As Robert R. Reilly explains in “America on Trial,” the United States restored the founding of government based on reason in a Constitution that produced the most successful government experiment in history. If the American Founding was a rational and social success, why has the American experiment now come under modern attack?
America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert R. Reilly (384 pages, Ignatius Press, 2020)
As the title suggests Robert R. Reilly’s new book America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding is an explication of the American experiment and the beliefs that supported it, leavened by a deep concern that those ideals are now so under attack that their survival is seriously in doubt.
At a deeper level, this is an extended philosophical defense of rational natural law, the “laws of nature” as the Declaration of Independence put it, the revival of which under Philosopher Richard Hooker in the 16th century, the author considers, is the intellectual source of English and ultimately American constitutionalism.
Mr. Reilly starts at the beginning, “before philosophy discovered the order of nature and the role of reason,” “before the book of Genesis,” before Athens produced the great philosophers, particularly Aristotle and Socrates, who are his foundations for developing natural law. Before them, tribes, city-states, and empires were cosmological, uniform, habitual, making no distinctions socially between secular and sacred, nesting all values in the social order. Individuals thought communally, not considering themselves independent of their culture. Indeed, nothing was outside, including the gods of the cities and empires, by which communities defined all reality.
The critical historical change according to Mr. Reilly came with Athens breaking from this suffocating social unanimity, with Heraclitus placing reason above culture, and more fundamentally with Socrates identifying a rational order of ideals that underlie the apparent reality, a rational moral order independent of culture and underlying it. Rather than blindly following society’s ways, one should place nature’s ideal city above apparent ones like Athens and separate custom from the moral nature that should guide all human behavior.
Aristotle further rationalized this natural order with a first cause and the nature of ensuing causes, effects and ends, where all “nature ever seeks an end” and “does nothing without purpose or uselessly.” The end state is “the reason for what it is.” What inhibits a natural end is evil, e.g. moisture is good for acorn, and rot is evil. Only humankind is conscious of this relationship—the only species for whom the natural law is also moral, where man is obliged to choose the good, which, if he practices virtue, produces the happiness that is humanity’s natural end.
Israel likewise broke from cosmological uniformity when revelation came from a single God who was prior to and outside nature and who commanded humanity to follow certain laws but allowed freedom to disobey. Thus, God even bound Himself as well as his people by a covenant between them. The Greek idea of first cause evolved into one of a personal and loving God who cared about his creatures and established rules derived from an objective natural moral law that, if heeded, would lead to spiritual fulfillment.
But ancient cosmological Rome supplanted both Athens and Jerusalem, leaving imperial power, rather than natural or revealed law, the future for all humanity. But under Emperor Constantine a third force began to grow institutionally and indeed survived the empire. European Christianity created an order that attempted to harmonize Greek rationalism and Jewish revelation, that over time produced an even more sophisticated medieval natural law rationalism, culminating in the works of Thomas Aquinas and the relative prosperity, limits, and order of the high Middle Ages.
Indeed, medieval universities so emphasized rationalism that reason itself turned against the Christian order; William of Ockham even undermined the fundamental natural law idea of essences. Rather than essences of reality with set moral ends, Platonic ideals were merely names we apply to them. Rather than having rational essences of unchanging natural laws set by God, He could change ends as He willed—an idea which abandons the certainty of reason and natural law for mere probability. Luther made the ultimate step against natural law with the belief that only faith mattered, which undermined the tenants of reason that had justified a European order developed over centuries. The result was many opposing moral justifications, the wars of religion, the end of Christendom, and the rise of the European Divine Right of Kings.
In England, the 1558 Divine Elizabethan Settlement proclaimed the Christian church as Protestant with a general Calvinist orientation. But this proclamation provoked opposition from Presbyterian and Puritan factions claiming it lacked moral clarity. The “Judicious Hooker” attempted a rational reorientation that would unite all under an Aristotelian and medieval natural law synthesis, which Hooker claimed did not require a specific revelation to justify it but could be accepted by reason alone. The dissenting factions disagreed and ultimately incited the English Civil War, whose violence so disturbed social order that Thomas Hobbes justified the complete abandonment of natural law for reliance upon an all-powerful monarch to whom a people gave consent to implement any statutes necessary to keep the peace.
Following Hobbes, England’s James I claimed all power over law, which was justified by philosopher Robert Filmer as a Divine Right, by which a rightful monarch would be responsible only to God Himself, free from any human institution, law, or moral restrictions. Natural law philosophers Robert Bellarmine, John Locke, Algernon Sidney, and ultimately Thomas Jefferson revived the Hooker natural law arguments for moral equality, individual rights, and limited government, which were advanced first in the Glorious Revolution in Britain and finally in the Locke-inspired American Declaration and Constitution. For Mr. Reilly, the case for natural law comes together in the U.S.’ “restorative founding of government based on reason” in a Constitution that produced the most successful government experiment in history.
If the American Founding was a rational and social success, the author asks himself, why has the American experiment now come under modern attack? Even those sympathetic to the tradition like Patrick Deneen properly see today’s decay but assign its cause to the Declaration’s natural rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as a radical individualism that ultimately undermines social order. Mr. Reilly argues in response that the “self-evident truths of the Declaration” have to be read as the Founders understood them, as “intelligible only within the natural law context in which they were spoken.” Countering Dr. Deneen’s contention that the Founding was “a relativist philosophy” that explicitly turned away from polis virtue to Enlightenment freedom, Mr. Reilly quotes Madison’s recognition that “Republican government presupposes the existence of these [virtuous] qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
Yet, at the end of the day, Mr. Reilly does not rely on natural law reason alone or even polis virtue but correctly notes that the good “does not ultimately reside in the human polis,” even for Plato. Western philosophy under Augustine specifically rejected ancient virtue with the introduction of his ideal of the two cities, and generally “as Christians, they had a higher model than the polis.” Indeed, with all of the emphasis on reason and natural law, the author continually brings in revelation to support the Founding. From the first pages it is “revelations and discoveries;” it is Aquinas’ “synthesis of faith and reason;” he even gives essences a revelationary justification, generally stressing that the Declaration is justified by both the “laws of nature and nature’s God.”
The author’s emphasis on nature rather than its God is understandable. In today’s relativist world, the emphasis on God would not appeal to most intellectuals who insist reason is all. Yet, as Stanley Parry’s “Reason and the Restoration of Tradition” (in Frank Meyer’s What Is Conservatism? reprinted recently by ISI Press) said many years ago: “The basic error” of a modern natural law justification alone “is to appeal to nature as the source of order precisely when ill minds perceive nature as the source of disorder, as the dilemma from which they must save themselves.” When things reach a certain point, natural law reason alone cannot win the day.
Reason is essential for any reevaluation, but all reasoning must start with some agreed-upon first premises, for the fact is reason (and science) depend upon axioms that must be accepted on common agreement. Parry suggests the first item necessary for recovery is to expand narrow rationalism itself by demonstrating the limits of reason, that there must be premises beyond it if anything is to make sense. Mr. Reilly does so by constantly using Aristotle as the ideal but continually ending with a modification by Aquinas. Indeed, the whole structure of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is to cite Aristotle as authority but then to add revelation to complete the understanding.
Even a skeptical philosopher of science like Karl Popper in “Toward a Rational Theory of Tradition” (Conjectures and Refutations, 129-131) conceded that any intellectual project must start with a traditional premise. Skeptic Thomas Jefferson needed a (deist) creator. In The Reasonableness of Christianity (150), John Locke praised the philosophers for showing the beauty of virtue, but they left it “unendowed” until Jesus inspired a tradition that could sustain an actual culture to validate it. As Parry emphasized, the order of nature is “latent and must be actualized” by a culture, a tradition, by actual events and peoples and institutions rather than by reason alone.
Indeed, as Mr. Reilly’s favorite, Thomas Aquinas taught, the norms for the good life “are derived not from nature but from grace,” that not virtue but “beatitude is the end of man.” Mr. Reilly wishes to make his case with reason alone and does a wonderful job doing so, but he is wise enough to back it with revelation at the point where reason meets its limits.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.