Monday, April 17, 2006

Harry Jaffa gets called a Jacobin...:

And doesn't like it. There are a number of interesting recent posts on Claremont's site where Claes G. Ryn, a (Russell) Kirkian traditionalist, criticizes Claremont's embrace of Man's Reason/and the anti-traditionalism of the Declaration of Independence. Ryn's criticisms have prompted Jaffa to respond:

As a disciple of Leo Strauss, I protest vehemently at being classified with Jacobins. I assure my readers, that no one has had a greater abhorrence of Jacobinism than I -- or Strauss....Of course, there are many ancient customs, like slavery and human sacrifice, that we do not think anyone ought to follow. Willmore Kendall used to say that tarring, feathering, and riding on a rail was as much an American tradition as the free speech guarantee of the first amendment. And he was right. Only the one was a good tradition and the other a bad tradition. Ryn himself says that "we need the best of the human heritage to guide us." But how are we to know the best, and avoid the worst, except by the use of our reason? To incorporate tradition into our political thought we must be able to distinguish the good from the bad.

I largely agree with Jaffa's sentiment; although I obviously disagree with many of Jaffa's conclusions that, using Reason as a guide, he reaches. But, the point of agreement between Jaffa/Claremont on the one hand and more libertarian classical liberal thinkers like yours truly on the other, is that public moral arguments should take place mainly within the domain of Man's Reason. What's written in the Bible, tradition, and history may be useful guides in some respect; but they are to be subservient to Reason.

As far as the French Revolution is concerned, I obviously think that it -- and by that I mean the theoretical case for it (not! how the Revolution, in practice, turned out) -- was a good idea; indeed, support for the theoretical/ideological case made in the Declaration of Independence demands in principle support for the French Revolution given that the ideas in the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man strikingly parallel those of America's Declaration. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence was heralded in France and helped spark their revolution. Jefferson, the Declaration's author, while in France, supported and helped to spur on their Revolution. He even assisted in writing the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man. Thus, there is an irrefutable ideological connection between these events.

In practice, the French Revolution turned out not so well. But in fairness, they had a monarchy to overthrow and a national church to disestablish.

A side note: I'm continually amazed by those who would argue that America's Declaration of Independence is a Biblical document. See Gordon Mullings, on this thread, stubbornly continue to argue this even as he is continually shot down. His case largely relies on the fact that the Dutch, in 1581, then a fairly orthodox Protestant nation, constructed a document which anticipated *some* of the ideas contained in America's Declaration, and otherwise bears a faint resemblance to it. He then, based on this tenuous connection between the two documents deems America's Declaration to be "Biblically" based.

Well, given that there is far more of a resemblance and connection between America's DOI and the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man, if we are going to "credit" the "Bible" for the Declaration of Independence, and hence America's Revolution, we likewise must "blame" the Bible for France's "Biblically based" Declaration of the Rights of Man and hence the French Revolution.

For crying out loud, even Robert Bork, on page 58 of Slouching Towards Gomorrah, has the honesty to write "Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and the Declaration of Independence is an Enlightenment document."


Anonymous said...

The American and French Revolutions, despite their language, do not go hand in hand with one another. Although Jefferson supported the latter as a continuation of the former, many of his colleagues did not. In fact, 1789 is often seen as one of the original breaking points between what became American ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives.’ This is because the Declaration of Independence is based on the natural rights teachings of Locke, which use the state of nature as a model for illustrating the base of human nature—one which may thrive and rise materially, but which will always be confined to a set ahistorical state. The original state is a wretched place, from which man must rise with the use of a contractual government. The French Revolution, on the other hand, takes its bearings from Rousseau’s historical state of nature, which sees man as a malleable being, whose innocent nature was distorted by society. He sees society and property as corruptions of man’s happiness that, though they can never be fully justified, must be altered to make man fully social. Rousseau’s ideas are very intelligent and raise interesting questions about the flaws in Locke’s ideas, but, because of the historical and malleable view of man, they often lead to totalitarian governments. The existence of the monarchy and influential church certainly had an influence on how the Revolution played itself out, but the principles are clearly very important reasons why Adams, Jaffa, (somewhat) Burke, and I consider ourselves supporters of the American Revolution and not of the French.
Dave Hausser

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, your key point:

"But, the point of agreement between Jaffa/Claremont on the one hand and more libertarian classical liberal thinkers like yours truly on the other, is that public moral arguments should take place mainly within the domain of Man's Reason. What's written in the Bible, tradition, and history may be useful guides in some respect; but they are to be subservient to Reason."

The observations are entirely on point. The Bible's morality may have served a nomadic tribe in the wilderness three millennia ago, when only Authority would cause people to obey their leaders, but that kind of duty to an abstract notion of Yahweh is hardly appropriate for a people who have "migrated" beyond nomadism, feudalism, industrialism, and all the other "imposed" disciplines from authority. The Divine Right of Kings hardly sells in today's market, and for exactly the same reason that Yahweh's commands no longer sell. When Yahweh was credible, kings could claim they derived their authority from Yahweh, because the Bible states that believers must "obey their masters." Once the master/slave relationship faded into history, so did much of Yahweh's influence. And rightly so. Keeping the Sabbath holy is hardly a moral matter, yet it outweighs killing, adultery, parental obedience, and theft. Even if the later make claims upon us, keeping the Sabbath holy rarely does.

Most people know that Aristotle's "Nichomachean Ethics," the Pagan Ethical Scheme, is enjoying a renaissance in academia. Not because it's "rational" in the hyper-rational sense (Kant claims that), but because Kant's categorical imperative is too demanding to live, much less obey. God one might obey, but abstract Reason as its sui generis is too strict a scheme in anyone's hands to obey. Ironically, Rawl's used Kant's deontontological imperative as the basis of his "Theory of Justice." When it first appeared, one would have thought the angels had descended and God had been re-revealed. But it wasn't long before the "veil of ignorance" was an impossible veil, and ignorance Rawls demanded was not a fashionable standard to live by. Rawls tried to respond to his numerous critics, but alas, his thesis has already entered the dustbin of history.

In its paltry stead, Aristotle was resurrected. All along, people sensed he had the fundamentals right. Even the Catholic theologian Aquinas thought Aristotle's ethical scheme more appropriate than Yahweh's commands. Now, ethicists are either (1) bringing Aristotle to the table, or (2) revisiting the whole ethical schema from a naturalist's perspective. Whichever prevails, we're already in better grips with human nature than either the Bible, Kant, or Rawls. A major work, Wright's "A Moral Animal," received kudos, and still does, even though it ultimately (and incredulously) finds utilitarianism an adequate system. Matt Ridley's "The Origins of Virtue" covers much of the same territory as Wright, but he recognizes the limits of ethical claims, if they are to be based on human nature. Singer, the Princeton ethicist who has riled everyone, is only applying Ridley's insights practically. But Ridley, in his own distinct way, appeals to the sentimentalist tradition of Hume and Adam Smith.

Over a decade ago, even the ultra-conservative James Q. Wilson abandoned traditional ethics for a "naturalist ethic," based on Darwinian human nature, and applied through the sentimentalist theorists of Hume and Smith. His dreadful book "A Moral Sense" is essentially correct on all points, but clearly identifying those points is a challenge for the author and reader. But the future of ethics lies within the reach of these newer thinkers, somewhere in the midst of Ridley, Wilson, Singer, Hume, and Smith. They all approximate where it is there going, but only Ridley was confident to play his cards conservatively enough to withstand embarassment. His work remains primarily foundational, but its the springboard for all the others. Wilson has all the right ideas, but his manner of expressing them is exasperating.

The new ethical paradigm has decided to revisit Aristotle, knowing, as he did, that his ethics is too elitist to be universal, but that his "sense" of things was fundamentally right. Wilson's moral "sense" is even more accurate and appropriate, but his confusing presentation of it has left many wondering what it is he is claiming. Singer, unfortunately, has decided that Darwinian evolution "alone" is sufficient for ethics, but we've been down that road with biblical fundamentalists and Social Darwinists to know he may be fundamentally right, but precisely wrong. But the "new" ethics will be a blend of Hume, Smith, Ridley, Wilson, and Singer. It's the only ethic that (1) is not elitist, and (2) is based on human nature, not on hyper-rationalism. Aristotle is appreciated for the same basic reasons, but his scheme requires years of education, and we're not prepared to make that kind of investment.

Reason features in the new ethic, but it is a "practical" reason only, not the hyper-rationalism of Kant. Psychologists tell us that we're undergoing a psychological, cultural, and social "paradigm shift," to borrow from Thomas Kuhn, and they're right. But like any gem worth its weight, this one will take some wait as well.

Anonymous said...

anonymous writes:

"Rousseau’s ideas are very intelligent and raise interesting questions about the flaws in Locke’s ideas, but, because of the historical and malleable view of man, they often lead to totalitarian governments."

Which Rousseau? The one in evidence in the "Discourses on Inequality," "Emile," "Social Contract," "Confessions," etc.? Rousseau was a very heterogenous thinker.

The obvious omission is Hobbes. Whether one loves or hates his contribution to the "nature of man" and "man in a state of society," both are enormously evident in the Founders' conceptions, that Hobbes has overshadowed all subsequent thinkers. My own view is that Rousseau was far more important to the French Revolution than to the American. Rousseau's idealism, indeed fantasy, about the nature of man is nowhere in evidence in the Founders' conception of the social contract, other that the book by that name. Yes, his social contract is, in my view, one feature the Founders considered (but his essays on the sources of inequality are nowhere evident).

When it came time to put their ideas down in the Declaration and Constitution, Cicero, (Francis) Bacon, Hobbes, Bakunin, Montiesquieu, Locke, and perhaps Kant were more influential than Rousseau. The whole checks-and-balances scheme that dominates the Constitution clearly responds to Hobbes's view of the nature of man, not Rousseau's, and the Founders' purpose and nature of the State has more evidence of Aristotle, Cicero, and Locke than all other thinkers combined.

I've seen nothing to link Calvin's experiment in Geneva to the Founders' conceptions for the U.S., but Calvin and the Founders both shared a distrust of man's nature and his ability to do what is right, that they both imposed checks and balances everywhere they could. Again, Hobbes's influence is apparent.

While Calvinism, known in the U.S. as Puritanism, was an ubiquitous ideology that the Founders could not have ignored, Calvin, other than his shared distrust of man's ability to govern equally, is very much evident in the Constitution. Calvin's answer to man's unruly disposition is to impose biblical strictures everywhere; clearly, the Founders also provided restrictions, but on what government could do, but not on how man is to be ruled.

Anonymous said...