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wisemen bearing gifts

by F.R. Duplantier

At Christmas time, when our thoughts are preoccupied with the presents we plan to give and the presents we hope to receive, it would not be amiss to reflect upon, and express gratitude for, those gifts that have been bestowed upon mankind over the centuries and of which we are but the most current beneficiaries. For the greatest gifts of all, our lives and the promise of salvation, we must thank God. Yet, so that we might make something of our lives, God has through the ages through selected human intermediaries given us additional gifts: wise men's visions of a better world.

Thomas More coined the word utopia in 1516 to designate his conception of a perfect world, a world that, by definition, did not exist. Like any concept of perfection, utopia is an ideal we can only hope to approximate. While the worst utopianists, seeking to impose their wills upon others, are driven by excessive pride and contempt for their fellow man, the best are motivated by compassion and an understanding of our frailty. They recognize that persuasion, not compulsion, is the key to our advance toward any ideal, for the encouragement of virtue is their ultimate goal, and they know that there is no virtue in what is compelled.

Plato's Republic

First, if not foremost, among history's great utopianists is the Greek philosopher Plato, who, four hundred years before the birth of Christ, offered as a gift to posterity the vision of a better world contained in his most famous work, The Republic. The aim of the commonwealth he envisioned was "not to make any one class specially happy, but to secure the greatest possible happiness for the community as a whole." Plato conceived of the community as being comparable to the human body and believed that justice could be achieved in the community, as could health in the body, when each part was allowed to perform its proper function and the superior parts exercised authority over the inferior.

Plato acknowledged that the well-ordered state that he described existed nowhere on earth and that its creation was dependent upon a type of leadership exceedingly difficult to develop. We might reject the methods he suggested for doing so, but nevertheless share his conviction that the qualities of a perfect ruler are experience, excellence of character, and knowledge, and that these qualities can best be embodied in the person of a "philosopher-king." The king who is a philosopher will be "quick to learn and to remember, magnanimous and gracious, the friend and kinsman of truth, justice, courage, temperance."

That a community or a nation should be led by its wisest and ablest men would seem to be a principle that could be taken for granted. Yet, if we look about the world today, we will find that in those countries in which the citizenry have any say in the choice of leaders, little if any consideration is given to the intellectual and moral qualifications of the candidates. Mere popularity is the deciding factor, and this a function of the positions that a candidate takes and the promises he makes, which for the most part he has purposely selected in an effort to pander to a constituency and thereby maximize that popularity. The equality of opportunity reflected in the belief that any American child can grow up to be president is a fine thing, if we can assume that by the time he becomes a candidate for our highest office he is no longer equal but superior to his countrymen in his possession of the wisdom necessary to govern.

Aristotle's Politics

Aristotle warned us of the dangers of democracy, and this, with the complementary notion of the golden mean, can be considered his greatest gift to us. Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle believed that communities are established when men are "drawn together by a common interest, in proportion as each attains a share in good life." This good life, Aristotle asserts in his Politics, "is the chief end, both for the community as a whole and for each of us individually." According to Aristotle, a government might take one of three forms, any of which could be acceptable to its citizens so long as its constitution were right: "Those constitutions which consider the common interest are right constitutions, judged by the standard of absolute justice. Those constitutions which consider only the personal interest of the rulers are all wrong constitutions, or perversions of the right forms."

The proper versions of those three forms of government are Monarchy, or rule by One; Aristocracy, or rule by the Few; and Polity, which is rule by the Many. Their perverted forms are Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Democracy. (Unfortunately, the term "polity" has fallen out of use and "democracy" now serves to denote both the good and the bad forms of rule by the Many, creating much confusion.) Because each of the three forms of government is susceptible to perversion, when rulers act according to their own rather than the common interest, justice demands that the rulers -- whatever their number -- be bound by law. "Law contains no element of passion; but such an element must always be present in the human mind." Men have a right to expect impartiality when they sue for justice, and for this they need "a neutral authority; and law is a neutral authority." For this reason, the sovereignty of the law must supersede the sovereignty of the ruler. To recognize that the law is a higher authority than the ruler, says Aristotle, is to recognize that the law proceeds from a higher authority: "He who commands that law should rule may thus be regarded as commanding that God and reason alone should rule; he who commands that a man should rule adds the character of the beast."

The trouble with democracies, Aristotle explained, is that their conceptions of justice are invariably limited ones: "In democracies, justice is considered to mean equality. It does mean equality -- but equality for those who are equal, and not for all." The vagueness of the term and the failure of its employers to apply it judiciously ensure that injustice will be done in the name of equality. Despite their weaknesses, however, democracies tend for one important reason to be a more stable form of government than oligarchies: because of "the character of their middle class, which is more numerous, and is allowed a larger share in the government, than it is in oligarchies. Where democracies have no middle class, and the poor are greatly superior in number," Aristotle warns,"trouble ensues, and they are speedily ruined."

Jesus and the Beatitudes

Inspiration and a close examination of God's plan in nature may have enabled the pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophers to formulate reasonably comprehensive and effective systems for right living and right government. Yet God Himself, the acknowledged source of all true law, saw fit to take a more direct approach for the promulgation of His codes. He sent His Son to reaffirm the commandments that He had given directly to Moses and to offer us two general laws under which those commandments were subsumed: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ made clear that we must obey the spirit of God's law and not merely the letter. Surely this is the most fantastic vision of utopia ever, this world in which men love their enemies and forgive them every trespass; in which they do not swear, do not look on women lustfully, and do not seek revenge; do their alms and praying privately; and take no thought of their own lives or of tomorrow. Christ knew that His listeners could not live up to these exacting standards without divine assistance, but He presented them as an ideal, something to strive for, and He offered us another gift, His grace, by which we might truly have hope of attaining perfection. This vision of utopia is at once the most unrealistic ever presented to man and the only one that we can, with God's grace, hope to enjoy.

More than four hundred years later, Augustine gave to the earthly approximation of this utopia the name of "The City of God" and juxtaposed it to the earthly city, observing that "there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities. . . . The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit. . . ." According to Augustine, the earthly city has been formed by "the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly city by the love of God, even to the contempt of self." The end of the heavenly city is "peace in eternal life, or eternal life in peace." There is a natural conflict between the two cities, because "the earthly city, which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace." Like Plato, Augustine defines justice as "that virtue which gives everyone his due." But he rejects the notion that true justice can exist outside the City of God.

In the 13th century, Aquinas adapted certain tenets of Aristotle's Politics to the formulation of his own Summa Theologica, just as Augustine had incorporated aspects of Plato's Republic into his City of God 800 years earlier. Like Aristotle, Aquinas maintained that the end of man is happiness, but insisted that this happiness is an eternal one not to be obtained in this world.

Locke's Civil Government

According to Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government, the authority of political power derives from a social contract agreed to voluntarily by free, equal, and independent men. That power loses its authority when, by violating this contract, it loses the consent of the parties thereto: "all power given with trust for attaining an end being limited by that end, whenever that end is manifestly neglected or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited and the power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security."

Locke went to great lengths to distinguish liberty from license and to demonstrate that law is the liberator, not the oppressor, of man, arguing that "Law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law. . . . the end of law is not to abolish or restrain but to preserve and enlarge freedom. . . . but freedom is not, as we are told: a liberty for every man to do what he lists -- for who could be free, when every other man's humour might domineer over him?"

Our Declaration of Independence enumerated the abuses of royal power that the Founding Fathers considered sufficient to justify their renunciation of the king's sovereignty. There and in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, they spelled out the principles that formed the foundation of their vision of a better world. Echoes of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Locke can be heard in both documents. The Constitution with its Bill of Rights incorporated the wisdom of the ages. By protecting our God-given rights from the encroachment of government, it enlarges our freedom to pursue our proper goal on this earth, which is to strive for the perfection of our souls and thereby, with God's grace, to enter into the perfect world hereafter.

In this season of gift-giving, this season of love, let us be grateful for the gifts that God has given us directly and through the wise men of the ages, let us share these gifts as widely with our brethren as we possibly can, let us pass them on to our descendants, and let us pray that they too will share our vision of a better world.