1. So I took a few days off and now come back to this distinction, with a lot of fine comments in the thread.
2. Our Founders built better than they said. Is that because no theory can comprehend great practice? Or because there’s no theory adequate to the truth about who we are? In both cases (to some extent), but of course.
3. But some Founders built worse than they said. (Like those behind the French Revolution or even relatively non-sociopathic Communist tyrants such as Castro.)
4. Tocqueville (and Brownson and Burke) distinguishes between the two categories in a very clear way: The Americans (and English) had a long experience of self-government and their leaders thought like statesmen more than theorists. The French intellectuals–excluded under the enlightened, despotic monarchy from public life–were in the thrall of irresponsible “literary politics”–some combination of abstract theory and poetic romanticism. Some Americans–such as Mr. Jefferson–were more attracted to French literary politics than others. So Mr. Jefferson was far superior as a theorist to Mr. Adams, but Mr. Adams was the more realistic statesman (who saw right through the French from the beginning). Perhaps Rousseau was a superior theorist to Burke, but… Just as perhaps Kojeve was a superior theorist to Aron, but…
5. The deepest theoretical current of our Founding is Lockean, and our Constitution and our Declaration are more Lockean than anything else. But…
6. The Declaration was a statesmanlike legislative compromise between the “past tense” God of Locke (and his penurious state of nature as a replacement for GENESIS etc.) and the living God of the Christians. Nature’s God morphed into being also the God of the Bible, producing a kind of accidental Thomism. The result was better than either of our two highly principled Foundings–the Puritan or the Jeffersonian–while incorporating much of what was best about both. Something like that could be said about the emergence of the exact language of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. The individualistic and implicitly anti-ecclesiastical right of conscience became “the free exercise of religion”–for participation in an organized body of thought and action under God. And it was Madison the statesman–not the theorist of, say, THE MEMORIAL AND REMONSTRANCE–who was all for the compromise.
7. So it’s not so mysterious why the Founding practice was better than the theory of the leading Founders (from a theoretical point of view). Still, we still seem to need a theory that justifies those great legislative compromises, because the history of the country, from one view, is the erosion of the compromises in the name of high Lockean principle (see–once again–LAWRENCE v. TEXAS and the general emergence of the presumption of liberty doctrine). The big objection to the jurisprudence beginning with ROE is that it makes prudent legislative compromise impossible.
8. We Americans, as Tocqueville says, are much better than what we say when we talk the basically Lockean moral theory of self-interest rightly understood. But a problem is, he adds, that what we say does, over time, tend to transform who we are. For Locke (and for LAWRENCE) words seem most of all to be weapons in the service of the progress of individual liberation over time. There is surely a disjunction in Locke between what he says and what he knows (on the state of nature, just to begin with), but that’s because he does really think that words aren’t meant to correspond to some enduring truth about who we are. Our leading Founders, we can’t deny, were to varying degrees aware of that Lockean purpose for words.
9. It goes without saying that, for me, Thomism is a kind of rough way of saying that we need to restore the personal logos of the Christians, to recover the ways we are open to God and personal reality generally by nature. That theory would include a lot of Augustine. It is, as Walker Percy says, to some extent these days about putting back together what’s true about European existentialism with what’s true about Anglo-American empiricism. It’s about putting back together what’s true about Pascal, what’s true about Locke, what’s true about Darwin, what’s true about Aristotle’s proud and responsible political science, and what’s true about premodern or “receptive” natural science as found in Aristotle and Thomas–which includes a proper appreciation of both wonder and love. Such a “postmodern realism” could never be articulated in a theory like the one found in Rawls’ big book.