Political Realism

Monsignor Ronald Knox knew it as “Enthusiasm.”  Saint Thomas More called it “Utopianism.”  Joachim of Flora preached it as the “Third Age.” A host of modern philosophers are associated with various strains of secular chiliasm. A corollary of this worldly redemption: If the Duce, or Fuhrer, or Vozhd, or Great Helmsman changes the political or economic structure in a way that is sufficiently revolutionary, there will be peace. And progress. And prosperity. And paradise.

All that is needed to restore Eden – seen by progressives as a political paradise – is trust, perfect confidence, in the one who leads. Prelapsarian joys will be ours once more – those “gifts,” as Walter Miller, Jr. wrote in Canticle for Leibowitz, that “Man had been trying to seize by brute force again from Heaven since first he lost them.”

Let us, then, dispense with immortal God and anoint mortal god, a Hobbesian Leviathan, who will dispense legal “justice” according to his pleasure and who will distribute economic goods as he wishes. Miller, again: “But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that, there would have to be infinite love as well.”

By contrast, the great scholar of international affairs Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980) taught generations of students a theory of “political realism” – a challenge to an American society often given to a romantic and quixotic view of politics – of happy endings in sixty minutes of television programming.

The traditional Catholic wisdom (that this is a vale of tears from which we require supernatural salvation) was not and will not be readily received by Pelagian progressives eager hear the siren-songs of political figures promising secular rainbows after a few minor alterations in, well, everything.

Despite the admonition of Jeremiah: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” [17:9], and the Gospel’s similar understanding of human imperfection (Jn 2:25, Mk 7:21), the utopian or millennialist ideology insists that human nature, like gender, is infinitely malleable and conveniently manipulable.

Hans J. Morgenthau by Ralph Morse, 1963

Morgenthau taught that “politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.”  Aeschylus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristotle – and the Old Testament – are understandable to us precisely because human nature does not change.

Therefore, Morgenthau believed that politics is understandable if we grasp the fact that interests are defined in terms of power. The coin of the political realm is not the motives of, or the handshakes between, leaders. Hope, as someone once said, is not a management tool.

We err grievously, as the Church used to remind us, when we expect political programs to eliminate power and to harmonize all interests. Wise politics is about the management of power, not its elimination. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men,” observed James Madison, “neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Because we cannot expect a society of angels, we need government; and because we cannot expect angelic regimes, we must oblige government to control itself.

But if we must be aware of the exigencies of power, we must also, Morgenthau told us, be very much aware of moral obligation.  Morgenthau was neither nihilist nor antinomian.  He believed that public leaders had to exercise prudential judgment, as does the Catechism (2309, 1897-1904). The tension between might and right will persist until the Parousia.

“There is a world of difference,” he wrote, “between the belief that all nations stand under the judgment of God, inscrutable to the human mind, and the blasphemous conviction that God is always on one’s side and that what one wills oneself cannot fail to be willed by God also.”

As Pope Pius XI wrote in 1937: “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power. . .and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.”

Similarly, Morgenthau claimed: “A man who was nothing but ‘political man’ would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints. A man who was nothing but ‘moral man’ would be a fool, for he would be completely lacking in prudence” (cf. CCC 1806).  The drama of politics always plays out on a moral stage. There is a kind of dualism at work here, for we must remember and respect both the consequences of political action and the moral law according to which we must judge the action itself (CCC 2242).

The essence of tyranny is to arrogantly abandon the moral law of the City of God which is written, in inchoate form, on our hearts (CCC 1956), thus becoming political Frankensteins, creating a monster statecraft.  Utopianism indiscriminately renounces the political, military, and judicial power that are ineluctably part of the City of Man, creating a maudlin statecraft.

Realism, Morgenthau believed, it is at its best when prudential leaders wisely seek to keep political powers separate in national politics and to keep such powers reasonably balanced in international politics.

Another political realist (and theologian), Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1932 that “Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life, will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.”

As Hebrews succinctly teaches: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (13:14).

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous articles, books, essays, and reviews, including multiple columns in The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Imaginative Conservative, One Peter Five, and The Wanderer. He taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has also served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy.