A new book by Center friend and and seminal figure in the political theory of the Constitution, Professor Hadley Arkes. Professor Arkes has been pressing the case against originalism and for a natural law constitutionalism for many years, in many fora. This is likely to be a useful and important statement of his collected views with, of course, a hat tip to C.S. Lewis in the title! I look forward to this one very much, and congratulations to Hadley! The book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution (Simon & Schuster).

In this profoundly important reassessment of constitutional interpretation, the eminent legal philosopher Hadley Arkes argues that “originalism” alone is an inadequate answer to judicial activism. Untethered from “mere Natural Law”—the moral principles knowable by all—our legal and constitutional system is doomed to incoherence.

The framers of the Constitution regarded the “self-evident” truths of the Natural Law as foundational. And yet in our own time, both liberals and conservatives insist that we must interpret the Constitution while ignoring its foundation.

Making the case anew for Natural Law, Arkes finds it not in theories hovering in the clouds or in benign platitudes (“be generous,” “be selfless”). He draws us back, rather, to the ground of Natural Law as the American Founders understood it, the anchoring truths of common sense—truths grasped at once by the ordinary man, unburdened by theories imbibed in college and law school.

When liberals discovered hitherto unknown rights in the “emanations” and “penumbras” of a “living constitution,” conservatives responded with an “originalism” that refuses to venture beyond the bare text. But in framing that text, the Founders appealed to moral principles that were there before the Constitution and would be there even if there were no Constitution. An originalism that is detached from those anchor – ing principles has strayed far from the original meaning of the Constitution. It is powerless, moreover, to resist the imposition of a perverse moral vision on our institutions and our lives.

Brilliant in its analysis, essential in its argument, Mere Natural Law is a must-read for everyone who cares about the Constitution, morality, and the rule of law.

One thought on “Mere Natural Law

  1. I greatly admire Professor Arkes but I find the arguments of Harry V Jaffa indispensalbe for understanding what is wrong with our country at the moment.

    Originalism has to recognize the origin in millions of common people. It is we who have fallen from something that was evident at our Founding

    From Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 8 May 1825
    “…this was the object of the Declaration of Independance. not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject; [. . .] terms so plain and firm, as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independant stand we [. . .] compelled to take. neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the american mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. all it’s authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed, in conversns in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney Etc.”

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