Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Jim Ceaser’s Neo-Neo-Neoconservatism

The Georgetown Tocqueville Forum conference (hosted by the dyanmic Pat Deneen) was very classy in every way. A sell-out crowd of about 1000 heard Scalia. Here was asked plenty of moderately hostile (bu always polite) questions, and Scalia handled them all with killer expertise, wit, and spirit. It’s hard to figure out why people that good at explaining what our Constitution means in a partisan setting aren’t recruited to run for high office.

A good reporter would go over some of the other many conference highlights, but I’m going to limit myself to one. Jim Ceaser seems to have at least tweaked his view of the basic American political division today. It’s still the foundationalists vs. the non-foundationalists. Both factions are all for civic education, but of different kinds.

The non-foundationalists claim they want to purge our political life of foundational concerns (everything from the Bible to Marxism to natural right) in the name of peace and freedom. But their true goal is utterly secularize or trivialize all of American life.

The truth is, Jim explained, that liberal democracy is the incomplete regime. Our written Constitution that protects our natural rights points beyond itself to an "unwritten constitution" that is essentially religious in some sense or another. And the nonfoundationalists’ main concern is to transform our unwritten constitution to conform with their view that human life would be better off if deep thoughts about common responsibilities were replaced by Rortian private fantasies.


Reflections on the incompleteness of liberal democracy and the unwritten constitution are characteristic of a neoconservatism that eludes the criticism I gave below. They may reflect Jim’s study of either Pierre Manent or Orestes Brownson or both, although I’m not sure.

Discussions - 41 Comments

Since Peter is being naturally modest, let me say for the record that Peter’s conference paper was terrific, and I hope he will post a version of it here on NLT.

Dittos for his other impressions of the conference.

I’m always glad to have the record corrected. And it was great to see Steve in DC.

I don’t know Mr. Caeser’s work, but it sounds like a caricature of the Left. Essentially, the Left takes the Rousseauean (sp?) position that "traditional" institutions hold back "progress"...people need to be liberated from them. Why would they seek only to trivialize?

It seems to me, Dain, that Peter’s post is exactly as you describe, and no caricature. The non-foundationalists are taking a Progressive view of history, the Constitution, and American life consistent with the Rousseauean and Enlightenment view of progress and history. Sadly, the non-foundationalists have no basis for a conception of freedom because it is a relativist, individual nightmare where ultimately power predominates. The true freedom of the individual is consumed by a massive state and Orwellian nightmare. As for peace, I thought the twentieth century would have shed their foolish conceptions about progress and the inherent goodness of man.

No, Tony, what the posts says is: "But their true goal is utterly secularize or trivialize all of American life. " I don’t think this ulterior motive exists; Leftists really think that "tradition" is just petrified prejudice, and most of them truly believe that chiseling/sweeping it away will liberate people. The first step in defeating your enemy is to truly understand your enemy.

It’s clear or pretty clear what left liberation is from, but not what it is for. Read Marx’s description of life under communism; it’s utterly secular--religion having withered away etc.--and trivial. But Tony is right that liberation FROM produces something like the lonely, anxious state-of-nature individualism. And the resulting security obsession might well produce a ndew kind of big government, although I think not the Orwellian kind.

Oh, no doubt that the Rousseauean (sp?) project is crazy, and creates bloody-minded social forms (ala Burke). I never said they were right, only that I think most of them are sincere. That’s the scary part. You can’t beat fanatics by accusing them of cynicism.

Really, what the Right desperately needs is a secular eschatology. Democracy & capitalism are OK, but they don’t provide the kind of existential context and comfort that can be found on the Left. This is why we lose so many young people to Lefty sirens.

And yea, I know, some of you will say that formal religion plays that role on the Right, and you are partially correct. But there are many skeptical conservatives (thank you, Heather MacDonald) who need a secular vision of the future. Something to believe in and work for...until we can meet the Left passion for passion, we will be playing defense.

These secular eschatologies depend on the idea that the tragic realities of human nature and the human situation can somehow be overcome - that man can be redeemed. It was that Enlightenment-engendered dream that led to the nightmares of the 20th century. It was thought that if tradition and custom, and the institutions (which had indeed become corrupt) were swept away, reason could supply all the moral guidance we need. Institutions were seen as responsible for the evils of the world, not as civilizing devices that served to mediate the harsh realities of the human predicament. Bringing "passion" to "visions of the future" is what has plagued us. Admittedly, it is politically effective to raise false dreams of utopian conditions, but once one follows that road, then all one sees is relentless tearing down of what needs to be preserved - utopianism is another name for nihilism.

We need to get Jim Ceaser to post his remarks. To tie Jim’s concept of the incomplete Constitution or the liberal democratic regime with Peter Lawler’s paper on civil religion: Joseph Cropsey a long time ago said that the American regime, a liberal democratic regime, isn’t a regime in the classical notion of a "regime," because it didn’t mandate a total way of life, it didn’t consider that it was the embodiment of a/the Divine Law. Of course, Cropsey pretty much has a Walter Berns view of the American Founding (i.e., it’s more or less Hobbesian), so closer readers of the Declaration of Independence and its theology can’t completely agree with his version of the American regime. Nor did he say, as George Weigel did at the conference, that lurking behind this American liberal-democratic self-restraint was the Christian notion(s) of the human person having a transpolitical destiny or vocation and the Gelasian two swords doctrine (of spiritual and temporal authorities). Peter Lawler, though, has done good work in this regard on Madison’s view of religious liberty. As it happens, Pope Benedict XVI regularly refers to the (orginal version of the) American church-state separation (that Manentian word!) as a legitimate modern-day application of that Christian principle. However, I suspect that Jim Ceaser has other thoughts than Cropsey’s and Benedict’s in mind. Love to hear more about them.

My dear Greek, what you say is true...eschatology is inherently dangerous. One reason that the Enlightenment made such inroads into Christendom is that Christianity provides a poor foundation for political eschatology (e.g., give unto Caesar and all that). Indeed, perhaps Christianity has been our innoculation against evil secular eschatologies, but that preventative is wearing pretty thin at this point (i.e., Communism, Nazism, secular humanism). The West is having a major identity crisis...we are producing millions of Fungs, and they are a self-defeating burden we can ill-afford.

I, too, share the tragic view of humanity, but Burke understood this and is our guide. We can craft a secular eschatology rooted in a proper (evolutionary) understanding of our essential natures and the (concomitant) need for Burkean institutional constraints on the individual. I may be possible to create a vision of the future that is not predicated on action, but on restraint and the management of natural order.

Regardless, we can never win against competing eschatologies without our own secular narrative.

Paul raises all the good questions, ones that weren’t answered in Jim’s 20 min presentation. They’re worth discussing!

Dain, your last post is not applicable to America and the principles upon which America was founded. There was no evolutionary development of secular principles ala Burke or the "rights of Englishmen" that the colonists claimed early on. But, the Declaration of Independence embodied an ideal that all men are CREATED equal and endowed by their CREATOR with certain inalienable (natural) rights. Burke, as I understand, was skeptical of such philosophical claims as natural rights. But, for Americans, this is our creed. It is not secular, though it is not necessarily or exclusively a fundamentalist Christian notion either. Both parties would be wise to keep these principles in mind while ruling, though particularly the Democrats who seem at time the much more non-foundational party. A secular narrative for conservatives would be betraying the American founding and making them non-foundational as well.

Well, Tony, I seriously doubt many of the things you say here. Some of the Founders were devote Christians, others not so much. And the language they were using often came straight from people like Locke...a philosophical rather than religious approach. Regardless, something predicated on metaphysics will not resonate among very secular people...as millions now are. We need a new formula to combat "scientism," as Peter puts it. Science grounded in evolutionary theory, along with the many lessons we have learned about liberty and social order, can be successfully combined to create a new relative safe ideology that is capable of competing with pernicious worldviews (e.g., Marxism).

Dain, read my post again, I did not say that the Founders were devout Christians - in fact, I went out of my way to say that generally they probably weren’t. But, I did quote from the Declaration, which is our creed of rights and liberty. That, much more than "evolutionary science" or "all we have learned about liberty" is what unites us as Americans and is what is foundational. Again, I say, that your vision is just as non-foundational as the ideas you are trying to attack. Indeed, it seems rather Progressive.

Other than the "dyanmic" part (exhausted is more accurate), Peter’s description of last week’s Georgetown conference about civic education that is altogether accurate. For those hoping to see the proceedings posted at some point, I ask for a bit of patience - we have asked all the participants to present remarks from prepared papers that we hope to collect and publish as an edited volume. Listening to the presentations, I was struck that they fit very well together, and I’m confident that together they will make a very valuable contribution. I think this is especially so, since so many of the papers returned again and again to the central place of religion in their conception of "civic education," and as such, strikes me as a real departure from the way that much of the contemporary literature on the subject - on the Left and the Right - typically speaks about the education of the citizen. This theme was struck on Thursday night by Justice Scalia in his keynote lecture, and continued throughout the day in presentations by Peter Lawler, Jean Elshtain, Jim Ceaser, Dan Mahoney, and George Weigel, among others. Stay tuned....

--Patrick Deneen
(for more information, see our website: http://government.georgetown.edu/tocquevilleforum )

Tony, I’m sorry if you interpret what I’m saying as "progressive." I didn’t know having doubts about the "Old Man in the Sky" made one a socialist! I might also point out that the Declaration is not a governing document...our government is not based on it. Our governing document starts with "We, the people"

I fear that being a "conservative" and being religious are conflated in many minds on this website (and elsewhere). Yet, there are religious liberals and atheist conservatives (that’s right)...being conservative and being religious are correlated, but variance exists. What unites conservatives and Christians is very simple: Both have a similar view of human nature and (roughly) corresponding prescriptions for "the good society."

Ultimately, these disagreements between religious people and skeptics concern the source of social authority. Folks like you say it comes from God. Folks like me are more skeptical...we note that PEOPLE create history, tending to do what they think God (or "the cause") requires of them. I simply think it is possible, via slow education, reason, and the support of our tried-and-true institutions, to create a sense of the common good, a common morality, and a common set of hopes for the future (eschatology). If that makes me some kind of communist, well...I’d say that’s the future, whatever you call it. I’d bet good money that God will descend from on High to set us straight. We’ll have to do it ourselves (or it won’t get done).

Of course, I meant "God will NOT descend" ...perhaps a pregnant slip on my part. I am not hostile to religion, after all. It is not me who wishes to push religious people out of public life (far from it).

Patrick,

I look forward to the collection, as I think you’re right about how most contemporary advocates of civic education proceed. They regard religion as divisive and retrograde, and look for something, anything, to fill the vacuum they have to create.

I can’t afford not to read this blog... But I would have to be a proffesor to follow it all. What if I have a life?

1) The american founding is non-foundational, Cropsey is more or less right.

The enlightment was right...Hume, Locke, and Mill are all pertinent. Some Progressive thinking that smells Millean...is in this vein...it is a continuation of the Utilitarian narrative. Progressive thiking is also more or less American thinking. In any case optimism about the things the enlightment was optimistic about is not misplaced...Optimism in general is not misplaced... I can find the strength to tie my shoelaces and go to PT at 4:00 in the morning for 19k a year even if the thought of Keynes and Dewey predominates. Sometimes things are good for the same reason that they are bad. The American economy is currently strong for Keynesian reasons that may be bad...and american school children may be worse off because Dewey was right. But what if american school children are not that bad off...or what if they are bad off because they are good off...that is... what if we are all bad off because we all have it good? Once we answer all the questions won’t we just turn around and ask some more? And is it worse to have questions than to have no questions? I think America in a nut shell turns out to be a giant question mark. The question and the answers are yours to give. The only thing I know is that things are so bad because things are so good. If things were not so good we would spend more time working(to survive) and less time(leisure) reflecting on why things are bad. If things are good then are the ideas responsible for the good things...good ideas?

That is supposing that we could all agree that America is good...by what right do we seperate from the whole a portion to affix blame? What is the guiding mechanism for prunning away that which is divisive or retrograde in the body politic be it religion/Keynes/Dewey/Plato/Marx or idea x,y,z...My nickel answer is that in america no idea is ever really rejected...and dammit if that isn’t what is wrong with america...but also what is right. Because America is the market-place of ideas...and because Darwin is right...it all comes down to survival of the fittest...and so America is nothing more than Jeffersonian faith that truth will prevail if it is left unencumbered. Of course this seems to favor Dewey’s definition of truth as the useful tool. So America seems to prejudice towards pragmatism... But if it wasn’t prejudicial towards pragmatism it would have to have an answer to the question of a guiding mechanism...and if it had such an answer then it would be foundational or a regime in the more classical sense...which it isn’t. So America today and yesterday and even at the founding is non-foundational...but it is in danger of becomming foundational...because it is in danger of institutionalizing various ideas. To be perfectly honest it has probably institutionalized too many ideas...but is in some sense saved because these ideas are so specialized that no one can integrate the principle across fields...which is both a blessing and a curse...So america is saved from becomming foundational by what Ortega called "the curse of specialization".

Concerning Paul’s comment, Jim definitely did use in his own name the phrase "unwritten constitution," which is, in fact, not used by the Straussian authors he cites. THIS is a breakthrough of some kind.

Patrick, good to hear that the conference will have a posthumous existence. Be sure to include something by Carey McWilliams in the collection. I’d be shocked if he didn’t have something that’s perfect for the topic. (In my impish mood I’d say he could replace Ben Barber, but I want to be taken seriously so I’ll forgo the temptation. You get the joke.)

Apropos to John Lewis’s comment (#19): read Alexander Hamilton’s letter on Samuel Seabury’s Tory position: Hamilton expressly rejects Hobbes’s immoral view of the human condition and of natural law.

To the dying embers of this chain I’ll add the observation: Ceaser for some time now has been an explorer and proponent of what he (and others) call "public philosophy." It centrally includes the "fundamental ideas" (of Nature or History or the Divine) that (have been, and can be used to) justify the regime. He’s been a proponent of natural rights (understood a particular way) as the original and still available fundamental idea of the American regime. With this new turn (reported by Peter), he seems to be indicating that that - or perhaps any - fundamental idea isn’t adequate to understand and/or to justify our liberal democratic/Constitutional order. Put a bit directly: the view of man as natural rights-bearer, and the view of society as composed of free and equal individuals (and families and businesses and ... ) apparently aren’t adequate to "found" America and its official constitutional order. Which leads me to a thought (if not a proposal): As Manent and Benedict (and yes, John Courtney Murray) have pointed out (not merely argued): the West/Europe - and America in this regard is quite Western/European - is deeply constituted by the presence and influence of Christianity (intrinsic transcendent dignity of the human person; limits on political authority; work’s a curse and is sanctified; etc). In this regard it is distinct from the civilizations of the Arab Muslim Middle East, the Confucian quarters of the world, and so forth. Is Jim pointing to something as deep and general and "cultural" as that? Or something more specifically American? (Which probably is also British, too.)

PS: None of the foregoing is Hegelian.

Once again, please...with clarity. I think you are saying something important, Paul, but it’s too choppy for me to be certain.

Thanks paul...if I read half of what I should...I would still be reading. My Hobbes is rusty...but that doesn’t mean I am not deeply constituted by his thought...and therein lies the question... What thought currently "constitutes" America? Is there an american "ontological" structure? I would argue that america is shallowly constituted by many strains of thought...Christianity being quite prominent...but in macro- economics Keynes is prominent...and in ethics Mill, Kant and the the pragmatists reign. I wouldn’t say that I am in agreement with Dewey...but for a descriptive account of the disimination of ideas in the american body politic...it would seem that philosophic systems are interchanged to such a degree that ideas and thought itself turns into a tool. Truth is a tool...therefore America is more or less Pragmatic...even when the thought itself doesn’t originate with Dewey or have anything to do with him. If America has to be chained to either the cross of thought or action...then it is a nation chained to action. If one doesn’t like to give credit to Dewey then one could extend it to Machiavelli(and I guess you would say Hobbes). America is constitutionally unconstitued. Pragmatically christian/libertarian...but even this is too narrow...america is a melting pot...where pure versions of ideas go to die, and strange new synthesis is born...But if the horse is drinking, then do you have to worry about leading him to water?

peter et al. first time i have ever tried this, so that now i can say, with correggio, and i too am a blogger. i was just directed to the cite by a student and read all of the comments, which were both interesting and (especially) challenging. but rather than begin to add to this, i want to post the full paragraph, which i had to abbreviate a little bit because of time during the talk.


Many Americans have favored a liberal democratic system not merely in order to cultivate “pure” liberal democracy; from this viewpoint, liberal democracy as a purely political form is not the full American regime. I do not believe that liberal democracy can by its nature ever be a full regime, even though a part of the contribution of pure liberal democracy has been to keep this very issue buried or obscured, which has served historically to lessen many of the dangers that come from trying too explicitly to define a “full” regime. In fact, the full regime has been a combination of two constitutions: a written one that is liberal and an unwritten one that is devoted to biblical faith. The two were traditionally understood to support each other and to so in such a way that it was best from all sides that the liberal part be written and the religious part be unwritten or part of the mores (or culture). In Tocqueville’s words America combined marvelously the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty. (The word “spirit,” with its overtones from Montesquieu, is what I mean by “constitution,” and my claim about two constitutions, one written and the other unwritten, is merely a gloss or free translation of this sentence from Tocqueville.) Non-foundationalism, which demands public neutrality between faith and non-belief, seeks a profound alteration of the character of the polity. It aims to make the unwritten constitution a faithless one. And it has done a good job of it, too, for the obvious reason that it can pursue its objective by claiming to be truest to the written one. This challenge demands that we bring to the surface what was better left largely unspoken and make clear once again the relationship between the two kinds of constitutions in constituting the full regime.

The event that was the posting of Ceaser was so momentous that I immediately received several emails announcing it. Amazingly enough, Jim presented his view more accurately and, in fact, more radically than I did. I would reply if only I could disagree. Let me, instead, quote the email that I received from a very distinguished "traditionalist" conservative: "Those are big-time concessions by JC in the last comment to your post on the Georgetown event. He’s growing on me, a lot."

Well, JC certainly has a dramatic sense of timing: what an entrance, what a debut! Act II has begun.

Jim, speaking of the written Constitution and its relationship to the one devoted to biblical faith: when did the "traditional understanding" breakdown or rupture? I tend to point my finger at the privacy jurisprudence (transmorgrified into autonomy jurisprudence) of the Burger/Warren Courts; the FThings crowd points toward Everson in 1947. Of course Progressivism had done much since the turn of the century, and a good deal of its view of the living Constitution was transformed into con law post-1932. But decisions of 1947 and 1965 seem to be to be decisive steps against the composite old order you describe.

Although I will find Jim’s response to Paul’s dating question interesting, I have two questions of my own for all comers. And of course I am excited about what Jim says, and think there is much to it, but here goes--

1) Jim’s way of putting things is more vivid, perhaps more binary, but isn’t the challenge of non-foundationalism not simply a reformulation of the unwritten constitution, but a deliberate obfuscation of, and thus a kind of attack upon, the written one? (Both the actual U.S. const. and the founder’s liberalism more generally, since both seem to fall under what Jim means here by written constitution.) Moreover, and relatedly, isn’t it the case that there have always been at least two unwritten constitutions in Jim’s sense, and that one of these is that of radical liberalism, that has always been ready to interpret the written constitutional liberalism by its own lights? That is, I (surprise) think Peter is correct(in his Aliens in America book) that Jefferson (among others) was at bottom an Epicurean devotee of the most athiestic reading of Locke, which means that an athiestic self-ownership doctrine has always been present in America, impatiently waiting for that final fading of "monkish ignorance". While it was not anti-foundationalist with regards to the natural rights of Lockean "politicized pyschology" (to use Jim’s term from his Nature and History in American Political Development ) it undermined the truth status of virtually everything that could not be grounded in the most uncompromisingly positivistic science, and, as certain top-notch Jefferson scholars hold, it would at bottom (i.e., below and beyond any of its prudential constitutionalism) have to support a right to gay marriage, a right to suicide...a right to what-have-you with regards to yourself exclusively. All of this means there was a fissure or disagreement in the original understanding of what the American regime and its liberalism was, that only widened over time; those on the Jeffersonian side of that fissure ALWAYS longed for a full regime, that is, one that could do without unwritten reliance on biblical religion. Today’s anti-foundationalists thus hammer upon a crack in the foundation that is INHERENT to it, even if they wind up pulverizing the purely Lockean side more thoroughly than they can biblical religion. Their origin from the purely Lockean side, however, complicates Jim’s picture in a fundamental way.

2)Jim says liberal democracy can never be a full regime. There seems a great deal to this, but I would like to see it fleshed out. I could ask "What has ever been a full regime?" but I don’t mean to quibble by degrees. I am willing to accept that however Sparta or Athens were qualified in their regime-centric-ness by their "Greekness," and particularly by their religious entanglements, they were regimes in a full manner that America never was or will be. And yet Tocqueville does quite a bit of tying of all American life back to a dogma, a social state, and a point of departure, which admittedly is a more complex way of proceeding than by regime theory, but has a very similar analytic spirit. Perhaps that supports Jim’s point. But I will also note that Plato spoke about the many internal soul regimes of democracy as being an essential aspect of its political regime--we might say it was the regime that revolted against seeming to be a full regime, but still inevitably was. What is more, we might notice that Tocqueville makes a very similar points about modern American democracy, particularly in his discussions of common opinion and the democratic dogma. Thus, my basic question: What does it mean to be a full regime, and what does it mean not to be?

Carl, in his comments on Jefferson, raises the issue question of whether the unwritten constitution wasn’t challenged from the beginning by the theory that animated some of the leading Founders. Or is there more of a theoretical connection between Jefferson and Rorty than we conservatives generally acknowledge?

Please, forgive the ignorant among you - me. I was wondering why, given history, the Founders you guys refer to would ever have considered a lack of religion, of faith or at minumum, religious observance, a possibility in this nation’s social and political culture? Wouldn’t their concern have been with avoiding a political religion, an establishment of a state religion and so they constructed the republic as to avoid that. The variety of religious observance, the denominations’ differences over doctrine (which always seems so democratic to me) would make resistance to the establishment of any one of those a political necessity for unity. So, was it not a matter of the limitation of any the denominations extant? The Founders would not have considered voiding the effect of the religious faith of the people on politics and on the functioning of the republic. When, in America, had that EVER happened?

What is the evidence that there were masses of Americans at the time of the founding who did not have some religion? Given what I have read of what was written at the time, both for political consumption and in private letters, the assumption was that there was a morality (either of faith or of religious observance, which is not exactly the same thing) that was required of the populace, without which the whole project - a liberal democracy - did not have a chance.

Dr. Ceaser, is the point that if a private religious morality could be assumed, then it did not necessarily have to be codified in any way. That was something the Founders would not wish to do, because the only precedent for that were established, state religions? Was there any founder, even Jefferson, who assumed that there was no God, even if not a specifically Christian one? I understand that Jefferson, among others, was looking for a "reasonable" god, but that is not a denial of God in the altogether. The assumption seemed to be that God was natural, a part of the nature of the universe, and the only quarrels were as to a matter of the degree of his involvement in the lives of men through the miraculous and in revelations of other sorts. In a society where God could be assumed, a certain morality could be assumed as well and was essentially required for a polity of the people to be successful.

jane: correct. it did not have to be codified and it was best not to codify it. for many it was part of the customs or of the "living consitution."

i just learned something quite amazing about the world of chatting (spoiler alert! as the kids say today). carl scott made an excellent comment, but since his office is right downstairs from me, we came to the discovery that we could discuss the issue face to face, without the need to go "on-line"; this was quite a novel experience.

and as for jefferson, to whom carl alluded, although he is the father of UVA (and by some reckonings of much other progeny in and around central virginia), his own views are not to be taken as america’s. after all, when he wrote the declaration (for a committee), he was really not that important a person, at least relative to many of the others; ascribing so much weight to jefferson is to read back his later reputation into the founding and make him out to be, somehow, the mind of america. so let it be with jefferson. michael zuckert hath told you that jefferson was the usa, but if so it was a grevious error.

which brings us to jefferson’s wall of seperation between politics and belief, which was constructed sometime in the twentieth century... i can’t say when, though it became evident to me sometime long after everson. at every graduation ceremony at uva when i first came here, a person of the clergy (the flavor alternated) was asked to make a reflection at the outset, connecting the moment of passage of graduation to the almighty in some way. i do not recall enyone being unduly harmed by the exercise. it was similar to what we still have at the innaguration of a president, setting an important event in a larger religious context and bringing an element of solemnity to it. then one day, after lee v.wiseman, this practice ceased alotgether in the name of the wall of separtion. the time now is usually alloted to an announcement of the progress of the "capital campaign" or some such.

As you can gather, Jim is a lot of fun to work with. And to the auto-didacts reading here, I really must recommend his Liberal Democracy and Political Science book as essential, and as accessible. And his latest book, mentioned above, is a likewise top-notch book on American politics, that deserves wide discussion in the years to come.

Jim knows that I know that Jefferson ain’t the USA, even if Michael Zuckert seemeth to sayeth so. He was a minority of a minority, that is, the athiestic fringe of the deistic persuasion. Evidence for this is nicely summarized in the latest piece by the Novaks, presented here in an exclusive NLT DOUBLE LINK, "hat-tip" as we say in blog-land, to Joe’s post above, by way of M. Franck.

However, not all intellectual minorities are equal; some really are the avante garde that anticipate where others will be going and prepare the way for them. And Zuckert has powerful evidence that Jefferson, and far more importantly, Locke, did at least something to direct the American mind and heart in a certain overall direction, and in such a manner that it seems that at least some of those hearts and minds likewise looked forward to the fading away of "monkish ignorance" and NOT just in an anti-Catholic way. As my final clincher argument, I will point out that when the rock band R.E.M. wrote a vaguely longing, where-are-we-now, type of liberal song, the refrain went "Jefferson, I think we’re lost," just as when Marty Balin and his Haight Asbury gang needed a new band name, no-one even brought up the possibility of it being Whitherspoon Airplane, or Hamilton Starship, or the John Jay Experience.

The chapter in my ALIENS Carl mentions was based on the premise that Michael Zuckert was right about Jefferson and America. It was originally written for a book about Z’s book. Jim is right that Zuckert exaggerated or over-simplified America as a Lockeaan-Jeffersonian theoretical projection He even oversimplified in identifying Jefferson with Locke, as Jim shows in his criticism of Jefferson’s natural-historical racism in NOTES ON VIRGINIA and as I do in my criticism of his Christian Epicureanism in ALIENS. But Carl is right that Jefferson, deservedly or not, is regarded as the most admirably theoretical of our Founders, and he’s also right that the history of America can be interpreted as ever more purely Lockean or individualistic (see Kennedy, LAWRENCE v. TEXAS). The task of the unwritten const., arguably, is to keep Locke in the Locke box, but with increasingly less success. So finally we have to ask, as Carl does, whether there isn’t a some deep American connections that link together Locke, Jefferson, and Rorty. WE divert ourselves from this question by placing too much blame on the alien German historicists who influenced the Progressives and all that. In addition to the authority of R.E.M. and Jefferson Aiprlane and Starship, we have to acknowledge the identification of Jefferson with the core of America as a problematic ideal in our best novelists, such as Faulkner and Walker Percy. Finally, let me agree with Carl that that Jefferson quote opposing the light of science to monkish ignorance and superstition that we think we like is actually quite tyrannical, and it’s arguably the tyranny promulgated by our non-foundationalists who aren’t genuine Heideggerians but aim in their own way to complete the enlightenment project through their pop Cartesian critique of "privileging" (on that, see Tocqueville, not to mention Rorty on the limited, negative truth of Heideggerianism and the fuller truth of Darwinianism).

The Jefferson Airplane were Jefferson’s for the element of perpetual revolution that they/we found desirable in T.Jefferson in his pro-French revolution period. It is a horrible, anarchic conception, yes, antithetical to Hamilton, and I think even to Locke. Of course, then the Airplane made money and settled down, but that was the original idea.


Thank you, Carl for another desirable book to read. I find I NEED to read all of the books written by my heroes on NLT, or suggested by them.


Peter Lawler, I do not know that I will be able to hear you speak this afternoon in Kent. My daughter-in-law is giving birth today and I am the designated grandmother in attendence. It has been a long night and everyone else is going to sleep for awhile, so here I am distracting myself from the worry. I instructed my son to attend and introduce himself, but he is 17 years old, which means he is almost necessarily negligent of such requests.

Kate, as Hegel - I paraphrase - said: being an adult means choosing between two good (or two evils). Congrats on the impending arrival.

Carl’s quite right (on this, as well as many things): Ceaser’s Liberal Democracy and Political Science is a must-read. I reread it every so often, continue to profit from it, and recommend it to students all the time (including last week).

Can we say that the radical Jefferson revealed or pointed to the true character of modern natural right(s) (atheism & self-ownership) and its fundamental incredibility? Locke’s more judicious version or presentation, tactically forced upon him, probably had more intellectual credibility; but I wouldn’t want to articulate and affirm human equality and liberty in either Jeffersonian or Lockeian terms. Would you?

Congratulations Gramma Kate!

Kate, Greetings from scenic Kent. If you son was there, he did not introduce himself. Don’t be hard on him, please! I’m sorry to have missed you, though. Next time I’m in the greater Cleveland area... The Dean of the Library here is a fine man, but he’s all alone in many ways.

Paul Seaton and U.G., Thank you. I am shockingly tired from two days of someone else’s labor, but very happy.

Peter, No, I am sorry, but Drew said he had several projects due on Monday and was too busy to go. He will not even see his new niece until then, Monday evening, when I will bring him up for a visit at the hospital. Isn’t the Kent campus charmingly wooded? My son’s dorm is next to a construction site, but it is, on the whole, a lovely green place. Ashland’s campus is pretty, too, but more a part of the town than KSU. Both are near garish shopping areas, but both are also near the centers of small Western Reserve-type metropolitan shopping areas. Kent, the city, has managed to retain a charming old-town, in part, while in Ashland, the college is the most charming part of the town.

Is the Dean of the Library a more conservative gentleman than most on campus? My son, who is a wastrel in terms relative to our family, insists that he is a positive paragon of moral virtue on that campus.


I trust your lecture went well? I hope there is a next time for you in the Cleveland area, very soon. I was sorry to miss this one. At 4 PM, I was holding my grand-daughter and marveling that someone who weighs less than a five pound bag of sugar at the supermarket could be living and so healthy and lovely. And the baby is doing well, even with a six weeks premature birth. The mother is in a rough state. Some weeks back, in a post on human dignity, I mentioned this matter. My daughter-in-law put her own life at risk to continue her unlikely pregnancy. It was, supposedly, impossible for her to get pregnant, and then impossible to carry beyond the first weeks. She has been hospitalized for the last six weeks as her digestion had shut down. She has endured two naso-gastric tubes, as well as other nasty tubes running in and out. Her diet for the last several weeks has been not much but canned weight drinks that taste horrid, even loaded with chocolate syrup, as I mixed them for her. I have learned more about the human body and nursing the ill than I ever wanted to know. Also, I was so very pleased that gas prices went down as I was driving into Cleveland every day. We thought, twice, that we were losing her, the mother, and yet, she delivered, she lives, and now she has to live to do the next impossible thing, bring another human to adulthood.


I probably couldn’t articulate and affirm human equality and liberty in either Jeffersonian or Lockeian terms. or at least not now, on three hours’ sleep in the last forty. (I wish all of the caffeine would dissipate.) I love Locke, although his tabula rasa stuff is hooey. Jefferson seemed to have such variable terms for human equality, depending where I read. Yet, I think I can affirm and accept Jefferson’s use of the terms "equality" and "liberty" in the Declaration, can’t I? Do you read Jefferson as an atheist? I do not.

Sapere Aude. I am sure you folks realize that there is more to the enlightement than Locke...just as there is more to America than Jefferson...but I really trace everything back to Hume. Please quit ignoring Hume... everything in these posts can be traced back to Locke/Hume/Reid. There seem to be a lot of huge questions that you folks gloss over. For example if Reid is right...then the unwritten portion of the constitution does not need to have a religious backing. People act as if thinkers like Rorty are originial...but all I hear are echoes of Hume...echoes of the enlightenment taken seriously. In any case all the theoretical connections you need can be found in the fundamental tensions of the enlightenment, in the context of this post I would say the Scottish Enlightement in particular...Hume vs. Reid. Hell if not for Hume, Kant is never awoken from his slumber...he never frames the enlightenment as Sapere Aude(which in essence is the Jefferson quote, contrasting light to Monkish ignorance!)

My contention...the unwritten constitution isn’t only religion...but a whole host of ideas most of which derive from the enlightenment...out of which was born the only american contribution to philosophy: pragmatism.(If you don’t want to include Objectivism...which it seems you would say is radical individualistic/atheistic Lockeanism.) that is to say that there will always be an unwritten constitution...or a set of ideas(ontological structure) that underlies the "self-evident" truths of the day...Unless Reid is justified...or unless they really are self-evident.

The director of the library is by far the most conservative gentleman on campus, as far as I can tell. The philosophy dept. is chip on its shoulder anti-Christian, and that’s the only one that I got to see. Kate, I’ll write more when I get to Rochester. But the short answer is--yes, I think Jefferson is an atheist. But let me add that’s not necessarily all that bad, politically speaking. Ohio is a very green and neat state generally, and Kent is cute. The bobo professors were complaining that there are no really good restaurants here, thought.

No one ever went broke underestimating the palates of college students in a college town. I once had a lovely dinner in a restaurant in Akron, which is only 6-7 miles away. I have heard rumors of others in that city, too. Wait. What is "really good"? to your bobos? My oldest son waits table at Houston’s, in Bethesda. By his description, it is has both really good food and a considerable bobo clientele, (I read Aliens) even though it is part of a chain. He says the management is run like the military, which he knows because his real job is with the Navy.


I appreciate Jefferson’s restraint in the area of religion in political terms. I had this same argument about him with a very liberal assistant prof. of history in my last undergrad course at Columbia. I wonder if I can marshall my reasons and references again to argue my point with you.


John Lewis, Did the mass of Americans of the era have any real understanding of your Enlightenment philosophers’ ideas? Yet religion, Christianity, was understood (yes, sometimes badly, but it was presumed to have Truth) by all. Even the Deists argued their religious dcotrine from the Bible. It was understood as a foundation of civilization. The Constitution contains those Enlightenment ideas you mention, they resonate in the documents, because they were understood by the Framers, but I say not by all who would have been party to ratification.

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