Adam Kirsch, in the Oct. 29/Nov. 5 New Yorker, provided a review of The Polity:A New History of Political Thought, by a Princeton scholar named Alan Ryan. According to Kirsch, Ryan makes an interesting distinction between “Persian” and “Greek” models of governance, but the part that interested me the most has to do with the influence of Christianity on political thought, and the critical importance of Thomas Hobbes for consequent developments.
Ryan’s interpretation of St. Augustine, Kirsch writes, is that “we are on earth only as pilgrims, traveling back to the God who placed us here for inscrutable reasons. It follows that nothing we do on earth, especially politics, is of ultimate value.” This commonplace observation about Christianity has never struck me as 100% true. In my own experience, Christianity has been a major incentive for political activism, with the kind of Augustinian resignation cited by Ryan-via-Kirsch serving as a fallback position when all else fails. Yet, I have to admit, that political events of my lifetime have led me to have low expectations of any politician, even the ones I like.
More interesting in importance Ryan places on Thomas Hobbes, the 17th Century English writer, whose opinion of human nature was so negative that, in Kirsch’s words, he thought “it…in everyone’s interest to establish a single, superior authority, which will stop us from killing each other…[and] we live politically not, as Aristotle thought, because we are sociable creatures but precisely because we are not.” The review goes on to explain how Ryan sees Locke, Hegel, Marx, and contemporary political philosophy as, in varying degrees, efforts to “come up with some more hopeful understanding [than Hobbes’] of what people are like, and how they naturally interact with one another.”
Hobbes was writing in the aftermath of the English Civil War, and probably thought, with good reason, of religion as a primary cause of social misery and conflict. In any case, there are plenty of contemporary voices expressing this point of view. To no one’s surprise, I still believe that there is a legitimate part to play for Christians who understand themselves to be accountable to a Christ who values compassion, reconciliation, justice, and nonviolence. It is our role to advocate for the oppressed, critique the injustices of whatever social system we inhabit, and share in the vulnerability of the least powerful. No doubt our efforts will fall short of the kingdom of God, but that is where our status as “pilgrims, traveling back to God” comes in handy. As the old song says,
“This world is not my home,
I’m only passing through;
Fixed it up with Jesus
Angels beckon me,
From earth’s shifting shore,
And I can’t feel at home
In this world anymore.”