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To link spiritualism, political philosophy, and play together is, at first sight, rash. What could they possibly have in common, since they clearly are not the same?…

Spiritualism seems to me absolutely right on all its mystical side. The supernatural part of it seems to me quite natural. The incredible part of it seems to me obviously true. But I think it so far dangerous or unsatisfactory that it is in some degree scientific. It inquires whether its gods are worth inquiring into. A man (of a certain age) may look into the eyes of his lady-love to see that they are beautiful. But no normal lady will allow that young man to look into her eyes to see whether they are beautiful. The same vanity and idiosyncrasy has been generally observed in gods. Praise them; or leave them alone; but do not look for them unless you know they are there. Do not look for them unless you want them. It annoys them very much. –G.K. Chesterton, “Spiritualism”

God as being beyond experience, that is, the primacy of God over religion. If God is a being in Himself, independent of His being experienced by man, and if we know about this being from what is revealed in Torah and prophecy, then the theoretical exposition of that which is known is possible in principle, which means theology. To this extent, theology is the expression of simple and unambiguous piety. –Leo Strauss, “The Holy”


To link spiritualism, political philosophy, and play together is, at first sight, rash. What could they possibly have in common, since they clearly are not the same? Mysticism relates to our contact, if we have any, with the “mysterion,” with the mystery that lies at the threshold or ground of all finite beings, among which we are. Religion is a natural virtue, pietas, an aspect of justice. It is our effort properly to relate ourselves to God as the origin of our existence in terms of what we “owe” for what we are and receive, something obviously that can never be fully repaid. This latter fact, our inability adequately to respond to the reason of our being, is why the virtue of religion is related to, but not exactly the same as, the virtue of justice. Justice seeks to repay exactly what is due. Religion thus is conceived as related to justice, yet something beyond it, a kind of noble effort to do what we can for what we are, an expression of our acknowledgment that we exist as finite beings.

We do not exist in mere justice. If we existed in justice, it would mean that God, out of some deficiency in Himself, “owed” us the “to be” that we possess and that keeps us out of nothingness, something that we are intuitively aware that we cannot do for ourselves. It would also mean that we could adequately “repay” the good of existence itself that has been granted to us by the cause of our existence. In this sense, it would imply that we ourselves are equal to the Godhead, a dubious proposition however tempting to human nature. Already here is the sense that existence itself is something that is rooted in an abundance, or even “super-abundance,” as Aquinas noted, a realm of non-necessity, yet of real spiritual and even material depth that may indeed have much to do with the strange vastness of the cosmos itself. Even natural religion hints in its sense of its own inadequacy that, for comprehension of this reality, what we deal with approaches love, something simply “given,” not something that is “owed.”

But as Leo Strauss says, God is primary even over religion, over our natural understanding of how, with rite, mind, or discipline, to relate ourselves to what is not ours to establish or fully to define with our own powers. Natural mysticism is the experience of being taken up into the mystery of what is, whatever it is. Still, we cannot a priori exclude the possibility that the mystery we seek to know will first seek us, that it itself contains the plenitude of being that we call “person,” or even “persons.” As we read in Psalm 94:6. “Cannot he who made the ear not hear?”

This fact that God is “primary over religion” touches on the mystery that might explain the classical questions that we each must ask at the risk of not being what we are: “Why do I exist?” “Why am I not something else?” “Why does everything possible not exist?” The very fact of these questions brings up the Aristotelian questions of whether the world is made “in vain” and whether God is “lonely?” If the world is indeed made “in vain,” no further questions need be asked, nor are they even sensible. But if they are not “in vain,” we must be alert, listen, consider what is proposed, even from revelation. And if God is “lonely,” perhaps He needed the world to exist, but perhaps this is not the only explanation of why it exists.

Likewise, we need a criterion to be sure that that to which we orient ourselves is not diabolical, granted that there are both evil and good spirits to which we might be attracted. The fascination of evil, both the attraction to it and the naming of it, is not something that can be adequately accounted for by the simple denial of its existence. Thus piety has the connotation of an orientation to the true God, an awareness of the fact that false gods and false prophets can rise among us, even in political terms. This reflection brings up the further philosophical question, and I think it is a philosophical, not theological, question, of whether there be any criterion by which we might be protected from making such a mistake of identifying what is in fact evil with what is good?

The historical function of dogma, I suggest, falls within this area. Just why is not a “suicide bomber,” who, in all sincerity, successfully kills himself and a hundred others in the presumed name of his Deity, as noble and holy as any other witness to the divinity? The only real answer to this question is that there is a natural law and that grace presupposes nature. If our theology gives us a God who is pure will with no roots in being, what is good is simply arbitrary and can become evil simply by will.

The political order acknowledges that we are mortal beings whose activities in this world reveal our souls. The political life is man’s proper life, though not his highest life. The political life, as such, by being itself, points to something beyond itself. It is adequate for what it is capable of doing, but not for doing everything related to human purpose and destiny. If man were the highest being, Aristotle told us, politics would be the highest science. But man is not the highest being. Yet, he is open through the very nature of his intellect to the highest science, to a knowledge of the reality which he does not constitute.

As Aristotle also said, one of the candidates for the definition of human happiness is political power and honor. Modern ideology in one sense is a mystical absorption into the vision of man-for-himself, autonomous man who spends his energies on what it is to be human, even seeking to “reconstruct” it so that it would, supposedly, be “more human” than the being given by history, nature, or nature’s God. When this sort of this-worldly mysticism occurs, the world is closed off from the divine, from the transcendent what is.

But the underside of politics, its normalcy and necessity, as it were, its fragility, as Thucydides taught us in the plague and the revolution of Corcyra, is seen most clearly when political order breaks down. Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes generally happens when a political order breaks down from natural or political causes. The coercive force of law is also needed for most people, for virtue, not as its essence but as its support. In a natural or political or military disaster when the infrastructure of a society is almost completely destroyed, we see astonishing things. Robberies, looting, killings, greed, selfishness come to the fore. We usually also see acts of heroism and generosity though often there is no criterion or willingness for distinguishing the two.

When the normal structures of a city are destroyed and the political leadership overwhelmed, corrupt, or incompetent, we realize that political order is a needed and welcome thing. But it cannot exist without its being created, maintained, and fostered. “Man is by nature a political animal” means at least that he needs to build a city, that is, a constitution, an order of law and procedure by which the necessities of life are provided for and maintained. We have no “right” to this order apart from our efforts to bring the city forth and maintain it. And some regimes in their structure, as Aristotle constantly noted, are better than others, both absolutely and relatively.


Play, like creation itself, indicates what before us is unnecessary yet fascinating. Aristotle said that play was like contemplation as it also was something “for its own sake,” something beyond necessity. Nor is everything “for” something else. At the end of the game, we have time for praise and celebration, even for the honorable losers. The loser does not abdicate his humanity by losing but learns another side of reality, what it means not to win. The loser also plays according to rules. He is necessary to the game. This realization suggests that the order of the universe contains what happens in it in order that the full scope of being may be manifest. At the heart of disorder is the reality of freedom such that the freedom to reject the good must be contained within the whole’s purpose and be ordered to it. Wherever this story is told, Socrates said to the jurors who voted for his condemnation at his Trial, they would be remembered as those who voted to kill the philosopher. He was right, of course, and without their vote we perhaps should never have had Plato and all he brought into the world. Yet, it was a terrible but free vote.

Games are not played for the primary purpose of the exercise of those who play them. They are played for themselves. They are played to win. In their unfolding and completion, they are what is fascinating. They need not be, but are. Games belong to the realm of superabundance. We do not “need” them to keep ourselves alive, as we need food and water. Yet we delight in them because of what they are. The grass that grows on ball fields is not lawn, nor do sheep graze on their grasses, in so far as it is not today artificial turf! Half the world watches the Olympics or the World Cup. Most of the nation watches the NCAA basketball finals or the Super Bowl. The British watch the British Open and the Australians the Melbourne Cup. It is not because they have nothing else productive to do. The spectators are there to see what unravels before them; the players are there to see who wins, according to the rules. The referees are there to enforce the rules so that the game is the game.

Why is it, in G.K. Chesterton’s happy phrase, that no normal lady will allow a gentleman to look into her eyes to see “whether” they are beautiful but will allow it because he “sees” that they are beautiful? Beauty, like thingness, one, truth, and good, is a transcendental affirmation of being. Omne ens est verum et bonum. Quod visum placet. The predicate adds to the subject that already is a relation to mind or will. There is no more to be said of beauty than that it is beautiful, but still, that needs to be said. And even when we explain beauty’s proportion, radiance, and form, we still recognize that what is there is beyond our explanation. Knowledge both limits by defining this thing to be not that thing and opens us to what is still there beyond our definitions. Beauty takes us out of ourselves simply because it is already there. We behold it. We are astonished that something we did not or could imagine is there, before us. We do not create it. We rejoice that what is not ourselves exists as it does and as do we, beholding it. And in so acknowledging, we admit into our being what is not our being. Our mind is capable of knowing all things. We can be more than we are.

Our games need not exist, yet they absorb our attention in their unfolding. They take us out of ourselves into their own time and place and drama. We are curious about this experience of our loving games almost as much as we are by our experience of loving beauty. Often they are the same experience—“what a beautiful shot!” “What a beautiful dive!” We are aware of more than simply what is when we can say of it that it is true, or good, or beautiful.

The industry of making football gear, football stadiums, even football rules and regulations does not exist before the game. They exist because of the game itself. The game causes them to be as they are. A great coach or manager knows the rules of the game; he can talk them, recall them, argue them, to his friends. But this theoretical knowledge by no means guarantees that he will win the game, as other coaches and managers also know the rules. We can have the stadium, the rules, the uniforms, the football itself, the coaches, the referees, but still not have the game until the teams are on the field, ready to play—hopefully, according to the rules—seeking to win.

Man is a multi-experienced being. He works, he prays, he plays, he thinks, he laughs, he makes, he governs, he dies. Aristotle said that happiness included a “complete” life. He meant that all of these aspects of his given being ought to be exercised for him to be what he is. The purpose of the polity, Aristotle also tells us, is not just that we may live, but live well, not just that there be a good, but a common good. The living well is not apart from our own knowing and choosing what it might mean to “live well.” By his very existence, man finds himself already human, a fact about which he had nothing to do. Man did not first conceive what it is to be man. His task then is not to make himself a man, but a good man. He is likewise free to make himself a bad man. Not a few do. It is the mark of civilization to be able to tell the difference. The first concern of the legislator, Aristotle told us, is virtue.

Is what happens in the universe closer to games than it is to the workings of machines? What would this similarity between game and universe imply? C.S. Lewis used the happy image of the “Great Dance” to describe what goes on in the universe when if finally reaches its purpose. It is a “beatific vision” but it is also an overflow in being, in human being. What seems to be “necessity” may be closer to “doing something again” just for the delight of it. This latter was the great image that Chesterton used of the sun rising each morning. We may think that it is necessary and therefore uninteresting. Chesterton remarked that natural laws may well be more like a child wanting to be thrown up again and again simply because it was delightful.

Behind such images is the great theological truth that the world need not be, but is. This un-necessity brings us to the further question of the reason we have finite, intelligent being in a vast but finite universe? Is what is ultimately there to be beheld? “Celebrations,” Aristotle said, “are for successful achievement, either of body or of soul” (1106b33). That is to say, celebrations are left to be begun when all else is done, when we have won. Is it not remarkable that the fascination of the game, when we do not know its conclusion, ends in celebration when we do know how it turns out? This is the arena of the “Great Dance.” The definition of God is “I am who am.” Only this existence can explain the “Great Dance.”


Augustine, in a famous passage in book seven of his Confessions, tells the Lord that he has loved Him “late,” perhaps very late, even too late. He confesses to looking for God everywhere among those “beautiful things” that he found in his world. But these were not God. Yet, Augustine knew that they were beautiful. He later learned that they were also dangerous, or could be. That initial experience seemed enough for a while. Yet, they did not explain themselves either, the beautiful things. From whence, their beauty? Augustine tells us further that God had ever been present within him, only he did not notice it. He had been looking in the wrong place. He did not mean that he was God. Augustine was quite aware of his own personal finiteness, though it seemed to drive him constantly outside of himself, as if he himself lacked something even in being what he was.

We might wonder what on earth was God doing in Augustine’s soul? Why would a self-sufficient, all-powerful being bother with turbulent Augustine and his striking vanities? Surely, if He were more clearly there, Augustine would not have had to look for Him elsewhere. Moreover, Augustine has to tell God what he has been about, not always edifying things. He thinks that even when he was enjoying the various and beautiful things, he found that they were not God. Still, he was looking for Him. He was unaccountably “restless.” Why? Not just because he was more greedy or unsettled than most, though he probably was, because he was perplexed that he found himself looking for something in spite of himself.

Augustine’s own experience, rightly considered, indicated that something in the actual being that he, Augustine, was did not encounter an adequate object or fulfillment or presence. He was, but he was not complete in being what he was. This was his reflection on his experience. The places he looked were fine enough, beautiful, in fact, but systematically, as he tested them with his own resources, they seemed curiously inadequate. The “is-this-all-there-is?” syndrome was very much uppermost in his mind. It is an experience that can easily lead to despair, to the suspicion of existing in a world with no meaning, but with a faculty that demands meaning.

Augustine can be called a Christian mystic in the tradition of Plato and Plotinus; the scene in the Confessions at the death of his mother, Monica, is proof enough of this. His encounter with things was real enough. Augustine was neither a pantheist nor a Stoic who wanted to identify himself with the all that was the world because the world was divine. His quest was not a return from a fallen state to the Paradise from which he had been expelled. There was the via negativa in Augustine—this is not God, nor is that.

Augustine implicitly knew that he would recognize what he was looking for when and if he found it, just how he was not sure. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord.” Augustine dimly was aware that his search for God was posterior to God’s search for him. His was not a lonely quest, or better, a quest for aloneness. He knew of pride. He also knew of “the city of God.” The universe was not filled with God and Augustine, though evidently everything that is mattered, including Augustine. How a human being “matters” to God is evident after the manner of what a human being is. The search was “face-to-face” as Paul put it, but both God and man remained what he was in the exchange.

However, the world itself need not exist. Hence, Augustine did not need to exist, nor his loves. Again to recall the play image, Augustine’s “confessions” indicated to him that he had not been playing the game according to the rules inherent in human reality. One must want to be what one is. Political Augustinianism has ever stood for the fact that the most we can expect from the kingdoms of this world is not much. At best it is an effort to keep down the worst in us. Augustine did not expect too much of politics, but he vividly knew that some regimes were better than others. Augustine’s is a clear and almost brutal description of what does go on among kingdoms and principalities, yes, empires and republics too. We will not find in any actual polity anything that might be confused with Plato’s Republic or the City of God.

Yet, Augustine sought for what Plato alerted us to in his city in speech. Just because the kingdoms of this world, however necessary and real they be, were not the locus of this city in speech, it did not mean that the endeavor to describe it, anticipate it, seek it was in vain. Quite the opposite, one could easily lose himself in this beautiful city in speech. But Augustine was no mere Platonist in this sense. His realism was closer to Aristotle. Nor did he think that the mystery of human disorder was located in the fact that we did not know what it meant to be good. Our reason could and did tell us much of this what it is to be good. Rather the difficulty was in the fact that, knowing what it is to be good, we still are not good. Augustine is not the first great analyst of the will for nothing. The mystery was more in our wonderment about why we did not do what we knew we ought to do. This perplexity brought him to the Christian context of grace and redemption. What was to supply what was lacking?


Mysticism, political philosophy, and play serve to relate the transcendent to the human through the setting of the cosmos in which we find ourselves. Pope Leo the Great (d. 461 A.D.) in a sermon on the Beatitudes, remarked, using the words of St. Paul:

What mind can conceive, what words can express the great happiness of seeing God? Yet human nature will achieve this when it has been transformed so that it sees the Godhead ‘no longer in a mirror or obscurely but face to face’—the Godhead that no man has been able to see. In the inexpressible joy of this eternal vision, human nature will possess ‘what eye has not seen or ear heard, what man’s heart has never conceived.’

I cite this particular passage because it is quite clear about the two aspects of mysticism—that we seek to see “face-to-face,” the mystical encounter is personal, and that to achieve this purpose, human nature must be transformed, something it cannot do by itself. The passage also understands the limitation and the purpose of words before mystery, their inadequacy and their necessity. All words point to the being to which they refer. No word is the being itself. This insight posits the paradox of “the Word made flesh” and curious desire to see “face to face.”

Political philosophy, in its broad extent, accounts for what men do in the cave, what they do during the revolution on Corcyra and during the plague in Athens. That is, it does not allow us to pretend that what men do “do” to each other, to use Machiavelli’s famous phrase, is not a poignant fact of our historical record. If there is to be a redemption, it must be within this context of what has happened and does happen, both through natural disaster and human initiative. On the other hand, once human and civilized living has been established because the city is ordered, human nature is brought to leisure. That is, the question arises, “What do we do when the necessities and amenities are provided, even with our own work and cooperation?”

Aristotle mentions the politician who has himself not learned anything of the intellectual pleasures, for what is worth knowing and doing for its own sake. He said that such a political man would in all likelihood seek more base pleasures, something that can be easily documented in the biographical history of not a few politicians. Such an observation leads to the less attended fact that perhaps the intellectual and theoretical failures are more dangerous to any polity than natural disorders and even what are usually called sins of the flesh. Aristotle had suggested that intellectual disorders are often the products of moral disorders. That is, intellectual theories are the result of efforts to justify our actions. This effort can be very subtle and in one sense constitutes the history of philosophy. It is at this point where the question of the dogmas of what God is are most pertinent to the life of the city.

The polity itself is not a subject, not a substance, not a person, but a relation of order among beings each of whom personally transcends the city’s own order. The polity does not and cannot “see God” face to face or in any other way. What “sees,” or at least can see, are the individual citizens who bear the reality of the polities of this world. In this sense, the polity is ordered to what is beyond itself without itself thereby becoming unnecessary to the human purposes of the mortals who compose it. The polity cannot survive without at least some who are devoted to things higher than the polity. The place of the mystic in the public order is but an aspect of the place of the philosopher. The politician can rid the polity of such a threat if the contemplative life is perceived as undermining the actual existing polity. This is what the state-sanctioned deaths of Socrates and Christ were about. This dire consequence means that the politician stands at the crossroads between mysticism and human things. The politician can be absorbed in himself, in false gods, in making the polity itself to be God. In each of these cases, he betrays both his own vocation and the city he is to serve.

But even in the virtuous politician, politics points beyond itself. We can hope to render the politician benevolent to the mystic or philosopher without making him (the politician) to be himself a mystic or a philosopher. But with the advent of the teaching that the purpose of authority is to serve and not to be served and that the love of neighbor is a direct consequence of the love of God, we can and do find politicians who reveal a kind of mystical service to those they serve and support. Mysticism is not merely the participation in the outreaches of the Godhead as it can be known by men, but also in that relation the Godhead has to each of the members of the polity whose dignity indicates the kind of service sometimes required, a service that is both designed to care for the needy and provide order for those who are to take care of themselves. The purpose of government is not itself to care for everyone but to provide an order in which everyone can care for himself.

It is said by the philosophers that man’s happiness consists in contemplation, especially as what is highest in him is “divine,” that is, what connects him to the gods. That is right. The polity exists for itself, but in achieving what it is, a life of amazing abundance is fostered in which questions of the highest moment are to be considered and answered. In this context, the fascination of play seems at first to have an unimportant place. What I want to argue here rather is that play provides us with a better understanding of what is left to be done when the polity itself is what it is, not a claim itself to be divine, but an order in which we can live well by our own powers in relation to others wherein we can have a true common good that will not exclude the highest things, including those addressed beyond religion, those of revelation. Religion refers to human initiative; revelation refers to divine initiative.

Mysticism and philosophy are the logical and experiential ends of the human beings in their cities whereby they contact and understand what is the origin and end of what they are. The real motive for this effort, however, is properly and freely to respond to the gift of our existence. We are to respond to God, as Plato said in the Laws, by “singing, dancing, and sacrificing.” In the light of revelation, these are most interesting words. They recall ritual and sacrifice. They also make us wonder whether revelation itself is an indication of what has perplexed the human race from the beginning, namely, what is the proper way to worship God? And even more, would human beings be expected to be able to formulate this way on their own powers? The history of religions, in its incredible variety, can at some level be said to be a record of these human efforts in the order of religion. This multiplicity and variety is why, I think, Strauss reminded us that revelation transcends and directs religion precisely as “piety,” that is, as the response of God as to how adequately to worship Him.

Catherine Pickstock has used the happy phrase that worship is the “consummation of philosophy.” And Eric Voegelin has remarked that Christianity is the “philosophy itself in a state of perfection.” It is Dr. Pickstock’s phrase that hints best at the relation of philosophy, mysticism, and play, for the spirit of worship, indeed, to use Romano Guardini’s phrase, “the spirit of the liturgy,” concerns not merely the love of wisdom, but the celebration of wisdom given to us and accepted by us as that to which our minds are ultimately directed. And there is a “dogmatic” framework in which we can formulate whether we are properly stating what we are about. The dogmatic structure is not itself God, but it points through itself to what is not yet ours, but is. Ultimately what surprises is not that things do fit together, but how they fit together and our response to the order of things. The last words remain those of Chesterton: “Do not look for the gods unless you want them. It annoys them very much.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2006). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1]G. K. Chesterton, “Spiritualism,” All Things Considered (New York, 1956), 152.

[2] Leo Strauss, “The Holy, Review of Rudolf Otto,” Leo Strauss: The Early Writings (1921-1932), translated and edited by Michael Zank (Albany, 2002), 78.

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