In his review of Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) in the Claremont Review of Books, Randy Barnett highlights some of the same features of the US political structure as particularly unique that Lord Acton emphasized. In conclusion Barnett writes of our Constitution:
It is counter-majoritarian by design. Precisely because the founders feared majoritarian fecklessness and abuse, they inserted the veto points to which Levinson objects. Most people today—whether left, right, or libertarian—still fear majoritarian rule. They believe they have more to fear from their political opponents gaining power than they have to gain from putting their friends in office. Indeed, many Americans revere the Constitution precisely because of its counter-majoritarianism—the checks and balances adopted by the founders.
Or in the words of Lord Acton, “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”
Here are some other relevant observations from Lord Acton on democracy, federalism, and the Constitution:
For it is a most striking thing that the views of pure democracy…were almost entirely unrepresented in [the American] convention.
Democracy generally monopolizes and concentrates power.
Federalism is the best curb on democracy. [It] assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.
Federalism: The only barrier to Democracy.
Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.
The great novelty of the American Constitution was that it imposed checks on the representatives of the people.
The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.
Barnett notes too the resistance to advocating the American form of federalist democracy for other nations.
“While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret,” he writes.
I really liked the film (Anthony Bradley gives it a ‘B’). The visuals are quite striking and impressive. The action sequences alone are well worth the price of admission. Gerard Butler gives a powerful performance as King Leonidas, and his wife, Queen Gorgo (played by Lena Headey), does more than hold her own. When an emissary from Xerxes arrives in Sparta, he is taken aback that a woman dare speak in the counsel of men. Gorgo responds that only Spartan women are capable of birthing “proper men.”
In the strength of her performance, however, Headey stands above the rest of the cast, which are constantly in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer forcefulness of Butler’s portrayal. In particular the portrayal of Delios, the narrator and witness to the events of ‘300’, by David Wenham (who also played Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) suffers notably in comparison to Butler’s Leonidas.
There is a fair bit of titillation, from the sensuality of an “drunk adolescent” oracle to the lurid temptations faced by the Ephialtes, and once the violence starts it is quite graphic. This film certainly won’t get the Dove Foundation’s approval.
The grim gallows humor of the dialogue lends itself to numerous memorable one-liners, mostly from the mouth of Leonidas. He tells the self-proclaimed god-man Xerxes, for instance, that he cannot kneel in submission because his legs are cramped from killing Persians all day. At other times the dialogue seems a bit uneven, perhaps because of the notable difference in verbal requirements between a graphic novel and a screenplay.
The film has received mixed reviews, in large part due to the facile comparisons that could be made between Leonidas and George W. Bush. A leitmotif of the film is the battle between the free citizen warriors of Sparta and the slaves under the tyrannical domination of Xerxes. Thus, says Leonidas, “A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.”
Particularly suited to contemporary comparison is the scene in which the other Greeks abandon Leonidas and his Spartans to their death at the hands of Xerxes’ forces. It is almost impossible at that point not to think of the splintering of the coalition forces in Iraq. Of course there are many reasons that the movie shouldn’t be taken as an allegory for the modern situation, but the ease with which parts of the film can be interpreted in this way no doubt explains much of the media’s ambivalence toward the film.
It’s worth noting what Lord Acton observed about the character of freedom and democracy in particular after the united Greeks were victorious in the Persian wars. This ushered in a period where Athens dominated the confederation of city-states, and whose abuse of power (from the perspective of the Spartans) led to the Peloponnesian War.
Acton writes of Athens and their democracy, “But the lesson of their experience endures for all times, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.”
We can see this danger in the film itself, as the commitment of the warrior-state of Sparta to the purity and strength of bloodline leads to the practice of eugenics and infanticide. This practice comes home to roost in an ironic fashion indeed, playing a direct role in the demise of Leonidas himself. And so perhaps there are some contemporary lessons to be learned from ‘300’ after all beyond the obvious ones about the value of bravery, fortitude, and commitment.
This review has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.
In Part 3, we examined why many contemporary Protestants have something of a bad conscience when it comes to natural law. But, of course, the blame for this cannot be laid fully upon Karl Barth. Even a hint of a fuller explanation has to address intellectual currents that begin to gather momentum in the so-called Enlightenment. One popular explanation within the academic mainstream for the demise of the natural-law tradition in modern Protestant theology attributes it to a form of implosion. And this is what I want to take up here.
Why did the natural-law tradition fall on hard times in modern Protestant theology? Many have speculated that the reason somehow lies deeply embedded in the Reformation theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, John T. McNeill, the Reformation historian and editor of Calvin’s Institutes, reached a far different conclusion:
There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law. Not one of the leaders of the Reformation assails the principle. Instead, with the possible exception of Zwingli, they all on occasion express a quite ungrudging respect for the moral law naturally implanted in the human heart and seek to inculcate this attitude in their readers. Natural law is not one of the issues on which they bring the Scholastics under criticism. With safeguards of their primary doctrines but without conscious resistance on their part, natural law enters into the framework of their thought and is an assumption of their political and social teaching. . . . The assumption of some contemporary theologians that natural law has no place in the company of Reformation theology cannot be allowed to govern historical inquiry or to lead us to ignore, minimize, or evacuate of reality, the positive utterances on natural law scattered through the works of the Reformers. . . . For the Reformers, as for the Fathers, canonists, and Scholastics, natural law stood affirmed on the pages of Scripture.
The pressure to abandon the teaching of natural law did not stem from the Reformation so much as from post-Enlightenment philosophy, especially Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism.
The post-Enlightenment era can be characterized in terms of a loss of belief, not only in special divine revelation through Scripture and church teaching, but also in the ability of reason to discern a natural moral order in human affairs. These losses become visible in Europe and North America after 1850 and prepare the way for law to become an instrument of power. With the eclipse of natural law, positive law lost its transcendent moorings and soon came to be an instrument of the totalitarian state. Appeals to “higher law” were dismissed as relics of the past, and moral questions were reduced to legal decisions. With the collapse of the religious and metaphysical foundations of justice, the totalitarian state could now manipulate law as a mere function of absolute power. This is the meaning of the famous statement by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” Thus there was no other criterion of validity for the law than the will of those who had the monopoly of force.
The twentieth century has paid a high price in legalized atrocities and crimes against humanity. After World War II, for a brief moment in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, Protestant theologians and ethicists seemed to entertain the idea of a “baseline morality” that all people could be said to know and thus be responsible for. But they were in a quandary about natural law, and found it difficult to move beyond Barth’s objections. Carl Braaten captures well the ambivalence of Protestant theologians during this period: “Natural law came to be seen as a kind of necessary evil, or as an illegitimate child that could not be completely abandoned but whose rights must be severely restricted.”
In Part 5, we will shift our focus slightly and address the two most common Protestant criticisms of natural law.
This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.
BRYN MAWR, July 10, 2006 – Things are progressing smoothly for me here at the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar. Our daily schedule includes four major lectures from seminar faculty, each with built in small group discussion time as well as Q&As with the presenting faculty.
One of our first activities was to try and self-identify in terms of our view of the role of government (if any). I identified with the endorsement of a limited government, whose main role is to provide for the defense of the nation and the administration of domestic justice. In addition, however, I do not dismiss out of hand any role for the State beyond these two activities. Indeed, in agreement with the political conclusions of the Chicago School and Hayek, I do find there to be a legitimate role for the State with regard to certain kinds of public good.
I would articulate this as being in broad accord with a sort of sphere sovereignty envisioned by Abraham Kuyper and those who followed him, specifically with respect to the divine authority invested in various social institutions. This perspective is not unique to Kuyper, however, and I think finds expression and support from a wider and more diverse range of sources. These include writers like Lord Acton (see yesterday’s post for a representative quote), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the reformer Wolfgang Musculus.
The government is a social institution with its own specific and unique mandate, and therefore has an important albeit limited role. My current sense is that the government is responsible for having some concern for the public welfare in cases of extreme and urgent need. The proper relation between the government and the other spheres of life, however, is characterized best I think in terms of the government as the institution of last and temporary resort. The principle of subsidiarity is helpful in articulating just how these relations might work.
A final reflection: it is important to understand the role of a Christian political philosophy and how it relates more broadly to a Christian world-and-life view. Take Lord Acton, as an example. He writes,
Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
Broadly speaking, we might say then that for Acton the purpose of government is to promote and protect liberty, as man’s highest political end. But this end is itself penultimate, and is to be used in service of other, presumably even higher, human ends (e.g. those of civil society and private life). This points to the necessary relationsip between liberty as a political end and what we might call virtue as a higher human end. That is, freedom is not simply an ultimate end in itself, but must be used in the pursuit of virtue, which finds its authoritative and greatest manifestation in the Christian religion.
This quote from Acton also sets the stage for a topic for tomorrow, Christian theology and anarchy. But my thought for today is that classical liberalism is not itself a complete and adequate world-and-life view (for Christians especially, but really for anyone else either), but rather can in certain forms be consistent as an applied political philosophy with Christianity, and which does not even begin to make claims about the highest human ends.
BRYN MAWR, July 9, 2006 – I arrived safely at Bryn Mawr College yesterday for the beginning of the Institute for Humane Studies Advanced Studies in Freedom Conference. Someone will have to explain to me the economic efficiency of flying from Detroit to Philadelphia by way of Atlanta. The accomodations are excellent, and the campus is quite beautiful.
The program began last night, and continued today with two morning lectures. The schedule is well suited to a good amount of discussion and dialogue, both with the faculty and the seminar participants. In the hopes of creating a truly open environment for dialogue and learning, the entire seminar proceedings are off the record. Therefore, these updates will represent my own reflections and questions on the issues raised in the course of the seminar.
In the spirit of advancing the study and appreciation of liberty, let me pass along this quote from Lord Acton (who has had rather good representation here so far, if I may say):
By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.
More in the coming days about my perspective on the role of the State, as well as difficulties in finding fundamental agreement between certain forms of classical liberal thought and Christianity.
There’s a new e-version of The Federalist Papers produced by Edward O’Connor. The innovation with this edition compared to all the other various electronic iterations of the papers is the ability to link to an exact paragraph within a particular paper. O’Connor says of the impetus for the endeavor, “I haven’t been able find one that was simultaneously nice-looking and useful (useful insofar as pinpoint linkability is concerned, at least).”
The URL is based on the number of the paper, followed by the number sign #, followed by the paragraph number (preceded by the marker “p”). So that, for example, a link to Federalist No. 37, paragraph 3, would take the following form: http://federali.st/37#p3, which begins:
It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it.
“The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded,” wrote Lord Acton.
Acton called federalism “the best curb on democracy,” because it “assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.” He also described federalism as “the only barrier to Democracy,” which “generally monopolizes and concentrates power.”
“The common vice of democracy is disregard for morality,” he said, and observed that “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”
Acton defined federalism as “coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.”
Writing in Canada’s Macleans magazine, Mark Steyn modifies a famous saying of our namesake:
As Lord Acton almost said, all power corrupts but Liberal power corrupts very liberally.
Since it’s a Canadian publication, the capital “L” refers to the party that was booted out of power in the recent elections.
The whole piece is an interesting look at the legacy of the British empire and can be read here.