You can watch the 2018 Erasmus Lecture here.
Everybody knows the Decalogue and, in particular, the commandment “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain” (Exod. 20:7). In spite of this warning, we too easily call God “Lord”—nay, we invoke him as “the Lord”—as if such a word were devoid of ambiguity and not badly in need of clarification lest we use it wrongly, which is to say, in vain. What kind of “lord” is God, the God of the Christians? Certainly not somebody who “lords it over” whatever is not himself, namely, the world. No, God is another kind of “lord.” But what kind?
The paradoxical formula kyrios Iesous, “Jesus is Lord,” made the first Christians a stumbling block for pagan Rome. In this use of “lord” we find a hint. The formula is found in the New Testament, word for word in 1 Corinthians 12:3, or alluded to in Romans 10:9, 1 John 5:1, and elsewhere. We can hardly fathom the subversive, nay, revolutionary character of this simple utterance. The real lord is not Caesar, the Roman emperor in all his might and glory, but a powerless Jew who died on the cross the painful death of rebellious slaves.
I will endeavor to see in the face of the crucified Lord the features of a gentleman. I thereby launch into a dangerous enterprise: praising aristocracy in a deeply democratic country. These United States are where my illustrious fellow countryman Alexis de Tocqueville had a short but decisive firsthand experience of a democratic political regime and democratic mores. The experience led him to the somewhat over-simplified division of human societies into the aristocratic and democratic kinds. Although keenly aware of what is lost in the passing of the aristocratic era, Tocqueville was not an enemy of democracy. Neither am I.
My object is to show that Christianity brought about not a demise of aristocratic principles, but rather their generalization. This begins with the Hebrew Bible, in which the Jewish people are said to be “a kingdom of priests.” This is at least the translation found in the King James Bible, indicated by the Vulgate’s formulation, regnum sacerdotale, which renders the Hebrew mamlekhet kohanim (Exod. 19:6). The Septuagint suggests a slightly different rendering, “a royal priesthood,” but the sense is the same. According to Christian dogma, the whole experience of Israel was concentrated and brought to luminous fullness in the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ. As a consequence, the Church tradition since the church fathers has acknowledged the so-called three offices (munus triplex) of Christ: priest, prophet, and king. Christians inherit those three offices and partake in the prophetic, sacerdotal, and kingly offices of Christ. When a person enters Christ’s body—the Church—by his baptism, he is said by the ritual to become “priest, prophet, and king.” Those three offices characterize any human elite: the sacrificial, intellectual, and political roles. Taking part in them sweeps each of us to the pinnacle of nobility.
Noble people do not let themselves be carried away by their whims. This alleged freedom to do as one pleases is rather to be found among slaves, who do what they like as soon as the eye of the master is not upon them. The paradox was already pointed out in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. In a household, free people are rather more bound than let loose.
This is the function of the Ten Commandments. They should be read as elements of an aristocratic ethic. (I sought to show as much in The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea.) The context in which they were given suggests this. They were given to people undergoing a process of liberation. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt and been set free under the guidance of Moses. The rules that were given to them address them as free beings. But after so much time spent in slavery, toiling under the whip of the warder, they had acquired bad habits of servility and could hardly get rid of them without some treatment. As a consequence, their newly acquired freedom was fragile, easily lost. Among other harsher remedies, the Ten Commandments were meant to salvage Israel’s freedom by staving off whatever could menace it. What at first blush looks like bondage (a catalog of duties) in fact protects freedom.
The exclusion of any other deity—the idea of a “jealous God” who doesn’t admit any other before him—can seem like tyranny. Yet, what kind of God is this exclusive one? He has just defined himself as the God “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2). This God sets his people free; he is a liberator. Worshiping another god would bring human beings back to slavery. No other god than the one who sets mankind free should be adored.
Let us try to read the Decalogue with the eyes of Bertie Wooster or of Lord Emsworth, the memorable characters of P. G. Wodehouse. The “commandments” are something like the code of honor of free people, of gentlemen who are aware of “what is not done.” Hence, their negative formulation: “Thou shalt not.” A gentleman does not bow down to a graven image nor serve it; a gentleman does not tell fibs; he does not toil all the time but grants himself and his manservant a day of rest; he honors his lineage; he does not mingle in dirty business like killing, cheating on his wife, or pilfering; he does not even stoop to look at other people’s property.
The third commandment, the one requiring us to observe the Sabbath, strongly suggests nobility. It supposes that the person who must obey the command is in possession of servants, male and female, as well as animals. Just so, Bertie Wooster gives his valet, Jeeves, a day off so that he can go shrimping. In a word: no life of mere drudgery. This runs counter to the contemporary fad for endless working and earning money. The Ten Commandments insist that we all should belong to the leisure class. True, we have to work in order to make a living. But we should not live in order to keep the rat race going. Furthermore, not only rats, but the household animals too are granted some rest by the third commandment. The horses or oxen that pull the plow and the donkey that carries loads are not machines, but living beings that deserve some respect.
The fourth commandment is of special importance for an aristocratic ethic, since what defines noble people is that they had good parents: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exod. 20:12). This is, says St. Paul, the first commandment with a promise (Eph. 6:2). This commandment departs from the pure form of the moral law, which is sheer, naked ordering, by adding a reward. Here we need to beware of importing a Kantian prejudice. The commandments are not orders that we should obey in order to be awarded a prize. The promise serves rather to unveil the inner logic of human action. We can live and possess the earth, whose products make our life possible, only if we honor what comes before us, including the earth. We can rightly say that this commandment teaches us not just to respect our parents, but to respect Mother Earth, as well.
How does the gentleman abide by this commandment? He pays frequent visits to the gallery of ancestors that adorns the manor. There hangs a long series of portraits, beginning with the first who received nobility. For the true nobleman, this foundation is supposed to have taken place early, as early as possible. More often than not, ancestry reaches back to the legendary. That said, even if we get back to a remote past in the history of a noble European family, we hardly get further than, say, the Crusades.
Well, this is not a big deal if we compare the manor gallery with the biblical or scientific account of ancestors each and every human being possesses. Adam is the common forebear of mankind in its whole. And the probable Adam of paleontologists lived in Africa many millennia ago. Furthermore, the species of living beings to which we belong, homo sapiens, is itself the result of the interplay of causes that we give the moniker of evolution. This process hails back to the origin—Darwin’s half-dreamed-of “warm little pond,” heated by the sun—in which the adventure of life began. In fact, it even stretches back to a far remoter point, to the formation of Earth, and even to the very first step, the so-called Big Bang.
We are called to honor this very long gallery of ancestors in its fullness, not just our fathers and mothers. How can we “honor” this chain of begetting and being begotten that disappears into pre-history, and earlier still, the chain of creation’s fecundity in producing and being produced? Let me give you two hints: First we can acknowledge the legitimacy of our lineage. An aristocrat doesn’t call into doubt his or her own genealogy. For him, his ancestors deserved their noble status, because they behaved boldly and well. In the same way, that which brought about our own existence is commendable, which is to say, basically good. Second, we can honor what produced us by ensuring the continuation of the story, thereby implicitly acknowledging that it was not launched in vain at the outset. A gentlemanly outlook on life will insist, warmly if necessary, that Being was not an unfortunate accident.
Let me now venture a further step. The Ten Commandments were issued for free people by a free God, by a gentleman-God, by a “gentlegod,” if you will allow me to coin this word. What are the characteristics of this God? How does he behave in a gentlemanly way? Let me show this in creation and providence, beginning with a parable.
Let us imagine a very simple scene, one that takes place a thousand times a day in large cities. As I am walking on the curb, a perfect stranger comes up to me and asks for directions. Since I am familiar with the surroundings, I tell him: “Straight ahead, then you make a right, and the street you are looking for is two blocks on the left.” The person thanks me, and I answer him: “You’re welcome,” “My pleasure,” or words to that effect. We part without further ado. And yet, something is missing in this exchange. I have not introduced myself. I haven’t even thought of doing so. Why? Because this would have been of no help to the fellow who asked for directions.
Furthermore, doing so would amount to bad manners. Imagine adding at the end of the short sentence by which you explain where the fellow will have to turn, “Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you something important: My name is Smith, John Smith.” The stranger would think, “Well, never mind, Mr. Smith, I have got what I wanted to know.” He would probably, at most, pay me lip service with a cordial “Thank you, Mr. Smith.” But at the same time he would likely think in the recesses of his heart, “What a prig!” In any case, I would not have behaved as a gentleman and could hardly claim to be one.
Now, consider another sketch. Suppose the person whom I met in the street kept his hand on his cheek because he had a toothache, and he told me that he was looking for the address of a dentist. Suppose, further, that I happened to be just the sort of person for whom he was looking: I am a dentist. In this case, I would have given him my name, perhaps even my card. Moreover, if I’d had my calendar on me, I might even have taken a look at it, seen that I had no appointments that afternoon, and told him to follow me immediately to my office.
These two parables help us understand how God behaves in creation. How is it that God is not evident in his creation? To be sure, we can find traces, intimations of the existence of a wise and powerful being, and this is what St. Paul tells us we should look for (Rom. 1:20). Yet nowhere on the created reality can we read, printed black on white, “Made by God” or “Copyright: God.” Why is the divine so demure?
The answer rests in God’s intentions in creating. If God is a Giver—and even the Giver—who acts out of sheer generosity, then what he wants for us is to take, to accept, the gift. By and large, we can use what we are given, what we receive, in the right way, without God having to give us instructions for use. We can breathe in the air, drink the water, and so forth. He has given us the necessary tools—in Greek, the organs—and the necessary information, which is to say our instincts, and they enable us to receive the gift of creation in the proper way. This is enough. God is not interested in advertising for himself or in strutting about under the applause of angelic cheerleaders. To be sure, the Bible speaks of God’s glory, and the Christian acts, to quote St. Ignatius’s motto, ad majorem Dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God.” But what does God’s glory consist in? St. Irenaeus of Lyon answers: “the glory of God is the life of man” (gloria enim Dei vivens homo).
There are times, however, when things are amiss, when we suffer the toothaches, as it were, of sin and death. In these circumstances, since what we badly need is redemption, not dental care, God must reveal himself, just as did the dentist of my story. God gives us his name, and even his card. This is exactly what happens in the Decalogue. It begins with God introducing himself as the liberator and goes on with a prescription of sorts. Under the New Covenant, he even enters human history to redeem humankind, which badly needs a cure.
Our need of a cure enables us to answer the vexing question: Why does Christianity pay so little attention to the animals? To be sure, we have St. Francis of Assisi and his sermon to the birds, his Canticle of creatures, and the wolf of Gubbio. But as a whole the Bible, and especially the New Testament, tells us little about living beings other than humans. Plants and animals crop up in parables: lilies, doves, mustard trees, wheat, and serpents are mentioned. But they are examples of behavior expected of human beings, hardly more. This is often seen as a flaw in Christianity, a shortcoming in contradistinction to Buddhism, which includes the whole range of living beings in its religious preaching. This observation, which quickly becomes an objection, is at least as old as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but it has been put forward against Christianity ever since by lesser minds.
The response is a simple one. In the Christian view of creation (and, before it, the Old Testament’s), animals are OK. They can shift for themselves and pursue what is good for them as individuals and as a species. We human beings are the problem. We—and only we—are not as we should be. We are ill and need a physician. The Middle Ages were perfectly aware of this humiliating fact. Francis of Assisi reminds us, “All the creatures which are under the sky serve their Creator, know Him and obey Him better than you do.” This is succinctly expressed in the Middle English poem by William Langland, Piers Plowman: “Reson rewarded [looked after] / And ruled alle beestes, / Save man and his make [mate].”
Creation establishes things as they are. Providence oversees their careers through time. Here, too, God acts as a gentleman, not giving out his card unnecessarily. This is because he governs in accord with the principle of subsidiarity, a notion first formulated with clarity by Pope Pius XI in the early 1930s. He did so in order to refute the claim of the totalitarian state to govern every aspect of social, familial, economic, and political life. In that era, Italian fascism claimed, through the voice of the philosopher Gentile, “everything within the state, everything for the state.” Against this absorption of all social forms into the state, Pius XI insisted that human society consists of several layers. There is the elementary cell, or the family, in which new individuals can come to life and acquire their full humanity. There is civil society, with its economic relationships of give and take, buying and selling. The state has a role as well, one that ensures that the rights and duties of people are taken care of, but this role is limited.
To maintain a differentiated social order, the principle of subsidiarity stipulates that each level must be left alone to fulfill its task in its proper way, without interference. In particular, the state is not allowed to take the education of children from the hands of the family, and it should not take from civil society the organization of the market. On the other hand, the different levels of society can’t always solve their own problems. When this happens, it behooves the higher level to lend a helping hand. For instance, the state can assist the families in their duty of educating their offspring by funding a common system of schooling. It helps civil society’s role in making markets by establishing rules that will ensure that nobody cheats and contracts are honored.
The rise of totalitarianism motivated Pius XI to formulate the principle of subsidiarity as an element of the Church’s social doctrine. But the content of the principle is far older. It governs the whole realm of God’s action toward creatures. He gives his creatures whatever is necessary for their well-being: gravity to heavy things, instincts to animals, intelligence to human beings, and more. He refrains from interfering, unless strictly necessary, and when he does, it is for the sake of restoring to his creations their self-governing capacities.
We can say that this divine principle of subsidiarity is the very spirit of gentlemanliness. A gentleman doesn’t take from the hands of his subordinates what they can do on their own. He trusts them to do what they can do—and refrains from doing it himself. A gentleman relies on his gentleman’s gentleman to look after his dinner jacket and give him a last brushstroke before he enters the dining room. (By the way, the very term for a valet, “gentleman’s gentleman,” is itself fraught with meaning and furnishes us with a precious hunch: The valet is a gentleman, too.) The contrary of this attitude of gentlemanly trust is well expressed by the German language: Besserwisserei, or “You won’t do that properly, I’ll do that for you.” As a doctrine of providence, this sort of compulsive interference is exactly wrong. God is not meddlesome.
This gentlemanly approach gives us a clue as to how to think about what is commonly called the problem of evil—which we should rather call the mystery of evil. This is not a theoretical question, but a practical one. What is important, what we really care for, is not to explain evil away, but to do away with it. We would rather get rid of evil while forgoing any plausible explanation than arrive at a neatly done, convincing justification of evil and have to live with it forever.
Any discussion of evil puts one on thin ice, and I will venture some careful steps. What is the real good for humankind? Pleasure is only the sign of the proper functioning of a bodily process that aims at preserving the individual (eating, drinking, warming oneself, etc.) or sustaining the species (sexual pleasure). As such, pleasure is a good, but not the good. Happiness of this sort is a psychological state, which, in itself, is morally neutral. On the other hand, what is the real nature of evil? It is moral; evil is vice, the perversion of our natural gifts. Pain and wretchedness are bad, always and definitely bad, but they are not the worst things that exist.
Providence doesn’t protect us from what is not ultimately bad for us, what doesn’t constitute a threat for our highest good, which is salvation. This is not because God doesn’t pay attention, averts his gaze, or simply is not there. Instead, God knows that mankind can shift for itself. We are free beings, hence we are able to know the good that we should do, and we have a clear awareness of the evil that we should avoid. At least in principle, we can choose what is good and reject what is evil. We possess the weapons we need to combat moral evil.
There is physical evil, too: earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, and so on. Again, mankind can manage, provided we take the human species in the whole of its unfolding through time. This will include future improvements in the knowledge of natural laws, which will in turn enhance our capacity to thwart the dire effects of physical evil, as indeed has been the case throughout man’s history. From this point of view, we should condone technological progress, not blindly and as a whole but to the extent that it empowers us against physical evils.
This does not mean that God remains always aloof. Where, for some reason, the subordinate is not able to do his job properly, the gentleman doesn’t leave him in the lurch, but helps to restore proper function to the best of his abilities. This attention to the needs of those below is expressed, in a nutshell, by the beautiful, albeit now slightly ridiculous formula in our democratic age: noblesse oblige. Nobility is not an asset but almost a liability and, in any case, a duty.
The most extraordinary application of this principle occurs when God has to intervene in human history because mankind is very much in the lurch, having been debilitated by sin. Here we come back to the paradox I mentioned at the beginning: a crucified Lord, a Lord who shows his aristocratic nature on the Cross. Those are deep waters whose exploration I prudently leave to theologians.
I fear all this talk of nobility seems outdated, and readers are wondering about the concrete upshot of all this talk about God behaving as an aristocrat. Aristocracy belongs to the past. It is now the object of aesthetic enjoyment, perhaps tinged with a bit of nostalgia for people who watch “Downton Abbey”—though in truth the huge success of that BBC series suggests such a life has enduring appeal. Aristocracy is the object of the dreams of people who read about princely weddings in the magazines they peruse while waiting at their hair salons. It is hardly the subject of serious political thought these days, let alone a program for political action.
But is the debate between democracy and aristocracy definitely over? I don’t think so. This is not because I cherish the ancien régime; I don’t mean to plead against democracy in favor of aristocracy. To the contrary, I wish to revive reflection on aristocracy for the sake of democracy itself.
Let us begin with an important fact: What we currently call “democracies” already contain aristocratic elements. For us, the principle “one man, one vote” has acquired the strength of a self-evident justice. Yet, according to Aristotle, the first student of politics, who lived in what we would call a democracy, voting is an aristocratic feature, whereas a pure democracy requires choosing the magistrates by lot. This offers a hint that our democracies should understand themselves as generalized aristocracies. We live in regimes that consider every citizen to be worthy of voting, which is to say, each is a nobleman of sorts. David Hume said, “Every man must be supposed a knave.” This is not the democratic principle, which says, “Every man must be supposed able to live up to his or her own inner nobility.”
This is not an inconsequential difference of opinion. In today’s world, a clear and present danger is the emergence of two-tiered regimes in which an elite few don’t even think of the existence of the run-of-the-mill many, and when they do, the elite increasingly deride them as vulgar and unworthy of their leadership. One symptom of this widening divide is the rise of so-called populism. So-called, or rather called so by the elite. In this development, we suffer a double loss. On the side of the many, we see the loss of a consciousness of one’s own nobility. On the side of the elite, we see the loss of the consciousness of what the motto noblesse oblige involves.
Why have things moved in this direction? I suggest that it rests, at least in part, in a widespread tendency among elites to presume vulgarity and look for any possible reason to humiliate man. The Austrian engineer and novelist Robert Musil put his finger on this strange phenomenon as early as 1930, in his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. There, he describes the mindset of scientists of his time in ironic terms. Here is their program:
To see in goodness only a special form of egotism; to bring under the same heading the emotions of the soul and bodily secretions; to establish that man in his eight or nine tenth is made of water; to explain away the famous moral freedom of character as an appendix of free trade which automatically arose out of it; to bring beauty back to good digestion and satisfactory adipose tissues; to translate begetting and suicide into statistical curves which expose what looks like the freest decision as something forcible; to put on the same footing anus and mouth as the rectal and oral ends of the same thing.
What the novelist captured so well in pre-war Austria is now rampant in the whole Western world. Our elites have a reductive habit of mind when it comes to their general assessment of the human condition. Meanwhile, there exists something entirely opposite, a transhumanist dream in which the would-be elite will translate their monetary superiority into a permanent, physical superiority by enhancing their powers with the use of genetic or electronic devices. We may ask whether the idea of human dignity, the generalized ascription of nobility to all members of the human race—and ultimate ground of our sacred cow, human rights—will be able to resist the buffets of this double assault.
We Christians have an alternative: Our dignity is rooted in our relationship to God. A gentlemanly God ennobles whatever he creates and whomever he redeems. He who refuses him must either wallow in vulgarity or dream to lord over his neighbor.
Rémi Brague is professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.