Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Rational Christianity": A Contribution of Medieval Political Thought

In his last post Brad Hart quoted Montesquieu as saying:

"When the Christian religion, two centuries ago, became unhappily divided into Catholic and Protestant, the people of the north embraced the Protestant, and those of the south adhered still to the Catholic. The reason is plain: the people of the north have, and will for ever have, a spirit of liberty and independence, which the people of the south have not; and therefore a religion which has no visible head is more agreeable to the independence of the climate than that which has one. In the countries themselves where the Protestant religion became established, the revolutions were made pursuant to the several plans of political government. Luther having great princes on his side would never have been able to make them relish an ecclesiastical authority that had no exterior pre-eminence; while Calvin, having to do with people who lived under republican governments, or with obscure citizens in monarchies, might very well avoid establishing dignities and preferments."

This article here provides a different narrative. One that at a certain time in my life I would have totally opposed but now tentatively agree with.  It is the narrative of a "spirit of liberty" within certain strains in the Catholicism:

"It will suffice for our purpose to consult, in detail, but two Catholic churchmen who stand out as leading lights for all time. The one is representative of medieval learning and thought, the other stood on the threshold of the medieval and modern world. They are St. Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century and the Blessed Cardinal Robert Bellarmine of the sixteenth century (1542-1621). The following comparisons, clause for clause, of the American Declaration of Independence and of excerpts from the political principles of these noted ecclesiastics, evidence striking similarity and identity of political principle.

Equality of man

Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Bellarmine: “All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind” (“De Laicis,” c.7) “There is no reason why among equals one should rule rather than another” (ibid.). “Let rulers remember that they preside over men who are of the same nature as they themselves.” (“De Officus Princ.” c. 22). “Political right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man” (“De Laicis,” c. 6, note 1).

St. Thomas: “Nature made all men equal in liberty, though not in their natural perfections” (II Sent., d. xliv, q. 1, a. 3. ad 1).

The function of government

Declaration of Independence: “To secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”

Bellarmine: “It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Men must be governed by someone lest they be willing to perish” (“De Laicis,” c. 6).

St. Thomas: “To ordain anything for the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people” (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3).
The source of power
Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Bellarmine: “It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is, indeed, from God, but vested in a particular ruler by the counsel and election of men” (“De Laicis, c. 6, notes 4 and 5). “The people themselves immediately and directly hold the political power” (“De Clericis,” c. 7).

St. Thomas: “Therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people” (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3). “The ruler has power and eminence from the subjects, and, in the event of his despising them, he sometimes loses both his power and position” (“De Erudit. Princ.” Bk. I, c. 6).

The right to change the government

Declaration of Independence: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government...Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons.”

Bellarmine: “For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa” (“De Laicis,” c. 6). “The people never transfers its powers to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power” (“Recognitio de Laicis,” c. 6).

St. Thomas: “If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice, or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power” (“De Rege et Regno,” Bk. I, c. 6). "

The author also goes a lot further and makes a bold statement about early Protestant thought:

"Modern democracy is often asserted to be the child of the Reformation. Nothing is farther from the truth. Robert Filmer, private theologian of James I of England, in his theory of Divine right, proclaimed, “The king can do no wrong. The most sacred order of kings is of Divine right.” John Neville Figgis, who seems little inclined to give Catholicism undue credit, makes the following assertions. “Luther based royal authority upon Divine right with practically no reservation” (“Gerson to Grotius,” p. 61). “That to the Reformation was in some sort due the prevalence of the notion of the Divine Right of Kings is generally admitted.” (“Divine Right of Kings,” p. 15). “The Reformation had left upon the statute book an emphatic assertion of unfettered sovereignty vested in the king” (ibid. p. 91). “Luther denied any limitation of political power either by Pope or people, nor can it be said that he showed any sympathy for representative institutions; he upheld the inalienable and Divine authority of kings in order to hew down the Upas tree of Rome.” “There had been elaborated at this time a theory of unlimited jurisdiction of the crown and of non-resistance upon any pretense” (“Cambridge Modern History,” Vol III, p. 739). “Wycliffe would not allow that the king be subject to positive law” (“Divine Right of Kings,” p. 69). Lord Acton wrote: “Lutheran writers constantly condemn the democratic literature that arose in the second age of the Reformation.”...”Calvin judged that the people were unfit to govern themselves, and declared the popular assembly an abuse” (“History of Freedom,” p. 42)."

Thats right, the author is stating that the Reformation brought the concept "divine right" into prominence. The author then goes on to point out an apparent rift with Lutheran writers and literature that "arose in the second age of the Reformation." This would seem to be some of the resistance theory writings we have perused as of late and seems to point to a change in the thought of later Protestants in regards to political theology. In short, it would seem that early Protestants brought into prominence a doctrine that later Protestants felt obliged to destroy.

With all this stated, I would like to explore a different narrative. One that states that the doctrines of sola scriptura and total depravity ignored the value of human reason and resulted in a death to the "spirit of liberty" in certain strains of Reformed Theology. I would also submit it was resurrected by the return of natural law theory in later writings.  An interesting book entitled "The Contributions of Medieval Political Thought" seems to give Richard Hooker a whole lot of credit for this resurrection.

All this would seem to point to a renaissance of Scholastic type reasoning in political theory by the time of the founding era as one of the main catalysts to the Revolution not some departure from historically Christian political theology to something new. Thus my preference for the term "rational Christianity" as opposed to "theistic rationalism" to describe this line of political thought.  This provides a third narrative to combat the extremes of both David Barton and Dr. Gregg Frazer.

44 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I've had the linked essay warming up in the bullpen for awile now, until I could corroborate the quotes in context. Still, on it's face it's quite probative, and we see the seeds of liberty in Aquinas 500 years before the Founding! It was a process.

And although---as a Roman Catholic cardinal---Bellarmine is skipped over by both the secular and Protestant narratives, he was right in the middle of it all: Filmer's Partriarcha [a defense of the Divine Right of Kings] was written directly in response to Bellarmine, and both Locke's First Tratise and Sidney's Discourses on government were written in direct response to Patriacha.

The trail is direct, not just conjecture.

I will say that in pumping Catholic thought, the author of the linked essay is a bit unfair to Protestantism by focusing on Luther and Calvin themselves.

Luther was not a major figure in the Anglo-American axis, and Calvin was succeeded by a whole chain of more politically radical thinkers like Beza, Vermigli, the Vindiciae, Christopher Goodman, John Ponnet, and the list goes on and on.

These thinkers were also influenced by "Scholasticism" [Aristotle/Aquinas-based] thought, and the Anglo-American theologico-political axis might be said to be a combination of the two currents, a "Scholastic Calvinism."

http://mb-soft.com/believe/txc/scholasp.htm

King of Ireland said...

"I will say that in pumping Catholic thought, the author of the linked essay is a bit unfair to Protestantism by focusing on Luther and Calvin themselves."

Also in ignoring(possibly he does not know) that much of this, at least early on, was written to undermine kings that the Popes did not like. Much of the Divine Right writings of Luther were probably borrowed from the Catholics before him that kings used to undermine the Popes.

I chose to ignore this angle myself because it would have distracted from the larger point.

I do think the author does give later Calvinists a nod for the better when he talks about "the second age of the reformation" though.

All in all a good and solid article. NOW comes the hardwork of proving this link with the documents themselves.

The book I linked to is very insightful. They will allow you to read a few pages before charging you. But they do give a one day free trial. That does mean you have to read it all in one day to get it free. I did and it was worse it.

If you do it just make sure you cancel it before the next day.

King of Ireland said...

I added a hit tip for the link and then added something else and when I decided to take that out the hat tip came out with it. Sorry Tom.

King of Ireland said...

Tom stated:

"These thinkers were also influenced by "Scholasticism" [Aristotle/Aquinas-based] thought, and the Anglo-American theologico-political axis might be said to be a combination of the two currents, a "Scholastic Calvinism."

That was the larger point of this post and one that Daniel alluded to a few posts back when he said if you take total depravity out of Calvinism it is Scholasticism.

I think Witherspoon is the poster child for this in the founding era.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, and the article I linked to sums up that the influence of the Aristotle part of Scholasticism brought Calvinism---more properly, Reformed theology---to a place where it could take its place at the philosophical table. Hence the Scottish Enlightenment, Main Street for...ta-da!...John Witherspoon, the most prolific teacher of the Founders.
-----

No prob on the hat tip. I'm overjoyed when anybody picks up and runs with any of the trail of bread crumbs I lay down.

Brad Hart said...

This is solid stuff, King! Well done. I plan on writing some additional comments here but for now, might I suggest a more appropriate term than "Rational Christianity"? It's not that I don't like it (and I believe you are on the right track) but perhaps "Rational Christendom" would fit better. "Christendom" seems more all-encompassing and not as denominational as "Christianity", which seems to suggest that the foundig was EXCLUSIVELY influenced by the Christian religion. "Christendom" feels better because one could call several of the events that influenced the founding (i.e. the Enlightenment, Reformation, colonization, etc.) as being influenced by Christendom...or the larger world of Christianity in a general sense.

But then again, I still like Tom's old term "Christian-y" a lot.

I know, this is probably weird coming from me. After all, I'm the guy who hates all terms and thinks we tend to argue more over semantics than history at times. But still, this just felt more appropriate.

King of Ireland said...

Brad stated:

"This is solid stuff, King! Well done. I plan on writing some additional comments here but for now, might I suggest a more appropriate term than "Rational Christianity"? It's not that I don't like it (and I believe you are on the right track) but perhaps "Rational Christendom" would fit better."

First of all thanks for the compliment. Second, I understand that semantics often muddy the waters. But at times they clear them up too. I am open to your term. While don't you write up a post on what you said and we can all throw it around. Tom linked a good post that called it Scholastic Protestantism. That may be the most accurate but I am not sure.

King of Ireland said...

""Christendom" feels better because one could call several of the events that influenced the founding (i.e. the Enlightenment, Reformation, colonization, etc.) as being influenced by Christendom...or the larger world of Christianity in a general sense."

This is good Brad. Scholasticism itself incorporated Greek and Roman philosophy into its theology. I think the main addition was rights grounded in man being the workmanship of God. This was crucial but not everything for sure.

I am glad we are starting to see some common ground here. I think part of it is Jon really helping me with how this blogging thing works and I am more clear in my writing. I think part of it is that David Barton has poisoned the well so bad that anyone that even sounds like him gets tuned out.

I hope people are starting to see where him and I part company.

Daniel said...

Very interesting. And a good reminder that Catholicism is not grounded in Scripture in the same sense that Protestantism is.

Do you know how well Bellarmine's political opinions were accepted within the Church? No doubt he was speaking to a particular political situation and trying to undermine kings he didn't approve of. But he could have done that without notions of popular sovreignty. And it would have been obvious that his strong language was a two edged sword, a potential threat to any king.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Daniel, since you helped trigger this, take a Hat Tip yourself. well done, sir.

What we see from the quotes K of I [Joe Winispringer] reports here, is that for over two hundred years---from Aquinas in 1250, before there even was a Protestant Reformation starting with Martin Luther in 1517, the idea that sovereignty rested with the people, and the question "By what right does one man rule another?" were already in play.

I like the "Christendom" term as proposed, for many historically supportable reasons, but for "secularists," even that sounds too much like "Christian nation." Ugh. That's why I think we haven't heard from many of our usual commenters on this.

Frankly, when I started studying all this, and went first to Aquinas [1225–1274], since he's the UberCatholic, I expected him to be a Divine Right of Kings kinda guy. Supporting authoritarianism unconditionally, since that's everybody's impression of Roman Catholicism. It was even my own impression raised in Catholicism, I'd heard his name, but was taught nothing about the man. I knew virtually nothing about what Thomas actually thought and wrote way back in the 1200s...

He wasn't an authoritarian jerk; he was a real human being, as it turns out, just trying to use the sense God gave him and Aristotle the same. And Thomas was sensible, looking into the heart of human beings as we are, not as we "should" be.

Famously, one night, this celibate Christian monk, lost in thought during a state dinner with his cousin, the King of France, and forgetting whre he was, stood up and said that the reason a man should dress well is to be more [sexually] attractive to his wife. "And that will settle the Manichees!"---Manichaeism being a belief that our pure spirits are imprisoned by our bodies, and this earth, which are evil.

Thomas believed, and taught, that man is both body and spirit. We are not "Spirits in the Material World." We live, we breathe. We have politics! Disagreements. We're put here to disagree, to argue with, and teach each other. We are men, we are not angels, we are not imprisoned spirits.

And even though they call him St. Thomas Aquinas, he was wrong about some things. He wasn't God. He was only a human being, doing the best he could with what God gave him, a human heart, and his God-given reason.

And one day, after maybe what was a mystical experience, he said to Brother Reginald of his philosophical works, the work of his lifetime, Thomas said, "All my works seem like straw after what I have seen."

Thomas Aquinas never wrote seriously again. He died several months later, as all we human beings do.

jimmiraybob said...

...but for "secularists," even that sounds too much like "Christian nation."

It might sound that way to a few more people than the "secularists" depending on what the term is applied to.

For instance, were the founding fathers/framers incorporating or implementing rational Christianity? The first implies that they incorporated, but not necessarily exclusively, concepts developed (concepts themselves borrowed) by the Christian scholastics and humanists as opposed to exclusively implementing a rational Christianity.

Is the term “Christiandom” meant to describe the intellectual foundation of the founding/framing?

Since there is overwhelming evidence that, like the Christian scholastics and humanists before them, many of the leading intellectual founders/framers were well versed in, derived much enthusiasm from, and spoke in the language of the original ancient Greek and Roman ideas of law and politics and ethics - some even indulging in the study of the original texts – how does the term account for this?.

Doesn't this just lead back to whether they established a Christian nation based only on Biblical foundations or merely incorporated many strains of intellectual development*, with ideas first set forth within ancient pre-Christian societies?

Christondom sounds like the same old dichotomy of dividing the world into the Christian realm and all other heathens and barbarians (or "secularists"). (A conquering of the intellectual terrain so to speak?) Been done.

As to the thesis that all roads lead from the founding to Aquinas, there are two things that a potential MS thesis adviser will point out and want addressed; 1) similarity says nothing about cause, and 2) selection bias - if your thesis is X and all you look at are sources that support X.

If, through the chaos of transcending the differences and nuances of languages/meanings, I can show the same similarities between scholastic/humanist Christian and earlier Greek philosophy does that mean Christianity is Pagan or that we should be discussing Pagandom and/or Hethendom? Or Sciencedom?

KOI, why not go into a couple of departments of philosophy and/or religious studies to discuss these ideas and see how you can strengthen the robustness of your argument.

The idea that Christianity during a certain phase of development took universal ideas and arguably made them compatible with scripture and now a claim can be made that all intellectual rights are thereby owned thereafter and forever more is absurd. It's even absurd to claim for Christianity, rights over intellectual developments during a period when not conforming your thinking and writing and speaking to church (Roman Catholic or Reformed) doctrine and the whims of the hierarchy could get you a death sentence. As much as some people like to pooh pooh intellectual censorship it was real and if you wanted to work for the Rand Corporation of the late Medieval to modern period you had best to conform you product to the corporate manual. There's no telling how much intellectual work was stealthily hidden beneath a veil of pious conformity.

continued below -

jimmiraybob said...

And I'm not saying that Christianity didn't have a profound influence on and often genuinely pious inspiration for many great thinkers, past and present.

I agree that Aquinas was not an authoritarian ass and that he was apparently a true believer in the Christian ideal, Christian theology and the worth of reason and ancient Greek/Roman contributions to intellectual development. But then again he wasn't the institution and skirted the edges of heresy in his time (there certainly was a Christian authoritarian component).

Surely there’s a way within a pluralistic society of heralding the contributions to the intellectual development of ideas by Christian thinkers without using such limiting and exclusionary language. And “theistic rationalist” comes as close as any to describing the general ethos during the founding – although still a box without real borders since the tensions between theological rationalism and the naturalistic/empirical rationalism of science isn’t really captured.

*including the contributions of late Medieval and early modern intellectuals of the Christian, Jewish, Islamic and other faith persuasions.

Daniel said...

An advantage of a term like "Christendom" is that it described a milieu or context. Much in Christendom was not Christianity, but the Christian religion was part of the background of everything. The difficulty is that is describes too much (or too little) If we agree that the thought of Voltaire was a "Rational Christendom", what has that told us? That Voltaire's thought was affected by and carries aspects of the Christian religion? Without addressing the questions which aspects? and in what ways? we haven't gained a great deal.

"All roads lead to Aquinas" is really pretty easy to support because he was the key to bringing rationalism into Christendom (and Christianity). But, Aquinas is, at many points, indistinguishable from Aristotle. And the Puritans did study Aristotle, Cicero, and other ancient pagans, as did Enlightenment thinkers. But that striking egalitarian language cited in this post is definitely not Aristotle or any ancient that I am familiar with. Labels get us somewhere, and can be useful.

And exclusionary labels are not incompatible with many aspects of the Founding. But it doesn't end there.

Joe Winpisinger said...

JRB stated:

"As to the thesis that all roads lead from the founding to Aquinas, there are two things that a potential MS thesis adviser will point out and want addressed; 1) similarity says nothing about cause, and 2) selection bias - if your thesis is X and all you look at are sources that support X. "

I have been looking for a master's thesis question for about 3 years and think I found it. Now I just have to get in somewhere to pursue it.

I understand that this link still needs to be proved. I think I will start with just going through the relevant writings of Aquinas, then Hooker, then Locke and giving commentary as to what I think they were saying.

I think the whole reason trumps revelation debate needs to arise again. I think Dr. Frazer could help us with that. I promise to drop Romans 13 if he will join us for that discussion so I can understand more what he means by that. Or maybe Jon can explain it.

Joe Winpisinger said...

Jrb asked:
If, through the chaos of transcending the differences and nuances of languages/meanings, I can show the same similarities between scholastic/humanist Christian and earlier Greek philosophy does that mean Christianity is Pagan or that we should be discussing Pagandom and/or Hethendom? Or Sciencedom?"

The one huge difference that you pals at Dispatches still do not get is Imago Dei and rights being granted because man is the workmanship of God. Locke even used language from Ephesians to make his point. We went through this and not one person could find another culture that based charity(loving neighbor) on that concept. It is uniquely Judeo-Christian and foundational to our understanding of rights.

So much so that I have read that some Confederates stated the DOI was wrong to support their pro-slavery arguments.

Joe Winpisinger said...

"The idea that Christianity during a certain phase of development took universal ideas and arguably made them compatible with scripture and now a claim can be made that all intellectual rights are thereby owned thereafter and forever more is absurd"

It added to the universal ideas the idea of rights grounded in man being the workmanship of God. No one ever comments on that. It is an air tight case. This was the foundation of the most foundational part of the DOI. It is uniguely Christian.

Joe Winpisinger said...

"It's even absurd to claim for Christianity, rights over intellectual developments during a period when not conforming your thinking and writing and speaking to church (Roman Catholic or Reformed) doctrine and the whims of the hierarchy could get you a death sentence. As much as some people like to pooh pooh intellectual censorship it was real and if you wanted to work for the Rand Corporation of the late Medieval to modern period you had best to conform you product to the corporate manual."

No doubt. I stated that much of these theological writings came about in disputes between Popes and Kings. Or maybe I should say re-emerged. I think this stuff goes pretty far back into Canon Law.

Joe Winpisinger said...

I think Brad brings up a great question and JRB and Daniel have brought forth input worthy of further discussion on this topic. If both of you want to write up a post and email to me I will publish it. I think it would be helpful in hashing this "theistic rationalism" out.

And yes Daniel I agree with Tom you brought this up first in the comments section. Hat tip for sure.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Daniel and Joe get the point---Christian thought [my preferred term] perfected and "Christianized" the classical Greco-Roman. The result is liberty and rights as endowed by the Creator. That's the Christian "correction."

Aquinas did a lot of work on the ius civile, ius gentium, ius naturale, distinctions all in classic literature. I was also struck at how deeply the Calvinist Vermigli went into Roman law as well.

It's not that Christian thought started the business of political philosophy over from scratch; it's that it absorbed and subsumed the entire Western tradition. And yes, we can fairly say that true moderns like Hume and Voltaire are the beginning of the end of "Christendom" or "Christian thought." They belong to what is commonly meant by The Enlightenment.

_______________


So much so that I have read that some Confederates stated the DOI was wrong to support their pro-slavery arguments.


Indeed. They called natural equality a "self evident lie," and John C. Calhoun said the Declaration "has not a word of truth in it."

Joe Winpisinger said...

"And yes, we can fairly say that true moderns like Hume and Voltaire are the beginning of the end of "Christendom" or "Christian thought." They belong to what is commonly meant by The Enlightenment. "

This distinction is crucial. As we are having a national debate on the founding ideals, how to interpret them, and what to throw out it would be good to know where what came from or not.

Daniel said...

TVD: "And yes, we can fairly say that true moderns like Hume and Voltaire are the beginning of the end of "Christendom" or "Christian thought." They belong to what is commonly meant by The Enlightenment."

I would point to Descartes. I think he was the one who first made the Scholastics really nervous. He would not accept authority (of ancients, scripture, Church, anything) as a first premise. Harvard, then Yale, then Princeton, at their inceptions, would not teach his thought due to its subversive nature.

Descartes ultimately reached Christian conclusions. But his method of beginning with doubt put everything at risk.

Daniel said...

KofI wrote:
"If both of you want to write up a post and email to me I will publish it. I think it would be helpful in hashing this "theistic rationalism" out."

You have extended this invitation before. I got started a couple times but other priorities overcame me. Throwing out comments based on half-remembered reading is so much easier than actually assembling a well-written post. I appreciate the invite and I will try to put something interesting together.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Daniel, I'm not overly familiar with Hume and Voltaire's work; I chose them because they're political, and reject a priori reasoning and metaphysics. Empiricists, which leads us to today's materialism, utilitarianism, etc. There is no supranatural truth.

You may find this stuff on Dr. Samuel Clarke of value; Madison mentions Clarke on metaphysics in a letter later in life, and was presumably taught Clarke by John Witherspoon at what would later be called Princeton.

I don't disagree that Descartes may be a signpost here, but as we see, there was a lot of attempting to reinvent the Aristotelian-Thomist wheel.

The difference between Cartesian Skepticism and the modern day skepticism is that the former is a method to rebuild philosophical foundations; today, skepticism is an end in itself, the assertion that truth cannot be known, or is relative per time and place, and cannot be absolute. As we see from the work of Clarke and Descartes himself, that was not their intention.

bpabbott said...

Re: "today, skepticism is an end in itself, the assertion that truth cannot be known, or is relative per time and place, and cannot be absolute"

Perhaps we look at things from different vantage points, but my view of modern skepticism is that assertions are not relative, that they are universally objective and if an assertion is true that it may be demonstrated to be so, independent of time or place.

Is my view consistent with Cartesian Skepticism?

I've not studied this subject, but from what I read in Wikipedia, I recognize a difference between Cartesian skepticism and modern skepticism. It's a bit of a tangent but an interesting subject for me.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As is your custom, Ben, you're on course. It's beneficial, not harmful, to re-start at the beginning, or as close to the beginning as your studies take you.

Leo Strauss himself, of whom we speak here obliquely, recommended returning to the "pre-philosophical," which would be, in the history of ideas, before Socrates.

But since our lifetimes are limited, and we cannot reinvent all human wisdom from scratch, it's OK to cheat a little and check in on the Aristotles, Ciceros, Augustines, ibn Rushds, Maimonides-es, Aquinases, Ponets, Grotiuses, your Locke and Sidney.

In fact, Xenophon's Socrates is not the same as Plato's. Already the revisionism sets in, Plato putting his own stamp on Socrates and philosophy in 400 BC. [BCE]

On the other hand, not one of these later guys pretended they were reinventing the sum of human wisdom from scratch, the baby and the bathwater thing. That was left for the guys after them, the "moderns."

;-)

Just sayin'. And that was what Edmund Burke was saying, in supporting the American Revolution as the natural conclusion of the growth of liberty and rights.

And why he opposed the French Revolution, which not only sought to re-invent history and society, but man himself.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And to respond more directly to your kind reply, Ben, I believe you, as a thoroughly modern man, reject not only the metaphysical but the a priori as well.

"Rationalism" includes the a priori that which can be contemplated and theorized as "right reason." "Empiricism" excludes it, although both are "Enlightenment." This is perhaps the great philosophical divide at the time of the Founding, but "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," can only be an a priori assertion, unprovable by experience or a posteriori [after the fact] reasoning.

On this single point our entire discussion here at this blog, and the ethos of the American Experiment hinges.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

From the first, Lincoln admits it's not a "self-evident" truth, only a proposition. An a priori proposition, a First Thing, a primary assumption, an assertion, from which all else flows, and all following arguments are worthless without it, the sine qua non.

Lincoln makes his argument with stunning rhetorical and semantic precision. That's why we remember his Gettyburg Address. He cuts through all the BS of all human history with a single heartbreaking, or awe-inspiring sentence.

Because Mr. Lincoln has great uncertainty in 1863 how this pivotal moment in human history might turn out.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure..."

bpabbott said...

Re: "Ben, I believe you, as a thoroughly modern man, reject not only the metaphysical but the a priori as well."

I'm not sure what you imply by a priori.

Do you speak of our being created by God?

Or that we should each be treated equally without regard to ancestry?

Regarding the former, the theist would naturally infer God in Lincoln's words, while the deist or atheist could infer a natural process.

Regarding the latter, it would be reasonable to assume the Michael Jordon's son would play better basket ball than Danny Devito's. Thus, we are not created equal? Is that what you imply?

I so, I'd agree with the fact, but am of the opinion that Lincoln intended that the law should not restrict our opportunity/liberty based upon the expectations (or desires) of others.

Tom Van Dyke said...

A priori is a fundamental philosophical term. Has nothing to do with religion. Has to do, in a great Enlightenment fight between classical and modern--- "rationalism" vs. "empiricism," which confines itself to a posteriori. Both are Enlightenment methods, which is why I sent Samuel Clarke to Daniel: Clarke mixed them. I could expound on it, but it's better you penetrate the matter for yrself. Descartes was still a priori; Hume was completely a posteriori. Locke lurched between each.

;-)

OK, I won't play games---a priori theorizes or asserts fundamentals about First Principles beyond the material [all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights]; a posteriori reasons backward from observed phenomena to explain them. You could never "prove" all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, especially by observation. Mankind sucks, and shows more proof of it with every passing moment.

And feel no embarrassment about priori/posteriori---it's probably the first thing they should teach us, but I hadda dig for meself to get this far.

And contrary to popular belief, Adam Smith is completely a posteriori: he does not theorize on capitalism, his book is titled in full

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

The funny thing is, and per natural law, which might be argued ,i>a prioria posteriori---Adam Smith---contra marx or any other scheme---has turned out to be right---man is best, not only for the community, but in terms of the Aristotelian-Thomistic teleology, the "pursuit of excellence," when he is free.

And he is kinder, and more just. This is the most fascinating thing to me about all this, Ben.

jimmiraybob said...

KoI - "If both of you [JRB and Daniel] want to write up a post and email to me I will publish it. I think it would be helpful in hashing this "theistic rationalism" out."

I appreciate the offer (and have thought about it in the past when TVD and Brad have also make similar gestures to readers). I try to put some effort into "researching" most of my comments - providing some form of reference - and I've tried as best as possible to follow the recurring exchanges along any given theme. However, I'm not sure if I could put the effort for a front page position - work is a cruel mistress.

With that said, I might have something to contribute as either an extended comment or guest post regarding the "Christian ideas", "interposition", "rights-of-kings" theme and my comments above.

I've started to put together some ideas that even intersect with JR's more recent post, John Fea on Romans 13, American Creation and Steven M. Dworetz.

It seems that you took my comments as constructive since that was how they were meant (had seen your reference to doing an MS elsewhere). As a point (points) of inquiry, the questions and themes that you (and others) bring up regarding Medieval Christian influence on the founding is interesting and certainly takes me to reading that I'd probably never do otherwise.

PS I don't think I have any pals at Dispatches. Outside of maybe 2 or 3 comments otherwise, the most comments I've ever made there were between you and me - although I'd be happy to call them pals.

Daniel said...

TVD: "The difference between Cartesian Skepticism and the modern day skepticism is that the former is a method to rebuild philosophical foundations;"

In light of that, I agree that Hume and (I think) Voltaire changed things in a way that Decartes did not. In the eyes of Descartes, the extreme sceptics (Hume's predecessors) threatened all knowledge. To accept Hume's degree of scepticism is to undermine even empiricism, since the reliability of our sense impression and of the direct conclusions we draw from those impressions are in doubt.

Thanks for the pointer to Clark. I'll take a look.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good point on Hume, that his thought led to a doubt of the knowability of truth beyond the subjective, what I describe as our current crisis of "epistemological nihilism."

I was paging through an apologia for the Scholastics, and ran across the below argument, which seems persuasive, that even if the earlier Enlightenment types like Descartes went in different directions, they still used the Aristotelian-Thomistic framework, not so bold and new afterall.

http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/scholastics.html

The rationalists and empiricists who attacked the scholastics so forcefully provide perfect examples of the old topos of students and teachers disagreeing heatedly on answers, but exhibiting a unity of questions, unspoken assumptions and concepts. The fiercest opponents at, so to speak, the species level are found to be united at the genus level. Descartes and Locke underwent particularly heavy exposure to scholasticism in their formative years, and the questions they ask, and the vocabulary of their answers, stray remarkably little from their teachers' practice. Gassendi very pointedly asks why the Cartesian ego, having doubted everything and put aside all prejudice and tradition, is still spouting scholastic terminology.

bpabbott said...

Re: "[...] when he is free [man] is kinder, and more just. This is the most fascinating thing to me about all this, Ben."

Nicely said!

Although I think such qualifies as self-evident putting words behind the sentiment helps to cement the foundation of the concept.

I think I understand the difference between a priori and a posteriori ... as least for the moment.

I admittedly tend toward to latter. For example, we may observe that when a man is free he is kinder, and more just, and that a society of kind and just men is a benefit for everyone.

From this, we may then apply a posteriori reasoning to conclude that embracing individual liberty and dispensing with government endorsed and/or supported favoritism of race, blood, religion, etc will lead us to a kinder and more just society.

Thus, it appears to me that a priori and a posteriori may each reach the same conclusions, but that a posteriori requires a greater burden of evidence.

Joe Winpisinger said...

Jrb,

Write it up and send it to joewinpisinger@vzw.blackberry.net I look forward to it. I was kidding you about Dispatches. I might also add that a lot of your tough questions have caused me to think and re-think my arguments and dig deeper into the documents. I never take what you say as an attack and always give careful consideration to your input.

This is just the beginning of even asking the right question. As I do some research I am sure I will come across some answers. May take some time. I am currently giving serious consideration to putting together a high school level cirriculum on the Constitution and its roots to market to all the people that are suddenly interested in this topic.

Much of what we talk about on here is way beyond that level and one can get lost in the weeds without a proper foundation. I will probably put parts on here for critique. People need to not just carry around a pocket Constitution they need to learn about the roots of it.

I look at it as a chance for all those who either were bored by it in school or never got a chance to take a proper government class.

Tom Van Dyke said...

How do you ground rights a posteriori?

bpabbott said...

Re: "How do you ground rights a posteriori?"

hmmm ... assuming I haven't misunderstood the term, my understanding is that if there is evidence for an assertion then that assertion is grounded a posteriori by the weight of that evidence.

The evidence for liberty may be observed introspectively. Do I enjoy liberty to tyranny?

The evidence for liberty by also be observed by comparing the quality of life of societies with it and those without it.

Joe Winpisinger said...

"The evidence for liberty may be observed introspectively. Do I enjoy liberty to tyranny?"

That alone will not keep you free. When enough people begin to believe that their liberty and enjoyment of it is reason enough to deprive you of your liberty then everyone loses it.

Rights based on intrinsic value of the individual because you see value in him because he is made in the image of God gives you respect for the other person and not just out for your own enjoyment.

As far as other societies I have read that when they do the law and development index before investing in countries that those that have been influenced by common law rate highest. Common law is heavily influenced by Christian thought.

We throw it out at our own peril.

bpabbott said...

Joe: "That alone will not keep you free

I agree. We can apply solid reasoning to reach solid conclusions regarding the benefits of liberty, but we still suffer the burden of selling it to society.

In the founders' day arguing for theological foundations of liberty was obviously the proper choice ... in that day the pulpit was their media outlet, and building the founding ethos upon a theological foundation was a good and necessary marketing move.

Re: "We throw it out at our own peril"

hmmm, by the work "it", do you imply Common Law or Christian Thought?

If Common law, I agree. In the context of a Christian society then tying common law to Christian thought is a requirement as well. However, Common law can, and does, prosper in non-Christian societies, provided it finds solid footing in a societies dominant philosophical thought. Some non-Christian examples are Singapore, Israel, and Malaysia.

Tom Van Dyke said...

provided it finds solid footing in a societies dominant philosophical thought.

A priori?

Israel and Singapore use Western thought, as does India; Malaysia, I don't think one would want to live there. Certainly not Michael Newdow.

http://atheism.about.com/b/2007/06/02/reasonable-religion-malaysian-court-denies-autonomy-to-enter-leave-religion.htm

bpabbott said...

Malaysia is a conundrum. If you not muslim there is a fairly healthy separation of church and state. If you are a Muslim, then you implicitly subject yourself to Sharia law :-(

A place where non-Muslims may get into trouble is by interfering with the religious practice or tradition of the Muslim majority.

For that reason evangelical types (Christian, Atheist, or otherwise) would be wise to refrain from proselytizing.

Like in many societies the religious authorities aren't as progressive as the society which supports them :-(

In any event, it was a pleasant surprise to see a theist reference Austin's Atheism Blog! :-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, as you saw at that blog, we don't need God-given rights anymore. We're industrialized, educated, enlightened. Post-Christian. As Rorty's "non-foundationalism" argued, we all agree we have rights, let's just go from there and not worry about "grounding" them.

But again, this derivation of rights is a posteriori: System X worked, we may safely discard the roots and the tree will go on living, and continue to yield the fruit of liberty.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Because an a posteriori scheme is of purely political rights, which is to say artificial: there are no "natural" rights, which can only be asserted a priori.

But what politics gives, politics can take away. This was at the heart of James Wilson's uniquely American argument against Burke and Blackstone, who grounded rights in a "social contract" between citizens and government. But "unalienable"---"natural"---rights means you cannot "contract" to give them away, even if you wanted to.

A case in point is that neither the UK or Canada, our closest cousins, have no Freedom of Speech as Americans understand it and deeply cherish it. All rights are under contract with the government, the "contract" always subject to revision.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Because an a posteriori scheme is of purely political rights, which is to say artificial: there are no "natural" rights, which can only be asserted a priori."

If I'm up with the definitions, "natural" rights exist with our regard to how we discover, or quality, them.

To qualify a purely a priori, the individual would have no basis to support the value of "natural" rights.

To quality as purely a posteriori the individual would have such a weight of evidence that he would be incapable of denying it.

In this sense, that we each desire and are entitled to be created equal, I think, favors a posteriori.

However, I readily admit that "we have a creator" (non-metaphorical) unequivocally qualifies as a priori.

The result, for me, is that the DoI assertion that "All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" is a mixed bag.

With that said, it is my opinion that the a priori theological content was a wise and necessary part of the DoI.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That men have rights is an a priori claim. It was not so through human history, even in classical philosophy.

That's why Socrates gets the hemlock, as a threat to the stability of society, for his impiety to the gods of the City.

Neither have Islamic republics quite sorted this out. In both schemes, the religious is the political.

Political rights are not "natural" rights, although they may overlap [and should].

All a posteriori can say is that it seems to work if System X of rights is accorded man. But it cannot even say what they are in advance, since they are derived a priori.

This is the difference between "empiricism and "rationalism," the latter being OK with a priori arguments derived by reason.

As for "natural law," its escape hatch is that any a priori claims made under that rubric must be borne out in practice, and indeed that's a fundamental honesty.

But, as I'm fond of arguing, any claims for "decency" are a priori claims, like not being cruel to animals.

Indeed, as Strauss points out, it's still unproven [a posteriori] that it's rational to act rationally, or more to the point, justly!

Pol Pot and Mao died in bed, the latter probably getting a backrub or a hummer. What's not to like about tyranny?

bpabbott said...

Re: "That men have rights is an a priori claim."

I think the point on rationality is a poor analogy, but this is one I agree with.

Regarding what is rational,it is always clear a posteriori (after the fact), but seldom clear a priori (prior to).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I was only acknowledging the splitting of hairs in Enlightenment schools, for your benefit only, Ben.

Rationalism [Locke]is not the same as Empiricism [Hume]. I was trying to speak your language, not mine. I'm a Thomist [Hooker, and Locke as the Founders understood him]. ;-)

I bumped the thrust of this discussion up to a higher thread and mentioned you by name, Ben. Jon on Bloom was and is heavy.