The Words of Political Modernity

The words we use often have many meanings. A reader or listener may take a word for one meaning, while the speaker or writer may intend another. Speakers and writers, indeed, will deliberately use this confusion to accomplish their ends. The word “equality,” for example, may mean that each person has the same status before the law, but it cannot mean that each individual has the same intelligence, virtue, or weight.

We frequently hear it said that all people should live under essentially the same “form” of government. What is wrong with the world is that we have different governments. Thus, our foreign and domestic policy should strive to place everyone under the same “form” of rule. This thesis implies that something is wrong with forms of rule that do not conform to this “standard” now universally understood to be the best form of government.

In this perspective, governments really ought not to differ much. Everyone has the same “rights.” All should live in a “democracy,” with a rule of “law,” a free economy, and a government whose purpose is to guarantee these things.

Behind these institutions are the ideas that define and support them. The principal ideas are those of “equality” and “choice.” Everyone has a “right” to make himself into what he wants himself to be. No natural or divine law exists. Man is free to define himself. No definition of man is “wrong” except one maintaining that natural and divine law exist.

This latter view is “intolerant.” It claims that a “truth” defines what man is, so that the human purpose is to find and live these laws of human being. In the new dispensation, the purpose of man is not to become “virtuous” but to exercise his “rights.” To maintain that truth “exists” is a form of “fanaticism.” Government exists to suppress “fanatics” and punish “hate-language.” This is what “freedom of religion and speech” now means.

The modern world is ruled by “values,” not “duties.” “Values” are, in principle, subjective. Since no natural law exists, no definite “values” exist. “Values” are what we choose, not what we know. We can thus never agree on our “values.”

The Nivolet Cross, in the distance,
seen over a statue of Rousseau near Chambéry, France

Likewise, “rights” are what are owed to us. Since we are “free” to “choose” what we mean by “right,” the government we set up “democratically” is obliged to give us what is “owed” to us, namely our “rights” as we define them.

We are thus required to “tolerate” each other’s “rights.” The one working “value” of a “democracy” is that we “tolerate” everyone’s “rights.” Is it ever “right” to do “wrong?” This is a meaningless proposition. “Right” and “wrong” have no objective status. But surely to kill is wrong? Not if it interferes with my “right” to “choose.” We can “democratically” decide that such a “right” is established to become a “rule of law.”

The free “market” of goods is parallel to the free market of people. No political boundaries are allowed to interfere with the extension of these “rights” and “values.” Foreign policy is designed to allow everyone to “share” in these “rights.” No one should be prevented from living where he wants. Everyone has a “right” to vote in any election as everyone is “equal.” We should have only one government with universal jurisdiction and a universal police and military contingents to enforce our “rights” against the “fanatics.”

Between the state and the individual, consequently, no institution should exist. The family and institutions of what is called “civil society” are to be replaced by government rule based on “rights” and “values” in a “democratic” manner. “Democracy” means majority rule. No remnant of aristocratic or natural law ideas should remain operative against the “will” of the majority. Morality means the “will” of the majority. For the time being, many must be “forced” to be “free” as fragments of religious and civil prejudices remain widespread.

The government is responsible for the good of Earth and all “citizens.” A citizen is one who rules and is ruled by the “democratic” state in pursuit of universal “rights” and “values.” Since the good of the Earth makes possible the good of man, the government decides what is possible to man by its estimation of what the Earth can support. The good of the Earth so judged decides the good of man and what “rights” he can enjoy.

The words of political modernity imply a world-state enclosed on itself. Man now “comes of age.” Nothing exists in the world but what man puts there. He is finally “free” to be himself with nothing but himself deciding what he is.

We might have only one hesitation about this final construction of man. When we so spell it out, it sounds like nothing so much as what might be called, in Aristotelian terms, a freely chosen “democratic tyranny.”  

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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