“Shall it (the happy life) be that of the philosophers, who put forward as the chief good, the good which is in ourselves? Is this the true good? Have they found the remedy for our ills? Is man’s pride cured by placing him on an equality with God?”— Pascal, Pensēes, #430. “Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.”— St. Augustine, The City of God, XIX, 4.
“When, however, the Gospel and its message of salvation are rejected, a process of the erosion of moral values is begun, which easily has negative repercussions on the life of society.”— John Paul II, Agrigento, May 9, 1993.
Is the happy life, the beata vita, as conceived by the philosophers, sufficient for man? And if it is not, ought philosophers to be content? What alternatives are open to the philosopher who suspects that virtue, even high virtue, is not necessarily its own reward? The philosophic life is considered to be the highest human life. The philosophic life is the quest for the truth, for the whole, for the explanation of what is. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates told us in The Apology. But the examined life, the philosophic life, yields its own perplexities. It knows that it does not know. But knowing this, it still wants to know the highest things. What has the philosopher found when he has found all he can find by his own methods? Can he call it happiness? Dare he call it happiness?
The life of the philosopher, the life of the poet, and the life of the politician, moreover, have clashed. The poet, the philosopher, and the politician are not necessarily friends to one another. The poet accuses the philosopher Socrates. The city condemns him. Socrates himself, worried about both the poets and the politicians, avoided public life because it was dangerous to be a philosopher in a democracy. The philosophers and politicians have quarreled most dangerously when the politician, thinking himself also to be also a philosopher, has endeavored to set up the best city in reality, not in speech, and thereby to command the poets sing its praises.
Is the politician’s failure to erect any example of the abiding city in speech also a failure of philosophy? Is the question of the best regime itself an illusion? Is the lack of the best city in actuality rather a failure of virtue? But are there not bad philosophers from whom the politician must protect the city? Is not philosophy, as Aristotle implied, the most potent corrupter of man and the city? Philosophy itself must discuss the question of erroneous or bad philosophy; the politician is aware of this.
To begin a reflection on Augustine in political philosophy with a citation from Pascal about philosophy, I confess, might seem, at first sight, altogether odd. No doubt some circuitous link can be found between the Bishop of Hippo and Port Royal. But Pascal, like Augustine, did bring up the question of the way of the philosophers, the way of contemplation. Both doubted if philosophy really was the chief good of man, the best way of life.
Pascal likewise maintained that something was ominously missing in the way of the philosophers. They had broached a question they could not themselves resolve, but still, with a touch of pride, they insisted on finding answers only from within philosophy, within their own way of life. They remained, however, abidingly perplexed. They needed a “guide,” as Maimonides implied. And their calling it “philosophy,” that is, the “love” of wisdom and not wisdom itself, only served to keep things unsettled. For perpetual quests with no theoretic end in sight appear to be more nightmares than hopes. Philosophy seemed to suggest that man’s life was a way, a search, but, at the same time, it could have in principle no end, a conclusion that contradicted the very notion of a natural quest.
Pascal’s questions, moreover, when looked at closely, already hinted at the whole subsequent path of modern philosophers, leading from self-interest in ourselves, to the social causes of evil, and, finally, to anticipations of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky about man, in seeking his own meaning, replacing God with himself, with his own willed order. The philosophers thus have not solved their own problems.
Those philosophers who were also politicians, moreover, those who were tired of contemplating the world, who wanted to change it, only brought to light again previous problems that somehow seemed to lie in the path of all true philosophy. In retrospect, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations seem more abiding than Marx’s Manifesto. It is impossible to change the world correctly without knowing what the world is, without knowing its distinction from and relation to man, himself also a being in the world and yet with powers that seem to transcend it.
Is the way of the philosophers a false way, then, or is it merely a dangerous way? Is it a natural way, one following the laws of being, or is it artificial, a way set in defiance to anything in nature, including human nature? We might, at times, venture out onto dangerous paths, of course. But we ought to avoid those paths that lead nowhere, or worse, those that lead to destruction. Augustine himself, in the passage from The City of Godcited above, clearly foresaw a danger in philosophy. The defining of this danger is a principal task of political philosophy itself.
Augustine, of course, wrote not as some stranger to philosophy. Very early in our literature he was aware of the limits of philosophy. He connected, as not accidental, the rejection of salvation with an attempt to set up a fabricated end for man, even when it takes, in agreement with the classics, the exalted form of a life of fine virtue for its own sake. He understood that if nature did not contain within itself its own completion, then to treat what is not God, what is not the end, as an end, all those beautiful things, is to imply that the world is subject to disorder because of man’s relation to it. The corruption of philosophy somehow does not come from itself. It comes from its quest, wherein the philosopher chooses finally to reject as not worthy of consideration something encountered from outside philosophy though intelligibly related to the search for wisdom.
I have likewise included a brief but related introductory passage from John Paul II at his philosophical best, for he clearly stands within this line of thought from St. Augustine to Pascal to modernity. The rejection of the Gospel—and the Gospel can be read by the philosophers as something intelligible to them, to their quest—is seen as a functional thing. Denial of salvation as proposed by articulated faith paradoxically cuts off one possible understanding of man’s purpose. This avenue so cut off, with its own claim to truth, forces the philosophers, poets, and politicians to imagine and propose other lines of happiness for man and for his purpose in existence. The “erosion” of moral values is seen to follow from a failure to relate these same values to something higher than themselves. Virtue manifests an inherent instability the minute it becomes its own end since it implies an unwarranted self-sufficiency, the self-sufficiency of the finite good and wise independently of the object of their goodness and wisdom.
Virtue to be virtue, it appears, cannot be only virtue. It is as if philosophy is not as abstract and neutral, as calm and contemplative as it often conceives itself to be. Slight errors in the beginning do in fact lead to huge errors in the end, as Aristotle had observed. It is as if correct answers need to be formulated, correct habits followed, and this under the penalty, when lacking, of the death of philosophic integrity itself. The failure to do this overall intellectual work will directly impinge on society, any society. In Augustine’s terms, no existing civil society is the City of God. On the other hand, all members of any existing civil society have to choose what ultimate city they will belong to. The seriousness of life in existing cities is only comprehended by the universality of the City of God and the City of Man. Otherwise, the life of the mortal, of the individual existing man, is only that, mortal, something of no final and ordered meaning.