Maybe the final stage of our rebuilding–or, really, with our young and talented philosophical cultural critics–being built better than ever–is a long, windbag, off-the wall, semi-philosophical post by ME.
It’s not true that our individualistic (or Lockean) progress—which, of course, is both good and bad and so can be identified with real progress–is simply or even mainly anti-Christian. Scholars of various kinds characteristically neglect the place of Biblical religion and particularly Calvinist Christianity in our Founding. There are two reasons, to begin with, why “classical republicanism”—with its subordination of the individual to the political community–never really caught on that much in America. The first is the individualism of Lockean natural rights, of course: The free individual consents to government with his or her own interests or rights in mind.
The other, though, is Christianity, which teaches that the individual is not, deep down, a citizen; he or she is, as St. Augustine says, an alien or pilgrim in every earthly city.
Locke himself celebrates that breakthrough in egalitarian self-understanding that came with the Christians, the understanding that comes with the discovering of personal inwardness or subjectivity.So while I think Locke was no Christian (unless you want to call a Socinian or anti-Trinitarian a Christian), he thought of himself as providing arguments and evidence for the fundamental Christian insight into personal reality. Christianity established the principle of the limitation of government by personal freedom. And Locke thought that, with his discovery of personal identity, that he could prove that individuals are both less and more than citizens. They consent to government to protect their interests as self-consciously needy and vulnerable beings with bodies without surrendering their freedom for conscientious self-determination in pursuit of happiness.
For Locke, as for the Christians, both the individual and the church are autonomous—or free from political coercion to determine the truth about the free being’s duties to his or her personal Creator. Locke could defend that conclusion, let me emphasize, without believing that most of what any particular church taught is true. He was highly doubtful that there is a living and giving personal God on which free beings could rely for love and security, and he taught individuals not to trust primarily in God, but in themselves. But he wasn’t so doubtful about personal freedom as, from a natural view, a mystery that left room for belief in a Creator.
Consider that our Christians and our Lockeans—inspired by the idea that the free individual or person—ally against the classical republicans—insofar as they think of people as basically citizens or part of a political community (or city fodder). Our Christians and our Lockeans agree that Chesterton is right that America is a home for the homeless—a place for citizens who think of themselves as so equally unique and irreplaceable that they are far from merely citizens. In America, the homeless can be as at home as the homeless can be in any political community, precisely because that community does not compel them to deny what they really can know about themselves.
Christians, St. Augustine said, were often hated because they, on behalf of both the truth and their faith, had to dissent from the religious legislation of their political communities. They refused, like Socrates, to either believe in or worship the gods of their cities. From the classical, political view, the Christians actually seemed liked atheists. In our country, our Christians and our Lockeans have tended to ally against the classical republican idea of civil theology or, as Lincoln once put it, political religion.
The most noble Lockean interpretation of the Constitution of 1787′s silence on God is that it’s anti-civil theological. It can be criticized for not placing our country “under God,” or for liberating political will from divine limits—for turning man into God. Or it can be praised for limiting the realm of political will, for freeing creatures and Creator from political domination for being who they truly are. Our Constitution, from the latter view, presupposes that the Christian view of the person and the God in whose image he or she is made is true. Our political leaders have always been free to express their faith in God, but not to turn it into legislation. For Christians, as John Courtney Murray says, American freedom is freedom for the church as an organized social entity with autonomous moral weight, and Locke, finally, wouldn’t think of disagreeing.
God, for Locke, may well exist. Opinions about our duties to our Creator, as Madison, the most purely Lockean of our Founders thought, are a personal or private matter. God is not to be put to degrading political use, and so “civil theology” is not to direct or inhibit the natural—and inevitably social—human inclination toward theological concern. That’s not to say, of course, that there haven’t been various attempts to create a kind of Lockean American civil religion—a more than merely ceremonial creationist Deism. But they never achieve enduring success or real stability. That’s not to say that Americans—both Lockean and Christian—don’t readily unite against the coercive atheism—the Historical forms of civil theology—of the monstrous tyrants of the 20th century.
Our Christians and our Lockeans ally against those Progressives who regard particular persons as basically History fodder—as expendable beings to be sacrificed for the perfect world of tomorrow. It’s Christianity, as Tocqueville said, that was the source of the American view that not everything might be done in pursuit of the indefinite perfectibility pursued by reformist egalitarianism. They don’t think, as the Marxists did, that human life as now experienced is miserably worthless, nor do they think that History could possibly deliver us from the miserable alienation we do experience.
Our Christians and Lockeans agree in privileging the unique moral destiny of each of the lives of particular individuals, and in not sacrificing the rights of people today for those to come. So our Christians and Lockeans united during the Cold War in defending what Leo Strauss called a “natural right” against “History,” understanding, together, that it’s the nature of each of us to be a free and dignified individual. It’s our nature, in other worlds, not be fundamentally either parts of History or parts of the impersonal nature.
Both our Lockeans and our Christians share the ambiguity that it’s our nature to be free from nature, and that ambiguity might be understood to be resolved by the discovery of History. But that resolution, our Lockeans and Christians agree, is at the expense of the strange and wonderful mystery of individuality or irreducibly personal reality.
Human alienation, they agree, does not come to an end in this world, and our pursuit of happiness doesn’t culminate in secure and stable happiness or contentment through our own efforts. The unobsessive and unproductive lives Marx imagines under communism are both impossible and undesirable; they aren’t the lives of free persons.
And our Christians and Lockeans ally against the various forms of the Darwinian view that we’re nothing but species fodder. So they united against the various eugenics schemes promoted by both Progressives and fascists, those that tried to improve who we are as a species by eliminating the unfit or keeping them from reproducing. Those schemes, of course, have been completely discredited in our country. So, too, for that matter, is the eugenics scheme described in Plato’s Republic, which also treats people as animals to be controlled for purposes not of their own choosing. In order to keep “Platonism” alive in our time, Leo Strauss had to convince us, against scholarly convention, that Socrates’ eugenic scheme was ironic, a monstrosity constructed for purely instructional purposes. Lockeans and Christians know, whatever some Darwinians say, that conscious and willful persons can’t regard themselves as being born primarily to serve either their species or their country.
From our view, Strauss, to maximize his influence, should have done more to discredit the Socratic “cave” —the image that presents people as totally dominated by the process of political socialization of their “regime.” (That can be done, in my opinion: The image of the cave, in truth, is the ironic polar opposite of the ironic [or impossible and undesirable] imaginary perfection of the philosopher-king.)
The progress of Lockeanism in our country also discredits the common secular faith—a kind of civil theology—favored by the rather communitarian and idealistic Progressives.
Republicanism, not surprisingly, becomes more countercultural than Christianity, and patriotism erodes. Sophisticated Americans today—and especially the young and sophisticated—aren’t moved to action or even admiration by the noble Zeussianism of John McCain, and Tom Wolfe has shown us in his novels how countercultural a real Stoic—a rational, noble man—such as Marcus Aurelius or George Washington or Robert E. Lee nor even Atticus Finch—who knows and does his duty in any and all circumstances—would be these days.
We, to state the obvious, follow Locke in locating individuality in rights—not duties, and we regard the sacrifice of material being for rational principle or to display our magnanimity as being based on a misunderstanding of who we are. But we can’t forget the Lockean criticism of such pride as really vanity is also shared by the Christians.
Americans are seemingly less likely than ever to think of themselves as a devoted, self-sacrificing part of a political whole greater than themselves The special forces—such as the Navy SEALs—that manage to defend us are more alien to most of our lives than ever. The fact that Lockean citizen is, in principle, closer to an oxymoron than a Christian citizen explains a lot about the creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism so characteristic of sophisticated Americans today. And our best citizens these days are the combination of Christian and southern (or the residually Stoic) man portrayed in country music (the man who stands up [and is ready to fight] when he hears that Lee Greenwood classic). That man, we can say, is more than a Lockean; in reality, a more complete man than the individual Locke describes.
We can also say that the “citizen soldier” celebrated in another recent country hit might both more and less Christian than a pure Lockean. He’s open to being more Christian because he’s less narrowly self-absorbed and petty, but he hasn’t, from a certain view, properly absorbed the Christian/Lockean criticism of both civic consciousness and martial virtue. Obviously, our citizen soldiers can’t be called liberal fascists (a very unfriendly name conservatives give to our Progressives); they’re fighting for home, freedom, country, and God and not for a glorious Historical future envisioned by some Leader. And our liberals, even insofar as they have Progressive tendencies, are repulsed by real fascist Historical warriors, by, in fact, the chauvinism of warriors in general. They may be for “humanitarian interventions,” but not so much for those that involve the real risk of the lives of particular individuals.
Even the main philosophical inclination in our country—articulated, of course, by our liberal theorists—these days is much more Lockean than Progressive (or, of course, dutifully Stoic or Christian). Our alleged moral experts—such as our Rawlsians—think only suckers think of themselves as wholes greater than themselves. The bottom line, they say, is the person—or the secure perpetuation of the being or the autonomy of all particular persons alive these days. No particular person should be subordinated to God, country, History, or even family or some other biological imperative. Even eugenics, as promoted, for example, by the transhumanists, has become intensely personal. The point of biotechnology is to keep ME—as opposed to the species or the citizenry—from being extinguished or replaced—a very Lockean point!
From a Thomistic view, Locke’s understanding of human freedom is insufficiently relational. So even the Darwinians are right that the pursuit of happiness he recommends is often at the expense of the real happiness enjoyed by social animal as parents, children, friends, citizens, and creatures. And so the transformation of all of American life in a Lockean direction would obviously be a disaster. The practical antidote to excessive Lockeanism, of course, is legislative compromise. But that’s a story for another day.