edited by allan bloom
aei press, 552 pages, $24.95
Everywhere the institutions and ethos of democratic governance appear to be on the ascendancy, but what of constitutionalism, the theory that inspired and undergirded the origin and practice of free government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? The most dominant and fashionable currents of thought in philosophy and political theory pride themselves on their “postmodernism,” on their relentless rejection of nature and reason as standards by which to judge the writings and deeds of men and societies.
The Founders of the American Republic were liberal republican constitutionalists, simultaneously aware of a certain indeterminacy in the human conception of the good and therefore refusing the imposition of intolerant religious and political orthodoxies on enlightened peoples, but wholeheartedly and reasonably committed to the dignity of political self-government and of limited government under the rule of law and a constitution which was the product of “reflection and choice.” The American Founders were neither absolutists nor relativists—to refer to the vulgar dichotomy that defines moral discourse today—but men of liberality and civility who thought that a rational regime of self-governance and human liberty could be built based on reliable if indeterminate knowledge about the permanent nature and needs of human beings.
It is this confidence both in the reality of a permanent human nature and in the reasonableness of the liberal republican constitution that is challenged by the major currents of thought—from historicism to Marxism to existentialism—which to greater and lesser extents have shaped the modern academic mind, and, to a degree greater than is sometimes realized, the public mind. This new book, edited by Allan Bloom, is an attempt to investigate the reasonableness and moral and political effects of that post-liberal challenge.
Confronting the Constitution is a detailed and scholarly analysis of the dialectical encounter between the original liberal republican constitutionalism that shaped the American regime and those currents of modern and postmodern thought that challenge and deny its core presuppositions. The book is in many respects a working out of Bloom’s fundamental thesis in The Closing of the American Mind that the reasonable and civil openness of the liberal democratic regime has been usurped by a counterfeit openness which in the name of democracy and tolerance denies the teachings about natural rights and permanent political truths that are integral to the political science of Jefferson, Adams, and the Federalist Papers. In Bloom’s understanding, both in his earlier book and in his Introduction and his contribution on “Rousseau: The Turning Point” here, this challenge and usurpation can best be understood as a struggle between two anthropologies and two states of nature, the Lockean and Rousseauean conceptions of man and civil society. The Lockean conception of the rationality of bourgeois political economy and the representative regime of rights, the society which above all defines man as a proprietor and rights bearer, has been intellectually and spiritually challenged by a powerful and seductive philosophy which attacks the triumph and universalization of bourgeois values as the ultimate step in the diminution of human dignity.
Nietzsche’s attack on the complacent and prosaic Last Man, Marx’s attack on the “monadic” character of life in bourgeois society, existentialism’s attack on the inauthenticity of bourgeois existence, Freudianism’s rehabilitation of sensual pleasure against the despotic and restricting chains of civil society—all are in part derivative from Rousseau’s powerful attack on the degrading character of Lockean liberal nature and rationality. In fact. Bloom, in his thorough and captivating account of Rousseau’s teaching and its political consequences, argues that socialism, historicism, romanticism, and the cult of republican community (“communitarianism”) all have their roots in a partial development or vulgarization of an aspect of Rousseau’s subtle teaching. Rousseau’s teaching is the true intellectual and spiritual patrimony of the late modern and postmodern minds.
To a certain extent and in his own idiosyncratic way, Bloom is captivated by the Rousseauean critique of bourgeois society. He seems largely to accept Rousseau’s analysis of the flat and prosaic character produced by the liberal regime. But he refuses to reject rationalism per se simply because Lockean liberalism gives an incomplete and uninspiring account of human nature and its possibilities. In addition, he recognizes, against Rousseau, that capitalist political economy has on the material level largely settled the economic problem and that the prosperity and liberties of liberal society offer undoubted benefits to the many and the opportunity for religious freedom and philosophic inquiry to believers and philosophers.
On the practical level, his stance toward the liberal regime recalls Tocqueville and to some extent the German idealists such as Kant and Hegel. He would like to see liberal democracy morally and especially intellectually elevated, but he does not deny either its likely continued expansion or its comparative decency. Bloom admires the theorists of liberalism for their commitment to the life of reason and recognizes a theoretical and practical sobriety in the liberal project that is absent, if not in Rousseau, at least in all the derivative “Rousseauisms.” Bloom respects the practical benefits of liberal democracy, but he prefers the charms of Platonic “divine madness” to liberal moderation or democracy. Bloom, then, is not a liberal, but neither is he the enemy of liberalism or democracy that his liberal critics glibly portray. Nor is he a nihilist, as certain conservatives, dogmatic partisans of natural right, too quickly proclaim.
Bloom, like Tocqueville, wants to reason about the costs and benefits of liberal democracy. He rightfully will not settle for either a poetry of natural right or a cult of democracy. He convincingly argues that this is the highest kind of patriotism that citizens can exercise in a society grounded not in myth or divine right but in the natural human capacity to reflect upon the human and political good.
But does Bloom finally understand America? And does he share Tocqueville’s judgment about the fundamental justice of a decent democracy? To the extent that he seems to identify and reduce America to the thought of Locke, Bacon, and even Montesquieu, Bloom is speaking less about America and its constitutionalism than about some currents of thought that have had, to differing degrees, real and sometimes profound influences on the American regime. But what of America, of the moral vision of the American Founders understood not as an epiphenomenal reflection of early modern philosophy but as a distinct and not wholly derivative political science and project?
Here we see a powerful and fruitful tension in these seventeen essays commissioned by Bloom. Some of them adopt Bloom’s position in more or less identifying American constitutionalism with Lockean liberalism. Others, particularly three powerful essays by Thomas Pangle, David Epstein, and Harvey Mansfield, treat the Americans on their own terms as liberal republican constitutionalists.
Epstein and Mansfield are particularly convincing in showing that the standard reading of the Federalist Papers as presenting and defending a new political science of interests, constitutional mechanisms, and private liberty abstracts from the Federalists’ efforts to sustain a regime of public liberty and self-government. Publius believed that the honorable determination of a people to govern themselves was rooted in human nature and had to be respected if a truly reasonable regime was to be established. The Founders rejected Hobbes’ view that people could consent to government in one irrevocable act and instead created a regime of continuing consent and republican self-government.
Far from reducing American constitutionalism to a science of interest, these essayists in particular emphasize the importance of political liberty and even virtue for the Framers. But this was to be elicited through an education in liberty and rights (“the spirit of liberty”) and through constitutional offices such as the Senate and Presidency that aim to channel democratic willfulness and whimsy into deliberative choice. The Founder’s virtue was liberal as well as republican.
For Epstein and Mansfield, the liberal constitutional republicanism of Publius is truer to the complex nature of human beings than the contemporary social science of left and right which has no place for such categories as ambition, virtue, liberty, and reasoned choice, but instead inexorably reduces everything to the social, psychological, or economic conditions of choice while incoherently deifying democratic willfullness. Pangle, admiring the Founders, finally leans closer to Bloom’s position. The republican (“liberty as end in itself”) dimensions of our constitutionalism are for him finally subordinate to and eventually undermined by the acquisitive, self-interested ethos that was always the most powerful current in the decent but unsteady American synthesis.
Without pronouncing a final word on these different accounts of the spirit of Americanism, one can at least state the following: The essays on the Founders in this work get to the core questions about the meaning and animating spirit of Americanism; that is, they are an exercise in civic as well as philosophical self-consciousness.
The essays on the post-Founding currents of thought make up the bulk of the book. I particularly recommend a careful essay by Joseph Hamburger which delineates the powerful differences between utilitarianism (particularly in the thought of Bentham, Austin, and James Mill) and the thought of Publius and Tocqueville. The utilitarians who have had such a powerful influence on the development of the social sciences, particularly economics, derided the very notions of constitutionalism, inalienable rights, self-government, and federalism. Like Comte, the father of continental social science, they saw these as vestiges of premodern metaphysics and superstition. They were far closer to the spirit of socialism in defending the necessity of a government which engineers human happiness even at the price of human freedom. To the extent that the social sciences are imbued with their presuppositions, they indirectly undermine the civic and constitutional spirit at the foundation of limited government and political moderation.
Susan Schell provides a thoughtful essay delineating both the attractive and problematic elements in German idealism. She is particularly helpful in revealing the complex mix of liberal and illiberal elements that fall under that category of political thought. And she succeeds in the nearly impossible task of making comprehensible the political teachings of Kant and Hegel. Their thought, instead of elevating liberalism as they intended, has been at the fountainhead of the challenge to bourgeois liberty and society. Their thought is more open to vulgarization and to misuse than the sober reason of the Founders. Schell and many of the other contributors confirm Bloom’s point: “Rousseauean” modernity, despite its intentions, undermines the moderation that is the great moral strength of constitutionalism.
Other uniformly excellent and thoughtful essays deal with the relationship between liberal democracy and historicism, Marxism, pragmatism, existentialism, Freudianism, and the new neo-liberal “constitutionalism” of Rawls, Dworkin, and Nozick. All are sustained by the same fundamental insight. Liberal democracy is a decent regime, the best of the regimes available within the context of modernity. But the leading currents of thought in the “philosophic” and “academic” world today deny the rationality of liberal constitutionalism. Most go so far as to deny the existence of the theoretical life, the moral life per se, and therefore the possibility o£ political and human deliberation. They, to use the language of C. S. Lewis, attempt to abolish man. Liberal constitutionalism may be in need of serious moral and theoretical confrontation. But that cannot be done by saying adieu to reason and eliminating the very category of humanity, of human nature. It must be done on the basis of genuine dialectic, of political philosophy in the original sense.
As Bloom notes, the major political challenge to liberal democracy today. Communism, is in utter theoretical and practical shambles. Everywhere in the Communist world, people thirst for an education in the theory and practice of democracy. Those coming out from under the rubble of totalitarianism want to know the secret of democracy, they desire to learn its “political science.” But what can the main currents in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences offer those incipient liberal democrats in Tiananmen Square? Bloom writes:
The dominant schools in American universities can tell the Chinese students only that truism, that rationalism has failed, that they should study non-Western cultures, and that bourgeois liberalism is the most despicable of regimes. However, that is not what they need. They have Deng Xiaoping to deconstruct their statue of liberty. We owe them something much better.
Confronting the Constitution goes a long way toward giving reasonable people and searching liberal democrats what “we owe them.” It makes the indispensable contribution of providing not only an education in the public philosophy of liberal democracy but a charming, exciting, and disconcerting introduction to political philosophy tout court. Whatever reservations one may have about any particular argument or essay, this book is that rarity, an invitation to reason.
Daniel Mahoney is Assistant Professor of Politics at Assumption College in Worcester, MA.