The Laws and the Cosmos: A Brief Response to Stephen Wolfe on Cicero
November 24, 2022

I Natural Law

This is a brief (well, briefer than it could be) first attempt at responding to a very small section of Stephen Wolfe’s recent book The Case for Christian Nationalism. It’s partial, deeply incomplete, and does not at all address the book as a whole; it is addressed in part to those who have already read it, or have read parts, or have read about it. But I thought it might be of interest and of use. 

Any political-philosophical treatise is an attempt to describe reality: the reality of how we do and ought to relate to each other socially and politically; what we are doing when we “do” politics and how to do that well. In other words, it’s not a pure invention that we are willing into being, but a kind of attentive response to reality. This includes the reality of justice and of peace, of fair-dealing and of various aspects of ethics, of ourselves and how we live well in communities of various kinds, from the family to the city to larger polities and to confederations of many polities. 

This is because it is based on natural law, and natural law is God’s reason implanted in our natures: what God had in mind when He made us. This, at least, is the task of the natural law tradition which Wolfe, and I, work in. As Cicero puts it, 

This, then, as it appears to me, has been the decision of the wisest philosophers—that law was neither a thing to be contrived by the genius of man, nor established by any decree of the people, but a certain eternal principle, which governs the entire universe, wisely commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong. Therefore, they called that aboriginal and supreme law the mind of God, enjoining or forbidding each separate thing in accordance with reason. On which account it is that this law, which the gods have bestowed upon the human race, is so justly applauded. For it is the reason and mind of a wise Being equally able to urge us to good or to deter us from evil.

In pursuit of this goal, Wolfe cites Aquinas, Althusius, Bavinck; Aristotle, Augustine, Vermigli. He has read widely, and he presents himself as a reliable distiller of the whole counsel of the great tradition for the contemporary reader.

There is much in the book to admire, much that is true. In particular, Wolfe is at pains to help his readers understand that their own human natures, as God made them, are good, are not so thoroughly marred by sin that everything that we love should be suspect. We ourselves will be redeemed; what joyful and complete living as ourselves looks like under grace and in the New Jerusalem is not alien to what we feel it to be now. There are many Christians who must hear this truth and let it sink in deeply.

But the book as a whole is … let us say deeply unreliable. This is because Wolfe is not a reliable reader, and his method is extraordinarily selective. 

II The Universal Particular

This is a book aiming to do a particular job: to present a particular picture of what the tradition has to say about the possibility of multiethnic polities, of people of different ethnicities living together in common life, of people of different ethnicities being members together in those Burkean little platoons that are, we know, with the family the building blocks of a society. 

He does not think that this is possible. “People of different ethnic groups,” he says, “can exercise respect for difference, conduct some routine business with each other, join in inter-ethnic alliances for mutual good, and exercise common humanity (eg the Good Samaritan,) but they cannot have a life together that goes beyond mutual alliance.” They cannot, in particular, aim towards “the highest good.”

He draws heavily on the 17th Century German jurist Althusius, and so what he is saying here can be expressed in quite precise terms. He claims that people of different ethnicities cannot exchange what Althusius calles “ius symbioticum,” symbiotic right: the justice that people owe each other (and are delighted to give each other) when they are drawn together into what Althusius called “collegia” – essentially, Burkean little platoons: those basic units of political order which are built up into polities.

Because he believes this, he believes that, as a consequence, what we must do is attempt to structure society on the basis of “separateness,” with each ethnicity, ideally, living in its own polity. 

What are these ethnicities? He does not say. Instead, he does a kind of Potter Stewart move: you know your nation, your ethnos, when you see it. He invites his readers to consider those people who are most similar to them, with whom they feel most comfortable, with whom they share a common place and a common background, however that is understood – certainly it is in part genetic, though that’s not the whole story. He thinks that there is a group of people who are of the American ethnicity, who will recognize each other by instinct, and who will recognize as “other” those who may be citizens but who do not share that ethnicity.

He believes that to aim at real justice or civil friendship in a little platoon or in a state that is interethnic, is foolhardy. He thinks it is a symptom of “universalism,” a Western-specific concept that has become toxic to the West. 

His solution (p. 168ff) is to encourage his readers to engage in a project of ethnic consciousness-raising in order to enable people of his own ethnicity to act consciously for their own ethnic interests as he believes that people of non-Western ethnicities already (exclusively?) do. This will, he says, take “critiquing” your own instincts towards assigning altruism as a motive to non-Western people’s actions: only Western people, he seems to think, act with altruistic motives. By this he means acting for the common good of the family of man, or of a multiethnic polity, as opposed to the good of my ethnos within the world or in a polity. 

Only Western ethnicities, he believes, have a universalist habit of mind as part of their repertoire of habits of mind. He thinks they should kick this habit. 

He realizes that this will be difficult, that some will lack the “instinct” to ethnic exclusion or the denial of altruistic motives to non-Western peoples, that some of this may batter against the conscience. His prescription is one that will work, because virtue ethics works: he calls on his readers to “critique and deliberately decline to act on certain mental habits designed to extinguish this discomfort, such as accusations (whether against oneself or others) like “racist” or “fascist” or “xenophobe;” appeals to universality; and ascribing altruism.” 

He unpacks this last by explaining that while Western people may desire to ascribe to non-Western people motives like the love of justice, desire for freedom, and other universalist common values, “concluding that their first love is humanity, not their ethnicity. But this is obviously false and foolish:” non-Western peoples do not act according to these motives, but instead act to advance the interests of their ethnicity or race.

He urges people to reject all such ideas and urges, all ascription to non-Western people of values like love of justice or common benevolence towards other human beings not of their race. Again, he knows this may be hard. He assures his readers though that “We must train the mind to resist the psychological inclination to affirm error. This is not the tug of conscience but a product of psycho-social conditioning.” (171).

Of course, when one rejects the idea of universal trans-ethnic values, and asserts the impossibility of the exchange of political justice, right and civil friendship between people of different ethnicites – once one has rejected universalism – one has parted ways with the natural law tradition, the one in which he roots his project, quite dramatically.

He is in a pickle. By his own account, the Western tradition of political philosophy teaches ethnic particularism with breathtaking consistency. How then have Westerners, in particular, come to have universalism planted so deeply in them that it can only be rooted out by what he describes as a kind of ruthless self-conditioning? How can he have gotten here, and how are we to understand the tradition, and his use of the sources of the tradition, in light of this utterly un-traditional conclusion? What is it that he was doing when he was reading?

As most of my readers will know from their own reading in the Western canon, both of political philosophy and of other forms of writing, it simply is not the case that the canon is univocally on the side of particularism against universalism. Instead, both are shot right through the whole of the tradition, inextricably bound up with each other in a kind of spiral, for the last three thousand years and more. 

The Mediterranean does seem to have had a particular vocation to be the particular place where a lot of this strange blend of universalist and particularist understanding and aspiration had its launch. But it is not unique to the Mediterranean; doubtless when those first philosophers and missionaries encountered Odin-worshipers they had some kind of blend. All cultures that I know of contain both particularist and universalist strains, as both are part of human nature. (Though the West has, as you might say, gone in for it very heavily, and not always in recent years with great prudence. For example, all men seek just governments and ought to have them; because many Western nations have decided that only liberal democracies are just governments, America has sought with a very heavy hand to remake other nations in its own image.)

This absolute commitment to a complicated interplay of the particularist and the universalist is not only the effect of Christianity, though certainly Christianity’s universalism-in-particularism is both a heightened example and the main engine of it. The constant movement between Jesus as this man in this place, and Jesus as the universal king; the Jews as this people on this soil, their diasporic explosion, and the massive expansion of Jewish kinship to all of the adopted Gentiles is an astonishingly vivid example of it. In its ethics, there is the same perpetual tension: you owe particular loyalty to your family, and woe to you if you don’t provide; the foreigner who is a Christian is your brother, and woe to you if you will not eat with him; we must “do good to all men, and particularly those of the household of faith.”

But the thing is – this is all already present in the Classical tradition too. That is why the dance of the Christian and the Classical has been such a fruitful and strange one. Universalism is not a thing of “grace” while particularism is a thing of “nature.” That’s not how any of this works.

III The Love of Wisdom 

How can Wolfe have made this error? Part of his trouble comes from not understanding the genre that most political-theological texts are in. To think of the tradition of political philosophy as a set of universally-in-the-tradition understood and agreed upon instructions or laws – understood until the corruption of modernity threw all into confusion – is to make a category mistake. 

What the tradition is, is a body of wisdom literature: culled from across time and place, from men, and the occasional woman, working in many different kinds of polities, with many different desires for how those polities should be shaped: from cheek-by-jowl Greek and German city-states to expansive regions containing a dozen or a hundred manses and villas with their home farms, producing most of what they need within the estate; from placid monoethnic statelets to kingdoms made up of two or three just-stopped-warring peoples; from polyglot imperial cities to the empires themselves.

It explicitly describes itself this way: the art of politics, the art of the statesman, is a matter of phronesis, practical wisdom: understanding one’s times, one’s people, one’s state, to be able to apply the right truth at the right time. 

The most obvious Christian example of a piece of wisdom literature is, of course, the book of Proverbs. It, like the classical tradition itself, presents the reader with a quest, and it is, strangely, the same quest: a romantic search, driven by an almost erotic love, for what it calls Wisdom, personified as a hospitable, good, and wise woman – the wife most to be desired. The young prince – the future statesman – must become an espoused lover of Wisdom; in Greek, a φιλόσοφος: a philosophos, a philosopher. Proverbs is of the specific genre of philosophy called a speculum principis, a Mirror for Princes. We receive it and are called to the task because we are, as sons and daughters of Israel in Christ, all princes, and this quest has become ours. 

When one first reads Proverbs, one runs into something very odd very quickly. It’s most obvious in the paired verses of Prov. 26:4 and 26:5:  “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him,” and “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” But this runs all the way through the book. If you’re coming from a recent bracing read, for example, of the giving of the Ten Commandments, you are puzzled. Is this God’s word? What is going on?

Wisdom literature is not irrational: indeed, it is a treasury of reason. But it is not a set of rules – and with those contradictory proverbs it announces itself as not being such. Rather it is characteristic of wisdom literature to distill experience into observation and advice which both gives wisdom – and which requires wisdom to apply. Wisdom is not the mastering of a body of univocal doctrine, but a kind of attentiveness to reality, a breadth of mind and understanding, which can perceive which ideas from the tradition to apply in which circumstances, and can give advice as to means given a certain goal.

The overarching goal of political philosophy is for men and women, us political animals, to live together in peace and justice, in a way that enables us to seek the political common good together. This common good can exist at the level of each polity – a city, a village, a nation, an empire. There is much agreement, and much disagreement, and much qualification, and much complexity, among the texts that we think of as the canon of classical political philosophy, throughout the Western tradition. That’s why it is referred to as the Great Conversation, rather than the Great Monologue. 

One could with a fair amount of ease assemble a 500 page book collecting texts from the Classical and Christian and Reformed traditions aiming to demonstrate the requirement of devoting oneself to the non-kin other, the necessity of devoting oneself to the establishment of a world polity, and I am quite sure that there was at least one liberal Presbyterian political sort who has done so, probably in the 1920s. I can sense such a book in the ether. The author was almost certainly friends with Allen and John Foster Dulles’ father, or Woodrow Wilson, or both. 

But such a book, with its triple-distilled universalist globalism, would be equally misleading and equally damaging. That kind of quote mining is simply not how one reads these texts. I understand Wolfe’s desire to hold on to the particular-loves part of the tradition, because it is good, and it is the good that he experiences most keenly. But to guard all of our humanity, we must receive all of the tradition, look to all of our experience, seek balanced and complete wisdom and not partial argument. Seek all of wisdom, and each part will be added to you. Seek only part, and even that which you grasp after will be taken away. 

With absolute predictability, I am going to quote Chesterton; you must have known this was coming. In discussing the great intellectual (and sometimes physical – we are after all approaching St. Nicholas Day) battles against heresies, he explained the passion with which they were fought:

Once let one idea become less powerful, and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer… This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. 

The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles… It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own… To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom–that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

What is true of doctrine is true of political philosophy. And the great philosophers knew it; they tended towards balance, generally; where they did not, they balanced each other. This balance indeed is one of the major principles of Classical philosophy and ethics: sophrosyne. 

Salt is, as we know, made up of two elements, sodium and chloride. Either, in isolation, is poison. Together, they preserve and season and are absolutely necessary to keep you and me alive.

IV In Arpinum and in Rome

I am going to describe one particular example of this trouble in reading and representing the fullness of what these authors have to say. 

One of the things that is most lacking in Wolfe’s book, which includes a phenomenology of ethnicity, is a phenomenology of friendship. He does not describe or acknowledge the experience of becoming and being friends, or its political importance. The specificity of the friend, the other, with whom one exchanges reasoned conversation and personal affection, is lost in the generality of the volksgeist. 

Interestingly, in an early section, he comes right up to the edge of understanding this. He even quotes some of the lines that describe it. But he does not understand what he is quoting. In this, as in many other places in the text, he is not a reliable interpreter of the tradition primarily because he is not a careful reader: he selects quotes, but does not see them in the context of the totality of a philosopher’s understanding. 

It’s a passage from The Laws, which Wolfe quotes on page 130 of his book. As Wolfe describes this, 

Cicero asks his friend Marcus whether he would prefer to continue their discussion on an island formed by the river. He says that the place is a “delicious retreat… delightfully ornamented by all the decorations of art.” Marcus agrees, saying that he often goes there “on account of the beauty of the scenery.” So far the two have spoken only of what both can recognize about the place… But Marcus adds something exclusive to his relation to the place: “There is one reason, however, that I am so fond of this Arpinum, which does not apply to you…” Marcus explains:

“Because, to confess the truth, it is my fatherland. Here is the most ancient origin of our stock; here are our family rituals and our family; here there are many traces of our ancestors. In brief: you see this house? It was made larger and fancier by our father, who spent most of his life here in study, because of his poor health; but it was on this very spot, while my grandfather was still alive and it was a small house of the old style… I was born. And so something abides deep in my mind and feelings which makes me take all the more pleasure in this place…”

Cicero calls this “an excellent reason… for loving this place” and adds that he is now “more fond of that house and this whole land in which you were born and raised.” 

This appears in Wolfe’s section on the phenomenology of place: much of it is written sensitively and well; he takes, eventually, from this the lesson that our attachment to our places is a necessary factor in acting politically for them: that only someone with that complacent love, that rooted love, for a place can or ought to be considered of its people, politically.  

But Wolfe misunderstands what is going on in this passage. He misunderstands on several levels. First, Cicero is, in this dialogue, indicated as Marcus; his name was Marcus Tullius Cicero. His friend, the one who is visiting the island for the first time, is called Atticus. 

It is Cicero himself, not Atticus, who was born at Arpinum. “Here was our altar,” he says, “here our ancestry, and here still remains many vestiges of our family… There is, therefore, an indescribable sympathy which attaches me to the spot; it pervades my soul and sense with a peculiar fascination, whenever I reside here.” 

This is where Wolfe ends the quote. But it isn’t where Cicero ends his thought. 

“Even the wisest Ulysses,” he goes on, “was not wholly exempt from a similar weakness, for Homer tells us that he renounced immortality, that he might once more re–visit his beloved Ithaca.”

It is Atticus who then rebukes him for implicitly calling this love irrational, a weakness: “I would not condemn a sentiment which appears so rational,” he says. “I myself have caught the same infection, and I feel that my love for this house and neighbourhood increases, when I remember that you were born here.”

Atticus, Titus Pomponius Atticus, is himself a Roman, one of the old Roman equestrian-class families, the gens Pomponia. Cicero has, through the fellowship created by their friendship, imparted some of that same dearness to this place he has only just seen, to which he is an alien. “I therefore leave you to imagine,” Atticus says, “how warm is the affection you have imparted to me for your native country.” 

For Cicero, the great pagan philosopher of friendship, it is friendship, not kinship, which is at the root of politics. He dedicated his treatise on friendship, De Amicitia, to Atticus. Kinship has its place: it is important. “The home is the germ of the city,” he writes in On Duties

and, so to speak, the nursery of the state. The union of brothers comes next in order, then that of cousins less or more remote, who, when one house can no longer hold them all, emigrate to other houses as if to colonies. Then follow marriages and affinities by marriage, thus increasing the number of kindred. From this propagation and fresh growth of successive generations states have their beginning. But the union of blood, especially, binds men in mutual kindness and affection; for it is a great thing to have the same statues of ancestors, the same rites of domestic worship, the same sepulchres. 

So far, so Wolfean. But Cicero is not finished:

But of all associations none is more excellent, none more enduring, than when good men, of like character, are united in intimacy. For the moral rectitude of which I have so often spoken, even if we see it in a stranger, yet moves us, and calls out our friendship for him in whom it dwells. Moreover, while every virtue attracts us to itself, and makes us love those in whom it seems to exist, this is emphatically true of justice and generosity. At the same time, nothing is more lovable, and nothing brings men into more intimate relations, than the common possession of these moral excellences; for those who have the same virtuous desires and purposes love one another as they love themselves, and they realize what Pythagoras would have in friendship, the unifying of plurality.

Friendship, active friendship between good men, is what makes politics, and wisdom, possible: the active life, and the contemplative one. It is in the conversation of friends that the highest human community is cultivated. “Similarity,” Wolfe writes, “enables you to exercise the highest love of your fellow man and to receive the highest love in return” (p. 143). He believes that this must mean at a minimum similarity of ethnicity: this is central to his argument about the necessity of mono-ethnic polities. But Cicero says something else: his point is, again, the cosmopolitan one: two people who are not of the same gens or nation may, if they see that common spark of justice and generosity, that quest for the good, become friends. Friendship is indeed – and our Lord in this agrees with Cicero – the motive for our greatest and highest love, by which we may even lay down our lives.

The section Wolfe chose illuminates one truth: the affection and loyalty we have to our “native place,” that spot where we were born, where, if we are blessed with a deeply-rooted family, we can see the imprint of our great-grandparents’ love and care in the grounds and furnishings. This is one truth, and it is a good one. It is some of the wisdom of our ancestors. 

It is not all of it. Wolfe chose the section he did because it served his purpose. He did not keep reading.

Cicero knows – in Book II, in the section that Wolfe quotes, he shows us that he knows – the love of place and kindred. He has an altar and household gods, he is of an old race, planted in that town a hundred kilometers Southeast of Rome for many generations. 

Wolfe doesn’t understand what this means. A hundred kilometers is, what? Sixty miles? Nothing, in America. But Arpinum is Cicero’s homeland, and that means that Rome is not. In Rome, Cicero is one of the homines novi, new men, and he was frequently attacked in the Senate as a “foreigner.” Arpinum had held Roman citizenship since 188 BC, but this was felt by many to be illegitimate: these people from outside the city were not really Roman, not one of the old Roman families like that of Atticus. Whenever such attacks happen, he points out that though he is no Roman by birth, Arpinum has given Rome two men to save the Republic: Marius in 101 BC, and Cicero himself against Catiline in 63 BC.  

Still more – and this is the central point of the whole of Cicero’s Laws – he shares in Rome’s law, and “among those who have a sharing in law, there is a sharing in right. And they must be recognized as being of the same city—if they obey the same commanders and men in power, even much more so.” He is no native Roman, but he rejects the idea that he is a foreigner to that city whose laws he loves. 

And this is the point he is making in the section of Book II that Wolfe quotes. Let’s pick up the dialogue from the place where Wolfe stops.

—I therefore leave you to imagine how warm is the affection you have imparted to me for your native country

—That being the case, I am very glad that I have brought you here, and shown you my cradle.

—And I am still more pleased at having seen it. But what were you going to say just now, when you called this Arpinum the true country of yourself and your brother Quintus? Have you more than one country, or any other than that Roman Commonwealth in which we have a similar interest? In that sense, the true country of the philosophic Cato would not have been Rome, but Tusculum.

—In reply to your question, I should say, that Cato, and municipal citizens like him, have two countries, one, that of their birth, and the other, that of their choice. Cato being born at Tusculum, was elected a citizen of Rome, so that a Tusculan by extraction, and a Roman by election, he had, besides his native country, a rightful one. So among your Athenians, before Theseus urged them to quit their rural territories, and assembled them at Athens, those that were natives of Sunium, were reckoned as Sunians and Athenians at the same time. In the same way, we may justly entitle as our country, both the place from where we originated, and that to which we have been associated. 

It is necessary, however, that we should attach ourselves by a preference of affection to the latter, which, under the name of the Commonwealth, is the common country of us all. For this country it is, that we ought to sacrifice our lives; it is to her that we ought to devote ourselves without reserve; and it is for her that we ought to risk and hazard all our riches and our hopes. 

Yet this universal patriotism does not prohibit us from preserving a very tender affection for the native soil that was the cradle of our infancy and our youth.

Therefore I will never disown Arpinum as my country, at the same time acknowledging that Rome will always secure my preference, and that Arpinum can only deserve the second place in my heart.

—It was not then without reason, that Pompey said, when he pleaded conjointly with you the cause of Ambius, that the Commonwealth owed great gratitude to this village for having given it two of its preservers. For my part, I quite agree with you, that your native place may be called your country, no less correctly than the Commonwealth of Rome. 

Rome is not, in the way of the oldest affections of complacent love, his home. He loves his home: Arpinum with its altar and its household gods, its lares and penates. But he loves his polity too, with a real love that is a love born of reason and friendship, of service and commitment. And part of his love of Rome is a gift from the affection he has for Atticus. Atticus has come to love Arpinum, to in some way belong to it, because he loves Cicero. Cicero loves and belongs to Rome in part through his friendship with Atticus.

Perhaps because he is not from one of the old Roman families, not born in the city, without an organic connection to Rome, he sees more clearly than a born citizen like Atticus that in loving Rome, and in the rational and affectionate love of friendship that he and Atticus share, he is participating in something that goes not just beyond Arpinum but beyond Rome herself. This is the topic of the first book of the Laws, in which he discusses the relationship between natural law, the beauty and order of the Cosmos, and the laws of cities.

“We have been made by nature to participate in right,” he says,

one with another, and to share it among all persons. And I want that to be understood in this entire debate when I say that right is by nature… But if whatever is according to nature were also according to judgment, and if human beings “thought that nothing human is alien to themselves” (as the poet states), right would be cultivated equally by all. Those who have been given reason by nature have also been given right reason, and thus law, which is right reason in ordering and forbidding. If law has been given, so has right. And reason has been given to all persons. Therefore, right has been given to all persons.

“Moreover,” he says, “[humans] obey this celestial system, the divine mind and very powerful god, so that now this whole universe should be thought to be one city in common between gods and human beings.” Indeed, he says that a man who seeks after wisdom in friendship, 

has almost grasped the god himself who directs and rules these things, and he has recognized that he is not surrounded by the walls of some place but is a citizen of the whole universe as if it were one city.

This, coming at the climax of Book I of the Laws, is one of the great statements in Latin literature of the idea of the universal city, the Kosmo-polis, of which Rome herself, precisely because she was home to citizens of many cultures and many native lands, was an emblem. This is the great goal of the Stoic natural law tradition – and in this at least, though not in all things, Cicero was a thoroughgoing Stoic. 

“In this magnificence of things, and with this view and knowledge of nature, O immortal gods, how he will know himself, as Pythian Apollo has instructed!” It is a hymn to cosmopolitanism which echoes through the centuries. He had paraphrased “the poet” – that is Terence, the celebrated playwright, a Libyan Berber who was born a slave and who ended his life married to a Roman equestrian’s daughter; the exact quote is “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” 

My father used to quote this to me, when I was a little girl, in the cosmopolitan city where my family has lived for five generations. This is the place where my complacent love for the coziness of my home neighborhood on the Upper West Side, and my passionate civic love for the un-cozy grandeur of City Hall and the Forty-second street library and the Metropolitan Museum, together pointed me towards first the Natural Law tradition with its vision of the Just City, and then, in my conversion, to the New Jerusalem. “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” 

V Renewal

This is, of course, a sentiment that is not alien to the Reformed tradition. We must realize that God has placed us in the world, wrote Calvin in one of his sermons on Galatians,

to the end that we might be united and joined together. Since he has stamped his image upon us, and since we share a common nature, this ought to inspire us to provide for one another. The one who seeks to be exempt front he care of his neighbor is disfiguring himself and declaring that he no longer wishes to be a man. For whilst we are human beings, we must see our own faces reflected, as by a mirror, in the faces of the poor and despised… even if they are people who are most alien to us. 

If a Moor or a barbarian comes to us, because he is a man, he is a mirror in which we see reflected the fact that he is our brother and our neighbor, for we cannot change the rules of nature that God has established as immutable. Thus, we are obligated without exception to all men, because we are made of the same flesh: as the prophet Isaiah says: “that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh.” It is as if he were saying, those that are stingy and pinching, and shrink away when they should do good, do not only despise God, and reject his word: but also are ugly monsters, because they consider not that there ought to be a community among all men. 

What we Christians are called to do in this generation, on behalf of everyone, is, I believe, to fight for our own humanity – to struggle to be fully human, with all that that entails. It’s a struggle that will lead us to reject transhumanism of all kinds and be very wary of disembodiment of social media, to learn again, and embrace, the love of our own bodies and our own families and our particular places, and to learn as well the arts of friendship, the friendship that can cross bounds of race and nation, as particular people, brought together by Providence, recognise in each other that kinship of mind and questing hunger for the Good: and “those who have the same virtuous desires and purposes love one another as they love themselves, and they realize what Pythagoras would have in friendship, the unifying of plurality.”

This too is part of human life, of our true natures, and of our good. This is a part of your good. This is a part of yourself.

The easy and natural love of kin is deeply good. The complacent love of one’s place, the deep ties that one can have to a plot of land, to a city or a house– these are natural affections which God baked into us. They are meant to be held with open hands, as gifts from God, but they are meant to be held. 

And they are meant, as Calvin says above, not to end with that love, but to be a teacher for what it means that we as Christians are of “the household of faith.” What grace does as it restores our natures is not to compress our sympathy to our natural kin, but to restore that natural affection so that we can love our kin more effectively, and then use that pattern of love to teach us how we ought to bear ourselves towards “all men, and especially those of the household of faith.” 

Grace restores our natures; adopting us into the royal household, it does more. It puts us in the position to exercise a virtue that in Cicero’s time was the province only of some: the virtue of magnanimity. It is this magnanimity which allows us to reject the pusillanimity of the stingy and pinching nature which Calvin deplores, that urge to avoid love across difference, the refusal to recognize another man as a brother, “because they consider not that there ought to be a community among all men.” 

The universalist and cosmopolitan aspect of our natures, as reflected in the mere existence of the natural law tradition, appealing as it does to our common human nature, as reflected in Cicero’s love of and loyalty to Rome and to the Cosmopolis beyond Rome, is not destroyed by grace, either. It is, like all parts of our nature, finally and completely restored.

Susannah Black Roberts is the Senior Editor of Plough Quarterly.

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