Letter from Rome: The State as God, father, referee….


Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

I’ve just returned from Acton University, our four-day seminar in Grand Rapids, where I gave lectures on St. Augustine, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with a stop at the Institute for Economic Affairs in London to take part in a panel discussion on Catholic social teaching and Pope Francis’s views on economics. Happening in the midst of the World Cup (I’ll explain soon enough!) and all kinds of political battles in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, I couldn’t help make connections between how these different first-rate thinkers have influenced not only what we think about political authority in the abstract, but how we live our lives by different conceptions of it.

Locke is known as “America’s philosopher” and therefore the most familiar to Americans. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to founding a “new order for the ages” as the founders of the United States sought to do. Scholars of Locke have debated just how radical his thought really was, and there’s more than a little at stake. His attacks on paternalism and the divine right of kings in the rarely-read First Treatise on Government do seem to set the stage for his views on natural rights in the better-known Second Treatise, some of the language of which Thomas Jefferson used verbatim in the Declaration of Independence.

Eliminating absolute monarchical rule does not do away with the need for political authority as such, however. Thanks to an essay by the late Robert A. Goldwin, I found that the republican Locke leaves room for a “god-like prince” who “by established laws of liberty [secures] protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind.” (§ 42)But he goes further: “This power to act according to discretion for the public good, without the prescription of the law and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative.” (§ 166) Knowing full well that such princes are often considered enemies of free people, Locke praises them anyway, in the name of the public good.Revered but still controversial wartime presidents like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt come to mind.

The difference between these older and newer forms of authority is based on the consent of the governed and what Jefferson called “the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.” But even in the Lockean/Jeffersonian dispensation, some kind of authority and some kind of elite will always be with us.

And so it must be, even for lovers of liberty and equality. St. Augustine may have described this need for authority as the result of original sin or man’s original disobedience, or perhaps the human desire for honor and glory that eventually leads to domination, as it did in ancient Rome. Unlike Locke and other modern political thinkers, however, Augustine gives us precious little in terms of how government ought to be structured, with a vast array of political arrangements and authorities to be found in the days of European Christendom. What we do know is that Christians from the time of St. Paul on have seen all authority as coming from God, even if it was a tyrannical as that of the Roman emperors.The authority of the paterfamilias is related to that of God Himself.

It took Rousseau, the greatest modern critic of modernity, to show how the alienation that happens to the individual of the Lockean state of nature once he enters civil society is destructive to both city and man,and it was Rousseau who became the model for the modern nation-state founded in Europe with the French Revolution. If Americans follow Locke with his emphasis on private property and limited (but not ineffective) government, Europeans have generally adopted Rousseau’s critique of the commercial society in the name of freedom, equality and patriotism or love of lapatria. Whether Rousseau would find anything good to say about modern Europe’s welfare-state-driven lethargy is doubtful, though.

Reading these three authors together reveals very ways of thinking about political power. Should it be used to make us humble under God and serve one another, or should it encourage us to seek and exploit new, unforeseen opportunities? Are these mutually exclusive? What happens when we try to do both, i.e. live like Christians while harboring earthly ambitions, torn between love of God and love of self?

It seems unlikely that Augustine would be overly impressed with our modern material advancements and would pointedly ask us where our loves lead us. Given his critique of mythical, natural and civil theologies, he would not look to the modern state as God’s representative here on earth, one designed to provide for every human need, either. Locke would be much more impressed, both by the ability of human beings to provide so much for so many as well as the relatively peaceful ambitions of the capitalist/entrepreneur.  And Rousseau, more than anything particularly Christian, can be heard in those voices who rail against inequality and say “this economy kills.”

In the end, our modern world is probably looking for God in all the wrong places. Our Lockean selves worship our don’t-tread-on-me freedom and achievements, while our Rousseauian parts know this progress, if that’s what it is, comes at a great human and social cost. As a result, we either look to authority to simply enforce the rules we make up ourselves, as if we’re in a heated World Cup match, or some kind of new father or godlike figure that will guide and inspire us. But Christ himself renounced all earthly rule even as he entrusted the authority to bind and loose to the fishermen he called to follow him. The lack of a clear Christian teaching on politics is still with us today, for better or for worse.

Kishore Jayabalan
Director