Can anything about God’s direction of history can be gleaned just by the use of natural reason, apart from revelation?  Nobody seems to believe this anymore, but not so long ago almost every intelligent person did.

There are two cases to consider, one easier and one harder.  The easier case is God’s general providence – the system of consequences built into the design of creation.  For example, I think we may expect with great certainty that grave collective guilt will always bring about grave collective penalty, even apart from direct divine intervention.  This is the well from which our ancestors drew those great maxims which contemporary social scientists consider so useless, like as “pride goes before a fall.”  The things which we do to resist the natural consequences of our actions may delay them or change their form, but cannot prevent them; in fact they are likely to make them worse.  Suppose I give a bump to a pendulum so that it travels further along the arc of its upswing than it would have on its own.  When it does return, it will swing with greater force.

Consider, for example, that tyranny is unlikely to arise among a virtuous people; if it does arise, they have probably been softened and prepared for it by a long period of moral decay.  Until things get very bad indeed, they may even like tyranny, either because the regime has given certain constituencies private benefits, or because most citizens have not yet been personally hurt, or because the desires of the people are so disordered that they do not clearly see their own condition.  The classical Christian writers seem to think that God does not often protect people from the natural consequences of their vices; these may be necessary to bring corrupt nations to their senses.  Thomas Aquinas argues that if at last the people repent and mend their ways, then God will hear their prayers, but he warns that “to deserve to secure this benefit from God, the people must desist from sin, for it is by divine permission that wicked men receive power to rule as a punishment for sin.”

Interestingly, the need to couple resistance to tyranny with repentance, prayer, and moral reform was a staple of colonial preaching during the American quest for independence, though whether the war with England fulfilled St. Thomas’s own criteria for constitutional resistance might well be questioned.