“The Masterpiece of the Natural World”

The above title is a citation from Yves Simon’s A General Theory of Authority. Whenever I read the paragraph in which these words occur, their profundity strikes me. Their background is contained in this sentence: “The joy of the creator assumes unique intensity when the thing out of which the work of art is made is human flesh and soul.”

Simon had in mind here not simply a painting of a human being but a polity in which the subject matter was rule over free and virtuous human beings as free and virtuous. This rule was to bring together human health and well-being (virtue) through the free understanding of the ruled and the ruler about what was best to be done both in general and in the particular circumstances to make concrete what human life ought to be.

Aristotle said that the common good was more “divine” than a private good. Simon notes that “divine” means, in context, imperishable. As mortal, individual human lives are perishable. We die. But the human species that carries on down the ages through begetting is in its own way also immortal.

The human soul, but not the body, is immortal. Indeed, the cosmos seems immortal, though it had a finite beginning. Likewise, the polity is immortal. It lasts longer than the lives of the mortal citizens who constantly come in and go out of existence.

“The masterpiece of the natural world cannot be found in the transient individual. Nor can it be found in the [logical] species [man], which is not imperishable except in the state of universality, but in that state it is no longer unequivocally real.” What does Simon mean here?

The masterpiece of the natural world would be a reality wherein the natural virtues of free human beings could be actually lived in real lives. This reality is the civil polity with its authority. I do not bring up this topic because I think we are anywhere near to such a noble purpose. In fact, I think we are going away from it rather rapidly. After all, Aristotle, as must we, accounted for both the best and the worst existing polity.


Man, when he is good, is the “best” of creatures; but when he is not, he is the “worst.” What it is to be a good human being is not simply whatever we want to make it to be.

The “idea,” man, is an abstraction that states the bare essence of what it is to be human. It abstracts from Peter, Paul, and Sarah, in whom real human life exists. The human race as such might perish, but the idea of what a human being is will remain the same so long as there is mind to think it.

This is why Simon says that, in this state [of abstraction], man is “no longer unequivocally real.” To clarify, Simon then adds: “Human communities are the highest attainment of nature for they are virtually unlimited with regard to diversity of perfections, and are virtually immortal.” He is talking not about what God has in mind for us in eternal life but what, in this world, is the purpose of the “highest of the practical sciences,” as Aristotle called  politics. 

The polity, at its best, was designed that men bring forth the perfection of their knowing and artistic capacities within an order that allowed them to pass individual lives benefiting from the temporal and spiritual goods made possible by different persons bringing forth differing accomplishments and perfections, yet making them available to each other.

“Beyond the satisfaction of individual needs, the association of men serves a good unique in plenitude and duration, the common good of the human community.” This “common good” is not a separate “being” into which individual persons are somehow subsumed. Rather it is a “good” that recognizes that each citizen also has a transcendent destiny that is not merely political. Moreover, the polity itself exists as a relation of order among men, whose being, whose substance, grounds the polity’s reality, which cannot exist without them.

The highest activity/being in the natural order is free arrangement of men about what is good brought together in an actual polity where it is no longer a mere abstraction. This is, as it were, the inner-worldly purpose of our being on this earth. The polity itself, however, is, or should be, organized in such a fashion that the transcendent finality of each individual person is recognized as operative in him.

But the transcendent city is also social. It is the Kingdom of God wherein personal and communal lives are joined in such a fashion that they participate in the inner harmony within the Godhead itself, the Trinitarian life, in which we see God and one another “face to face.” 




James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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