The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 29, 2017

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Last Things: Civility
James V. Schall, S.J. - 03/13/09
Thank You note
The Universities are the public nurseries of Religion, Piety, Learning, and Civility.
—“Definition of Oxford,” A.D. 1690, OED, Civility, #11.
Why are American kids so much more susceptible to binge drinking than Europeans? Why do they need so much more mental health care? Why do they need so much more psychotropic medication? Is there reason to suspect American kids are nowhere nearly as well prepared for life as their European counterparts?
—George Lesser, “The Prettier Ugly Americans,” 2009.[1]
The civilities which we had received were soon to be returned. . . .
—Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, #142, July 27, 1751.


At the end of the last book of Aristotle’s Ethics, he brings up the question of what happens when young men leave the household with insufficient self-control or discipline. With little virtue, in other words, presumably they are still expected to live reasonably in the public order to which they belong or are resident. Aristotle is a realist. He knows that the purpose of a household is to provide for the beginning and development also of the souls of its children. When they reach the age of maturity, however calculated, they should leave the confines of the household to take their part in public order where citizens should use mainly the primary means of public decision, namely rhetoric or speech, not force.

Aristotle also knows that, in most eras and in most polities, this preparation does not always or even frequently work out this way. He is aware of the difficulty most experience of acquiring a fund of virtue sufficient for a reasonable and well-mannered life. It was in fact this difficulty in practicing virtue that most perplexed the classical philosophers who knew well enough how to define the virtues, but, in practice, were not able to live them. It seemed that something more than knowledge was at stake. On this something else, they could not quite put their finger. It was precisely to this issue of the difficulty to acquire and practice virtue, as Augustine said, to which revelation addressed itself. This unexpected correlation made us wonder about the strange relationship between the two, between reason and revelation

Thus, when Aristotle passes from the Ethics to the Politics, he does so not by further developing the earlier expressed position in the Ethics that “Man is by nature a political animal.” Man would be political even if everyone were virtuous and intelligent, which they are not. But Aristotle passed on to consider politics by a common sense awareness of what is necessary when this rule of reason is not manifest in manners and actions of the young on their newly entering the public order.

Aristotle here broaches the subject of law, which he defines in the best short definition ever given. Law is “reason without passion.” But it is precisely the passions of the young (and not so young) that most often bring them in conflict with others. Hence, the law must not only establish the rules of order, but must add coercion or force to them, so that external observance at least will be observed. Aquinas was later to point out that only God could directly command that we order our souls from the inside, which in fact He did.

What the law could do, however, was indirectly to educate us by encouraging us to perform the acts of virtue by which we acquire the habits of civil living. The punishments attached to the law are not there simply to be forceful. They are also designed to alert the mind of the law-breaker to the “reason” found in the law. In any case, as Aquinas said, certain minimal things had to be forbidden, those actions which the majority could be expected to observe, which would keep a minimum good order. This was part of the “reason” embedded in the polity in its dealing with things that did not subject themselves freely to the discipline of reason and care of others.

The law becomes dangerous, however, if it requires too much. If it demands “all virtue,” or if it “prohibits all vices,” as Aquinas also noted, it will claim almost a divine power to itself. This sort of law, to which the modern state seems too often to be tempted, would leave no room for normalcy. We have to allow people the possibility of making mistakes or even committing crimes lest we establish a totalitarian state in which the law claims responsibility for everything. This temptation seems very real in today’s liberal polities. In any case, it is a question of civil order that citizens not only observe the laws, but have laws that are themselves reasonable and in conformity with their nature, the essence of which is not the creation of the law or the polity.

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