The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 10, 2015

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The Origins of Social Justice: Taparelli d’Azeglio
Thomas Patrick Burke

THOMAS PATRICK BURKE is President of the Wynnewood Institute in Wynnewood, PA

"Social justice" has been mainly a religious conception, in the sense that it originated in religious circles, underwent a large part of its conceptual development in official statements of religious authorities, and has been adopted most enthusiastically by the members of religious organizations. Since 1931 it has been part of the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Philosophers seem to have come to it late: only since the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971 does it appear to have received much explicit attention from them.2 Rawls's theory, which describes itself as a theory of social justice, though it has occupied the center of the philosophical stage since that time, represents only one, idiosyncratic version of the idea. The idea has had a history, which has led it through numerous permutations of meaning.

Originally, when the idea of "social justice" was first developed in the 1840s, it was a formal concept rather than a material one. By this I mean the term was taken to signify simply a branch of the ordinary concept of justice, analogous to "commutative justice" or "criminal justice," and did not imply any particular content, philosophy, or view of the world. There could be, and was, a conservative conception of social justice, a liberal conception of it, and a socialist conception of it, all equally entitled to call themselves "social justice." In other words, the concept of social justice was initially an extension of the existing, traditional idea of justice into a new area, that of society as a whole, so that it did not require developing any content new to the idea, but just new conditions for its application. This is what we find with the earliest users of the idea: Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio, the conservative who inaugurated it, Antonio Rosmini, the classical liberal who publicized it, and the English Christian Socialists. Since the Second World War, however, "social justice" has come to mean something very different. The socialist conception of it won out over its rivals and gained solitary possession of the field. The term now stands for a very particular view of what is right and wrong in society. It has become a material concept rather than a formal one. My aim in these pages is to begin to describe the process by which the concept itself originally came about. First it will be helpful to say something about the historical circumstances out of which it arose.

"Social justice" owes its origin as a distinct concept3 (giustizia sociale) to the Italian Risorgimento of the nineteenth century. It was first used, to our knowledge, by the Jesuit philosopher Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio in 18434 in the debates over the beginnings of the Risorgimento's effort to unify the Italian peninsula politically.5 Despite its many dialects the peninsula had long been recognized as a cultural unity, a fact attested to, among other things, by the 1523 founding of the Accademia della Crusca in Florence, whose mission was to study the vocabulary of the entire peninsula. But in 1840 the territory was divided between a number of different powers, including Austria, which held the north, Piedmont in the northwest, the Papal States across the middle, and the kingdom of Naples. Napoleon, however, had occupied the entire mainland, and, although he divided it up into a number of republics, which he subsequently converted into "kingdoms," he named one of them the "Kingdom of Italy" and treated the peninsula in some respects as an administrative unity. For example, the Code Napoleon was introduced everywhere. After Napoleon's fall, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 largely restored the earlier political entities that had preceded Napoleon. But Napoleon had left behind him the vision of a unified Italy, which in the wave of romantic nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century possessed great inspirational power, especially for the educated and liberal middle classes. It was not long before agitation began with the aim of bringing about unification. Revolutionary movements such as the Carbonari sprang up throughout the territory, but soon failed. In January 1848, revolution broke out in Sicily, leading to war between Piedmont, which aimed at unification, and Austria, which successfully resisted it. Eventually, through Cavour's efforts in Piedmont, Garibaldi's in the south, and others', the unified Kingdom of Italy was established in 1870.

This project of unifying Italy, drawn out over several decades, produced fierce debate about fundamental questions of political and philosophical theory. On what foundation does the state rest? What is the origin of its power? By what right does anyone possess the authority to govern others? Is political authority created simply by military power and received by inheritance or conferred by a contract, as Locke had argued? Unification was a liberal project, for the aim of most of its supporters was to sweep away the existing powers, still essentially feudal and absolute, and replace them with constitutional governments guaranteeing personal liberties. But nationalism was a conservative emotion, and associated with the debate over unification were other debates over whether the new form of government should be federal or centralized, a republic or a monarchy, and here also there was room for conservatism.

Catholic opinion was conservative, especially under Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831–46), and explicitly condemned both liberalism and democracy. Until the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, Catholics generally supported the institution of slavery in principle, since it seemed to have been accepted by St. Paul in the New Testament. Gregory's successor, Pius IX, however, initially looked upon liberalism and democracy more favorably.

During the events of 1848–49 many of the Italian states obtained constitutions from their sovereigns. These were uniformly modeled on the French constituion of 1789. Like their model, however, they proved to be unstable. This was the immediate context that gave birth to the concept of "social justice."

Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio, S.J.

It is one of the ironies of history that the quintessentially "liberal" idea of "social justice," as it was to become (in American terminology), should have been originated by an ardent conservative. Prospero (his baptismal name) Taparelli was born in Turin into an aristocratic but nationalistic family that would play a prominent role in the Risorgimento. His father, Cesare, Marquis of Azeglio in the Piedmont, was a soldier and devout Catholic who took his family to Tuscany to escape Napoleon's armies and there published the nationalist newspaper Amico d'Italia (Friend of Italy); his mother, Cristina, the Countess Morozzo, was the sister of Giuseppe Cardinal Morozzo. His younger brother Massimo, after writing a series of nationalistic novels, first turned to politics as a nationalist pamphleteer and later became premier of Piedmont; to this day he remains an honored name in Italy. Prospero's cousin, Count Cesare Balbo, published a book Delle speranze d'Italia (On the Hopes of Italy), which aroused a strong sense of Italian nationalism. 6

The young Prospero studied at first the secular thinkers prominent at the time, such as Condillac, famous for his sensationism, a form of extreme empiricism, and also for his advocacy of free trade, but then discovered the French traditionalists Lamennais, Bonald, and de Maistre. When Pope Pius VII summoned the Society of Jesus back into existence in 1814 (it had been dissolved by Clement XIV in 1773), Prospero joined it without delay, taking the name Luigi in honor of St. Aloysius ("Luigi" in Italian) Gonzaga. He was ordained a priest in 1820, made rector of the novitiate in Novara in 1822, then in 1824 of the Jesuit house of studies in Rome, the Collegio Romano, later to become the Gregorian University.

As a thinker his chief concern from the first was with the state of political society, which he wished to influence in a conservative direction, especially towards the preservation of papal authority, which was then not only spiritual but also temporal, since the popes ruled the Papal States. But he realized that the intellectual reputation of the Church at the time left much to be desired and was a serious obstacle to its effective influence. The Church needed a philosophical renewal. In Novara his attention had been directed to the medieval Scholastics, in particular to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. In Rome he now seized on Thomas as the key to intellectual reform, and in 1827 and 1828 laid down a curriculum for the Collegio Romano on Thomistic lines.7 Through these writings Taparelli became one of the originators of neo-Scholasticism and neo-Thomism, although he does not seem himself to have studied Thomas very intensely. He subsequently spent many years at the Vatican's journal Civiltà Cattolica, where one of his collaborators, on whom he had much influence, was Gioacchino Pecci, a former student of his, who became Pope Leo XIII. His 1879 encyclical, Aeterni Patris, canonized Thomism as the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Taparelli's aim, however, to which neo- Thomism was meant to contribute, was to develop a conservative and specifically Catholic theory of society that would be an alternative to the liberal and laissezfaire theories of Locke and Adam Smith. In 1833 he was transferred to Palermo and remained there for sixteen years, during which he wrote his principal work in five volumes, Saggio teoretico di dritto naturale appoggiato sul fatto (A Theoretical Treatise on Natural Law Resting on Fact). The phrase "sul fatto" gives perhaps the most distinctive feature of his approach. The Lockean idea that political authority arises out of some kind of contract is absurd, he argues, for such a thing has never actually happened. The facts of history are that the right to govern has been obtained through the "natural superiority" of the ruler and of the ruling class: through their superior valor, knowledge, and wealth. This is the actual system created by divine providence. Whoever brings order into a society has the right to rule it. By "order" I take him to mean peace and the day-to-day administration of justice.

Taparelli gives a parallel account of the dominance of some countries over others. Empires and hegemonies are created, not by virtue of any contract, but through the natural superiority of a race or a people over others. This superiority establishes its power directly or indirectly, creating a hierarchy of relationships between the different nations. It is a power independent of particular wills, he remarks, and imposes itself on individuals and peoples. In speaking of this superiority as "natural," Taparelli means, not "nature" in the sense of a species, for he considers that "all men are equal in nature," but that superiority of character, knowledge, and wealth just mentioned. Men are "unequal in their persons."

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