How Much Difference Does it Make?

Tuesday, 04-05-2016

How much difference do you think it makes whether the president is a good man or a bad one?  I think it makes rather a lot.  But consider carefully before you answer.

One of the writers who influenced the Founders of the American republic was David Hume, who argued in a famous 1742 essay, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science” that although in general, the virtue of the ruler makes a great deal of difference, in a sound constitutional order it doesn’t.

The Founders thought Hume had exaggerated.  As James Madison argued at the constitutional ratifying convention in Virginia, no matter how well a republic may be designed, it is lost without sufficient virtue among the people and their rulers.

Still, Hume was onto something, and the Founders agreed there too.  No doubt, one can never design a republic so well that the virtue of the ruler makes no difference.  Yet the better the constitutional design, the better it can weather an occasional bad one.

Conversely, if we have really come to such a point that a change in the character of a single ruler can turn the polity upside down, we should no longer pretend that we have retained a sound constitutional order.


His Will and the Counsel of His Will

Monday, 04-04-2016


I have begun reading Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by the Anglican divine Richard Hooker.  Following a discourse on the different kinds of Law instituted by God (eternal law, divine law, natural law, and so forth), Hooker writes,

“Howbeit, undoubtedly, a proper and certain reason there is of every finite work of God, inasmuch as there is a law imposed upon it; which if there were not, it should be infinite even as the worker himself is.  They err therefore, who think that of the will of God to do this or that, there is no reason besides his will.  Many times no reason known to us; but that there is no reason thereof, I judge it most unreasonable to imagine, inasmuch as he worketh all things ... not only ‘according to his own will,’ but ‘the counsel of his own will.’”

I understand that the Nominalists, and the Reformers after them, rejected this conception of the reasonableness of divine agency, instead claiming that God’s will is supreme over all, and that the only reason for something’s being so is that God wills it be so.  Though the view which champions “divine counsel” is obviously more appealing to me, I struggle to discern which view is correct (though I am all but certain about which view you take), since both views seem to have problems.

On the one hand, if God, who is perfect in every respect, acts in complete accord with reason or with His own counsel, is He not its slave?  That is, what freedom might God possibly possess if His doings must, of necessity, conform to reason or to “counsel”?

On the other hand, if God’s will is supreme over reason or “counsel,” then all his actions would be groundless or arbitrary, all sins would be sins merely because God decided they were so, and these consequences seem to me inconceivable.

How do you resolve the reasonableness of God’s activity with His freedom?    


I am always glad to discuss Richard Hooker, if for no other reason than to memorialize his golden style of prose.  But your question is very good -- and very old.

For long ago Socrates posed a question to his friend Euthyphro:  Do the gods love what is pious because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?  In one form or another, that famous query has been kicking around ever since.  With just a few substitutions we get the form which bedevils you:  Does God will what He wills because it is wise, or must it be called wise just because He wills it?

What makes the question a dilemma is that neither answer is satisfactory.  But notice that it presents a false dichotomy.  There is a third alternative which it overlooks.

For consider what you are implying when you say that if God acts in complete accord with His own wisdom, then He is its servant.  You are treating God and His wisdom as distinct things, for otherwise you couldn’t set one above the other.  But God and His wisdom are the same thing.  So are God and His will.  So are God and His goodness.

To put it another way, He is not a composite being made of various parts; you can’t point to one part and call it His wisdom, another part and call it His will, another part and call it His goodness.  We think of these things as different because we are not identical with our own attributes.  But God is identical with His attributes.

So the right way to frame the question is like this:

Is the wise something higher than God, to which His will submits?

Or is the wise something lower than God, which His will brings about?

Or are His will and His wisdom identical with each other and with Him?

Just as you suggest, the first alternative makes God a servant, and just as you suggest, the second makes His will arbitrary.  But the third makes Him supreme, supremely wise, supremely good – and, yes, supremely free.


Being Sure

Sunday, 04-03-2016

The vice of pride lies not so much in being sure we are right, but being sure we are good.  We seem to get this backwards.  It is an insidious mistake.

Some of us even take pride in moral skepticism, thinking it a proof of our virtue.

Others take pride in not being such fools as to think such a thing.


Tyrants, Friends, and Sycophants

Saturday, 04-02-2016

Ancient books about politics spent as much time talking about friendship as about justice.  Books written for the training of young rulers, called “mirrors for princes,” used to warn that tyrants have no friends, only sycophants.

I think many of my students consider such warnings odd.  What are they doing there?

The warning is a check against tyranny, but one which is rooted in moral psychology rather than in constitutional procedures.  What drives it is the reflection that rulers are tempted to tyranny, and must be provided with motives not to give in.

You would never find such a warning in a civics textbook today.  Why is that?

Is it because we are so convinced that purely procedural checks against tyranny will be sufficient?  Because we are so contemptuous of the suggestion that even rulers might wish to have friends?  Or because we are so naïve as to think no one would ever wish to be a tyrant?


Twitter Exegesis

Friday, 04-01-2016

In the first century, who would have foreseen that two thousand years later Christ would be painted as a moral relativist by yanking his warning against hypocrisy, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” out of context?

This might be called called Twitter exegesis:  Read no more than 140 characters of the Gospel at a time.


The Ten and the Seven

Thursday, 03-31-2016


In several of your books you touch on the relation of the classical natural law tradition to the Ten Commandments.  I have a question:  Is there any tradition of connecting natural law not to the Ten Commandments, but to the Noachide commandments discussed in Jewish tradition?  I ask you this question because I cannot seem to buy into the belief that Sabbath commandment is fulfilled by the Christian Sunday.


I think you are asking at least four questions (each of them interesting).  What is the relation of natural law to the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments?  Does the Sunday observance of Christians fulfill the commandment about the day of rest?  Is that commandment part of the natural law too?  Finally, could it be said that the natural law bears a similar relation to what rabbinical tradition calls the Seven Commandments Given to the Sons of Noah?  Let’s take these in order.

As to the first question:  Provided that they are properly understood, the Ten Commandments are a superlative summary of the general precepts of natural law -- of the unchangeable principles of right and wrong of which even a person who has never heard of the Christian faith should be aware.  By “properly understood,” I mean two things.  First, only the moral parts of the Ten Commandments can reasonably be said to belong to the natural law; certain other parts belong to the divine ceremonial law of the Jews.  Second, each of the Ten Commandments must be read broadly; for example, the commandment against theft is to be viewed as prohibiting all injury to another person in his property, theft being merely a particularly conspicuous example.  This is a “metonymy,” a figure of speech in which a part represents a whole.

As to the second and third questions:  The moral part of the commandment concerning the day of rest is that times and places should be set aside for worship of God and remission of labor.  Yes, this is a part of the natural law, so it applies to everyone and cannot be changed.  However, the instruction to which says this must be done on the seventh day is a part of divine ceremonial law, which can be changed.  True, it cannot be changed by anyone, but as we find in recorded in Matthew 16:17-19, Christ gave the Church the authority to “bind and loose.”  This is why Christians have always believed that Sunday observance fulfills the commandment for them.

As to the fourth question:  According to Jewish oral tradition, after Noah’s family emerged from the ark, the “sons of Noah” – this expression means the descendants of Noah, which includes not just Jews but everyone now living -- were given seven commandments.  These seven, which go beyond what is actually written in the Genesis story of the flood, are usually stated like this:

1. There must be courts (this is a metonymy, representing provision for the administration of justice).

2. There must be no idolatry.

3. There must be no blasphemy.

4. There must be no incest (this is another metonymy, representing sexual immorality in general).

5. There must be no bloodshed.

6. There must be no theft.

7. There must be no eating of flesh torn from living animals.

Yes, just as you suggested, when read broadly the Noachide Commandments are sometimes considered another summary of natural law.  However, the Decalogue is more complete.  You were concerned about the Decalogue just because of the Commandment about the day of rest and worship, but as we have seen, we can dispose of that fear by distinguishing between the moral and ceremonial aspects of the Decalogue.

If you would like more detail about the Decalogue as a summary of natural law, you’re in luck.  Open up the Companion to the Commentary and read pages 221-225.  For connections with the New Testament, read the next few pages too.  There is more, but perhaps that will do for starters.


Luxuries Forbidden to the Teacher

Wednesday, 03-30-2016

One might suppose that people live badly only because their thoughts are disordered.  Just fix their thinking and they’ll be all right.

That is only half the problem.  People also think badly because their lives are disordered.  There are certain things it is impossible to find plausible unless one is at war with all the obviously true things one dare not allow oneself to believe.

Perhaps this is another reason why Aristotle thought it was pointless to try to teach ethics to people who had not been well brought up.  Apparently he had the cozy luxury of choice.  Those who do not must find another way.