Sunday, January 3, 2021

John Milton and Isaac Newton: From Arianism to Socinianism

I need to put this book on my "to read" list. 

"In a book in progress, I will argue that Milton is an early adopter of a set of positions characteristic of the Newton circle of the late seventeenth century. Shared Arian belief in a preexistent Son precluded full agreement with Socinians, who believed that the Son did not predate the birth of Jesus. Nevertheless, Milton and Newton shared Socinian and quasi-Socinian positions, for example, an emphasis on reason and an attack on metaphysics in biblical interpretation, an insistence on toleration, opposition to infant baptism, and a focus on the exemplary character of the Christ’s passion as opposed to stressing the crucifixion as atonement. Complicating reliance on categories and labels, the boundaries between Arians and Socinians in the seventeenth century were sufficiently fluid that one of Newton’s circle, Hopton Haynes, described Newton as Socinian, while another, William Whiston, labeled him as Arian. Frank Manuel, a leading scholar of Newton and religion, describes Newton as some Milton scholars have described Milton, as Arian in theology and Socinian in religion."

This was often the kind of "Christianity" that elite philosophical types in the American founding lauded. Or at least they lauded Milton and Newton (and Locke, Clarke and others).  

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Francis Hopkinson's Anti-Trinitarian

Francis Hopkinson was one of America's founders -- a "Founding father." He was not a "key founder" however (meaning that he's one that most people don't remember). 

He may also have been a unitarian. What I have discovered over the many years of researching America's founders personal religious views is that virtually all of were in some way formally connected with a church that had a Trinitarian creed. But we really don't know what they believed in until we dig a little deeper into the record.

Theological unitarianism was "en vogue" amongst some of the more "philosophically minded" theists.

I came upon a passage from Hopkinson where I thought he identified himself as an anti-Trinitarian. However, reading the passage in context Hopkinson appears to be speaking of someone else, perhaps a fictitious character. A "cobbler." 

As he wrote

ON my arrival in this country, I was much chagrined to find that the doctrine of the Trinity was generally received and professed; a doctrine against which I had acquired the strongest antipathy from my master, the great philosopher. However, as war raged in the country, there was no time for theological disquisitions; and as the justice of the war was clearly on the side of the Americans, I resolved to take an active part in their cause, and enlisted myself a soldier in the Pennsylvania line. I went through inexpressible toil and danger, in marches, counter-marches, skirmishes and battles, and was finally wounded at the siege of York-Town, when lord Cornwallis and his army surrendered to the allied forces of France and America.

After the peace, I supported myself by cobling and patching, and employed my leisure hours in combating the doctrine of the Trinity, and devising grand schemes for public utility.

 See also here

Sunday, December 27, 2020

From 2018, Gier reviews Lillback's GWSF

I missed this in 2018. The notable Unitarian Universalist scholar Nick Gier reviewed Peter Lillback's "George Washington's Sacred Fire," a massive tome which attempts to prove George Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. 

From Dr. Gier's review:

Washington and Jefferson: Both Nominal Anglicans

Lillback really has to stretch the evidence and indulge in a lot speculation to make Washington an orthodox, trinitarian Christian. Lillback likes to use syllogistic reasoning to refute previous Washington scholars. Here is the essence of his argument in the form of a syllogism: major premise: Anglicans are orthodox Christians; minor premise: Washington was an Anglican; therefore, Washington was an orthodox Christian.

Thomas Jefferson was also a vestryman in the Anglican church and attended church regularly throughout his life, but Lillback would never draw the conclusion that Jefferson was an orthodox Christian. This fact leads us to believe that the major premise is obviously false.

Washington was a nominal Episcopalian (the Anglicans renamed after the Revolution) who attended church irregularly, ceasing after his retirement. His diaries show that he frequently dishonored the Sabbath. We learn from one entry that he would have collected his rents on Sundays, but he declined because the people living on his land were “apparently very religious.” 

No Evidence for Belief in the Trinity or the Deity of Christ

The weakest arguments in the book are the ones devoted to proving that Washington believed in the deity of Christ and the Trinity. In all of his voluminous writing only once does he speak of Jesus and this single incident, a speech to the Delaware Indians, most likely written by an aide more orthodox than he. On the manuscript of another speech to Indian leaders, we can clearly see the word “God” crossed out and the phrase “Great Spirit” written in Washington’s own hand.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Merry Christmas from the Moon

 


It was on Christmas Eve 1968 that the astronauts of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, became the first of mankind to see an earthrise from the orbit of the moon, and looking back on us, they spoke these words:


Anders: "We are now approaching lunar sunrise. And, for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you...

"In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness."

Lovell: "And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Borman: "And God said, Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas: and God saw that it was good."

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth."


It is good. God bless us, every one.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Jedidiah Morse to James Madison

Jedidiah Morse was one of the forces of orthodox, Calvinistic religious correctness who was sorry to see "heresies" gain traction during the American founding. Among other things, he was an enemy of theological unitarianism and had quite an amusing exchange with John Adams that I've reproduced numerous times.

Here I just discovered his letter to then President James Madison on what Morse saw as an appalling plan to spend government money to buy the library of Thomas Jefferson. The letter to Madison is dated November 23, 1814. I reproduce it in whole below:

Perhaps you may Wonder to See Such a Schroll as this; Coming from an old man, now in the 89th year of his age; who has lived to See the End of two Distressing Wars but does not much Expect to See the much desired End of the present, Cruel, unnecessary, unjust War; Esteemed so by thousands of the good people of the United States and the Expences of it, too heavy, and grievous to be borne; But what I principally aimed at, in writing this to your Excellency, was, that I am Informed, by the papers; that Congress, has it in Contemplation to purchase; Mr. Jeffersons Library, at the Enormous price of 25000. Dollars; which Consists Chiefly, of Deistical Books; and hetrodox Works; Such as Arian, Socinian-Arminian; antinomian; Paines age of reason, and others of his Deistical Works; Ethan Allens Bible;1 and what not of a Deistical Cast;2 if Congress wants a Library, I am willing they Should have one; but Not Mr. Jeffersons. I will take leave to propose a better one; and in a more just and Easy way; which is as follows (viz) that Each member of Congress; procure a book, or books to the amount, or Value of three Dollars, which is but half a days wages; which will hardly be felt; his Excellency, the President, to lay the foundation, of the Library, or Set the first Example,3 by putting the first Book, if he Shall So Choose, and approve of the same—and Each member of Congress; Shall Insert his name, in the book or books, he Shall so procure; and lodge in the Library; Whither they be ancient, or modern history; Geography; gazetteers or theoligy; or whatever book, or books, he Shall Choose to lodge in the library; that Each member of Congress; may know by the Name; the religious Sentiment of the Donor; if any Easier way, to procure a Library Can be devised by our Congress; and Not to add, to the burden, which the people of the United States, now groan under, and Co[m]plain of, and not without Just Cause; I have Nothing to object; and pray I may be Excused for my boldness; in attempting to write to one, who is So much Superior in office; tho. not in age, as myself; and with due Consideration, and Submission Subscribe with my own hand and name your Excellencys humle Servant 
Jedidiah Morse4

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Are Mormons Christian?

That's the title to a Volokh Conspiracy post. There is actually a court case in Arizona on this question. Eugene Volokh aptly sums up the court's opinion: "Not for secular courts to judge, holds the Arizona Court of Appeals."

James Madison said the very same thing in his Notes on the Memorial and Remonstrance. That he didn't want courts of law making these judgments was a strong motive in driving that document.

Below doesn't quote from the Arizona case but Madison's aforementioned Notes:

3. What is Xnty ? Courts of law to Judge.

4. What edition: Hebrew, Septuagint, or Vulgate ? What copy what translation ?

5. What books canonical, what apocryphal ? the papists holding to be the former what protestants the latter, the Lutherans the latter what the protestants & papists ye former.

6. In what light are they to be viewed, as dictated every letter by inspiration, or the essential parts only ? Or the matter in general not the words ?

7. What sense the true one for if some doctrines be essential to Xnty those who reject these, whatever name they take are no Xn Society?

8. Is it Trinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism ? Is it salvation by faith or works also, by free grace or by will, &c., &c.

9. What clue is to guide [a] Judge thro' this labyrinth when ye question comes before them whether any particular society is a Xn society ?

10. Ends in what is orthodoxy, what heresy. Dishonors Christianity.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The First Amendment Never Separated God and Government

Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson, 1779.  The First Amendment never separated God and government. It left religion to the states.

In the Founding era the existence of God was seen as a plain fact, not just one theory among many.


Resolved, that it be recommended to the several states to appoint THURSDAY the 9th of December next, to be a day of publick and solemn THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, for his mercies, and of PRAYER, for the continuance of his favour and protection to these United States; to beseech him that he would be graciously pleased to influence our publick Councils, and bless them with wisdom from on high, with unanimity, firmness and success; that he would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; that he would grant to his church, the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all Ministers of the gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth; that he would smile upon the labours of his people, and cause the earth to bring forth her fruits in abundance, that we may with gratitude and gladness enjoy them; that he would take into his holy protection, our illustrious ally, give him victory over his enemies, and render him finally great, as the father of his people, and the protector of the rights of mankind; that he would graciously be pleased to turn the hearts of our enemies, and to dispence the blessings of peace to contending nations.

That he would in mercy look down upon us, pardon all our sins, and receive us into his favour; and finally, that he would establish the independance of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue, and support and protect them in the enjoyment of peace, liberty and safety.”

I do therefore by authority from the General Assembly issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing Thursday the 9th day of December next, a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God, earnestly recommending to all the good people of this commonwealth, to set apart the said day for those purposes, and to the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, edify them with their discourses, and generally to perform the sacred duties of their function, proper for the occasion.

Given under my hand and the seal of the commonwealth, at Williamsburg, this 11th day of November, in the year of our Lord, 1779, and in the fourth of the commonwealth.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Text from Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Nicolson), 20 Nov. 1779.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

John Quincy Adams' Unitarianism

I've spent much time researching John Adams' unitarianism, which could be quite militant at times. I've spent less time on his son, John Quincy Adams' creed. I know at one time JQA was a Calvinist/Trinitarian and had some very interesting discussions and debates with his father in their exchange of letters.

However, the younger Adams apparently converted to something like unitarianism as he aged. 

Below is what Koty Arnold has written and compiled:

... The letter where JQ "defends" the Trinity to his father is somewhat lukewarm, though he at that time did appear to adhere to the doctrine. ... [I]n the span of a few years, JQA would conform to the Unitarian liberalism that was then so popular in New England. He wrote in his memoirs about his contempt for orthodox Christianity, especially Calvinism, for its belief in doctrines like the atonement and original sin. The Trinity he dismissed as "unimportant" to the Christian religion, which is really just about earthly moral conduct.
"Solemn nonsense and inconceivable absurdity. This is the impression which I can never remove from my mind when I hear a Calvinistic preacher hammering upon that everlasting anvil of the atonement. "Incredulous odi"--I disbelieve and I hate. It is always to me an admonition of the weakness of the human intellect. That the execution, as a malefactor, of one person, the Creator of all worlds, eighteen hundred years ago, should have redeemed me, born nearly eighteen centuries after his death, from eternal damnation is not only too shocking for my belief, but I ask myself what there can be above the level of the beasts which perish in the animated being that can believe it. A melancholy monument of mental aberration and impotence."
"That man is a vicious, wicked animal is the fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion. That he cannot save himself from eternal punishment is the doctrine of the Catholic churches, and of Calvin. If he cannot save himself, he is not a responsible being; that is the conclusion of justice and a conclusion from which I could not escape if I would. The mission of Christ was to teach all mankind the way to salvation. His death, an ignominious death, was necessary to the universal spread of His doctrine. He died for mankind, as Curtius died for his country, as Codrus died for his people. In this sense I can believe the doctrine of the atonement, and in no other. Christ died as a man, not as God."
"The only Importance of religion to my mind consists in its influence upon conduct; and upon the conduct of mankind the question of Trinity or Unity, or of the single or double personal nature of Christ has or ought to have no bearing whatsoever."
"I told him in substance what I have written to my son George, that I believed the nature of Jesus Christ was superhuman; but whether he was God or only the first of created beings was not clearly revealed to me in the Scriptures."

Read more about Mr. Arnold here.  

Update: As Tom Van Dyke points out, JQA was arguably agnostic on the Trinity during this time.

"I did not prescribe to many of his doctrines, particularly not to the fundamental one of his Unitarian creed. I believe in one God but his nature is incomprehensible to me; and of the question between the Unitarians and the Trinitarians, I have no precise belief, because I have no definite understanding."

Monday, October 12, 2020

How Howard Zinn Hijacked History and Christopher Columbus

From “Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America” by Mary Grabar. This excerpt originally appeared at The College Fix and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




Howard Zinn rode to fame and fortune on the “untold story” of Christopher Columbus—a shocking tale of severed hands, raped women, and gentle, enslaved people worked to death to slake the white Europeans’ lust for gold.

Today, that story is anything but untold. Zinn’s narrative about the genocidal discoverer of America has captured our education system and popular culture. The defacement of statues of Columbus with red paint had already become an annual ritual in many places.

Zinn is the inspiration behind the current campaign to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” High school teachers cite his book in making the case for the renaming to their local communities. In October 2018, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Rochester, New York, joined at least sixty other cities in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Six states also do not recognize the holiday as Columbus Day. Many articles reporting on this trend cited Howard Zinn’s role in the change in attitude.



Stanford anthropology Professor Carol Delaney, who was quoted in a Courthouse News Service article to provide a counter-narrative, informed reporters that Columbus acted on his Christian faith and instructed his crew to treat the native people with kindness. But such inconvenient facts are inevitably drowned out by the Columbus-hate that Howard Zinn has succeeded in spreading.

Presumably extrapolating from the “many volumes” he had read, Zinn found the inspiration for the dramatic opening sentences of “A People’s History of the United States” [presented in full at the link by the aptly-named historyisaweapon.com—Ed.]:

“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log: ‘They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton, and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . ’”

The quoted passage from Columbus’s log continues with Columbus’s description of the Arawaks. They are “well-built” and handsomely featured. Having never seen iron, they accidentally cut themselves on the Europeans’ swords when they touch them. The passage ends with Columbus’s now infamous words: “They have no iron. Their spears are made out of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

The ellipses in this passage are Zinn’s, not mine. Those omissions are essential to Zinn’s dishonest retelling of the Columbus story. By leaving crucial words out of the quotation, Zinn makes Columbus say something very different from what he actually said.

It’s unlikely that he even read as much of “Columbus’s journals” or the works of “Las Casas, the great eyewitness” as he claimed. The truth is that Zinn’s description of Columbus’s first encounter with the American Indians is lifted from “Columbus: His Enterprise: Exploding the Myth,” a book for high school students that Zinn’s friend and fellow anti-Vietnam War activist, Hans Koning, first published in 1976.

Zinn perpetuates Koning’s smears. In Koning’s telling and in Zinn’s, Columbus set out to enslave a uniformly gentle people for the sole purpose of enriching himself with gold. In fact, that is far from the truth. European efforts to find a sea route to Asia had been going on for hundreds of years. As William and Carla Phillips point out in “The Worlds of Christopher Columbus,” Columbus’s voyages of discovery were a continuation of Europeans’ ventures of sailing to Asia—at first, around Africa—that had begun in 1291. For centuries before Columbus, Portuguese and Spanish explorers had also ventured farther and farther out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Thus, Columbus’s mission was multi-faceted and inspired by several different motivations: “to reach the East Indies, so as to take Islam in the rear, and to effect an alliance with the Great Khan—a mythical personage who was believed to be the sovereign of all that region, and favorable to the Christian religion—and finally . . . to diffuse Christianity throughout that unknown continent and trade with the traditional sources of gold and spices.”

Desires to find new lands for more resources and to escape enemies and persecution are not impulses unique to Europeans. The natives of North America “in prehistoric times” themselves came from Asia and “crossed the land bridge across the Bering Strait to the lands of the Western Hemisphere.”

When he encountered naked natives instead of the Asian merchants he was expecting, Columbus did not jump to thoughts of working them to death for gold as Zinn, following Koning, suggests. For example, in his log entry for October 12, 1492, Columbus wrote, “I warned my men to take nothing from the people without giving something in exchange”—a passage left out by both Koning and Zinn.

But Zinn’s most crucial omissions are in the passage from Columbus’s log that he quotes in the very first paragraph of his People’s History. There he uses ellipses to cover up the fact that he has left out enough of Columbus’s words to deceive his readers about what the discoverer of America actually meant. The omission right before “They would make fine servants” is particularly dishonest. Here’s the nub of what Zinn left out: “I saw some who bore marks of wounds on their bodies, and I made signs to them to ask how this came about, and they indicated to me that people came from other islands, which are near, and wished to capture them, and they defended themselves. And I believed and still believe that they come here from the mainland to take them for slaves.”

In his translation of Columbus’s log, Robert Fuson discusses the context that Zinn deliberately left out:

“The cultural unity of the Taino [the name for this particular tribe, which Zinn labels “Arawaks”] greatly impressed Columbus…. Those who see Columbus as the founder of slavery in the New World are grossly in error. This thought occurred to [Samuel Eliot] Morison (and many others), who misinterpreted a statement made by Columbus on the first day in America, when he said, ‘They (the Indians) ought to be good servants.’ In fact, Columbus offered this observation in explanation of an earlier comment he had made, theorizing that people from the mainland came to the islands to capture these Indians as slaves because they were so docile and obliging.”

Zinn’s next ellipsis between “They would make fine servants” and “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” covers for Zinn’s dishonest pretense that the second statement has anything at all to do with the first. The sentences that Zinn joins here are not only not in the same paragraph—as he dishonestly pretends by printing them that way on the very first page of A People’s History— but they’re not even in the same entry of Columbus’s log. In fact, they’re from two days apart.

Zinn’s highly selective quotations from Columbus’s log are designed to give the impression that Columbus had no concern for the Indians’ spiritual or physical well-being—that the explorer was motivated only by a “frenzy for money.”

But literally the explorer’s first concern—the hope that he expressed in the initial comment about the natives in his log—was for the Indians’ freedom and their eternal salvation: “I want the natives to develop a friendly attitude toward us because I know that they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force.”

Zinn just entirely omits the passage in which Columbus expresses his respect and concern for the Indians. Zinn also suppresses—and, where he doesn’t suppress, downplays— the evidence from even the sympathetic Las Casas that the Indians could be violent and cruel. Zinn has to admit that they were “not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes.” But, like Koning, he is eager to explain their violent behavior away, arguing, “but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings.”

In Zinn’s telling, the Arawaks—or black slaves, or Cherokees, or New York Irish, or whoever—must always be persecuted innocents and the condemnation of their sufferings must be absolute. The officially oppressed cannot be blamed even for any crimes they themselves commit, which are inevitably the fault of their oppressors.

According to Zinn, there’s no such thing as objective history, anyway: “the historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.”

Once ideology has become a moral virtue, Zinn can discount standards of scholarship—such as those of the American Historical Association—as having to do with nothing more important than “technical problems of excellence”—standards of no importance compared to his kind of history, which consists in forging “tools for contending social classes, races, nations.”

Thus it would seem that the noble political purpose behind Zinn’s history justifies him in omitting facts that are inconvenient for his Columbus-bad-Indians-good narrative.

"Debunking Howard Zinn" is available from Regnery Publishing.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Allan Bloom on the Moderns' Solid Ground

With this, I complete my series on Allan Bloom analysing the philosophical construct of the "state of nature" from which modern liberalism emerged. This passage is from pages 165-167 of "The Closing of the American Mind."

This scheme provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men's labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights, like the other terms discussed in this chapter, are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. Unlike the other terms, however, we understand rights perfectly and have immediate access to the thought underlying them. The others are alien, problematic; and to understand them requires a great effort that, I am arguing, we do not make. But rights are ours. They constitute our being; we live them; they are our common sense. Right is not the opposite of wrong, but of duty. It is a part of, or the essence of, freedom. It begins from man's cherished passion to live, and to live as painlessly as possible. An analysis of universal needs and their relation to nature as a whole demonstrates that this passion is not merely an imagination. It can be called a right and converted into a term of political relevance when a man is fully conscious of what he needs most, recognizes that he is threatened by others and that they are threatened by him. The spring that makes the social machinery tick is this recognition, which generates the calculation that, if he agrees to respect the life, liberty and property of others (for which he has no natural respect), they can be induced to reciprocate. This is the foundation of rights, a new kind of morality solidly grounded in self-interest.

To say, "I've got my rights," is as instinctive with Americans as breathing, so clear and evident is this way of looking at things. It signifies the rules of the game, within which men play peacefully, the necessity of which they see and accept, and the infringement of which arouses moral indignation. It is our only principle of justice. From our knowledge of our rights flows our acceptance of the duties to the community that protects them. Righteousness means for us respect for equal rights equally guaranteed by the force of government. Everyone in the world today speaks of rights, even the communists, the heirs of Marx, who ridiculed "bourgeois rights" as a sham and in whose thought there is no place for rights. But almost every thoughtful observer knows that it is in the United States that the idea of rights has penetrated most deeply into the bloodstream of its citizens and accounts for their unusual lack of servility. Without it we would have nothing, only chaotic selfishness; and it is the interested source of a certain disinterestedness. We feel people's interests should be respected.

This scheme represented a radical break with the old ways of looking at the political problem. In the past it was thought that man is a dual being, one part of him concerned with the common good, the other with private interests. To make politics work, man, it was thought, has to overcome the selfish part of himself, to tyrannize over the merely private, to be virtuous. Locke and his immediate predecessors taught that no part of man is naturally directed to the common good and that the old way was both excessively harsh and ineffective, that it went against the grain. They experimented with using private interest for public interest, putting natural freedom ahead of austere virtue. Self-interest is hostile to the common good, but enlightened self-interest is not. And this is the best key to the meaning of enlightenment. Man's reason can be made to see his vulnerability and to anticipate future scarcity. This rational awareness of the future and its dangers is enough to set the passions in motion. In the past men were members of communities by divine commandment and by attachments akin to the blood ties that constitute the family. They were, to use Rousseau's phrase, "denatured." Their loyalties were fanatic and repressive of their natures. Clear reasoning wiped that slate clean in order to inscribe on it contracts calmly made with expectation of profit involving the kinds of relations found in business. Calculated work is the sum of the whole affair. Thomas Watson said it all with the motto he placed on the walls of his offices and factories: "Think"; for he was addressing himself to men who were already working. 

Americans are Lockeans: recognizing that work is necessary (no longing for a nonexistent Eden), and will produce well-being; following their natural inclinations moderately, not because they possess the virtue of moderation but because their passions are balanced and they recognize the reasonableness of that; respecting the rights of others so that theirs will be respected; obeying the law because they made it in their own interest. From the point of view of God or heroes, all this is not very inspiring. But for the poor, the weak, the oppressed—the overwhelming majority of mankind—it is the promise of salvation. As Leo Strauss put it, the moderns "built on low but solid ground."  

So I end this series with the one place in this book that Bloom cites his mentor Leo Strauss. I think, the next series I do will be on Strauss on modernity, putting that quotation into context.

And I do note this "report" given from Bloom and before him Strauss is disputed. Did they really properly understand Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau? And is it true that the "rights talk" that we take for granted is a product of modernity?

Monday, September 21, 2020

Allan Bloom on Locke's State of Nature

I continue my series on Allan Bloom articulating the "state of nature" from which liberalism emerged with his analysis of John Locke. This passage is from pages 163-165 of The Closing of the American Mind

From his reflection on the state of nature, Locke drew the formula of Enlightenment, with its particular combination of natural and political science. Its starting point is the untrammeled use of reason. In this he simply follows the oldest opinions of the philosophers. Freedom for man consists in ordering his life according to what he can see for himself through his most distinctive faculty, liberated from the force of tyrants and the authority of lies, i.e., myths. Through unaided reason, man as man, as opposed to the man of this place or time, nation or religion, can know the causes of things, can know nature for himself. Autonomy does not mean, as is now generally thought, the fateful, groundless decision in the void, but governing oneself according to the real. There must be an outside for the inside to have meaning. 

So thought Locke and his philosophic predecessors and successors. What distinguished Enlightenment from earlier philosophy was its intention to extend to all men what had been the preserve of only a few: the life lived according to reason. It was not "idealism" or "optimism" that motivated these philosophers but a new science, a "method," and allied with them, a new political science. A clear and distinct mathematical science of the movement of bodies, discovered by the use of a simple method readily understood by ordinary men, could make the knowledge of nature accessible to them, if not provide them with the genius to discover that knowledge. The various mythic or poetic views of the whole that set the horizons for the nations of man, and within which the philosophers had always lived alone and misunderstood, would be dispensed with, and the fundamental difference in perspective between scientist and nonscientist overcome. Further, if man himself is taken out of the shadows of the kingdom of darkness and examined in the light of science, he sees that by nature he belongs to the realm of bodies in motion, and that he, like all other bodies, wishes to preserve his motion, that is, his life. Every man has a powerful fear of death, that corresponds to the way of nature. Critical, scientific, methodical examination of the other ends prescribed for man can show that they belong to the realm of the imagination, of false opinion, or derive from this primary end. Such critical examination, of which all men are capable if given guidance by philosophers, and which is supported by powerful inclinations in all men, results in a salutary unity of purpose and a useful simplification of the human problem: vulnerable man must seek the means to his preservation. Since this is what all men really want, whatever arrangements help them get food, clothing, shelter, health and, above all, protection from one another will, if they are properly educated, win their consent and their loyalty.

Once the world has been purged of ghosts or spirits, it reveals to us that the critical problem is scarcity. Nature is a stepmother who has left us unprovided for. But this means we need have no gratitude. When we revered nature, we were poor. Since there was not enough, we had to take from one another; and as a result of this competition, there was inevitably war, the greatest threat to life. But if, instead of fighting one another, we band together and make war on our stepmother, who keeps her riches from us, we can at the same time provide for ourselves and end our strife. The conquest of nature, which is made possible by the insight of science and by the power it produces, is the key to the political. The old commandment that we love our brothers made impossible demands on us, demands against nature, while doing nothing to provide for real needs. What is required is not brotherly love or faith, hope and charity, but self-interested rational labor. The man who contributes most to relieving human misery is the one who produces most, and the surest way of getting him to do so is not by exhorting him, but by rewarding him most handsomely to sacrifice present pleasure for the sake of future benefit, or to assure avoidance of pain through the power so gained. From the point of view of man's well-being and security, what is needed is not men who practice the Christian virtues or those of Aristotle, but rational (capable of calculating their interest) and industrious men. Their opposite numbers are not the vicious, wicked or sinful, but the quarrelsome and the idle. This may include priests and nobles as well as those who most obviously spring to mind. 

Here Bloom sees Locke as a modern whose teachings are in tension with classical (Aristotle et al.) and Christian sources. This is an esoteric reading of Locke. Locke did not exoterically present himself as such a troublemaker.  But in reality, he couldn't. Philosophers could be killed for rocking the boat in such a way back then. 

Bloom, rightly in my view, connects Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau together as operating on a common ground: the concept of "the state of nature," social contract and rights, each with his own distinct view of that phenomenon.  Bloom also accurately notes England and America followed Locke, not the other two. Where Bloom is most controversial is with the esoteric reading. Locke presented his ideas in a Christian context, seemingly compatible with the the traditional order. But interestingly, so did Hobbes and Rousseau. All three operated in similar ways presenting their ideas under the auspices of Christianity. 

More on that later. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Allan Bloom on States of Nature

I'm continuing the discussion from Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and how it dealt with the founders of liberalism. What they deem modern politics. Politically, Bloom traces it to the English, American and French Revolutions, in that order. 

But here is where the analysis gets interesting in a very provocative and contentious way.  From pages 162-63:

What was acted out in the American and French Revolutions had been thought out beforehand in the writings of Locke and Rousseau, the scenarists for the drama of modern politics. These Columbuses of the mind—Thomas Hobbes led the way, but Locke and Rousseau followed and were considered more reliable reporters—explored the newly discovered territory called the state of nature, where our forefathers all once dwelled, and brought the important news that by nature all men are free and equal, and that they have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of property. This is the kind of information that causes revolutions because it pulls the magic carpet out from under the feet of kings and nobles. Locke and Rousseau agreed on these basics, which became the firm foundation of modern politics. Where they disagreed, the major conflicts within modernity were to occur. Locke was the great practical success; the new English and American regimes founded themselves according to his instructions. Rousseau, probably the greatest literary success of all time, inspired all the later attempts in thought and deed, private and public, to alter, correct or escape from the fatality of Locke's complete victory. 

It is now fashionable to deny that there ever was a state of nature. We are like aristocrats who do not care to know that our ancestors were once savages who, motivated only by fear of death and scarcity, killed one another in quarrels over acorns. But we continue to live off the capital passed on to us by these rejected predecessors. Everyone believes in freedom and equality and the rights consequent to them. These were, however, brought to civil society from the state of nature; in the absence of any other ground for them, they must be just as mythical as the tale of the state of nature told by the unreliable travelers. Instructed by the new natural science that provided their compass, they went to the origin and not to the end, as did the older political philosophers. Socrates imagined a shining city in speech; Hobbes discovered an isolated individual whose life was "mean, nasty, brutish and short." This opens up a very different perspective on what one wants and hopes for from politics. Prudence points not toward regimes dedicated to the cultivation of rare and difficult, if not impossible, virtues, but toward a good police force to protect men from one another and allow them to preserve themselves as well as possible. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all found that one way or another nature led men to war, and that civil society's purpose was not to cooperate with a natural tendency in man toward perfection but to make peace where nature's imperfection causes war. 

The reports from the state of nature mixed bad news and good news. Perhaps the most important discovery was that there was no Garden of Eden; the Eldorado of the spirit turned out to be both desert and jungle. Man was not provided for at the beginning, and his current state is not a result of his sin, but of nature's miserliness. He is on his own. God neither looks after him nor punishes him. Nature's indifference to justice is a terrible bereavement for man. He must care for himself without the hope that good men have always had: that there is a price to be paid for crime, that the wicked will suffer. But it is also a great liberation—from God's tutelage, from the claims of kings, nobles and priests, and from guilt or bad conscience. The greatest hopes are dashed, but some of the worst terrors and inner enslavements are dispelled. 

Unprotectedness, nakedness, unsuccored suffering and the awfulness of death are the prospects that man without illusions must face. But, looking at things from the point of view of already established society, man can be proud of himself. He has progressed, and by his own efforts. He can think well of himself. And now, possessing the truth, he can be even freer to be himself and improve his situation. He can freely make governments that, untrammeled by mythical duties and titles to rule, serve his interests. The explorations of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau of the origins made possible a new beginning in theory, a project for the reconstruction of politics, just as the exploration and discovery of the New World promised a new beginning in practice. The two new beginnings coincided and produced, among other wonders, the United States.  

Much can be said about the above passage, but I will keep my comments brief. Bloom assumes that Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were the architects of the English, American and French Revolutions.  I won't dispute that, but some do. He also assumes they were either atheists or strict deists and the political philosophy that undergirds their thought, either atheistic or deistic. I am not convinced. 

In order to draw this conclusion one must read those three philosophers esoterically and, to be honest, it's not possible to know for sure; we can only speculate.  So we must draw more modest conclusions. All three philosophers claimed to be "Christians" of some sort. This was in an era when not publicly affirming such could get you at worst executed. They all posited novel ideas, in particular their common ground of "the state of nature." 

And each had his own different view of "the state of nature." Straussians like Bloom believe, and I agree, that the "state of nature" was intended to replace the biblical creation story. Or at least offer a parallel. Is it an either/or? Years ago discussing this with interlocutors, we agreed that the "state of nature" was analogous to Darwin's theory of evolution. Some folks believe evolution contradicts the Christian faith; other reconcile them.

Interestingly, Locke's "state of nature" teachings were featured in revolutionary pulpits. America's founders attempted to reconcile different ideologies that supposedly contradict one another. Well, the preachers that were on their side and vice versa did the same when they tried to Christianize the "state of nature." 

Also interesting is Bloom's observance that "[i]t is now fashionable to deny that there ever was a state of nature." Bloom was an atheist who believed in Darwin's evolution. Even though the "state of nature" offered a competing creation narrative with the biblical creation story, taken literally, as detailed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, the "state of nature" is as unlikely to have actually occurred as the literal details of the Garden of Eden.

So perhaps the state of nature was meant to be understood metaphorically. Likewise, with the Garden of Eden. Science tells us that Darwin's evolution likely best explains the origin of life. And as noted above, some believe the Christian faith can be reconciled with evolution; others not. If we wished to reconcile the aforementioned Enlightenment "state of nature" teachings with evolution, Hobbes' account (alas) comes closest to what life actually was like there. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

More From Allan Bloom on Revolutions in Modernity

What we saw last post is Allan Bloom asserting "modernity" began with three revolutions: English, American and French. I want to continue with this section of "The Closing of the American Mind," this time on pages 160-61:

Americans found little to charm them in the ancien regime in France. Its throne and altar were the very reality of, respectively, the unjust inequality and the prejudice that the American regime was intended to replace in the world. America, they believed, would succeed in its project with relative ease because we began here with the equality of conditions. Americans did not have to kill a king, displace an aristocracy that would stay around and cause trouble, or disestablish a church and perhaps abolish it. But the need to do all this, plus the presence of the Parisian mob, which could not accept the rule of law, prevented the French from attaining the reasonable consensus required for orderly democratic government. 

But another view of these events dominated public discussion on the Continent. To some Europeans, the Americans represented an intolerable narrowing of the human horizon, and the price paid for their decent order and prosperity was too high. The French aristocracy had a nobility, brilliance and taste that contrasted sharply with the pettiness and grayness of liberal society's commercial life and motives. The loss of what that aristocracy represented would impoverish the world. More important, the religion that was dismantled could be thought to express the depth and seriousness of life. If the noble and the sacred cannot find serious expression in democracy, its choiceworthiness becomes questionable. These are the arguments, the special pleading of the reactionaries, the disinherited of the ancien regime.

More serious for us are the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality. Many believed that we had not thought through these cherished ideals. Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire property? Should shrewdness at acquisition be better rewarded than moral goodness? Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals? Communism or socialism never really made much headway against the respect for private property in the United States. Locke's definition of property suited, and still suits, our tempers perfectly, and Rousseau's critique of it made almost no impression here, although it was and remains very potent in Europe. And freedom for us meant merely acting as one pleases, restricted only by the minimum demands of social existence. We had not adequately understood what really setting laws for ourselves required, nor had we gone beyond the merely negative freedom of satisfying brutish impulsion. As for religion, the domesticated churches in America preserved the superstition of Christianity, overcoming of which was perhaps the key to liberating man. Should a good regime be atheistic, or should it have a civil religion? And, finally, what in the world can we do with the Napoleonic —heroic ambition and military glory—other than ignore or debunk it? 

Such were the questions raised on the slaughter-bench of History by the French Revolution, questions that we were not eager to hear. ...

So we see that "modernity" was brought to the world by means of revolutions fought for similar ideals (though not the exact same and in this case the devil may be in the details), first in Great Britain, then America, then in France. 

I agree with Bloom that America was lucky that it didn't have "to kill a king, displace an aristocracy that would stay around and cause trouble, or disestablish a church and perhaps abolish it" and that was a large part of why America more successfully implemented the principles of liberal democracy than France did.

Though as Gregg Frazer has noted, the Loyalists in America weren't exactly treated with kid gloves. And as I have noted, the Anglican establishment at the state level was defenestrated. By this time, Americans were already highly suspicious of the Anglican establishment across the ocean. We could only imagine what would have occurred if the Church of England was uniformly established in the American colonies at the time of the American revolution. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Allan Bloom on the Big Three Liberal Revolutions

I strongly recommend Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and Leo Strauss' "Natural Right and History," not necessarily because I endorse everything in them; there is much in both books with which to disagree. Sometimes strongly.

Rather it's the way Strauss and his followers, especially Bloom attempt to penetrate the past great thinkers and historical events. The seriousness; the intensity. They truly give you a "grand tour" if you can stick around and follow them until the end.

And the part of the tour which explores the American founding is as contentious as it is illuminating. Below, I'm going to reproduce an excerpt from "The Closing of the American Mind" where Bloom deals with the big three revolutions of liberal democracy: English, American, and French. 

Bloom popularly appealed to a "conservative" (right of center) audience; but I think the book's appeal transcends politics. On the section I will reproduce, instead of writing something that would tickle the ears of the conservatives, where the American revolution was "good" and the French was "bad," etc., he gives us a different honest, interesting, informed take.

Bloom does not see "revolutions" -- any of them -- as either conservative or "Christian"* events. The three revolutions each were unique and could be viewed as sui generis. Or we could view them, as Bloom does, as part a larger connected history.

From pages 158-59:

Modernity is constituted by the political regimes founded on freedom and equality, hence on the consent of the governed, and made possible by a new science of nature that masters and conquers nature, providing prosperity and health. This was a self-conscious philosophical project, the greatest transformation of man's relations with his fellows and with nature ever effected. The American Revolution instituted this system of government for Americans, who in general were satisfied with the result and had a pretty clear view of what they had done. The questions of political principle and of right had been solved once and for all. No further revolution would be necessary, if revolution means changing of the fundamental principles of legitimacy, in accordance with reason and the natural order of things, and requiring armed combat against those who adhere to old orders and their unjust forms of rule. Revolution, a new word in the political vocabulary, which first referred to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, made in the name of very much the same principles as ours, is akin to the movement of the sun from night to day.

The French Revolution, called a new dawn by Kant, was a much greater event than the American Revolution in the eyes of the world at that time because it concerned one of the two great powers in it, the veritable school of Europe, with one of the oldest and most civilized peoples. It was fought and won for freedom and equality, as were the English and American revolutions. It would seem to have completed the irresistible triumph of modern philosophy's project and to give a final proof of the theodicy of liberty and equality. But, unlike its predecessors, it gave birth to a dazzling array of interpretations and set off reactions in all directions that have not yet exhausted the impulse it lent to them. The Right—in its only serious meaning, the party opposed to equality (not economic equality but equality of rights)—at first wanted to undo the Revolution in the name of Throne and Altar, and this reaction probably breathed its last only with Francisco Franco in 1975. Another form of the Right, as it were a progressive Right, wanted to create and impose a new kind of inequality, a new European or German aristocracy, on the world, and it was blasted out of existence in Berlin in 1945. The Left, which intended to complete the Revolution by abolishing private property, is still quite alive but has never succeeded in doing so in those nations, particularly France, most influenced by the French Revolution. It was the Center, the bourgeois solution, which in the long run won out, but after so many regrets and so many disappointed aspirations, in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as it had in England and the United States. The last really great bourgeois-haters died at about the same time: Sartre, De Gaulle, and Heidegger. (Americans are not sufficiently aware that hatred of the bourgeois is at least as much a thing of the Right as of the Left.) One can expect a certain literary afterglow, since bourgeois-baiting is almost a reflex among writers and is unlearned with great difficulty, as was proved when so many kept at it even though there were Nazis and Communists around who might have merited their attention. In order to keep that flame alive, many literary persons interpreted Hitler as a bourgeois phenomenon, an interpretation that they have made stick by force of repetition.

Bloom has other variations on this theme in other parts of the book which I hope to reproduce and discuss sometime in the future. 

*Meaning traditional orthodox Christianity. There are plenty of varieties of Christianity. Bloom would probably argue that what's known as "liberation theology" is the theological heir to revolutions. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Virginia Constitution, "lack" of religious tests, TJ, & heresy

 I, for a long while, was under the initial impression that the 1776 Virginia Constitution can be seen as an exception when it came to the imposition of religious test oaths for public office. The following snippet had led me (and many others) in that direction:

The Virginia State Constitution: a reference guide, Part 56 by John J. Dinan

Section 7. Oath Or Affirmation

All officers elected or appointed under or pursuant to this Constitution shall, before they enter on the performance of their public duties, severally take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation:

   "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent upon me as ______________ according to the best of my ability (so help me God)."

Although the current oath has been uncontroversial, previous oaths have generated significant controversy. The 1864 Constitution was the first to require officeholders to take an oath [my italics] and the purpose was to ensure that officeholders were not supporters of the Confederacy. Then, the 1867-68 Convention approved a "test-oath" that would have prevented a significant number of past supporters of the Confederacy from holding state office. Both of these oaths approved by the 1867-68 Convention provoked significant controversy, whether at the time or in coming years. [end excerpt]

A little research shows that my initial impression was wrong. As can be readily seen, the Virginia Constitution doesn't lack religious test oath legislation.  See Founders Online here, and here, and again here, which show, early on (~1779), a list of various test oaths for state office.

In Virginia, even when an oath-taker held religious scruples that person still had to “repeat the formulary, which in his opinion, is or ought to be observed on such occasions, according to the religion in which such person professeth to believe, … .” While apparently quite tolerant this particular clause put a person like Thomas Jefferson in an awkward position.

Thomas Jefferson, an unorthodox Christian, was elected Virginia Governor on June 1, 1779. According to common law & Virginia statute TJ should have served from jail. At least, that’s how Frederick Jonassen (So Help Me ?, pg. 329, footnote 148; also Bradley) put it:

Until 1786, a non-Christian in Virginia would have to keep his religious opinions to himself because of a statute that made it a criminal offence to publically utter a non-Christian view."' <148>

148 - It is not clear how these provisions were enforced, whether through religious tests or otherwise. And a “professed atheist, polytheist, or unorthodox Christian” in Virginia presumably “would have had to serve from jail, because both by common law and statute Virginia criminalized at least the public utterance of such views. Note as well that Anglicanism was "established" or preferred even to other Protestant sects in Virginia until 1786.51

Gerard V. Bradley, The No Religious Test Clause and the Constitution of Religious Liberty: A Machine That Has Gone of Itself, p. 683; 51 - Isaac, Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists' Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765 to 1775, 31 WM. & MARY L. REV. 345-68 (1974); 52 - S. BOLTON, SOUTHERN ANGLICANISM 5 (1982). 

Written in 1781 and 1782, Jefferson assessed the state of religious rights in Virginia after the 1776 Constitution in his Notes on the State of Virginia Query #17 (published 1785):

QUERY XVII

Religion

The present state of our laws on the subject of religion is this. The convention of May 1776, in their declaration of rights, declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the exercise of religion should be free; but when they proceeded to form on that declaration the ordinance of government, instead of taking up every principle declared in the bill of rights, and guarding it by legislative sanction, they passed over that which asserted our religious rights, leaving them as they found them.

The same convention, however, when they met as a member of the general assembly in October 1776, repealed all acts of parliament which had rendered criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion, the forbearing to repair to church, and the exercising any mode of worship; and suspended the laws giving salaries to the clergy, which suspension was made perpetual in October 1779. Statutory oppressions in religion being thus wiped away, we remain at present under those only imposed by the common law, or by our own acts of assembly. At the common law, heresy was a capital offence, punishable by burning. Its definition was left to the ecclesiastical judges, before whom the conviction was, till the statute of the 1 El. c. 1. circumscribed it, by declaring, that nothing should be deemed heresy, but what had been so determined by authority of the canonical scriptures, or by one of the four first general councils, or by some other council having for the grounds of their declaration the express and plain words of the scriptures. Heresy, thus circumscribed, being an offence at the common law, our act of assembly of October 1777, c. 17. gives cognizance of it to the general court, by declaring, that the jurisdiction of that court shall be general in all matters at the common law. The execution is by the writ De haeretico comburendo. By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands [my italics].

This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom.  The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws