Natural Law and ‘The Person’ at Agora

by Ralph C. Hancock

I’m back! (I hope that doesn’t sound like a threat . . .)

I’ve already given one report at Patheos.com on Christianity and Modernity at the Agora Institute (a propos of an excellent conference in Philadelphia last weekend).  Among 16+ excellent participants, you might know Mark Schiffman, Sherif Girgis, Chris Tollefsen, Steve McGuire (who I imagine got me invited — thanks!),  I was especially fortunate to have Richard Velkley, who shares my interest in the Strauss-Heidegger connection, assigned to comment on my paper on “The Claims of Subjectivity and the Limits of Politics.”

This snippet might serve as a statement of my basic argument:

Philosophy is the natural (albeit rare) extension of this natural interest in conceiving the whole, which cannot be severed from our interest in understanding our place in the whole (and the whole’s place in us), from man’s interest, as Tocqueville says, “in grasping himself.”

We are political beings because this natural interest in understanding the whole and our place in it can never be consummated. This failure fully to grasp ourselves or the elusive whole in which we find ourselves leaves us dependent upon the conventional wholes — the practical orders — which precede us and in which we live, breathe and have our being. Politics is the natural (albeit not effectively universal) extension of our awareness that the conventional whole whose authority precedes us can be conceived as an arena of human reflection and choice. 

We are beings open to — or vulnerable to — the claims of revealed religion because neither poetry, nor philosophy, nor politics can fully respond to our interest in understanding the whole and our place in it, in grasping what is and in grasping ourselves.

The paper that most fascinated me was by Brad Lewis of Catholic University, “Personalism and the Common Good: Thomistic Political Philosophy and the Turn to Subjectivity.”  Brad expertly related the dispute between Jacques Maritain (and friends), who endeavored to “personalize” Thomism in order to embrace the spiritual truth of modern liberal democracy,  and the old-guard Thomism of Charles De Koninck.  Now, as usual in such disputes, one might well say that both sides had valid criticisms of the other. De Koninck was certainly much more confident than I could be that moral limits on individualism can be deduced from or at least firmly grounded in a naturally available understanding of God’s nature. But he seems to me to make a very important (and, in the event prescient) point by warning against the tendency of “personalism,” however spiritual in intention, to devolve in practice into what the personalists took to be its opposite, “individualism.”  

The fragility of “personalism,” I was led to argue there in Philadelphia, leads us to the root of the problem of Christianity and politics: Personalism is true, but all too subject to derailment (to use a good Voegelinian term much in play at the conference).  

I could not help observing that the Maritain–De Koninck debate seemed to me to anticipate the earth-shaking gigantomachia of the Walsh-Hancock debate of the early 21st century. (You don’t know what I’m talking about?  David and I enjoyed two extended, probing, and to me very satisfying exchanges in the pages of Perspectives on Political Science, first in relation to his Modern Philosophical Revolution, and then to my Responsibliity of Reason.)  Short version: David is more existential, and I am more political. He a little more Voegelin, I a little more Strauss. 

I should mention, since we’re on my friend Peter Lawler’s turf here, that the whole discussion made me wonder just how or to what degree his emphasis on “personality” ties into the French tradition of personalism (via Walker Percy??).  And my critical question to Peter would run parallel perhaps to De Koninck’s to Maritain and to mine to Walsh: Is it helpful to play up the person’s transcendence vis-à-vis the concrete moral contents of a political-historical community? The person, like the Trinity, is “relational.”  But either the person disposes of his/her relationships from some autonomous (spiritual?) standpoint, or the certain relationship have a given and authoritative content (familial, for example), that must in practice be regarded as prior to personal transcendence, as informing it and providing personality a meaningful, authoritative ethical context.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.