Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Dissident Option in Contemporary Thought

I’ve gotten a couple of emails on the thought of Solzhenitsyn as offering a real alternative to the choice between Strauss
("natural right") and Heidegger ("history").
This is a tough issue for blogging. But a new book by Mary Keys arrived in the mail! So I refer all interested to her AQUINAS, ARISTOTLE, AND THE PROMISE OF THE COMMON GOOD (Cambridge, 2006), 170-72. Let me quote one sentence: "In our times, the moral sensibility shown by dissenters in the former Soviet Union and its satellites offers strong experential support--generally from outside Thomistic circles and often from non-Christians--for the humanity of humility and its role in forming the character of the truly magnanimous person." Mary quotes the Czech dissident Havel at length, but Havel often acknowledges his debt to Solzhenitsyn for his conception of "personal responsibility."

Discussions - 8 Comments

In Witness, Whittaker Chambers takes a similar dissident stance by adopting agrarianism. Nisbet also, with his communitarian concerns, threads between Natural Right and History. Great topic

Your e-mailers, Peter, should post comments!

Here’s one way of approaching the topic of humility, from Chantal Delsol’s stunning new (in English) book, The Unlearned Lessons of the 20th-Century : "While late modernity produces relativism, a form of nihilism, in order to escape the fanaticism of certitudes, the postcommunist thought of Central and Eastern Europe offers an alternative, a different vision of the subject."

"...Eastern and Central European intellectuals took up their opposition by arguing for a subject who, by consulting his conscience, is capable of invoking laws beyond those of his own subjectivity--and laws other than those promulgated by the all-powerful communist state..."

"...[the dissident] seeks a subject who is enlightened by a meaning outside himself while keeping a distance from that meaning. Fully aware that foundational truths exist beyond himself...he nevertheless refuses to identify with any truth to the point of subjecting his conscience to it."

"...For no truth will ever be given to him in its entirety. ...He will have added another dimension to his humanity--that of accepted uncertainty, to replace both naive certainties and the rejection of all certainty."

In other words, neither fideistic orthodox religion, nor dogmatic relativism is the answer; similarly, no full grasp of natural right is possible, and dare I add, nor any full rejection of history.

Del Sol is great, although I think the quotes are too full of abstractions to quite do justice to either Solzhenitsyn or Havel. She makes it clearer elsewhere in the book that neither natural right (or natural theology) nor history could do justice to the irreducible uniqueness and dignity of the particular free and rational person.
Anyway, follow Carl’s lead by reading the book and posting your opinion. Del Sol is certainly a dissident thinker and points in the direction of postmodernism rightly understood. Humility (and gratitude) and magnanimity really don’t oppose each other in the souls of those who most courageously and effectively resist the lie of ideology.

Thomas Fleming makes a similar point in the Morality of Everyday Life. While it is virtually impossible to get modern Americans to not think in terms of natural rights, MUCH horror has resulted from trying to "secure" them. The Soviet natural right to housing, a living wage, etc. being the perfect example.


Natural rights is a doctrine that does not encourage humility.

"Natural rights is a doctrine that does not encourage humility." Nice observation. Discuss among yourselves.

I recently wrote an article for Intellectual Conservative about how the pro-life movement has done itself a disservice by basing its rhetoric primarily on invoking a "right to life" when instead it should focus on the natural obligation of parent to child. But before I do that I make the case that “natural rights” has not been a benign doctrine. I would post a link, but that would probably be tacky self promotion.


Mr.(Dr.?) Lawler, if you are interested you can e-mail me, and I will send you the link.


Another interesting and vary related issue, is how do "natural rights," which are generally conceived of as a product of man’s reason, differ from "inalienable rights" that presumably come from God? What did Jefferson have in mind? What was the common understanding? This is especially important on the right. The negative feedback that I have received from some was basically that questioning God-given “inalienable” rights bordered on heresy.

"accepted uncertainty" is nothing more than the conclusion of David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning human Understanding... Natural Rights and Inalienable rights are identical. In essence all rights proceed from the right to use ones own mind(reason) (Sapere Aude) that is an inalienable right. Life, liberty, and the persuit of happiness are just things to be obtained through reason. Reason itself is the inalienable right.

Mr. Lewis


But saying they are based on pure reason alone is the problem. Whose reason? What are the conclusions derived? Without some way to anchor those rights derived by reason (Revelation, tradition) there is no way to limit them or know what they are.


So you wind up with a bunch of (and this is more pejorative than it has to be, but I am trying to make a point) smarty pants philosophers who come along and tell your stable society that it is doing things all wrong. So the philosophizers end up trumping the collected wisdom of the ages.


Now I do think grounding the rights claim in God limits it somewhat. It is harder to argue that there is a natural right to engage in sodomy, for example. But I still think the concept of God granted inalienable rights suffers from the same excess of being unable to limit it. Does the Biblical admonition to care for the sick and poor create a natural right to health care and welfare for example?

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