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Redeeming the Debauched Falstaff

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, British Literature, Creativity, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Shakespeare, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The American Conservative. 

In The Daemon Knows, published in 2015, the heroic, boundless Harold Bloom claimed to have one more book left in him. If his contract with Simon & Schuster is any indication, he has more work than that to complete. The effusive 86-year-old has agreed to produce a sequence of five books on Shakespearean personalities, presumably those with whom he’s most enamored.

The first, recently released, is Falstaff: Give Me Life, which has been called an “extended essay” but reads more like 21 ponderous essay-fragments, as though Bloom has compiled his notes and reflections over the years.

The result is a solemn, exhilarating meditation on Sir John Falstaff, the cheerful, slovenly, degenerate knight whose unwavering and ultimately self-destructive loyalty to Henry of Monmouth, or Prince Hal, his companion in William Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy (“the Henriad”), redeems his otherwise debauched character.

Except Bloom doesn’t see the punning, name-calling Falstaff that way. He exalts this portly, subversive figure as the charming master of deception and rogue scheming, and more importantly as a courageous vitalist “unmatched in all of Western imaginative literature.” Bloom’s astounding reverence for this clever, corrupting, calculating, mischievous Bacchanalian—whose life-affirming zest is as delightful as it is disconcerting—reveals he’s capable of the same kind of strategic indulgence that animates his transgressive subject.

His opening lines establish an affectionate, worshipful tone: “I fell in love with Sir John Falstaff when I was a boy of twelve, almost seventy-five years ago. A rather plump and melancholy youth, I turned to him out of need, because I was lonely. Finding myself in him liberated me from a debilitating self-consciousness.”

This isn’t academic prose. Bloom doesn’t write scholarship in the sense in which English professors, who chase tenure and peer approval, understand that term. Could you imagine a graduate student in literature showing up at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention and pronouncing from behind a podium that “Falstaff wants us to love him”? Or that Falstaff “is the mortal god of our vitalism and of our capacity for joyous play of every kind”? That would end a career before it began.

To hold Bloom to professional academic standards is fundamentally to misunderstand the man. His criticism is art unto itself; it’s genre-defying literature: part memoir, part fiction, part psychoanalysis. He’s a character of his own creation, as imaginary as Falstaff, and yet real and alive. In his psyche, the mysteries of which he plumbs with Freudian apprehension, Falstaff, too, is alive—and more than that, he’s a deified “embassy of life.” Bloom calls him the “greatest wit in literature,” whose vices “are perfectly open and cheerfully self-acknowledged.”

Immediately objections spring to mind: Didn’t Falstaff take bribes from competent soldiers who wished to avoid battle, thereby dooming his innocent, rag-tag band of unready troops? Doesn’t this bawdy gambler fake his own death to avoid injury and then seek credit for Hal’s slaying of Hotspur? Isn’t he a compulsive liar and self-serving fabricator? Rather than earn his keep, doesn’t he mooch off borrowed and stolen money while fraternizing with lowly criminals in disreputable taverns? Doesn’t he find stealing entertaining? Doesn’t he fail miserably in his attempt to seduce married women? Doesn’t he thrive in the seedy underbelly of impolite society?

No matter. The venerating and visionary Bloom sees Falstaff’s flaws as part of his appeal. Falstaff, prefiguring Nietzsche and Sartre, stands outside ethical jurisdiction as the lovable übermensch, the seductive sum of his own deliberate actions and unbridled agency in a world without God. Falstaffianism can be reduced to an abrupt imperative: “do not moralize.” These are Bloom’s italics, emphasizing, perhaps, the enthusiasm with which Falstaff rebuffs normative codes and basic standards of decency, vivaciously embracing the self—the subjective, knowing, self-aware “I” that wills a future into being—with laughter and existential rapture.

Kate Havard argues in Commentary that “Bloom must actually reckon with the sorts of things Falstaff does that would seem monstrous in real life.” I’m not sure about this mandate. Everyone is susceptible to wickedness. We’re fallible. Yet the magnitude of our evil acts is proportionate only to our capacity and will for achieving them. Greater power over others has the potential to increase the enormity of our chosen wrongs. Two hearts, equally blameworthy, can enact varying degrees of harm. With our meanness and malevolence, depravity and double-dealing, we’re all like Falstaff at some instant, even if we “cannot say that we are Falstaff’’ (my italics this time) because Falstaff cannot be universal—he’s too shrewd, raucous, and riotously convivial to be an archetype.

That we haven’t occasioned rank violence or mass damage is only evidence of our own powerlessness to do so in our moment of darkness. Our minds have contemplated horrors that our bodies never brought to bear. Knowing this, one begins to appreciate Bloom’s melancholy voice in such an adoring account. “Falstaff is no everyman,” he intones, “[b]ut all of us, whatever our age or gender, participate in him.” This truth, if it is one, doesn’t excuse Falstaff; rather it makes his decisions disturbingly recognizable.

Falstaff stands for absolute freedom, challenging dogmatic pieties even as he uses them to his advantage. He signals human choice and authenticity, but he’s elusive and multifaceted. “There is no single Falstaff,” Bloom submits. “In my youth and middle years I thought I knew Falstaff. That Falstaff has vanished from me. The better I know Sir John the less I know him. He has become one of the lost vehemences my midnights hold.”

This tragicomic Falstaff is so complex and ambiguous that he undermines expectations, avoids patterned behavior, and escapes simple explanation. “Falstaff is as bewildering as Hamlet, as infinitely varied as Cleopatra,” says Bloom. “He can be apprehended but never fully comprehended. There is no end to Falstaff. His matrix is freedom but he dies for love.”

Falstaff is a more cunning and charismatic version of Chaucer’s drunkenly crass miller, whose hilarious tale of casual adultery lacks the stark intentionality that makes Falstaff so treacherously in control. He’s like a flatulent Santa Claus, without the meekness or mildness of Christian self-denial. He is, in a word, exuberant, and as Bloom opines, “Exuberance in itself is a shadowy virtue and can be dangerous to the self and to others, but in Falstaff it generates more life.”

Bloom commendably acknowledges the charges leveled against him: “I am weary of being accused of sentimentalizing Falstaff.” He says he’s “been chided for sentimentality when I observe Falstaff betrays and harms no one,” and he pleads with us to enjoy Shakespeare’s rendering of the Fat Knight, adding, “Do not moralize.” The point is not to elicit agreement but to move you emotionally, although his expressive mode is less sentimental than it is spiritual or mystical. He has a jovial appetite for living, thinking, and loving that resembles Falstaff’s in its sheer capaciousness—hence his aside that he’s a “lifelong Falstaffian.”

The Book of Genesis asserts that God made man in his image. One wonders whether Bloom’s ecstatic Bardolatry—he once called Shakespeare “a mortal god”—leads to a different but related conclusion: that Shakespeare, as God, created Bloom in Falstaff’s image. Although age has thinned his once corpulent physique, Bloom is, at times, the boastful embodiment of the bombastic, iconoclastic genius (Sir John) whose chief weakness is his fondness and devotion. At other times, he’s a prophetic seer haunted by the daemon, devoid of merry wit, laughter, or redemptive charm and enthused by ineffable forces to cry out with beautiful despair and angst. His gusto seems ever-present, as does his displayed interiority.

Yet there is no single Bloom. You may think you know him, but then he vanishes as a lost vehemence.

“He has never abandoned me for three-quarters of a century,” Bloom muses of Falstaff, “and I trust will be with me until the end. The true and perfect image of life abides with him: robustly, unforgettably, forever. He exposes what is counterfeit in me and in all others.” Perhaps that’s why Falstaff is so threatening: he lays bare that manipulative, liberated part of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge or even fathom, that’s alienated and estranged from other people, accessible only to the “I myself”—the only thing we know that we know.

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A Conversation Regarding Thomas Goode Jones

In America, American History, Books, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, The South on November 8, 2017 at 6:45 am

Protestant Legal Theory: Apology & Objections

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, Humanities, Law, Religion, Scholarship, Teaching, Western Civilization on November 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Talking “Of Bees and Boys” on “Writers’ Voices”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Writing on October 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Anton Piatigorsky, Author of “Al-Tounsi”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Criminal Law, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, liberal arts, Literature, Novels, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Writing on October 4, 2017 at 6:45 am

AM: Thanks for discussing your debut novel with me, Anton.  It’s titled Al-Tounsi and involves U.S. Supreme Court justices who are laboring over a case about an Egyptian detainee held on a military base in the Philippines. How did you come up with this premise for a novel? 

AP:  I was interested in the intersection between contemporary legal and political issues and the personal lives of the justices. I was particularly impressed by the ways in which the writ of habeas corpus has been used (and suspended) throughout U.S. history.

The Great Writ is a heroic call to responsibility—a demand made by the judiciary for the executive to live up to its obligations to imprisoned individuals. While it has obvious political and social ramifications, it also has philosophical ones. It encourages moral and psychological reckoning: what are our responsibilities to others?

I was excited about writing a novel where two strains—the political and the personal—overlap and blend. I realized that if I fictionalized the important 2008 Guantanamo Bay case Boumediene vs. Bush—by changing key events, decisions and characters—I could use it as the basis for a novel about the Court that explores all my interests.

Anton Piatigorsky

AM: How did you decide to change directions and write about the law?  Did this case just jump out at you?  Your previous writings address a wide variety of subjects but not, that I can tell, law. 

AP:  I came to the law, strangely enough, through religion. I’ve long been interested in how religion functions, and especially in the ways that secular systems mimic religious ones. When I started reading about American law and the U.S. Supreme Court, I saw those institutions as a part of an Enlightenment era secular religion. From this perspective, law is a system of rituals, codes and writings that helps establish an identity for a community, a set of shared values and beliefs, and a way for people to function within the world. I found that fascinating. It inspired all sorts of questions.

What are the general beliefs about people and the world that lie beneath the American legal system? How are those beliefs enacted in cases, courts, and legal writings? How do they play out in the rituals of the Court?  How do the justices of the Supreme Court —who are, in some ways, high priests of the legal world — reconcile conflicts between their personal beliefs and the foundational beliefs of the legal system they guide?

The fictional stories I wanted to tell about justices’ lives grew out of these general questions. Those questions also led me into an investigation of the main case before them.

AM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book, to me, is the Afterword, which consists of the concurring opinion of the fictional Justice Rodney Sykes.

AP: I have always loved novels of ideas, when a character’s emotional journey overlaps with their complex thoughts and beliefs. Whenever that type of fiction really works — as it does with Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the character’s philosophy or worldview stands alone as a work of non-fiction. And so the novel becomes part fiction, part critical thought. It functions as a critique on ideas that circulate in the real world.

That’s what I hoped to achieve for Justice Rodney Sykes’s formal opinion in the novel’s Afterword. I wanted Rodney to reach a powerful critique of basic tenets of the American legal system. I wanted him to address what our responsibilities are (or aren’t) towards others in the legal system, and the problems with that system’s fundamental faith in individual actors. In his concurrence, Rodney takes an unorthodox and unlikely stance for a Supreme Court Justice, but that’s what makes it a work of fiction. A novel can be the perfect forum to discuss how a real person might come to a radical decision, and how that decision might revolutionize their thoughts and actions.

AM: Who are your favorite living writers?

AP:  I particularly admire J.M. Coetzee and Alice Munro. I think about their works often while I’m writing and editing my own.

Coetzee has written several fantastic “novels of ideas.” Both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello manage to incorporate far-reaching critiques into their larger stories about characters, and they do so while using imaginative formal techniques. I also love Coetzee’s cold and austere style in his less overtly intellectual books. They’re cleanly written, shockingly honest, and endlessly compelling.

Alice Munro—although it’s almost a cliché to praise her at this point—shows remarkable insight into her characters, gradually revealing their motivations, resentments and surprising decisions without ever erasing their fundamental mysteries as people. Her stories are complex formally, but in such a quiet way that I often don’t notice their structures until I’ve read them a few times. Her writing is a great model for how to show characters’ lives and decisions with efficiency and imagination while maintaining mystery.

AM: Do you intend to continue in the novel form in your own writing?

AP:  Absolutely. I would love to write more legal fiction, as well. I’ve spent years learning about the law, but know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many potentially interesting legal stories. I’m also at the early stages of a new novel, which is not explicitly about law, but does feel like an outgrowth of Al-Tounsi in certain ways.

AM: I worked for a state Supreme Court justice for over three years, and I agree: there are many interesting legal stories out there, and I’ve found that facts are often stranger than fiction.

AP:  It must be fascinating to work on the diverse cases that roll through a court. I can only imagine how many potential stories you and other lawyers, judges and court workers can recall—ideas for a million novels and movies and plays.

I think legal stories are particularly exciting for fiction because they distill big questions into concrete human situations and personalities. The giant subjects of guilt and innocence, love and betrayal, responsibilities towards others as opposed to ourselves, community or self-reliance, greed, jealousy and ambition all play out in specific facts and events, in the concrete details of a case. It’s just like in a novel. And since the American legal system is, in my mind, an application of an entire Enlightenment, philosophic worldview, these test cases and stories also pose huge philosophical, ethical and moral questions. It’s no coincidence some of the best novels ever written involve detailed legal plots.

AM:  That reminds me of something Justice Holmes once said: “Law opens a way to philosophy as well as anything else.”  But it sounds as if you and I would go further and say it might open a way better than many other things do.

AP:  Law is like applied philosophy; It puts general ideas to the test in the real world. If a philosophy remains theoretical it never really touches what it means to live it, inside it. The answers theoretical philosophy provides are always tentative.

A huge inspiration for my novel was the work of the late French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. While Levinas’s writing is often arcane and difficult to get through, I find his thinking to be a powerful and searing indictment of basic Enlightenment principles. While I was writing Al-Tounsi, I used Levinas’s insights—directly—to help me construct Justice Sykes’s final concurrence. It was hugely inspiring to find a concrete way to use this philosophy I have long loved. All the questions and problems I was interested in exploring were present in this genuine legal situation, in the constitutional habeas corpus case, Boumediene vs. Bush, on which I based my fictional case of Al-Tounsi vs. Shaw.

So, yes, I completely agree with you and Justice Holmes!

AM:  So glad we had this opportunity to talk.  Let’s do it again.  

 

 

Playing the Hand You’re Dealt: A Short Story

In Arts & Letters, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on September 27, 2017 at 6:45 am

John S. Maguire is a Telecommunications and FM Broadcast consultant living in Oklahoma City. He obtained a degree in English from Texas Christian University and at 53 years old went back to graduate school and obtained a Master in Fine Arts from Oklahoma City University. 

A cheer from somewhere else in the room snapped Jake back to the world. He had been playing poker, and winning, for approximately five hours and was desperately in need of a short break. That wasn’t in his future because Jake knew, among many other things, that you don’t stop playing when you’re hot. He looked around the room and saw that every table in the poker room was full. He was playing 2-5 no limit and felt so at home. The comfortable chairs, the greenest green of the felt on the table, the dealer throwing cards around in what looked like a storm of cardboard but hitting the imaginary mark in front of each player.

Yes, he was home.

He never felt more comfortable than at a poker table. He looked down at his stack of chips and counted roughly $1,200 worth. Not bad, considering he started with only $175. He couldn’t believe he was only $600 away from his goal of $1,800, enough to pay his past due mortgage and keep the bank off his back.

Before he began this poker session he hadn’t played poker, hadn’t had a drink and was faithful to his wife going on six years. In his mind Jake was a drunk, a gambler and a womanizer, but in his opinion he had put that all behind him. He didn’t listen to the professionals who said that he would always have to fight his addictions because in his own mind he had a stronger will than others who would drift back to their drugs or obsessions of choice. But living the simple life of a husband, a father. Being straight didn’t suit him and his will was tested daily. So much so that he failed at most everything he did and instead of being a good father, a good husband, he was failing to be the provider that he thought he should be.

He got up every morning, went to whatever job he had at the time and gutted his way through it, but it had been a while since he had a job and the bill collectors were looming. It was more than he could take when the mortgage company called and threatened legal action against him if he didn’t bring his mortgage current. By his estimation, if he could get approximately $1,800 he would have enough to get the past due part of his mortgage paid and have a little left over. He had to do it somehow. He was the father, the provider, and he had failed thus far. He wanted to do the only thing he was ever really good at, poker. That is to say he was a very good poker player as long as he didn’t drink. Alcohol and poker never mix, but particularly with Jake. When he mixed the two he generally lost and lost big and then found some casino whore to sleep with to make himself feel better.

He wanted to play poker. He wanted to play badly but he had no stake, no money to get into a game at the nearby casino. Then it occurred to him. The family kept a jar where they all put change in to help a family they had adapted in Peru. He went to the jar, poured the coins out on the table and quickly counted them. He saw maybe $150. He scooped up the coins and put them back into the jar, grabbed it, jumped into his car and headed for the local service station where there was a coinstar machine that would count the coins and give him cash, less the two or three percent that the company took for providing the service. It turned out there was approximately $180 in the jar and Jake netted $175. Not as much as he would like to start a game with but enough to make a run at it. He took the cash from the attendant, got in his car and headed south towards the casino, calling the poker room on the way to reserve a seat at the 2-5 no limit game.

“I am sorry, sir, but only regular players can reserve seats on the phone. Can I get you player’s club card and I will see what I can do?”

The poker room attendant didn’t recognize him and, forgetting he had been away six years, Jake was pissed off.

“This is Jake. I played there so often I could call an hour ahead and get a seat,” Jake screamed. “How long have you worked there?”

“Only about two years, sir. I am sorry if I have upset you. I have to follow the regulations.”

Jake, realizing there was no way this guy could know him, said, “Okay, Okay, I understand. I will be there in about 30 minutes. Ask around and see if someone remembers me.”

Jake arrived exactly 29 minutes after the call. He walked into the casino and directly toward the poker room. When he walked in a large man greeted him with a hug.

“Jake, I can’t believe you are back,” the man said.

“Roberto, thank God someone recognizes me,” Jake said. “Can I get into a game?”

“Sure, I got you a seat. The guy you talked to on the phone is new but he asked me and I told him to reserve you a seat. I have a 2-5 no limit seat on table 15 waiting for you. You need chips.”

Jake handed him the $175 and caught Roberto looking at him funny. “Look, it is my first day back. Get me the chips, okay, Roberto?”

Jake headed to table 15 and Roberto yelled at the dealer.

“Jake’s got $175 behind.”

Jake sat in seat #5 and was immediately dealt a hand. His palms were sweating and his mind was drifting to what his family might think, but he didn’t see any other way.

Now, Jake had been playing for five hours and couldn’t believe his stack was so large. He had confidence in his ability but deep down he wasn’t sure he could pull this off. He was so close but he couldn’t stop. Not until he had the $1,800.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a cocktail waitress, called her over and ordered a scotch. He was hot, playing well, what would it hurt. The scotch was delivered just as Jake won a hand and his stack was growing rapidly. He threw the cocktail waitress enough chips to cover the drink and tip and told her to check with him often. The size of the tip made sure that she would.

Jake continued to win and continued to order drinks. Soon his stack was more than $1,800 and he thought about quitting then, but he was hot. This is easy, he thought. Why did I ever quit?

He was delivered his fourth scotch as a new hand was dealt. He looked at his two cards and took a log pull of his scotch. He had an ace and king, both spades. Big slick is the name for that hand and is one of the best starting hands a player could be dealt.

The bet was checked around to Jake and he bet $25 or 5 times the big blind. All but two of the players folded and then the community cards were dealt. The first three community cards were ten of spades, queen of spades, and eight of diamonds. Jake now had a flush draw and an inside straight draw. With another spade he would make a flush and with any ten he would have a straight.

Jake bet $100. One payer folded and one called. That was weird. That bet should have chased everyone out. Jake thought for a moment and then it hit him. The other player had two spades as well. If so Jake would win the hand big if another spade fell because he, Jake, had the top two spades. The next community card, known as the turn, was the eight of spades. There it was. Jake made his flush and hopefully the other player did as well.

Jake bet $300 and was immediately called by the other player. This told Jake that he was right and the other player had a flush. The next card, known as the river, fell and it was the two of diamonds. That card couldn’t have helped anyone. Jake announced that he was all in. He knew he had his guy. Soon he would have the money to pay the mortgage. As Jake suspected, the other player called the “all in” bet and Jake threw his cards on the table face up with a large smile on his face and looked at the other player. Wait, why was he smiling Jake thought. The other player threw his cards in the air and Jake knew he was beat before they hit the table. When they landed all the players saw two eights, giving the other player 4 of a kind and crushing Jake’s flush hand. Jake had lost it all. Not just the money to pay the mortgage, but the money that was to go to the adopted family in Peru.

Jake was speechless. He looked up and noticed the acoustical tile in the ceiling for the first time. They were dirty and showed the few leaks in the roof. He looked down and saw the player raking all of his chips into his own stack and laughing. Laughing! How could he laugh? Did he know how important that money was to Jake. He pushed his chair out from the table got up and started to walk out of the room. He had nothing left to do but leave.

“Jake, where are you going?” asked Roberto.

Jake’s head turned slowly, or so it seemed. He looked at Roberto and Jake guessed that he looked pretty bad as Roberto ducked his head and didn’t say anything else.

Jake made his way out of the poker room and to the exit of the casino. For a moment he forgot where his car was parked. He raised the remote locking device and clicked it and heard the honk of his car, saw the lights flick and made his way towards his car.

“Fucking idiot,” he whispered to himself.

Session Twelve: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, Islamic Law, Pedagogy, Western Civilization on September 20, 2017 at 6:45 am

Here, in the twelfth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the Rise of Islam (600-1200 C.E.):

Session Eleven: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Western Civilization on September 6, 2017 at 6:45 am

Here, in the eleventh lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the Age of Empires: Rome and Han China (History of the World to 1500 CE):

Making Legal Education Great Again

In America, Civics, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Liberalism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 30, 2017 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here and was published by the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Legal education has become a surprisingly regular topic of news media for several years now. Most of this commentary has focused on enrollment and matriculation problems, bar passage rates, accreditation standards, student debt, and the job market for recent graduates. These are pressing issues that raise vexing questions for law school administrators, and they warrant the attention they’ve received.

Little attention, however, has been paid to curriculum, except as it pertains to those issues. And not just curriculum, but subject matter within the curriculum.

There are certain subjects—let’s call them “the permanent things”—that always have and will interest scholars of the law because of their profound influence on legal norms and institutions: history, philosophy, literature, and theology. Whether they belong in law schools or some other department, whether they prepare students to become practice-ready or not, these topics will remain relevant to subsequent generations of jurists and legal scholars. There will be a place for them somewhere within the world of legal learning and letters.

Law school faculty and research centers have expanded over recent decades to include studies of these humanistic fields. As long as these fields populate law school, there’s a felt need for rigorous liberal education in them.

Ordered liberty in the United States has historically rested on a commitment to religious faith and pluralism, fidelity to the rule of law, and traditional liberties grounded in the conviction that all humans are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. These values characterize the American experiment. Our society is built on them, and its continued vitality depends upon maintaining and promoting our commitment to them.

Yet these values are ridiculed and attacked in universities across the country. When they’re taught, they’re often treated as products of a morally inferior era and thus as unworthy of our continued respect. And because these values aren’t seriously or rigorously taught, students lack working knowledge about them and are therefore unprepared for the kind of civic engagement that young people desire and demand.

A decline in civic education has caused misunderstanding and underappreciation of our foundational norms, laws, and liberties. Religious liberty is mischaracterized as license to harm and on that basis is marginalized. Economic freedom is mischaracterized as oppression and is regulated away. Well-positioned reformers with good but misguided intentions seek to fundamentally transform the American experiment from the ground up. They work to limit foundational freedoms and increase regulatory power.

Without well-educated lawyers and civil servants equipped to resist these reformers, the transformation of America will result in the destruction of the freedoms enabled by our founding generation. We cannot allow this to happen. The Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, for which I serve as executive director, therefore seeks to educate the legal community in such areas as natural law, natural rights, religious liberty, economic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly, and other liberties that find expression not just in the American but in the larger Western jurisprudential tradition.

I define “legal community” broadly to include law students, law professors, public policy institutes, political theorists, judges, and businesses in addition to practicing lawyers. Because my center is housed in a law school, it’s well positioned to instruct future lawyers while bringing together faculty from different disciplines who are steeped in liberal education.

Numerous organizations promote these values in the political arena, but few attempt to reconnect foundational values with the law. The Blackstone & Burke Center aims to fill this gap by bringing together scholars and students committed to American constitutional government and the common law foundations of our cherished liberties. Our target audience will include law students, judges, and civics groups.

For law students, we offer the Sir Edward Coke Fellowship. We’ve accepted our inaugural class of fellows, who, beginning this fall, will study formative texts in Western jurisprudence in monthly seminars that supplement their core coursework. Next semester, we’ll read and discuss works by Aristotle, Grotius, Hayek, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Robert P. George. The center will be a key networking opportunity for fellows seeking careers at foundations, think tanks, universities, and public policy organizations.

Fellows will also help to organize a judicial college for state jurists. Thanks to the Acton Institute, Atlas Network, and the Association for the Study of Free Institutions, the Blackstone & Burke Center possesses the grant money needed to host its first judicial college in October. Professor Eric Claeys of Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University will direct this event, the readings for which include selections from not only cases (old and recent) but also Aquinas, Locke, Blackstone, and Thomas Jefferson. The readings for judges are extensive, and the seminar sessions are meant to be intensive to ensure that judges get as much out of the experience as possible.

The center will also provide basic civics education to local communities. For several years, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute issued reports on the poor state of civic literacy in the United States. The National Association of Scholars recently issued a detailed report on the inadequacies and politicization of the “New Civics.” The current issue of Academic Questions, moreover, describes the sorry state of civics knowledge in the United States and the tendentious methods and institutions that teach political activism rather than deep learning.

Against these alarming trends, my center organized and hosted a reception featuring a U.S. Library of Congress interactive Magna Carta exhibit, which was displayed in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court for three weeks and now remains in the possession of the Alabama Supreme Court Law Library. The reception included prominent judges, business and university leaders, lawyers, and the general public.

For example, Chief Justice Lyn Stuart of the Alabama Supreme Court and Judge William “Bill” Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals delivered remarks about Magna Carta during the reception, and young people conversed casually with judges about the legal system, federalism, and the challenges and opportunities facing the legal profession in the 21st century. This fall, the center is cosponsoring an event with the Foundation for Economic Education on the campus of Auburn University to explore the relationship between law and markets, and I hope to see as many high-school students as college students in attendance.

Legal education is strikingly different today than it was when Thomas Jefferson apprenticed under George Wythe, or when Abraham Lincoln read law before receiving from a county circuit court certification of his good moral character, then a prerequisite to practicing law.

Nevertheless, legal education looks much the same as it did in the late nineteenth century, when Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of Harvard Law School, instituted a curriculum, pedagogy, and case method that came to characterize “the law school experience.” If there’s been a paradigm shift, it’s been toward more practical aspects of legal education such as clinical programming. Yet many lawyers remain ignorant of the history and philosophical conventions that shaped their profession over centuries.

The Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty is a modest corrective in that it doesn’t seek to remake legal education or demolish longstanding practices and procedures in one fell swoop. Rather, it does what it can with the resources and tools available to strive to renew an America where freedom, opportunity, and civil society flourish. In the long run, I think, these reasonable efforts will have powerful effects and far-reaching benefits, both within the legal academy and beyond.

On Judicial Concurring and Dissenting Opinions

In Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law on August 23, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is adapted from a law review article that may be downloaded here (citations available in the original).  

A unanimous judicial opinion admits little doubt about its authority.  Yet a dissent, especially when it is joined by another justice, deprives a majority opinion of its full import, calling into question the soundness and quality of the reasoning that prevailed in the case.  Future judges may, after all, reclaim from obscurity the rationale of a dissent, thereby abrogating the majority opinion against which the dissent was situated.  Concurrences and dissents notify future readers of alternative grounds of argument.  Concurrences may complicate the interpretation of the leading or majority opinion, but the fact that they signal the need for closer scrutiny and inspection is, in my view, advantageous.

Each case in a common-law system represents a ratified principle or principles nested within a chain of other cases.  Patterns of precedent gain increasing authority the longer and more widely they are followed.  Dissents add to the population of principles within the total system of rules that govern society, but they chart a path away from the settled course if they attract adherents and gradually disturb consensus about what the operative rule should be.

A decision in a single case may seem inconsequential because it is plugged into a vast network of cases.  Yet each case is important in the aggregate because it contributes to the wide distribution of choices by purposeful actors (voters who elect legislators, legislators who enact statutes, lawyers who contextualize statutes and produce lines of argument, judges who interpret statutes and formalize lines of argument, and litigants who initiate cases that either adopt or challenge prevailing rules).  Each case thus contributes to the filtering processes by which sketchy correspondences develop between past and present holdings.  Principles become clearer as associative links between cases grow more noticeable and as like cases combine into a cumulative force that demands attention.  Each case is necessary as a practical test for some principle to win judicial recognition.  A judge considers the law of the case synchronically, as if the operative rule were fixed, because he or she is bound by statute or precedent or some other source of positive law at that moment.  But concurrences and dissents, when they challenge the operative rule, force future judges to consider the law diachronically, as if it were subject to change and perhaps derived from some other source of law (e.g., when a judge dissents even though a statute or constitutional provision leads seemingly inexorably to the conclusion reached by the majority).

There are millions of published cases from both federal and state courts across the United States; the relation between principles and rationale in each of these cases cannot possibly be based on factual resemblances alone.  Only slight factual affinities, for instance, may lead judges to label an activity “theft” or “murder” in one case but not in another.  Cases do not consist merely of facts that require naming and classification according to a fixed legal lexicon.  The facts of a case may square with a legal principle that can be named, but the precise application of the principle remains unknown until a judge articulates it in an opinion.  The judge differentiates between principles in light of facts that are specific to each case.  The principles represent, in this sense, theoretical concepts abstracted from facts in specific cases.  When several cases hitch up to announce similar principles derived from comparable facts, the principles accrue authority.  Textual patterns signal how judges will rule in like cases; they thus ensure the predictability of rules.

The heritability of principles through cases enables judges to construct genealogies for principles to reveal a common ancestry.  An opinion represents one operative resolution among a heterogeneous mass of decisions.  An opinion in isolation derives its clarity and meaning by linking its rationale to associated concepts in prior cases.  Only by linking itself to like antecedents can an opinion establish its authority as the apparent sum of a limited number of legal options.  Case precedent is thus a social and discursive institution, embedding principles within a system or network of citation and imitation.  Each opinion unites certain principles with facts until eventually several opinions merge to form a cumulative family of similar cases.  Each opinion thereby serves as a resource for future judges who need to find and assemble principles that will situate the facts of a case within a settled pattern of decision-making.

Dissents are corrective mechanisms that guide future judges and justices away from problematic precedents.  They also facilitate and instantiate the values of free expression, as well as competition among ideas, that the First Amendment enshrines.  Justice William Brennan suggested that dissents involve “the critical recognition that vigorous debate improves the final product by forcing the prevailing side to deal with the hardest questions urged by the losing side.”  He echoed Justice Holmes by invoking “the conviction that the best way to find the truth is to go looking for it in the marketplace of ideas,” and to this end he referred to opinions figuratively as “the product of a judicial town meeting.”  Melvin Urofsky argues that dissents facilitate a “constitutional dialogue,” a phrase that “includes not just debates justices on the high court have with one another in specific cases or over particular jurisprudential ideas but also discussions between and among jurists, members of Congress, the executive branch, administrative agencies, state and lower federal courts, the legal academy, and last, but certainly not least, the public.”

The constructiveness of concurrences and dissents is evident from those which later courts have vindicated.  Examples include Justice Brandeis’s concurrence in Whitney v. California (1927) and his dissent in Olmstead v. U.S. (1928),  Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissents in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Justice Wiley Rutledge’s dissent in In re Yamashita (1946), and Justice Hugo Black’s dissent in Betts v. Brady (1942).  Recently the Supreme Court of Alabama released Ex parte Christopher (2013), a case that overruled a quarter-century-old precedent established in Ex parte Bayliss (1989).  Chief Justice Roy Moore, who authored the majority opinion in Christopher, had urged the overruling of Bayliss in a special writing he authored in Ex parte Tabor (2002).  Reanimating his Tabor writing in Christopher, the Chief Justice and a majority of the Court demonstrated the mode in which non-binding dissents may express reasoning that courts later adopt, in effect turning dead-letter into living authority.

Counterintuitively, a dissent may itself represent the plurality opinion.  In Ex parte Harper (2015), for example, Chief Justice Moore authored an opinion that drew only one concurrence as to the rationale.  Three other justices concurred in the result of the opinion but rejected the opinion’s rationale.  One justice recused from the case.  Justice Lyn Stuart authored a dissent that two other justices joined.  Thus, the dissent, with a block of three justices, had more support as to the rationale than did Chief Justice Moore’s rationale with which only one justice agreed.  Technically, then, the dissent carried more precedential weight than the opinion that disposed of the case.

The ideal of freedom of speech and expression is an inadvertent byproduct of the practice of dissenting, the primary function of which is to ascertain the proper legal argument, rationale, rule, or standard of review for a particular case.  A competition among values and ideas emerges inductively from the free play of clashing judicial opinions.  A variety or diversity of ideas embedded in case precedent enables a constructive flexibility in the rules that govern human activity.  By multiplying the options available to future judges, dissents ensure that courts have wider latitude to reach the right result in complex cases.  Dissents preserve in the textual record arguments that may in the long run seem more plausible, seemly, and correct.  They make it possible for future jurists to say, “This other argument is better and should be dispositive in the case before me.”

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