The Four Last Things and Political Philosophy
By Anonymous, March 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

“In the shadowlands of history, man ought to resign himself to patiently undermining human presumption.” 
Nicolás Gómez Dávila

We all die.  The great question is what happens to us when we die.  If we reflect on our mortality, we are more apt to ask that ultimate question with some urgency.  Fr. Schall points out, quoting Epicurus, that the earthly city we inhabit is unfortified against death.  We can find protection against it only in the City of God.  How then are we to prepare for the moment when we are thrust out of the gate of life?  We can prepare our souls by meditating on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

Political communities need to be mindful of the four last things too.  Like men, they can flourish or not.  Like men, they all die.  If they are not mindful of the four last things, then dire consequences result.  Let us consider each of the last four things in turn, beginning with hell.

There are few sins held greater today than to suggest that there is such a thing as hell and that not only are there people there being punished, but that they deserve their punishment (of course, we all deserve such punishment—we do not evade it through our own merits).  Those who profess to believe in hell are considered killjoys, and they are thought judgmental and intolerant of others.  Though we have abundant evidence in classical philosophy and in the Old and New Testaments that hell exists and that eternal punishments await the wicked when they die, even devout Christians are reluctant to speak of it.  It is considered at best impolite to mention.[1]

If we are unmindful of hell as individuals, we are unlikely to take stock of the moral character of our actions, we are unlikely to confront their own imperfections and strive to correct them.  We are unlikely to recognize that we deserve punishment for our failings and to expect it after we die.  If whole political communities are inattentive to hell, in Fr. Schall’s charming expression, they take even greater risks.  They can create hell on earth.  On the one hand, the political community’s denial of hell can lead it to deny the existence of justice in this world and the next.  The political life may become an exercise in securing as many goods for ourselves as we can, even to the point of excluding others from them.  On the other hand, political communities that are inattentive to hell risk trying to bring about perfect justice in this world.  This leads to totalitarianism, in which the fires of hell are kindled on earth for those whom the community does not count among the just.  In both cases, the consequence is that political communities reject any source of justice outside of themselves.  The result is tyranny.[2]

Instead of meditating on the punishments of hell, we prefer to meditate on the consoling rewards of heaven.  It has been argued that, just as there is no certainty that anyone is saved, there is no certainty that anyone is damned.  Charity therefore demands that we hope that all men will be saved.[3]  This view seems consoling and merciful to modern man.  But the danger for modern man is hardly that he fears hell too much.  On the contrary, he is too smugly assured of his own salvation.  If it were popularly believed that all men are destined for heaven, then belief in justice would be undermined.  It would seem that those who merit punishment for their misdeeds in this life, and escape it, would escape punishment altogether.  If that is the case, then why should anyone live a just life?  Plato tried to solve this problem with the Myth of Er, in order to show that even an unjust man who had a reputation for justice would still be punished in the afterlife.  Aquinas likewise argued that one reason why divine law was necessary was to punish misdeeds that go unpunished on earth.[4]

We can put ourselves on another wrong track if we deny the existence of heaven.  If heaven does not exist, and there is no promise of happiness or punishment after this life, then this life and this world are the only places we can achieve happiness.  On the one hand, politics may take on a character of restlessness and anxiety as we seek to obtain every material good we can for as long as we are here.  We may try to build heaven on earth, which leads to the construction of hell on earth.  On the other hand, politics may become more timid and risk averse, lest we lose the one lives we have to live.  We may prefer existence to justice and honor.

Heaven should instead serve to remind us that our happiness is not of this world.  True, we can achieve an imperfect happiness here, but perfect happiness is beyond this world, and consequently, beyond what politics can promise us.  Heaven holds out the promise that those who are just in this life but do not receive their due will receive it in the next life.  But we reveal our own conceit if we cheapen heaven by presuming to assign its glories to all.

We can put off the question of whether we are going to heaven or hell by putting off the question of death and judgment.  Nothing is more abhorrent to us than judgment.  We think that if we do not judge others, we will not be judged, and everyone will be assigned a place in heaven.  Nor dare we pass judgment on civilizations.  After all, if there is neither judgment, nor heaven, nor hell, or if everyone gets to heaven, then no civilization can be better at helping us secure our final happiness than another.  The West, Islam, Communism, even Nazism—they all become civilizational equals.

The way that men and political communities avoid reflecting on these troubling questions is by refusing to talk about death.  If we refuse to talk about death, then we can forget about it.  Our culture helps people forget about death by speaking about it with euphemisms, saying people have “passed.”  This is the culture that Evelyn Waugh brilliantly satirized in The Loved One, which he subtitled An Anglo-American Tragedy.  By simply talking death away we can evade confronting our faults, the evils of our political community, and our ultimate accountability for them.

That brings another literary reference to mind.  In Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, the prince points out to his priest and confessor that, unlike the Church, the aristocracy has no divine guarantee that it will endure until the end of time.  The prince knows that he must take precautions to ensure the status of his descendants because death is always before him: his own death, the death of his class, the death of his way of life.  Refusing to contemplate our death and the death of our political community leads to naiveté and utopianism.  If the political community cannot conceive of its own death, then nothing it does now can contribute to its demise in the future.  No injustice or act of imprudence need make the political community worse off in the future, nor make the lives of our descendents worse off.  By escaping accountability before God we escape responsibility for future generations.

We can likewise escape the question of what happens to us after we die.  But we all know we cannot cheat death itself, otherwise we would evade the question of the meaning of our lives and the meaning of politics.  If the four last things are important for politics, then contemplating death would seem to be the best way to begin to reintroduce judgment, heaven, and hell to our culture.

These thoughts may seem more morbid than sober, but they are thoughts we must confront if we are to discover the meaning of our lives and the true meaning of politics.  We neglect the four last things at our peril, at own peril and that of our civilization.

[1]See Piers Paul Read, Hell and Other Destinations: A Novelist’s Reflection on This World and the Next (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), pp. 13-47.

[2] See James V. Schall, At the Limits of Political Philosophy: From “Brilliant Errors” to Things of Uncommon Importance (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), pp. 103-22.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?  With a Short Discourse on Hell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).

[4] Summa Theologiae, IaIIae, Q. 91, a. 4.

Image credit: Author: Randall Munroe. Published on Wikimedia Commons at

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Mar 26, 2012 at 8:35 am

It would seem that liberal regime is particularly disposed to the denial of heaven and hell. I wonder whether there is a way to make this type of regime attune to the concerns that you raise.