Thursday, August 13, 2015

RIP Paul Sigmund

A good man gone. I can't say "too soon" because, at 85, he lived a long life. But he will be missed by many.

I'm embarrassed to say that he passed last April (2014) and I just took note of it.

One of the things I like to do with my free time is attend open to the public lectures at Princeton. Even though I disagree with Robert P. George on social issues, as it relates to the study of the American Founding, religion, history, politics & philosophy (the interdisciplinary I study and blog about) his James Madison Program is the best Princeton offers in this area.

There are other good ones too, for instance the University Center for Human Values. And sometimes the two projects will promote lectures and conferences jointly. But for what interests me, the James Madison Program is the best.

And that's where I first encountered Professor Sigmund. He was, among other things, a top John Locke scholar. When discussing Locke, Sigmund was adamant in his assertion that Locke was, despite protests to the contrary a "Christian."

But that assertion depends on what it means to be a "Christian." When after a conference I asked Prof. Sigmund whether he thought Locke believed in the Arian heresy, his eyes lit up with excitement as he was happy that someone was interested enough in the controversy to even know to ask that question. He said yes, pointing to the scholarship of John Marshall of Johns Hopkins University as confirming the point.

That begs the question, though, what it means to be a "Christian." Dr. Sigmund's answer paralleled Locke's: You don't necessarily have to believe in the Trinity; rather hold that Jesus was Messiah or central to your faith. So Trinitarians, Arians, Socinians, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses are all "Christians" as it were.

Dr. Sigmund vehemently disagreed with the assertions of Leo Strauss and his followers that Locke was some kind of esoteric Hobbesian atheist. (I don't know as much on Thomas Hobbes as I do Locke, but I don't think even Hobbes was a secret atheist). Locke was an esoteric something, but not, at least not provably an atheist.

Rather, more likely as noted above, Locke was a secret heretic (unitarian) writing in a context when the public promotion of heresy could get one executed (something Locke, thankfully helped deliver us from).

But when moderating the controversy publicly, Dr. Sigmund was scrupulously magnanimous.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Dr. Sigmund vehemently disagreed with the assertions of Leo Strauss and his followers that Locke was some kind of esoteric Hobbesian atheist. (I don't know as much on Thomas Hobbes as I do Locke, but I don't think even Hobbes was a secret atheist). Locke was an esoteric something, but not, at least not provably an atheist.

I'm not familiar with the "atheist" charge, although Locke may be fairly accused of departing from natural law in the Aquinas-Richard Hooker-Grotius tradition.

Locke does rather cheat the natural law argument by condemning suicide on theistic grounds, IOW, that we are the "workmanship" of the Creator, and his property not our own. Aquinas, Suarez and Grotius argue the natural law without cheating with theology like this.

{For more on Locke-as-Christian, see scholars Jeremy Waldron and Kim Ian Parker.}

As for Locke-as-secret Hobbesian, it's more that Locke abandon's classical philosophy for the modern, and somewhat of a hedonist. [Like Jefferson, eh?]

The only strand of thought that Hobbes kept intact from the ancients was the belief that political philosophy was necessary. After that, he rejected everything they taught. The ancients thought man a social, political animal; Hobbes thought man asocial, beings that did not inherently need companionship. The ancients believed in some form of God or gods; Hobbes was a political atheist. The ancients tried to make the best society by pondering how men ought to live; Hobbes thought society should be constructed by how men actually do live. “Necessity rather than moral purpose determines what is in each case the sensible course of action,” wrote Strauss, attributing this thought to Hobbes.

And Locke was a direct descendant of Hobbes. Locke is, perhaps, the most important philosopher to American thought, and because of this, most people think of him as continuing in the classic natural right tradition. He certainly tries to present himself that way—he quotes Hooker and criticizes Hobbes. But his thought is distinctively in the Hobbesian tradition. He assumes that there was a state of nature, when that is anything but classical, and nothing but Hobbesian. He calls the most fundamental right the right of self-preservation, another ode to Hobbes. Hobbes and Locke only differ in their solutions—Hobbes thinks that the problem of the state of nature requires an absolute government, while Locke thinks it requires a limited one. Strauss summarizes Hobbes’ and Locke’s thought thusly: “Life is the joyless quest for joy.”

Jonathan Rowe said...

A decade ago I saw Sigmund moderate the debate between Waldron and Michael Zuckert at Princeton. I think it used to be archived online; but I couldn't find it when looking for it last night.

Even though personally Sigmund was squarely against Zuckert, you couldn't tell when he moderated.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Straussians--Zuckert, even Leo Strauss--aren't interested in how ideas affected history, only the history of ideas.

Who the "real" John Locke was is academic debate. Alexander Hamilton was real. From his justly famous "The Farmer Refuted":

I shall, for the present, pass over to that part of your pamphlet, in which you endeavour to establish the supremacy of the British Parliament over America.


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. If you will follow my advice, there still may be hopes of your reformation. Apply yourself, without delay, to the study of the law of nature. 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.

Hamilton: Hobbes sucks, Locke is lumped in with the traditional natural law theorists, most importantly the Dutch Protestant Hugo Grotius [who stole his act from the Aquinas successor, the Jesuit Francisco Suarez.]

It's all here:

The "real" Locke doesn't really mean anything, esp these days. They study Kant and Hegel and Marx and Rawls and Christ knows whatelse. Hume before Locke.