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The Logos in Western Thought

Winter 2009 - Vol. 51, No. 1

PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. His recent books include Aliens in America and Stuck with Virtue, both from ISI Books.

The Law of God's stunning display oferudition makes many fundamentalcontributions to illuminating for us thehistory of human reflection on God, Being,human beings, morality, and politics.My purpose here is limited to employingBrague's wisdom to highlight the philosophicalcontribution Christianity has madeto our understanding of who we—humanindividuals or persons—are. My modestcontribution is to support the thought soeloquently expressed by the present popein his Regensburg address: The fundamentaltension in Western thought, forphilosophic Christians, is not betweenreason and revelation, but between theimpersonal logos described by Aristotle andthe personal logos best described by St. Augustineand St. Thomas Aquinas.

Brague says his book is a philosophicalreading of the Bible in the spirit of Machiavelli.He writes neither as a believer noras a disbeliever, but from the neutral viewof observing the effects of belief and disbeliefin "the law of God." The study of thehistory of ideas shows us the effects of thebest books on transformations of moraland political life. It also shows us thatthe authors of these books have alwaysapproached the Bible both with and asthe source of philosophical conceptions ofboth man and God. His study of the Greekand Roman philosophers' views of the lawof God aims to show how they affected thebest Christian, Muslim, and Jewish readingsof the Bible. For the Christians, theBiblical view of the personal God transformedthe philosophical understanding ofthe human person. For the best medievalJewish and Muslim thinkers, revelation'sexplicit teaching on particular providencehad to be transformed rhetorically in lightof what they saw as the deep, impersonaltruth articulated by classical or un-Biblicalor "true" philosophy.

The Athenian Stranger in Plato's Lawsthe classical text about the law of God in thecontext of legislation in general—endorsesa "penal theology" that opposes impiety.The law asserts that gods exist, that theyare providential or care for humankind,and that they cannot be corrupted orbribed. But that legal assertion doesn'tcorrespond to what the philosopher actuallybelieves about either divine reality orpersonal freedom. For the philosopher,what is most truly divine is what is mosttrue according to nature. That would bethe intellect and its ability to apprehendthe structure of the physical universe. Sothe true law of God—the true divine art—is this natural order. The law of God orthe true law is nothing more or less thanthe nature of what is. There is, in truth, nopersonal God who operates outside the lawof nature and is capable of making personalexceptions to that law.

What's more, in the view of the medievalMuslim and Jewish philosophers, thereis no evidence of a God who cares aboutparticular human beings or who providentiallysecures the ground of humanfreedom. The idea of divine legislation tosupport the moral lives of particular men orwomen—or particular political communities—is a lie, but a lie made necessary bythe nature of human beings. But in the bestcases, legislation against impiety—whichmust be enforced by both persuasion andforce—can actually be the beginning ofthe truly persuasive education about thenature of divine law. The human mindcan be led to reflect on the limitations ofthe morality of personal theology and sotoward the impersonality of the true or"essential" divinity described by Aristotle.But that discovery by rare philosophicminds can never fundamentally transformthe essentially physical necessities thatlimit the enlightenment of every particularmoral/political community.

The difference between the leadingChristian thinkers (particularly St. Augustineand St. Thomas Aquinas) and thebest of the Jewish and Muslim thinkers(particularly Maimonides) concerns thetruth about true or "essential" divinityand so the truth about true or "essential"humanity. Thomas seems to have followedMaimonides in contending that providencepertains to particular human individuals,and not to "humanity" as a species. Thatmeans that each human creature exists forhis or her own sake, and not merely as partof his or her political community or species.Each of us is an end, not a means, as GodHimself is an end and not a means.

For Maimonides, however, the existenceof particular human beings—separate anddistinguishable individuals—appears tofade away when a man is what he is mosttruly—what he is "at the level of intellect."There, individuation no longer exists, andthe lawful divinity that characterizes theworld is revealed as being for the mind assuch. The truth is not for particular beingswith names; it is anonymous or not foror about anyone in particular. The closereader of the great Jewish philosophereventually discovers that "the idea of individualprovidence, which Maimonidesnonetheless claims to defend, remainshighly problematic."

Because particular persons aren't real inthe view of these Muslim and Jewish philosophers,the real source of divine law couldnot be a person. The content of divine revelationor moral/political legislation dependsupon premises about human individuationthat don't correspond to what mindscan really know about what, most deeply,man really is. The body, but not the mind,can be subordinated to such law. So thesource of the Law is either radically mysterious(and so offensive to the mind) or theproduct of the will operating in the serviceof the mind's freedom. Maimonides saysthat religion is based on "healthy opinions"and not true faith in God, and the philosopheror free mind, in the best case, determineswhich opinion—and so what legislation—is healthy according to a truth thathas no place for a personal, willful, transnaturalGod. By subordinating the will tothe mind or to what the mind can know,the philosopher denies that the will—evenas a manly assertion—can be a true foundationof personal significance.

Thomas disagrees with Maimonides onthe truth we can see with our own eyesabout what or, better, who we are. The intellectdoes not have some abstract existencedetached from its existence in a particularindividual, and the individual cannot bereduced to mind or body or even someincoherent mixture of the two. There is nointellect, but intellects, and intellects onlyexist in the context of a uniquely personalreality, "There is no Man, no 'humanity,'but a plurality of persons, all of whom areirreplaceable." Providence must be genuinelyparticular, because who each of us iscannot be regulated by or reduced to somespecies-based instinct. We are led to knowof God's personal providence though theprovidence each of us can exercise personallyin determining how to act freely andrationally in the midst of the complexcircumstances and persons we encounter.Thomas defines the law as the providentialgift of God to the free and rational beingsmade in His image. God, in this sense,"wants nothing of us but ourselves"—that we develop or be what we should be"according to our own inner logic." (Thisis why Thomas claims that the law is principallyconcerned with the happiness ofeach of us, with the movement of each ofus toward our shared final end.)

The law is what we follow when we actfreely according to what we can really knowabout our personal beings, which includesour social nature as lovers of particularpersons. We follow the law when we actfreely according to who we are as knowersand lovers, and all knowers, as personsmade in the image of the loving God, arelovable. We know of God's loving providence,in part, because we can actuallyshare in it. The law is for us what instinctis for all the other creatures, and so the law,properly understood, is the furthest thingfrom a willful and external imposition onus. The species-based law of nature thatgoverns the whole lives of the other creaturesis far from identical to the natural lawby which we govern ourselves under God.Following the law of God is acting truthfully,participating in the moral order Godhas given to creatures who are capable ofgoverning themselves in accordance withtheir natures as rational and free persons.For the Christians, the law of God is notsome revealed, commanded legislation thatopposes the truth about our natural inclinations."Christianity," the great historianof antiquity Fustel de Coulanges wrote, "isthe first religion that did not claim to bethe source of the law." The early Christianssurrendered the Jewish idea of revelationand approached the Greek view thatnatural law and divine law are one andthe same. The law of God is the divine,personal wisdom found in the very natureof creation, not some arbitrary exceptionto what we can know by nature.

For Judaism and Islam, the source ofthe law is God's will as expressed in Hiscommandments. For the Christians, revelationis a personal logos. The irreduciblemystery for us is the existence in natureof persons, beings who cannot be reducedto the impersonal logoi of either minds orbodies. But it also seems that logos is irreduciblypersonal; only persons—and notminds or bodies—are open to the truthabout all things, including the truth aboutpersons. The most strange and wonderfulthing we know is ourselves; the stars andeverything else our biologists and physicistsdescribe are boring by comparison.Our eros is, most of all, directed towardpersons, and it remains personal whenwe experience ourselves, most deeply, aswho we are. So logos as we actually experienceit points us toward the ground ofour freedom in being itself, in the creative,providential logos of a person. Revelation must be grounded in the logos ofGod presenting Himself as He is. For theChristians, the fundamental choice is notbetween the reason of the liberated mindand willful subordination to divine revelation.It is between the impersonal logosof the philosophers and scientists and thepersonal logos that does justice to what wecan really see about who we are.

Christianity also opposes, in some ways,the truth of the distinction seeminglydiscovered by the philosophers betweenreason and tradition or custom. It is notthat the Christians oppose customs orconventions or human law in general. Butthe purpose of human law is reconfiguredas instrumental, as helping each of us in oursinful weakness in reading the law writtenon the heart. Even the written law of theBible, according to St. Augustine, had itsorigin in men's refusal to acknowledge andact according to what they really know.And so "the exteriority" of the written lawaids each of us in mitigating our alienationfrom our "own inner being" as free andrational or providential persons.

When Augustine writes about divinelaw ruling a particular political community,he does so only in describing thepretensions ascribed to the pagan gods.Augustine differs from Thomas in understandingthe laws of the earthly city asexisting primarily to secure some form ofcivic peace. He contends that Christians areto be relatively indifferent to the contentof such human institutions, as long as theydo not get in the way of our freedom todiscover and act—through common,loving worship in the church—upon thetruth about God (and so, the truth aboutour own freedom). There is nothing divineabout the political community's mission orits laws.

There is nothing in Augustine of the"Platonic dream of a social order in whichthe supreme power assigns to each individuala place and a trade," and nothingthat corresponds to the Platonic imageof the cave or the city's tyrants' absolutecontrol of particular human beings.For the Christians, there is nothing idealabout any political community, even as adream—because individuals or particularpersons have already been given naturalinclinations that direct them to what is bestfor them. Healthy civic religious opinionsare displaced by the individual person'strue faith in his own reality and that of hispersonal God.

Augustinian Christianity clearly is thefoundation of what became the medievalliberal tradition—the tradition that separatedthe person or the individual from allthe monistic pretensions of either the philosopheror the city. As the civic religionistRousseau complained, Christianity doesnothing to bolster the authority of the cityand its laws, because it truthfully denies thatmen are essentially citizens and that God isparticularly concerned with cities. But evenRousseau was so influenced by Christianitythat he was not able plausibly to deny theChristian denial. For him, the citizen livesin radical alienation from his true or naturalfreedom, and the good citizen must suppresswhat he really knows about himself as aparticular individual. So truthful—from aphilosophical view—is the Christian accountof personal logos that every modern attemptto reduce human beings to merely parts of acity or a species is too incredible to succeed.The Machiavellian hope that some "armedprophet" might restore healthy civic-religiousopinion by following the example ofMoses and fraudulently convincing peoplehe talked with God has failed, as has everyattempt by false prophets who claimed toknow the impersonal mechanism that driveshuman history to its end in unlimited individualfreedom.

The separation of church and state—theseparation of divine from human law—depends on the Christian view of personalfreedom. If, according to the pre-Christianor classical philosophers, the truthabout the impersonal logos of nature isequivalent to divinity, then human beingsneed illusions about providential divinityto protect their illusions about their ownfreedom or personal significance. And thenthe task of the philosopher is to protect thetension between natural and moral/politicaldivine law. Insofar as our Darwiniansshare that view of the truth about the logosof nature, then religion makes sense as away of supporting those same beneficialcommunal illusions. Neither Aristoteliansnor Darwinians can, finally, make sense ofthe freedom from political/divine law thatwe all believe human beings to possess.Freedom from political/divine law mustbe for personal/divine law, for beings whoare free and rational or genuinely providential.

The other modern alternative is basedupon radical skepticism that humanfreedom can be captured by either theimpersonal logos of the philosopher/scientistsor the personal logos of the Christians.To be free, the late-medieval nominalistsasserted, is to be free from nature, as Godis. And the truth is that nature does notprovide for, or, better, is cruelly indifferentto, distinctively human existence. We arenot free insofar as we are natural beings,and so we must use our freedom powerfullyto distance individual existence fromits natural limitations. We are free fromGod and nature to be ourselves, and thetruth, on this view, is that we can onlyknow what we have willfully transformedthrough our freedom or brought underour personal control.

The trouble with this assertion offreedom is that it doesn't really correspondto our personal experiences. Accordingto Kant, we are free insofar as we arenot determined by nature. We are freeinsofar as we act morally—not naturally—as the personal God does. Thefreedom Kant describes, of course, is notspecific to human beings. It is characteristicof any genuinely disembodied being,and it denies the goodness of our bodilyor erotic experiences—even the experienceof personal love. It is not the experienceof knowing and loving persons. Our"autonomy" is never a truthful descriptionof our "personhood," and our Darwiniansare right that any experience allegedlycompletely detached from our nature orour biology couldn't possibly be real. Thephilosopher Kant doesn't really describethe being with logos, the being open to thetruth about all things and all persons.

So Brague is right to say that any consistentaccount of our separation of churchand state depends on the anthropology ofpersonal logos. It can not dispense with Godand nature, because it depends on a truthfulaccount of beings open to the truth aboutGod and nature—and, of course, aboutthemselves. It depends upon the reasons theChristians separated our personal knowledgeof the law from any political or willfullyasserted conception of divine law. Wehave to turn to the Christians—especiallyAugustine and Thomas—to figure out whywe're all for the separation of religion fromlegislation.