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The Convenient State

Saint Augustin by Philippe de Champaigne

The liberal and the conservative who would sort out their differences, for some constructive purpose, encounter from the outset an unusual problem: the very things that seem to unite them are a cause of confusion and deeper cleavage. Even when we of the West fall out, we select our weapons from the same armory, and as (in the stock jibe) the same medieval God heard the prayers of opposed armies, so Plato and Aristotle seem to hover over the ranks of every possible faction in the civilization they helped to create. Even when men undermine our citadel, they do it with our engines, and in greatest part unconsciously. This brings the bitterness of fratricide into the dispute over our inheritance. The conservative claims guardianship over the storehouse of Western wisdom. The liberal contends that the genius of the West lies in its capacity for innovation, in a daring reliance on reason and a resiliency towards change.

Because these two forces share a vocabulary and, to some extent, a vision, the discovery that they are saying different things in the same words leads, on either side, to suspicion of betrayal, and the variations in meaning that the common vocabulary suffers seem to open an unbridgeable chasm. In no case is this so clear as in the allegiance of both sides to the principles of freedom and order, for neither party denies the necessity of some polarity and balance between the two. The liberal is traditionally considered the spokesman of freedom, the conservative of order. But even aside from the shifting maneuvers these terms have lately performed, no one ever claimed that such a simplistic division was absolute. The most partisan liberal cannot, if he claims to speak responsibly, deny that conservatives are concerned with guaranteeing freedom. And the archest reactionary this side of insanity cannot claim that the liberal is not trying to construct a social order. In fact, as time wears on, the stress on principles ancillary to their professed ones makes liberals and conservatives seem to change places, so that liberals now champion a strong central government and conservatives speak for economic and political individualism. Is the difference between these two, then, merely accidental at any moment because it is, in the long run, only a matter of degree, the conservative laying heavy emphasis on the prescriptive, the liberal on the spontaneous, elements in political life? Given the same set of ingredients, do the cooks simply vary their recipes? No; the shared language disguises, and so perpetuates, fundamental differences.

Freedom and order, justice and settled interests, progress and tradition: the words are used of different things in the different camps, and when these concepts cluster to form more complex groupings of ideas–republic, democracy, self-determination, aristocracy–the differences undergo a staggering multiplication. It is true that freedom and order will be correlates in any of the systems advanced. But this, again, impedes communication, since the varieties of meaning in the one word will exact an answering variation in the other. It is useless, therefore, to debate whether the emphasis should be on freedom or order, or to adjudicate between major political systems by discussing the degree of freedom desired, or the extent of order, as if these were constant substances varying only in quantity. The question should be what kind of order, what kind of freedom, is at issue. Our history is littered with defeated varieties of virtue. To take an obvious case, there is the theocratic definition of freedom and order–principles which become, under this rubric, Providence and Virtue. In such a scheme, freedom is freedom to be virtuous, and order is the right to exact virtue from man as his proper attribute. At another extreme of our experience is anarchism, which (read the paradox how you will) is a system for avoiding system. It, too, has a principle of order–the removal and continued negation of political coercion–corresponding to its untrammeled freedom.

These systems are both unworkable, since virtue that is enforced is not virtue and anarchy that is guaranteed against control is to that extent controlled. But their ignis fatuus has drawn men down tragic paths, and they will continue to beckon. The important thing is to see that there is no use distinguishing such schemes by degree, as having a different internal disposition of freedom and order. The anarchist does not err in exalting freedom over order, but in exalting the wrong kind of freedom and the wrong kind of order. It is his whole philosophical framework that is incorrectly established. He is right about the machinery of these correlates; he is only wrong about the world. To put it another way, the relation of freedom to order is a dynamic one that can manifest itself in any number of consistent programs; and a political system is therefore to be judged by its substance, not by its dynamics.

Thus Mill cripples his discourse from the start when he calls the treatise on liberty an attempt to adjudicate the ancient “struggle between Liberty and Authority”–as if these were two things of perduring and permanent meaning, but with shifting relations towards each other of supremacy or subjection. The real difference, for instance, between the historically normative polities of ancient Greece and the “barbarians” was not simply one of liberty as opposed to tyranny. The ancient empires had a mystical sanction. Their art and customs show no awareness of the individualism that emerged in Hellas‘s statues of man. Liberty, in such a society, has another meaning than it was to take on in the debates of the Hellenes. And in the primitive societies so thoroughly scrutinized by modern anthropologists, the instruments for educating and preserving the individual, under severe disadvantages, are the very disciplines for initiation into the political order on which all life depends. In such a world, the relation of freedom to order continues to exist, but as a drastically reduced version of the religious maxim, cui servire regnare. A similar paradox is worked out in the Marxist dialectic, and summarized, satirically, in Orwell’s “Freedom is slavery.” Far from being a game of the mind, this slogan expresses the only possible approach to freedom in the Marxist world; the Communist paradox has the same consistency as the Christian language used to describe a freedom heightened to indefectible obedience in the beatific vision. The only error is trying to acclimatize heaven to the intemperate regions of practical politics. Again, men are right about the relation of freedom to order, and only wrong about the world.

Since freedom and order are correlates, an absolutism at one pole leads to an absolutism at the other. The Marxist starts from order and asserts that “freedom is slavery.” The absolutists of individualism start at the other pole but end in the same contradiction. Even the most extreme libertarian must justify his position by an appeal to order. Mill, for instance, advocates a free market of ideas as the most infallible guide to certitude–enough talk automatically producing truth, triumphant over all pretenders and “self-evident.” Thus freedom becomes authority and arms itself with all the instruments the liberal state has taken to itself in order to advance man’s “self-evident” rights.

But if freedom always implies order in any consistent system, why has Western civilization made freedom a separate aim and motto, so that the boast of Greece was to have invented freedom, and a war of national liberation like America’s could float the banner “liberty or death?” The reason is that the Western tradition–as opposed to all others, even the most sophisticated Oriental disciplines–has exalted the individual person. This civilization, centered in the primacy of the private soul, brought a whole new ordering of society into human history. The difference is immediately apparent when Greek thought and art enter the world. Impersonal pattern, hieratic system, absorption in the eternity of the Ideal give way to the naked splendor and particularity of man; even the gods assumed those anthropomorphic forms still vital in Western imaginations. The Greek “idea” was first detached and delineated in the cult statues given various gods’ names, but in reality sharing one title: Man. No longer did man achieve his manhood by religio-political initiation into secrets of order. The individual reason became the test of reality with the Greeks, and this reason asserted itself by defying the order of magic and mystery. The state religion was secularized; it sloughed off its thetic elements, boasting of this liberation under the symbol of battle with centaurs and other half-human powers. The individual reason, thus exalted, ventured on the distinctive Western achievements–systematic logic and science, a philosophy freed of superstition.

The discovery of the individual’s unique resources, the testing of the world against the private reason, forced the state into a new role. Formerly, man’s hard-won achievements had been stored up in the authority of the community, kept under sacred leadership and symbols. But the Greek mind freed itself of this total dependence on tradition, and man’s sights were set on the uncharted areas where no collective approach to mystery could lead him. The state took on a humbler function, keeping order among the individuals whose free quest gave Greek cities their divided, spontaneous, almost anarchic individuality.

Thus freedom became an assertion of the individual’s right to pursue his own vision, and liberty became a prior demand for all human speculation or education. This demand did not lessen as the Hellenic world spread and was transmuted by Christianity. In fact, the Christian emphasis on the individual soul’s worth, and its otherworldly goal, deepened the cleavage between man and the religious state. The Christian recognizes a divided loyalty, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God the inestimably vaster reaches of the soul that belong to God.

But if the state’s order is no longer, in the Greek world, coextensive with man’s attempt to order his private world, what role is government to play? Where does the supremacy of the private person find its frontier, or verge on other claims? How do the sacred areas of each man’s individuality meet and adjust to each other? It is this question that has put the problem of freedom at the center of Western political dispute. And, in a kind of slovenly philosophical shorthand, this problem has been cast as a search for the amount of freedom man is to enjoy. But the problem is that the Greek world introduced an entirely new conception of human life, one still novel today, a conception that runs into contradiction if pushed by a ruthless logic. The autonomy of the individual, the fight against tradition, seem to make government at worst a causeless evil, at best a necessary evil. But experience has taught that a “freedom” which travels down the road of anarchy is never seen again. Thus the problem of the Western world has been to find a new kind of order to act as a foundation for its fugitive new kind of freedom. Many attempts at the solution of this problem have been short-lived because they did not come to grips  with the particular kind of freedom–with its almost impossible demands–that the West has chosen to pursue. The attempts which remain in the central line of Western experiment cluster into two main groups. These continuing schools of thought, or lines of approach, correspond in some degree with the popular division of political thinkers into liberal and conservative. In some degree, but not exactly, and the popular terms are no longer precise. It will be better, then, to give unequivocal if unfamiliar names to the two, calling them the Order of Justice and the Order of Convenience.

I. The Order of Justice

If the state is not meant to initiate man into his place in the world, what is its function? The earliest and most arresting answer is Plato’s: the end of the state is justice. The liberated intellect of man discerns, behind all disciplines of mystery, an order whose sole force is its claim upon the reason. This is the order of each thing’s due, of justice as an Idea. But some intellects are not capable of grasping this ideal form, and so it is the task of human society to find and put in office the intellects fitted for communion with the Idea of justice. The rest of men will have to take what these rulers dispense, as they mediate the light of justice to men bewildered by shadows.

Plato wrote when the Greek adventure into individuality seemed to be reaching a suicidal point of fission. He wrote to meet the practical demand for order and to forestall the resurgence of sheer mystery–in this case, the mystery of force–as a claim on man’s obedience. He makes the claims of the state meet the challenge of reason, but the Platonic state answers this challenge so successfully that it again becomes the entire area of man’s endeavor. The state brings justice into the flux of history. Theocracy has returned, and absolutism; but reason is the new deity and absolute. The assertion of the individual intellect leads to an equal assertion of the state’s power as the seat of truth. Men throw off mystery, only to be ruled by Idea.

Aristotle, though he introduced empirical elements of observation and psychological realism into political theory, nonetheless based the state on metaphysical principles as two-edged as Plato’s. The Greeks had advanced the boast of the individual’s self-sufficiency against the hieratic absolutism of less rational civilizations. Aristotle considered the reason’s own claim to autonomy with rigor and found that man, isolated, cannot meet the test of self-sufficiency, or autarkeia, either economically or psychologically. The smallest unit that can make a pretense at autarkeia is the state that is armed against foreign aggression and able to supply internal economic needs. Then, translating human dependence into logical dependence, Aristotle argues: “By the very order of things, the state is prior in right to the family, and to each of us singly, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.” Man, without the polis to complete him, is not even a man: perhaps an animal, perhaps a god. Like “an isolated piece at draughts,” such a man has no function aside from the action of the total set of markers. The entire business of being man, which is to be just, is only fulfilled in the state, the guardian of justice: “The virtue of justice has, as its sphere, the polis. For the virtue of justice (dikaiosune) establishes what is just (todikaion), and this order of justice (dike) gives men’s relations their political pattern (politikeskoinoniastaxis).” Therefore the state alone is equipped to achieve the highest good.

In his own way, Aristotle repeats the Platonic recoil of a complete individuality into a new state absolutism. Both systems tried to achieve freedom of the will through the free exercise of reason. But the reason is not free. It is an instrument for reaching an outside and objective reality, which is single under single aspects. Man can refuse to think, or think confusedly, but once the evidences of reality are received within the intellect, it is not free to think anything it pleases. Thus any attempt to base political freedom on the claims of man’s intellect makes the state the center of truth–in Plato, truth as moral enlightenment; in Aristotle, truth as a set of logical imperatives–and nothing is more absolute than the claim of truth upon man.

The empirical observations of Aristotle gave origin to a certain political realism, but the authoritarian principle hidden in his definition of the state haunts us. The Christian Aristotelian could no longer take autarkeia as the test of man’s achievement. For the Christian, man’s nobility comes from the fact that he is out of place in the world, meant for another city, with a higher and lasting citizenship. There is a further problem. Aristotle wrote that the state is prior to man “by nature,” or in the order of things. The Christian doctrines of Creation, the Fall, and Heaven give a range of meanings to the new word “nature” that Aristotle could never have imagined. In the new scheme, “nature” can mean the proper ordination of things as intended in the pristine state of man. Or nature is fallen nature–the human condition weighted by tendencies towards sin; the rest of creation scarred, and subject to catastrophe, as a result of man’s rebellion. Or nature can mean the evidences of original order still asserting themselves in, and adapting themselves to, the present state of man. Nature can mean the good product of God’s hand or the twisted remains of man’s work. It can be contrasted with “unnatural” acts, as the model of ordination, or it can be contrasted with grace, as the frustrated thing unable to rise to its goal without redemption from a supernatural source.

For the Christian, the state can no longer fill up man’s failings or aim at self-sufficiency and ideal justice. The earthly order must be identified as temporal, an area of trial and transition. As Augustine posed the problem, citizens of the two eternal Cities, the heavenly and the diabolic, must live together and mix in earthly polities, the wheat and chaff growing together before the final sifting. The earthly political community must concentrate on a limited agreement to ensure tranquility, a state of truce in which citizens of both eternal Cities work out the mystery of their salvation or damnation.

But Aquinas, after putting Aristotle’s politics in a context which transmutes it entirely, in a metaphysical realism and a theological history, let the Aristotelian terms and transitions stand as a model analysis in the order of intellect. To be useful as a practical science, this analysis must be applied, in concrete instances and by the use of prudence, to a real world radically altered in the light of revelation. The trouble is that the followers of Aquinas could not or would not follow the alterations that must be made when an Aristotelian politics is put in the existential framework of Christian theology. By the same process that dehydrated the entire Thomist metaphysics, the logical terms of Aristotle were once more applied to reality without the mediation of metaphysical realism and the moral act of prudence. Autarkeia clashed too obviously with the Christian mentality, but “the common good” took over the content of that key term as an ideal order perfecting the “individual good.” And justice is treated as the aim of the state, almost as simply as in Aristotle’s time, by many modern Thomists.

As the Thomist politics was denatured, “natural law” became the sanction of “divine right” theories of government. Here, the Christian religion replaced reason in the Hellenic scheme, making the ruler the source of justice for other men. Then the “laws of nature” were totally emptied of realistic content to become the ideal “Nature” of the eighteenth century. The rebellion against a monarch’s “natural” legitimacy turned political union into a free contract, arising form the insufficiencies of the “natural” condition. But Rousseau treads the same perilous circle that Plato first traced–out from the state as mystery and back to supreme political authority in the form of reason. In the eighteenth-century myth of a “state of nature,” reason, in a vacuum, constructs a “case” for government, draws up a contract, insists on its terms as if they were points in logic, then consents to this invention of the mind.

Those things which have been criticized as inconsistencies in Rousseau–his union of extreme individualism with collective tyranny–are actually the result of his penetrating logic. He saw that Locke’s doctrine of natural rights surrendered by agreement leads to a state that is either absolutely just, or–when the state fails in some particular, and tries to prevent dissolution of the agreement by force–absolutely unjust. Society and the state are coextensive terms. Prior to the social contract, each man is a world apart, and the absolute autonomy of this condition can only be surrendered to a custodian that discerns and demands absolute right. That is why the eighteenth-century reformers had to believe that Nature’s intent was clear, everywhere “self-evident,” in order to embark on their experiments. It is fascinating to watch this antinomy at work, individualism reaching an extreme where it is automatically transmuted into governmental absolutism:

no more perfect union is possible, and no associate has any subsequent demand to make. For if the individual retained any rights whatever, this is what would happen: there being no common superior able to say the last word on any issue between him and the public, he would be his own judge on this or that point, and so would try before long to be his own judge on all points. … Each gives himself to everybody so that he gives himself to nobody.

Because man’s reason is not of itself free, the state based on “pure reason” only recognizes the freedom to be right; the state must, in Rousseau’s famous phrase, “force men to be free”:

In and of itself, a people always wills, but does not always see, what is good; while the general will is always well-intentioned, the judgment that directs it is not always an instructed judgment. It must be brought to see things as they are. It must be brought, sometimes, to see things as they ought to appear. It must be shown the right road, which it is seeking.

Since, in the purely rational world of Socrates and Rousseau, men only do wrong through some mistake in judgment or information, putting them on the right way is not forcing the will but “freeing the mind of error.” Once again, the fallacy of extreme individualism, or simple democracy–society’s attempt to make its circumference, or whole area, its own center–results in a reverse reading of the riddle: the center, source of truth, becomes the circumference, enclosing all human activities in a rigid rule.

The enduring attractiveness of the Order of Justice arises from its total reliance on reason. Rationalism flatters the individual; it is particularly seductive in the Western tradition, where the unfettered reason has accomplished so much, and it always produced spokesmen of the highest logical dexterity. Men of this school can invoke the great political theoreticians–Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau–though they find little support in the great political institutions of the past, in the achievements of the real order, usually wrought by slow accumulation of constitutional safeguards, or by a system of compromise and enlightened expedience.

Perhaps an even deeper source of inspiration for this view of the state is the fact that it taps moral, religious, and humanitarian enthusiasms. When a man argues that the state should not be an oracle of justice, a teacher of morals, or a dispenser of human comfort, the defenders of the Order of Justice frequently represent such a man’s stand as an attack on justice itself, or a lack of moral principle, or an insensitivity to the demands of the human heart. Of course, it is precisely the state’s usurpation of a religious and moral role that leads to its betrayal of freedom. Proponents of such a state always demand a hard orthodoxy of its subjects. Plato makes a grasp of ideal justice the qualification for political office. The “divine right” theories of government rest on a common confession of faith. The Enlightenment theories are based on the certitude that the “laws of Nature” are easily discernible and universally recognized. The beginnings of a Paine-Jefferson orthodoxy in America, based on these “self-evident” laws, were aborted by the religious fundamentalism of Americans and the system of compromise that effected the federalist union. But modern liberals have reintroduced an orthodoxy of self-evident rights by their positivist insistence on the universal validity and viability of certain concepts, like “democracy,” “equality,” and “self-determination.”

It will be seen that the Order of Justice I have described corresponds, accidental usages aside, to what is generally termed the liberal strand in Western political discourse. The title arises from the initial stress, in all these systems, on reason and the free individual. But the turning of a rationalist freedom into a tyranny of intellect is not, as has so often been supposed, a mere accident or relapse of human weakness under the demands of a great ideal. The seeds of tyranny were in the ideal form of beginning. Robespierre and the Terror are the logical consequence of Rousseau and the Social Contract. When men realize this, they will cease wondering at the “inconsistencies” in Plato’s or Rousseau’s authoritarian state or at the conversion of “divine right” into sheer might under a simplistic reading of the natural law. The Order of Justice is like statue of Justice; its attributes are a blindfold and the sword.

II. The Order of Convenience

The title I have given this second form of order will strike some as frivolous, and “convenience” is, I admit, susceptible to misunderstanding. But other words that suggest themselves are even more misleading–rule by the expedient or the opportune (which now connote a lack of moral probity), government by concurrence (which gets mixed up, now, with dogmas of democratic procedure, though I would use the word in Calhoun’s sense), or the principle of community (a word now desiccated by abstract definitions of the “common good”). So there is nothing for it but to choose a comparatively neutral word, at first glance trivial, and give it a specific function for this discussion.

The problem of finding a single word is not accidental or a quibble on method. The lack of an accepted term indicates a chronic failure in political discourse, the chasm between theory and practice; for the order I am considering is not nameless because unimportant or absent from our history. In fact, each highest form of political community succeeded because this order informed and stiffened it invisibly. The Greek democracy was not doctrinaire. There is no theorist of Athenian democracy, no proponent of a doctrine. All the major political theorists of Hellas formed their ideal systems as alternatives to the real order, admittedly fallible, that was stimulating their investigations. Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle–“oligarchs” all. It is true that there are some democratic speeches put in the mouths of Herodotean and Euripidean characters. But the speculative recommendations of democracy are very few; perhaps the most famous is the speech Thucydides invented for Pericles, a boast ironically voiced under the shadow of defeat. The Roman Empire actually professed a spurious theory, maintaining the facade of a republic. Medieval theory tried to redeem feudal and merchant practice but acted merely as a component force working for balance. England is notoriously the producer and product of a kind of unconscious constitution. And America, after the furor ideologicus had passed that lifted the colonies on the wings of war, based its Constitution on an unashamed profession of compromise. The political ideal of The Federalist elevates compromise to a principle of harmony. It is one of the major attempts to articulate an Order of Convenience.

Do these preliminary remarks mean that politics must simply be opposed to theory, in the foolish modern word, “anti-intellectual”? No. But the Order of Convenience must be built on a basic truth that is even more scandalous to modern ears: the particular aim of the state is not to achieve justice, and certainly not to dispense it. In the words of Newman, “satisfaction, peace, liberty, conservative interests [are] the supreme end of the law, not mere raw justice as such.” This, of course, does not mean that the state is to be unjust or free of the imperatives of the moral law. The state, like the family, like the corporation, like the labor union, is bound by the laws of morality that are incumbent on all human endeavor, corporate as well as individual. In carrying out its function, the state must act with justice. But its specific aim is not to enforce justice as such. The family, too, must observe right order–the child obeying, the parent avoiding undue laxity or severity; husband and wife helping each other, yet observing measure in their demands upon each other. This due measure, this order of right, is achieved by the observance of justice, yet the formal aim of the family is not sheer justice as such. Its aim is to give birth and education to new members of our race, to recruit partners in the human adventure. Only when this purpose is clearly understood can the order of claims and the areas of just activity be discerned in the life of the family.

In the same way, the state must observe justice in its activities, but its aim is more limited, more concretely specified. And unless that aim is made clear, there is no way of knowing what justice is for the state: politics becomes an instrument for seeking every kind of good thing, for bringing ideal justice itself down to earth. We have seen the theocratic consequences of such an undertaking. These consequences make the rule of what Newman called “raw justice” the source of every tyranny that is not sheer outlawry and the permanent temptation of every state. The nineteenth-century liberals found something evil in power itself, as if tyranny customarily advanced by some brutal and naked appeal of its own nature. But every truly powerful system of oppression was shaped by an ideal that can recruit talent, can use other energies than the thirst of a few for the acme of human rule. When ideal justice is set before the community as its political end, the only efficient path towards that ever receding goal is the marshaling of force in the state. All tyrannies give legitimacy to oppression by making it a transitional period through which men must pass on their way to Utopia, a kind of induced labor that is to bring forth the new order. So it was with the despots who had to “establish divine right,” so with the Terror, so with the Utilitarian acceptance of the “growing pains” of industrialism, so with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

I do not mean to minimize, no conservative can, the effects of original sin in the life of society, but the most heartbreaking, and politically far-reaching, of these effects is not the drive of sheer evil, but the misguided and desperate grasping after good–the enthusiasms, heresies, crusades that can mobilize human generosity. The optimistic liberal does not recognize that society is ultimately hurt less by individuals who catch at instant advantage than by the messiahs who undertake great missions with long-range planning, ingenuity, patient endurance, and conviction of ultimate triumph. We are witnessing the scale of this menace in the fiery spread and intensity of the Communist vision.

The talk of “power” as a constant factor everywhere to be minimized is as self-defeating as the quantitative approach to freedom (something everywhere to be increased). The two views are, in fact, reverse sides of a single coin. Power arms itself for the long pull, invades the mind, and gives structure to human effort, not when it is a spasm leading to dissolution, but when it is summoned up by a false god, with rights over the whole man and all men. Nero is personally more despicable, but politically less destructive, than Robespierre to Lenin.

But if the state is not to be founded on an ideal order of justice, what is its basis? Obviously, the real order–the order of man’s needs. The individual only finds his natural fulfillment in society. As Aristotle pointed out, even language is a convention, a “coming together.” Language is itself society. And all man’s other achievements involve a similar social opportunity for the individual’s self-expression. But if there is a society, there must be a state. As a necessary physical regimen keeps the individual alive, so there must be a regime, an order, a discipline in society. That regime is the state.

The fallacy of the rationalists is that they begin the construction of their political models with the isolated reason of the individual. They make the pure autonomy of the individual clash and, finally, merge with the autonomy of a just order. But man does not start with a formed and pure freedom. Man “free” of society is man free of air; free, that is, to suffocate. The rationalist pits the individual against an abstract order of justice in the state, instead of tracing the spontaneous growth and grouping of social forms that give the individual a field for expression and activity. The state appears, apocalyptically, in such theories, bringing justice “new-born” into prior chaos. But in the real order, the state arises from a hierarchy of social organizations, of groups formed to fill particular needs. The state stabilizes this spontaneous social expression. It answers a natural demand for unity. It cannot initiate such unity or carve countries out of the map by legislative fiat.

Although it is a commonplace that man is a “social animal,” the rationalist theories contradict this commonplace. For if the state arises out of man’s social instinct, then the state destroys its own roots when it denies free scope to the other forms of social life. The state, when it is made the source of justice, must be equally and instantly available to all citizens, and in achieving this, in sweeping away the confusion of claims raised by families, economic orders, educational conventions, codes of conduct, natural gradations of privilege, the liberal leaves society atomized, each man isolated, with all the weight of political power coming unintercepted upon him. The higher forms of organization do not grow out of and strengthen the lower, but counter and erase them. This is what has happened under the Order of Justice from the time when Plato pitted the state against the family to the modern breakdown of divided jurisdiction in the centralized state. As usual, Rousseau follows the logic of this position to its fated end:

Where, however, blocs are formed, lesser associations at the expense of the broader one, the will of each of these associations comes to be general with respect to its members and particular with respect to the state. … If, then, we are to have a clear declaration of the general will , we must see to it that there are no partial societies within the state, so that each citizen forms his own opinions.

By this route, the liberal state arrives, everywhere, at contradiction: though the state is instituted to assure the development of personality, societies that embrace the rationalist ideal are marked by a cult of impersonality. Plato attempted to erase the distinction between the sexes. The French and Russian revolutions came up with titles meant to attack titles: “Citizen” in one case, “Tovarich” in the other. Since political justice conditions all of a man’s life in such societies, men rejoice in the reduction of persons to a minimal legal status and equality. In such communities, loyalty to the state is expressed as duty towards abstract justice, not as patriotism.

For the realist, on the other hand, the state, by disciplining a particular society, expresses the character of that society, protects its spontaneity and symbolic self-confrontation at all levels of life, draws on the society’s specific resources, and commands a loyalty that is personalized as patriotism. How does the state accomplish this? How complement the multiple, spontaneous, or consanguineous forms of social coherence? As all things complement: by supplying what is lacking. Other social groups than the political have a positive bond of mutual affection or defined and positive interest. This is their strength, but it circumscribes their appeal. Only those qualify to take part who share the interests of a family or a class, of a school of thought or a creed. But conflicts of interest arise in the common area of life in which the activities take place. The task of adjudicating these conflicts by a shared code, and of including all the strata of society in a single frame of minimal order, must be entrusted to an agent of order with force at its disposal. This agency circumscribes a larger community than the partial groupings; it is not voluntary from moment to moment; it can enforce its judgments in the name of the very social forces that become obstreperous. The state is necessary because the other, overlapping social forms extend across a field of human activity that no one of them can circumscribe. Thus the end of the state is the orderly advancement and discipline of society as the necessary ground of human activity. And the necessary, basic condition for the formation of a state is a shared good that must be protected if all social and individual effort is to thrive. That is why Newman calls a common possession the basis of the state.

The state, as extending throughout all other levels of social solidarity, must have a certain neutrality towards them all, and as the order-enforcing agent, it must take upon itself a certain negative, punitive function. This neutral and negative aspect of the state will be perverted and become a positive push–as life-giving, rather than life-preserving–if the other forms of spontaneous activity wither, or if the state officials try to use their power to call up a positive vision of their own, or if politics is considered the all-inclusive area of man’s achievement of excellence. To continue the comparison of individual regimen to social regime, such a society is like the health crank, who expends all his energy on the achievement of an ideal physical equilibrium, not using the body’s forces for the essentially human tasks.

To prevent this usurpation on the part of the state, every society that is long-lived or successful finds ways of limiting the action of political force. The disciplinary agent of society is itself disciplined by society; the rulers are ruled. This system of checks is worked out by each community, but it is based on the general truth that the state’s role is to enforce equity and order, rather than justice and charity. The free agencies of society must preserve their function by circumscribing the state’s role in the totality of social activity. This fact has been instinctively recognized by all those theorists who, after talking about ideal forms of government, recommend a mixture of forms, striking a balance between all possible ruling forces in the state. This roundabout descent from the ideal to the real is clumsy. The true form of society is not to be found in a mixture of pure components, but in the particular aim and energy of each real community.

Each society must form a unique constitution, an “agreed station” of components, growing out of the resources it can command. The ideal state–of a justice or a freedom defined outside any particular human context–is as meaningless as some uniform ideal of individual fulfillment. Is monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy the best form of government? Such a question simply breeds further questions: Best for what society? And what kind of monarchy or democracy? These questions are as hopeless as similar ones would be in the case of an ideal life for individuals. Is it better that man be an artist or philosopher, monk or martyr, doctor or teacher, worker or statesman? And if he is a doctor, should he engage in research, psychology, or compassionate work among the poor? If an artist, should he write or paint in an austere or demonstrative style? To attempt an abstract answer to these questions is to deny the mystery of individuality, the secret springs of motive, that make up the human fact of freedom. As ever, rationalism leads to sterile paradox, to an ideal freedom that is a denial of freedom. Calhoun rightly says:

the great and broad distinction between governments is,–not that of the one, the few, or the many,–but of the constitutional and the absolute.

And what is meant by a constitutional government? According to Calhoun, it is that government in which all the free forms and forces of society–or as many as possible–retain their life and “concur” in a political area of peaceful co-operation and compromise. According to Newman, it is that society in which the character of those “concurring” is best allowed for and given scope for development:

As individuals have characters of their own, so do races … Moreover, growing out of these varieties or idiosyncrasies, and corresponding to them, will be found in these several races, and proper to each, a certain assemblage of beliefs, convictions, rules, usages, traditions, proverbs, and principles … tending to some definite form of government. … It is something more than law; it is the embodiment of special ideas, ideas perhaps which have been held by a race for ages, which are of immemorial usage, which have fixed themselves in its innermost heart, which are in its eyes sacred…They are the creative and conservative influences of society; they erect nations into States, and invest States with Constitutions.

Absolutism, or despotism, is a sheer thrust of force across the grain of these free and preservative influences, a defiance of the spontaneous life that checks government even as it impels it forward. A constitutional regime gives both life and limit to government; it maintains a system that rules even society’s rulers. The force exercised by despots may be, and often is, the assertion of an ideal, but of an ideal unrooted, unembodied in the flesh and substance of society. It is, literally, a ghostly thing seeking to haunt or possess the body politic by unnatural forces. For this reason, the answer to Lincoln’s question must be that no nation can long endure if it is only “dedicated to a proposition.” It must be dedicated to a people, to its particular human possibilities, since [as Newman says] “that must be pronounced no State, but a mere fortuitous collection of individuals, which has no unity stronger than despotism, or deeper than law.”

One cannot simply ask whether a thing is just (as abolition of slavery is just, whether in fifth-century Athens, first-century Rome, or nineteenth-century Richmond); whether it is desirable (as better education of the young is desirable); whether it is moral (as sexual continence is moral). In politics one must ask at the same time, always, whether it is constitutional. Should the state act, and if so to what extent, with what precautions, and following what precedents; in conjunction with what tempering and expanding activity on the part of spontaneous organizations? If these questions are not asked, if the state enters the private area of morals, then censorship and orthodoxy give the political guardian a divine character. There is no limitation of the state but by the single test of constitutionality.

The constitution is not always, and is never merely, a written document. It is the “shared situation” of society, that continuous arrangement whereby men preserve their common stake in a political regime. It is composed of all the influences that make a state continue to express the character of its people, that recruit and give room for the development of talent, that develop the resources of personality through society. Newman even wrote that “bribery” (i.e., the buying of titles and offices), after it had been systematized as a recognized and efficient part of the British government’s balanced operation, was part of the English constitution and therefore to be used as a tool of the community, provided no specific act of immorality is committed, like the breaking of an oath. In the same way, a society that is basically tribal organization must have a state that is based on the tribes. Otherwise, the society has no way of meshing with its political order, of making its character felt, of maintaining identity while it grows towards a different mode of articulating itself, politically. Such a society proves

the inexpediency of suffering the tradition of Law to flow separate from that of popular feeling… there ought to be a continual influx of the national mind into the judicial conscience; and, unless there was this careful adjustment between law and politics, the standards of right and wrong set up at Westminster would diverge from those received by the community at large, and the Nation might some day find itself condemned and baffled by its own supreme oracle….

As an instance, the “democratic” regimes being established in Africa, over inchoate areas arbitrarily defined  as nations, perfectly exemplify Calhoun’s maxim that the only realistic division of governments is into constitutional and absolute. These “democracies,” imported from a Hellenic-Christian tradition of many centuries’ growth, and imposed on stray parts of the tribal labyrinth of Africa, are not based on any real consensus. So-called popular support and “nationalism” do not express the genius of Africa itself, of any real nation. The native groups who “express their will” so simply with the marking of a ballot have merely expressed a hope that Western material comforts will magically be made theirs by this method. The result is an absolutism–an enlightened one, it may be claimed, but surely an absolutism. The term “democracy” means little or nothing in such a context, whereas other forms of government, today condemned out of hand as “dictatorships,” may have a very effective constitutional system.

Does this mean that society must settle, always, for what it has, never push out towards higher achievement; must it forswear leadership in order to avoid loss of “constitution,” treat all hope of better things as a temptation to visionary absolutism?

On the contrary, a constitution fosters not only liberty but leadership. In an integral community, the leaders really lead; they are followed. There is no chasm between the masses and the intelligentsia. One of the principal ironies of modern democracy is that egalitarian doctrine has driven a greater wedge between thinkers and the populace than most systems of privilege ever did, so that it seems almost necessary that “clerks” be traitors. The interplay of various groups within accepted tradition makes talent serve the community, not seek a false elevation by institutionalizing rebellion. When a nation has no tradition to appeal to but a “tradition of revolution,” it has confessed bankruptcy; it can no longer marshal the potentials of the populace to serve the common stake, the constitution. When artists and philosophers and churchmen cannot find a meaningful area of mutual enrichment, then politicians must supply the social cohesion ex nihilo and enforce it by militant centralization of power. In this situation, the boasts of broad franchise or democratic ritual do not give substance to man’s liberty. For liberty is not the product of mechanical instruments like the electoral process.

In modern democratic myth, man’s freedom is given him entire at birth, a thing solid and circular in its perfection, but shattered and dispersed as time goes on. To prevent the final dissolution of all freedom, men form polities by chipping off a piece of liberty and surrendering it to the state, which is thus constructed out of the surrendered quantities of individual rights. The art of constructing a just state consists in finding how to sacrifice the thinnest possible slices of individual “sovereignty,” and the most uniform, so that all these contribute to the central storehouse of national sovereignty. But man’s freedom is not whole nor homogeneous. It is as complex as man himself, since it makes him man.

First, there is the basic freedom which consists in possession of a will. This will can never be taken away, or tampered with at its source. It can be killed, but only by killing the man, or reducing him to a subhuman level. Even in prison, the will is free so long as it exists.

Second, there is the last fulfillment of liberty, the state of continual choice that uses and never abuses freedom. This, according to Christian teaching, is the freedom of man at rest in his eternal reward. But according to authoritarian state systems, it is also a political ideal. All such systems imply, or, if pushed to logic, assert that man’s freedom is freedom to do good. As Rousseau put it, the state forces man to be free.

In a third sense, freedom means the condition that encourages and allows for the active exercise of the will. This condition is achieved by education, by surroundings that stimulate and nurture free choice, by social discipline that gives man a peaceful area of movement. This is the freedom to which political discipline makes essential contributions. It is the freedom of a nation, not given by the state but protected by it. Those who isolate a particular “political freedom” from the rest of man’s self-extension into social institutions are usually reduced to the worship of various absolutes–the franchise, a widespread press, a public education–without regard to the genius of the groups and individuals finding common ground and seeking expression in the particular society. These absolutes can be as imprisoning as the authoritarian systems. Plato says that freedom for “lead men” consists in obedience to the “gold men,” the modern liberal insists that freedom for the Congolese consists in an electoral and parliamentary system not geared to mesh with regional, tribal, emotional and intellectual differences or difficulties. The result in both cases is a union of chaos and compulsion, both impinging on the real exercise of freedom.

There is a fourth definition of freedom–this one spurious–as a mere lack of outside compulsion. But freedom is a spontaneity towards several alternatives, a principle of action. To define it as a lack is absurd. This leads to the ideal of the “open society,” in which definite intellectual and cultural molds are avoided or broken, throwing the individual back on his own resources and responsibility at each step of his life. The ideal society, it is suggested, would be a kind of Great Books Club in which each person chooses his favorite historical and intellectual milieu, or browses among them all with an ultimate choice in mind. Such a society is impossible. There would be no agreed language, no common terms for contracts, no shared understanding of the way to get work done, no possibility of educational discipline. That is, there would be no society. Identity would disappear, first in the society, then in the individual.

Freedom is not a mere lack; it is an urge to extend one’s self by the exercise of choice, and unless there is a defined and delimited self, no extension is possible. There is no range of choice or reach of possibilities unless man operates from an established base of some sort. Unless a society can retain and enrich its identity, it does not admit the possibility of human fulfillment within its continuity, or even the luxury of revolt. All rebels would hate a genuinely open society; there would be nothing to rebel against. Tradition, what Burke calls “prejudice,” is necessary to give freedom range in the real order, just as an individual, with all his limitations, is the necessary vehicle for the free will itself. And so, by another route, we find that freedom and order are correlates, and that rationally limited freedom is the partner of a humanly limited order, the limits being set by man’s effort to achieve a fully human life under each society’s historical conditions. The attempts at an absolute freedom recoil, logically and in experience, towards a political absolutism. Freedom must be concrete because man is; freedom is man.

Only the Order of Convenience, of enlightened expedience, of prejudice mobilized towards improvement, can give the practical art of politics a combination of flexibility and stability. The Order of Convenience can take the findings of the great political theorists and use them, without incurring the results of mistaken metaphysics. It can learn from Plato the importance, to society, of education and morality, without making the state a New Jerusalem of the intellect. It can take from Aristotle a realistic grasp of social psychology, of the uses of property, of moderation in reform, without making the state prior in right to the individual. It can learn from Rousseau the need for constant adjustment of political forms to the structure of society, without basing all forms on an explicit and rational “contract.” Perhaps most significant of all, this kind of politics can return to the real genius of natural-law theory. It will recognize the laws of nature, not as dictates for an ideal life, but as the structure of reality calling, at each moment, for a real response, individual and social. It will seek “the common good,” not as some ideal scheme of order, or quantitative accumulation of individual goods, but as the real life of the “commonalty,” of community in all its mutually enriching forms. This true politics of the natural law is, as a modern exponent of that obscured system remind us, rooted in a metaphysics vastly different from the eighteenth-century definition of Nature. Taking the American Republic as a concrete example, John Courtney Murray writes:

Its basis was not the philosophic rationalism that called itself Enlightenment but only a political pragmatism more enlightened than the Enlightenment ever was, because it looked to the light of experience to illuminate the prudential norms necessary to guide it in handling a concrete social reality that is vastly complicated.

The political realist also preserves the virtue of justice, by assigning it its true place in the life of the state. This justice is primarily a matter of equity and procedure, of the fair enforcement of the constitution. This is not a role as inspiring or ambitious as justice plays in the states aiming at an ideal order. It is primarily a matter of fair rules for the free development of a society’s particular impulses, the virtues of an umpire or a policeman, and under threat of foreign aggression, the virtues of a watchdog. In fact, the disappointment of idealists when faced with this system is violent. Even Lord Acton, the moralist of liberty, considered Newman’s politics “immoral”; and Augustine’s attack on the just state of Plato has largely been ignored, or dismissed as a “deplorable lapse” in an otherwise great thinker. But this recognition of the state’s limited function is the means for freeing man in his extra-political and supra-political roles.

The Greeks sundered man from the hieratic order of politics, secularizing the state by an exercise of reason. But the order of reason, in the final theorists of Hellas, became as strict a political regimen as the religious state had been. Christianity completed the secularization of the state by placing man’s goal on the other side of time, distinguishing, finally, the things of God from the things of Caesar. This duality, approached variously under the understandings and misunderstandings of the Two Cities or the Two Swords, led Christian wisdom to define and defy political absolutism. “Two there are,” wrote Gelasius I to Anastasius I, “by which this world is ruled on title of sovereign right”–the area of priestly ministration, that is, of the individual soul and its divine freedom; and the order of kingly authority, that is, of temporal peace, establishing the condition in which men can discern and exercise their ultimate freedom.

The effects of this new, and final, secularization were farther-reaching than the establishment of religious freedom. Once the state lost its primacy as an interpreter of the eternal order, it lost the claim by which it cowed all intermediate societies–the family, the free organizations of groups in which man seeks the answer to his own mysteries. As John Courtney Murray says, in a chapter called “Are There Two Or One?”, “this comprehensive right [of the Church] asserted within the political community requires as its complement that all the intrapolitical sacrednesses (res sacra in temporalibus) be assured of their proper immunity from politicization.”

Although the medieval limitation on the state arose out of the state’s recognition of the Church’s mission, the Christian ordination of man has left a sacredness about the individual soul that has survived the breakup of a single center for Christendom. The modern state, in its best manifestations (like the American Constitution), retains the secularization paradoxically created by Christianity’s otherworldliness. The state must be agnostic, if nothing else, about the possibilities and final goal of the individual and allow the human adventure to proceed, not pre-empting the place of that unknown City that may be calling man. Thus the apparently mincing ideal of the state that shocks liberals is the charter of freedom for the spirit of man. By foregoing  the inspirational political theories, man taps other and more enduring sources of inspiration. Such are the virtues of convenience. For “convenience,” in its older English usage, meant consonance, especially the correspondence of things with thought. The convenient state has constant reference to man and is adjusted to his real endeavors. It is the meeting of political institutions with the mystery and activity of man, a standing-together (constitution) of political discipline and the individual discipline of exercised freedom.

It would be useless to claim that the term “conservative” always means, or should mean, the advocacy of such a convenient state. As we have seen, the “divine right” and providential branch of conservatism belongs rather with the proponents of an Order of Justice. But I think it is true that the really great conservatives were not believers in the sacredness of the status quo. What distinguishes them–look at Burke and Johnson, Burckhardt and De Tocqueville, Randolph and Calhoun, Adams and Newman–is a pungent sense of reality, of man’s real needs and achievements. The great conservatives were not powerful, with personal stock in the status quo; they were, almost all of them, the foes of current fads, of enthusiasms that commanded the power centers of their day as liberalism has swept the world in our time. The caricature of the conservative as a mere lover of his own person and privilege will not stand. If you want to find the jealous embrace of attained power, go to the liberal ideologue, who must have total power in order to achieve his total reform, his rapid creation of Utopia. Go to Pericles, to Caesar, to Robespierre, to Bonaparte; to Lenin, or Mao Tse-Tung, or Castro; go, for that matter to Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. The conservative is typically moderate, skeptical, critical. He forms a permanent opposition to that permanent new theory or new regime that promises escape from the hard human realities.

To say that the enduringly important conservatives of the past were believers in a politics of convenience is to imply that the conservatism offering most to the future will be of this same kind, and I think the implication is a sound one.

Garry Wills is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian. This essay originally appeared inWhat Is Conservatism? (1964). Republished with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute

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