Listening to Scalia

by Yuval Levin

Scalia Speaks, an extraordinary collection of speeches by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, is being published today, and is well worth your while. 

The collection was edited by the justice’s son Christopher Scalia and my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague (and former Scalia clerk) Ed Whelan. Almost all of the speeches it contains are published in this collection for the first time. And together they offer a powerful portrait of a great public figure and thinker. 

The book is an intellectual feast and at the same time great fun to read. It displays an exceptionally coherent worldview articulated with great force and wit. It’s enormously enlightening. 

But to me, some of the most interesting speeches gathered here were those in which we find Scalia decisively taking a side in what we might call an intra-Madisonian controversy. In a particularly Machiavellian passage of Federalist 51, James Madison famously describes the constitutional system as characterized by a “policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives,” and so as a way of taking for granted and dealing with the shortage of virtue in human affairs. But in Federalist 55, Madison says something rather different on this question:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another. 

So does the American system substitute for virtue, or require it in unusual measure? Not only in the speeches collected under the heading “virtue and the public good” but throughout the talks collected in the book, Scalia is unequivocally of the view that republicanism demands virtuous citizens and leaders, and that building and sustaining the necessary virtues has to be a constant preoccupation of a society like ours. It is one of the themes that runs through nearly all of these speeches and links them together, and the way it is worked out is an education in itself. “Freedom is a luxury that can be afforded only by the good society,” Scalia says in one speech to high-school students. “When civic virtue diminishes, freedom will inevitably diminish as well.”

On this front, and many others, Scalia Speaks will really reward the time you give it. 

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