Thursday, August 17, 2017

"The Lord of the Rings" Films Refute Tolkien's Anti-Modernity

"He disliked the modern world."  So said Christopher Tolkien about his father. 

Tolkien's disgust with the modern world began in his childhood.  From the age of 4 to 8 (1896 to 1900), Tolkien lived with his widowed mother in the hamlet of Sarehole, a mile south of Birmingham, England.  This rural English village had a rustic life unlike the industrialized life of Birmingham.  Later in life, Tolkien said that he remembered those four years as his time living in the Shire, when he became a young Hobbit.

His mother converted to Catholicism, despite the fierce opposition of her family, who ostracized her.  He then became a child convert at 8, and for his whole life he was a devout traditionalist Catholic, with a love for the Middle Ages and a scorn for the modern world shaped by the Protestant Reformation, which had turned away from the only True Church.

His mother was forced to move to central Birmingham in a small house overlooking a busy, noisy street with ugly buildings and a view in the distance of smoking factory chimneys.  He later said that his life in Birmingham, dominated by modern mechanization and industrialism, was "dreadful."  The contrast between Sarehole and Birmingham is echoed in the contrast between the Shire and Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings and most of Tolkien's other writing can be read as a criticism of the technological, materialistic, and capitalistic civilization of the modern world, and as expressing a longing for the rustic simplicity and communal life of premodern English villages.  John Clute has described The Lord of the Rings as "a comprehensive counter-myth to the story of the twentieth century," because "what had happened to life in the twentieth century was profoundly inhuman."  Tolkien's counter-myth, Clute claimed, was "a description of a universe that feels right--another reality that the soul requires in this waste-land century."

But is this really true--that life in the twentieth century was profoundly inhuman?  And that a more truly human life would have required a return to the village life of medieval England?

It is easy to understand how the first half of the twentieth century--particularly, the brutality and violence of the two world wars--created a scorn for modernity in people like Tolkien.  But the triumph of modern liberalism in the second half of the century--with growing freedom and prosperity around the world--makes it easier to see moral progress in modern life.  (I have written a series of posts on human progress in November and December of 2016.)

After all, doesn't Tolkien's own life show the moral and intellectual benefits of living in modern liberal societies? 

Tolkien became a professor at Oxford University who was a member of a community of Christian scholars and writers--the Inklings--that included C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.  They met at least twice a week as philosophic friends for conversations about the philosophic, theological, and literary topics that concerned them. 

Every time that I am in Oxford, I go to the Eagle and the Child pub where the Inklings met for beer and conversation every Thursday.  They called it "The Bird and the Baby."

Tolkien helped to convert Lewis to Christianity, but Tolkien was deeply disappointed that Lewis joined the Anglican Church and refused to convert to Catholicism.  Lewis had grown up in the world of Ulster Protestants in Northern Ireland, and Tolkien thought that Lewis never abandoned the anti-Catholic prejudices of the Ulster Protestants.  But since they lived in early twentieth century England, when the modern liberal culture of religious toleration and freedom was beginning to flourish, Tolkien and Lewis could be good friends.  Tolkien said that without Lewis's help and encouragement, he might never have finished writing The Lord of the Rings.   This would not have been possible in a premodern village dominated by the authority of the Catholic Church.

And if the twentieth century was such an inhuman wasteland, how does one explain the popularity of Tolkien's books and the movies based on the books?  His books have had tens of millions of readers, and the movies have had even larger audiences.

The Lord of the Rings movies have become one of the highest-grossing film series in the history of cinema--almost $6 billion.  The average per film is exceeded only by the Harry Potter movies.  So it seems that modern capitalist profit-seeking can support high literary and cinematic art.  Moreover, cinema is an artistic invention of the twentieth century arising from modern technology.

As I suggested in my previous post, the artistry of The Lord of the Rings movies is particularly evident in the music for the movies composed, orchestrated, conducted, and produced by Howard Shore.  One can see this by reading the Wikipedia article on Shore's music for the films, which is based mostly on the magnificent book by Doug Adams, The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (2010).

I believe that a good case can be made that the movies actually improve on Tolkien's books, mostly because of the music, which comes from Shore's careful study of the books and the scripts and his Wagnerian artistry in turning the books into an opera.

One of many examples of this musical deepening of Tolkien's writing is the song that is sung at the end of The Return of the King during the closing credits--"Into the West," which was composed by Annie Lennox and Shore and sung by Lennox.  It won the Academy Award for best song in 2003.

Here are the lyrics:

Into the West

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
The night is falling
You have come to journey's end
Sleep now
And dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore
Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You're only sleeping
What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home
And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
All Souls pass
Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time
Don't say
We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again
And you'll be here in my arms
Just sleeping
And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the West

The imagery and some of the phrases here are taken from the last chapter ("The Grey Havens") of Tolkien's Return of the King.  People have debated whether The Lord of the Rings conveys Catholic Christian themes, as Tolkien said it did.  Part of that debate is whether there is any suggestion in the book of immortality in an afterlife.  The last chapter is ambiguous about this.  Frodo is sailing away on a white ship, leaving Sam, Merry, and Pippin behind in the Shire.  One can see some intimation of immortality, but it's unclear, and some readers can infer that the only human life is the mortal life of the people in the Shire.  The song has this same ambiguity, and it conveys it in a way that is deeply moving.  (I have written a series of posts on immortality, in October and November of 2013, and on Heaven and Hell, in April and May of 2010.)

Sunday night, this will conclude the Ravinia Festival's showing of the three movies with live music.  Many of the people in the pavilion and on the lawn will be moved to tears.

The modern world of the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first century, can't be as morally, intellectually, and spiritually impoverished as Tolkien thought it was if we can be moved in such a way by Tolkien's myth of Middle-earth.

Of course, for Augustinian Christians like Tolkien, no matter how good life on Earth might become, living in the "City of Man" must always be unsatisfying, as the soul longs for that fullness of joy--for that ultimate Happy Ending--that can only be found in the "City of God" in Heaven.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Storytelling Instinct in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"--Christian? Pagan? Wagnerian?

Next week (August 18-20), the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, will have three nights devoted to Peter Jackson's film trilogy of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  The movies will be projected on large screens, and the Academy Award winning music by Howard Shore will be played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a chorus of singers.  My family and I have pavilion seats for all three nights.  A few years ago, we were at Ravinia for the third movie--The Return of the King.

This will give me a good opportunity to think about the powerful appeal of Tolkien's story, and what this might reveal about storytelling as an evolved instinct of human nature.

In the run up to the year 2000, several major polls asking people "What was the greatest book of the twentieth century?" found that first place went to The Lord of the Rings.  This irritated many literary critics who dismissed Tolkien's fantasy story of Middle Earth as a bad fairytale for children that has become a low form of escapist fantasy for some adults.  And yet many people have found this to be one of the most powerful works of fiction they have ever read.  Jackson's film versions of the book--beginning with the Fellowship of the Ring in 2001--have become some of the most popular films of all time.

So what is it about Tolkien's story that makes it so attractive and so moving for so many people?  Does it show us, as Jonathan Gottschall has argued in The Storytelling Animal, that stories make us human, that storytelling is unique to human beings as part of their evolved nature?  If so, is there something about Tolkien's story that satisfies that storytelling instinct better than most other stories?  Or are the critics correct in dismissing this as a childish fantasy story?

Many Christians have seen The Lord of the Rings as a profoundly Christian book, or more particularly as a profoundly Catholic Christian book.  Tolkien was a devout English Catholic.  And in 1955, one year after the publication of the book, he wrote to the English Jesuit Robert Murray: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.  That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults or practices, in the imaginary world.  The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

But notice the strange manner in which he speaks here.  "Of course" it is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," and that is "why" the book has almost no references to religion!  In fact, when the book was first published, many readers were surprised that there were no overt indications of any religious practices or beliefs in Tolkien's fictional world.  Some readers have found Tolkien's "of course" to be an implausible effort by Tolkien to turn this into a Catholic Christian book, even though it is completely silent about religion.

Some Christian readers have responded by defending Tolkien's claim that "the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism," by pointing to what Tolkien said in his essay "On Fairy Stories," which can be found online. 

Tolkien sees fairy stories as the highest expression of the innate human capacity for fantasy--the uniquely human capacity for using language to create a "secondary world" of narrative fiction beyond the "primary world" of our ordinary experience.  In creative fantasy, Tolkien claims, we act as "sub-creators."  We are makers of art because we were made in the image and likeness of a Maker.  Our Creator, who created everything from nothing, created us to be sub-creators.   As storytellers, we manifest a storytelling instinct that belongs to us as part of God's Cosmic Story.

Darwinian scientists like Gottschall can explain this human storytelling instinct as the product of a purely natural process of human evolution:  we evolved to tell stories that help us navigate the complex social problems that we face as human beings, just as flight simulators help pilots to anticipate the problems they will face as pilots, and this social intelligence that we gain from stories that simulate social life enhances our chances for survival and reproduction in complex human societies. 

Some people will see this Darwinian story about the origin and function of storytelling as an alternative to Tolkien's Christian story about storytelling as part of our being created in God's image.  The theistic evolutionist, however, will see the Darwinian story and the Christian story as compatible:  the Creator could have used the evolutionary process to create the human storytelling instinct.

According to Tolkien, in "On Fairy Stories," the highest function of fairy-stories is the "Consolation of the Happy Ending"--the joy of deliverance from evil and suffering, a deliverance that comes from the sudden turn to the "good catastrophe," a sudden and miraculous grace that denies the pervasive evidence for universal final defeat.

Tolkien suggests that we might explain this joy that comes from a true fairy-story as "a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth," as "a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world."  The joy of the consolation of the happy ending that comes from a fairy-story might echo the joy that comes from the Christian Story. 

After all, Tolkien claims, "the Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories," because the Gospels give us the most complete "good catastrophe"--the birth and resurrection of Christ and the prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ, so that human beings can be redeemed at the end of history, which gives human beings the deepest joy of knowing that the history of everything has a happy ending.

Tolkien told C. S. Lewis that Christianity was a myth, but a true myth.  What are the signs of a true myth as opposed to a false myth?

Tolkien's Christian readers might say that even though The Lord of the Rings says nothing overtly about religion or Christianity, it can still be a Christian story in so far as it shows "a gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world." 

But that "gleam or echo" of the Christian Story seems very dim to those many readers of The Lord of the Rings who see that Tolkien's story draws much more from the pagan traditions of Nordic Europe and the folklore of fairy-tales than it does from Christian traditions of thought.  Tolkien's world of wizards, elves, dragons, magic, witchcraft, and reincarnation, a world of dark fatalism and death with no prospect of final redemption and immortality, seems very far from a Christian world.  Indeed, many, maybe most, of those readers who think this book is the "greatest book of the twentieth century" are not Christians, and they see no Christian message in the book.  Even many Christian parents don't see this as a good book for teaching Christian lessons to their children.

Moreover, the anti-Christian paganism of this book becomes even more evident as soon as one notices the influence of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle of four operas--The Ring of the Nibelung.  Both Tolkien and Wagner drew deeply from Nordic mythology in their storytelling. 

The Christian scholars of Tolkien have dismissed this idea by quoting his response to the Swedish translator of The Lord of the Rings who suggested parallels between Tolkien's book and Wagner's Ring cycle: "Both rings are round, and there the resemblance ceases."  The Christian scholars can also point to the obvious differences between the men: Wagner was an atheist socialist anarchist, and Tolkien was a Catholic traditionalist monarchist!

But if one lays Tolkein's book next to Wagner's libretto for the Ring cycle, the similarities are striking, as indicated in some articles by Alex Ross, James McGregor, and Stefan Arvidsson.   

"The lord of the ring is the slave of the ring."  Since that line states one of the the fundamental themes of The Lord of the Rings, one might assume that it's a line from the book.  Actually, it's a line from Alberich's curse on the ring in scene four of Wagner's Rhinegold .  Arvidsson observes: "The fundamental idea of a ring endowed with power, a ring that confers power and wealth upon its bearer, while it also entices those who come in contact with it to evil deeds and breaks them down, is not found in the medieval sources. Rather, Tolkien must have borrowed it straight from Wagner."  Moreover, as Arvidsson indicates, the ten steps in Wagner's narrative history of the ring correspond in some manner to Tolkien's narration of the ring.

We know that Tolkien's friend C. S. Lewis was an avid student of Wagner's operas, that Lewis took Tolkien to a London performance of The Valkyrie, and that at one point the two of them set out to write a translation of that opera, the second in the cycle of four Ring operas.

We also know, however, that Tolkien detested what he saw as Adolf Hitler's vicious distortion of Nordic mythology, and that Hitler's appropriation of Nordic mythology as providing a mythic frame for his German racist nationalism was deeply influenced by his experience of Wagner's operas.  So, one possibility, as Arvidsson suggests, is that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings to correct the Wagnerian interpretation of Nordic mythology that shaped the mythic nationalism of Hitler and others.

In 1941, while he was writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote in a letter: "Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge--which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will).  Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

The Lord of the Rings could be seen as Tolkien's effort to present "that noble northern spirit . . . in its true light" against the evil distortions of Hitler and Wagner.

I have written about the Hitler-Wagner connection in some previous posts (here and here).  I will think more about this in November, when I will see the new production of Wagner's Valkyrie by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is part of Lyric's new production of the entire Ring cycle.

I also want to think about how Wagner's operatic storytelling, which combines music, singing, and theatrical drama, compares with Tolkien's storytelling through language alone.  In "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien argues that storytelling is done best through words alone.

Jackson's movie trilogy--and also his movie version of The Hobbit--turns Tolkien's purely literary work into something like an opera.  This raises the question of whether Jackson's movies are better or worse than Tolkien's books.  Some people--Alex Ross, for example--argue that the movies are better than the books, because Shore's music employs Wagnerian musical artistry that deepens the emotional impact of the storytelling of Tolkien's words.

Shore deliberately composed his music to employ Wagner's operatic techniques in the Ring cycle: Shore's musical score includes over 100 leitmotifs (short musical phrases associated with particular people, places, or ideas) and singing by choir and soloists.  It's the most elaborate musical score in the history of cinema.  That's why the three performances at Ravinia, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, choir, and soloists, will be such a treat.


Sunday, August 06, 2017

West on the American Founding (5): The Philosophic Life in America

As West indicates, his Straussian colleagues will object to his claim that the American founders wanted government to promote the virtues by arguing that they did not promote the highest virtues, which are the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life (298-306).

In "Ethics and Politics: The American Way," Diamond anticipates this Straussian objection.  He answers with one sentence: "Finally, and with a brevity disproportionate  to importance, one should also note gratefully that the American political order, with its heterogeneous and fluctuating majorities and with its principle of liberty, supplies a not inhospitable home to the love of learning" (363).  He offers no elaboration or evidence to support this.

West concedes that when the founders spoke about public education, they saw it as directed towards "useful" knowledge (such as science that could improve agriculture and manufacturing) and the formation of good citizens and statesmen; and they said nothing about the possibility of public education that would lead those of superior intellect to live a philosophic life.  They certainly did not recommend anything like what Plato's Socrates proposed in The Republic for the public education of philosophers.

And yet some of the founders did occasionally express respect for the life of the mind.  In particular, West quotes remarks by George Washington, John Adams, James Wilson, and Benjamin Franklin that suggest that a life of intellectual inquiry might be one of the highest human goods. 

At the Constitutional Convention in 1987, it is reported in Madison's notes that Wilson remarked: "he could not agree that property was the sole or the primary object of government and society.  The cultivation and improvement of the human mind was the most noble object" (July 13).  This statement is somewhat vague, however.  And West quotes Thomas Pangle's observation that Wilson's statement "betrays no awareness of any possible tension or gulf between the philosophic and the political life, and bespeaks no classical notion of the superiority of the former to the latter."  Here Pangle expresses the distinctively Straussian claim about "the ultimate superiority of the contemplative life to that of the citizen or statesman, and the gulf between the two ways of life" (West, 306).  And in pointing to the "tension or gulf between the philosophic and the political life," Pangle brings up the famous Straussian teaching about the irresolvable conflict between philosophy and politics, which makes esoteric writing necessary to protect philosophers from persecution and to protect politics from subversion by philosophy.

This Straussian view of the philosophic life suggests three questions about the American founders.  Did they see the natural goodness of philosophizing?  Did they see that a life of philosophizing is naturally superior to any other life?  Did they see that the conflict between philosophy and politics makes the liberal freedom of speech and thought for philosophers impossible or dangerous? 

I would answer yes to the first question, but no to the second and third questions.  West clearly answers yes to the first question, and he also answers yes, although not so clearly, to the second and third questions.

Of all the founders, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson show most clearly a love of philosophical thought and conversation.  West thinks that Kevin Slack, in an article in American Political Thought (Spring 2013), has made a good case for seeing Franklin as a philosopher.  In some previous posts (here and here), I have agreed with Steven Smith, in his book Modernity and Its Discontents, that Franklin's promotion of philosophic clubs for conversation and debate and his scientific research in natural philosophy show that he was an "American Socrates" living "a life uniquely devoted to the pleasures of the mind."  But then I criticize Smith for ignoring this in the rest of his book, where he embraces the Straussian scorn for the bourgeois life as flat and boring in failing to aspire to the higher human excellences, and thus ignoring how the bourgeois virtues of Franklin include the highest moral and intellectual virtues.  I have indicated in a previous post (here) how Deirdre McCloskey tries to present Franklin's bourgeois virtues as encompassing all of the traditional moral and intellectual virtues.

As West indicates, Adams as a young man identified Xenophon as his favorite author.  Adams also reported that he had read all of Plato's dialogues, reading them in English, Latin, and French translations and then checking the Greek for important passages.  He was a careful and thoughtful reader of many other philosophers. 

West quotes from a letter that Adams wrote to his wife in 1780: "It is not indeed the fine arts which our country requires.  The useful, the mechanic arts, are those which we have occasion for in a young country. . . . I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics, and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." 

West observes: "Adams emphasizes the cultivation of useful studies for the sake of ultimately transcending the whole dimension of the practical for the sake of contemplating that which is beautiful but useless" (305).

Well, perhaps, but isn't there also a tone of irony as Adams moves down his list--from politics to philosophy to tapestry and porcelain?

One of the clearest manifestations of intellectual intensity in the discussion of the deepest philosophic questions is in the letters between Adams and Jefferson, particularly in the last 14 years of their lives before they both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 

The correspondence of Adams and Jefferson is conveniently available at the Founders Online website of the National Archives.  Lester Cappon edited the complete correspondence between Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, published by the University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

There had been no correspondence between Adams and Jefferson between 1801 and 1812, although there was some correspondence between Abigail Adams and Jefferson in 1804.  Of course, Adams and Jefferson had become vehement political adversaries in the conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, their mutual friend, began in 1809 trying to bring a reconciliation between these former friends.  In 1811, Adams told someone "I always loved Jefferson, and still love him."  Finally, in January of 1812, their correspondence resumed.  Adams remarked: "You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other" (July 15, 1813).

Jefferson began by recalling all the trials during the Revolution and Founding period, when "we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government."  He wrote: "politics, of which I have taken final leave I think little of them, & say less.  I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus & Thucydides, for Newton & Euclid; and I find myself much happier" (January 21, 1812).  Adams responded: "you and I are weary of Politicks" (February 10, 1812).

And while they do discuss politics a great deal in their letters, most of their discussion is about the books they are reading and the philosophical and theological questions raised by those books.  For example, they agree in rejecting Platonic metaphysics and theology as well as the corruption of Christianity by Platonic ideas.  Jefferson hopes "to prepare this euthanasia for Platonic Christianity, and its restoration to the primitive simplicity of its founder" (October 13, 1813).  After a serious reading of Plato's Republic, Jefferson asserts that "the doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them" (April 5, 1814).  Adams agrees that Platonic Christianity, which is Catholic Christianity, has prevailed for 1500 years.  It must finally die, but it might take centuries for this to happen (July 16, 1814).

Jefferson and Adams agree that "the human understanding is a revelation from its maker" (October 13, 1813), and therefore human beings should rely on their own natural reasoning about religion rather than submitting to the authority of those priests and kings who claim to have received some miraculous revelation from God.  Adams declares: "The question before the human race is, Whether the God of nature shall govern the World by his own laws, or Whether Priests and Kings shall rule it by fictitious Miracles? Or, in other Words, whether Authority is originally in the People?  or whether it has descended for 1800 years in a succession of Popes and Bishops" (June 20, 1815).

For Jefferson an originally materialist Christianity has been corrupted by the influence of Platonic dualist metaphysics--separating Matter and Spirit--that created a spiritualist Christianity.  Jefferson thought that primitive Christianity was purely materialist in believing that both man and God were purely corporeal, and that even immortality required a resurrection of bodies, so that there was no immortality of the soul separated from body (August 15, 1820).  (John Colman has written a good article on this that has been published in American Political Thought, summer 2017.)

Adams thought there was no utility in reviving the controversy between the Spiritualists, who thought that mind shows the action of spirit upon matter, and the Materialists, who thought that matter alone exists, because the relation between Spirit and Matter is a riddle that is forever beyond human understanding (May 26, 1817).  Jefferson, however, thought that it was reasonable to think that only Matter exists, and that thought arises as an activity or conformation of matter.  He admitted that this puzzle was ultimately incomprehensible to the human mind.  But "I confess I should, with Mr. Locke, prefer swallowing one incomprehensibility rather than two.  It requires one effort only to admit the single incomprehensibility of matter endowed with thought: and two to believe, 1st. that of an existence called Spirit, of which we have neither evidence nor idea, and then 2ndly. how that spirit which has neither extension nor solidity, can put material organs into motion" (March 14, 1820).

Jefferson thought he had found scientific proof for materialism in 1825, when he read a paper by Jean Pierre Flourens--Recherches experimentales sur les proprieties et les fonctions du systeme nerveux dans les animaux vertebres (Experimental Researches on the Properties and the Functions of the Nervous System in Vertebrate Animals).  Flourens was one of the founders of experimental brain science.  By surgically cutting out parts of the brain in living rabbits and pigeons, and then observing their effects on motor activity, sensitivity, and behavior, he showed that different parts of the brain had different functions.  By removing the cerebral hemispheres, all perception and judgment were lost.  By removing the cerebellum, the animal lost motor coordination.  Removing the brainstem caused death. 

Over the past two centuries, ever more precise experiments of this sort has demonstrated the modular structure of the brain with localized functions.  As I have argued in some previous posts (here, here, and here)., this suggests how we can explain the mind through the emergent evolution of the brain.

Jefferson explained to Adams: "Flourens proves that the cerebrum is the thinking organ, and that life and health may continue, and the animal be entirely without thought, if deprived of that organ.  I wish to see what the spirtualists will say to this.  Whether, in this state, the soul remains in the body deprived of its essence of thought, or whether it leaves it as in death and where it goes?" (January 8, 1825).

Adams was not convinced: "As to the decision of your Author, though I wish to see the Book, I look upon it as a mere game at push-pin Incision knives will never discover the distinction between matter and spirit, or whether there is any or not, that there is an active principle of power in the Universe is apparent--but in what substance that active principle of power resides, is past our investigation, the faculties of our understanding are not adequate to penetrate the Universe, let us do our duty which is to do as we would be done by, and that one would think, could not be difficult, if we honestly aim at it" (January 22, 1825).

Regardless of which side we might take in this debate, we can see here two of the most prominent of the American founders engaged in a friendly discussion of one of the deepest questions in philosophy, which manifests their love of the life of the mind.

But even if this shows that Adams and Jefferson recognized intellectual inquiry to be a human good, it doesn't necessarily show that they thought this was the highest good, and that the philosophic life should be ranked as naturally the best life for human beings.  After all, they had devoted most of their lives to politics and the pursuit of political glory.  They were moved by the love of fame, which, Hamilton said in The Federalist, is "the ruling passion of the noblest minds."  After he was defeated by Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, Adams fell into deep depression, and he wrote many letters to Benjamin Rush complaining that Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton had robbed him of the glory that was rightfully his.  (Douglass Adair's "Fame and the Founding Fathers" studied this pervasive love of political fame among the founders.)

For the Straussians, the philosophic life is the only naturally highest good--summum bonum--for human beings.  But, remarkably, as I have argued in some previous posts (here, here, and here), Strauss and the Straussians have never offered any rational proof for this claim.  They often point to Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as presenting the arguments for why the philosophic life is naturally higher than the moral or political life.  But they never acknowledge the remarkable implausibility and strangeness of those arguments.  In fact, those arguments are so strange and so contradictory to what Aristotle says elsewhere in the Ethics, that one might suspect that Aristotle is being ironical.

Rather than there being a single dominant summum bonum for all beings, Aristotle in his books on friendship in the Ethics suggests an inclusive end conception of the human good: there might be diverse generic human goods that are rightly ranked in different ways for different individuals with different propensities and talents.  As I have noted in a previous post (here), West has seen this idea in Locke: in the natural pursuit of happiness, there is a summum bonum, but it differs for each individual, so that there is no single summum bonum for all human beings.

We could say, then, that the founders rightly saw that intellectual understanding is naturally desirable for human beings, and thus is one of the generic goods of life.  But only a few people, like Socrates, will have the natural propensities and talents that incline them to rank intellectual understanding above all the other naturally desirable goods of life.  Those like the founders will rank the human goods differently, with political glory at the top, although they can also show a love of intellectual inquiry, as did Adams and Jefferson, in their private lives and when they are retired from political life.

We must still wonder whether the founders would agree with Pangle and other Straussians about the "tension or gulf between the philosophic and the political life," so that all societies must persecute philosophers who speak and write openly about what they believe to be true, and philosophers must learn to speak and write esoterically to conceal what they really think to avoid persecution.  West seems to say that the founders would agree with this, but what he says about this is somewhat ambiguous and confusing.

He suggests that the founders would have agreed with what Strauss wrote in "Persecution and the Art of Writing" about the "limits of Enlightenment" (198-201).  West says that "some of the founders (and perhaps all the preeminent ones) accept the view, attributed by Leo Strauss to premodern philosophers, 'that the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education: philosophy, or science, was essentially a privilege of the few'" (201).  Strauss also said that those premodern philosophers who believed this thought that "public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times" (Strauss, 34).  Strauss seemed to endorse this premodern view.

"Most founders," West believes, "were aware of the limits of popular enlightenment."  West speaks of "some" or "most" of the founders as rejecting the modern conception of popular enlightenment, because some of them--particularly Jefferson--"did at times express strong hopes for a more general diffusion of knowledge" (198).

In their correspondence, Jefferson and Adams agreed that the 18th century "certainly witnessed the sciences and arts, manners and morals, advanced to a higher degree than the world had ever seen," and that "the arts and sciences . . . advanced gradually thro' all the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, softening and correcting the manners and morals of man," and "to the great honor of science and the arts, . . . their natural effect is, by illuminating public opinion, to erect it into a Censor, before which the most exalted tremble for their future, as well as present fame" (Jefferson to Adams, January 11, 1816).  So it seems that both Jefferson and Adams embraced the modern idea of popular enlightenment.

West indicates that most of the founders rejected what Strauss described in the following passage of "Persecution and the Art of Writing" as the view of "modern philosophers":
"They believed that suppression of free inquiry, and of publication of the results of free inquiry, was accidental, an outcome of the faulty construction of the body politic, and that the kingdom of general darkness could be replaced by the republic of universal light.  They looked forward to a time when, as a result of the progress of popular education, practically complete freedom of speech would be possible, or--to exaggerate for purposes of clarification--to a time when no one would suffer any harm from any truth" (Strauss 34).
West is silent, however, about Strauss's observation at the beginning of his essay that since the middle of the 19th century, many countries "have enjoyed a practically complete freedom of public discussion" (Strauss, 22).  This contradicts Strauss's premodern view that such practically complete freedom of speech is "impossible or undesirable."  Or is Strauss suggesting that while the success of modern liberal freedom of speech shows that it is possible, it is still undesirable?  If Strauss thought a modern liberal open society was undesirable, should we infer that he taught esoterically the need to overturn liberal societies like America and replace them with illiberal societies?  Since Strauss himself fled from the illiberal society of Nazi Germany and settled in a liberal America where he could live and teach the philosophic life without persecution, does that show that Strauss recognized the superiority of the modern liberal social order to any illiberal social order?  If so, was Strauss a Midwest Straussian?

West says that the founders would agree with James Kent's claim that freedom of speech in America includes "free and decent discussions on any religious opinion," which is illustrated by the free circulation in America of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, published in 1796, which was a scholarly critique of the Bible (209). But if so, does this show that the founders did not agree with the premodern view that practically complete freedom of speech was "impossible or undesirable"?

Arthur Melzer's book Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing helps us to think through these questions as they arise in the study of the history of esoteric writing.  In my series of posts on this (here, here, here, and here), I have suggested that Melzer's book points to a contradiction in Strauss's account of esoteric writing.  On the one hand, Strauss seems to agree with the pre-modern view that esoteric writing is necessary and desirable because of the natural conflict between the philosophic life of the few and the moral, religious, or political life of the many.  On the other hand, Strauss seems to agree with the modern view that in a liberal or open society, there is no natural conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life, and therefore esoteric writing is unnecessary and undesirable.

I see a similar contradiction in West's account of the founders understanding of popular enlightenment.  On the one hand, he indicates that the founders--or at least most of them--agreed with what Strauss identified as the premodern view that the natural and necessary conflict between philosophy and politics makes complete freedom of speech and thought impossible or undesirable.  On the other hand, West indicates that the founders wanted to protect "free and decent discussions" on any subject, and that many of the founders showed a love of philosophy.

If West is claiming that the founders were on the side of the modern liberal philosophers in striving for a complete freedom of speech and thought that includes the freedom to live the philosophic life, and if West is at least implicitly claiming that this has proven to be both possible and desirable, then he is following the path of Martin Diamond in arguing for Midwest Straussianism.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

West on the American Founding (4): Character Formation in Voluntary Associations without Governmental Coercion

I have argued that Martin Diamond's Midwest Straussian interpretation of the American founding is superior to Tom West's interpretation, because Diamond rightly saw that the founders recognized that the virtuous character of the people was best formed by civil society--by families and voluntary associations in private life--without legal coercion by government.  In a liberal regime like that favored by the founders, the purpose of government is liberty, while the purpose of society is virtue.

Throughout much of his book, West rejects this separation of government as promoting liberty and society as promoting virtue, because he argues "that according to the founders, virtue is necessary for freedom, and that government cannot rely solely on private institutions such as families and churches to sustain it" (270).  "Enforcement of moral law," he insists, is "the purpose of government" (177-81).  In some parts of his book, however, West seems to agree with Diamond that the founders thought the purpose of government was liberty rather than virtue, and that the cultivation of virtue was the concern of private society (405-10).

The importance of voluntary associations in forming the moral, religious, and intellectual character of Americans was noticed by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, and recently scholars like Kevin Butterfield--in The Making of Tocqueville's America: Law and Association in the Early United States (2015)--have written the history of this.  Butterfield shows how these voluntary associations were extensions into private society of the social compact theory of government: people organized themselves into societies by writing and consenting to constitutions that became the supreme law for securing the ends that they wanted to promote. 

As one of many examples of what he calls "everyday constitutionalism," Butterfield tells the story of the Ladies Literary Society of Norwich, Connecticut that was founded in 1800 when a small group of women wrote a constitution declaring: "we the undersigned do agree to form ourselves into a Society, by the name of the Ladies Literary Society for the special purpose of Enlightening our understandings, expanding our Ideas, and promoting useful knowledge among our Sex; to this end we propose we assemble ev'ry other Wednesday eve, or ev'ry Wednesday from the first of October, to the first of March from 7 Oclock till 9" (93-94).  Following this same pattern of constitutional founding, associations were established for every conceivable social purpose--including moral and religious reform, as in the temperance societies and the anti-slavery societies.

West cites Butterfield's book with approval (West, 255).  But West is silent about Butterfield's emphasis on the "voluntary principle" in these associations, which denied the need or the right of government to coercively enforce morality or religion.  For example, West defends the establishment of religion by state governments as a necessary way for government to promote religion.  But Butterfield argues that the disestablishment of religion in the states after the Revolution--with Massachusetts in 1833 being the last state to terminate its state religious establishment--showed the trend toward "fully voluntary religious societies."  And as a consequence of this, church membership increased dramatically in the first half of the 19th century, which demonstrated that religious belief was promoted by a total separation of church and state (Butterfield, 29-37).  This vindicated Roger Williams' argument for a "wall of separation" between "civil" matters supervised by government and "spiritual" matters left to the conscience of private individuals.

What one sees here in these voluntary associations--churches, schools, clubs, moral reform societies, business firms, mutual aid societies, and utopian communities--is what we might call "private lawmaking" or "private governance," which has been the subject of a previous post (here).  We could also see this as showing what is required in what Douglass North and his colleagues have called the "open access" society (the subject of a post here).

Friday, July 28, 2017

West on the American Founding (3): The Legal Enforcement of Religion?

In 1964, I was a student in Big Spring High School in Big Spring, Texas.  At the beginning of each school day, there was a reading of some Bible verses and a prayer over the public address system.  The next year, this stopped, because the school district chose to follow the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempf (1963), which declared that state sponsored Bible reading and prayer in public schools violate the First Amendment prohibition of any establishment of religion.

According to Tom West, these Supreme Court decisions were contrary to the American founders' belief that state governments should promote religious belief to form the moral and religious character of the citizens in a manner that supported the good order and liberty of American public life, and that one way to do this is to have Bible reading and prayers in public schools. 

West also points out that the no establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment applies only to the national government ("Congress shall make no law . . ."), and not to the states, because the Founders wanted state governments to legally enforce morality and religion.  The fact that the United States Constitution says nothing about the legal enforcement of morality and religion does not mean that the founders thought this was not a proper function of government, because they assumed that this would be a matter for the state governments rather than the national government.  Of course, West recognizes, the founders thought the legislative promotion of religious belief would have to be consistent with the natural right of religious liberty, so that no one would be compelled by government to profess a religious belief contrary to their conscience.

I agree with West that the founders thought religion was important for the moral order of a free society.  I agree that they thought that the best way to promote religion was to secure religious freedom so that families, churches, and other private associations could provide religious instruction, with everyone being free to embrace any religious tradition that respects the liberty of other religious groups.

I disagree, however, with West's claim that the founders thought the coercive enforcement of religious belief by law was a necessary function of government that was consistent with religious liberty.  When I was a high school student in Big Spring, I was a devout fundamentalist Baptist.  But this had nothing to do with the few minutes of Bible reading and prayer at the beginning of the school day.  My religious beliefs came from my daily reading of the Bible early in the morning before I went to school and from my membership in a Baptist church. 

If there is a natural desire for religious understanding rooted in our evolved human nature, then we can expect that in a free society religious belief will arise spontaneously in the natural and voluntary associations of society without any need for governmental enforcement.  That is what the founders wanted to happen.  But West seems to believe that the founders would have been distressed by the possibility that religious belief must disappear if it is not legally enforced by government through means such as state-sponsored Bible reading and prayer in the public schools.

West identifies eight ways in which American governments have supported religion (208-212).  Oddly, most of these means of supporting religion turn out to be remarkably weak, and many were rejected during the founding period.  In fact, West even admits that many of them were contrary to what the founders wanted.  As he says, "some means of support were already contentious in the founding and were mostly abandoned soon afterwards" (208).

First, taxpayer funding of particular Christian denominations was common in the American colonies.  But West admits that after 1776 only four New England states--Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut--continued to do this.  By 1833, even these four states had rejected this policy.  Doesn't this contradict West's argument for how the founders wanted state governments to promote religion?

Second, churches in most states were exempt from property taxes, and this has continued up to the present.

Third, West notes that many state governments supported teaching "a sort of generic Protestantism" in the public schools through prayers, Bible reading, and religious themes in some of the instruction.  This is what the Supreme Court overturned in the early 1960s.

West is silent, however, about the evidence that there was very little religious instruction in the public schools in the 19th century, evidence that is surveyed by R. Laurence Moore (2000).  When Horace Mann became the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, he complained about the "alarming deficiency of moral and religious instruction" in the schools.  In 1846, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church issued a report lamenting that "the common school system is rapidly assuming not a mere negative, but a pointedly anti-Christian character."  After the Civil War, many states had legislation that explicitly limited Bible reading in the public schools to no more than five minutes at the beginning of the school day as a "morning form" exercise.  So religious instruction was not an important part of the regular school day.  That was my experience at Big Spring High School.  There was no religious instruction in the school at all.  The Bible reading and prayer at the beginning of the day was nothing more than a ceremonial exercise that lasted no more than a few minutes.

Fourth, West thinks that state laws for punishing blasphemy promoted religious belief.  He weakens his argument, however, by agreeing with historian Mark McGarvie that these laws "were generally ignored as anachronisms of an earlier age."  The anti-blasphemy laws were almost never enforced.

Nevertheless, West observes that there were "a few reported cases" of people being punished legally for blasphemy.  He doesn't tell his readers how many cases there were.  He is silent about the report of one historian that he could identify no fewer than 20 blasphemy cases in the first half of the 19th century, which is less than one blasphemy case per state in 50 years.  Chris Beneke (2015) reports this in an article that West quotes favorably, but he does not mention this.

The one case that West highlights is People v. Ruggles, a 1811 New York Supreme Court case with a famous opinion written by James Kent, which is often quoted by those who want to make the argument that America was intended by the founders to be a "Christian nation."  Kent upheld the defendant's conviction for blasphemy in saying "Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore."  Such words were surely uttered with a "wicked and malicious disposition" to be publicly offensive, Kent wrote, and "not in a serious discussion upon any controverted point in religion."

"The free, equal, and undisturbed, enjoyment of religious opinion, whatever it may be, and free and decent discussions on any religious subject, is granted and secured," Kent insisted, "but to revile, with malicious and blasphemous contempt, the religion professed by almost the whole community, is an abuse of that right."  So, for example, Kent indicated Tom Paine's attack on Biblical Christianity in The Age of Reason should be protected as a "decent discussion."  And, in fact, the publication of Paine's book in America was not punished as blasphemy.

Kent also indicated that blasphemy against Islam should not be punished, because Muhammed was obviously an "impostor."

In reporting this case, West does not tell his reader that Mr. Ruggles' punishment for blasphemy was remarkably light--three months in prison and a $500 fine.  According to the Mosaic law (Leviticus 24:16) adopted in Massachusetts and other American colonies, blasphemy was a capital crime.  West is very clear in declaring that the natural right to religious liberty does not include the right of religious believers to kill infidels, because "religious liberty must be exercised without harming others" (33).  West often appeals to this libertarian principle of "no harm" as part of the founders' understanding (33-35, 140, 148-53). 

Should we say that a New Testament Christianity that enforces the Mosaic law of the Old Testament violates natural rights?  If so, we would have to accept the argument of Roger Williams that the New Testament demands an absolute separation of church and state, and thus a rejection of Old Testament theocracy, but this would contradict West's argument for the legal enforcement of religious belief.

Jefferson is famous for declaring: "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."  But West says that "almost every leading founder" disagreed with this claim.  In fact, even Jefferson himself contradicted it in asking, "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?"  If too many of my neighbors say "there is no god," West asserts, the liberties of the people will have no "firm basis," and thus my atheist neighbors will have done me a great injury (205).

Well, then, why wasn't Mr. Ruggles executed?  And why were there no more than 20 cases of people tried for blasphemy over 50 years in America?  Why didn't the founders continue the colonial tradition of legally enforcing the Mosaic law with capital punishment for blasphemy and infidelity?

West does not mention that in one of John Adams' letters to Jefferson (January 23, 1825), Adams said that he hoped that all the state laws against blasphemy would be repealed, and only then would religious liberty be secure.

The fifth means for legally enforcing religion is to have a religious test for public office.  All of the state constitutions except for Virginia and New York had such tests.  West quotes the oath that members of the Pennsylvania state legislature had to take: "I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration."

West explains: "The argument for religious tests was the same as for other forms of government support: that religion supports morality" (210).  He then quotes from a speaker at the Massachusetts ratifying convention who condemned the "no religious test" clause of the U.S. Constitution: no religious tests "would admit deists, atheists, etc., into the general government; and, people being apt to imitate the examples of the court, these principles would be disseminated, and, of course, a corruption of morals ensue."

West identifies religious tests as part of the "founders' consensus."  But if this is so, why did the founders at the Constitutional Convention vote unanimously and without any controversy for "no religious tests" in the Constitution?  And why did all of the states with religious tests abolish them during the founding period, thus following the example of the national constitution?

To explain this, West says that Chris Beneke "rightly notes" that in "founding America . . . libertarian principles . . . repeatedly triumphed over local prejudices and discriminatory laws."

So now it seems that the "founding consensus" is based on "libertarian principles" dictating that the legal enforcement of religious belief is not necessary to avoid a corruption of morals.  But this contradicts West's argument for the legal enforcement of religion as essential to the "founding consensus."

West does not mention the most revealing evidence that most of the founders were not Christians, which comes from a notorious episode in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. On June 28th, the delegates appeared to be deadlocked in their debates because of the opposing interests of large States and small States. Benjamin Franklin rose to propose that the Convention invite some local minister to attend and offer daily prayers to invoke the aid of God. "If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God's notice, is it probable that an empire without his aid?" According to a popular legend, the Convention accepted Franklin's proposal, and from the moment that they had these prayers, the deadlock was broken by God's providential intervention. This story has been repeated by many American ministers as evidence that the American Constitution was divinely inspired. 

I first heard this story as a child when it was part of a sermon at the First Baptist Church of Wills Point, Texas.  But years later, as a college student in a class at the University of Dallas on the American Founding, I was shocked when I looked at James Madison's notes for the Convention as edited by Max Farrand in the Yale University Press edition (particularly 1:450-52, 3:470-73, 3:499, 3:531), and I saw that this story was false. Franklin did make a motion for daily prayer at the Convention, which was seconded by Roger Sherman.  But the response was silence.  Finally, Alexander Hamilton offered a quip about how they did not need "foreign aid." The motion was dropped without a vote.

This is not the action of good Christians. It is the action of men who respected religious belief, but who did not believe that God would answer their prayers and intervene to promote their political success. Since the meetings of the Convention were kept secret, they were not concerned about public appearances. If the meetings had been open to the public, they surely would have felt compelled to accept Franklin's motion.

West might say that this only confirms his claim that the founders support for religion was based not on their belief that religion was true but on their belief that it was useful for supporting morality, because while a few human beings are enlightened enough to see the rational argument for morality, the great multitude of human beings lack such rationality, and for them morality must be based on religious faith, regardless of whether that faith is true (see 198-203). 

But if West is right about this, why did the founders decide that there was no need for religious tests for those in public offices?  Did they assume that those in public offices would be the enlightened few who did not need religious belief to support their moral character?  Or did their "libertarian principles" lead them to believe that public officeholders would have their moral character shaped by American society in ways that did not require any legal enforcement of religious belief?  After all, even though there are no legally enforced religious tests for public office in America, there is an informal social expectation that officeholders will not publicly identify themselves as atheists.

The sixth means of enforcing religion mentioned by West is the support for chaplains in legislatures and the military and the use of government buildings for religious activity.

The seventh means is Sunday closing laws.  Oddly, however, West is silent about the intense controversy in the 19th century over the federal law mandating delivery of the mail on Sundays.  From 1775 to 1912, mail was delivered seven days a week.  For Christians, this was a violation of the Sabbath.

The final means of enforcing religion noted by West is official proclamations and ceremonies with religious themes, such as national days of prayer and thanksgiving.

As one looks over West's list of eight means of legally enforcing religion, one has to notice how remarkably weak they are, and how the "libertarian principles" of the founders "repeatedly triumphed over local prejudices and discriminatory laws."

West often appeals to the libertarian "harm principle"--that the government should punish individuals only for conduct that harms others (33-35, 140, 148-53, 234).  For example, he notes that while the state laws regulating sex were strict during the founding period, they were hardly ever enforced except when the violations were "open and notorious."  "Conduct that is not harmful if kept private could safely be ignored."  The strict enforcement of these laws punishing victimless crimes began at the end of the 19th century through the influence of "moralistic Progressivism," which was contrary to the founding (233-34).

One can also see in the state laws concerning religion a fundamental contradiction that is clearly conveyed in the Delaware Constitution of 1792: "Although it is the duty of all men frequently to assemble together for the public worship of the Author of the universe, and piety and morality, on which the prosperity of communities depends, are thereby promoted; yet no man shall be compelled to attend any religious worship, [or] to contribute to the erection or support of [any church]."

On the one hand, the state needs the piety and morality promoted by religious activity; on the other hand, the state cannot compel that religious activity without violating religious liberty.

There are only two ways to escape this contradiction.  The theocratic way is to legally establish a religion and thus give up religious liberty, which is what the colonial governments like Massachusetts did before the Revolution.  The libertarian way is to erect a "wall of separation" between church and state, as Roger Williams called it, which is what Williams did in Rhode Island.  In some previous posts (here and here), I have argued that Williams was correct, and that his Christian libertarianism was rooted in New Testament Christianity.

When Williams was forced to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 and move with his followers to Providence, they established a new government by signing this agreement: "We whose names are hereunder, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves in active and passive obedience to all orders or agreements as shall be made for the public good of the body in an orderly way, by the major consent of present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together in a Towne fellowship, and others whom they shall admit unto them only in civil things." 

Since the town meeting was limited to "civil things" as opposed to "spiritual things," this was the first expression in the new world of the absolute separation of church and state.

The state of Virginia followed the libertarian path of Williams.  Section 16 of the Bill of Rights in the 1776 Constitution guaranteed "free exercise of religion," asserting that "the duty which we owe to our creator, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence."  The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted in January 1786, stipulated that "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions" and guaranteed that "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." No Virginian would be required to "frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever."

West tries to argue that this Virginian separation of church and state, as promoted by Jefferson and Madison, was not typical for the American founders.  But West has to admit that the historical movement in the states after 1787 was toward the "libertarian principles" of Williams, Jefferson, and Madison.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

West on the American Founding (2): Midwest Straussianism

I have written some posts on Midwest Straussianism (here) and on Tom West as a former West Coast Straussian who has become a Midwest Straussian (here).

Michael and Catherine Zuckert have pointed to the tension in Leo Strauss's position on American liberal democracy as shown in three propositions:

1. America is modern.

2. Modernity is bad.

3. America is good.

To resolve the obvious contraditions between these three propositions, each of the three schools of Straussian thought has had to deny, or at least downplay, one of the three propositions.  The Midwest Straussians (led by Martin Diamond) deny or at least express doubts about the second proposition, because they are impressed by the apparent improvements in the human condition brought by modernity that seem to show clear progress beyond ancient thought.  In this way, the Midwest Straussians cast doubt on what the Zuckerts identify as Strauss's "signature idea"--his "return to the ancients."

I have identified myself as a Midwest Straussian--as someone who combines Aristotelian ethics and Lockean politics, in affirming (contrary to Strauss) that one can embrace both ancient virtue and modern liberty.  If I have anything special to contribute to this Midwest Straussianism, it's my argument that Aristotelian liberalism can be rooted in a biological naturalism that is supported by Darwinian science.

In a comment on one of my posts, Tom West denied that he was rightly identified as a Midwest Straussian.  He observed: "The implication of my argument is that the American Founders do not have to be viewed as breaking with Locke (or as embracing some sort of incoherent 'amalgam' in their political theory) in their simultaneous concern with natural rights and with the moral and religious character of the people."

West's new book--The Political Theory of the American Founding--is an elaboration of this argument for his interpretation of the American founding as based on a coherent theory of natural rights--and not an "amalgam" of contradictory traditions of thought--that is concerned both with securing individual liberty and with forming the moral and religious character of the community. 

But despite his denial of the label, this is exactly what I see as Midwest Straussianism, which argues that Strauss was wrong to see the Lockean modernity of America as morally and intellectually degrading in promoting liberty for selfish individualism, while failing to cultivate the higher virtues of human excellence, because in fact the Lockean liberalism of the American founding aims to secure both liberty and virtue as being mutually dependent.

That I am right about this is suggested by West's account of the three stages in his intellectual development as shaped by Strauss and Harry Jaffa (ix-x).  First, as a graduate student, he reports, he accepted the idea from Jaffa, Diamond, and others influenced by Strauss that the American founding was based on a Lockean individualism that liberated the acquisitive materialism of human beings, while providing no support for moral or religious duties or for the classical virtues.  At this point, I would say, West was an East Coast Straussian (like Harvey Mansfield, Walter Berns, and Allan Bloom), who accepted the American founding as "low but solid" in securing individual liberty, without any aspiration for cultivating the human excellences as was sought in the ancient regimes praised by Plato and Aristotle.

Later, Jaffa changed his mind and argued that Strauss's Locke of acquisitive individualism was the "esoteric" Locke, but that the Locke as read by the American founders was the "exoteric" Locke who linked himself to Richard Hooker's natural law teaching, who could be seen as an Aristotelian Locke.  West says that he accepted this modified position.  At this point, West was a West Coast Straussian, who believed that the American founders were not purely modern, because they interpreted Lockean modernity as compatible with the ancient Aristotelian tradition.

Finally, West reached the third stage of his thinking, when he began to disagree with the thought of Strauss and Jaffa that "there is something wrong with the unvarnished Locke," and he began to see that the American founders saw correctly that Lockean modernity promoted both liberty and virtue, and therefore there was nothing morally or intellectually dubious about it.  At this point, West has become a Midwest Straussian, who affirms that the modernity of America is good.  1. America is modern.  2. Modernity is good.  3. America is good.

West claims, however, that he does not concern himself in his new book with the question of the European origins of the founders' political theory, and so he does not argue here for Locke as the primary source for the founders' political thought.  He prefers to avoid that debate, so that he can concentrate on the founders' views considered on their own terms, without being distracted by the question of European influence.  But while this is what West says, at the beginning of his book, the book has many references to Locke, indicating that West is reading the founders through the lens of his interpretation of Locke (see, for example, 21-22, 47, 56, 75, 90, 94, 103, 107-108, 172-75, 201, 226-27, 240-41, 311, 315-17, 406).

The Zuckerts originally pointed to Diamond's essay "Ethics and Politics: The American Way" (1992) as the first statement of Midwest Straussianism.  West's book is in some ways a response to and modification of the argument in that essay.

In 1959, the American Political Science Review published Diamond's influential article "Democracy and The Federalist: A Reconsideration of the Founders' Intent," in which he argued that the founders thought that government should not be concerned with shaping the moral character of its citizens.  In making this argument, West says, Diamond "reads the founding through a Straussian lens" that assumes that the Lockean modernity of the American founding rejects the ancient teaching that government must be concerned with the moral formation of its citizens (172). 

West observes that in Diamond's "Ethics and Politics," originally published in 1977, he "substantially revises his earlier argument," and he "admits there that the founders did care about citizen virtue, although he continues to underrate the extent" (170, n. 13).  So while West agrees with Diamond's position in this second essay, West thinks he didn't go far enough in recognizing the extent to which the founders were devoted to forming the character of the citizens.

West seems to disagree with Diamond in two ways.  First, West criticizes Diamond for saying that the founders promoted only what Diamond called the "less lofty" and "modest excellences" of the "bourgeois" and "republican virtues" (181).  In fact, West claims, the founders also saw the need for the "manly and assertive virtues," particularly in wartime, and for all the "higher virtues," including the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life (281-91, 296-306). 

Actually, Diamond seems to agree here with West, because Diamond sketches an ascent of the virtues from the "bourgeois virtues" and the "republican virtues" up to the higher virtues of the "natural aristocracy of virtues and talents," as Jefferson called them, and then finally the intellectual virtues of the "love of learning" (Diamond 1992, 360-63).  So here West is mistaken in seeing a disagreement with Diamond.

On another point, however, there does seem to be a fundamental disagreement.  Diamond and West agree that the American founders wanted America to form a common character among American citizens.  But for Diamond, the founders wanted "character formation, but not by use of the laws" (364), because they separated state or government from society, and while government would be limited to protecting individual rights, the social realm of private life would shape the character of people in their families, churches, schools, and other voluntary associations (345-46).

For Diamond, this separation of state and society is what sets modern liberalism apart from the ancient understanding of politics:

"In the old, broader view, government was inextricably linked with society.  Since it was the task of the laws to create a way of life or to nurture among citizens certain qualities of character, then the laws necessarily had to penetrate every aspect of a community's life; there could be no separation of state or government and society, and no limitation of the former with respect to the latter.  But under the new liberal doctrine, with its substantive withdrawal of the character-forming function from the domain of the political, it became natural to think of state and society as separated, and of government as limited to the protection of individual life, liberty, property, and the private pursuit of happiness.  It became both possible and reasonable to depoliticize political life as previously conceived, and that is precisely what happened wherever the new view came to prevail.  Perhaps above all, religion was depoliticized; belief and practice regarding the gods, which classical political philosophy had held to be centrally within the purview of the political community, was largely relegated to private discretion.  Similarly depoliticized were many other traditional political matters, such as education, poetry and the arts, family mores, and many of the activities we now lump under the term 'economics.'  In the premodern understanding, these were precisely the matters that had to be regulated by 'laws with teeth in them,' because they were the essential means by which a regime could form human characters in its own particular mold" (345-46).

But while Diamond thus presented the founders as rejecting the ancient understanding that government must coercively enforce moral character by law, West argues that the founders agreed that the enforcement of moral law was the purpose of government (177-81).  While Diamond thought that the founders separated government and society, and relied on society, rather than government, to enforce morality through family life, churches, and other private voluntary associations, West argues "that according to the founders, virtue is necessary for freedom, and that government cannot rely solely on private institutions such as families and churches to sustain it" (270).  Moreover, according to West's interpretation of the founders' understanding of politics, this governmental enforcement of moral law includes the governmental promotion of religious belief and practice (201-14).  Thus, West seems to present the founders as agreeing with the ancient understanding, as interpreted by Diamond, that in forming the moral and religious character of the citizens, "the laws necessarily had to penetrate every aspect of a community's life."

But then, in some parts of his book, West pulls back from this position and moves closer to Diamond's position.  "No founder," West observes, "wanted an extreme Spartan regimen that inculcates morality at the expense of liberty" (6).  So, one might ask, if the founders did not want "an extreme Spartan regime," did they want a moderate Spartan regime?

West even endorses, in some parts of his book, Diamond's liberal separation of government and society.  The founders rightly separated the public from the private sphere, West argues, and they saw that while the purpose of politics is securing life, liberty, and property, the purpose of life is pursuing happiness.  Government can secure the conditions for pursuing happiness, but it cannot rightly define the content of happiness.  Nor can government rightly define the one true religion.  "The higher things were expected to be found not in public but in private life. . . . The true home of religion and philosophy and science, of revelation and reason, of the family and domestic happiness, is in private society" (301-306, 407-408).  This separation of government and society and the securing of individual liberty in private life from coercive supervision by government makes modern America different from ancient Sparta, although much of colonial America prior to 1776 looked like a Christian Sparta (264, 268, 288).

Notice that West and Diamond seem to agree in seeing Sparta as the model of the ancient understanding of politics, in which the governmental enforcement of a communal moral and religious character makes impossible any individual liberty in a private sphere of life.  Neither West nor Diamond say anything about Athens.  Neither considers the possibility that Athens might have shown an ancient Greek form of liberalism that foreshadowed some of the features of the modern American liberal social order.

West and Diamond--like many Straussians--seem to agree with Fustel de Coulanges (in The Ancient City, book 3, chapter 17) that "the ancients knew nothing of individual liberty," because the state was omnipotent, and there was no private life free from state control.  But as many scholars of the ancient world have noted, this ignores the evidence for some individual liberty in the ancient world, particularly in Athens.

West and Diamond do implicitly refer to Athens by appealing to Plato and Aristotle's understanding of politics.  But West and Diamond are silent about those passages in the writings of Plato and Aristotle that recognize the claims of Athenian liberalism. 

This is an important point for judging the modern liberal theory of natural rights.  If it is true that all human beings are born free and equal by nature, if the state of nature is really natural in expressing human nature, then one would expect that the natural human propensity for claiming natural rights would manifest itself throughout human history--from the original hunter-gatherer ancestors in the primitive state of nature without government to ancient Athens to modern America.  If for hundreds of thousands of years, human beings never claimed natural rights until the last few centuries, wouldn't that suggest that this idea of natural rights is not grounded in human nature, but is a purely artificial construction of recent liberal thought?  (In some previous previous posts, I have argued that there is evidence supporting the Lockean evolutionary history of politics.)

We know that there were liberal political thinkers in ancient Athens who saw government as arising from a social compact limited to securing individual rights by protecting citizens from violence and enforcing contracts.  We know this because Aristotle identifies Lycophron and Hippodamus as proposing this. 

West quotes the passages from the Politics on this (362).  But he emphasizes that Aristotle rejects these ideas, because the polis of Lycophron and Hippodamus is not concerned with making its citizens virtuous, and therefore it is not truly a polis.  West claims that the American founders would agree with Aristotle's criticism, because they agreed that a good political community must legally enforce moral virtue.

If West is right in distinguishing liberty as the purpose of politics from virtue as the purpose of society, then why shouldn't he respond to Aristotle here by saying that while the purpose of the polis qua society is the virtuous and happy life, it does not follow that the purpose of the polis qua state is to use coercive force against its citizens to make them virtuous and happy?

West invokes Aristotle's argument that a genuine community requires the formation of character through the "associations" (koinonia) of "friendship" (philia).  But West does not mention Aristotle's claim that the political friendship of citizens is only a friendship of utility, not a friendship of virtue, and that the friendships of virtue, including the friendships of philosophers, belong to the private life.  Here we can see the elements of an Aristotelian liberalism, which has been the topic for various posts (here and here.).

West is silent about the evidence that ancient Athens was remarkably liberal in its openness to the free exchange of goods and ideas in a society organized largely through voluntary associations, including private associations of philosophers (like the Academy and the Lyceum).  I have written about this in previous posts (here and here).

West is also silent about the argument for liberal democracy in book 8 of Plato's Republic.  Democracies like Athens are the only cities in which one can freely choose to live the philosophic life, which is why Socrates lived in Athens and not Sparta.  Plato's Socrates concludes: "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 562c).

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

West on the American Founding (1): The State of Nature and the Evolution of Religion

At the next convention of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco (August 31-September 3), I will be on a panel on Thomas West's new book--The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom.  Many scholars of the American Founding have concluded that the founders' political thought was an amalgam of different, and even contradictory, traditions of thought, such as liberalism and republicanism.  Against this "amalgam" thesis, West argues--persuasively, I think--that the founders largely agreed on one coherent understanding of politics--the political theory of natural rights.  Their disagreements (as in the debates between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians) were disagreements not about the end of government (securing natural rights) but about the best means for achieving this end.

Another recently published book--Randy Barnett's Our Republican Constitution--makes this same argument for the American founders as agreeing on the political theory of natural rights.  West recognizes this, but he claims that "Barnett's libertarian reading is silent on the founders' concern with the people's moral character" (46, n. 10).  For West, this "libertarian reading" of the founding is mistaken in ignoring how the founders' legally enforced morality and religion through the constitutions and laws of the states.  But then, West sometimes contradicts himself and accepts a libertarian interpretation of the founding as seeing the purpose of politics being limited to securing individual freedom, so that morality and religion are shaped in families and the voluntary associations of private society rather than through coercive public legislation.  I will elaborate this point in a future post.

In his explication of the founders' theory of natural rights, West agrees with Philip Hamburger (1993) in seeing that theory as based on five arguments.  First, natural rights are identified as part of the natural liberty that human beings have in state of nature in the absence of government.  This idea of the state of nature is fundamental.  West says: "The state of nature is the basis of the founders' understanding of politics" (409).  And in that state of nature, "self-ownership is the original natural natural right" (396).  Except for children, who are under the temporary natural authority of their parents, all individuals have equal liberty in that no one is under the rule of anyone else without their consent.  But these natural rights in the state of nature without government do not include the acquired rights that exist only as created by government.

Second, natural rights are constrained by natural law.  In the state of nature, human beings can use reason to discover natural law.  So, for example, they can reason that since all human beings seek to enjoy their natural liberty, they will resist and retaliate against those who infringe on their liberty; and therefore, human beings can conclude that the best way to preserve their life and liberty is to respect the equal liberty of others by not harming them.  They can thus see the wisdom in the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--or the Silver Rule--don't do to others what you would not want them to do to you.  They will enforce these rules of natural law as customary norms for society.  But even if many, or even most, human beings can see the wisdom in this natural law, many will not understand it or observe it, and their aggressive attacks on others will make the natural rights insecure in the state of nature where there is no government.

Third, to overcome this insecurity of natural rights in the state of nature, human beings consent to establish governments to secure their natural rights through formal laws and institutions for making, enforcing, and adjudicating those laws.  In submitting to the protection of government, people must give up some of their natural liberty to government so that it can protect the remainder.

Fourth, although the civil law of government is not the same as the natural law in the state of nature, that civil law must approximate the natural law in securing natural rights.  So, for example, the civil laws of property will be highly variable.  But if those governmental laws of property do not adequately protect the natural rights of property, people have the natural right to overthrow the government, return to the state of nature without government, and establish a new government that they judge will better secure their natural rights.

Fifth, as long as the civil laws approximate the natural law, there is no necessary inconsistency between civil law and natural law.  So, for example, the United States Constitution is civil law and not natural law, but constitutional law can be judged by the standard of natural law as to how well it secures natural rights.

Affirming the reality of the state of nature is the first step in this line of reasoning, and it is not enough, according to West, to see the state of nature as purely "hypothetical" or "fictional," because it must be seen as really existing in human history, past and present (96-111).  Whenever human beings are without a government or common superior over them, they are in the state of nature.  In the prehistoric past, all of our human ancestors lived in foraging bands without government, and thus they were in the state of nature.  As I have argued in other posts (here, here, here), the Darwinian account of the evolutionary state of nature largely confirms the reality of this Lockean state of nature among hunter-gatherers.

The state of nature is not confined to the prehistoric past.  Since there is no one world government, the state of nature exists between governments.  And even within societies with governments, individuals can revert to a state of nature when they find themselves threatened by aggressors, and there is no chance to appeal to governmental protection.  Also, when people revolt against a government, they put themselves back into a state of nature.  So when the Americans declared themselves independent of Great Britain, they were momentarily in a state of nature, until they had consented to new governments.

If the political theory of natural rights is correct, natural rights are those rights that human beings have claimed in the state of nature.  I have argued that Darwinian studies of life in the evolutionary state of nature of foraging bands does show that foragers claim equal rights to life, liberty, and property.

But what about the claim to religious liberty as a natural right?  As West and Vincent Phillip Munoz (2015) have shown, it was common in the first American state constitutions to make this claim.  So, for example, the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 declared: "That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience." 

But do we see foragers in an evolutionary state of nature making such a claim to religious freedom?

Hunter-gatherers do not typically show a religion of worshipping "Almighty God."  The monotheistic religions of worshipping a Creator God who enforces a moral law for human beings and intervenes in human affairs for their salvation did not appear in human history until the "Axial Age"--the six centuries before Christ--when Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity appeared for the first time.

The earliest form of religious belief is animism, which has been found among all hunter-gatherers, and which was probably the first form of religious experience for our earliest human ancestors.  In animism, there are no real gods, but there are various kinds of invisible spirits with limited powers that permeate all of nature--plants, animals, and even physical phenomena such as thunderstorms.  These spirits influence human life.  But they do not enforce any moral law for human beings (Peoples, Duda, and Marlowe 2016; Sanderson 2014, 339-53).

The first professional religious practitioners were shamans, who have been found in almost all foraging bands, and who continue to appear in some form in almost every society.  Shamans are believed to have the power to transform themselves through ecstatic trances to communicate with invisible spirits to solve problems--most commonly through healing and divination.  Successful shamans provide the service to their customers of interacting with the invisible forces that control unpredictable important outcomes--such as recovering from illness, success in hunting, communicating with the dead, and protecting people from evil spirits and malevolent magic (Eliade 2004; Singh 2017).

After the move from foraging bands to agricultural settlements, and the transition to large-scale chiefdoms and states, "high gods" appear for the first time--gods who are more active and powerful than the spirits of animism.  First, polytheistic religions have many specialized high gods who are much like human beings but more powerful.  Then, in the Axial Age, the monotheistic religions teach that there is one Creator God who transcends the world He created, and who enforces a moral law for human beings.

Evolutionary psychologists have surveyed the evidence that these religions of High Gods or Big Gods arose by cultural evolution in large-scale cities and states to solve collective action problems by persuading people that the social norms of cooperation will be enforced by divine rewards and punishments--perhaps even eternal bliss in Heaven and eternal punishment in Hell.  I have written about this in a previous post.

Evolutionary psychologists, beginning with Darwin himself, have explained the this evolution of religious beliefs and practices as a product of both natural evolution and cultural evolution.  By nature, human beings have the evolved propensity for "mind-reading"--for imagining that their are many intentional agents in the world who act purposefully according to their beliefs and desires.--because it is an evolutionary adaptation for successfully navigating through a world of intentional agents, both human and nonhuman.  This capacity for detecting intentional agents can easily become so hyperactive that human beings imagine the existence of invisible supernatural agents.  Thus, religion can be explained as an evolutionary manifestation of  a "hyperactive agency detection device" in the human brain, which I have written about in earlier posts (here).

That religious belief really is an evolutionary adaptation and not just an indirect by-product of some truly adaptive function of the brain is suggested by the evidence that religion promotes health and reproductive success.  Devout religious believers tend to have better physical and mental health and longer lives than those who lack such religious devotion.  Religiosity also increases fertility, and the most devout religious believers (like Orthodox Jews) tend to have the highest average number of offspring.  Atheists tend to have the lowest rates of fertility (Sanderson 2014, 344-50). 

This suggests that religion is rooted in evolved human nature, that the desire for religious understanding should be included on the list of 20 natural desires, and that atheists who advocate the abolition of religion are foolish.  This explains why evolutionary psychologists like Leda Cosmides disagree with the "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins, as I indicated in a previous post.

But let's turn back to my earlier question: if there is a natural desire for religious belief in the evolutionary state of nature, did our foraging ancestors express that as a natural claim to religious freedom?  The animism and shamanism that have dominated the religious life of foragers seem to have arisen voluntarily through the competition of religious practitioners for customers, and there is no priestly or governmental bureaucracy for coercively enforcing belief.

The monotheistic religions that have arisen over the past few thousand years have often used coercive force to punish heretics and infidels.  But there have also been periods in which monotheistic believers have advocated religious liberty--such as New Testament Christianity during its first 300 years.  Christian advocates of religious toleration and liberty like Roger Williams have defended this as a revival of the New Testament teaching, which might also be seen as a revival of the religious liberty enjoyed by foragers in the state of nature.  The liberalism of religious liberty and toleration could then be understood as a return both to original New Testament Christianity and to the evolutionary state of nature.  (I have written about this here.)


Barnett, Randy E. 2016. Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People (New York: Broadside Books, 2016).

Eliade, Mircea. 2004. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 2nd paperback edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hamburger, Philip A. 1993. "Natural Rights, Natural Law, and American Constitutions." Yale Law Journal 102: 907-60.

Munoz, Phillip Vincent. 2015. "Church and State in the Founding-Era State Constitutions." American Political Thought 4: 1-38.

Peoples, Hervey C., Pavel Duda, and Frank W. Marlowe. 2016. "Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion." Human Nature 27:261-82. doi10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0

Sanderson, Stephen K. 2014. Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Singh, Manvir. 2017. "The Cultural Evolution of Shamanism." Behavioral and Brain Sciences, forthcoming.

West, Thomas G. 2017. The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.