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Feature 05.20.2022 7 minutes

Equality and Liberty

Gold apples

You don’t need an epidemiologist to know which way the wind blows.

Glenn Ellmers is on a roll. His important book, The Soul of Politics, his substantial responses to early reviews of his book, and other independent reviews and essays are developing an analysis of the conditions of freedom in America that is rigorous philosophically, deeply serious politically, and stylistically rousing—a combination hard to achieve or to resist. It is a combination brought near perfection in the best writings of his teacher, Harry Jaffa, whose thought is alive in Glenn’s writing and is the subject of his book.

Glenn is an old friend and Claremont colleague, and in this essay he very usefully updates the reasoning of another old friend and Claremont colleague, John Marini, about the origins and nature of the crisis of free government in America, the role of Donald Trump in responding to this crisis, and the possible road out. Ellmers reworking Marini is like Shakespeare reworking Plutarch (at least in this way!): re-reading them both and comparing is strong aid and inducement to thinking for yourself.

Such shocking changes have taken place in America and the world since John wrote his original TAM essay in 2018 that an update and fresh application of his analysis is very helpful. Especially shocking has been the tyrannical assertion of sovereign authority by the administrative state in the name of scientific expertise, in utter defiance of and overt contempt for the sovereignty of the people. This is the crisis Marini has been studying and thinking through for many years, and Glenn sharply adapts John’s analysis to our unprecedented experiences.

As one of the old-timers around the Claremont Institute, contemplating the astounding recent and ongoing transformations of America calls to mind how much America and the world have changed since the Claremont Institute was founded in 1979, heading into the last year of the Jimmy Carter administration. So bad did America’s moral, intellectual, cultural, economic, and political condition seem at the time, and so dreadful our situation in the world, that a few Claremont graduate students felt a political duty to found a “think-tank” with the mission: “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.”

Little could we imagine the condition of the country just over 40 years later. It makes Carter’s “malaise” look like a relatively healthy and strong America and makes the Claremont Institute’s mission seem not just urgent but desperate.

There were not many think-tanks back then, especially on the conservative side of the intellectual spectrum. In our innocence, we imagined a think-tank to be a place where we would be blessed to continue to do what we were already doing and loved to do as graduate students—study, think, and talk together about the questions that seemed to matter most in the world. If our thinking hit the mark and rose to the occasion, it might do some good.

We weren’t altogether wrong, though maybe we underestimated the administrative and development side of things! But the collaborative thinking done by John and Glenn is a reminder of what was intended to be the essential work of the institute from the beginning: friends thinking and talking together both about the most important permanent questions and about changing political circumstances that raise new questions for both statesmen and political philosophers.

We understood from our student days that friendly conversation is not only most pleasant but most productive: all interlocutors seeking the truth together and being grateful to be refuted when they go wrong. Such conversations transcend politics, in which victory or defeat is always at stake. They are expressions of what Aristotle meant when he wrote of friendship being even more important to statesmen than justice: friendship holds communities together, and among friends justice is not necessary.

These conversations also were animated and elevated by the mutual understanding that truth is even more dear than friends. Truth is a condition of friendship; friendship can’t be built on lies or delusions. And the best friendships, true friendships, can only obtain between good men. Bad men cannot be friends with anyone, even with themselves. So we thought searching out the truth about what is good and moving ahead according to what we found was a sensible way to go. Of course, though God is all knowing, we were not, so we thought the best we could do was to go forward in Lincolnian spirit, “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” In this spirit, I offer some reflections on the necessary conditions of fruitful conversation and on some recent developments in the Claremont conversations.

The Supreme Judge

To compare small things with great, it was in the natural course of events that such thinking and conversations would lead over time to what came to look like a school of thought—the “Claremont School”—just as Socrates’ thinking and conversations developed eventually into Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, and other schools of thought.

It seemed to us that what we were trying to do was in its humble way a perpetuation of what the American revolutionaries, with astonishing ambition, pledged themselves to do as a sovereign people (or die trying), when they wrote at the end of the American Declaration of Independence:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

In “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of [their] intentions,” the revolutionaries were declaring both that there would be no other power on earth with authority to judge the “rectitude of their intentions,” and also that they themselves were taking responsibility for making such a judgment. They could only take such responsibility because they agreed with Thomas Jefferson that “Almighty God hath created the mind free” and that by nature, “The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader.” Only minds free to grasp and be determined by the truth could take such responsibility. Only minds free in this way are capable of “sacred honor.”

But such human freedom, as I say, would be no guarantee that humanly fallible minds would succeed in their sincere determination to understand the truth and to be governed by it. This is why, as Abraham Lincoln later said of himself, the founders (and we) would “adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.” The founders constructed a country with this freedom and this fallibility in mind, and with prudent deference to necessities: with a written Constitution, separation of powers, federalism, a constitutional provision for amending the supreme law of the land, and ultimate reliance on the people. May the country created by their great wisdom, piety, and courage continue to find favor in the eyes of the Supreme Judge of the world.

No Mean Feat

Just after TAM published this piece by Ellmers-Marini, the Claremont Review of Books published an essay by another Claremont friend and colleague, Bill Voegeli, which also examines the origins and nature of America’s current situation, the role of Donald Trump in relation to it, and the possible road out. Voegeli’s topic is conservatism and the conservative disposition. He asks “What is it that conservatives conserve?” He answers that it is some “good thing” that is endangered but not yet destroyed. The conservative disposition is like that of Sisyphus, who never expects his cause to triumph, but keeps chugging.

Bill approvingly cites George Will to the effect that in America the “good thing” conservatives seek to conserve is “the American Founding,” which means most essentially “the Founding principles.” So far, Will and Voegeli seem to be in agreement with Ellmers, Ellmers-Marini, and the “Claremont School” generally. All also agree, these founding principles are in jeopardy, and Bill again appeals to George Will, who relies on Claremont Institute fellow (and Hillsdale College professor) R.J. Pestritto’s scholarship to conclude that what jeopardizes America’s founding principles is Progressivism, a movement arising in the late 19th century explicitly rejecting America’s founding principles, especially the founders’ claim to be founding a country on, in Lincoln’s words, an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” Again, Will-Voegeli are following a familiar “Claremont School” line of analysis, philosophically and politically, a line fully developed in Ellmers’s book and nicely applied by Ellmers-Marini in their essay.

At this juncture of his argument, Bill adds a dimension: even if Progressivism had never emerged in America, he writes, “sustaining a republic based on America’s founding principles would have been difficult, and always will be.” This is an observation familiar to the founders and their heirs and a long-standing ingredient of the thinking of the “Claremont school.” Ellmers-Marini would be in full agreement. As the famous story goes, when asked upon leaving the Constitutional Convention what kind of government had been created there, Ben Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Other founders frequently remarked that free government is possible only where the virtues needed to preserve it are present.

As I wrote in years before writings were universally digitized:

Democracy (as the founders well understood) requires more of its citizens than any other form of government. It depends on the capacity of the citizens to govern themselves. But the habits and dispositions of self-government are difficult to acquire and to sustain. They are rooted in moral and political principles in which each new generation must be educated. It is no accident that history provides so few examples of successful and enduring democracies.

Philosophic rigor, high moral discipline, rare political sagacity, and—one must add—great good fortune are required for reflection and free choice to prevail over ignorance, prejudice, accident, and force.

Proclaiming that all men everywhere and at all times possess by nature equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the American Founders undertook the historic effort to secure these rights, so far as they thought they could then be secured, to a small people at a particular place and time. They were acutely conscious of the limits of their ability to secure these rights. When they were able to establish a “more perfect union” they understood full well how far from perfection they remained. It was all the new republic could do in the first century of its existence to keep the experiment in freedom from failing miserably at home as the principles espoused in the American revolution slowly and uncertainly began to take hold on the minds if not yet in the politics of other peoples in the world.

In the course of its history, the American people have many times fallen beneath the high standards they set for themselves at the beginning. They have strayed from those principles, and they have forgotten them, and become confused about them, and allowed misunderstood self-interest to obscure them. The reason Abraham Lincoln is rightly regarded as the greatest democratic statesman is that he kept America from abandoning those principles as the foundation of American democracy. His statesmanship preserved for future generations of Americans the moral truth of human equality as the pole star of their political life.

The founders understood that it would be up to every generation that succeeded them, to demonstrate their capacity for self-government. If this weren’t true, free government would not be free.

What is Conserved?

So, yes, the founders were well aware that “sustaining a republic based on America’s founding principles” would always be difficult. So difficult, in fact, that the achievement does the greatest honor to human nature. But here Voegeli’s argument takes another familiar turn, in this case a turn more familiar as being rejected by “Claremont School” scholarship than being affirmed.

If I understand him, Bill regards the regime created in the American Founding as an example of “modern liberal democracy,” and he follows the great French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville in asserting that there is a “problem” inherent in such liberal democracy. The problem is that “its animating commitment to equality recognizes no limiting principle.” In this understanding, the American Founders’ commitment to the principle of equality is the source (even more fundamental than progressivism) of the destruction of the conditions of liberal democracy, a destruction Voegeli describes and imagines in his essay.

In Voegeli’s argument, the American Founders’ commitment to the principle of equality is a cancer, whose “metastasizing” destroys virtually all the conditions for self-government in America. Some of the greatest lunacies of the Left are caused by this metastasizing cancer. In Bill’s view, if we can’t stop the metastasizing of America’s central principle, we are left with a country that is not worth conserving and not likely to be conserved.

In Voegeli’s argument, because America’s founding commitment to the principle of equality has metastasized as it has, “the modern conservative mission has become a dilemma: how do those who cherish liberal democracy—who see no decent, feasible alternative to it—conserve that sociopolitical order from its own self-destructive tendencies? What is to be done when the unfolding of liberal democracy’s logic [that is to say, the American Founding’s logic] undermines institutions, practices, and dispositions necessary to liberal democracy’s survival?”

Bill seems to argue that responsible conservatives will respond to this dilemma by “fighting to reestablish America’s founding principles.” But it is a mystery why a conservative devoted to American liberal democracy would fight to reestablish the very principles whose logic, according to Voegeli, leads to the destruction of the conditions of liberal democracy. Bill likens conservatives to Sisyphus, forever pushing the boulder up the hill knowing it will just roll down again. But in his version, Sisyphus seems very like Albert Camus’s Sisyphus, facing and accepting a world that is absurd. Possibly Bill had this in mind, since he ends his essay contemplating (but happily rejecting!) suicide, which, in an absurd world, Camus concluded was the only serious philosophical question.

Bill’s understanding of the founders’ “animating commitment to equality” is a departure from Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s understanding, which is the understanding Jaffa and the “Claremont school” have sought to sustain and advance. Lincoln understood the American Founders’ commitment to the principle of equality to be worthy of “all honor.” The principle of equality was the “father of all moral principle in us” as Americans; it was America’s “apple of gold.” So long as the country remained true to this principle of justice, Lincoln believed it would be worthy of the last full measure of devotion. Voegeli considers it a cancer, whose metastasizing is destroying the conditions for self-government in America.

In his essay, Voegeli explicitly criticizes Ellmers’s understanding, with reference to an earlier Ellmers writing. I told Bill before he published his essay that I thought his criticism didn’t do justice to Glenn’s position and was hostile in an unproductive way. He disagreed, and it turns out he was right, at least in part: his essay produced a substantial response from Glenn. Glenn’s rejoinder makes yet another robust contribution to the Claremont conversation and the Claremont mission.

The American Founding is, indeed, a “good thing,” which American conservatives should conserve. But it is worthy of conserving because its central principle—its “apple of gold”—is not a historical force containing within itself the source of American democracy’s destruction. It is, as Lincoln called it, an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” which prudence should consult in attempting to restore self-government in our own unprecedented circumstances.

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