On God & Goodness: 8 Lessons on the Euthyphro Dilemma

Listers, does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it? The question lies at the heart of the dialogue Euthyphro, written by Plato c. 399-395 BC, recounting a conversation between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro on the meaning of holiness. Though the dialogue overall is seeking to define holiness (or piety), it is the Euthyphro Dilemma that has captured the attention of Catholic, protestant, Islamic, atheistic, and agnostic thinkers throughout the centuries. Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In monotheistic terms, it may be rendered “does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it?” or “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” The question demands an explanation on the relationship between God and what is good (and how to be good, i.e., moral). Theologians and philosophers have disagreed over the years as supporting either horn of the dilemma imports substantial differences to the nature of God and the nature of the good.

The following list intends to simply introduce the Euthyphro Dilemma by reproducing a basic survey of the issue as presented through various texts. The majority of the list is taken verbatim from the respective cited sources and were gathered with the Catholic intellectual tradition in mind.1


1. Summary of the Narrative

"A Row of Philosophers - Busts of Greek philosophers from Socrates to Epicurus as seen in the British Museum, London." - Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
“A Row of Philosophers – Busts of Greek philosophers from Socrates to Epicurus as seen in the British Museum, London.” – Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

The Euthyphro dialogue occurs near the court of the Archon basileus (Magistrate–king), where Socrates and Euthyphro encounter each other; each man is present at the court for the preliminary hearings to possible trials (2a).

Euthyphro has come to present charges of manslaughter against his father, who had allowed one of his workers to die of exposure to the elements without proper care and attention. (3e–4d) The dead worker, earlier had killed a slave from the family estate on Naxos Island. As Euthyphro’s father awaited to hear from the exegetes (cf. Laws 759d) about how to proceed, the bound-and-gagged worker died in a ditch. Socrates is astonished by Euthyphro’s confidence in being able to prosecute his own father for the serious charge of manslaughter, despite the fact that Athenian Law allows only relatives of the dead man to file suit for murder. (Dem. 43 §57) Euthyphro misses the astonishment of Socrates, which confirms his overconfidence in his own critical judgement of matters religious and ethical. In an example of Socratic irony, Socrates said that Euthyphro obviously has a clear understanding of what is pious (τὸ ὅσιον to hosion) and impious (τὸ ἀνόσιον to anosion). Because he is facing a formal charge of impiety, Socrates expresses the hope to learn from Euthyphro, all the better to defend himself in the trial.

Euthyphro says that what lies behind the charge of impiety presented against Socrates, by Meletus and the others, is Socrates’ claim that he is subjected to a daimon, (divine sign) which warns him of various courses of action. (3b) From the perspective of some Athenians, Socrates expressed skepticism of the accounts about the Greek gods, which he and Euthyphro briefly discuss, before proceeding to the main argument of their dialogue: the definition of “piety”. Moreover, Socrates further expresses critical reservations about such divine accounts that emphasize the cruelty and inconsistent behavior of the Greek gods, such as the castration of the early sky-god Uranus, by his son Cronus; a story Socrates said is difficult to accept. (6a–6c) After claiming to know and be able to tell more astonishing divine stories, Euthyphro spends little time and effort defending the conventional, Greek view of the gods. Instead, he is led to the true task at hand, as Socrates forces him to confront his ignorance, by pressing Euthyphro for a definition of “piety”; yet, Socrates finds flaw with each definition of “piety” proposed by Euthyphro.(6d ff.)

At the dialogue’s conclusion, Euthyphro is compelled to admit that each of his definitions of “piety” has failed, but, rather than correct his faulty logic, he says that it is time for him to leave, and excuses himself from their dialogue. To that end, Socrates concludes the dialogue with Socratic irony: Since Euthyphro was unable to define “piety”, Euthyphro has failed to teach Socrates about piety. Therefore, from his dialogue with Euthyphro, Socrates received nothing helpful to his defense against a formal charge of impiety. (15c ff.)2


2. The Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a) The dilemma has had a major effect on the philosophical theism of the monotheistic religions, but in a modified form:

“Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”3

Ever since Plato’s original discussion, this question has presented a problem for some theists, though others have thought it a false dilemma, and it continues to be an object of theological and philosophical discussion today.4


Analyzing the Euthyphro Dilemma


The First Horn

3. Does God will it because it is Good?

The first horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is right is commanded by God because it is right) goes by a variety of names, including intellectualism, rationalism, realism, naturalism, and objectivism. Roughly, it is the view that there are independent moral standards: some actions are right or wrong in themselves, independent of God’s commands. This is the view accepted by Socrates and Euthyphro in Plato’s dialogue. The Mu’tazilah school of Islamic theology also defended the view (with, for example, Nazzam maintaining that God is powerless to engage in injustice or lying), as did the Islamic philosopher Averroes (arguably, however, the majority of Islam embraces the second horn, as stated below).

St. Thomas Aquinas never explicitly addresses the Euthyphro dilemma…5 Aquinas draws a distinction between what is good or evil in itself and what is good or evil because of God’s commands,6 with unchangeable moral standards forming the bulk of natural law.7 Thus he contends that not even God can change the Ten Commandments (adding, however, that God can change what individuals deserve in particular cases, in what might look like special dispensations to murder or steal).8 For a full treatment of Aquinas’ view, see the section bearing his name below.


4. Concerns with the First Horn

Sovereignty: If there are moral standards independent of God’s will, then “[t]here is something over which God is not sovereign. God is bound by the laws of morality instead of being their establisher. Moreover, God depends for his goodness on the extent to which he conforms to an independent moral standard. Thus, God is not absolutely independent.”

Omnipotence: These moral standards would limit God’s power: not even God could oppose them by commanding what is evil and thereby making it good. This point was influential in Islamic theology: “In relation to God, objective values appeared as a limiting factor to His power to do as He wills… Ash’ari got rid of the whole embarrassing problem by denying the existence of objective values which might act as a standard for God’s action.” Similar concerns drove the medieval voluntarists Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. As contemporary philosopher Richard Swinburne puts the point, this horn “seems to place a restriction on God’s power if he cannot make any action which he chooses obligatory… [and also] it seems to limit what God can command us to do. God, if he is to be God, cannot command us to do what, independently of his will, is wrong.”

Freedom of the Will: Moreover, these moral standards would limit God’s freedom of will: God could not command anything opposed to them, and perhaps would have no choice but to command in accordance with them. As Mark Murphy puts the point, “if moral requirements existed prior to God’s willing them, requirements that an impeccable God could not violate, God’s liberty would be compromised.”

Morality without God: If there are moral standards independent of God, then morality would retain its authority even if God did not exist. This conclusion was explicitly (and notoriously) drawn by early modern political theorist Hugo Grotius: “What we have been saying [about the natural law] would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him.” In such a view, God is no longer a “law-giver” but at most a “law-transmitter” who plays no vital role in the foundations of morality. Nontheists have capitalized on this point, largely as a way of disarming moral arguments for God’s existence: if morality does not depend on God in the first place, such arguments stumble at the starting gate.9


The Second Horn

5. Is Something Good because God wills it?

The second horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is right is right because it is commanded by God) is sometimes known as divine command theory or voluntarism. Roughly, it is the view that there are no moral standards other than God’s will: without God’s commands, nothing would be right or wrong. This view was partially defended by Bl. Duns Scotus, who argued that not all Ten Commandments belong to the Natural Law. Scotus held that while our duties to God (found on the first tablet) are self-evident, true by definition, and unchangeable even by God, our duties to others (found on the second tablet) were arbitrarily willed by God and are within his power to revoke and replace.10 William of Ockham went further, contending that (since there is no contradiction in it) God could command us not to love God11 and even to hate God.12

Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both stressed the absolute sovereignty of God’s will, with Luther writing that “for [God’s] will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it”,13 and Calvin writing that “everything which [God] wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it.”14 The voluntarist emphasis on God’s absolute power was carried further by Descartes, who notoriously held that God had freely created the eternal truths of logic and mathematics, and that God was therefore capable of giving circles unequal radii, giving triangles other than 180 internal degrees, and even making contradictions true. Descartes explicitly seconded Ockham: “why should [God] not have been able to give this command [i.e., the command to hate God] to one of his creatures?”

Thomas Hobbes notoriously reduced the justice of God to “irresistible power” (drawing the complaint of Bishop Bramhall that this “overturns… all law”). And William Paley held that all moral obligations bottom out in the self-interested “urge” to avoid Hell and enter Heaven by acting in accord with God’s commands. Islam’s Ash’arite theologians, al-Ghazali foremost among them, embraced voluntarism: scholar George Hourani writes that the view “was probably more prominent and widespread in Islam than in any other civilization.”15


6. Concerns with the Second Horn

This horn of the dilemma also faces several problems:

No Reasons for Morality: If there is no moral standard other than God’s will, then God’s commands are arbitrary (i.e., based on pure whimsy or caprice). This would mean that morality is ultimately not based on reasons: “if theological voluntarism is true, then God’s commands/intentions must be arbitrary; [but] it cannot be that morality could wholly depend on something arbitrary… [for] when we say that some moral state of affairs obtains, we take it that there is a reason for that moral state of affairs obtaining rather than another.” And as Michael J. Murray and Michael Rea put it, this would also “cas[t] doubt on the notion that morality is genuinely objective.” An additional problem is that it is difficult to explain how true moral actions can exist if one acts only out of fear of God or in an attempt to be rewarded by him.

No Reasons for God: This arbitrariness would also jeopardize God’s status as a wise and rational being, one who always acts on good reasons. As Leibniz writes: “Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act.”

Anything Goes: This arbitrariness would also mean that anything could become good, and anything could become bad, merely upon God’s command. Thus if God commanded us “to gratuitously inflict pain on each other” or to engage in “cruelty for its own sake” or to hold an “annual sacrifice of randomly selected ten-year-olds in a particularly gruesome ritual that involves excruciating and prolonged suffering for its victims”, then we would be morally obligated to do so. As 17th-century philosopher Ralph Cudworth put it: “nothing can be imagined so grossly wicked, or so foully unjust or dishonest, but if it were supposed to be commanded by this omnipotent Deity, must needs upon that hypothesis forthwith become holy, just, and righteous.”

Moral Contingency: If morality depends on the perfectly free will of God, morality would lose its necessity: “If nothing prevents God from loving things that are different from what God actually loves, then goodness can change from world to world or time to time. This is obviously objectionable to those who believe that claims about morality are, if true, necessarily true.” In other words, no action is necessarily moral: any right action could have easily been wrong, if God had so decided, and an action which is right today could easily become wrong tomorrow, if God so decides. Indeed, some have argued that divine command theory is incompatible with ordinary conceptions of moral supervenience.

Why do God’s Commands Obligate?: Mere commands do not create obligations unless the commander has some commanding authority. But this commanding authority cannot itself be based on those very commands (i.e., a command to obey commands), otherwise a vicious circle results. So, in order for God’s commands to obligate us, he must derive commanding authority from some source other than his own will. As Cudworth put it: “For it was never heard of, that any one founded all his authority of commanding others, and others [sic] obligation or duty to obey his commands, in a law of his own making, that men should be required, obliged, or bound to obey him. Wherefore since the thing willed in all laws is not that men should be bound or obliged to obey; this thing cannot be the product of the meer [sic] will of the commander, but it must proceed from something else; namely, the right or authority of the commander.” To avoid the circle, one might say our obligation comes from gratitude to God for creating us. But this presupposes some sort of independent moral standard obligating us to be grateful to our benefactors. As 18th-century philosopher Francis Hutcheson writes: “Is the Reason exciting to concur with the Deity this, ‘The Deity is our Benefactor?’ Then what Reason excites to concur with Benefactors?” Or finally, one might resort to Hobbes’s view: “The right of nature whereby God reigneth over men, and punisheth those that break his laws, is to be derived, not from his creating them (as if he required obedience, as of gratitude for his benefits), but from his irresistible power.” In other words, might makes right.

God’s Goodness: If all goodness is a matter of God’s will, then what shall become of God’s goodness? Thus William P. Alston writes, “since the standards of moral goodness are set by divine commands, to say that God is morally good is just to say that he obeys his own commands… that God practices what he preaches, whatever that might be;” Hutcheson deems such a view “an insignificant tautology, amounting to no more than this, ‘That God wills what he wills.'” Alternatively, as Leibniz puts it, divine command theorists “deprive God of the designation good: for what cause could one have to praise him for what he does, if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?” A related point is raised by C. S. Lewis: “if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘righteous Lord.'” Or again Leibniz: “this opinion would hardly distinguish God from the devil.” That is, since divine command theory trivializes God’s goodness, it is incapable of explaining the difference between God and an all-powerful demon.

The “Is-Ought” Problem and the Naturalistic Fallacy: According to David Hume, it is hard to see how moral propositions featuring the relation ought could ever be deduced from ordinary is propositions, such as “the being of a God.” Divine command theory is thus guilty of deducing moral oughts from ordinary ises about God’s commands. In a similar vein, G. E. Moore argued (with his open question argument) that the notion good is indefinable, and any attempts to analyze it in naturalistic or metaphysical terms are guilty of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy.” This would block any theory which analyzes morality in terms of God’s will: and indeed, in a later discussion of divine command theory, Moore concluded that “when we assert any action to be right or wrong, we are not merely making an assertion about the attitude of mind towards it of any being or set of beings whatever.”

No Morality Without God: If all morality is a matter of God’s will, then if God does not exist, there is no morality. This is the thought captured in the slogan (often attributed to Dostoevsky) “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Divine command theorists disagree over whether this is a problem for their view or a virtue of their view. Many argue that morality does indeed require God’s existence, and that this is in fact a problem for atheism. But divine command theorist Robert Merrihew Adams contends that this idea (“that no actions would be ethically wrong if there were not a loving God”) is one that “will seem (at least initially) implausible to many”, and that his theory must “dispel [an] air of paradox.”16


Catholic Responses to the Euthyphro Dilemma

7. False Dilemma Response

Sts. Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas all wrote about the issues raised by the Euthyphro dilemma, although, like William James and Wittgenstein later, they did not mention it by name. As philosopher and Anselm scholar Katherin A. Rogers observes, many contemporary philosophers of religion suppose that there are true propositions which exist as platonic abstracta independently of God. Among these are propositions constituting a moral order, to which God must conform in order to be good. Classical Judaeo-Christian theism, however, rejects such a view as inconsistent with God’s omnipotence, which requires that God and what he has made is all that there is.

God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.

“The classical tradition,” Rogers notes, “also steers clear of the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, divine command theory.” From a classical theistic perspective, therefore, the Euthyphro dilemma is false. As Rogers puts it, “Anselm, like Augustine before him and Aquinas later, rejects both horns of the Euthyphro dilemma. God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.”17


8. St. Thomas Aquinas

"Doctor Communis Ecclesiæ, St. Thomas Aquinas - This statue of the saint is in the Catholic University of America, Washington DC." - Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
“Doctor Communis Ecclesiæ, St. Thomas Aquinas – This statue of the saint is in the Catholic University of America, Washington DC.” – Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas rejected Platonism.18 In his view, to speak of abstractions not only as existent, but as more perfect exemplars than fully designated particulars, is to put a premium on generality and vagueness.19 On this analysis, the abstract “good” in the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is an unnecessary obfuscation. Aquinas frequently quoted with approval Aristotle’s definition, “Good is what all desire.”((Aristotle, Ethics 1.1; Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics 1, 9 and 11; Aquinas, ST I 5,1.)) As he clarified, “When we say that good is what all desire, it is not to be understood that every kind of good thing is desired by all, but that whatever is desired has the nature of good.”20 In other words, even those who desire evil desire it “only under the aspect of good,” i.e., of what is desirable.21 The difference between desiring good and desiring evil is that in the former, will and reason are in harmony, whereas in the latter, they are in discord.22

St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of sin provides a good point of entry to his philosophical explanation of why the nature of God is the standard for value. “Every sin,” he writes, “consists in the longing for a passing [i.e., ultimately unreal or false] good.”23 Thus, “in a certain sense it is true what Socrates says, namely that no one sins with full knowledge.”24 “No sin in the will happens without an ignorance of the understanding.”25 God, however, has full knowledge (omniscience) and therefore by definition (that of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as well as Aquinas) can never will anything other than what is good.

It has been claimed — for instance, by Nicolai Hartmann, who wrote: “There is no freedom for the good that would not be at the same time freedom for evil” — that this would limit God’s freedom, and therefore his omnipotence. Josef Pieper, however, replies that such arguments rest upon an impermissibly anthropomorphic conception of God. In the case of humans, as Aquinas says, to be able to sin is indeed a consequence, or even a sign, of freedom (quodam libertatis signum). Humans, in other words, are not puppets manipulated by God so that they always do what is right. However, “it does not belong to the essence of the free will to be able to decide for evil.” “To will evil is neither freedom nor a part of freedom.” It is precisely humans’ creatureliness — that is, their not being God and therefore omniscient — that makes them capable of sinning. Consequently, writes Pieper, “the inability to sin should be looked on as the very signature of a higher freedom — contrary to the usual way of conceiving the issue.” Pieper concludes: “Only the will [i.e., God’s] can be the right standard of its own willing and must will what is right necessarily, from within itself, and always. A deviation from the norm would not even be thinkable. And obviously only the absolute divine will is the right standard of its own act” — and consequently of all human acts. Thus the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, divine command theory, is also disposed of.26

  1. With few revisions, most of the article is gleaned from Wikipedia or the sources cited in Wikipedia. Catholic online sources and commentaries on this issue seemed, surprisingly, scarce. Consequently, the point of this article is just to have an introduction to the Euthyphro Dilemma. []
  2. Euthyphro, Background – Section is taken verbatim. []
  3. SPL Note: Another modern monotheistic version – “does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it?” []
  4. Euthyphro Dilemma, Introduction – Section is taken verbatim. []
  5. Citing, Haldane, John (1989). “Realism and voluntarism in medieval ethics”. Journal of Medical Ethics 15 (1): 39–44. doi:10.1136/jme.15.1.39; Irwin, Terence (2007). The Development of Ethics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199693856. []
  6. Aquinas, Thomas (1265–1274). Summa Theologica, 2a2ae 57.2. []
  7. ST, 2a1ae 94.5. []
  8. ST, 1a2ae 100.8; this section is adapted from Euthyphro Dilemma. []
  9. Id. []
  10. See Williams, Thomas (2013). “John Duns Scotus”. In Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 ed.); Williams, Thomas, ed. (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus. pp. 312–316. ISBN 978-0521635639; Cross, Richard (1999). Duns Scotus. p. 92 for the view that our duties to others “hold automatically [i.e., without God’s commands] unless God commands otherwise.” ISBN 978-0195125535. []
  11. William of Ockham. Quodlibeta 3.13. []
  12. William of Ockham. Reportata 4.16. []
  13. Luther, Martin (1525). On the Bondage of the Will. §88. []
  14. Calvin, John (1536). Institutes of the Christian Religion. 3.23.2. []
  15. Adapted from Euthyphro Dilemma, Second Horn. []
  16. Id., verbatim. []
  17. Euthyphro Dilemma, False Dilemma Response, taken verbatim. []
  18. Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Bk. 1, lectio 10, n. 158. []
  19. McInerny, Ralph (1982). St. Thomas Aquinas. University of Notre Dame Press. pp. 122–123. ISBN 0-268-01707-7. []
  20. ST, I 6,2 ad 2. []
  21. Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics 1,10. []
  22. ST, I/II q24, a2. []
  23. ST, I/II 72,2. []
  24. ST, I/II 58,2 and I/II 77,2. []
  25. Aquinas. Summa contra Gentiles 4,92. []
  26. Euthyphro Dilemma, St. Thomas Aquinas, taken verbatim; further Catholic thoughts on it being a false dilemma – Euthyphro’s (False) Dilemma, First Things, citing Fides et Ratio Blog. []

Great Books: 31 Political Works Recommended by Faithful Catholic Colleges

Listers, certain “Great Books” have shaped the course of the Western world. Mortimer J. Adler, a Roman Catholic philosopher and professor, presented three criterion for a book to be considered “great,” he stated:

  1. The book has contemporary significance: that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times.
  2. The book is inexhaustible: it can be read again and again with benefit.
  3. The book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.1

While over one hundred universities and colleges in the United States and Canada have some form of a Great Books program, SPL has relied on three to compile this list: Thomas Aquinas College, the University of Dallas, and Ave Maria University. Thomas Aquinas College (“TAC”) – whose entire four year liberal arts program is a Great Books only program – explains the purpose of the Great Books tradition:

Yet the great books are not the objects of study at the College. Students here do not read these works — Homer, Shakespeare, Plato, Euclid, St. Augustine, Descartes, Newton, and so many others — as outstanding examples of the creativity of the human spirit (though that they certainly are). Nor do they read them to become more familiar with Western culture and civilization (valuable though that is). Rather, Thomas Aquinas College students read the great books because, more than any other works, when studied under the light of the teaching Church, they can open up the truth about reality.2

Reading the Great Books of the Western tradition imports an insight into our modern culture that is completely unparalleled. Advocacy of the great books, however, suffers from a fatal flaw. For example, a Roman Catholic and a secular humanist may both agree Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes should be included as a great work; however, they would differ significantly on why that book is great. Was it a great contribution to the West? – or was it a great mistake? Notice in their statement on the Great Books, TAC states, “when studied under the light of Church teaching.” Many of the “great” books are incredibly anti-Catholic. Some times they are explicitly anti-Catholic, like Hobbes mocking the scholastics and transubstantiation. Often times they present a theory and praxis that has led to today’s crisis of modernity.3 In fact, the entirety of modernity may be said to have started as a rejection. Consequently, a Catholic institution that recommends the Great Books, but does not present them through the lens of Truth, Jesus Christ, may in fact be undercutting its own commitment to the Church.4 The what to study is just as important as how to study it.

The following list is drawn from faithful Catholic institutions that present the Great Books under the Truth of the Church. TAC is a four year liberal arts college that centers its entire eduction on a Great Books program.5 The University of Dallas (“UD”) offers a very unique Great Books Program. The University offers doctoral degrees in Literature, Philosophy, and Politics, but places all of these students together for the beginning of their studies; thus, they have a Great Books core curriculum for when their students are together, and then they have a Great Books program tailored for each individual program.6 The graduate theology department of Ave Maria University (“AMU”) has found a unique way to present the Great Books. Instead of having a flat list, AMU presents them within the “Dialogue of the Ancients & Moderns,” which orders the books to show the interrelation. For example, the dialogue approach will list several works that build off each other, and then offer a “clarification by contrast” by listing the works that took a different path.  In other words, the dialogue of Ancients & Moderns method attempts to adopt a pedagogical prudence into the very listing of the works themselves.

The following is a synthesis of the lists from all three Catholic institutions. The footnotes indicate not only the source of each recommended reading, but also which institution recommended the linked translation. Following the example of AMU, the list is divided into “ancients” and “moderns,” but is otherwise simply presented as a flat list. The list is geared toward Catholic thinkers in the United States, since it recommends certain core U.S. political documents. Finally, only the UD Politics Phd program is tailored specifically to politics. The political contributions of TAC & AMU are pulled from their general Great Books lists. For those seeking Catholic commentary on how to understand these Great Works, please note the footnotes for suggested works that could serve as primers not only to the individual suggested works but also to Catholic political thought overall.7


The Great Books


The Ancients

1. The Holy Bible8

2. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War.9

3. Plato, The Republic.10

4. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.11

5. Aristotle, Politics.12

6. Plutarch, Parallel Lives.13

7. Augustine, Confessions.14

8. Augustine, City of God.15

9. Thomas Aquinas, Selections of the Summa Theologica.16

10. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship.17


The Moderns

11. Machiavelli, The Prince.18

12. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.19

13. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government20

14. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, First and Second Discourses.21

15. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract.22

16. Articles of Confederation.23

17. Declaration of Independence.24

18. United States Constitution of 1787.25

19. Virginia (1776) and Massachusetts (1780) Declarations of Rights.26

20. Northwest Ordinance of 178727

21. The Federalist Papers28

22. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.29

23. Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.30

24. Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals31

25. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto32

26. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America33

27. Abraham Lincoln, Various Texts.34

28. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates35

29. John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action36

30. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”37

31. Leo Strauss, Selections indicating his approach to political philosophy.38

  1. Mortimer List taken from Wikipedia, citing Adler, Mortimer J. “Selecting Works for the 1990 Edition of the Great Books of the Western World,” page 142. []
  2. TAC Website, The Great Books. []
  3. See 4 Steps to Understand the Crisis of Modernity. []
  4. See, Against Great Books by Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen on First Things. []
  5. TAC Great Books List. []
  6. UD Great Books: Core Curriculum & Other Curriculums. []
  7. Catholic Political Thought: For those seeking an introduction to Catholic political thought, see 6 Books for Proper Introduction to Catholic Political Thought. []
  8. The Bible is not a “political” text per se, but it arguably colors almost all thought in the West. Whether a Great Books list focuses on politics or literature, the Bible remains a must-read text. AMU suggests an emphasis on Genesis, Exodus 1-15, 19-14, Deut. 5-11, 28-30, Hosea, Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, Job; in the New Testament, Matthew, John, Galations, Ephesians. UD PhD core curriculum recommends a focus on the following biblical texts: Genesis, Exodus, Job, Psalms (1, 2, 22, 23, 29, 37, 47, 51, 53, 73, 95, 110, 130, 146-150), Isaiah, Matthew, John, Romans, Corinthians I and II, Revelation; TAC lists the entire Bible on their syllabus. []
  9. The linked edition is recommended by TAC; Recommended by UD Phd Politics. []
  10. The linked Allan Bloom edition is recommended by TAC and also the preferred edition of AMU; Recommended by UD Phd Core Curriculum. []
  11. Recommended by TAC, AMU, and the UD PhD Core Curriculum. TAC recommends the Oxford edition of Nicomachean Ethics. A common edition at AMU is the linked Irwin translation. []
  12. Recommended by TAC, AMU, and UD Phd Politics; the Lord’s translation is widely regarded as the best English translation (explicitly recommended by TAC & AMU. SPL has a list of Aristotelian definitions – taken from the Lord trans. – that may be helpful, along with numerous lists tagged under Aristotle. []
  13. TAC recommends the edition linked and an emphasis on the following: Lycurgus, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades, Marcellus, Caius Marius, Sylla, Tiberius Gracchus, Caius Gracchus, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Marcus Brutus, Comparison of Dion and Brutus; UD Phd Politics recommends: Theseus, Romulus; Lycurgus, Numa; Alcibiades, Coriolanus; Alexander, Caesar. []
  14. Recommended TAC, AMU, and UD Phd Core Curriculum. AMU heavily recommended the linked Frank Sheed translation. []
  15. The linked Cambridged edition recommended by TAC; UD Phd Politics; AMU suggestions Book XIX. []
  16. UD Phd Core Curriculum recommends Summa Theologiae I, 1-5 (Questions on Theology and God) II.1, 90-110, 112-113 (Questions on Law and Grace); the UD Phd Politics Curriculum recommends St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Treatise on Law,” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Questions 90-101, 104-108); TAC recommends similar corresponding Summa selections; SPL has written extensively on St. Thomas Aquinas, especially on his Treatise on Law and virtue, see Aquinas’ Catechesis on the Virtues and Aquinas’ Guide to Natural Law. []
  17. Recommended by both the UD PhD Politics and TAC. []
  18. The Mansfield translation recommended by TAC; Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU. SPL offers: 7 Introductory Catholic Thoughts on Machiavelli. []
  19. The Hackett Classic edition recommended by TAC; Recommended by the UD Phd Politics & AMU. SPL offers: A Catholic Guide to Thomas Hobbes: 12 Things You Should Know. []
  20. University of Dallas Phd Politics curriculum recommends: all of the Second Treatise, plus the following selections from the First Treatise: ch. 1, sec. 1-3; ch. 2, sec. 6, 7, 9, 14; ch. 4, sec. 21-27, 33, 39, 42, 43; ch. 5, sec. 44-45, 47; ch. 6, sec. 53-54, 56-59, 61; ch. 9, sec. 86-100; ch. 11, sec. 106; TAC recommends the Hackett Classic edition of the Second Treatise on Government; recommended by AMU. []
  21. Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU. []
  22. Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU; the linked Hackett Classics anthology edition recommended by TAC. []
  23. Recommended by TAC. []
  24. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics and TAC. []
  25. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics and TAC. []
  26. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics. []
  27. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics. []
  28. TAC recommends the linked Modern Classics Library edition, and the UD Phd Politics curriculum recommends, No. 6, 9, 10, 15, 48, 49, 51, 57, 62, 70, 78. []
  29. Linked edition recommended by TAC. []
  30. Recommended by the UD PhD Core Curriculum. []
  31. Linked Hackett Classics edition recommended by TAC; recommended by the UD Phd Politics. []
  32. TAC recommends the linked text; The UD PhD Politics also emphasizes: (The Marx-Engels Reader, 469-500); Engels’ Eulogy (681-82); Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (683-717); “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (53-65); Theses on Feuerbach (143-45); “On the Jewish Question” (26-52); “1844 Manuscripts” (70-93); German Ideology (146-200); Address of the Central Committee (501-511); on non-violent revolution and “Critique of the Gotha Program” (522-541); AMU recommends the Manifesto and Theses on FeuerbachGerman Ideology. []
  33. TAC and UD recommend Mansfield edition, linked; UD PhD Politics emphasizes “appropriate selections showing his approach to the topic.” For example: Introduction (pp. 3-15), vol 1, pt 1, ch 2-5 (27-93), vol 1, pt 2, ch 5-6 (187-235), vol 1, pt 2, ch 9 (264-302), vol 2, pt 2, ch 1-8 (479-503), vol 2, pt 3, ch 8-12 (558-576), vol 2, pt 4, ch 1-3 and 6-8 (639-645, 661-676) (page numbers are from the Mansfield translation. []
  34. The UD PhD Politics recommends: Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), Speech on Dred Scott (1857), First and Second Inaugural Addresses, Address to Congress on July 4, 1861, Gettysburg Address. []
  35. TAC recommends the linked Douglas edition; The UD PhD Politics recommends the Robert W. Johannsen edition, (New York: Oxford, 1965); UD particularly recommends the selections showing the views of both Lincoln and Douglas. For example, 14-36, 78-79, 86-92, 145-49, 162-63, 195-200, 206-226, 229-39, 242-44. []
  36. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics. []
  37. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics, while the Core Curriculum recommends the entirety of Being and Time. []
  38. The UD PhD Politics recommends, for example, What is Political Philosophy, Chapter 1, 2, 3, and 9; or, Natural Right and History: Introduction, chapters 1 and 4, and one of the modern subchapters. Along with AMU, SPL highly recommends the essay The Three Waves of Modernity in his Introduction to Political Philosophy. SPL has written a summary list entitled 4 Steps to Understanding the Crisis of Modernity. []

4 Reasons Aquinas on Rights and Modern Individual Rights are Very Different

It is true that St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of certain rights, but these rights are species of the virtue of justice. They are in absolutely no manner similar to how Hobbes, Locke, or later modernity will use the term rights.

Listers, at an academic seminar studying the differences between ancient and modern thought, the concept of individual rights was presented. It was stated that the modern notion of individual rights (and even the natural right concepts of early modernity) was in direct contradiction to the Catholic doctrine of Natural Law. Individual rights were predicated upon understanding each citizen as an autonomous moral universe that had a right (read: desire) to everything as long as it did not infringe upon the autonomy of another. In contrast, Natural Law is an external standard imprinted upon all humanity participated in by reason.1 In short, the notion of individual rights is a direct rejection of Natural Law. At this point, a student raised his hand and submitted that this could not be true, because St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of individual rights. Apparently, if you ever wanted to watch a room of politically minded Thomists explode in ire, this was a good way to do it.

It is true that St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of certain rights, but these rights are species of the virtue of justice. They are in absolutely no manner similar to how Hobbes, Locke, or later modernity will use the term rights. In fact, Aquinas’ use of the term right appears synonymous with the term just; thus, many simply use the term just instead of right to avoid the modern baggage the term right imparts. The following is a brief summary of St. Thomas Aquinas’ question Of Right in his Summa Theologica.2 The reader may note that Aquinas’ use of the terms equality and right are ripe for equivocation. We must be sure to read Aquinas as Aquinas, and not import our modern definitions into his teachings. The following list seeks to clarify Aquinas, and let the Angelic Doctor speak on the virtue of justice free from modern misreadings.


1. Why Justice is Unique Among the Virtues

A habit is a series of actions that constitute a practice, and a good habit is called a virtue. According to Aristotle, Holy Scripture, and St. Thomas Aquinas, there are four Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Each virtue holds the soul to reason when faced with its respective object. For example, the virtue of prudence is the habit of right reasoning – it is the means by which we rationally choose good ends. The virtue of temperance holds the soul to reason in the face of something pleasurable; thus, the bar patron who decides against the proverbial “one more drink” saves himself from drunkenness through temperance. The virtue of fortitude holds the soul to reason in the face of something fearful. The soldier who holds the line against the cavalry charge has fortitude.

In these cases, virtue perfects the soldier and the patron in matters that only befit them in relation to themselves.3 The virtue of justice, however, is different. Justice “directs man in his relations with others.”4 In other words, justice is unique, because it is fundamentally relational. Justice deals with a person’s relation with his neighbor. A person may demonstrate prudence, temperance, or fortitude simply by their own actions, while a person can only demonstrate justice in relation to someone else. Aquinas says this shows a “kind of equality.”5 While the modern notion of equality has strong egalitarian undertones, equality, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is simply the proportionate relationship of one thing to another.6 The Angelic Doctor’s notion of right hinges strongly upon his concept of equality in justice.


2. Understanding Right(s) According to Aquinas

Modernity is obsessed with rights language. Almost all of the ethical and political discourse in the modern West is now expressed in individual rights. The West has, without a doubt, lost its moral vocabulary. To confuse the modern notion of rights – which is little more than the desires of the autonomous moral universe of the individual – with Aquinas’ notion of what is right under the virtue of justice, would be a profound error.

The virtue of Justice is “the habit which makes men capable of doing just actions.”7 What then are just actions? Aquinas teaches that which is just is “a work that is adjusted to another person according to some kind of equality.”8 The concept of just is also expressed in the term right; thus, that which is just will also be right.9 The Angelic Doctor gives two types of rights for consideration.

Natural Right – A relation that is objectively just, where a person gives and receives that which is of equal value in return; there is a natural equality.

Positive Right – A relation that is subjectively just, where one party deems that which they receive to be satisfactory; a positive right may either be (1) a private agreement between two individuals, or (2) a public agreement where the whole community agrees.

For example, if someone inquired for how many hours should a laborer be paid who worked five hours – the objective answer is five hours. There is a natural equality between working five hours and being paid five hours. The relation here is a natural right. In contrast, if two merchants form a contract to trade ten red widgets for six green widgets, this may be subjectively just for the two parties involved. It is a positive right.


3. On Special Species of Rights

When Aquinas speaks of natural right and positive right, he is speaking of an agreement between two individuals, neither of whom are subject to one another. For Aquinas, this is just or right simply.10 Now, the habit of justice has as its object the just, and the just or right “depends on commensuration with another person.”11 How then do we speak of relations that seem to belong to justice but are not of equal parties?

For example, there is the relationship between a father and his son or the relationship between a master and his slave. In both cases, there is certainly a justice between both parties as they are both human beings.12 On the other hand, there is an inequality in the relationship that makes it wanting of what is perfectly just. Since justice deals with the relation of one person to another, these relations are still governed by the virtue of justice; therefore, Aquinas speaks of a parental right of the parents over the children and a dominative right of the master over the slave.

Finally, there is also the relation between the husband and the wife. Notice, that for Aquinas, the relation between the husband and wife has a greater capacity for justice than parental right or dominative right – but it still falls short of true justice shared between equals. The Common Doctor states:

A wife, though she is something belonging to the husband, since she stands related to him as to her own body, as the Apostle declares (Ephesians 5:28), is nevertheless more distinct from her husband, than a son from his father, or a slave from his master: for she is received into a kind of social life, that of matrimony, wherefore according to the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 6) there is more scope for justice between husband and wife than between father and son, or master and slave, because, as husband and wife have an immediate relation to the community of the household, as stated in Polit. i, 2,5, it follows that between them there is “domestic justice” rather than “civic.”

In conclusion, there is the what is just or right simply, and this is may be expressed between two equals in either natural right or positive right. In contrast, there are several other species of right: the parental right of parents over their children, the dominative right of masters over their slaves, and the greater domestic right between a husband and wife.


4. The Modern Notion of Rights

A little clarification by contrast may help display the giant intellectual chasm between Aquinas’ species of justice called rights and modern notions of the same term. Though Machiavelli arguably planted the first seeds of modernity, it was Thomas Hobbes who began the West’s obsession with rights language. In fact, in many ways, what Machiavelli did for the prince (i.e., allowing him to separate politics from ethics, virtue), Thomas Hobbes did for each individual citizen.13 In Chapter XIV: Of the First and Second Natural Laws, and of Contracts, Hobbes articulates one of the monumental shifts in ancient to modern thought: individual rights. Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catholic Church never spoke in terms of individual rights. The standard for the state and for its citizens was natural law. What was good and what was evil was not predicated upon man’s judgment, but rather by the external standard set upon him by nature. In Hobbes’ deconstruction of nature into a realm of war and chaos, he gives the West its first true taste of rights predicated upon the individual. He states:

And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of everyone against everyone against everyone, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies, it follows that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to everything endues, there can be no security to any man how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily allows men to live.

It is shocking to many that the first notion of individual rights in the West is predicated upon each person’s ability to murder one another. For Hobbes, nature is chaotic and warlike, thus, each man has the unmitigated right of self-preservation – a right that went as far as to go to “everything, even to one another’s body.” Whereas Aquinas taught the natural inclinations of humanity were (1) self-preservation (2) the procreation and education of offspring and (3) to seek happiness, the good; Hobbes reduces them all to an unbridled right of self-preservation.14 The brutality of Hobbes will later be made more palatable by John Locke, and later in modernity the standard of nature will be discarded altogether – leaving each individual an autonomous moral universe brimming with manufactured rights.

Much more could be said on the transition from ancient to modern political thought, but this snippet of Hobbes simply goes to show the outrageous difference between Aquinas’ use of the term right and the modern notion of rights. The real question is, how are faithful Catholics who believe in Natural Law supposed to be virtuous in a world that defines all politics and morality in rights language? Something to ponder.


SPL Catechesis on the Soul & Virtue


  1. Natural Law: 3 Steps to Understand how Humanity Participates in Natural Law and The 6 Step Guide to Aquinas’ Natural Law in a Modern World. []
  2. ST II-II.57 []
  3. ST II-II.57.1. “On the other hand the other virtues perfect man in those matters only which befit in relations to himself.” []
  4. Id. []
  5. Id. []
  6. Id. []
  7. Id., citing the Philosopher, Aristotle, in Ethics v. 1. []
  8. Id. at a. 2. []
  9. “For this reason justice has its own special proper object over and above the other virtues, and this object is called the just, which is the same as right. Hence it is evident that right is the object of justice.” Id. at a. 1. []
  10. Id. at a. 4 []
  11. Id. []
  12. “Hence in so far as each of them is a man, there is justice towards them in a way.” Id. at a. 4, reply 2. []
  13. Machiavelli & Hobbes: For more on this claim, see 7 Introductory Catholic Thoughts on Machiavelli’s The Prince and A Catholic Guide to Thomas Hobbes: 12 Things You Should Know. []
  14. “The paragraph is notable within the Western intellectual tradition as the beginning of “rights language.” Hobbes is setting the stage for the Leviathan. Men, unable to live in the warring chaos of nature, will seek self-preservation by transferring their rights to the Leviathan. The state will be their salvation from each other and from the natural state of war and chaos.” From the Catholic Guide to Hobbes, cited above. []

4 Steps to Understand the Crisis of Modernity

Though each modern philosopher worked toward his own end, they all contributed to the grand project of modernity – the emancipation of the human will from all externalities. It is not God, nature, or history that grants this life value. It is the human will.

Listers, modernity developed as a rejection. Though each modern philosopher worked toward his own end, they all contributed to the grand project of modernity – the emancipation of the human will from all externalities. It is not God, nature, or history that grants this life value. It is the human will. The following list views modernity through the lens of political philosophy and maps a step by step development of how modern man slowly lost faith in reason. The primary source for this list is an essay entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity” by Leo Strauss. Strauss was a political philosopher who almost single handedly returned these questions of modernity to academia. Though not a Catholic, Strauss’ critique of modernity has resonated with the faithful and serves as an excellent starting point to discuss the problems of modernity.1 One note of caution. Modernity and modernism are distinct concepts. Modernity is a historical term indicating the post-medieval world. Modernism is a Catholic term indicating an amalgamation of principles that are in error. For example, all men born in modernity would be moderns, but only those who follow modernism would be modernists. This list is a primer on how modernity developed and why it is now in crisis.


1. The First Wave of Modernity

Machiavelli Statue at the Uffizi, Italy.
Machiavelli Statue at the Uffizi, Italy.

The project to emancipate the human will from all externalities begins with an exiled Italian politician named Niccolo Machiavelli (d. 1527). Machiavelli advocated an abandonment of the old “imagined republics” of the pre-moderns. The imagined republics were, inter alia, Aristotle’s polis governed by nature and nature’s virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, & fortitude – and the Kingdom of God as articulated in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In the West, particularly after St. Thomas Aquinas, nature and divine revelation were seen as compatible and formed one ordered cosmological whole. The state or polis existed so that all men may live well and live virtuously. Under Machiavelli, however, two radical concepts were constructed. First, he jettisoned any cosmological ordered whole in favor of treating different sciences as isolated bodies. For example, for Aristotle or Aquinas their writings on politics are unintelligible without their writings on ethics. In contradistinction, Machiavelli held “political life proper is not subject to morality.”2 Second, Machiavelli reinterpreted virtue. No longer was virtue a good habit, but rather it was the cunning ability to gain and maintain power within the political sphere.3

What Machiavelli did for the prince, Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679) did for all citizens. Continuing the emancipation of the human will from all externalities, Hobbes held that nature imported no morality to man. The pre-modern world under Aquinas held that nature granted humanity three innate inclinations: (1) self-preservation (2) procreation and the education of offspring and (3) an inclination to seek the good. In contrast, Hobbes held that nature gave to man only the inclination of self-preservation; thus, where the pre-moderns saw nature as a moral standard, Hobbes saw nature as a chaotic clash between the right of self-preservation of individuals. In short, the man’s natural state is a state of war. In this context, Hobbes developed two key concepts for modernity. First, Western political speech began to favor speaking of individual rights rather than the external standard of natural law; and second, Hobbes laid the foundation for the West’s obsession with equality. Note, however, that Hobbes’ focus on equality is set within his belief that nature is a state of war. In this context, Hobbes believed all men are equal because all men have the ability to murder one another. Murder was the great equalizer and served as the foundation of modern notions of equality. On a final note, it is critical to understand that in this Hobbesian nature of war and chaos, humanity’s salvation lies in granting its power of self-preservation to the state, the Leviathan. It is the state that will be man’s salvation.4


2. The Second Wave of Modernity

A 1766 portrait of Rousseau wearing an Armenian costume by Allan Ramsay.
A 1766 portrait of Rousseau wearing an Armenian costume by Allan Ramsay.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) ushered in a “radicalization of the Hobbesian concept of the state of nature.”5 The pre-moderns taught that man was by nature a rational and political animal. Under Hobbes, man became a pre-political animal only seeking society to escape a nature of war and chaos. Under Rousseau, man is not even a rational animal by nature. According to Rousseau, man’s “state of nature is subhuman or prehuman,” because rationality was actually an acquired trait.”6 For Rousseau, man’s natural state is twofold. First, he is interested in self-preservation. Second, he holds a natural repugnance to “seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer.”7 Rousseau’s concept of repugnance is not charity or compassion, but simply the belief “that could be me.” Rousseau went as far to claim that neither marriage nor familial ties are natural to man. Any notion of charity is simply a sustained pity toward a particular person. For example, a mother does not nurse her baby out of love but simply to relieve the pain in her swollen breasts.

Any reinterpretation of nature demands a reinterpretation of virtue. For Rousseau, human nature is by and large a malleable concept; thus, what is and is not virtuous is also malleable. In this context, Rousseau continued modernity’s aim to emancipate the human will from all externalities by submitting his concept of the “General Will.” In short, Rousseau attempted to establish virtue by a consensus of the general public.8 The General Will produces a rational society under the belief that all things generally willed by the public must be rational.9 Virtue and reason become subject to democratic rule. Another furtherance of modernity is found in Rousseau’s treatment of history. Oddly, while Rousseau advocated his narrative of man’s natural state, he also stated that his version of human nature “perhaps never existed.”10 Under Rousseau, Western man begins to treat human history as a narrative free from an external control – nature or God. Most notably, history is seen as a malleable tale of the human will than the narrative of God’s people.11


3. The Third Wave of Modernity

Drawing by Hans Olde from the photographic series, The Ill Nietzsche, mid-1899.
Drawing by Hans Olde from the photographic series, The Ill Nietzsche, mid-1899.

Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) heralded the third and final wave of modernity. The suspicions the second wave voiced concerning history are confirmed as Nietzsche declares history is meaningless.The only purpose of history is to show that history is purposeless. There is no transcendent truth – nature or God – that connects the historical eras of humanity; thus, each historical period and their inhabitants are severed from one another. For example, modern man studying the Scriptures or ancient Greece is meaningless. All apparent ideals and truths are simply “human creations or projects” encapsulated within that specific time period. If God, nature, and history are all meaningless, what is left for modern man? The will.

The project of modernity to emancipate the will from all externalities – God, nature, and history – comes to a zenith in the Nietzschean concept of the Uber-man. With God, nature, and history all cast aside as meaningless, the third wave is marked by a type of nihilism. Nietzschean nihilism, however, sees the canvas of life wiped clean and primed for creativity. Nietzsche believed “a living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is [a] will to power.”12 Nietzschean nihilism is not a relaxed relativism. In a world where all value is simply a human project, there will arise individuals who take advantage of reality. The individuals are called Uber-men. First, the Uber-man will shed the effect the concepts of God, nature, or history attempt to place on him. Second, the Uber-man will realize the world is a blank canvas upon which he can impose his creative will. At the end of the third wave, human will stands liberated from not only God, nature, and history but from reason itself. The creativity of the human will is the source of all value.


4. Modernity in Crisis

The crisis of modernity is exemplified in the fact that “modern western man no longer knows what he wants” and has lost all “faith in reason’s ability to validate its highest aims.”13 For modern man, reason can no longer discern any meaning from God, nature, or history. Value in the modern world is a human project. Overall, modernity came into existence as a rejection. It posits nothing new, just an ever growing privation of humanity’s belief that reason can perceive the world around it. Even when a modern philosopher thought he was solving the problems of modernity, he was actually contributing to the slow atrophy of reason.

As the three waves demonstrate, it is not difficult to imagine that Catholicism stands as the complete antithesis to modernity’s project to emancipate the human will. Though this list approaches modernity from the science of political philosophy, there are a few observations worth sharing on the relationship between the modern philosophers and Catholicism. First, every modern thinker had to set aside Catholicism in order to submit their own belief system. Catholicism – especially Scholasticism under St. Thomas Aquinas – stood as a bastion of support that God, nature, and history were all harmonious and rational. Under the waves of modernity, Catholicism was ridiculed and mocked, but it was never philosophically engaged. For example, Hobbes jeers transubstantiation and Scholasticism as difficult to understand but never attempts to prove them wrong. The second observation is that the rejection of Catholicism leads to the rise of modern myths. Rousseau is a classic example of this methodology. Rousseau jettisons Catholicism in favor of his noble savage concept and then predicates his views of reason and nature upon it. He then, however, turns around and claims that his noble savage narrative need not even be true. The three waves demonstrate that modernity is in crisis, because modernity developed as a rejection and now no one knows what – or even how – to believe in anything.

  1. A Further Comment on Strauss: Faithful institutions such as the University of Dallas and Ave Maria University rely heavily on Strauss’ critique of modernity, but not necessarily on his solutions. Strauss is not a Catholic and consequently did not see faith and reason as harmonious. If anything, he found Athens and Jerusalem to be at odds, while Catholicism sees faith and reason as one in Rome. In short, Strauss offers excellent critiques of modernity, of which Catholicism has the solutions. []
  2. Strauss, 86. []
  3. Machiavelli & Modern Science: The Spirit of Machiavelli is seen in two other first wave philosophers – Rene Descartes (d. 1650) and Francis Bacon (d. 1626). Broadly speaking, both thinkers agreed with Machiavelli that nature was not a moral standard; rather, nature was something to be conquered, vexed, and unlocked. In short, modern science began to view an individual’s health as their highest good. Man becomes the master of nature and his conquest will aid in his self-preservation. []
  4. Quotes & Citations for Thomas Hobbes: SPL has written an extensive Catholic guide to Thomas Hobbes, which is littered with quotes and citations. []
  5. Strauss, 90 []
  6. Strauss, 90 []
  7. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. First & Second Discourse (Indianapolis: Hackett), 35. []
  8. Strauss, 91. []
  9. Strauss, 91. []
  10. Historicism: Under the second wave the concept of “historicism” begins to take root. Human history sheds the external controls of God and nature. There is no natural law inherent in men and there is no divine story coming to an end. It is just human history. This first brand of historicism is referred to as theoretical historicism. []
  11. Kant: Another second wave philosopher is Immanuel Kant (d. 1804). In short, Kant attempts to handle modernity’s problem of jettisoning nature but needing morality; thus, Kant radicalizes the human will into a universal compass for morality. In Kant’s famous categorical imperative, he states, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Consequently, Kant establishes “universal legislation” predicated upon man’s rationality. The “moral laws” of man are “no longer understood a natural laws,” but rather “reason replaces nature” as humanity is now “radically liberated from the tutelage of nature.” Strauss, 92. []
  12. Friedrich Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufman. Beyond Good and Evil. (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 21. []
  13. Strauss, 81-82. []

A Catholic Guide to Thomas Hobbes: 12 Things You Should Know

“I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death.”

Listers, the Leviathan offers man salvation in a world where the state of nature is war and chaos. Peace is simply an interlude to more war. The very equality of humanity rests upon the belief that even the weakest may devise a way to murder the strongest; thus, through violence and murder, all men are equal. Though Hobbes’ views on statecraft, violence, and religion were arguably found distasteful to his contemporaries,  history still remembers him fondly for one importance reason: he rejected Catholicism and the ancient philosophers. He offered the world a different philosophy in which to view and govern itself than that of the ancients and medievals. He gifts later philosophers, most notably Locke, different material to work with than that offered by the Church. Hobbes jettisons the natural law and virtue teachings of the Church, he mocks the doctrine of transubstantiation as “madness,” and ultimately places all religion at the foot of the state, the Leviathan.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree to which Hobbes broke with the philosophy of the ancients and of the Church. Hobbes is particularly important as he begins modernity’s focus on “rights language.” The autonomy of the individual expressed in “individual rights” becomes the hallmark of modern political and moral thought. Extrinsic standards, e.g., natural law, are pulled down as the individual is lifted up. Studying the moderns and how they interrelate is vital to a Catholic attempting to live an authentic faith in a modern world. It is unsettling to realize that the philosophies that shaped the modern world almost always shared a common trait: they were only able to posit their ideas by rejecting Catholicism.


Clarification by Contrast: Political Thought in the Ancients


The magnification of the "Leviathan" on the original cover of Hobbes' work. The Leviathan is composed of people.
The magnification of the “Leviathan” on the original cover of Hobbes’ work. The Leviathan is composed of people.

1. His Predecessor, Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s The Prince was unprecedented insofar as it removed statecraft from the standards of traditional virtue. Virtue, under Machiavelli, devolved from a habit of the good – prudence, justice, temperance, & fortitude – to the ability to gain and maintain political power through force and fear. In Chapter XV, he writes:

But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of a matter than the imagination of it; for many have imagined republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

What are the imagined republics? Machiavelli is referring to the cities in speech that were common among the ancient philosophers, most notably Plato & Aristotle. In his Politics, Aristotle speaks of nature as a standard and sees men as political animals that inhabit a polis ordered by the natural virtue of justice.1 The most notable imagined republic, however, for Machiavelli is the Kingdom of God as articulated by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Machiavelli breaks with the western political tradition by advocating that the prince not live as men ought to live, but embrace and become “virtuous” in how men do live. He discards the “imagine republics” governed by virtue, and imports a statecraft designed to gain and maintain power through force and fear. Notice too, that Machiavelli believes the prince who strives to live virtuously according to the imagined republics will bring about his own ruin, while the prince who lives according to “real truth” will bring about his preservation.2


2. Historical Context & Brief Biography

Sixty-one years after the death of Machiavelli, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury was born (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679). He was raised in England in the aftermath of King Henry VIII separating the Church of England from the Church in Rome and in a Europe in the throes of the Protestant Reformation. So-called “religious wars” riddled the continent as political powers utilized various religious factions for political gain. The Roman Catholic Church was also in a time of reform as it had held the Council of Trent (1545-63). Hobbes spent most of his time in Continental Europe (1629-31; 1634-7). Due to his support of the English King in a time where Parliament was attempting to limit the monarchal powers, he was exiled to France (1640-51). In 1651, he returned to England after his criticisms of the papacy angered the French Catholic faithful. Thomas Hobbes died in 1679.3


3. De Cive: Mutual Fear

In The Citizen, Hobbes does for the citizen what Machiavelli did for the prince. Machiavelli’s teaching removed the prince’s political engagement from the traditional standards of virtue and replaced them with the reworked concept of virtue as the ability to gain and maintain power. Hobbes follows Machiavelli’s rework aimed at the prince and delivers it to the individual citizen. Consequently, when Hobbes speaks of the “virtue of justice,” the virtue is no longer concerned with good of the soul or the virtuous ordering of society. Hobbes’ virtue is concerned with power and material goods.4

In The Citizen, Hobbes posits that society’s primary function is to “preserve humans from mutual violence.” Here Hobbes jettisons Aristotle and the Western Tradition’s belief that man is by nature a communal political animal in search of the common good. Instead, Hobbes submits that man seeks only his own good and comes together in societal structures out of a common fear.

We must therefore resolve, that the original of all great, and lasting societies, consisted not in the mutual good will men had towards each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other.

The state in ancient philosophy, the polis, was oriented toward the common good. The polis existed so that all men might live well. Men and polis sought the standards of nature and natural virtue. Under Hobbes, nature will undergo a significant transformation. Hobbes begins to articulate a political philosophy in which persons, by nature, have a mutual fear of one another. To understand why a mutual fear – not mutual good – is the foundation of Hobbes’ Leviathan, you must understand his view on nature and man’s right to self-preservation.


4. Equality through Violence

A hallmark of Hobbes’ philosophy is that society finds equality in the ability of each person to murder the other.

How easy a matter it is, even for the weakest man to kill the strongest, there is no reason why any man trusting to his own strength should conceive himself made by nature above others: they are equals who can do equal things one against the other; but they who can do the greatest things, (namely kill) can do equal things. All men therefore among themselves are by nature equal… therefore the first foundation of natural right is this, that every man as much as in him lies endeavor to protect his life and members.

Further articulating the rights of persons, Hobbes states, “every man has a right to preserve himself, he must also be allowed a right to use all the means, and do all the actions, without which he cannot preserve himself.” If man has in his arsenal “all the means,” to what end may he use them? Hobbes answers, “nature hath given to everyone a right to all.” According to nature, man has a right to everything through whatever means necessary and is equal to one another in the ability to murder.

To have all, and do all, is lawful for all. And this is that which is meant by that common saying, “Nature hath given all to all,” from whence we understand likewise, that in the state of nature, profit is the measure of right.

It is notable that Hobbes acknowledges that “profit is the measure of right.” Overall, we see Hobbes equate self-preservation with morality. It would be difficult to exaggerate the break this view of nature has with the traditional western political tradition and the Catholic Church. The break becomes a key characteristic of modernity: nature is not a standard to be followed but something to overcome, to conquer, and to vex. Where Machiavelli’s work was written to serve his own political end, Hobbes has purposely broken with the Ancients and attempted to be, in his mind, the first political philosopher.


5. The State of Nature is War

Following Hobbes’ teaching on individual rights, it is no surprise that for him the state of nature is war. Peace is simply an interlude to more war.

It cannot be denied but that the natural state of men, before they entered into society, was a mere war, and that not simply, but a war of all men, against all men…

Gone is the ordered law of nature imprinted on the hearts of men; nature as a chaotic state of war is the new philosophy. A state in which men exist in mutual fear of falling victim to the unbridled natural right of another’s self-preservation. If equality is found in the mutual ability to murder one another and war is the natural state of man, what is Hobbes’ solution? Society is formed out of a contractual agreement whereby out of preservation the citizen transfers his power to the state. An idea he takes up in great detail in his Leviathan.


6. The Leviathan: Introduction

In accordance with the principles set forth in The Citizen, Hobbes begins to articulate a whole new vision of human life and society. Unlike Aristotle who begins his discourse on politics with what is common sense, Hobbes intends to establish a new modern political science in terms of motion and power. In fact, Hobbes takes geometry as his model science and guide for constructing his new science of politics.5

In his introduction, Hobbes speaks of nature and of the Leviathan. First, of nature, he states:

Nature (the art whereby God had made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that I can make an artificial animal.

As intimated in The Citizen, for Hobbes, nature is mechanistic. Humanity can now not only create art that mimics nature, but art that controls nature. Nature is a machine – albeit a violent and bellicose machine – to be understood and controlled. For Hobbes, man finds himself in a chaotic state of war, but he has the ability to deliver himself. He can create the Leviathan.

Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body…

The Leviathan is the great artificial construct or machine that is man at large. The ancients held that nature was a standard. Nature was a good and good habits were natural virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Under Hobbes, nature is a machine to be utilized and his reworking of the virtues is arguably presents them as something akin to mechanistic passions to be controlled.6


7. The Leviathan: On Virtue

In Chapter VIII, Hobbes reworks virtue in a similar fashion as Machiavelli. For St. Thomas Aquinas, virtue is a good habit. For example, justice is the natural virtue of being well-ordered or ordered according to right reason. It is a natural virtue, because it is available to all men by nature. Under Hobbes, virtue becomes whatever men seek as valued. He begins his chapter:

Virtue generally, in all sorts of subjects, is somewhat that is valued for eminence; and consists in comparison. For if all things were equally in all men, nothing would be prized. 

It is also notable Hobbes ends Chapter VIII with a critique of Fr. Francisco Suárez, a prominent Spanish Jesuit scholastic. Typical of modernity, he does not actually offer a philosophical rebuttal of the scholastics, but rather mocks their works as absurd and intended to drive men mad.

So that this kind of absurdity may rightly be numbered amongst the many sorts of madness; and all the time that, guided by clear thoughts of their worldly lust, they forbear disputing or writing thus, but lucid intervals. And thus much of the virtues and defects intellectual. 

The above quote is specifically speaking about the doctrine of transubstantiation. It is difficult to exaggerate the point that the moderns never actually engaged Catholicism and ancient philosophy, but rather simply mocked it and offered the people something more palatable to their desires. It is amongst history’s most tragic errors to believe that Modernity offered the people something more rational than what they had; the “Enlightenment” did little else than enlighten what people desired.


8. The Leviathan: On Power & Worth

In Chapter X: Of Power, Worth, Dignity, Honor, & Worthiness, Hobbes articulates the theme of power, which is a major theme in his philosophy. He avers there are two types of power: natural and instrumental. The former is “the eminence of the faculties of body, or mind; as extraordinary strength, form, prudence, arts, eloquence, liberality, nobility.” The latter type of power is described as “powers which, acquired by these [the natural powers], or by fortune, are means and instruments to acquire more; as riches, reputation, friends, and the secret working of God, which me call good luck.” For Hobbes, the Leviathan grants value and dignity to a person based upon the usefulness of their power. He writes:

The value of worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power, and therefore is not absolutely, but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another.

The public worth of a man, which is the value set on him by the Commonwealth, is that which men commonly call dignity. And this value of him by the Commonwealth is understood by offices of command, judicature, public employment; or by names and titles introduced for distinction of such value.

Hobbes articulation of power is reminiscent of Machiavelli. Where the ancients spoke of power as a means to a virtuous end, both Hobbes and Machiavelli speak of power as an independent category, an end in and of itself. For the ancients, the end sought by power, to be good for the state, had to be virtuous, it had to be accordance with the natural order. For Hobbes, power is a means to any number of subjective ends. The value of the end sought by power and the value of the person seeking it is externally placed on it by the Commonwealth, the Leviathan. Note how Hobbes couples together a person’s dignity with their “public worth,” and this “worth” or value is gifted to him by the Leviathan.


9. Leviathan: The Restless Pursuit of Power

Chapter XI: Of the Difference of Manners represents one of the clearest breaks with the ancients. He states quite clearly that there is no supreme good or final end.

To which end we are to consider that the felicty of this life consists not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus nor summum bonum as is spoke of in the books of the old moral philosophers.

The idea that there is a supreme good and final end for humanity was a hallmark of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. What then does Hobbes submit as a substitution? He writes:

Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object ot another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter… so that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death.

For Hobbes, it appears that the supreme good and final end are fanciful characteristics of the old cities in speech. Man is left with a “restless desire for power after power, that ceases only in death.” Traditional God had been the final end of man and towards that end man ordered his steps. For Hobbes, the tearing down the supreme good and final end – which were ultimately God – only to erect a temporal pursuit of power in its place imports numerous question on how Hobbes actually views God and religion.


10. Leviathan: On Religion

Chapter XII: On Religion is a milestone in the Western intellectual tradition. In this chapter, Hobbes offers a discussion on what he takes to be a mythical account of the origins of man. He writes:

Seeing there are no signs nor fruit of religion but in man only, there is no cause to doubt but that the seed of religion is also only in man; and consists in some peculiar quality, or at least in some eminent degree thereof, not to be found in other living creatures….

This perpetual fear, always accompanying mankind in the ignorance of causes, as it were in the dark, must needs have for object something. And therefore when there is nothing to be seen, there is nothing to accuse either of their good or evil fortune but some power or agent invisible: in which seen perhaps it was that some of the old poets said that the gods were first created by human fear: which, spoke of the gods (that is to say, of the man gods of the Gentiles) is very true.

Hobbes then turns his attention to the monotheistic tradition in the West and makes a slight but significant change to a notable philosophic argument for God.

But the acknowledging of one God eternal, infinite, and omnipotent may more easily be derived from the desire men have to know the causes of natural bodies, and their several virtues and operations, than from the fear of what was to befall them in time to come. For he that, from any effect he sees come to pass, should reason to the next and immediate cause thereof, and from thence to the cause of that cause, and plunge himself profoundly in the pursuit of causes, shall at last come to this, that there must be (as even the heathen philosophers confessed) one First Mover; that is, a first and an eternal cause of all things; which is that which men mean by the name of God: and all this without thought of their fortune, the solicitude whereof both inclines to fear and hinders them from the search of the causes of other things; and thereby gives occasion of feigning of as many gods as there be men that feign them.

Hobbes’ treatment of the First Mover argument warrants a few comments. First, it is one of the only positive statements he makes regarding Aristotle. Second, Hobbes sets the First Mover into his view of a mechanistic nature; thus, the First Mover is not seen as Being-itself – that which perpetually sustains all being – but rather the First Mover is that which simply started the machine. Hobbes then turns his attention to how these natural inclinations toward God in man unfolded into religion.

And in these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics, consists the natural seed of religion; which, by reason of the different fancies, judgments, and passions of several men, hath frown up into ceremonies so different that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another.

Hobbes then takes up the question of what is the purpose of a religion that is invented out of these natural seeds within man? He states there are two types of men that have cultivated these seeds of religion. The first did it according to their own invention and the second did it by God’s commandment.

But both sorts have done it with a purpose to make those men that relied on them the more apt to obedience, laws, peace, charity, and civil society. So that the religion of the former sort is a part of human politics; and teaches part of the duty which early kings require of their subjects. And the religion of the latter sort is divine politics; and contains precepts to those that have yielded themselves subjects in the kingdom of God. Of the former sort were all the founders of Commonwealths, and the law gives of the Gentiles; of the latter sort were Abraham, Moses, and our Bless Savior, by whom have been derived unto us the laws of the kingdom of God.

Though he attempts to make a distinction between invented religions and Christianity, they ultimately serve the same purpose and suffer under the same “natural seed” criticisms. Modernity must be understood by knowing how each modern philosopher relates to the other. For Hobbes and Machiavelli, Hobbes does for the citizen what Machiavelli did for the prince. After Hobbes, the next great modern philosopher is John Locke. Hobbes’ critique of religion was found too caustic by the British population; thus, Locke smooths out Hobbes’ rough critique and makes it more palatable for the general public. Christianity is accepted by the early modern philosophers, but it is almost immediately reduced into a moral myth and with political utility. It remains a respected theme until its radical rejection by Nietzsche.

In distinction, Catholicism stands as the greatest impediment to the “new” thoughts of the moderns and is immediately rejected. The character of this rejection is most important. As demonstrated in Hobbes’ “critique” of Scholasticism, Catholicism – and more particularly Scholasticism and Aquinas – are never actually philosophically addressed and refuted. The methodology of the moderns is to submit a counter philosophy and then simply mock Catholicism. A shallow and intellectually dishonest method still popular today.

In this spirit, Hobbes turns his attention to the “Church in Rome.”

Also the religion of the Church of Rome was partly for the same cause abolished in England and many other parts of Christendom, insomuch as the failing of virtue in the pastors makes faith fail in the people, and partly from bringing of the philosophy and doctrine of Aristotle into religion by the Schoolmen; from whence there arose so many contradiction and absurdities as brought the clergy into a reputation both of ignorance and of fraudulent intention, and inclined people to revolt from them, either against the will of their own princes as in France and Holland, or with their will as in England. Lastly, amongst the points by the Church of Rome declared necessary for salvation, there by so many manifestly to the advantage of the Pope so man of his spiritual subjects residing in the territories of other Christian prince that, were it not for the mutual emulation of those princes, they might without war or trouble exclude all foreign authority as easily as it has been excluded in England.

For who is there that does not see to whose benefit it conduces to have it believed that a king hath not his authority from Christ unless a bishop crown him? That a king, if he be a priest, cannot marry? That whether a prince be born in lawful marriage, or not, must be judge by authority from Rome? That subjects may be freed from their allegiance if by the court of Rome the king be judged a heretic? That a king, as Childeric of France, may be deposed by a Pope, as Pope Zachary, for no cause, and his kingdom given to one of his subjects? That the clergy, and regulars, in what country soever, shall be exempt from the jurisdiction of their Masses, and values of purgatory, with other signs of private interest enough to mortify the most lively faith, if, as i said, the civil magistrate and custom did not more sustain it than any opinion they have of the sanctity, wisdom, or probity of their teachers? So that i may attribute all the changes of religion in the world to one and the same cause, and that is unpleasing priests; and those not only amongst Catholics, but even in that Church that has presumed most of reformation.

A few things of note. As modern philosophy devalues religion, it lifts the state up to take its place. Under Hobbes, religion becomes a tool of the state by which it finds a means to keep the citizens obedient. Catholicism stands in direct conflict with this approach. First, Catholicism holds the state accountable to natural law, an extrinsic standard placed upon the state. Second, Catholicism is universal – it extends past the boundaries of the state and is thus considered “foreign” by the moderns. The Church in Rome is a foreign threat to the now great Leviathan. The idea of Catholicism as a threat to the new modern way of living will endure throughout the modern philosophers and in Locke will manifest in seeing Catholic citizens as untrustworthy members of the state due to their foreign allegiances. A critique that was heavily submitted in the history of the United State of America and arguably only waned not because America became more tolerant, but because American Catholics became less Catholic.


11. Man Finds Salvation in the Leviathan

Following his discussion on religion, Hobbes takes up what he believes to be the true account of humanity in Chapter XIII. A series of selected quotes from this section will demonstrate the foundation Hobbes lays for understanding human equality: the potential to murder one another.

For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machinations of by confederacy without others that are in the same danger with himself.

Hobbes believes he has discovered the natural foundation for equality, because if the weakest can murder the strongest then there is equality. He places this equality into his universe where nature is a perpetual state of war and all men seek power. He continues, as well, to rewrite the virtues according to his new narrative:

For prudence is but experience, which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto.

Prudence, under the ancients and the Church, was the elective habit, the habit of right reasoning. The virtues were predicated upon nature as a standard of the good, but under Hobbes, nature has been rewritten and thus the virtues must be rewritten as well.

It may seem strange to some man that has not well weighed these things that nature should thus dissociate and render men apt to invade and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this inference, made from the passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience.

Nature has become something that has to be overcome. It is no longer a standard of the good, but a chaotic warring state that must be dominated by the Leviathan. The idea of nature as something to be vexed and conquered is a hallmark of the new modern thought. While Hobbes speaks of it in a political manner, Francis Bacon will speak of it in a scientific manner – nature as something to be tortured until she gives up her secrets. The ancients and the Church saw natural law as a standard to hold up to all men, but now nature has become something to be dominated and morality a subjective end of the state. It is the state, not nature, in which men find virtue.

To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are non of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude.

It is ever more evident in the writings of Hobbes that in subjecting religion to the ends of the state and rewriting nature as a state of chaos, man finds his salvation in the Commonwealth, the Leviathan. Before society, the nature state of man is unbridled self-preservation.


12. The Beginning of Rights Language

In Chapter XIV: Of the First and Second Natural Laws, and of Contracts, Hobbes articulates one of the monumental shifts in ancient to modern thought: individual rights. Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catholic Church never spoke in terms of individual rights. The standard for the state and for its citizens was natural law. What was good and what was evil was not predicated upon man’s judgment, but rather by the external standard set upon him by nature. In Hobbes’ deconstruction of nature into a realm of war and chaos, he gives the West its first true taste of rights predicated upon the individual.

And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of everyone against everyone against everyone, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies, it follows that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to everything endues, there can be no security to any man how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily allows men to live.

The paragraph is notable within the Western intellectual tradition as the beginning of “rights language.” Hobbes is setting the stage for the Leviathan. Men, unable to live in the warring chaos of nature, will seek self-preservation by transferring their rights to the Leviathan. The state will be their salvation from each other and from the natural state of war and chaos.

  1. Aristotle: Read more on Aristotle’s view of natural law and politics with a brief note on Plato at Political Animals & The Philosopher King. []
  2. Machiavelli: For a further Catholic introduction to Machiavelli please visit 7 Introductory Catholic Thoughts on Machiavelli’s The Prince. []
  3. Thomas Hobbes Biography: More may be read on Stanford’s Philosophy Encyclopedia entry on Thomas Hobbes and other resources may be garnered from the Wikipedia article. []
  4. De Cive Quotes: All quotes from The Citizen are taken from Chapter 1: Of the State of Men Without Civil Society and have been edited in accordance with modern English spelling. []
  5. Geometry: Hobbes discusses his attempt to present his “political science” with the clarity of geometry in Chapter V. []
  6. The Passions: Where Aristotle had right reason and good habits, Hobbes has only mechanistic passions. In Chapter VI, Hobbes avers that men are externally moved, by the passions, either in aversion or in appetite. Aquinas spoke of passions as those things that acted on man and moved him toward one thing or another, but Aquinas also spoke of virtue as something that could guide the passions. Moreover, the will was that which moved men internally. Hobbes seems to only speak of passions. []

6 Reasons Euthanasia is Incompatible with Modernity’s Own Philosophy

Drunk off its political and scientific successes, modern thought and practice have abandoned the modest and moderate beginnings of political modernity.

Listers, this is Part II of an ongoing in depth discussion on euthanasia – “the right to become dead.” The list relies on the wisdom of Leon Kass and his discussion of how the right to become dead isn’t even compatible with the modernity’s own philosophy. It should be noted that the article presupposes the right to become dead is not a right in the classic sense and certainly not in the Catholic sense.

The point of the discussion is to show the modernists that the “right to become dead” isn’t even a proper right within their own philosophy. Read Part I here: The Right to Become Dead: 6 Introductory Thoughts on Assisted Suicide.


7. A Brief Diatribe On Rights Language

Are the ‘right to die’ arguments compatible with the Hobbesian notion of a blameless liberty?  Before addressing this question, Kass has a brief section on why people seek a right to die. However, tucked among the commentary of fearful patients and societal concerns is a brief but telling diatribe against the dangers of thinking in terms of individual rights. He states, “truth to tell, public discourse about moral matters in the United States is much impoverished by our eagerness to transform questions of the right and the good into questions about individual rights.” [1] These individual rights are marked with a “non-negotiable and absolutized character,” which serves as a “most durable battering ram against the status quo.” [2] Kass’ vitriolic view continues: “never mind that it fuels resentments and breeds hatreds, that it ignores the consequences to society, or that it short circuits a political process that is more amenable to working out a balanced view of the common good.” [3] The battering ram wielding citizen simply goes “to court and demands [his] rights.” [4]

Truth to tell, public discourse about moral matters in the United States is much impoverished by our eagerness to transform questions of the right and the good into questions about individual rights.

However, as soon the critique of rights per se began, it appears to subside. Oddly enough, Kass then returns to the original question and begins to critique the right to die by the traditional modern system of rights. The shift in focus leaves the reader with several questions. If the canon of individual rights impoverishes the question of what is good, then what is the canon? Moreover, if the isolated system of individual rights is deficient, why does Kass continue to critique the right to die by an impotent system? Setting these questions aside, Kass continues to question whether a right to die is justified within a modern natural rights context.


8. The Right to Die is Nonsensical, Even to the Modern Philosophers

According to the “great philosophical teachers of natural rights, the very notion of a right to die is nonsensical.” [5] The philosophical foundation for natural rights is self-preservation. “As we learn from Hobbes and from John Locke,” observes Kass, “all the rights of man, given by nature, presuppose our self-interested attachment to our own lives.” [6] Immediately the contradiction of trying to predicate a right to self-negation upon a foundation of self-preservation is clear. This distinction is not only clear to those who argue against a right to die, but even to those who argue for it. The German-born philosopher Hans Jonas (d. 1993) – an advocate for the right to die – comments, “every other right ever argued, claimed, granted, or denied can be viewed as an extension of this primary right [to life].” [7]


9. Locke’s View on Suicide and Self-Ownership

While arguably the right to die via the aid of medical technologies may be a new phenomenon, certainly the question of a right to commit suicide was not lost to the modern thinkers. Locke states that man “has not [the] liberty to destroy himself,” because nature “teaches all mankind… no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” [8] However, one could see Lockean thought backing a right to die: “yet every man has a property in his own person; thus nobody has a right to but himself.” [9] Is it the case then that Locke’s apparent belief in self-ownership could support the right to die? Returning to the notion of a classical right, Kass sees that these rights were asserted against something or someone; thus, Locke’s self-ownership “is less a metaphysical statement declaring self-ownership than a political statement denying ownership by another.” [10] Lockean self-ownership could be rendered: “my body and my life are my property only in the limited sense that they are not yours.” [11] In the classical sense of natural rights, there appears no foundation for a right to die; moreover, there is certainly no “right to the assistance of others,” as the so-called obliged suicide-assistant “has neither a natural duty nor a natural right to become an actual assistant-in-death.” [12]

What of the government, can it be held in obligation to assist in death? “The liberal state,” notes Kass, “instituted above all to protect life, can never countenance such a right to kill, even on request.” [13]


10. Rousseau & Kant Yield No Room for a “Right to Die”

However, how can the late modern thinkers be seen to address a right to die, especially those who set nature aside? Neither Jean-Jacque Rousseau nor Immanuel Kant can be seen as advocates of a right to die. Regarding Rousseau, Kass notes Rousseau’s “complaints about the ills of civil society” demonstrated in the fact it threatens “life and limb” instead of its “main purpose” in protecting them.[14] Rousseau calls upon men like himself – those who lack the simplicity to simply return to the woods and eat “grass and acorns” – to “respect the sacred bonds” of the society, to love and serve “their fellow-men,” and to support the “good and wise princes who will know how to prevent, cure, or palliate that pack of abuses and evils always ready to overpower” the citizens. [15]

As Kass observes, the state supports life and the citizen cultivates that support. Again, a life-centered political base does not make room for a right to die. Turning to Kant, Kass sees that “the self-willed act of self-destruction is simply self-contradictory.” [16] Kant states, “to dispose of oneself as a mere means to some end of one’s own liking is to degrade the humanity in one’s person, which, after all, was entrusted to man to preserve.” [17] Kass comments on the “heavy irony that it should be autonomy, the moral notion the world owes mainly to Kant, that is now invoked as the justifying ground of a right to die.” [18] Through a Kantian lens, autonomy is the “self-legislation” of the “rational maxim” – an adherence to one’s “true self,” i.e., “with one’s rational will determined by a universalizable” moral maxim. [19] Neither the early moderns nor the late moderns yield any space for a right to die ethic. Whether it be a principle of self-preservation, a life-centered polis, or a notion of the dignity of humanity, neither a classical right nor a welfare right of assisted-death can be supported.


11. The Right to Die and Nietzschean Autonomy

However, the present modern notion of autonomy has come to mean “doing as you please,” which as Kass explains, is “compatible no less with self-indulgence than with self-control.” [20] Leaving behind the nature of the early moderns and the rationality of the later moderns, the new “Nietzschean self” holds only to “his true ‘self’ rather in unconditioned acts of pure creative will.” [21] The autonomy of the individual is rooted in the will. Without a normative nature or any rational maxims, it seems the right to die is unhindered and viable. However, Kass still observes several problems for the right to die argument. “First, one cannot establish on this basis a right to have someone else’s assistance in committing suicide,” because the patient’s autonomy would then have to violate the unwilling assistant’s autonomy. [22] Second, what if the assistant-to-death is willing? The autonomy of the patient could justify his or her own suicide, but it cannot justify or “ground” the assistant’s right to kill the patient. [23] Third, the patient – granted the right could even be grounded – in question would have to be “mentally competent and alert” in order to request assisted suicide. [24] Kass notes this would rule out the euthanasia of the comatose, vegetable, or mentally incompetent patient.

Drunk off its political and scientific successes, modern thought and practice have abandoned the modest and moderate beginnings of political modernity.

What if they had left in their will to be euthanatized? The question is philosophically problematic, as Kass states, because “the person who gave them long ago may no longer be ‘the same person’ when they become relevant,” e.g., “can my 63-year-old self truly prescribe today the best interests for my 75-year-old and senile self?” [25] Further complicating the scenario, Kass posits: “it is self-contradictory to assert that a proxy not chosen by the patient can exercise the patient’s rights of autonomy.” [26] A right to die intrinsically places an obligation on some other third-party assistant; however, setting aside the fact that the individual lacks the ground to claim such a right, it appears that neither the medical community nor the government can assist the individual in suicide.

However, Kass’ critiques and the Nietzschean based “new rights” have a major point of contention: the critiques rest on logic, while the new rights do not. Following Nietzsche, the new rights – in distinction to the classical or the welfare rights – rest upon the will and are therefore formed by a notion of self-becoming and creativity. These “creative beings are open-ended” and the “society of new rights is characterized by a loss of predictability and normality.” [27] The bearer of the new rights “does not even flinch before self-contradictions; indeed, he can display the triumph of his will most especially in self-negation.” [28] Without nature as a standard or any other externality hindering the human will, can there now be a right to die? “Here at last is the only possible philosophical ground for a right to die: arbitrary will,” state Kass, a will “backed by moral relativism” – “which is to say, no ground at all.” [29]


12. Where Suicide is Now the Glorious Act of the Will

“Drunk off its political and scientific successes,” states Kass, “modern thought and practice have abandoned the modest and moderate beginnings of political modernity.” [30] The theory of natural rights predicated upon self-preservation and life has given way to the “non-natural rights of self-creation and self-expression.” [31] These “new rights” impose upon the natural self an artificial product of the human will. Instead of being formed by nature, history, or God this new self-creation finds its authenticity in being able to assert its will against those very externalities. As Kass notes, the will of the self-created individual – protected by the new rights – can assert itself against its own body, the “rules of society,” and even the “dictates of reason.” [32] The will can strike out against those things which form it and give it life. It is no surprise then that for the individual of self-creation “self-negation through suicide and the right to die can be the ultimate form of self-assertion.” [33] The right to die is now not only an act of compassionate charity and the correction of a cosmic injustice, but the final and glorious act of man’s own radically autonomous will.

Kass sees three dangers arise as this new right to die permeates the modern ethos. First, the affirmation of an individual’s right to die “will translate into an obligation on the part of others to kill or help kill.” [34] What if the assistance was not obligatory, but only those who wanted to aid in death would do so? Kass still believes “society would be drastically altered.” [35] The alteration would be particularly tragic if the state was reluctant to take up the role as “euthanizer,” because “it would surrender its monopoly on the legal use of lethal force.” [36] Moreover, it should be noted the power of lethal force lies within the government in order that it would “protect innocent life, its first responsibility” – a stark contrast to the utilization of that lethal power upon the willing innocent. [37] Second, the practice will inevitably spread beyond those who “knowingly and freely request death.” [38] Kass notes that many who would be thought to be candidates for euthanasia either are in a doubted rational state or simply lack rationality altogether. The pressure to euthanize the incoherent and even the irrational unwilling will steadily increases and the practice itself will be seen to be more and more legitimate. The third danger of accepting the right to die is the impact it will have on the medical community. “The medical profession’s devotion to heal and refusal to kill – its ethical center,” according to Kass, “will be permanently destroyed, and with it, patient trust and physicianly self-restraint.” [39] Regardless of the fact that the right to die has no “defensible grounding,” these dangers are a real reality within the present modern polis.


To be continued…


The footnotes are continued from Part I and are mainly taken from Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity by Leon Kass. An excellent work in bioethics that SPL certainly recommends.


[1] Ibid., 211.

[2] Ibid., 212.

[3] Ibid., 212.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kass, 214.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 215.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kass, 215.

[15] Jean-Jacque Rousseau. The Basic Political Writings (Indianiapolis: Hackett, 1987), 94-95.

[16] Kass, 215.

[17] Ibid., 216.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 216-217.

[25] Ibid., 217.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 218.

[30] Ibid., 226.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 227.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

Modern Man Has Lost His Way: 13 Comments on the Western Heritage of Christ and Socrates

“The controversy as to the relations between Pope and Emperor, stripped of its non-essentials, was a controversy as to the end and purpose of life on earth.” – J.W. Allen

Listers, Father James V. Schall S.J. is one of the preeminent Catholic political thinkers of our time. Fr. Schall’s “The Point of Medieval Political Philosophy” is found within his collection of excellent essays entitled The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays (p. 151-161). SPL highly recommends the work and has previously recommended the erudition of Fr. Schall in the list 6 Books for a Proper Introduction to Catholic Political Thought. The essay focuses on Catholicism’s heritage and belief that Faith and Reason are harmonious – an orthodox claim not found in Judaism or Islam.1 The problem is that this heritage of faith and reason that built the West is now no longer found in modern man. Fr. Schall’s essay is an excellent and brief commentary on what modern man can learn from the medieval political mind.

SPL has selected various quotes, provided titles, and in certain cases provided footnotes with commentary and/or lists for further reading. All quotes are taken from the essay and are attributed to Fr. Schall unless otherwise cited.


1. Socrates and Christ

“We should… formally receive as European citizens every new generation, at an adequate time, and during the ceremony present to each youth a copy of a book bearing the text from Plato describing the death of Socrates, and from the Gospels, describing the death of Christ, not merely because they are the two spiritual fathers of Europe but because they both perished at the hands of the state.” – Spanish philosopher Salvador de Madariage, receiving the International Charlemagne Peace Prize


2. Political Realism

“All medieval thinkers had read their Augustine, who told them not to be surprised if such dire events as the killing of Socrates and of Christ should happen again and again in this world, in their very midst, in their very cities. Boethius, who was killed by an emperor, and Sir Thomas More, who was killed by a king, at the far ends of the middle ages, can be said to stand as proof of this possibility. The Augustinian heritage of “political realism” has prepared us for what ought not to happen but still does happen among us.”2


3. Political Animals

“Medieval men came later to read Aquinas, who told them that the state, while it could indeed be ruled by wicked men and be configured in distorted regimes, also, as Aristotle maintained, had something positive to accomplish, by and for honorable men in and about this world. Man was a political animal, even in the Fall, even before the Fall. The polity was not simply or primarily the result of original sin, even though that sin had plenty to do with how it appeared among us and why there were recurring disorders that the state could not seem effectively to remedy.”3


4. Pope and Emperor

“The controversy as to the relations between Pope and Emperor, stripped of its non-essentials, was a controversy as to the end and purpose of life on earth.” – J.W. Allen


5. Man Both Belongs to and Transcends the Politics

“Medieval political philosophy is the effort to think properly about politics when man, in his one given being, both belongs to and transcends the civitas, the civil community. […] For medieval thinkers, politics had a place within overall intellectual order. But it did not form the intellectual order itself.”


6. What is Philosophy?

“Philosophy itself is the effort to understand, by the unaided power of the human intellect, what is, in its causes and its wholeness.”


7. The Erroneous Two Truths Theory

“The famous ‘two truths theory’ in Arabic and late medieval theory sought to propose a workable solution for any problems between revelation and reason whereby the two could ‘contradict’ each other; that is, though contradictory, both could be true. This move, however, split the integrity of the human mind in two. Medieval theory, including medieval political philosophy, at its best, however, found enough reason in revelation and enough perplexing lacunae in reason to lead it to suspect that the whole includes both in some coherent order.”4


8. A Block to Islam’s Progression

“One of those blocks (that prevent the ‘Middle East from entering the mainstream of modernity’) is the orthodox tenet that the Koran and the scriptures contain all the knowledge required to deal with the problems of contemporary society.” – Arnold Beichman of Milton Viorst


9. Islam Is a Political Religion

“For Christianity, revelation is not a substitute for experience or for the books of the political thinkers about the proper rule of the city. The Koran, on the other hand, is conceived to be a description of the best city or regime. All regimes not embodying its strictures are held to be inferior. That is, revelation is a law.”


10. The Silence of the Muslim Philosopher

“For the Muslims, the law has replaced politics, so that the philosopher has to become a strictly private man in order to survive. Unlike Socrates, the philosopher is not killed by the state; rather he is simply reduced to silence or irrelevance.”


11. Catholic Mystery, Not Uncertainty

“Medieval theory did not consider the human mind every to match or comprehend the divine mind and its relationship through eternal law to the order of things. There was a certain contentment with mystery, but a mystery that was bathed in light and not confusion. All intelligence, including human intelligence, was able to know after its own manner.”5


12. The End of Medieval Thinking

“The transition from William of Occam and Marsilius of Padua to Hobbes marks the end of medieval thinking. The divine will, presupposed to nothing but itself, presupposed to no divine reason in Occam and Marsilius, becomes political will in Hobbes, again a will presupposed to nothing but itself.”


13. The Most-Telling Absence

“This book is the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages, the absence of whose presence has defined our modernity.”6

  1. Faith and Reason: An example of this claim would be that both Judaism and Islam are law based religions – both political religions – while Catholicism is a religion of dogmas (and properly understand as transpolitical). The latter requires a harmony of faith and reason to ascertain the truth of the dogma, while the former requires only obedience to the law. This observation is a classic understanding and has been expressed by both Fr. Schall and the Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss. []
  2. Further Reading: While St. Augustine gifted the idea of “political realism” to Catholicism, his own political thought had a significant gap – nature and natural law. SPL has addressed this lacuna in Augustinian political thought in the list The Enchanted Forest: 6 Political Teachings from St. Augustine. Furthermore, SPL has also catelogued many of St. Thomas More’s prayers in the list Lets Kill All the Lawyers. []
  3. Further Reading: Understanding Aristotle, his political thought, and his contribution to Western Civilization has become a main topic on SPL (An exhaustive list of articles with Aristotle here). The most pertinent list to understand Fr. Schall’s comments is Political Animals and the Philosopher King: 9 Thoughts from Book One of Aristotle’s Politics. []
  4. Two Truths Theory: Particularly with the dawn of Aristotle, both Catholicism and Islam struggled to understand the relationship of reason and faith. The struggle was epitomized with Aristotle’s rational articulation of nature as an enclosed system of laws, i.e., natural law. Before Aquinas, Averroes, the Islamic philosopher, submitted a “two truths theory” – one truth of revelation and one truth of reason. []
  5. Mystery & Uncertainty: The medieval mind’s mystery bathed in light may be seen in how the Incarnation is at its heart a mystery, but by the light of reason men have contemplated and explored the mystery – even thought there is mystery, man may know certain things with certainty   The modern mind sees the mystery within Catholicism and misuses it to bathe the entire religion in uncertainty, unraveling dogmas and sacred tradition. []
  6. Further Reading: SPL has written extensively on Aquinas (click here) and on the subject of law (click here); however, the best starting point for a thomistic understanding of law is Law and the Common Good: 9 Introductory Catholic Questions. Enjoy. []

The Best Regime: 5 Thoughts on Classical Political Philosophy

“Classical political philosophy is guided by the question of the best regime.” – Leo Strauss.

Listers, when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle spoke of politics they spoke in terms of the regime and of the best regime. To properly unlock this term, SPL turns to Leo Strauss, a pathfinder among modern political philosophy insofar as he understood and articulated the ancient and modern’s dialogue.1

Since political philosophy is the “noble science” and the deals with the highest of human goods, it is a primary place for understanding the differences in ancient and modern thought. In ancient thought or classical political philosophy the primary question was one of the best regime.2

Classical political philosophy is guided by the question of the best regime.

In his work An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays Leo Strauss touches upon the term regime and its importance amongst the ancients. SPL highly recommends the work for anyone wanting to be properly introduced to political philosophy.

Plato (left) & Aristotle (right) discussing the nature of form.

1. Cause & Effect

The problem of speaking of laws rests on the fact there are various types of legislative bodies. The laws are dependent upon the legislator(s), and monarchies, democracies, oligarchies, and any mixture thereof differ in legislative methods. Consequently, the focus shifts from the laws to the legislators and to all the factors that define them. As Strauss articulates:3

The legislator is the governing body, and the character of the governing body depends on the whole social and political order, the politeia, the regime.

A proper focus on law inevitably leads to a focus on the regime, because the regime is the cause and the laws are the effect.

2. Regime: “A Specific Manner of Life”

Strauss comments that the “regime is the order, the form, which gives society its character.” He goes on to note:

Regime is the form of life as living together, the manner of living of society and in society… Regime means that whole, which we today are in the habit of viewing primarily in a fragmentized form: regime means simultaneously the form of life of a society, its style of life, its moral taste, form of society, form of state, form of government, spirit of laws.

The ancients speak of regimes because it addresses the political whole. It is the form of several vital aspects that moderns have habitually separated into distinct spheres. Moreover, out of the organization of each regime comes a goal. A goal for the regime and all its holistically unites. Each different regime “explicitly or implicitly” demonstrates a “claim,” and these claims “extend beyond the boundaries of any given society.” Inevitably, the various claims of various regimes conflict with one another.4

The regime then is the whole, the form, of aspects of human society, and by its own organization and order demonstrates a goal – which includes external and often discordant claims.

3. Chance

A unique character of ancient or classical political philosophy is its reverence of chance. The ancients spoke of regimes, which ultimately led to questions of the best regime. However, the best regime cannot be brought about by knowledge of the best techniques or the power of the will of men, but by chance.

The actualization of the best regime depends on the coming together, on the coincidence of, things which have a natural tendency to move away from each other (e.g., on the coincidence of philosophy and political power); its actualization depends therefore on chance.

The acknowledgement of chance in the classical political philosophy is a foreign concept to modern political philosophy and is almost jarring to modern sensibilities. Without question, moderns believe chance is conquered by the bold, by the cunning, and by the most prepared. The modern view is directly attributable to Machiavelli, who was the first to explicitly reject classical political philosophy. In The Prince, Machiavelli speaks of dominion over chance by those who are willing to force themselves upon Lady Fortune. The intimated rape of Lady Fortune in Machiavelli’s seminal work has become a general principle of modern politics.

The basic notion behind the acknowledgment of chance in classical political thought is that the individual’s assent to the highest principles of life is an arduous path only accomplished by a few, how little hope is there then that all of society, the regime, will be formed properly.5

SPL’s In Depth List Over Machiavelli’s Rejection of Classical Political Thought

4. The Patriotic Citizen & The Good Citizen

In his work Constitution of Athens, Aristotle speaks of the Patriotic Citizen as one who loves his country regardless of the regime, because his “loyalty belongs first and last to the fatherland.” In his Politics, Aristotle says The Good Citizen is dependent upon the corresponding regime or rather the Good Citizen is characterized by his regime. However, Strauss points out that “a good citizen in Hitler’s Germany would be a bad citizen elsewhere.”

There is a contrast between being a good citizen and being a good man. Still, a harmony may be struck, because “the good man is identical with the good citizen only in one case – in the case of the best regime.”

Strauss continues:

For only in the best regime is the good of the regime and the good of the good man identical, that goal being virtue. This amounts to saying that in his Politics Aristotle questions the proposition that patriotism is enough.

The patriot is like a “doting mother” who loves his country regardless of whether it is good or bad. The patriot is likely to see someone who favors a certain regime over the fatherland itself as “a partisan, if not a traitor.” The partisan is only “superior to the patriot” in one instance, the partisan of the best regime, i.e., the “partisan of virtue.”6 Virtue is a quality of the best regime.

5. Matter & Form

As implied by the previous points, the regime is the form and the society or nation is the matter. It is the form that gives order and existence to the matter. Matter is seen as potency and form as the act; thus, the regime acts upon the nation to give it order and existence.

Strauss explains:

The relation between one’s own and the good finds its political expression in the relation between the fatherland and the regime. In the language of classical metaphysics, the fatherland or the nation is the matter whereas the regime is the form.

The form is a “higher consideration” than the mere matter; thus, the pursuit of the best regime carries more dignity than simple adulation of one’s own fatherland. Strauss compares this regime/fatherland relationship to the relation between the Torah and the nation of Israel.7

An SPL Explanation of Matter & Form

Read More Lists SPL:
Political Animals: Book One of Aristotle’s Politics
St. Thomas Aquinas’ Introduction to Aristotle’s Politics
Political Definitions from Aristotle’s Politics


  1. The Ancient & Modern Dialogue: The ancient and modern’s dialogue rests upon the idea that modernity was a rejection of ancient thought and not a natural development or perfection of what had come before; however, the “ancients” or the Greek philosophers, Early Church Fathers, and the Scholastics did not live in a fanciful world and there is no legitimate advocacy to return to some previous utopia. Rather, the ancients and the moderns must be in dialogue with one another if we are to understand and flourish in this world. []
  2. An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss, 33. []
  3. Strauss, 32 []
  4. Strauss, 32 []
  5. Strauss, 33 []
  6. Strauss, 33 []
  7. Strauss, 34 []

Climbing Parnassus: 11 Quotes on Restoring Classical Education

“Simmons’s fascinating tour through the pedagogical history of the classics may be his chief contribution to the debate.” – Washington Post Review

Listers, modern education has abandoned the pursuit of wisdom and taken up the production of economic and functional training. The classical education models – centered on the true liberal arts – were designed to instruct students in wisdom according to the innate order and hierarchy of knowledge. Tracy Lee Simmon’s work Climbing Parnassus is a call to understand and return to the sapiential foundations of classical education. The book reviews reads:

In Climbing Parnassus, winner of the 2005 Paideia Prize, Tracy Lee Simmons presents a defense and vindication of the formative power of Greek and Latin. His persuasive witness to the unique, now all-but-forgotten advantages of study in and of the classical languages constitutes a bracing reminder of the genuine aims of a truly liberal education.

The Washington Post’s review reads: “Simmons’s fascinating tour through the pedagogical history of the classics may be his chief contribution to the debate.” The following quotes are a sampling of the main principles within Simmon’s highly recommended work.

Tracy Lee Simmon’s text brings a powerful voice to the education debate.

Stating the Truth, Without Being Able to Teach It

As with most gospels, we are in such a hurry to save souls that we would begin proclaiming the new salvation to the nation before pausing to find out what education is. Unable to explain what education is or is for, we have created state departments of education out of a desperate hope that what we have not had the wisdom and intellectual fortitude to determine in the light of day might emerge miraculously from a flurry of committee reports, public opinion polls, and bureaucratic fiat.

“Way of Living”

Education is simply philosophy at work. It is the search for the ‘good life.’ Education is itself a way of living.
Citing Robert Hutchins

Auxiliary of Philosophy

Education is, in the end, an auxiliary of philosophy – an embodiment of aims and ideals.

Quality of Quantity

Instead of doing a few things well, we have tried to do many things and have done them badly.


We have abandoned those ideals once animating our civilization, refusing to learn them anew with each generation. We have assumed their transfer to be automatic.

Holistic Formation

The hard, precipitous path of classical education ideally led not to knowledge alone, but to the cultivation of mind and spirit. Knowledge did not in and of itself, justify the sweat. The climb was meant to transform one’s intellectual and aesthetic nature as well.

Present Blindness

Without a finely tuned and oft-nourished sense of the past, both near and distant, we have no culture.

Discipline Precedes Freedom

At the heart of liberal education stands the conviction that the well-touted freedom of mind comes only by submission to standards external to oneself, that the discipline precedes the freedom, and that this kind of freedom can only be earned as a reward, not conferred as a right.

What is Liberal Education?

Liberal education is “simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.”

Societal Mirror

Schools and their curricula have always reflected the values of the society they serve.

Liberal Arts & Leisure

“Liberal arts” derives directly from artes liberales and designates those activities promoting freedom and leisure, but we must add that, for Greeks and Romans, leisure carried none of our overtones of idleness. “Leisure” referred to those “arts” reckoned conducive to the contemplative or reflective life, to an expansive freedom of mind.

Further Reading:
For a basic introduction to the proper order of knowledge:
5 Questions on the Difference Between Wisdom & Knowledge
For an examination of the intimate connection between education and economy:
7 Concerns About Democracy & Its Modern Existence
For more on education:
All SPL Lists Concerning Education