Like Captain America, U.K. seeks independence
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Nations are like superheroes. The summer’s most satisfying blockbuster, Captain America: Civil War, unexpectedly supplies us with this suggestive metaphor.
Unintentionally, but nonetheless with utmost perspicuity, the film’s story reflects the issues of political form at stake in the United Kingdom’s recent “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union.
Each superhero lines up on one side of a “Remain” or “Leave” debate. Should the deployment of the superheroes’ superpowers be subjected to bureaucratic United Nations oversight?
Or, should the superheroes decide for themselves, as individuals, when and where to deploy their individual superpowers in a collective effort (as the “Avengers”) for the common good?
“I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own,” says Steve Rogers, also known as “Captain America” (played by Chris Evans). He argues against entangling alliances that would lead to a loss of freedom for collective action.
The film’s debate about political form illuminates the parallel in real life. When it dramatizes the form of managerial oversight by the UN, in opposition to the Avengers’ own free deliberations about the common good, we should think of Britain.
The “Brexit” was a declaration of independence made in the spirit of Captain America. It rejected the form of managerial oversight by the European Union; it endorsed free deliberation, on the national level, about effective deployment for collective action.
The United Kingdom still chooses to be part of the defensive alliance of NATO. But it now rejects the political form of the European Union.
The superheroes in Civil War face a similar decision. Should they choose the alliance of the Avengers, but reject the UN’s political form? The movie’s story provides an answer.
After the “Brexit” vote, the world is seeking answers about what political form is best suited for deploying effective action on behalf of the common good. Two weeks ago, I introduced what the French political philosopher Pierre Manent argues on this question.
Manent endorses the historical solution of the Christian nation as the moderate, “Goldilocks” solution to the problem of political form.
At a young age, we learned from the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” about the idea of “just right” (the “golden mean”) between two extremes, like “too little” or “too big.”
Similarly, Manent argues that city-states are too small, but empires are too big. The nation is “just right.”
Human nature supplies the measure for what is the most satisfying political form. Manent argues that history shows how nations are best suited to achieve a natural, “golden mean” political balance. (In the words of Steve Rogers: they’re “not perfect” but, for a variety of reasons, they’re still “the safest hands.”)
Manent’s endorsement of such moderation is a political insight rooted in the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle about empires. Because of their size, empires are too complex for human beings to manage. Humans need divine knowledge to rule them effectively.
Thus, Manent and other Aristotelians reject the impossible pretensions of political forms like the European Union. Such universal empires, in effect, usurp divine providence. They must arrogate divine power in order to implement their decrees. But such political hubris inevitably stifles human freedom.
“We need to recover the desire for and hope in a provident God if we are to restore the political order as the framework and the product of choice for the common good,” writes Manent in his latest book, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge.
The American political philosopher Father James V. Schall, SJ, endorses Manent’s embrace of the nation. This political form evolved out of the medieval political world, but it’s still the best solution for modern problems.
Father Schall describes how Christendom’s past bears upon the present: “Each nation belongs to Christendom, but each with its own institutions and varieties of rule gradually worked out among all the citizens. Manent prefers to abandon the European Union idea because it was based on an anti-Christian, flawed denial of the classical and Christian origins of Europe and its genius.”
As Europe searches for the best political form for today’s world order, perhaps a return to the classical dimension of our own origins would best answer any skepticism about the form of the nation.
After all, Manent’s affirmation of the Christian origins of the European idea of the nation is a tough sell. The most powerful trends today seem to be controlled by elites committed to radical secularism and the repudiation of any Christian past.
Classical wisdom, however, supplies us with exactly what we need to make the political form of any nation work. In a word, that necessary element is friendship.
The brand new book by my friend John von Heyking, The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship, studies this grand lesson of classical wisdom. Friendships based on virtue and truth, by their very nature, have the most irresistible and most salutary political effects.
A professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, von Heyking investigates the neglected topic of civic friendship. Civic friendship is what nations need most of all. But bureaucratic unions, motivated primarily by economic imperatives, effectively undermine this greatest of all political truths.
There is no greater benefit to the world order than when friends, as citizens, become models of civic friendship. But as the Civil War movie rightly intuits, when civic friendship fails, pushing citizens into war, there can be no peace.
Dr. C.S. Morrissey is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and part of its Metropolitan Philosophy Roundtable at The King’s College in Manhattan dedicated to “Educating Present and Future Leaders to Promote Global Peace.”