The Antichrist in Political Philosophy
ON THE CATASTROPHIC INNER-WORLDLY END
New Oxford Review
By James V. Schall
“The end comes, so to speak, unannounced: the downfall takes place just as the power of the Antichrist has reached its peak. In Solovyev’s legend, the Antichrist has spoken just previously, before the World Council of Christians of all denominations, which has gone over to him, of the dawning, ‘great new epoch of Christian history.’” — Josef Pieper
“Who is the liar? He who denies that Jesus is the Christ. He is the Antichrist, denying the Father and the Son.” — 1 John 2:22
“According to the unanimous information of tradition, the outward ‘success’ of this regime [of the Antichrist] will be immense; its success will be a great apostasy. The fact of this mighty outward success distinguishes the Antichrist from Him to whom his name points per negationem.” — Josef Pieper
Political philosophy is concerned with, as much as the subject matter allows, understanding the temporal lives of mortal men, in both their individual and corporate destiny. It seeks what intelligibility it can derive from the things, the words and deeds, of time. The city of man is the locus in which particular human lives are carried out. The city is an order designed to last longer than the lives of each of its citizens. It makes possible the manifestation and memory of the noble and heinous deeds that take place within its limits. The variety and order of virtue and vice that take place within a city indicate its rule, its character, and its classification.
By examining the rise and fall of empires and cities over time, political philosophy comes up against its limits. Thus, it becomes aware of the concepts of eternity, transcendence, and time beyond time. By understanding that these latter are not its domain, political philosophy acknowledges that it, while remaining important, is not itself a metaphysics or a theology. Political philosophy wonders about the relations existing among the events of time, the end of time within history, and eternity. Politics is not the highest science, Aristotle said, because man is not the highest being. However, at the risk of finding itself unphilosophical, of being closed to considering the whole, political philosophy cannot ignore these relationships. Plato himself, at the very beginning, was concerned with the question of whether the world was created in vain, whether injustice was in fact its final explanation. He saw that he could not solve this question without suggesting that the soul of each man was immortal. The understanding of the city required some understanding or awareness of what is beyond its temporal limits.
Political philosophy must be fully aware that it is individual men who live and die in passing time. Man’s “four score years” mean that every city at every moment is losing and gaining new members through death and birth. Its citizens are always in motion, in time. Men are the “mortals,” those beings who not only die but know they will die. Cosmology now understands that the universe itself had a beginning, a beginning in time, in its flowing, in which each person lives. Strictly speaking, “history,” as distinct from chronological time, can only be something pertaining to rational beings. Stones, plants, and animals, properly understood, do not have a “history.” There is no “story” about them. They exist; they are not nothing; they have being. Their being enables our being to be.
Human persons can be understood in this same non-historical way when we look at everything about them except what they know and do. When we confront these latter phenomena, we find that each person has a unique “story” that applies only to him, and no one else. It is true that all human stories have certain things in common. Individual persons are born of specific parents in a specific time and place. They marry, beget, work, wonder, and die. But the circular theory of history we find in the work of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides does not explain individual lives in such a way that they need not be lived. Good men like the Athenian politician Nicias will die unfairly, but not around Syracuse at the defeat of the Athenians. Each life has its own drama that cannot be deduced from a general principle.
Since each person is unique and has an origin that is not wholly temporal, no two people have the same story in the time allotted to them. But we can also ask whether the human race, as a collection of billions and billions of individual lives, has a “purpose.” Presumably, if each individual’s life were meaningless, so would be the status of the entire race. Otherwise, one life would be a tool for another’s sake. Moreover, the entire human race does not exist as a separate entity, as the famous frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan implies.
The existence of what-it-is-to-be-human, including all members of the species, is in the mind. It is an abstract form, conceivable and valid, but this form does not live and die. What lives and dies are individual men. And it seems that their living and dying are not intelligible unless a judgment is made about them, whether they each fulfilled their purpose that was found at their origin and in the progress of their existence. Every man finds himself in being whether he likes it or not. He does not choose to be rather than not to be. Nor does he choose to be this person rather than that one. He is not just an animal, or even an angel, or a god. But it is good that he exists, even if he fails to achieve his purpose.
Men, once in existence, will never return to precisely “nothing.” What is in their competence is not “being or annihilation” but rather living well or badly. Existence will continue, whichever choice they make. The German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper asked the initial question of whether God, for some lack in Himself, needed to create what was not Himself — and, of course, He could not “create” Himself. He simply existed. God’s not having created anything at all would not imply a defect or an injustice in the Godhead. God’s being is complete whether He creates or not.
Creation is thus to be understood in the category of gift, not necessity. It arises from the abundance of being, not from lack of being. Likewise, God could, without injustice, simply cease to sustain beings in existence. Finite beings are neither the cause of their beginning nor their continuation in being. Death is not a cessation of being but merely the end of one mode of being. Since God created these beings that they might “live,” they will continue in being no matter what the particular “story” that defines each of them as this, not that, manifests about them.
Pieper discussed the Western understanding of the Antichrist in, among other places, his book The End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History (1954). This book has a particular interest for political philosophy. Pieper begins his book with a brief citation from the German poet Konrad Weiss: “The will, which is growing today ever greater, to create a condition that shall hold within it an exemplarily complete essence of humanity and an enduring peace, is burdened by the heavy paradox that it is not humanity which is the goal of the Incarnation.” This is a remarkable passage. The goal of “humanity” is that each person (and not humanity at large) attains everlasting life as a free choice offered to him in this life. This passage is a critique of modern political philosophy insofar as modern political philosophy seeks to subsume to itself the burden of producing the best city for man in this world. Here, of course, is reflected Kant’s modern project of perpetual peace and the universal duties of brotherhood. It is the only real inner-worldly alternative to doctrinal Christianity’s understanding of transcendence. There is something for which much of philosophy has never forgiven God: That Christ Himself had to undertake the burden of teaching us about ourselves, about that for which we were created. As Pope St. John Paul II often said, Christ reveals man to himself.
The best way God could do this “teaching” of men, in the context of human reason and freedom, was to send the Word into the world, a Person who was the Word. This is the meaning of Weiss’s stanza that “humanity” is not the goal of the Incarnation. Humanity, as such, is not “saved.” What-it-is-to-be-human is an idea. Socrates and Mary, et al., exist as persons; such individuals are who are saved or not saved, depending on how each lives and thinks. But “humanity” is a great temptation to the human mind, especially the political-ideological mind. We love “humanity” but not the man next door, as Chesterton put it.
The organization of “all men” in a common form whereby they would define themselves as “human” is a temptation that is difficult to resist. It is seemingly the purpose of that great theme of political philosophy: the best regime. Yet, in our tradition and literature, there is a human person whose purpose is precisely to organize all men in this world into a “human” kingdom. He is called the Antichrist. In Pieper’s view, he becomes more and more visible as men are drawn closer together in time and polity through technology, science, and the way they live their lives.
Those who recall British convert Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s novel Lord of the World (1910) will remember that the final leader who is the Antichrist is a noble-sounding, charismatic, intelligent, and fascinating figure. He promises to give men all the things they want in order to be happy. He achieves the unification of mankind, with the free consent of most religions, including most Christians. His world city is a city of death, of complete interior and exterior control. There is no escape to another country as there is no other country. He has “unified” the world. And it is precisely when this world unification against the Gospel is achieved that, in Benson’s novel, the world ends with but a few Christians left to cling to belief in the Incarnation.
What is striking in Pieper’s discussion of the “end times” is his careful distinction between an inner-worldly catastrophic ending of the existing human race and the transcendent end of each person who has appeared on the planet with a promise of eternal life. Pieper’s approach, as it were, is to show the “reasonableness” of revelation as a logical response to the political organization of the world. Political philosophy knows that it cannot explain the ultimate things, but it also knows that an explanation might be out there somewhere. As Pieper puts it:
The Antichrist will realize upon the earth a prodigious increase of power, and that not only extensively, but also intensively. The World State of the Antichrist will be in the extreme sense a totalitarian State. This is determined, however, not only by the lust for power and the superbia of the Antichrist, but at the same time by the nature of the World State itself.
The pertinence of this passage to political philosophy can be best understood against Aristotle’s warning about a universal empire, such as that of Alexander, when he suggested that such is the complexity of this enterprise that it could only be ruled by a divine mind or power. This is the precise power the Antichrist claims.
Thus, the catastrophic inner-worldly end that is found in the revelational tradition of the coming success of the Antichrist arises quite logically from a development within a political philosophy that rejects the natural and supernatural ends proposed for each human person who has existed on this planet. At one level, this World State acquires environmental and eugenic control over man. Each step from divorce to contraception to abortion to fetal experimentation to same-sex marriage to state control of family size and begetting is now in place.
If we add to this mix the elimination of nations as independent units of culture and their absorption into interculturalism, we see that no idea or religion can exist unless it conforms to the ethos of equality and “rights,” which now mean whatever the Antichrist or World State determines as the good of all. The classical and Christian views of what man is are specifically eliminated as undermining the World State.
Thus, while Pieper argues that the end of mankind will happen in a catastrophic World State, and not in a glorious utopia, he does not conceive this result as contrary to the notion that the world is created to be good. “Despite the fact that the Christian attitude to history includes preparation for a catastrophic end within history,” he writes, “it nevertheless contains as an inalienable element the affirmation of created reality.” Pieper notes that martyrs never, even in their dire sufferings, deny the goodness of the world that is. They understand that, ultimately, their death is not contrary either to the purpose of the world or their place within it.
This view is made possible by understanding the meaning of the Incarnation as opposed to utopia. While man is by nature a political animal, and this is good, he is ultimately created for an end that, worked out within the political world, transcends the political world. This end is the root of any human dignity in this world. It applies both to those who have lived noble lives and to those whose lives have been wretched and wracked by suffering. The Antichrist is pictured in terms of providing an end for man apparently in conformity to his nature, a World State in which everyone has his place and function, assigned by a ruler who stands in the place of the Christ and all He stood for — that is, the Cross as the sign of contradiction and salvation.
We might inquire, “Why the Cross?” The Cross is not an abstract idea. Neither is it a sign of power, either in the Muslim or Western ideological sense. What it is, it seems, is but a graphic affirmation of the principle that founds our civilization — the Socratic principle that it is never right to do wrong. The Cross comes into play in every human life, including that of Christ Himself, when the question “What is truth?” arises in the concrete story of any individual life, especially before civil rulers. In the deaths of Socrates and Christ, we see that both were good men who were killed, after a legal trial, by the best existing states of their time. Each was asked to cease doing what was right, to come down from the Cross. Had Socrates affirmed that right was wrong, or had Christ come down from the Cross, our civilization would not exist. The Antichrist exists to complete the end of civilization in the name of “humanitarian” civilization.
What we see in political philosophy when we look at the Antichrist, who is part of this history, of this philosophy, is the systematic construction of an alternative to what is right by nature, to the eternal life that the Cross stood for. In the end, the crucial truth is that we are each created, from the beginning, for a supernatural end that is, as such, beyond our nature. But it is not beyond our possibility since we are also given the grace, if we choose, to accept it. Political philosophy points to itself, to politics and its limits. But its limits point to transcendence, not to an abstract utopia in this world down the ages, but to an immediate “now” that is the completion of our existence and present to each human life at its completion in this world.
That Plato sensed some of this in the Republic should not surprise us. That his later followers did not, as Augustine said, understand the Word made flesh perhaps should not surprise us either. An inner-worldly catastrophe at its end is not so much related to cosmic forces as it is to human choices about what man is, about what God is. The avenue given to us to know these latter truths is via the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Cross. The Incarnation and the Cross are not a rejection of the world’s goodness but only of ways to affirm it that do not correspond to what is, to reality.