Imago Dei as a Political Concept
One of the themes I intend to explore through The Postliberal Order is our view of the human person. It’s well-known that early liberals conceived of the human person in problematic ways which have led to grave distortions of the human image today — and there is a treasure trove of questions to explore here. For now, I simply want to propose that as a political concept “dignity” has failed to safeguard the human person precisely because it is a secularization of the Imago Dei. I’ll examine this first under a mid-twentieth intra-Catholic dispute, and then turn to a brief exposition on Thomas Aquinas’ treatise on human nature.
I. Secularizing the Image of God
During the Second World War, and throughout the post-war settlement, an individualistic account of human dignity increasingly served as a political concept which could be used by Christians and atheistic humanists alike as putatively “neutral” concept which could be used with or without reference to God — which is to say with or without reference to the ends of the human soul, or the human city.
Charles De Koninck was highly critical of what he saw as a kind of Catholic individualism rising up to meet the demands of the new global order. His famous essay “On the Primacy of the Common Good, Against the Personalists” saw “the personalists” as precisely those Catholic “individualists” making a compromise with the secular liberal anthropology. While he did not name them, De Koninck clearly had in mind conservative-minded men like Jacques Maritain, and more socialist-minded men like Emmanuel Mounier. He saw Catholic personalists and collectivists alike working nearly in lock-step with a basically liberal individualist account of the human person which he believed would lead not to peace but further aggregations of tyranny.
De Koninck argued that modern liberals, both left and right, had become voluntarists skeptical about our knowledge of what is good. Believing that the individual will determines what is good, they were left with only aggregate and conventionalist conceptions of what is good.
For this reason, under a liberal anthropology, what we find is that conformism, social proof and consensus become the only operational test of truth. This runs very deep — and it is why liberals avoid the merits and just try to enforce various cordons sanitaires; why they all turn like schools of fish in response to political events; and why they are more willing to cut off political deviants even at the level of private friendships.1 This is the positivist, and relativistic result of a voluntarist and individualist account of the person — and we can readily see the political effects of this all around us.
De Koninck was trying to warn us. He was pointing out that the liberal account of the person — in both right-and-left liberal terms — lacks a proper conception of our common desire for the good. He proposed that one of the reasons liberal anthropologies lack this proper conception of human desire is because they lack the conception of the Final End of the person. The putatively secularized and neutralized account of human dignity helps to ensure that the liberal goes on lacking this concept of the Final End — and then one imagines silly ahistorical end-of-history fantasies like liberalism-without-end, and transhumanism.
De Koninck’s famous interventions apparently had little effect on Maritain, or at least his interventions didn’t persuade, since the United Nations’ 1948 declaration on human rights that Maritain helped to draft included no reference to God or the image of God at all. Nor did the declaration understand the person in relation to a proper notion of the common good. Instead, we find in most political uses of “dignity” a very individualized and secularized concept of the person which obscures rather than clarifies the good which to be protected and served.
II. All Political Concepts Are Theological
This is not to say that we shouldn’t affirm human dignity as a political concept — we can, but on the correct terms. The secularized concept of dignity is really a political concept which is designed to give us an anthropology detachable from God. This is inherently unstable as a political concept. So long as our political communities rely on this anthropology, we will continually arrive at ever more tragic disfigurements of the image of God, and thus even more unstable political arrangements.
One of the clearest explications of the nature of the human person was given to us nearly 800 years ago by Thomas Aquinas who united the philosophy of Aristotle to the theology of Augustine. In the Summa Theologiae, this often entails thinking about all of reality on a hierarchical scale — in Aristotelian terms, thinking about everything in light of causes and ends. His account of the Imago Dei works just like this — on a hierarchical scale.
In Aristotelian terms, all creatures have been moved from potency to act. From this movement we can discern that we our dependent, and changeable creatures. This causal analysis implies scale, and scale always implies ends, and so Aquinas follows Aristotle that we can really only understand the human person on a scale which has the Creator as both cause and end of the creature. Of course, all of creation can be understood to be on this scale, since all creatures bear a “trace” of their cause, but Aquinas teaches that human beings bear more than simply a trace of their cause — we bear the very “image and likeness” of God.
Aquinas sees human nature as caused by God’s goodness, and as ordered to goodness on a scale which has a final destination. This scalar understanding helps us to understand that moving closer or further away from the extrinsic cause and end of our goodness effects our own personal good. This is something dynamic rather than static.
This dynamic, scalar understanding of human nature doesn’t mean that we could ever cease to be human at the nadir or zenith of the scale — but it does means that our personal good can be raised or diminished. Augustine famously says that not even the iniquity of sin itself can entirely wipe out the good of our nature, but sin does obscure the image in us. Similarly, when the light of reason rises to knowledge of God as cause, as it rises in Plato and Aristotle, there is a certain dignity or excellence in that which ennobles the image insofar as they approach the end of their nature as intellectual creatures. In any case, Aquinas wants us to be clear that image of God can be best understood on a scale, determined in proportion to our relation to God as our Final End.There is much more to say about this, but for now I want only to observe how Aquinas understands the image in this hierarchical way.
In Summa Theologiae I.q.93, a4, Aquinas asks the question as “whether the image is found in every man?” As is so often the case with Thomas, his answer is the most interesting sort of Yes and No.
The objections he treats all deal with the possibility that the image is not equal in all, or that we lost it due to sin.
Elsewhere, Aquinas rejects the idea that we lost the image due to sin, because while sin destroys the gift of original justice in which we were made, and weakens our inclination to virtue, original sin leaves “the principles constitutive of our nature” intact. That is to say that the goodness of our nature as body and soul, made with powers of intellect and will are not destroyed. So it is no surprise that Aquinas will reject the objector’s claim that original sin destroys the image of God in us.
For the modern reader, however, it may come as a surprise that Aquinas both rejects and accepts the idea that the image is not equal in all. Aquinas gives us a teleological schema of the image of God in us as a participation in the perfect image of God on three levels.
His schema is essentially an ascent of the image of God in us to the light of reason, to the light of grace, to the light of glory — which are each lights illumined by God, and so each are ordered to the same end of knowing and loving Him. His scalar understanding of the image in us requires him to say that the image is in all of us imperfectly but truly simply because we are intellectual creatures. Then he says that the image is elevated by actually and habitually knowing and loving God by the light of those graces which conform us to Christ who is the perfect image of God. This light of grace elevates the image of God in us, so much so that Aquinas doesn’t hesitate to say that the image is greater in “the Just” than in it is in “All.” Nevertheless, the image remains in a state of imperfection until it is perfectly conformed to knowing and loving God eternally, in a way which cannot be lost. This is what he calls “the likeness of glory,” which belongs to “the Blessed” who are made happy forever because they have been united to the highest end of their nature as intellectual creatures: namely the very font of light and wisdom, God.
This is the teleological understanding of the Imago Dei that served a great diversity of people across many centuries. It gives the human person a more dramatic scale for human dignity which secularized accounts of the person lack.
While Aquinas does not use the language of dignity at all in this treatise, it’s reasonable to conclude he would see dignity in terms of the Aristotelian act-potency distinction. Our natural aptitude for knowing and loving God as rational souls is itself our potency for elevation — and we can really call this potency a ‘dignity’ since it is ordered to, and tends towards our highest good and our final end. Our modern anthropologies tout human dignity, but in fact, can only distort and disfigure the human image because they cut us off from our highest end.
Some postliberal visions of the human person are as dark and sinister as the liberalized, individualized, and secularized accounts. What we should, however, prefer is an emergent order that truly safeguards the human person precisely by putting the image back on a scale of grandeur in relation to God. For our personal good, for our families, and for our common political good, we would do well to heed not only De Koninck’s mid-twentieth century warnings, but also to take up the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of the person as imago Dei once again as a political concept.
I’m indebted here to Adrian Vermeule for helping me to see the political effects in such a vivid way.