Moral Imagination in a Post-Constitutional Age

The claim that the United States is now in a “post-Constitutional age,” requires even less explanation than just a few months ago. One need only turn on the television or scan Twitter to observe how quickly fear, rage, sentimentalism, and talk of “revolution” can obliterate boundaries once erected to limit government, moderate factions, and protect fundamental rights and liberties. The response of government at all levels to the COVID-19 pandemic has quite blatantly violated Constitutional rights. While the common law tradition allows for the exercise of “police powers” for public health and safety, freedom of assembly continues to be viewed primarily as a liability. The free exercise of religion has been limited worldwide, exacerbating tensions between religious communities and civil authorities. Mayor de Blasio even took to Twitter, threatening to arrest Orthodox Jews who decided to gather. The debate also continues as to whether the lockdown of businesses amounts to a “regulatory taking” and the violation of private property rights and the Fifth Amendment. Then came the recent Supreme Court ruling in Bostock which, as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley rightly points out, amounts to a rather egregious example of legislating from the bench in violation of the separation of powers. These examples provide a dramatic reminder of how far the U.S. government and its people have strayed from both the spirit and text of the Constitution and its Framers.

The turbulence of 2020 isn’t the beginning, however. As the contributors to the new collection, The Historical Mind: Humanistic Renewal in a Post-Constitutional Age, make clear, America has been gradually abandoning the cultural, moral, and spiritual foundations that underwrote the Constitution of 1787 for years. Any order of justice and peace is precarious given human fallenness, and the Constitution’s opponents from the Anti-Federalists on have proven formidable. Moreover, the Framers themselves knew that the document they proposed was not perfect and would require amendments and clarification. But that document emerged from and reflected the context of shared moral and cultural assumptions that had been developed over millennia. Few, if any, in 1787 could foresee how quickly and thoroughly these foundations of Western civilization would be neglected, misunderstood, and rejected since the beginning of the bloody 20th century.

Irving Babbitt, Claes Ryn, and the Historical Mind

An early and incisive voice sounding the alarm in this crisis was Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University and a leading figure in the intellectual movement known as “New Humanism.” Though largely forgotten today, his influence on American conservativism is unmistakable, especially given his complicated influence on T.S. Eliot and the inspiration he provided for Russell Kirk. Babbitt’s critical resistance to progressivism and other idealistic trends in his time was animated by a belief that the problems of politics and civilization were profoundly complex and in need of an interdisciplinary response. He writes in Democracy and Leadership that

when studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Babbitt also argued that much of Western culture and politics in the 19th and early 20th century reflected a conflict between the “spirit of Edmund Burke” and the “spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” That is, between Rousseau’s radical and reductionist idyllic imagination and Burke’s moral imagination rooted in moral and historical reality. The strength of Rousseau’s legacy evinced in the utopian thinking of progressives and socialists inspires a rather grim, if prescient, diagnosis: “The multiplication of laws,” Babbitt laments, “attended by a growing lawlessness—the present situation in this country—is, as every student of history knows, a very sinister symptom. It may mean that our democratic experiment is, like similar experiments in the past, to end in a decadent imperialism.” While Babbitt was not given to hopelessness, he did see an urgent need to recover the Burkean historical mind and moral imagination to resist Rousseau’s idealistic descendants.

“The universal manifests itself and is known to human beings in the diverse particulars to which it is inextricably linked. Truth, goodness, and beauty are present in but are never consumed by historical examples.”

Justin Garrison and Ryan Holston, The Historical Mind

Among Babbitt’s most enthusiastic readers today is Claes G. Ryn, Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America. Ryn has spent decades building on Babbitt’s work, showing how, by the turn of the 20th century, the seeds of American constitutionalism’s self-destruction had been sewn.

The work of Babbitt and Ryn, and that of closely related writers such as Russell Kirk and Eric Voegelin, has inspired a devoted group of scholars (including the present author) to actively resist a “non-constitutional culture” and to preserve what remains of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Eleven of these scholars have recently contributed to this exceptional volume showcasing the “Babbittian” (or, perhaps more accurately, Burkean) tradition of conservative thought and its implications for the study of culture, imagination, ethics, and literature as well as religion, law, and history. Editors Justin D. Garrison and Ryan R. Holston chose a fitting title, as The Historical Mind, intentionally or not, hearkens back to Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953). Both volumes reflect the indebtedness of their authors to the Burkean emphases on historically-informed moral realism, suspicion towards utopian idealism, the critical importance of religion and the humanities, and the centrality of imagination for understanding the human condition.

Garrison and Holston’s volume is not a manifesto, nor does it offer detailed prescriptions. It is, instead, a call to think and imagine differently, and each chapter offers an example of what a more “historical” mind may provide. At its core, the historical mind eschews both relativism and absolutism and pursues what Ryn calls “value-centered historicism” or what Babbitt called a “oneness that is always changing”:

The more we develop our sense of the past, that is, our historical consciousness, the more we understand a seemingly contradictory truth: the universal manifests itself and is known to human beings in the diverse particulars to which it is inextricably linked. Truth, goodness, and beauty are present in but are never consumed by historical examples. There are no fixed models for philosophy, ethics, politics, or art.  

In this way, the book exemplifies a tradition of “moral realism” and resistance to abstract moral idealism. This realism requires, as one might expect, a sufficient attunement to reality in the broadest sense. That attunement takes place in the interplay between will, reason, and especially “imagination,” a word emphasized by nearly every author in the book.

“Imagination” as understood by Ryn and Babbitt, drawing on Burke, Benedetto Croce, S.T. Coleridge and others, is a pre-rational intuition of the good, the true, and the beautiful. “The imagination,” the editors explain, “always gives a unity, but it does not always give one that is real, which is to say, it is not always commensurate with the concrete, historical experience of human life.” Put simply, then, an imagination rooted in reality is what Ryn and Babbitt see as the Burkean “moral imagination,” while an imagination disconnected from reality is termed the “Romantic” or “idyllic” imagination of Rousseau. 

By focusing on the imagination, the contributors emphasize the centrality of ethical character and culture which can be nourished or corrupted by experience and works of philosophy, history, theology, literature, art, and film. By way of example, Justin Garrison focuses his contribution on Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men as a critique of scientific naturalism in opposition to another target of Babbitt’s criticism: Francis Bacon. Justin Litke’s chapter confronts the idyllic notions of American exceptionalism and imperialism drawing on the insights of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. Richard Gamble also emphasizes the dangers of idealistic American exceptionalism by reviewing its historical manifestations in 19th- and early 20th-century America.

Other contributors look to place Babbitt and Ryn’s work in conversation with that of others: Brad Birzer reflects on the relationship between Babbitt and Russell Kirk; S.F. McGuire compares Ryn and Voegelin on imagination; and Robert Koons emphasizes the compatibility of a Thomistic natural law tradition with moral realism. Garrison and Zhang Yuan also provide a fascinating and essential concluding essay examining the importance of Babbitt for scholars in China.

Despite the remarkable unity of the volume, this is not a work of hagiography. Several scholars challenge the work of Ryn and Babbitt in important ways. Robert Koons, for example, observes that Ryn’s otherwise salutary call for moral realism risks eschewing the possibility of recognizing “exceptionless general prohibitions” of natural law. Ryn has long been concerned about the ideological tendency to treat as universal some abstract, ahistorical principles which then become the basis for a moral-political crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” Koons suggests that we need not abandon the possibility of exceptionless principles of natural law: such principles allow for the use of imagination and practical wisdom (phronesis or prudence). In a way, Koons seems to be “nudging” Ryn more toward Aristotle and (especially) Aquinas, and away from the realism of Machiavelli.

Moral Imagination and the Constitution

What does all this have to do with constitutionalism? Across the disciplines represented, the authors demonstrate a need for a historical mind and a moral imagination to resist an idealistic, idyllic imagination. The U.S. Constitution, they contend, is the product of a historical mind animated by classical and Christian assumptions about human nature and by a realistic appraisal of Americans’ experience and the government’s limitations. When that same historical mind is no longer present, Founding documents become susceptible to misinterpretation, misapplication, neglect, and rejection.

If our students know anything about American history, they primarily know about its vices, its failures, its sins . . . Seldom does the student arrive who can acknowledge both the virtues and vices of American history.

Michael Federici contends that such a departure from the historical mind of the Framers has occurred in the thoroughly Rousseauian personality of Progressivism. Rather than a constitutionalism rooted in “historical experiences of order and political reality,” the Progressive appeal to a kind of “general will” of the people lends itself to utopianism and revolution. As Federici writes, “Constitutional societies must strike a balance between preservation and change. If change moves the society too distant from its engendering heritage, it has undergone something akin to a revolution. Its older identity and purpose are replaced by new and perhaps radically different ways of self-understanding and purpose.”

American politics, Left and Right, is tempted toward an idealistic amnesia at odds with the moral realism of the American Framers. To the extent that America’s historical experience remains a “living force in the culture of a constitutional society” in 2020, it is mostly as an object of ridicule, rage, and shame. The widespread failure to maintain a connection to what is best in the American tradition—to the very virtues with which America’s vices are resisted—could prove devastating to what’s left of a constitutional order. “Once that [connection to America’s historical experience] is lost,” Federici warns, “it is only a matter of time before rival ideologies, some masquerading as the engendering tradition, destroy the cultural substance that sustains the constitution. Restoration of the philosophical heritage is possible, but extremely difficult.”

Indeed, historical illiteracy and narrowly construed readings of tradition plague even the most educated of Americans. Those of us who teach American government find that if our students know anything about American history, they primarily know about its vices, its failures, its sins. While the cliché phrase that “one does not really know someone until they know their faults” rings true, seldom does the student arrive who can acknowledge both the virtues and vices of American history.

Therein lies one of the key tensions in this volume. In addition to their criticism of Progressives, the authors bemoan elements of the political Right that idealize American democracy as universalizable. At the same time, they are not at all advocating for the abandonment of patriotism or affection for one’s country. Instead, they call for a more critical and historically informed patriotism that resists idealistic and ideological strains.

Such patriotism is hard to come by, though, when the dominant American culture(s) has abandoned any semblance of an inner, ethical “check”—a moral consciousness, Babbitt and Ryn argue, required for inhabiting a truly constitutional community. This inner check is central to what contributor Bruce Frohnen calls “constitutional morality.” Constitutional morality is grounded in a recognition that the public-private distinction of many modern political philosophies is unsustainable. While a country as large as the United States could hardly expect to achieve a kind of Aristotelian politeia, a genuine, widespread constitutional ethos is possible:

Constitutional morality requires that those holding office under a particular constitutional structure act with a requisite virtue or set of virtues. The goal is not some abstract best person, but rather, a good member of Congress, good Supreme Court justice, good President, or good administrator. Persons in these positions properly share an appropriate subservience to constitutional requirements, especially the separation of powers, such that it makes sense to talk about the virtue of a political official at the national level and general constitutional morality. Crucially, the people must share this morality and virtue; they must demand respect for the Constitution among officeholders if those officeholders are to be held accountable and their constitutional norms are to be maintained.

In keeping with the rest of the volume, it would make sense to also recommend the need for a constitutional imagination or intuition that informs this morality. In a way, the entire volume aims at such an intuition whereby human beings learn to discipline their baser inclinations while actively cultivating a moral imagination in themselves and others.

At a moment when it seems like the very fabric of Western civilization is being set on fire, Garrison and Holston’s volume creatively and carefully delivers a much-needed dose of historically informed sanity. It belongs on the shelf of anyone searching for a measured response to our times, and for those who believe a Burkean conservatism for the twenty-first century is needed to avoid the horrors of the twentieth.