Natural Law, The Constitution & Radical Plurality

The U.S. Constitution was established to secure the rights declared in the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration is really a declared anthropology grounded in Natural Law.  However, Madison was aware of the Aristotelian injunction toward Democracy when he wrote “democracy is a regime in which the vulgar many dominate and oppress the wealthy, educated and the virtuous few.”  The Constitution mitigates against this becoming a reality.

America has a resource, its the Constitution and the Declaration as a remedy for a regime that pursues pure natural rights.  This is why the Reign of Terror happened in France and destroyed the French Republic, not the United States.  The transformation from a natural rights republic (John Locke) to a Constitutional Republic is that our politics is much less vulnerable to the kind of destructive moralism that culminated in the Reign of Terror.  The French took the idea of equality far too seriously.  They tried to finish the Revolution initiated by Locke and the adherents of the social compact theory.  The French failed to put an end to their revolution by constitutionalizing it, as the American Founders did.  As a result, the French lived out the full destructive implications of Locke’s Doctrine of Social Compact.  Therefore, the form and formalities of U.S. Constitutionalism take the place of insatiable demands/appeals to an ever increasingly abstract anthropology.  The American Founding resolved a moral/political problem posed by Locke.  Ultimately, Locke’s Doctrine brought about the degradation of man because it was unalloyed from Christian Anthropology.  Locke’s Doctrine leads to tyranny because it makes Man and not Man’s END the ground of moral/political obligation.  For many political conservatives in the United States, Constitutionalism grounded in Natural Law is liberation from the straightjacket of Lockean political theory.

Harry Jaffa has written insightfully that the idea of equality produces ever more radical demands.  Today, Western cultural movements embrace a perversion of modernity in favoring positivism over natural law.  This is extremely dangerous.  A forward moving, monolithic positivism seeks to break down the noetic & nuptial bonds grounding reality.  What we are left with is an morally undifferentiated pluralism.  Rendering us paralyzed at we confront any challenge.

Our Founders embraced the challenge inherit in Hobbes by embracing the humanism that Christianity provided about finite freedom, especially regarding its shape and limits.  This is the primordial insight that Christianity possessed that the Classics were unable to either create or anticipate.  The specificity of Christian Ethics as a subtopic with moral theology remains to be alloyed with political humanism.  Nevertheless, the Classic Regimes (dominated by Aristotle & the Scholastics) taught that virtue is the purpose of political regimes, and virtue is to be promoted by government policy acting emphatically as a ruler; shaping the populace in the Rulers image.  Aristotle and the Scholastic political teachings must be altered.  Such an approach was tried by Monarchs tied to Rome, not to mention Aquinas and the Jesuit experiment in South America.  All tried to revive the Aristotelian approach of the pursuit of virtue.

The Priestly usurpation of virtue as Regime was dismantled by the success of the American Revolution and the demise of Europe post Congress of Vienna and World War I.  It was Machiavelli’s approach to abandon the Aristotelian ideal of Kingship and redefine the scope of politics as a response to life’s most urgent political necessities.  Not as a means of achieving the highest good.  Therefore, a decent Constitutionalism could no longer be achieved on the basis of a politics of virtue.

Harry Jaffa concludes that Locke was right to promote the state of nature doctrine as a new way to understand the foundation of political rights.  The state of nature is not in opposition to Aristotle but a response to a condition that did not exist for Aristotle.

Locke’s argument, namely that human law is grounded on the law of nature settled the question of political obligation.  This new doctrine settled a political fight between the autonomy of individual liberty and the mores of the Church.  (What started Vatican II was a firm belief that High Scholasticism as an ideological force of the Counter-Reformation was completely inadequate to counter the cultural crisis engulfing Europe Post World War II.  The Jesuit and Dominican ideals of Aggiornamento and Resourcement should have, but could not have come earlier.  The Church’s own autonomy entangled with the affairs of European Monarchs left the Church unable to contribute to political liberty.)  Nevertheless, Locke’s political writings based consent on the governed.  Without Locke’s writings, Christianity created a political problem unanticipated by both Aristotle and the Church.  It could only be resolved through social compact theory.

Locke makes the chief work of reason the exclusion of revelation from politics; however, this exclusion is partial, because both reason and revelation support the rights of mankind inherent in social compact. Even Locke understood that men cannot live morally without religion.

Our contemporary problem is that radical individualism views the individual transcending and opposing the moral demands of society.  This is because rights are no longer understood as subject to natural law.  Unless we have forgotten, morality and religion are indispensable conditions for freedom and liberty.

Federalist Paper No. 49 states:  Reason alone is insufficient to support the Constitution.  The Constitution alone is not sufficient to produce a culture favorable to itself; one must add the Declaration.  I add this because Lincoln alone understood that the challenge facing the Union could not intellectually be resolved by referring to the Constitution alone.

Their are different conceptions of justice found animating the Constitution.  It became very easy for either the Confederacy or the Union to declare fidelity.  Lincoln relentlessly courted public opinion to recognize that their are principles within the Declaration that are indispensable to the Constitution (principals such as equality, liberty, government by consent . . . )  For the Founders, equality was a moral obligation.  What saved America during the Civil War was the rallying call to fidelity to the Declaration by Lincoln.

What our Founders understood throughout the course of their political endeavors was that the ultimate purpose of politics is not mere life but the good life.  The standard is informed from a revealed anthropology.  The standard for rule is not an abstract notion of equality but principals rooted in an unchanging human nature discovered by reason.

We are losing this extraordinary political heritage by succumbing to a perversion of Christianity in Modernity.  Namely, a false idea of a forward moving positivism tied to a morally undifferentiated pluralism.

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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