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On Keeping People In: The Berlin Wall and the Shortness of Political Memory | Part Two | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | Read Part One

Aristotle says their only salvation is in philosophy. "The fact is that the greatest crimes are caused by excess and not by necessity. Men do not become tyrants in order that they may not suffer cold" (1267a2-15). This situation was, in fact, Dalrymple's point about the educated. They have a certain envy addressed to those who do not recognize them. They use their mind, and it alone, to concoct the world as it "should" be. Most of the great crimes of modern politics have come from this sort of man.

In his Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Christopher Dawson provided an acute insight into the difference between ideology and faith. Modern secularism sees all "faith" as simply another ideology. "An ideology in the modern sense of the word is very different from a faith, although it is intended to fulfill the same sociological function," Dawson wrote.
It is the work of man, an instrument by which the conscious political will attempts to mould the social tradition to its purpose. But faith looks beyond the world of man and his works; it introduces man to a higher and more universal range of reality than the finite and temporal world to which the state and the economic order belong. [4]
What is striking about the observations of Dawson and Dalrymple is the differing understandings of "transcendence."

For Dawson, transcendence was related to faith, not ideology. Faith has a good grasp on the limits of the world and of ideas. For Dalrymple, the ideologue had a longing for some solution to the world's problems that justified his education, his vision of the world, his self-importance. The man of faith does not look to the world as a solution to his transcendent problems, though he does hold there are transcendent issues to which he is open. But the ideologue who lacks philosophy and revelation does look to his ideas alone as the source and cure of what is wrong with the world. The agency of the former is what is revealed, of the latter what is concocted by the human mind with nothing left but itself. It is when the ideologue and the politician become the same man, and form a movement designed to capture actual states that the most humanly devastating movements arise in the actual world.


The title of these reflections is: "On Keeping People In." The difference between faith and modern secularism is the latter wants to keep us, finally, in this world. It has no place for us other than "the future." Faith, on the other hand, is not derogatory to the world; it only maintains that this world is not, in its present form, the ultimate end of man. Indeed, the most pressing need in the modern intellectual world is to rid itself of political ideology so that politics can again become politics and not a substitute metaphysics or theology. It seems ironic to say so, but the only people who see the world of politics as it is are those who see it without the veneer of ideology that distorts it in their souls. We could aptly say that today "It takes faith to see politics." Radical separation of "church" and "state" ends up with the incapacity of seeing either clearly.

All modern ideology is a reaction to the Christian notion of eschatology or, better, it is an attempt to achieve a perfectly unending happy life without the means of faith and grace upon which alone such promises can be based. In his book Turning Point for Europe? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
Even Europe, even the European culture can perish.... The future always remains open, because human life lived in common always revolves around human freedom and therefore always has the possibility of failure. But this means that the field of political activity is not the future but the present. The politician is not one who arranges a better world that will arrive at some time or other; rather, his responsibility is that the world today should be good so that it may also be good tomorrow. The so-called better world of tomorrow is a mirage that deprives today of its force and dignity but does not serve tomorrow by so doing.... We must learn to say good-bye to the myth of inner-worldly eschatologies. We then serve tomorrow best when we are good today and when we shape today in a spirit of responsibility for what is good today and tomorrow. [5]
This is a remarkable passage. It is precisely an explication of what politics is and is not. It is a reaffirmation of the Socratic principle, "It is never right to do wrong," the principle on which our civilization is built. The way to serve the future is not through some presumably world-shaking movement that will remove all evils, but by knowing, defining, and living the good in our time and in our place, what is before our very eyes.

We cannot wait until tomorrow to be good. We cannot change yesterday except in the sense of asking forgiveness for our sins. The crux, in fact, of the whole anti-life movement is thinking today's evil is tomorrow's good. It kills today to improve tomorrow. However, "We serve tomorrow best when we are good today and tomorrow." Benedict XVI, of course, spells out this thesis in much more detail in Spe Salvi, one of the very great encyclicals. It is significant that the modern philosophers who have reoriented thought away from past and present to the future, have been able, in so doing, to eliminate any need to take what is into their consideration of how to live. By placing our stress on a future this-world, we in fact erect walls keeping people in this world, keeping them from knowing their real destiny. They no longer consider whether there is a judgment of how they stood before the good in this world when it was before them.


Our political memory is short. We seldom, if ever, learn from the past. This is why, morally speaking, most ages are like to others with similar configurations of virtue and vice. Nations and polities are not "substances." Within this world, the only thing destined to eternity is man. The world exists that this eternity may be achieved, but achieved freely, by every human person created in the image of the triune God. The proposal of a lesser end is both very ancient and very current. Augustine said, in a famous book of the City of God (X IX. ch. 3): "All these philosophers have wished, with amazing folly, to be happy here on earth and to achieve bliss by their own efforts." No better description of modernity or modern ideology can be found.

What about the "nations" or states in history, the rise and fall of empires? If only individual human beings are, in principle, saved; if only such a being as rational man or angel is offered eternal life, what do we make of the history of the nations in which the choices of each person work their way out in time to their chosen destiny? John Paul II, in Memory and Identity, wrote:
The history of every individual, and therefore of every people, possesses a markedly eschatological dimension.... Admittedly, it is people and not nations that have to face God's judgment, but in the judgment pronounced on individuals, nations too are in some way judged. Can there be such a thing as an eschatology of the nations? Nations have an exclusively historical meaning, whereas man's vocation is eschatological. Yet man's vocation leaves its mark on the history of nations. [6]
These are incisive remarks. Individual people have to face God in the "judgment of the living and the dead." Yet, each man's "vocation" leaves its mark on "the history of the nations." This mark will be true both of those who reject transcendence by their actions and of those who reach it.

Plato, after all, was correct to teach us that the "soul" of the nation is but a reflection of the soul of the individual. All reform of nations begins with the reform of the soul of the citizen who is a person. The fall of the Berlin Wall did indeed open the souls of peoples to new currents. But it did not necessarily open them to the good that they could do before them. In this context, to ask John Paul II's question again, "Can there be such a thing as an eschatology of nations?" If so, how would we conceive it?

Eric Voegelin, in a famous phrase, said modern philosophy was the "imanentization of the eschaton." He meant by this, following the Enlightenment, that modernity was not lacking in theological overtones. It did not reject the notion of the four last things. It relocated them. Heaven, hell, death, and purgatory became enclosed within this world, within, if you will, the walls of the world.

In the Republic, Plato proposed the immortality of the soul as the ultimate guarantee the world was not created in injustice, as it seemed to be looking at its history. This consideration meant the sins and virtues that did happen in this world, those not punished or rewarded, had to be judged after this life, at the cost that otherwise, the world was not just.

The rejection of the immortality of the soul and its Christian correlative, the resurrection of the body, does not remove the drive to achieve a complete or final happiness analogous to everlasting life. What is does is simply relocate it to a political project. Joseph Ratzinger, in his Foreword to a new English edition of his Eschatology, wrote that the virtue of hope had, with several Marxist and existential thinkers, taken on a new orientation, an orientation that linked it with the ideology of the immanent eschaton.
Hope was reconceived to be an active virtue, a deed that could change the world, from which a new humanity, the so-called better world would emerge. Hope became political and man himself appeared to be charged with its execution. The kingdom of God, upon which all depends in Christendom, became man's kingdom, the "better world" of tomorrow. God is no longer considered to be "above" but rather "right in front of us." [7]
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this observation. It explains how and why the ideologies of our time, those apparently symbolized by the Wall, remained in place when the Wall fell. The same eschatological dynamism that charged a secular Marxism remained within the secular liberalism of the free world and also, from an earlier theology, characterized the dynamism of Islam, with its military expansion and subsequent subjugation in the name of the world worshipping Allah.

In conclusion, we are told in Scripture we are here as "wayfarers and sojourners." This phrase was often used as a charge against Christians for supposedly neglecting the world, so its dire condition was attributed to Christianity's lack of enthusiasm for the worldly cities. The Christian answer to this charge, as already outlined in Augustine, was to point out that, once they were freed from false gods and immoral practices, Christians did more for the world and for its cities than anyone else. Indeed, the very essence of its inner-worldly charge was to love one's neighbor and help the poor, as well as serving in the army and resisting what was evil.

The only way to get "this world" right, however, is to first have an accurate understanding that man, though mortal and made in this world, is not made for this world, even though he passes through it to his final choice in the grace given to him. The political ideologies that have so surged through the modern world, and still continue to do so in the democracies that embrace voluntarist legal and political systems, are, when sorted out, man-made efforts to solve the destiny of man in ways other than those found in revelation.

This "enthusiasm" for perfection is no longer present among us in only economics or politics. It is now in biology, in genetics, in environmentalism, and in psychology. As Dalrymple put it, "The most popular and widest-ranging ideology in the West today is environmentalism, replacing not only Marxism but all the nationalist and xenophobic ideologies...." Whatever we think of care of the planet, of stewardship, it is in environmentalism where the rewriting of Genesis is taking place, where man is now subject to the worldly forces, not vice versa. But these western ideologies are to be played against the background of China, of Islam and of genetic engineers, of those who want to clone, to extend our life indefinitely, and to place begetting outside the family in scientific engineering. These indeed were the subjects of Benedict's Spe Salvi.

Keeping people in, the shortness of political memory—the last words are those of Joseph Ratzinger: "We serve tomorrow best when we are good today...." Politics has to do with cities of the present, which is the only place in which we actually choose real good and real evil in our souls, choices for which we will be judged in the transcendent order, in the order for which we are ultimately created in the first place.


[1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "We Have Ceased to See the Purpose," Address to the International Academy of Philosophy, Liechtenstein, September 14, 1993, The Solzhenitsyn Reader, edited by E. Ericson and Daniel Mahoney (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), 597

[2] See James V. Schall, The Regensburg Lecture (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 2008).

[3] John Paul II, Memory and Identity (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 48.

[4] Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image, 1958), 14.

[5] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe? Translated by Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 136-37.

[6] John Paul II, Memory and Identity, ibid., 77-78.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, translated by Michael Waldstein (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, [1977] 1988), xviii.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Will To Truth: On the Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
• Pope Benedict XVI, Theologian of Joy | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | An interview with the author of Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
Spe Salvi and Vatican II | Brian A. Graebe
• Vatican II and the Ecclesiology of Joseph Ratzinger | Maximilian Heinrich Heim | Introduction to Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology.
An excerpt from "Christianity and the History of Culture" | Christopher Dawson
The Vision and Principles of Christopher Dawson | David Knowles
Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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