Beauty, n.  The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.

–Ambrose Biercetrue beauty

My Imprimis arrived today.  It is “The Unity and Beauty of the Declaration and the Constitution,” an interview of Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution.  The full interview can be viewed here.  It is a remarkable interview, prepared carefully by Mr. Robinson, conducted with gravitas, and carried out with wit, charm, and high intelligence by Dr. Arnn.  I wish to reply, hoping to achieve the same.

When asked by Mr. Robinson to put the documents in historical context, Dr. Arnn says (about the Declaration), “First, there had never been anything like it in history,” second, “its signers were being hunted by British troops,” and third, “even more extraordinary, “It opens by speaking of universal principles.”  The problem with saying things this way is that it is not historical.  Nobody at the time thought that Jefferson’s opening represented universal principles or that what they were saying had never been said before (including Jefferson, who went out of his way many times to say that he had expressed only “the common sense of the matter”).  The only members of the Continental Congress who were being “hunted” were New Englanders who had already won their secession, having been fighting the Regulars since April 19, 1775.  The war was over in New England before it began any place else.Furthermore, there were about ninety other “declarations of independence” around by July of 1776.

true beautyTheir beauty was indeed universal, and quite soon terrifying to the husbands.  Lovers were needed to go and fight, but husbands had to clean up the messes.  Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and his cousin John, the trembling Jefferson, the scheming Hamilton, and above all, the imperial Washington had to make order.  The Constitution was not the logical outcome of what they hoped for, nor was it the first constitution.  The Articles of Confederation was the only possibility of keeping very distinct cultures together long enough to celebrate the secession.  And if John Dickinson’s draft had been adopted there would have been no need for the nationalist document that followed.  It was the flawed version of the Articles of Confederation government that passed the Northwest Ordinance, the most complete statement of liberty ever written into American law during the lifetimes of the “founders.”

Dr. Arnn finds “three fundamental arrangements” ( a wonderful phrase, by the way) in the Constitution that he says unify the two major documents.  Before we parse them we should note that the “Organic Law” of the United States as ratified by our first Congress includes not only the Declaration and the Constitution, but the Northwest Ordinance, the Articles of Confederation, and the English Common Law.  The “arrangements” Dr. Arnn offers are representation, separation of powers, and limited government.  I would suggest that the only beauty which unites the documents, the only beauty which unites the concepts, and the only beauty which unites the complex and often hostile cultures of early America is limited government.  Under no other banner could the secession have survived.  The others were old, and worked well sometimes and sometimes not.  They have also largely been abolished in our regime, almost completely by 1945.

Here we should turn to what Dr. Arnn apparently thinks of as “beauty,” and what appeals to me about it.  It comes down to the “universal principles” he believes the documents represent, and represent in unity.  I confess to being a terrified husband when it comes to beauty.  The Good, the True, and the Beautiful can be the property of pagans, atheists, or any religious cult, but if they are to have permanent meaning they must be attached to something that is beyond the self, or they have no meaning at all.  It is not enough for the Declaration to call upon “nature’s god,” or upon other abstractions that unitarians like Jefferson and Adams use to appeal to higher law.  I have never thought that they were deists.  They were Stoics, probably, noble pagans attempting to find meaning beyond even the unity that was Greece or Rome. Stoics talked of god, but not God.

But most Americans weren’t Stoics, then or now–or philosophers, for that matter.  Dr. Arnn was educated in a school of philosophy originated by the brilliant Leo Strauss, as passed on by the almost equally brilliant Harry Jaffa.  The best of the “Straussians” have taught us, like the New Critics in literature who preceded the political philosophers, to read texts carefully.  This is a great service.  It does not, however, lead us anywhere but to the higher realms of reason, which, taken to its logical and moral conclusion, is to ideology.  Thus the “beauty” of the Declaration is its transcendence, and vague words like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” become normative, but in practice, relative to the needs of the hour.  “All men are created equal,” a common-sensical notion, becomes a regime founding eleventh tablet of the Mosaic law, but interpretable only to those who know how to read the secret meanings of the texts.

Like Dr. Arnn, I am not pessimistic about the end of western civilization or the end of the republic.  We have many things to agree upon, including how hard it is to raise children.  Because I am older than he, and have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I have made many more mistakes than he has.  But here and there, I get a glimpse of glory in what comes after.  Not because of what I have taught them, but because of what I have tried my best to take them by the hand and lead them to behold:  The glory of the incarnate, dead, risen, and ascended Christ.true beauty

This is where so many Straussians go wrong.  Beauty resides in this world only as a reflection of God, and we are able to perceive it only through His Son.  I’m not sure (I may be wrong) that I have ever met a disciple of Strauss or Jaffa who is first a Christian and second a philosopher, first a lover of Mary and second a devoted son of Lillith.  Are we not called to be Christians first and philosophers second? Does not making Athens more important than Jerusalem lead to ideology?  To a triumphant, instead of prudent, America?

It took Jesus to make Aristotle into Augustine.  Our Constitution, without Jesus, is only relative–wise, perhaps, but not worth attending to except as a matter of prudence.  Ideology makes us a triumphant carrier of progressive ideals–democracy and equality–but it does not locate us except in history on a moral plane higher than monarchy or any other form of statism.  I’m all for prudence, it makes things easier, but I’m not for ideology, any place, any time, any where.  If there are natural rights, or natural law, they cannot come from the mind of the snake’s promise to Eve, “Ye shall be as gods.”

I would end this modest reply with one example, an example that in the interview is given short shrift.  How does the beauty and unity of the documents factor into foreign policy?  Dr. Arnn is careful about this.  He sides with Jefferson: “We are the friends of liberty everywhere, custodians only of our own.”  He says we live in a dangerous world.  He wants Iraq to be free.  He thinks we did a good thing in obliterating Japan and imposing a constitution, but admits that it’s a matter of prudence when and where else we should do it.  This is not only right, it is beyond dispute and the only moral stance an American can take.  But it begs the question of whether our beauty and unity can make such decisions without following the documents which define so carefully the limits that so many of our leaders have ignored, or have rationalized in the service of foreign adventures.  “The distinction between constitutional government and bureaucratic government is fundamental, “ says Dr. Arnn.

Which is it that puts our young people in Afghanistan, and for what beauty and unity are they dying?  I’m still a terrified husband.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email