The Religion of Unpolluted Human Ignorance (or, You’re Perfect Just the Way You Are)

I recently read, for the first time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” regularly referred to as the “First Discourse” to distinguish it from the more famous, second “Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind.” The First Discourse is a short thing, not more than 20 pages or so, but extraordinary in its biting observations on the positive wickedness and pretension of hubristic aspiration to scientific and humanistic knowledge and improvement. “That opaque veil with which Wisdom cloaked her actions should have warned us that we were not destined for a vain quest for knowledge. Is there a single one of her lessons from which we have profited or which we have neglected with impunity? Let all nations once and for all realize that nature wanted to protect us from knowledge, just as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child. Let them know that all the secrets she hides from us are so many ills from which she protects us and that the very difficulty they encounter in searching for knowledge is not the least of her kindnesses. Men are perverse; but they would be far worse if they had had the misfortune to be born learned.”

The First Discourse ought to be read by everyone who is part of the knowledge class, as a bit of cold water on the pretensions of the ostensibly learned. But quite apart from its incisive criticisms (and there are quite a few), the First Discourse contains several themes that run through Rousseau’s broader body of work–especially the natural, unadulterated, internal goodness of humanity, the depravity and corrupting influence of social conditions and culture, and the importance of resisting this cultural pressure in being true to what or who one “really” is, uncorrupted by social expectations, knowledge, learning, and so on. As it happens, these are themes that are also crucial for understanding the present moment in American social and cultural life.

A new book, Rousseau’s God: Theology, Religion, and the Natural Goodness of Man (University of Chicago Press), by John T. Scott, develops many of these themes across Rousseau’s writing.

John T. Scott offers a comprehensive interpretation of Rousseau’s theological and religious thought, both in its own right and in relation to Rousseau’s broader oeuvre. In chapters focused on different key writings, Scott reveals recurrent themes in Rousseau’s views on the subject and traces their evolution over time. He shows that two concepts—truth and utility—are integral to Rousseau’s writings on religion. Doing so helps to explain some of Rousseau’s disagreements with his contemporaries: their different views on religion and theology stem from different understandings of human nature and the proper role of science in human life. Rousseau emphasizes not just what is true, but also what is useful—psychologically, morally, and politically—for human beings. Comprehensive and nuanced, Rousseau’s God is vital to understanding key categories of Rousseau’s thought.

Aquinas on Aristotle (Jerusalem on Athens?)

One of the most enjoyable parts (for me, at least!) of my “Jurisprudence, Justice, and Politics” course last year was reading selections of Aristotle and St. Thomas with my students, and observing both continuities and crucial differences in their accounts of law, virtue, justice, the good life, and so many others. These similarities and contrasts go very much to the heart of the “law and religion” project that our Center has as its mission. Here is what looks like a wonderful and deeply erudite new book by the late Fr. Leo Elders, an eminent scholar of Aquinas, on these very subjects: Reading Aristotle With Thomas Aquinas: His Commentaries on Aristotle’s Major Works (CUA Press), released early next year.

Reading Aristotle with Thomas Aquinas: His Commentaries on Aristotle’s Major Works offers an original and decisive work for the understanding of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. For decades his commentaries on the major works of Aristotle have been the subject of lively discussions. Are his commentaries faithful and reliable expositions of the Stagirite’s thought or do they contain Thomas’s own philosophy and are they read through the lens of Thomas’s own Christian faith and in doing so possibly distorting Aristotle?

In order to be able to provide clarity and offer a nuanced response to this question a careful study of all the relevant texts is needed. This is precisely what the author sets out do to in this work.

Each chapter is devoted to one of the twelve commentaries Thomas wrote on major works of Aristotle including both his massive and influential commentaries on the Metaphysics, Physics and Nicomachean Ethics as well as lesser known commentaries. Elders places Thomas’s commentary in its historical context, reviews the Greek, Arabic and Latin translation and reception of Aristotle’s text as well as contemporary interpretations thereof and presents the reader with a thorough presentation and analysis of the content of the commentary, drawing attention to all the places where Thomas intervenes and makes special observations. In this way the reader can study Aristotle’s treatises with Thomas as guide.

The conclusion reached is that Thomas’s commentaries are a masterful and faithful presentation of Aristotle’s thought and of that of Thomas himself. Thomas’s Christian faith does not falsify Aristotle’s text, but gives occasionally an outlook at what lies behind philosophical thought.

Panel on Traditionalism and Originalism at Georgetown Today

I’m down at Georgetown Law School today for a lunchtime presentation on “Dobbs and Bruen: History, Tradition, and Originalism,” hosted by the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. I’m looking forward to catching up with my old professors, Larry Solum and Randy Barnett, and to meeting and chatting with students about traditionalism and originalism at the Court.

Christianity’s Cultural Authority

In many of the accusations of “Christian nationalism” that one hears today, the true complaint seems to be that Christianity continues to wield an outsized, or, at least, an undesirably outsized (from the accuser’s point of view), political and (especially) cultural authority. Though one may debate the matter in today’s world, the accusation is, so far as it goes in this way, historically accurate. Christianity has, in fact, been the dominant religion of the Western political and cultural world. Indeed, some might even say that one may measure the success of any given religion, defined broadly, by the extent to which it can subsume the state and the culture into its rituals, practices, strictures, beliefs, and ways of life.

A new book traces this history of politico-cultural dominance in the early medieval period: Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300-1300 (Penguin Press), by Peter Heather.

In the fourth century AD, a new faith exploded out of Palestine. Overwhelming the paganism of Rome, and converting the Emperor Constantine in the process, it resoundingly defeated a host of other rivals. Almost a thousand years later, all of Europe was controlled by Christian rulers, and the religion, ingrained within culture and society, exercised a monolithic hold over its population. But, as Peter Heather shows in this compelling history, there was nothing inevitable about Christendom’s rise to Europe-wide dominance.

In exploring how the Christian religion became such a defining feature of the European landscape, and how a small sect of isolated congregations was transformed into a mass movement centrally directed from Rome, Heather shows how Christendom constantly battled against both so-called ‘heresies’ and other forms of belief. From the crisis that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, which left the religion teetering on the edge of extinction, to the astonishing revolution in which the Papacy emerged as the head of a vast international corporation, Heather traces Christendom’s chameleon-like capacity for self-reinvention and willingness to mobilize well-directed force.

Christendom’s achievement was not, or not only, to define official Christianity, but – from its scholars and its lawyers, to its provincial officials and missionaries in far-flung corners of the continent – to transform it into an institution that wielded effective religious authority across nearly all of the disparate peoples of medieval Europe. This is its extraordinary story.

Virtue Politics Operationalized

One of the best books I’ve read recently is James Hankins’ Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy. In it, Professor Hankins provides an alternative to the account of Renaissance political thought that places “republican liberty” as its chief achievement. It is, says Hankins, the cultivation of virtue in political leadership, and the reclaiming of the classical traditions of virtues of character in Greek and Roman thought, that animates the central political project of the great humanist tradition. Machiavelli, who is often placed at the center of Renaissance political thought (he is certainly the most widely read figure of the Renaissance political tradition), is, on Hankins’ account, at best deeply ambivalent about this tradition, and certainly not the central representative of the spirit of the age.

I’ve thought a lot about Professor Hankins’ book, and in particular just what a virtue politics of the modern period, in America, for example, might do (or aspire to do). So I’m especially pleased to see that he will have a new book out in the spring that seems to concretize the Renaissance virtue politics program in a number of ways, and whose subject is the last figure (before Machiavelli) he considers in Virtue Politics, Francesco Patrizi. The book is Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy: The Virtuous Republic of Francesco Patrizi of Siena. It will be a must read for anyone interested in this fascinating period of history and anyone thinking about the role of virtue in contemporary political life.

At the heart of the Italian Renaissance was a longing to recapture the wisdom and virtue of Greece and Rome. But how could this be done? A new school of social reformers concluded that the best way to revitalize corrupt institutions was to promote an ambitious new form of political meritocracy aimed at nurturing virtuous citizens and political leaders.

The greatest thinker in this tradition of virtue politics was Francesco Patrizi of Siena, a humanist philosopher whose writings were once as famous as Machiavelli’s. Patrizi wrote two major works: On Founding Republics, addressing the enduring question of how to reconcile republican liberty with the principle of merit; and On Kingship and the Education of Kings, which lays out a detailed program of education designed to instill the qualities necessary for political leadership—above all, practical wisdom and sound character.

The first full-length study of Patrizi’s life and thought in any language, Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy argues that Patrizi is a thinker with profound lessons for our time. A pioneering advocate of universal literacy who believed urban planning could help shape civic values, he concluded that limiting the political power of the wealthy, protecting the poor from debt slavery, and reducing the political independence of the clergy were essential to a functioning society. These ideas were radical in his day. Far more than an exemplar of his time, Patrizi deserves to rank alongside the great political thinkers of the Renaissance: Machiavelli, Thomas More, and Jean Bodin.

The Catholic Church as Shatterer of Polities

In our law and religion colloquium, one of the early themes Mark and I touch on is the dualism of Christianity, and the complicated sense in which this dualism is, and is not, a precursor to contemporary ideas of church-state separation. Some of the complications concern the view that separation in this early sense may not have meant complete division, but instead a kind of complementarity of authorities.

We don’t touch perhaps as much as we should on the Catholic Church’s role in the formation of the contemporary nation state, but this new book does: The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500 (Oxford University Press) by political historians Jørgen Møller and Jonathan Stavnskær Doucette. Their core claim seems to be that the Church was the prime mover of political fragmentation (or “pluralism,” to give it its modern euphemism), and in particular the disruption of the Holy Roman Empire, during this period.

Generations of social scientists and historians have argued that the escape from empire and consequent fragmentation of power – across and within polities – was a necessary condition for the European development of the modern territorial state, modern representative democracy, and modern levels of prosperity. The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500 inserts the Catholic Church as the main engine of this persistent international and domestic power pluralism, which has moulded European state-formation for almost a millennium.

The ‘crisis of church and state’ that began in the second half of the eleventh century is argued here as having fundamentally reshaped European patterns of state formation and regime change. It did so by doing away with the norm in historical societies – sacral monarchy – and by consolidating the two great balancing acts European state builders have been engaged in since the eleventh century: against strong social groups and against each other.

The book traces the roots of this crisis to a large-scale breakdown of public authority in the Latin West, which began in the ninth century, and which at one and the same time incentivised and permitted a religious reform movement to radically transform the Catholic Church in the period from the late tenth century onwards.

Drawing on a unique dataset of towns, parliaments, and ecclesiastical institutions such as bishoprics and monasteries, the book documents how this church reform movement was crucial for the development and spread of self-government (the internal balancing act) and the weakening of the Holy Roman Empire (the external balancing act) in the period AD 1000-1500.

The Secular Prophet of American Law

I’ve always thought that the activity we now call “constitutional theory” began with the work of James Bradley Thayer. For centuries, it was a common view among Western legal thinkers that the law was a manifestation of something that was greater than ordinary legislation or judicial decisions. Judicial decisions, in particular, were not law, but were thought of as evidence of the law. Today, by contrast, it is hard to imagine leading scholars or judges explaining law in anything like these terms. Just when the change happened is impossible to pinpoint, but Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was certainly an important figure in the transition. Holmes mocked the classical view that law is some sort of “brooding omnipresence in the sky,” a view he rejected as “fallacy and illusion.” Instead, Holmes proclaimed that law is a purely human affair. The Legal Realists that followed Holmes believed that what needed to be done was to “redefine supernatural concepts in natural terms.”

That’s why Thayer is so pivotal. He saw all of this coming in the views of legal academics and thinkers of the time. So he tried with the first “theory” to head it off. And so the rise of constitutional theory coincides precisely with the fall of the classical conception of law and the rise of this new, realist, conception of law. When it comes to the Constitution, what takes the place of the old, classical view is, in fact, theory. Theory is what ostensibly preserves “the law” as something separate and apart from raw policy preferences, or from raw partisan politics. Theory purports to provide a new account and defense of law’s essential nature.

At any rate, here is what looks like an important and very insightful new book on Thayer, which interestingly uses religious language right in its title to describe him: The Prophet of Harvard Law: James Bradley Thayer and His Legal Legacy (University of Kansas Press), by Andrew Porwancher, Austin Coffey, Taylor Jipp, and Jake Mazeitis.

Amid the halls of Harvard Law, a professor of legend, James Bradley Thayer, shaped generations of students from 1874 to 1902. His devoted protégés included future Supreme Court justices, appellate judges, and law school deans. The legal giants of the Progressive Era—Holmes, Brandeis, and Hand, to name only a few——came under Thayer’s tutelage in their formative years.

He imparted to his pupils a novel jurisprudence, attuned to modern realities, that would become known as legal realism. Thayer’s students learned to confront with candor the fallibility of the bench and the uncertainty of the law. Most of all, he instilled in them an abiding faith that appointed judges must entrust elected lawmakers to remedy their own mistakes if America’s experiment in self-government is to survive.

In the eyes of his loyal disciples, Thayer was no mere professor; he was a prophet bequeathing to them sacred truths. His followers eventually came to preside over their own courtrooms and classrooms, and from these privileged perches they remade the law in Thayer’s image. Thanks to their efforts, Thayer’s insights are now commonplace truisms.

The Prophet of Harvard Law draws from untouched archival sources to reveal the origins of the legal world we inhabit today. It is a story of ideas and people in equal measure. Long before judges don their robes or scholars their gowns, they are mere law students on the cusp of adulthood. At that pivotal phase, a professor can make a mark that endures forever after. Thayer’s life and legacy testify to the profound role of mentorship in shaping the course of legal history.

At Notre Dame Next Week for Symposium on “Unconstitutional Conditions and Religious Liberty”

I’m looking forward to participating in this Notre Dame Law Review symposium on “Unconstitutional Conditions and Religious Liberty” next Monday, where I’ll present an early draft of a new paper, “Mysterizing Religion.” More soon on the latter. If any of our readers and/or listeners are in town, please do say hello!

Secularism’s Equation of Sincerity With Religiosity

In one of the critical free exercise inquiries, courts are supposed to evaluate whether a religious claimant is “sincere” about his or her belief. Anything more than a pro forma inquiry into sincerity, however, is thought to be problematic. Nevertheless, an inquiry into the claimant’s religious sincerity seems to be one of the very few things courts can actually explore in evaluating free exercise claims.

But why is this? Why reduce religiosity as a legal matter to sincerity alone? A recent book suggests that it is characteristic of secular societies to deem sincerity as somehow at the core of religiosity. The book is Sincerely Held: American Secularism and Its Believers, by Charles McCrary (University of Chicago Press).

“Sincerely held religious belief” is now a common phrase in discussions of American religious freedom, from opinions handed down by the US Supreme Court to local controversies. The “sincerity test” of religious belief has become a cornerstone of US jurisprudence, framing what counts as legitimate grounds for First Amendment claims in the eyes of the law. In Sincerely Held, Charles McCrary provides an original account of how sincerely held religious belief became the primary standard for determining what legally counts as authentic religion.
 
McCrary skillfully traces the interlocking histories of American sincerity, religion, and secularism starting in the mid-nineteenth century. He analyzes a diverse archive, including Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man, vice-suppressing police, Spiritualist women accused of being fortune-tellers, eclectic conscientious objectors, secularization theorists, Black revolutionaries, and anti-LGBTQ litigants. Across this historyMcCrary reveals how sincerity and sincerely held religious belief developed as technologies of secular governance, determining what does and doesn’t entitle a person to receive protections from the state.
 
This fresh analysis of secularism in the United States invites further reflection on the role of sincerity in public life and religious studies scholarship, asking why sincerity has come to matter so much in a supposedly “post-truth” era.

An Intellectual History of Modern Legal Conservatism

The historian Johnathan O’Neill is the author of one of the best treatments of the history of originalism in law and politics in the 20th century. Here he is with a new, somewhat broader book on similar themes that looks more like an intellectual history and well worth picking up: Conservative Thought and American Constitutionalism Since the New Deal (Johns Hopkins Press).

The New Deal fundamentally changed the institutions of American constitutional government and, in turn, the relationship of Americans to their government. Johnathan O’Neill’s Conservative Thought and American Constitutionalism since the New Deal examines how various types of conservative thinkers responded to this significant turning point in the second half of the twentieth century.

O’Neill identifies four fundamental transformations engendered by the New Deal: the rise of the administrative state, the erosion of federalism, the ascendance of the modern presidency, and the development of modern judicial review. He then considers how various schools of conservative thought (traditionalists, neoconservatives, libertarians, Straussians) responded to these major changes in American politics and culture. Conservatives frequently argued among themselves, and their responses to the New Deal ranged from adaptation to condemnation to political mobilization.

Ultimately, the New Deal pulled American governance and society permanently leftward. Although some of the New Deal’s liberal gains have been eroded, a true conservative counterrevolution was never, O’Neill argues, a realistic possibility. He concludes with a plea for conservative thinkers to seriously reconsider the role of Congress—a body that is relatively ignored by conservative intellectuals in favor of the courts and the presidency—in America’s constitutional order. Conservative Thought and American Constitutionalism since the New Deal explores the scope and significance of conservative constitutional analysis amid the broader field of American political thought.