The Achievement of Yves R. Simon

There is a great myth concerning the intellectual life of the Church prior to Vatican II, that it was impoverished by a lack of imagination, narrowly focused on scholastic hairsplitting, rigidly enclosed by dogma, and irrelevant to the contemporary world. This view completely overlooks the philosophical generation spawned by Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni patris. This encyclical bore extraordinary fruit during the ’30s and ’40s in the works of a number of Thomists, including Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Jacques Maritain, Josef Pieper, Etienne Gilson, and Yves R. Simon. Simon, the least known of these luminaries, deserves greater attention and appreciation.

Yves R. Simon (1903-1961) was born in Cheribourg, France, in 1903. His father was director of Simon Freres, the family’s large farm implement manufacturing company in Normandy. He went to Paris in 1920 for higher education, and in 1921 he began attending philosophy courses simultaneously at the Sorbonne and the Institute Catholique; there he came to know Jacques Maritain. Although interested in the study of philosophy, he also studied science, economics, and medicine. He prepared his first doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of P. J. Proudhon. He obtained degrees from the University of Paris in 1923 and 1926 and from the Institute in 1929 and 1934. From 1930 to 1938 he taught at the Catholic Institutes of Lille and Paris.

Simon was deeply influenced by Maritain and devoted himself to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, but he was not impressed by the Action Francaise, a Royalist group to which most Catholic intellectuals were attracted at the time. In fact he saw Thomists being compromised by their association with this group. He strongly supported de Gaulle in France and the Democratic party in the United States. In 1938 he came to the United States where he taught at the University of Notre Dame from 1938 to 1948. Then, in 1948 he was appointed to the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, a prestigious interdisciplinary graduate school faculty that included Leo Strauss, David Grene, F. A. Hayek, Edward Shills, and Mircea Eliade.

Democratic Government

Since the French Revolution, with its extreme ideological and political agenda, many Catholics have believed that the democratic or republican movement was opposed to Catholic truth and practice in principle. Tocqueville’s lament could well be that of Simon:

Men of religion fight against freedom, and lovers of liberty attack religions; noble and generous spirits praise slavery, while low servile minds preach independence; honest and enlightened citizens are the enemies of all progress, while men without patriotism or morals make themselves apostles of enlightenment. Have all ages been like ours? And have men always dwelt in a world in which nothing is connected? Where virtue is without genius and genius without honor? Where love of order is confused with a tyrant’s taste and the sacred cult of freedom is taken as a scorn of law? Where nothing seems forbidden or permitted, honorable or dishonorable, true or false?

In fact, Simon is a contemporary Tocqueville; a thoughtful and passionate defender of liberty and the democratic regime, pointing out its superiority to the alternatives, clearly articulating the conditions for its flourishing, and yet chastising its internal weaknesses and contradictions. Simon, like Maritain, sought to work out the implications of the renewal of Leo XIII, especially in recognizing the importance of liberty and justice as animating ideals of political order. Both men could watch history unfold before their eyes as one form of socialism transformed into another and liberty was snuffed out in the process. In an article entitled “The Doctrinal Issue Between the Church and Democracy,” Simon argued that the problem lay partly in understanding the nature of political authority. Many Church documents condemned the new democratic movement insofar as it seemed to exalt human freedom and power over divine and moral law.

The theory of consent of the people as a source of power was understood to mean that authority emanates from the people and nothing can brook its will; and similarly it could support an individualistic anarchy in which no man need obey or submit to a law to which he did not give his consent. The Church was thus a defender of authority and order. And many Catholics understood this as a rejection of democratic regimes; a Catholic must be a royalist, an aristocrat, or even a “corporatist,” but certainly not a republican or a socialist. Thus, Simon’s first great intellectual accomplishment is his careful analysis of authority; he explains the various functions and types of authority. Authority is derived not simply or primarily from defects in human nature, but from plenitude; it is needed for united action and what he calls the material volition of the common good. Authority in principle frees up the energies of particular people and particular groups to see to the flourishing of their own realm of activity. Ultimately he shows the vital interconnection of autonomy and authority.

Simon thus proves that the lover of liberty need not despise authority and that authority properly understood must draw upon the vital energies of the people under its sway. This indeed is essential to the “liberal attitude”: the belief that the social whole is best served by the spontaneous operation of the elementary energies. This is one part of the great Catholic social principle of subsidiarity. In addition he works through various kinds of authority to show (as did Aristotle and Aquinas before him) that political authority, rule over free men, is different in kind from paternal and despotic authority. Democracy is to be defended today because it is best able to achieve the political life, that is, the rule of free men and the avoidance of tyranny.

Simon’s case for democratic government does not consist of elaborate justifications of the ends of the liberal democratic state–maximum freedom or equal regard for every plan of life. Such justifications in the contemporary context rely very heavily on moral relativism and have become codified in the push for multiculturalism, the right to choose, and the politically correct. Simon avoids what Pope John Paul II refers to as an alliance between democracy and relativism that opens the way to totalitarian manipulation. Rather, he argues that universal suffrage ultimately guards against the indifference or tyranny of the few. In our day this would take the form of an intellectual or scientific elite. The advantage of democracy lies in universal suffrage as a check on excessive power, especially the power of scientific elites.

Simon examines a democratic “postulate of equal ability.” He has one imagine a physicist, a genius to boot, making a speech at a political meeting; to a workman it may be said, “He knows more physics than you, but in politics you are his equal.” On the one hand, this postulate may be interpreted to mean that politics requires no special excellence or that we are all equal in virtue; in fact, Simon claims that good government requires “unusual virtue, intelligence and many other qualifications that cannot be expected to be possessed by any great number of men.” Further, he says that “the definition of the good man is frightfully exacting, for goodness implies achievement, accomplishment, completeness, totality, integrality, plenitude,” and is, therefore, not in great supply. Why then democracy and universal suffrage? The postulate of equal ability reminds us that “political wisdom is not a specialty or expertness, not art or craft but a human quality on account of which intellect and will are righteously disposed with regards to the goods of man.” Democracy returns us to the question of the human good and the good life. Unfortunately technology, an engine for democratic reform and democratic achievement, may well undermine its very promise.

The Challenges of Technology

The changes brought about by technology are complex and ambivalent; Simon describes six categories of significant change: time, nature, life, reason, labor, and leadership. First, technology has speeded the time frame in which projects can be accomplished, thereby weakening “our sense of dependence upon the past and future of society” and increasing a sense of loneliness; second, there is an increased ratio of artificial things over natural things; third, an increased ratio of the nonliving to the living things in our environment. By changing these ratios “technology threatens to impair the communion of man with universal nature.” Fourth, a technological society raises the expectation of a “greater amount of rationality in the arrangement of things.”

The ratios of danger and security are altered; great confidence is placed in human power to control chance; fifth, there develops in technological society a substitution of technical education for humanistic education. Sixth, there is a rise to prominence of technical experts and instrumental reason, often displacing authentic leaders, “men of virtue and human experience.” The cumulative effects, the end of such a society without an ethical compass, is a lust for power and an alienation from nature and from others. The pursuit of happiness all but loses its substantive meaning. Specific challenges are twofold: first, a “hedonistic philosophy” combined with the loss of traditional or customary discipline; and second, the creation of an expert elite with its dream of social engineering.

Simon observes that “by increasing the amount of goods available, technology gives to many men their first chance to look beyond satisfaction of elementary needs.” Some seek literature and music, others wild pleasures, and others power. Simon says that the ratio is indeterminate in itself; but he combines this with the fact that democracy overturns paternalistic customs and irrational customs, thereby lessening the hold of traditional discipline. “Politicians and theorists spread the belief that democracy expects little and lessens pain and exertion.” The end of paternalism “requires new and costly forms of heroism.” And “the promise of an easy life is but a seduction into decadence.” In addition, Simon finds spontaneity of feeling and desire being substituted for virtue.

But the great challenge is surely the rise of an expert elite with its dream of social engineering. A technological society raises the expectation of a “greater amount of rationality in the arrangement of things,” but, as a result, the world of man becomes “irritatingly unintelligible.” The “untrustworthiness of man” is a scandal as we come to “trust physical processes controlled by techniques.” As Simon puts it, technology is not only a material cause of modern society, but also its exemplary cause—model for how life is to be approached. The experts focus on new techniques and knowledge to control behavior, but must come to grief against human freedom and the contingency of human affairs. The “rationalism born of technological pride hates human liberty both on account of its excellence and its wretchedness.” This is the least reconcilable enemy of democracy and liberty. Schemes for controlling teenage pregnancy are perhaps the greatest example of this; there is a belief that the right technology and the right knowledge will lead to virtuous outcomes or dependable behavior. But only virtue and the disposition of character can provide a modicum of stability or dependability in human affairs.

Simon’s prophetic voice rings true again when he says that humanity will not be saved by educational reforms: “It would be exceedingly naive to believe that with good courses in history, literature, the classics etc. we can expect a young surgeon to live up to his ethical and social obligations.” To put the matter simply—right use is a matter for prudence, not science. Knowledge and art may be ignored at the time of action. But there is a form of knowledge that would prove most beneficial to the human use of technology. Technical energy should be devoted toward genuine human good: hence, there is a need for a “sound knowledge of human finalities.” This knowledge is difficult to obtain, but with it men would be willing to serve nobler ways of life. This is the key to an ethics of technology. The older view of techne, as articulated by Aristotle, is that art imitates and cooperates with nature; it is enfolded within the finalities of nature. Simon is very much aware of the character of modern science as non-teleological and its subsequent technology as oblivious to finality.

The Meaning of Nature

The core problem with a technological basis for modern democracy is its loss of the sense of nature. Given the permanence of technology and its connection to the realization of democratic ideals, Simon counsels men to avoid “anti-social dreams” and simplistic condemnations of technological society. So Simon holds out agrarian life as a counterpoint to urban technology and drives deeper to find an ethics of technology within the very notion and vocation of technology itself. This leads him to a deepened understanding of the meaning and viability of teleological nature.

At first glance, advocating a rural ideal seems even further out of date than when it was first proposed in 1951. He did not suggest that we leave the city and all return to rural life. Rather, he believed that the witness and opportunity of such a life would have a leavening effect upon society and perhaps serve as an analogous ideal: “the enthusiastic few needed to maintain the family farm as a pole of attraction acting upon the whole of society.” In rural life one could find a more human scope for work, greater solidarity, greater appreciation for the cycles of nature. Such a life would promote “things that can never become indifferent to men—communion with universal nature, the conquest of time through everlasting faithfulness, temperance, dignity in poverty, holy leisure, contemplation.” Perhaps the family farm can no longer serve much of a sociological base for these great things. But it is our challenge to find ways to make them a reality in human life. Just raising a whole family in the contemporary society would accomplish much, excepting for holy leisure.

The deeper quest for nature may also arise out of our very use of technology; Simon stresses the fact that the tool itself can be used for good or for ill. The important ethical concern lies in the right use. Indeed, ethics itself is a matter of “good human use both of things and of one’s powers in relation to oneself as well as other people.” Good use requires application of human finalities—respect for and nurturing of an integral human good. One needs a knowledge of human nature and human perfection, in short, a basis for natural law. It is a great axiom of Simon’s work, as it must be for any authentic Thomism, that “a sound philosophy of man without a minimum of soundness in the philosophical interpretation of nature is inconceivable.” This is demanding: it takes a knowledge of modern science, historical origins, and philosophy of nature.

Simon devoted much attention to the problem of purpose in nature (teleology) and especially to the ways in which mathematical models of nature exclude purpose from the start. While the idea of mechanism may be useful as a methodological tool, it is problematic as a comprehensive philosophy of nature. Simon draws upon human experience to convey the teleological concept of nature. His most sophisticated scholarly studies of human knowledge outline the grounds for an authentic and scientific knowledge of natural purpose.

Natural Law and Virtue

Once we can attain a proper understanding of nature, the contours of natural law ethics can be discerned. Simon uses the classic Thomistic text concerning the three levels of human good and finality—first, the good of life and preservation of being, shared with all things; second, the good of marriage, procreation, and family life shared to some degree with other forms of animal life; and third, the distinctively human quest for friendly association, truth, and ultimately God himself. In the light of the philosophy of nature, these goods are clear. But in our present condition we may need the stabilizing influence of revelation.

Natural law, as a law or rule for behavior, is still on the level of universal precept; human action requires attention to particularities; in short, it requires prudence and virtue. At long last we arrive at the core of Simon’s philosophy—the notion of human prudence and virtue—“habitus” or “hexis,” often translated as character. In its ancient meaning, habit is not an involuntary, thoughtless, mechanical conformity; rather, it designates what is vital, creative, and necessary.

The virtuous man is in a state of existential readiness to act; this is the result of years of education and formation. It is a readiness to know what to do and a facility to do what is good. It requires a disposition of the soul—an ordering of its parts, a moderation of appetites—striving for what is a noble good. In the final analysis all is guided by the ancient virtue of prudence. Prudence does not mean selfish or calculating regard; it means a reasoned and true capacity to act for human goods. No axioms, rules, or formulas can substitute for prudence.

Yves R. Simon was an intellectual of the highest caliber. That he was also a man of devout faith is not unrelated to his achievement. The tremendous courage and perseverance at the root of his work are obvious. As one of the clearest and most instructive teachers of the perennial philosophy, the works of Yves R. Simon should head the top of our list. His genius served virtue, and we should proudly honor his genius. Because of his work, we can once again dwell in a connected world.


  • John Hittinger

    John Hittinger is a professor in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston and the author of Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. He is the founder and director of the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World and president of the International Catholic University, founded by Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He is also developing a MA in John Paul II studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

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