In recent years, conservative Aristotelian-Thomists like Patrick Deneen and Alasdair MacIntyre have made the argument that a moral philosophy entailing a substantive account of human happiness or fulfillment is simply incompatible with the American liberal-democratic political order. They are convinced that America’s foundational liberal philosophical principles are in their very DNA corrosive of the traditions and institutions necessary for the realization of final ends inherent in human nature.
While there may have been a time in our history when liberalism and eudaimonism could fruitfully coexist in the United States, they argue, that time has long passed. In the current “postliberal” era, liberalism’s core commitments to “anthropological individualism” and the historicity of human “nature” have evolved to the point where they have rendered liberalism not only incompatible with eudaimonism but positively hostile to it.
While on balance I share many of these concerns, I think the liberal state deserves continued support for one simple reason: In my judgment, the full working out of the liberal principles that Deneen, MacIntyre, and I find so problematic has not yet progressed to the point where the liberal state has decisively mutated into a postliberal behemoth bent on imposing its liberal values on all its subjects. There are firewalls, institutional and philosophical, that continue to check the unfolding of this historical process, and Americans in particular continue to enjoy enormous freedom to pursue their final ends as they understand them.
This being the case, I think that what we need today is a shoring up of those firewalls—especially the philosophical ones. And that in turn requires regrounding the liberal state on principles other than those of the soul- and freedom-destroying liberal philosophical project.
The “liberal state” is a political institution that can take a variety of forms, but is essentially ordered around the institutions of limited government, individual rights, the consent of the governed, political equality, constitutionalism, and the rule of law. It is fundamentally ordered toward the freedom of the individual human being, and assumes that such individuals are naturally endowed with the capacity to govern themselves both individually and collectively.
It further assumes that between the state and the individual is, and should be, a robust array of institutions, including the family, civic organizations, and religious institutions. Finally, and crucially, it is indifferent to the ultimate goals and purposes of its citizens, provided that they respect the laws and limits necessary for its operation.
How can we reconceptualize the liberal state without relying on liberal philosophical principles? I would suggest that there are at least two ways.
First, the liberal state can be justified on the grounds that it provides the narrowly political public goods necessary for human flourishing and does so without treading on the reserved domains of the individual, family, or civil society. Human beings possess a distinctive purpose or nature (telos) that must be realized if they are to be fulfilled or happy. The human being is by nature ordered to realize his natural capacity to reason (that is, to be rational), to order his life according to the dictates of reason (that is, to live a life of virtue or moral excellence), and to associate with other human beings (that is, to live as a “political animal”).
This being the case, the purpose of associating in political communities is to contribute to the fulfillment of their members’ distinctively human nature—that is, to their full flourishing as rational, moral, and social animals—through education and through laws that prescribe certain actions and prohibit others. The common good of the political community is not merely the provision of the material necessities of life but the promotion of what Aristotle called the “good life” (the life of virtue). Later thinkers like Thomas tended to agree with Aristotle that the primary common good of associating in political communities was the creation of the conditions for eudaimonia or, in Thomas’ language, beatitudo.
In turn, this Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of the common good gave rise to an unambiguously eudaimonistic view of the moral purpose of government and the state. Contra Augustine, these thinkers argued that the fundamental moral purpose of the state was not to punish and remedy sin in a postlapsarian world, but to promote true human fulfillment, often called in the political context “happiness” or felicitas.
This required the state to engage in moral regulation and education; coordinate the complexities inherent in political life; provide welfare for those in need and promote economic prosperity; uphold the law, promote justice, and maintain social peace; and defend the political community against aggression or injury from external sources. Such activities were necessary to create the conditions within which citizens could enjoy lives of peace, order, material sufficiency, and moral virtue—that is, to live the Aristotelian good life.
Significantly, this understanding of the common good placed strict limits on the competence of the state. Thomas believed the common good to be both public and limited: public in that it was distinct from the private realm of the individual, the household, and the Church; limited in that it pertained only to external acts (rather than internal beliefs) and only to earthly rather than heavenly fulfillment. He did not, then, view the king as reigning over some sort of totalitarian surveillance state ordered toward imposing a particular understanding of eudaimonia on all its members.
Rather, he thought the state a framework within which citizens could pursue the good life. Its moral purpose was nothing more than to provide those narrowly tailored public goods necessary for human flourishing; its moral limits, nothing less than the self-evident truth that the domains of the individual, the family, civil society, and the Church are reserved each to each and beyond the competence of any political authority.
Thomas’ political thought offers philosophical resources within the premodern Western tradition, resources that ground the contemporary liberal state—that is, justify the liberal state without relying on liberal principles. Both the Thomist state and the liberal state are limited in competence and authority; both are ordered around the rule of law; both assume that individuals are naturally endowed with the capacity to govern themselves; and both accept that there is and should be a realm of autonomous institutions between the individual and the state.
I have made the relatively straightforward argument that the liberal state can be justified on the basis of Thomistic political thought. Now let me propose something less obvious: Augustinian political thought also contains a perfectly viable philosophical defense of the liberal state (as opposed to liberal philosophical principles), or at least of the limited state that is its close cousin and bears at least a family resemblance to the American political system of ordered liberty.
I say “less obvious” because Augustine has largely been conscripted into the cause of those profoundly skeptical of the liberal state and its ability to enable or promote eudaimonia: those who argue that, given the radically different loves of the Two Cities, there can be no truly common good and therefore no possibility of promoting eudaimonia via the organs of the state.
Augustine argued that in the type of pluralistic society in which he lived—that is, one in which there was no consensus on morality, final ends, or the good life—the kind of state most conducive to Christian flourishing was a limited state that provided a very narrow range of political goods: peace, order, and security.
The common good had nothing at all to do with Aristotle’s shared pursuit of virtue or morality. Such a common enterprise was a logical impossibility, because all human political communities comprised a mixture of the citizens of the Heavenly City (the just and virtuous) and those of the Earthly City (the unjust and vicious), with radically opposed supreme “loves” or values—God and man. They simply could not share a common set of fundamental interests, purposes, or ends.
All that was possible was a qualified agreement on a limited number of intermediate goods that had a “common usefulness” (communis utilitas): peace, concord, security, and order. The communis utilitas was thus an essentially amoral phenomenon having to do exclusively with the material security and well-being of the community and its members. The realization of this set of shared objectives in some meaningful measure might, of course, provide a context within which people could act virtuously—Christians could take advantage of it to seek fuller communion with God—but it could also benefit non-Christians pursuing the decidedly more worldly ends of personal glory and material self-interest.
This conception of the common usefulness involved an understanding of the moral purpose of the state. For Augustine, the state was restricted to promoting a limited set of intermediate (and instrumental) interests by imposing what he called “earthly peace.” The state, in other words, was not directly ordered toward the promotion of eudaimonia. Rather, its purposes were considerably less ambitious: maintaining peace, order, (religious) freedom, and security, so that citizens of the Heavenly City could seek God even as they were submerged in a world dominated by citizens of the Earthly City.
Two thoughts by way of conclusion. First, I agree with Deneen and MacIntyre that the (liberal) philosophical DNA of the liberal state is constituted in such a way that it will ultimately result in the evolution of a postliberal state that will be truly incompatible with moral philosophies entailing a substantive account of human happiness or fulfillment.
I disagree with them, however, that this necessarily entails abandoning the liberal state as a political project. Rather, what I am advocating is that we find alternative philosophical principles upon which to base a liberal state that will not, because it is no longer an expression of liberal principles, pose a threat to the religious and other liberties necessary for the pursuit of true felicitas.
Second, I would suggest that under contemporary sociological conditions, the Augustinian philosophical wellspring is likely to yield more than the Thomist one. Consider the contexts within which Augustine and Aquinas worked out their respective political philosophies.
Augustine’s late classical world was highly pluralistic: paganism, Donatism, Pelagianism, and Arianism all vied with Catholicism on the battlefield of ideas, and sometimes on the actual battlefield as well. In sharp contrast, Thomas’ late medieval world was characterized by an ambient Catholic public culture that provided a common constellation of political languages, concepts, and frames. While there were sometimes sharp disagreements over all sorts of issues, there was a bedrock consensus regarding the nature and purposes of human life that framed and channeled the way in which politics was both theorized and debated.
Americans today inhabit a world much more like Augustine’s than Thomas’. Perhaps ironically, the Doctor of Grace actually has more to say to us about the desirability and moral propriety of the limited—if not the liberal—state than does the Angelic Doctor.
Andrew A. Latham teaches political science at Macalester College.