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WhiggismLast week, Dr. Bradley J. Birzer wrote an excellent sort of knowing or unknowing response to the ambitious claims of my recent article here on The Imaginative Conservative which announced that America’s Founding was exclusively Catholic. (I go unnamed.) Dr. Birzer’s article articulates that theories like mine “stretch intellectual reality too much.” Normalcy bias is justified, he assures us: the American Founding cannot have been Catholic…or even univocal.

At the same time, though, Dr. Birzer adduces evidence within Sidney’s work bulwarking my claim that the English Whigs borrowed sufficient substance from Scholastic Catholicism as to reduce Whiggism to a mere derivative philosophy. More than pigeonholing it as a philosophy derivative of Catholic political theory, I argue, Whiggism couldn’t even square all of the natural law conclusions it wanted to import with its own Protestant and Enlightenment premises. This ought to render one doubly skeptical of Whiggism’s internal cohesion: forget “derivative,” perhaps Whiggism wasn’t a standing philosophy at all!

If America’s founding philosophy was not internally cohesive, then the implications of frustration ought to carry right through to the present. Which they do: the rights to life, liberty, and property have come in America to mean the pseudo-rights of death (abortion/suicide/euthanasia), license, and “public property” (eminent domain/progressive income tax). While Progressivism can and should be blamed, the bedeviling fact remains: some stain of disorder allowed the Progressives to pervert society and the Constitution to this effect. And this, in turn, means that one must look beyond the English Whigs and their foundling American admirers for the true Natural Law theory of republicanism. Look, for starters, where all the Whigs looked. To Catholicism.

The Whigs, if you don’t know, were the 17th Century English political party which advocated for Parliamentary sovereignty, the overthrowing of kings, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the ousting of crypto-Catholicism from English politics. Dr. Birzer wrote of one famous Whig, Algernon Sidney. Other more famous Whigs include John Locke and Edmund Burke. Heroes forerunning and inspiring the Whigs include Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf. I will discuss all these hilarious names briefly, in support of my claim. But all you really need to know is that, while the various Whigs differed on minutaiae, all Whigs were noetic compositions of Protestantism and of Enlightenment thought. Thus, I describe the essence of Whig theory as “Prot-Enlight.”

A very basic misunderstanding of the Whigs abounds in America: that they did a sort of natural law philosophy. No, they did not. Before we turn to Algernon Sidney, then, let’s look at the better known John Locke, whose philosophy represents the perfect coalescence of “Prot-Enlight” thought, schizophrenically averse to Catholicism. Almost all Americans fail to understand how the views of Locke the Protestant and Locke the Enlightenment thinker bulwark—rather than rebuff—one another. One can say generally the same thing about the Whigs’ dual commitments.

Just like his fellow Protestants’, Locke’s Enlightenment metaphysics held (for some of the same reasons and for some different) nature to be mechanistic and meaningless—not comprehensible outside of the Bible, on the one hand, or outside the verifiable limits of experience on the other. As Carl E. Braaten once wrote on First Things, Lutherans and Calvinists (i.e. the Protestants) “swing erratically between a position of utter rejection of Natural Law and one of conditional acceptance.” What accounts for the erratic swing? On the one hand, the Reformation’s mission statement was to reject the ontological and heuristic value of nature, but on the other, Reformation thinkers were unwilling to accept all the manifold ramifications of their sweeping announcement.

True Catholic natural law philosophy holds nature to be: morally free, theologically meaningful-intelligible, and goal-oriented.

Why insist on seeing a non-existent “tension” between the Protestant and the Enlightenment components of Whig theory? The two worldviews are quite fungible, vis-à-vis the natural law. For both, nature cannot be the locus wherein man finds freedom, meaning, or a purpose. And this is the entire ball game. The Reformation and the Enlightenment only disagreed as to wherefrom the attack on natural law should be waged: within Christendom or without it.

Locke was as Protestant as he was empiricist. As Jeremy Waldron notes, “Locke was intensely interested in Christian doctrine, and in the Reasonableness he insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus [i.e. the Bible].” This is a repudiation, not an affirmation, of natural law—the abiding epistemological expression of the Protestant one, at least until Immanuel Kant came along. Only revelation is meaningful. By implication then, Locke’s metaphysics was the perfect expression of Anglo-Protestant Christianity, notwithstanding his very un-Protestant “tabula rasa,” which was only a small setback. Such a setback is quite negligible in light of the more predominating Lockean concomitance between a meaningless empiricist nature and a meaningless Protestant nature—both of which thrive in Locke’s philosophy. And this means that the concept of “natural law” should be utterly anathema to Locke or the Lockean.

This is why, Waldron continues, “like the two other very influential natural law philosophers [being read by the Founders], Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, Locke equated natural law with the biblical revelation.” Natural law equals Biblical revelation? What an intentional misconstruing of opposites!

Natural law is what we know about reality from nature, not from revelation. Locke, however had to proceed like that because he wanted to overthrow the (ironically Catholic) tyrant in 1688. And he wanted to do so even though natural law and revelation are conceptually distinct. Indeed, such a distinction between Natural Law (inherent in the two out of three of Catholicism’s teaching voices the Reformation excised) and Revelation informed the sine qua non of the Reformation, which repudiated the Catholic view of their concomitance.

Was Locke this bad a scholar? Of course not. One has to derive an argument about “rights” from somewhere, after all, unless one wants to put up with tyrants. In the last analysis, no one does, not even Prot-Enlight thinkers. But he was as dishonest about his citations page as many high school plagiarists, unfortunately.

Not only was Locke not nonsensical to a Protestant audience, but he fit in almost perfectly with them: he “derived the fundamental concepts of his political theory from biblical texts, in particular from…Genesis 1 and 2…from the Decalogue…from the Golden Rule…from the teachings of Jesus…and from the letters of Paul.” (Waldron, pp. 22-43).  It bears repeating: deriving rights from the Bible is the opposite of doing natural law. Natural law means deriving rights and duties from…nature.

But Dr. Birzer announces in surprise that Locke’s fellow Whig Algernon Sidney borrowed from the Catholics: “What is surprising, however, is how much Sidney relies upon the arguments of the greatest of neo-Thomist Jesuits—especially the Italian so hated in Britain, Roberto Bellermino. Indeed, his own understanding of a state of nature, of Divine grace, and of human liberty is much more closely related to Thomas and his followers than it is to Hobbes, Locke, and their respective followers.”

Conversely, this is not surprising at all, if you look at the Whigs and Whig heroes (prior to Locke) in chronological order. Begin with Hugo Grotius, one the earliest heroes of the American Founders and the leading light among English Whigs until supplanted by Locke sometime after the Glorious Revolution. Grotius semi-openly and very heavily borrowed from (Catholic) Thomas Aquinas and the (Catholic) Salamancans like Suarez.

Grotius instituted the “Protestant natural law”—or more simply the Whig—tradition of ripping off the Catholic Scholastics and then normalizing through repetition the ensuing contradiction in terms. Of course, as a Protestant thinker, Grotius’s philosophical recourse to “natural rights” was highly idiosyncratic and uncomfortably tenuous…for all the same “Prot-Enlight” reasons that Locke’s was.  Calling rights “natural” meant distinctly and explicitly that men were reasoning about rights outside of the Bible!

In all other post-Reformation contexts, such reasoning about nature and ultimate reality was and is highly verboten to the Protestant Christian. An exception was conveniently carved out of mainline Protestant (and Enlightenment) reasoning in the context of politics; who after all doesn’t want the “goodies” of the natural law, in the political realm? Again, though, through plagiarism and then an ensuing process of normalization by rote, virtually everyone has forgotten that the cover-up happened.

At least Grotius was honest enough to insist that there was no “natural right” of revolution, as his Catholic heroes Thomas and Suarez otherwise held. But he was not sufficiently honest to admit that rights like life, liberty, and property shouldn’t have been open to the Prot-Enlight Whigs in the first place. Or if they were, they’d have been dubbed “Biblical rights” or “empirically verifiable rights,” not natural rights.

But the next in line, Samuel Pufendorf “corrected” that. Because Pufendorf was primarily a Grotius and Hobbes scholar—not much of an innovator—the fact that he “found” a right of revolution in nature (“missed” by Grotius) must more or less be chalked up to…more Scholastic plagiarism. Or at least to a willingness to embrace the justifiable regicide posed by Thomism which his forerunner Grotius repudiated. Even the English proto-Whigs before Pufendorf’s time like Buchanan and Rutherford struggled over Biblical passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter, which admonished the Christian to pay his taxes, however high, and forebear earthly tyranny. Wouldn’t you know it: Pufendorf, a Protestant, somehow eased right past this Biblical admonition and announced a right of revolution. So much for sola scriptura, right?

At last we come to Algernon Sidney, last in time except with respect to Locke. Dr. Birzer admits that “Sidney relies upon the arguments of the greatest of neo-Thomist Jesuits—especially…Roberto Bellermino.” Yet Dr. Birzer is summarily surprised that folks draw inferences from the fact that Sidney used and then lost Catholic thinkers?! That Prot-Enlight tradition of plagiarism had begun nearly a century earlier with Grotius! And it has big implications.

The simple fact is: if one’s creed does not allow one to reason about rights (or duties) from the status of nature alone—as both the Enlightenment and the Reformation abjured—then he will have either to rip off the Catholics or to live under tyrannical regimes. There’s not much other way around it.

This is why each of the Whig thinkers or heroes bore such a tortured relation to the Jesuits and to Thomas Aquinas: like an angry teen, they wildly craved independence, yet simultaneously they needed the impregnable and vital nomos of the paterfamilias.

Belying all this fanciful bandying about the earliest politics of America awaits the tending to of the most current politics of America. My various colleagues at The Imaginative Conservative blame Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Obama for the aggrandizement of the state over religion and the individual; they are correct, of course, but the Whig sham underlies the conditions for the possibility of such a perversion of the American rights regime.

In the end, the only stretch of “intellectual reality” inheres in the American hagiography suggesting that Whig theory was a new American innovation in the late 18th Century…or even a new British one during the prior century…or even a new Northern European Protestant one during the century prior to that.

Whiggism is simply Anglified Catholic political theory imported by sola scriptura Protestants (many of whom were also Enlightenment empiricists) and turned directly against the Catholics in 17th century England—and somewhat less directly against the Catholics in 18th century America. Now how simple is that? Probably not simple enough to plagiarize effectively!

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. A very interesting debate. I look forward to its continuation. My rather general and uninformed first few thoughts are: a) By definition, Protestantism is an outgrowth of Catholicism, thus a Protestant Christian Founding cannot help but be a Catholic Founding in some very real sense, 2) I tend to agree with Harry Jaffa that the Founding was ultimately classical and not modern, which lends itself to Catholic, not Protestant . But given the wealth of historical information I am unfamiliar with, it is delightful to be able to consider the writings of those whose knowledge on the subject is greater.

  2. Dr. Birzer: thanks for the kind words. I look forward to ongoing dialogue here! Your article was greatly helpful to the Whig chapter in my book, to which the Sidney connection (which sounds like a film!) informs quite the “cherry on top.” It led me to Royalist Robert Filmer’s “Patriarcha,” the crown gem of Tory Royalism leading to 1688. Patriarcha was primarily a response to both Bellarmine AND Suarez, who became the first source for Protestant Whigs in combat with Protestant Tories. Prots looking to Caths against other Prots. But even that fact was mere cherry-on-top, considering the requirements of “Prot-Enlight,” which tells one everything up front.

  3. Peter: yes, I agree that your conceptual end around is unproblematic, here (which is rare). It is quite a helpful beginning proposition.

    Jaffa and the WC Straussians are correct that America’s founding was Aristotelian, but they are deeply confused when they call this founding “ancient.” As confused as the MW and EC Straussians: all 3 camps qua Straussians have embraced a non-existent hard line divide between ancient political theory and modern. The only real ancient-political divide is the one of metaphysics-epistemology of the Baconian turn that Prot-Enlight schizophrenically represents.

    Besides this, there is a second fundamental reason why “Aristotelian Straussian,” “Straussian Catholic,” or even “Straussian Protestant” are contradictions in terms: viz. Strauss butchers ancient metaphysics and repudiates modern metaphysics. (Just listen to their profane teachings about Plato and Aristotle…What a cult! Like “Scientology” according to an occasional TIC contributor who shall go nameless.)

  4. Well, Strauss’s reading of the ancient and modern texts was deeply influenced (I think) by the impact Nietzsche and Heidegger had on him. Struass “butchers” the ancients and modernd by taking a Nietzschean hammer to them. Perhaps we, for whom the facts of modern science have become objective and the experience of the Divine so subjective are simply incapable of reading Plato and Aristotle without dismissive postmodern irony coloring our exoteric admiration for their virtues?

    I think I found Strauss so appealing because of my own practical atheism (with weak, intermitent Christian faith and a lack of knowledge of the history of religion). The more I grow in my Christian faith, the less I depend on Strauss to access ancient thought. Though I remain more rationalist than I perhaps should – I even took Anselm as my patron for Confirmation. I think all of my questions and doubts will not fully be quieted until I am in some version of CS Lewis’ Great Divorce.

    Till then, I am happy to learn!

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