In his famous Postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich von Hayek identified Thomas Aquinas as “the first Whig,” and has several times since noted how important it is to distinguish the Whig tradition from that of many exponents of the classical liberal tradition. Among Hayek’s favorite exemplars of the Whig tradition are Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton. It is noteworthy that all three of Hayek’s models are Catholic, and to his list other names can readily be added: Jacques Maritain, Yves R. Simon, and John Courtney Murray.
In important ways, all these thinkers go beyond the usual positions of “liberals.” For example, they have a respect for language, law, liturgy, and tradition that, in some senses, marks them as “conservative.” Still, they believe in some human progress, and they emphasize human capacities for reflection on alternatives and choice among them—characteristics that mark them as realistic progressives. With the liberals, they locate human dignity in liberty, but ordered liberty (just as, for Aquinas, practical wisdom is recta ratio). The Catholic Whigs, then, present a distinctive mix: conservative, progressive, liberal, and realistic.
One of the best ways of seeing the richness of the Catholic Whig point of view is to examine its concept of community—or, rather, its co-definition of community and person. The present purpose is to present thereof a brief exposition.
In the Catholic Whig tradition, a true community respects free persons; an inadequate or false community does not. Correlatively, a fully developed person is capable of knowing and loving; but these are exactly the two human capacities that are inherently communitarian. Note again the co-definition: To be a free person is to know and to love others in community. A community is true when, in the ordinary circumstances of daily life, its institutions and practices enable persons to multiply the frequency of their acts of knowing and loving. False community represses capacities for reflection and choice. True community enlarges them. These are the lessons that guided the new human experiment in the Americas, in the city aptly named for the love of brothers, Philadelphia.
The primal experience of the two continents of the Americas has been the struggle to build new communities. When the first pilgrims departed from Leyden, Holland, to set sail across the great Atlantic for what they would call New England, they knew what they would not find waiting for them. They would not find warm inns with cheerful fires in fireplaces already built. They would not find fields ripe with grain, already protected by soundly built fences. On the contrary, they were pursuing an errand into a wilderness. The work of building up cities and homes loomed before them as a formidable task. Nearly everything they were to have they would have to create themselves. Climate and environment might well be more hostile than they could withstand; certainly no one person alone could survive. The future depended on their ability to build communities, and to build them in such fashion as would take root and eventually prosper.
While they were very conscious, indeed, of building a new world, and even then were beginning to imagine a new order, our ancestors were far from being indifferent to tradition. They brought books, ideas, artifacts, tools, and goods that they could not at first hope to provide for themselves. Even on shipboard, their faces were turned toward the immense tasks of building cities, churches, civic buildings, markets, and even facilities for carpenters, metalworkers, brickmakers, ironworkers, glassblowers, and for all the other crafts and trades indispensable for the fairly high levels of common life to which they had been accustomed.
Our ancestors also brought with them a complex heritage of ideas. Some historians of the American experience emphasize the radical break between the ancient, classic tradition of the “liberal” arts and the modern liberal tradition. The first springs from Plato and Aristotle, the second from Hobbes. The first roots itself in natural law, the second in natural rights. The first holds that humans are by nature social animals; the second holds that in “the state of nature” human is to human as wolf to wolf. By its harshness, the second injected perhaps sufficient realism and an ardent desire for checks and balances, so as to make a new experiment more likely of success. The first grounded better, perhaps, the hope of genuine human progress and success, as proper to the social constitution of the human heart and mind.
Nevertheless, the conflict between these two visions—that of the ancients and that of the moderns—should not be exaggerated. The formal light under which the ancients looked at nature was different from the formal light under which, e.g., Hobbes looked at the “state of nature.” The ancients noted the ideal form of human nature, the human capacity for knowing and loving. These capacities are inherently social. Therefore, for the ancients, humans are (in their capacities, even if not always in their actual practice) social animals. Not all the ancients were idealists, however. There have not been many shrewder realists than Aristotle, who said that in politics we must be satisfied to see “some tincture of virtue.”
And this, precisely, was Hobbes’ starting place. He argued that, apart from civilization, humans showed barely a tincture of virtue. In the pre-civilized state, “nature” displays a barbaric “war of all against all.” The formal light through which Hobbes inspects experience is not historical. He does not mean that once upon a time there was a Garden of Evil (“the state of nature”), the experience of which taught humans at a specific date to value civilization. Rather, his formal light was conceptual, and consisted in stressing the anti-social capacities of those human beings who lack all civilizing virtues. Hobbes thought that in our common life we are never very far from the state of nature, and indeed the experiences of our century have taught us to respect a certain Hobbesian pessimism.
Still, it is much more difficult than Hobbes thinks for humans to be purely evil in all respects. If the horrors of the modern age suggest that human evil is perhaps even more awful in its reach than he imagined, it is also the case that there is a broadly shared human revulsion against such evil. It is not “unnatural” for humans to be moved by the torture, pain, and death of others far away. Thus today, the human rights revolution is slowly affecting nearly all of humankind. In any case, the very scholars who insist upon the sharp divide between the world of Aristotle and the world of Hobbes prize mightily “the better angels of our nature” represented by higher standards of human rights performance.
It is precisely here that the Catholic Whig tradition has a crucial philosophical role to play in bridging the best of the ancient tradition with the best of the modern tradition. In a general way—to state my thesis baldly—the modern “liberal” tradition excelled in devising practical institutional protections for human rights. By contrast, the Great Tradition of the philosophia perennis excelled in casting a more accurate light upon those basic philosophical conceptions that undergird liberal institutions. Put another way, the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and others among the moderns are less than adequate as philosophies. Meanwhile, the philosophies of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others are less than adequate with regard to the practical institutions that would incarnate their conceptions in social structures. The present task of the Catholic Whig tradition is to form a new synthesis of philosophical conceptions and practical institutions that do justice, together, to “private rights” and “public happiness.” This synthesis must join together the full actualization of both the human person and the human community.
It is obvious that the key conceptions here are “person” and “community.” Here the Catholic intellectual tradition, in particular, is able to offer special light. As the German historian of philosophy Wilhelm Windelbrand has pointed out, the concept of “person” is richer than the concept of “individual,” and arose historically from the efforts of Catholic theologians to do justice to the theological statement that Jesus Christ is human in nature but divine in person. Beyond Jesus’ human individuality, theologians had to tangle with the concept of his personhood. Therefore, they thought long and hard about the difference between the two concepts, the individual and the person. It is the latter that adequately grounds the dignity and the rights of every man and woman.
The human person, precisely qua person, is a foundational source of insight and love: autonomous, autarkic, a hypostatic whole, inviolable, inalienable, an end and not only a means. The human person is called directly to union with the One in whose image each has been created. The person, therefore, can never be treated, even by the community, as a means rather than as an end. The very purpose of a true community is to nourish in its midst the full development of each and every person who is among its members. Conversely, it is in the nature of the human person—an originating source of knowing and of loving—to be in communion with others, who share in his or her knowing and loving. Knowing and loving are inherently acts of communion.
Thus the classical view, brought in Aquinas to a fullness that was less developed in Aristotle, holds simultaneously that, in one sense, the inherent end of personhood is communion and, in a reciprocal sense, that the inherent end of a true community is full respect for the personhood of each of its members. A human community, therefore, is sui generis. It is not like a hive, or a herd, or a mere collective. Each of its members is not merely a member, a part of the whole. On the contrary, each is a whole, wholly worthy of respect in herself or himself. Each must he treated as an end, not solely as a means. Each has an autonomous life of his or her own, worthy of infinite respect as a participant in God’s own originating power of knowing and of loving. Each is an agent of reflection and choice. Unless he or she is injuring others, the only way in which a genuine community can approach a rational person is by way of knowing and of loving; that is to say, through rational and civil persuasion, not through coercion, force, or systematic oppression.
Just the same, the classic Catholic tradition, even while working out wonderfully balanced accounts of person and community, tended to tip the balance toward community. Why is this? Perhaps it was because the social, familial, political, and economic institutions that would in later times enlarge the scope of liberty open to the human person remained for many long centuries unknown. Perhaps it was because existing communities were small and their survival was often threatened. (This fact is still visible to us in the thick battlements by which the walled cities of ancient and medieval Europe vainly tried to repel generations of hostile invaders.)
In any case, at least sixty times in his many works St. Thomas Aquinas articulates one variant or another of a classic dictum that goes back as far as Aristotle: “The good of the many is more godlike than the good of the individual.” The example that made this observation cogent to the Great Tradition is the willingness of individuals to die to defend the common good of the city. It is easy to see why the sacrifice of self for the community seemed godlike. But there is also a danger in this formulation. It may suggest to the unwary that the individual is but a means to the survival of the community. Only in extraordinary circumstances, and for a full set of sound reasons, can a community justly ask so much of its citizens. Otherwise, it is wrong to imagine that the individual is always expendable if only the social whole chooses that expedient. Aquinas did not himself accept this dangerously broad implication. He could not, because of his concept of the human person.
Civilization, Thomas Aquinas liked to say, is constituted by reasoned discourse. The difference between barbarism and civilization consists in this: barbaric regimes coerce their citizens, civilized regimes approach citizens through their own autonomous capacities for full consent. Persons are treated as persons only when approached through knowing and loving. For free persons, the legitimacy of government lies in the consent of the governed.
The “consent of the governed” is a political principle, clearly articulated in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. This principle flows from the reality of the human person, an autonomous creature whose essential nature consists in a capacity for reflection and choice. The only appropriate approach to such agents is through reasoned consent. That truth, declared to he self-evident in 1776, was not at that time in fact self-evident to all human beings. But historical experience worldwide, under tyranny and torture, has made that truth increasingly self-evident in our era. All the world recognizes today that any approach through tyranny, torture, or coercion— any attempt to treat human beings as part of a mere collective, as ants in an anthill, bees in a hive, sheep in a herd, or animals on an “animal farm”—distorts and oppresses the true capacities of human persons. Any such regime is bound to be as oppressive, uncreative, and unproductive as it is illegitimate. From many sad experiences, the world has learned that the source of human creativity is the human capacity for reflective choice.
It is therefore a mark of modern thought that it offers sharper and more sustained attention to the nature and the rights of the human person than did ancient thought. Where ancient and medieval societies tipped the balance toward the common good, modern societies have placed compensating weights—and sometimes more than compensating weights—on the side of the person. Modern institutions make this new emphasis practical, concrete, and consequential.
But where should one draw the line? How should one strike a balance? This debate is more than academic. Push too far in the direction of solidarity, and the outcome is the totalitarian collective. Push too far in the direction of the individual, and the outcome is egotism, moral relativism (subjectivism), and a war of all against all. Even among thinkers determined to avoid both extremes, how exactly to do due justice both to person and to community is not easily discernible—not in daily family life, not in the institutions of religion, not in political action, and not in the business corporation. Thinkers of a moderate bent wish to honor both the person and the community, both the needs of individuals and the needs of social harmony. But how, where, and in what degree?
My aim here is not to answer that question in the abstract. Instead, I take a hint from Tocqueville in Democracy in America. Tocqueville suggests that the terms of the ancient debate between the person and the community (between personalism and solidarism, as certain Europeans put it in the 1930s) have been changed by the American experience. The New World is different from the Old World. What we mean by “person” is different here, as well as what we mean by “community.” And the Novus Ordo has accordingly suggested a fresh historical solution to an ancient conundrum.
Alexis de Tocqueville was not only an astute observer; he was also a social scientist of the first rank. And he formulated from what he observed among those he took to be the first people to embody the “new order of the ages” the first “law” of the “new science of politics.” His purpose was to alert Europe to a new tide in human history, a tide deep and wide and directed by Providence, that would soon, or eventually, sweep the whole world. He meant the tide of a new kind of democracy, a democratic republic with an effective respect for the singular human person. A new kind of political-economic-moral order was rising—under the hand of Providence, he thought—and perhaps the most striking thing about this new order was that in it “men have in our time carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of common desires, and have applied this new technique to the greatest number of purposes.” Here Tocqueville called attention to a new reality, one which can fairly be described neither as individualistic nor, quite, as constituting a full community. This new reality is a new form of social life: the voluntary association.
In America, Tocqueville observed, when citizens discerned new needs or purposes, they voluntarily formed committees or other informal organizations to meet them. What in France citizens turned to the state to do for them, Tocqueville exclaimed, and what in Great Britain they turned to the aristocracy to do, in America they formed their own associations to accomplish. Thus they built great universities, museums, and art galleries; sent missionaries to the Antipodes; raised funds for the disabled; put up public monuments; fed and clothed victims of natural disasters, and the like. This new form of social life—never total enough to constitute a fully defined community, but far beyond the power of individuals alone—called for a new “knowledge of association.”
This new “knowledge of association,” Tocqueville explains,
is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others Among laws controlling human societies there is one more precise and clearer, it seems to me, than all the others. If men are to remain civilized or to become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of conditions spreads.
Why association? Because inherent in respect for the human person is respect for the reflectively chosen forms of association that persons create in order to pursue their common interests. In order to constitute a people out of mere masses or mere mobs, such freely, rationally chosen associations are indispensable.
In an important sense (not only an historical sense, as actually happened in the United States), such freely chosen associations are prior to the state. They are prior philosophically and practically. Philosophically, because they ground the social nature of the human person in reflective and voluntary social life, duly proportioned to the human need of proximity, voice, and active participation. Practically, because human beings need immediate participation in the forming of social consent and they also need social protection, lest in their solitary individual selves they stand naked before the power of an omnipotent state.
In short, “mediating associations” or “mediating institutions,” as these voluntarily formed local structures are technically called, are crucial forms of human sociality, and they are prior to the formation of a national society. They are defenses against the state. They are also natural expressions of concrete, fleshly human sociality. Before humans are citizens of states, they are active participants in society.
As Jacques Maritain has stressed, “society” is a far larger and more vital reality than “state.” Only a densely active society with many vital civic associations is sufficiently defended against the state, whose tendencies have historically been tyrannous. Only a society with many vital associations fully expresses the social nature of the person. The new science of association, therefore, meets two basic needs of human nature, one positive, one negative. The social nature of humans gives rise to associations not only because individuals need protection from abuse, but also because they have a positive need for participation and self-expression. In addition, in a way entirely appropriate to the human person, associations come into being through personal consent.
Tocqueville is surely correct: the principle of association is, in fact, the first law of democracy. Without vital mediating institutions, intermediate between the lone individual and the state, democracy has no muscular social fiber; it is a void within which a mere mob is blown about by demagoguery. The strength of a people, as distinguished from a mob, lies in its capacity for voluntarily forming multiple associations of self-government and social purpose on its own. The social life of a people is rich, complex, and strong even before the question of a national state arises.
Even President Gorbachev in the USSR appears to have grasped this. To make Soviet society creative, he must free Soviet persons (at least a little) through glasnost, allowing creative and reflective intellect to flourish. In order to derive legitimacy and creative cooperation from all the people, he must reshape Soviet institutions through perestroika. In order to break through the stranglehold of Communist Party members over every sclerotic institution of Soviet life, he must go as far as he dares to empower the creativity of individual citizens. The source of dynamic power in any human community, in short, is the creativity locked within the capacities of individual human persons for insight and choice.
It is sometimes charged that the Anglo-American liberal tradition is excessive in its emphasis upon the individual and deficient in its philosophy of community. That charge is not quite accurate; still, for the sake of argument, let me accept its burden. Suppose that it is true that the philosophy of the liberal society is inferior to, say, Catholic social thought on these two points. From that it does not follow that the institutional praxis of the liberal society is inferior to the institutional praxis of existing Catholic social orders. It is at least conceivable that liberal societies such as West Germany, Great Britain, France, and the United States pay a more just respect to the rights of persons on the one hand and, on the other hand, to the building up of intermediate social bodies through reflection and choice than do some existing Catholic countries. Explicit philosophy and institutional practice do not always coincide. Indeed, practice may often be better than philosophy. This was the judgment of Jacques Maritain in his Reflections on America: American practices are better, deeper, and richer, he concluded, than American ideology.
Let me further propose the Novak rule of philosophical interpretation. Philosophers (and theologians) often stress in their writings exactly what their cultures lack, and are silent about solid habits readily taken for granted. Thus in Great Britain, where social conformity has long been in fashion, where individuals are supremely sensitive to others around them and have a sort of social conscience internalized within their hearts, philosophers speak incessantly about the individual. By contrast, in Italy philosophers speak incessantly about communita—while practicing an almost medieval and princely self-assertion and exhibiting a fiercely proud individualism that borders on anarchy. Compare in those two countries the social practice of boarding a bus. In London, citizens patiently and respectfully queue up in orderly fashion. In Rome, boarding a bus is one of the world’s wildest adventures in laissez-faire as well as one of its most sensuous experiences. In London, where philosophers praise individualism, individuals defer to others; in Rome, where philosophers praise community, it’s every man for himself. The Novak rule anticipates this turn.
In sum, those who in the long run trust realism and the lessons of vivid human experience—and who hold to first principles such as the “self-evident truth” that human persons are appropriately respected solely when their native capacities for reflection and choice are permitted free play—seem to have been vindicated by human history. “The God who gave us life gave us liberty,” Thomas Jefferson exclaimed, the same point he made in the text of the Declaration of Independence when declaiming on men’s equal and inalienable rights. None of the rights he had in mind are American rights; they are human rights. They inhere in persons—they are the properties proper to human persons—because they were conferred on each directly by the Creator, who made all human persons in His image. Catholic thought adds further that as the proper life of God is insight and love, so also is the life proper to human persons. As God is a person, so are humans.
It is the distinctive achievement of the modern Catholic Whig tradition to have added to the classical perception of the primacy (in certain respects) of the community the modern perception of the primacy (in other respects) of the person. This achievement permits an unparalleled degree of societal concern for the rights, liberties, and dignity of human persons, qua persons (i.e., not because of their opinions, beliefs, religion, ethnicity, or race). But it also nourishes the achievement of a vastly larger number of voluntary associations, a higher degree of voluntary social cooperation, a broader base of love and gratitude for the commonwealth, and a more explicitly consensual national community than was known in ancient or medieval times.
It is more than a theoretical possibility that we can create new social systems—or reconstitute old ones— so that historically unparalleled respect is shown both for individual persons and for the common good. Some three dozen societies on this planet (none of them, of course, saintly or likely to be mistaken for the Kingdom of God) have actually shown such respect, in their institutions and in their daily practice. Though far from perfection, and with each manifesting much to be done before liberty and justice for all are fully served, such societies afford protections for basic rights more broadly and efficaciously than was ever accomplished in any traditional, pre-modern, pre-capitalist, or pre-republican society.
To my way of thinking, the Whig tradition—and particularly the Catholic Whig tradition—offers the world’s best statement of philosophical principles and practical guidelines concerning how and why free citizens should shape new societies worthy of their human rights and ordered liberties. Such societies, to secure these rights, must give primacy to community. But to build true and authentic communities, these societies must give primacy to persons. Both forms of primacy are important. Each is necessary for the other’s definition—and for the other’s flourishing.
To secure the rights of the person, give primacy to community. To build a genuinely human community, give primacy to the person. Such is the Catholic Whig tradition, tutored by the experience of the Americas and shocked by the terrors of the twentieth century. And such, now, is most of the world’s agenda.
Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a member of the editorial board of First Things.
Painting from Library of Congress. Image cropped.