study of his doctrine was enjoined by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. “Thomism,” as it is known, acquired a special if not quite official status, though today in Catholic thought its reign is weakened and contested. Yet, despite its success, it was denounced by the bishop of Paris in 1277 soon after it first appeared.
The controversy arose from Thomas’s introduction of Aristotle’s philosophy, passed along from Arab philosophers, particularly Averroes (1126-1198). To the bishop it seemed that Aquinas and his cohort were denying or endangering the truth of Christian revelation by borrowing from—even relying on—a pagan philosopher (whose works were learned of from non-Christian philosophers who did the same). Is not philosophy, the activity of human reason, based on human vanity, on the vain presumption of the sufficiency of human reason without divine revelation? Aquinas answered that it is not. Nature, he thought, was created by God in such a way that its order can be understood by human reason unassisted by Christian revelation. Nature is open to philosophy, and its greatest knower happened to be the pagan Aristotle, whom Aquinas calls simply “the philosopher.” Unassisted human reason cannot know everything that humans can know; it cannot know the greatest truths of the divinity of Christ and His promise of salvation. But just as God’s grace adds to nature, Christian truth completes natural truth without changing it. Christians need not be wary of philosophy; they can welcome it without fear that it will lead necessarily to atheism or to belief in false gods like the Delphic oracle whom Socrates pretended to obey.
For politics, Aquinas expounded a doctrine of natural law that soon acquired authority as the greatest expression of that view. Natural law in political philosophy is not to be found in the Greeks but was first seen in Cicero’s writings, where it is attributed, 【with some stretching】, to the Stoics. Similar to the natural justice or natural right of which Plato and Aristotle spoke, it is not identical. Whereas natural justice takes effect through the regime, natural law sets the basis for regimes and so precedes the regime. Natural justice is more flexible, and therefore runs a greater risk of seeming relativistic than does natural law. In Aquinas’s version, natural law, too, has a certain flexibility; it must always be applied, or promulgated, in human law. Aquinas spoke of natural justice as well as natural law, attempting perhaps to combine them. Yet on the whole Aquinas’s natural law is stricter than Aristotle’s natural justice, and consequently less supple politically. Aristotle did not speak of a conscience in all, nor of a universal natural inclination to virtue, as did Aquinas. In comparison with Aristotle, what Aquinas gains in universality he loses in political prudence. His political philosophy is necessarily affected, one could say endowed, by the superpolitical character of Christianity, which in other Christians, but not in him, produced indifference to worldly politics.