Rescuing the Political

A translation of “Rescuing the Political” by Catholic philosopher-priest Romano Guardini.

Is this just a playful figure of speech? Or is the political actually in danger to the point of requiring a “rescue”? And if it’s in danger, is it worth being rescued? Indeed, if we’re already so far into the question, we’ll also have to reckon with what this “political” is, whose “value” and “rescue” we’re discussing. Along with that I would like to express clearly that I’m speaking as a political layman. Today that can mean not only standing far away from practical political power, but also being less enslaved to the typical words, perspectives, and values used for it.

In political matters today I can really only see chaos. Everyone is unsure of what’s to be done practically. You can feel how everything buckles and breaks, how irreversible resolutions fall apart every day. But you still don’t know what will happen. In fact, you might not even know what’s happening politically.

But to me that seems to direct us to go deeper. I can’t find actual political action, political meaning, or political orientation. When I look within myself, I do find a special drive, a special demand, which, I believe, belongs to the political. Maybe I’m being confusing with this word. But I believe that’s what they are, since they have a strong intrinsic look to them, as well as an intrinsic sense of will, and they can’t be subordinated to any other place. From this will and demand I don’t often find a path to what’s handled in newspapers, assemblies, or the state and national parliaments. And only seldom can I find a path to the kind of thing that happens. That may sound arrogant – layman’s talk is really a little bit arrogant, and the layman’s judgement too. That’s why the specialist has a right to assess the matter!

Political dealings must be something other than, for example, a council seeking to improve the artistic shape of a city, although you call that “cultural politics [Kulturpolitik].” They’re something different from an economic ministry regulating the import and production of a country, even though you call that “economic politics [Wirtschaftspolitik].” Politics is also more than the simple goal-oriented ordering of personal energies and directions, since what the teacher does in class, what the manager does at work and so on also falls under “politics in the broader sense.” Politics in its actual sense is something other than purposeful work on “economy” and “culture.” At least what I’m getting at is more. If you give it no room of its own, then you neglect a vital energy that I see at work in myself and in history.

A realm of life becomes “peculiar [eigen]” when it is carried out by a particular human orientation, determined by a particular value, and when it has a particular place in life as a whole. Thus,  economics is a peculiar realm, as is art, technology, economics and others. Is politics under this point of view something “peculiar”? Is there a particular orientation that carries it? Does it carry a particular value? Is something missing in the whole of human activity when it goes missing? Or would it simply mean that something somewhere would be less in order? That is what this concerns for me, and only that. 

That was also what this question was about for those on top of the castle: the “justification of the political passion,” as it was termed. Perhaps they alone did not go away discontented. 

Others wanted something else. They probably had the feeling that our conversations would remain obscure in the realm of theory.

Isn’t the political just activity that relates to the state? Isn’t it just whatever’s directed towards constructing the state or whatever comes from the state in order to perfect it?

But what is the meaning of the state? You say that it should support and protect the wellbeing of individuals and the whole, that it should regulate and develop economic life, support cultural work. You say it’s everything that corresponds to the laws that the state gives, which it grasps by stimulation and creation through people and agencies. And everything is right. The political designates the economic and cultural significance of the state. But that’s still not the political in the special sense of the word.

To me the political meaning of the state actually appears to be sublimity [Hoheit]. It is the  incorporation of majesty for its own sake. But sublimity has at its essence God alone. Thus, the political meaning of the state seems to me such that, since it is itself given by God, it demonstrates and validates His majesty among the natural matters and realities of life. Not in moral and religious matters. For those responsibility lies not with the state, but the church. The state has to represent the majesty of God in the matters of natural life.

It does this most of all by way of its presence. It is legitimate. It does not simply exist, but it exists “with right,” by the grace of God, and this rightful existence demands recognition from other states and from individuals. And it does this by way of right in the life of its citizens: it makes right. It does not have a political character insofar as it pursues goals, provides benefits, facilitates commerce, or seeks to bring welfare, but insofar as it carries its meaning within itself. That means that just “being right” is beyond every goal.  Said more precisely: the state is the right that God affirms, and that is the essential order itself. It is right, then, as a natural revelation of divine sublimity. It is on this right that the state stakes in its entire legitimate existence, the intellectual brunt of its sublimity, i.e. the state is “authority.” At the end every law proceeds “in the name of God.” The state, however, even stakes its power on right. It coerces obedience to right. 

That is all how it’s seen “from above,” from the point of view of the state. Now moving on to the view “from below”: the state is carried out through the people. The “people” is more than the masses. The people is a living unity of blood, soil, destiny, and tradition, a unity of intellectual paradigms and works…an epitome, then, of the strongest force. But it cannot act as such. Simply as the people, the people, viewed politically, is only an object. 

The people only becomes capable of acting through the “state”. That is the other side of the state in the political sense: in it the people becomes capable of acting and thereby capable of history. A state only becomes truly political to the degree that the people really comes to act in it. And to that degree the people is political, that it really acts in its state. 

But what’s the political activity of the people? It’s not that it participates in economic progress. That likely belongs to the action of the people as it exists in the state; but in that case there is no essential difference between it and a productive society. It’s not even that it fulfills artistic, scientific, or pedagogical undertakings. That might belong to the creative realm of the people of the state [Staatesvolk], but is also along the line of a creative circle or an academy. Politically it seems to be this: realizing its God-given essence, speaking the word God gives it into being, and occupying its place within the world. It concerns existing. And existing without any goal. But existing in freedom. And existing in honor. 

Try for a moment to take these words in their essence. Try to remove their everyday meanings, as well as their presumptions and the violence that turn them into tools. Take them in their essence – do they not speak from here on out of something to which a vital part of us responds? Don’t they speak of something utterly noble?

I hear the rebuke: these are terms for the pagan divinization of the state, for the nationalistic apotheosis of the people!
No! But we have let these essential, noble values come into pagan hands!

And contrast this. When I hear so much talk, just among the folks of the youth movement or when I read so much writing, then it seems to me as though there were absolutely no political force there! I do feel the cultural will and the ethical will, but not the political will!
These days isn’t it ultimately about the political will reawakening once and for all? But what should that be except the will for a state? And yet that doesn’t just mean the state as a security establishment, economic bureau and cultural custodian, but as a political state that has sublimity, legitimacy, and authority. It means a political state in which a people is capable of action and of history, in which the people can stand up for freedom and honor. But of course it must be a state that can also truly deliver all this! A state in which the people – or rather this people as it currently exists – can live, produce, and manifest itself right now. A state iin which the people doesn’t only lie inside, as in a house, but in which it can realize its essence. A state that brings out, clarifies, assembles, forms, and leads the force of the people to action.

But, of course, we have to take these values out of the hands of the pagan spirit. It is truly fearful to see that political orientation and will – even if only among the nationalists and advocates of the state – made unspiritual, narrow, and morbidly brutal. That is how their often inconceivable power comes into the present moment. What’s fearful is that politics has indeed acquired a fully openly demonstratable pagan character, and you can emphasize how fundamental this paganism is to it. “We have extinguished the lights of heaven” – Viviani was not the only one to say that! That has indeed become the political orientation. But we are not responsible for that. And we must take those values out of the hands of political paganism to view them correctly from a Catholic-Christian existence and order them to their place in the whole of life. But before that we must ourselves have the orientation that alone can even see these values. We must have the will that alone is even able to realize them. Before we speak of a Catholic politics, we have to be standing on the political plane to begin with! It can’t be the case that you can conceal an unpolitical orientation with the character of Catholicism. We must desire a truly political politics, but from a truly Catholic spirit.

It’s not about what the right method is for the state to support the economy, or what we have to do to bring disenfranchised classes and groups to the fullness of humanity, etc. But it’s just about the following: within me there is something that cannot live if a state does not exist. But that is an honorable and free state. That part of me sees the state as room for direct growth and upright progress. It sees it as a breath of fresh air. I’m able to sacrifice it for something higher. I can go without it, everything else being constant. But there still remains, as I see it, the demand and the value. And that’s the political. We have to see that and its meaning clearly. 

The existence of the state is not the highest of values. The will within me that relates to the state is not the noblest piece of my personal possession. Every demand of conscience surpasses it, as does every real religious calling from God in my soul. I can no longer affirm the state and political will, as soon as it makes me override justice, the sacred, and the domain of God. It is just as true that there are realms where the state has no say: the inner spheres of a person, the inner realm of the family along with the essential relationships of its members, and the Church. Here the state must keep silent, and it’s paganism to have it go any further. That’s really where the deep mistrust of the religious person towards the state comes from, since it always tries again and again to overpower the person and to marginalize or subordinate the religious authority. Again and again it tries to transform the sublimity it receives as a loan from God into divinity itself. The sublimity of the state exists only insofar as it acts as a natural and legal representative of God. Nevertheless, it seeks to establish itself as original, sole, and absolute.

At the end the state again and again seeks “to be God.” After all, “the present God” is what Hegel called it! And to the extent that it succeeds with advancing this claim, the individual forgets God, since then he has nothing more to set against the state. Yes, at that point his soul’s capacity for worship, having been robbed of its actual goal, is directed to the state unawares and justifies the state’s claims. Sin also lies in the state. In fact, it reveals itself there with a particular cold, conscienceless brutality. Only the individual can destroy this claim by the force of his God given conscience. This is also the duty of personal character: keeping watch against the state so that it remains within its limits. But with all this it still remains true that essential values rise and fall before me, whether or not I live in a free and honorable state. And I can’t by any means let myself be broken by “the danger of the state” into a resentment against the state.

Grasping politics as its own realm doesn’t mean removing it from the moral law. I emphasize this most pressingly so that my thoughts are not confused with some sort of doctrine of power. As a matter of course the moral order is valid for the political realm as well, just as much as it is valid for the scientific researcher, the artistic creator, and the technological or economic worker. The moral law orders all human activity. But here we have to see whether, within the entire human realm subordinate to the moral law along with the value and creative realm of research, art etc., there’s also a particular value and creative realm of politics.

But with that I’d, of course, still like to add something more. As right as it is to emphasize that the political is also subordinate to the moral law, at the same time I’ve gotten the impression that people have taken the matter very lightly. It’s as if they consider moral (or even religious) perspectives as are valid for individual lives, without looking further to the political realm, and without looking to its particular species and task. An ethicist demagoguery can appear, said briefly, as “the state may not do this because..” (followed by a moral principle), but you get the feeling that the speaker doesn’t know what the state and its work essentially is. In that case his word cannot be credible, as right as it, seen abstractly, may be. And great violence can be appealed to the matter, since political life is certainly also under the moral law. But you’ve got to ask more precisely: how? You’ll have to view the problems of the collective and the public or the state along with those of individual morality. When that happens, which is essential, then politicians won’t be able to complain that you’re getting in their way with irrelevant questions. They’ll once again recognize from the demands they encounter the particular realities of the realm of their work, and they’ll no longer be able to push them aside so easily. 

There are still a few questions from what I showed so far. I say a few questions more, since everything up to now was already a “question.”
The first: I see the forms of a certain sort, which barely questioned, run through states. There are economic organizations (business groups, financial and industrial advocacies etc.) and cultural associations (international rights agreements, social stipulations, scientific societies etc.). These strata are becoming ever stronger and more numerous. At a certain point will there still be room for real states, if this development continues? Will there still be a people free to carry on historical action? Or are we encountering a scenario in which the world is ruled by the offices of equity companies, marketplaces, intellectual proprietors and international courts? Is there still space for political activity in the future? Or will whoever attempts it end up a Don Quixote? Are there still political tasks at this level of economic and cultural world-structure? Not only tasks of organization – those there will certainly be – but political ones too, in the actual sense of the word?

Then: we see more and more starkly that the great realms of a cultural circle (for us the West) and humanity overshadow peoples and states. In this relation our time is showing the earth becoming clearly visible. A closed field is forming. Everything is slowly becoming known, calculated, and used, be it land, goods, or people. Now all essential arrangements of human existence step forth sharply within this new oikumene (the complete inhabitable space of the earth). They demand to be recognized in their essence and understood in their relationships to one another: personal character, family, people and state, cultural circle, and humanity. (I cannot list the Church here, since it is a quantity in and of itself). How does the above demonstrated political value and the orientation that carries it relate to these problems? Do they still have room to become something here? Do they have their own meaning? Maybe they even have a completely new meaning? Are the questions only for whoever is ready to advocate from firsthand experience for sublimity, honor, and freedom of the people and state? Or does everything to the contrary belong in the hands of synthesizers and technocrats for their cultural and economic settlements?

It’s already becoming clear from posing this question that what I mean here has absolutely nothing to do with nationalism. To the contrary, nationalism with its primitive thought and narrow field of vision by no means sees the political questions that lie here in their actual sense, let alone what’s arisen from them.

How then does the political problem of people and the people’s state relate to the super-popular state? Didn’t Austria, for example, meet its demise for not solving this problem? Wasn’t it because many people didn’t even want to consider it? How does the political problem of people and the people’s state relate to the problem of a cultural circle with its proper solidarity? Didn’t war break out because the European states didn’t see this problem? And don’t we still not have peace today because this problem remains unconsidered? Isn’t it because just asking this question is confused with anti-national sentiment? But of course, that demands a broadness of vision, a sense of reality, and power of thought. It also demands political creativity, and even a little bit of elegance, all of which is not necessary in normal nationalistic thought! How does the political problem of the people and the people’s state relate to that of humanity? It indicative of the complete newness of the current situation that humanity begins to emerge into sight as a clear political quantity. And it appears to me that the future of European states will be decisively determined by whether or not they discover their relationship to this quantity. 

On the other hand: up until now the “state” went on at the cost of personal character. It was a collective state. Gradually, however, the consciousness of personal character and its power developed so much that a future state will only be able to exist if it gives room to personal character. Moreover, only if it recognizes personal character as an active political moment and, indeed, bases itself on it. But two disastrous combinations have since been fulfilled since. On the one hand there’s the concept of independent [eigentätig] personal character, conscious of its responsibilities connected with the conception of a democratic state that denies sublimity and views itself merely as a guarantee of safety, guardian of culture and economic bureau, and is thus unpolitical in the deepest sense of the word. On the other hand there are the concepts of sublimity and state honor with the conception of ab authoritative state and a cabinet politics of the old style, for which the personal character of individuals were politically meaningless and people were singularly objects. 

But now it’s a matter of taking the concept of the “state citizen” seriously. It’s about a mature, political personal character, but in a truly political state. Or does that no longer exist? Does making personal character mature mean reducing the state to a minimum? Does it mean only allocating to it what it can actually deliver, the ultimate tasks of order and organization – and meanwhile acting out of your own insight and force? Or will mature personal character be a political counterweight to the state? Will it even ask the state for its own maximum performance? I believe I see proper parallels here. That is, the nationalist orientation doesn’t see the higher political fields with their problems, cultural circle, and with humanity. As the authoritative state with its patronizing and privileging method, it doesn’t want to consider the individual personal character mature and doesn’t want the state to relate to it vitally. But if that orientation hasn’t first risen to the tasks of the future, what posits the state as an organism vitally playing between the independent [eigentätige] personal character and humanity? Does its political action – without sundering its own essence and unity from that of the people carrying it – let itself be determined by both these magnitudes?

I, at least, still have to touch upon another question after this: the question of war and peace. For peoples who have learned what war means in so fearful a way the question must be pressing. Of course it also seems that the reasons for or against something like modern war must be articulated and heard by all, or at least by weighed by many with great seriousness. But how does it happen that the word and fact of pacifism has such a dubious ring for many people? How does it happen that many view the fight against war as something questionable from the very start? 

I know that man exists and lives in the moment. Right now there is no visible war, so he doesn’t think about it. He wants rest and won’t have himself disturbed by such thoughts. Much more can be said. I also know that there are parties “interested in war.” There are those of the low sort who translate war into winning number. There are also those of the noble sort whose capacity for military tradition and martial lineage makes war into simply the “field of honor.” Of course, they stand against any fundamental work of peace from the outset. I understand all of that without further explanation. But how does it happen that people, who in no way belong to these groups and are averse to all violence, still want nothing to do with the fight against war, whenever they encounter it generally? 

I can discover the following reason primarily: they experience war as a “political” matter in the highest sense, and now they feel as though pacifism is so often handled by a wholly unpolitical orientation. With the religious, moral, and cultural foundations for their feelings weighed, which are correct and very meaningful in themselves through and through, the elemental of the contrary opinion appears bloodless, weak, and yes – we might as well say it – unmanly. And in fact this is because they are set free from the plane on which the problem primarily lies: politics. Someone once said that you can only speak about war if you lived through it. I would like to say it’s about “human” competence. So whenever someone can speak about this fearful subject, he must do so without putting himself to shame. But you can also think about the objective matter. The right to speak against war is afforded only to whoever grasps the political orientation within himself. Speak if you sense the primordial political values, the will for a people and for a popular-state, and freedom and honor burning in your blood. 

But do you understand me? I have neither spoken for nor against war. I know that I have absolutely no answer to this question. I also haven’t yet read and heard much that takes the matter seriously.

What I mean is that the discussion of peace and war comes into the decisive zone only when it’s led by people with a vital political orientation, by people who experience war as a political process. And so not just by people who have stood their ground bravely, but by such as see and feel the essentially political realities and values connected with war. They alone are able to ask the decisive question here: how can those essentially political values be realized and maintained other than through war? And maintained, indeed, in their whole rough and demanding purity? And if it emerges that there are possibilities besides war, you are once again in the situation of asking the question even more deeply: is the evil and destruction in present day war so fearful, that in order to avoid it we are obligated to sacrifice those very values? But should this question be met with yes, then they can also ask the following: where then does the spiritual sense of the state and the people, indeed of social life, at all lie? Where is the guarantee that we do not become lethargic and lazy and forfeit to money? Where was that advocacy for and taking seriously of what up to now was the fight for meaning – not by a money-driven or crafty person, but by someone relating to the people and the state with honor and conscience? Only whoever has a political orientation can speak about these things in such a way that you can believe him. And when he demands renunciation, then you can trust him, since you know that he acts, while feeling those values, for the sake of higher values, or a new historical formation of meaning.

But so long as you pick up on absolutely no political orientation from the opponents of war, so long as they betray through a way of question and answer that their resolution simply means the essential renunciation of actual political values, without finally knowing what they care about, they will be considered imperfect by natural experience. As soon as they’re pushed to the side, their values awaken.

Every question has a level on which alone it can be seen and treated fully. For the question of war and peace it seems to me that it’s the political level. Only on that level will the religious, ethical, and cultural points of view also show their true meaning and actual force. The fight for peace must at last be carried out on the level of political feeling and thought, so that no ideology or matter of feeling remains. 

Someone to whom I gave these pages to read asked me: “Isn’t the problem just beginning? Where does true Christianity remain? What does the “foolishness of the Cross” mean in politics?” I was only able to respond: “before we ask what Christian politics are, we have to stand on a political plane in the first place.”

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