Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Article & the Straussian Appeal

I like the work of Leo Strauss and his followers more for their method of analysis as opposed to their conclusions. Say what you want about them, they have tremendously influenced "conversations" in academic and intellectual circles.

Take, for instance, this new article written by professor of law and Donald Trump speechwriter F.H. Buckley in The American Conservative. I generally don't agree with the tenor of the article. Though, I think the article is interesting, makes some good points and is therefore worth reading (which is what I think in general of T.A.C.).

This quotation below relates to the mission of American Creation:
[M]ost intellectuals on the right draw their inspiration not from the Judeo-Christian tradition but from abstract theories of natural rights that have little need of God. They revere Jefferson, but as Walter Berns once asked me, just what kind of a god is “Nature and Nature’s God” anyway? At most, He’s Descartes’s god, as seen by Pascal, where he appears in Act I of the drama to give the system a “little push” and then departs the scene. But if that’s all He is, why do we need Him?


... By resting their political beliefs on abstract axioms of natural rights they have subscribed to theories of learned heartlessness; and it is a testament to their personal goodness that they’re better than their theories.
One doesn’t learn empathy or kindness from John Locke. Perhaps it’s not something one learns at all. The natural lawyer says it’s written on one’s heart; the evolutionary biologist says it’s coded in our genes, which perhaps comes down to the same thing. But it’s not to be derived from abstract theories. At best it’s a philosopher’s premise, not his conclusion, as it was for Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. We might get it from our families, or be reminded of it by novelists such as Dickens, Hugo, or E.M. Forster. Mostly, however, we get it from religious education and belief. 


... Even devout Christians will prefer to speak the language of natural law and natural rights, conceding to the secular left the principle that moral and political arguments can be framed only in terms that might appeal to people of other or no faiths. But in so doing they abandon the firmest and most encompassing foundations of our moral language.
... The natural-rights theorist can tell you what others owe him, but not what he owes to others save for the thinnest of duties: don’t harm others, don’t steal from them or defraud them. Does that sound like a complete moral code? ....
This is East Coast Straussianism, something the author learned from at the very least Walter Berns whom he cites. This isn't West Coast Straussianism. (Though, I've heard Berns, along with Michael Zuckert categorized as "mid-Western," something in between East and West Coast Straussianism.)

Berns may have been wrong on the "Nature's God" part of the Declaration of Independence. The personal writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin demonstrate they believed in a warmer deity. Or perhaps there is some chain of reasoning that demonstrates this "Nature's God" is more deistic than even those authors understood Him to be.

The East Coast Straussians thought natural rights were a "solid" place to rest a political order, but also a "low" place, and therefore should be supported but with a corrective. The explicit politics of revelation (what Buckley argues for) is one such corrective.

The Straussians are often termed "neoconservatives." I think many are; and some are not. But Mr. Buckley is the furthest thing from a non-religious Straussian neoconservative.

But he learned from them.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

How John Locke Influenced Christian-Deism, etc.

I think we are destined to debate about what John Locke really meant. Straussian claims that he was a secret Hobbesian imbibed atheist or something along those lines are too controversial to be asserted (as opposed to wondered about).

He was a secret something, probably theological unitarian of the Arian bent. He had a lowest common denominator understanding of Christianity that was so generously ecumenical that it got him accused of secret Socianianism.

I write this because I don't think an article by one Timothy Gordon (that Tom Van Dyke at American Creation linked to) quite gets John Locke anymore than the renowned Jeremy Waldron (insofar as Mr. Gordon properly articulates his argument) does. Gordon writes:
Locke was as Protestant as he was empiricist. As Jeremy Waldron notes, “Locke was intensely interested in Christian doctrine, and in the Reasonableness he insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus [i.e. the Bible].” This is a repudiation, not an affirmation, of natural law—the abiding epistemological expression of the Protestant one, at least until Immanuel Kant came along. Only revelation is meaningful. By implication then, Locke’s metaphysics was the perfect expression of Anglo-Protestant Christianity, notwithstanding his very un-Protestant “tabula rasa,” which was only a small setback. Such a setback is quite negligible in light of the more predominating Lockean concomitance between a meaningless empiricist nature and a meaningless Protestant nature—both of which thrive in Locke’s philosophy. And this means that the concept of “natural law” should be utterly anathema to Locke or the Lockean.

This is why, Waldron continues, “like the two other very influential natural law philosophers [being read by the Founders], Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, Locke equated natural law with the biblical revelation.” Natural law equals Biblical revelation? What an intentional misconstruing of opposites!

Natural law is what we know about reality from nature, not from revelation. Locke, however had to proceed like that because he wanted to overthrow the (ironically Catholic) tyrant in 1688. And he wanted to do so even though natural law and revelation are conceptually distinct. Indeed, such a distinction between Natural Law (inherent in the two out of three of Catholicism’s teaching voices the Reformation excised) and Revelation informed the sine qua non of the Reformation, which repudiated the Catholic view of their concomitance.
If Gordon accurately represents Waldron, I agree with Gordon and not Waldron's Locke. Natural law is not biblical revelation. But I don't think either Locke or those other natural law thinkers equated them as such. In fact, in his Second Treatise on Government, Locke noted that the "state of nature" -- foundational to his political theory -- needs a law to govern it, and "reason ... is that law."

Rather the argument is that reason and revelation are separate channels that when properly put together will arrive at the same conclusion. I saw, at Princeton, Waldron debate Michael Zuckert, who posits the esoteric Hobbesian atheistic Locke theory. The debate was moderated by the late great Locke scholar, Princeton professor Paul Sigmund. Sigmund told me personally, off the record, he saw Locke as a "liberal Thomist."

Locke may well have repudiated natural law; but if that's true, it's an esoteric conclusion. Locke's exoteric texts don't do such. Rather, one could argue Locke changed or weakened the classical understanding of natural law by providing a metaphysically thin basis for it.

But ultimately I think Locke made a good point when he, as summarized in the above quotation, "insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus."

Locke also, if I properly understand his teachings on Christianity and the limits of human understanding, thought the average person -- certainly the people with below average intelligence -- (i.e., the "ignorant fishermen" who were Jesus' original followers) might not be able to understand all of the verses and chapters of the Bible and complex doctrines that have developed in Christendom over the ages.

Yes. With three graduate degrees and having passed the bar exam in two states, I've gotten through Aristotle and the natural law thinkers. And I've read the Bible and so on. All of this can be very difficult to understand. Parts of the Bible are as difficult to understand as the intricacies of Aristotle and Aquinas.

Locke was NOT saying that whereas natural law can be difficult, the Bible is easy. Rather he was saying that Jesus' moral teachings were much easier for people of average or below average intelligence to understand than what you get through the long chain of reasoning required to understand the natural law and other complicated matters.

In essence, Jesus here provides a shortcut to get to the same conclusions a very refined mind can get to through reason alone, examining nature. If a more simple mind can't grasp the complicated intricacies of the Nicene Trinity and other complex theological doctrines, and instead ends up believing in something not orthodox, such shouldn't disqualify the person from "Christianity" provided he believes Jesus a unique Messiah.

This is a point that the Christian-Deists, Unitarians, and other expositors of "Primitive Christianity" would later run with. And I don't see it as a repudiation of natural law or equating natural law with biblical revelation.

Though it does strongly reinforce the point later made by Christian-Deists that Christianity essentially was a republication of the law of nature. As it were the "essential" parts of Christianity tended to be the simple parts, Jesus' words, and moral teachings and example. Everything else was either superfluous or up for grabs.

This includes what the canon of the Bible was. Especially whether some of the harder to understand books of the Bible like Revelation (Apocalypse) properly belonged. Whether St. Paul was inspired or an original corrupter of Jesus' words. I'm not saying Locke took such unorthodox positions on these matters. But the Christian-Deists he inspired, using his method, did.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

America's Founding Principle: Even before the Enlightenment, Catholic Liberty

0487 tp

Before there were Whigs, there was Algernon Sidney.

Before there was Sidney, there were the "Schoolmen," the Scholastics, the philosophical descendants of Thomas Aquinas such as the Jesuit priest Francisco Suárez, whose work informed Dutchman Hugo Grotius's seminal work on natural law.

The notion of liberty as a natural right predates the Enlightenment, the Whigs, and modern "rationalism."

SECT. II. The common Notions of Liberty are not from School-Divines, but from Nature.
Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all Men saw, nor lay more approv'd Foundations, than, That Man is naturally free; That he cannot justly be depriv'd of that Liberty without cause, and that he dos not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself.
But if he unjustly imputes the Invention of this to School-Divines, he in some measure repairs his Fault in saying, This has bin foster'd by all succeeding Papists for good Divinity: The Divines of the reformed Churches have entertain'd it, and the Common People every where tenderly embrace it.That is to say, all Christian Divines, whether reform'd or unreform'd, do approve it, and the People every where magnify it, as the height of human Felicity. But Filmer and such as are like to him, being neither reform'd nor unreform'd Christians, nor of the People, can have no Title to Christianity; and, in as much as they set themselves against that which is the height of human Felicity, they declare themselves Enemys to all that are concern'd in it, that is, to all Mankind.
 —Sidney, Discourses concerning Government, c. 1683

Like any good 17th century English Protestant, Sidney disparages and minimizes the role of Catholicism in creating the emerging political philosophy that would be known as "liberalism," but then again it still goes on today with the 21st century secularists.

Plus ça change.  


[See also Timothy Gordon's  Plagiarizing Catholicism: Algernon Sidney and the Whigs:
In the end, the only stretch of “intellectual reality” inheres in the American hagiography suggesting that Whig theory was a new American innovation in the late 18th Century…or even a new British one during the prior century…or even a new Northern European Protestant one during the century prior to that.
Whiggism is simply Anglified Catholic political theory imported by sola scriptura Protestants (many of whom were also Enlightenment empiricists) and turned directly against the Catholics in 17th century England—and somewhat less directly against the Catholics in 18th century America. Now how simple is that? Probably not simple enough to plagiarize effectively!]

Friday, October 21, 2016

All American Whigs Thought Alike on these Subjects

This letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825 brings to mind a recent article by historian Alan Taylor in the New York Times entitled Our Feuding Founding Fathers. Below is a larger quotation from Jefferson's letter to Lee:
[W]ith respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.


All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. …
The bottom line of the New York Times' article is that whereas people today tend to think "the Founders of America" agreed in one voice, the fact is that they disagreed.

The impression that they were so united in opinion, though, is arguably their fault (or desire). We see the above quotation by Jefferson stating, "All American whigs thought alike" and of course George Washington hoped they would when he cautioned against the political factions that were breaking out before his eyes, much to his chagrin.

And in Federalist 2, John Jay wrote eloquently about America's supposed homogeneity.

Renowned historian Bernard Bailyn has written the standard bearer work on the different ideological sources that drove the American Founding (his thesis is technically on America's Revolution, though it can be enlarged to include the entire "Founding").

Below are the 5 principle sources Bailyn identifies:

1. Ancient Greco-Roman; 2. Biblical, with a focus on Protestantism; 3. English Common Law; 4. Enlightenment rationalism; and 5. Whig, with a focus on the British "Commonwealth" thinkers.

I used to argue -- and it's possibly a correct argument -- that 4. Enlightenment rationalism was the lens through which America's Founders viewed the competing sources. But that's not Bailyn's argument. Rather, his is that 5. the Whigs were responsible for "harmonizing" all of the different sources.

And, indeed, speaking as Whigs, with the above quotation by Jefferson as proof, America's Founders presented the different ideologies as harmonized. (Whether the final result of the ideological pot America's Founders stewed perfectly parallels that of the British Commonwealth Whigs is questionable, see below.)

But was it so harmonious? Apparently not.

Of Jefferson's sources (and using the above numbers), Aristotle and Cicero were 1; Locke was 4; and Sidney was 5. Because they were both professed Christians, Locke and Sidney could also qualify as 2 (and there were plenty of patriot preachers and notable divines of that era whose names we could plug in). Source 3, English Common Law, didn't have a figure represented in Jefferson's quotation. But there is one figure who unquestionably stands as the authority for such and that is Blackstone.

So how does Blackstone "fit" with the American Revolution in particular and founding in general? He was a Tory who didn't think anyone -- including the Americans -- could overrule Parliament's last word on what the rights of Englishmen were, the antithesis of what America's Revolution stood for.

Likewise my studies of "republicanism" and Agrarian laws -- basically me reading Eric Nelson's work -- demonstrate a tension, on economic policy, between the 1. Ancient Roman view, which was more individualistic; and 2. British Commonwealth Whig view, which was more egalitarian. And the Enlightenment liberal view, i.e., Madison's, rejected British Whig egalitarianism in favor of a more individualistic view closer to the Ancient Roman position.

As I've noted before, arguably Madison's view prevailed during the American Founding which suggests that modern scholars, like Bailyn (and Gordon Wood) who stress "republicanism" over "liberalism" may have it wrong. Or we can say that the "liberal" and "republican" strains of Founding era thought were both important and competed with one another, and what prevailed is debatable. 

On a related note, I like the work the followers of Leo Strauss (with whom I often disagree) have done putting the record of the American Founding under the microscope. It's not so much their conclusions, but analysis which I most appreciate.
I think the Straussians paid a little more attention to Bailyn than he did to them, but the East Coasters (Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, the Kristol family) came to a similar conclusion in that the different ideological underpinnings of the American Founding were in tension with one another. They particularly focus on how the "modern" Lockean view was not consistent with either traditional orthodox Christian teachings or of the noble pagans (Aristotle, Cicero).

On the other hand the West Coasters -- followers of the late Harry V. Jaffa -- tend to act as good modern Whigs and "harmonize."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Ben Franklin Quotation that Typifies the Zeitgeist that Caused the Great Enrichment

Back in 2009, Cato Unbound published a series on how the world got modern. The amount of details there is massive and something I care not to address. I want to look at more "forest" issues, than "trees."

This question is worth revisiting because it hasn't been answered definitively. It's indeed one of those things over which we will continue to argue.

Peter Thiel is fond of noting the incredible technological progress the modern world experienced starting around 1800 and ending, in his opinion, 1969 (with the moon landing, and the field of information technology excepted). Niall Ferguson recently gave a Ted Talk on what he views as "6 Apps" that caused modernity's material progress. And most recently Deirdre McCloskey has written about this "great enrichment" that didn't start to take off until around 1800 and arguably continues to this day (even if Thiel and others argue we stopped progressing as we should in 1969).

The possibilities as to what caused such to happen when and where it did are endless. For instance, it could be that Providence simply willed it to start taking off around 1800. Or, that advanced aliens who seeded life on Earth decided that was the time to start filtering down to humanity more knowledge that would lead to such dramatic advances. The evidence for both of such cannot, alas, be falsified. So we need to look somewhere else.

My explanation is that it was the Enlightenment zeitgeist perfectly captured in the quotation below by Ben Franklin in a letter written to John Lathrop, May 31, 1788:
I have been long impress’d with the same Sentiments you so well express, of the growing Felicity of Mankind from the Improvements in Philosophy, Morals, Politicks, and even the Conveniencies of common Living by the Invention and Acquisition of new and useful Utensils and Instruments, that I have sometimes almost wish’d it had been my Destiny to be born two or three Centuries hence. For Inventions of Improvement are prolific, and beget more of their Kind. The present Progress is rapid. Many of great Importance, now unthought of, will before that Period be procur’d; and then I might not only enjoy their Advantages, but have my Curiosity satisfy’d in knowing what they are to be. I see a little Absurdity in what I have just written, but it is to a Friend who will wink and let it pass, while I mention one Reason more for such a Wish, which is that if the Art of Physic shall be improv’d in proportion with other Arts, we may then be able to avoid Diseases, and live as long as the Patriarchs in Genesis, to which I suppose we should make little Objection.
This is for lack of a better term -- and I'm sure we can come up with better than this -- classically liberal, Enlightenment progressivism.

Yes, it's something scientifically based. But there's more to the story. These thinkers like Ben Franklin had a holistic view that every field of knowledge including politics and theology were sciences.

The problem I have with Jack Goldstone's essay, as it were, is that he's too particular in specifying and crediting engineering. Yes, of course engineering is important. But so too are the insights of economist Adam Smith and those who followed him. Economics is not engineering. As Niall Ferguson notes, it's not just one thing; it's a number of things. Thus, it's something more holistic than specific.

Look at how such thinkers as Franklin viewed the "science" of political theology. It's not necessarily traditional orthodox Christianity which had been established since 325 AD. But it's also not necessarily the strictly deist God of Spinoza. (One could argue, as Jason Kuznicki did in the original Cato series that the modern Enlightenment view would eventually grow into such, and perhaps then further towards agnosticism and atheism.)

And much of what they wrote was consistent with what's written in the Bible. Indeed, we see Franklin using biblical examples as inspiration for scientific advancements. But this approach is more free and forward thinking.

Many of these "scientists of everything" were like Franklin (electricity), Joseph Priestley (chemistry),  Richard Price (finance), members of The Club of Honest Whigs. That's to whom I give chief credit for modernity's advances.

The period in which they operated was "the Enlightenment" of the late 18th Century. Ironically, the advances of modernity didn't start to take off until 1800, which marks the end of that period. So we can say that the late 18th Century Enlightenment is when the seeds were planted. To the extent that pre-Enlightenment periods caused the Great Enrichment, we would have to argue that they created the fertile soil for the fruits of which the seeds of the Enlightenment rightly take credit.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

John Adams on Republican Government

John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Apr. 1776, Papers 4:86--93

A taste:
We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.


A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern Englishmen to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadley. No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them. The wretched condition of this country, however, for ten or fifteen years past, has frequently reminded me of their principles and reasonings. They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is Republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a Republic, is "an Empire of Laws, and not of men." That, as a Republic is the best of governments, so that particular arrangement of the powers of society, or in other words that form of government, which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws, is the best of Republics.

Of Republics, there is an inexhaustable variety, because the possible combinations of the powers of society, are capable of innumerable variations.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Did the Ancient Jews in fact have a Republic?

Below is an email I sent to a libertarian friend of mine (for the record, I am a libertarian, but am open minded on making exceptions that many libertarians would not) for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration. I sent him an email which he didn't respond to. It's below.
I know that John Milton was good on a lot of liberty issues. But I wonder what you make of his thoughts on economic liberty. Eric Nelson of Harvard has done a lot of interesting research that transcends ideological boundaries.
The way I see it, Madison's vision, which is close to the laissez-faire that libertarians would endorse, prevailed (in no small part because of the hard work he and others did for that to happen). This is the "liberal" stream of thought of the Founding era.
However, the "republican" or we could say "commonwealth" view was something arguably more economically egalitarian. This is a reason why some notable left of center scholars -- the ones who aren't busy trying to "deconstruct" the American Founding -- may stress "republicanism" over "liberalism."
Nelson's thesis is, regardless of Madison's vision prevailing at the American Founding, the world we have today -- the "mixed" system of capitalism that currently predominates geopolitics, where we have simultaneously inequality of outcomes and private holdings, but also a government that steps in and decides how much is too much and taxes affluence more in order to redistribute -- is the vision of Milton and some other British commonwealthsmen.
It's also an explicitly religious vision. I could go on.
Yes on page 56 of The Hebrew Republic, Nelson claims that we are living in the age of Milton as opposed to that of Thomas Hobbes (I will have a subsequent post where I argue that we are actually living in the age of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and the hebraic republicans represent a more authentically Anglo example of the egalitarianism that the continental Rousseau would later champion).

Did you get that? Nelson isn't arguing that Milton prevailed during the time of the American Founding. Rather, that the system that predominates TODAY in 1st world nations -- not just the United States, but Western Europe, Australia, Canada, the developed Asian nations, etc. -- traces to Milton and the other hebraic republicans.

A question that interests me is, did the Ancient Hebrews in fact have a "republic"? As I read the text of the Bible, I don't see it. But I'm just some dude. And on faith matters, I am radically individualistic. I will decide for myself how to interpret the Bible, the context, not limited to but including, matters of doctrine, which texts are inspired, what the errors are (if any) and which books belong in the canon. And my faith beliefs change from day to day.

But on theological matters, I am a nobody.  So I wonder what the prevailing theologians make of the idea that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." I may be ignorant here but I can't think of any current "leading" Christian theologian of whatever ideological stripe endorsing the notion that the Ancient Jews had a "republic." Not Pope Benedict, not R.C. Sproul, not Russell Moore, not N.T. Wright, not (the relatively recently departed) Jaroslav Pelikan, not Miroslav Volf, not Bishop Spong, not Rachael Held Evans, etc. They may have made these arguments or addressed the issue; I'm just not aware of them.

In the past, yes, very notable thinkers did make this argument which had, according to Dr. Nelson, profound consequences. They took the notion of "republicanism" that was entirely a matter of pagan Greco-Roman origin, and grafted it onto the Old Testament. But in so doing, drafted what they saw as the economic egalitarianism of Ancient Jews into the concept of "republicanism."

The Ancient Greco-Roman republicans on the other hand were, like James Madison, not economic egalitarians. They weren't concerned with inequality of outcomes.

Milton et al. did borrow from Jewish sources -- rabbis who were his contemporaries or preceded him. But I too wonder about where prevailing Jewish thought among the different strains -- conservative, reformed, Orthodox, etc. -- is on this matter.

For that, I will ask my friend, the estimable Seth Barrett Tillman.