“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.”
Ellis Sandoz’s new book is of such importance to us in our intellectually disoriented day as to require, not a “review,” but an essay commendatory. As valuable as descriptive summary reviews, with requisite caveats, may be, they have the disadvantage of giving a reader the illusion of having read the book itself, wherefrom he moves on to the next review, feeling knowledgeable but lacking that advance of intellect called understanding. What is important in this instance is the author’s manner of address, out of a long apprenticeship in service to the word. The matter addressed is important, but insofar as it appears summarized in the title, that matter may appear merely topical, suited to a review in the ordinary sense of that vocational undertaking. Put another way. Professor Sandoz’s A Government of Laws deepens and puts in a larger perspective the intellectual origins of the Constitution as presented by Forrest McDonald in Novus Ordo Seclorum, anchoring the intellectual origins of the Constitution more firmly in Western tradition.
As for his devoted service to the word as scholar, there is the present instance of his Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, a collection of published sermons “from the onset of the Great Awakening to the beginning of the Second Awakening and Thomas Jefferson’s second administration.” Each sermon is complete and prefaced by a succinct biography of the preacher. The principal of selection is the political concern of the author as viewed from his religious perspective. The volume represents religious patriots, largely from New England, for whom the religious ground to political order is paramount. Professor Sandoz’s foreword sets that perspective, and the collection provides evidence of a general concern in the colonial populace that the new nation be founded “under God.”
More to our concern for the larger vision upon the founding supplied by A Government of Laws, we remember Professor Sandoz’s Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (1971), which evidences the rare facility of seeing a literary text in its philosophical and historical and religious context. There are also his Voegelinian Revolution: A Biographical Introduction (1981) and more recently, through his mediation, Voegelin’s own Autobiographical Reflections (1989). Sandoz continues as professor of political science at LSU, where he is also director of the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies, which is engaged in the publication of Voegelin’s Collected Works in 34 volumes. Such is the intellectual milieu within which Professor Sandoz lives and breathes and has his being, and out of which he moves, through knowledge acquired, to an understanding of the known, and in pursuit of wisdom. It is the concern for wisdom beyond knowledge and understanding that the present work recalls to us.
It does so by exhaustive documentation and explication of the intellectual roots that the principal Founders of our republic not only shared, but knew they shared. Out of that inheritance, they labored to reconcile differences among themselves, but always with a piety toward that inherited intellectual tradition, a piety that our present political intellectuals find it popular to reject. Professor Sandoz demonstrates, for instance, a fundamental influence upon the Founders’ thinking of classical philosophy and Christian theology. The importance of these influences on the emerging consensus of the Founding Fathers underlies those monuments to political thought: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. A Government of Laws shows this with such authority that it may no longer be neglected or irresponsibly denied, as has become the habit of our intellectual conduct toward the founding in scholarly and popular thought by the end of this, our second century as a republic.
Being attentive to the realities of human existence as adumbrated by traditional classical and Christian philosophy and theology, the Founding Fathers were wise enough to moderate the recent political theories entangled with Hobbesian and Humean and Lockean ideas. The Greek philosophers, the Stoics, Hebrew thought, and especially Christian thought from the Apostles to Thomas Aquinas, contributed to the intellectual climate from which the founding of a new republic emerged. It is Christian thought as formatively important that is of special interest, since that is an “influence” aggressively rejected or decried by modernist thought. Concerning his recovery of this intellectual dimension of “Americanism” (Jefferson’s term). Professor Sandoz describes his own intent: “The thrust of the inquiry is theoretical rather than antiquarian or simply historical.” This is to say that the thrust is philosophical, and such an address is so easily dismissed on the grounds of being—with a pejorative twist to the terms—merely theoretical or speculative. But against our increasingly blind pursuit of the empirically pragmatic, we need to confront that dismissive attitude, which is too commonly determinate in academic attention to the founding.
The presumption of political science as a “science,” the belief that statistical deposit is itself sufficiently descriptive of reality as to make abstractions the basis of political action, needs severe questioning. We might begin by observing that A Government of Laws contributes to the recovery of the good name of political philosophy, following in the tradition of Professor Sandoz’s mentor Eric Voegelin, especially as it is reflected in that seminal work, The New Science of Politics. What is “new” in Voegelin’s book is really old: a recovery of philosophical discipline to the subject. For as Sandoz and Voegelin recognize, any academic discipline divorced from its proper ground in philosophy easily suffers the imposition of agendas by popular pressures occasioned by circumstance. At first Utopian in their enthusiasm, social concerns since the founding have become more and more desperate under the necessity of staying whatever social chaos springs from the pretense that reality itself is born of Utopian enthusiasm. Through statistical abstractionism, for instance, political “science” in its academic manifestation has attempted to restructure political systems, declaring by the fiat of “fact” gathered by survey those false realities that now plague academic participation in the restoration of our disintegrating political community. At this juncture, typically, the “political system” in one way or another funds those political “scientists” in their increasingly forlorn hope that some additional systematization may prevent the collapse of social order, or at least delay that collapse for as long as another term of public office. Meanwhile family, community, and the larger polity disintegrate from factionalism. We have witnessed the effect of this discipline pretending to be a formal “science,” its reductionism requiring a turning from the elementary grammar of common sense through abstractionism elevated over reality. Hence the vacuum in the minds of our university students concerning the historical circumstances of our founding. At least once a year, the media present sensational proofs of this failure by the academy, complete with examples of botched multiple-choice tests for the entertainment of the reading public.
A disparity between language and reality grows out of abstractionism elevated as a scientific absolute, transcending philosophy. This disparity between our symbols, which attempt to bond social bodies to that reality, and our experience as individuals in social communities increases. Meanwhile, the would-be directors of this “science” attempt to impose abstractionism itself as the operative principle in restructuring the order of society, and of being itself At least Karl Marx more fully understood that this is a deliberate strategy necessary to the gnostic empowerment of the social engineer, through which he may make society itself a machine to fit his limited dream. His followers in this attempt, however, appear naive as never before, advancing a vaguely held humanitarianism—the remnant dream—in justification of their own mechanistic reductionism of humanity.
Marx regarded the deconstruction of community signs as necessary in speaking against the realities of human nature. That was the prelude to reconstituting society itself as the only reality suited to communal worship, through that elevated sign, the emergent idol, namely the “State.” The modernist version, descended from the Moses of secular religion, is the current sentimentality of a residual Marxism. Naive as Marx himself was not, our secular socialists overlook an elementary and self-evident truth that Marx saw clearly and so labored to obscure. As Professor Sandoz puts it, “Society has no existence apart from the human beings who compose it.” The increasingly vaporous utopianism that has followed from Hobbes and Hume and Marx, skimmed from the surface of their thought lest the depths prove too unsettling to Edenic desires, obscures within community thought itself, as opposed to what ought properly be the searching academic concern, a turning point in modernist thought. Marx understood the turning all too well: the first order in the deconstruction of reality is to reduce “human beings” from their given natures in order to build with their emptied existences a new “society.” For Marx, it was the idea of the state as the god of all being. In our case, we no longer know the end intended and so resort, in desperate vagueness, to “humanitarianism.”
It is in response to such obfuscations of political reality that Professor Sandoz writes his book. What he recognizes as necessary to a viable social order is our recovery of valid “theory” in support of our given human nature, of the primary end of social order itself: the support of the citizen as a discrete intellectual—as a person beyond the reductionist shibboleths such as citizen or individual. Without such distinction, we shall continue to stand confused between mediate and final ends. Without such distinction, we shall, as Professor Sandoz says, be misled by “the notion of saving mankind through politics,” which is a notion “not only mistaken but ultimately disastrous.”
Theory, common sense tells us, is always precedent to our practical exercise of any science, “political” or other. Theory is always operative, whether at the level of tribe or nation, since any concerted action wherever two or three or more are gathered together is possible as concert only where binding principles are either tacitly or explicitly accepted. For this reason, central questions must be raised again and again in certifying communal concert, a lesson at least as ancient as the teachings of that old gadfly Socrates. And such questions yield resolution only to the rigor of that intellectual action we once termed philosophy. Because of the dependence of social order in philosophy, implicit even in sentimental “political science” (whether recognized by the practitioner or not), that discipline must, as Professor Sandoz insists, establish itself from its beginning in philosophy rather than pretend to the authority of a science. In doing so, it must as an intellectual discipline address at the outset the question of all questions: what is man?
If political science is to be truly “practical,” then, its responsibility is foremost to the existential nature of man as discrete creature, revealed by his relation to other men and to nature itself as understood by rigorous philosophy and not merely as defined by the moment’s “science.” That is, it must see the discrete person in relation to his complex existence. An understanding of human relationships is ill-served by abstract renderings, as in statistically engineered models, whether of traffic systems or of housing systems. That manner of solution can be only ad hoc, since its principle has been divorced from complex reality.
We need only look to our own failures in dealing with poverty, failures “scientifically” established by scholars companionable in their thought to Professor Sandoz. See, for instance, George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty (1981) or Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980 (1984). What we learn from these books is that statistics indicating trends do not significantly register the truth of how things stand in the actual circumstances of human society—unless those statistics are governed by an understanding of how man himself stands out of his own nature, of how he stands within the existential complex we used to call “creation.” That complex has been “progressively” reduced by the modernist spirit through the desacralization of terms like nature until creation itself has become that amorphous fiction, the environment.
The virtue of Professor Sandoz’s new book is that it recovers a realism necessary to our consideration of the problems of social order that are the special province of the discipline called political philosophy. Sandoz recalls us to known but forgotten truths, the most salient one being that our understanding of what man is by his given nature is operative always in our pursuit of social order.
Robert Conquest, asked to specify what lessons for the West are to be learned from the attempted coup by Marxist hard-liners against Gorbachev last August, replied in part: “If you are a student, switch from political science to history.” What Professor Sandoz would no doubt add is, “Switch to the philosophy of history.”
[A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding, by Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 259 pp., $37.50]
[Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, Edited by Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Press) 1,596 pp., $38.00]