The Universe We Think In (Versus the One We Think Up)

Jean Louis de Lolme, writing in 1784 of the “omnipotence” of the British legislature—and by implication of the modern state—remarks that “parliament can do everything, except making a woman a man or a man a woman.”

Today, the striking thing about de Lolme’s qualification of state power is its apparent naiveté. We live in a world where medical technology is thought capable of “making a woman a man or a man a woman”; where a man’s conviction that he is a woman, or vice versa, is considered sufficient to make it so; and where the state stands ready to compel us to affirm what many reasonably believe to be a distortion of reality.

How is the conscientious citizen to respond to such compulsion? In isolated cases, keeping one’s head down and awaiting sanity’s return might suffice. As James Schall reminds us in The Universe We Think In, however, there is a centuries-old history behind such abuses of state authority. It has become customary for self-proclaimed representatives of humanity to wield sovereign power against anyone opposing the satisfaction of selected desires, promising thereby to secure the conditions of perfect earthly contentment. Today’s gender ideology is one step among many—“from divorce, to contraception, to abortion, to fetal experimentation, to gay marriage, to state control of family numbers and begetting”—through which enlightened despots have acquired an ever-expanding “environmental and eugenic control over man,” all for our own good of course!

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As Schall explains, each phase of this development, while looking at first glance like a bewilderingly arbitrary imposition, in fact “arises quite logically from a development within a political philosophy that rejects the natural and supernatural ends proposed for each person who has existed on this planet.” Though this swiftly advancing, mercilessly imposed moral disorder—aptly described as “the dictatorship of relativism” or “the Kingdom of Whatever”—has taken many forms, its foundations are in particular philosophical and theological errors. Liberating ourselves from its clutches therefore demands the recovery of a sound philosophical and theological account of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

If this sounds like a daunting task—and it certainly is—then we can at least take comfort in the “famous position” of Thomas Aquinas “that every man contains within himself all the intellectual powers needed for his knowing of reality.” Though divine grace is requisite for achieving our ultimate good, careful philosophical examination of human nature reveals the character of that good, while close examination of divine revelation demonstrates God’s express willingness to offer the necessary assistance. We can also take comfort in possessing a guide such as Schall, whose decades of reflection, teaching, and writing on these matters have resulted in a wealth of insights and gracefulness of presentation, both supremely evident in this volume (to which I was honored to contribute a blurb at the publisher’s request).

Schall notes that modern man is in thrall to the notion of what Thomas More calls utopia—the vision of an earthly paradise whose achievement demands “the imposition of an ungrounded idea on reality,” and whose pursuit therefore entails the ruthless enforcement of ideology—“a false picture of the world” in the name of which any and every act of tyranny can be rationalized.

To the utopian mind, nothing is more offensive than the notion of limits to human agency. For this reason, modern ideologies are fundamentally at odds with the one human activity that lies at the heart of true freedom and happiness: “the discovery of what is in reality.” Schall’s book constitutes a clear and forceful exposure of modernity’s hostility to the pursuit of truth, coupled with a persuasive demonstration that “the plan of reality that has become known to us, in both reason and revelation, is better than any utopia of our own conjecture.”

At the heart of modernity’s madness is its rejection of the classical distinction between craft and prudence: the first being knowledge of how to achieve desired ends, the second knowledge of how to achieve good ends. Prudence presupposes wisdom, or knowledge of what is good, which in turn presupposes an objective order according to which good exists apart from and prior to subjective desire or choice. Socratic philosophy and biblical faith are in agreement that such an order exists, that it is known perfectly to God, and that a partial but meaningful outline of this order is accessible to human reason. Modern political philosophy, on the other hand, categorically (and dogmatically) denies or ignores the existence of such an order.

Not surprisingly, this disagreement has radical implications for political life. In the Socratic-Christian view, politics has a genuine but qualified dignity. As Aristotle saw, “politics is the highest of the practical sciences but not the highest science,” since the ultimate end of man—the contemplation of universal truth by participation in the inner life of God—is not the product of human craft, but rather a gift that man accepts or rejects. Politics, which governs human associations for the sake of the common good, is by nature “in the service of what man is.” The goal of “the best practical regime,” therefore, must be to facilitate, and never to inhibit, those institutions and practices essential to the discovery and implementation of what is true, good, and beautiful. Though aspects of religious, academic, and family life may be subject to political oversight, their core elements obligate and limit the state.

Thus understood, politics is a noble and exalted calling. In Eden, man had supreme dominion over creation, and Paradise was no prison, even if its privileges had to be acknowledged as gifts rather than objects of man’s making. Likewise, Aquinas stresses that the goods at which human actions must aim constitute principles or beginning points for practical reasoning, leaving much to be specified by human agency at the political and personal levels. Devising ways to help a multitude of souls draw closer to the good—especially given the challenges posed by fallen human and external nature—requires such a conjunction of human perfections that Aquinas does not hesitate to affirm the virtuous ruler’s “special likeness to God.”

Nonetheless, practical politics demands the humility to recognize that the greatest goods are neither defined by nor ultimately achieved within even the best regime. That Socrates and Christ were put to death by the most celebrated regimes of their day is a sign not only that these regimes had room for improvement, but also that “a standard exists whereby we can judge political regimes” and find them all more or less wanting: “the standard of an objectively true good, not simply one made up by positive law.”

If classical thought holds the political regime to the standard of a higher reality, modern thought does precisely the opposite. Denigrating God and nature as useless or hostile to human welfare, Machiavelli and his heirs seek to give human beings supreme dominion over our environment—including our relations to one another—with no limits to the acquisition of what we desire save those mandated by the dynamics of power politics and the social contract.

The audacity of this enterprise is palpable in Sir Edward Coke’s 1644 exposition of the “transcendent and absolute” “power and jurisdiction of Parliament.” “Despotic power … must in all governments reside somewhere,” he avers, noting that Parliament can even “alter the established religion of the land, as was done … in the reigns of King Henry VIII and his three children.” Thomas More challenged this cool affirmation of “despotic power” when he asked whether Parliament could “make a law that God should not be God.” If not, how could it presume to dictate which truths revealed by God were to be accepted or disregarded? For Thomas Cromwell, More’s prosecutor, the decapitation of those “traitors” who questioned Parliament’s spiritual authority was enough to settle the matter. As Machiavelli teaches, any enforceable law is a good law, assuming it obtains the desired object.

If the state has power over “nature’s God,” why should we expect it to bow before the realities of nature? As Schall masterfully shows, “the terrible history of utopianism” is a predictable consequence of the conviction that everything in the universe—including man himself—must be manipulated if not eliminated in order to recreate the world in accordance with our own “ungrounded idea.” Likewise predictable is the tragicomic spectacle of youth, sheltered and indoctrinated by state-sanctioned elders, petitioning for “safe spaces” defined by the jackbooted repression of anyone questioning the reality of their “picture of the world.”

Though some may resent his critique of utopia as not only fanciful but degrading to humanity, Schall rightly stresses and ably demonstrates that admitting the deficiencies of modern thought is the first step to embarking upon the adventure of discovering what “the universe we think in” has to say about the true basis of human dignity and happiness—for which he provides a road map based on first-hand experience.


  • L. Joseph Hebert

    L. Joseph Hebert is Professor of Political Science and Leadership Studies and Director of Pre-Law Studies at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA. He is former Editor in Chief of The Catholic Social Science Review published by the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. Dr. Hebert is the President of Una Voce Quad Cities and author of More Than Kings and Less Than Men (2010).

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