Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS) has been placed by commentators in a wide range of ideological camps: the anti-American Left, 19th century anti-modernity, Victorian romanticism and Oakeshottian conservatism, and critical progressivism. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the history of Catholic Social Teaching, which has at various times been touted as a defense of free market capitalism or of democratic socialism, or a third way other than these economic systems.
LS provides a third way, but one far more radically rooted in the Catholic tradition than those rooted, for example, only in Rerum Novarum or Distributism. Most commentators have failed to communicate the meaning of LS because they have focused only on its particulars—its public policy recommendations, its catalogs of modern ecological ills, or its condemnations of various social sins—and have only made passing reference to the underlying philosophical framework, mentioning vaguely that a proper relationship with creation requires a proper relationship with the Creator.
LS presents more than just a series of ethical or political teachings. Its decisive accomplishment is to re-found Catholic Social Teaching on the metaphysical and epistemological basis of classical Christian Platonism. Earlier social encyclicals, especially those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, alluded to this Platonic vision, but those brief references are fully fleshed out in LS. Platonism sees the cosmos as a beautiful unity participating in the God Who is the One, the Good, and the Beautiful. The “cultural revolution”it calls for (LS 114) is a complete conversion to this ancient metaphysics applied to our contemporary situation.
LS is an important step in the work of ressourcement and aggiornamento in which the Church has been engaged over the last fifty years. The natural law and personalist approaches of earlier Catholic Social Teaching, which often responded to modern ills in a piecemeal way, require grounding and unification in a more sophisticated philosophical and theological vision, in which human development is placed in the context of total cosmic divinization. A complete Catholic ethics demands respect not only for our nature and its ends, but for the nature and ends of all things.
he tradition that LS draws on is rooted in the pagan Platonism of Plato, Aristotle, and Proclus, and in the Christian Platonism of (for example) Basil, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas, the three of whom play key roles in the encyclical. What sounds to some like Marxism, Green ideology, romanticism, or globalist bureaucracy, must be understood in terms of this deeper metaphysics. While Francis uses the terms of these ideologies, he empties them of their secular meanings and grafts them into a Christian Platonist worldview. Without understanding the wisdom of that worldview, we cannot understand how to act best as Christians in the modern world.
Pope Francis believes that failure to understand the world is the cause of our contemporary social and ecological crisis. We tend to make all of our decisions on the basis of a bad epistemology, which leads to defects in all areas of our practical lives. Francis names the failed epistemology the “technocratic paradigm,” “technical thought,” “anthropocentrism,” and a “utilitarian mindset.” In this approach we see things as objects set over against us, a set of valueless facts capable of being known by extrinsic analysis, and understandable just in terms of their potential usefulness. This renders us incapable of reasoning in anything other than utilitarian terms.
This reduction to utility resembles the sophism that Socrates confronts in the Platonic dialogues. Socrates responds with his epistemology of the forms, in which we know the world not by manipulation or extrinsic examination but by participation. To know a thing is to know its form, the intrinsic meaning and value in which it shares, but which it never exhausts. It is everyone’s job, not just philosophers’, to know the forms: for example, the carpenter achieves his craft not by manipulating matter in whatever way seems most useful or most likely to drive a profit, but by coming to know what beds and chairs in their inner meaning are, and instantiating that knowledge. Excellence in one’s vocation is a matter of reflectively knowing the forms and producing beautiful instantiations of them, not primarily making a profit or promoting technical progress.
The Pope recommends this paradigm of knowing and making. Like Plato, and even more like his disciple Aristotle, Francis commends to us a mode of knowing by identity. We know a thing by becoming identical with its form: we take its form, its inner meaning, into ourselves, and so know it intimately. Human persons are capable of taking into themselves all forms. We are each, as Aquinas emphasizes, like a little cosmos: what we are and what the cosmos is are bound up with one another, neither able to be understood and neither able to flourish without the other.
In this paradigm of knowledge, Plotinus and Aquinas tell us, we know things in a way that resembles the way that God knows them. God does not know beings by examining them extrinsically; rather, He knows them because He is identical to their forms: all things are pre-contained in God and proceed from Him as His gift. He knows beings intimately and lovingly, being more interior to things than they are to themselves, as Augustine tells us.
Francis would have us put this relational, participatory knowledge into practice by aligning our knowledge closely to the rhythms and harmonies—that is, the forms—present in all things and in the way they participate in and relate to one another. No thing can be understood in isolation, for things just are participations in their forms, and relations to the rest of the cosmos. Genuine knowledge requires what Aquinas calls knowledge by connaturality: a knowledge motivated by virtuous love for things, like the knowledge that persons have of one another through love. No decision should be made regarding anything without first experiencing intimately its interconnections with all other things; we must develop the habits of mind and heart necessary to have such experiences readily. Extrinsic knowledge and technology are useful, but only as tools within this broader paradigm: what modernity emphasizes is not intrinsically bad, but to be used rightly must be placed in the context of the classical, Catholic tradition, and so subordinated to a non-utilitarian, contemplative, affective mode of knowing.
Central to achieving this kind of knowledge is aesthetic education (LS 215), which teaches us to see beauty, and thereby to see the interrelatedness of all things and our need to act for the sake of beauty. “Beauty” and “beautiful” appear nearly 40 times in LS, by my count more than all of the rest of the encyclicals of Catholic Social Teaching combined. Here, Francis shows his deep debt to the Platonist tradition. For Plato, beautiful sensible things exist to lead us to knowledge of higher things, ultimately to the form of beauty, Who is God. But later Platonists like the pagan Iamblichus and the Christian Dionysius also noted that we should not ascend to the immaterial in such a way that we leave behind the material entirely. Rather, there is a way of knowing God that can only be had through sensible things. In the beauty of sensible things, and especially in the beauty of their interrelations, they are shown to be a symbol and sacrament, by which God makes Himself present to us.
The correct motivation for action, on Aristotle’s view, is beauty: we should act in order to perform beautiful actions, to bring more beauty into the world, for beauty, which resides primarily in God, is the proper object of love, and love is a driving force for all action. There is something base in acting for reasons other than beauty, such as for self-gain or profit: consumerism is wrong primarily because it is ugly, and because it substitutes a manufactured desire for that of genuine beauty that leads us to God and our fulfillment. As theologian Paul Griffiths recently argued, we Christians need to learn to motivate our politics not with utilitarian concerns, but rather with a love for beauty. Pope Francis calls us to stop thinking first about the usefulness of our actions, and more about beauty, and the intimacy with things and with God that it engenders.
Beauty reveals what might be the most constantly reiterated theme of LS, the interrelatedness of all things. Beauty reveals that things have a purpose. All beings—including plants, animals, cultures, and individual lives—come forth as gifts from Beauty and Goodness. They are, as Maximus the Confessor puts it, so many words (logoi) expressing in partial fashion that source, though together they express that source all the better. Francis argues that we should, like St. Francis of Assisi, come to see through relationality the reflection of not just the One God, but the relational Triune God, in every being (LS 66, 239). They exist to be deified, to be gathered together in Christ to express and be unified with that source and with one another.
Every practical decision, every decision to care for the poor or for the environment, must take this all very seriously. LS is striking in that it ties apparently mundane, but eminently doable, acts—for example, prayer before meals, beautifying a neighborhood—to this work of divinization and its Platonic context. The aesthetic education required for thinking practically in a way motivated by beauty requires first a natural eye for beauty: we must train ourselves and our children to see beauty and its lack in the natural world, and acting on that natural vision already can save the world to some extent (LS 112). But it also requires a spiritual transformation of our vision, a return to what the Christian Platonist Origen called the spiritual senses: a way in which even our bodily lives orient us to the God Who shines through all things—that is, a transformation of our lives so that we live and think liturgically at all times (LS 235).
For the pope, none of this is vague speculation. It is quite realistically the basis for all public policy. Our proper motivation for ecological preservation, for urban renewal, and even for the production of new technologies, should be the conservation of beauty. In Francis’ vision this is not a utopian dream. He gives concrete examples of small communities already living such a vision.
However, alongside championing local community and culture, Francis, like much of Catholic Social Teaching before him, calls for a global political authority. It is not at first clear how these hold together, and conservatives enamored of his love of the local are easily put off by these features of Catholic Social Teaching. Again, the answer can be found in Platonism. Platonist philosophers like Proclus and Dionysius developed a vision of divine providence that is a paradigm for a properly Christian politics. God relates to the world through the mediation of hierarchical communities. He has established, and He stands in an immediate relation of providential care to each individual creature. He has an absolute immediate rule over all things, but He also lets the local and the material serve as the primary way in which we relate to Him.
Politics must follow the same paradigm. Through the mediation of local communities we relate to the rest of the world. But, as with God’s immediate care for all individuals, there should be a political authority that has care for the whole as well: political authority, as a share in God’s authority, rightly relates both mediately and immediately to individuals. In the Republic, Socrates explains how one can only care for the community once one has contemplated the Good and so knows the goodness one is trying to bring about, and to contemplate the Good is to be turned towards others to care for them. Global authority can only be sought in this context.
What LS and Platonism give us is an unrestricted realism—a preference, as Francis says, for realities over ideas. Platonism has sometimes been denigrated as a kind of idealism, but this is a caricature of real Platonism, and it is not Francis’ vision either. The very existence of things is a sharing in God’s own being, and it is thus that we should know and treat them.
None of the interpretations of LS in terms of contemporary ideologies can succeed as complete accounts of what Francis is up to, since they each lack the integral outlook of Francis’ intellectual sources. If the reading of LS given here is correct, there is no ideological or purely bureaucratic way to put its vision into practice. Each reality must be dealt with as it actually is, according to its place in the whole cosmos, and as the logos of God that it is. There is one Good and one Beauty but it is applied in many senses to the goods and beauties of the cosmos, and even political authority must take that basic Platonic structure of the cosmos into account.