The Necessity and Limits of Politics: A Review of Daniel J. Mahoney's "The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. Ignatius InsightThe Necessity and Limits of Politics: A Review of Daniel J. Mahoney's The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | June 21, 2011

"When self-sufficiency and freedom are severed from their dependence upon and completion in God, the human person creates for himself a false destiny and loses sight of the eternal joy for which he has been made."
Pope Benedict XVI, "The Meaning of the Gospel," To Bishops of the Philippines (Ad Limina Meeting of Philippine Bishops, L'Osservatore Romano, February 23, 2011).

"A laudable respect for the accomplishments of different cultures has given way to an absolute relativism that denies the very idea of universal moral judgments and a universal human nature."
Daniel J. Mahoney, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order: Defending Democracy against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2010), p. 102.


Though it has some important things to say about politics, the New Testament is not a book of politics. Indeed, the early Christians took a considerable amount of time to come to terms with the political order, an effort pioneered by Augustine more than anyone else. That the New Testament was not somehow a substitute for the Politics of Aristotle or any other political book did not mean that politics was not important. It was just not the most fundamental thing about us.

The New Testament tells us primarily about our final purpose and end, not our temporal life in which our end is to be worked out with not a little "fear and trembling," as St. Paul put it. The New Testament did not think it necessary to have a formal teaching about politics. This absence of politics implied that men had sufficient intelligence and experience by themselves to figure out its basics. Revelation presumed and expected men to use their brains. Besides, Plato and Aristotle had already outlined most of the important things.

Even though Aristotle had said "man is by nature a political animal," he also recognized, as did Augustine, the messiness—to use no stronger word—that could flow from politics. To be unaware of the lethal dangers of politics was not really possible to the early Christians. They were often under constant persecution, as many Christians are in the world today though we do not much notice them. Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have remarked on the relation of the death of Socrates to the death of Christ. These deaths gave rise to the classical question of political philosophy about whether a regime can be found in which the best man would not be killed. It is still an open question. Modern liberal often claimed that it could do so, but things kept going wrong, even in Paradise.

What marks modern Church thinking on politics is that politics are primarily the task of laymen. Benedict calls it a "healthy secularity." The Church has indeed proposed what it calls its "social doctrine." This ongoing effort thinks out the general lines of an adequate social and political order. The Church acknowledges that responsibility for the temporal order is not the competence of the hierarchy.

Catholic social doctrine combines revelational and reasonable analyses into a coherent whole. It has accepted many of what are called modern political institutions that would guarantee the freedom of the Church's mission in the world as well as promoting the common good of citizens. What it has more and more run up against since nineteenth- and twentieth-century socialism, capitalism, communism, fascism, liberalism, and now Islam are concepts of politics that admit to no limits.

Politics, in effect, becomes a militant rival to the revelational understanding of man.


The possibility of such an unlimited understanding of politics was implicit from the Book of Revelation and in Aristotle, who said that "if man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science." Claims that man is the highest being have arisen from many angles. Anthropology, the study of man himself, is considered by many to be the highest science. Benedict often returns to this issue. In his remarks to the Philippine bishops he stated that man would create a "false destiny for himself" if he no longer depended on God.

Daniel Mahoney, on whose book I want to comment here, in effect, made the same point. "Absolute relativism" has become the central issue of our political understanding of ourselves. This relativism makes it possible to propose one "false destiny" after another. Mahoney's book accounts for the rationale behind such "false destinies" and the degree to which the political order is shaped by them

Mahoney is a professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has done much to bring to our attention recent French thought on political philosophy. He has written books on de Gaulle, Raymond Aron, Pierre Manent, and is particularly concerned with Solzhenitsyn and his impact on France.

The present book stands within the tradition of Tocqueville and Burke. It addresses a theme found in Aron's The Opium of the Intellectuals, namely why so many "intellectuals" are found on the extremes of political affairs. Intellectuals are almost always a privileged class so that their extremism arises not from physical hunger but rather, as Benedict suggested, from a "severing" from God and a drive in the subsequent void to explain reality exclusively in human terms. They set themselves up as alternatives to God and proceed to impose their ideas on mankind.

This book is in the classical realist tradition. While the words "conservatism" and "liberalism" are indicated in the book's title, Mahoney seeks to show how the best of both traditions can and should be kept together. In fact, Mahoney is himself neither a liberal or conservative as these easily tossed about words are used today. He is closer to Aristotle and a hard-headed republican tradition that uses words accurately and is aware that freedom and equality are not absolutes. Mahoney understands that institutions, citizens, and, yes, ideas, have to be protected from their modern enemies.

"When Pope Benedict XVI warned in his September 2006 Regensburg Address against reducing Christianity to a 'humanitarian moral message," Mahoney writes, "he (Benedict) was speaking both in the name of the integrity of the faith and out of genuine solicitude for the well-being of a liberal or democratic order. Christianity can exercise its influence on the souls of men, it can help fortify an understanding of liberty as 'liberty under God,' only if it rejects the temptation to become a wholly 'democratic' religion" (47). A good deal of this book is devoted to the analysis of how the word "democracy," along with the notions of freedom and equality, has become absolute. They no longer are balanced by tradition, natural law, and experience. They have taken on their own agendas to reconstruct man, including his very body, in the name of some utopian idea that does not derive from actual human nature.


What is striking about this book is that now the issue of Islam is out in the open and must be dealt with. All through the modern era, Islam has been at best a footnote. It is well on its way to becoming the dominant issue of the next half-century and, if it wins, much longer. Mahoney's discussion of President Bush's handling of the 9/11 attack and its aftermath is judicious. He gives Bush credit for the will to deal with a real enemy in new military and political circumstances.

Mahoney is highly critical of Bush's Second Inaugural, however much it sounds like the Declaration of Independence. The idea that everyone wants liberty and democracy is problematic. Even if they did, a free constitutional government needs virtue and habits of economy and justice. When these are not in existence, a democracy will only make things worse. This is Aristotle's caution about regime change.

"President Bush dogmatically presupposes that love of liberty is the predominant, even the overarching motive of the human soul," Mahoney writes. "He not only downplays the cultural prerequisites of ordered liberty or democratic self-government but also abstracts from the sempiternal drama of good and evil in each and every human soul. The president's unqualified universalism abstracts from the fact that hatred of despotism by no means automatically translates into love of liberty or a settled and disciplined capacity for self-government" (121).

Of course, one might also wonder if the subsequent turmoil in the Arab world to get rid of despotisms was not in fact inspired by Bush's words. What we may lack is a leader who thinks that long entrenched despotisms can change and who knows how to guide. One here recalls Churchill, whom Maloney greatly admires, and Blessed John Paul II and Ronald Reagan who changed something no one thought could ever change.


Mahoney's hero is in fact the French political philosopher Raymond Aron. While he sympathetic to religion and philosophy, Aron was not a believer. In view of what I said above about the place of politics as itself its own experience and knowledge, it is striking that Mahoney, a Catholic, chooses, among the Frenchmen, Aron to ground his basic thesis that the liberal order needs for its safety certain basic conservative principles that recognize the worth and importance of actual human beings, not systems or abstractions.

Mahoney writes: "Aron speaks openly and unapologetically about the 'form of conservatism that I would like to defend.' This conservatism requires 'elementary virtues of discipline, consent to authority and technical competence' that had been co-opted by the totalitarian enemies of civilization. It also demands intellectual courage, 'the courage to question everything and make clear the problems on which the very existence of a country like France depends'" (169). We might add that the existence of any free and constitutional government, not just France, is at stake here. What Mahoney's book does then, as I see it, in the light also of Catholic social thought, is to show it is not just necessary to foster certain "liberal" institutions but to ground them. They need a foundation that conserves and develops the notions of virtue, law, being, and truth, notions each of which has a long history both in reason and revelation.

Much more is to be said of Mahoney's critical analysis of how modern intellectuals so easily drifted and continues to drift into totalitarian and anti-human positions. Mahoney, in my view, represents a number of young thinkers just coming into what I like to call the Platonic age of maturity and wisdom. They now have enough experience, that quality that Aristotle said the young lacked; they have learning and good sense to see where we are and where we ought to be. In addition, Mahoney makes alive again among us that French tradition so many of us knew with Maritain, Simon, Mauriac, de Jouvenel, Aron—not to mention Tocqueville himself. Mahoney knows the newer generation, Manent, Brague, Beneton, Marion, and a number of others.

One final thing is to be said about this very excellent book. What Mahoney does that we seldom see elsewhere, but which is of vital importance for a free and virtuous society, is to acknowledge that greatness has and does exist. We think, for example, of John Paul II. Modern democracy is often but another name for envy. But free societies also depend on nobility even in an age that has no nobles. Tocqueville understood this, as does Mahoney. And it does not mean reestablishing an aristocratic form of rule. Thus I like the following citation which concerns an address Winston Churchill gave at the University of Chicago on January 25, 1965: "The academic study of politics, he suggested, had a highest duty: 'To remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, and the peaks human excellence'" (54).

When Christ changed the meaning of human greatness and glory and being served to serving others, he changed the focus of human excellence. Churchill was right: we need great men. We need to know about them. They need to act; when they are lacking, the commonweal falters. As Yves Simon said, it is easier for all of us to obey and to attend to our own affairs, including our transcendent affairs, when we have a leader who knows the real limits of politics and also the things that need defended even at the price of his life.

Our lives in this world can go terribly wrong, as Mahoney indicates, if we have leaders who do not understand the limits of our mortal lives, who constantly present us with "false destinies." The great rulers and leaders also die and are judged according to their deeds. The enormous contribution of the Mahoney book, I think, is its setting of limits in this world of politics, the highest of the practical sciences as Aristotle would have it.

In selecting Aron, a man who had no "belief" as a guide to responsible political things, Mahoney shows he understands the conclusion that we draw from the fact that the New Testament left us to figure out politics. Not everyone figures it out, of course, which is why our political lot is often so dangerous. But some do. We still have to be grateful to Aristotle and to those who, down the ages, understood what he told us about the nature and limits of politics.

We can add Mahoney's book to that list of competent efforts that tell us honestly what and who we are in the city, even when we know that all of us also transcend it.

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Acting Reasonable: Democracy, Authority, and Natural Rights in the Thought of Jacques Maritain | Brian Jones, M.A.
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The Scandal of Natural Law | An Interview with J. Budziszewski
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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• The Religion of Liberalism, Or Why Freedom and Equality Aren't Ultimate Goals | An Interview with James Kalb
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Liberal Democracy as a Culture of Death: Why John Paul II Was Right | Dr. Raymond Dennehy
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The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
"Certain Fundamental Truths": On the Place and Temptations of Politics | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

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), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His most recent book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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