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Christ and the republican capacity for self-government



The Socrates of Plato’s Republic is famous for saying that there can be no cessation of ills in human societies until and unless philosophers rule. These days the advocates of Godless, elitist technocracy delude themselves with the thought that what they seek somehow aims to achieve that end. But they utterly ignore what Socrates says about the kind of people these philosophers must be to pursue the vocation of political power. Above all, they must have no hunger to rule. In this respect, Socrates distinguishes philosopher kings from people who want to rule simply in order to gratify their private and particular passions or ambitions. When dominated by these self-seeking politicians, politics degenerates into factional warfare, in which the participants ultimately destroy themselves and the rest of society.

In the account he gives of the nature and genesis of the philosophic soul (the famous metaphor of the prisoners in the cave) Plato’s Socrates portrays the philosopher as one whose eyes have become accustomed to see things in light of the true good. The philosophic rulers, or philosopher kings, become accustomed to living in the knowledge derived from this vision of what is good. But in light of what is truly good they realize that they cannot, with justice, live for themselves alone. They must respect the good of those not blessed to know the truth as they do. Such respect requires that, by turns, they give up the perfectly contented life enjoyed by those with lives informed by what is truly good. On account of this information, they are willing to live among and serve people still trapped, as it were, in the belly of a dark cave of ignorance, people who, on account of their ignorance, are prevented from turning toward the cave’s entrance, which also provides its access to the light.

The people imprisoned in the cave of ignorance know nothing of the true nature of things except what they infer from shapes formed against the backdrop of the light as it filters from above, through the entrance behind them. These shapes appear as shadows projected onto the cave wall as things move back and forth across the entrance to the cave. The philosophers, as people released from or free of the ignorance that constrains the cave dwellers, feel obliged to release others into the light, despite the impairment of vision they must endure as they move from light to darkness, and from darkness into light.

In this respect, Plato’s description of the goodwill of the philosopher king calls to mind the Apostle Paul’s description of Christ. Christ is the light, dwelling in perfect communion with God, the principle of all reality, in and through which all things are perfectly apprehended, appearing as they truly are. But Christ also exemplifies the obedience to which all Christians are called. Though they may enjoy, in their communion with God through Christ, perfect peace, love and joy, they are also called to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Christ’s perfect communion with God is the summum bonum or highest good to which any individual can aspire. But those who let the mind of Christ be their mind understand that this perfect communion is not to be sought after or selfishly held onto as a private possession. Following Christ’s example, they are willing to surrender it in obedience to the imperative of God’s will that calls upon them to do so for everyone’s sake. The common good thus served is not the good of some abstract commune or collective, some whole which simply transcends each individual. It is the good of all respected severally, the good of each and every one. This good is respected on the whole only if and when the good of each is also, and by the same token, respected. How can this be, when some are called to sacrifice themselves for others? It is possible because perfect communion with God necessarily implies perfect participation in His will. But His will constitutes every aspect of His creation, declaring what it means for it to be as it should be. So, all in all, what we surrender for the sake of realizing God’s perfection in others we reclaim as, for God’s sake, others do the same for us.

In Plato’s Republic, a comprehensive and specialized regime of education is required to raise up characters who are perfectly contented with the power of truth, and therefore disdainful of the power of government; but who nonetheless willingly obey the imperative of truth which requires that they surrender their perfect contentment whenever true justice requires it. Plato’s regime of education ultimately entails the comprehensive transformation of the political regime. This transformation involves some drastic measures that seem at times both inhuman and inhumane. Chief among them is the ‘noble lie’ with which he deprives each person of information about their parentage, telling all that they have been ‘born of the soil’ and therefore share a common heritage.

So, in order to motivate people to serve the good of the society as a whole, the founders of Plato’s Republic redirect the familial passions that would otherwise incline them primordially to love and serve their natural parents and familial kin. Particular people become, as it were, nodes in the fungus-like network of the political organism. This erases individuality in any substantive sense of the term. Thus Plato cannot induce people to serve others in truth without denying, in themselves the very truth they are supposed to serve.

By contrast, the power of true faith in Jesus Christ comprehensively transforms individuals, understanding each as a natural whole formed and informed by nature, as God intends. Through the God-endowed natural family the organic unity of the individual whole reconstitutes and extends itself through each generation. In the act of procreation the special seed of one human life is sowed into the special soil of another, growing by virtue of the God-endowed truth God has shared with and through each of them, into a new and distinct individual, whose wholeness represents their God-informed communion with one another. Particular people grow up in groves, like trees, each one a distinctive whole rooted in and expressing, in unique combination, the union of rest and motion, activity and acceptance, change and permanence, that was the living, self-containing seed of its origin. Though in one sense it relies upon and expresses and reflects the identity of the material substance through which it takes place, that substance does not constitute the identity of the community of individuals derived from the bonds of procreation.

Each individual constitutes a new and distinct interpretation of the whole from which it derives. Each bears the title of humanity. Each is registered in the account of some family name. But each also will receive and is meant to re-acquire a name all its own, the name by which it calls upon itself in the secret heart of God, from whence it came, toward which it goes, to which it should return. This is the God-endowed vocation that corresponds to the intention of God for the life of each and every individual, the root of that responsibility to the Creator on account of which each one of us must answer for the good or wicked use we make of it.

But the perfect truth of God’s intention is known to God alone. Through nature and His word He guides us toward fulfilling it. But like Plato’s cave dwellers, we dwell in confusion so invincible that on our own we cannot move beyond its doubtful shadows, even when at last we see them for what they are. In this respect the Apostle speaks for all when he says “…I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) Even though we perceive, and wish to respect the identity God intends for us, on our own we do not understand how to act according to the righteous inclinations of our hearts. But once in possession of the mind of Christ, the faithful do, by virtue of Christ’s perfect trust in God, what Plato’s philosophers had no power to do, i.e., act with respect to the whole truth without, in ourselves, denying some aspect of it.

Once we admit Christ within us, the light of God’s truth shines from within, and from within it reveals the power of mind and will to act upon it. The knowledge of Christ is the experience of truth, an activity through which information, by God’s grace, becomes transformation by God’s will. And because Christ made himself available for all, this transformation is open to all except, of course, those unwilling to receive him. Because, in obedience to God, Christ showed the way, the individual capacity to accept and by turns impose the rule of justice was thus removed from the rarely visited province of a few exceptional individuals.

What Plato believes to be possible for a few, and only through the totalitarian transformation of society, Christ makes available to all by way of his total transformation of the individuals willing to receive him. The dedication to truth that Plato purports to achieve by the appearance of community engendered by his ‘noble lie’, becomes reality once Christ appears, as he draws people along the only path that leads to communion with God in truth. In this way Christ makes them an actual community (i.e., one that appears in consequence of the common spirit made manifest in their actions.) Plato’s Republic exists by way of deception, which is a species of coercion. The Christian republic exists by way of election, which is a species of choice or liberty. Plato deceives in order to force all individuals to live in ignorance of their true origins, i.e., without experiencing family life in the way that otherwise provides the basis for each individual’s God-endowed identity. By thus curtailing their knowledge of themselves, Plato forces all to serve the good of all. Christ, on the other hand, reveals the true identity of all, by which every one is drawn freely to serve the good of the whole (which is God’s will) even as, in conformity with God’s prescription for their existence (their God-endowed nature), they each serve each their own.

Everyone faces a fundamental choice, to claim and enact their God-endowed identity, or to live with respect for no will but their own. Unlike the founders of Plato’s Republic, Christian republicans do not believe that justice can be established by lies that deny human beings their God ordained capacity for choice. Instead, by accepting what God has given us in Christ, we see the way to establish and maintain a political regime that respects God— not by repressing the human capacity for choice, but by using that capacity in the exercise of right, as God gives us, in Christ, to see it done.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Doc Kimble November 27, 2012, 6:30 pm

    If I am only for myself, who will be for me?
    If I am for others, I am for me.

  • Matt Beaven November 27, 2012, 12:17 pm

    Ambassador Keyes, this is the best political essay I’ve ever read! Kudos! I hope to see more of you in the public sphere in the future! God be with you!

  • James Kent ridley November 27, 2012, 11:59 am

    Magisterial. I’m forwarding this mini-encyclical to my friend, Dr. Ronda Chervin, who teaches philosophy to the pre-sacerdotal codgers at Holy Apostles Seminary for late vocations.

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