The most recent issue of "Perspectives on Political Science" arrived today, featuring a terrific symposium on Peter Lawler's most recent book (at least last time I blinked), Homeless and at Home in America. The symposium was organized and edited by up-and-coming RIT political scientist Ivan ("the K") Kenneally. Contributors to the symposium on Lawler's wonderful book are Kenneally, Ave Maria's Marc Guerra, EPPC's Yuval Levin, and - yours truly. I recommend picking up a copy pronto (and better yet, Peter's book, which features, as well, a superb set of blurbers), but in the interest of whetting your appetites (or maybe overfilling your plates), here's some of what I wrote:
A House Divided:
Peter Lawler’s America, Rightly Understood
Patrick J. Deneen
Peter Lawler is the founding Dean of a small but steadily growing school of thought that has been jocularly but accurately called “Building Better Than They Knew Studies.” The designation refers to a phrase in John Courtney Murray’s book We Hold These Truths in which Murray argues that the American Founders “built better than they knew.” Murray – echoing an earlier American Catholic, Orestes Brownson – claimed that the Founders’ official and self-understood grounds on which they built the American Republic were not the actual reasons for why the American constitutional order was well-constructed. The American Republic, it is implied, is admirable and deserving of loyalty in spite of the explicit intentions of the Founders, not because of them.
Throughout his writings – but particularly in his 1999 book Postmodernism Rightly Understood – Lawler has argued that the modern project has played itself out. The logical progression from Locke (autonomous liberalism) to Rousseau/Marx (progressivist collectivism) to Nietzsche (fascistic nihilism) has led to a palpable crisis of modernity that makes it possible – perhaps now even in hindsight – to see its failure. Our capacity for hindsight in viewing the catastrophe of modernity is enabled by our transition into a postmodern era – an era that moves beyond and away from the various modernisms that were inaugurated by Locke and the Enlightenment. Lawler argues that we now have in view an actual postmodernism – a postmodernism rightly understood – which, on the one hand, rejects the entire philosophical edifice of the modern project (including our faddish academic “postmodernism” which Lawler rightly diagnoses as a form of “hyper-modernism,” or “modernism on steroids”), but, importantly, also rejects the temptation (even conservative temptation) for a return to pre-modernity. In this he parts with his teacher at one remove, Leo Strauss, who called for a recovery of ancient philosophy, just as he rejects the nostalgia of “paleo-“ or “crunchy”-conservatives (such as that of Rod Dreher) who, he contends, reject the true benefits of our modern inheritance. Post-modernity rightly understood seeks to live in the light of our growing awareness of the truth that modernity rejected while acknowledging the goods (many of them technological) that modernity nevertheless makes available. Lawler tells us, in effect, that it may just be possible that we can have it all.
Lawler has arrived at an original and plausible understanding of America that rests deeply upon the basic insights of a submerged American Christian and even Catholic tradition – a tradition perceived and articulated philosophically by Brownson and Murray and literarily by Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. Only if America was built better than its founders knew could it be fundamentally deserving of our allegiance or loyalty, in Lawler’s view: a nation founded upon an explicitly Lockean basis would be ultimately false and self-destructive – arguably as false and self-destructive as Marxism, even. If America were actually a Lockean nation, it would have to be opposed as fervently as communism on the basis of its ideologically false view of the human person. Fortunately, Lawler argues, the likes of Brownson and Murray (and, elsewhere – if more artistically – Percy and O’Connor) have shown us that the basis of the American republic is not fundamentally Lockean. Rather, its basis is more deeply in the natural law tradition that has its origins preeminently in the thought of Thomas Aquinas.
The particular aspect of the Founding that reveals the deep and fundamental adherence to Catholic natural law teaching is to be found especially in the relationship between Church and State – and more broadly, religion and politics – articulated in the First Amendment especially. Resisting the temptation of radical figures in the Enlightenment, particularly the theorists of the French Revolution (and their intellectual heirs, the Fascists and Communists), the acknowledged division between Church and State reflected an acknowledgment of the limits of the human will to remake all human relationships. Leaving untouched by the State the religious belief and practice of its citizens, the American constitutional order recognizes (in the words of Murray) “the existence of a whole wide area of human concerns which were remote from the competence of government” (99). By contrast, “the Jacobin thesis” – which seeks to place government imprimatur upon all aspects of human life, including the formation of a strictly civil religion – seeks to make a claim over “all of reality and so a claim over the whole human being” (99). The existence of the First Amendment – marking out a space over which politics cannot dictate and law must be silent, and finally over which the temptation of the human will to remake the world must acknowledge limits – reveals the deep sources within the Natural Law tradition from which the Founders unwittingly drew.
Thus, according to Lawler’s reading of Brownson and Murray, there exists a “providential” Constitution that draws from deeper and truer sources than the explicit Lockeanism of our Founders. This constitution exists “prior to and more fundamental than our written one,” and draws most deeply upon the pre-modern Christian tradition that made it possible to render “republicanism compatible with rights” and especially “the right of the creature by nature open to the truth about his Creator” (101) John Courtney Murray is more explicit still about those deeper (if unconscious) sources to the secret vitality of the Constitution, pointing in particular to the Catholic natural law tradition that was still vital at the time of nation’s founding. Our founding, as Lawler tells it, “was a somewhat traditional rather than Lockean understanding of those truths that guided the construction of our political institutions. Our framers built better than they knew, ironically, because they thought they knew less than they really did” (98). Because they did so – almost wholly unaware – Lawler concludes along with Brownson that “what they [the Founders] did actually deserves our loyalty” (97).
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I think there is good reason to suspect that Lawler would like to believe the thesis that the Founders built better than they knew, but can’t quite bring himself completely to accept its validity.... More than once in other sections of Homeless and At Home in America, Lawler himself acknowledges the basic liberal and Lockean presuppositions at the heart of the American constitutional order. For instance, in his chapter exploring judicial interpretation, “Toward a Consistent Ethic of Judicial Restraint,” he writes critically of the fundamental trajectory of “our individualistic Constitution” (118). Far from suggesting that the individualistic jurisprudence of the modern Court represents a departure from the “unwritten” or “providential” natural law Constitution, he writes that there is an inner logic to the Constitution that has become more evident over time: “we can predict that the progressively more imprudent application of our individualistic principles over time…” (118). If the unwritten and Providential constitution were wholly and truly our actual Constitution, acknowledgment of such “individualistic principles” would be nonsensical. In acknowledging “our individualistic Constitution” to be the source of those “individualistic principles,” Lawler recognizes that the Founders’ stated Lockeanism was far from nugatory and irrelevant.
There is perhaps more than a little wishful thinking on Lawler’s part in seeking to advance a view of the Constitution as one based in Thomistic natural law theory and in his claims that the Founders built better than they knew. For this to be true, in the first instance there would need to be a fuller explanation of the sources of the pervasive individualism that Lawler acknowledges to exist in contemporary America. If the Constitution were truly a reflection of deeper and unconscious Thomistic natural law principles, then there would need to be an explanation for how the corrosive individualism that Lawler elsewhere acknowledges to exist comes not only to infiltrate the widespread and popular understanding of the Founding documents, but American society more broadly. Is our national proclivity to Lockean individualism a foreign import, a contagion that infiltrated our society in spite of our Thomistic Founding? Did it bear no relationship to the self-proclaimed Lockeanism of our Founding? Given Lawler’s own acknowledgement of an “individualistic Constitution,” there is can be little doubt that the explicit Lockeanism of the Founders did in fact manifest itself politically and that its logic has continued to unfold, culminating in a form of “creeping and creepy libertarianism.”
A more plausible understanding – one shared by his teacher at one remove, Leo Strauss – is to acknowledge that the Founding was mixed, comprised of an explicit and even dominant Lockean strain and a submerged and less dominant pre-modern tradition, particularly Christianity.... [Understood thusly,] the ancient tradition (of which Natural Law was one inheritance) existed contemporaneously with the rise of Lockean political philosophy, and persisted for a long time as a countervailing if ultimately supportive inheritance. Lockeanism assumes, but cannot explain, the existence of families and the necessary self-sacrifice that accompanies the role as parents. He implies that part of the legal order will be to enforce the duty of parenting, meaning that the natural instinct to reproduce will be the main spur to ultimate formation of families. If nature impels us to reproduce, the State forces us to assume the responsibility of acting as parents (especially a necessity in the case of fathers). However, in a society in which the priority of autonomy comes to dominate, individuals will find ways around the State imposition to form families, either devising ways to avoid issue from sexual relations (part of the dominion of nature means our ability to exert control over our own reproductive capacities), as well as altering laws in ways that permit family dissolution well before the age of “nonage.” The traditional role of families in forming decent and trustworthy children – the kinds of children who will grow up and honor the terms of contracts, for example – is assumed, but not explained or even justified, in Locke’s philosophy. The assumption of families is possible because of the persistence of an older tradition in which it is not assumed that all human relations are fundamentally chosen or alterable according to human will and choice. Family life is understood to be a duty and an obligation, but also a source of deep and profound fulfillment for what constitutes a good human life. It is because of the persistence of this older, pre-modern tradition even deeply into a Lockean age that Lockeanism is even tenable as a political philosophy. Nevertheless, the Lockean logic of autonomy is ultimately destructive of that older tradition, relying upon it while undermining and depleting it.
To recognize the mixed nature of the American founding – one that Lawler himself appears to acknowledge, at once seeking to advance a theory of an unwritten and providentially Thomist constitution while pointing to an explicit “individualistic Constitution” – is to raise some troubling questions that curiously do not appear to much trouble Lawler. In particular, the relationship of these “mixed” and contradictory elements of the Founding makes the Constitutional loyalty or allegiance of a non- or anti-Lockean – such as a Christian – problematic. If, as Lawler suggests, there is a logic to the Constitution that leads to his prediction of an “imprudent application of our individualistic principles over time,” this is to suggest that over time the explicit Lockeanism of the Founders will overwhelm and rout the implicit Thomism that antedated the authors of the Constitution. To have allegiance even to this mixed Constitutional founding is to ultimately declare allegiance to the trajectory of radical autonomy and individualism. At best an opponent of such an outcome might seek to fight a holding pattern – recognizing the likelihood of defeat – but such opposition is far from a form of unalloyed allegiance and loyalty. It is at best a provisional and prudential willingness to declare provisional allegiance to the unwritten Constitution while fully acknowledging that its explicit Lockeanism works at cross purposes and ultimately will likely prove corrosive to its pre-Lockean inheritance. It will mean acknowledging, but not necessarily celebrating, this mixed Founding, combating its official philosophy through the effort to shore up its unofficial pre-modern legacy.
Yet, Lawler claims to be largely untroubled by our Lockean propensity, at once because he believes in (if perhaps by overstating) the persistence of the Thomism of (or during) our Founding while also noting the manifold ways in which, while our official philosophy is Lockean, our actual actions show us to be at times closer to the social animals depicted by Darwin (or, less deterministically, Aristotle). In spite of widespread evidence of American “homelessness” – that form of “restlessness” that Tocqueville diagnosed as a centrally American and democratic quality – Lawler admirably sees ample evidence of non-Lockean behavior – our capacity to be “at home” – including the American willingness to form families and raise children (this, in contrast to the demographic catastrophe of Europe). He notes that it is our most “homeless” places – the exurbs, that paean to our Lockean assertion of rights to build anywhere and live however we please – that we find birthrates that even within America are staving off national self-extinction (14, 16). He has long admired the sanguinity of David Brooks toward our most materialist and officially individualistic Americans – our Bobos and Exurbans – who act differently than they speak, at once proclaiming their individual rights while parenting enough children to ensure replacement of the species within America.
However, Lawler is conscious that the current contradiction between what we say and what we do is a tenuous and worrisome source of that sanguinity. Tocqueville long ago noted this phenomenon: Americans claim that their actions are based on their official Lockeanism but in fact they frequently act in ways that are altruistic and self-sacrificing: Americans, Tocqueville wrote, “do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves.” Lawler notes that to do as we say would be the ultimate form of human misery: “We would be freely pursuing happiness, but never actually either attaining happiness or experiencing joy. It makes sense to say that naturally political, familial, and religious animals never would nor could do with much consistency what American moral theory – now called autonomy – says” (73).
In his chapter exploring the thought of the political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams, Lawler acknowledges that this divide between what we say and how we act may ultimately be untenable: speech ultimately has a way of directing our actions and conforming them to our speech. “What we say, McWilliams perceptively observed, turns out to have a long-term effect on what we do. The mistaken psychology of our constitutional theory erodes the decencies that support our moral practice. Our legal liberalism gradually transforms our private relationships, turning us into rootless emotional transients. The result, as Tocqueville predicted, is creeping individualism – a kind of apathetic indifference based on the mistaken judgment that love is more trouble than it is worth and an unnecessary limit on our freedom” (73). In this passage – which Lawler acknowledges to be a perceptive Tocquevillian and McWilliamsian observation – Lawler undermines the grounds of his own sanguinity in the persistence of our exurban virtues. He notes the “mistaken psychology of our constitutional theory” – that is, its deeply Lockean basis, pace his efforts elsewhere to read those out of the document as less relevant than our Thomistic inheritance – and its tendency, over time, to corrode the older and pre-modern virtues that corrected our official belief in the priority of autonomy. Writ large, he recognizes that the official Lockeanism of our Founding will, over time, tend to crowd out our pre-Lockean inheritance. It suggests that Lawler knows that he is whistling in the dark, making the best of the pre-modern reservoirs that persist – even overstating their centrality to the American founding – even as he acknowledges that the logic of the Constitutional order is toward their ultimate depletion....
Still, one must admire the tactical and rhetorical approach of Lawler, recognizing that Lockeans do not like a scold or a killjoy. Lawler’s visceral dislike of Rod Dreher and “paleo-cons” appears to derive less from a fundamental philosophical disagreement with their pessimistic diagnosis of modern America (though, no doubt, there is a significant personality difference to be accounted for), than from the fact that they are too willing to chide their fellow Americans for their Lockean excesses. Adopting the guise of quiescence, Lawler seeks to defuse the temptation toward off-putting and ineffectual Jeremiad amid the ruins. Rather, Lawler has adopted the tone of a comforting friend and compatriot, finding in his countrymen decencies and virtues that persist even amid the exurbs - love in the ruins, one might say. In so doing, he hopes to compliment and flatter his homeless and homebound fellow Americans in an effort to encourage the persistence of pre-modern virtues, even as he acknowledges that it’s possible and even likely that America may not be permanently stuck with virtue after all.