Two views of modernity
The political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and the political philosophy of Leo Strauss
In the last couple of papers I read to you I tried to suggest that theology is a mode of political hermeneutics. By that I mean that it is a practice of interrupting the simple statements the world makes about itself and by which the world always seems to want to close itself down, and of providing complex statements that keep the world open. Theology is a work of epiclesis, that is intercession or advocacy, of calling on the Holy Spirit to give the world more time. Today we will see Oliver O’Donovan argue that theology is a mode of politics and Christianity the best mode of politics because the God of Jesus Christ is our ruler and we may flourish under his rule. O’Donovan is replying to that modern political theology which believes that the church has wrongly tried to exercise a secular power, that it was captive to Christendom or Constantinianism, and that Christians must not make any such claim to exercise power. I shall be arguing that Christians are rulers: they participate in the rule of the one ruler. In The Desire of the Nations O’Donovan gives a historical sketch of the political framework as preparation of an ethics that is to follow. I will be trying to anticipate this ethics and present politics and ethics together. I will in other words make the assumption that political talk is indivisible from ethics talk, and ethics talk from political talk. In fact I shall make a still bigger assumption that was once a commonplace of platonic philosophy – that politics (the polis) and ethics (the man) and psychology (talk of our soul, emotions and religious inclinations) and cosmology and theology are all in service of one another. Christianity ironically has taken up some of the resources of thought about exercising rule which, inasmuch as we think of it now at all, we think of as the political philosophy of Plato or classical republicanism. For this tradition the ruler does much more than rule: he is a model and a teacher, and the law is a resource of positive description of what is good. I will present politics and ethics together not only to indicate how there is more to be said about the political framework even than O’Donovan managed to cram into The Desire of the Nations. I will keep referring this political theology back to the doctrine of God – to straight theology – to dissuade you from thinking that political theology is just a sub-section of theology proper – or the temptation of every seminar except this, that theology is just the theory that must occasionally be sat through before we can translate it into ‘practice’ and ‘what it means for us today’.
For this reason I must say something about the purpose of theology. In previous essays I distinguished between ideology that can be named and ideologies so successful and normative that they had ceased to be ideologies and become modes of our action too mundane to be dignified with a name. Such actions hover beneath the threshold of our intellectual attention and inveigle their way into us so that they became the only thing we can do, creating self-reinforcing circles of action that we cannot escape. We do not think them, we do them, and perhaps even more that it is not we who do these actions but that they do us. They are traditions that entirely determine our action and give us just the illusion of freedom. Now having lost the conceptual means to distance ourselves from them, we can now only do them and repeat them. It is the task of Christian theology to care for this conceptual means, with it to identify this action and normality as ideology, to render these practices visible for the first time, so we can see that we have been their functionaries and captives. Politics is therefore the bringing up to the surface to publicly responsible discourse all those nameless practices of which our modern normality consists. Politics is therefore not one domain amongst others. It is a task, always to drag into publicly responsible discourse the constraints and powers that conceal their names from us, and which operate on us because we operate them on one another. It is our task to drag the hidden and constrained up into the public discourse of voluntarism and will – up into the discourses of politics and ethics, so we can for the first time exercise our will and approve or repent of them. It is our task to name the powers. Only Christian theological statement about the victory of Christ can do this. Theology performs the first task of politics because theology talks about our captivity and bondage. It can do this because it witnesses to a captivity brought to an end. The end of this captive mind is both the beginning of a free and the beginning of public action – politics – in Christ.
This requires that we moderns understand that we are wrong in assuming that we do not hold power unless we are elected to it. We do all already wield power. The purpose of the Christian concept of sin is to winkle us out from behind our declarations of our innocently non-political status. Theology has to show that it is no one other than we ourselves who by a myriad tiny everyday acts create complexes of action, of vocabulary, rules and institutions that allow certain forms of behaviour and inhibit others and so enforce on others crushing sub-human modes of personhood. These personalities are units of agency not under authority, as entities of a stolen but real power and therefore of no legitimacy and only questionable ontological status. We may identify these as specific discrete persons or forms of personhood: then we can call them as false gods and we can then ask for our release and in the name of the God of Israel address them as demons and have them driven them out. Theology is therefore first interested in winkling the rulers and authorities of this age out of their cover in the mundane inanities of modern men. It is therefore not Caesar who is the enemy, for behind this or that political regime is an amorphous collective that refuses authority, and for which still the most suitable label is Satan. Behind every disobedient ruler is Satan, but behind Satan is nothing other than the figure of disobedient Adam, the sum of our own recalcitrance, that originates not in individuals but in long generations and traditions and so to humanity as a whole, and of which of our individualism is but the merest epiphenomenon. The purpose of all this talk of rule – which O’Donovan goes so far to call kingship – is to show that we are the king who is dethroned. We are dethroned not only as we see ourselves – as individuals of only very minimal political involvement and responsibility – but in the traditions of behaviour that stretches back and forward across generations, but as this conglomerated mulch of substandard human doing, for which Christian theological language of bondage and Satan provides the necessary tool. By this violent political act of Jesus Christ we have been defeated – and released, and in his body caught up into the form of the new humanity.
Theology is not Christian theology until it can give some account of the bound and involuntary situation of man. Satan must be named and thrown out bought out before man becomes free enough even to hear the word of God. It is not only not bizarre to talk about Satan in a university but it is crucial to the health of the university that its admits discussion of the recalcitrance and deviousness that form the context of our knowing. Christian theology must represent publicly the closedness of human knowing that is intrinsic to the real complexity of human motivation, complexity that the concept of the individual disallows. Christian theology must exercise a proper scepticism about the world and about man. It must ask whether it is we moderns who are ever hearing but never understanding, and ever seeing but never perceiving (Isaiah 5). The divine No is a moment in the Yes of God. We have true knowledge of the world because a good God has made a creation that is good for us, not deceptive – what may be known about God is plain to them since God has made it plain to them. But this requires a moment of in which we are disciplined and warned, and when discipline and warning is not heard our thinking has become futile, our minds are darkened so that since we have not thought it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he has given us over to a depraved mind. The overwhelmingly oppressive unchallenged assumption of modern theology, is that we already have a free and mature mind and are already entirely capable of choice. It is not true, and it is not merciful to insist it is. We do not know what we want. Modern theology can only play on the note of will and choice, so my complaint about it is that it is not merciful.
So the purpose of emphasising the political nature of the purpose of the doctrine of God is to show that it is not enough that theology talks as though the human already had a will and freedom – the discourse of voluntarism. It must also talk about the absence of will and the captivity of will – the discourse of sloth, compulsion and delusion. We must recover from non-modern Christian theology the resources to talk about a will and freedom that may come into being as a result of Christ’s victory, to learn from it how to name the powers and so proclaim faithfully a liberating gospel of the defeat of the usurper and the rule of the one God.
I said that in order to bring the whole world into the domain of existing political discourse therefore be at least three accounts, in one of which (1) we are victims, in another (2) we are masters and (3) as the mode of our mastery we play the victim, abjure political responsibility, conceal ourselves behind complex ideological constructions about the constraints on us. By the adoption of such disguises in which we are apparently servant the better to promote our claim to autonomy. But this only an apparent freedom, for in it we are trapped as trying to carry off an unsustainable claim. Our task then is to reintroduce political discourse where it has been squeezed out and we do this by arguing from the first theologically. Theology is the politics that says that God is king, that there is authority that is given, external to us, and recognition of this authority is the beginning of our politics and the possibility of public well-being. God-talk is given to the Christian community in order that this community prevent the world from making hubristic anthropological statements, to prevent it assuming knowledge of God and therefore of man his creature. Theology is the control on the discourse of anthropology. It tells us that we do not know man, that man is not ours but the possession and work and secret of God, and that only a long slow lesson from God will provide us with any information about man who is the creature of God. We may come to know others only as they are entrusted to us, as they are given to us on leasehold and as commission to be responsible to God for their well-being. When we fail to know them in this custodial way they are taken away from us and protected from us. Social science can only make an ideological claim which effects to create the creature it claims to know, it cannot recognise anything that is not a function other its own projection, and thus it is not able to know any creature at all. Christian theology says that God has made himself available to us to appeal to. Only in this Christian domain is there any such a figure who is available to us – whilst also utterly unknown and uncomprehended by us – other than as he gives himself to be known and in all our knowledge of him remains the master. Only this theological discourse removes from us all our modern pretension not to be implicate in any form of authority of others, the better secretly to keep in play our claim to be master.
In The Desire of the Nations Oliver O’Donovan sets out the implications of the statement that God is king, Jesus is Lord. Talk about God is our response to the declaration by the God of Israel of his kingship: he is the ruler of our rulers, and he is our ruler. That is to say that his rule over us is both mediated by intermediary holders of power – and it is immediate. His word, and our word that participates in it, warns the rulers and political authorities that their authority is held from God, and will be assessed by him. Theology that is obedient to this word of God must be done in the face of those political authorities, and often against their resistance. The Word of God declares war on authorities that do not acknowledge the kingship of God. It looks as though by intermediary powers O’Donovan has in mind only political authorities but as I have indicated the point is rather that many of these authorities are not yet visible in any realm of political discourse – except as they are named and called to account by public and therefore prophetic theological statement. As I have said, it is not enough that we confine our attention to those authorities we can name because their names are available in existing political discourse. Rather we have to go out to name those illegitimate entities, centres of authority and modes of personhood that exercise a hidden power over us discourse. These are then cosmological-political authorities – the spirit of this world and rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms and they represent the cosmological consequences of the failure of Adam to take up the office of stewardship given him and resultant failure to keep the power and energy of the cosmos in their proper order. This cosmological language represents nothing but the sloth of humanity that has yet no will.
Such a theology is clearly going to ignore any modern distinction between the religious and the political, but the interest of this book is that O’Donovan shows how this distinction between the religious and the political, between the prophet and the ruler, has evolved. Theology must say that there is no such thing as secularisation. This is what O’Donovan does. He provides a history of the West which is not a history of increasing secularisation but which gives us the means to give the secularity of the world new theological description and purpose. He agrees that in the seventeenth century there was a turning from acceptance that authority comes from God and must be exercised under God to a search for other sources of authority in a political consensus and the concept of nature, but argues that such an account is not a movement away from ‘religion’ to ‘no religion’, but from one religious-political tradition to another – from a complex Christian tradition to a too-simple republican political tradition and behind it a Stoic-epicurean cosmology. Modern political thought should be recognised as the continuation of a pagan politics and theo-cosmology that produces a realised eschatology of the man as master of himself, who is feels no obligation to acknowledge the authority of any other, and who has therefore the greatest problem coming to terms with the claims of others – and therefore of ruling them. Perhaps O’Donovan regards modernity less as a discrete historical period and more as a phenomenon of disobedience that is the temptation to any age.
God is king and judge.
God is king and God is judge alone. God liberates us from the temptation to be our own judges and masters. Because God’s holds these offices exclusively we are free from compulsion to seize and hold them ourselves, free from the compulsion to rule and exert an absolute and tyrannical power. That God alone judge over us is the guarantee that there will be justice – both for us and also for those who have been denied justice by us. Critics of the forensic atonement have asked by what right God bring us to court to try us as sinners. It is of course we who have exerted our right against each other and against God in an all-against-all, in a competitive open field. This field is the assembly in which not only every agent puts himself forward, but every agent is there to judge between every other. This assembly is a court in which each attempts to give judgment and vindicate his own right, appealing to all others to do so whilst simultaneously attempting to take away the right of others to oppose his own claim. We are in the assembly by the very action of our own self-promotion, and it is this that makes the assembly a court in which our right and rule is tried: we have put ourselves there by intending to avoid a rule from God and to exert a rule over all others.
But such a statement, that God is judge alone, is not sufficient, for God does not intend to be alone in exercising judgement and authority. He intends that we also come to learn this action and exercise it with him and under him. He intends that we come to find his action good, to be informed by it and come to share it. The end and purpose of his judging is that we are ourselves are brought up by him into the office and work of judges. God gives us an action, an action that is intrinsically his and which will always remain his, yet which he does not will be his such that it is not therefore also ours. He gives us the gift of a new action, which we must understand both as servanthood and as leadership. We must understand this not only as an action given, but also as an action only loaned to us and held by us only as long as we exercise it with him and under him. In the event that we do not grow into its proper use, he takes it away from us again, and the shreds of what we learned remain only to baffle us and make us believe we know something when we know nothing.
The rule of the people of God – the Christian commonwealth.
God intends to admit new members to the council and assembly of heaven, an assembly which will then govern a combined kingdom of heaven and earth, in which we will be not divine, but for the first time properly human, creatures made holy. This assembly is gathered as the earthly ecclesia that inducts its members into the skill of judging. Part of the skill of judging is the skill of advocacy, the office of defence counsel, that puts the case for mercy. These trainee judges – the saints – must be taught the skills of pleading, interceding, prayer. They must learn to argue on behalf of those who are not yet holy that a little more time is needed, and on behalf of the oppressed to argue that their release come now. They must be able to say ‘Have mercy on us – give us a little more time’, and ‘Come Lord Jesus, give no more time to the oppressors’. The advocates must be able to say both ‘more time’ and ‘no more time’. The new Christian action is that of the members of the assembly that the throne of God gathers around it. This training starts as the exercise of self-government of the Church understood as an assembly of judges under training. The people of the world will come to this assembly of saints for justice, and the Christian life is one of training directed towards the exercise of this office. There are different kinds of gifts but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service but the same Lord. To this end God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles.
Christians are elect to serve and to take care of the world entrusted to them, to exercise oversight, to intercede, to put the case to their Lord God for justice and mercy, and together by prayer to exercise the power of binding and loosing. The Christians are held responsible for ‘the least of these’, and thus subject to a more severe judgement when they lose even one of them. The whole Christian body is elect to this work. But of course the Christian body is not yet obediently at work. Teaching and leadership is limited to those elect for this specific purpose, but the purpose of the appointment of some to particular offices in the church is to prepare the whole church to exercise this single office. When Christ is all in all then even the most modest members will be able to play their part, employ their talent – and receive their proper praise. In the same way authority in the Church is in the service of the Church’s authority over the world, by which it is to participate in his work of releasing the world from captivity to all the other alien authorities – other gods – that presently divide and hold it down. Some in the Church are given this or that specific office only in order to prepare the whole body together to exercise this office and authority for the world. All Christians are members of this political, public assembly, parliament and court of law which speaks the truth, practises justice and praises God for his justice. All are citizens in a democracy in which all will have full status, all grow up to the fullness of Christ. Within the one action of serving and ruling then there is what we could call a commonwealth or even democratic moment to the Church.
The ecclesia is the body responsible for the education – sanctification – of this community and through this community of the world. It nurtures and is nurtured by a body of tradition from which it creates legislation, and a law-court that judges individual hard cases. Right judging and right doing is the proper action of the new people: it involves coaching them in the action of right speech and public speech. They see God judges rightly and they say so: they learn to praise God for the generosity and finesse with which he gives justice. The Christian community is being trained up to a range of offices that serve a single end. The singleness of this end, and the oneness of this assembly offends the separation of powers that the modern constitution understands as different even incompatible. I will return to this point in discussing the classical republican tradition.
Leadership of the project of the formation of a people is the proper work of the Christian community. Is this Constantinianism? The church may identify and address movers and shakers as leaders regardless of how they are formally understood to come to such position, and regardless of their protest that they hold no formal position and cannot be held to account. Leaders must be held to this paideutic task of nurturing law and public discourse to educate this people. They must be criticised in particular when they do not give a lead. The Church must therefore not give up on the state, but model for the state the lead that the state must give to the people, and model the openness of public political discourse. The church should understand itself something along the lines of a senior assembly of political advisors, shadow cabinet or as a government-in-exile. Its intention is not to long to take away the task of ruling from the state, to do it better, but always to encourage it to grow in confidence and competence.
In Wyclif and the Franciscan poverty tradition O’Donovan has found a dramatically non-Constantinian definition of authority and dominion. ‘Human justice depends upon God’s sanctifying of our relations to material possessions. Political right must spring directly from the charity to God and neighbour which the gospel imparts; ius must flow from the fountain-head of iustitia. Only the righteous (elect, forgiven, sanctified) can have a full title to ‘dominion’ – a word, which in the manner of the period, embraces the two notions of property and jurisdiction.’ In Wyclif’s time it is not only clergy that is subject to this regime – but also it is also those custodians of the tradition that we now call academics – who must be subject to evangelical property – for they can only be entrusted to speak the truth if they are free from the fear of reprisals because they have no property of their own to lose. Only the righteous can hold property Wyclif argues: thus they do not hold it so much as hold it in trust, employ it for another. ‘To use property in defiance of the law of love, though within the terms of human legality, is to lose legitimate right…thus for example the right of a monarch’s son to inherit the throne is determined at the time by a judgement as to whether God has in fact rewarded the deceased king with a godly son to succeed him!’ We can therefore say that any possession and any right to exercise leadership is entirely a spiritual possession and right – one remains that always the possession of the Spirit and that can be withdrawn. God can without our even noticing remove it to leave us with nothing.
The modern separation of powers, refusal of paideia, and secularisation.
O’Donovan argues that the distinction of the Church from the office and task of leadership that we now too glibly term ‘the state’ was intended to give the church its prophetic freedom to keep the leaders to the task of the formation of their people. Chapters Six ‘The Obedience of Rulers’ and Seven ‘The Redemption of Society’ of Desire of the Nations chart the changing relative definitions of this dual authority of church and secular power. The role of the church is to encourage secular authorities to carry out their limited acts of judicial authority, and so to recognise themselves under the authority of Christ. ‘The mission of the church is precisely to witness to the flaws in the Babel-like unity, rooted in coercive, centralised, sacral authority, the idolatrous politics of empire that substitute human for divine kingship and that tries to take charge of human history by imposing a univocal, totalising regime through territorial and economic conquest.’
O’Donovan argues that the very concept of the state derives from the Church that distinguished itself from the totality of the political community, the public square, in order to counter-balance it, preserve for it that hope that it did not contain. The political doctrine that emerged from Christendom is characterised by a notion that government is responsible – to divine law. Its judgements must be always under law, understood as ultimately in correspondence with that divine law which is prior to individual states. Divine law is international law – as all men are under God’s law international law already exists and does not have to be invented, and the state that understands this has a valid limited jurisdiction under God. Hugo der Groot (1625) – was the first to fail to abandon this position. Grotius represents the belief either that the state issued from the ‘right’, that is the power, of the ruler (absolutism) or was the result of individuals driven by fear to combine, to surrender their rights to a rights pool (social contract). O’Donovan agrees that the distinction between religious and non-religious discourse, and between church and state itself had origins in the political controversies of the seventeenth century. Inasmuch as the modern state recognises it is not everything because its authority is not absolute but derived it recognises that there is a final judgement that it cannot pronounce but only God can, it is a just state. Inasmuch as the modern state does not recognise that it is under authority, it is demonic.
Tradition as basis for prophecy.
In both these books O’Donovan represents just one half a of a conversation. The gospel is conversation and confrontation with pagan thought. Modernity is pagan, says Peter Gay. So it is pagan thought that is the other half of the conversation – or rather not pagan thought but pagan practice and these practice are any of what I described a moment ago as the practices of captivity, compulsion and sloth. But pagan practice cannot be opened to us simply by pagan thought. Rather it is only the scriptures of Israel that can reveal pagan thought to us as pagan, as that which is present temptation to us, and indeed as our own present practice. We must avoid thinking that the bible are the scriptures of the West. The scriptures are the scriptures of the church, and the church is only the leaven of the West, not the West itself. The church is the secret of God, that God holds hidden from the world (this is the significance of the doctrine of the invisible church). The pagans are represented for our purposes today by the political philosophy of the ancient world rediscovered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is the effective scripture of the modern West, for it has brought about the division and reduction of public discourse into the techniques of our withdrawal into ever smaller spheres of selfhood. The West attempts to lay aside the tools by which its own history can be reversed, dethroned, made not canonical. We must ask whether in response God has withdrawn the scriptures from the West, with the result that the bible is quite closed to us, held closed by God. Yet the Christian work is – by use of the bible as diagnostic political instrument – to re-reveal to the West what its own sources are and so to challenge the practices that seek to stay invisible and normative.
Leo Strauss and platonic and Aristotelian political philosophy.
Not only is knowledge of God not knowable, but knowledge of the world of God’s creation is not knowable, because it is his and not ours. It takes a long course of education even to come to realise the difficulty of acquiring knowledge of this world. There are plenty of resources for the conceptualisation of this difficulty and of the task of the purifications required by this course of education. Plato offers a course of education which aims to teach us that we do not know what as moderns we are sure we know. He teaches that we must start to step out of such knowledge, divest ourselves of such worldly wisdom, and that the early part of the philosophical life is deconstructive, and teaches us not to be certain of what we once knew with certainty. The Socratic or platonic education prescribes instrumental action that has to be adopted in order to begin to sense the barriers there are between us and knowledge.
The political philosophy seen in the Laws of Plato demands that all citizens are taught and monthly rehearse their laws and constitution. Athenians are free because they are under law. They do not suffer the alien authority of dictatorship because they obey this intrinsic authority. Philo of Alexandria points out that Jews do this, not monthly but every seventh day. On the Sabbath they read, learn and rehearse their constitution and law. Their law includes a definition of the full status of a man very like the one Aristotle sets out in his Nicomachean Ethics. By learning it they develop the full gamut of virtues, and have become a people of great virtue, who exhibit the self-control that is the basis of all life in a polis and which the Greeks would dearly love to emulate. The law intends first to teach, to teach what is good. It is a bank of resources of description of the good and only subsequently for the adjudication of what is good in each case. Without such a resource of description – and without the ongoing work of the cultivation and care of such a resource – we have no means of saying what particular thing we want and will be satisfied by. The result is that we want everything, and must exhaust ourselves in the effort to gain this cruel miasma.
The missing interlocutor for Christian thought is pagan thought. So we must turn to someone who can represent pagan thought – and not as a straw man but by making its variety and real attraction and temptation felt. For this reason I turn to Leo Strauss who taught political philosophy at Chicago until he died in 1973. Strauss escaped central Europe in the thirties, and like Adorno and Hannah Arendt, he spent his career searching for explanations for the dictatorship, unreason and evil that descended on the cradle of European civilisation at that time – and in fear of its return. Why did people surrender to unreason and tyranny in that period, why were they so quick to give up the rule of law? Strauss believed that the evil in spiritual places was the result of a failure in intellectual places. The modern individual had given up thinking of himself as under authority or beholden to anything outside himself. He acknowledged no teacher or master – and therefore did not acknowledge that his existence was as man under the law. Law and politics and public speech had become a burden he was glad to be relieved of. But law Strauss taught is not only positive law but tradition of deliberation on what it is good to do.
Strauss was a historian of Western political thought – in particular of three re-founders of the republican tradition, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza. He wanted to show that the republican tradition of modernity of only lightly disguised pursuit of power and that this hadn’t been invented by the latest of the late modern bad boys – Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. It began with the sophists whom Plato represents as Socrates’ interlocutors – Protagoras, Callicles and Thrasymachus. Strauss set out to remind us late moderns of the riches of the classical tradition, for these intellectual riches are our means of thinking our way out of the impoverished modern versions of republicanism now on offer. It is the distinguishing characteristic of modernity he believed that it has no memory or tradition, or it is even the action of disowning any tradition and of attempting to abolish memory. Memory – or tradition – is provided and enabled by a tradition of law, not only prescriptive law but the whole intellectual tradition – that gives many descriptions of what is worth doing and the range of freedom and constriction given by each law and tradition. The flight from memory is caused by a great unhappiness, even despair. Because the Jewish and Christian faiths nourish hope they teach memory, and the skills of memory, the possession and cultivation of a tradition, and even in its generous way the cultivation of the traditions of its pagan interlocutors and opponents. We have to do this because the pagans themselves can’t – and this is just the point about pagans.
So it falls to us to remember for the pagans what those pagan resources are. We can then say that Machiavelli and Hobbes, Hegel and Nietzsche were declaiming the imperatives of power positions that Plato represents Socrates as having already refuted. We have to say that Machiavellian republican politics is based exclusively on ever-shrinking definitions of expediency and utility – that is on the abolition of discussion of performance understood as directed towards the good, so this fails to be the development of a public discussion of the good which develops a people – and becomes instead the performance of one – the tyrant.
The modern version of republican political thought is also about doing well and getting ahead, but cannot say where it gets its notions about what constitutes doing well from, or criteria for preferring one definition of getting ahead over another. We have to say that this is not something new, it not a breakthrough into the modern era as Blumenberg argues – it is a return, or perhaps even just the temptation that every age has to resist. Machiavelli and Nietzsche are Callicles and Protagoras. We therefore have to return to classical political philosophy and to Plato’s representation of the sophist claims in order properly to oppose the sixteenth and seventeenth century re-statement of the same sophist claims to be technicians of power, self-interest and self-promotion experts. What is the point of this? We are answering the question how we know what we want. We need to do this in order to describe the captivity and autism of the autonomous modern will that is dethroned by Christus Victor. When we can find some way to do this we can say that retrospectively, seized and freed by Christ, that what he has given us is what we want, that we find our mind in his will for us, and that what we had before was not desirable after all.
Machiavelli advises his ruler how to rule by insisting on getting entirely what he wants, which is chiefly absolute compliance, and he does this by removing all consideration of what it is that he wants. He wants to win, of course, but is massively hampered and finally defeated because he no means of recognising saying when he is winning so can monitor and orient his performance to bring success nearer, never able to declare himself more or less nearly satisfied. In Xenophon’s dialogue On Tyranny, Hiero the tyrant is asked if he is happy. We all know that everyone does nothing else than strive to be master, but says Hiero in a moment of unlikely lucidity, this is not at all happy position to be in. Nothing makes you miserable like having everything you want. The tyrant has no one to control his desires, to frame or prioritise them for him. He has no thesaurus of desire. He wants everything at once, so cannot know what he wants first and what he is prepared to forego to get it, and he cannot allow any external voice to tell him. Hiero the tyrant tells us that is himself tyrannised by his desires, passions and fears, able to accept no external definition of them or limits to them. Machiavelli tells his master Medici to be (an absolute) master, but the actual master (Hiero) is telling us how miserable, abasing and servant-like it is to be an absolute master. His desires make him like the figures in Hades who according to Socrates are condemned to fill a leaky jar with a sieve (Republic 493a-c).
Machiavelli is writing advice to a monarch so he should have an readership of precisely one. But to bring pressure in order to convince the monarch to act in the way he is arguing for he has to publish – so the formal aspect of a book in the public domain belies the content which is only valid while it remains secret from all but this one individual. This is the very opposite of Cicero’s argument that a dictator – since he is above the law – cannot but be anomos, without the law, and thus without virtue. He cannot be a model. The model of being outside the law that he presents must prevent all the virtue in the commonwealth that he is ostensibly there to promote. In order to bring about the right order, to conquer chance and overcome the obstacles posed by nature, human nature in particular, Machiavelli Hobbes and Spinoza want to abolish any question but the question of how, of politics as technique – as man-management, news-management, information-management – and discourage those voices that want to discuss publicly the question of what is worthwhile. To bring civil peace we need unqualified obedience to a sovereign and whatever it is the sovereign says that is the framework alone within which limited discussion may be possible.
The re-definition of religion proposed by Hobbes and Spinoza created a sphere of tight control over public discourse with the intention of extinguishing disunity and disagreement and bring about acquiescence and unity under the state. Within this new sphere desire and imagination are under the control of authorities who do not refer their authority to the project of public speech and formation, and who are not themselves subject to the discipline of public speech. Such a state rests on the belief that the Church has no regulative or governmental function over groups and public persons, but was to govern only the individual solitarily. It represents the determination to give all the how questions about the practice of a good life technical solutions, and so rule out the development of a people trained in public discourse, in parrhesia. Secularisation on this definition means the determination of an elite to make the state the sphere of their autonomy. Such a modern state that acknowledges no authority outside itself O’Donovan regards as an ‘Antichrist, a parodic and corrupt development of Christian social order.’
The republican tradition and the modern state.
So a brief look at the republican tradition as the abandonment of the discourse of the virtues has brought us back to the issue of our refusal of the responsibility and obligation that recognition of a law and a public would put on us, and so the issue of our complicity in the obfuscation of the public and political character of life. The thesis of secularisation that started with the rise of historical criticism (the criticism that it is merely historically situated, not universally valid and therefore not valid at all) as the active dismantling of any work of positive description of the good, and that work being complete, of the dismantling of that institution – the church – which nurtures the resources which can remember such a positive description of the good and dares continue the tradition of parrhesia – the alternative and fuller republican tradition of the commonwealth. The action we have is only the action conceded to us by a certain domain, and every domain is the rule of a dictator, and every dictator is only the sum of the properties attributed to him – in which case if does not matter that he is has no existence in the form of a single individual – for he exists as the myriad repetitive acts of the community content to live within that domain, and that makes a single sub-human mode of personhood. We are that dictator. We are that usurper who intended to be everything, and who is dethroned by the cross of Christ. Strauss shows that Xenophon pointed out that the ruler who is not under law – the dictator – is the most unhappy of men. This is most unhappy of men is precisely the modern man. He is not under law, is not under the rule of any positive description of the good. The modern man is the dictator and divine ruler. He is the one who must first be conquered by the proclamation of the rule of God and by this proclamation torn out of his self-understanding. Who can deliver us from this dictator, this demon, the individual? What is this positive account of what is good that a recovered concept of Paideia and law would allow us to construct? Where can we find such a positive account of the good? We must go back to the original republican tradition.
In the original republican tradition we find that generosity is the defining characteristic of the great man. Justice or righteousness (dikaiosyne) has this positive character. The modern difference of justice is negative – justice involves not getting in another man’s way and making restitution when you do by paying back whatever you have wrongly withheld from him. The classical definition of justice involves supporting the other man with attention, encourage, gifts and support. It means being a patron and benefactor who lavishes generosity in the form of doles and public works for your city, to be. You exercise authority positively in generosity (mercy) and negatively in setting out and defending limits (judgment). Seneca argued that the ruler must exercise his obligations with justice, generosity and clemency, and be to his citizens as he would wish the gods to be to him. Justice-giving is a mercy . He is a father, a slave-owner, a god, and must act with the same generosity as the gods. It is his job to take decisions for them, give counsel, and give justice – to cut back here, encourage and promote there. More still, he is not to leave them idle and listless but to give them work to do, so he has to share out offices. All this extra-large definition of, part of the generosity of the character of the good man.
The advantages of Platonic political philosophy – paideia – for Christian theology.
All of this has prepared us for the argument of Augustine in The City of God. He is responding to Cicero’s De Re Publica. Cicero believes that the res publica, public affairs are the affairs of the people, and that where there is no justice, the virtue which must underpin all fair dealing in society, there can be no law or right (ius); where there is no law, there is no common interest, no commonwealth, and no people. Cicero says that tyrant is a model of the vice of injustice, of being above the law, lawless. Such leader cannot be a model of justice and under him a just society and politics is impossible and the very existence of the community made impossible (De Re Publica 3.43). Cicero argues that in its earliest days Rome met the criterion of agreement on justice. Augustine disagree (City of God 19.21). True justice did not flourish in Rome’s heroic days because Rome worshipped many gods and thus many incompatible accounts of virtue, right and justice, and so following Cicero’s argument, there was no community agreement on justice and thus no justice. Only God’s nation, the polis that rules and combines heaven and earth counts as a people in Cicero’s sense, for only in this heavenly city is there the agreement and obedience to it which underpins justice. Augustine’s definition of a people is not based on a definition of morality – it is larger and more Aristotelian because he defines a people as a set of people who share any sort of action – not ‘good’ action. That makes the heavenly city a better community, though the earthly community may nevertheless be a community. Following Cicero Augustine sees the pursuit of glory as what binds Rome together and makes it a community (albeit, given civil wars, not as good a community as in Scipio’s day. Augustine calls the pursuit of reputation – glory.
I suggest therefore that we should say that church is the nation, the exemplary nation, that nation that is the model for all other nations. But we should not let ‘nation’ be defined as it has in the modern period by territoriality. We must alter its definition to make nation mean something more like a particular regimen and form of life. So the nation and regimen of Apple Mac users overlaps to some degree with the nation and regime of martial arts aficionados which overlaps with the nation and regime of Rolex wearers – each such mode of sociality is supported by sets of codes, practices and disciplines so all members of that fraternity have an idea of what members of the set do and do not do. Modern political science rules out discussion of what is worth doing. It understands that nations compete for physically resources but not that they compete for members and for intellectual resources in the form of definitions of what is desirable. It has not appreciated that we are all driven to seek what is better – as present public discourse – earthly glory – believes it is better, that everyone has some idea of what it is to be successful and locally within the context of earthly glory can usually tell a better performance from a poorer one. This is the basis of Augustine’s argument with Cicero. Augustine says that being a member of any of nation and regime – not only that of ancient Rome – demands constant re-appraisal of precisely which virtues are worth pursuing and which worth dropping in order that some of these virtues really are attained. His definition of city does not require that we already agree on what is good – it is more tolerant than that – because it not rely on anyone making any explicit claims. It does not insist as Cicero and Kant do that we must make the move that because I think it is good for me I must be asserting that it is good for everyone. Rolex wearers do not want everyone to wear a Rolex – precisely not. Augustine just starts from the assumption that we all compete. We pursue glory. And then it refers to the retrospective discovery that heavenly glory is better than earthly glory on the basis of the uncontroversial criterion that it lasts longer. This may be hidden to everyone on earth because on earth our minds are usually concerned by the effort of competing well within whatever our nation. Augustine’s political philosophy relies on eschatology because this enables a more consistent pursuit of the logic of political philosophy. The gospel of Christ really is a success gospel.
That they are a people because they have a unity. But they do not bestow this unity on themselves. Their unity comes from outside them, from God. If they are just a demos without law, then they are not a people but a rabble, each seeking to make himself the one who is over all others. Not until this people is ruled by the theological monarchy of one God that there can really be a demos and a democracy, which we usually call koinonia. Augustine understands that Christianity out-performs the pagans at what the pagans regard as their own game, virtus, power, success. He argues that Christianity is a superior way of doing what pagan polities claim to do but which by succeeding locally they manage to inhibit movement upward from lesser regimes and nations to the superior one. Augustine understands that success at political philosophy depends on exerting a superior definition of what the good is – so it is in part a matter of good performance. So the dramatic difference between modern and classical political philosophy is that classical platonic political philosophy understands that the ruler is our pattern and model, and that the leader is also our teacher, and that he and we are under law, and this law gives us unity and thus the possibility of a public life. O’Donovan and Strauss have allowed us to understand Christianity as a mode of counsel and government, and thus as a legal and constitution system. This instruction is the gift of God who is both our lesson and our teacher – this instruction is a gift that is never just given and the recipient then left to watch it turn into a frustrating dead code serving only to predict our failure and list our punishment. This instruction is always accompanied by the Holy Spirit, the teacher who has patience and power. Christianity is the better way to do politics, it is a better performance, that marks all other ways as self-defeating and does so by raising the definition of politics to life with God in this God’s spirit.
Now we can even admit to an affinity between Christianity and Platonism. From Platonism we learn that absolutely nothing of the fullness of this world as the creation of God is available to us via the impressions we gain. Without being tutored by the teacher we can only be oblivious of the fullness of this world, and exist in an infinitely impoverished version of it. Plato said we have fallen into a deep crevasse in which we have only very poor refractions of a reality far above us. Down here we suffer from a reality deficit. But a process of paideia some few of us can return to that reality, learn it and come back to educate the rest of us in it. Christianity says that one man has been raised from the cave, and has come back to us as the Spirit, that is in many gentle modes that I have called law, teacher and supplier. Strauss argued that modernity had abolished the metaphysics of the Good and project of paideia, but held onto Critique which now functions as a vicious practice of disowning all resources of tradition and law. So now we can say that what is really significant about modernity is not that modern man has they have turned away from God, but that his turning away has been commandeered by God and made into God’s action, so that even in their turning away man’s action is taken from him and turned to his own eventual good, so that it represents not the attainment of their autonomy but the collapse of their claim. Just where man believes that he has succeeded in being most his own man, and is on the point of becoming Satan his ambition is prevented. Modernity is an aeon which suffers from a deficiency of reality. It is just not very real. It has been put into receivership, but the receiver is keeping it ticking over by short-term loans of reality. It has become despite itself just a front for the purposes of God. Perhaps we should say that there is no such thing as modernity outside theological statement – or that what is really interesting about modernity is that God has made it an instrument of his mercy – albeit that for the sake of his own safety this must be kept well hidden from every modern.
The variety of theological tasks.
Modernity as punishment and mercy of God.
I said the state must be criticised when it does not give a lead, when it not only has no positive conception of the good but does not tolerate public discussion of the good. O’Donovan has given us the resources to say that the nations turn from Christianity towards other options, and to say that God has turned away and hidden his face from us, and that not only is the result of our failure but that God has inflicted this failure on us. The Christians must be able to pass this judgment of modernity on to modernity, or it will suffer the punishment due to modernity. This judgement that the church has failed to pronounce on the West, the Church of the West is itself now suffering. It has failed to take up its role as watchman, and so the indivisible witness to the indivisible God has been unaccountably divided – between the several jurisdictions set out under modern constitutional separation of powers which declares that religion is not politics. The secularisation thesis must be countered by the theological acclamation that though many are called, few are chosen. The God of Israel does not intend this generation to hear him, so does not say anything it can hear. We have hardened our hearts, with the consequence that he has hardened our hearts.
I have argued that O’Donovan is not recommending a particular political constitution but insisting on the complexity of theological statement in which three accounts are kept in parallel. In the first the God of Israel is Lord and remains Lord – a mon-archy. In the second account all Christians together – even the members of lesser honour – have the authority and office of steward of creation, though this authority does not percolate down through the whole people of God until Christ is all in all. This reign of all God’s people we could call a commonwealth, or even a democracy or republic. But to get to that point we need another account of the process of transformation and sanctification of that people, a process that requires the differentiation of teachers, models and leaders on one hand from learners and led on the other, and thus there must be an account of hierarchy combined with a teleology. The ideologies of which modernity consists are always offering to relieve us of this task to be politically active as prophets and intercessors, and insist we delegate this function to political technicians. But the church must take this prophetic political responsibility back again, insisting both that the technicians do their job and that only a theological definition can tell them what that job is. Theological discourse is political discourse with a memory, a tradition, a possession, an office entrusted to them.
Finally, theology is not theological until it starts with a discussion of the involuntary, the bound and sin-bound character of the situation. You have heard it said that dogmatics is ethics, ethics is dogmatics. Yet as long as we say only ethics we have not understood that we not yet that upright individual who has choice and freedom and will. In order even to arrive at the place where choice is possible and ethics may begin we have to ask about the establishment of a commonwealth of public speech and the formation of a public mind in which the free will and free agent can evolve. First the will has to be brought down by the victorious warrior Christ, and dragged into that kingdom and polity as slaves, there slowly to learn to exercise choice and gain a mind – and then as the creature of God he will have become an agent, and the subject of the science of ethics. What have I said in this essay? I have said no ethics without politics, no politics without ethics – and neither of the above without Christian dogmatics.