The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical,
Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy
by James V. Schall, Ignatius Press, 2020, 319 pages

For Father James V. Schall (1928-2019), a Jesuit priest and longtime Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University, the “last things” (death, judgment, heaven and hell) were an abiding preoccupation.

This is reflected in the title of his 1984 book, The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy, republished in 2020 by Ignatius Press.

In it, Schall explored the connections between classical, medieval and modern political philosophy.

Many modern political thinkers ignored the medieval era, which Schall observed was part of a broader mental block which prevents some academics from examining religion seriously.

Schall’s book is therefore very useful in shining a light where others preferred not to look, and in doing so in a way which illuminates the journey in political thought which commenced in Ancient Greece and Rome.

After Christianity had become the dominant religion in the empire, the question of how Christians should approach political questions became more important for leading thinkers like Saint Augustine.

One of the key contributions in Augustine’s thinking lay in how he placed limits not just on how far the state could extend, and on what role politics could play in helping to achieve salvation.

Aristotle had said that politics would be the highest science if man had nothing higher than himself. Building upon classical philosophy, Augustine made it clear that in the Christian worldview, this was not the case.

“In defining the City of God and the city of man, so that they be not identified with Church or Empire, Saint Augustine was careful to deny to actual politics the burden of guaranteeing man’s ultimate good or punishing his ultimate evil,” Schall wrote, adding that much of modern political thinking represented “a valiant, if vain, effort to retain this impossible burden for itself.”

The presence of Hell in the book’s title may startle some readers, but it was not included without cause.

Schall quotes Hannah Arendt’s observation that the “most significant consequence of the secularisation of the modern age may well be the elimination from public life, along with religion, of the only political element in traditional religion, the fear of hell.”

Within the context of medieval political philosophy, that fear was very real indeed, and the belief that divine judgement was inescapable meant that when the question of evil arose, people focused attention on the fallen nature of man.

“Hell,” Schall explained, “thereby, frees politics from an impossible worldly burden inasmuch as it backs up a contingent, imperfect civil order in such a way that this same political order is not forced to see its task as that of exercising absolute justice and punishment by its own efforts.”

Centuries later, Rousseau – whose writings would help inspire the French Revolution – would turn this on its head by identifying the source of evil in society’s institutions, which he argued needed to be remade.

This was to be of enormous consequence.

“No longer is evil seen as resultant from the choices of responsible, fallen human persons in their historical ambiguities, but evil has been incarnate, something classical Christianity never attributed to it. Classes, nations, beliefs are the “causes” of evil and must be rejected in toto, since, we are told, there can be no compromise with it in its visible form,” Schall wrote.

Not only would these causes be rejected, they could – and in the minds of some, had to be – destroyed. This totalitarian tendency within some variants of modern political theory could not have existed within the moral framework of a civilisation or polis which adhered to Christianity.

Although the latter half of the book is far less compelling, there is much to admire here overall, and aside from some outdated content (Schall’s analysis of the US-Soviet nuclear arms race, etc), it remains relevant.

At a time when a new generation of social revolutionaries seem intent on misidentifying the sources of discontent and tearing up the fabric of society to rectify its flaws, readers would do well to consider Schall’s arguments. 

James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including...