Christians as Political Animals: Taking the Measure of Modernity and Modern Democracy. Marc Guerra. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010.
The book is an Augustinian-inspired critique of the tendency on the part of modern Christians or Catholics to view liberal democracy as the exclusively good regime. The author wishes to recall, rather, that Christianity is a transpolitical faith that should maintain a friendly but critical relationship with liberalism. The latter, in its turn, is criticized for disregarding the most fundamental questions about the human good, as well as metaphysical and anthropological premises that remain nonetheless important for the sustenance of a liberal regime.
Moreover, Guerra announces he is writing “in the spirit of [the] Renaissance” of Christian political wisdom–wisdom to which James Schall and Ernest Fortin have contributed. He observes that they have engaged the work of Leo Strauss and Strauss’s discussion of the “theologico-political” problem, thus drawing the reader’s attention to the conflict between divine authority and (Classical) philosophy as competing sources of order in the polis.
The book is divided into an Introduction and six chapters. In the first chapter, Leo Strauss is presented as an ally of the Christian criticism of modern liberal democracy, due to his understanding of modernity as performing a complete break with the precedent intellectual traditions.
Strauss’s view of Christian revelation, which he ultimately places in the same position as other religious authoritative traditions of law and civil piety in conflict with Socratic philosophy, is not questioned in any depth in this chapter, although Guerra returns to the theme in the fourth chapter. Guerra concludes by positively acknowledging Strauss’s assessment of the conflict between Jerusalem and Athens as “the nerve of Western intellectual history, Western spirituality.” Guerra also shares in Strauss’s critical view of “historicism,” a perspective that informs other parts of the book.
The second and third chapters develop a detailed analysis of James Schall’s “Roman Catholic political philosophy,” portrayed as a synthesis of Augustinian and Thomistic thought that juxtaposes aspects of Eric Voegelin’s and Leo Strauss’s criticisms of modernity. Guerra focuses on Schall’s thesis about the incomplete or open ended nature of political philosophy, which finds answers to its aporias in revelation. In Guerra’s view, whereas Schall criticizes Strauss for failing to grasp that complementary relationship, Strauss understands philosophy as utterly autonomous regarding other dimensions of human life, especially the political and the religious (which are, for the classical polis, the same).
The fourth chapter is a detailed presentation of Ernest Fortin’s adaptation and application of Strauss’s political thought to the early Christian development of theology and the medieval Christian synthesis. Among the main ideas treated by Guerra are Fortin’s portrayal of the early Church Fathers as “esoteric writers” who did not use “lies” in their writings with as much liberty as the Muslims and Jews scholars. He also considers Fortin’s reaffirmation of the tension between Christian revelation and the Socratic way of wisdom as ultimately incompatible but equally serious pursuits of truth–the former based on faith, the latter on reason–which contribute to the vitality of the Western civilization they helped to produce.
Only at this point does Guerra provide a criticism of both Fortin’s and Strauss’s view of the Socratic way of life as one of radical self-sufficiency based on the supremacy and autonomy of reason. For Guerra, this view of the human being is too one-sided. Persons, from the Christian point of view, “long to be more than mere lovers of wisdom,” and possess beside reason features such as the need for society and the capacity for love. (p. 107)
This is an important criticism, which would have been worth exploring in more detail, perhaps in the first, Strauss-centered chapter. In any case, Guerra’s call for Christian theologians to work from a more comprehensive conception of the human being sets the stage for the next chapter, in which the author mainly presents the thought of Augustine and Aquinas (mostly through the eyes of Fortin).
In the last chapter, Guerra argues that Christians must resort to a philosophy of the true, the good, and the beautiful, the “kind of reflection first practiced by Classical political philosophy,” to fight modernity’s emphasis on the rights-bearing, autonomous, isolated individual. Supported by Daniel Mahoney’s recent work, Guerra defends the recovery of the moral foundations of democracy. In this endeavor, Guerra affirms Christians must be political about the task of moderating democracy from the inside, in concurrence with the regime, and not in an isolated, abstract fashion, as the Church has sometimes done with overly universalizing pronouncements on human rights and the “civilization of love.” Thus Guerra arrives at a fuller development of the theme of a critical acceptance of democracy by Christian thinkers, which is the chief aim of the book.
A few comments would be in order regarding the development of Guerra’s argument and the author’s theoretical choices. Guerra’s detailed summaries of his main interlocutors’ reflections on the history of political philosophy are very useful and informative as far as they go, but in these expositions he stays perhaps too close to the authors’ arguments and does not completely develop his own ideas, save for concluding considerations that are made at the end of one long description.
Had Guerra elaborated the main points behind the ideas he presents in these considerations, with a view to developing his own account, he would have brought forth more intellectual fruit from the rich work of these authors. Instead, at times Guerra takes the reader through multiple reflections about inner tensions and contradictions in one author’s thinking, or between different thinkers’ accounts, in such a way that the reader may have difficulty finding the tenor and direction of Guerra’s own thought.
In other cases, Guerra’s discussion indirectly reveals his own theoretical stance, but the argument is not allowed to flow further so that the central questions that are implicit may be fully brought forth. Take this as an illustration: Guerra criticizes Schall’s attempted synthesis of the insights received from Voegelin and Strauss, saying that Schall undermines his own account of modernity as a dismissal of Medieval Christian political philosophy by incorporating Voegelin’s theory of the Gnostic roots of the modern world.
In Guerra’s reading of Voegelin, modernity would have emerged only after the preceding Medieval order had collapsed, thus giving rise to Gnostic movements. In contrast, for Strauss, modernity would be the result of a conscious project by the early modern philosophers to reject the old traditions, a project that must precede the breakup of the medieval philosophical order.
Thus, a tension, or contradiction is perceived in Schall’s thought. But this interpretation of the Voegelinian account of modernity’s rise does not do justice to Voegelin’s fine historical perception, which is overlooked perhaps because Guerra seems to partake of Strauss’s distrust of historical consciousness or (what seems to amount to the same thing for Strauss) historicism.
Be that as it may, the idea that Gnostic movements are a tragic result of the collapse of the Medieval order does not take into account Voegelin’s insight into the heights to which the Christian differentiation raised the tension of human existence, leading to a precarious equilibrium that was threatened from the start by Gnostic irruptions. Still regarding Guerra’s treatment of Schall–who prescribes, as a solution to modernity’s contradictions, the return to a realistic metaphysics that recovers the wisdom of the “Augustinian-Thomistic” tradition–the reader is told that Schall places too much emphasis on “the limits of political philosophy” in detriment of “the content of political philosophy.”
Instead of concentrating on how “political philosophy results in the noetic grasping of the truth,” as Schall does, political philosophy should “look at political questions more closely, in the hope that this will lead to the further unfolding of the truth.”The latter attitude, the reader is told, “truly does represent the dialectical encounter of philosophy with moral and political life.” For that purpose, “neither Augustine nor Aquinas can perform this task for us,” but we have to think through modernity’s problems ourselves.
One is left at a loss, however, to find in Schall’s recommendation of a return to the Augustinian and Thomistic wisdom the kind of sterile archeological pursuit Guerra seems to be trying to correct with his criticism. Similarly, without the “noetic grasping of the truth” that political philosophy can afford, it is hard to see how looking closely at our present problems will produce a more comprehensive and “dialectical” perspective.
But this discussion is cut short for the sake of moving on to the author who is next analyzed in the book. Guerra’s animus against the modern philosophical project is quite common among Christian conservative thinkers, as is the criticism of liberal political philosophy as voluntarist, anti-religious (as opposed to merely neutral), and atomistic. In this general line of thought, Guerra makes good points about the effects of the modern philosophical elevation of autonomy as the highest goal of politics, regarding for example the recreation of human nature through technology.
The two last chapters in particular provide the reader with incisive analyses regarding the dangers of an uncritical acceptance of some of liberalism’s premises in religiously-inspired discourse. These dangers include the eclecticism and incoherence that may result from the unreflected inclusion of contemporary “social justice” and “just war” thinking along with the more traditional sources of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine. Such an insight is worthy of reflection by Christian theorists.
Guerra also enlists the points of view of perspicacious contemporary critics of democracy, such as Daniel Mahoney, Peter Lawler, and Pierre Manent, to enrich his reflections. Notwithstanding the qualifications to Strauss he finally articulates at the end of the fourth chapter, Guerra’s general adoption of the Straussian viewpoint both on modern political philosophy, as a radical break with the old tradition, and on the inappropriateness of the historical consciousness, makes him miss the full significance of the historical and philosophical consequences of the Christian differentiation (as Voegelin understands the concept).
It can be argued, for instance, that Christianity made a central, if not the only, contribution to the development of the concept of the dignity of the person as a pillar of modern Western political systems, thus creating at least one important line of continuity that problematizes the idea of a radical break effected by modernity. One might ask, then, whether Guerra is not thereby prevented from doing what he himself prescribes, that is, a “dialectical” engagement with the positive and the negative aspects of modernity. Instead, very little of positive is found, let alone analyzed in depth, in modern political philosophy–Guerra mentions, in the last chapter, “modern democracy’s conception of justice and its affirmation of the nobility of self-rule,” but quickly resumes the exposition of democracy’s shortcomings.
In conclusion, if the task of Christian thinkers and citizens in general is to “take the measure of modernity and democracy,” Guerra’s work shows us an important part of what the task entails, namely, a careful investigation of the historical and philosophical roots of the Christian engagement with the political realities, as well as an inquiry into the foundations of modern liberal democracy itself. But any true engagement with modernity cannot remain content with exposing modernity’s breakpoints with the past traditions–breakpoints which also fatally turn out to be modernity’s flaws.
At this point, the true labor begins of a close (and at times sympathetic) exploration of modernity’s chosen paths and turns, with attention to the historical nature of philosophy. This latter, even though grounded on similar universal human experiences, must of necessity express its universal insights in response to the questions that are being currently posed to it, and in the course and context of the philosophical conversations accumulated up to its present time.
Errors will be made, but corrections are always possible, and the resulting insights might even better illumine the treasures gathered by the past traditions. It is in work of this kind that Jacques Maritain, for instance, engaged when he decided to focus on the heritage of human rights and democracy as results of the Christian yeast in history. Contemporary critics should include among their tasks the emulation of such efforts.