In December 1942, a philosophy major at Princeton, who was due to begin serving in the army upon graduation, submitted his senior thesis. It was a substantial piece of work. Entitled “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community,” it explored the connection between moral life and man’s relationship with the divine, a philosophical theme at least as old as Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro. The thesis found its roots not in the classical tradition, however, but in contemporary Protestant theology. Its leading idea—one deeply grounded in Christian thought—was that the central task of human life was to develop proper relationships with other persons, including, finally, with God. So the essay gave a Christian answer to the core question of ethics, how each of us is to live well. But it touched, too, as ethics eventually must, on questions in social philosophy, proclaiming: “The world in its essence, is a community, a community of creator and created, and has as its source, God.”
The thesis is clearly the work of a young person of remarkable intellectual gifts and a deep moral and religious seriousness, struggling to find some guiding principles as he sets off to risk his life in a great war. But in itself it would be merely a curiosity had its author, John Bordley Rawls, not gone on to write the most influential work of liberal political philosophy of the twentieth century. A defining presupposition of his mature work is that, in modern multireligious societies, there are bound to be distinct and competing conceptions of what it is to live well. As a result, if our political system is to attract the reflective support of all reasonable citizens, it cannot depend on one such overall conception.
When Eric Gregory, a professor of religion at Princeton, rediscovered the thesis just after Rawls’s death in 2002, and revealed that it was a work of Christian ethics that drew some consequences for political philosophy, there was bound, at the very least, to be some curiosity about its claims. We should be grateful, therefore, to Rawls’s heirs for agreeing to its publication, along with a short essay, “On My Religion,” that was found among his papers; and grateful, as well, to Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, who contributed a fine introductory essay to the volume, connecting Rawls’s thesis with his later political philosophy, and to Robert Merrihew Adams, whose commentary places it securely in its midcentury theological context.
Like many ambitious undergraduate essays, the Brief Inquiry has too many ideas, not all of them fully digested. But—unlike too many undergraduate theses, alas—its central philosophical thrust is clear. This is a polemic against any view in which human life is directed at some impersonal end. Both Plato and Aristotle, for example, are criticized for holding that we should aim at the Good. Because Saint Augustine …