Philosophy and the PapacyAug 21st, 2011 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
The Scripture readings for today’s liturgy provide a biblical basis for the papacy, as John Bergsma explains. But as a Protestant, I was not able to see those verses as providing that basis, until I read Plato’s Republic. Of the various philosophical factors that helped me become Catholic, one was teaching through Plato’s Republic. I had taught it a few times before, but this time, I was teaching it with an eye toward its implications regarding unity. My conclusion was that for philosophical reasons we could expect Christ to have established for the Church an enduring office for her government, an office occupied by one person at a time. That conclusion allowed me to be more open and receptive to the Catholic understanding of Matthew 16:18-19, Luke 22:32, and John 21:15-17. So how did Plato’s Republic help me reach that conclusion?
The School of Athens
In order to explain the role of Plato’s Republic in helping me become more open to the Catholic understanding of St. Peter’s unique office in the Church, I need to lay out the broader line of reasoning to which it contributed. That line of reasoning was as follows:
First, it is reasonable to expect that Christ, being God and therefore all-wise, would establish for His Church the best form of government, not a form of government faulty in some respect. That does not mean that the government that Christ established for His Church would never err, only that the form of this government would be the best one.
Second, the best form of government is one that is capable of preserving the unity of the society it governs. Consider how important unity is to the existence and continuation of a society. Plato writes:
Is there any greater evil for a polis than that which splits it and makes it many instead of one; or any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it a unity? (Republic, 462a9-b2)
Why is there no greater good for a society than its unity, and no greater evil than that which divides it? In other words, how is unity related to goodness? In order to answer that question, we need to consider the metaphysical relation between being and unity and goodness.
These three (and two more that I am not discussing) are called transcendentals, because they can be said of all categories of being. Consider the relation of being and goodness. The Manicheans had taught that there were two fundamental principles or sources of all things: a purely good deity called “the Father of Greatness,” and a purely evil deity called the “King of Darkness.” Neither deity was omnipotent, or created by the other. In this way the Manichean system was fundamentally dualistic. St. Augustine, drawing from the insights of the neo-Platonic tradition, argued against the Manicheans that evil is fundamentally a privation of good, not a parallel principle to good.1 Moreover, in this way the Manichean system fundamentally separated being and goodness, allowing for the possibility of a being having no goodness, i.e. a being that is purely evil.
St. Augustine argued against this, showing that because of the perfect unity of God, from whom all things that exist have their being and their goodness, goodness and being cannot be separated. Wherever there is being, there is goodness. Therefore, there can be no being that is purely evil. It follows that evil is not only a privation of goodness, but also a privation of being. St. Thomas says more about this in Summa Theologiae I Q.5 a.1, where he answers the question “Whether goodness differs really from being?”
Having considered the relation of being and goodness, notice the implications for the relation of being and unity. In Summa Theologiae I Q. 11 a.1, St. Thomas writes:
“Nothing which exists is not in some way one,” which would be false if “one” were an addition to “being,” in the sense of limiting it. Therefore “one” is not an addition to “being.”
I answer that, “One” does not add any reality to “being”; but is only a negation of division; for “one” means undivided “being.” This is the very reason why “one” is the same as “being.” Now every being is either simple or compound. But what is simple is undivided, both actually and potentially. Whereas what is compound, has not being whilst its parts are divided, but after they make up and compose it. Hence it is manifest that the being of anything consists in undivision; and hence it is that everything guards its unity as it guards its being.2
Seeing that being, unity and goodness are related in this way, as co-referential, it follows that wherever there is a privation of unity, there is a privation of goodness.3 But a privation of goodness is what evil is, as discussed above. Therefore privation of unity is evil, and the greater the privation of unity, the greater the evil. Likewise, the greater the unity of a thing in the fulfillment of its telos, the greater its goodness, all other things being equal. This explains why according to Plato there is no greater good for a society than its unity, and no greater evil than that which divides it, because unity and goodness are related in this way.
Third, given that Christ would not leave His Church with a faulty form of government, and given that there is no greater evil for a polis than that which splits it and makes it many instead of one, and no greater good than that which binds it together and makes it a unity, it follows that Christ would establish His Church with a government that by its very form would preserve the unity of the Church and protect it from division (i.e. schism), between the time of His Ascension and His future return in glory.
So what form of government, by its very form, preserves the unity of a society, and protects it from division? The answer is a government that is itself indivisible, that is, a government in which one person has a primacy of authority.
In Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, he describes a descent from the highest/best form of government (aristocracy, i.e. rule by the best) to the lowest/worst form of government (tyranny). This descent from aristocracy to tyranny passes through three intermediate forms of government:
It is not Plato’s purpose in Book VIII of the Republic to focus explicitly on unity. And it is easy to misunderstand what he is saying here, especially if we are not attentive to what he means by his terms. For example, he is not criticizing democracy in the sense of rule by the people, but rather democracy in the sense of rule by people of a certain moral character. For Plato, monarchy, as opposed to tyranny, would be a form of aristocracy, defined as rule by the wise and virtuous. But there is clearly something in this devolution of polities (from aristocracy to tyranny) that moves away from unity toward disunity, until finally out of the utter disunity of anarchy, there arises the occasion for tyranny, the perverse form of monarchy.
We can draw from Plato’s explication of these forms of government that all other things being equal, a unified form of government is a better government, because it is most capable of preserving the unity of the governed. And that form of government that is intrinsically most capable of being unified and preserving unity is that in which the highest political authority belongs to a single individual at a time. This is precisely why countries do not have multiple presidents at the same time, and companies do not have multiple CEOs at the same time, and Protestant congregations does not have multiple head pastors at the same time. Both natural societies and man-made societies require unified leadership. In Scripture we find that there are heads of families. The Church herself is described as “God’s household” (1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 2:19), the “family of believers” (Galatians 6:10) and the “family of God” (1 Peter 4:17). Hence it would be odd if this family (i.e. the Church) did not also have a primary visible head for its government. A body with multiple heads is divided (and potentially divisible) in a way that a body with one head is not.4 So we should expect there to be a visible head for the visible society which is the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” Christ founded.5
Aristotle presents a similar evaluation of the various forms of government in his Nicomachean Ethics VIII.10. (He discusses this also in his Politics.) In the Nicomachean Ethics he argues that tyranny is the contrary form of kingship (i.e. virtuous monarchy).
Kingship: corrupt form is Tyranny
Aristocracy: corrupt form is Oligarchy
Timocracy: corrupt form is Democracy
St. Thomas also discusses this in his work “On Kingship” (De Regno) and at Summa Theologiae I-II Q. 105 a.1, where the question is “Whether the Old Law enjoined fitting precepts concerning rulers?” There St. Thomas argues that the best form of government is one that provides the benefits of each of the other forms of government, through their mutual integration. Hence he argues that the best government should be partly democratic, in that all persons should take some share in the government, because there is a peace and stability intrinsic to the democratic form of government. He also argues that the best form of government should be partly aristocratic, in that those who know more about how best to rule should serve in the various ruling capacities. And he also argues that the best form of government should be partly monarchical, in that there should be a primacy of authority held by one person, because having one head provides for unity.
Earlier in the Summa, St. Thomas had addressed the question “Whether the world is governed by one?” He answered:
We must of necessity say that the world is governed by one. For since the end of the government of the world is that which is essentially good, which is the greatest good; the government of the world must be the best kind of government. Now the best government is the government by one. The reason of this is that government is nothing but the directing of the things governed to the end; which consists in some good. But unity belongs to the idea of goodness, as Boethius proves (De Consol. iii, 11) from this, that, as all things desire good, so do they desire unity; without which they would cease to exist. For a thing so far exists as it is one. Whence we observe that things resist division, as far as they can; and the dissolution of a thing arises from defect therein. Therefore the intention of a ruler over a multitude is unity, or peace. Now the proper cause of unity is one. For it is clear that several cannot be the cause of unity or concord, except so far as they are united. Furthermore, what is one in itself is a more apt and a better cause of unity than several things united. Therefore a multitude is better governed by one than by several. From this it follows that the government of the world, being the best form of government, must be by one. This is expressed by the Philosopher [Aristotle] (Metaphysics. xii, Did. xi, 10): “Things refuse to be ill governed; and multiplicity of authorities is a bad thing, therefore there should be one ruler.” (Summa Theologiae I Q. 103, a.3.)
The gist of his argument here is that the end (i.e. purpose) of the world is the greatest good, and therefore the government of the world must be the best kind of government in order to guide it to that greatest good which is its end, because the purpose of government is to direct the governed to their end. But the greatest good must include unity and peace, because of the co-referential relation of goodness and unity, as explained above. Therefore the best kind of government must be ordered to the unity and peace of the governed. However, the proper cause of unity and concord must itself be united, for nothing can give what it does not have. But what is one in itself is more suited to causing unity than what is several, since the former has unity intrinsically, while the latter only per accidens. As he says elsewhere, “Several are said to be united according as they come closer to being one. So one man rules better than several who come near being one.” This echoes Homer’s claim that “it is not good to have a rule of many” (Iliad II 204), where each is equal in authority and there is no one higher in authority. Therefore, a multitude is better governed by one than by several, since one ruler is more suited to bringing the ruled to the unity and concord which is their end. And therefore from these premises it follows that “the government of the world, being the best form of government, must be by one.”
What was fascinating to me about this argument (both in the Summa and in “On Kingship”) is that the term ‘world’ could be replaced by the term ‘church.’ The world is a natural society, but the Church is a supernatural society, and is therefore likewise ordered to the greatest good. Moreover, the Church is a visible society.6 So if St. Thomas’ argument provides good reason to believe that the world is governed by one, then it also in the say way provides good reason to believe that the Church is best governed by a single visible leader.
In his work “On Kingship” St. Thomas offered a similar argument for the thesis that monarchy is the most natural and suitable form of government. Here is a selection from his argument:
[W]e must now inquire what is better for a province or a city: whether to be ruled by one man or by many. This question may be considered first from the viewpoint of the purpose of government. The aim of any ruler should be directed towards securing the welfare of that which he undertakes to rule. The duty of the pilot, for instance, is to preserve his ship amidst the perils of the sea and to bring it unharmed to the port of safety. Now the welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace. If this is removed, the benefit of social life is lost and, moreover, the multitude in its disagreement becomes a burden to itself. The chief concern of the ruler of a multitude, therefore, is to procure the unity of peace. It is not even legitimate for him to deliberate whether he shall establish peace in the multitude subject to him, just as a physician does not deliberate whether he shall heal the sick man encharged to him, for no one should deliberate about an end which he is obliged to seek, but only about the means to attain that end. Wherefore the Apostle, having commended the unity of the faithful people, says: “Be ye careful to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Thus, the more efficacious a government is in keeping the unity of peace, the more useful it will be. For we call that more useful which leads more directly to the end. Now it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than several–just as the most efficacious cause of heat is that which is by its nature hot. Therefore the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many.
Furthermore, it is evident that several persons could by no means preserve the stability of the community if they totally disagreed. For union is necessary among them if they are to rule at all: several men, for instance, could not pull a ship in one direction unless joined together in some fashion. Now several are said to be united according as they come closer to being one. So one man rules better than several who come near being one.
Again, whatever is in accord with nature is best, for in all things nature does what is best. Now, every natural governance is governance by one. In the multitude of bodily members there is one which is the principal mover, namely, the heart; and among the powers of the soul one power presides as chief, namely, the reason. Among bees there is one king bee and in the whole universe there is One God, Maker and Ruler of all things. And there is a reason for this. Every multitude is derived from unity. Wherefore, if artificial things are an imitation of natural things and a work of art is better according as it attains a closer likeness to what is in nature, it follows that it is best for a human multitude to be ruled by one person.
This is also evident from experience. For provinces or cities which are not ruled by one person are torn with dissensions and tossed about without peace, so that the complaint seems to be fulfilled which the Lord uttered through the Prophet: “Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard” (Jer 12:10). On the other hand, provinces and cities which are ruled under one king enjoy peace, flourish in justice, and delight in prosperity. Hence, the Lord by His prophets promises to His people as a great reward that He will give them one head and that “one Prince will be in the midst of them” (Ezek 34:24; Jer 30:21). (“On Kingship to the King of Cyprus” [De Regno Ad Regem Cypri], translated by Gerald B. Phelan (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1949) pp. 11-13.)
The welfare of the governed society depends upon the preservation of its unity, which is called peace. But the chief concern of the governor of a society must be the welfare of the governed society, and therefore must include the pursuit and preservation of that society’s unity and peace. The more effective a government is at keeping the unity of peace, the better that government is, all other things being equal. And since what is itself one can more efficaciously keep the unity of peace than can what is itself several, therefore the rule of one man is better than the rule of man, all other things being equal. According to St. Thomas even nature teaches us that governance by one is best, and he provides various examples. And in man-made societies, this same principle applies, as experience itself teaches us. Cities or provinces not ruled by one person are “torn with dissensions and tossed about without peace.” But provinces and cities having a form of government in which one person rules, enjoy peace, all other things being equal. In short, nature and experience teach that the rule of one man is more capable than rule by many of preserving the peace and unity necessary for the welfare of any society.
Fourth, given what we have seen above, we should expect Christ to have established for the Church an enduring office for her government, an office occupied by one person at a time, one which is invested with the highest governing authority, for the sake of the peace and unity of the Church. And St. Cyprian (Bishop of Carthage, d. 258) confirms that the Petrine office has that very role, as the source and principle of visible ecclesial unity. (See “St. Cyprian on the Unity of the Catholic Church.”) And so does St. Optatus (see “St. Optatus on Schism and the Bishop of Rome.”) In fact we see this notion over and over in the Church Fathers, in their repeated reference to the role of the Chair of St. Peter. (See my post titled “The Chair of St. Peter.”) Here’s one example, from St. Jerome. He writes:
The Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism. (Against Jovinianus 1.26)
The notion in the Church Fathers that one of the Apostles was chosen by Christ to be head, so that there would be no occasion for schism intrinsic to the form of ecclesial government, is what we would expect if Plato and Aristotle and Boethius and St. Thomas were right about the nature of the best form of government as one that includes a unified head, and if Christ did not fail to provide His Church with the best form of government. By contrast, an ecclesiology in which each person has highest interpretive authority for himself, and is thus essentially his own pope, goes against what reason itself teaches us regarding what is required for the peace and unity of a society. It is the ecclesial equivalent of what Plato referred to as political anarchy. In this way, the arguments from philosophy concerning the best form of government helped make me more open to the hypothesis that the evidence for the papacy I saw in the Church Fathers was not a symptom of ecclesial deism, but was the development of something that Christ Himself had established in Matthew 16 when He changed Simon’s name to “Peter,” promised to build His Church on this Rock, and gave to him the keys of the Kingdom, which is the Church.
(This is an updated version of an essay I wrote in April of 2008.)
- Note well that a ‘privation’ of good is not merely an absence of good, but an absence of a good where a good ought to be. [↩]
- For additional explication of the relation between goodness, unity, and being, see also Book III of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, from page 89 to page 93. [↩]
- Again, a ‘privation’ here is not merely an absence, but an absence of unity where unity ought to be, according to the teleology of a nature. [↩]
- One need only think of the mythical Hydra. I am not denying the potential dangers of monarchy; I am only seeking here to show which form of government is most intrinsically united and therefore most capable of uniting and preserving the unity of the governed. The potential dangers of monarchy do not remove the need for a unified visible head of a visible society, in order to preserve the unity of that society. Even nature teaches that no society can function as a unity without a unified head. We can expect that if Christ established a visible Church, and if for the reasons explained in this post this Church needs a unified visible head, then Christ would establish some way of preserving that visible head such that this visible head preserves the faith entrusted to the Church by the Apostles. [↩]
- See “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]