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Yves R. Simon: A Thomist looks at a Divisive Invasion

Yves R. Simon: A Thomist Looks At A Divisive Invasion

The Ethiopian Campaign and French Political Thought. Yves R. Simon with Anthony O. Simon, ed., and Robert Royal, trans. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.


In October 1935, the Italian army invaded Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) and by the following May had control of the country, which now linked and thus unified Italy’s other African possessions.  The occupation of Ethiopia, part of Mussolini’s ambition to recreate the Roman Empire, was the immediate political background and context for Yves Simon’s newly translated volume, The Ethiopian Campaign and French Political Thought. But as the second part of the title indicates, there was also an intellectual context that was distinctively French: the Dreyfus Affair and more generally the inclinations of the French intellectual right in the years before World War II.  Here we see not only a reaction to Mussolini’s brutal attack on Ethiopia (one that eventually involved the use of poison gas), which also helped set the stage for the later boldness of Hitler, but the seeds of the Vichy regime. The book is remarkable not only as a historical document, but as an example of the concrete application of Simon’s Thomistic political philosophy to the extraordinary political events of his time, and, beyond that, is also a kind of testament to the public vocation of the philosopher.

The immediate impetus for the book was the publication of a “Manifesto of French Intellectuals for the Defense of the West” published in Le Temps on 4 October 1935.  The manifesto (helpfully included with several related documents as an appendix in this edition), which was eventually endorsed by over 1,000 signatories, including nearly half the members of the Académie française, was written to oppose sanctions against Italy by the League of Nations. It identified the Italian cause with the defense of the West and infamously dismissed Ethiopia, a League member, as “an amalgam of uncivilized tribes.” Simon was convinced that the Italian invasion was unjust and that the League of Nations should take action against it, but also took the tone and substance of the Manifesto as indicative of a certain attitude among French political thinkers, one entirely too hospitable to fascism. Among the signatories were Charles Maurras, the main thinker of Action Française, and a number of prominent Catholics. Simon also took the events of autumn 1935 as comparable to those of the Dreyfus Affair, noting that similar political passions had been unleashed.

Simon justifies his own intervention as one appropriate particularly to a philosopher: he does not offer any expertise on the facts, but is concerned with the disposition of French political opinion:

“If it is true that certain basic choices, involving the values without which life is not worth living, are implied in the positions taken by French political thought with respect to the Italo-Ethiopian conflict, it is not without interest to isolate the philosophical meaning of such choices; if it is true that the division dominant in France with respect to the Italian effort represents the conflict of large ideas incarnated in grand historical forces, it is not idle to undertake the philosophical elucidation of these ideas.” (p. 3)

It seems significant that Simon felt the need to justify a philosopher’s descent into the cave.  This short volume was, of course, followed by his lengthier and better known The Road to Vichy (published originally as La grand crise de la République Française in 1941).   In that book too (the relevant pages are reprinted as another appendix) Simon compared the controversy over Ethiopia to the Dreyfus Affair.

In both cases immediate and concrete political disputes took on a larger–indeed, a spiritual–significance that transcended their intrinsic characters (1-2). The former revealed important aspects of the French right, but “[t]he fate of Europe was sealed during 1935 and 1936” (90) by France’s failure to defend collective security, oppose fascism, and affirm its alliance with England, which supported the League’s sanctions. Such was the delicacy of the balance in those years that had there been “‘one hundred politicians of integrity in France,’ [the] country might have escaped the devastation to come,” James McAdams reports Simon to have said to his son (and the book’s editor), Anthony Simon, in his Preface to the new translation (xv).

One is tempted to see Simon’s stance as prophetic, but that would be wrong: he was a philosopher and his business in the book was to apply reason to the fast-moving political events in such a way as to clarify their moral dimensions and to put public opinion to the question. He acted as a man of reason attempting to cool passions and as a patriot attempting to remind his fellow citizens of their nation’s just interests.  Such a task corresponds “fully to the philosopher’s vocation.”  How does Simon carry out this effort?

Simon was, of course, a Thomist, one of the greatest of the last century, but more in the line of Maritain than Gilson, that is, he was not a historian, but a philosopher fully engaged with the philosophical concerns of his own time but operating from a perspective thoroughly informed by Thomas’s thought. Moreover, TheEthiopian Campaign is a pamphlet concerning current events meant to be read by a wide audience.  Notions like the common good (15, 41, 56, 60) and the natural law (25-26, 41, 75, 76) are mentioned, but Simon’s Thomism is by and large lightly worn. There are passages in the book where he clearly has specific Thomistic discussions in mind (see, e.g., pp. 25, 46 and 64, which are based respectively on discussions in Summa theologiae 1a2ae, q. 94, a. 4 and q. 64, a. 2), but he does not cite them since his purpose is to address the important principles to the political situation rather than to undertake any sort of exegesis or proof-texting: the argument alone is what matters.

One can see three particular examples of this approach in the book. The first is a splendid discussion of the nature of idealism in politics in the fourth chapter of the book, called “But is this War Just?” The Italian intervention in Ethiopia looked on its face to be a clear violation of existing treaties and therefore a plain injustice. But Simon pauses before making such a judgment: “[t]rue morality, in our opinion, does not entail such rigidity, and its concrete decisions do not allow themselves to be discovered at so little cost” (24). Whatever Italy’s prima facie treaty obligations, Simon urges one to give the “facts on the ground,” as we now say, their due.

Morality’s realistic dimension demands a certain openness, which is not simply laxity: “[s]uch an attitude is in no way to be confused with empiricism or opportunism; the true men of action are simultaneously very careful about doctrine, principles, constant rules, and very careful to maintain in their minds that open space where, in the concrete, decisions that are highly detailed arise” (ibid.). One is here reminded of Leo Strauss’s criticisms of natural law as too restrictive of the necessary latitude of the statesman (Natural Right and History, pp. 163-64).  While Simon does not go nearly so far as Montesquieu, much less Machiavelli (on pp. 66-67 he expressly rejects consequentialism), his Thomistic political thought is far from an otherworldly moralism.

Some of the French rightists who signed the original manifesto appealed against an “absolute morality” that they took to be at odds with a defense of “civilization.”  Simon rejected the dichotomy, based as it was on a straw man, that is on an idealism remote from life: moral principles must be applied concretely with all the complications and variability apprehended by prudence:

“Thus, the moral rule, oriented toward the absolute of the final end, is at the same time always relative to the highly variable complex of the action that it is supposed to regulate. Under these conditions, the notion of an absolute morality appears to be an ambiguity without real use: true morality scoffs at the concept of absolute morality.” (26)

The fact that Italy broke a treaty does not in itself settle the issue since breaking treaties is sometimes justifiable.  In the end the issue was not between realism and idealism, but between moral seriousness about the legal issue and rank “indifference” to it.

A second example of Simon’s own moral seriousness is provided in the seventh chapter, which treats the internal situation of Ethiopia. The Italian intervention was a late move in the “great game” of colonization by a player that had been largely left out. While the desire for natural resources was probably less central to Mussolini than the need for an apparent political triumph to offset domestic discontent with Italy’s severe economic troubles, a case was made that intervention in Ethiopia would benefit the Ethiopians themselves, who were cruelly caricatured as little more than anarchic savages.

Simon does not reject such considerations (although he did forcefully reject the caricature) out of hand, acknowledging that colonial rule is not in itself always unjust. In weighing up the various factors necessary to make a judgment Simon is in fact suggesting considerations about what we now call “humanitarian intervention.” He poses questions that are still the beginning of practical wisdom on such matters: Is the internal disorder one that can be mitigated by an intervention in a way that does not violate a norm of proportionality? What are the chances of success? Will the intervention require violence and how much? Will the introduction of European culture also introduce things that could exacerbate some of the evils it is meant to address?

On the decisive issue Simon states his main principle thus:

“When we take the trouble to stop and think about these things, wars of colonization considered as a beneficent intervention lose a large part of their allure.  For a violent military intervention by a foreign power to be justified by a country’s internal situation, it is not enough, let us note, that it be undertaken to bring about an amelioration of that internal situation.  It must also be the case that the proposed amelioration is substantial enough so that it greatly exceeds the immense evils implicit in war.” (46)

So while Simon concedes the possibility of a just intervention, even a violent one, he also notes the high bar of justification and concludes that in most cases such intervention should be both collective and peaceful (ibid.).

Finally, in the eleventh chapter Simon articulates a crucial and often misunderstood principle of political morality in a discussion of international law, one that has far-reaching implications. Many on the French right seemed to oppose the specific sanctions against Italy also out of contempt for the League itself as an attempt to extend the rule of law internationally. For some this was rooted in the memory of left-wing pacifism before World War I as well as associations between the project of internationalism and ideological currents like anarchism and freemasonry.

Many on the right took what was in some respects the suspicious historical origins of the project on extending international order in recent times to exhaust its possibilities: their arguments against it were related to bad arguments for it, as if there were no others. They were guilty of a kind of genetic fallacy, which could be exposed only by pointing to better justifications. What this required was the intellectual “purification” of what Simon called “captive truths” (72).  Simon describes the problem and his solution:

“[T]he inability to guide an idea that has arisen historically in the midst of a complex of error to the purity of truth is an indication of weakness and servitude, an index of an insufficient strengthening of the mind in truth, which is power and freedom. There are open and spiritual societies whose readiness to accept anything condemns them to dissolution; there are closed spiritual societies who assure their survival by making a desert around them; there are open spiritual societies that have conquered in welcoming, and it is ever their proper life, the life of their very idea that endures and progresses by incorporating ideas conceived in another’s heart.” (73)

The circumstances in which an idea emerges does not necessarily define it and ideas that have dubious origins can yet be reinterpreted as important truths. Here Simon was concerned with the project of international order, which he, like Maritain thought could receive a far superior intellectual ground from Thomism, one that should be available to and welcomed especially by Catholics. The same logic can be applied to, for example, the idea of universal human rights, which continues to attract criticism from Christian thinkers of both a conservative and more radical cast of mind.

Simon’s Thomism here takes a nuanced and philosophical–practical and principled–as distinct from a simply negative approach to modernity and is therefore a paradigm of the entry of philosophy into political judgment. I have tried to suggest then that while The Ethiopian Campaign certainly is a kind of pamphlet directed to a specific time and place, it retains great significance as a model of how a philosopher engages in political controversy. The idea was well explained by Maritain in his 1960 lecture, “The Philosopher in Society” (in On the Use of Philosophy: Three Essays, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), but The Ethiopian Campaign presents a memorable and still-instructive paradigm, much of the relevance of which is retained given recent events in North Africa and the Middle East. It can be compared also with Eric Voegelin’s own critiques of Nazi race theory also published in the 1930s.  At a time when philosophy has become hyper-specialized and often inaccessible to the public and public discussion is often dominated by glib and superficial instant punditry, it is well to be reminded that something better is possible.

V. Bradley LewisV. Bradley Lewis

V. Bradley Lewis

V. Bradley Lewis is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Catholic University of America and a Remick Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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