Saturday, April 28, 2018

Birzer: "Thomas Jefferson is America and America is Thomas Jefferson"

By BRADLEY J. BIRZER, writing in The American Conservative here. I'm going to give a taste of what I think is the most controversial part of the essay:
Chinard argued forcefully that when it came to the Declaration as well as to the laws of Virginia, Jefferson understood what would and would not work in America. “No greater mistake could be made than to look for his sources in Locke, Montesquieu, or Rousseau,” Chinard argued, most certainly exaggerating to make a point. “The Jeffersonian democracy was born under the sign of Hengist and Horsa, not of the Goddess Reason.” As proof of this, Chinard—himself, it should be remembered, of French birth and stock—drew upon John Adams’ description of Jefferson’s proposed seal of the United States in 1776. “Mr. Jefferson proposed, the children of Israel in the wilderness led by a cloud by day, and a pillar by night—and on the other side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs, from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” Even if you’re an extremely intelligent reader—and, after all, you wouldn’t be here at The American Conservative if you weren’t—you might be scratching your head as you read this. Newton and Locke, certainly. You know them well. But Hengist and Horsa? Who on God’s green earth are these two? Unless you spend your time reading early Medieval Celtic or Anglo-Saxon poetry—such as Beowulf—or modern British fantasy by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Hengist and Horsa probably mean almost or even less than nothing. The two Saxon chiefs reside more accurately in myth than they do in history, at least as professional historians understand the term. 
For Jefferson, though, Hengist and Horsa represented the great republican tradition of the Germanic tribes sitting under the oak trees, deciding what was common law and what was not, speaking as representatives of their people in the Witan, and living as free men, bound to no emperor. To the American founding generation, Hengist and Horsa were as real as Cincinnatus, the Roman republican who threw down the sword, refused a permanent dictatorship of the city, and walked into the country to spend his life as a farmer. In the long scheme of things, the accuracy of the founders’ understanding of history matters little. They believed in Cincinnatus, Hengist, and Horsa, and they acted accordingly.
Many scholars, including myself, see the American Founding as a synthesis of competing ideologies. Jefferson for instance, self consciously tried to take "the best" from the different groups in forming his vision. (In the context of religion, he called it Apriarianism, where he analogized himself to a bee taking the "honey" from every sect.)

This could be seen as a larger project of Western civilization itself which has different ideologies in its makeup, some religious, some secular, some pagan. We have often heard about the "twin" foundings of Western Civilization: Athens and Jerusalem.

"Athens" is the noble pagan source. But it also has another pagan source whose nobility is more questionable than Athens': The Anglo Saxon. Remember, Thursday is Thor's Day.

The Norse gods, like the Greek's certainly have nobility embedded in their tales, along with some ignobility. But Anglo-Saxon paganism lacks one major thing that Greco-Romanism has that arguably is responsible for most of the latter's nobility: Philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates, the Roman Stoics, etc.

In fact, my friend Wayne Dynes believes the Hengist and Horsa represent white ethnonationalism, something  many of us consider to be quite ignoble.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Chronicles on Patrick Deneen's New Book on Liberalism

Allan Carson authors a review on Patrick Deneen's new book on liberalism. Check it out here. A taste:
Most surprising, perhaps, is the author’s discussion of the original Constitution of the United States. The great majority of contemporary American conservatives admire or even worship this document; subsequent troubles are blamed on later innovations like judicial review or the 14th Amendment. Deneen is a contemporary Antifederalist, on steroids. He describes the Constitution of 1787 as an almost pure expression of liberal ideology, “the embodiment of a set of principles that sought to overturn ancient teachings and shape a distinctly different modern human.” He mobilizes quotations from The Federalist that demonstrate James Madison’s and Alexander Hamilton’s desire for a strong centralized government with “an indefinite power” that would weaken the states and localities, exploit natural resources, and deny democracy in favor of new economic and administrative elites. Particularly disturbing to the standard conservative narrative of our time is Deneen’s near equation of the Founders with the Progressives of the early 20th century:
[T]he Progressives were as much heirs as the Founders to the modern project of seeing politics as the means of mastering nature, expanding national power, and liberating the individual from interpersonal bonds and obligations.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Jonah Goldberg on the Metaphysics of Liberal Democracy

That is small l "liberal," small d "democracy." Check it out here. A taste:
Let’s begin with some somewhat unusual assertions for these pages. Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. God didn’t give us these things, or anything else. We stumbled into modernity accidentally, not by any divine plan.  
When the Founders said “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, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, . . .” they cheated. It is not self-evident that our Creator endowed humans with unalienable rights. Something self-evident is, by definition, obvious, needing no demonstration. The existence of gravity is obvious. It is self-evident that fire burns. Yet it’s hardly obvious to everyone there’s even a Creator.  
And that brings me to another assertion: There is no God, at least not in this argument. I assert this not because I’m an atheist (I’m not), but because I don’t want God’s help for my case. “Because God says so” is the greatest appeal to authority, and the appeal to authority is a classic logical fallacy, effective only for those who are pre-committed to that authority. You can’t persuade an atheist that God’s on your side any more than you can persuade a Christian you’re right because Baal says so.  
Yet today’s political culture increasingly rejects persuasion, recognized as far back as Aristotle as the essence of politics. Everything noble about the Enlightenment assumes the possibility of persuasion, through reason, evidence, and argument. Our political system was designed to be deliberative. Deliberation is a waste of time if minds cannot be changed. But today, partisans left and right value purity and passion over persuasion. Opponents aren’t potential converts; they’re an abstract and unredeemable them, and their tears, we’re told, are delicious.  
William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review to match the Left’s best arguments head-on with the Right’s best arguments. We didn’t win every battle (and some battles we didn’t deserve to win), but conservatism’s strength and success derived from a fearless desire to argue the merits. National Review has stayed loyal to that mission, but much of the conservative movement it helped create has resorted to assertion over argument, invective over reason. I want my argument to persuade those who don’t already agree with me — on the left and, increasingly, on the right.
This reminds me of a premise in Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History ...," shared by East Coast Straussians (and I would argue Leo Strauss, himself): Liberal democracy is laudable. But it's not because the Bible says so; it doesn't. Even though the Declaration of Independence is a theistic document, it is not a biblical one. The "unalienable rights" in the DOI are anchored to God to make them non-negotiable; but such are, as the doctrine goes, discovered by reason, not revealed directly by God and recorded in a holy book. A generic monotheistic God, though, seems to exist as a necessary given part of the equation.

But what then when philosophers discover that these supposed "essences" don't actually exist in nature, discovered by reason. (And that the generic monotheistic God of the DOI likewise doesn't necessarily exist.) Then we need some kind of alternative understanding for why we prefer the teachings of liberal democracy. Hence Goldberg's; hence Fukuyama's.

Gregg Frazer Reviews Daniel Dreisbach's Book on the Bible and the American Founding

I think I missed this from last year. The above title says it all. A taste:
In the “Introduction” and the “Afterword,” Dreisbach establishes some important caveats. First, the founding generation “drew on multiple sources” of influence, and the Bible didn’t necessarily supersede the rest. Second, a founder’s use of the Bible “does not indicate whether he or she was a Christian or a skeptic,” as both used the Bible for their own purposes. Third, a claim of biblical influence “does not suggest that the founders were theocrats intent on imposing a biblical order.” Fourth, the “mere fact that the founding generation frequently quoted from and alluded to the Bible reveals little about the American founding or the Bible’s influence on late 18th-century political thought, except that the Bible was a familiar and useful literary source.” 
In light of these cautionary notes, Dreisbach warns against a “mere quantitative accounting of biblical references” and emphasizes the need to “be attentive to the purposes for which biblical texts were invoked,” the historical context of their use, the biblical context of passages, and the proper interpretation of verses (6–8). All of these are valuable and crucial insights to remember when reading this book or one like it. 
Dreisbach allots about three general paragraphs to the “conventional” (i.e., literal, direct) interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2—passages that “on their face” disallow resistance to authority and had been generally understood that way for more than 1,500 years. On the other hand, he devotes an entire chapter to a creative interpretation favored by the American patriots and its historical—largely nonbiblical—genesis. Indeed, there’s scarcely a word from the Bible for 20 pages (116–135), but there’s a lot of history and political theory. Dreisbach calls this interpretation—one that relies heavily on adding words and ideas to Romans 13—a “nuanced” interpretation, and commends the work of one of its creators for its “refreshing acquaintance with political thought in the Scripture” and presentation of a “cogent” theory (124). This would be understandable in a generic study of the political thought of the founding generation, but it’s problematic in a study that specifically expresses concern for biblical context and proper interpretation of Scripture. 
Dreisbach obviously had to explain the interpretation of passages used to promote the American Revolution, but a truly biblical analysis of this issue would seem to require addressing the problems and inconsistencies inherent in rejecting the literal, direct interpretation in its historical and biblical context.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Yoram Hazony: The Dark Side of Enlightenment

Yoram Hazony writes an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal that takes on recent paeans to the Enlightenment by David Brooks and Steven Pinker. A taste:
... And now there’s Steven Pinker’s impressive new book, “Enlightenment Now,” which may be the definitive statement of the neo-Enlightenment movement that is fighting the tide of nationalist thinking in America, Britain and beyond. 
Do we all crave enlightenment? I don’t. I like and respect Mr. Pinker, Mr. Brooks and others in their camp. But Enlightenment philosophy didn’t achieve a fraction of the good they claim, and it has done much harm.
That's Dr. Hazony's thesis. He is a very learned man who makes many apt points. But there is also a great deal of contention in what he asserts and how he categorizes and understands things. I would argue he is, if anything, just as mistaken as what he tries to refute. 

The way Hazony operates is that the good things for which the Enlightenment tries to take credit for is not "Enlightenment," but something else. The bad things ... well that's "Enlightenment," indeed "dark Enlightenment." The problem is much of what he tries to say isn't Enlightenment actually is Enlightenment, just a different kind of Enlightenment. And much of what he sees as "dark Enlightenment" is actually responsible for "good" things that we'd like to claim.

For instance, Hazony writes:
... When I was a graduate student at Rutgers in the 1980s, the introductory course in modern political theory had a section called “Critics of the Enlightenment.” These figures included more conservative thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. They emphasized the unreliability of “abstract reasoning,” which they believed could end up justifying virtually any idea, no matter how disconnected from reality, as long as it sounded self-evidently true to someone.
But Hume, Smith, certainly and even Burke, arguably were part of the "Enlightenment," just a different wing of it.  Google "Scottish Enlightenment" and you will see what I mean. 

Hazony's treatment of Isaac Newton is equally problematic:
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, founded in 1660, was led by such men as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, decisive figures in physics and chemistry. Again, these were politically and religiously conservative figures. They knew the arguments, later associated with the Enlightenment, for overthrowing political, moral and religious tradition, but mostly they rejected them.
While I can't speak to the Royal Society or Boyle, I think it's wrong to categorize Newton as a "politically and religiously conservative figure[]." He was actually some kind of heterodox unitarian Christian of the Arian variety and like his friend John Locke had to be careful with the way in which he publicly articulated his views. Indeed, Newton, even more so than Locke leaves us with a record of private heterodox sentiments that could have gotten him in serious trouble with the then "politically and religiously conservative" figures in Great Britain who could enforce their orthodoxy with teeth provided by the state. 

But John Locke gets categorized by Hazony as one of the "dark" Enlighteners.  For instance:
One such myth was Locke’s claim that the state was founded on a contract among free and equal individuals—a theory the Enlightenment’s critics understood to be both historically false and dangerous. While the theory did relatively little harm in tradition-bound Britain, it led to catastrophe in Europe. Imported into France by Rousseau, it quickly pulled down the monarchy and the state, producing a series of failed constitutions, the Reign of Terror and finally the Napoleonic Wars—all in the name of infallible and universal reason. Millions died as Napoleon’s armies sought to destroy and rebuild every government in Europe in accordance with the one correct political theory allowed by Enlightenment philosophy. ...
The vast majority of scholars who have studied the religious and political positions of both Locke and Newton would agree it makes no sense to categorize them so differently. Either both were "Enlightenment" during the same time and place in Great Britain or neither were. Both were self proclaimed "Christians"; both privately and secretly held heterodox positions; both cautiously articulated novel ideas in politics, science and theology attempting to give a veneer of respectability to the ideas they publicly posited; both were suspected of secret heterodoxy by the orthodox forces of "religious correctness" then in power. 

 America was very influenced by more moderate strains of Enlightenment, those Scottish "common sense" figures that Hazony doesn't want to categorize as Enlightenment. But America was also influenced by what Hazony categorizes as bad or "dark" Enlightenment. 

Just look at what Hazony above wrote about Locke and his "myth was Locke’s claim that the state was founded on a contract among free and equal individuals." Yet this is central to the thought of America's revolution and its Declaration of Independence. 

Notice, I didn't say this is central to the thought of America's Constitution. One could argue, after the East Coast Straussians, that whereas the Declaration is very Lockean, the US Constitution is not. 

Below is what Hazony wants to credit with creating the Constitution:
... The widely circulated 15th-century treatise “In Praise of the Laws of England,” written by the jurist John Fortescue, clearly explains due process and the theory now called “checks and balances.” The English constitution, Fortescue wrote, establishes personal liberty and economic prosperity by shielding the individual and his property from the government. The protections that appear in the U.S. Bill of Rights were mostly set down in the 1600s by those drafting England’s constitutional documents—men such as John Selden, Edward Hyde and Matthew Hale.  
These statesmen and philosophers articulated the principles of modern Anglo-American constitutionalism centuries before the U.S. was created. Yet they were not Enlightenment men. They were religious, English nationalists and political conservatives. They were familiar with the claim that unfettered reason should remake society, but they rejected it in favor of developing a traditional constitution that had proved itself. When Washington, Jay, Hamilton and Madison initiated a national government for the U.S., they primarily turned to this conservative tradition, adapting it to local conditions.
As noted above, we could argue that US Constitution was not "Lockean," therefore, didn't represent Locke's Enlightenment. I would also concede that 17th Century English constitutionalism was a notable source for the US Constitution ("the Laws of England" or "Common Law" was one of Bernard Bailyn's five principle ideological sources for the American Founding).

But what's interesting is that since Washington, Jay, Hamilton and Madison are named -- three of whom authored the Federalist Papers explicitly telling us what they thought of the US Constitution -- we might look to their writings and see who they sourced. And I don't think it matches what Hazony attempts to argue.

Indeed Donald Lutz et al. authored a notable study, very often used by Christian Nationalists to show abundant biblical citations in the founding record. But what is often overlooked is that the biblical citations abounded during the revolutionary period, not during the framing of the US Constitution.

This was Lutz's conclusion on the framing of the US Constitution:
The Bible's prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalist's inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.
So Lutz et al. credit "Enlightenment rationalism" for the Constitution. Also interesting is that when "biblical" citations were abounding during America's revolutionary period they tended to be in sermons, many of which also cited Locke and his "dark Enlightenment" ideas in the form of a synthesized political theology.

This presents a problem for Dr. Hazony when he attempts to connect the "Enlightenment" of the French Revolution to Marx.
... Mr. Pinker’s 450-page book doesn’t mention the French Revolution. Mr. Pinker cites Napoleon as an “exponent of martial glory” but says nothing about his launching a universal war in the name of reason. These writers also tend to pass over Karl Marx’s debt to the Enlightenment. Marx saw himself as promoting universal reason, extending the work of the French Revolution by insisting that the workers of the world stop (again in Mr. Brooks’s words) “deferring blindly to authority.” The “science” Marx developed “from the ground up” killed tens of millions in the 20th century.
But we've seen Hazony connect Locke to the French Revolution and I noted Locke's centrality to the American Revolution. Look. These are all distinct events. We can connect and distinguish among all of them. If if we can connect, which I think you can, the French Revolution to Marxists revolutions, and likewise connect the American Revolution (through Locke) to the French Revolution, it follows we can connect the American Revolution to Marxists revolutions.

And indeed, many Americans at the time (according to John Adams 1/3 of the population) supported the French Revolution. When political parties emerged much to the consternation of Washington, the Democratic-Republicans as a group, led by Jefferson and Madison supported the French Revolution with Madison in 1792 connecting the two as follows:
In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example and France has followed it, of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world, may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history, and the most consoling presage of its happiness. We look back, already, with astonishment, at the daring outrages committed by despotism, on the reason and the rights of man; We look forward with joy, to the period, when it shall be despoiled of all its usurpations, and bound for ever in the chains, with which it had loaded its miserable victims.
This sounds to me like Madison is crediting "Enlightenment" for the American Revolution and its connected successor in France.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Calling Out America's Declaration of Independence

From an interesting source.

Using philosophy to "deconstruct" things is not something that the late 20th Century French school of "Deconstructionists" led by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida invented. In fact, if I understand Leo Strauss properly, he argues this is something all true philosophers since Socrates do. The difference is, before the invention of liberal democracy and its recognition of the right to freedom of speech, philosophers could be killed for deconstructing sacred cows and hence needed to write esoterically, in code.

I can't speak to the deconstructionists' case for atheism (i.e., their attempt to deconstruct God), but I do for what I think good reason assert this: Regardless of whether God exists, the 20th century deconstructionists have been irrefutably proven dead wrong in their attempt to deconstruct human nature.

Human nature exists as an "is." If the atheistic materialists are right, then the etiology of the "is" derives from our biological nature, from such causes as Darwin's case for evolution. Perhaps the "is/ought" gap can't be crossed, and appeals to nature for "oughts" commit the "naturalistic fallacy"; but the "is" exists nonetheless. And that's something those deconstructionists tried and failed to deconstruct (sometimes with disastrous results).

That said, what follows is one of my keen insights which someone more notable probably previously articulated: It's much easier for a smart person who is good in philosophy to deconstruct someone else's affirmative thesis than to build an affirmative thesis of their own that is immune to such.

And with that I get to Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug's deconstruction of America's Declaration of Independence. He is an interesting source. This isn't some left wing Foucault influenced academic doing the deconstructing. He's a Trump supporter who watched the victory in his friend Peter Thiel's house.

A snip:
Let's call our first witness. His name is Thomas Hutchinson, and he is the outstanding Loyalist figure of the prerevolutionary era. His Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia is here. It is not long. Please do him the courtesy of reading it in full, then continue below.

Now: what do you notice about Hutchinson's Strictures? Well, the first thing you notice is: before today, you had never read it. Or even heard of it. Or probably even its author. What is the ratio of the number of people who have read the Declaration to the number who have read the Strictures? 10^5? 10^6? Something like that. Isn't that just slightly creepy?

The second thing we notice about the Strictures is its tone - very different from the Declaration. The Declaration shouts at us. The Strictures talk to us. Hutchinson speaks quietly, with just the occasional touch of snark. He adopts the general manner of a sober adult trapped in an elevator with a drunk, knife-wielding teenager.

Of course, as Patriots (we are still Patriots, aren't we? Sorry - just checking), we would expect some cleverness from the Devil. Everyone knows this is the way you win an argument, right or wrong. Pay no attention to Darth Hutchinson's little Sith mind tricks. But still - why would Congress make it so easy? Why are we getting stomped like this? Because ouch, man, that was painful.

The third thing we notice is that Hutchinson actually explains the Declaration. As he begins:

The last time I had the honour of being in your Lordship's company, you observed that you were utterly at a loss as to what facts many parts of the Declaration of Independence published by the Philadelphia Congress referred...
In other words: these Congress people are so whack-a-doodle-doo, half the time your Lordship can't even tell what they're talking about. Presumably "your Lordship" is Lord Germain. Dear reader, how does your own knowledge of the Declaration compare to Lord Germain's? Weren't you amused, for instance, to learn that
I know of no new offices erected in America in the present reign, except those of the Commissioners of the Customs and their dependents. Five Commissioners were appointed, and four Surveyors General dismissed; perhaps fifteen to twenty clerks and under officers were necessary for this board more than the Surveyors had occasion for before: Land and tide waiters, weighers, &c. were known officers before; the Surveyors used to encrease or lessen the number as the King’s service required, and the Commissioners have done no more. Thirty or forty additional officers in the whole Continent, are the Swarms which eat out the substance of the boasted number of three millions of people.
or, most intriguingly, that
The first in order, He has refused his assent to laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good; is of so general a nature, that it is not possible to conjecture to what laws or to what Colonies it refers. I remember no laws which any Colony has been restrained from passing, so as to cause any complaint of grievance, except those for issuing a fraudulent paper currency, and making it a legal tender; but this is a restraint which for many years past has been laid on Assemblies by an act of Parliament, since which such laws cannot have been offered to the King for his allowance. I therefore believe this to be a general charge, without any particulars to support it; fit enough to be placed at the head of a list of imaginary grievances.
What is this fraudulent paper currency? Hutchinson is referring to this episode. The experienced UR reader may well ask: what is it with America and paper money? We'll definitely have to revisit the question.

But suffice it to say that you, personally, do not have the knowledge to produce any kind of coherent response to Hutchinson's brutal fisking of our sacred founding document. You can't say: "actually, Governor Hutchinson, I was in Boston in 1768, and I can tell you exactly why the Assembly was moved to Cambridge. What really happened is that..." For all you or I know about Boston in 1768, of course, Hutchinson could just as easily be the one yanking our chains. But why, then, are we so sure he's wrong?

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Protestant Denomination Scorecard

We've needed one of these around here for a long time now. Regardless of its level of religiosity, more than being a "Christian Nation," from the Founding era through the 1800s America was a Protestant nation. The evolution of America's principle of religious freedom was in no small part due to the necessity of achieving a social and political equilibrium between the always-expanding plethora of sects.

§ 1871. The real object of the [First] amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.--Justice Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution [1833]

HT: @harunbinimran