Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Founding Fathers and the Nature of Man: An Appeal for Clarity

In his recent post about the founding and constitution, Dr. Mark David Hall highlighted something that brings some much needed clarity to this blogs running discussions about reason vs. revelation and Christianity vs. Enlightenment. At the heart of the former discussion is whether the founders considered reason, or revelation, a more reliable guide in the affairs of men.  The latter discussion admits that both the Enlightenment and Christian thought were a part of the founding but seeks to understand which was more influential. With that said, Dr. Hall's addition is that the view of man as fallen was the basis of the government that our founders created not the belief in the "perfectibility of man" that is often associated with the Enlightenment. 

In light of Dr. Hall's addition to the discussion I would like to put forth the idea that the discussion of the nature of man is a much clearer context for a discussion on the influences on the founding and the role of Enlightenment and Christian thought than the whole reason vs. revelation debate a-la Leo Strauss.  Here is a quote from a piece by Robert Hunt about Robert Kraynak that should help set the stage for this debate:

"To his credit, Kraynak is by no means sanguine regarding the contemporary effort on the part of many Christians, and especially of Roman Catholics in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, to effect a rapprochement between Christianity and liberalism. On the contrary, Kraynak rejects these efforts and provides the reader with a thorough critique of the effort to ground constitutional government in the premises of philosophical liberalism. Understanding that every form of government is grounded in some view of human nature and of the goods that make for human flourishing, he argues that the variety of liberal efforts to ground constitutional government in a Kantianized defense of "moral autonomy" (a la David Richards) or "equal concern and respect" (a la Ronald Dworkin) cannot be sustained."

The part that jumped out to me was when Hunt stated, "every form of government is grounded in some view of human nature and of the goods that make for human flourishing."  Simply put, the foundation of government is a proper view of human nature and a desire to promote human flourishing.  If this is true, and I think history bears this out, then this puts the whole reason vs. revelation discussion in the proper context. Accordingly, I would submit that the end of reason vs. revelation discussion in regards to political theory is to discern the correct view of the nature of man on which to build the foundations of government.   In other words, most of the theology and philosophy on the topic of the foundations of government focuses on this aspect as its end.

Including that of Calvinist Gregg Frazer who is cited quite often on this blog in regards to his claim that most of the "key founders" believed that reason trumps revelation.  What is often ignored is that most of his views on the topic of government are an outgrowth of his view on human nature as being totally depraved.  When one does not properly understand the assumptions that Frazer brings to the table of the reason and revelation debate it is impossible for one to fully understand where he is coming from. This is because his interpretation of the Bible flows from this well and anything that contradicts it from natural law gets labelled reason trumping revelation.  As Tom Van Dyke would put it, he seems to believe that because we are depraved that reason is our enemy not our friend.

Accordingly, I submit that much of the confusion that results when the topic of reason and revelation is discussed on this blog is over what reason and revelation mean to whom and when?  In other words, John Locke seems to think that natural law is reason and Aquinas seems to believe it was general revelation.  But others, like Frazer, believe that all revelation is from the Bible which would seem to contradict them both. Furthermore, I have interjected more than once the question of what all this means to the Tibetan nomad that has never seen the Bible?  Simply put, this is a complex and complicated discussion that I am not sure ever will ever clear things up.

What is much easier to discern is the question of how the founders viewed the nature of man which, as stated above, is the end of the discussions on reason and revelation to begin with.  I think it is safe to say that most, if not all, of them believed in some way that man was fallen and chose the American form of government based on that notion.  Here is Dr. Hall on the founders view of human nature and where he believed it was fashioned:

"John Witherspoon’s student James Madison wrote in Federalist 51 that “if men were angles, no government would be necessary.” Almost to a person America’s founders were convinced that humans are self-interested or, in theological language, sinful. Of course one can reach this conclusion for a variety of reasons, but is it not probable that the approximately 75% of Americans connected to Reformed traditions adhered to this idea because they had heard it from the pulpit since childhood? It is true that every major Christian tradition in America in this era agreed that humans are sinful, but few emphasized it as much as the Calvinists who taught the doctrine of total depravity. In contrast, many Enlightenment thinkers believed that humans are basically good, and that through proper education they could be perfected. As Louis Hartz recognized, “Americans refused to join in the great Enlightenment enterprise of shattering the Christian concept of sin, [and] replacing it with an unlimited humanism.”

Now there is a lot here that needs to be unpacked, and I am sure we will accomplish that over the next few months, but I just wanted help frame the discussion and then just focus on a few key points with this post.  One is that there is a clear difference between believing in the "perfectibility of man" and that he is fallen.  It is the former that is central to Enlightenment thinking not the latter.  Another important point is that there is a difference in a belief in total depravity and sinful nature for sure but both views on the nature of man have a long tradition in Christian history. At least this much seems clear if our ultimate goal is clarity.

With all that said, I think the other part of the intramural Christian battle about the proper foundations of government over the centuries has been over the whether or not sinful man is capable of flourishing as alluded to in Hunt's quote above.  That is because it is the very idea of human flourishing that troubles some, like Frazer, who believe in the depravity of man. But once again, the view that man is sinful but because he is made in the image of God is still able to flourish is an idea that has a long Christian tradition. Which means that it did not require the founding generation to re-write the Bible to support their ideas as some claim. Nor does this frame of thought require an Enlightenment line of reasoning on the nature of man. In fact, it is absolutely incompatible with the Enlightenment school of thought that rejects the fallen nature of man. 

Which brings us, yet again, to Jack Goldstone's claim that "free individuals sovereign over a limited state" was the foundation of an engineering culture that launched modernity.  If one of the foundations of this "limited state" was belief in the fallen nature of man maybe it is not a question of Christianity vs. Modernity as Kraynak and Frazer seem to frame it but one of Modernity standing on the shoulders of Christianity? 

That becomes very possible when one realizes that not all Christian thought rejects the idea that human beings are capable of flourishing. It just pins that hope on a proper view of man's nature that takes into account BOTH his fallen nature because of sin and his capabilities because he is made in the image of God.  I think this is, more or less, the view of human nature that won out in the founding in regards to political theory.  It is most certainly not part of Enlightenment thought on the "perfectibility of man" that throws God off the bus.

If we want to use the metaphor of Leo Strauss, at very best, one could say that some founders may have emphasized Athens over Jerusalem but we most certainly cannot say that they sought to destroy Jerusalem as the true Enlightenment figures of the French Revolution did.  This is, in fact, abundantly clear.

ht to TVD for the destroying Jerusalem phrase


King of Ireland said...

I would submit that the founding view of the nature of man was more a product of the Renaissance than the Enlightenment. I could not figure out a way to work that into the post without muddying the waters. Nonetheless, there is such a thing a Christian humanism that by far pre-dates that of secular humanism.

An overemphasis on the importance of the Protestant Reformation and ignoring of history that pre-dates it losing this larger trend in thinking that I believe starting when Aquinas and the West woke up from a long slumber when Greek thought was interjected back into society with the cultural exchanges with the Muslims.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I cannot disagree, King. It's Leo Strauss who speaks of "the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy."

However, theology via Aquinas has more than held up its end. Philosophy, especially of the modern kind---and even Strauss, in my view, by discarding natural law---has not.

Natural law, and Aquinas, and the American Founding's theologico-political problem stands astride Strauss' project.

Not that Strauss is to be blamed, mind you. He cast his lot with philosophy, not in small part to oppose the philosophical brilliance of Martin Heidegger, perhaps the greatest philosophical mind of the 20th century, and who was a Nazi.

Indeed if reason and revelation lead to the same place,

The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source...---James Wilson, American Founder

then Strauss' decision is correct, to keep the river of reason unpolluted by religion, proof that it arrives at the sea just the same.

Philosophically, not politically speaking, of course. The alternative, whether religious or secular, is to have the world become one big soup, either a theocracy, or as Alexandre Kojeve, the intellectual father of the European Union, wanted, a Universal Homogeneous State. [Which sounds a lot like 1984.]

For the Strauss-Kojeve correspondence, see Strauss' On Tyranny, much of which you can read here in Google Book Preview. Back of the book, p. 217.

See, it's not whether Strauss is wrong or right, or a neo-con or a fascist---he was actually an FDR Democrat---it's that his clarity attracted leftists, rightists, priests, atheists.

[I'm in the middle of giving Uncle Leo a smack upside the head over natural law in that other forum. It's a Libra thing; most folks wouldn't understand.]

King of Ireland said...

"See, it's not whether Strauss is wrong or right, or a neo-con or a fascist---he was actually an FDR Democrat---it's that his clarity attracted leftists, rightists, priests, atheists."

Clarity is what we need to pursue. I think one can make a case, though I know Hitler claimed to be Catholic and used some of Luther's words, that Hitler was the harvest of the bad parts of the French Revolution. I am sure this was Strauss' claim.

BUTTT if you tame liberalism with the founding theology on rights and where they came from you get the good stuff and avoid the extremes.

In the end Hitler was trying to perfect the human race. Darwinism gone wild. This is my worry today. You starting to see some of the same stuff.

Did Strauss agree with Kraynak that there were two levels of humans? This is disturbing as well.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As a Jew fleeing Hitler's Germany, Strauss could never hold that anyone is inferior by nature.

Still, there are folks who prefer not to think for themselves, whether they're fundamentalist creationists or the people who are slaves to their education and can't believe there was a Christian dimension to the American Founding.

Whatchagonna do? This is what Aristotle meant by some people being "natural slaves."

What Christian love does, and even proper teaching without the "Christianity" thing as a proper parent-surrogate, is demand that people think for themselves. That is the best thing a parent or a teacher can do for the young. That, and educate/habituate the kids toward virtue, so they don't destroy their young lives before their lives even get started.

Even an ape teaches her young not to mess with cobras.

Strauss is a Platonist, and what's interesting is that in Republic, Plato slips in the radical idea that even women might become "Guardians," the selfless rulers of the state.

I know they call Plato a fascist, but he was the first Liberated Man.

Are there two levels of humans? Only by choice, and as Locke wrote in his Letter Concerning Tolerance, even the magistrate can't save a man's soul. Soteriology.

If virtue is a habit, and Aristotle said it is, then sin, and self-destruction, is a habit, too.

All a society say by "legislating morality" is, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Nobody, not Aristotle or Aquinas or Locke, ever said that you can legislate immorality or sin out of existence. That's beyond man's power, and especially beyond the power of the law.

You wanna wreck yourself, no religion, society, law, state, family or friend can stop you. God gave you free will.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"As Tom Van Dyke would put it, he seems to believe that because we are depraved that reason is our enemy not our friend."

Didn't Martin Luther once say, reason is the devil's whore.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What's interesting is how quickly reason reaserts itself in the followers of Luther and Calvin. That's the real story.

I'm no expert on Protestantism, but

is said to have been a Founder of Lutheranism as much as Luther, and this


In his Epitome philosophiae moralis Melanchthon treats first the relation of philosophy to the law of God and the Gospel. Moral philosophy, it is true, does not know anything of the promise of grace as revealed in the Gospel, but it is the development of the natural law implanted by God in the heart of man, and therefore representing a part of the divine law. The revealed law, necessitated because of sin, is distinguished from natural law only by its greater completeness and clearness. The fundamental order of moral life can be grasped also by reason; therefore the development of moral philosophy from natural principles must not be neglected. Melanchthon therefore made no sharp distinction between natural and revealed morals.

which leads us right back to Thomistic natural law.

Tom Van Dyke said...

...and check this out

for why I'll never be an expert on Protestantism. Nobody is, especially Protestants! Is Anglicanism more Lutheran, Calvinist, or via Hooker, still pretty Catholic? I have no idea, and it seems nobody else does, either.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ok, the Catholics believe that man is "deprived", NOT "depraved". The difference is one of quantity. Is reason fallen such that no appeal can be made? And salvation means that one must experience a supernatural encounter?

The Reformation began because Luther challenged the authorities over the sell of indulgences. and other various 'thesis"...He translated the scriptures not be cause of their infallibility and salvation message, so much as their educational value...

So, reason was revelation. Education is not a trascendental encounter, but a rational engagement with facts about the real world.

It was only when the Church was challenged with "universalism" that fundamentalists felt the need to "guard the gates" to their "traditional understanding of "sola scriptura".

Unfortunately, "sola scriptura" was the means of undermining authority in the Catholic Church. so, many times, I think we do not take into account the context when we evaluate history, in the whole. We grasp at one aspect of history as if that portion is what we want to protect, when what we are fighting for has little to do with the real facts that are behind the historical situation.

Tom Van Dyke said...


I'm not following your point.

Joe Talmadge said...


You wrote:
"What is much easier to discern is the question of how the founders viewed the nature of man which, as stated above, is the end of the discussions on reason and revelation to begin with. I think it is safe to say that most, if not all, of them believed in some way that man was fallen and chose the American form of government based on that notion."

As someone who only started thinking about this subject over the past year or so, it would be helpful to me, and perhaps others, if you could provide quotes from the founders to back up this point.

For example, you quote from Dr. Hall who writes,

"John Witherspoon’s student James Madison wrote in Federalist 51 that “if men were angles, no government would be necessary.” Almost to a person America’s founders were convinced that humans are self-interested or, in theological language, sinful."

I have a question about the quote from Federalist 51. The quote in context is as follows:

"It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

It's curious, is it not, that the second half of the quote appeared in this blog on June 27 atributed to Alexander Hamilton. No one objected at the time that it was Madison who wrote this. Are we to understand that Madison wrote one part of a paragraph and Hamilton another part? Perhaps you can clear this up for me.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Whether one is a Christian who believes one must have a personal encounter with God, or one who believes that education is necessary to protect the classes from abuse of power, or whether one is an evolutionary biologist, men are self-interested.

Self-interest is not sinful, but it CAN be. Self-interest is what promotes co-operation. Our business contracts are based on protecting 'self-interest'. Man cannot be trusted apart from such "necessities" it seems.

Self interest is how men are made in sustaining themselves as separate entities. And separate entities need to have distinctive needs acknowledged, which is another reaon why the social contract necessitates the business contract. We are protected from sacrificing our self-interested goals, when we have negotiated the goals, and the means to those goals.

Good leaders always consider those in their team as necessary elements. And our capitalistic system understands that self-interested individual are more productive than those that are socially co-erced, as in communist regimes or dictatorships!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, I might add that social co-operation can be stunted as well by self-interest. And this is not wrong, when those that resist such co-operation are seeking acknowledgment of some principle that is being negated.

Think about those who resisted in our Revolution, of course. These were being taxed without representation. The ruling party was abusing their power over the "peasants".

Think about any social/moral/political reformer and they brought about change through resistance to those who negated a principle of justice. These are intellectuals, social activists, human rights activists, pro-life activists, planned parenthood, etc. The varieties of what principles one adheres to is various in free societies, and such as it should be.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

My first entry was asking for a more wide or global view of history. So often historians loose the forest for the trees, and much can be learned from understanding a wider sweep/scope of how things evolved.

Revelation and reason is always a tension. As man learns more and more about his world, he has to re-vamp his understanding to encompass that knowledge. This education IS revelation, BUT, at the same time, one cannot undermine the limitation of man's reason, such as been pointed out here, in the French Revolution.

Whenever we partake of the "heady thought" that there are some superior beings/humans, then we are doomed to make the mistakes of past history. Men don't change in that sense. Power is heady, intoxicating and addictive. Lord Acton said, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"!!! Humility is in order...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ms. Van De Merwe, meet Mr. Tocqueville, and self-interest, rightly understood.

Well done.

King of Ireland said...

Mr. Talmage,

If you follow the link back to Dr. Hall's original post there are plenty of quotes there that reflect both fallen man and human flourishing. It is in the comments section.

This post was the first of what will probably turn into a series of posts that will fill in the holes. As stated in the post itself, this was just to outline the argument and frame the discussion.

King of Ireland said...

Jon stated:

"Didn't Martin Luther once say, reason is the devil's whore."

This about sums it all up. But that is only one steam of the river of Christian thought.

King of Ireland said...

I think love your neighbor as yourself is the key to understand self interest rightly understood.