​Political Theory and the National State

The wars and revolutions of the twentieth century bring to its end a period that begins with the consolidation of the Western national states in the fifteenth century.

An upheaval of such magnitude, con vulsing the whole of a civilization, affects not the institutions only but also the sentiments and beliefs that went into their building, the verities that they represent, and the body of ideas and symbols used for denoting, justifying, and interpreting them.

Political philosophy today is concerned with sifting the debris, with testing in the light of contemporary experience the validity of problems and symbols still taken for granted a generation ago, and with repairing the edifice of critical theory that has become badly dilapidated in the course of the so-called modern centuries.

A brief introductory assessment of this task will properly start from the vicissitudes of the power unit that has stamped its char acter on the era now drawing to its end, that is, from the national state.

The nation organized for sovereign dominion over its territory and population, as it emerged in Western Europe in the fifteenth century, has become the prototype of political organizations. The prototypicality expresses itself, first, in the belief that national soci eties should have the status of sovereign power units; and, second, in the tendency to classify all sovereign powers as nations.

Since, however, in historical reality neither all candidates for nationhood can form viable states, nor all viable power units are nations, the indulgence leads to difficulties in theory and practice.

When the principle of national self-determination broke the central and east ern European multinational empires, as seemed proper at the time, it also broke the Concert of Europe, which had furnished the hard core of stable organization for the area of Western civilization; and, after the interludes of French continental hegemony through the instrumentality of the League of Nations and German hegemony through the National Socialist expansion, the destruction has re sulted for the time being in the organization of a Soviet empire and the counter-organization of the Western powers in the NATO, now including the United States and Canada, confronting one another along a border that divides the former German national state.

The object lesson of history should drive home the fact, well known to the more perspicacious thinkers of the nineteenth century, that the reality of politics is not exhausted by national states.

As a consequence, a philosophy of politics that insists on being a theory of the state is rapidly moving into the shadow of obsolescence, as the theory of the polis did when the age of empire had come.

Separating the Essential from the Historically Contingent

The first problem to be mastered by a contemporary philosophy of politics is, therefore, a redefinition of its object in such a manner that the national state, while receiving its due, will be understood as part in a greater civilizational whole.

The prototype has been further narrowed down, especially in the twentieth century, through its absorption of the demand that a national state, with regard to its internal organization, should be something like a democracy in the Anglo-Saxon sense.

In the wake of such concretization of the type further difficulties both theoretical and practical were inevitable, for the European national states have different histories resulting in different locations of political authority.

A theory that insists on discussing politics in terms of Anglo-Saxon democracy cannot deal adequately even with the Western national states, and not at all with the political organization, e.g., of Asiatic civilizations.

It will, therefore, be a second problem of political philosophy to separate the essential from the historically contingent and to break with the habit of treating the institutions of a particular national state at a particular time as if they truly manifested the nature of man.

The rise of the national state was accompanied, furthermore, by the Reformation. From the resulting conflicts and civil wars, governments could extricate themselves only by transforming tem poral power into secular statehood, leaving the spiritual life and its organized expression free to develop in whatever direction it chose.

The result was a development in the direction of immanentist creed movements, such as nationalism, progressivism, liberalism, positivism, and ultimately Communism and National Socialism.

A political theory that takes it uncritically for granted that the secular national state is the one and true object of inquiry will run into difficulties flowing from this further source.

The theorist will have to interpret phenomena of the adumbrated type as movements on the level of secular power politics, which they are not. He will be blind to the fact that his own secular state is not quite so secular as he believes it is, but that civil rights and democratic recognition of equality derive from an idea of man that has grown in the shelter of Stoic cosmology and Christian faith, and hence does not make sense to men who do not live in this cultural tradition.

And he will perhaps engage in democratic propaganda and “re-education,” an endeavor that can only arouse the scorn of gnostic sectarians who have dedicated their lives to exorcising the devil by means of revolutionary action.

The contemporary phenomena compel, therefore, as a third task, a critical examination of the compact symbolism that has grown in the period of the secular state, and its replacement by a considerably more differentiated body of concepts.

The rise of the national state as well as of the immanentist creed movements was accompanied, finally, by the destruction of classic and medieval philosophical culture; in particular philosophical an thropology was destroyed so thoroughly that we have not recovered from the blow to this day.

The just mentioned differentiated critical concepts, however, can be developed only by penetrating to princi ples; and the principles of politics are not to be found on the level of a debate about the rights of man or what institutions are best, but, as established by Plato and Aristotle, in philosophical anthropology.

The recovery and further development of a critical theory of man is the fourth, and systematically most important, task of philos ophy at the present juncture when we emerge from the national state with its comparative safety, simplicity, and homeliness onto a wider, uncharted, and more dangerous scene.

The task of political philosophy in our time, thus, is both negative and positive. It is negative insofar as the unanalyzed symbols in which the thinkers of the national state period expressed their convictions about the right political order must be submitted to analysis, separating the chaff from the grain, preparatory to a recon struction of theory by critical standards.

It is positive insofar as the criticism must receive its direction from the aim, however dimly seen, of developing a theory that will not mistake the principles on which a special type of political institutions is based, for the principles of politics as such.

This work of criticism and reorientation, while being a general preoccupation of political philosophers in our time, has assumed a wide variety of forms according to the variety of conditions that occasion the inquiry.

It has at present the general character of move ments from different starting points converging toward a common goal rather than of final achievement. One cause of diversification, to be mentioned only in passing, is the advantage possessed by the sciences that are closer to the classic and Christian sources of critical theory than others. Political scientists proper are laboring under the handicap of being narrowly bound, by their subject matter as well as by the symbols in use, to the theoretical situation that must be overcome; and some of the most effective work is done, as a consequence, by classical philologists, medievalists, philosophers, and theologians.

A second cause of diversification is provided by the differences of social and institutional stability in the several national states. Where the national institutions do not enjoy the authority that comes with age; where the class structure is in turmoil owing to defeat, inflation, and unemployment; and where the immanentist creed movements have made such inroads on the cohesion of national society that the movement rather than the nation has become the society that organizes itself politically, as is the case in Germany; there a science of principles will develop, and especially of philosophical anthropology, to the neglect of an analysis of institutions–although the philosopher will be at a loss what to do with his knowledge in an environment that seethes with ideological enthusiasm, has no use for reason, and hates the dianoetic excellences.

The British Treasure of Institutions and Continuity

Where institutions have absorbed the polit ical experience and wisdom of centuries; where they have proved, without a break of continuity, adaptable to the political articula tion of new social groups; where the immanentist creeds have not seriously disrupted the civilizational tradition, as is the case in En gland; there the analysis will start from the treasure of institutions, working its way cautiously toward principles in order not to lose anything of the truth that has accumulated in an organization functioning so well for so long–even at the risk of leaving principles in a penumbra where they remain indistinguishable from the state of England.

In the light of these general reflections on the contemporary sit uation, the revival, not to say the outburst, of political philosophy at Oxford in recent years must be seen and studied.  The noble succession of T. H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, and Sir Ernest Barker is now continued by a sizable group of scholars who have responded to the challenge of the age and who try to reformulate the problems of political theory under the guidance of a venerable tradition.

The principal works that will form the basis of the following discussion are Lord Lindsay’s studies on democracy[1], R. G. Collingwood’s sys tematic study of political culture supportedby his philosophy of history[2], the studies on the theory of the state, political conflicts, and obligations, by J. D. Mabbott and T. D. Weldon[3], the study on moral philosophy by E. F. Carritt[4], and a brilliant lecture on the theory of the state by G. R. G. Mure.[5]

To this impressive list of works must be added the enterprise of Blackwell’s Political Texts, edited by C. H. Wilson and R. B. McCallum, as well as the series of introductions, preceding the single volumes, especially those by R. B. McCallum (Mill), J. W. Gough (Locke), Max Beloff (The Federal ist), W. Harrison (Bentham), and A. P. D’Entrèves (Saint Thomas).[6]

The authors of these works do not form a school. What they have in common is a set of inarticulate premises rather than an explicit doctrine. All of them (with the exception perhaps of Mr. Mure?) are willing to accept the mystery of incarnation: that the principles of right political order have become historical flesh more perfectly in England than anywhere else at any time.

Mr. Mabbott’s formulation of the point may be considered representative. In the preface to his book he declares it his programme “to bring out the general principles of politics,” which happen to be identical with those “of his own civilization.”

If anybody should argue that he regarded local prejudices as permanent principles, he would answer that local variations in standards need not involve relativity in values. Some local standards may, indeed, be permanent principles, and he can do no more than give the arguments that in this case the coinci dence is a fact.

Nothing follows from this conviction for practical politics. “This does not mean that the principles here defended are immediately applicable or should be immediately imposed all over the world. It may even be the case that only in Western Europe, in the British Commonwealth, and in the United States of America have historical conditions been such as to make their application possible within any foreseeable future.”

Nevertheless, if other na tions and civilizations should be debarred by circumstance for the indefinite future from following or even recognizing these princi ples, “I cannot avoid the conclusion that, in the field of politics at least, they are condemned to lasting loss and sacrifice.”

This attitude has nothing to do with either complacency or jingo ism. Mr. Mabbott’s as well as the other studies under consideration are responsible, closely reasoned works of science.

Nevertheless, the reader, while being a little envious of the happiness that such assurance must confer on its possessor, will also feel a little uneasy about a philosopher in such harmony with his environment. He will remember Plato and Aristotle, who did not hesitate to rank Hellenic political culture higher than any other but found enough of a gulf between standards and reality to make them despair that a well-ordered polis could ever be realized in Hellas.

The Oxford political philosophers do not adopt the classic philosophical attitude that reality at its best is still far from conforming with principles. Their arrangement of mankind in outer circles of the “condemned” (Mabbott) or “barbarians” (Collingwood) and inner circles of Western civilization, with a further more concentric ring of the Anglo-Saxon democracies, and a distinction between “radical” and “individual ist” democracy that will confer a slight edge on England over the United States (Weldon), is reminiscent of Bodin’s arrangement of mankind, under a theory of climates, in outer sectors of partial good ness and a center of political virtue in France, with a concentration of this virtue in the French constitutional lawyers, and an ultimate concentration of political wisdom in the principles laid down by Bodin.

While none of my distinguished colleagues at Oxford (if I may say the superfluous in ord erto avoid even the shadow of a misunderstanding) could ever conceive the idea of Bodin’s personal apotheosis, there is alive in their attitude the Renaissance pathos of the national state that emerges as the supreme organizational form of human societies after the breakdown of Church and Empire, as well as the pathos of its humanistic thinkers.

And this is not the pathos of classic philosophy; for the Greeks were no humanists. The preceding paragraph attempted a characterization; it did not give an argument. The humanists may well be right if they do not follow the classical philosophers in developing principles based on the bios theoretikos, or Christian thinkers into a conception of pol itics orientated toward the sanctification of life. But this question can be answered only through a closer study of their argument.

I shall proceed by analysing in some detail their position with regard to a theoretically central problem, to the principle of liberty of con science. When in this manner the type of argument has been clari fied, it will be possible to deal more briefly with a few further issues.

The Totalitarianism of St. Thomas Aquinas

We may appropriately start [with a theoretically central problem: the principle of liberty of con science] from the final judgment passed by Mr. D’Entrèves on the politics of Saint Thomas.

When Mr. D’Entrèves proceeds from his impeccable account to an evaluation, he ar rives at the following conclusions:

We find that the matters which the State is supposed to leave to the Church are precisely those which the modern man has struggled for centuries to secure against the interference of Church and State alike: such as the pursuit of truth and the worship of God according to his conscience. There is no room for religious freedom in a system which is based on orthodoxy.

“Medieval intolerance . . . was a thorough, totalitarian intol erance.” On the other hand:

It looks as if, instead of providing us with a complete and elaborate system, Saint Thomas had been con cerned with setting forth the principles from which such a system can be constructed. What matters is that the principles should not be betrayed. All the rest is a task for the ‘prudent’ legislator.

. . .  And now in our days the Church and Catholic apologists have brought that teaching even nearer to us in the battle against totalitarianism. We have learnt to appraise a doctrine which is founded upon the vindication of human personality and on the unflinching assertion of the primacy of spiritual values.


It is hardly possi ble for the modern man to accept the system which Saint Thomas coherently founded upon (the ‘primacy of the Spiritual’) without renouncing that notion of civil and religious liberty which we have some right to consider the most precious conquest of the West.[7]

We sympathize with the sentiments that have inspired the judg ment, and we do not doubt the correctness of the facts on which it is based.

If nevertheless we take exception to it, it is on the purely theoretical ground that the judgment is couched in terms, halfway between critical concepts and humanistprogressivist ideological symbols.

Mr. D’Entrèves does not attack the “primacy of the Spir itual.” What he really does not like is Saint Thomas’ insistence on the use of temporal power for discrimination against Jews and Gentiles, as well as for the criminal prosecution of heretics and apostates.

The logical flaws in the expression of his dislike stem more immediately from the anachronistic application of the term coherent system to a medieval “summa” that does not derive propo sitions from axioms but moves in the tension between reason and faith.

“Systems” are a modern invention; and I doubt that one can properly speak of a “system” before Descartes.

Hence, the reprehen sible demands of Saint Thomas do not follow “coherently” from the “primacy of the Spiritual,” but originate in the spheres of prudence or political expediency, of the mores of the age, and of the Roman Law whose revival was accompanied by a regrettable enthusiasm for construing spiritual divagations as crimes in the legal sense.

From the recognition of spiritual perfection as the highest good of man (in Christianity the beatific vision) there follows nothing at all, as far as I can see, with regard to specific measures that will serve the creation and protection of the environment most favorable to the realization of this good.

If the distinction between an inquiry into principles (hierarchy of goods) and prudential measures is not made, if both are treated on the same level as a “system,” the result will be that odd totalitarian intolerance of Saint Thomas, which at the same time is concerned about the integrity of human personality, is “the most important factor of Western civilization,” and is even an ally in the battle against totalitarianism.

Mr. D’Entrèves’ formulations make, furthermore, anachronistic use of the term totalitarianism.

The term has arisen, in the 1920s, within the modern gnostic mass movements. It does not denote the measures of extraordinary atrocity that these movements use in their expansion and domination, but the faith in human intra mundane (not transcendent) perfection through political action by groups who are in possession of eschatological knowledge about the end of history.

This substitution of human self-salvation, of some thing like a transfiguration of human nature through historical action, for the Christian idea of perfection through Grace in death is, indeed, a matter of principle insofar as it can be maintained only if the whole range of experiences of transcendence is disregarded.

To talitarian politics is based on an immanentist philosophical anthro pology, as distinguished from Platonic-Aristotelian and Christian anthropologies which find the ordering center of human personality in the experiences of man’s relation to transcendent reality. It seems to me impermissible to apply the term totalitarianism to both types alike, for such indiscriminate usage would obliterate the essential difference of principles and stress the nonessential similarity of pru dential measures that, in various historical circumstances, may be used for the protection of a society against spiritual disintegration.

Are the Pursuit of Truth, Freedom of Conscience, and Civil Liberties the Fundamental Principles?

The anachronistic use of terms, while impairing the theoretical value of the judgment, has nevertheless an intelligible purpose. Mr. D’Entrèves assumes three types of political principles: the me dieval totalitarian, the modern totalitarian, and in between the pre ferred modern type characterized by free pursuit of truth, religious freedom according to conscience, and civil liberties.

If we make the suggested distinction between philosophical anthropology (as a science of principles) and prudential measures that will, under given historical circumstances, create the best possible environment for the attainment of the highest good, the question concerning the status of the aforementioned freedoms cannot be avoided.

Are these freedoms really fundamental principles, or are they perhaps no more than prudential devices?

If the latter should be the case, the halo that surrounds them certainly would pale; the rude question, which can never be addressed to a principle, would have to be asked: whether they work or whether they have failed, perhaps quite as miserably as the medieval device of persecution?

If, however, the distinction is not made, embarrassment will be avoided and the freedoms can be as inalienable, eternal, and ultimate as anyone de sires. The cult of political institutions as incarnations of principles depends on the suspension of theoretical animation.

When, however, the rude theoretical question concerning the status of the freedoms, and in particular of the freedom of religion and conscience, is raised, we find no simple answer.

First of all the apparent simplicity suggested by Mr. D’Entrèves’ opposition of an orthodoxy that leaves “no room for religious freedom” to the liberties that are “the most precious conquest of the West” must be broken down.

In this radical opposition of freedom and orthodoxy as the respective representatives of good and evil we recognize an in stance of gnostic-Manichaean dualism. In English political thought this dualism has its venerable ancestry in Hobbes’s Leviathan with its opposition of the “Christian Commonwealth” to the “Kingdom of Darkness”; and the tradition is both preserved and renewed in Mr. Collingwood’s New Leviathan where the dualism, in the more secularist form of “Civilization” and “Barbarism,” is erected into the principle that defines political cultures and governs the process of history.

This dualistic formula, while adequately expressing the political perspective of a gnostic metaphysician, will, however, not pass the test of critical application.

Does Freedom of Conscience Expand Freedom of Religion?

The thesis that there is no reli gious freedom under a system based on orthodoxy must be rejected. There was, of course, religious freedom in plenty during the Middle Ages, as is attested by the range of religious personalities from Saint Francis to Saint Thomas, by the range of theological speculation from realism to nominalism, by the foundation of numerous special religiones within Christianity, ranging from hermits to military orders, and by the great mystics from Eckhardt to Cusanus.

But such concrete reminders should not overshadow the general argument that, whenever a great religious civilization unfolds, somebody must have taken the liberty to create it.

Nevertheless, the thesis has a nucleus of truth; heretics were persecuted, indeed; and some varieties of religious experience were not allowed the freedom to express themselves. The gnostic-Manichaean dualism of orthodoxy and freedom must, therefore, be reduced to the theoretical question: In what respect was religious freedom expanded through insistence on the freedom of conscience?

The question is all the more im portant because even under the new dispensation it is agreed that religious freedom has its limits. When Adamite sectarians were informed by their consciences that the naked truth of God would best be represented by walking in the street without clothes, even a Roger Williams drew the line.

Freedom of conscience in the political sense is the right to act according to one’s conscience free of governmental prevention, in terference, or subsequent sanction. Conscience itself can be defined as the act, or acts, by which we judge, approvingly or disapprovingly, our conduct in the light of our rational moral knowledge.

Con science in this sense is not infallible. It can err either because the facts of the case requiring our action or inaction are insufficiently known, or because an intricate conflict of obligations resists a correct solution within the time at our disposal, or because our general state of ignorance, our lack of intellectual training and imagination, our moral obtuseness and spiritual perversion, will produce false judgments.

The structure of this problem has received a new precision through the distinction, developed by Mr. Carritt, between three views concerning the ground of obligation. He distin guishes the objective, the subjective, and the putative view.

The general question is whether our obligations, and consequently our duties, depend upon our actual situation, including our capacities for affecting it and the consequences of what we immediately bring about, or upon our beliefs about that situation, or upon our moral estimate of what the supposed situation demands.[8]

We never know our objective duty because we are not omniscient with regard to the actual situation; we sometimes know a subjective obligation because one or more of the obligations from which we have to select our duty may be simple enough for us to know with certainty the action morally required by what we believe to be the facts of the situation;  and we always know our putative duty because we always can form a moral estimate (although exposed to moral error) of what is demanded by what we believe to be the actual situation. The fulfillment of putative duty is conscientious action.

At this point the difficulties begin. In order to be moral, action must be conscientious; a will that deviates from conscience is immoral. Even if his conscience is badly in error, a man must follow it. Does liberty of conscience in the political sense mean that every man must be left free to follow it, even if it advises him to organize a revolution of Fifth Monarchy men or of the proletariat?

If we say No, we are back to persecution for the sake of conscience. And since the practice of Western statecraft in fact has said No, the so-called freedom of religion and conscience has never been opposed as a “principle” to medieval persecution.

The difference between “persecution” and “freedom” is one of degree; some consciences that would have been persecuted in the Middle Ages are left free in the modern national state–but not all of them by far.

It would be unfair to state that the Oxford political philosophers evade the issue deliberately, but they certainly do not rush into the fray. Representative is perhaps Mr. Gough’s introduction to Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration in the Blackwell Text.

Mr. Gough is fully aware that there is something odd about a toleration from which are excepted Mohammedans, Roman Catholics, Antinomians, revolutionary millenarians, and atheists; he is, furthermore, aware that Locke was not tolerant on principle but that his views were those of a Latitudinarian who had experienced strong forma tive influences from Dutch Arminians.

But at this point the matter is left hanging, as it is left after Mr. Gough has carefully shown how Locke whittles down his principle of government by consent to consent by the fact of residence–although it would be interesting to know what Locke did develop if not the principles for which he is famous.

Could it be that behind the formulae of freedom and toleration hides the orthodoxy of a liberal, semi-secularized Protestant church-state?

Silences are sometimes quite as noteworthy as positive asser tions. The restraint with regard to the issue under consideration is remarkable, and certainly in need of explanation; for it is one of the glories of English political philosophy to have faced the question of conscience and its suppression unflinchingly in the person of Hobbes.

Under the impression of the Puritan revolution one of the greatest psychologists of all times laid down the rule that men who are moved by their religious conscience to civil war, for the purpose of imposing their creed on others, are not moved by the spirit, but are guilty of pride, of superbia in the Augustinian sense, to the point of madness.

Hobbes diagnosed passionate self-assertion, the amor sui, as the formative force of the Puritan conscience; he understood its dictates as a manifestation of libido dominandi, not of the spirit of Christ.

This diagnosis tears the problem of moral conscience wide open; beyond conscience lies the spiritual personality of the man who has it. A conscience may be good in the moral sense and nevertheless thoroughly evil in the spiritual sense, as Hobbes’s predecessor in this question, Richard Hooker, had already shown in his acid portrait of the Puritan, in the preface to his Ecclesiastical Polity.

A Rigidly Enforced theologia civilis

Hobbes, to be sure, was in error himself when he assumed that there was no such thing as a true spiritual orientation of the soul through amor Dei and that every conscien tious conviction, when in conflict with the civil order, was thereby proven evil.

Nevertheless, in his estimate of the movements of his time he was empirically as shrewdly right as he could be without the conceptual apparatus for the classification of phenomena of this type that is at our disposal today. He could hardly classify them as gnostic sectarian movements of the type that was suppressed as heretical in the Middle Ages, but he could see that men who wanted to replace the “Christian magistrates” of England by “officers of Christ” chosen from the membership of their sects, and to deprive all Englishmen who were not members of their political rights, had somewhat strayed from the amor Dei in the Christian sense.

And since he could not believe in spiritual reform as a cure for the evil, he devised the Leviathan that would sit as a king over the proud; the libido dominandi of the Puritan conscience would have to be broken by the fear of physical death, if it could not be healed by the love of God.

He countered the destructive exuberance of spiri tually disoriented conscience by the invention of a rigidly enforced theologia civilis in the Varronic sense of the word.[9]

The various dimensions of the problem thus have a solid English tradition of inquiry; here is the basis on which a contemporary examination of the freedom of conscience that we actually enjoy, as well as of the dangers created by the gnostic politico-religious movements of our time, could build. And yet there is this odd restraint [on the part of the Oxford political philosophers].

The explanation that I have to offer hinges on the conflict between civil theology and philosophy.

The practice of English poli tics has adopted the Hobbesian recipe of a civil theology on principle. To be sure, nothing remotely resembling the narrow brutality of the Leviathan was developed.

The repressive measures in the wake of the Revolution were far less radical and oppressive than those suggested by Hobbes–although some of them were quite juicy and today would be called totalitarian.

And the actual range of freedom rapidly became very much larger than anything envisaged as “freedom for the press” by Milton in his Areopagitica, or as “liberty of conscience” by Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Nevertheless, a civil theology it was; and this is the root of our problem.

The institutional symbolism of the English polity has become accepted as the language of political discourse. And, as a consequence, contemporary political debate is only to a minor extent theoretical discussion, while to a larger extent it is a cautiously moving elaboration of civil theology and its adaptation, if possible, to the disquieting events of the age. Since, however, history does not seem to tread the path of English civil theology, its adherents are in a difficult position.

Unless one is willing to give up political theologizing altogether and to take the plunge into philosophy, one has to act with great circumspection, or the dogmatic edifice will come tumbling down.

When the dogmatic symbols of the creed, such as Locke’s toleration and liberty of con‐science, or John Stuart Mill’s improvement, are touched by critical examination, they will inevitably fall apart.[10]

This is not a course to be taken lightly. The fortunes of history have granted England a breathing spell between the gnostic movements of the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries; a great political culture has grown, its durability has endowed its symbols with the pseudo-eternity of principles, and it has engendered loyalties that motivate justi fication rather than dissolving criticism.[11]

The road from English civil theology to philosophy must be traveled; but the restraints and silences prove that the journey is not easy. The conflict between civil theology and philosophy is the crucial issue. Its presence makes itself generally felt in the work of the Oxford political philosophers, but not in every case does it become the object of theoretical attention.

In the following pages I shall discuss the more articulate responses to the issue. I shall begin with the comparatively simple treatment accorded to the issue by the late Lord Lindsay in his book The Modern Democratic State.[12]

Lindsay wants to give an exposition of the English theologia civilis, and he actually gives one of the best ever written; but he does not want to appear in the role of a political theologian and, hence, is concerned about defining “political theory” in such a manner that it becomes identical with theology. Since this attempt involves him in reflections on the function (or rather non-function) of a philosophy of politics, his argument is of general interest for the vicissitudes of philosophy in our time.

The task of the theorist, he rules, is the study of a historical type of state, such as the modern democratic, or the Greek, or the medieval state. As distinguished from the description of institutions, theory is concerned with the “operative ideals,” the beliefs of the citizens, which sustain the state in existence. Lindsay, thus, accepts the rarely accepted insight that the representation of a truth about the meaning of human life is an essential component in the structure of a political society. He knows that what he tries to establish under the name of theory is in substance a Geisteswissenschaft of politics.

Where is the Critical Theory of Man?

While this programme as such sounds unobjectionable, the strange use of the term theory nevertheless suggests that not everything is in perfect theoretical order. For, if we give an account of “operative ideals,” describing their content, telling the story of the situations from which they have grown and to which they are applied, we are writing history, a history of ideals, beliefs, or dogmas; and if we try to explore the relations of meaning between the ideals, to demon strate their connection and consistency, perhaps to extrapolate ax ioms from which they can be derived logically, we are engaged in a systematic exposition of dogma.

Only under the assumption that the operative ideals contain a critical theory of man in political existence, although perhaps only by implication and fragmentarily, could their systematic exposition legitimately be called a theory. Unfortunately Lindsay remains vague on the question: What is the truth of theory as distinguished from the truth of ideals? Certain it is that he only writes history, and that he expounds dogma, from the position of a believer. We are moving in the area of restraints and silences.[13]

Lindsay’s intentions must be inferred from his position with regard to the classic philosophy of politics. He disposes of it sweepingly by attributing to Plato and Aristotle the creation of “ideal states,” which are historically conditioned in the same manner as the “operative ideals” and hence devoid of rational truth.

This argument, however, is valid only if the liberal interpretation of the two philosophers as “constitutionalists” and “idealists” be consid ered valid. And this interpretation, which itself is part of the liberal construction of the history of ideas, is not acceptable in science. Plato and Aristotle did not create “ideal states” (the very word ideal has no equivalent in Greek) but developed imaginative paradigms, models of the best polis.

What is “best” again has nothing to do with “ideals” but will be decided by the pragmatic suitability of the model to provide an environment for the “best” or “happiest life”; and the criterion of the best or happiest life in its turn will be established by the science of philosophical anthropology.

The best life, according to the various formulations, is the life that leads to the unfolding of the dianoetic excellences, to one’s existence as philosopher, to the bios theoretikos, or to the cultivation of the noetic self. The models, thus, are based on a theory of the nature of man, which claims to be a science.

Nobody, of course, will today unreservedly agree with the results of the Platonic-Aristotelian analysis of human nature; for in order to agree he would have to ignore the advances of philosophical anthropology that we owe to the Fathers and scholastics, as well as to such contemporary thinkers as Bergson, Gilson, Jaspers, Lubac, or Balthasar; and as far as the classical models are concerned, our pragmatic interest in them will be mild, since we have little use for Greek poleis at present.

Such restrictions, however, do not affect the principle established by the classic philosophers that a philosophy of politics must rest on a theory of the nature of man, and that philosophical anthropology is a science–not an occasion for idealistic tantrums.

The liberal interpretation cavalierly disregards the explicit content of the Platonic- Aristotelian work; and we conclude, therefore, that it cannot be used for disposing of this problem of the philosophia perennis.

If there should exist any doubt about Lindsay’s intention when he uses it nevertheless, it will be removed when we see him classify Aristotle’s concept of the “good life” as one of the ideals that vary with time. The classification emasculates the concept by denying that it has a theoretical basis. This is a radical attack on philosophy as the science of order in the soul and society.

As to Lindsay’s intention we conclude, therefore, that he wanted to avoid the classic tension in which the philosopher opposes his authority to that of the civil theology under which he lives; he wanted to be a theologian, and in order to act his part in good conscience he had to annihilate the uncomfortable authority of the philosopher–a procedure that casts a further interesting light on the intricate problems of freedom and conscience.

Surrendering to the Stream of the History

One cannot, however, annihilate critical standards without in curring the consequences. When the theologian is victorious over the philosopher, there will be trouble for the historian who now finds himself deprived of the conceptual instruments for under standing “operative ideals.” He cannot gain the necessary critical distance from his object and must surrender to the stream of history.

The surrender does not make the work altogether worthless; while swimming with the stream, one still can trace the course of events, assemble historical materials, and discern the lines of meaning embedded in the evolution of the “operative ideals” themselves.

As a matter of fact, Lindsay has achieved a convincing demonstration that the English democratic idea derives from Puritan congrega tional life. Nevertheless, the “understanding” will fall short of theoretical penetration. In order to demonstrate the gravity of the issue I shall, first, give a brief summary of Lindsay’s thesis and, then, add the missing theoretical considerations.

Democracy, the thesis may be formulated briefly, is secularized Independency.

“Modern democratic theory” originates in the com munities of the elect where the possession of the “call,” overrid ing all other qualifications, makes for democratic equality. These “communities of grace and inspiration” are essentially churches; but the Puritans of the Left applied the procedures developed in such communities “by analogy” to the conduct of state business.

In order to expand such a theocratic church-state beyond the confines of a sect to embrace the nation, the idea of the “elect” must be secularized so that every citizen will be counted as “elect” for po litical purposes. The national society, in fact, takes the place of the church of the elect, while the “state” acquires the characteristic of an “instrument” for the purposes of “society,” in the same manner as formerly the temporal power was an instrument for creating the proper environment for a community of Christians. This ultimate transformation found its expression in the work of Locke.

Lindsay, the theological historian, renders a sympathetic, ha giographic account of these origins of democracy. A philosophical historian, while accepting the “facts,” would make their meaning transparent by relating them to a theory of human nature.

Immanentist Self-Salvation in National Politics

A church of the “elect,” he would have to say, is a group of persons who claim a certainty of knowledge concerning their state of grace, which is only God’s; they indulge in superbia and arrogantly separate from the community of sinners.

When they transfer their ecclesiasti cal procedure to political affairs, and especially when they engage in revolutionary action for millenarian purposes, they usurp the functions that Revelation 20, with a more critical knowledge of the limits of human powers, has reserved for an angel of the Lord.

When finally, through secularization of the idea, the whole nation is taken to the bosom of election under the name of “society,” the original sectarianism and separatism has become an ingredient of the national theologia civilis, as well as a force forming the national character.

The way has been traveled from Christianity to immanentist self-salvation on a national basis.

The result should give pause to the philosopher as well as to the Christian–especially when he considers that these are the very immanentist principles that inspire our contemporary totalitarian movements to use “the instrument of the state” for creating the society of the millennium.

A philosopher would prefer to conduct his plea for democracy (or against it, dependent on the situation) with more earthly arguments derived from the school of Aristotle. Since philosophy is an integral part of Western civilization, a figure in the intellectual landscape that cannot be ignored, the indulgence in civil theology is hardly possible (except on a very primitive level) without constructions that will decently screen the nuisance from sight.

It is not surprising, therefore, when screening operations of the same type as Lindsay’s are undertaken elsewhere in the works under consideration. Of the various constructions used for the purpose, Collingwood’s merits our special attention for its technical brilliance of execution, as well as for its high degree of deliberateness.

Collingwood’s New Leviathan, as previously indicated, is a con scious revival of Hobbes’s gnostic-Manichaean dualism. The author places himself squarely in the sectarian tradition.

The gnostic aeons of Light and Darkness, of Truth and Lie, transformed by medieval sectarians into immanent-historical symbols, have become in the so-called modern period (which could be better named the gnos tic age) the predominant mode of political thought in the various nationalisms, in progressivism, in the totalitarian movements, as well as in the civilizational creeds of Europeanism, Americanism, general Occidentalism, and the more restrictive Westernism of the Atlantic national states.

Collingwood’s is a civilizational creed, more specifically a restrictive Westernism, with a strong core of English nationalism. Civilization in the historical sense means for Collingwood the creation of a “world,” that is, of a geographical area inhabited by people with a common manner of life. Such a world was formed in the Roman period, has existed in continu ity, although with ups and downs, to this day, and culminated in “modern Europe” or, synonymously, “Christendom.”

In relation to this civilizational course there appear as “barbarisms” in the historical sense all peoples and movements that threaten the exis tence and continuity of civilization.

Collingwood deals specifically with the Saracens, the Albigensians, the Turks, and the Germans.

The civilized peoples who are “sitting unshakable on top of the world” are justified in organizing preventive wars for averting the threats to civilization. Such wars would not have to be motivated by self-preservation but could be conducted “for the sake of the world at large,” for “there are bodies politic, so to call them, which are so useless to the world in their parasitic imbecility and so dan gerous to their more intelligent neighbors that they would better be destroyed.”

The counsel applies in particular to the German “Yahoo herd.” The rest of mankind, since itneither belongs to the “world” nor comes under the head of threatening “barbarism,” is not mentioned.[14]

Collingwood’s Principle of Limited Objective

The aeonic struggle between the civilizational forces of Light and the barbarian forces of Darkness expresses Collingwood’s gnostic religiousness. In order to protect the resulting, rather phantastic picture of history against obvious criticisms, he invents the Principle of Limited Objective.[15] The principle means that a science should limit itself to what actually can be explored and not waste time on what resists methodical inquiry.

Classical physics limited “its explanatory efforts to such facts as admitted of mathematical treatment,” while the secondary qualities were set aside. Classical politics, represented by Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Rousseau, limited itself similarly to society, “meaning that part of political life which consists in agreement between mentally adult persons for the purposes of joint action.”

A body politic consists of its social part, the area of free will, of joint activity, of contractual agreement, and a nonsocial part that hitherto has resisted pene tration by science. This nonsocial part is “the state of nature, the natural condition of mankind.” All that classical politics can say about this nature “is that it is that element in political life which is not society.”

Civilization, then, can be defined theoretically as the process of approximation to the state of civility, that is, of a maximum of society and a minimum of nature in the body politic; and classical politics is, therefore, the political science that deals with the civilizationally relevant part of politics.

Armed with the principle of limited objective, Collingwood can dispose of philosophy. The object of science, he argues, can only be defined in terms of science. We cannot define physics in terms of Nature or political science in terms of Politics, but must define Nature or Politics as that which is treated in physics or political science.

The only political science that we possess is classical politics from Hobbes to Rousseau. The ancients can be neglected because classical politics has absorbed what was valuable in their work. And no later political science, that would have penetrated more deeply into the area of “nature,” has superseded classical politics.

The gnostic-Manichaean vision of history is supported by theoretical argument, insofar as classical politics is the legitimate scientific instrument for the interpretation of history and politics.

Critical reflections on this position are embarrassing because they must point out the obvious. The Platonic-Aristotelian phi losophy of politics contains a good deal that is not to be found in “classical politics”; and the surplus happens to be the most important part.

There is, furthermore, in existence a contemporary science of politics that seems to haveescaped Collingwood’s no tice. It will be sufficient to mention the names of Pareto and Max Weber, and to refer to Bergson’s Deux Sources, in order to evoke this massively existing science.

The notion of “classical politics” as the one and only science of politics thus breaks down. What remains is the misuse of philosophical technique for bolstering a ramshackle theology of history and politics. It is a debasement of philosophy to the role of ancilla theologiae.

The misdeed, however, must not be charged fully to the account of Collingwood. He does no more than what everybody does in our time when he bolsters his pet gnostic dualism with theoretical argument; his case is only clearer than many others because he had a brilliant mind and was able to articulate his position with care.

And this brings us back to questions of conscience: Does ignorance cause us to hold certain beliefs with a good conscience, or does our will to hold certain beliefs cause us to remain ignorant with regard to disturbing facts?

And if the latter should be the case, does the end of holding a certain belief justify the means of ignorance?

Is there not a truth, higher than a civilizational creed, binding a philosopher’s conscience?

Is he really entitled to hold a belief concerning the meaning of his tory, although he perfectly well knows (or ought to know) that the meaning of history, its essence or eidos, is unknown because history extends into the future and hence is not a “thing” whose eidos can be known?

And is, therefore, political gnosis that confers on us knowledge of the unknowable a philosophical attitude at all?

And if it is not, does not our indulgence in gnostic speculation destroy the truth of philosophy?

And if we are doing that, are we not actively engaged, with the best of consciences, in the destruction of the civilization that we praise, like any Communist or National Socialist?

In Collingwood’s New Leviathan the real cause of the distressing state of political philosophy becomes more tangible than in the work of others: It is the trauma of the World Wars. The threat to na tional existence causes the withdrawal into the citadel of national political values, their defiant reassertion, and the condemnation of anything alien to them.

Mr. Weldon’s division of all political theories into organic and mechanical theories is a good example of this state of mind.

Under the head of organic theory are gen erously pooled together Plato, Aristotle, the Catholics, Hitler, and Mussolini, while “Christianity as developed since the Reformation, and especially in Puritan England during the seventeenth century, can have nothing whatever to do with this as a political theory.”[16]

It is “the claim of the Protestant Reformation that in matters of faith and conduct the final court of appeal is the conscience of the individual, and no authority can be morally entitled to control or even to interfere with the operation of that conscience . . . . No Protestant doctrine of conscience can conceivably permit Society to claim the right to dictate to the individual what he ought to do.”[17]

The rich differentiation of political cultures in the history of mankind, as well as the work of the philosophers in grappling with the problem of man in political existence, are wiped out with one stroke.

It all boils down to the difference between Protestant England and the rest of mankind. This appalling impoverishment amply justifies Mr. Mure’s warning:

Today controversy concerning the nature of the State is so near to common life, so closely bound up with cruel memories and agonizing hopes and fears, that there is danger of its degenerating even in England into a mere ideological brawl.[18]

Mure’s Philosophical Heroism

Looking at Mr. Mure’s lecture on The Organic State we feel, however, that not all hope is lost. Here at last is a real philosopher, rushing to the defense when a particularly ignorant attack on classic philosophy arouses his wrath.[19]

With excellent craftsmanship he restates the ontological principles underlying the Aristotelian the ory of the polis. The state is an entity in the hierarchy of being that ranges from matter to God; the levels of the immanent hierarchy are related with each other, the higher presupposing the lower for their existence; beings on the various levels develop from potentiality to actuality, or are checked in their development; and so forth. In the hierarchy of being the state is, therefore, the condition for full actualization of human potentialities; but it is nevertheless founded on the associational life below the level of the state, and cannot supersede it without destroying human development.

Mr. Mure’s elaboration in detail of the conflict of loyalties between the various levels of associational life, as well as of the respective function of each level, is admirable.

But what is most remarkable historically is perhaps the fact that a restatement of philosophical fundamentals in matters of politics comes as a surprise, almost a feat of heroism in a hostile environment.

I shall conclude on an Aristotelian point, which the limits of his lecture did not allow Mr. Mure to make. The polis offers the opportunity for full actualization of human nature. The fully ac tualized man is the spoudaios, the mature man, who has devel oped his dianoetic excellences and whose life is orientated by his noetic self.

This is the decisive issue in a philosophy of politics, the issue that the distinguished authors whose work we have dis cussed studiously avoid. Under pretext of respect for the freedom of conscience they ignore the fact that conscience, however “good” it may be putatively, can only be as good as the man who has it. A theory of conscience that shies away from ontology, and in particular from a theory of the nature of man, is empty; it is a parlor game in which one can indulge as long as the surrounding society contains enough Christian substances to make at least the worst sort of good consciences socially ineffective; but even under such favorable conditions (as they still exist in England) this nihilistic theory of conscience contributes to the intellectual and moral con fusion that paves the way for the best of all consciences, viz., that of the totalitarian killers.

All men are equal, to be sure, or they would not be individuals of one species; but sometimes it is forgotten that the point in which they most certainly are equal is their capacity for evil. Enough of that evil is rampant; and this is no time to pat the viciously ignorant on the back for being “sincere, ” or abiding by their “conscience.”

This is a time for the philosopher to be aware of his authority, and to assert it, even if that brings him into conflict with an environment infested by dubious ideologies and political theologies–so that the word of Marcus Aurelius will apply to him: “The philosopher–the priest and servant of the gods.”


This excerpt is from Published Essays: 1953-1966 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 11). Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999, pp. 24-46. Ellis Sandoz, Hermann Moyse Jr. Distinguished Professor of Political Science, is Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies at Louisiana State University. He is the general editor of Voegelin's History of Political Ideas and author or editor of numerous books, including The Politics of Truth and Other Untimely Essays: The Crisis of Civic Consciousness, available from the University of Missouri Press.

Originally published in the partner portal the Voegelinview (here) and it is republished here with permission from. 

©University of Missouri Press, 1999

©Ellis Sandoz (Editor)



[1] A. D. Lindsay, The Essentials of Democracy (Philadelphia, 1929); The Modern Democratic State (1943) (New York and London, 1947).

[2] R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan, or Man, Society, Civilization and Barbarism (Oxford, 1942); The Idea of History (Oxford, 1946).

[3] J. D. Mabbott, The State and the Citizen: An Introduction to Political Philosophy (London, 1948); T. D. Weldon, States and Morals: A Study in Political Conflicts (London, 1946).

[4] E. F. Carritt, Ethical and Political Thinking (Oxford, 1947).

[5] G. R. G. Mure, The Organic State, in Philosophy, vol. 24, no. 90 (1949).

[6] The introductions enumerated are to be found in the Blackwell Texts of J. S. Mill’s OnLiberty and Representative Government, of Locke’s Second Treatise, of The Federalist, of Bentham’s Fragment and Principles, and of Thomas Aquinas’ Selected Political Writings.

[7] D’Entrèves, introduction to Selected Political Writings, by Thomas Aquinas, xxi f., xxxii f.

[8] Carritt, Ethical and Political Thinking, 14.

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] See the excellent page on J. S. Mill’s political theology, and especially on the insufficiency of his Pelagianism in the face of contemporary events, in Mr. McCallum’s introduction to the Essay on Liberty in the Blackwell Texts, p. xix. Mr. Gough’s penetrating analysis of the Lockean symbols has been mentioned previously.

[11] See, for instance, the passage on the best form of government in Carritt, Ethical and Political Thinking, 149: “In our time and country, the most interesting form of the question is how to justify our conviction that democracy is the kind of constitution most likely to také this good form, and therefore to have the strongest claim to our loyalty, though a majority may be as unjust and is often less clever and efficient than other rulers.” What is remarkable about passages of this type is the author’s apparent ability to insulate himself completely against the totalitarian crisis of Western civilization, as well as against the work of the thinkers who saw the disaster coming (Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Nietzsche), to say nothing of the more recent literature on the subject.

[12] I am using the American edition, with a preface by W. Y. Elliott (New York and London, 1947).

[13] The only passage concerning the question of truth is to be found ibid., 45. In this passage Lindsay concedes that ideals deserve some consideration with regard to their “absolute worth,” but then insists that “the primary business of the political theorist” is the understanding of actually operative ideals. “Political theory, then, is concerned with fact.”

[14] I have included the passages on preventive warfare in the account because they indicate a strain in Collingwood that goes farther back than Hobbes. Preventive warfare against civilizationally inferior peoples was demanded and justified, for the first time in English political thought, by Thomas More in Utopia. In the setting of Utopia the origin of the argument in humanistic hubris is even clearer than in Collingwood’s work.

[15] I do not enter into the theoretical problems of Collingwood’s philosophy of history, because they have recently been submitted to a careful analysis in Leo Strauss’s article ‘On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History,” Review of Metaphysics 5, no. 4 (June 1952). I am in substantial agreement with Professor Strauss.

[16] Weldon, States and Morals, 39.

[17] Ibid., 43 f.

[18] Mure, The Organic State, 206.

[19] The occasion was Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies.


Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (narozen v Německu jako Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin 3. ledna 1901, Kolín nad Rýnem, zemřel 19. ledna 1985, Palo Alto, Kalifornie, USA) byl německo-americký konzervativní politický filosof. Sebrané spisy vyšly v 34 svazcích a jeho dílu se věnuje celá řada univerzitních středisek a ústavů po celém světě, včetně českého Voegelin Principles.