Appeared in Spring 1990, Vol. XVI, No. 1 Download  PDF here

Fr. Schall has been a frequent contributor to this journal. In this essay he examines the political philosophy of the Middle Ages in contrast to modern political theory.

1) What is Political Philosophy?
Medieval political philosophy must be understood in the light of philosophy itself and in the preliminary light of political philosophy. Philosophy depends in some sense on political philosophy, that is, the political realm must let what is not political its own autonomy and be pursued in its own right. Otherwise, what is not political will not be allowed presence within the realm of the polls. The essential questions of political philosophy itself, however, are these:

a) What is the best city and where is it located? That is, there are many existing cities, whose differences and likenesses require us to ask which of the existing regimes is better and why? The answer to the question of what is the best regime may or may not be the same as the question of where this best regime exists. The best regime according to the classics existed in speech. The best regime in revelation existed in fact but not in any actual regime.

b) What is happiness? Political “science” asks about the nature of human happiness in general and, separately, about human happiness in so far as man is a mortal during his time on earth. These are not the same questions. The happiness of man while mortal consists in the activation of potentialities that man receives from nature. Even though man must choose his happiness according to the right order of his given nature, he does not cause what it is to be happy to exist. He discovers this already existing for him as a given. The question of mortal happiness may and does lead to a further question of contemplative happiness.

c) What is the contribution of politics to happiness? Man does not make himself to be man. The sphere of politics is that of making him “good man” in Aristotle’s terms wherein “good” refers to the proper activities of all the potentialities given to man by nature and activated according to man’s highest faculties. What is at issue is the particular happiness of a particular man, not man in general. Thus, politics is the location of the moral virtues in so far as these virtues touch others. But the moral or practical virtues, however worthy in themselves, naturally lead to the contemplative virtues, which are the proper activities of man’s highest faculties (intellect and will). These speculative virtues transcend politics, but do not deny their naturalness nor their orderedness to the speculative virtues.

2) What is Classical Political Philosophy?
a) The search for the limits of politics (for “moderation”) is the effort to define what things are political and what things are not. Man is a social and political animal in all his activities. Man transcends the city, however, as Strauss said, only by what is best in him, that is, by his speculative powers. (1) In seeing what is required of the best city, we see the limits of politics. This conclusion hints that there is a real “city” which is not the existing cities.

b) Therefore, all actual cities are less than the best. The attempt to impose the best city on some existing city can easily become the destruction of any actual city, which is in fact composed of finite human beings who are less than perfect in inter-relations of various sorts with one another. The thought about the best (speculative virtue) is a necessary consequence of thought about the variety of actual cities. Men who do not see how the problem of the best arises from actual living in the polis will not inquire about the theoretical best regime. This lack of knowledge about the best regime in speech will leave them open to ideology, which is by definition a man-made substitute for the best regime, whatever its actual location.

c) Statecraft is reflective of the order of the soul within the individual citizens. The polis is not something totally apart from the virtuous or vicious life of the members of the polls. The polis is composed of precisely human beings acting towards themselves or others virtuously, continently, incontinently, or viciously. The various regimes are classifications of the differing ways that human beings can relate their souls to the highest things through their relationships with one another.


3) What is Post-Aristotelian Political Philosophy?
a) Already in the ancient world there was a rejection of certain basic notions of Plato and Aristotle, in the Stoics, Epicureans and Cynics. The city, for the post-Aristotelians, is not necessary for man’s perfection, as it was for the classics. The loss of the classic city-state into the Alexandrine or Roman empires left man with no intermediary between himself and the All. The wise man withdrew from actual cities toward the whole. The best individual was to be incapable of being influenced by any emotions or actions that go on in the world. In post- Aristotelian systems, man shows his superiority to nature and the polis by not allowing either to effect him. Perfection is a-political and independent of anything but the inner human will.

b) Moral virtues in post-Aristotelian thought surpass theoretic virtues so that the order of the city decides the order of the gods. In effect, art becomes superior to prudence, so that the city that man lives in must be subject to nothing but himself. The city, the world, and the individual are identified.

4) What is the Political Content of the Old and New Testaments?
a) In the Old Testament, Yahweh transcends the world and the orders of the world, including the polity.

Politics is limited by the divine will. Israel is subordinate to God and His commandments. Right civil order is right order with God. The law is revealed. To live is to live the precepts of Yahweh, precepts which include love of God and love of neighbor with the particular rules to manifest these loves. The best polis is the polis of Yahweh.

b) No political content as such is found in the New Testament, except to distinguish the things of Caesar and the things of God and to locate the origin of all authority. The things of Caesar and the things of God are both legitimate. Caesar is ultimately recipient of his authority, however, from God. This need not be understood as some kind of direct donation of authority but merely as another way of saying that man’s political nature requires established political authority, itself bound to what man is and what is his nature and destiny.

c) The authority of Caesar is not fully autonomous. Hence Christ said to Pilate, “You would have no authority at all over me if it were not given by Yahweh,” while Peter and John said that “we should obey God rather than men.” This position did not mean that the obedience of God did not require sometimes the obedience to men, but that the men in authority were subject to the order of Yahweh. They were thus limited.

5) What is the Relation of Revelation to Politics?
a) Thesis #1: Politics determines civil religion (Cicero and the Romans).
b) Thesis #2: Revelation determines the political order (theocracy).
c) Thesis #3: Both revelation and politics have their proper spheres, neither is totally complete by itself as an explanation of all things;
1] but some hold reason and revelation can be contradictory to each other (two truths), or
2] both are related to the same body of action and discourse. One does not contradict the other. Both sources aid men in the clarification of the other. Scholasticism is the ordered, intellectual working out of the apparent contradictions between these sources. That is, the classifications of what is political, what is philosophical, and what is revelational are established in the resolution of apparent contradictions between reason and revelation.

6) What was Augustinian Political Philosophy?
a) Politics, for St. Augustine, is the result of the Fall. That is, agreeing with Aristotle at the end of The Ethics, Augustine held that coercive government ought not to exist, but did so because of the actual condition of man. This condition was not ultimately rooted in nature or in the polis, but in the human will. Hence, evil will be operative no matter in what sort of actual city man lives. That is, good men can be found in the worst regimes and bad men in the best. St. Augustine continues one line of political thought from the classics, namely, that which sees it must account for the evil actions of men as a fact of the public order and one requiring some force to control them. The authorities in the state itself are not exempt from evil workings within themselves nor those of men.

b) The search for the highest things and the knowledge of the worst things — the City of God and the City of Man, in Augustine’s terms — was legitimate. But neither city, neither the one for nor the one against God, could be fully realized in this world. In this sense, St. Augustine was a direct inheritor of Plato. The central notion of political philosophy, then, the search for the best regime, was itself legitimate. This was a conclusion provided to political philosophy by revelation. Man was not in essence a futile or contradictory being who had been given unfulfillable desires or goals. St. Augustine insisted however that the fulfillment of these goals were not of man’s making, though he did act. Grace, or the Kingdom of God, was primarily a gift, not a product of political prudence or art or action. This meant, however, that all actual cities, even though not the same, were defective and would remain so in theory. On the other hand, the question arose, how could proper human activity be primarily as a result of a gift which need not have been given? In other words, was there some intelligible connection between intelligence found in man and intelligence found in revelation?

7) What was Feudalism?
a) Medieval social thought is said to be reflective of feudalism. Feudalism was the result of the breakdown of the central Roman authority, so that the center of life became localized throughout Europe. Initially, feudalism represented the loss of articulation about the differing orders of social being. The new people from the North and East, however, sought both to imitate the Roman civility and to take on some form of Christian belief. The feudal order, then, contains within its very operative structure, both tradition and revelation. This is what makes western feudalism different from any other kind of feudalism existing in the world.

b) The subsequent intermingling of civil, economic, political, and ecclesiastical questions and institutions (Pope had temporal jurisdiction, the Emperor and kings had spiritual influence) resulted in a vast confusion (investiture controversy) of issues. The limitedness of revelation caused the great efforts to understand, both in theology and in law, what it specifically demanded and how this limitation was to be understood. In making this effort, medieval political philosophy demanded that the other orders of natural being and activity be understood.

c) All of this confusion, however, took place within a people now Christianized and to some extent Romanized so that revelational questions and principles were part of any effort to sort out proper realms of politics, Church, economy, and family. The equality of man, the dignity of the person, the necessity of service to all, the irreversible nature of history became part of the normal way of resolving the conflicting orders and problems. Right order was gradually established through the formation of canon law, with its basis in Roman Law, and the subsequent freeing of the various feudal and civil legal traditions.

8) What is Thomistic Political Philosophy?
a) The confrontation of the Christian and feudal traditions with a rediscovery of Aristotle constituted the main content of the work of Aquinas. The concept of the political, henceforth, was seen not as a result of evil, but as itself good and necessary. This emphasis, however, did not deny the validity of certain points in St. Augustine.

b) St. Thomas took up of all the questions in Aristotle, those of friendship, justice, and virtue. He directly related them to the virtues and ends of human life as presented in the revelational tradition. Further, there is the sense of completion or order that exists between philosophy properly understood and revelation. This order indicated the possible, non-contradictory responses to unanswered philosophic questions, such as friendship with God, the union of mind and spirit, the reward of the good and the punishment of evil. These questions were also present in political philosophy in an inadequate form. This curious coincidence gives the medieval thinkers their rationale for thinking that these were two different, but not disparate sources.

9) What is Late Medieval Political Philosophy?
a) The nominalist theories, particularly in William of Occam and in Marsilius of Padua, are about the nature of the primacy of the will and the lack of order in nature, except on the basis of will. Thomism held that nature was not necessary; that is, it did not need to exist, but that if it did, it had to be this way, not that. There were things which were not God. There were actual capacities in finite things to act but only in the way they were made. If God was so free as to be able to create contradictories, then there could be no real order in the world. The arbitrary state was prefigured by the arbitrary God in theology.

b) Marsilius of Padua was the first of the modern political philosophers and the last of the medievals. That is, he was a commentator on Aristotle, who held that Aristotle did not account for one key disruptive force in a polis, namely, the priest. Marsilius solved the conflict by reducing the priest to purely spiritual affairs. The king exercised purely material force for the good of the community, but the spiritual was privatized. In this sense, the single order in which all was placed under the polis became prevalent. The dual order with both reason and revelation of the medieval period came to an end. No longer one society and two swords, but a single polity and a single head. The spiritual was reduced to the inner conscience.

10) What is Modern Political Philosophy?
Modern political philosophy can be looked upon in two ways. The first, begun by Machiavelli and Hobbes, sees man as autonomous and proceeds to construct the polis from premises which prescind from the order of being found in man as given by nature. The second, begun perhaps before Thomas, while retaining the idea that no perfect kingdom could exist in this world, realized actual human betterment was possible. If men were better because of grace, this result did touch the actual political order. The implications of a better worldly order consequent to understanding the nature and location of the highest things did set forth into the world an effort to improve it, without denying the consequence of the Fall.

I. a) Machiavelli, specifically denying the classical positions, held that we were not to look to what men ought to do, but what they did do. He differed from the classics and medievals who likewise knew what men did do in that he did not retain any primacy of ought by which we could distinguish good and evil within politics. What was good was simply what was successful, what was evil, what failed to retain power. This modern theory lowered the sights from the good and from the transcendent to the actual. The soul of man was not open to the transcendent city. Modern theory began that “prohibition of questioning” which marks its break with classical metaphysics and revelation about a meaning of man other than that of life in the city.

b) Hobbes held that the summum bonum in the classical sense was not a factor in man. For Hobbes, man’s deepest motivating force was fear of violent death. Since this was the case, all philosophical or religious issues could be settled by a polity willing to use this fear for its own ends of peace and order. The order of the Leviathan was an order rooted not in reason but in will or force. It was constructed solely out of the mind of man, not conformed to any transcendent making either of man or what was beyond him.

II. a) The second view is that the best benefits of the modern world are not the work of autonomous man, but the work of the completion of nature. This work could only be accomplished if the final questions of man’s meaning were decided so that politics was not used to explain all things. Once metaphysics and theology were adequate for the first questions, then politics (and economics) could be left to work themselves out for the betterment of the life of man qua mortal, that is, while he is still on earth. This freeing of politics is the real contribution of Christianity’s proper location of the City of God outside of any existing regime but not in denying the importance of the question.

b) Since faith and reason are addressed to each other, in philosophical discourse, it is possible to see reflected in the world some semblance of the higher order, this as a result of man’s ability to imitate God not merely after the manner of a contemplative but after the manner of a doer. This is the source of the dynamism of modern man in so far as he can improve his city and still remain human in the sense of this humanness given in nature.

Modernity, in conclusion, is a struggle between “the modern project” which proposes that man to be man must destroy all that is given to him in nature about what he is and ought to be and the man of responsible openness to being. This latter seeks the highest things beyond politics. The reflection of these highest things can appear in his own city in terms of what sort of being it is who is called to the highest things, now presented to the philosopher by revelation.

Both Christ and Socrates were killed in the best cities of their era. Both of these cities were not the best city in speech, though both witnessed to an order of the world and its relation to what is. Modernity in its autonomous sense sought to solve the question of God by solving the question of politics. Medieval political philosophy at its best, sought to solve the question of God, and thereby found that that solution solved the question of politics. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added to you.” Medieval political philosophy is nothing less than the articulation of this proposition among the heathen.


1Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 49.