are there limits to politics?

This is a question I'd pose particularly to those of a democratic-socialist disposition (or anyone interested in thinking about politics). What, if any, are the limits to politics, and where do they come from? Father James Schall's website has an essay that touches on this subject. It also includes an interesting description of the intersection of Enlightenment optimism and political realism.
As a teacher in political philosophy over the years, I have become intrigued by the effect of reading with an average class of modern students both St. Augustine and Machiavelli, the archetypes of what is called in political philosophy "political realism". Often these same students are bent on saving the world, largely, as far as I can tell, by going to law school, itself something of a problem in political philosophy. For we can, in this context, recall St. Augustine's own sobering account of his early teaching career. In Rome, his own students failed to pay their bills. In Milan, he realized that preparing students for law and rhetoric would not lead either him or them to the highest things. Thus these youthful enthusiasms will not seem overly surprising or only confined to our own time and place.

Indeed, such suppositions about legal and political solution to moral and social problems form almost a recurrent phenomenon among those many who want to find the City of God in places wherein it is not likely to be discovered. Activism in our time seems so superior to contemplation; politics seems superior to mysticism. Charity has become, in effect, compassion, a very different thing as it is used. The first, charity, means God's love in everything; the second, compassion, implies that no one is judged by any criterion but his own, whatever that be. Compassion has replaced reason and obviated the need for forgiveness.

Within activism, and, probably as a consequence of the reversal of the classical priority of contemplation to action, furthermore, fewer and fewer intrinsic limits to politics and action are acknowledged or observed. The scope of a freedom in modernity is defined, to be brief, not by nature or by nature's God, but by a freedom itself subject to nothing further than the self. In a sense the heady freedom Machiavelli granted to the prince is substantially granted to or subsumed by everyone. "Every man a king" has come to have more sinister overtones in a world bereft handbooks for kings that also teach them to be morally virtuous.

When contemporary students first encounter St. Augustine, moreover, they are usually disturbed. They find themselves unsettled by Augustine's pessimistic view of human nature, even if they suspect that he might be right on the empirical side. They do not like to admit the legitimacy of his experience even when they admit, that is, that he might be a realist, that he just might accurately describe the dire things they see about them every day. In the moral order, we are reluctant to admit how little progress we have made, even more reluctant to relate this lack of improvement to ourselves.

To explain this instinctive dislike of the pessimism of an admittedly fascinating man like Augustine always is to contemporary students, we cannot forget that one component, conscious or unconscious, of any modern student's soul is always the Enlightenment heritage, itself not unrelated to the Pelagianism about which Augustine was so concerned. Thus, a student presumes that no evil is connected with our lot, with our choices. He assumes that improving the human condition is a relatively easy process brought about by changing a few political and economic patterns that are, apparently, unduly opposed by a few bad men. Just how, on the same presumptions, these same few came to be "bad" in the first place is not altogether certain. Rarely is the necessary change in society first to take place in one's own heart.
Schall's essay has a lot of food for thought, so I'd like to make just one brief comment.

I think political realism is difficult for most modern Christians to accept, because the Christian has to reconcile his eschatological hope with his teaching on original sin. Both of these Teachings must inform the Christian's politics. But all of us being children of the "enlightenment", we find it hard to imagine the ideal society on Earth being anything but the New Jerusalem. So we tend to put more practical emphasis on the hope and less on the reality of sin. And more simply, hope is easier to talk about than is sin!

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