Magazine June 1, 2020, Issue

In Defense of a Liberty Worthy of Man

From the cover of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press)
America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert R. Reilly (Ignatius Press, 384 pp., $27.95)

In America on Trial, Robert Reilly excavates the deep foundations of the American Founding. He finds in them the unwritten constitution of Western political philosophy and theology that stretches back to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Reilly focuses on the tradition of “right reason,” that is, the metaphysical, epistemological, anthropological, and theological roots of constitutional government. Those roots are thick but forgotten, if not denied, by most of the West’s academic and intellectual class. In his study, Reilly reintroduces contemporary readers to ideas about the primacy of reason over will, universal truth, natural law, and monotheism. From these touchstones, he shows how other truths were discovered: man created in the imago Dei, equality of persons, and the moral grounding of freedom — which empty the state of the divine power it held in the classical world — along with the intrinsic good of happiness and its inseparable relationship with virtue. These are the pillars of constitutional thought and practice that must be understood before we can think about law and politics.

This is a book, therefore, “not so much about the Founding itself as about the provenance of its ideas. Its purpose is to demonstrate that the ideas of democratic constitutional government have only one set of roots in human history.” An underlying concern is the role that our understanding of reason and will plays in establishing constitutional government: “The drama hinges on two opposing conceptions of reality: Is it constituted by reason or by will?” The answer to this question, Reilly repeatedly argues, shapes what we think about the substance of law. This is because the “primacy of reason means that what is right flows from objective sources in nature and the transcendent, from what is, as Plato proposed. Primacy of will, on the other hand, means that what is right flows from power, that will is a law unto itself.”

Reilly describes the ideas of an array of thinkers linked across centuries who contributed to the bedrock of American constitutionalism: Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suárez, Richard Hooker, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke are some of the highlights. He also surveys a competing set of thinkers whose ideas he says created the conditions for political absolutism: William of Ockham, Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Martin Luther, and Sir Robert Filmer are some of the dim lights. Reilly argues that our country encapsulates in an exemplary manner Western civilization’s always difficult attempt to forge a liberty worthy of man, a being between God and the beasts. His challenging claim is that the preconditions for becoming a constitutional people are rooted in our philosophical ideas about essence, reality, human nature, and God. Such ideas inevitably shape whether we think we are capable of the morally demanding requirements of freedom. They ground and inform the responsibility needed to govern ourselves according to reason and to flourish.

The thinkers discussed by Reilly who justified unbound political power undercut this ennobling attempt or denied that it was possible because they misunderstood the nature of man and insisted above all that the human person is incapable of knowing the truth about himself. Reilly argues that the fundamental intellectual precondition of political authoritarianism is to think that man is not a reasonable creature situated in an ordered and understandable world, but a being driven by will, governed, perhaps, by a god of will, and that his basic impulse is an egoistic need for control and power over things. This notion’s recurrence in history is unmistakable. The American Founding set itself against that idea.

The fundamental dispute about reason and will inevitably shapes thinking about law and constitutionalism. One concrete expression was Abraham Lincoln’s challenge to Stephen Douglas over the moral and political meaning of slavery. Lincoln argued that the establishment of slavery could not be the subject of a majority vote in the states. Slavery, Lincoln maintained, is a comprehensive evil that denies the very prerequisites of freedom and equality upon which republican government stands. Its origins are in the passions unrestrained by reason, the desire to wrest your bread from the sweat of another man’s brow. Democracy without moral limits isn’t reasonable; it’s merely majoritarian domination.