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Rev. James Schall

For the truth of knowledge is measured by the knowable object. For it is because a thing is so or is not so that a statement is known to be true or false, and not the reverse.—Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 5,1.17, #1003

A people that were to honor falsehood, defamation, fraud, and murder would be unable, indeed, to subsist for very long.—Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?,” June 1948[1]

I’ve come to the damndest watershed in my life—done what I wanted to do in the novel, with linguistics, children grown, sitting down here in the Louisiana autumn. Everything quiet. What now? It would be a good time to die, but on the other hand, I’d as soon not. It’s all very spooky. Life is much stranger than art….—Walker Percy to Shelby Foote, May 14, 1972[2]

Human things are not divine things. Feuerbach says, brashly, that divine things are the product of human things. Plato and Aristotle describe human things as open to, but not identical with, divine things. They also intimate that it is human, as much as we can, to seek divine things. Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est. The man who sets out only to be human somehow becomes less than human. We ignore the highest things at our peril. Human things are finite, incomplete; nonetheless, they are real and worthy. They are worth keeping. Their very imperfection, indeed their perfection, implies something beyond themselves, some abiding unsettlement or restlessness, as Augustine reminds us. Though we have here no “lasting city,” we still found cities, preserve them, refashion them, sometimes destroy or abandon them. We are often, as Chesterton said, “homesick at home.” Still we first need homes that abide so that we might know what this curious homesickness might indicate about our human condition.

But human beings can do unworthy things, things both against human things and against divine things. To be unable, in principle, to choose and to do evil things, however, would necessitate a contrary incapacity to do gracious things. The drama of human existence would disappear if either of these peculiar capacities were lacking to us. We would, compared to what we are, be dull, bored beings. Our contentment would be like that of the animals, whereas our actual discontents point beyond us, to the gods. Rewards and punishments have their basis in human reality, in the consequences of exercised freedom.

The cities of men are set up to reflect the souls of men who compose them. If there can be disordered souls, there can be disordered cities. In fact, the maximum disorder in human things reflects itself most clearly and most dangerously in the worst regime. But the origin of this disorder is not in the city itself; it remains in the soul, in that part of the soul that can do “otherwise.” Reforms of cities, both for better and for worse, begin and end in reforms of souls. Much of modern political thought has been a deliberate effort to avoid, to obscure, or to deny this truth. Unless we conserve this same truth, however, we will not know what we are. Knowing what we are is the first thing we must keep. To love is to keep.

A city that is disordered, however, implies the existence, at least in speech, of a city that is not disordered. “Fraud,” a disorder, means that we recognize what is not fraud, that it need not have been, but is. The city that is completely ordered, the best regime, is the main “philosophic” concern of politics insofar as it reflects on its own experience, on its own unique activities. The exact location of the best regime is the true mystery of political things. Politics, by being politics, brings us to things that are not merely political, to things in the order of what is. The best regime of men, because it is rare, implies the best regime of the gods, the City of God. In revelation, God is, as it were, using Aristotle’s phrase, “a social and political being,” a Trinity. God is neither lonely nor in need either of the world or of us. “Will men be like gods?” has always been, since Genesis, a question formulated against God, a question that implied that men thought that they could make themselves better than God created or redeemed them. This claim to autonomy over what man is, in the tradition, has always been called “pride.” It means the claim that man is the cause of his own being and of all that is not his own being, including the gods.

In revelation, man is made in the “image” of this triune God. That is, he is not himself, by himself, a god. His relative perfection does not consist in becoming something else other than what he is, though what he is implies his responsibility for becoming this best. Otherwise, he would not be what he is, a being free enough either to reject or to attain what he is. Neither in the state of nature, nor in the household, nor in the polity, nor in the City of God is it “good” for man to be alone. Man comes to know what he is through reflecting on what he does. Agere sequitur esse. How we act follows from what we are. The being of man implies the good of man. His being is given, but not by himself; his goodness he must choose to bring about in himself. “Man does not make man to be man,” as Aristotle already knew, “but taking him from nature as man, makes him to be good man.”

Machiavelli, in a famous passage, asked us to pay attention not to what men “ought” to do, but to what they “do” do. We are, he advised, to reject the ancient philosophers and to listen to the modern ones, to himself. He did not flinch at describing some rather terrible things that men do to each other. Doing such things, indeed, he thought, could be “useful.” He explicitly rejects Socrates’s standard that “it is never right to do wrong.” Machiavelli is said thereby to have introduced observation and accurate foundations into politics. In other words, he made politics “scientific,” as Hobbes was to attempt to do more systematically some century and a half later. Both thought that they reduced human things to the lowest possible denominator and, on this basis, constructed political things independently of moral things. The “improvement of man’s estate,” to use Bacon’s phrase, could now be contemplated as a product of our own making if we did not expect too much, if we “lowered our sights.” We could become more democratic by becoming less noble. We could do this in the name of modern “science.” Human things were to be modeled on non-human things so that among human things we could have the certitude of natural things. This “improvement” was to be achieved at great cost.

But, paradoxically, men and Princes who “honor falsehood, defamation, fraud, and even murder” not infrequently last for a longer time in power than even a scientific Einstein seems to anticipate. How is it, if these are disordered acts, that they last at all? Is time necessary that the results of our acts might become visible, even to us? Politics is the public space in which the results of our acts, good or bad, appear. Machiavelli’s Prince, to recall, was empowered with such “tools” as lies, defamation, fraud, and murder precisely so that he might be “successful,” so he and his new political regime would “last.” He was “liberated” from the restrictions of what we “ought” to do, from the bonds of virtue, so that he might be successful in staying in power. If this new Prince took the “measure” of men, it was so that he might measure and manipulate them for his own purposes. The Prince was not “measured” by anything but his own criteria. He was not only a new Prince; he was a “new man,” an unmeasured, unlimited being. Man was “for himself.” Science, when applied to politics, eliminated what politics was about because the methods of science were not proportionate to the subject matter of political things.

Can we find and remove the “causes” for such disorders as lying, defamation, fraud, and murder, assuming we agree that they are disorders? Revelation was aware of the perplexity of these matters under the rubric of “the Fall.” It implied that both politicians and scientists could themselves manifest these disorders; that is to say, there was no political or “scientific” cure for them—which did not necessarily mean, that there was no cure at all. Could there be a reality whose activities are not subject to scientific method, which sees only what such method allows it to see? “Reductionism” means, briefly, to identify all reality with what scientific methods allow to be considered. If the method does not reach something, it is assumed not to exist. This is a radical narrowing of reality. Culture, religion, philosophy, in some sense, mean the preservation both of science and, more especially, of what science cannot reach by its own peculiar methods.

Those who “lie, defame, commit fraud, and murder” do, moreover, give us reasons for their acts. Their reasons are designed to make such acts seem noble, necessary, worthy, justified. This explication would not be necessary if such acts were simply what they are, if they did not call attention in their very being to their opposites, to truth, honor, honesty, and the dignity of life. These same Princes who practice these newer politics likewise complain if these deviant methods are used against themselves, even if they think “all men do them.” Doesn’t this reaction seem odd? Does the denial of a standard indicate the existence of a standard? Machiavelli’s Prince, in his own terms, might be “successful” for a time, even a long time, among virtuous Princes. But a Machiavellian Prince among Machiavellian Princes—what advantage does he have?

Ought we then to conserve not only the record of our noble deeds but also the record of our heinous ones—monuments to both kings and tyrants? Or is it possible, as C. S. Lewis intimated in a remarkable little book, a book largely about science and literature, to “abolish” man?[3] And this “abolition,” as Lewis conceived it, is not the result of necessary cosmic forces or natural disasters but of the development of man’s knowledge, of his brain, of his science, along with, perhaps, the corruption of his will. This abolition is the product, in other words, of man’s own choice, of his free will. Is the ultimate proof or indication that man has liberty, in other words, his very scientific choosing not to conserve himself as what he is? Is he initially ill-made in such a way that his own remaking can claim to improve on the divine things that are said by the classical authors to be the highest things about him?

When we have done all we set out to do, why, in Walker Percy’s words, is it a good time to “die”? Is there a finite completion to life due to us, a “four score years and ten,” as Scripture implied? Cicero also seems to think so in his famous essay “On Old Age.” Is death itself, then, something that we should “conserve?” Or is death’s elimination, just like altering the processes of begetting and birth, a proper object of science? Would it be an improvement if scientists replaced this “four score years and ten” man with a four-hundred-year-old man? Is extended length of time an improvement on everlasting life in the revelational sense? And why is life “stranger than art”? We distinguish art and life, yet Aquinas remarks that living things, indeed all things, are the products of the divine “art.” They all betray the classic questions: “Why is there something, not nothing?” “Why is this thing not that thing?” Things do not “design” themselves, though many things are subject to man’s re-furbishing powers. Michael Behe points out that the human eye, for example, is itself so intricate, so complex that it could not simply have happened or resulted from slow, statistical forces.[4] It betrays a design not of its own making. This is presumably why, reflecting on what he learns about the eye, a man can invent eye-glasses. Does man himself betray the same principle? If he “makes” himself, is he still himself?

Art is a human thing, the relation between what we want to make and what we do make. If art or fiction were stranger than life, where would such art or fiction come from? Among us, art seems to come after life; among things, art seems to come first. They are what they are, not of themselves. Knowledge does not measure knowledge. Existing things measure knowledge. Truth is, as Plato said, “to say of what is, that it is, of what is not, that it is not.” And what measures things? Especially, what measures human things? Can human beings, as Einstein, the scientist, seemed to think, do things that are not human? If they “must” do them, or if they are as good as their opposites, what do we have to complain about, or even talk about? Our complaints imply a standard, a rule. Our talking implies an effort to distinguish among things. We seek to know, knowing we do not know.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, perhaps the greatest of the modern books that distinguish science and politics, Burke comments on those, like Empedocles among the ancients and Buffon among the moderns, who want to use geometry and mathematics as principles of politics. “When these state surveyors came to take a view of their work of measurement,” Burke writes,

they soon found that in politics the most fallacious of all things was geometrical demonstration. They had then recourse to another basis (or rather buttress) to support the building, which tottered on that false foundation. It was evident that the goodness of the soil, the number of the people, their wealth, and the largeness of their contribution made such infinite variation between square and square as to render mensuration a ridiculous standard of power in the commonwealth, and equality in geometry the most unequal of all measures in the distribution of men. [5]

This is why Aristotle had already told us that we should not expect more certitude of a science than the subject matter of that science could yield. Yet, because human things cannot accurately be measured by mathematical or other scientific criteria, it does not necessarily follow that human things have no proper measure of their own.

Human things, the things that came forth from reason and will, are as such true only “for the most part.” Why is this? It is because of the variety of circumstance and condition in human things, because there are many different ways to do almost anything good or bad. No two human acts, either of good or evil, are exactly the same. Yet they come to be by human agency. Thus, there is an area or aspect of reality that is unique to human living, that could not exist without it. It exists because human beings exist, the reality of things that proceed from human knowledge and will. The practical sciences, as Aristotle called them, investigate the reality of things that need not be, the things that can be “otherwise,” things that proceed from human acting and causing. If these things could, at any moment, have been otherwise, we cannot study them as if they were things that would always betray the same properties and activities. We cannot exactly anticipate ahead of time what they will be. The variety of human things, including political things, thus, is more complicated than the diversities of natural and cosmic things. But once human acts have been put into reality, it always remains true that they exist in this way, not that way.

What kind of a good is science? Science, Aristotle says, is a perfection of our minds, of our knowing. But it is the knowing not of ourselves but of what is not ourselves. We know ourselves only in knowing what is not ourselves. We seek to know that things are, how things are, why they are as they are. The modern development of science, however, as Leo Strauss perceptively observed, came up against one curious obstacle.

After some time it appeared that the conquest of nature requires the conquest of human nature and hence in the first place the questioning of the unchangeability of human nature: an unchangeable human nature might set limits to progress. Accordingly the natural needs of men could no longer direct the conquest of nature; the direction had to come from reason as distinguished from nature, from the rational Ought as distinguished from the neutral Is.[6]

This remarkable passage sets the agenda for Lewis’s “abolition” of man. It may be that the unchangeableness of human nature is not a “necessary” thing that cannot be otherwise but a moral thing that we make otherwise at our peril, at the cost of what we are. We can do; it is possible to do what we ought not to do. If we do, the cost of our so doing is to live with our choices, with the world made by ourselves.

The “natural needs of men” meant that they could learn what they are, even if they did not make themselves, by observing in themselves what they naturally need and strive for. If, however, what man is turns out to be itself an indifferent object of science, itself absent of any norm for its being the way it is, then man no longer is measured by the being he is given. The “Is” of man’s nature is not “neutral,” as Strauss intimates. For it implies that man does have a natural measure that is not simply the product of his own “Ought” now released from nature and dependent solely on his own constructive, or artistic, “reason.” Henceforth, the “reconstruction” of human nature in the name of progress will be in terms of, ironically, “human rights,” themselves presupposed to nothing but what the autonomous intellect, individual or political, seeks to put in place. The “rights” of man are divorced from the “being” of man and turn upon it. Human nature is no longer itself a “measure,” even though we can compare what science now proposes when it is no longer blocked by an “unchangeable human nature,” with human nature as it manifested itself in history. We can know, in the name of progress, that we have not improved fundamental things.

There is an analysis of modern conservatism, though not the only one, that makes it merely a more cautious version of modern liberalism; neither the one nor the other is based on any “unchanging” norms.[7] If some aberration comes into existence for a long time, if it is reduced to habit or custom, it becomes something embedded, something of the past, something, yes, of human nature to be preserved. Custom can be as arbitrary as revolution. There is no reason that what men “do” do cannot itself become a habit. Habits and customs can be good or bad; they require a standard of judgment. Often, as Burke also implied, evil habits or customs can in practice be changed or modified in such a way, still using the same words or manners, that they no longer bear the disorder in which they first appeared. But this approach is not an argument about making things that are evil to be good, but rather about how disordered things can be best modified slowly, in practice. Oftentimes, the effort to change things quickly, even evil things, rather than gradually, produces, as St. Thomas observed, not improvement but something worse. We are as responsible when our good ideas produce evil as when our bad ideas have the same result. But to understand the difference between good and bad results, we need ideas that are at some level standards, measures, permanencies.

“We cling to permanent things, the norms of our being,” Russell Kirk once observed, “because all other grounds are quicksand.”[8] Conserving and keeping are as noble enterprises as discovering and finding. It is perhaps more of a feat to conserve good institutions (or good habits) than it is to form them in the first place. What is glorious about our minds is not merely that they exist, but that they put us in contact with the world. Since we can forget or reject what we have learned, there is a place for keeping, conserving what we have learned about ourselves and about the world that is not ourselves but within which we live. Permanent things, first things, common things—such things remain even in our own rejections. But it is the function of any true keeping of things that what is kept is kept because it is worthy. This does not deny that we should know the aberrations of ourselves and of our kind as a permanent lesson to us. But the emphasis is on the fact that human things must be conserved, deliberately kept.

J. M. Bochenski once gave a vivid illustration about the relationship between the “laws” of the mind and the “laws” existing in things, and more especially about the fact that the universal laws are related to concrete things. In the world, he says,

laws are really valid. Let us take the following example. When an engineer plans a bridge, he relies on a great number of physical laws. Now, if one would assume, as Hume does, that all of these laws are only habits of mankind, or more precisely of this engineer, then one must ask how it is possible that a bridge which is correctly planned according to proper laws will stand solid, whereas one in whose planning the engineer has made mistakes will fall apart. How can human habits be decisive for such masses of concrete and iron? It seems as if the laws are only secondarily in the mind of the engineer. Primarily they are valid for the world, for iron and concrete, totally independent of whether anyone knows something about them or not.[9]

If the laws of engineering are derived and known from reality, no less so are the laws of human nature. The primary difference is that the iron or the cement has no choice but to be what it is when correctly placed in a bridge. Human beings have to put into effect the laws of their own being. They are like a bridge which knows how to build itself, and a pari, how not to build itself. If they make a mistake, the bridge will not stand. If we reject our being, we do not cease to be, but we do cease to be well.

In his What Is Philosophy?, Martin Heidegger cites the following passage from Plato: “Plato says (Theatet, 155d): ‘For this is especially the pathos [emotion] of a philosopher, to be astonished. For there is no other beginning of philosophia than this.’”[10] What is astonishing about the bridge of Bochenski’s engineer is that it works. Who would ever think, looking at it, that a bridge comes from the art that is not stranger than life? What is even more astonishing is that not all bridge designs work. It is possible to err. There is a difference between a good design and a bad one. The origin of the good design or the bad design is the same; it is found in the mind of the engineer. The engineer, in this sense, is an “artist.” It seems amazing that things work, yet we know they do when constructed properly. But, to recall Walker Percy, “life is stranger than art.” That is to say, why should human life be able to make a bridge? And once a bridge as an idea is formed, many different kinds of bridges can be made. The first mystery remains the connection of mind and being.

“Attempts are often made to convince people that we have reached the twilight of the age of certainty in the knowledge of truth, and that we are irrevocably condemned to the total absence of meaning, the provisional nature of all knowledge, and to permanent instability and relativity,” John Paul II remarked in an address to Rectors of Polish Universities.

In this situation, it appears imperative to reaffirm a basic confidence in human reason and its capacity to know the truth, including absolute and definitive truth. Man is capable of elaborating a uniform and organic conception of knowledge. The fragmentation of knowledge destroys man’s inner unity. Man aspires to the fullness of knowledge, since he is a being who by his very nature seeks the truth and cannot live without it. Contemporary scholarship, and especially present day philosophy, each in its own sphere, needs to rediscover that sapiential dimension which consists in the search for the definitive and overall meaning of human existence.[11]

What is implied here is that we need not, on the basis of evidence, accept the movements and philosophies that end the twentieth century as definitive of the human condition. Man does have an inner unity. He can develop a coherent set of principles that do explain reality. The meaning of his own existence need not be completely obscure to such a degree that he can know nothing of himself or of the world.

One of the burdens of classical political philosophy was to convince the busy politician that there was reason to let the philosopher philosophize and that even though he might be, like Socrates, a gadfly, if not a nuisance and a disturber of the peace, his life and activity were important to the polity itself. What the classical politician was not so aware of, and this is the situation of the century we now enter, is not the corrupt politician but the philosopher who rejects what is. Or to put it in another way, it is the philosopher who has corrupted the politician and encouraged him to put into effect ideas that involve the radical reconstruction of man contrary to any good that is inherent in his being.

The modern political tyrant, like Callicles and Alcibiades among the ancients, is liable to praise the philosophy of his youth. He is likely to have things going for him, personally and politically. The twentieth century has been peculiar because its worst tyrants were often themselves philosophers. The combination of politician and philosopher came to exist in a most unfortunate manner. Is there anything more dangerous than this? It would seem so. What would be worse would be politicians, busy about their own ways, attuned to the philosophers who themselves deny any possibility of knowing truth, of knowing what we are, of knowing anything but what we make, including our polities.

And yet we ought not forget that in classical thought, to know evil things is not to be evil. That is to say, as Eric Voegelin remarked, there is a certain salutary good in seeing that the ideologies developed in the early modern period and carried into effect in the twentieth century have reached their intellectual limits.[12] They have nowhere else to turn but on themselves or back to reason and revelation. It is the task of conservatism not just not to forget our deeds but also not to forget the ideas that caused them. This cannot be done without attention to human measure, to standards of what it is to be human. No doubt the twenty-first century’s greatest heresy will arise out of the effort through ecology and environmentalism to gain complete control of man, of begetting and of dying. Thus, in the confused name of ongoing earth, nothing in life is left unregulated or uncontrolled by a narrow and demanding vision of some new man. He is to be completely formed by an aberrant science, which will decide who ought and who ought not to exist. The “abolition” of man recalls man. It is the task of the philosophic side of philosophic conservatism not merely to preserve and to keep the measure of human things, but to recall what men do when they forget this measure.

In Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, written at the close of the nineteenth century, we read: “When the anarchist, as the mouth piece of the declining strata of society, demands with a fine imagination, what is ‘right,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘equal rights,’ he is merely under the pressure of his own uncultured state, which cannot comprehend the real reason for his suffering—what it is that he is poor in: life. A causal instinct asserts itself in him: it must be somebody’s fault that he is in a bad way.”[13] The mission of conservatism and philosophy itself is to preserve among men that it is not somebody else’s “fault that he is in a bad way.” If men preserve but one truth—namely, that if man is in a bad way it is his own fault, not somebody else’s—it is enough to begin to preserve and to keep the measure of human things even in the third millennium. The truth of knowledge is measured by the knowable object. Life is stranger than art. Homo non proprie humanus sed suprahumanus est. The cities of men reflect the souls of men who compose them.

Books by Fr. Schall may be found at The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Winter 2001).


1. Ideas and Opinions (New York,1954), 51.
2. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, ed. Jay Tolson (New York, 1997), 167.
3. The Abolition of Man (New York, 1962).
4. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York, 1996).
5. Ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Indianapolis, 1987),152–153.
6. The City and Man (Chicago, 1964), 7.
7. See Charles N. R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought (New York, 1963), 243–250.
8. Enemies of Permanent Things (La Salle, Ill., 1984), 61.
9. Philosophy—An Introduction (New York, 1972), 14–15.
10. Trans. J. Wilde and W. Kluback (New Haven, 1956), 79.
11. “Meeting with Rectors in Toru” (June 7, 1999), L’Osservatore Romano, English, 16 June 1999, 8.
12. Conversations with Eric Voegelin (Montreal, 1980), 16–17.
13. #34, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1968), 534.

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