Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mark David Hall on American Political Theology

Mark David Hall delivers to Heritage. This is good. I watched the whole thing and wanted to do it justice with a line by line commentary. But I've waited too long, after Dr. Hall graciously sent the link to me, so I reproduce it now.

Dr. Hall's perspective is more sympathetic to a "Christian America" reading than mine. He does outstanding work and understands the right questions (along with blogfellows Tom Van Dyke, John Fea and others).


Jason_Pappas said...

I think Hall does an excellent job of putting forth his position. Let me see if I understand him by categorizing his approach.

The important question is: in what sense is the Founding Christian? From his list I see several categorizations (my classification, not his).

First, there are many Christian tropes (i.e. words like creator, God, Almighty, etc.) that continually pop-up during the Founding. This, to me, isn’t important. I often enjoy the rhetoric as I've pointed out elsewhere.

Second, the Christian view of human nature led to specific policies. Sin needs checks and balances (forget Polybius’ “mixed regime”). Isn't this just Christian rationalizations of classical policies? I wish he spent more time in this area.

Finally, Christians were involved in the development of the traditions (Hooker, Aquinas, etc.). Of course one has to ask if it was qua Christians or qua students of classical philosophers.

What I don’t see him giving us is a picture of the Founding and early Republic where there is substantial argumentation using Biblical passages to put forth legislation, defeat legislation, and perhaps adjudicate appeals. Tropes (boilerplate phrases), demographics (they were Christians), and minor trimmings (think Thanksgiving) pale in comparison to any substantial doctrinal determination of policy.

Can we say the Founding was Christian in a superficial sense? Is this what Hall is saying?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think you'll find that Christianized classical philosophy is a bit different than the original. For instance, the concept of virtue, "magnanimity" [which I think Washington held, but few others] vs "Christian charity" [which describes Franklin, who was not even formally a Christian].

At least this is Machiavelli's argument, and Nietzsche's too.

Further, the whole Brian Tierney argument that our modern notions of liberty and "rights" come from an evolution inside the Christian tradition, and never developed in the classical, which we can say ended with Cicero, et al.

I would argue also that the monotheistic Judeo-Christian "tropes" like creator, sustainer, etc., are not found in antiquity or non-Western cultures either [with the exception of Islam, a special case].

Even as some in the Founding era backed away from the Trinity, magisterium, etc., they did not invent a new God that differed substantially from Jehovah.

Jason_Pappas said...

I fully agree that charity is a Christian virtue; it’s one of the theological virtues along with faith and hope. You’re also right that there is a limited counterpart in the classical virtue of magnanimity. I’d also add humility as a Christian virtue.

Aside of the main focus on salvation, there certainly is a Christian contribution to social ethics but I’m not sure they are in play when it comes to the matters of state. The four cardinal virtues—justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance—which are also found in classical antiquity, clearly have a role to play in political affairs. Charity might if one accepts a more paternalistic role for government that is common on the left.

I agree that the concept of “rights” was further developed from Aquinas to Locke. Re-reading Locke again these last few days, I’m impressed with the clarity and tight reasoning of his 2nd treatise. His argument—that property is founded by mixing one’s labor with the soil—ties “rights” to an application of the virtue of industry for the purpose of man’s first natural law, i.e. self-preservation. Locke ties rights to man’s mortality and need for sustenance. I see Locke here as a secular philosopher, not as a theologian. He’s furthering the philosophical tradition.

The “nature’s creator” phrase and others like it are merely a cosmological footnote, invoking creation to say that God created man as a mortal being. No one I know—atheist or otherwise—who has abandon this theory of creation believes they are immortal. The Lockean argument is independent of one’s theory of man’s creation. The trope’s main purpose is to argue that man’s nature is a given and rights stem from this nature, not from [man's or God's] positive law.

Still, I’m currently reading more about the long development of the important concept of natural rights. I recently read that Locke’s book on epistemology (“An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”) was initially banned at Cambridge because his rejection of innate ideas was seen to undermine natural law. Interesting stuff!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jason, you're on a track that might bring you to agree with my take:

I believe there's a fatal error [and a growing one, being picked up even by the very good Noll and Lawler], and that's failing to make the essential and necessary distinction between the "real" Locke and the Founders' Locke.

The current scholarship on the "real" Locke puts him outside the Christian tradition along with other "moderns" like Thomas Hobbes.

But Alexander Hamilton, in "The Farmer Refuted" fitfully rejects Hobbes

"I shall, henceforth, begin to make some allowance for that enmity, you have discovered to the natural rights of mankind. For, though ignorance of them in this enlightened age cannot be admitted, as a sufficient excuse for you; yet, it ought, in some measure, to extenuate your guilt...


There is so strong a similitude between your political principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobb[e]s, that, in judging from them, a person might very easily mistake you for a disciple of his...

But Hamilton places Locke firmly in the Christian natural law tradition:

"I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui. I might mention other excellent writers on this subject; but if you attend, diligently, to these, you will not require any others."

Now that the "true" Locke's "modernity" and deviation from the Christian natural law tradition was suspected by some is not questioned here---as you note, his banning at Cambridge*.

One quote that jumps out at me is from the immediate pre-Founding period, from James Otis, who seemed to be on to the "true" Locke in 1764:

"Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God."

This is a claim for natural rights via natural law, a position also taken by the great Founder James Wilson in his influential Lectures on Law, which even GWash attended. Now, either ignorantly or cleverly, Wilson claims Locke for the Christian tradition. However, he disputes the English view of Blackstone and Edmund Burke, saying their "social compact" view means the government gives rights to the people; Wilson disagrees on behalf of America, and centers rights exactly where Otis does, where Hamilton did, and where the Declaration of Independence does, endowed by our creator, God-given and therefore "natural."

This is the Founders' Locke, even if not the "true" one.

Tom Van Dyke said...


*It's my pet theory that Locke wished to preserve the consistency [and scholarly reputation] of his early work of philosophy, "Essay on Human Understanding," and struggled to reconcile natural law with it in later years. He failed, precisely because of the "innate ideas" problem. His unpublished work on natural law didn't see the light of day until the 1950s.

Here's Leo Strauss' "Locke's Doctrine on Natural Law" essay. I don't quite agree with it all, but there's plenty of the unpublished Locke in there to chew on.

These are the tall weeds I always refer to, and again my central argument is that this "real" Locke is not relevant to our study of the Founding, only the Founders' Locke.

I have never run across the Founders arguing the "true" modern Locke, only the "Christian" one, and that's the nexus of Locke and the American Founding.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I may have left an inaccurate impression: Locke's unpublished work on natural law predates the "Essay on Human Understanding." Still---and perhaps why he seems so foggy on natural law, is because he couldn't quite square it with his pet ideas in The Essay [as they call it].

However, Thomas G. West, in his 2001 Witherspoon lecture, argues that the problem was not insurmountable [and also that the "true" Locke is not the modernist nonChristian that modern scholarship is painting him to be]:

Jason_Pappas said...

Quite an interesting commentary by Strauss on Locke’s early ruminations on natural law! If Strauss is right Locke is clearly developing his thought. Strauss notes:

“Locke’s early essays show clearly how doubtful he was, from the beginning of his career, of the traditional natural law teaching. That teaching derives man’s duties from man‘s natural constitution or his natural inclinations; it assumes that man is by nature ordered toward virtue; it also presupposes that each man and each nation is ruled by divine providence, that man’s souls are immortal, and that the natural law is sufficiently promulgated in and to the consciences of all men.”

Since Locke never published these essays nor composed a treatise on ethics and/or natural law, I’ll reframe from speculating on Locke’s full position but rely on the 2nd Treatise for an implicit theory of natural law. Besides, this is all the Founding Fathers had. I agree that the “real” Locke, while interesting, is not relevant to the Locke as understood by the Founders.

Don't the Founders clearly show they are in sympathy to Locke's theory of grounding rights on the human need for self-preservation? I think so.

Jason_Pappas said...

West says many good things among which are:

The Declaration of Independence affirms that all human beings possess the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that it is the purpose of government to secure those rights. To this extent the Declaration speaks the language of rights, and apparently not moral obligation. But the Declaration says that the United States are entitled to independence by "the laws of nature and of nature's God." A natural law is the ground of our natural rights. This is easily understood. If, as the Founders argued, the law of nature commands self-preservation and liberty, then it implies that we have a right to our own life and liberty, and a duty not to take away the life or liberty of others. …

When the political theory of the Declaration was spelled out in other founding-era documents, the moral side of liberty was made even more explicit. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which became the model for the Declarations of other states, asserts "That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue." There is no security for rights if the people neglect their duties. …

Connected with his teaching on property, Locke attempts to elevate the dignity of the "industrious and rational," those who produce things useful for their fellow men, over the "fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious," …

Great points! But I don’t think West fully understand the hostility to and misrepresentation of John Locke. Locke is clearly advocating the morality of self-preservation as the 1st duty of man. There is no moral neutrality. Locke also sees the virtue of industry as the key virtue of self-preservation that determines the inception of the institution of property.

The reason contemporary authors miss this is: Kant. Kant is arguably the most influential moral philosopher of the last 200 years. Kant sees instrumentality as irrelevant to morality. Thus, industry may be self-interested and hence instrumental but as such it has no moral import. West senses this in the paragraph that begins:

“This may sound like a selfish foundation for moral obligation, but Lockean …”

West just doesn’t understand the consequentialist/deontology dichotomy is of more recent origin. Locke is incomprehensible to many of today’s intellectuals on the left and right. West is right to criticize both. I'm still learning about Locke and how the Founders saw him. It's not always easy to remove current cultural prejudices.

Good article--can't comment on it all but very good.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Self-preservation" is recognized by Aquinas, for instance Summa 1, 60. Nothing new there.

"...the activity of everything in our experience is directed by nature to self-preservation."

Kant, I always wonder about. I'd be interested in anything tying him to Founding thought, and in what respect.

Jason_Pappas said...

Self-preservation is also a driver of Stoic ethics and central to Hobbes. It’s Locke’s conception and where he goes with it that matters.

Aristotle (whom I admire above all) had a rich and full ethnical conception of life that few could reach (certainly at that time). The Stoic Sage and Epicurean Sage were essentially unreachable ideals. Locke derives his political ideal from a very democratic moral imperative: self-preservation through peaceful productive activity. Thus, property rights are to protect the virtuous (i.e. the fruits of the virtue of industry). However, being rights they allow any degree of virtue or lack of it, as one is able or willing, and of course one enjoys the fruits of one’s flourishing or suffers the consequences of floundering. Rights merely protect the realm of action even if their justification is self-preservation and human flourishing.

What could be more relevant to 18th century America than the virtue of industry? Who could imagine the foremost ethical writer of his day, Benjamin Franklin, without the constant advice on practicing the virtues of “industry and frugality?” How often do we read condemnations of “luxury” and the sloth, dependency, and corruption that accompany that vice? Besides, the virtue of industry is a most righteous Calvinist virtue how could it not pervade colonial America?

Don’t get me wrong! Locke certainly was concerned with all the virtues but his political philosophy is a justification of private property and the prudence of social institutions to secure property rights. He reiterates this point many times. Having just reread it again, I’m impressed with how much he achieved by such a simple and powerful line of reasoning. I think this helped the Founders stick to essentials.

By the way, I only mention Kant to account for the inability of contemporary writers and their difficulty looking back to pre-Kantian days. West cites some contemporary authors who don’t see Locke’s moral emphasis. I see this moral vision as central to the founding. It was virtue, not economic science that established the nation. Adam Smith didn’t even publish “Wealth of a Nation” until 1776. Utilitarian arguments, so common today on both the left and right, just weren’t possible before the science of economics. Deontological arguments, like Kant’s reject self-preservation as the driver of an ethical vision, weren’t even imagined. We live in a very different culture and I find I have to “look forward” to appreciate the difference if I’m to understand the past. But that’s beyond the scope of this venue. I mention it because West talks about contemporary views on Locke.

By the way, what question in the Summa is that?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Part 1 Question 60, on angels. There are also other mentions of self-preservation in the Summa, that it is one of the "lower" goods along with procreation, but I'm not chapter & verse on it, sorry.

I think you're right about Locke and property [Aquinas defends private property on practical grounds, BTW]; however, I find the above James Otis quote about natural rights more normative of the Founding " ["...nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington"]. The Tea Party of 1773 wasn't about the tax money as much as the political illegitimacy of parliament levying taxes. As both "The Farmer Refuted" and the Declaration itself argue, the colonies do not recognize Parliament's authority. As Hamilton notes, the colonies' charters are from the king, not parliament.

And yes, I agree completely that many modern scholars are unable to see the Founding worldview looking back through the haze of Kant and Hagel, who came later and now dominate our philosophical and political thought.

To understand the Founding, we must work forward from Aristotle, the Stoics, Aquinas, and the Reformation. And sure, the Enlightenment. ;-)

And I'm quite gratified that you read the links I offer, Jason. That makes it all worthwhile.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jason, I ran across this as I was closing my google page.

Property, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, canon law, and Calvin, predating but presumably leading to Locke.

I'm not going to tackle it this moment, but I'm very interested in what you make of it.

This is right of King of Ireland's alley, too, if he's reading this. Not only is he into Brian Tierney, but he's a real estate salesman! What's not to like?

jimmiraybob said...

Tom, the link with respect to property is not working.

bpabbott said...

JRB/others, try this link.

If that doesn't work then its all the "%20" stuff. Let me know and I can provide another link.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Ben. It's really cool---almost the whole cast of our usual suspects.

What jumps out at me is that Aquinas doesn't make private property a primary human right, only a secondary political one, on practical grounds, that it works.

And of course although Jefferson isn't directly influenced by Aquinas, it's interesting that he substitutes "pursuit of happiness" into Locke's "life, liberty and property."

Locke is a primary source for the D of I of course, but his entire theory of rights as a function of property [which Jason points to] doesn't quite make it through intact.

jimmiraybob said...

Thanks, that link did work.

Jason_Pappas said...

” The Tea Party of 1773 wasn't about the tax money as much as the political illegitimacy of parliament levying taxes.”

I didn’t acknowledge the important republican current that sees civic rights to representation as important as private rights to property. Locke talks about civic matters as more of a question of prudence to insure private rights. Even after reading Gordon Woods and many others I still feel I have much to learn about the evolving thought during the founding period.

I'd also like to know more about natural law/rights theory from Aquinas to Locke. There are gaps in my knowledge of this development. Bpabbott has an interesting link that I want to finish reading. Thanks.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The missing link per canon law is "ecclesiastical courts," which handled marriage, births, religion, adultery, and a slew of other things, a parallel system to the civil courts.

Britain didn't get fully rid of them until the 1800s. The Puritans left them behind in England, as they represented not just the Anglican church [headed by the king] but Popery as well.

[And for the same reasons, why they never took hold in America in general. The King's church and the Pope's. Geez.]

But the philosophy and reasoning behind canon law, which held great importance in Europe [and in England since at least Henry II], are entirely germane to the study of the evolution of "rights," not just philosophers like Aquinas or Locke.

Anyway, that's where "ecclesiastical" and "canon law" fit in, and why the study of the evolution of rights always seems to start and end with Locke. Lazy history.

jimmiraybob said...

Jefferson admired Epicurus and owned eight copies of De rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, a Roman disciple of Epicurus. In a letter Jefferson wrote to William Short on October 13, 1819, he declared, “I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” At the end of the letter, Jefferson made a summary of the key points of Epicurean doctrine, including:

Moral.—Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue the foundation of happiness.
Utility the test of virtue.

Properly understood, therefore, when John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to “social happiness.”

- End Quote

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, JRB---εὐδαιμονία.

In the 21st century, "happiness" has become synonymous with hedonism instead. But that's another discussion.

The question is whether Locke's argument of liberty and rights as a function of property was embraced by the Founders. It is odd, don't you think, that Jefferson deleted "property" and put in "pursuit of happiness"? I do not think this was arbitrary; he knew his audience.

jimmiraybob said...


What I'm seeing show up in comments is the second part of a longer quote that has disappeared for the second time. I'll wait a bit more to re-post the first part to see if it shows up on its own.

The gist is that Locke does appear to use the concept of pursuing one's happiness - in the 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding - "The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty."

And then there's the Epicurean connection - at least regarding Jefferson.

In the 21st century, "happiness" has become synonymous with hedonism instead. But that's another discussion.

It appears to be more in the popular culture than in academic philosophical circles - at least from what I gather from somewhat limited observation since i don't hobnob in academic philosophical circles. Is this any different than it's ever been? Happiness as discussed among the most learned of the colonies at the time of the revolution, was likely seen and experienced differently than down at the Taverns and wharves where life was rougher. Probably the same in Renaissance Italy and Republican Rome and so on. I don't subscribe to we're in the most depraved of all times view.

jimmiraybob said...

I'm not quite sure why I capitalized "Tavern" above. Must be something Freudian....speaking of other conversations.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, I agree completely and would never argue that people were any different then than they are now, hedonistically speaking.

That would be denying human nature.

The question is whether our "normative" points toward our better angels or toward our demons. I think the Founders aspired to pursue our best natures and not our worst, because a republic can only succeed if we strive for the former because the more we can govern ourselves, the less the government has to do it.

jimmiraybob said...

Consider me confused. This is the first part of the quote that's currently showing above. It may have been here for a bit but apparently disappeared. So, to satisfy my own interest in order....

This appeared in HNN a few years ago:

It appears not in the Two Treatises on Government but in the 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding. There, in a long and thorny passage, Locke wrote:

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness: and therefore, till we are as much informed upon this inquiry as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands, we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.

The Greek word for “happiness” is eudaimonia. In the passage above, Locke is invoking Greek and Roman ethics in which eudaimonia is linked to aretê, the Greek word for “virtue” or “excellence.” In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote, “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.” Happiness is not, he argued, equivalent to wealth, honor, or pleasure. It is an end in itself, not the means to an end. The philosophical lineage of happiness can be traced from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle through the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans.

Continued below

Tom Van Dyke said...

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty.

This seems to put the question to Jason's view that Locke built rights on property theory.

This isn't to say Jason's wrong about the Second Treatise, but that eudaemonia is an alternate justification inside Locke's own canon, and one more congenial, I would say, to religious sensibilities, which is why Jefferson might have substituted it.

Jason_Pappas said...

It’s been decades since I read the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” I must re-read it and see if my thesis holds up. Let's remember that Locke's 2nd treatise is polemical and may not be indicative of a fuller philosophy.

I was going to re-read the Essay anyway because I’m reading Adams now; he read the Essay when he was fifteen and was greatly influenced by it according to one biographer.

Incidentally, I was reading Copleston’s History of Philosophy yesterday. He summed-up my argument on the difference in natural rights after Grotius & Locke. He says “Historians generally attribute to Grotius an important role in the ‘freeing’ of the idea of natural law from theological foundations” and then Copleston argues otherwise. It’s obviously a more controversial and complex issue than I imagined.

But it keeps me reading.

Jason_Pappas said...

Richards presents an interesting picture of history that is worthy of comment … if one had a few hundred words. I can't do it justice here. I don’t accept the dichotomies he’s proposing or perhaps it's better to say I see them as minor facets of the picture. However, let me note that I agree with his view that during the founding period rights and liberties were viewed as ethnically purposeful.

Thanks, Ben. I’m grateful for the link and learned much about this line of thought.

It appears that at the end of the article he is claiming that the founders rejected the right to property. Did I read him correctly?

bpabbott said...

Jason, if I recall correctly someone else posted the link originally, but it didn't work when I clicked on it. Thus, I provided an alternate. Also, I've been so busy with work and other hobbies that I haven't had time to read it :-(

Regarding "Richards" whom are you referring to? Did you mean Dr. Mark David Hall?

Jason_Pappas said...

The link that you provided was an article by Peter Judson Richards. Interseting read.

Tom Van Dyke said...


bpabbott said...

yeah, I was thinking "someone else" was you, Tom, but didn't have the time to look it up! These long threads make it hard to keep everything straight.