“Culture . . . is a study of perfection,” Matthew Arnold has written. (Culture and Anarchy, New York, 2009, 1) He is correct in more senses than one – not only is culture the pursuit of what is greatest in the arts and sciences, but it is ultimately the pursuit of the final end of man, which is, according to Aristotle, the excellent fulfillment of all man's faculties. This meaning of culture is etymological, for “there can be no culture without a cult,” and the cult, or belief system, of a society is what determines the end of man for that society and gives shape to the practices that are to accomplish it. Among these practices are all governing activities, and thus the political structure of a society is rooted in its religion and philosophy.
Considering that America currently has no religion and only the vaguest philosophy (that the individual is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), it is small wonder that its political structure is stumbling in its attempts to achieve this indefinite goal, and that it has lost a sense even of what it is supposed to be.
The conception of the end of man which is at the root of every culture must, if it is to give rise to a culture, be communal, and indeed all recorded western philosophies (arguably until Hobbes' theory of social contract) recognized the communal nature of the final end of man, that is, they recognized the impossibility of the individual achieving his final end alone. Aristotle defined the end of man as not only a common good, but the common good towards which every community, from a family to a polis, is ordered naturally. (Politics, 1.2) Seventeen centuries later, Machiavelli had a less holistic notion of man living in groups to fulfill his final end, but he still recognized that man cannot live alone, and that when man lives in community he must have some common end or good for which all are working, namely peace. Michael Waldstein in his article “The Person and the Common Good” names four characteristics of the common good, the last one being that when a common good is shared by a community, the members are related to the whole as parts. By this, Waldstein means that the common good takes precedence over the individual in a community, which both Aristotle, Machiavelli, and all western philosophers in between would have admitted. This is what gives the state the right to govern the individual – that it is doing so to preserve or pursue the common good, which supersedes the good of any individual. This notion is frightening to modern American ears, for we have long since considered the individual's rights paramount. This characteristic of the common good leads to the central issue of Waldstein's article: that there is an apparent tension between the dignity of the person and the supremacy of the common good, and harmony between the two is yet to be realized.
While philosophers from Aristotle to Machiavelli understood the importance of the common good over the importance of the individual, they erred by too far demeaning the individual. Aristotle thought that for the good of the polis, those who could not lead virtuous lives on their own should be slaves (Politics, 1.5); Machiavelli thought that a monarch must not be afraid to do wrong, sacrificing even his own conscience and soul to the common good (The Prince, Chicago, 1998, 15). America makes the opposite mistake, holding the good of the individual and his rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as supreme, and since the state must not assert itself over the individual in any way that may compromise these rights, the personal lifestyle preference of any may trump the common good of all, as it does in such issues as the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. So long, therefore, as the common good is not commonly agreed upon in America, it cannot be commonly pursued, and it is not a political subject. There is no common cult, therefore there is no common culture and no ordering principle of government. Each person has become his own polis, the only one capable of giving himself an end and ordering himself toward it. America, to use an Aristotelian term, is an alliance, a group of politically independent units, in this case individuals, united by certain mutual agreements for the sake of security and commerce. (Cf. Politics, 3.9) While the person is free from imposition in this alliance, he also has no hope of achieving his final end, for however he may choose to conceive it, it is in fact a communal end and common good, as he is a communal creature.
Aristotle reasons to the common nature of man's end by looking at simple necessity – man needs a village to survive, and a polis to thrive and find leisure to cultivate his higher faculties, which is his natural end. Christianity reveals a more comprehensive notion of man's communal end, based on the Trinitarian Creator. Man was made in the image of God, and uniquely among creatures reflects the Communion of Persons in one divine nature by being a community of persons with a shared human nature. As such, man is meant to enter into communion with the divine along with the rest of his species, each sharing with the other the grace that God shared with them first. This is another of the characteristics of the common good Waldstein identifies – that it is most self-diffusive of all goods, and that in God the common good becomes a personal (as distinct from private) good, for it is diffused toward and partaken of by a person. This is what leads to the solution of the apparent tension between personal and common good – the fact that in God the common good is the good of a person. If this communion with God and fellow men is the true end of each man, this is, ideally, the premise upon which government should be based, the cult that is the basis for the culture, with laws formulated to guide the natural life of man in a manner disposed to supernatural life, without fear that it will violate the dignity of the individual, for according to this premise the common good is the good of the individual as well.
This ideal government can only exist, however, in a world where most or all agree with the premise, for the individual cannot be forced to believe that God is a Trinity of persons and that the dignity of an unborn child is equal to his own, and if believers' laws are forced upon an unbelieving individual, it will become in the eyes of the unbelieving world an example of the first error of Aristotle and Machiavelli, the sacrifice of the person to the state, an error which has since gained an unfortunate poster-child in nazism. That is the error into which the west has fallen one too many times, and it is therefore the error any western country will avoid at all costs. America does nevertheless need a government that is ordered to the true ultimate end of man, or all the freedoms of the individual are at best a burden. Since man's final end is not subjective or individual, neither can his pursuit of it be. This presents a practical difficulty to our country for which there is no obvious solution: what sort of regime will best guide its citizens to be disposed to their true supernatural end when they cannot see or agree upon this end?
While a concrete solution may not be easily attained, certain principles of the solution present themselves. John Milbank, in his article “The Politics of the Soul,” writes that “today, what our politics needs is a revival of the archaically western vision in a new form.” (ABC Religion and Ethics, 7 Nov 2012) America does not need a completely new regime, which is very nearly what the founders attempted and what has not survived to the present day, but rather a classically western regime that avoids the old error. Milbank refers to this when he specifies that returning to the archaic “does not mean restoring unjustifiable hierarchies and inequalities that liberalism rightly swept away.” Milbank does not suggest any particular regimes, but an archaic western philosopher does. Aristotle describes a polity, or mixed regime, as the ideal form of government, for it is the “middle regime” in which the majority of men attain the middle level of virtue, and thus create a stable semi-aristocracy, with small chance of any becoming a tyrant. (Politics, 6.11) Likewise Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologiae (I-II, q. 105, a. 1), expresses the opinion that a mixed regime or polity, partly kingdom, partly aristocracy, and partly democracy, is superior to other models of government, for in it there are many citizens of great virtue who are all capable of ruling and elect from among their number a single monarch. Not only do both of these philosophers recommend mixed regimes, but these regimes as such have not yet been tried in the west, suggesting that these models represent the “archaically western vision” that should be revived and reformed.
How to newly form this vision becomes clear when confronting the problem: to have a government, there must be a shared notion of the end, and over three hundred fifteen million American citizens cannot agree on the end. A blend of the Aristotelian and Thomistic polities would produce smaller, localized governments, where a reasonable majority of people can agree on an end and therefore on the lifestyle they wish to promote. These governments will have some hierarchy, but it will be a citizen-elected hierarchy, the elected officials being chosen directly from among the citizens. While it is true that we have local governments already, the main difference would be the degree of legal power these communities have. They would have authority to determine all laws for the citizens, and the local governor would be the highest authority. The new form would include a reformed version of the federal system which, though currently holding the power of a true government, is only capable of acting relevantly as an alliance. In its new form it would be merely an alliance, an agreement between all the small governments for the sake of security and commerce. This model would avoid (to a reasonable extent) both extremes of error in the relation between the individual and the common good, and thus it may – just may – be able to survive as a modern political regime ordered towards the common good, for though each local government would almost certainly not agree on the one true end of man in all its beauty as it is revealed by Christianity, some undoubtedly would, and each would likely agree on some decent natural end for man, for it will be in their nature to choose an end in accordance with their nature, and whatever end they discern, they will have the authority to pursue.
The model I have suggested based on Aristotle and Aquinas is only an example, a prototype of what could be practically implemented in America to escape the sterile hopelessness in which the lack-of-culture traps its citizens. Only when Americans can agree upon and order a political regime towards the end of man, the one true end of man, only when the American person can be part of community working together for a commonly held notion of the common good, only where there is a cult, a true religion and philosophy, can a culture emerge and perfection, or at least excellence, be attained.