From Steam Engines to the Singularity: How the Technological Spirit of (Classical) Liberalism Remakes Man in its Own Image

by Deion A. Kathawa*

“God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.  Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.’ ”

–Gen. 1:28

“For just as in affairs of state we see a man’s mettle and the secret sense of his soul and affections better when he is under pressure than at other times, so nature’s secrets betray themselves more through the vexations of art than they do in their usual course . . .  I also think that it does not matter much for mankind’s well being [sic] what abstract opinions you hold about nature and the principles of things . . .  On the contrary, my object is to see whether I can really lay firmer foundations for human power and prestige, and to extend their bounds yet wider.”

–Francis Bacon

In the last few years, a debate about the desirability and sustainability of classical liberalism—the West’s regnant governing ideology—has migrated from obscure corners of the internet into the edges, at least, of the general public’s consciousness.[1]  Since, much ink has been spilled assessing whether various sorts of “post-liberal” systems[2] are compatible with what many take to be classical liberalism’s core—and highly desirable—features: “constitutionalism, the rule of law, rights and privileges of citizens, separation of powers, the free exchange of goods and services in markets, and federalism.”[3]  But because those things “are to be found in medieval thought,”[4] we are free to retain and refine them while simultaneously identifying and rejecting classical liberalism’s errors and excesses.[5]  At its core, “[classical] liberalism is constituted by a pair of . . . anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature.”[6]  These assumptions are properly understood as “revolutions in the understanding of human nature and society.”[7]  And yet, relatively little effort has been expended to trace and understand the effects of classical liberalism’s second core feature—i.e., Man’s alienation from the natural world, driven by a technological mindset—on the human soul.

Continue reading “From Steam Engines to the Singularity: How the Technological Spirit of (Classical) Liberalism Remakes Man in its Own Image”

The Need for an Integral Approach to Music

By Vincent Clarke

What would art look like in a society that had successfully revived true Christian culture? To answer this question is, in a sense, to begin a long process of confirming the speculation. Answering this question orients us toward creating the very art that we wish to see. Music seems to be the best medium to approach. Unlike, say, painting it has become more, not less prevalent in the modern world than it had been in the past. It is at once the most instinctual and the most complex of the artforms, and for this reason it is both popular and infinitely diverse.

One key problem facing us when we ask this question is: whose music? In Christianized culture music has typically fallen into three categories: highbrow, liturgical, and popular. Often these have overlapped. J. S. Bach is both highbrow and liturgical; John Dowland is both liturgical and popular. But the distinctions are sufficient to draw something of worth out of the material. They will guide us in what follows.

Liturgy, Avant Garde, and the Merely Christian

To ask what a revival of liturgical music might look like requires little imagination because it is already taking place. In October 2016, Pope Francis sat for an Aramaic interpretation of the Our Father sung by a priest and a small girl to reflect the pain of the Syrians and the Iraqis. This was one of the most profound musical events in recent memory. The video on YouTube has over 5 million views. The Pope fell into a deep meditation. The whole event was enveloped by a sort of spirit of the ancient. This is striking to the viewer, who feels that they are being sucked back in time to a small, newly formed Christian sect in the fifth century. Yet if you listen to the singing there is something strangely modern about it. Perhaps it is the effective use of drone that makes it at once old and modern—a technique that found favor with some of the better avant garde artists in the 20th century. 

This seems the most promising path for new developments in liturgical music: to embrace forgotten musical techniques and, rather than simply aspiring to European medievalism, seeking to fuse various developments, various taproots in the Christian canon into a harmonious whole. That goes for Protestant developments too; if the Catholic Church has always been willing to take what is good in pagan culture and develop it, then the likes of Bach should not be off limits.

Likewise, Christianized highbrow music is already with us. The modernist movement in highbrow music has totally collapsed. ‘Sophisticated people,’ it would seem, could only pretend that the onanism of Schoenberg and his followers was impressive for so long. A video from a decade ago of an aged Yoko Ono screaming into a microphone in front of an audience of gullible people also has over 5 million views on YouTube. It also has 50,000 dislikes against 26,000 likes, and the comments are mostly people making fun of the video. As the baby boomers age, their cultural products rapidly become self-parodies. Their most devoted children, the under-40s who are trying to maintain their crumbling establishment, still pay lip service to this muck but when they get home from their climate summit, they typically turn on the latest hits. Or, if they have a semblance of taste, possibly some classical standards.

Unfortunate young people who study music under those that promote modernism typically turn to contorted fusionist attempts to incorporate ‘underground’ popular ‘music’ like Dubstep into the highbrow repertoire. No one pays attention, although the grants keep flowing. At best, these crossovers into subcultural garbage produce YouTube sensations. But these show up clearly the severe limits of the musical forms that we are dealing with. Consider a dubstep rendition of Beethoven’s Für Elise by the ‘artist’ Klutch. It is almost comical to listen to—although the YouTube video has attracted over 49 million people who either have fantastic senses of humor or awful musical taste. Mr. Klutch has chosen Für Elise for the simple reason that it has a catchy hook. Since dubstep is basically the repetition and modulation of an underlying hook, the crossover just about “works” in a technical sense. But the piece loses everything else that makes it interesting. It is not allowed to develop or to go anywhere. The hook is simply repeated over and over again. 

Since these crossovers are obviously unproductive a priori, and creative people have realized the dead-end of Schoenbergian modernism, true artists seem to have shunted back onto the Christian track. From the haunting hymns of Arvo Pärt to the exotic rhythms of Jordi Savall, the motifs are familiar to anyone accustomed to classical and renaissance canons. Pärt’s rendition of Salve Regina has nearly 3 million views on YouTube, although from the comments it seems that many listeners are not aware that they are listening to a prayer rather than film music. His Fratres is unspeakably brilliant and is recognizably of our time. This is not a simple throwback or a nostalgic recreation; a Renaissance-era listener would have found Fratres baffling. It’s oscillation between violent, jolting assaults of violin and ephemeral, spiritually uplifting landscapes is utterly strange and perfectly modern and suited to the modern world. If anything in highbrow music has a chance of developing, it is this.

No Masses Breed Suffering Masses

The most difficult genre to imagine in a Christianized society is undoubtedly popular music. Yet it is, in a sense, the most important. Popular music forms popular consciousness. It promotes the virtues of the population or, in sadly decadent societies like our own, the vices. Music hits the mood directly and uplifts or degrades us accordingly. 

Contemporary rap and hip-hop music, for example, are designed to degrade. Whereas earlier iterations mixed upbeat rhythms with degrading lyrical content, contemporary iterations drop the upbeat rhythms in favor of dreary and repetitive beats. One of the most popular songs in this new genre is Gucci Gang by Lil Pump (1 billion views on youtube!). The song is hilarious—a real bellyacher—and the video puts it well over the top. There is no point in highlighting here the infantile simplicity of its lyrics or its borderline self-parody of crude consumerism. What is fascinating is that it performs a sort of reductio ad absurdum on pop music itself. Pop music, of course, relies on crude hooks to catch the attention of listeners. Trap music pushes this to the next step where it inserts strange vocal utterances that sound like they are from a child’s cartoon—I would almost advise the listener to try it out for themselves, no description can capture it—and uses these as additional catches. But this ‘gagagoogoo’ is presented against a dark and bleak backdrop, where the music sounds like it is pulling the listener into a depressive spiral. This is not the melancholy of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger—and, take caution, even such Romantic excesses are (at least in the opinion of this writer) dangerous for the soul— no, this is degradation pure and simple. This is not the melancholy of the frustrated lover; this is the suicidal nihilism of the opium-eater, mixed with the morality of the mugger.

This aspect of the music is perhaps best considered with reference to one of the better—although I use the word with trepidation—iterations in this new popular music subgenres: Mask Off by Future (440 million views!). This is a piece of culture worth taking more seriously than the dross of Gucci Gang, but it is not much the better for it. Whereas Gucci Gang is almost humorous in its unselfconscious self-parody of itself, Mask Off is quite honest about what it is. Mask Off discusses a life that comprises using opiates, hitting the gym, and sleeping with women. The limited, almost hellishly repetitive lifestyle described (completely uncritically) in the song is perfectly accompanied by the musical content. The song uses a repeating flute hook to pull the listener in. But behind it is an extremely downbeat sublayer that, as with Gucci Gang, leaves the listener feeling lost and despondent—as if he or she has fallen into a blackhole. The effect is impressive. If you allow yourself, you will certainly be moved by the song. But you will not be tapped into a deeper emotional substratum. If you listen closely, you will just feel dirty and hopeless.

It is remarkable that this music is truly popular. It sounds more like a subgenre for depressed teens or avant garde oddballs rather than the ‘Top Ten’ content it apparently is. But its popularity shows the almost infinite malleability of popular consciousness; something that has become increasingly apparent with the spread of bizarre ideologies in television shows and on streaming services. People, it would seem, really will swallow anything—even if it makes them feel ill. The rampant use of disgusting pornography and the increasingly popular consumption of certain drugs that, until recently, would have been the preserve of only hardened junkies is almost certainly behind this willingness to consume poison and slop.

Pray for the Conversion From Russia

It makes sense that liturgical music is seeing a revival. True Christianity is seeing a revival, as evidenced by the very medium that I am publishing in. So, it is not hard to see why the same people revising true Christianity are also interested in liturgical revival. The revival of highbrow music is less immediately obvious. But the impulse that is giving rise to the return to true Christianity is likely driving the changes in highbrow music. The alternative is simply clapped out. No intelligent person could possibly go to Yoko Ono’s art exhibit and not feel a pang of self-doubt.

Likewise, it is obvious why popular music is not seeing a revival. Good popular music cannot thrive in a degraded culture. Highbrow and liturgical music can separate them from the cultural surroundings. In that sense, both are elite. But popular music cannot. It is an organic outgrowth, a sort of mirror, of the state of the society at any given moment in time. This means that to catch a glimpse of what a revived popular music might look like we must turn to a culture that is trying, no matter how pathetically or slowly, to revive its Christian heritage. The most obvious example in this regard is perhaps Russia, which has been seeing such a revival for at least a decade. 

It seems likely that Russia is seeing this revival before the West because, in the 20th century, they experienced the result of the liberal project in fast forward. In the West, liberal modernity hid its true intentions for the whole 20th century. It pretended that it wanted compromise with its Christian past. Now it is obvious to all but the most devout National Review reader that this is not the case. In 1917, Russia got a shot of liberal modernity straight to the heart. Catalyzed, the liberal modernist project collapsed much faster. And so, the revival inevitably began sooner. In theory, this should mean that there are some younger people who will start to recreate decent popular music.

We are seeing some rumblings. Although you must look hard. But what we can see developing in Russia may have a lot to teach us in the West. The best representative of revived popular music in Russia is the Russian pop folk group Белое Злато or White Gold. The group is composed of a rotating group of young women and appears to have been around for at least 6 years. They are distinctly a ‘girl group’ in the modern sense, and this seems thought out and coordinated. The girls are pretty, good singers and would not be out of place in a standard pop group in the West. Their image is self-consciously opposed to the sexualized image of Western pop music. Sometimes this entails dressing up in traditional Russian outfits, but most of the focus seems to be on dressing modestly and doing street performances as can be seen from their YouTube channel. They seem to be relatively popular within Russia. Their English-language channel has almost 62,000 subscribers and there is evidence of them playing concerts in Germany and France. But Russian commentators have complained about their inability to get broad exposure and the crudity of their marketing attempts. Their recorded album, released in 2019, is available on Spotify, however. It is well-varied and does not disappoint.

Their music is a sort of folk revivalism. But it has a distinctly modern flavor. It is very distinct from the hippyish attempts at folk revival we saw in the West in the 1960s and 1970s. That movement was always going to be countercultural and the use of the music was twisted from its original context; by contrast, White Gold clearly aspires to being a true pop group. 

Their music does not suffer for it. In fact, it is excellent. Some of it is comprised of upbeat Russian folk songs like Young Cossack Girl, one of their most popular songs. The version of the song on YouTube suffers from some slightly wanting production values, but it is rich and complex. The lyrical content is standard folk fare, about a young man courting a young woman. Other songs are slower and more reflective. One of their best is Beyond a Calm River. This song does have explicitly Christian content and imagery, but one gets the sense that this derives from the fact that the song is Russian, and Russia is Christian. That is, the Christianity is secondary, not primary.

This probably speaks to what popular music in a Christian society must necessarily be like. As Catholics know, culture precedes Christianity and is receptive of it. Culture is a sort of base metal or prime matter which is then formed by Christianity. While highbrow and liturgical music can be focused and Christian, it seems more likely that popular music will always be more of a baseline cultural product, generated out of the specific soil that it grew up in.

Der Musikgeist and the Beginning of History

Music speaks to the deepest recesses of our soul. No doubt. And the repulsive world we live in is creating truly repulsive music. We should not doubt the impact that the sounds and songs that people listen to have on their character. They are profound. Much more profound than painting or literature or architecture. We march to the beat of a drum, as the metaphor states, not to the wave of a brush or the placement of a brick. Music is not in truth a simple reflection of culture, but its essence. Hegel spoke of a Weltgeist and tried to glean it through newspaper clippings and Napoleonic marches. Perhaps we would be better off trying to grasp at the essence of the Musikgeist.

The question of popular music in a Christian society is then likely to be tied up with the question of the relationship between Christianity and local cultures more generally. This in turn raises questions about the relationship between an integralist political program and specific national cultures more generally. It seems likely that an integralist state will find itself at war with degenerate corporate music. Perhaps it could have accommodated the American popular music of the 1940s and the 1950s, but today’s corporate music is actively geared toward corruption and degradation, not just of the morals, but also of the mood and the senses. This will likely require some sort of national cultural revival to restore solid prime matter for Christian culture to work with. Christ may have turned filthy water into wine; in the city of man we must be more practical.

Short Notes on the Family and the City


by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

The following article is the first in a series of translations from the works of Jacques de Monléon (1901-1981). Along with his friend Charles De Koninck (1906-1965), de Monléon was a key figure in Laval School Thomism. So much so, in fact, that the school was sometimes called the “de Monléon-De Koninck School.”[1]

De Monléon was born in 1901 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera. He was sent to the Catholic boarding school Collège St. Jean in Fribourg, Switzerland (where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a fellow pupil). He then studied at the university of University of Aix-Marseille, earning degrees in law (1922/1923) and philosophy (1924). He then moved to Paris to continue his philosophical studies. In Paris he became close to Jacques Maritain.[2] But after a few years he began to diverge from Maritain. One point on which he disagreed with Maritain was the question of “moral philosophy adequately considered” (that is, on whether moral philosophy can be properly scientific without being subalternated to theology).[3] De Monléon was moving towards what he saw as more consistently Thomistic position. He was therefore happy to be invited to the Universty of Laval in Quebec in 1934.

Thomism of the strict observance was established in Quebec by Msgr. Louis-Adolphe Pâquet (1859-1942), who had studied under Cardinal Satolli in Rome. Paquet wrote a commentary on the Summa in Latin,[4] and an intransigently ultramontane-integralist treatise on ecclesiastical public law, written in French.[5] As dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Laval, Pâquet steadily expanded the teaching of philosophy, until it was possible to establish a full pontifical faculty of philosophy.[6]

It was during the expansion of the teaching of philosophy that Laval hired De Koninck and de Monléon. Through a miscommunication they both arrived to fill the same position. In the end, both were retained—De Koninck as professor of natural philosophy, and de Monléon to lecture in political philosophy and ethics. De Monléon was, however, to split his time between Quebec and the Institut Catholique in Paris. Pâquet was originally skeptical of the two laymen, since he thought scholastic philosophy should be taught by clerics, but he was soon won over by their love of St. Thomas.[7]

De Koninck and de Monléon became dear friends. They wrote many letters to each other during the months of each year that de Monléon spent in France. Florian Michel has analyzed their correspondence, showing how they developed the typical theses of Laval School Thomism in the philosophy of science and in political philosophy together.[8]

When De Koninck was appointed dean of the philosophy faculty in 1939, he and de Monléon also began to develop the pedagogical approach that was to become typical of the Laval School. It was an approach that emphasized the importance of learning step by step and in the proper order. The role of the teacher was to lead the students by the hand from the common conceptions of the truth naturally known to all to the first principles of reality. Thus de Monléon wrote to De Koninck:

We [have hitherto] certainly not [been] Thomistic in the way we teach. […] It is indisputable that we proceed in the manner of mathematicians and idealists. […] We immediately plunge poor little immature minds into the dark depths of being and non-being. […] One must lead such minds by the hand if one is allowed to forge such a twisted image. Manuducere. Sicut Zoé (my dear little Zoé[9]) manuducit pueros suos.[10]

This emphasis on the order of learning seems also to have led indirectly to less emphasis on publication in the Laval School, since “leading by the hand” was felt to be something that required personal contact. And, as it turned out, they were to feel that their few publications were often misunderstood. They did, however, begin the Journal Laval théologique et philosophique.

It was in Laval théologique et philosophique that the following “Short Short Notes on the Family and the City” were first published. Later they were included in the volume: Personne et Société, Overtture Philosophique (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2007). Many thanks to Alessandra Fra of L’Harmattan for permission to publish this translation. The translation was originally made by a group of tutors at Thomas Aquinas College for a seminar on Catholic Social Teaching. Many thanks to Anthony Andres for permission to publish the translation on The Josias.

The nature and scope of political authority, and its relation to the incomplete community of the family, is a key issue in recent debates among integralists.[11] I am convinced that de Monléon’s profound reflections can contribute key insights to this debate. A printable version of the essay can be found here.

Short Notes on the Family and the City

Jacques de Monléon

1. – We know that many very eminent authors do not recognize the essential difference between domestic society and political society. Plato, for example, writes: “Well, then, surely there won’t be any difference, so far as ruling is concerned, between the character of a large household, on the one hand, and the bulk of a small city on the other? – Not at all. – So, in answer to the question we were asking ourselves just now, it’s clear that there is one sort of knowledge concerned with all of these things, and whether we call it the science of kingship or political science or household management makes no difference.”[12] The nineteenth century political philosopher, Louis de Bonald, writes in a similar vein: “Such is the likeness, or rather the complete identity that everyone recognizes between domestic and public society, that from the most ancient times kings have been called the fathers of their peoples.”[13] And the same idea is found in Fustel de Coulanges’s The Ancient City, and this opinion is the one of its directive principles: “Family, brotherhood, tribe, city, are societies in exactly the same way, and are born one from another by a succession of federations.”[14] Continue reading “Short Notes on the Family and the City”

Does Fratelli Tutti Change Church Teaching about the Death Penalty?

by Gregory Caridi

Not moments after Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti was published, many began pointing to its statements on the death penalty. In particular, Fr. James Martin appears to believe that, with this document, Church teaching has been “definitively” changed on this question. He writes:

Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” does something that some Catholics believed could not be done: It ratifies a change in church teaching. In this case, on the death penalty.

There are many things wrong with this statement, particularly canonically, but we should focus on the most fundamental problem: Church teaching cannot be “changed” in the way he and many others regularly imply. The Church is not an authority that creates truth. It does not write down a rule book of what has been made true and what has now been made false. The Church identifies something as true, in a way an historian or a mathematician may do so. In other words, the Pope could not change a moral truth any more than he could change an historical one. The Pope, along with the bishops, certainly have the power above all others to identify truth in this way, but no one has power to make a thing false which was once true. What is true, particularly with this issue, is of course complex, but one can be absolutely certain that whatever is true cannot one day be made false, or vice versa.

The problem with Fr. Martin’s position is not merely that it’s incorrect; it’s that it undermines itself. If the teaching can be “changed” from X to Y, then there is no reason that it couldn’t be changed from Y back to X, turning the Teaching Office of the Church into something like an adversarial political process where sides lobby for their position to win out. This is not only entirely contrary to the basic fundamentals of the Church’s teaching authority, it runs afoul to the entire theme of fraternal love, submission and cooperation that carries throughout the document. The kind of thinking employed here has unfortunately plagued our civil law for generations, and it is truly disheartening to see it be promoted in the ecclesiastical space.

What’s perhaps most unfortunate about Martin’s comments and framing is that Pope Francis expresses his most nuanced approach to the question of the death penalty in this document. He moves beyond the bare question of whether capital punishment is, in principle, permissible as a matter of a moral fact to whether it is adequate in recognizing the fullness of Christ’s love. The Holy Father does not directly engage the long-established tradition that recognizes its legitimacy; he instead moves beyond, appealing to a tradition within the Church which transcends bare moral truth, to love beyond the minimal, especially when it comes to something that so cuts off the other.

This is not a “change” in Church teaching any more than “love thy neighbor” is a “change” from “the Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked.” Opposing the death penalty is to love despite and beyond any underlying moral truth, which by itself would be inadequate in expressing Christ’s unending outpouring of forgiveness and mercy.

It is unquestionable that Pope Francis, and so the Church, is opposed to capital punishment in both the personal and the political, especially when rooted in vengeance or a desire to derive pleasure from another’s punishment, but the Holy Father does not appear to be writing any sort of philosophical treatise or “definitively” defining some sort of new church teaching. He calls on us instead to dig into why he wants us to oppose the practice and to recognize that the tradition of doing so has always existed in the Church. Any statements about a “change” in Church teaching, on either side, are to miss his point entirely.

The New Natural Law Theory as the Source of Bostock’s Error

by James Berquist

Bostock vs. Clayton: The Arguments of Gorsuch and Alito in Brief

If you have ever wondered what practical significance the understanding or misunderstanding of the natural law presented by the New Natural Law (NNL) theorists might have in public life, look no farther than the strange arguments presented in the majority’s opinion in Bostock vs Clayton.

Neil Gorsuch, a student of John Finnis (a founder and chief proponent of NNL theory), argues the following:

Continue reading “The New Natural Law Theory as the Source of Bostock’s Error”

Vital Error: Energy, Personalism, Pluralism, and the Triumph of the Will

by John Rao

Nineteenth and early twentieth century Catholicism was rich in militant initiatives pursuing global evangelization outside the older borders of Christendom as well as spiritual and socio-political revivification of the troubled lands within them. These initiatives were stimulated by a general movement of Catholic revival vigorously opposing an Enlightenment-inspired secularization of European and American lands that had already begun before 1789, and which was intensified and spread still further due to the violence and warmongering of the French Revolution.

Continue reading “Vital Error: Energy, Personalism, Pluralism, and the Triumph of the Will”

‘When Bishops Meet’

by Alan Fimister

How important was Vatican II? On the one hand it seems a ridiculous question. The Council has clearly, for good or ill, been revolutionary in its impact upon the Church in the sixty years since it was summoned by John XXIII. Fr John O’Malley S.J. veteran Church Historian of Georgetown University and author of weighty histories of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II, has no doubt as to the importance of the twenty-first Ecumenical Council and seeks to shed light upon it by contrasting its teaching and style with that of its two immediate predecessors in his book-length essay ‘When Bishops Meet’.[1] And yet, while admitting the undoubted contrasts between the Second Council of the Vatican and all its predecessors perhaps we should not take its importance as so much a first principle as Fr O’Malley elects to do, but rather subject it to examination.

Continue reading “‘When Bishops Meet’”

The Question of Catholic Integralism: An Internet Genealogy

This piece, a genealogy of integralism, first appeared on John Brungardt’s blog here.  It provides an excellent overview of the intellectual development and history of integralism as well as the current state of play between integralists and their critics.

–The Editors

By John G. Brungardt

The purpose of this post is to recall the contours of the debate about Catholic integralism that have taken place in the “Internet Republic of Letters” over the past several years. The post is part genealogy, part introductory survey, and part reflection on the warp and woof of a discussion that is now intertwined with others in the public square. I do not aim to break new ground, but I do hope to provide a reflective tour for newcomers or recollection to familiars of the debate’s high and low points. Learn or take from it what you will.

Why consider “Catholic integralism” at all? One reason is to clarify the difference between understanding the principles of political philosophy and Catholic social teaching versus a discussion of practical statecraft and “soulcraft,” the realm of particular actions and practical decisions. The question of integralism framed solely on the terms of the latter’s demands easily results in conclusions such as Rod Dreher’s, that “integralism is a dead end,” or George Weigel’s, that integralism is a “game intellectuals play,” or, worse, the verdict that it is “an internet aesthetic of mostly young men alienated from the public life and consumed with the libido dominandi.” Integralism’s proponents have also been accused of the opposite mistake, namely, of speculative errors concerning the difference between power and authority, or of lacking a speculative vision altogether, or, some wonder, misrepresenting Catholic social doctrine. Consequently, achieving some measure of clarity about the proper register of the question—is it speculative, practical, pragmatic, rhetorical?—and the corresponding answer is desirable.

Another, deeper reason is that, since the question of Catholic integralism concerns properly understanding first principles (nature and grace, faith and reason, the hierarchy of common goods) and acting with regard to those principles in concrete affairs that must take into account not just days or years but decades and centuries, it makes no little difference what the true answer is, even if that answer must come with many parts and qualifications. For human life must be ordered by that eternal truth in which the vicissitudes of human history participate. The task of the examined life is that each one in each generation know the measure of that standard, insofar as he or she can know it. To do so, we must begin dialectically, by seeing the questions and the arguments clearly.

So, what ought we to think of the question of Catholic integralism? Does it propose a deep truth or a dangerous falsehood?

Some Basics

First, what is integralism? The now most-referenced definition is the “Three Sentences” definition from The Josias, which one finds referred to numerous times in the essays listed below:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

The key to understanding “the two powers” in this definition is to understand what “spiritual” means in the definition. In “A clarification on integralism,” the philosopher Edward Feser notes that the question ought not to be whether one is for or against integralism, but for or against what sort of integralism. The natural law mean standard, Feser argues (and it is bound to sound like an extreme to many), is that “a generic theism should be affirmed by the state and that government policy should be consistent with the principles of natural law.” However,

the debate over Catholic integralism has to do with whether specifically Catholic doctrines, which concern our supernatural end and are matters of revealed theology, should have an influence on public policy. The state should favor theism, but must it favor the Church?

Immediately, one sees why the integralism question is, by the vast majority of people, taken to be too irrelevant, if not too dangerous, a topic to take seriously. Haven’t the issues of “Church and State” been decided by the modern political synthesis of the post-Enlightenment? Didn’t Vatican II decisively condemn 19th-century notions of religious liberty?

To explain the “sort” of integralism one is asking about, Feser proposes three options: soft, moderate, or hard integralism. Hard integralism maintains that “it is always best for the Church to try to implement integralism as far as she can,” while soft integralism holds that “though in theory the state may and ideally should favor the Church, in practice this is extremely unlikely ever to work out very well.” Naturally, moderate integralism

falls in between these extremes. Whereas the soft integralist thinks it is never or almost never a good idea to try practically to implement integralism, and the hard integralist thinks it is always or almost always a good idea to do so, the moderate integralist thinks that there is no “one size fits all” solution and that we have to go case by case. In some historical and cultural contexts, getting the state to favor the Church might be the best policy, in others it might be a very bad policy, and in yet others it might not be clear what the best approach is. We shouldn’t assume a priori that any of these answers is the right one, but should treat the question as prudential and highly contingent on circumstances.

Nor does one have far to look to find an example of a moderate integralist of no small stature. In The State in Catholic Thought (1945; reviewed here by Leo Strauss), Heinrich Rommen writes:

A union between Church and state, or better a cooperation in concord and unity of both, would mean mutual respect for the independence of each in suo ordine. … It needs no proof that such a union is possible as a practical policy only where the people of the state are in great majority Catholics. Yet under this condition the union is actually no problem at all, but simply a truism. Therefore it would be wrong to say that such a union between state and Church is a necessity or should always take place. The condemned thesis 55 of the Syllabus of 1864 (the Church should be separated from the state, and the state from the Church) does not imply this. The true thesis would demand that the circumstances be considered. St. Robert Bellarmine expressly states that state and Church may live in union or in separation, because fundamentally each can exist without the other. (pp. 595–96)

Still, for the contemporary reader, this simply reinforces the previous concerns about theoretical and political relics. It also clearly raises profound metaphysical questions about assumptions Rommen is making. Isn’t it long past the time when such ideas, or such discussion, were practical, let alone thought to be true or relevant? Don’t proposals like Rommen’s involve, somewhere in the footnotes, writs of Inquisition and coercion of religious belief?

Kevin Vallier says that the knee-jerk reaction argument against integralism usually goes something like that:

If integralism is true, religious coercion is not wrong.
But religious coercion is wrong.
Therefore, integralism is false.

However, Vallier adds:

I don’t think integralism can be so easily dismissed. The reason is that integralism has a certain elegance and simplicity and even obviousness. It tells us that states should help people achieve their ultimate good. Besides feasibility worries, why wouldn’t this be the best thing for the state to do? Are non-integralists really asking the state to do less than the best? Doesn’t that just sound crazy when we state it openly?

And indeed, many non-integralists defend the current model of the now centuries-old, minimalist, secular, and in principle non-confessional status of liberal political order. In the academic jargon, “the public good” is a “thin” one, not a “thick” one. Thus, the question becomes manifold: one of the good, the political good, and the ideal political regime simply speaking versus the best one achievable practically speaking (Politics, 1288b37). So Vallier concludes, “What anti-integralists need is a satisfying explanation as to why integralism is axiologically false. The anti-integralists need to explain why integralism has the wrong conceptions of value, reasons, and practical rationality.”

Some Origins

To gain only some of the historical sensibility required to appreciate how far back into the formation of modernity and the disintegration of Catholic Europe this question takes one, read this essay at First Things on the 1782 Decree on the Dissolution of Religious Orders in Austria. That is, the deep background to the question of Catholic integralism in the face of modern nation-state democracies began with earnest during the long 19th century, when the issue of the compatibility of the Catholic faith and (then) modern liberalism was raised.

For instance, a positive answer to the compatibility question was put forward in L’Avenir by Montalembert, Lamennais, and Lacordaire. This led to a wide-ranging and controverted debate and even outright conflict that—when combined with many other strains of 19th-century secular thought—culminated in Pope Pius IX’s Quanta Cura (1864) and its appended Syllabus of Errors, mentioned above by Rommen. This 19th- and early 20th-century backdrop also has many other parts, some now long-forgotten by most (e.g., Ralliement and Action française, among others).

Why, then, is Catholic integralism a topic of discussion now? That answer also has many parts. A first part is the work of Fr. Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., among the founders of The Josias, the “online manual” of Catholic integralism. Rod Dreher once called Fr. Waldstein “perhaps the foremost advocate of [integralism] today.” For the roots of Catholic integralism stretching back even further than 19th-century Catholic politics, one must read Waldstein’s essay “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy,” which he described as his “fullest account to date of what I call ‘integralism’.” In the (perhaps) near future, that account will be surpassed by a book-length treatment.

But there is another, non-integralist side to this origin-story that must be noticed, what Deneen in a 2014 American Conservative article called “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” Deneen outlined two Catholic responses to political liberalism in the 20th century. The first is an older tradition of Catholic compatibilism—also of late called Catholic fusionism—which proposes that “there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism” or (from the fusionist angle) that “the principles of American conservatism and those of Catholic social teaching might be seamlessly and unproblematically combined.”

The second is a newer “radical” camp (in which Deneen included himself):

The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefiting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism.

Deneen pointed out that this group included (and still includes) prominent thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre and David L. Schindler. As for his own questioning of Catholic-liberal compatibilism—of course, this was before his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed—Deneen pointed to his essay written two years earlier in First Things, “Unsustainable Liberalism.” That essay also sparked a series of debates, including a lengthy one at Public Discourse.

These radical, “illiberal Catholics” (a charge mentioned in Deneen’s 2012 American Conservative piece, and answered, among many others, by Waldstein here) now tends to go by the name “post-liberal Catholicism,” a moniker that became popular after the so-called “Franco-Persian Wars,” the debates between David French and Sohrab Ahmari over the possibility, plausibility, and desirability of “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

The debate over the compatibility of Catholicism and liberalism, then, is a broad question raised both back in the 19th century (about the old liberalism) and now again in the 21st (about a new liberalism, where “liberalism” often signifies a confusing mélange of Locke, Rousseau, post-progressive era thinking, and soixante-huitard leftism). And all this despite its being given an apparently conclusive answer during the 20th century. But the broader, renewed question of compatibility and the new Catholic integralism’s proposed solution did not remain separate.

The Debates, A Brief History

One should know that neither is the question of the coherence or “sustainability” of liberalism new to contemporary debate. Take Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, for instance:

The liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself. This is the great adventure it has undertaken for freedom’s sake. As a liberal state it can only endure if the freedom it bestows on its citizens takes some regulation from the interior, both from a moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is not with its own means such as legal compulsion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character and fall back, in a secular manner, into the claim of totality it once led the way out of, back then in the confessional civil wars.

That is, Böckenförde’s dilemma or paradox is that liberalism, if it were to attempt to guarantee its institutional, cultural, educational, and moral prerequisites, would have to be illiberal, give up its claims of substantive neutrality concerning the good life for human beings, and “fall back … into the claim of totality.” Besides Böckenförde’s paradox of liberalism, one could consider the debate between perfectionist liberalism and political liberalism. The question of the totalizing claims of the complete human end, then, is inescapably the foundational question of political order—liberalism of any sort cannot claim to be anything more than an answer.

The question of Catholic integralism and the broader, more recent debate about sustainability of liberalism did finally meet. For instance, the Closing Colloquy of the Center for Ethics and Culture’s 2018 Fall Conference at Notre Dame featured a discussion between Patrick Deneen, Phillip Muñoz, Gladden Pappin, and Adrian Vermeule (discussed by Rod Dreher here and here). “Liberalism vs. Integralism” was also the theme of a conference held earlier in 2018 at Harvard, hosted by the Thomistic Institute.

As one can easily see by perusing the conferences and their reports, the substance of the discussions were animated not merely by the debates mentioned above. Some of the new discussion material was from the post-liberalism element—especially Deneen’s recently published Why Liberalism Failed—other was provided by Adrian Vermeule’s integralist critique of Deneen’s solution.

Now, these debates on prominent university campuses over the nexus between the question of liberalism generally and the question of Catholic integralism specifically had already cropped up before these 2018 conferences in various loca of the “Internet Republic of Letters.”

First Things

First Things during 2017 published reviews of Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy (by Vermeule, titled “Liturgy of Liberalism”) and Willard Jones’s Before Church and State (by Waldstein, under the title “An Integralist Manifesto”). It published essays on a strategy for Christians living in liberal nations (again by Vermeule), as well as an interview about “The Possibility of a Catholic Social Order” and a call for a “humane integralism.” The tension continued to be that between the concern for discerning the truth of Catholic principles and the practicality of how to apply them in the concrete historical order, between nostalgia for the achievements of past cultures and strategizing in the now with little-to-no societal room to maneuver.

The question of principle and policy provides the occasion to note Thomas Pink’s earlier, 2012 First Things essay, “Conscience and Coercion.” In it, Pink argues that Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae changed the Church’s policy, not her principles or doctrine, in regard to the religious liberty of individuals, an essay that generated not a few reader responses (wherein one also finds letters about Deneen’s “Unsustainable Liberalism,” published in the same issue as Pink’s essay). The issue of the coercion of believers—that compelle intrare (Luke 14:23) so heatedly debated in the early modern era—is a subset of Pink’s debate with Fr. Martin Rhonheimer in issues of Nova et Vetera, a debate carried on at the 2015 Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Conference.

The broader issue yet, then, is the same question of Catholic integralism. Pink’s position is decidedly in the minority. The majority view is clear from the vehement and profuse reaction to First Thing’s early 2018 article by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P., “Non Possumus,” a review of the 2017 publication of the memoirs of Edgardo Mortara.

As an aside, the “new” Mortara affair was impactful enough to be able to function as the opening framework of Schwartzman and Wilson’s 2019 law review article “The Unreasonableness of Catholic Integralism” (which also has a useful bibliography in its footnotes, apart from citing most of the above sources). However, as Kevin Vallier pointed out about the article’s judgment of Catholic integralism generally, its definitional approach is Rawlsian, and thus conceptually incommensurable with integralism’s premises about the human person and what it means to be reasonable. At issue is not a technical debate, but a deeper metaphysical discussion that answers first-principle level questions about what it means for individuals to act and how they ought to act.

After early 2018, integralism did not make much of an appearance in First Things, at least until the return of talk of “the common good and the Highest Good,” the start of the debate turned speaking tour between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. Ahmari’s essay, “the article that launched a 1,000 think pieces,” did not touch upon integralism or the coercion of the baptized per se. Nonetheless, that debate over the true nature and coherence of liberalism and the America’s political and providential constitution had the long-range effect of continuing to join the two debates. More to come below.

Public Discourse

Nor did the debate over integralism escape the editorial eyes or professorial pens at Public Discourse. In May 2018, citing as occasions the essays from First Things and the Harvard conference noted above, as well as various discussions of Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Joseph Trabbic defended the continued, doctrinally normative character of a Catholic confessional state as the ideal political arrangement. (Later in 2019 Trabbic wrote a three-part series for Catholic World Report, “Thomism and Political Liberalism,” to illustrate how “there are some pretty stark and irreconcilable differences between Thomas’s political theory and liberal political theory”; see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Trabbic’s essay received a fierce response from Robert Miller, who called Trabbic’s thesis “almost the exact opposite of the truth,” and argued that “integralism is contrary to Catholic doctrine.” Miller’s essay prompted responses, among others, by John P. Joy (at another venue) and by Thomas Pink at Public Discourse in August 2018. Miller, along with Lawrence King, responded to Pink and Joy in early 2019. As one might expect, these debates hinge heavily on how to properly understand Vatican II’s declaration Dignitatis Humanae. A December 2019 article by Matthew Shadle continued the response to Pink, presenting further nuances of the debate over evolution, rupture, or development of religious freedom doctrine in Dignitatis.

But Public Discourse did not merely present debates over fine points of Catholic doctrine; the scope was broadened. The May 2019 essay by Korey D. Maas, “The Coming Anti-Catholicism,” after reviewing and citing nearly all of the above genealogy, concluded that “insofar as prominent and influential Catholics insist that Catholicism is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal tradition, liberals will feel increasingly justified in reaching the same conclusion.” That is, apart from the proper grasp of theological principles, a certain “Realtheologie” looms large in integralism’s and Catholic post-liberalism’s cultural scene. We could, argued Gerard Bradley, learn certain lessons from integralists’s “thought experiments” by taking them as accurate diagnoses of current problems, but that is all. Yet as recently as this May, in “Integralism, Political Philosophy, and the State,” Thomas Pink has replied to both Bradley and Shadle that integralism’s political philosophy is more realistic in its understanding of how states—confessional or secular—actually function.

Church Life Journal

Caleb Bernacchio’s “The Anti-Integralist Alasdair MacIntyre,” published by Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal in early 2018, argued to separate MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism from the integralist position, saying that given MacIntyre’s critique of modernity “there is no need to pursue the impossible and nostalgic goal of returning to an integralist state.” A positive exposition by Waldstein, “What Is Integralism Today?”, was published later in 2018 (coinciding with the above-mentioned Center for Ethics and Culture colloquy at Notre Dame).

Waldstein’s answer to the quid sit question led to a brief debate at CLJ, between Waldstein and Timothy Troutner, over the true nature of integralism. In his “The Integralist Mirroring of Liberal Ideals,” Troutner argued that “criticizing integralism need not imply a defense of liberalism,” and that “integralism flourishes by posing this false dichotomy, by defining itself as the theologically orthodox antithesis to a heretical liberalism.” Waldstein’s response, “Integralism and the Logic of the Cross,” argued that

Troutner’s conclusion that integralism must be rejected by Catholics is, however, false. The arguments that he uses to support it are based on exaggerations and misunderstandings. He tries to distinguish his own understanding of freedom and equality from the liberal understanding. But he does not distinguish them enough. For Troutner, as for liberals, freedom and equality are opposed to hierarchy and obedience. Whereas, in reality, true freedom and true equality depend on hierarchy and on obedience.

Other Criticisms and Defenses

Apart from the above journals, various other criticisms, defenses, and interweaving themes could be mentioned, bringing this review from 2019 to the present. Recent debates over “common good constitutionalism” and the continued rethinking of American conservatism or European populism and nationalism also bear upon this question, to varying degrees of remove. Some of these are listed below, and I’ll not discuss them in detail.

I will, however, note two of the most substantive in passing: Park MacDougald’s thorough review of the recent history of issue, “A Catholic Debate over Liberalism,” published in City Journal, and Michael Hanby’s “For and Against Integralism,” published in First Things in March. MacDougald’s history also illustrates what I’ve sketched here, namely, the joining of general discussions about the sustainability of modern political liberalism. Hanby’s essay and the reader replies show that the debate about Catholic integralism is, ultimately, about the metaphysical foundations of politics and their relevance for political practicalities and deep moral and cultural conversion.

Perennial Questions about the Highest Good

It is patent from reviewing the topics, reasons, and interlocutors in the above debates that the question of Catholic integralism today does not turn upon irrelevant or insubstantial issues, but rather concerns perennial and foundational principles of political order. It is rash to think otherwise when the question is being discussed at the highest levels and in the profoundest terms. If one presses beyond the internet-based essays and into the recent books cited or past thinkers relied upon, it is impossible not to see that the stakes for getting the answer to the question of Catholic integralism right are immense.

This is because the debate has made compelling and even pressing the reconsideration of questions that many had long considered culturally settled. What is the proper understanding—if a rational defense of its existence is to be had—of a common good beyond the political order? What vision of human perfection ultimately sets us free in the profoundest sense? What is the proper relationship between the Church and the modern nation-state? Is there a clear meaning of “liberalism” that proposes the true account of that relationship, or must liberalism cede to the “new Catholic integralist” account? If so, what is the true nature of religious liberty?

And it is not as if clear—albeit controversial and in some cases unconvincing—answers to such questions have failed to be given in the various essays cited throughout this review. And achieving such sound speculative vision is a sine qua non to advance, for, as Fr. Thomas Joseph White said in his closing “exhortation” at the Harvard conference mentioned previously: “Practical truths are grounded more fundamentally in speculative or theoretical visions. And vision always wins out in the end.”

Concluding Thought

I’d like to end by quoting a passage from the introduction to Rommen’s The State in Catholic Thought. There, Rommen defends the idea that a perennial political philosophy exists, and that, in the providential contingencies of history, it has been taken up into the Catholic Church. It is a “Catholic political philosophy” in a contextual and not an essential sense, that is, “the adjective ‘Catholic’ here means, so to speak, the place where this philosophy grew and found its home. It does not imply that this political philosophy is based on theology or revelation. It is based on natural reason and on rational principles” (p. v).

As a consequence, the unfolding application of its principles, like the apparent fluctuations of the content of natural law through history, can be traced to a similar matrix of causes. The “ebb and flow” of human affairs and the human limitations of circumstance and character to the realizing of higher goods in political community causes an apparent but not real variation of the truth:

Some critics forget that this is an everlasting process which is repeated again and again in all fields of intellectual life. Thus the new democratic and social ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could be fully received only after a process of toilsome clearance in embittered discussions, as, for instance, in the controversies between Lacordaire, Montalembert, and the Catholic liberals in France, and the adherents of monarchy. These internal disputes do not destroy the unity of polar tension. No new philosophy is founded; only new problems are put before the philosophia perennis, that is by no means a static and brittle system. To be sure, Catholic political philosophy as a part of this philosophia perennis may be called conservative. It does not easily give up what has proved its value in long experience for alluring but unproved new ideas. But, on the other hand, it is not compelled to mummify theories and opinions in a stubborn conservatism that is closed to the perpetually changing life of God’s creation. What may be called linear thinking goes straight out from one pole or from one idea of the cosmos of ideas, which every true philosophy is. This idea, cut off from its interrelations and interdependencies with the cosmos, it then fanatically thinks to a finish. Thus it becomes radical individualism or socialism or totalitarianism or anarchism. This linear thinking, so characteristic of the modem mind and its countless isms, is a stranger to Catholic political philosophy. For Catholic political philosophy is ‘spheric’ thinking. Of the interdependencies and the mutual relations between ideas as united in a spheric cosmos and the concordance of these, spheric thinking must be always aware. This explains the unity in diversity, the conservative perseverance in principles and the flexible progressiveness, promoted by the disputes of the schools, in the application of the identical principles in a ceaselessly changing life. (pp. 22–23)

Recall that the same author, some 500 pages later, defends the possibility and ideal of a Catholic confessional state. Perhaps there are unresolved tensions in Rommen’s presentation of the “spheric thinking” of perennial political philosophy. Clearly they still exist unresolved in the discussion at large today.

* * *

Select Bibliography (Listed in Approximate Order of Appearance/Reference)

Basics and Origins of Integralism


First Things

Public Discourse

Church Life Journal

Scattered Notices, the Latest

American Affairs

Vermeule & Common Good Constitutionalism

Discussions in the Academy

Some Academic Publications

Crean, O.P., Thomas, and Alan Fimister. Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy. Neunkirchen-Seelscheid: Editiones Scholasticae, 2020.

Schwartzman, Micah, and Jocelyn Wilson. “The Unreasonableness of Catholic Integralism.” San Diego Law Review 56, no. 4 (2019): 1039–67.

Is Man an Individual?

by Ian Bothur


A popular tendency of the modern mind is to regard the human person as a mere individual; as something like an atom of the human species, existing completely in itself and for itself. This tendency is not only the hallmark of the liberal tradition, but is implicit even in the most popular “alternative” political philosophies of today. Compounding this problematic notion is the now centuries-old influence of modern natural science, whose practitioners tend to pursue creation’s deepest mysteries by simple division.[1] These influences tend to seep even into Church documents. Gaudium et Spes, for example, defines the ‘common good’ as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”[2]

Community itself thus seems to be defined by the Church as a totality of individuals. However, as the pastoral constitution later qualifies, “the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection.”[3] Here, the ultimate aim of political society is made quite clear; human perfection. The individualist tendency can thus be avoided if we understand man’s existence to be inseparable from the order of which he is a part. If man is a creature ordered to perfection, he is therefore ordered to society. And insofar as man is ordered to society, he is not an individual in the sense that he is “self-sufficient”; rather, the substantial unity which characterizes each man’s existence must exist within a unity of order by which he enjoys communion with others.

The Individual

Common use of the term ‘individual’ hides within it two distinct concepts: the first is the unity of a particular thing; the second is the thing as distinct from other things. With respect to unity, an individual is that which cannot be divided while remaining the same thing (i.e., the literal meaning of the term).[4] Of course, every physical thing is divisible, but once, say, a cow is divided in half, it would cease to be a cow and become two sides of beef. With respect to the thing’s distinction from other things, an individual is discrete and separate: this individual cow is distinct from the herd, because this cow is not any other cow.

What causes a thing’s unity is not what causes its separation from others, as Aristotle notes. Formal cause is responsible for unity. Thus, so long as the form is preserved, so also the individual: if my left hand were removed, it would cease to be my hand, but the remainder of my members would remain one body, because they are still united in my soul. We can therefore say that unity is a formal, immaterial quality of a thing. It is a thing’s material cause, however, which distinguishes one individual from another within the same species. Formal cause is enough to distinguish a cow from a horse, but when I say “this cow is not that cow,” I do so with regard to what the cow is made of. Two distinct cows contain two distinct collections of matter. That is, it is matter that allows forms that are the same in species to be multiplied in number. Just as wax allows the one form of a signet ring to be multiplied in many seals.

So, ‘individual’ refers in one sense to formal cause and in another sense to material cause. Individuality, then, allowing for both senses to be taken together, is a term by which we can know a thing’s essence, the composite of substantial form and determinate matter.[5] To adequately understand a thing at all is to intuit its essence, and therefore, when speaking of things as they really are, each sense of ‘individual’ must be understood with reference to the other.

The Person

In contrast to cows, each man is not merely an individual, but a person; ‘an individual substance of a rational nature.’ With this distinction, it would seem that human beings are individuals in one sense, and persons in another. It is on this distinction that Jacques Maritain famously posits his brand of “Thomistic personalism.” In his work, The Person and the Common Good, Maritain offers a summary of the distinction between ‘individuality’ and ‘personality’:

[S]uch are the two metaphysical aspects of the human being, individuality and personality, together with their proper ontological features. […] [W]e must emphasize that they are not two separate things. There is not in me one reality, called my individual, and another reality, called my person. One and the same reality is, in a certain sense an individual, and, in another sense, a person. Our whole being is an individual by reason of that in us which derives from matter, and a person by reason of that in us which derives from spirit.[6]

In speaking of individuality as the material aspect of man, Maritain must be speaking of ‘individual’ in only one of the senses described above; that by which a thing is distinct from others of the same species. Personality, however, describes an individual of a rational nature. Hence, the determining characteristic of personality is rationality. But man is rational by virtue of his soul, his formal cause, which is the unitive aspect of a thing’s individuality. So, perhaps Maritain means to use ‘personality’ to denote the unitive aspect of an individual and ‘individuality’ the distinguishing aspect.

It is clear, in any case, that he does not refer to ‘individuality’ in the unitive sense. In omitting this sense, he leaves only the material; and without reference to form, the purely material is unintelligible. Moreover, because all non-rational living things are individuals with a formal and material cause, they are not purely material, but neither are they persons.

The inherent problem with Maritain’s distinction is that it is made at too low of an order: the distinction between individual and person is a useful one, but man is more properly understood in his individuality as a discrete unity of substantial form and determinate matter. But rationality is a specific attribute of formal cause and hence proper to man as a species; it is not enough to distinguish between individual men. Therefore, individuality is not purely material, but involves even man’s rational nature.

Man is best understood in his personality as a being in a unique, rational relation to being. Thus while matter (whatever particular material his soul informs) is the principle or beginning of the distinction of one man from another, that beginning allows for spiritual differences. Although his intellect is specifically the same as the intellect of another man, his subjective apprehension of the world entails a unique, personal relation to the true and the good. Personality is therefore founded on individuality, but it goes beyond it. What distinguishes personality from individuality is not rationality per se, but the particular relation of a subject to the objects of his intellect and will.


Of course, things do not subsist as embodied essences or definitions, but as sharing in a certain nature, which entails not just the formal and material causes of a thing, but its final cause as well.[7] Simply put, a thing’s final cause is that for the sake of which it acts. In other words, it is the impetus of a thing to attain its end, which is its own perfection.[8] It is with respect to final cause that we understand the good; that is, whatever is good for a thing is good insofar as it is the end, the final cause.[9] It is also with respect to final cause that we can give an account of natural activity: whenever a thing acts, it acts for its final cause, to attain its own perfection.[10]

It is perhaps with respect to nature that order can most easily be understood. A thing that is perfect is also said to be well-ordered. Likewise, a thing that is lacking in some perfection is disordered. Things that are capable of activity are disordered if their actions do not pertain to their final cause. In one sense, then, to be disordered is to fail in being. To exist as a creature is to exist in order; to be absolutely disordered is not to exist at all.[11]

There are different kinds of order. Most generally we can say that order is a relation of before and after (priority and posteriority) of many to one beginning or principle. For example, the points on a line have relations of before and after to each other in comparison to the beginning point of the line: this is the order of the points on a line. Each of the four causes (matter, form, agent, and end), can be called a beginning or principle, and so there is an order corresponding to each of the causes.[12] The most important cause is the final cause, the cause of causes, and so the most important kind of order is the relations of before and after that many things or actions or parts have among themselves in comparison to their final cause.[13] To understand or to produce order is proper to intelligence, hence we can say that things are ordered by the activity of an intelligent principle that governs or moves them toward their end.[14] Ultimately, all things are governed by the Eternal Law of God, and it is in this Law that all creation is ordered.

 As activity entails final cause, and final cause implies order, all natural activity participates in the order of the Eternal Law. Man, however, acts according to his own free choice by virtue of his intellect and will. Thus, man’s participation in the Eternal Law is not diminished by his freedom, but is of a higher order than that of lower creatures, because in participating in the order of things to God, man first orders things to himself.[15] For example, when a cow eats grass, the grass is ordered to the good of the cow, because it is in the nature of cows to eat grass. But when a man eats a cow, it is not because it is in man’s nature to eat cows, but because it is in man’s nature to apprehend the good with his intellect and to decide how he might best pursue that good. In short, man can act by his own intellect as from a principle, rather than by the design of nature, and so governs lower things according to himself.

Of course, man’s intellect is not absolute, but is a participation in the Divine Intellect as its ultimate formal and final cause. Man’s mind does not render things intelligible; rather, things are intelligible insofar as they have a formal cause received from God. And as the knowledge of truth is the perfection of the intellect, and God is Truth, God Himself is the ultimate end of man’s intellect.


Order implies the unity of the many ordered. When a cow eats grass, the substantial form of the grass ceases to exist and its matter is incorporated into the cow. But as both cow and grass exist, one is ordered to the other (formally in one sense and individually in another), and from this relation arises a ‘unity of order.’ Thus, with respect to the same order, many things are said to be one.[16] This unity is not merely a semantic one, as one might call a pile of rocks “one.” Rather, a unity of order is necessary for the perfection of the individuals it contains. Our cow cannot exist without grass, and so long as it remains malnourished for want of it, it is imperfect.  Moreover, grass can exist well enough without cows, but not without a variety of other things. In fact, investigation into the order of any individual ultimately reveals the order of the whole universe in which it exists. Thus, St. Thomas calls the whole universe a unity of order.[17]

St. Thomas calls unity of order “the least of unities,”[18] but only with regard to the proximity of the principle by which things are made one. For example, an individual animal has unity by virtue of a formal principle, which is in a sense identical with the animal and cannot be separated from it. But the universe has unity insofar as all things are ordered for an extrinsic principle, which is God.[19] Hence, substantial unity is a “stronger” kind of unity than unity of order, but it does not follow from this comparison that unity of order is not a “real” unity. Rather, substantial unities necessarily participate by their nature in a unity of order.

Man finds his perfection in knowing and loving God, and therefore he is ordered to direct union with Him. It is precisely because man has an intellect and will that he is ordered to such a noble end. These same powers of his soul also enable man to order things lower than him to his own end (and what serves man is therefore elevated into a higher participation in the order of creation).

Persons are ordered to God, but as political animals by nature, they find their natural perfection in community with other persons. Man is ordered to participate in human society not only out of expedience; rather, he cannot attain his natural end without living in community. That man is a political animal follows from the ordering of social relations by his own reason; a reason that reaches its fullest power in the use of language, which is itself a socially acquired trait.[20] Furthermore, even a person who has attained perfection, who has no use for society, nevertheless delights in the goodness of others and is inclined to do good to them.[21]


We conclude that there are at least four ways in which every human being, as an individual, necessarily exists within a unity of order. First, every individual has his being as part of the order of the universe. In all his actions (even breathing), he is dependent upon other things for his existence. It is not his choosing that makes it so, but his very nature which determines what is good for him; what is necessary for the perfection of his being. Second, every individual human being is a person who bears a unique relation to other things by virtue of his rational nature. Each person actively participates in the order of creation by imposing order upon things to serve his own needs and ultimately to assist him in attaining his own perfection. Third, persons are, by virtue of their rational nature, capable of entering a unity of order with other persons. As man is a political animal by nature, society is necessary for man’s perfection not only as a prerequisite to meet his material needs, but as the proper operation of human perfection. And finally, the ultimate end of every individual is communion with God; man’s nature is part of this order, even though he is by nature incapable of attaining it.[22]

Therefore, Man is an individual part of a unity of order. Outside of this order, he is nothing.

[1] Natural science does regularly achieve many interesting findings with respect to the order of natural bodies; not just the very small subdivisions of matter.

[2] GS 26, §1.

[3] GS 74, §1.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 24 q. 1 a. 1 co.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia,trans. Armand Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968), 36 (IV.iii).

[6] Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good, 3, trans. John J. Fitzgerald (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947). At

[7] Aristotle, Physics,199a12

[8] Perfection is synonymous with completion or the fulness of its own being.

[9] Aristotle, Physics, 195a 26

[10] Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate,22.i

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 52, a. 1

[12] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 5, a. 3, c. I am grateful to Pater Edmund Waldstein for help with the general account of order.

[13] Thomas Aquinas, In Ethica I, lect. 1.

[14] Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, 22.i

[15] The free participation of rational creatures in the Eternal Law is the Natural Law.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 39 a. 3 co.

[17] Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibet VI, q. 11 co.

[18] Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 58 n. 5.

[19] Thomas Aquinas, De potentia, q. 3 a. 16 ad 2.

[20] Aristotle, Politics, I.2, 1253a3-17

[21] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 4, a. 8

[22] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 5, a. 5 ad 1; Ia-IIae, q.3 a.8

Header Image: Standing Figures, by George Tooker.

Notes on Moral Virtue

Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

1 Virtue in general

1.1 Etymologies

Like so many words in English, “virtue” is derived from the Latin. This Latin derivation has the disadvantage of obscuring the original experience from which the concept signified is abstracted. Moreover, the cultural history of 19th century Britain has given “virtue” a sort of missish ring, whereas it and similar words in other languages originally had martial connotations. Unfortunately, there is no good Anglo-Saxon equivalent still in use. The closest would be “dought” or, in the more common adjective form, “doughty,” derived from Old English dohtig, which now has an almost comically archaic ring to it: “Yet many doughty warriours often tride / In greater perils to be stout and bold.”[1] Doughty now means “brave,” and that was probably its oldest meaning as well, but in the 11th century it was used in an extended sense to mean “competent” and “good” as well. Thus Bosworth-Toller cites the following line from a charter of Earl Godwin from sometime around the year 1016: Ðyssa þinga is gecnǽwe ǽlc dohtig man on Kænt and on Súþ-Sexan. (“Of these things is cognizant every good [doughty] man in Kent and Sussex”).[2] Dohtig is related to dyhtig (strong) and dugan (to be fit, able, strong). It is thus etymologically equivalent to the Modern German word for virtue Tugend from taugen (power, ability, efficiency).

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