The Republic & the Soul

One favored slogan among American conservatives and libertarians is that “the answer to 1984 is 1776.” Yet the Enlightenment political ideals of liberty and equality constructed today’s pleasure-dome police state; 1776 led directly to 1984. Contemporary writer Fr. Yuri Pushchaev analyzes the classical liberal model of republicanism and why it brings about the ruin of souls and nations, while showing that outside this vicious dialectic and against it stands sacral monarchy. Translated by Mark Hackard.

The Gospel and Politics

It is spoken completely correctly that in the Gospel there is not a word regarding preference for one or another political regime. But is it correct to thence draw the conclusion that democracy, monarchy, a republic, etc. can all be bypassed in the context of the living water of the Gospel teaching and the Church –  as if there was simply nothing to discuss?

If this is so, then it seems that any political problems and institutions would have exactly zero meaning in the context of the main question: how do we save our souls? If no political form or regime can stop man from coming to God, then in principle what difference should it make, as a poet once said, what kind of millennium awaits us?

However, does this indifference from the Gospel not set a certain approach toward politics? After all, indifference is in matter of fact also an attitude, and it requires certain political conditions. Does it not prompt us in a paradoxical way to prefer a political regime in which there is the least amount of politics? That is, does it not advise us to choose such a social structure where there will be as little public-political life as possible?

No Politics without the Image of an Enemy

The word politics derives from the Ancient Greek word polis. The Greeks considered politics the concern with arranging the commons for all in the polis, the city-state. This moment of concern for the commons is reflected in the Latin name of the state, res publica, which word for word means the public, or popular, “thing.”

The political concern for the commons always has a shadow side, like the dark side of the moon. Such a concern seemingly should unite, though there is no politics without enemies. That is, politics not only unites, but also divides – into various parties and sides, including those who enter into deadly hostilities.

Among the ancient Greeks and according to the great Aristotle, the conception of “political friendship” occupied an important place in political theory. By his notion, the polis can exist only if the majority of citizens are united between each other through political friendship. However, in politics friendships are always directed against someone. It can’t be otherwise, for without enemies political friendship is meaningless. It turns out that worldly concern for the common good is in principle impossible without wars and lethal divisions.

A fellow priest I’m acquainted with gave an ingenious (in my view) definition of politics: it is the art of ordering relations between people in conditions when people have fallen and are radically corrupted. At the very essence of politics and its objectives lays radical corruption, since it is oriented toward a fallen world. And therefore we must not take politics as the highest meaning of human activity and life.

At the same time, the delegation of authority and the “professional” concern with political organization are a heavy cross. Political power is necessary for the good of men – simply so that there is order in society and not anarchy: “All power is from God.” (Romans 13:1) But the political path is composed of a multitude of temptations and dangers, and so Christians are called to render their rulers support in prayer. Beyond other matters, by their prayers they ask God to help politicians overcome temptation and that in their activity the radical corruption inherent to politics be minimized.

However, it is just this radical corruption of politics as such that prompts Christians to choose such a social-political structure in which there will be as little as possible of politics itself (the necessity of “the noble lie,” divisions into parties, enmity, etc.). And in comparison with monarchy, the republic is a much more political form of sovereign organization, whereby all citizens should be engaged in politics.

Norman Rockwell America

Republics Have No Need for God

In democracy and a republic, all citizens are called to politics, to participation in power. Democracy is the power of the people. The ideal of the republic is born from the aspiration that the people govern itself – through its representatives, as now, or in antiquity, through direct democracy.

The metaphysical underpinnings of this are what the well-known twentieth-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the drive of people from the masses, the lower classes, to also “come into their own,” signifying their existence and appearing to the world as a full participant. Here people already begin to be directed primarily not by the aspiration “to live a pacific and quiet life in every piety and purity,” but rather the desire to be noticed in the world, to enter stormy political life full of passions, anxieties, and temptation. Incidentally, the prominent nineteenth-century Swiss historian of culture and one of the founders of cultural research Jacob Burckhardt termed the polis the “chattiest” of all sovereign forms. What a sharp contrast this is to the aspiration to live a calm and quiet life!

And most centrally, as soon as the people establish or constitute a republic and comprehend that they now claim to govern themselves and their fate, religion then inevitably begins to play ever less a role in social and political life. This is logical – after all, in a republic the one source of authority is the will of the people, which as the final source already needs no religious sanction. The people themselves begin to occupy the highest place: vox populi, vox Dei. The Christian monarch, meanwhile, is the anointed of God, and “a man submits to the authority of the monarch not only from fear, but also from a conscience enjoined by God Himself.” Monarchy needs religion, and it naturally flows from the premises of a religious worldview.

The ongoing displacement of religion in Europe for over 200 years into the “private sphere,” where everyone can supposedly decide for himself which religion to hold, is not accidental. The state promises to uphold the rights of religion within the confines of personal space, but therein is a palpable deception. Historically, the republican form of sovereignty, secularization and the loss of influence by religion and the Church are tightly connected and mutually dependent processes that developed to their full potency in the modern age.

We could hope for the soundness and inviolability of personal religious convictions only under the condition that every man possessed the necessary inner strength – if he was on the whole not a fallen creature and could always confidently oppose any temptations. If, for example, the ideal of the wise stoic, able to withstand any external influences and inviolably maintain his inner world, was realistic rather than a philosophical fantasy.

Yet this is not so. The ordinary man cannot shut himself off from the world (the passions) and live in the “monastery of his own spirit.” Generally speaking, the fear of personal sin and distrust of oneself can be considered, as Konstantin Leontiev thought, as a necessary indicator of humility. “From those places serving you an opportunity to fall, run away as from a scourge, for when we do not see the forbidden fruit, then we do not desire it so strongly.” This ascetic rule speaks to the fact that it is best to prudently avoid such seductions from fear of them because “each man is a lie,” that is, he is inclined to self-gratification, weak, and easily given over to temptation.

Hieronymus Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights. Detail.

The Democratic Republic as Freedom of Temptation

Therefore, yes, on the one hand, no political regime – and more broadly no external conditions altogether – can predetermine man’s freedom unto finality. But at the same time, they can exert a very strong influence and incline us toward a choice in one direction or another. And therefore, when religion is not supplanted in a dissembling manner to the private sphere only, when its position is strengthened by public authority as well, then more people may turn to faith and consequently be saved. We will risk to assert that under unfriendly social conditions (when man remains alone with his corrupted nature), very few are able to endure that pressure of temptation that overwhelms ordinary men in the situation of so-called liberty.

As an illustration we can recall Milos Forman’s famous film The People vs. Larry Flint. In the movie it’s clearly shown that contemporary democratic society and freedom of speech within it are impossible without freedom for erotica and pornography. The existence of a liberal democratic republic means permission not only for legal (brothels and prostitution have always existed under all political regimes) but also mass circulation of erotica and pornographic services by the media when this in one way or another affects every person. Therefore, whether we like it or not, we must arrive at the conclusion that under a republic and democracy, there will be more of those affected and those given over to this type of temptation than in a so-called unfree or authoritarian society.

Russia’s Residual Monarchism

Other things being equal, monarchy is more hospitable to the cultivation of humility in a man. The stratified society is a system of hierarchies of obedience. Here a person in principle is adapted and obligated to subordination, not claiming the prideful government over his own fate and an entire society in the name of the people and according to his own will.

Of course, if we are to speak of the modern world and contemporary Russia, then a more or less full monarchism today is simply impossible. Yes, Russia as previously is in fact neither a liberal nor a democratic country. For example, until this time people vote for the party in power, for those who already are authority. It is precisely a residual monarchist feeling maintained in Russia until this time that secures victory to the current party in power and preserves Russia overall, for she cannot be a liberal and democratic country. If liberal principles win out in practice and not just on paper in a written constitution, then the country would immediately disintegrate into various national formations and cease being united.

However, our poorly concealed monarchism of today, for obvious reasons, is residual and partial, distorted and corrupted. For true monarchism requires religious sanction, the consciousness of which now is for practical purposes totally absent in the ordinary man.

"Go fearlessly, Prince, and believe in God's help." St. Sergius of Radonezh in his blessing to Dmitry Donskoi

“Go fearlessly, Prince, and believe in God’s help.” St. Sergius of Radonezh in his blessing to Dmitry Donskoi

In entirety we are all likely too corrupted and incapable of humility both in the political sphere and the realm of the spirit. Yet if we will not recognize this inability within ourselves, then it is already a mortal sickness – when a man considers himself healthy and therefore seeks no treatment. As a result he dies from the disease he never even admitted to, one that would kill him off so quickly because it met no obstacles in its path.

Although no one knows, of course, how God will judge men. Will He be more lenient to those who were constantly in an environment of temptation, who had more cause to sin, and for whom therefore it had been so difficult not to fall and stand firm? But in any case, it would be more correct in my view that a Christian prefer such a form of rule or political organization under which the occasions for temptation and sin would be less.

In summation, we can logically present my basic thesis in such a way. When speaking about “a republic or the salvation of the soul,” I do not assert a strict “either – or,” that there is genuinely only one of two. These are intersecting multiplicities, meaning that salvation of the soul is also possible under a republic. In formal logic this is called a non-rigorous disjunction. Like the proposition, “either snow or rain,” it is not excluded that there is sometimes snow with rain, although more often than not it rains or snows separately. However, the whole meaning of my reflections is that in the case of a similar logical chain like “monarchy or the salvation of the soul,” the number of those saved will be greater. There are those saved outside of monarchy and many who perished under monarchy. But we nonetheless must take account of the following, despite fashionable modern tendencies: Monarchy (even more definitively, autocratic Christian monarchy) in comparison with a republic is more hospitable to religion and its main task – the salvation of man and his preparation for eternal life.