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Beauty, n.  The power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband.

–Ambrose Biercetrue beauty

My Imprimis arrived today.  It is “The Unity and Beauty of the Declaration and the Constitution,” an interview of Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution.  The full interview can be viewed here.  It is a remarkable interview, prepared carefully by Mr. Robinson, conducted with gravitas, and carried out with wit, charm, and high intelligence by Dr. Arnn.  I wish to reply, hoping to achieve the same.

When asked by Mr. Robinson to put the documents in historical context, Dr. Arnn says (about the Declaration), “First, there had never been anything like it in history,” second, “its signers were being hunted by British troops,” and third, “even more extraordinary, “It opens by speaking of universal principles.”  The problem with saying things this way is that it is not historical.  Nobody at the time thought that Jefferson’s opening represented universal principles or that what they were saying had never been said before (including Jefferson, who went out of his way many times to say that he had expressed only “the common sense of the matter”).  The only members of the Continental Congress who were being “hunted” were New Englanders who had already won their secession, having been fighting the Regulars since April 19, 1775.  The war was over in New England before it began any place else.Furthermore, there were about ninety other “declarations of independence” around by July of 1776.

true beautyTheir beauty was indeed universal, and quite soon terrifying to the husbands.  Lovers were needed to go and fight, but husbands had to clean up the messes.  Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and his cousin John, the trembling Jefferson, the scheming Hamilton, and above all, the imperial Washington had to make order.  The Constitution was not the logical outcome of what they hoped for, nor was it the first constitution.  The Articles of Confederation was the only possibility of keeping very distinct cultures together long enough to celebrate the secession.  And if John Dickinson’s draft had been adopted there would have been no need for the nationalist document that followed.  It was the flawed version of the Articles of Confederation government that passed the Northwest Ordinance, the most complete statement of liberty ever written into American law during the lifetimes of the “founders.”

Dr. Arnn finds “three fundamental arrangements” ( a wonderful phrase, by the way) in the Constitution that he says unify the two major documents.  Before we parse them we should note that the “Organic Law” of the United States as ratified by our first Congress includes not only the Declaration and the Constitution, but the Northwest Ordinance, the Articles of Confederation, and the English Common Law.  The “arrangements” Dr. Arnn offers are representation, separation of powers, and limited government.  I would suggest that the only beauty which unites the documents, the only beauty which unites the concepts, and the only beauty which unites the complex and often hostile cultures of early America is limited government.  Under no other banner could the secession have survived.  The others were old, and worked well sometimes and sometimes not.  They have also largely been abolished in our regime, almost completely by 1945.

Here we should turn to what Dr. Arnn apparently thinks of as “beauty,” and what appeals to me about it.  It comes down to the “universal principles” he believes the documents represent, and represent in unity.  I confess to being a terrified husband when it comes to beauty.  The Good, the True, and the Beautiful can be the property of pagans, atheists, or any religious cult, but if they are to have permanent meaning they must be attached to something that is beyond the self, or they have no meaning at all.  It is not enough for the Declaration to call upon “nature’s god,” or upon other abstractions that unitarians like Jefferson and Adams use to appeal to higher law.  I have never thought that they were deists.  They were Stoics, probably, noble pagans attempting to find meaning beyond even the unity that was Greece or Rome. Stoics talked of god, but not God.

But most Americans weren’t Stoics, then or now–or philosophers, for that matter.  Dr. Arnn was educated in a school of philosophy originated by the brilliant Leo Strauss, as passed on by the almost equally brilliant Harry Jaffa.  The best of the “Straussians” have taught us, like the New Critics in literature who preceded the political philosophers, to read texts carefully.  This is a great service.  It does not, however, lead us anywhere but to the higher realms of reason, which, taken to its logical and moral conclusion, is to ideology.  Thus the “beauty” of the Declaration is its transcendence, and vague words like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” become normative, but in practice, relative to the needs of the hour.  “All men are created equal,” a common-sensical notion, becomes a regime founding eleventh tablet of the Mosaic law, but interpretable only to those who know how to read the secret meanings of the texts.

Like Dr. Arnn, I am not pessimistic about the end of western civilization or the end of the republic.  We have many things to agree upon, including how hard it is to raise children.  Because I am older than he, and have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I have made many more mistakes than he has.  But here and there, I get a glimpse of glory in what comes after.  Not because of what I have taught them, but because of what I have tried my best to take them by the hand and lead them to behold:  The glory of the incarnate, dead, risen, and ascended Christ.true beauty

This is where so many Straussians go wrong.  Beauty resides in this world only as a reflection of God, and we are able to perceive it only through His Son.  I’m not sure (I may be wrong) that I have ever met a disciple of Strauss or Jaffa who is first a Christian and second a philosopher, first a lover of Mary and second a devoted son of Lillith.  Are we not called to be Christians first and philosophers second? Does not making Athens more important than Jerusalem lead to ideology?  To a triumphant, instead of prudent, America?

It took Jesus to make Aristotle into Augustine.  Our Constitution, without Jesus, is only relative–wise, perhaps, but not worth attending to except as a matter of prudence.  Ideology makes us a triumphant carrier of progressive ideals–democracy and equality–but it does not locate us except in history on a moral plane higher than monarchy or any other form of statism.  I’m all for prudence, it makes things easier, but I’m not for ideology, any place, any time, any where.  If there are natural rights, or natural law, they cannot come from the mind of the snake’s promise to Eve, “Ye shall be as gods.”

I would end this modest reply with one example, an example that in the interview is given short shrift.  How does the beauty and unity of the documents factor into foreign policy?  Dr. Arnn is careful about this.  He sides with Jefferson: “We are the friends of liberty everywhere, custodians only of our own.”  He says we live in a dangerous world.  He wants Iraq to be free.  He thinks we did a good thing in obliterating Japan and imposing a constitution, but admits that it’s a matter of prudence when and where else we should do it.  This is not only right, it is beyond dispute and the only moral stance an American can take.  But it begs the question of whether our beauty and unity can make such decisions without following the documents which define so carefully the limits that so many of our leaders have ignored, or have rationalized in the service of foreign adventures.  “The distinction between constitutional government and bureaucratic government is fundamental, “ says Dr. Arnn.

Which is it that puts our young people in Afghanistan, and for what beauty and unity are they dying?  I’m still a terrified husband.

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7 replies to this post
  1. John, thank you for this valuable post. Curiously, I was thinking similar thoughts of beauty and ideology while here in Kabul, watching footage of Furtwangler conducting Wagner in 1942.

    When you ask "Does not making Athens more important than Jerusalem lead to ideology?" you raise a fascinating, even central, thought; a kind of Chestertonian flash of light as when he notes that genius is centric and not eccentric.

    This is truth, I think. However, and your good metaphors aside, why was the real Athens not ideological?

    You are also splendid in noting that limited government is the USP (unique selling point, marketing jargon) of Dr Arnn's three virtues in America's founding documents – the other two were quite common elsewhere and earlier. I must look at Cyrus and Ashoka to see if they limit government in either morality or administration (probably the former, probably not the latter except under the order of the emperor).

    I do wonder if "Beauty resides in this world only as a reflection of God, and we are able to perceive it only through His Son." Unless you mean that non-Christian cultures also arrive at beauty, prudence, etc., unaware that Christ is involved. If so, this raises a thought missed by some envangelicals. I recall a columnist named John Lofton thundering in the newsroom that the only way to the Father is through the Son – and so if you're not the 'correct' denomination of Christian, the Prince of Peace puts you into the eternal deep-fat-fryer. If, as I think you say, all beauty comes to Christian and non-Christian culture from the Father through the Son, whether people know it or not, then so may salvation.

    So much in your piece on which to reflect!

  2. Steve,

    Thank you. A couple of comments: The power of Athens, wasn't it, the power of the Homeric mythos? As Plato had to make it all clear, especially in such works as the Crito, it became, I think (and here I'm very open to being wrong) ideological. Our Declaration was the expression of Common Sense (in the sense of the Scottish Enlightenment understanding of common sense) but becomes ideological starting about with Lincoln. Second, I can just hear Lofton, or whoever it might be, thundering; American triumphalism, whether ideological or evangelical (or, God help us, a combination of both) is abomination; but that does not mean that we should relegate Jesus to a fraternity brother of Good Guys. I think our Holy Father Benedict XVI understands this very well, as did Christians as far back as Clement of Alexandria, and probably even Paul.

  3. Dear John, by coincidence I am re-reading Thucydides who devotes early chapters to the emergence of Athenian power. The squabbling, scheming, warring city-states remind me of Afghanistan at her worst and it is worthy of parody. Moreover, he recounts every very logical argument by Sparta and Athens and their every ally in every bloody meeting until you feel as if you were in some Tolkien nightmare in which the Council of Elroy takes 50 pages to recall the 60-page Council of Gilgamesh recalling the Elven Underpants Incident at the 89-page Council of WalMart.

    Greek Reason yes aplenty, but no ideology to be seen however, just warlike greed and tribalism. So if ideology came it was later. Perhaps you might elaborate and shed some light. Not my area, alas. How ideologies emerge is fascination to me and still somewhat mystifying.

    The Homeric Mythos so reminds me of Afghan tribal village rhetoric even today. Buncombe it often is too, although tempered by Afghan and Islamic prudence and decency. So do you think that an Atheno-Homeric cult of honour and bravery slipped its moorings and became ideology? Possible. I thought you meant that overly-rationalised Sophistry made Athens into your metaphor. Pride is indeed reflected in the old rationalist observation that Jerusalem bowed or groveled before God while Athens stood and looked Him in the eye.

    No intent had I to paint Our Lord as a fratboy although if He had a college fraternity it had Alpha and Omega in its name. But I cannot – cannot – conceive of Jesus as an ATO, although the Cana miracle would have been popular at rush parties (and He was too sincere to pledge Delt). I only meant that Divine Mercy may surprise many.

  4. Dear Mr. Willson,

    Thank you for the thoughtful and gracious critique of this interview.

    I’m curious about your allusion to representation and the separation of powers, particularly the latter institution. You say these constitutional frameworks “were old, and worked well sometimes and sometimes not,” and by my own inference (which may reflect a misunderstanding on my part), that that they do not beautifully unite the Declaration with the Constitution. If this is so, what do you make of the arguments in Federalist Nos. 10 and 51? I’m especially thinking of Publius’ contention that federalism and the separation of powers exist in the Constitution to moderate the problematic tendencies of human nature, foremost of which is the potential of men to assimilate in a majority faction that abuses the natural rights of the minority. Did the Framers overestimate the capacity of the separation of powers to avert tyrannical and arbitrary government? Or, more fundamentally, did they err in assigning government’s purpose to securing natural rights?

    You then say that “[representation and the separation of powers] have also largely been abolished in our regime, almost completely by 1945 (again, please correct me if I am misstating your argument). What do you mean? The last time I checked, American citizens still elect members of the House of Representatives and members of the Senate, thereby enjoying representation from a local, state, and national level. Similarly, as far as I know, the checks and balances established on the branches in the Constitution still remain: the president can still veto a Congressional bill, Congress still holds power of the purse and impeachment, etc. Granted, the institutional separation of functional powers delegated to the various branches underwent a dramatic assault during the Progressive movement of the early 20th century – but does the fundamental architecture not still remain?

    I don’t mean to cavil, but the Declaration does not “call upon nature’s god”; it calls upon “Nature’s God.” This is not a mere abstraction or reflection of stoic existentialism. It is a reference to God, who the document also cites as Creator, Supreme Judge of the World, and Providence. Stoics may have “talked of god, but not God,” but the same is untrue with respect to the writers of the Declaration.

    Finally, forgive my own lack of theological training, but what do you mean by: “It took Jesus to make Aristotle into Augustine?” When you say Aristotle, do you mean Plato? Or when you say Augustine, do you mean Aquinas? I am familiar with the Plato-Augustine, Aristotle-Aquinas “baptism” notions, but not the one you refer to.

    Very best,
    Trevor Shunk

    [Disclaimer: I studied with Arnn at Hillsdale and study with a few Straussians at the Claremont graduate school]

  5. Mr. Seeley, The short answer about ideology is that it was an invention of the French Revolution, and that it is as different from principled action as communism is from constitutional government. On this site we use, typically, Russell Kirk's distinction: "ideology is political fanaticism and illusion," an attempt to impose upon reality a set of ideas originating merely in the mind of man.

  6. Mr. Shunk, While I appreciate the energy of your questions, and their subtlety, and the gentle spirit with which you offer them, I'm going to decline to answer. To do so would offer back to you the ground on which I chose not to stand in my critique of my friend Dr. Arnn. To move from one document to another and from one abstraction to another is a conversation that doesn't appeal to me, as it does to younger and suppler minds and to philosophers. I once mentioned off-handedly that I had some problems with our invasion of Iraq and a Straussian in the room offered the opinion that I then sided with Iran, to which I replied that I am perfectly capable of making such distinctions of loyalty and would not accept his terms of framing the debate. I really don't mean to be contentious, truly I don't, but I really do know the differences between Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, and don't want to get into picking philosophical nits.

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