President George W. Bush has long been known as a neoconservative, but only recently has he picked up the appellation neo-Thomist. It is, admittedly, not the first term one would choose to describe a man whose speeches are filled with visions of Wilsonian grandeur. Writing in the January 31 Weekly Standard, however, Joseph Bottum argues that the President’s Second Inaugural Address was a tour de force of Thomistic natural-law reasoning. “I’d guess not a lot of gloating is allowed around the throne of the Maker of heaven and earth,” he explains, “but somewhere in the vicinity, St. Thomas Aquinas must be smiling.” After a wait of more than seven centuries, Saint Thomas’s thought has finally gone mainstream, in the militant democratism of the younger Bush.
What Bottum finds so attractive in Bush’s Second Inaugural is the President’s attempt to ground American foreign policy—“with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”—in the longing of human nature and the eternal will of God. According to Bottum, the President’s reasoning “is always the logical progression of the natural-law argument.” Bush appeals to the “call of freedom” that “comes to every mind and every soul” and, thus, establishes a fixed human nature from which to draw his political conclusions. When Bush says that “history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty,” Bottum sees the “intelligible formal causes” of natural-law analysis, and even Saint Thomas’s divine Prime Mover. For Bottum, there “isn’t much more a natural-law philosopher could want.”
Yet, beyond an appeal to universal human nature—especially to the universal desire for freedom—Bush has little in common with the natural-law tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. Nowhere has natural-law philosophy ever proposed the democratic crusading Bush seems to crave. For the President, it is the “untamed fire of freedom,” a feeling welling up within man, that inspires his political vision. For the tradition of natural law, it is nature that imposes upon men a moral obligation to act in accordance with nature. To the extent that liberty or freedom helps him pursue this end, either may be a political good. But only with an eye to man’s enjoyment of the virtuous life—here on earth and, ultimately, in the next world—has the philosophy of natural law begun to pronounce, with prudence, on political issues.
Granting for the moment Bottum’s claim that Bush delivered “the most purely philosophical address in the history of America’s inaugurations,” we are entitled to wonder why the speech barely mentioned law at all. “Freedom,” the President admitted, must be “sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities.” No doubt has ever crossed the President’s mind that freedom, the choicest good America has to offer, will be what he spreads abroad. As Bush has always portrayed it, modern freedom is an essential good. Even in his First Inaugural Address, he named “democratic faith” the very “creed of our country”—and, more than our creed, “the inborn hope of our humanity.” The abstractions of democracy and liberty have come to govern the President’s vision of the world more than any acknowledgment of the need for natural law. For Bush, the “rule of law” is nothing other than the legal structures that ensure personal freedom. When Bottum concludes that the President “carries natural law out to the world,” he has committed a misnomer that would likely surprise the President himself; for what Bush wishes to spread abroad is far from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.
If Saint Thomas gives much heed to political matters from his heavenly perch, he must notice that Bush has replaced “the good” with liberty as that which all men seek. When the classical philosophers observed men’s actions, they saw men—even in sinful actions—tending toward one or another vision of what is good. Natural-law philosophy has consequently tried to discover the objective good that man ought to seek among the misidentified, even unnatural, “goods” he does seek. That is, in fact, natural law’s first precept. In Aquinas’s reasoning, it follows that, in politics, men and societies at large ought to seek the good. Though the classical philosophers acknowledged the necessity of free will for moral action, they did not see political liberty as the basic good of human society, much less the chief force appointed by God to direct human history.
By contrast, the President thinks—if the idea makes sense—that man chooses everything under the aspect of liberty, for liberty itself is “the permanent hope of mankind.” “Men and women in every culture,” he said in 2003, “need liberty like they need food and water and air.” If so, it is quite a wonder that civilization has lasted so long. Of course, no politician has ever claimed to be, of all things, against liberty, but it will be another task to sell the Islamic world on the idea that Wal-Mart, abortion, and pornography are among the essential goods toward which all human history is tending. Noble statements that the world is “moving toward liberty” might sound as if Bush has an Aristotelian idea of formal causes; at most, he has a few of the requirements of clear thinking injected with a heavy dose of faith in liberal democracy. As Charles Kesler says in the Claremont Review of Books, “many people everywhere and at all times have been quite happy to enjoy their freedom and all the benefits of someone else’s slavery.” The idea that men everywhere seek full political freedom, even Bush’s allies acknowledge, has no foundation in the natural-law tradition. Indeed, it is without foundation at all.
In the President’s minimal emphasis on the good, and in his wild faith in the inevitable conquest of modern liberty, his differences with the Thomistic tradition become most obvious. For Saint Thomas as for Aristotle, the purpose of civil society is the good life—the life according to virtue. While the modern state secures men’s liberty by keeping them from harming one another, it satisfies only the least requirement laid out by Saint Thomas for social life. “Every law is ordained to the common good,” Aquinas writes, but the common good entails more than simply the freedom to act as one wants (Summa Theologiae, I-II.90.2). So closely does Aquinas identify the common good with virtuous living that he says a king “should order those things which lead to heavenly beatitude and prohibit, as far as possible, their contraries” (On Kingship, I.15). Eyeing the common good himself, President Bush claims American freedom is “ennobled by service, and mercy, and . . . does not mean independence from one another.” But since his primary concern is the expansion of personal freedom, he can, at most, exhort men to do what is right. Even then, a political philosophy seeking above all to secure the freedom of choice has little to say about the moral worth of the choice itself. Yet it was moral goodness that Saint Thomas’s natural-law philosophy kept at its center.
It is perhaps reassuring that George W. Bush is not the first partisan of democracy and total liberty to be identified with classical natural law. In the early 20th-century revival of Thomistic thought, certain American Thomists thought they saw in Saint Thomas the principles of American democracy. America’s democratic messianism has always had a peculiar way of rubbing off on her citizens—vindicating, most unintentionally, Aristotle’s observations on the way a regime shapes its citizens. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is St. Thomas’ Political Doctrine and Democracy, written in 1921 by Fr. Edward F. Murphy. Murphy euphorically locates the basis of American democracy in Saint Thomas, claiming (incorrectly) that Thomas identified the people as the source of political power and authority. The Cross, Murphy concluded, was “the truest emblem of democracy”; Christ, “the supernal and supreme democrat of history.” We can be thankful that our own President has not lost all sense of propriety.
To join George W. Bush and Thomas Aquinas is, of course, more amusing than it is harmful. The thought of the good saint’s praising America for her foundation in “the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people” is surely enough to make the Angelic Doctor himself chuckle—if, that is, one is free to laugh around the throne of the Author of Liberty. A saint who thought it acceptable to mete out capital punishment to religious dissenters now sits at the same table with G.W.F. Hegel and Francis Fukuyama, lauding “liberty” as the formal cause of history’s movement. Little did he know, when he characterized sin as slavery rather than liberty, that his name would lately come down wholly on the side of the latter. Surely Pope Leo XIII himself, who complained that, in the modern age, “liberty is running into license,” would have thought twice about encouraging the study of Saint Thomas, had he known the direction in which, on a cold day this past January, it would end.
The teaching of Saint Thomas has found itself pressed into many a cause, and we would waste our energies in simply regretting its latest incarnation as the political philosophy of George W. Bush. What is rather more regrettable is how natural law has been defined down as the neoconservative movement has progressed. Jody Bottum’s claim of harmony between Bush and Aquinas has largely been accepted as fact—when even a conservative with no knowledge of Thomas Aquinas should be skeptical of the claim. When “conservatism” has gone so far as to embrace the unmitigated and imprudent imposition of American liberty on the most alien of cultures—with little or no justification in our self-defense—we know that it has left behind its intellectual moorings in the natural-law tradition.