Sense and Nonsense: This Government, This Citizen

The term “regime” indicates the purpose of an organized political society together with the institutions and customs that are established, usually in some special manner, to achieve this purpose. The term “government” refers to those actual people, usually from a political party, who are elected or appointed to carry out the ends and purposes of a people within the institutional outlines as established by fundamental or constitutional law. The possibility of differing ways to “govern” under the same regime is thus both possible and likely. To rule is to choose which way. A “citizen” is someone who rules and is ruled, someone whose ends and purposes include and transcend, and therefore limit, the civil society in which he lives and acts. A government, however, can also be in violation of a constitution, provided a constitution is not simply what the judges or elected officials say it is, provided, that is, what it is to be a citizen is not identical with what it is to be a human being.

Neither a government nor a regime stands simply by itself. Both need philosophical justification. We increasingly have, however, theories of constitutional autonomy which affirm that the government and the regime should be whatever the people want, no matter what they might want. What the people “want” becomes what the government legislates or the courts decide. Law and morality are identical. In this view, a constitution less and less limits a government formed presumably according to the regime’s fundamental law. That is, what the people “want” itself needs no further justification, only articulation and carrying out into law and policy. This sort of regime, based on will alone, is the philosophic theory that replaces natural law or right. The only controversy is whose will in practice decides — that of the people, of the courts, of the bureaucracy, or of the president.

Nevertheless, even were this unlimited liberty of regime and government to be the actual case, it is still possible and necessary, from the point of view of political philosophy and religion, to ask about the justification for this or that particular political arrangement. In this sense, the “best regime” stands over against any actual regime, including our own. The two regimes may not be the same. The “best regime” might not actually come about in reality, but some principled criterion should exist by which we can and should judge the structure, purpose, and performance of actual regimes, governments, and citizens, no matter what they be. Any theory of liberty based in truth, not in will, demands at least this freedom — the freedom to identify and acknowledge what is, in spite of the power of the regime or government to carry out its own will, subject only to itself.

Thomas Jefferson stated in the Declaration of Independence that “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they [the American founders] should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Why should there be a “decent respect” for the opinions of mankind except that a people bases its actions on something more than force or its own will? If pure will is the basis of legitimate rule, then every regime is legitimate. Augustine understood this when in The City of God he said, disapprovingly, that a city is a group of men bound together by a common love, not by a common understanding of justice. Augustine knew that men could love almost anything, beginning with themselves. Even lost causes, such as that of Melos in Thucydides and that of the South, seek to present their principles persuasively before the opinions of mankind. Losses in war are not refutations of principle. Universal standards of regime, government, and citizenship that do not simply depend on the will of a particular populace are thus implied. When Aquinas said that law to be valid should be “promulgated,” he meant that each citizen should be able to judge it by standards that are objective and theoretically defensible to any reasonable being.

Americans have traditionally assumed that their regime is based on something more than fact, coercion, or arms. This assumption is not to disparage unduly fact, power, or military success, for they are actual political factors of no little significance. We “hold” the truth, however, that our regime is based on thought, on valid argument. What is in doubt today is whether we any longer hold any such thing, except perhaps the agreement that we are restricted by no principle of thought. We tend, perhaps unfortunately, to use the word democracy as equivalent to the term, “best regime.” We also use it for our own actual regime almost as if the two usages, democracy and best regime, were identical.

Since Aristotle, we ask about the purpose of a regime, what makes it different, not just in offices or institutions, but in end or character. Aristotle maintained that a democracy was the best of the worst forms of regime. What made it bad for Aristotle were two elements: (1) that it was the rule of the many for the good of the many, not for the good of everyone, and (2) that its end was “liberty,” understood as a denial of any objective truth. Democracy is thus a reflection of whatever the citizens want to do, no matter what they want to do. Inner souls quickly become writ large on the public squares for all to see.

The questions I ask here are likewise two: (1) what is the nature of the present American regime? and (2) what are the aims of the current government? In practice, it seems, the American regime, in the classical Greek sense, has become a democracy, that is, the rule of the many for the good of the many with no other effective criterion about the content of the good except whatever one wills. I would add that the present government in this regime has for its aims the full implementation of this end. The governors conceive their purpose to serve, not the fundamental truths, but the unlimited wills. The democratic regime is in fact heading in the direction that Aristotle, in his analysis of the changes of regime, thought likely. A relatively young opportunist, standing for little beyond his own glory, saw the opportunity to subsume the ends of the civil regime to himself. The people chose such a government, mostly, because of the status of their own souls, not wanting to know their true character.

This change of regime was accomplished in the name of “doing good,” whatever good might mean, doing good for a people who are no longer strong enough or virtuous enough to resist the chosen ruler by holding fast to a constitution based on principle. No truths are self-evident to us — certainly not life, property but barely, and liberty only if it means that nothing is true. This implicit change of regime happened because the fundamental locus of our disorders is not in regime or in the government but in our souls. The many see their own acts, with the principles from which they flow, played out in the public forum. The things the politicians do in public are what both politicians and citizens too often do in private. We have a regime and a government that have become models and servants to our own disordered souls.

How did the classical authors respond to such a situation? How did Augustine respond to it? Ultimately, they began by looking at their own souls. This regime, this government, this citizen did not come about by accident. They came about because we lost the discourse with virtue and with revelation that could indicate not what our wills wanted, but what was right to want. This is why, too, if I might be provocative, the most revolutionary American document for today’s world is Veritatis splendor. It suggests, with extraordinary paradox, that the truths that were self-evident at our founding are still self-evident.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...