“To be sure, the light of reason is placed by nature in every man, to guide him in his acts towards his end. Wherefore, if man were intended to live alone, as many animals do, he would require no other guide to his end. Each man would be a king unto himself, under God, the highest King, inasmuch as he would direct himself in his acts by the light of reason given him from on high. Yet it is natural for man, more than for any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group.”— St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), De regnoad. Ad regem Cypri (“On Kingship, to the King of Cyprus”), translated by Gerald B. Phelan, revised by Ignatius Thomas Eschmann, O.P.
Medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas’ optimistic vision of reason-guided human beings who participate in society, including as citizens, is being challenged as perhaps at no other time in our nation’s history. A global recession and a new digital frontier in which falsehoods spread with lightning speed have produced a situation far closer to Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s classic 1799 etching, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. These trends have fostered a despair and disbelief in experts that have left many citizens to act each as “a king unto himself” and as all-too-credulous believers in strange figures who came out of nowhere to break all social and popular norms.
In her celebrated 1950 analysis, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt points to “the uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and [which] have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.”
The last few decades have seen this country follow a scenario once restricted to Europe, as institutions in which Americans once fervently believed—e.g., government, churches, the police, the press—have increasingly—daily—been called into question.
Commentators have spoken of the great division in contemporary American society, but I fear even more the possibility of subdivisions within our country, of a populace so distrustful of their neighbors that they are unable to form even two parties, let alone one. That would leave us atomized, capable of being molded into Arendt’s “mass man” who fell prey to the twin forms of totalitarianism, Fascism and Communism, between the First and Second World Wars.
The Western world gave rise to Aristotle, Aquinas and Arendt, believers in the power of thought. But what happens if the West now drifts into the sleep of reason? The nationalism, prejudice and bigotry abroad in the last decade—highlighted in the white noise of Twitter and talk radio here in the U.S. in the last week—pose momentous challenges to the rational vision of natural law formulated by Aquinas. Here on the North American continent, these forces have already produced a country unrecognizable to many of us of a certain age: an America no longer brandishing the standard of freedom for the world, but instead increasingly intolerant of difference.