For many of us coming of age in the early 1960s, our first serious exposure to the notion that "public life is not the first thing"—but that there do exist "first things (principles) for the right ordering of public life"—came in the writings of Jacques Maritain, particularly in Humanisme Intégral (translated by Geoffrey Bles in 1939 as True Humanism; the more recent English versions call it Integral Humanism). He taught us that the human person is both material and spiritual, and can become more than a merely self–interested individual by acquiring and practicing the habits necessary to actualize his humanity. Indeed, man may rise to the heights of reason and purpose latent within his nature, most efficaciously through prayerful communion with other persons under divine guidance.
The best political order, Maritain maintained, would encourage a true humanism reflecting this understanding of the human "made as he is in God’s image and likeness." All forms of statism, however, tend to stifle the human essence, based as they are on the immoral philosophy of materialism—a shortcoming shared by the truncated kind of secular humanism that reduces man to a partial, isolated, utterly autonomous individual. Integral humanism is cultivated, though, within "revitalized democracy," wherein "we are confronted with the fact that religion and metaphysics are an essential part of human culture, primary and indispensable incentives in the very life of society." Maritain’s democracy would respect human difference and pluralism because, following his and our greatest teacher, St. Thomas Aquinas, it would never disparage or ignore the human person on earth, and would recognize the central role played by work, pleasure, and creativity unfolded in the natural associations of family, church, and community.
The insights of these two great teachers led me and many of my fellow pilgrims to be deeply critical of the modern forces that corroded the "mediating structures" essential for the humane ordering of public life. Capitalism in particular—whether manifested in savage markets, an oppressive state, or an imperialist military—seemed especially corrosive and repugnant in theory and practice. With all the intellectual hubris characteristic of young adults, I was convinced not only of my command of the tenets of the philosophia perennis, but also of my ideological and moral goodness. In short, I was firmly ensconced on the Christian left, where also was to be found my teacher Maritain. Or so I thought.
It is often said that it takes at least a decade for new ideas to filter down from the scholar’s pen to the consciousness of common folk. This was certainly the case for me. Sometime in the early 1970s, I came across Maritain’s decade–old Reflections on America. Reflecting his experience of living in America, Maritain confessed that "it took a rather long time for me to become aware of the kind of congeniality between what is going on in this country" and the democracy that he had described earlier. Considering now the "direction of certain essential trends characteristic of American civilization . . . Humanisme Intégral . . . had, so to speak, an affinity with the American climate by anticipation."
So while I had been peering down contemptuously on the American scene from the heights of moral superiority, my teacher had been learning from his experience in my land. By the time Maritain died in 1973, I was having second thoughts about this self–governing republic of democratic capitalism, and was yearning for a moral defense of it that could rival the left’s moral critique. And along came Michael Novak, among whose many books is The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), a must read for First Things subscribers.
Novak argued that the descriptions of Americans by both critics and proponents by no means reflect reality. The typical American citizen did not aspire to be "a rugged individual, isolated and alone. To be independent, yes, and also self–reliant. Yet also to be an active member of many communities, to be open to appeals from the needy, to be informed about the world at large, and to care about its problems." American democratic capitalism in fact cultivated a unique associational or communal spirit that at once freed the individual from the stifling village traditionalism of the past, while encouraging free attachment to "intermediate associations" that would keep the individual from slipping into loneliness and isolation. Associations would cultivate the habits of self–control and other civic virtues essential to counter the corrosive potential of freedom, and would give ordinary citizens the opportunity to develop the God–given human potential so important to Maritain. Beneath the mask that had beguiled democratic capitalism’s friends and foes alike, "the hidden ideal of democratic capitalism is that of the communitarian individual."
With the editors and readers of First Things, Novak is persuaded that public life is not the first thing, but that there are in fact first things or first principles for the right ordering of public life. Working in the tradition of St. Thomas and Maritain, Novak helped us understand that democratic capitalism is the ordering of public life most congenial to the realization of first things by its citizens. This side of the Kingdom of God, we can ask no more of the political order than the cultivation of the communitarian individual.
Michael S. Joyce is President of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.