April 13, 2005


What is the Legacy of Pope John Paul II? (Gregory R. Beabout, 4/13/05, Acton.org)

The thousand-year history of Poland has produced a profound distinction between the Polish nation and the Polish state. The “nation,” its language and cultural heritage, is rich. Ever since Prince Mieszko, the medieval leader who united various Slavic tribes into a unified people, converted to Catholicism in 966, a Polish-speaking people have inhabited central Europe. That people, who spread throughout the fields of central Europe, formed their own culture.

The “state” of Poland has had a much more rugged history. After a golden era of prosperity from the 14th to the 16th centuries, Poland was partitioned three times in the 18th century. By 1795, the state of Poland disappeared until the end of WWI in 1918.

The Polish nation, its culture, literature, faith and heritage, survived this period, not through governmental strength, but through the people drawing on their own cultural resources. [...]

The Polish habit of distinguishing between nation and state came easy to Karol Wojtyla. From his birth in 1920 until his sophomore year at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, he lived in a Polish nation governed by a Polish state. On September 1, 1939, that came to an end with the Nazi invasion from the west. When the Soviets invaded from the east 17 days later, Poland endured another period of seeking to maintain itself as a nation without a state.

Amidst totalitarian oppression, Karol Wojtyla devoted himself to the life of literature, drama and the theater – and to the life of prayer and service. As a young priest, Wojtyla studied theology and philosophy, becoming a pastor and then a university professor of ethics before his appointment as bishop.

This habit of emphasizing the importance of the moral-cultural sphere shaped Wojtyla as he became pope. In his role as Pope, he encouraged us to take up the deepest questions of human life: ”Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?” As John Paul II put it, the human person “is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.” [...]

The Pope brought down the Soviet Union by emphasizing communism’s central failings: its false understanding of human life and its inability to distinguish between state and culture. The Pope was not a wholesale critic of the state; in fact, he praised the importance of the rule of law and emphasized the need for a juridical structure that provides stable guarantees: a system of property, a stable currency, efficient public services, etc. But he placed much stronger emphasis on the need for a healthy and free moral/cultural sphere, both in the life of the individual human person, and in the various groups and associations that make up society.

As Brother Cohen put it earlier: "a strong culture and weak government is better than a weak culture and a strong government, and those are the only two choices."

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2005 3:40 PM

Bro. Cohen harbors libertarian sentiments? Who knew?

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 5:05 PM

Libertarians hate the Culture too.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 5:11 PM

Not all libertarians are libertines. Some understand that a shared culture reduces the need for coercion.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 6:17 PM

Bro. Cohen has never been to Singapore then, which has both a strong government and a strong culture?


OJ seems to think that if we don't want to restrict everything that we wouldn't restrict anything.

Posted by: bart at April 13, 2005 6:22 PM


No, if you don't think you need to restrict yourself you need to be restricted.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 6:25 PM

Ghost: Of course I harbor libertarian sympathies. All conservatives do. Who among us hasn't told a good-looking coed, "I'm not really conservative, I'm libertarian." Libertarianism is, after all, the socialism of the right. I've read my Hayak, and on a good day even consider myself something of a Hayakian. But Libertarianism is dead, and the libertarians have become either conservatives or libertines. The libertines believe that they can have a weak government and a weak culture, so that they can do what they want without official sanction or social opprobrium.

Bart: I've never been to Singapore, so I won't argue with you. I'll let Lee Kuan Yew do it for me:

As the authors of Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (1998) point out, Lee rejected "the notion that all men yearned for democratic freedoms, prizing free speech and the vote over other needs such as economic development. Asian societies, he contended, were different, having evolved separately from the West over the centuries". Lee also argued, "somewhat controversially," that "notions of absolute rights to freedom for individuals would sometimes have to be compromised in order to help maintain public order and security." He was therefore willing to suspend the right of habeas corpus, "or an open and fair trial, for known criminals or political agitators" on the grounds that "witnesses were too cowed to come forward to testify against them.

In his May 1991 address to the Asahi Shimbun symposium, Lee argued that Asians "want higher standards of living in an orderly society. They want to have as much individual choice in lifestyle, political liberties and freedoms as is compatible with the interests of the community." He granted that once a country has attained a certain level of education and industrialization, it "may need representative government . . . to reconcile conflicting group interests in society and maintain social order and stability. Representative government is also one way for a people to forge a new consensus, a social compact, on how a society settles the trade-off between further rapid economic growth and individual freedoms."

I'd merely add that, in the face of a strong government, you can no more argue that society is strong than you could argue that a strong anti-hijacking program is no longer necessary due to the absence of hijackings.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 13, 2005 7:07 PM

David Cohen -

There are a great many "conservatives" who are really "classical liberals" and don't wish to be lumped in with those who are "reactionary" on "social issues." We'll form alliances with such folks, but do not share certain values. "South Park Republicans" just doesn't cut it for conversational nomenclature ... although it is descriptive for me, my wife, and the older of our two daughters.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 7:25 PM


The society in Singapore is a pure reflection of the values of its inhabitants, who are overwhelmingly of South Chinese origin. Words like 'democracy' have different meanings and there is far less focus on the rights of the individual and more on the problems of community. They also, not unlike Israel, are surrounded by enemies. Many of the decisions taken by the Lees, pere et fils, were done because of real national security and terrorism concerns that dwarf our own.

It is Western hubris in the extreme to think that they have a weak culture because they have chosen a strong government. The strong government is their cultural choice.

What is striking about the place is how rational the autocracy is. The decision process seems strange but the decisions themselves are quite sensible. I have my doubts as to whether that is sustainable long-term. It works when Lee Kwan Yew is in charge, but if his grandson Commodus or Caligula were in charge would things work so well? But what I get out of it is that their success merely shows why such an overweening, paternal government would necessarily fail here.

Posted by: bart at April 13, 2005 7:44 PM

Bart: The Lees are very upfront about the need for an authoritarian government to keep their society from being undermined by the non-Chinese.

Ghost: "Classical liberal" is just one of those lies we tell ourselves. The actual classical liberals would be horrified by our culture.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 13, 2005 8:39 PM

Actually, we should at this point tip our hat to Paul Cella's point that American politics now is the fight between the left liberals and the right liberals and note a convergence with my argument that the modern conservative project is to run the left out of politics so that the Liberals and Tories can get back to fighting the important battles.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 13, 2005 8:44 PM

Too abstract for me to grasp adequately w/o some coaching or citations. But if that's the forced choice we're all slouching towards, I can't see myself claiming to be a Tory. Sounds too "I've got mine, go away".

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 9:26 PM


The President, SR Nathan, is a Hindu of Indian ancestry and a former ambassador to the US. The Lees want to preserve the Singaporean ethos which is South Chinese in nature, but they are less concerned about pure ethnic considerations. Ethnically speaking, the place is about 84% Chinese.

If you look at the disaster areas that are the Islamic toilet bowls of Malaysia and Indonesia, the Lees' concern is well-founded.

Posted by: bart at April 14, 2005 9:06 AM