Tea Partiers are accustomed to tracing the ideas undergirding the Constitution back to Montesquieu and Locke, but a new book - America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert Reilly [reviewed here] - shows that the Founders’ animating ideas go all the way back to antiquity. The book does a deep dive into the fundamental dispute between reason and will, and shows how reason was embodied, and will rejected, in America’s founding. The book goes on to explain why this unending philosophical tussle is still important today. But before we get to the importance of it all, let’s take a quick trip through the history of ideas.
Reilly frames the central question in this philosophical tug-of-war thusly:
The thinking about reason comes down through Aristotle, Cicero, and others until we get to John Locke who is associated with such ideas in America’s founding as universal truth, natural law and rights, popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, the rule of law, political equality, and individual liberty.
The thinking about will was developed by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and others, and forms the basis for political absolutism. It believes human beings do not act out of principle but out of the will to power, the egotistic need to control everybody and everything. One culmination in this line of thinking was Hitler, who was all about the triumph of the will.
Reilly refers to the Lincoln-Douglas debates as illustrating the difference between the two competing philosophies. Lincoln argued slavery is intrinsically evil on principle and could not rightfully be voted in by a majority of the states, as Douglas maintained. Democracy without moral limits is simply the tyranny of the majority, Lincoln argued.
Why is all this important today? First, because the Progressives have been making steady progress and rewriting our constitutional ideas for a hundred years. This is bad because Progressivism, at root, is concerned with the supposedly preordained unfolding of history in accordance with the Progressive vision, not moral principles, and anything goes to get Progressives to their goal. The Progressive’s will to power conjures up rights willy-nilly to abortion, same-sex marriage, and other artifices to gather votes and gain power, to the detriment of religious liberty, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and other benefits of America’s founding. The Progressives have become authoritarian and illiberal. They can only get to where they want to go, now, by trampling on the rights of others. How long will churches that believe in traditional marriage be able to hang on to their tax exemptions? Or, to give another example, transgender speech codes are all about cracking your head until you think right, your moral principles and conclusion based in reason there are only two biological sexes be damned.
Second, there is a split within conservatism with some conservatives now blaming the Constitution and its elevation of individualism for all of modern society’s ills. They believe the old individualistic exploitative order has to be torn down and replaced with “better truths”, whatever that means - no one quite seems to know. Justice Anthony Kennedy is the poster boy for this school of thought, writing in one of his opinions that the “heart of liberty” for every American “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Justice Scalia mocked this as Kennedy’s “sweet-mystery-of-life passage” - post-modern gibberish. Reading Reilly’s book will better equip you to resist the illiberal conservative communitarians who have grown up in our midst.
Finally, Reilly posits that only reason, not will, can make individuals capable of the morally demanding requirements of living in freedom. If we are to govern ourselves and flourish, we need a solid grounding in virtue to succeed - something more than ‘if it feels good, do it.’ As the Founders observed, only a moral people is capable of living in freedom. The Constitution they wrote is for a moral people only and, as they told us, is quite inadequate for any other. To put it another way, there is only virtue or there is destruction. Destruction is what you will get if you choose will and ‘if it feels good, do it’ over reason and principle. If we don’t deserve a republic, we won’t have one for very long.
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