The Logos in Western Thought

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 of
erudition makes many fundamental
contributions to illuminating for us the
history of human reflection on God, Being,
human beings, morality, and politics.
My purpose here is limited to employing
Brague’s wisdom to highlight the philosophical
contribution Christianity has made
to our understanding of who we—human
individuals or persons—are. My modest
contribution is to support the thought so
eloquently expressed by the present pope
in his Regensburg address: The fundamental
tension in Western thought, for
philosophic Christians, is not between
reason and revelation, but between the
impersonal logos described by Aristotle and
the personal logos best described by St. Augustine
and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Brague says his book is a philosophical
reading of the Bible in the spirit of Machiavelli.
He writes neither as a believer nor
as a disbeliever, but from the neutral view
of observing the effects of belief and disbelief
in “the law of God.” The study of the
history of ideas shows us the effects of the
best books on transformations of moral
and political life. It also shows us that
the authors of these books have always
approached the Bible both with and as
the source of philosophical conceptions of
both man and God. His study of the Greek
and Roman philosophers’ views of the law
of God aims to show how they affected the
best Christian, Muslim, and Jewish readings
of the Bible. For the Christians, the
Biblical view of the personal God transformed
the philosophical understanding of
the human person. For the best medieval
Jewish and Muslim thinkers, revelation’s
explicit teaching on particular providence
had to be transformed rhetorically in light
of what they saw as the deep, impersonal
truth articulated by classical or un-Biblical
or “true” philosophy.

The Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws
the classical text about the law of God in the
context of legislation in general—endorses
a “penal theology” that opposes impiety.
The law asserts that gods exist, that they
are providential or care for humankind,
and that they cannot be corrupted or
bribed. But that legal assertion doesn’t
correspond to what the philosopher actually
believes about either divine reality or
personal freedom. For the philosopher,
what is most truly divine is what is most
true according to nature. That would be
the intellect and its ability to apprehend
the structure of the physical universe. So
the true law of God—the true divine art—
is this natural order. The law of God or
the true law is nothing more or less than
the nature of what is. There is, in truth, no
personal God who operates outside the law
of nature and is capable of making personal
exceptions to that law.

What’s more, in the view of the medieval
Muslim and Jewish philosophers, there
is no evidence of a God who cares about
particular human beings or who providentially
secures the ground of human
freedom. The idea of divine legislation to
support the moral lives of particular men or
women—or particular political communities—
is a lie, but a lie made necessary by
the nature of human beings. But in the best
cases, legislation against impiety—which
must be enforced by both persuasion and
force—can actually be the beginning of
the truly persuasive education about the
nature of divine law. The human mind
can be led to reflect on the limitations of
the morality of personal theology and so
toward the impersonality of the true or
“essential” divinity described by Aristotle.
But that discovery by rare philosophic
minds can never fundamentally transform
the essentially physical necessities that
limit the enlightenment of every particular
moral/political community.

The difference between the leading
Christian thinkers (particularly St. Augustine
and St. Thomas Aquinas) and the
best of the Jewish and Muslim thinkers
(particularly Maimonides) concerns the
truth about true or “essential” divinity
and so the truth about true or “essential”
humanity. Thomas seems to have followed
Maimonides in contending that providence
pertains to particular human individuals,
and not to “humanity” as a species. That
means that each human creature exists for
his or her own sake, and not merely as part
of his or her political community or species.
Each of us is an end, not a means, as God
Himself is an end and not a means.

For Maimonides, however, the existence
of particular human beings—separate and
distinguishable individuals—appears to
fade away when a man is what he is most
truly—what he is “at the level of intellect.”
There, individuation no longer exists, and
the lawful divinity that characterizes the
world is revealed as being for the mind as
such. The truth is not for particular beings
with names; it is anonymous or not for
or about anyone in particular. The close
reader of the great Jewish philosopher
eventually discovers that “the idea of individual
providence, which Maimonides
nonetheless claims to defend, remains
highly problematic.”

Because particular persons aren’t real in
the view of these Muslim and Jewish philosophers,
the real source of divine law could
not be a person. The content of divine revelation
or moral/political legislation depends
upon premises about human individuation
that don’t correspond to what minds
can really know about what, most deeply,
man really is. The body, but not the mind,
can be subordinated to such law. So the
source of the Law is either radically mysterious
(and so offensive to the mind) or the
product of the will operating in the service
of the mind’s freedom. Maimonides says
that religion is based on “healthy opinions”
and not true faith in God, and the philosopher
or free mind, in the best case, determines
which opinion—and so what legislation—
is healthy according to a truth that
has no place for a personal, willful, transnatural
God. By subordinating the will to
the mind or to what the mind can know,
the philosopher denies that the will—even
as a manly assertion—can be a true foundation
of personal significance.

Thomas disagrees with Maimonides on
the truth we can see with our own eyes
about what or, better, who we are. The intellect
does not have some abstract existence
detached from its existence in a particular
individual, and the individual cannot be
reduced to mind or body or even some
incoherent mixture of the two. There is no
intellect, but intellects, and intellects only
exist in the context of a uniquely personal
reality, “There is no Man, no ‘humanity,’
but a plurality of persons, all of whom are
irreplaceable.” Providence must be genuinely
particular, because who each of us is
cannot be regulated by or reduced to some
species-based instinct. We are led to know
of God’s personal providence though the
providence each of us can exercise personally
in determining how to act freely and
rationally in the midst of the complex
circumstances and persons we encounter.
Thomas defines the law as the providential
gift of God to the free and rational beings
made 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.” (This
is why Thomas claims that the law is principally
concerned with the happiness of
each of us, with the movement of each of
us toward our shared final end.)

The law is what we follow when we act
freely according to what we can really know
about our personal beings, which includes
our social nature as lovers of particular
persons. We follow the law when we act
freely according to who we are as knowers
and lovers, and all knowers, as persons
made in the image of the loving God, are
lovable. We know of God’s loving providence,
in part, because we can actually
share in it. The law is for us what instinct
is for all the other creatures, and so the law,
properly understood, is the furthest thing
from a willful and external imposition on
us. The species-based law of nature that
governs the whole lives of the other creatures
is far from identical to the natural law
by which we govern ourselves under God.
Following the law of God is acting truthfully,
participating in the moral order God
has given to creatures who are capable of
governing themselves in accordance with
their natures as rational and free persons.
For the Christians, the law of God is not
some revealed, commanded legislation that
opposes the truth about our natural inclinations.
“Christianity,” the great historian
of antiquity Fustel de Coulanges wrote, “is
the first religion that did not claim to be
the source of the law.” The early Christians
surrendered the Jewish idea of revelation
and approached the Greek view that
natural law and divine law are one and
the same. The law of God is the divine,
personal wisdom found in the very nature
of creation, not some arbitrary exception
to what we can know by nature.

For Judaism and Islam, the source of
the law is God’s will as expressed in His
commandments. For the Christians, revelation
is a personal logos. The irreducible
mystery for us is the existence in nature
of persons, beings who cannot be reduced
to the impersonal logoi of either minds or
bodies. But it also seems that logos is irreducibly
personal; only persons—and not
minds or bodies—are open to the truth
about all things, including the truth about
persons. The most strange and wonderful
thing we know is ourselves; the stars and
everything else our biologists and physicists
describe are boring by comparison.
Our eros is, most of all, directed toward
persons, and it remains personal when
we experience ourselves, most deeply, as
who we are. So logos as we actually experience
it points us toward the ground of
our freedom in being itself, in the creative,
providential logos of a person. Revela
tion must be grounded in the logos of
God presenting Himself as He is. For the
Christians, the fundamental choice is not
between the reason of the liberated mind
and willful subordination to divine revelation.
It is between the impersonal logos
of the philosophers and scientists and the
personal logos that does justice to what we
can really see about who we are.

Christianity also opposes, in some ways,
the truth of the distinction seemingly
discovered by the philosophers between
reason and tradition or custom. It is not
that the Christians oppose customs or
conventions or human law in general. But
the purpose of human law is reconfigured
as instrumental, as helping each of us in our
sinful weakness in reading the law written
on the heart. Even the written law of the
Bible, according to St. Augustine, had its
origin in men’s refusal to acknowledge and
act according to what they really know.
And so “the exteriority” of the written law
aids each of us in mitigating our alienation
from our “own inner being” as free and
rational or providential persons.

When Augustine writes about divine
law ruling a particular political community,
he does so only in describing the
pretensions ascribed to the pagan gods.
Augustine differs from Thomas in understanding
the laws of the earthly city as
existing primarily to secure some form of
civic peace. He contends that Christians are
to be relatively indifferent to the content
of such human institutions, as long as they
do not get in the way of our freedom to
discover and act—through common,
loving worship in the church—upon the
truth about God (and so, the truth about
our own freedom). There is nothing divine
about the political community’s mission or
its laws.

There is nothing in Augustine of the
“Platonic dream of a social order in which
the supreme power assigns to each individual
a place and a trade,” and nothing
that corresponds to the Platonic image
of the cave or the city’s tyrants’ absolute
control of particular human beings.
For the Christians, there is nothing ideal
about any political community, even as a
dream—because individuals or particular
persons have already been given natural
inclinations that direct them to what is best
for them. Healthy civic religious opinions
are displaced by the individual person’s
true faith in his own reality and that of his
personal God.

Augustinian Christianity clearly is the
foundation of what became the medieval
liberal tradition—the tradition that separated
the person or the individual from all
the monistic pretensions of either the philosopher
or the city. As the civic religionist
Rousseau complained, Christianity does
nothing to bolster the authority of the city
and its laws, because it truthfully denies that
men are essentially citizens and that God is
particularly concerned with cities. But even
Rousseau was so influenced by Christianity
that he was not able plausibly to deny the
Christian denial. For him, the citizen lives
in radical alienation from his true or natural
freedom, and the good citizen must suppress
what he really knows about himself as a
particular individual. So truthful—from a
philosophical view—is the Christian account
of personal logos that every modern attempt
to reduce human beings to merely parts of a
city or a species is too incredible to succeed.
The Machiavellian hope that some “armed
prophet” might restore healthy civic-religious
opinion by following the example of
Moses and fraudulently convincing people
he talked with God has failed, as has every
attempt by false prophets who claimed to
know the impersonal mechanism that drives
human history to its end in unlimited individual

The separation of church and state—the
separation of divine from human law—
depends on the Christian view of personal
freedom. If, according to the pre-Christian
or classical philosophers, the truth
about the impersonal logos of nature is
equivalent to divinity, then human beings
need illusions about providential divinity
to protect their illusions about their own
freedom or personal significance. And then
the task of the philosopher is to protect the
tension between natural and moral/political
divine law. Insofar as our Darwinians
share that view of the truth about the logos
of nature, then religion makes sense as a
way of supporting those same beneficial
communal illusions. Neither Aristotelians
nor Darwinians can, finally, make sense of
the freedom from political/divine law that
we all believe human beings to possess.
Freedom from political/divine law must
be for personal/divine law, for beings who
are free and rational or genuinely providential.

The other modern alternative is based
upon radical skepticism that human
freedom can be captured by either the
impersonal logos of the philosopher/scientists
or the personal logos of the Christians.
To be free, the late-medieval nominalists
asserted, is to be free from nature, as God
is. And the truth is that nature does not
provide for, or, better, is cruelly indifferent
to, distinctively human existence. We are
not free insofar as we are natural beings,
and so we must use our freedom powerfully
to distance individual existence from
its natural limitations. We are free from
God and nature to be ourselves, and the
truth, on this view, is that we can only
know what we have willfully transformed
through our freedom or brought under
our personal control.

The trouble with this assertion of
freedom is that it doesn’t really correspond
to our personal experiences. According
to Kant, we are free insofar as we are
not determined by nature. We are free
insofar as we act morally—not naturally—
as the personal God does. The
freedom Kant describes, of course, is not
specific to human beings. It is characteristic
of any genuinely disembodied being,
and it denies the goodness of our bodily
or erotic experiences—even the experience
of personal love. It is not the experience
of knowing and loving persons. Our
“autonomy” is never a truthful description
of our “personhood,” and our Darwinians
are right that any experience allegedly
completely detached from our nature or
our biology couldn’t possibly be real. The
philosopher Kant doesn’t really describe
the being with logos, the being open to the
truth about all things and all persons.

So Brague is right to say that any consistent
account of our separation of church
and state depends on the anthropology of
personal logos. It can not dispense with God
and nature, because it depends on a truthful
account of beings open to the truth about
God and nature—and, of course, about
themselves. It depends upon the reasons the
Christians separated our personal knowledge
of the law from any political or willfully
asserted conception of divine law. We
have to turn to the Christians—especially
Augustine and Thomas—to figure out why
we’re all for the separation of religion from

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like