Political Philosophy: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part IX

Politics happens here. The appalling brown thing is Art.
Remember, we’re doing summaries of summaries here; only bare sketches are possible. Buy his book for more detail.

Read Part VIII.

Question IX is Political Philosophy. Stand back!

Article 1: Whether the state is natural to man?

Yes. “Whenever two or more are gathered, somebody is gonna start making rules.” That’s my quote, not Kreeft’s.

The real question is how the state comes about. Hobbes, Rousseau, etc. think a “social contract” is involved. If so, maybe you’re like me and don’t have a memory of signing one. Anyway, it is indisputable that people begin organizing whenever they can, some taking positions of power, others following orders. And this must be so (the only disagreement would come from those who believe human beings don’t have a nature). All that is in dispute are the forms these organizations take, which is bad, which good.

Article 2: Whether a good state is “one that makes it easy to be good”?

Yes, and the opposite is true, too. From Mere Christianity:

The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

Readers will be able to judge which direction our State is going.

Yes, we all have duties to the State, but “it is not true that the state is its own end. Only individual human beings are intrinsic ends and must never be used merely as means, while there is no moral evil in treating the state in this way.”

Article 3: Whether the state should have a substantive philosophy of the good life?

Yes. Ours seems to be “Re-elect me and all will be well.” Kreeft says modern states of the West don’t profess a substantive philosophy of life. I say we do, which is something like this: “Mine! Me! Not Fair! Gimme! It’s Not My Fault! He Hurt My Feelings!”

Plainly, “if the state has no substantive philosophy of the good life, then the state cannot know what a good state is. For this depends on what a good human life is, which in turn depends on what man is, which in turn depends on what is, and how we know it.” That’s all of philosophy, brothers and sisters. And that is the one area which is deemphasized among all others in our culture.

Article 4: Whether democracy is the best form of government?

No. Plus, pure democracies are impossible—not just unlikely, but impossible (infants, children, the senile and incapacitated cannot vote; there are too many decisions for all people to make, etc. etc. etc.). It is silly to wish for something that cannot be, and the first person to quote Churchill loses twelve points.

What’s best? “Aristotle and Aquinas both teach that the best regime is a blend of aristocracy, monarchy, and democracy. This reflects the same kind of mature, inclusivist wisdom as their judgment that the best life is a blend of contemplation and action, the common good and the private good, and goods of body and goods of soul.” Kreeft also loses points for “inclusivist.”

On the other hand, the sorts of representative bureaucratic democracies (which are not democracies) we in the West have developed for people in the West function reasonably well in our time. This does not imply, and it is not true as experience proves, that this form of government is best for all peoples at all times. Thus it is silly to wander into a strange land to teach people to count votes and then vanish, content that all will be fine.

Another myth is that regimes derive their legitimacy from the “consent of the governed.” This is another impossibility. Most gain legitimacy by custom, apathy, inertia, force. If you think not, tell me: has our federal government done everything to your satisfaction?

A final myth is the government which gives people the most of what they desire is best. This only works in a land of saints. Simple proof: examine your desires closely and honestly and imagine what would happen if these whims were mandatory for all (and the same for the desires of others).

Article 5: Whether freedom is an intrinsic good?

Sorry, no. If you think so, boot your infant child outdoors and say, “You’re free!” Or go out yourself and do whatever your little heart desires. Anything you want, now. No. Complete freedom is neither possible nor desirable.

Absolute power corrupts, intrinsic goods cannot, and since freedom would certainly corrupt, it cannot be an intrinsic good. “The freedom that is intrinsic to human nature and unalienable is free will, not political freedom.” There must be constraints. Our job is in discovering what they are.

Article 6: Whether there is a double standard for good for states and individuals?

Sure. Example: “it is right for the state, and for a soldier who is acting in the name of the state, to attempt to kill an enemy soldier in a just war; but it is wrong for an individual, in the name of private vengeance, to attempt to kill another on his own authority, even if the other is deserving of death.”

And my favorite—pay attention politicians!: “ready wit is a minor virtue for individuals, but not for states.”

Article 7: Whether wars are ever just?

Certainly. If Hordes intent on rape, murder, pillage are massing on the border, it is surely right to take up arms to discourage them. Defending one’s homeland is just, but “Even the Qur’an says that ‘Allah hates the aggressor.'” That’s true even when we are the agressor.

A sometime objection goes like this: “It is impossible to imagine Christ shooting a machine gun at an enemy soldier.” Yes, but it is “also impossible to image Christ pregnant, or gambling, or cheering for the Red Sox, but these are not evils.”

Article 8: Whether human laws should be superior to human wills?

Yes: this is a variation on freedom. The rule of law is so obviously important that even tyrants pretend to it, running mock trials before they murder their enemies and holding pretend elections to claim “mandates” (on the other hand, didn’t we read the New York Times reporting as serious news that Castro won re-election once again with 95%+ of the vote some years back?).

Here’s a strategy that has everything to recommend it:

“The laws of the Medes and the Persians” were irrevocable, even by the King. Therefore they were decided only after two days of deliberations. On one day, everyone was sober, and on the other day, everyone was drunk. If both days did not produce the same result, the law was not enacted.

My statistical recommendation is to require Congress to pass all laws at a minimum of two-thirds consent. A bare majority makes it far too easy to create laws.

Article 9: Whether the principle of subsidiarity is true?

Yep. Subsidiarity? “[W]hat can better be done by smaller and more local levels of government should not be done by larger ones.”

Augustine “describes government as a ‘necessary evil’ due to sin. But necessary evils should be decreased as much as is feasible, not increased. Therefore government should be decreased and localized as much as is feasible.”

I’ll take this as read for today, particularly as I see most or all of you agreeing: we’ll look at subsidiarity more in depth another day.

Article 10: Whether there should be a world organization of states?

He says yes because of a corollary of subsidiarity: not everything can be done at a local level.

We live in a “global village” with a global economy and a global military fragility where war in any one place always threatens to spread to others and spark another world war. Under these conditions, an international organization is morally necessary.

Problem is, Kreeft never really defines what a “world organization of states” is nor describes its limits. Plus groups of people, in states, kingdoms, and even roving bands, have always had diplomatic relations (so to speak) with their known neighbors. It’s just that now because of cheap travel our neighbors are everybody. Relations between countries is an inevitability. The problem is that nobody has figured out what these relations should be, except to agree that the UN isn’t the ideal forum.


  1. Rich

    Any idea how to pronounce, “Kreeft”? (I suppose my assumption that I know how to pronounce “Peter” could be wrong too)

  2. Briggs



  3. Gary

    Kreeft seems wrong about Article 5 (Whether freedom is an intrinsic good?). Freedom is neither good nor bad; it’s a condition in which good and bad can occur. Like Fenway Park (since you mention the Red Sox), double plays and errors both happen around second base, yet that lyrical little bandbox of a ball field is neither good nor bad intrinsically. Even how Boston fans and New York fans feel about it matters not to its moral quality, because it hasn’t any such quality in terms of how the game is played. Same with freedom. It just allows the game to be played — with morally good and bad actions resulting from other influences. And the “complete freedom is bad/impossible” argument is a red herring. Degrees of freedom aren’t the point. Were talking quality, not quantity.

  4. The UN wouldn’t be so problematic if it worked more like a neighborhood watch. Neighbors keep watch and help each other, but they don’t pass laws demanding redistribution of wealth, punitive actions to drive out those deemed “unfit” (sometimes they might, but not as a general rule). In farming communities, the neighbors help each other. The problem with a huge world organization of states is the organization’s goal becomes controlling everyone’s lives, not improving lives and working together. If the organization of states had very limited power, it might work. Today, there are so many conflicting ideas of how things should be that I am not certain the idea would actually work. Humans don’t seem very good with letting others live as they wish.

  5. Mark P Shea

    It’s actually pronounced “Krayft”. I think it means “shellfish” in Dutch.

  6. Ken

    This is a good time to point out Kreeft’s highly selective cherry-picking of criteria & sources… This righteous Christian likes to think philosophy is THE way to get at some truths…and in the process effectively dismisses & disregards his primary source material!

    Articles 1-4 above are irrelevant and long ago address by a higher power–there’s no room for debate (and I’m not quoting W. Churchill!!):

    Ephesians 1:21-22: “ There Christ rules over all forces, authorities, powers, and rulers. He rules over all beings in this world and will rule in the future world as well. God has put all things under the power of Christ,…”

    Romans 13:1-7 “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. … For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. … For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. …. the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants,…”

    Just because we can’t comprehend that what our rulers might be doing, or why, or it seems wrong, misguided, etc. matters not.

    The Bible–and its greatest recorded & cited prophet next to Jesus–explains our leaders are there because God has made it so. What they’re doing is God’s work.

    Who are we to presume we can challenge/critique/contradict/argue or philosophize otherwise God’s own Word as conveyed by his trusted (He trusted and we trust) servant?

    Dismiss those articles & philosophical flights of fancy of Kreeft’s (because they clearly violate divine wisdom as conveyed by the infallible, coherent & cohesive Bible) his Summa, etc. starts crashing down like a domino cascade.

  7. JM

    If Hoards intent on rape, murder, pillage are massing on the border, it is surely right to take up arms to discourage them.

    But that will only get you so far as a just cause, right? In order for the action to be a just war, it must include the totality of just war principles, which is more than a simple just cause. For example, the the war must be conducted with just means, and concluded justly.

    If Hoards intent on rape, murder, pillage are massing on the boarder, then you have just cause to take up arms. But if, in the conduct of the war, you rape, murder, and pillage them instead, then the war is not just, even though it originally had a just cause.

    One of the reasons why I struggle with the question of “whether wars can ever be just” is because sometimes, it seems to me, that the very nature of war itself will inevitably produce violations of just conduct in war, which is a necessary (but no sufficient) condition for just war.

    I don’t know. I still struggle with it.

  8. Ken

    Just wars…of course they’re just fine–even good to do.

    And consider how often the opposing sides have prayed to the very same god for the other side to lose…

    The problem is humans, in the heat of the times, have great difficulty in objectively defining what is really “just” and if “war” is the PROPORTIONAL solution, in addition to being “just” ( a nice vague concept suitable for philosophers of all stripes to vaguely describe as whatever they want, all at the same time).

    Mark Twain parodied some of this with his War Prayer short story: http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/making/warprayer.html

  9. Richard A

    OK, you guys, it’s ‘HORDES’, not ‘HOARDS’. Even though hoards do tend to amass, but not on borders. Mostly in attics and basements and garages.

    Why not go to the system of the Medes and Persians? Or would it be impossible to find a day when all of Congress is sobder?

  10. Briggs

    Richard A,

    Good grief! How did that get their!


  11. Stephen J.

    “Another myth is that regimes derive their legitimacy from the “consent of the governed.” This is another impossibility. Most gain legitimacy by custom, apathy, inertia, force.”

    Is there no meaningful difference between de facto legitimacy and de jure legitimacy, then? And if “most” gain legitimacy by custom, apathy, inertia and force, that suggests at least some are honestly legitimized; which ones, and how?

    It may be that no society other than monastic communities has ever achieved perfect unanimous consent of all members, which would be perfect legitimacy of its governing officials, and that delegitimizing force is eventually used by all governments on at least some of its nonconsenting citizens — heck, even monasteries had to occasionally physically throw out misbehaving members, I would bet. But even if no State can be perfectly legitimate, there are clearly some which are much less legitimate than others. It may be impossible to achieve perfect consent of the governed, but that does not mean achieving the maximum possible consent is neither necessary nor desireable.

  12. Stephen J.

    Of course, to counter my own point above, there is a great deal of difference between the passive consent obtained by threat of force, personal disinterest, or lack of information, and the active consent of an informed choice made by those willing to accept the consequences. It is very easy to claim “consent of the governed” when all that means is “not enough people cared enough or were brave enough to protest”.

    But if we grant this distinction to ourselves, then it is fair to grant it to others: those who enshrine this principle do mean the just and active form of consent.

  13. Stephen J.

    And on a much more whimsical note, if Nazareth had had a sports team, I could easily see Jesus cheering for them. He simply wouldn’t get a swelled head if they won or want to boot the heads of the other team’s fans if they lost.

    And I suppose that brings up a serious point as well: Surely it must be possible for a Christian to favour one side or another in an entertainment contest, and to enjoy victory or be disappointed in defeat, without it being a sin?

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