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What Austrian Economists Can Learn From Roger Scruton

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Britain, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on June 17, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative. 

The room is alive with happy discussion, the clanking of plates and silverware, hearty laughter, and the pitter-patter of smartly dressed servers buzzing about the room. Wine flows. We’re on the final course, awaiting dessert and coffee, when suddenly the lights dim, leaving dancing candlelight on the tables and the illicit glow of cell phones. On an enormous screen behind the stage comes a loud, hoarse voice: “It is a great honor to be named Defender of Western Civilization.”

I look up, puzzled. There before me in magnified form, filling the screen, is Sir Roger Scruton, sitting beside a lamp, his face framed by a flux of flaxen hair, his chair squeaking as he readjusts himself.  It’s evening, both here and in England, and the sun is down, so the faint light beaming on his face through an obscured window betrays the disappointing reality that we’re watching a recording, not a live feed. The moment, at any rate, is exciting. Scruton goes on to ask, “What is a civilization?”  And to answer: “It is surely a form of connection between people, not just a way in which people understand their languages, their customs, their forms of behavior, but also the way in which they connect to each other, eye to eye, face to face, in the day-to-day life which they share.”

That, anyway, is how I recall the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 14th Annual Gala for Western Civilization that honored Scruton, who, because of his chemotherapy treatment, was unable to attend.

Sir Roger, as he’s affectionately known, departed from this world on January 12, 2020.  This erudite philosopher of a bygone era raises grave questions about the compatibility between traditionalism and classical liberalism, custom and markets, the individual and the state, convention and innovation. From Scruton, we can, I think, learn the following. That a society of modest scope and scale functions optimally when its people are good and virtuous, when they voluntarily organize themselves into charitable communities, fearing the eternal consequences of wickedness. That free societies thrive where crime is rare and private property rights are both recognized and respected, where families work hard and support one another and leaders are classically and rigorously educated, having wrestled with the greatest thinkers and texts from across the ages. That lasting social harmony develops in cohesive communities where solidarity involves kindness and benevolence and members do not superciliously dismiss received wisdom and norms.

Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands—first published in 1985 as Thinkers of the New Left, reworked and rereleased in 2015, produced in paperback in 2016, and reissued in 2019 as yet a newer edition—demonstrates that Scruton wasn’t tilting at windmills as conservative pundits and talking heads on television and popular media seem too often to do. Scruton’s chief targets were, not senseless and sycophantic politicians, but ideas. He traced these ideas to particular leftist luminaries: Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, J.K. Galbraith, Ronald Dworkin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Źižek. His concern was principally philosophical and cultural. He took ideas seriously and didn’t simplify or exploit them merely for entertainment value.

Scruton acknowledged that the term “Left,” referring to the object of his opprobrium, covers a wide range of intellectuals and ideological movements, but that all of these, to some degree, “illustrate an enduring outlook on the world, and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment, nourished by … elaborate social and political theories,”[1] namely those which hold “that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practiced by a dominant class.”[2] The word “Left” or “leftist,” then, suitably encompasses a multiplicity of views that, although singular in their particulars, hang together as a classifiable category at a certain level of generalization.

Scruton added that leftists “define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed,”[3] and that they pursue two abstract goals: liberation and social justice. The liberation Scruton refers to is not necessarily a libertarian version of personal autonomy; rather, it refers to “emancipation from …. ‘structures,’” e.g., from “the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society.”[4] The Left seeks to deconstruct and dismantle historic associations (families, churches, clubs, sporting leagues, etc.) that provide order and stability in the absence of overarching government rules and regulations.

If that’s “the Left” in a nutshell, then what’s “the Right,” according to Scruton?  In short, the Right is a community of individuals believing in the primacy of those personal relationships, prevailing norms, and controlling institutions that precede government, mediate between private actors and the State, and celebrate the intrinsic worth of every human being. “The right,” explains Scruton, “rests its case in representation and law,” advocating a “civil society that grows from below without asking permission of its rulers.”[5] The Right, accordingly, treats government as accountable to its citizens in light of its dangerous capacity for mischief and violence. The Right also recognizes the sinful, flawed nature of human beings and, therefore, attempts to offset or neutralize—rather than to amass or centralize—power.

By contrast, the Left promotes institutionalized coercion and centralized power. Its attempts to realize concretely the abstractions of social justice and equality necessitate the use of a forcible apparatus, controlled by a select group of people, to press resistant communities into compliance. “Who controls what and how in the realm of pure equality,” asks Scruton on this score, “and what is done to ensure that the ambitious, the attractive, the energetic and the intelligent do not upset whatever pattern it is that their wise masters might impose on them?”[6] No true and absolute equality of talent or wealth can ever be achieved in tangible reality because humans are wonderfully and brilliantly diverse, even as they are made, universally, in the image of God.

Given a binary choice between the Left and the Right so described, libertarians ought to side with the Right, cultivating a literate society characterized not only by self-ownership, free markets, and private property, but also by aesthetic appreciation, religious worship, obedience to successful and constructive customs, and concern for the souls and material wellbeing of the generations not yet born. Libertarians and conservatives can agree that everyone is plugged into vast networks of commerce and activity, however remote their neighborhoods or habitats. They can agree with Scruton that self-regulating, disciplined communities of caring individuals administer felt, proportional restraints more fairly and efficiently than do faraway government bureaucrats or impersonal agencies of mechanical functionaries who enjoy a compulsory monopoly on the implementation of force.

Scruton suggested that the Right, more than the Left, benevolently esteems the multiplying, bewildering variety of human behavior and interests. Whereas the Left reduces human beings to determined products of intractable systems and rigid social structures, the Right marvels in the mystery of quotidian experience, mining the past for evidence of good and bad decisions, prudent and imprudent courses of action, and workable and unworkable approaches to difficult challenges and exigent circumstances.

There can be no freedom, however, absent some authority. Conservatives and libertarians alike may locate that authority in mediating institutions of modest size, recognizing the importance of consent and localism, family and place, to good government. Scruton’s example shows that certain conservative cultural conditions enable market-based economies to flourish. Conservatives and libertarians may agree that, in Scruton’s words, “[Ludwig von] Mises and [Friedrich] Hayek between them destroyed the possibility of a socialist economy,” giving the “conclusive argument against it.” Mises’s and Hayek’s argument, a tenet of the Austrian School of Economics, involves the recognition that humans are fallible creatures with limited knowledge and perspective who prosper when society writ large values humility over hubris, and economic exchange over warfare or coercion.

Despite the rancor between them lately, conservatives and libertarians need each other. Dividing them unites the Left. Scruton was no libertarian, but his ideas, if thoughtfully considered by libertarians, could enable a more fruitful, contemplative, and beautiful libertarianism to emerge.

[1] Pg. 1.

[2] Pg. 3. Note: I have Americanized Scruton’s spelling so that, for instance, “practised” has become “practiced.”

[3] Pg. 3.

[4] Pg. 3.

[5] Pg. 286.

[6] Pg. 274.

Southern Exposure: “Branden Saved Years of My Life”

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on May 6, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at Atlas Society.

Section II features autobiographical reflections on Branden by his friends and associates Roger E. Bissell, Mimi Reisel Gladstein, Tal Ben-Shahar, Deepak Sethi, and Michael E. Southern. Limited space for review necessitates that I roll my thoughts on these reflections into one sketch. Compressing several autobiographical accounts into one summative analysis does not mean the accounts are unimportant or uninteresting. In fact, they are among the most enthralling contributions to the collection—in particular, Southern’s highly detailed tribute that contains a wealth of insight and information.

But the appreciative tone, personal nature, and intimate recollections in this section are difficult to fully and justly convey as a secondhand report. I thus urge readers interested in Branden’s private friendships and relationships to consult this part of the collection for themselves. I hope that highlighting a few anecdotes will suffice to show the depth and quality of the stories involved.

In one, Bissell relates that, while he was in high school, at the suggestion of his band and choral teacher, he read an essay by Branden. He then read Atlas Shrugged. Testifying to the transformative power of these experiences, he claims that the two texts “irreversibly changed” his life. He suddenly knew he should pursue music, ideas, and writing rather than mathematics. Southern had a similar experience: He read Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Breaking Free, and The Disowned Self, and immediately withdrew from graduate school and flew to California to meet Branden.

Bissell recalls an exchange in which Branden responded to a question about how effectively to promote Objectivism. The answer, Bissell says, was simple: “to be as rational and productive as you could be at whatever you most loved to do, and to let your success at that be your testimony to the worth of Objectivism’s principles.” Still recapping Branden’s response, Bissell adds that “Objectivism exists to help you live a good life, not to require you to sacrifice your one and only, precious, individual life to its furtherance.”

In another anecdote, Ben-Shahar recalls how Branden comforted him after the death of a friend in a plane crash. In yet another, Sethi remarks that Branden helped him, an immigrant, flourish in American culture by cultivating Sethi’s self-esteem. Later, Sethi and Branden used Braden’s self-esteem techniques on business leaders.

Southern, who also participated in such sessions, relates that they involved “a powerful mechanism for self-discovery,” namely an exercise called “sentence completions.” He tells the story of how Branden once called an agitated woman to the front of a room of 100 people to participate in sentence-completions. She discovered, at length and through many tears, that she had never properly mourned the death of her father, a heartbreaking revelation that jarred Southern to the point that he later raised concerns with Branden, who in turn applied the sentence-completion exercise on him. What happened next was surprising. Southern allowed himself “for the first time to voice . . . all the pain growing up without a father had caused me.”  “I was told throughout my childhood,” he recounts, “that I was better off without my father and continuously heard how much he had hurt those around him who loved him. And so I dutifully repressed the longing.” Southern thus realized firsthand the therapeutic benefits of Branden’s methods.

These moving portraits of Branden suggest that he valued friendships and mentorships. The contributors affectionately refer to him by his first name and dub him a “hero” and “my Aristotle.” Southern claims that Nathaniel and Devers Branden “saved years of my life.” Whatever else he accomplished, then, Branden clearly impacted the lives of those who knew him well. He satisfied felt needs and helped others take responsibility and achieve self-actualization.

SECTION III

Section III, the final section, will be the most trying for readers who, like me, lack training in clinical psychology—first because we have no background or abiding interest in the subject, and second because we have no expertise with which to evaluate the significance of these contributions to the field. Without knowing Branden’s importance or unimportance within professional circles, or whether his techniques and practices are rare or common, strange or normal, exemplary or bizarre, one has difficulty determining if this section represents a necessary corrective or merely wishful thinking. I get the feeling, though, that these contributions would not have appeared in a journal edited by professional clinical psychologists and that their value is therefore bound up in Branden’s significance as an historical figure.

The essays featured here respond to a Branden-inspired sentence-completion prompt: “If Branden’s works were studied by more academic and clinical psychologists…..” The five contributors then finish—or were supposed to finish—the sentence by saying what would have happened had the condition been fulfilled. Fittingly, they each have backgrounds in psychology, but surprisingly they steer wide of their cue and answer a different question from the one posed.  For instance, Robert L. Campbell, the coeditor of the collection, offers what he calls a “memorial tribute” that has more to do with Branden’s uniqueness among psychologists than it does with some hypothetical readership of Branden’s work. It comes off like an encomium and partly a sympathetic memoir, except for the reserved, professional critique of Branden’s inability to bridge the gap between exploratory research and clinical practice.

Cautious neither to condemn nor celebrate Branden’s more peculiar methods, such as hypnosis or “energy therapy,” Campbell suggests that Branden’s career coincided with the rise in the prestige of clinical psychology. This temporal correspondence, however, did nothing to elevate Branden’s profile within the profession. In fact, Branden was, in Campbell’s words, merely “an occasional consumer” of psychological research who was accused of “pop psychology.” As Campbell does little to recover Branden’s reputation in this regard, or to mount a storied defense on his behalf, one wonders, only one essay into this section, whether Branden the practitioner should be written off as unserious or amateurish. Campbell tempers his vague criticisms with admiring praise and the attribution of his entire career to Branden’s influence. But the point of his essay is to portray Branden as an engaging and enthusiastic expositor of Rand’s ideas, not to evaluate Branden’s contributions to clinical psychology on their substantive merit.

Walter Foddis, a doctoral student in clinical psychology whose essay possesses the tone and style more typical of scientific writing, suggests that Branden’s work never gained academic recognition because he addressed a popular rather than a scholarly audience.  Foddis might have published his piece in a journal of clinical psychology because it is primarily about scholarly views of self-esteem with concluding remarks about the practical application of his argument in light of cognitive-behavioral theory. He reviews the relevant literature on self-esteem and traces its various treatments by researchers over time.

Branden is thus a mere stepping stone for Foddis to present his own model of self-esteem—in addition to a “qualitative and quantitative instrument” called the “Self-Esteem Sentence Completion Instrument” that can be employed in experimental studies with human subjects—which readers outside the field will be unequipped to measure and assess with proficiency or competence.

Foddis doesn’t tell us why Branden remains important to clinical psychology so much as he shows us through the working out of his own unique arguments and findings in which Branden plays a key role. Saying Branden is important to the field is not as convincing as demonstrating his importance by incorporating his ideas and research into novel studies and ongoing conversations. Of the contributions to this section, then, Foddis’s does the most to recover Branden’s professional reputation even though—or rather because—Branden is not the central figure. Perhaps inadvertently, Foddis, with his references to a pragmatist, William James, as a recognized authority, coupled with his passing mentions of “human fallibility and limitations,” reveals how much distance there is between scholarly consensus in the field of clinical psychology and the more abstract, less practical theories of Objectivism associated with Rand, who despised pragmatists and systems of thought premised on the putative restrictions and limitations of human intelligence.

Teresa I. Morales Gerbaud summarizes Branden’s theories rather than applying them as Foddis does. “Branden’s body of work on human psychology,” she pronounces, “exhibits a remarkably consistent thread of logical reasoning that shapes and defines critical ideas, including notions of the key role of self-esteem in human behavior.” She calls Branden’s work “pioneering,” “critical and compelling,” and “novel.” She praises his “visionary intellect,” “the authenticity of his method,” the “salience and importance” of his ideas, “the depth of [his] thoughtful words,” and his “carefully thought-out example” of the integration of conscious and unconscious modes of knowing. And she refers to the “deep gratitude for the joy and inspiration that his work has brought to my life.” These laudatory lines, even when accompanied by the contextualization of Branden’s ideas alongside those of other experts, do not prove Branden’s significance to his field. What they prove is that Gerbaud really likes Branden.

Whereas Foddis uses Branden’s work for practical and theoretical ends—as building blocks for original research—Gerbaud merely celebrates Branden, compliments his methods, and asserts his significance. Ironically, insisting on his greatness and importance without demonstrating the practical or theoretical value of his ideas may actually undermine Branden’s reputation. At a minimum, it makes him susceptible to accusations of the kind he leveled against Rand: that his popularity has more to do with the cult of personality and adoring loyalty than it does with the operative quality of his concepts.

Andrew Schwartz does more than Gerbaud to situate Branden’s innovations in their historical context. The most important of these were, he submits, Branden’s “theory of self-esteem” and “his clinical method of sentence completion”—elements of his work that receive regular and sustained treatment throughout this collection and that, according to Schwartz, were prefigured by the Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler. This chapter may lend credibility to Branden’s accomplishments, but the inexpert reader is unable to reach that conclusion with clarity or conviction.

Joel F. Wade’s descriptive essay functions as a “bookend” for this final section, corresponding as it does with Campbell’s opening essay in its approbatory approach and character. Like Campbell, Wade shares personal accounts of time spent with Branden and pays close attention to Devers Branden as well, who surely deserves the attention. Like Gerbaud, Wade has little negative to say about his friend and sometime collaborator. He privileges personality and anecdote over scientific validation of Branden’s working theories and clinical applications. Not that negativity is required, but critical distance and tempered critique add the kind of credibility that makes flattery appear well-earned.

It’s evident from a dispassionate reading that this section, however affectionate and endearing, will not establish or renew scientific interest in Branden among clinical psychologists. Its contents could have fallen in the earlier sections, or the second and third sections could have been collapsed into one, but in either case Foddis’s essay, a work of scholarship, would have seemed out of place.

The contributors to the third section represent a network of friends and associates, not a disinterested community of impartial researchers jealously guarding high academic standards and ensuring strict quality controls. They give Branden a pass. Those outside the field may appreciate the admiration of trained professionals who knew or followed Branden.  Yet even non-experts will recognize that clinical psychology as we know it will be virtually unchanged or unaffected by these eulogistic essays, which are worthwhile not because of what they reveal about clinical psychology, but because of what they reveal about Branden the man.

The soaring tone struck by most of the contributors to the final section would have been more fitting for the epilogue, although one doubts they would have matched the flair and sensitivity that characterizes the essay of Stephen D. Cox, a literary critic and English professor at the University of California in San Diego. Cox’s touching epilogue is principally about Branden’s literary labors and talents. He claims that he saw Branden “in a way in which, perhaps, nobody else saw him—chiefly as a craftsman, busy in a literary workshop.” It’s from this unique vantage that Cox shares his learned opinions. “Our relationship was almost entirely literary,” he muses, “almost entirely concerned with what is ‘beautiful’ in writing.”

The two men had their differences—one was a Christian, for instance, and the other an atheist—but they cultivated a relationship based on shared interests and a mutual love for the written word. They started off as pen pals—Branden having initiated the first contact—and quickly became members of a discussion group at Branden’s home. Then they met regularly, one-on-one, over lunch or dinner and talked about literature—everything from the structural composition of novels (Branden had been working on one) to diction and syntax and the romantic love triangle between three of Branden’s fictional characters. “I didn’t feel it was my role to question Nathaniel about the psychological motivation of his works,” Cox explains of this love triangle, which loosely resembles the complex relationship between Branden, Rand, and O’Connor. Voyeuristic types will, I’m confident, wish he had questioned Branden to elicit salacious details.

While several characters in Branden’s novel appeared, to Cox, “to represent different aspects of Nathaniel himself,” Cox didn’t see autobiography. Rather, the novel was, in his view, about “the mistakes, and the maturity, that can come with age,” as well as the need “to discover one’s course in life, even after one experiences great intellectual, material, and social success.” Eventually conversations about this novel turned into scrutiny of a draft play involving the same plot and theme; it turns out Branden was something of a dramatist in the vein of Henrik Ibsen. In fact, Rand had once gifted him thirteen volumes of Ibsen’s plays, which Branden later gifted to Cox.  “I’m looking at them now—a princely gift,” Cox remarks of these keepsakes, and you can imagine him sitting by his computer gazing wistfully at his bookshelf.

The Branden of Cox’s rumination is witty, charming, considerate, and friendly. When Cox says that “I never saw Branden try to impress anyone,” he implies that Branden was impressive in spite of himself. In the end, perhaps the most profound and lasting compliment that could be paid Branden comes in one simple line: “He was a fine literary companion.”

No appraisal of this collection could go without mentioning the excellent work of the editors, Campbell and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Along with Cox, Bissell, and Roderick T. Long, they have put together, at the end of the collection, what appears to be an exhaustive annotative bibliography of references to Branden to date. I’m not aware of any works about Branden that don’t appear on this list.

Although I discussed Campbell in the context of his essay contribution, I saved my praise for his and Sciabarra’s editorial efforts for the end of this review—not just because I have so far focused chiefly on the content of the essays (and hence, in large part, on the authors of those essays), but also because I wanted commendation of the editors to remain fresh on readers’ minds by placing it at the end.

Editors receive too little acclaim for their grinding and painstaking intellectual exertions, from proofreading and organizing to sourcing and advising. Editing can be a thankless, time-consuming struggle with little monetary benefit or professional recognition. Campbell and Sciabarra should be celebrated and congratulated for their significant, impressive work. They have accomplished what they set out to do: inaugurate a “critical reassessment” of Branden by providing his theories about Objectivism and his “eclectic clinical approach” with a wider audience. They demonstrate that Branden is an important figure in his own right, a man worthy of sustained attention and scholarly exploration.

If this collection inspires future studies of Branden, then Campbell’s and Sciabarra’s quiet industry will have paid off. And they will have enabled future knowledge about Objectivism—its principles, founders, and controversies—to multiply. The roots of such education may be bitter, but the fruit will, indeed, be sweet.

Nathaniel Branden, In His Own Words

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 29, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Atlas Society.

The inclusion of Branden’s lecture and question-answer session in this collection gives him a voice in his own commemoration.  Published here for the first time, and transcribed by Roger Bissell, the lecture was given to the California Institute for Applied Objectivism in 1996. Its tenor can be gleaned from the opening paragraph in which Branden compliments his audience for being “dedicated to the broad philosophical ideas of Objectivism, but not in a religiously constricted and independent-thinking-discouraging way.”

Here Branden echoes his implicit criticism of the ARI camp. Debates between the Branden-ARI factions go beyond the personal disagreements between Branden and Rand to a broader philosophical question: is it better, at the outset of an intellectual movement, to insist upon the purity of a set of ideas at the expense of its slower adoption or to engage in an open dialogue that allows for give-and-take?

This is not a subject that can be answered by labeling either side as “religionists” or “compromisers.” It’s a unique problem elevated to historical significance by the profundity and uniqueness of Objectivism. If Objectivism is the most exceptional philosophy to emerge in over two thousand years and one believes, as Objectivists do, that philosophy is the motive force of history, then the answer could reasonably impact the course of civilization itself. The stakes, in other words, are high for those involved.

The question-answer session thus raises an issue of great magnitude in the Rand-Branden divide: How should Objectivists relate to libertarians? The underlying debate is that, on one side, Rand and ARI reject the label “libertarian” or affiliations with libertarian groups (exceptions such as the Foundation for Economic Education and the Cato Institute exist) because they claim that self-identifying libertarians often embrace a sort of “libertarianism by any means,” foregoing philosophical foundations.

Rand and ARI have argued that because philosophy guides human thinking in all areas of life and constitutes a fundamental, salient force, it is unacceptable to categorize their beliefs under a name that permits any philosophical argument for a political conclusion. Objectivism is not primarily an economic or political calculus but a philosophical system whereby the means by which one arrives at conclusions matters. Branden and others critical of Rand have argued that accepting the libertarian label is unobjectionable and better promotes the popularizing and engagement that Branden values. Disciples of Rand disagree to varying degrees.

Branden speaks about himself in the third person (“you had to know Nathaniel Branden or Barbara Branden, and you had to impress them sufficiently to get an introduction to Ayn Rand”) and with superlatives of the sort employed by the sitting President of the United States (“the wonderfully exciting opportunity to read,” “a very special world, which is very close to being incommunicable,” “it was a very intoxicatingly pleasant and enjoyable way to process experience,” “we are somehow participating in this marvelous, exciting and inspiring reality,” etc.).

His accounts are fascinating; whether they’re entirely true is another matter. His portrayal of a dinner with Rand and O’Connor during which he articulated anxiety about the publication of Atlas Shrugged is telling, as is Leonard Peikoff’s announcement, on a separate occasion, that, as Branden puts it, “in six months of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, we’ll be living in an Objectivist society.” “Now,” says Branden of Peikoff’s comment, “we knew that this was excessive, and this couldn’t be true. . . . But what it also reflects is something of the highly excited, intoxicating mental state of the period.”

Stories like this help those of us who were not alive at the time develop a fuller sense of what these individuals were like. Branden and Rand and their followers set out to form an exclusive community and were often impatient with outsiders who didn’t understand their positions, or so Branden claims. He regrets that their tactic was first to insist on conformity before initiating dialogue with outsiders, rather than initiating dialogue with outsiders to recruit new adherents. “[I]t was very, very tempting to retreat into self-righteousness,” he reflects about his encounters with those who were not yet initiated into his manner of thinking. He also depicts the group—The Collective—as elevating Rand the person over her principles: “In those days, it was made abundantly clear to us that fighting for Objectivism meant fighting for Ayn Rand. Loyalty to Ayn Rand was an issue of the highest possible value in the hierarchy.”

Therein lies much of the controversy surrounding Branden and his legacy. These “fighting words” give the strong sense that battling for Objectivism meant battling for Rand. Those of us who were not present for the conversations, meetings, debates, and interactions of that time cannot speak to the extent to which this is true. However, the accusation seems at odds with Rand’s explicit statements enjoining those who studied her philosophy that thinking for themselves and making their own evaluations of every idea were the only rational means of ascertaining truth. She rejected arguments from authority, even or especially when she was the authority in question. Whether that was conveyed in her personal relationships, though, we cannot know. It is imaginable that someone with such a forceful personality, so certain in her beliefs and ideas, would be difficult to oppose and that the environment of The Collective may have made any but the most resilient participant demure in her presence.

Branden’s stories about Rand are almost invariably unflattering, which is understandable in the context of their personal conflict, but perhaps unproductive in maintaining his broader position of extolling her philosophy and even, in large part, her character. He argues for understanding her as “conflicted” and complex rather than saintly, but he hardly counterbalances his negative portrayals with anything positive. She is, in his renderings, almost universally cranky, rude, aggressive, and bitter—a figure who seems to have gained a following for her ideas despite her horrid persona.

Moreover, he sometimes assumes a condescending tone towards those associated with her. He represents Peikoff and George Reisman, for instance, as being inextricably caught up in her world, coloring Peikoff as an emotional dependent and Reisman as a social hostage. In all cases, however, Branden remains the sound-minded individual who, if a bit naïve in his youth, learned the error of the Randian ways and parted with her. This attitude dismisses some independent and analytical minds as fragile or conformist. One could argue that Branden’s characterizations of events weren’t wrong—again, we weren’t there and so don’t know for sure—but they also gloss over the fact that now, as older men of prominence, Peikoff and Reisman stand by her legacy and take her side in the split.

It’s clear that Branden detested what he portrays as a culture of loyalty that did not admit of dissent or disagreement and that, in his depiction at least, was unwilling to improve upon or revise Rand’s ideas, which some of her associates, again in his view, assumed to be without flaws. Branden locates the origin of this allegedly rigid groupthink in Rand’s early years. Defenders of Rand will disapprove of Branden’s characterization of this period as “the very dark side of the early years,” just as they may wince to hear Branden describe how her closest associates refused or hesitated to acknowledge their errors or ignorance about certain matters, as though they needed always to pretend to possess perfect knowledge. Although Branden criticized what he dubbed “Orthodox Objectivism,” of which he remained critical until the end, he was equally clear that he wished Objectivism to continue spreading, and he offered pointed suggestions about how to accomplish that, namely by gaining credibility and acceptance within the academy and finding publishers within mainstream peer-reviewed journals.

As much as I have hoped to avoid engaging the Rand-Branden split, it is a major part of Branden’s speech and the question-answer session deals with it. Given that Branden delivered the talk in 1996 and that, as he notes, he rarely spoke on Objectivism by then, one could take his comments as at least somewhat representative of his hierarchy of concerns on the subject. The talk and question-answer session reveal that his fallout with Rand remained a considerable part of his legacy and that he felt the need to defend himself by attacking Rand. That would explain why his answers can, at times, seem unfair to Rand. For example, asked why Rand supported Richard Nixon over George McGovern—rather than the Libertarian Party candidate John Hospers—Branden stated that she should’ve supported Hospers, that she was “uninformed” about libertarianism and political issues, and that she associated libertarianism with anarchism, which she despised. In truth, Rand had contempt for Nixon and a well-reasoned argument against Hospers, even citing his campaign views and the Libertarian Party’s platform. If I know this, then Branden certainly should, so his comment reads as if he’s giving her as little credit as possible and characterizing her as an angry zealot.

Whatever one thinks of Branden, there’s merit and perhaps a degree of honor in his hope that “there is a tremendous area of work that needs to be done, that will be done, … that is nowhere to be found in the Objectivist literature.” His disagreements with other Objectivists did not lead him to give up on Objectivism or abandon its central tenets. He remained ever devoted to this philosophy even if his commitments to knowledge and learning lost him friendships and widened the gulf between his ideas and those of other followers of Rand. It is worth asking whether Branden, despite his implicit discounting of the early years as too preoccupied with “fighting for Ayn Rand,” did not spend much of his remaining years fighting against Rand. Did his autobiographical writings and the writings of Barbara Branden on their relationships with Rand take up too much of his post-Rand career as a psychologist and philosophical thinker?

“Nathaniel Branden’s Oedipus Complex,” by Susan Love Brown

In American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 22, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Atlas Society.

Because it is so titillating and provocative, Brown’s piece on Branden’s sexuality is the most memorable part of the opening section. Even its title—“Nathaniel Branden’s Oedipus Complex”—invites controversy.

Brown is concerned with Branden’s memoir, Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand. “I am,” she submits, “primarily interested in the narrative truth that Branden himself has constructed and how it lends itself to an oedipal interpretation.” Although Branden was a psychologist, or perhaps because he was one, Brown’s invocation of Freud seems both fitting and surprising. Freud, like Branden and Rand, was educated in philosophy. But Freud’s oedipal theories remain divisive and contested, not to mention opposed by both Branden and Rand. At least since Richard Webster’s publication of Why Freud Was Wrong in 1995, and probably much earlier, consensus among psychologists has held that Freud’s theories, many of them anyway, have been discredited. Yet Brown gives them full and unequivocal expression in her treatment of Branden.

Having left behind the phallic stage, transfixed by an unconscious castration anxiety, aroused by his loving mother and threatened by her loyal closeness to his father, the sexualized developing male child, in Freud’s paradigm, represses his feelings towards his mother or transfers them onto another female, one who is more appropriate for pursuit. When he reaches puberty, his excited feelings for his mother are reanimated; if left unresolved, they can cause eventual adult neurosis, the fading memory of the unattainable, ideal young mother serving as the inescapable fixation that blurs perceptions of reality. The thematic suggestions of this Freudian scheme characterize Brown’s curious approach to Branden.

That Branden would describe his mother affectionately in his memoir should come as no surprise. Absent any evidence of abuse or neglect, most adult males probably have articulated love for, and devotion to, their mothers. Whether these feelings amount to oedipal sexual attraction in the Freudian sense is open to debate. Branden was a psychologist and so wrote with a vocabulary specific to his discipline. “One consequence of my repression,” he said, “was that sometimes I failed to see that girls I liked returned my feelings.” Brown picks up on the word “repression,” hypothesizing about Branden’s “unresolved feelings about his mother” that implicated “his feelings toward his father.” Either Brown is on to something, or she overreads and overstates what was merely the retelling of an ordinary adolescent incident with no symbolic significance. The value of Brown’s analysis on this score is only as valuable as Freud’s theories are credible.

Branden moved out of his parents’ house when he graduated high school, as is customary for young adults of that age. Brown sees in this natural transition the carnal workings of an oedipal force that explains, in part, his budding relationship with Barbara Weidman, who became his first wife. Brown claims that, through Barbara, Branden “insinuat[ed] himself into a surrogate family and, out of that, tr[ied] to construct an ideal family within which he could at last resolve his Oedipal complex.” It so happened that Branden read The Fountainhead during this time of alleged psycho-sexual fantasy and stimulation, and Brown attributes his interest in the novel, not to his own agency, will, intelligence, or curiosity, but to instinctual sexual fixations that were mostly out of his control and subject to random events and chance relationships, such as the one with Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor.

Brown’s theorizing about Branden’s “genital stage” (a Freudian term she avoids) raises compelling questions: were Rand and O’Connor—who were around the age of Branden’s parents—surrogates for Branden’s natal family on whom he could project his sexual energies? Did Branden’s relationship with Barbara reenact the power plays between his own father and mother? Did Branden attempt to push away O’Connor as a male child in the phallic stage struggles through his rivalry with his father? Was Rand’s dedication of Atlas Shrugged to both Branden and O’Connor a signal that Branden had achieved sexual equality with Rand while supplanting O’Connor as Rand’s romantic interest?

Brown suggests that, through his affair with Rand, “Branden had effectively slept with his ‘mother’ and vanquished his ‘father.’” These and other stimulating conclusions demonstrate how Brown provides a unique and intriguing perspective even if her psychological hypotheses are ultimately untestable and thus unprovable. Rand’s admirers may take issue with Brown’s portrayal of Rand as increasingly needy and dependent on Branden’s affections as he grew apart from her. They may not like the effort to superimpose Freudian paradigms on complicated human experiences from long ago. But they cannot deny the magnetism of Brown’s analysis.

This article is the second installment of a review of a recent issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Read the first installment here.

The Legacy of Nathaniel Branden

In American History, Arts & Letters, Epistemology, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on April 15, 2020 at 6:45 am

This post originally appeared here at the Atlas Society.

The idea for a symposium on the life and thought of Nathaniel Branden came in 2012, two years before Branden’s death. Branden himself knew about and approved of the symposium but never saw it completed before he passed away.

The editorial board of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies conceived of this symposium as a wide-ranging, probing treatment of Branden’s vast and complex career, not just of his years with Ayn Rand. The response from potential contributors exceeded their expectations; they were inundated with submissions. What was supposed to be one volume became two. The once-slender manuscript grew to over 300 pages bearing the title “Nathaniel Branden: His Work and Legacy.”  This is the first such work of its kind to assess Branden as a central figure in both philosophy and applied psychology in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Although the contributors to this collection come from various disciplines and represent different, sometimes incompatible positions, the editors received no contributions from the more “fundamentalist” Objectivists, and none from scholars associated with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). The editors emphasize this fact in their prologue not to display resentment or animus, it seems, but as a sort of disclaimer—and explanation for the largely positive tone that characterizes much of the content here.

I have striven for impartiality regarding the Branden-Rand split and have, I think, made a good-faith effort to maintain the critical detachment necessary to write searchingly and decisively about this collection without sacrificing scholarly rigor or causing needless offense to students of Branden or Rand.

SECTION I

Section I of the collection is devoted to the so-called “Rand Years” of Branden’s career. It contains essays by Duncan Scott and Susan Love Brown and the reproduction of a lecture and question-answer session by Branden himself.

Scott, a filmmaker, tells the “truly epic story” of the improbable rise of the Objectivist movement that is attributable in part to Branden’s efforts. Scott met Branden but did not know him well. Filming Branden in 2003 for the Objectivist History Project, however, led him to realize Branden’s seminal role in the proliferation of Objectivism.

Scott credits Branden with popularizing Rand’s work and institutionalizing her lecture series. “The creation of a philosophy and the creation of a philosophical movement,” he says, “are not one and the same.” Undoubtedly Rand achieved the former on her own, but Branden is largely responsible for the latter, having responded to Rand’s fan mail, planned her events, established a newsletter in her honor, and spread her message across the globe to eager students and curious minds. These labors not only increased Rand’s following, but also lifted her spirits. Discouraged by negative reviews of her work, she began, with Branden’s help, to realize the extent of the impact her novels were having.

Branden popularized Rand as a writer of nonfiction and encouraged her to write about “racism as biological collectivism, totally incompatible with individualist philosophy”—a position that drew needed attention during the height of the Civil Rights Era. Scott succeeds in showing that Branden’s singular devotion to Rand during this period made him something of a publicist for, not just a disciple of, her work. He created vehicles for driving her ideas to vast audiences and made possible the formation of groups devoted to her philosophy. Without him, Rand may not have become the towering figure she is today.

In my next installment, I will cover Susan Love Brown’s piece on Branden’s sexuality.  Until then, I look forward to a lively discussion of the essays and my analysis online.

Civility, Humility, and the Pursuit of Knowledge

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Libertarianism, Pedagogy, Philosophy on March 25, 2020 at 6:45 am

The following speech was given to the Furman University Conservative Student Society on February 24, 2020. The American Institute for Economic Research published this speech here.

Good evening.  I’ve come from Alabama, but without a banjo on my knee.

It’s always nice to be back at Furman University, my alma mater, where memories of my professors, late evenings in the library, campus strolls around the lake, football games, fraternity shenanigans, ex-girlfriends, meals in the dining hall, rounds of golf, great books and profound discoveries all come rushing back to me with haunting vividness and intensity.

The day I moved into my dorm room, just before orientation began, was sad and exciting and frightening and chaotic. I pulled out of my parents’ driveway in Atlanta that morning to the melodies of James Taylor singing that he was gone to Carolina in his mind. A couple of hours later I was gone to Carolina, too, but not just in my mind.

I parked my blue Ford pickup on the fields beside Blackwell where the SUVs and other pickups were parked or parking. My parents, who had followed me to Greenville in their car, parked in what’s now the Trone Student Center parking lot. Back then it was mostly dirt and gravel except for some paved spaces near the coffee shop, which became a Starbucks Coffee but is now, I’m told, part of the on-campus bookstore. My parents helped me to unload the stuff of my old life and to arrange my dorm room for my new life.

My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. I claimed one side of the room and began filling my dresser, desk, and closet with things. Since I appropriated one section of the room, I wanted my roommate, Bill, to choose the top or bottom bunk for himself. We’d spoken only once before, by phone, a pitiful attempt by two distant, disembodied voices to share in a matter of minutes deep convictions, career ambitions, and preferred hobbies. Bill informed me years later that our initial phone conversation had discouraged him. I was coming to college with my high school girlfriend, so he presumed I would be fully invested in passionate romance and uninterested in secondary friendships.

Were it not for my girlfriend, he would have been correct. She, a socialite and a cheerleader, was the type who always searched for bigger and better things, who elevated revelry to the supreme virtue. To keep up with her, I had to fritter away precious hours at parties and functions and bars. She grew bored of me eventually, and found herself in the arms of many other freshmen boys that year. Or rather, they found themselves in hers; she was the aggressor.

I was talking about Bill’s arrival. He materialized in the dorm room out of nowhere and with an entourage of relatives: his mother and Irish Catholic stepfather (God rest his soul) and his aunts and uncles and cousins and who knows what else besides. They swept into the room, a noisy spectacle, and everyone was introducing themselves and moving furniture and clothes and electronics and sporting equipment that was never used and encyclopedias that were never opened.

What would’ve taken my parents and me several trips to unpack took Bill only one. That’s how many people attended him and serviced his every need. It was impressive, really, as though I were in the presence of royalty. He was rich, in fact, and made a point of displaying his wealth. Only our dorm room seemed bare, too plain and unadorned for this princely graduate of a distinguished private high school in Columbus, Ohio. So the next thing we knew we were at the finest of fine establishments, Walmart, buying decorations. I had the clever idea to acquire signs with which to adorn our door: a stop sign, a men’s and women’s restroom sign, and whatever other signs I cleared from the hardware section. Bill eyed these curious treasures skeptically but assented to their purchase. He’d known me only about an hour. Best not to upset the poor Southerner over these procurements, the magnanimous Yankee must’ve thought.

By mid-afternoon our room was fully furnished. Our new hall mates stopped by to introduce themselves, allured by the bewildering array of signage on our door, which, in the Tate, would have resembled a modernist masterpiece: a condemnatory symbol of the directionless chaos of the consumerist decade we were leaving behind. (It was, after all, 2001.) A crowd developed in our room. We were instantly popular. Bill seemed to appreciate, at length, my unique design tastes.

Bill and I decided to look around after everyone left. Where, we wondered, was the laundry room? We needed to find out, maybe even to experiment with the washer and dryer since we had never used either before. We found the laundry room musty and tucked away in the basement. At least the machines, despite their coin slots, no longer required quarters. I noticed a button on the wall beside a green light. “To test carbon monoxide levels,” read an adjacent sign, “press button when light is green.” I didn’t know much about carbon monoxide, but suddenly had the urge to test its levels.

I pressed the button. The fire alarm erupted; red lights flashed on and off. Bill shot me a glare that conveyed anger, panic, and amusement all at once. Which feeling prevailed, I couldn’t say.

We needed to flee. We knew it was illegal to stay in the building, but also that we weren’t in danger, that there wasn’t a fire, so we repaired to our room. The hallways were empty. No one saw us sneaking up the stairs. Once in our room, we determined to wait out the alarm. Eventually, we knew, everyone would come filing back when no fire was detected.

So we sat. And we sat. And we sat, completely silent. Then came a loud knocking at the door. Wham! Wham! Wham!

I stood, frightened. Bill stared at me, desperately shaking his head as if to say, “Do not open the door!”  I paused out of deference. The knock came again: Wham! Wham! Wham! “I’m sorry,” I said, “I have to open it.”  Bill buried his face in his palm.

I opened the door. There before me, standing six foot six, muscles bulging, stood a firefighter in full gear. From behind his goggles, which were affixed to his helmet, he looked me up and down, head to toe. This is it, I thought. I am going to be arrested on my first day on campus, and I’m taking my innocent roommate with me.

Speechless, I offered my wrists for the cuffing, obsequiously extending my arms. The firefighter lifted his goggles, revealing brown button eyes, and removed his helmet. He looked at me and then behind me, back at me and then behind me again. It struck me that he was examining the door. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought this was the bathroom.”

“The bathroom’s over there,” I said, pointing down the hall.

“Thank you,” he said, and walked away.

I closed the door. Bill sighed with relief and then he and I roared with laughter.

I remember my first day of class. It was early, Introduction to Philosophy with Dr. Sarah Worth. After class I walked back to the dorms. A guy named Jonathan Horn, who lived on what was then the Sigma Chi hall on the ground floor, intercepted me. He was animated and flustered. I had played little league baseball with him back in Marietta, Georgia, when I was seven or eight, but had not seen him again until orientation week. He was now a rising sophomore in college. I don’t recall how we established that we’d been teammates long ago, but we made the connection. He was the first student to show me around campus and to introduce me to the fraternity ecosystem. At this particular moment, he was frazzled and going on about how an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was confused, not really knowing what the World Trade Center was. “You know,” said Jonathan, “that tall building with offices and restaurants and stuff on top.”

I didn’t know, and had assumed that whatever struck the building had been small: a glider or an ultralight. I walked up the stairs to my room and turned on the television. Moments later a second plane—a large commercial airliner—crashed into the Twin Towers, and I saw, or at least seem to recall, people leaping from the monstrous building to their deaths. I was horrified and scared and confused, still so very confused, and tried calling my dad’s cell phone because I knew he was flying to New York that morning.

We had a land line in our dorm room: a phone that plugged into the wall. Only a few students carried cell phones back then. It was the first year I hadn’t worn a pager on my belt. My parents had given me a cell phone the week before, but I didn’t use it—and wouldn’t use it regularly until spring semester, when cell phones suddenly proliferated across campus. My dad didn’t answer his phone. I assumed the worst and tried calling mom. Eventually I got ahold of her. She had, she assured me, spoken to dad. He was okay. Now she was trying to locate her brother, my uncle, who’d also flown to New York that day, or maybe was in New York already for work. In either case, he was eventually accounted for.

The first day of college is disorienting and momentous, one of those rare occasions when you’re acutely aware of the gravity of the moment you’re experiencing. For my classmates, though, that day was disorienting and momentous, not just for us, but for the entire country, perhaps the entire planet. It marked the end of an era. I was a grownup, and so, too, was the United States of America. The ideas and books my classmates and I discussed that semester, and for the next few years, took on a furious intensity. Everyone, it seemed, was debating weighty and difficult questions: What was America? What was terrorism? Who was responsible for this attack? What was just war? What were the differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism? What was totalitarianism? What is Western Civilization and Eastern Civilization? Weren’t there other civilizations? What the hell was civilization? What was the difference between a conservative and a liberal? How do you accommodate differences in beliefs, feelings, and opinions within a diverse populace? What were facts, and how could people arrange them differently to produce competing narratives?

My high school sweetheart broke up with me a few weeks into freshmen year. I was devastated and buried myself in books. Bill, to his credit, grew concerned and suggested that I meet with his English professor, Judy Bainbridge, for advice and direction. He watched me reading and writing poetry in the evenings, slowly disengaging from the social scene, spending countless hours in the library with books that weren’t assigned in my classes. He thought I needed an intervention.

He was right. I met with Dr. Bainbridge and showed her some of my poetry, which did not impress her. I don’t remember much about our conversation, but I recall her recommendation that I take certain courses with certain professors, and also that I join both the college Republicans and the college Democrats so that I could be exposed to different viewpoints and learn to avoid ideological complacency. I followed her advice, joined both organizations, and throughout my time at Furman tried to keep an open mind about, well, everything.

I majored in English and quickly adopted convictions that I considered to be leftist—in particular in the field of economics of which I was ignorant—because I wanted to do good, be nice, and help those who were less fortunate. Turns out I still desire those goals, only now I have a more principled and mature approach that in our current intellectual climate would be considered conservative or libertarian. This approach is predicated, not on how much I know, but on how much I don’t know. I have F.A. Hayek to thank for my epistemological commitments.

The development of the legal system demonstrates the importance of maintaining conflict at the level of rhetoric and persuasion, the alternatives to coercion and force

I have spent over a decade studying former United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who, to my mind, is one of the most misunderstood figures in our country’s history—a punching bag for commentators of various political persuasions. His book The Common Law tells the story of the evolution of the common-law system from its rude and primitive origins, when violence and personal vendetta characterized the arbitrary rule of kin and clan, to a more mature and sophisticated system involving public fora, courts and tribunals, administrative procedures, impartial juries, and the emergence of general principles out of concrete cases regarding unforeseeable conflicts between antagonistic parties.

This tidy account details how vengeance and passion yielded to reason, rhetoric, and rationality as argumentation and persuasion took the place of blood feuds as the operative form of dispute resolution. I’m reminded of Aeschylus’s great trilogy, The Oresteia, which consists of tragedies that mythologize the founding of a rational Greek legal system that supplanted the carnage and recklessness of the grand age of Homeric gods and heroes who warred without end. You might find a distinctively American version of this myth in the television series Deadwood, which traces the development of government and law in a chaotic Western town.

I bring up Holmes and Aeschylus and Deadwood to suggest to you the immense importance of free and open dialogue, of rational argumentation and civil disagreement. Civilization itself—that is, a state of human society that is organized, peaceful, and prosperous, consisting of science, industry, arts, and literature—is potentially at stake when disagreement is no longer maintained at the level of rhetoric and resolved through persuasion and procedure. In the absence of ongoing conversation and debate, we risk falling into the chaos and violence and internecine strife that destabilize and destroy civil societies.

Before the Civil War, the idealistic young Holmes—then known as Wendell—flirted with transcendentalism. Having fought in the 20th Massachusetts during the Civil War and having experienced firsthand the carnage of battle, he spent his later career as a jurist seeking to accommodate disagreement, diffuse conflict, and moderate uncompromising political forces that threatened to bring about widespread violence. He did not want to witness another Civil War.

When I worked at the Alabama Supreme Court, I handled hundreds if not thousands of cases. Appellate cases provide edifying examples of the centrality of patience, humility, tenacity, and open-mindedness to problem-solving and unfettered inquiry. I would read appellants’ briefs that convinced me of the rightness of their clients’ positions. Then I would turn to the appellees’ briefs that seemed equally persuasive. Had I been tasked with deciding between the appellant and the appellee using my isolated reason and judgment, I would have struggled and despaired and probably arrived at erroneous conclusions. Fortunately, though, I had not only my colleagues to assist me, but innumerable precedents in prior cases and hundreds of years of development in the law to guide me. The appellant and the appellee were just two parties to a larger conversation that had endured in varying forms for centuries. Resolving their particular dispute required an exploration of the reasoning and rationale of several judges faced with similar facts and issues.

We learn by similar processes. Stuck between competing arguments, torn between opposing positions, we suspend judgment, or should, until we have analyzed the relevant facts and issues and mined the past for like situations and instructive examples. We should question our presuppositions and examine complex conflicts from different angles. Aware that knowledge is limited, memory is selective, and perspective is partial, we must avoid the trap of ideology, which causes people to choose what they believe and then to find support for it, or to draw complicated ideas through simplistic formulae to generate favored outcomes.

College should be about discovery, learning, and the acquisition and transmission of knowledge. It should involve inquiry and curiosity, challenge and exploration, forcing us to shape and revise our beliefs, to pursue clarity through rigorous study. The Book of Proverbs submits that fools despise wisdom and instruction.[1] To avoid foolishness, we must be teachable. And we must learn our limitations.

Learning our limitations

Across the hall from me, on the top floor of Manly Hall, during my freshman year at Furman, lived my friend Andre, a kicker on the football team.  He was affable and happy, the kind of person you wanted around when you told jokes because of his contagious laughter. He was much bigger than I was, though not as large, say, as an offensive or defensive lineman, and one day we wrestled on the floor right there in the hallway of the dorm. It was all for fun, but a real contest of manly strength with actual pride and reputation at stake. Several of our hall-mates watched and cheered as Andre wrapped me up like a pretzel and pinned me to the ground in an impressive show of force. At first I tried to maneuver out of his iron grip but, realizing I lacked the strength, I simply submitted, defeated and docile, waiting for him to release me.

I had lost, and was genuinely surprised by the ease with which I had been conquered. I realized that, given my size, I possessed only so much physical power, and that someone of greater size and strength could, quite efficiently, subdue me. You would think that common sense, or a basic understanding of physical reality, would have led me to that conclusion already, but I was young and hubristic. At some point, a short man must acknowledge he’s short. A slow man must acknowledge he’s slow. A clumsy man must acknowledge his inelegance. We’re not all mathematicians, rocket scientists, or geniuses. But to realize our fullest potential, to maximize our ability to know things and accomplish our goals, we must discover our strengths and weaknesses. We can’t be who we’re not, but we can make the best of who we are.

Aesop, a slave in the ancient world whose fables have been told since at least the 6th century B.C., tells of the Proud Frog, the mother of several little froglets. One morning, while she was away, an ox, not seeing the froglets, stepped on one and squashed him to death. When the mother returned, the froglet brothers and sisters croaked and squeaked, warning their mother of the enormous beast that had killed their brother. “Was it this big?” the mother asked, swelling up her belly. “Bigger,” the children said. “This big?” she said, swelling her belly even more. “Much bigger,” the children said. “Was it this big?” she said, swelling her belly and puffing herself up with tremendous force. “No, mother, the beast was much bigger than you.” Offended, the mother strained and strained, swelling and puffing, swelling and puffing until—boom! She popped!

You see, we shouldn’t presume to be more than we are.

I learned years after graduation that, while he was in medical school, Andre entered the great, ever-growing family of the departed, having taken his own life for reasons I don’t know and probably couldn’t understand. Even today it’s hard for me to imagine what could have driven this fun-loving, kind, strong, and generous person to such unbearable, unspeakable despair.

Channeling human emotions through debate and rhetorical fora

Human beings are emotional and passionate. Our feelings, our tendencies towards anger and wrath, are not, however, necessarily bad. If someone were to enter this room and commit some violent atrocity, we would be horrified and enraged. When we hear grievous stories of innocents who have been slaughtered, deprived of their possessions, hurt, mistreated, or oppressed, we fume and demand responsive, retributive action. Anger towards some people suggests that we feel strongly towards other people, that we have the capacity, in other words, to love deeply, bond, and affectionately associate.

But our anger and wrath must be constructively channeled. The legal system provides a mechanism for managing the pain, outrage, hurt, and anger that threaten to disrupt social harmony. Consider The Eumenides, the last play in the trilogy, The Oresteia, which I mentioned earlier. Here is the backstory. Clytemnestra murdered her husband, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, after he returned home to Argos from the Trojan War. She had taken a lover, Aegisthus, just as Agamemnon had taken a lover: the seer, Cassandra, whom Clytemnestra also murdered. At the behest of Apollo, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, avenges his father’s death by killing both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

Now the Furies—three enraged goddesses in the form of beasts who are older than the Olympian gods and goddesses—relentlessly and recklessly pursue Orestes to avenge the murder of Clytemnestra. Apollo has given Orestes temporary refuge in the temple at Delphi, but Clytemnestra’s ghost rouses the passionate, bloodthirsty Furies into uncontrolled passion. They are shocked and angered by unpunished matricide. Athena intervenes to assemble a jury and hold a public trial in which the prosecuting Furies will argue their case and Apollo will serve, in effect, as Orestes’s defense attorney.

The jury splits, leaving Athena to cast the deciding vote. The Furies worry that if Athena opts to acquit Orestes, she’ll usher in an era of lawlessness. They believe that order and the integrity of the ancient law depend on killing Orestes. To them, Orestes’s murder is especially offensive because Clytemnestra is the mother, the fertile figure, the bearer of life from whose womb Orestes emerged into the cosmos. An attack on the mother is an attack on life itself, on the very continuity of human existence.

Athena is faced with a seemingly zero-sum situation: she must either spare Orestes’s life and enrage the Furies, who will unleash their lethal rage on society, or give the Furies what they wish, namely Orestes’s death, and thereby inflame Apollo and the other Olympian gods. Violent revenge appears inevitable. A self-perpetuating cycle of violence seems destined.

The Furies are wild, destructive, and vindictive. Athena in her divine wisdom recognizes, however, that they are indispensable to the law precisely because of those qualities. If someone is murdered, the legal system must bring about justice and mete out coercive punishment. The emotions and passions that animate revenge must be mediated, however, through formal and public processes, procedures, and protocols to ensure that they do not spin out of control, infecting whole populations beyond the immediate parties to a case. The legal system, by bringing conflicts into the field of rhetoric, argumentation, and persuasion in open fora governed by procedural rules, mitigates the intensity of the parties’ passions and emotions, which must be channeled through formal institutions and subjected to public scrutiny.

So what does Athena do? She splits the baby, as it were, by voting to free Orestes and by promising the Furies a high seat on the throne of her city, where they will enjoy everlasting honor and reverence. Of course, she must persuade the Furies of the rightness of this resolution. She does so with such effectiveness that her persuasion is likened to a “spell”; the Furies call her rhetoric “magic.” “Your magic is working,” the leader of the Furies submits. “I can feel the hate, / the fury slip away.”

Like Holmes, Athena despised civil war. “Let our wars / rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy / our powerful lust for fame,” she says. “But as for the bird / that fights at home—my curse on civil war.” She has pacified the hateful Furies and established a system of conflict resolution, not just for this matter but for all future matters.

Dealing with the inevitability of conflict

Imagine, if you will, that you could press a reset button that erased all memory and knowledge of the past but that instilled in each of us one definite principle, namely that every person by virtue of being human deserves to live freely and peaceably until visited by a natural death. This button would provide humanity with a clean slate, as it were. A fresh beginning. But it wouldn’t be long before inevitable conflicts arose. Accidents would happen. People would get hurt. Emotions and passions would be inflamed as a result. We seem to be wired to favor family over strangers, and to desire healthy and prosperous lives for our children. We want to maximize our wellbeing, sometimes at the expense of others’ wellbeing. Given the option to help our children or the children of some faraway stranger, we choose our children, the beings we brought into the world, on whose behalf we labor, weep, and rejoice.

Even if we could start over, struggle, contest, fighting, and feuding would arise. In light of the inevitability of conflict, we must make every effort to restrain it at persuasion and rhetoric. The university as an ideal represents a kind of intellectual forum where the sharpest minds come to debate, not the case of a client, but of an idea. Courtrooms provide spaces for litigants to have it out, so to speak, whereas universities provide spaces for scholars to test and debate facts and theories.

Universities are like courtrooms where competing ideas are given a hearing; the principle of rule of law over arbitrary and tyrannical rule should govern inquiry on campuses

We could think of the university as a legal system in which intellectuals “litigate” differing viewpoints before juries of intellectual peers who are committed to the advancement of knowledge and the clarity of ideas. We evaluate legal systems based on their tendency toward tyranny on the one hand and rule of law on the other. A tyrannical legal system is characterized by arbitrary commands, private vendettas, rapidly changing rules and standards, retroactive application of new rules and standards, lack of procedure and due process, and ambiguity.

By contrast, rule of law consists of general, regular, stable, and public rules regarding fundamental fairness that play out in established processes, procedures, and protocols. The university and the legal system realize the benefits of receiving and transmitting knowledge through open dialogue and debate, of resolving complex disputes through argumentation rather than physical force and intimidation, of settling controlling precedents through the aggregated decisions of innumerable minds, of suspending judgment on controversial matters until discovery procedures and deliberative processes have been exhausted, and of appealing contested judgments to additional, impartial bodies that will analyze the facts, evidence, and operative rules from a more removed vantage point.

Violent protests, no-platforming and de-platforming, dis-invitations, the shouting down of controversial speakers, or of blacklisting, harassing, threatening, or doxing them—these push us in the direction of arbitrary and tyrannical rule rather than the rule of law. They foment anger and outrage and privilege immediate vengeance over rational, procedural argumentation. They inhibit learning and deprive others of the opportunity to understand people and issues with greater clarity. They rouse emotions and passions that are antithetical to civility and humility.

College students should, in my view, think of themselves as judges in training—not in the sense that they will preside in courtrooms or manage and decide cases, but in the sense that they will be constructive participants in their civic and intellectual communities, cultivating the standards, norms, and discernment necessary to improve the lives and institutions of their family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, cities, counties, states, and country. They may not render binding judgments, but they will exercise judgment.

You cannot refine your logic and reasoning, your critical thinking, your ability to formulate cogent arguments, without considering diverse ideas with which you disagree. And when you identify an idea with which you disagree, you should adopt a Socratic approach to it, asking question after question until you grasp at a deeper level why you disagree and how to articulate your disagreement in a manner that persuades others to your position.

Good judges are patient, diligent, competent, credible, independent, and impartial. They avoid not just impropriety, but appearances of impropriety. They eschew favoritism. Confidence in their office and judgment depends upon their integrity, high standards of conduct and method, and prioritizing of truth, evidence, and fact over private interests and biases. They are not influenced by familial, financial, or political factors but courteously committed to fair processes, correct answers, sound research, substantiated arguments, and reasonableness. The best judges and professors I have met over my career are those whose personal political convictions, and whose attitude regarding partisan elections or newsworthy current events, were unknown to me.

The lesson of the Furies is that violence breeds violence, and that coercion breeds coercion. If you stifle speech, rough up speakers, intimidate them, prohibit them from airing their opinions, you generate backlash, maybe not right away, maybe not in a form that you’ll immediately recognize, but forces will work to meet your anger with anger. Intellectual inquiry has difficulty flourishing in a climate of radioactive anger and toxic outrage.

Unleashing fury upon those who express views with which you disagree will only jeopardize your credibility, and might just empower the ideas you’re seeking to discredit. Ideas that appear taboo or transgressive often spread when powerful forces seek to suppress them. The paradox of the martyr, of course, is that his or her power resides in defeat, in death. The voice of the martyr is loudest once he or she has been permanently silenced. There’s a reason why passive resistance and civil disobedience are so effective in the long run.

The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus had told him—perhaps through a vision or a revelatory inner voice—“My power is made perfect in weakness.” Another paradox: strength resides in meekness and mildness. If you are utterly convinced of the rightness of certain views that you sincerely hold, then constructively to advance them, to see them succeed in the long run, you should air them from a position of meekness and mildness. Spreading them with coercion or force will probably fail. Even those who outwardly manifest the signs of a convert might inwardly reject the views they purport to have adopted. Beliefs are dubious that depend for their advancement on the use of coercion and force. A resort to violence in the name of an idea suggests that arguments for that idea are unpersuasive. In the absence of articulated reasoning against certain views, those views gain credence and currency. Attempting to stamp them out through coercion or force is counterproductive.

Civility and humility are therefore indispensable to the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge.

I’ll end with the wisdom of Aesop’s fable “The Cat and the Fox.” The fox, you see, was braggadocios, boasting to the cat about all the things he could and would do if he were attacked by hunting hounds. The modest, sensible cat replied to the haughty fox that she, having only one simple trick to escape dogs, wasn’t so clever. “If my trick doesn’t work,” she sighed, “then I’m done for.”

The fox, laughing, mocked the cat for her lack of cunning. “Too bad you’re not as smart as I am,” he taunted. As soon as these words issued from his snout, a pack of hounds descended upon him. The cat resorted to her one trick and escaped. The fox, however, tried several tricks, each craftily, but they didn’t work. The hounds snatched him up and tore him to shreds, filling their bellies with bloody fox meat.

Friends, my fellow Furman paladins, don’t be the fox. Please, don’t be like him. There are always dogs—and cats for that matter—who are better and smarter than you are. There are always powerful forces beyond your control. Be sensible lest they swallow you up. Be humble and teachable, know your strengths and weaknesses, and suspend judgment on important and controversial matters until you have considered them from different angles and, if possible, examined all relevant data. Unless and until you do these things, you won’t acquire and transmit knowledge with your fullest potential.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Proverbs 1:7.

Russell Kirk on Higher Education

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, higher education, History, Humanities, Imagination, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 12, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal 

Russell Kirk isn’t known as a policy wonk. The Great Books, not the mathematical or statistical models of economic technicians, were his organon of choice. He devoted essays to broad, perennial themes like “the moral imagination,” “liberal learning,” and “the permanent things.”

Read his numerous columns about higher education, however, and you might come away with a different impression, one of Kirk as a political strategist with a strong grasp of educational policy.

Kirk wrote on a wide variety of issues involving higher education: accreditation, academic freedom, tenure, curriculum, vocational training, community colleges, adult education, college presidents, textbooks, fraternities and Greek life, enrollment, seminaries, tuition, teachers’ unions, collective bargaining, student activism, British universities, urban versus rural schools, boards of trustees, university governance, the hard sciences, grade inflation, lowering academic standards, libraries, private versus public schooling, civics education, sex education, school vouchers, university presses, and more.

One of his go-to subjects implicates several of those issues: federal subsidies. He believed that federal money threatened the mission and integrity of universities in numerous areas.

For starters, he believed that federal subsidies—and, it must be added, foundation grants—created perverse incentives for researchers, who might conform to the benefactor’s “preferences” and “value judgments.”[1] Recalling the proverb that “[t]he man who pays the piper calls the tune,”[2] he cautioned against financial dependency on outside influences, which, he worried, could impose ideological conditions on grants to advance or purge particular viewpoints.

Moreover, the grantors, whether they were foundations or the government, would, he believed, quantify the value of their funded work according to measurable outcome assessments that were “easily tabulated and defensible.”[3] The intrinsic value of reading Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, or Euripides, however, is not easily assessed in instrumental terms.

More fundamentally, Kirk viewed federal involvement in higher education as a step toward the centralization and consolidation of power at the expense of local variety. He foresaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education long before it occurred.[4] Fearing the growth of an “educationist hierarchy” or an “empire of educationism” corrupted by “sinecures” and “patronage,”[5] he favored small, private, liberal-arts colleges, which, he believed, flourished when they committed to mission and tradition.[6]

“The American college—the small liberal arts college—is worth preserving,” Kirk wrote, “but it can be preserved, in our time of flux, only if it is reformed.”[7] Kirk’s reform was reactionary, not progressive.[8] It rejected the popular focus on vocation and specialization and sought to train “men and women who know what it is to be truly human, who have some taste for contemplation, who take long views, and who have a sense of moral responsibility and intellectual order.”[9] Even if they can’t be calculated precisely, these vague-yet-discernable qualities of literate people are beneficial to society writ large, in Kirk’s view. In other words, there’s an appreciable difference between literate and illiterate societies.

Kirk decried the alarming escalation of tuition prices. In 1979, he wrote, “Attendance at colleges and universities is becoming hopelessly expensive.”[10] Forty years later, the costs of attending college have risen exponentially. Kirk opposed federal aid or scholarships to students,[11] but not, from what I can tell, for the economic reason that the ready availability of federal funding would enable universities to hike tuition rates to artificially high levels. Perhaps, even in his skepticism, he couldn’t conceive of university leadership as so systematically exploitative.

We continue to hear echoes of Kirk’s observation that the typical college student “oughtn’t to be in college at all: he has simply come along for the fun and a snob-degree, and his bored presence reduces standards at most American universities.”[12] Elsewhere, he claimed that “[w]e have been trying to confer the higher learning upon far too many young people, and the cost per capita has become inordinate.”[13] The question of why students attend college is closely related to that of the fundamental purpose of college.

Uncertainty regarding the point of higher education—whether it’s to develop the inquisitive mind, expand the frontiers of knowledge, equip students with jobs skills, or something else entirely—seems more pronounced today in light of technological, economic, and population changes. Moreover, it remains true that “most of the universities and colleges are forced to do the work that ordinary schools did only a generation ago.”[14] Shouldn’t higher education accomplish more than remedial education? Doesn’t it have a greater end?

Kirk certainly thought so—at least if higher education were properly liberal. “By ‘liberal education,’” he explained, “we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called ‘career education.’”[15]

Kirk’s surprising wonkishness, and his facility in policy debates, always submitted to this overarching goal: Defending order against disorder, in both the soul and the larger polity.[16] “The primary purpose of a liberal education,” he said, “is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake.”[17]

The aspiration of policy wasn’t policymaking. Kirk’s short-term strategies serviced a paramount objective: Namely, to seek wisdom, virtue, truth, clarity, and understanding. You can’t simply quantify the value of that.

[1] Russell Kirk, “Massive Subsidies and Academic Freedom,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1963), 608.

[2] Ibid. at 607.

[3] Ibid. at 611.

[4] Russell Kirk, “Federal Aid to Educational Bureaucracy,” National Review, Vol. 10 (February 25, 1961), 116.

[5] Russell Kirk, “The Federal Educational Boondoggle,” National Review, Vol. 5 (March 15, 1958), 257.

[6] See generally Russell Kirk, “The American College: A Proposal for Reform,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1957), 177-186.

[7] Ibid. at 177.

[8] Ibid. (“our age seems to require a reform that is reactionary, rather than innovating”).

[9] Ibid. at 182-83.

[10] Russell Kirk, “More Freedom Per Dollar,” National Review, Vol 31 (April 13, 1979), 488.

[11] Russell Kirk, “Federal Scholarships,” National Review, Vol. 2 (November 24, 1956), 18.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Russell Kirk, “Who Should Pay for Higher Education?” Vol. 23 (May 18, 1971), 534.

[14] Russell Kirk, “Federal Education,” National Review, Vol. 4 (December 28, 1957), 592.

[15] Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” in The Essential Russell Kirk, edited by George A. Panichas (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007), 398.

[16] Ibid. at 400.

[17] Ibid.

Dr. Jason Jewell on Justice versus Social Justice

In Conservatism, Economics, Ethics, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Philosophy, Politics on February 5, 2020 at 6:45 am

What do “Change” and “Equality” Mean?

In Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics on November 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

As the elections of 2020 near, the left has weaponized two principles that are now prevailing orthodoxies on college campuses, in the mass media, and among activist blatherskites: change and equality.

Examples of change?

Senator Sanders and Senator Warren advocate differing forms of “free college” at public institutions of higher learning. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed eliminating the Electoral College. Andrew Yang backs a government-funded “universal basic income” program.

These are specific policies. What about large-scale models of government like socialism, openly embraced by Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez?

Which brings us to equality. “Equality,” today, refers to diverse causes: gender equality, marriage equality, income equality, transgender equality, racial equality, housing equality, healthcare equality, environmental equality—in short, you can affix the term “equality” to just about any hot-button political issue or mobilized interest group and find some politician supporting it.

Change and equality sound nice in theory, but what, exactly, do these words mean? The eminent thinker and man of letters Russell Kirk provides key insights into the nature and limitations of change and equality.

THERE ARE MANY KINDS OF “CHANGE”

Is change always for the better? Isn’t there regress, deterioration, degeneration, and decay? Wouldn’t we need a conservative disposition—an understanding of history in its immeasurable complexity—to know the difference between change that’s good and change that’s bad?

“When a society is progressing in some respects,” Kirk warns, “usually it is declining in other respects.” The French Revolution certainly brought changes: widespread violence, corruption, the beheading of innocents, the massacring of clergy, looting, chaos, food shortages, and the destruction of churches. The Russian Revolution promised change and delivered it in the form of war, mass murder, riots, starvation, and dictatorship. The Chinese Communist Revolution successfully instituted changes that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

If you want change for the sake of something different, the object is transformation itself, not a definitive outcome. What do you achieve? The creed of change implies that you can never get things right: the only correct state is that of perpetual flow and flux.

“You’re on the wrong side of history,” we’re told by those who demand change. They value progress as the summum bonum, as though the past were devoid of good people and useful data, as if it were a monolithic evil from which you must flee and hide your eyes. But you should not move forward—you should not change—without the past to guide you.

We must be mindful of the debts we owe our ancestors, without whom, after all, we wouldn’t have the ideas, luxuries, technologies, and freedoms we enjoy. Kirk exemplifies a proper attitude toward change in his Concise Guide to Conservatism: “Change is essential to a good society,” but it must take place “within the framework of tradition.” He adds that “progress is possible only so long as it is undertaken upon the sure footing of permanence.”

I like asking progressives what society would need to look like for them to become conservatives. What is their teleology, their ultimate goal for culture and governing institutions? What achievement would they preserve and defend?

Change can be dangerous. The wisdom of generations—the taking of the long view—acts as a check against those radical changes that lead to loss of life and violations of the dignity and bodily integrity of every human person.

EQUALITY IS AN ILLUSION

Equality raises the questions: Equal to what? Equal in what sense? But this means it is a signifier without a signified. There’s no such thing as equality in the tangible, phenomenal world.

Every lawyer knows on some level that differentiations between people are inevitable.

“Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law,” Kirk writes, “but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things.”

Why? Because justice, in Kirk’s view, demands “sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty.” Moreover, “In the name of equality, the collectivist establishes a political and economic order which subjects a great mass of individuals to the will and whim of a new managerial elite.”

The law categorizes us: citizen and noncitizen, parent and child, minor and adult, alive and dead, employer and employee, buyer and seller, debtor and creditor, single and married, majority and minority, donor and donee, plaintiff and defendant, prosecution and defense, innocent and guilty, solvent and insolvent, offeror and offeree, payer and payee, promisor and promisee, landlord and tenant, agent and principal.

Nobody escapes labels under the law: human, mother, father, child, spouse, brother, sister, niece, nephew, cousin, aunt, uncle, descendant, heir, client, guardian, bystander, driver, owner, resident, patient, insured, devisee, witness, litigant, student, taxpayer, guest, signatory, broker, trustee, volunteer, testator, mortgagor, investor, author, licensee, victim, subscriber, decedent—the list goes on.

Everyone fits within more than one of these classifications, which are not necessarily hierarchical. The flesh-and-blood people to whom they refer, however, are not treated equally in all circumstances. They cannot be because no one can occupy an identical position in society, nor hold the exact same provisions in the exact same settings within the exact same jurisdiction.

We have different jobs, careers, ages, obligations, goals, talents, and familial statuses. The law treats people differently because of their different roles and responsibilities in specified contexts. Taxonomical differences are natural and inevitable, flowing from the diversity of human experience.

Laws by definition discriminate: they state who may or may not do something, who possesses or protects rights, who creates or enforces rules, who must or must not act in particular situations, which acts are proper or improper in light of unique circumstances. Discrimination is inevitable. The operative question, then, is on what basis laws discriminate. Some bases are acceptable, whereas others are not.

Aristotle maintained that the telos, or the purpose, of the law is to achieve goodness and virtue. Accordingly, laws discriminating on the grounds of race are presumptively invalid because they have no bearing upon human intent or action, on the pursuit of goodness or virtue. Rather, they involve an immutable characteristic, a trait people cannot help, an unchosen quality of the human body.

Goodness and virtue, by contrast, involve choices. A person acts morally by selecting one course of action over another. The law incentivizes good behavior and punishes crime or mischief. It shouldn’t penalize people for acts they didn’t or couldn’t commit, for properties they are incapable of changing or affecting.

Except in the eyes of God, absolute equality, true equality, doesn’t exist. Attempts to attain it necessitate coercion, perhaps even the annihilation of certain people or the destruction of certain places and things. Yet I wouldn’t expect the government forcibly to remove someone else’s good lung to replace my bad lung to equalize our conditions. Besides, no two lungs are alike.

Equality, as a concept, is the enemy of another concept the left purports to champion: diversity. Every human being is unique. Every person has distinct skills, aptitudes, weaknesses, and temptations. Diversity involves differences. It is real, not an ideal like equality.

“Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization,” Kirk says. “Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence.”

We should celebrate the fact that no two people are alike, that our variety as a species makes us wonderful and marvelous. We’re in awe when musicians produce sounds we cannot produce, when artists render images we cannot render, when athletes leap or jump or run in ways foreign to our bodies, when writers arrange words on a page with a facility we lack.

Diversity is good and beautiful; seeking to eliminate it in the name of equality is cruel and misguided. We rightly fear societies in which one group uses political power and the apparatus of government to deprive individuals of their wealth and property in pursuit of hypotheticals like equality. Kirk reminds, after all, that the “aim of the collectivistic state is to abolish classes, voluntary associations, and private rights, swallowing all these in the formless blur of the ‘general will’ and absolute equality of condition—equality, that is, of everyone except the clique which rules the state.”

FOCUS ON PRINCIPLES, NOT JUST POLICY

Understandably, we focus on policy during election seasons. But maybe we should quiz candidates on their philosophical moorings. If we do, we might find that progressives have embraced quixotic concepts that lead, in practice, to violence and coercion rather than their intended outcomes.

Kirk cautioned against the siren songs of change and equality. We should listen.

St. George Tucker’s Jeffersonian Constitution

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Civics, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty. 

One could argue that there are two basic visions for America: the Hamiltonian and the Jeffersonian. The former is nationalist, calling for centralized power and an industrial, mercantilist society characterized by banking, commercialism, and a robust military. Its early leaders had monarchical tendencies. The latter vision involves a slower, more leisurely and agrarian society, political decentralization, popular sovereignty, and local republicanism. Think farmers over factories.

Both have claimed the mantle of liberty. Both have aristocratic elements, despite today’s celebration of America as democratic. On the Hamiltonian side we can include John Adams, John Marshall, Noah Webster, Henry Clay, Joseph Story, and Abraham Lincoln. In the Jeffersonian camp we can place George Mason and Patrick Henry (who, because they were born before Jefferson, could be considered his precursors), the mature (rather than the youthful) James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John C. Calhoun, Abel Upshur, and Robert Y. Hayne. The Jeffersonian Republicans won out in the early nineteenth century, but since the Civil War, the centralizing, bellicose paradigm has dominated American politics, foreign and monetary policy, and federal institutions.

St. George Tucker falls into the Jeffersonian category. View of the Constitution of the United States, published by Liberty Fund in 1999, features his disquisitions on various legal subjects, each thematically linked. Most come from essays appended to his edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

Born in Bermuda, Tucker became a Virginian through and through, studying law at the College of William and Mary under George Wythe, whose post at the law school he would eventually hold. On Tucker’s résumé we might find his credentials as a poet, essayist, and judge. He was an influential expositor of the limited-government jurisprudence that located sovereignty in the people themselves, as opposed to the monarch or the legislature, which, he believed, was a surrogate for the general will in that it consisted of the people’s chosen representatives.

Tucker furnished Jeffersonians with the “compact theory” of the Constitution:

The constitution of the United States of America . . . is an original, written, federal, and social compact, freely, voluntarily, and solemnly entered into by the several states of North-America, and ratified by the people thereof, respectively; whereby the several states, and the people thereof, respectively, have bound themselves to each other, and to the federal government of the United States; and by which the federal government is bound to the several states, and to every citizen of the United States.

Under this model, each sovereign, independent state is contractually and consensually committed to confederacy, and the federal government possesses only limited and delegated powers—e.g., “to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations.”

Employing the term “strict construction,” Tucker decried what today we’d call “activist” federal judges, insisting that “every attempt in any government to change the constitution (otherwise than in that mode which the constitution may prescribe) is in fact a subversion of the foundations of its own authority.” Strictly construing the language of the Constitution meant fidelity to the binding, basic framework of government, but it didn’t mean that the law was static. Among Tucker’s concerns, for instance, was how the states should incorporate, discard, or adapt the British common law that Blackstone had delineated.

Tucker understood the common law as embedded, situated, and contextual rather than as a fixed body of definite rules or as the magnificent perfection of right reason, a grandiose conception derived from the quixotic portrayals of Sir Edward Coke. “[I]n our inquiries how far the common law and statutes of England were adopted in the British colonies,” Tucker announced, “we must again abandon all hope of satisfaction from any general theory, and resort to their several charters, provincial establishments, legislative codes, and civil histories, for information.”

In other words, if you want to know what the common law is on this side of the pond, look to the operative language of governing texts before you invoke abstract theories. Doing so led Tucker to conclude that parts of English law were “either obsolete, or have been deemed inapplicable to our local circumstances and policy.” In this, he anticipated Justice Holmes’s claim that the law “is forever adopting new principles from life at one end” while retaining “old ones from history at the other, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off.”

What the several states borrowed from England was, for Tucker, a filtering mechanism that repurposed old rules for new contexts. Tucker used other verbs to describe how states, each in their own way, revised elements of the common law in their native jurisdictions: “modified,” “abridged,” “shaken off,” “rejected,” “repealed,” “expunged,” “altered,” “changed,” “suspended,” “omitted,” “stricken out,” “substituted,” “superseded,” “introduced.” The list could go on.

The English common law, accordingly, wasn’t an exemplification of natural law or abstract rationalism; it was rather the aggregation of workable solutions to actual problems presented in concrete cases involving real people. Sometimes, in its British iterations, it was oppressive, reinforcing the power of the king and his agents and functionaries. Thus it couldn’t fully obtain in the United States. “[E]very rule of the common law, and every statute of England,” Tucker wrote on this score, “founded on the nature of regal government, in derogation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind, were absolutely abrogated, repealed, and annulled, by the establishment of such a form of government in the states.”

Having been clipped from its English roots, the common law in the United States had, in Tucker’s view, an organic opportunity to grow anew in the varying cultural environments of the sovereign states. In this respect, Tucker prefigured Justice Brandeis’s assertion in Erie Railroad Company v. Tompkins (1938) that “[t]here is no federal general common law.” Tucker would have agreed with Brandeis that, “[e]xcept in matters governed by the Federal Constitution or by acts of Congress, the law to be applied in any case is the law of the state.”

In fact, summarizing competing contentions about the Sedition Act, Tucker subtly supported the position that “the United States as a federal government have no common law” and that “the common law of one state . . . is not the common law of another.” The common law, in Tucker’s paradigm, is bottom-up and home-grown; it’s not a formula that can be lifted from one jurisdiction and placed down anywhere else with similar results and effects.

By far the most complex essay here is “On the State of Slavery in Virginia,” which advocated the gradual extirpation of slavery. With admirable clarity, Tucker zeroed in on the hypocrisy of his generation:

Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of Liberty, and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcilable hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst we adjured the God of Hosts to witness our resolution to live free, or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained.

Despite his disdain for the institution of slavery, Tucker expressed ideas that are racist by any measurable standard today—for instance, his notion that slavery proliferated in the South because the climate there was “more congenial to the African constitution.”

On the level of pure writing quality and style, Tucker had a knack for aphorism. “[T]he ignorance of the people,” he said, “is the footstool of despotism.” More examples: “Ignorance is invariably the parent of error.” “A tyranny that governs by the sword, has few friends but men of the sword.”

Reading Tucker reminds us that for most of our country’s formative history the principal jurisprudential debates were not about natural law versus positivism, or originalism versus living constitutionalism, but about state versus federal authority, local versus national jurisdiction, the proper scale and scope of government, checks and balances, and so forth. To the extent these subjects have diminished in importance, Hamilton has prevailed over Jefferson. Reading Tucker today can help us see the costs of that victory.

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