An often effective defense of the Founding that is uneven and flawed

Pace Reilly, the way back to reality and reason is a hard road—a methodos—one that will be hard to find and harder to keep.

In America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, Robert Reilly brings a gargantuan array of material into manageable scope, and marshals it—effectively, in the main—to offer a defense of the American Founding “and show how deeply the American Proposition was rooted in the Judeo-Christian and natural law tradition.”

Reilly’s prose is appropriately workmanlike, and occasionally crackles and pops. He admits to the necessity of “compress[ing] and simplify[ing]—some may say distort[ing]—ideas and events,” but promises he has not deliberately misrepresented any of them that he treats, and one believes him.

Reilly’s discussion of Machiavelli, for example, glosses the Founders’ great appreciation for the Florentine with tremendous facility. His discussion of Machiavelli’s thought does not attempt to explain the radical revolutionary work he accomplished, especially as a proto-empiricist. These, however, are the complaints of one who reads him in the original.

More troubling is the choice of some sources. Most egregious is the appearance of the notorious anti-Semite, E. Michael Jones. Reilly cites Jones’s 1999 Libido Dominandi four times and once quotes him, reproducing an account of an episode in the French Revolution in which 115 priests were slaughtered as they fled the country.

One hopes—and readily imagines—the use of Jones in this case was in ignorance of his later hateful screeds, but the September Massacres are so notorious an event and well documented, that the use of such a source would be incomprehensible even if Jones were not a raving lunatic. Jones is not an authority on the subject, nor even an historian.

If the appearance of Jones could be explained in a way that was not disqualifying, I should like to write a reply to Reilly, but it is too late for that in any case. I already published my reply in 2015. The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood was the book that began life as my PhD dissertation at the Pontifical Gregorian University, which I defended in 2010. It is also an anachronistic reply to Reilly’s principal antagonist, Patrick Deneen.

Deneen’s ambitious indictment of the American project, Why Liberalism Failed, has rightly been the subject of serious discussion and engagement since it appeared in 2018. Reilly engages Deneen’s “strong” thesis regarding America: not only that it is a failed project, but that America was doomed to fail from the start, and the current cultural decay—very advanced in both degree and kind—is the inevitable result of America’s founding logic.

Deneen’s brief against America depends upon a premise: in essence, that America is the non plus ultra of modernity, which is a project predicated on a deeply flawed anthropology that determines the project’s course trajectory in history, so that the postmodern disintegration in which we are adrift at present is continuous and really of a piece with the project’s conception.

Against this, Reilly urges that America is not, in point of fact, a modern nation. “[T]he American Revolution was not an exclusive product of the Enlightenment but had its roots in the deeper natural law and natural rights tradition,” he writes, neatly summarizing nine chapters’ work “to trace some golden strains of thought as they threaded their way through history,” from the pre-philosophical world “to the American Founding.”

Reilly makes the observation at the beginning of his 10th chapter, dedicated to a comparison of the American Revolution with the French.

Reading through the chapter, I was reminded of an exchange I had with Prof. Philippe Benetton, who was visiting the Greg and offering a seminar on Tocqueville, which I took when I was a grad student. Benetton one day said, as I recall, that there was an ideological component to the French Revolution, but that the business was neither in its inception nor in its progress an unambiguously ideological event. I recall replying to the effect of: “I cannot see the ambiguity in the Terror.”

I’ve come to believe that Prof. Benetton was right, but I was not wrong. The French Revolution became an ideological project. Precisely when is probably impossible to say, but certainly by the time the revolutionaries cut Louis’ head off.

The seeds of it were certainly sown and already sprouting, Reilly notes, in the Abbé Sieyès’s lines from his pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État?: “The nation is prior to everything. It is the source of everything. Its will is always legal[.]” Reilly then juxtaposes a few lines taken from a different passage several paragraphs removed. “The manner in which the nation exercises its will does not matter; the point is that it does exercise it; any procedure is adequate, and its will is always the supreme law.”

Reilly omits the following: “Indeed, it is the law itself. Prior to and above the nation, there is only natural law.” Whether Sieyès’ invocation of the natural law at that point was a rhetorical sop to moderates or a sincere expression of conviction is beside the point, which is that, in January 1789, heading into the Estates General, the spiritual forces the French Revolution would eventually unleash were not running unopposed. Some public debate over the content of the natural law and both the manner in which and the extent to which the natural law governed the action of political communities was present.

The “golden strains” of pre-Christian Jewish, Greek and Roman, medieval Christian, and pre-modern thought for which Reilly rakes, are indeed all there in America. Deneen is wrong to say that America is an entirely modern affair. He’s not wrong about the presence of modern strains of fool’s gold running through America, however, nor is he wrong about where they’ve led.

Benjamin Rush generously—but not inaccurately—noted in his 1809 letter to John Adams, encouraging him to reconcile with his estranged revolutionary friend and companion Thomas Jefferson, that the two men “thought for us all.” Rush called them, “[T]he poles of the revolution.” I mention this, because Jefferson’s sympathy for the French revolutionary project and deep conviction in its basic continuity with the American revolution were at loggerheads with Adams’ more circumspect view of the French upheavals:

If we take seriously the idea that Jefferson and Adams thought representatively, that they were, in the words of their mutual friend and fellow founding father, Benjamin Rush, “[T]he poles of the revolution,” and that, while others wrought and fought, “[They] thought for [them] all, (letter to Adams, October 17, 1809)” then their thinking with and against one another will have a claim to being the first expression of an American tradition of thinking.” (Soul of a Nation, 199)

The persistent presence in American national life, of the arguments that constituted their conversation, is the evidence for that claim. Suspension of the conversation constitutive of American nationhood, or retreat from it, is precisely the imminent danger we face.

America, in other words, is not modern. Neither is it pre-modern. The 20th-century political philosopher Eric Voegelin, on whom Reilly occasionally relies, put the matter this way in his New Science of Politics:The American Revolution, though its debate was already strongly affected by the psychology of enlightenment, also had the good fortune of coming to its close within the institutional and Christian climate of the ancien régime.”

America is “a living synthesis of notions, both ancient and modern,” is the way I put it in Soul of a Nation. The synthesis is accomplished in the national life of the American people, and is an attempt to reply to problems of modernity and provide a way to overcome them.

America provides a reply to, and possibly a way to overcome, the basic political problems of modernity. America does this by providing a conceptual framework in which the priority of anthropological and social-constitutional questions with respect to questions of institutional order becomes transparent, and may remain so. “America” in fact names at once a physical space and a conceptual space created by the experience of the people:

[America names] the physical place, extended in space and enduring over time, in which human beings come to live together in such a way as to make the truth of the claims advanced by the Declaration plain for all to see who come to live there. It is, therefore, the name the Founders give to the conceptual space in which they come to recognize each other as participating in the truths claimed for their lives by their representatives through the Declaration. Of course, the claim that the truth of America is plain for all to see who come there to live will depend entirely on the way of life adopted by those who are there and imparted to those who arrive, whether by birth or by boat. (Soul of a Nation, 124)

That is what John Adams meant when he said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” It is why he scribbled so furiously in the margin of his copy of Wollstonecraft’s Defense of the French Revolution:

If the Empire of superstition and hypocrisy should be overthrown, happy indeed will it be for the world; but if all religion and all morality should be over-thrown with it, what advantage will be gained? The doctrine of human equality is founded entirely in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father, all accountable to Him for our conduct to one another, all equally bound to respect each other’s self-love. (Eternal gratitude to David McCullough, whose biography of Adams alerted me to that nugget many years ago. – CRA)

By the way, when Adams wrote about the “empire of superstition and hypocrisy” he would happily see thrown down, he was talking about the Catholic Church.

When the conversation—essentially over anthropology, under the rubric of the meaning of our basic tenet, “All men are created equal,” hence the conversation of justice (pace Rawls), since the question, “What is justice?” arises in society, and the answer a people give it constitutes a claim about what is just for human beings, so the two questions, “What is justice?” and “What is a man?” are really one question in two distinct moments—ceases to inform and direct the search for answers to institutional questions, which is to say that it ceases to inform the institutions themselves, then institutions no longer represent what Voegelin densely calls “the truth of the soul” to a society’s members.

This is what is happening in America today, and what has been happening for some time. Appeals to institutions will not avail us finally. There is no perfectly effective institutional guarantee against the decay of a society’s spiritual health. Nor is recovery of a constitutive conversation an easy or a straightforward thing, when the order of society is become opaque to the members of it.

Pace Reilly, the way back to reality and reason is a hard road—a methodos—one that will be hard to find and harder to keep.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

2 Comments

  1. It is a shock that Reilly would quote a nut like E Michael Jones.

    We are dealing here with a Constitution. As such, it is a legal document, not a philosophical one. It is primarily a practical document, not an aspirational or philosophical one. So any attempt to figure out which “philosophies” were adopted by it is pretty uncertain. Anyone can claim anything when it comes to detecting various underlying “philosophies”. And different parts of the Constitution were motivated by different philosophies. Deneen’s effort to pretend that John Locke was the main motivator is clearly false, for example. There is no one underlying philosophy. Because the Constitution was not a philosophical treatise, but a practical, legal document intended to work in the real world, its authors drew from many sources for their ideas. They drew from history, Greek history, Roman history, English history, French history and American Colonial experience with self government. They drew from a wide range of philosophers, but only as a starting point. Once they began debating, any attachment to a particular school of philosophical thought was pretty quickly abandoned, and they focused on practical things rather than lofty philosophical things. They leaned on the Common Law of England, and they leaned on the bible, and on the sketchy nature of Natural Law. But in all things, practicality ruled, not philosophy. So the whole effort to divine which philosophical principles “ruled” the constitution is a fruitless effort.

  2. This author celebrates his own book, his own conversations, and his own (evidently superior) views, and then attacks another author of whom he does not approve. In the time he has left, he doesn’t have a lot to say about Mr. Reilly.

    But not to publish? Perish the thought.

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