What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Hadley Arkes' 2009 Hillsdale College Commencement Address

My dear friend, Hadley Arkes, was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Hillsdale College this past Saturday, May 9. Excerpts of his commencement address have been published on The Catholic Thing. I republish some of them here:

Aristotle said that the polis, the political order, was prior in the order of nature to the family. This urbane man certainly knew that people were perfectly capable of having sex even when their governments broke down. But that was different from a family. For what constitutes a family? Would it be two people – or several joined together in a polygamous or polyamorous ensemble? Would it be two people of the same sex, the same species? What constitutes a family is something that has always depended on the moral understanding that pervades the community and finds expression in “the laws.”

Our late friend, Allan Bloom, wrote that “the children who are the products of nature and real love lack something that can be provided only by law and its constraints”:

It is only within the context of the law that a man can really imagine that the offspring from his loins can people the world. . . . The law that gives names to families and tries to insure their integrity is a kind of unnatural force and endures only as long as does the regime of which it is a part.
Those laws on marriage invited us, as parents, to say the most telling words that parents may say, as they claim their children as their own, and do it through that simple device of imparting a name. As they do that, they replicate those words spoken by God in relation to Israel. And is there finally anything simpler or more decisive than those words that come back to us from Isaiah: “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine.”

This is a day when we celebrate again the parents who have given their names to children, borne the responsibilities for them, and the students who have borne their own responsibility, in a handsome way, by working faithfully to justify the sacrifices made for them…

You can read more here.

Comments (4)

Would it be nasty to suggest that HA might have been a little less controversial in saying

Aristotle said that the polis, the political order, was prior in the order of nature to the family.

if he had clarified that it is valid perhaps in the order of final causality, but not in other modes of causality? And further, that even in the order of final causality, the good of families, and more especially that of individuals, is the ultimate rule, for the state will pass away (as will the family) - it is a mortal being - but the individual person will last through eternity. Further along the same road, the common good that is the object of the state subsists actually only insofar as it subsists in individuals.

Given the ills of Communism and Nazism from last century, one would think that making a statement that the state is prior to the family would call for some distinctions.

Not nasty, for sure. It is a provocative statement, and one that Aquinas apparently approves (In Pol 1.1 #3). I'd love to hear an expert on Thomistic politics and law take a swing at this one. It certainly generated a lot of discussion in my class when I was teaching distributive justice. I'm still marshalling an opinion on the matter, and questions of family, church/Church, and the Kingdom are foremost in my mind at this point.

I'd also like to know if Aristotle had a sense of the dynamism between individual and community that Thomas used. My sense (pretty uneducated, admittedly) is no.


but the individual person will last through eternity
I share your reservations about the language/concept of the "political order" being "prior in the order of nature" to the family, though it is likely due to a familiarity with the particular form of political order in the nation-state.

But, I think your language of the state and family passing away while the individual person lasts through eternity is problematic, since what will pass away will be replaced with a glorified "State," the kingdom of God, and the redeemed family of God, the Church. For that matter, the "individual" as currently manifested will likewise "pass away" and be transformed into a glorified human being. So I'm not sure if the kind of elevation of the individual that is implicit in your statement is merited, though I could be wrong in my interpretation of your thoughts.

It'd be interesting to hear some discussion of how the family and political order relate to each other in these respects. It seems best to me to approach the issue by speaking of the vocations or roles that are particular to the political regime and to the family, but it's difficult to see what the concept of being "prior in the order of nature" means. It seems that the family rests on the political order in some ways, and the political order rests on the family in others.

It seems that the family rests on the political order in some ways, and the political order rests on the family in others.

Albert, I think this probably puts it better than I said it. Materially, at least, the state rests on the family, because the families in the state are the material for the state.

In the order of formal cause, the form of the state would appear to be the root rules and structure by which the state is observed to be one, whole, active, authoritative, etc. For most states these come to be by an entirely organic (and historic) development that nobody really "controls" as such - indeed much of it is not even consciously understood at the time. But for the US, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution were consciously intended to establish the state as one, integral, authoritative, etc.

What is clear about this is that in a real sense, the agent cause of the state was the writers and signers of the Declaration, and the Framers of the Constitution, and (more broadly) the state legislators who voted on it and the people who were voters at the time. That is to say, the state depended on a distinct set of people for its coming into existence. If I understand Constitutional law a little, the people who are voters now have equal powers to amend or eradicate the Constitution as the people in 1789 did, so the current populace of voters are in a sense equally the agent cause of the state - insofar as they leave it to remain in being.

I don't mean to disparage the fact that the state is a natural being, and that it is intended by God, so that God is its cause and its authority comes from GOd ultimately. But so far as the Founders considered it, He intended to enable men to provide the coming-into-being of their particular state, so God is the cause of the state through intermediate causes.

Now I grant that St. Thomas says at some point or other that the final cause is final in order of achievement in full act, but is prior in order intention, and therefore the final cause determines what form and matter will serve the end. So in some sense the final cause takes priority over the material or formal cause.

So it seems to me that whatever the final cause of the state is, individuals and families in the state are ordered to the state for that end. But not absolutely: the final cause of the state - the common good - is achieved under 2 modalities: the temporal common good, and the eternal common good. Insofar as the state is ordered to the temporal common good, the family serves the state. Insofar as the persons in the state are ordered to an eternal end, the earthly political state serves persons.

But that brings us into the sphere of the eternal Kingdom. Eventually all earthly states will pass away, and Christ will rule the blessed. I have a little bit of trouble thinking of that as a political order, though. Does anyone share that sense? For one thing, we think of the state as providing order so that we can achieve particular ends. In eternity all ends are achieved. Secondly, at least here on earth one of the reasons for authority is so that the authority can decide issues that men disagree upon. Since there is no disagreement in heaven, will there be any reason for an exercise of authority? Whatever the Kingdom will look like, it will look a LOT different from current states even imagining a current state being run by good men.

Further, in eternity there will be no families at all, not in the sense we have them now. All men will be children of God. But there is no marriage or spousal relationship between people. So whatever the Eternal Kingdom means, it does not imply that families are order to it.

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