Sunday, October 10, 2021

Liberalism v. Republicanism and the American Founding

On page 161 of "The Closing of the American Mind," Allan Bloom wrote: 

More serious for us are the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality. Many believed that we had not thought through these cherished ideals. Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire property. Should shrewdness at acquisition be better rewarded than moral goodness? Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals? 

As interesting and important as Allan Bloom and the other Straussians are, they do tend to have their blinders. They write like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau -- their shared ground, and their disagreements -- are the only important philosophers who impacted modern liberal democracy. But there were others. 

So when Bloom asks -- "Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire private property?" -- he was referring to the Lockean-Madisonian "liberal" vision that prevailed during the American founding. And Bloom ascribes the sentiment -- "Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals?" -- to Rousseau who indeed adhered to such a critique of Locke's notion of property.

But Rousseau was not the first. In fact, this dialog had been taking place prior to Rousseau where various notable European "civic republicans" (many of them British) made the case for economic leveling often using biblical arguments.

Eric Nelson wrote an entire book about those "civic republicans" and their Hebraic arguments. Of the many things of interest that Nelson notes is that James Harrington -- one of the key Hebraic republican figures -- made not only biblical arguments but also more secular Platonic ones. It could be that the later more philosophical type figures ran with the secular arguments, not the biblical ones. 

As Nelson ended the relevant chapter in his book on page 87:

But for most, the Biblical warrant for agrarian laws disappeared from view, leaving only the Platonizing edifice Harrington had built on top of it. Redistribution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would find a home in republican political theory, not because it had been authorized by the divine landlord of the earth, but because it was thought to secure the rule of a naturally superior elite. For contemporary republicans, this must seem a deeply unsettling provenance.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Rousseau and the Hebrew Republic

This passage from Gregg Frazer's thesis made an impression on me when I first read it. He discusses some of the sermons from America's founding era that argued on behalf of the patriots' cause. These particular sermons preached the Bible taught "republicanism." (When "republicanism" arguably is entirely a creation of ancient Greco-Romanism.)

The sermons seem to depict God's role as something similar to Rousseau's legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon's sermon] "for their happiness" rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignty determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau's legislator).
This was on page 393-94 of his thesis and then was adapted in his fine book and featured on pages 100-01. The conclusion that Dr. Frazer draws is that this notion that the Hebrew's had a "republic" is a more modern Enlightenment notion than a traditionally orthodox biblical understanding. Certainly, attaching Rousseau's name in a comparison illustrates this point.

Though Samuel Langdon, whose sermon was entitled "The Republic of The Israelites An Example To The American States," and was an American minister during the Founding era, actually drew from a prior European tradition. One you can read about in Eric Nelson's also fine book on the matter. 

What does this have to do with Rousseau? Arguably something meaningful. The Hebraic republicans about whom Nelson writes -- beginning with Petrus Cunaeus and also finding expression in figures America's founders more explicitly cited like James Harrington -- argued that the Hebrew Republic had an agrarian law that limited wealth and demanded redistribution. 

Whether the early exponents of the "Hebrew Republic" were traditional Christians or more philosophically minded thinkers using Christian theology as a fig leaf is debatable; but they ended up influencing later figures who tend to be understood as more modern philosophical types. Including Montesquieu, Rousseau and Thomas Paine.  

As Dr. Nelson writes on page 86 of his aforementioned book:

It is a measure of Harrington’s remarkable influence that, from 1660 onwards, agrarian laws would remain permanently at the center of republican political thought.  Writers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, and from Jefferson to Tocqueville, would regard it as axiomatic that republics ought to legislate limits on private ownership in order to realize a particular vision of civic life.  Before Cunaeus and Harrington, European political theory had been dominated by the unequal contest between two views of property: one which saw the protection of private property as the central obligation of the state, and another which saw the abolition of private property as the ultimate salvation of mankind.  Cunaeus’s innocuous semantic move in 1617 had opened up a “third way”—one which remains central to modern political thought and practice.  

I can't do justice to Nelson's entire book here. He mentions that Harrington put forth both a biblical and a more secular Platonic justification for Agrarian limits on wealth and consequent redistribution. It could be that the later more secular thinkers who argued for economic leveling picked up the more Platonic and left behind the biblical. 

But even someone like Thomas Paine, who by the way, I think is more clearly in the "agrarian-redistribution" camp than Jefferson, would use these biblical arguments and was clearly influenced by them. 

I could be wrong about Jefferson; if I understand Madison's Federalists 10 correctly, it rejects this "republican agrarian" vision of property in favor of something more "liberal" (for the era). Jefferson may very well have signed onto Madison's vision here. (But how to properly understand Federalist 10 will be a topic for another post.)

But I hope I demonstrated in this post how someone like Rousseau didn't just invent his egalitarian speak for the modern era. The conversation had been taking place for some time. And the thinkers who preceded Rousseau attempted to make serious biblical, "republican" arguments for the economic leveling by ascribing to the Hebraic republic an agrarian law.

(Personally, I don't find the argument convincing; I don't think the Ancient Israelites had either a "republic" or that the "Jubilee" constituted an "agrarian law" that should be models for later subsequent republics. But that's neither here nor there.)

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Did Ben Franklin Believe in ... "Purgatory"?

This article from 2014 by John Fea (note I am quoted here) features one of the more interesting quotations from Ben Franklin, who was neither an orthodox Trinitarian Christian or a strict deist, but something in between. 

Let me say first, "purgatory" as used here is a shorthand for the notion that there is some kind of temporary purging or post death preparation of the soul before it enters the eternal bliss of heaven. However, others associate it with the Roman Catholic Church's exact dogma where that Church holds a "super treasury of merit," etc. 

I was reminded of this when discussing the issue with an Eastern Orthodox believer who is very anti-Roman Catholic and he rejected "purgatory," bitterly mocking it. But then he admitted his church/he believes in such a place of post death preparation of the soul before it enters heaven; but he would never call it "purgatory" which he associates with the Roman dogma (like them holding the keys to a "super treasury of merit") that he hates. 

But from a letter from Benjamin Franklin to “Mrs. Partridge” on the death of one Ben Kent. The letter is dated November 25, 1788: 
You tell me our poor friend Ben Kent is gone, I hope to the regions of the blessed; or at least to some place where souls are prepared for those regions! I found my hope on this, that though not so orthodox as you and I, he was an honest man, and had his virtues. If he had any hypocrisy, it was of that inverted kind, with which a man is not so bad as he seems to be. And with regard to future bliss, I cannot help imagining that multitudes of the zealously orthodox of different sects, who at the last day may flock together, in hopes of seeing each other damned, will be disappointed, and obliged to rest content with their own salvation. Yours, &c. B. Franklin.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

FH Buckley: The Patriot King's American Friends

This was from the Winter 2016 edition of National Affairs by F.H. Buckley. It's on Bolingbroke's influence on the American founding. A taste:

While they abhorred the corruption of British politics, the framers turned to British writers, notably Bolingbroke, for diatribes on just how vicious such corruption could be. Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), was virtually the prime minister for a time, and his skill in state affairs was celebrated by his friend Jonathan Swift. Bolingbroke was a Tory and a sometime-friend of the Stuart Old Pretender. Some in late-18th-century British politics thought history had passed him by — or at least wished it would. "Who now reads Bolingbroke," Edmund Burke asked. "Who ever read him through?" But then Burke was a Whig who took his political principles from the Revolutionary Settlement of 1689, and a romantic Christian, while Bolingbroke was a deist from the arid Augustan age. 

For the founders, however, Bolingbroke's jeremiads were essential reading. Adams, Madison, and Jefferson, among others, were all serious students of his works. For them, Bolingbroke was first and foremost an enemy of political corruption and an advocate for republican virtue. But if the Americans thought that British corruption might justify the creation of a republic, Bolingbroke had something else in mind. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Jefferson, Priestley, and Bolingbroke

Thomas Jefferson, after around 1800 was under the influence of the unitarian Joseph Priestley. And Priestley did, if I understand him right, think "the plenary inspiration of the Bible" was a "corruption of Christianity." (Meaning he didn't think the Bible was inerrant.)

However, I don't think Priestley ever, like Jefferson did, cut out entire books of the canon and bitterly ridicule various apostles and the books of the canon they wrote. (Like everything St. Paul wrote and the Book of Revelation.)
The English Deist Bolingbroke did, however.
Jefferson was likely influenced by Bolingbroke prior to Priestley. Yet, as an old man, Jefferson was still slamming St. Paul and the Book of Revelation like Bolingbroke did prior thereto.
So I conclude the old Jefferson's creed was like a cross between Bolingbroke's and Priestley's. (Jefferson also named Conyers Middleton as a key influence.) That's my preface to linking to a post I did in 2013 where I researched Bolingbroke's religion. Check it out! (Good comment section too.)

Monday, July 19, 2021

George Washington to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792

Quote:

Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

James Burgh's Quaternity

Over a decade ago I found a passage written by James Burgh (in "Crito") wherein he gives an account of his Arianism. Burgh was an English Whig writer who influenced America's founders. Among other things, he arguably served as the intellectual intermediary between Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson regarding the term "separation of church and state." Jefferson got it from Burgh; Burgh got it from Williams.

I found of interest Burgh's use of the term "quaternity." As he wrote:
... The papists have thought proper to put the Virgin Mary into the Tr---ty, and call her the complement, or completing of it. That is, the F----r, the S-n, the H--y Gh--t, and the Virgin Mary, the undivided mystical four, or three, which is the same (for in a mystery, three is the same as four, and four the same as one; finite the same as infinite; human the same as divine) the mystical four, I say, are the tr---ty, or rather quaternity, that is, four different beings, some infinite, some finite, some mortal, some immortal, are only three beings, and these three-four beings, are the One, indivisible, simple, unoriginated Spirit, the first cause and fountain of being. 

No Protestant holds the Virgin Mary, who has these many ages been dead and rotten, to be any part of the immortal God. This is out of the question. But I would imagine, that to a person who denies the Athanasian doctrine, it should not appear a whit more absurd to put the Virgin Mary into the Tr---ty, or Godhead, than any other being whatever. All beings are equally different from and inferior to the Supreme; the S-n as much as the virgin; the virgin as much as a worm. ...
This old school, Enlightenment era, unitarian logic argues Roman Catholic doctrine is responsible for the error of Trinitarianism and sees a connection between Marianism and Trinitarianism. It argues the Trinity is as logically sound as the Quaternity. With Mary of course as the 4th Person in the Godhead. A short time later John Adams would write: 
The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage.

-- John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812. 
I would bet Adams got this sentiment from Burgh.