Ethics & Public Policy Center

What ‘Peace’ Means Today

Published in National Review Online on October 13, 2016


On the evening of October 12, at a gala held in the Mieczysław Karłowicz Philharmonic Hall in the Baltic port city of Szczecin, NRO contributor George Weigel was awarded the 2016 Peace Prize of the Universal Peace Project, a foundation established by the sculptor Wojciech Siudmak to strengthen Polish-German reconciliation, international cooperation, and interreligious dialogue.

Mr. Weigel’s remarks follow.  

Thank you for honoring my work with the 2016 Peace Prize.

The name of the prize and the noble intentions that gave birth to the Universal Peace Project invite us to spend a few moments reflecting on the meaning of “peace.” There is no better guide to that reflection than the great Augustine of Hippo.

In The City of God, one of the seminal works of Western political philosophy, St. Augustine defined “peace” as tranquillitas ordinis — “the tranquility of order.” This was not any “order,” of course. Rather, what Augustine sought was an “order” rooted in justice: an “order” in which men and women could live out their responsibility to promote the common good; an “order” that made possible virtue in public life. Today, we might translate Augustine’s definition of peace by thinking of tranquillitas ordinis as dynamic, rightly ordered political community, within and among states.

The “tranquility of order” has taken different forms in the 1,600 years since Augustine wrote De Civitate Dei. In this 21st century, “dynamic, rightly ordered political community” means an “order” in which human rights are respected and individuals have the opportunity to participate in public life — an “order” in which consent, not coercion, is the basis of governance. Such an “order” — such a “peace” — does not just happen. It is an ongoing work of moral responsibility. It is a journey. And the journey toward the peace of a just public order requires a proper orientation, a sense of direction, if we are not to go round in circles or get lost along the way. Thus the task of building such an “order” can be sustained over time only if the work of peace-making — the work of “order-building” — is conducted against a horizon of moral truths that provides orientation for the journey, truths that shape civic culture and guide the judgments of men and women as they wrestle with the question, “How ought we live together?”

As a theoretical or abstract matter, one might imagine any number of systems capable of building the peace of rightly ordered political community. In practical terms, however, Augustine’s tranquillitas ordinis is found today in democracies. And that leads us to the question of the relationship between moral truth and the democratic project.

Despite the claims of some, democracy is not a machine that can run by itself. It takes a certain kind of people, living certain habits of the heart and mind, to sustain the machinery of democratic self-governance so that there is genuine human flourishing in public life. Absent those habits of heart and mind — those virtues — democracy can decay into anarchy or authoritarianism. And neither anarchy nor authoritarianism satisfy Augustine’s definition of peace as the tranquility of order. Democracy, in other words, is never something “given.” Democracy — the “peace” of rightly ordered political community — must constantly be achieved.

The work of peace-building in this sense of democracy-building requires clarity on two key words: “pluralism” and “tolerance.” Pluralism is not mere difference — the fact that men and women have different opinions. Genuine pluralism means an orderly public conversation about those differences, conducted against that horizon of moral truths I mentioned a moment ago. Such a conversation, in turn, requires tolerance. And tolerance does not mean avoiding differences or denying differences, but engaging and exploring differences within a bond of civility and respect. That bond can only be built on the foundation of convictions about the dignity of every human being, convictions so strong that they can withstand the ever-present temptation to substitute coercion for persuasion in public life.

Where do we learn the truths that make tolerance, pluralism, civility, and the peace of democratic political community possible? Some of us learn those truths from revelation; others learn those truths from reason; still others learn those truths from both revelation and reason. In parts of the democratic world, fears about the relationship between religious conviction and democracy are a prominent feature of public life. Yet surely the lesson of the Revolution of 1989, here in Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, is that Biblical religion can be a liberating force, inspiring men and women to take the risk of freedom and to live freedom nobly. “1989” — the self-liberation of Central and Eastern Europe — was the work of a coalition of conscience that included believers and nonbelievers, men and women whose bond was living in the truth. That fact, sadly forgotten by some today, bears considerable reflection.

Poland is in a unique position to show the world how vibrant religious faith — in this case, Catholic faith — can shape the peace of rightly ordered political community. Poland will do that if it drinks deeply from the wisdom and teaching of its eminent son, Pope Saint John Paul II, on the relationship of the Church to public life: not looking back with nostalgic affection at John Paul the Great, but learning to look clearly into the present and forward into the future through his eyes.

John Paul II proclaimed a public Church that is not a partisan Church. John Paul II’s Church of the 21st century is a Church that teaches the truths that make democracy possible in a language that can be understood by those who have not been given the gift of faith. John Paul II’s Church is allied to civil society, rather than to any political party, because it is by forming citizens of character and conviction, and thereby sustaining a virtuous civil society, that religious communities have their deepest impact on public life. John Paul II’s Church is a Church that helps purify national pride into a mature patriotism that avoids the harshness of many modern forms of nationalism. John Paul II’s Church is a Church that empowers its members to be the kind of citizens who make genuine pluralism possible by living true tolerance.

Augustine wrote about tranquillitas ordinis — peace as the tranquility of order — at a moment when the civilization he knew and cherished was crumbling around him. We face similar challenges today. Various barbarisms now threaten the peace of democratic public life: the siren song of freedom misunderstood as radical individual autonomy; the false promise of new authoritarianisms appealing to the kinds of national hubris and xenophobia that almost destroyed Europe between 1914 and 1945; the grave threat of a distorted monotheism that claims a divine warrant for murder. These challenges cannot be avoided. But neither can these challenges be met by a West that has lost touch with the truths of its cultural heritage: the convictions that first made the “peace” of democratic order possible.

So, as I thank you again for this award, permit me to suggest that the challenge of peace-making in these middle years of the 21st century, both within and among the democracies, will be to reclaim, and then live out, the truths that were at the root of freedom’s victory over totalitarianism at the end of the 20th century: the truth of the inalienable dignity and value of every human person, at all stages of life and in all conditions of life; the truth that our public life, like our individual lives, is judged by moral norms we can know by both revelation and reason; the truth that the state exists to serve society; the truth that only a virtuous people can be free.

In 1920, the heroic Nuncio to Poland, Archbishop Achille Ratti, was the only ambassador who did not flee Warsaw in the days before the “Miracle on the Vistula,” the decisive battle that secured Poland’s freedom and prevented the Red Army from slaughtering its way across Europe to the English Channel. A decade later, Achille Ratti, now Pope Pius XI, faced a darkening world scene similar to our own. And yet he could say, in those challenging days, “Let us thank God that He makes us live among the present problems. It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre.” As we remember all those who have sacrificed so much for liberty and justice in our time, let us recommit ourselves to the great adventure of peace-making through democracy-building, living out the truths that make us free in the deepest meaning of freedom. Let us not feel the pressures of our historical moment as a burden, but as a summons to responsibility. For in the exercise of that responsibility, we may come to feel a different weight, the “weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4.17) promised to those who are true peacemakers.

— George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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