So here’s a modest effort to open up a discussable little fissure in the unified vanguard of the political and philosophical juggernaut that we know as Postmodern Conservatism.
Is it fair, and is it consistent with Pomocon-ism to say that the American Founders “founded better than they knew”? Does this venerable and catholic criticism not seem to imply the possibility of a founding in which the truth of practice might receive a definitive, complete and thus internally stable formulation in theory? But are we Pomocons not rather in agreement with the first great Pomocon, Monsieur Tocqueville, that there is and can be no such complete and definitive theory?
Hobbes and Locke, certainly, might be criticized (even excoriated, be my guest) for attempting to sever the right from the good, for proposing to “enlighten” society with the proposition that rights can be established without any reference to a common Good, that freedom can produce order from itself, without acknowledging any power not only outside by above itself. And there can be no doubt that those who articulated the premises of American constitutionalism adopted much vocabulary and many bits of arguments traceable to the finally atheistic foundations of the modern theory of Natural Rights. We have every reason today to be more alert to the radical and destructive resonances of these terms and arguments than any but the profoundest philosophers could have been 230 years ago.
To be sure, 220 years ago (go ahead and correct my chronology), Edmund Burke grasped immediately this radicality and destructiveness when it showed its face in the streets of Paris. And John Adams, to take one notable example, was not far behind. But neither of them, any more than Tocqueville a few decades later, proposed an alternative theory in which freedom would be answerable to a fully knowable Order or the right could be logically derived from The Good. And neither, I take it, do we Pomocons.
(Or did Thomas Aquinas supply such a theory? Full knowable? – I think not. Allow me to cite, for those familiar with it, Marc Guerra’s important Christians as Political Animals, forthcoming from ISI. Prof. Guerra, if I understand him – and he is invited to correct me – finds it necessary to keep Augustine in play along with Aquinas, which seems a way of saying that there is no final theoretical solution to the puzzle of man’s at once mysterious and rationally-politically ordered existence.)
Our Founders were not philosophers; they had a job to do, albeit one that required great insight into the human condition as well as a myriad of changing circumstances. But if we dispense with the comforting illusion that there is some Pure Theory of The Good Order in which human freedom is acknowledged by securely contained, then it does not make sense to blame our forefathers for not being in possession of such a theory, and for improvising as best they could, given the available terms and possibilities, as stable an equilibrium between freedom and order as could be asked of any human founders.
The Founders founded better than they said, better than they could have said, better than anyone could have said. There was no theory and there is no theory that could have comprehensively guided their practice. Or ours. Knowing what we must do (which is not easy) guides, at least as much as it is guided by, knowing what we must say. And to me it is clear that we must now say that freedom has no meaning without virtue, nor rights without duties. And if we find an effective way to do this, we too will be founding better than we can say, for there is no final way of saying the way that freedom and truth contain each other.