Classical Secularity Versus Liberal Secularism

Some readers may be puzzled to see the term “secularity” in the title of this essay in place of the more familiar term “secularism.” I have two reasons for preferring “secularity.” The first is that “secular-ism” is one of those nineteenth-century “isms” that emerge from a fundamentally Hegelian understanding of history. It makes use of the Greek –ιζειv suffix, implying a process of becoming, hence it implies “to secularize.” If we were to summon up the full ghostly apparatus of Hegelianism, we might be tempted by its alluring doctrine that to secularize is to modernize and perfect. But regarding as I do the Gospel according to Hegel as extracanonical, I shall resist this temptation.

I shall not be producing a critique of the historical thesis that sees the modern history of the West as a history of secularization, necessary as such a critique is. I will be concerned instead with the question of how to draw the line between the proper sphere of the secular, which I would define in Augustinian terms as the immanent, temporal sphere in which Christians engage with fellow citizens and others who do not share their faith, and the eternal or transcendental sphere which sustains Christians in their faith in this life and calls them back to their divine source. I note that this is not a contrast between the secular and the sacred or religious, a modern distinction inspired by liberalism. In general, my concern is with how one can protect the religious or transcendental sphere from the aggression of secularists, and also how the secular sphere might be rendered less imperialistic and hostile to people of faith.

The second reason for preferring “secularity” to “secularism” is that I intend to take my bearings from Charles Taylor’s discussion of secularity in his monumental study, A Secular Age. In that work Taylor prefers the word “secularity” and distinguishes three understandings of it. The most familiar to political theorists is “secularity 1,” the (alleged) exclusion of God, religious belief and any reference to ultimate reality from the public sphere. The public sphere is not only the political sphere—we are not talking merely about the “separation of church and state.” That is because the so-called “privatization of religion” also implies exclusion of religious understandings from other spheres of non-private activity as well, such as the economy, culture, journalism, education, and professional life. Modern secularity, as Taylor shows, presents a striking contrast with the pre-Reformation world of 500 years ago, when all spheres of human activity, public and private, were saturated with religious symbols and understandings.

In addition to this secularity, Taylor identifies a second secularity, which he calls “secularity 2.” This refers to the radical Enlightenment understanding of secularity as the realm of reason and science, as opposed to the realm of superstition occupied by traditional dogmatic religions. In the most vulgar version of secularity 2, modern science and reason are playing a zero-sum game against religion. Faith and reason are opposing principles. Assuming a belief in inevitable progress, the secularist is led to read every advance in science as a defeat for religion. The further conclusion, that the disappearance of religious belief is both necessary for the advance of science and inevitable, is hard to avoid: it amounts to what the Catholic public intellectual and U.S. Senator Pat Moynihan used to call “the liberal expectancy.” In this model of secularity, the toleration of religious belief is purely tactical. Getting rid of religion is a question of when and how soon, not whether. The belief in the inevitable triumph of secularism has been further reinforced by the lazy assumption that religious belief has been gradually on the wane in advanced societies, a development—as Taylor again shows—that is by no means as linear or unquestionable as it might appear.

Taylor proposes a third form of secularity, secularity 3, and indeed devotes most of his massive tome to tracing its genealogy. Secularity 3 emerged as a gradual transformation of the intellectual environment of the West over the last 500 years, a change in the “background conditions of belief,” that makes traditional forms of belief more difficult to sustain. “Secularity in this sense,” Taylor writes, “is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place.” In particular, what Taylor calls “naïve belief”—religious belief that faces no challenges qua belief, belief that may be challenged by heretics but is never challenged in its fundamental orientation to the transcendent—this kind of belief becomes much harder and indeed, in modern societies, nearly impossible. All religious beliefs today, in principle, are expected to justify themselves before the bar of reason. But the judicial system of secularized reason, Taylor believes, is rigged against religious defendants.

The most important grounding for naïve belief—the understanding of nature and humanity as dependent on and ordered in relation to the sacred or the transcendent—has been fatally undermined in the modern world, above all by the mechanical philosophy of the seventeenth century and by Darwinism in the nineteenth. In the modern secular age, nature is understood and investigated without reference to God or the divine or the sacred, a radical departure from the philosophical and theological approaches used in the Western tradition since the pre-Socratic philosophers. (It is often forgotten that the ancient philosophers, with very few exceptions, were uniformly religious thinkers).

In a similar way, morality and the human good have also been stripped of their transcendental orientation, so that modern people are left to orient themselves within what Taylor calls “the immanent frame,” using only the resources of a secular or “exclusivist” humanism. Modern morality, especially in the Anglo-Saxon utilitarian tradition, is purely a matter of preferences, personal or social, a way of thinking that Alasdair MacIntyre labelled “emotivism” nearly 40 years ago. It fiercely resists any claims to be grounded in a metaphysics of being, and the very idea of obedience to a divine command is anathema.

Like Taylor, I am ambivalent about the effects of secularity 3 on religious belief. In some ways, surely, belief is strengthened and enriched when challenged in a more pluralistic intellectual environment that includes other world religions as well as better scientific understandings of nature. Following Justin Martyr and Thomas Aquinas, Catholics must accept that all truth can and should be incorporated within the Christian vision of nature and the human condition. Moreover, the modern Church, even before Vatican II, has implicitly endorsed a form of pluralism by affirming the need for religious liberty in public life. It also supports a second type of pluralism in its contemporary theology of missions, which stresses the need for “inculturation,” the proclamation of the Gospel in a way that respects the particular experience of each people and culture.[1] However much we might long for the old world of holistic belief that predated the Reformation, we need to take seriously Brad Gregory’s warning against nostalgia in the modern practice of the Catholic intellectual life and not slip into some kind of romantic medievalism.

All the same, to the extent that “the immanent frame” makes it much harder for intellectuals and elites locked into secularity 2 to see any basis for the transcendental or spiritual goods of human life, modern or liberal secularity presents a threat to people of faith. Even those without faith, as Taylor shows, are often unhappily aware that the immanent frame, however celebrated by secularists as emancipatory, in fact enchains the modern world and deprives modern people of their full humanity. Christians, religious Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Daoists, and religious Confucians possess a vital dimension of human experience that is lacking to the materialism and psychic aridity of modern secularism. A life without the sacred is a life that is less than human.

Secularity 2 is a particular threat to our full humanity because of its increasingly militant character. It emerged in response to early modern wars of religion as a way of protecting the state and the religious freedom of individuals from the armed dogmas of Protestant and Catholic Europe. Originally, the wall that was gradually constructed, sealing political life off from religious fanaticism, was a defensive one—one that respected, within certain limits, the right of individuals to practice the religion of their choice. But those behind the wall, defending the state against fanaticism, eventually acquired a fanaticism of their own.

This illustrates Hankins’s Law of the Conservation of Fanaticism: if that portion of the human race naturally inclined to tyranny stops being fanatical about religion, it will become fanatical about something else. This “something else” is usually but not always politics; many today are also fanatical about a deity referred to as “science” or (tellingly) “the science.” The important thing for fanatics is to have some scope for moral and intellectual bullying. In the contemporary world, as the number of people practicing a religion has fallen, particularly since the 1960s, fanatical secularists have become emboldened and have sallied forth from behind their wall, believing that they can triumph in the democratic contest for power. They no longer need rely on people of faith as voters, or can turn enough of them into useful idiots to win elections.

The result is that secularists, where they hold power, have become increasingly triumphalist and tyrannous. I will mention only two examples. One is the formal legislation and informal sanctions in Europe and now in the U.S. against “hate speech.” Secularists have exploited the widespread belief that being “disrespected” in speech, having to hear one’s beliefs or one’s person described in terms unflattering to one’s self-esteem, is a violation of rights, even a form of assault. There have been a number of worrying episodes in recent times where merely affirming the traditional tenets of some religious faith has being redescribed as hate speech and made subject to prosecution. Orthodox Christians, sometimes Jews, less often Muslims or Hindus, are considered deserving of punishment or exclusion from the community of the right-thinking on such grounds.

My second example is the increasingly common practice of forcing job applicants to acknowledge a secular dogma at odds with their religious beliefs. They are required, as a condition of employment, to sign on to statements of “institutional values” (in the U.S. this is usually some variant of the secular religion of “diversity and inclusion”). This practice is akin to the loyalty oaths demanded by many sectarian governments during the age of religious warfare in the early modern period.

To be sure, the liberal tradition itself provides us with resources to combat tyrannous secularism of this kind, what might be called militant secularism. In the U.S. we have constitutional protections for free speech as well as the “free exercise’ clause of the First Amendment, which in principle guarantee the protection of religious speech, at least in the public sphere. In practice the protection of these rights depends on political control of the judiciary which is always insecure in democratic regimes. Moreover, constitutional protections for religious speech are less effective in battling against the informal sanctions now being deployed by militant secularists against people of faith. It is harder to engage in “lawfare” against a climate of opinion than against laws or explicit institutional practices.

What I am proposing today is, as it were, a second front. This second front would require some sort of movement to alter modern secularity itself through a revival or renaissance of our traditional Western paideia. I will argue that a renewal of traditional humane education could succeed in altering the “background conditions” of intellectual life that brought secularity 3 into existence.


The role of education in the production of modern secularity, surprisingly, is neglected in Taylor’s otherwise comprehensive, not to say exhaustive, work. Until recently, the immanent frame of modernity has been sustained by an ethos of liberal education that admits the existence of nothing outside that frame. It was an ethos designed to produce liberal minds, rational citizens who would be able function well within modernity’s “social imaginary” and “cosmic imaginary,” to use some more terms invented by Taylor.

Given space limitations I will have to leave to another occasion a more detailed critique of this ethos of education. Instead, I will propose an alternative grounding for a renovated Western paideia. This consists of another, different construal of secularity that derives from the premodern Christian tradition. My claim will be that this construal of secularity, which I will call “classical secularity,” can do a better job of protecting what is valuable in modern pluralism while avoiding the toxic competition between militant secularists and people of faith that is currently intensifying and generating hyper-partisan political struggle.[2]

Classical secularity would provide an immanent frame for our common public world that would nevertheless be open at the top, as it were, to the transcendental. It would not seek to crush our religious nature or restrict our full humanity. It would root us once again in the civilization we have inherited from the past instead of ignoring, defaming and even seeking to suppress that civilization. And—a final claim!—this construal of secularity, classical secularity, is no mere dream of theory, but one that has existed for long periods in the past, and still persists in some microclimates in our modern era.

The idea of classical secularity in principle is not repugnant to Christian belief. It was Christianity, after all, that invented the idea of the secular. For early Christians the saeculum was the present age, a finite, flowing time that would someday be rolled up into the stillness of eternity, in saeculum saeculorum. Unlike the modern world, where the secular is usually understood as the opposite of the religious, for early Christians the secular was the opposite of the eternal. The secular was “the world,” the unredeemed elements of the present time, destined to pass away. To use an Augustinian formulation, the Christian might make use of such finite resources in his pilgrimage through life (uti) but he should not become attached to them, make them his goal (frui), since his ultimate destiny was to enjoy infinite rest and the perfection of human desire in God. Among these finite elements of the present age was the heritage of Graeco-Roman literary culture, a culture designed in part to sustain the social and political order of the pagan world.

Over the centuries Christians in practice have adopted a wide variety of stances to non-Christian elements in the secular world. Already in antiquity Christian attitudes to pagan civic culture had undergone a number of transformations. Christ himself and the Apostle Paul had prescribed total rejection of pagan culture within the church—separatism—while insisting on the legitimacy of non-Christian political authorities and the Christian’s duty to obey them. In the pre-Constantinian period, Christians often regarded pagan high culture with deep suspicion, bordering sometimes on paranoia. The African Church Father Tertullian (c. 155–240 ad), for example, famously wrote that “the patriarchs of philosophy are the patriarchs of heresy.”

Other early Christian writers such as Origen and Lactantius made wide use of the pagan literary and philosophical heritage while claiming that Christian belief had superseded it. When Christianity achieved what Christians saw as a “stunning, supernatural victory” over the pagan gods in the fourth century, becoming the official and exclusive religion of the Roman Empire, the attitude to pagan culture changed again. At first it was triumphalist, determined to make Rome fully Christian and thus bring into being the perfect Third Age. This entailed stamping out the remaining pockets of Graeco-Roman paideia, which the more fanatical saw as indissolubly linked with pagan religion and the worship of demons.

Late antique Christian thinkers like Augustine, Cassiodorus and Pope Gregory the Great recognized a space for the licit use of Graeco-Roman literary and philosophical disciplines, so long as their study was strictly subordinated to the ends of salvation. The narrowed and repurposed paideia produced by this compromise was known in Western Christendom as the liberal arts. They were organized into a cycle of seven disciplines by Martianus Capella, a contemporary of Augustine, and were defined as “secular,” belonging to the present age. They were valuable but temporary aids to Christians in their pilgrimage to eternity. In the De doctrina Christiana Augustine specifies that pagan studies are not to be studied with the goal of moral transformation—that was the role of grace—but as humble aids to life in this world.

It seems to me that studious and intellectual youths who fear God and seek the blessed life might be helpfully admonished that they should not pursue those studies which are taught outside the Church of Christ as though they might lead to the blessed life. . . . They should keep their distance from any human study that is superfluous and extravagant, but they should not neglect those forms of human instruction helpful to social intercourse in the most necessary pursuits of this life. Among other teachings found among the pagans, aside from accounts of things past and present, teachings which concern the corporeal senses, including the experience and theory of the useful mechanical arts, and the science of disputation and of numbers, I consider nothing to be useful (II, 39).

It is not surprising that in late antiquity, with the ancient world sinking all around him under waves of barbarism, that Augustine—who was, after all, a monk—should want to jettison all non-essential elements of pagan culture. In the High Middle Ages, however, the great spiritual movement of scholasticism opened Europe up afresh to non-Christian sources of knowledge. The scholastics revealed a vast ambition to create bodies of legal reasoning and systems of thought that would serve the ends of lay and ecclesiastical government, bringing order to a chaotic world. Scholastic culture drew on pagan, Jewish, Muslim and Christian authorities, especially Aristotle and the corpus of Roman law codified under the Christian emperor Justinian. The seven liberal arts as canonized in late antiquity were eventually palimpsested beneath the new scholastic disciplines and lost their coherence and distinctive raison d’être.

The Christian humanists of the Italian Renaissance, led by the scholar poet Petrarch—a deeply religious man—brought into being a new Christian paideia in the fourteenth century, different from the ones dominant in the scholastic era. With their new paideia came a new form of secularity, the model for what I am calling classical secularity. The humanist movement aimed at nothing less than a comprehensive revival of the lost Graeco-Roman literary and philosophical culture as it had existed in the ancient Mediterranean. They believed that the only solution to disintegration of Christendom they saw going on around them was to bring back the world in which the early Church had flourished. Modern Christendom needed the intellectual, moral and spiritual resources of antiquity to restore the civil order and revive true Christianity. The one aspect of the ancient world exempt from this new dispensation was pagan religion: the vast majority of humanists were clear that pagan religion was not an aspect of antiquity that could or should be revived.[3]

In formulating the new, classical secularity, Petrarch and other early humanists took advantage of the theoretical divide that had opened up in medieval law, and consequently in the medieval university, between the realms of the sacred and the secular. The distinction between the natural and supernatural ends of man was no invention of St. Thomas Aquinas, but was inscribed in the way studies had evolved in medieval universities after the twelfth century, with separate faculties for philosophy and theology as well as for civil and canon law. It was implicit too in the dualistic political philosophy of the Middle Ages, which distinguished between spiritual and secular realms of life and allocated the administration of each to separate authorities. The distinction between spiritual and secular realms had been clearly demarcated in legal texts since the twelfth century. Petrarch’s law professor at Bologna, the famous decretalist Giovanni d’Andrea, for example, clarified the distinction in his commentary on the Liber Sextus in this way:

Now the subject matter of the science of canon law is man as oriented not only to the common good, but to God . . . [Civil laws are corrected by canon law only when the soul is endangered]: in a matter which does not concern danger to the soul, the laws are to be preserved in their proper court, and canon law in its court. For the Pope cannot abrogate laws related to secular justice except in matters concerning danger to the soul, since the powers are distinct, that is to say, the ecclesiastical power is distinct from the secular.

Giovanni d’Andrea here is simply repeating what had long been the understanding of the respective roles of ecclesiastical and lay authorities. Civil law in this life, the secular life, has the common good as its end, while the canon law of the Church is concerned with the salvation of souls. The two ends cannot be kept entirely separate, but they operate in different realms of life and use different systems of promulgation, judgment and sanction. In this way the distinction between the temporal goods of the body politic and the eternal goods of the City of God—the eschatological society of the elect—became fundamental for late medieval and Renaissance society. For Petrarch and Christian humanism it was thus natural to distinguish between what belonged to our time and was oriented to the temporary ends of this life, and what belonged to the realm of eternity, where immortal human souls were destined either for hell and punishment or for heaven and the enjoyment of God.

Understood in this sense, there was no need for conflict, at least on the face of it, between humane studies and Christianity. The studia humanitatis had to do with the edification of human beings in this life and the reform of human states and societies. Their goal was to sustain a form of civil prudence that did not rely on living religious authority, but on the ancient traditions. The next life could be left in the care of priests, and ultimate questions could be bracketed for treatment by theologians. As Rémi Brague has written, Christianity did not abolish pre-Christian culture but gave it a new, transcendent orientation. Classical culture was meant to be transformative, but not perfectionist. Politically, its goal was to improve the behavior of human beings in government and civil society, leaving the perfection of the soul to the grace of God and his Church. Grace does not abolish but perfects nature.

The great Christian humanists of the Renaissance from Petrarch to St. Thomas More and Erasmus believed that Christianity and classical culture were mutually reinforcing. A key text for Christian humanism was St. Basil of Caesarea’s letter-treatise addressed To Young Men, translated into Latin by Leonardo Bruni in 1403. This soon become by far the most popular patristic text of the Renaissance. It made the argument that humanistic studies would not only help students in the secular duties of life, but prepare their souls for Christian teachings. In the letter St. Basil urges young men just finishing their first training in grammar to go on and devote themselves to classical literature. Not that everything in those authors could be approved: students should take only what was useful to them as Christian members of society.

They should avoid acquiring a pagan spirit; they should not “surrender the rudder of [their] minds” to the pagan authors. They should be discriminating, like bees who take only what they need from the best flowers. The present life is nearly worthless compared to the life to come, but at their age they were unable to appreciate the full wisdom of Christ, rooted in eternity. Just as those who intended to be soldiers must start with physical exercises which may seem to have nothing to do with fighting, so were the young to be exercised in “the poets and historians and orators” and other writers who could improve their minds. Like fullers preparing cloth to receive its eventual color, the classical authors prepared us with tou kalou doxa, a correct opinion of the Good, before the heavenly Dyer fixes in us the true colors of faith. Moses acquired the learning of the Egyptians before becoming leader of the Israelites, as Daniel in Babylon learned the lore of the Chaldaeans.

In particular, says Basil, young men should take the lessons pertaining to virtue from pagan poets, orators and philosophers, whose eloquence will imprint those lessons deeply upon their tender minds. “All the poetry of Homer is praise of virtue.” By closing the gap between being and seeming, virtue prevents the souls of young men from being torn into factions; it makes them harmonious and strong. Philosophy releases us from the prison of the body’s passions. To be worthy of the prize of eternal life we must do our allotted tasks in this life well, and study of pagan classical authors will help the young Christian keep his soul in tune while performing his earthly duties and awaiting the fuller light that will come as he approaches his heavenly reward.[4]

The division of responsibilities between the studia humanitatis and the studia divinitatis applied to politics as well. Francesco Patrizi of Siena (1413–1494), bishop of Gaeta, the greatest humanist authority on politics, made a strong distinction between “divine magistrates,” meaning the bishops and clergy, and “human magistrates.” Divine magistrates had charge of “sacred cult, ceremonies, mysteries and sacrifices”; their role was to lead the people to true religion and eradicate empty superstition. Human laws and institutions would be of no effect without the support of divine teachings, authorized by Best and Greatest God. The virtue of piety was necessary to preserve the orientation of human society to eternal law. Human magistrates, on the other hand, had their own, separate sphere of action. “Human magistrates are those who bear the public persona, are in charge of the state, and pass legal judgements.” Their expertise was different. In addition to training in the humanistic disciplines they should have an excellent understanding of the city’s laws, customs and ancestral ways, and know how to observe justice and equity in all things. Human magistracies should be modelled on ancient exemplars, particularly those of the Romans.[5]

To come finally to my main point, I want to claim that the way secular education was conceived by Christian humanists before the Reformation could support a type of secularity, classical secularity, that does not abolish the transcendent and is not easily turned into a weapon against people of faith. As my teacher, the great Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller, spent many years demonstrating, modern humanisms, humanisms that try to replace religion, have nothing in common and no substantive genetic connections with the Christian humanism of the Renaissance.[6]

Renaissance humanism was an educational program—a cycle of disciplines that included the study of classical languages, eloquence, history, poetry and moral philosophy— aimed at producing educated rulers and citizens inspired by the love of virtue and wisdom. It encouraged the classical Roman virtue of pietas, respect for sacred things (including family and country), without endorsing particular dogmas or churches. This form of education survived into modern times and is still practiced in many quarters today, for example, in many Christian and classical schools in North America.

The humanities as the Renaissance conceived them were supportive of the spiritual authority of the Church—as the Jesuits immediately saw—and were not a substitute for it nor hostile to it.[7] They offered a culture that was universal but not “comprehensive” in the Rawlsian sense.[8] It was a culture that laid a foundation for common meanings and values in civil life but left the higher ends of human life, and the next life, to religion. It occupied itself with the bonum commune, not the summum bonum. In Rawlsian terms it offered a moderate perfectionism, aiming to improve but not perfect human nature.

The Renaissance educational program thus concerned itself primarily with the natural end of humanity, its temporal (or secular) ends, leaving its supernatural end to religious authorities. Of course any program of education that tries to transform human nature morally must assume that human nature is improvable, and a classical education that uses non-Christian texts as its primary tool of basic moral education, in the way suggested by St. Basil, must assume that human nature can be improved by human means, prepared for grace as the fuller prepares cloth for the dyer.

It would be easy for unsympathetic critics to brand classical secularity as implicitly Pelagian, but in my view this would be a mistake. No Renaissance humanist seriously proposed—despite Erasmus’s ironic invocations of “St. Socrates”—that pagan philosophical wisdom in virtute naturali can be a substitute for grace in the process of man’s salvation. Even the great Renaissance Platonist, Marsilio Ficino, who tended to conflate Platonic and Christian wisdom, understood that the God of Christianity is the source of all wisdom, grace and salvation.[9] We do not raise ourselves to the contemplation of God without God’s help.

To illustrate the Christian humanist position on civic education we can turn again to Francesco Patrizi of Siena, at once the most characteristic and most influential of humanist political thinkers. Patrizi makes it clear that the civic education he recommends both to princes and to city-state elites does not contribute directly to salvation in the next life. His concern is with what humanity can do to improve itself in this life. Patrizi is careful to specify that he is only discussing human felicity, the finis humanarum rerum, the end of human affairs in this life, or what Aristotle in the Ethics called the human good (τὸ ἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθόν).[10] The human good is not wealth or status, nor is it eternal felicity beyond the grave—the sphere of religion—but virtuous activity in accordance with reason, here and now.

Through study of the humanities—classical languages, eloquence, history, poetry, moral philosophy—we can train leaders who will act with virtue and care for the common good. We depend on God for salvation in the next life but on our own capacities in this one. To be sure, our capacity for virtue comes from God operating in nature, is helped invisibly by God, and is potentially godlike, returning us to God, but it depends on our free will. The Christian reader will recognize here traces of the Catholic theology of grace, a naturalized version of the concepts of prevenient, habitual, and sanctifying grace. But Patrizi recognized that without the cooperation of human free will, there can be no possibility of virtue politics, of political reform enabled by the power of human virtue. That claim is in no way incompatible, as far as I can see, with orthodox Catholic soteriology as it defined by the Council of Trent and other authentic statements of the Roman Catholic magisterium.[11]


My proposal, then, is that some form of classical secularity—modelled on the Renaissance conception of humanistic education and culture—deserves to be revived and practiced today. It suits the pluralist culture we live with in the modern world. That world is not going to stop being pluralistic any time soon, absent the species of ideological tyranny exercised by the Communist Party in China and threatened by neo-Maoist progressives in the Western world. Classical secularity is broadly compatible with modern pluralistic societies that may include many religions and sects as well as persons living a nonreligious or secular life. But its focus on supporting the common good makes its effects on the human will centripetal, not centrifugal, unlike our current, liberal form of secularity.

It enables common meanings and purposes. A common humanistic culture offers resources for moral reflection at a high level, but not dogmas or sacred texts. Humanistic texts are not holy writ but authorities in the sense of respected voices in our tradition whose words deserve careful consideration. Traditional history, biography and imaginative literature provide numerous examples of fine conduct that can be imitated in the present. Traditional works of literature and philosophy provide a common orientation for social and political life that is rooted in the traditions we inherit from the Greeks and Romans as well as from medieval and modern Western civilization.

They have inspired the finest works of architecture, painting, and sculpture in the Western tradition. Opera and classical music have drawn upon them for centuries. They exist at some remove from contemporary politics, which allows us to meditate on their teachings in a calmer spirit of detachment and discuss them without setting aboil partisan passions. In that way they would also provide some sort of prophylactic against the hyper-partisanship of our time. They also provide us with a common culture and history that increases love of our common Western civilization and binds together all who share it across national divides.

Classical secularity is compatible too, I believe, with the spirit of Pastor Bonus, John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution of 1988, which (among other things) founded the Congregation for Catholic Education. The constitution calls for a form of education that would enable “the Christian faithful to fulfill their duties and also bring civil society to recognize and protect their rights.” For people of faith to live harmoniously with others in modern pluralistic societies requires that those societies formulate their paideia in a way that is supportive of piety—love and respect for family, country and religion—while remaining neutral to religious or political teachings that do not threaten the common good. A classical paideia would thus be neutral with respect to “comprehensive doctrines”; it would not proselytize citizens for any one religion or for a secular faith. But it would not be value-neutral: it would train students in the traditional virtues via the study of languages, history, literature and moral philosophy. For Catholics, of course, students trained in such a paideia would need to be perfected in faith by religious instruction, practice of the liturgy, and participation in the life of the Church.

A revival of the kind of classical secularity that existed in the Renaissance, however, would require more than just the reform of education. That will be difficult enough given the moral and political corruption of current pedagogy, especially in public education. But the more difficult part of reestablishing some form of classical secularity, under current understandings of free speech, would be finding appropriate ways to discourage public speech that challenges or competes with sound civic morality and the public exercise of religion. Individuals and groups who undermine the family and promote militant atheism, who advocate the exploitation of our economic and military power to oppress foreigners, those who glorify forms of wealth creation that ignore or exploit the weak—all these would have to come under some kind of sanction.

The penalties need not be legal ones. Since classical culture is principally an elite culture, informal means could be found to make entry into the elite, or acceptance by the elite, conditional on not expressing beliefs contrary to the common good as defined in our tradition. This would be to imitate the informal means of exclusion currently used by progressives against conservatives and religious believers, and for that reason may seem unattractive or even hypocritical. But if social sanctions were mobilized in the interests of the common good and not in a spirit of snobbery and arrogant contempt for inferiors, they might acquire a better moral odor.

In any case, political leaders and public institutions, including schools, should follow the wise practice of the American Founders in publicly supporting religion and publicly condemning those who try to weaken or destroy it. We will need somehow to reestablish the presumption that the practice of religion (setting aside corruptions of religion like radical Islam or revolutionary Marxism) deserves corroboration from the state. Reestablishing the various civic religions of the West, forms of public prayer and ceremony that reflect the teachings of the dominant religions while remaining nonsectarian, could help reinforce the sort of piety that is foundational for a good society. There is, after all, an excellent reason why the Founding Fathers, even those little touched by Christian orthodoxy, upheld the civil practice of religion.

They lived in a nation that was already deeply divided along sectarian lines. But they understood that, for most citizens of a republic, character education such as that outlined in Aristotle’s Ethics and practiced among elites from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century would not much alter the behavior of the people at large, except perhaps via example. Only religious belief would be able reach the hearts of whole populace and develop the positive character traits necessary for self-government and a free society. Civic education and morally sound humanistic education in schools might help, but it would not, for the vast majority of people, have the full transformative effect necessary to shape the selfish human animal into a good citizen.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a version of the paper delivered at the colloquium The Civil Dimensions of Ecclesiology: A Political Inquiry on 27 May 2019 in Paris, France. The event was organized by the Faculté de droit de l’Université Paris Descartes and the University of Notre Dame de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, with the support of the Centre d’études du Saulchoir. It took place under the direction of Gladden J. Pappin, Giulio De Ligio, and Thierry Rambaud. Church Life Journal will feature all the essays from this colloquium in the coming weeks. 

[1] Vatican II, Dignitatis humanae, art. 3; see also John XXIII, encycl. Pacem in Terris, April 11, 1963: AAS 55 (1963): 270; Paul VI, radio message, December 22, 1964: AAS 57 (1965): 181–82.

[2] James Hankins, “Hyperpartisanship,” Claremont Review of Books 20, no. 1 (Winter 2020): 8–17.

[3] James Hankins J., Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2019).

[4] The text with an English translation by Roy J. Deferrari may be found in the Loeb series, vol. 270, pp. 378–436.

[5] F. Patrizi, De institutione reipublicae (Paris, 1531) III, cap. 4, f. XXXIXr-v.

[6] Paul O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990).

[7] John O’Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 253–64.

[8] See P. Voice, “Comprehensive Doctrine,” in The Cambridge Rawls Lexicon, ed. J. Mandle and G. A. Reidy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 126–29. Rawls contrasts comprehensive doctrines with a “political point of view,” which may draw on reasonable comprehensive doctrines but is “freestanding,” independent of them and capable of negotiating between them.

[9] James Hankins, “Marsilio Ficino and Christian Humanism,” in Re-envisioning Christian Humanism: Education and the Restoration of Humanity, ed. J. Zimmermann (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017).

[10] F. Patriz, De regno et regis institutione (Paris, Aegidius Gorbinus, 1567), I, cap. 9.

[11] James Hankins, Virtue Politics, op. cit., 416. Compare Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1955), 233–36.

Featured Image: Giorgio Vasari, Six Tuscan Poets, 1544; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


James Hankins

James Hankins is Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy.

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