Robert Reilly of the Westminster Institute discussed his new book concerning the founding of the American republic, America on Trial: a Defense of the Founding, at the Catholic Information Center on February 24. While once there was a consensus view, at least with the American public, of the virtue of the founding, this is no longer the case.
“It’s pretty clear to everyone that America is on trial. It’s assailed from all sides,” Reilly said. Clear evidence of this is last summer’s “riots, the tearing down of the statues of some of the founders of the United States, and the general denigration of America.” The leftist accusations directed at America during 2020 “are not really new.” But attacks on the American ideal of freedom are also coming from the Right. Those Christian rightists who attack American society hold that the revolutionary founding was corrupt. America was given “a timed-release poison pill.” This was “the radical individualism of man.” As long as traditional Christian faith remained strong, the conflict between freedom and virtue was not evident. But as secularization set in during the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, the conflict came to the fore, made inescapable for the nation in controversial Supreme Court decisions, especially the decisions pertaining to sex and abortion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
These decisions say (as the Casey vs. Planned Parenthood decision explicitly said, defending the right to abortion) that individuals are entitled to define reality. There is thus “no natural end … to what one can assume it is one’s right to do.” He commended such critics as Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby for “giving a very acute and accurate diagnosis of this disorder under which we’re living.” Reilly denies, however, that the reigning moral autonomy has its origin in the American founding. He asked where the notion that the founding advanced an incipient moral relativism came from. He believes that the religious critics of the founding falsely assume that its principle moving force was the individualistically anchored philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Instead, he maintains that the principal motives of the founding are Biblical and classical (Greco-Roman).
He said that before the philosophic era of the Greeks, people “had a tribal outlook on existence.” The head of a tribe was believed to have “some divine or semi-divine connection” that gave him authority. An individual’s access to sacred reality was through the divinely established ruler. People had no conception of life outside their own tribes, nor did they regard outsiders as fellow human beings. He noted that ancient words meaning “foreigner” also carried the meaning of “enemy.” The hostility of tribes to one another made war common, with defeated people killed, raped or enslaved. This was not considered immoral; defeated peoples would have done the same thing if they had prevailed.
Reilly said that it was the Greeks who developed the idea of natural law and morality. People “apprehend” the natural order through the use of reason. The Greeks called the order behind the universe “logos” or reason. People should, the Greeks thought, “live according to logos.” Aristotle then advanced the doctrine that “all things have a nature, a given nature. Man does not make himself ‘the man.’” This means man “cannot be a giraffe or a geranium.” Seeds have the nature of the plant they will become, and “reach their perfection” in their adult, fully developed forms. Good and bad, for nonhuman life, is defined by what is good and bad for the organism to develop and thrive in its fully perfected form. With human beings however, there is the added consideration that “only man can choose or frustrate the fulfillment of his nature as a man.” Aristotle believed that “the end of man is happiness,” which is achieved “through a life of virtue.” To attain perfection, man should use reason, “the highest faculty in man.” And the highest purpose of reason “is the contemplation of the divine.” Anything that “inhibits” this development is bad, and things that aid it are good.
The recognition of reason as the highest faculty of man meant that people could recognize people of other tribes as fully human beings, having the same worth as themselves. He referred to Cicero, a Roman exponent of natural law, who had a great influence on the American founding, as saying that natural law obtains in all societies. Further, natural law is “immutable.” Another development of the idea of the logos was advanced by Plato, who held that the world “is the product of thought.” Naturally, therefore, the world is rationally penetrable, and the logos at the heart of reality is rational and spiritual.
Another contribution to the American founding was the monotheistic religion of ancient Israel, which lived “in a sea of polytheism.” A key point about the God of Israel was not only his uniqueness, but also his transcendence. This was in contradistinction to the pagan gods, who were held to be part of an eternal universe. But related to the transcendence of God is the doctrine of “the creation of the world ex nihilo” (from nothing). Reilly said that the creation of the world by the word of God was an act of love. By contrast, the pagan creation accounts related acts of violence to develop the universe into its present form, by conflicts of gods or giants. The rejection of the world as eternal also makes possible a doctrine of history, while the creation of man in the image of God gave all men, of whatever tribe, an “inviobility” established by his reason, which reflects the nature of God, and by personal immortality. Failure to treat one another rationally is understood as sin.
The Christian revelation then adds that all people are the objects of God’s love. God is held to be love, as well as reason. Reflected in human relations, this then means people ought to treat one another lovingly as well as rationally. It is through the Biblical revelation that the doctrines of human rights arose. Those outside of Biblical faith who claim human rights are nevertheless beneficiaries of Biblical faith.
Reilly said that in the Middle Ages Biblical religion and Greek philosophy “were reflected or instantiated in a political order.” This, he said, “received its first articulation in the church’s canon law.” He said that canon law first articulated what we now understand as “constitutional principles.” Canon law was affected by the Justinian Code. One of the important concepts was “what affects all must be approved by all.” This concerned private law (such as private organizations) not public politics. It affected bodies within the church (church councils, religious orders, etc.). He said that this often involved “financial matters.” There was then a “leeching” of this idea of popular consent from church bodies to the “secular order.” Involved were the ideas of elected representatives to a deliberative body, perhaps a parliament, which would act by majority vote.
A constitutional principle developed in the Middle Ages was “popular sovereignty, based on the equality of all people.” Ultimate sovereignty comes from God, but he invests it not in a ruler, but in the people. If a parliament or monarch violated the constitution under which it functioned, the “people have a right to revolution.”
Another medieval principle was “the two swords teaching.” Articulated by Pope Gelasius near the close of the fifth century A.D., it maintained that the church held one sword, and the secular authorities another. Because people were supposed to live under this “dual sovereignty,” no human authority could claim absolute power. The divine right of kings was not a medieval idea, Reilly said. Rather, all power was limited.
As western civilization moved into the modern era, “everything turns” on a conflict between a doctrine of the primacy of reason or a doctrine of the primacy of will. Thomas Aquinas argued for the primacy of intellect. Intellect informs the will, which then “acts in accord with reason.” Later in the Middle Ages, William of Ockham held that God’s will was primary, and reason was its instrument. The result of this, Reilly said, is that one cannot distinguish between acts of the will, because there is nothing outside it with which to distinguish. This, he maintained, robs “the universe of its intelligibility.”
The reversal of the roles of reason and the will overthrew the medieval consensus, and “had consequences for everything.” Occam denied that things have essences, or natures. Every individual thing is an act of God, and so there are “no laws of nature,” indeed there is no nature. One can only distinguish between right and wrong by divine revelation. He observed that Martin Luther adopted Occam’s nominalism (with respect to the arbitrary meaning of words) and voluntarism (with respect to ethics grounded in pure will). “This breaks the connection between man’s mind and the divine intellect,” and between man’s mind and the universe.
Luther’s nominalism, Reilly maintained, led to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, in which absolute monarchs were held to have complete and unaccountable (to their subjects) authority from God. The ruler “becomes a reflection of the primacy of will in God.” As part of this “the ruler is not subject to the laws he wills.” Although Luther is well known for a “two kingdoms” doctrine, Reilly said that in fact Luther did away with the doctrine of the “two swords,” making monarchs head of the church (each in the land he ruled). This amounted to “the destruction of Christendom” and resulted in the absolute secular state.
Reilly maintained that the strongest opponents of the divine right of kings were Catholic clerics. He singled out Cardinal Robert Bellarmine in France and Francisco Suarez in Spain. He also noted the Anglican Richard Hooker, a proponent of natural law, contested the divine right of kings in his writings. These thinkers had a great impact on John Locke. Reilly noted as well that Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity were common in the American colonies, where there were many Anglicans. Another Anglican, Algernon Sydney (for whom Hampton Sydney College is named) was influential with his Discourses Concerning Government.
These thinkers informed the American colonists, who denied the right of the British Parliament to rule them without their consent. Reilly believes that “the American Revolution was a restoration of the primacy of reason against the primacy of will.” The importance of natural law and the two swords of church and state is why the American Revolution led to a limited government confined to the secular sphere. The government could neither claim absolute power, nor claim to be the source of salvation. The founders did understand, however, that the new republic required a virtuous citizenry, and that the republic would not survive without virtue. He noted George Washington’s declaration of an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness. “The primary source” for virtue was understood to be the church. Thus the church, though separate from the state, was understood to be essential to it. And this involves a recognition of a universal law, “true everywhere, at all times, for everyone.” This, Reilly said, is “the origin of the American republic.”
Reilly was asked by Rosemary Eldridge, who hosted the presentation, what people can do to “combat” assumptions that the founding leads naturally to secularism. Reilly said that after reading his book, people should acquaint themselves with the 1776 Commission, established under the Trump Administration and disbanded by Biden. Its purpose, Reilly said, was “to understand the American founding better, and its principles.” Its work can still be found online. He also suggested people read the original writings of the founders. He mentioned particularly George Washington, John Adams, and James Wilson. The real conflict being experienced today regarding the American founding and the American history flowing from it is the conflict between the primacy of reason and the primacy of will. “The American founding was based on the primacy of reason … The disorder from which we’re suffering today is based on the primacy of will. The whole self-identity nonsense that is taking place today is based on the primacy of will.” It holds that reality is constituted by will, so that we can construct ourselves and our world as we wish. This leads naturally to personal destruction. In the area of sex, which has been the focal point of the struggle today, people undergo surgical mutilation to achieve a reality that cannot be.
Reilly said that “unless we recover ourselves” from belief in the primacy of will, it will lead to the destruction of the republic. He recalled the words of Ronald Reagan, in whose administration he served, that “there can be no recovery without a spiritual recovery.” Reilly said that “the first thing we need is faith. And we have to understand our faith is a gift, not only to ourselves, but to others.” This faith involves belief in natural law, the integrity of reason, the essential nature of things, and the final good to which things are directed. This faith has been lost in the wider society, but “is preserved in the Catholic Church.” People can be re-acquainted with the truths of the Christian faith, and philosophical truths that agree with it, “that can be given to anyone.” People can use their reason to grasp truth, because it is itself a reflection of the divine intellect.
Reilly said that people are “hungry for the truth.” They know “in their hearts” that the current moral revolution “is profoundly wrong, profoundly immoral.” But people don’t know what to say, and “don’t want to be cancelled.” But the truth can “be told in a way that still has appeal.”
It would seem to this writer, although certainly a layman where high philosophy is concerned, that real commitment to the primacy of will leaves one in an impregnable, but futile, position. No amount of argument or evidence can show that an individual is wrong on his or her own terms, yet everything we say is finally an appeal to truth. My truth or your truth won’t work, it must be a commonly shared truth. Christians indeed believe our that our faith is a gift in advance of argument, but we do appeal to argument in trying to convince others of both our faith and reason. Justification by appeal to external reality, which is there whether we like it or not, is necessary to simply to simply live at the level of individual biological reality, and certainly for any kind of shared reality. The primacy of will that threatens our civilization may be a potent social and political force, but it is fatally inadequate in dealing with reality.