July 30, 2020


Is Natural Law Sufficient to Defend the Founding? (Donald Devine, July 26th, 2020, Imaginative Conservative)

Following Hobbes, England's James I claimed all power over law, which was justified by philosopher Robert Filmer as a Divine Right, by which a rightful monarch would be responsible only to God Himself, free from any human institution, law, or moral restrictions. Natural law philosophers Robert Bellarmine, John Locke, Algernon Sidney, and ultimately Thomas Jefferson revived the Hooker natural law arguments for moral equality, individual rights, and limited government, which were advanced first in the Glorious Revolution in Britain and finally in the Locke-inspired American Declaration and Constitution. For Mr. Reilly, the case for natural law comes together in the U.S.' "restorative founding of government based on reason" in a Constitution that produced the most successful government experiment in history.

If the American Founding was a rational and social success, the author asks himself, why has the American experiment now come under modern attack? Even those sympathetic to the tradition like Patrick Deneen properly see today's decay but assign its cause to the Declaration's natural rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as a radical individualism that ultimately undermines social order. Mr. Reilly argues in response that the "self-evident truths of the Declaration" have to be read as the Founders understood them, as "intelligible only within the natural law context in which they were spoken." Countering Dr. Deneen's contention that the Founding was "a relativist philosophy" that explicitly turned away from polis virtue to Enlightenment freedom, Mr. Reilly quotes Madison's recognition that "Republican government presupposes the existence of these [virtuous] qualities in a higher degree than any other form."

Yet, at the end of the day, Mr. Reilly does not rely on natural law reason alone or even polis virtue but correctly notes that the good "does not ultimately reside in the human polis," even for Plato. Western philosophy under Augustine specifically rejected ancient virtue with the introduction of his ideal of the two cities, and generally "as Christians, they had a higher model than the polis." Indeed, with all of the emphasis on reason and natural law, the author continually brings in revelation to support the Founding. From the first pages it is "revelations and discoveries;" it is Aquinas' "synthesis of faith and reason;" he even gives essences a revelationary justification, generally stressing that the Declaration is justified by both the "laws of nature and nature's God."

Locke's entire case against Divine Right in the First Treatise is, of course, Biblical and Creationist.

Posted by at July 30, 2020 6:42 AM