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Posts Tagged ‘David Hume’

Our Real Constitution—And What Happened to It

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on January 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Conservatism lost a giant when George W. Carey passed away in 2013. Thanks to Bruce Frohnen, his longtime friend, we’re able to hear anew Carey’s prudent admonitions in these strange and interesting times.

Before his death, Carey completed drafts of chapters on progressivism and progressive constitutional reform that later became substantial portions of two chapters in Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law, the book that Frohnen has now completed. The final product is an impressively collaborative effort that substantiates the idea of constitutional morality, which Carey spent years developing.

The two men had planned to split the chapters in half. Having few disagreements between them, they reserved the right to approve and edit each other’s contributions. Carey’s untimely passing changed these plans. To honor his friend, Frohnen consulted Carey’s work carefully, downplaying his own more “antifederalist” positions to accommodate Carey’s more federalist leanings. If Jefferson and Hamilton would have agreed that the size and scope of the American government has become dangerous and unmanageable, then it’s no surprise that Frohnen and Carey found common ground.

Constitutional morality denotes “the felt duty of government officials … to abide by the restrictions and imperatives imposed on them by a constitution.” It contemplates the “unwritten constitution,” a concept central to Frohnen and Carey’s argument that’s drawn from Russell Kirk and Orestes Brownson, both of whom Frohnen in particular has interpreted thoughtfully and skilfully. Kirk defined the unwritten constitution as “the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.” To maintain their authority and gain general acceptance in a community, written constitutions and positive laws must reflect the norms and values of the people they bind. Frohnen and Carey’s narrative is about how quasi-law in the form of executive decree and the administrative state have become divorced from the people they govern.

The narrative runs something like this. Rule by executive command and administrative agencies has resulted in a decline of the rule of law in the United States. Odd, extratextual interpretations of the United States Constitution have dislocated its content from the common understandings of reasonably prudent Americans. The Progressive Era facilitated a shift in our approach to law that was qualitatively different from the teachings of checks-and-balances, decentralization, separation-of-powers, and other such doctrines alive in the minds of our Founders, even those like Hamilton and the young Madison (as against the later Madison) who favored a strong national government. Consequently, we have found ourselves in a crisis of constitutional morality, there being little institutional and systemic accountability to curb the broad powers of bureaucracy, reckless and unelected federal judges, a delegating congress beholden to lobbyists and corporations, and the expansion of executive privilege, prerogative, and patronage.

Political rhetoric of limited government, common among Republican leaders, does not square with the manifest reality of the ever-growing managerial state. Heated discourse alone won’t suffice to roll back federal programs and agencies. “What is required,” say Frohnen and Carey, “is a retrenchment of the federal government into a much smaller but more detailed and legalistic form that allows more actions to be taken by other institutions, be they states, localities, or associations within civil society.” In short, these men call for devolution and subsidiarity. They make the case for localized control based on clear rules that are consistent with common norms and expressed in a shared idiom.

Championing the rule of law involves the recognition that, although morality does or should underpin laws, “we cannot use the tool of law to achieve perfect virtue, or freedom, or any other moral good.” Without denying the importance or reality of natural law, which is antecedent to human promulgation, Frohnen and Carey approach it cautiously, stating that it “is not a rigid code demanding that human law force all human beings into a straightjacket of specific individual conduct.” Seemingly skeptical of grand schemes for the magnificent systematization and organization of natural-law principles, they humbly submit that humans “can only do our best to develop practical lawmaking and interpreting virtues such that the laws we make will be efficacious in spelling out and enforcing duties in such a way as perhaps to encourage people to pursue virtue.” This nomocratic mode of thinking recalls Hume, Burke, Oakeshott, Kirk, and Hayek with its awareness of the limitations of human knowledge and its attention to the historical, institutional, and cultural embeddedness of standards and values.

If there is one take-home point from this book, it’s that government is not the instrument through which to facilitate the good, the true, or the beautiful. We should avoid the “new dispensation” that consists in “a government ruled not by formal structures and procedures but by the pursuit of putatively good policy through broad statements of programmatic goals and the exercise of broad discretionary power.” Disempowering the central government may be the obvious counter to this new dispensation, but we’ve been advocating that for decades. In fact, Frohnen and Carey believe that “there can be no simple return to the original dispensation,” which involved “the Framers’ constitutional morality, emphasizing procedure, caution, and restrained defense of one’s institutional prerogatives.”

With no quick and easy remedy at the ready, Frohnen and Carey encourage something less magnificent and extraordinary: civic participation in local associations and mediating institutions such as “families, unions, clubs, schools, and religious groups,” the kinds of little platoons that struck Alexis de Tocqueville, during his tour of America, as bulwarks against tyranny. “More important than any particular policy,” Frohnen and Carey aver, “is the attitude toward law and policy making that must be recaptured.” Although they suggest that some form of separation or secession may become inevitable, the corrective they envision is rhetorical and discursive. We must, in their view, shape the political discourse through private associations, which, in the aggregate, engender the bottom-up processes of rulemaking that reflect the normative orders of local communities rather than the top-down commands of a faraway, massive, impersonal sovereign.

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Seth Vannatta on Conservatism and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on December 28, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

At some point all writers come across a book they wish they had written. Several such books line my bookcases; the latest of which is Seth Vannatta’s Conservativism and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics.

The two words conservatism and pragmatism circulate widely and with apparent ease, as if their import were immediately clear and uncontroversial. But if you press strangers for concise definitions, you’ll likely find that the signification of these words differs from person to person. Maybe it’s not just that people are unwilling to update their understanding of conservatism and pragmatism—maybe it’s that they cling passionately to their understanding (or misunderstanding), fearing that their operative paradigms and working notions of 20th century history and philosophy will collapse if conservatism and pragmatism differ from some developed expectation or ingrained supposition.

I began to immerse myself in pragmatism in graduate school when I discovered that its central tenets aligned rather cleanly with those of Edmund Burke, David Hume, F. A. Hayek, Michael Oakeshott, and Russell Kirk, men widely considered to be on the right end of the political spectrum even if their ideas diverge in key areas. In fact, I came to believe that pragmatism reconciled these thinkers, that whatever their marked intellectual differences, these men believed certain things that could be synthesized and organized in terms of pragmatism. I reached this conclusion from the same premise adopted by Vannatta: “Conservatism and pragmatism . . . are methods . . . guided by various common norms.” As such, they can lead to different political policies despite the consistently conservative character of their processes and techniques.

Read my review of Vannatta’s book in University of Dayton Law Review by downloading it from SSRN at this link.

Boswell Gets His Due

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, British Literature, Christianity, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Writing on August 19, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Liberty.

What is Enlightenment? The title of Immanuel Kant’s most famous essay asks that question. Kant suggests that the historical Enlightenment was mankind’s release from his self-incurred tutelage, an intellectual awakening that opened up new freedoms by challenging implanted prejudices and ingrained presuppositions. “Sapere aude!” Kant declared. “Dare to be wise!”

Tradition maintains that the Enlightenment was an 18th-century social and cultural phenomenon emanating from Paris salons, an Age of Reason that championed the primacy of the individual, the individual’s competence to pursue knowledge through rational and empirical methods, through skepticism and the scientific method. Discourse, debate, experimentation, and economic liberalism would liberate society from the shackles of superstition and dogma and enable unlimited progress and technological innovation, offering fresh insights into the universal laws that governed not only the natural world but also human relations. They would also enable individual people to attain fresh insights into themselves.

Boswell was a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul.

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston and the author of Boswell’s Enlightenment, spares us tiresome critiques or defenses of the Enlightenment by Foucault and Habermas and their progeny. He begins his biography of James Boswell, the great 18th-century biographer, with a historiographical essay on the trends and trajectories of the pertinent scholarship. He points out that the Enlightenment may have begun earlier than people once believed, and in England rather than France. He mentions Jonathan Israel’s suggestion that we look to Spinoza and company, not Voltaire and company, to understand the Enlightenment, and that too much work has focused on the influence of affluent thinkers, excluding lower-class proselytizers who spread the message of liberty with a fearsome frankness and fervor. And he maintains that Scotland was the ideational epicenter of Enlightenment. Boswell was a Scot.

All of this is academic backdrop and illustrative posturing, a setting of the stage for Zaretsky’s subject, Boswell, a lawyer and man of letters with an impressive pedigree and a nervous disposition, a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul. He marveled at public executions, which he attended regularly. He also had daddy issues, always trying to please his unpleased father, Lord Auchinleck, who instructed his son to pursue the law rather than the theater and thespians. When word arrived that his son had been sharing his private journals with the public, Lord Auchinleck threatened to disown the young James.

Astounded by the beauty and splendor of Rome and entranced by Catholicism, Boswell was never able to untangle the disparate religious influences (all of them Christian) that he picked up during his travels. He was equally unable to suppress eros and consequently caught sexual diseases as a frog catches flies.

Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon.

Geography and culture shaped Boswell’s ideas and personality and frame Zaretsky’s narrative. “With the European continent to one side, Edinburgh to the other,” Zaretsky intones, “James Boswell stood above what seemed the one and the same phenomenon: the Enlightenment.” This remark is both figurative and literal, concluding Zaretsky’s account of Boswell’s climbing of Arthur’s Seat, a summit overlooking Edinburgh, and his triumphant shout, “Voltaire, Rousseau, immortal names!”

Immortal names indeed. But would Boswell himself achieve immortality? Boswell achieved fame for his biography of Samuel Johnson, the poet, critic, essayist, and wit — who except for one chapter is oddly ancillary to Zaretsky’s narrative. Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.

Boswell’s friends have fared better — countrymen and mentors such as Adam Smith and David Hume, for instance, and the continental luminaries Voltaire and Rousseau. But there are many interesting relationships here. To cite only one: Thérèse Levasseur, Rousseau’s wife or mistress (a topic of debate), became Boswell’s lover as he accompanied her from Paris to England. The unsuspecting Rousseau, exiled in England, waited eagerly for her arrival, while a more astute Hume, who was Rousseau’s host, recognized matters for what they were.

Zaretsky believes Boswell was an exceptional talent, notwithstanding his weaknesses, and certainly worthy of our attention. Glossing several periods of Boswell’s life but closely examining his grand tour of the Continent (1763–1765), Zaretsky elevates Boswell’s station, repairs Boswell’s literary reputation, and corrects a longstanding underestimation, calling attention to his complicated and curious relationship to the Enlightenment, a movement or milieu that engulfed him without necessarily defining him.

The title of the book assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s large claims for his subject might seem belied by the author’s professedly modest goal: “to place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment.” To this end, Zaretsky remarks, “James Boswell and the Enlightenment are as complex as the coils of wynds and streets forming the old town of Edinburgh.” And so they are, as Zaretsky makes manifest in ten digestible chapters bristling with the animated, ambulatory prose of the old style of literary and historical criticism, the kind that English professors disdain but educated readers enjoy and appreciate.

Zaretsky marshals his evidence from Boswell’s meticulously detailed missives and journals, piecing together a fluid tale of adventure (meetings with the exiled libertine John Wilkes, evenings with prostitutes, debauchery across Europe, and lots of drinking) and resultant misadventure (aimlessness, dishonor, bouts of gonorrhea and depression, and religious angst). Zaretsky portrays Boswell as a habitual performer, a genteel, polite, and proud socialite who judged himself as he imagined others to have judged him. He suffered from melancholy and the clap, among other things, but he also cultivated a gentlemanly air and pursued knowledge for its own sake. The title of the book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s book matters because Boswell matters, and, in Zaretsky’s words, “Boswell matters not because his mind was as original or creative as the men and women he pursued, but because his struggle to make sense of his life, to bend his person to certain philosophical ends, appeals to our own needs and sensibilities.” We see ourselves in Boswell, in his alternating states of faith and doubt, devotion and reason. He, like so many of us, sought to improve himself daily but could never live up to his own expectations. He’s likeable because he’s fallible, a pious sinner who did right in the name of wrong and wrong in the name of right, but without any ill intent. A neurotic, rotten mess, he couldn’t control his libido and didn’t learn from his mistakes. But he could write like the wind, and we’re better off because he did. He knew all of us, strangely, without having known us. God help us, we’re all like him in some way.

Henry Hazlitt, Literary Critic

In American History, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Creativity, Economics, Essays, Ethics, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2012 at 9:05 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following appeared here at Prometheus Unbound and here at Mises.org.

Remembered mostly for his contributions to economics, including his pithy and still-timely classic Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt was a man who wore many hats. He was a public intellectual and the author or editor of some 28 books, one of which was a novel, The Great Idea (1961) — published in Britain and later republished in the United States as Time Will Run Back (1966) — and another of which, The Anatomy of Criticism (1933), was a trialogue on literary criticism. (Hazlitt’s book came out 24 years before Northrop Frye published a book of criticism under the same title.) Great-great-grandnephew to British essayist William Hazlitt, the boy Henry wanted to become like the eminent pragmatist and philosopher-psychologist William James, who was known for his charming turns of phrase and literary sparkle. Relative poverty would prevent Hazlitt’s becoming the next James. But the man Hazlitt forged his own path, one that established his reputation as an influential man of letters.

In part because of his longstanding support for free-market economics, scholars of literature have overlooked Hazlitt’s literary criticism; and Austrian economists — perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for other reasons — have done little to restore Hazlitt’s place among the pantheon of 20th century literary critics. Yet Hazlitt deserves that honor.

He may not have been a Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, or Kenneth Burke, but Hazlitt’s criticism is valuable in negative terms: he offers a corrective to much that is wrong with literary criticism, both then and now. His positive contributions to literary criticism seem slight when compared to those of the figures named in the previous sentence. But Hazlitt is striking in his ability to anticipate problems with contemporary criticism, especially the tendency to judge authors by their identity. Hazlitt’s contributions to literary criticism were not many, but they were entertaining and erudite, rivaling as they did the literary fashions of the day and packing as much material into a few works as other critics packed into their entire oeuvres. Read the rest of this entry »

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