fbpx

America in the Dock

with Robert R. Reilly,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard Reinsch:
Welcome to Liberty Law Talk, I’m your host Richard Reinsch. Today, we’re talking with a special guest who’s returning to Liberty Law Talk, Robert Reilly. Robert Reilly is a man of many talents, many interests, he’s done a lot of wonderful things. He’s served in government for over two decades, special assistant to the President, and director of the Voice of America. He was senior advisor for information strategy to the Secretary of Defense, and he’s taught at the National Defense University. He’s the author of a number of books and essays, including the award-winning book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind. He is also a Viennese Waltzer. And, he told me one time in his earlier life, he was a stage actor. Was it a Shakespearean stage actor, I think?

So Robert, we are glad to welcome you. Last time, we discussed the end of ISIS. Now, we will talk about your new book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. Welcome.

Robert Reilly:
Great, Richard. Thank you for doing this.

Richard Reinsch:
So Robert, thinking about the title of this book, America on Trial. America has been on trial throughout it’s history, it’s particularly been on trial the last 50 years with the new left, rejecting its claims, and recently with the 1619 Project, insisting that all of America is just a footnote to slavery, so this has been going on for quite a while.

Why, specifically, did you write this book? What are the charges you see being leveled against the American founding?

Robert Reilly:
Well, I wrote this book because the very people who should be defending the principles of the American founding are attacking it. And some of those people might be known as conservative Christians, Catholics, and so forth, who should be the new Michael Novaks, who should be praising the principles of the American founding within the context of Judaeo-Christian civilization, Greek philosophy, and its noble lineage.

I believe it’s the dimensions of the catastrophe today that lead people, almost desperately, in search of a cause of it. Who did this to us, who’s responsible for it? They’ve arrived at this peculiar notion that the American founding did it to us, that it was a poison pill with a time release formula. 

They’re not doing that, and the reason I think they’re not is because they need to answer the question, whose responsible? Who put us in the degraded moral condition in which the United States exists today, with widespread pornography, a flood of drugs, the dissolution of the family, same sex marriage? Now, the transgender nonsense. But, where has this come from, and why have we so largely succumbed to it? To the point that we’ve had Supreme Court decisions saying some of these things are guaranteed by the Constitution?

Richard Reinsch:
Guaranteed by the word liberty, in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, specifically.

Robert Reilly:
Well, and of course, by what Justice Anthony Kennedy called the autonomy of the individual, which is not something that is found in any of our founding documents, but fabricated by him. And then, of course for the legalization of same sex marriages.

Now, the critics of the American founding on the Christian right are, basically, agreeing with Justice Kennedy, saying he’s right, the American founding was the product of a radical enlightenment thinking about the autonomy of the individual, and the perfectibility of the human being. Both of which notions are inimical to Christianity as it was practiced at that time, in the 18th Century, and indeed, is inimical to it today.

I believe it’s the dimensions of the catastrophe today that lead people, almost desperately, in search of a cause of it. Who did this to us, who’s responsible for it? They’ve arrived at this peculiar notion that the American founding did it to us, that it was a poison pill with a time release formula. And, as we become less and less a Christian country, we conform more and more to these principles of radical enlightenment ideology.

Richard Reinsch:
What specifically is their claim, that in the American founding there are these principles of an unencumbered individualism? What do they cite, what do they list for that evidence?

Robert Reilly:
Well, that’s one of the interesting things. When I read their arguments in order to rebut them, they have very little to offer in textual evidence from the founding. The way they read the Declaration of Independence, and the way they read parts of the Federalist Papers are, I tried to show, completely wrongheaded. They misunderstand these texts, they get it wrong.

Now, why do they do that so consistently? It’s because they’re looking through the wrong prism, and therefore they see the wrong thing. The prism is, basically, Hobbes, it’s a Hobbesian founding, and it is in this way. They take John Locke to be the primary influence on the founding, and of course, Locke was a big influence, and was mentioned from the pulpit in the state legislatures with frequency, he was broadly read. Now, they contend that John Locke was simply Thomas Hobbes with a smiley face. He was just a nicer version of Hobbes, with the same Hobbesian principles obtained in him, and therefore, leeched into the American founding through John Locke, and that’s why we are approximating a Hobbesian state today

Richard Reinsch:
When you say Hobbes with a smiley face, can you describe that more for us?

Robert Reilly:
Well, it’s that they would say the idea of a contract to which man consents in the foundation of a similar political order is based on nothing other than his will.

Richard Reinsch:
Okay.

Robert Reilly:
That it makes the will primary in political order, and it is not geared to any natural law or natural right. Even though those terms are used, they’re evacuated of their meaning. If you just strip those away, you see what’s really there, which is the Primacy of the Will.

What I try to show in my book is that those statements of Locke are grounded in a great tradition. The first tradition in which it’s grounded most immediately is the thought of Thomas Hooker, and his laws of ecclesiastical policy. Hooker, as you know, was a powerful 16th Century thinker, he was a priest, and he was the first theologian of the Anglican church. What Hooker was facing was the radical Puritan thought at the time, which was against human laws, thought that the laws on England should be abolished, and we should be ruled only by the Bible.

By the way, when you translate the Primacy of the Will politically, you ineluctably get Hobbes’ Leviathan. That’s what Hobbes does, he shows us what that means in a political order of absolute power of the Leviathan. But, that’s not what you get from Locke, you get an entirely different kind of democratic Constitutional order, based on the equality of all men, representation, the requirement of consent, and the right to revolution, the right to tyrannicide. All of these things, of course, aren’t present in Hobbes.

Richard Reinsch:
You also make the point in the book … I mean, I can find certain disturbing passages in Locke, that I think are nominalist, or seem to be admitting of, let’s say, certain individualistic tendencies. But, you make the point, which I think is well taken, that the founders read and used Locke as statesmen, themselves. They used him in a political constitutional sense of independence and limited government, not in a full anthropological, theological, epistemological manner that is alleged by thinkers like Michael Hanby or Patrick Deneen.

Robert Reilly:
That’s right. This was not an adoption of Locke’s epistemology and his letter on human understanding, it’s his second discourse on government. They took from Locke his very powerful arguments against the divine right of kings, and the absolute state.

What I try to show in my book is that those statements of Locke are grounded in a great tradition. The first tradition in which it’s grounded most immediately is the thought of Thomas Hooker, and his laws of ecclesiastical policy. Hooker, as you know, was a powerful 16th Century thinker, he was a priest, and he was the first theologian of the Anglican church. What Hooker was facing was the radical Puritan thought at the time, which was against human laws, thought that the laws on England should be abolished, and we should be ruled only by the Bible. Everything else was superfluous

He wrote against this, quite powerfully, and did so by resuscitating both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, particularly the Medieval articulation of the limits of political power, and the equality of men has a right to consent in representation, et cetera., and the respective spiritual and political realms, which are not coterminous. It’s hearkening back to the two swords teaching, that you give to feast the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, which had been instantiated so completely in the Middle Ages. So, Hooker saved those things, let’s say he saved the reformation from itself by using Aristotle and Aquinas against the radical Puritan thinking. Locke quoted Hooker more often than anyone, regarding these basic things.

Richard Reinsch:
You note in the book, too, you said on this constitutional thinking, saying constitutional in a capacious sense, across the centuries of unwritten tradition that forms the American founding. You situate Locke, Hooker, Robert Bellarmine, 16th Century Jesuit, Francisco Suarez, another 16th Century Jesuit. These are thinkers who are, in many ways, in touch with a tradition that stretches across the centuries, urging the King is under law, basic notions of political consent, ideas of right of revolution, potentially. You show that this actually forms, or is recovered by, the American founding. The American founding is not, as you say, Hobbes with a smiley face, or individualism run amok, it’s a part of a grand tradition.

Robert Reilly:
Yes, absolutely. You will find articulations of these basic principles in those thinkers, that they come right out of the American founding.

Richard Reinsch:
You listed them. You have pages where you list parts of the Declaration, and how they mirror things in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and how they mirror what Bellarmine, and Suarez, and Hooker were saying earlier. I mean, I thought that was incredible.

Robert Reilly:
Yes. They sound like paraphrases of each other, don’t they?

Richard Reinsch:
Yes, definitely.

Robert Reilly:
Then, also let’s not forget Algernon Sidney, and his discourses on government. He, too, relied on Hooker a great deal, but he also acknowledged Suarez and Bellarmine. The reason he, more or less, had to do that is that the book defending the divine right of kings, written by Robert Filmer called Patriarcha, was basically addressed to the arguments made by Bellarmine and Suarez, and it was an attempt at refutation of them. Filmer was an honest enough writer that he would take large chunks out of Bellarmine and say, “Here’s what the schoolmen say, the scholastics. And, here’s what I say, and here’s what Suarez says.” He quotes Bellarmine the most, Suarez the second.

When Sydney’s writing his refutation of Patriarcha, he grudgingly acknowledges Bellarmine, a hard thing for a Protestant to say, “This Catholic Cardinal’s got it right.” And he says, “But Bellarmine really is doing nothing but expressing the commonsense of mankind.” Which is no slight on Bellarmine, because that’s what Bellarmine himself says he’s doing. Because they’re all appealing to the same tradition of natural law as against the supremacy, the absolute supremacy of the state, whether it’s articulated in a totally secular way, as it was with Locke, or in the Divine Right of Kings way, as it was by James the First, or Robert Filmer.

The thing is, the absolute state as it appeared in the 17th Century, was something new. It was totally alien to the entire Medieval mindset, as it denied all the basic constitutional principles which had been developed at that time. As you just mentioned a little earlier, Richard, indeed my book makes the case that the American founding is a return to those principles, it’s a restoration of them. So, you can’t see it just simply as a creature of the radical enlightenment, when it is grounded in this great tradition.

What are the ideas that make the American founding conceivable, and from where did they come? What ideas do you need to have to conceive of such a thing, a political enterprise such as the American founding? That’s what I tried to trace. It, of course, predates Locke by millennia.

Richard Reinsch:
You know, a lot of people, I think, would say you seem to be switching categories, or switching received wisdom here. Isn’t it the Medieval period that’s the problem, and the enlightenment is a solution? When we say there’s a recovery here, of Medieval principles, what are specifically … maybe we can talk a bit about those Medieval principles. And, are we talking about England, primarily?

Robert Reilly:
Well, England, no, no we’re not except later on.

Richard Reinsch:
But, that’s what’s going to be most important, immediately.

Robert Reilly:
Yeah, but England withstood some of the absolute trends and tendencies that took over on the continent, which were under Roman law, and England chose not to go with Roman law which is one reason why freedom was preserved there, to a greater extent.

Let me just give a little larger perspective of the book, Richard.

The question the book asks is, what are the ideas that make the American founding conceivable, and from where did they come? What ideas do you need to have to conceive of such a thing, a political enterprise such as the American founding? That’s what I tried to trace. It, of course, predates Locke by millennia.

As you know, I start in pre-philosophic man, to show what that looked like, and we go through the significance of the discovery of Greek philosophy, of universal truths and principles, the revolutionary revelation of Israel, of monotheism, of a transcendent God who creates ex nihilo, and makes man in his own image and likeness, extraordinary in the sea of polytheism that the Jewish people adhered to, this teaching that there is only one God. The significance of that, with Greek philosophy, as both came to be assimilated in Christianity, is extraordinary.

And, as I talked about Greek philosophy, as you know, including the pre-Socractics, they wondered … First of all, we observed that there is an order in creation, there’s an order in nature. It’s a rational order, and with our reason we seem able to apprehend it. Now, where did this rational order come from? The speculation is there must be a divine intelligence behind it, it must be a manifestation of a divine intelligence.

Richard Reinsch:
Plato reaches that verdict.

Robert Reilly:
Plato reaches that, but before him, Heraclitus does, too. Because I believe it’s Heraclitus or Anaximander who first uses the word logos to describe this divine intelligence that is responsible for the rational order in creation and for man’s reason. Logos, of course, as you know, the Greek word for reason, or speech. Or, that’s the way they spoke of it, which makes intelligible the gospel of Saint John, when he says, “In the beginning, was logos. In the beginning was the word, and the logos was with God, and the word was God, and all things are made through Him as logos.” Which means that now we know why we have a rational creation, because the creator is, Himself, this reason logos. With the added astonishment, can you imagine if Heraclitus, having speculated on logos, met Him coming through the door? Then, indeed is Christ, entering his creation.

But, this logos is not simply logos, the mystery of man, who we know is made in the image and likeness of God, the mystery of man is revealed in the infinite love of Christ. I would say our civilization is based on Genesis, that man is made in the image and likeness of God. That is the source of our conception of human rights.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah. It’s difficult to argue how one would come to a conclusion of the equality of man as man, if there is nothing higher. When you think about Tocqueville’s statement, “that to understand equality it took God to come to Earth in the form of man.”

But, this also, as you point out, this revolution in thinking about who man is has incredible implications for law, and for government, and for how he would govern himself.

Robert Reilly:
Well, it does particularly when, through Christ, this revelation of God is love, and God’s redemptive love for each person. This exploded the ancient world, that man did not have access, as an individual person, to the divine. The only person who had such access was the divine, or semi-divine ruler. Your religious obligations were your civic obligations, the divine was only accessible through your polis, or your empire with the Pharaoh. Get as near to the Pharaoh as you can, because he’s the divine person through whom your supplications might be heard. But, you certainly, as a person, have no such access to the divine, and therefore, your religious duties are your civic duties. If anyone said there’s some kind of separation between religion and state in the ancient world, they’d have no idea what you were talking about.

The Christian revelation explodes that. Through man’s individual relationship with God, his eternal destiny and that transcendent God is reached, outside the state.

Richard Reinsch:
So, the state is now limited? The state does not reach to the highest ends of the soul, yeah.

Robert Reilly:
The state is not the vehicle for his salvation. This, of course, is the origin, then, of the separation of church and state, and rooted in Christ’s famous statement of giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Richard Reinsch:
I
suppose, Aristotle had the idea, Plato’s . . . The highest idea, or the highest form of existence for the human person would be contemplation of the divine, but that was a pretty limited conception just to the philosopher, as a rare being, a rare creature.

Robert Reilly:
Yeah, it was a conundrum. Aristotle, who said, “Nature always acts for a purpose, for an end.” The end of man that Aristotle saw was, as you point at, at it’s highest, his contemplation of the divine, to become as much like the divine as man could. Only his contemplation of the divine-

Richard Reinsch:
Only contemplation.

Robert Reilly:
Could do that, but the condition, the condition for doing that was twofold, virtue and leisure. Therefore, Aristotle said, “Few, if any, can achieve this.” How can that be, if this is the end of man, and man is incapable of reaching it? Except for the very exceptional person. Well, Christianity had the answer for that, how the non-philosopher also reaches the transcendent through God’s grace and mercy, and will share in divine life as God offers it to him, so that everyone has access to this through grace.

Richard Reinsch:
And this begins, also, moving forward in the book, one’s existence can’t be defined by the government, so you start to see separate spheres of activity emerge, new categories of law recognized by the state, perhaps, but not defined exclusively by the state. You start to have associations emerge. Out of the canon law itself, new forms of law emerge.

Robert Reilly:
Yeah, it demotes the state forever. But, as you just pointed out, it’s one thing to say you’ve got these two spheres, or they’re called, in the Middle Ages, the two swords. The ecclesiastical, spiritual sword, and the secular sword of the political ruler. But, how do you instantiate that, how do you order a society around that? Because what it pre-supposes is dual sovereignty over the same persons, the spiritual sovereignty exercised by the church, and the political sovereignty by the ruler.

The Middle Ages is working out that problem, how the individual can live under this dual sovereignty, and it was a highly developed articulation of that. Of course, these two sovereign ties kept bumping into each other, it wasn’t always a peaceful association, but it generally worked out. Both sides recognized that these two spheres did exist. What this gave man, more freedom, he enjoyed a … What can we say? There was a larger amplitude for him to exercise his freedom because neither sovereignty could claim the whole man.

Well, let me just jump ahead to the development of canon law, because it was through canon law that all of the constitutional principles I have mentioned were developed. There was a lot of thinking about law and political order, occasioned by the rediscovery of the Justinian Code. The canonists began examining it, and they extracted certain Roman legal principles, used them but changed them dramatically. One of the most important of these, that became central to the Middle Ages, and the order of both in the church and the state, so much so that it continued to influence political order to the time of the American founding. The principle is “quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari. What touches all, must be approved by all.” It sounds like an early articulation of no taxation without representation, and indeed, that’s what it was.

Richard Reinsch:
That would have emerged in church corporations, monasteries, governing bodies in the church, and then migrated into government?

Robert Reilly:
That’s exactly how it happened. That there was, first of all, the principle of equality was broadly recognized in both spheres, the equality of all men who are rational, and therefore their consent in their rule is required. As you say, this took place in the Dominican order, other orders in church councils. In order for this to function, they had to have the right for representation, so various church chapters could send a representative to a council, and that representative spoke for that chapter, and what was decided would be binding, and so forth.

So, the requirement of consent, popular sovereignty, equality, representation, and the Dominicans had quite an impact in England, as it was observed how they rule themselves according to these principles. The canon didn’t simply work in ecclesiastical circles, they were also in the courts. I mean, the royal courts.

So, these principles leached from the church into the civic and political realm, and there you have the development of the early parliaments. Which, quoted again, that same quote on this tangent principle, what affects all must be agreed to, approved by all. So, the shires were able to select a representative to be sent to the Parliament when the King wanted new taxes, and they could approve it or not approve it. One thing that was clear through all of this, the Abbott or the King was not above the law. It had to adhere to the law, as did all others. The King was made a king by the law, he was not above the law, so he made the law with the approval of those who were ruled by it. This was the norm in the Middle Ages, it was the norm throughout Europe and in England.

Richard Reinsch:
So, what happens? How is that gift, we’ll say, how is it upheld, or not upheld as you argue in the book, as we move into modernity? Specifically in the 16th Century, you talk about some thinkers, one we’ve discussed, Hobbes. Machiavelli, also Luther as well, thinkers who seem to be articulating, reflecting ideas reverting back to the primacy of will, and more towards and unlimited notion of sovereignty.

But, as you also note throughout the book, I guess the theme in your book, too, is the primacy of reason versus the primacy of will, and how that unlocks a new anthropology thinking about man as a being of will, whose reason is shaped by his will or by his passions. Then, that unlocks, in turn, a different way of thinking about government.

Robert Reilly:
That’s exactly right. This change started taking place in the late Middle Ages. William of Ockham is one of the most prominent thinkers who proposed this nominalist and voluntarist way of thinking, that was the obverse of Thomas Aquinas, and the synthesis of faith and reason that he had achieved in his magnificent work.

The key to this is theological. As Aquinas said, it’s God’s divine is primary to the divine will. It’s the intellect that conceives, or knows, and it is the will that executes. The reason logos is primary, because it is reason in God’s essence, and will secondary or instrumental, is because it obeys the intellect.

Now, what William of Ockham does is he flips that relationship, he makes God’s will his primary, and the divine intellect his secondary. It is the will that decides, and there is nothing constraining the will, it can decide anything. The intellect is, then, just an executor, finding the best way for the will to reach its end, its decision, and it is unconstrained. William of Ockham was upset that this Pagan philosopher, Aristotle, who had infected Thomas Aquinas, was constraining the omnipotent God. And that Ockham was going to set Him free, you see, by removing these restraints. But, he had to do so at the price of reason and nature. Now that the will is primary and God can do anything, what happens to the essences of things

In other words, things have natures, as Aristotle and Aquinas said, that lets us know what they ought to be, what their telos, or end is. What makes a human being flourish, and become more human, and what doesn’t? What is good, and what is bad? Are things we know through our knowledge of the thing’s nature, of man’s nature? Ockham says that we can’t know any of this, because there are no essences anymore.

Richard Reinsch:
It’s a divine will, that’s how you know what you should do?

Robert Reilly:
All of these things are the object of God’s will, and the words you use for things, this is phenomenalism, the nomine, the Latin for name, they don’t relate to anything out there. There’s no correlation between the name you give things and what they are because you can’t really know what they are. There’s no order in nature, because there’s no nature. This is a terribly radical teaching, and you can see how it has this ontology of the will unmoors everything. God can do anything. As Ockham scandalously said, “God can make us hate Him, and there’s no gainsaying Him.” There is nothing right or wrong in itself, other than God says it’s right. He may change His mind tomorrow and say it’s wrong, and we have to follow Him.

So, all that we can know regarding morality, and morality is defined by whatever God wills, and He can will anything, we know only through revelation, we can’t know any of this stuff through reason. So, this is an enormous demotion of reason, and it is picked up, he influenced Martin Luther profoundly, because, Martin Luther also bifurcated.

Richard Reinsch:
I was going to say, you pick up with Luther on how this really shaped the way he thought about government, and also how this would reflect law, its command, and our obligations under it.

Robert Reilly:
That’s right, and you see in Luther, under Ockham’s influence, he explicitly denies popular sovereignty. The Medievals all thought no ruler rules by divine right, he’s just another human being. All authority comes from God, but God doesn’t …

Richard Reinsch:
Pass through the people, yeah.

Robert Reilly:
It’s mediated through the people who are sovereign. Luther explicitly denies popular sovereignty, he explicitly denies the requirement of consent representation, and he explicitly denies the right to revolution. So, this new theology of a voluntarist God, a God of pure will and power who, of course, is incomprehensible, such a God is not accessible to reason, you can’t know anything about His essence when that’s will, and it’s a will that is not under the control of anything and through anything, at any time.

The voluntarism in theology is reflected in voluntarism in man. The primacy of will, when you get down to the level of man, is reflected, then, in the absolute ruler.

James Wilson, who was probably the most profound natural law thinker in the American founding, quoting “quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari. What touches all must be approved by all.” So, he was a natural law thinker, quoted Cicero, Aristotle. Of course, he quoted Richard Hooker quite a bit, he admired him a great deal. So, they were returning to these natural law, natural life principles, all of which had been denied by both forms of state absolutism.

Richard Reinsch:
Which emerges in the 16th Century, and you quote Lord Acton.

Robert Reilly:
Yeah, 17th Century.

Richard Reinsch:

How did we steward these gifts? Not very well. And, you see the emergence of Divine Right of Kings. As you note, absolutism. Divine right of kings, as I read your book, that teaching is a very anti-political teaching. Things are not debated, compromised in the pursuit of a political good for a constituted people, things are handed down by a king, willfully.

Robert Reilly:
The king is above the law.

Richard Reinsch:
The king is above the law, so we can see how that is definitely a part of how that become part of modern political thinking in other forms as well, and king democracy as some would say. So, you talk about that, that absolutism rising. You argue that the Colonists see their part as a restoration, a reaction against that unbound thinking.

Robert Reilly:
You see a founder like James Wilson, who was probably the most profound natural law thinker in the American founding, quoting “quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari. What touches all must be approved by all.” So, he was a natural law thinker, quoted Cicero, Aristotle. Of course, he quoted Richard Hooker quite a bit, he admired him a great deal. So, they were returning to these natural law, natural life principles, all of which had been denied by both forms of state absolutism. The secular absolutism, offered by Thomas Hobbes, and the divine right absolutism, offered by Filmer and James the First.

John Adams “They, the Revolutionaries, begin by reminding the people of the elevated rank they hold in the universe as men, that all men by nature are equal, that kings are but the ministers of the people. That their authority is delegated to them by the people, for their good, and that they have a right to resume it, and place it in other hands, or keep it themselves, whenever it is made use of to oppress them. These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke, the principles of nature and eternal reason, the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.”

You’ve got that opposition to them coming from the natural law tradition within the catholic church, with people like Suarez and Bellarmine, and you have the opposition coming from the Anglican, like Algernon Sidney, who has kept that same natural right tradition through Richard Hooker. And, through Aristotle, and the others.

Now, Sidney, as you know, was a hero in the American colonies, he was considered a martyr to Republicanism. His book, Discourses on Government, was considered a Bible in the American colonies. It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “This is the book to which we should all turn, and all the young of America should be educated on the principles of Republican government by Sidney’s book.” Of course, we have Hampton Sidney College, here in Virginia, which was …

Named after Sidney, that was created at the time of the American Revolution. So, you see the influence here of this lineage of these ideas, is very direct through Sidney.

Richard Reinsch:
On this, I wanted to read. You quote John Adams, and I think this really nicely encapsulates your point.

This is Adams, “They, the Revolutionaries, begin by reminding the people of the elevated rank they hold in the universe as men, that all men by nature are equal, that kings are but the ministers of the people. That their authority is delegated to them by the people, for their good, and that they have a right to resume it, and place it in other hands, or keep it themselves, whenever it is made use of to oppress them. These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke, the principles of nature and eternal reason, the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.”

Robert Reilly:
There it is.

Richard Reinsch:
There it is.

Robert Reilly:
You can find that being said multiple times by multiple people in the Middle Ages. As we just talked about, Richard, there was not a straight line development of those principles in more refined constitutional forms directly to the American founding, because of the interruption of that, the break off of the absolutist forms.

Richard Reinsch:
But, this tradition, that Adams quotation, impressive list of thinkers, philosophers, contained there, that full tradition we’ve been trying to describe, trying, in some way, to give justice in 45 minutes, to this unbroken, unwritten tradition of thinking that the American founding stands on. You mentioned in the beginning, the book, you’re addressing is to certain thinkers, Catholic thinkers, some Protestants, turning against the American founding.

John Courtney Murray, in the middle of the 20th Century, thought that if we lost this natural law tradition, that the American proposition, as he termed it, would be eviscerated at one stroke. He always thought, though, that if people did turn against it, it would be those thinkers within the natural law tradition, primarily he thought Catholic theologians, and philosophers, and lawyers, who would uphold it. Yet now, many of them, turn against it. And, in many ways, mock it. I don’t know how else to read … You quote Patrick Deneen on four separate occasions, misquoting Publius and Federalist No. 10 to support his theory of an atomistic founding. I don’t know what else to make of it, other than a willful refusal to reject evidence in favor of some post-Liberal project.

Robert Reilly:
Well, as you know, I also quote Patrick Deneen in a passage in which he says that Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia did not seek a reformed form of communism, but the end of it. In other words, the end of this law, there wasn’t a better form of this law. He made that statement in parallel of what he thinks of the American founding.

Richard Reinsch:
That it’s also a lie?

Robert Reilly:
It is a lie, and there’s no better form of it, there’s no reformation of it. It must be replaced, and that’s what he calls for, he wants a different founding. He never exactly says what, it would be very interesting for him to articulate that.

As you know, I argue somewhat passionately, Richard, that this is a very damaging teaching, because it cuts off the source of recovery. The case I make is the dire moral straits in which we find ourselves today is not a result of the founding, but a denial of its principles. And, our path to recovery must include a return to those principles.

Now, to say that those principles themselves are corrupt, that we have nothing to return to, leaves us exactly where?

Richard Reinsch:
Nowhere.

Robert Reilly:
I wanted to tell you, my oldest son is a Marine Corp Officer, of rather recent vintage, but in his political philosophy course at a Catholic university, the professor taught something very along the lines of Patrick Deneen. So, he didn’t use Deneen’s writings, and he didn’t present it as one of a variety of views of the American founding, but he convinced the class that the founding was morally compromised, it was corrupt.

My son struggled back against this, but the majority of the students bought it. So, at the end, they said, “Okay Professor, you’ve convinced us, we agree the founding was corrupt. Well, what are we supposed to do now?”

Richard Reinsch:
I think this is why your book is so important. I think a lot of people aren’t even aware, really, of the history, philosophy, and legal history that you present in the book. I think they don’t understand that, and they really are cut off from the full tradition, that would not have been possible generations prior for educated political thinkers in America. You know, progressivism goes back over a century, and they’re willfully rejecting something, but they know they’re rejecting it.

I’ve often wondered, too, it’s just there’s moral disquiet, there’s a sense that things are wrong. And oh, plunk, here’s a reason why. I think your book could really strike a chord, in that regard.

Robert Reilly:
You know, if I could say, Richard, we’re probably near the end of our time here, but when people ask, okay, how did we change, or what happened here? In the book, I do quote one passage from President Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, in which he says, “Implicit in the Constitution’s structure, and the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth. In fallibility of any idea or ideology, or theology, or ism, in any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course.” In other words, the truth does not set you free, the truth enslaves you.

Richard Reinsch:
Yes.

Robert Reilly:
He, here, rejects the fact that the American founding was based upon truths that are transcendent, through everywhere and at all times, for everyone.

Now, if that is so, we have something of immeasurable value that we need to rescue. If not, if Obama is right, then indeed, killing unborn children, taking drugs, pornography, same sex so-called marriage, it all fits within it, because there is no transcendent truth.

Richard Reinsch:
It also unlocks the door to authoritarianism. It unlocks the door, because there’s nothing really worth fighting for, at that point.

Robert Reilly:
It makes despotism dispositive.

Richard Reinsch:
Acceptable even.

Robert Reilly:
It leads to despotism, it leads to Leviathan. I would say, Thomas Hobbes is winning right now. But, we have the resources to fight back, but that requires a return to our founding principles, just as for our founders it required a return to the articulation of natural law and natural right principles, that were very ancient lineage. And, on which they based this great thing that they did.

Richard Reinsch:
I think that’s eloquently said, and a point we can end on, thank you so much. We’ve been talking with Robert Reilly, author of the new book, just published, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. Thank you so much.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 15, 2020 at 21:11:20 pm

This discussion is valuable. It introduces the argument that historical ignorance has misled those who once defended the Founding and caused them to lose heart and join forces with the original constitution's political enemies. In order to counter that self-defeating effect the author's new book introduces a new perspective on the intellectual origins of the America Founding. It denies significant Enlightenment influence and argues, instead, that the Founding predates the Enlightenment by millennia, encompasses the Hebrew Bible, the Greek philosophers, Rome and Christian revelation, Aquinas and natural law theory, the late Middle Ages and the British common law rights legacy. The book argues that the Founders found a way around the Reformation's disintegrative stress on will and with the help of Algernon Sidney avoided the conundrum of Locke's abstract rationalism and atomistic individualism while retaining select, statesman-like elements of Locke that were valuable to the Founding. I look forward to reading Mr. Reilly's book and hope that besides Sidney there is appreciation for Fortescue, Selden, Burke, Adams and Hamilton.

read full comment
Image of Paladin
Paladin
on May 16, 2020 at 19:29:43 pm

A scholar and a gentleman and a timely reminder. Purchasing two copies - will be sending one to a certain Judge Sullivan.

read full comment
Image of Michael Bond
Michael Bond
Trackbacks
on July 04, 2020 at 02:44:16 am

[…] Reilly argues this point specifically in an interview by Law & Liberty’s Richard […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

Related