The Founders saw their historical moment in terms that transcended the moment…

Recently, Wyoming Catholic College hosted its first public lecture of the Annual Lecture Series, featuring Dr. R.J. Pestritto of Hillsdale College who spoke on “Progressivism, Political Philosophy, and the American Political Tradition.” This year’s students, all of them dressed in their formal best, packed the rows, along with faculty and many guests from the larger community—not just from Lander, but from neighboring towns. By 7:00 pm, the Fremont Room of the Inn at Lander was overflowing; people kept fetching more chairs from neighboring rooms.

Dr. Pestritto’s thesis, which he has developed in books on Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives, was that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a major departure from the principles of the American Founding.  Instead of accepting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as they were originally intended, these reformers based their ideas on the German thinkers of the nineteenth century, starting with Hegel. Progressives began to promote historicist ideas that denied the very possibility of universal truths transcending time and place.

For example, the assertion that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “inalienable rights” of man might be inconvenient in the twentieth century. This emphasis on being “endowed” with these rights by our “Creator” was suited to the era in which it was first articulated, perhaps, but not to a post-Darwinian understanding. Suppose that these “inalienable rights” no longer suited the new requirements of the developing historical situation in America? Suppose that the government, in order to get done what it needed to do, had to override individual rights of property or religious conscience?

The Founders saw their historical moment in terms that transcended the moment. Because they knew history, the writers of the Federalist Papers expressed extreme concern about the problem of faction, especially the emergence of a majority that asserted its claims over the minority. They built-in checks and balances to prevent any branch of government from overriding the others; they built indirection and delay (call it gridlock) into the system to protect minorities from the interests of a dominant majority. But for the Progressives, checks and balances were merely a hindrance to efficient government, and the warning against majority faction (or what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”) disappeared in the Progressive glow of righteousness. How could it be wrong to act in accordance with the spirit of history? As “experts” replaced statesman, the whole idea of “the consent of the governed” became less important, even a stumbling block for the plans of Progressive reformers.

Dr. Pestritto cited Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Goodnow, Herbert Croly, and others who specifically renounced the principles of the Constitution. Croly, for example, famously complained, “Ever since the Constitution was established, a systematic and insidious attempt has been made to possess American public opinion with a feeling of its peculiarly sacred character.” His idea was that “political democracy is unnecessary and meaningless except for the purpose of realizing the ideal of social justice.”

But why repeat the arguments of the Progressives or enumerate the consequences? We see them everywhere. The zeal for contraception, abortion, and transgender rights, among other things, is accompanied by the belief that “social justice,” as conceived by the majority, can and should override religious liberty. Many dominant political assumptions of our day clearly derive from the Progressives in their rejection of the Founders. (If you are interested in the seeing the whole argument, Dr. Pestritto’s books are easily available.)

This lecture was particularly illuminating because the raison d’etre of Wyoming Catholic College, the core of its founding mission, might be summed up with considerable accuracy in this way: reliance on the Perennial Philosophy of the great tradition, not the educational principles of Progressivism. For Progressives, the past is an outdated worldview with nothing to teach us; for Wyoming Catholic College, it is the very source of our self-understanding in the great books, in the great ideas, and in history itself. Thoughtful engagement with the great past humbles us; it corrects the tyranny of the present moment.

Looking at the rife factions of the present moment, for example, who would not experience an uncanny recognition upon reading Thucydides’ account of similar factions in fourth century B.C. Greece, or on encountering Cicero’s and Plutarch’s descriptions of the conflicts in first century B.C. Rome? We should be thankful for a Constitution whose framers studied these accounts, absorbed their warnings, and addressed faction as a perennial problem arising from human nature. And, in the same way, we should be grateful for the kind of education obviously—joyfully—rooted in this time and place, but also seeking the timelessness of what is always true and beautiful and good.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (October 2017). 

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