Monday, September 11, 2023
I'm delighted to announce a conference on Robert George's groundbreaking book, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, on the 30th anniversary of its publication. The conference will be held November 30-December 1, and is being jointly organized by AEI, the Ethics & Public Policy Center, Pepperdine University, and the Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at Catholic University. You can see the terrific program at the link.
I'm particularly pleased to contribute something to this conference, as Robby's book was a major influence on me as I thought about an academic career many years ago, shaping the way I thought about so-called "legal moralism" and many other questions in constitutional law and theory that came to occupy me in later years. And I continue to use the book to this day in my own classes as a model to introduce some of the foundational questions of governance that it discusses.
Saturday, July 22, 2023
I'm pleased to report that my book project on traditionalism in constitutional law is now under contract with Cambridge University Press, with the tentative title "We Mean What We Do: The New Constitutional Traditionalism." The book will bring together many of the themes and arguments from a number of papers that I've been working on over the last several years, as well as some new papers I'll post soon. But most of it will be new material, and I hope to have a few posts in the coming months trying out some ideas at Mirror of Justice. More soon!
Thursday, June 1, 2023
I'm very sorry to note that Professor Steve Shiffrin has died. Steve was the author of some wonderful work in law and religion and the freedom of speech, well known to many of us at Mirror of Justice and from which I learned a great deal. He was also a kind and generous man. He was, as my colleague Mark Movsesian writes, "a scholar of the first rank who remained humble and helpful to everyone. A rare combination of virtues. May he rest in peace."
Sunday, May 14, 2023
Permit me to flag a very interesting article by Professor Samuel Bray: The Influence of the Catholic Tradition on the Common Law.The piece (drawn, I believe, from a talk on the same subject that Sam gave at Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, at the Center directed by Kevin Walsh and Joel Alicea) discusses three ways in which Catholic thought shaped the common law tradition. One of the difficulties in such a project, Sam says, is that the common law tradition is largely a post-16th century English phenomenon, when the role of Catholicism was, shall we say, diminished. Here is the abstract of the piece, followed by a few little on-the-fly reflections:
This essay considers the influence of the Catholic intellectual tradition on the common law. As a preliminary matter, the essay notes that the term "Catholic intellectual tradition" is of recent vintage, though its referent is much older. It identifies three mechanisms of influence: inheriting, conversing, and generating. For inheriting, the essay notes that some common law doctrines, such as the Chancellor's conscience, were inherited from the Catholic intellectual tradition. For conversing, the essay notes the conversation across confessional boundaries in early modern Europe, which was facilitated by the use of Latin and scholastic curricula well after the Reformation. This point, while familiar to early modern intellectual historians because of revisionist work over the last quarter century, may be surprising to legal scholars. Finally, for generating, this essay shows that the common law judges, by their own lights, were participants in the Catholic intellectual tradition. This is demonstrated, for example, by analysis of Chief Justice Vaughan's opinion in Thomas v. Sorrell (1673/4). When this intellectual tradition is viewed without anachronistic narrowness, its influence on the common law is substantial.
The piece is short, sweet, and full of great learning and insight. I highly recommend it. One rapid thought on the "anachronistic narrowness" point quoted above in the abstract. On what he calls the "generative" influence of Catholic thought on the common law, Sam argues very interestingly that the division of Catholic Intellectual Tradition from Protestant thought is likely of relatively recent vintage (say, the 19th century or so, especially in the resistance of the Church to modernity during that period), and that the common lawyers of the early period of the common law did think of themselves as working from (and perhaps even within) the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. One might call it instead the catholic intellectual tradition that is, Sam suggests, the tradition that had influence on the early common law--the Western Christian or Christian apostolic tradition unbound by today's anachronistic divisions.
There are some comparatively small questions I had about some of Sam's more specific claims. He says, for example, that each "side"--"Roman" and "non-Roman"--argued in "Newmanesque" fashion that "whoever did not change or augment the deposit of faith was the truly catholic side." But is this really a full description of the disagreements that were themselves generated in and just after the period Sam surveys? There are not too many people in this world who would like more to believe that everybody is actually, deep down, a traditionalist (perhaps Sam is one). But disagreements about tradition and development (a/k/a change), it seems to me, eventually led to Cardinal Newman's own position, decisions, and intellectual contribution. I wonder whether they materialized quite as late as Sam suggests.
Nevertheless, in highlighting one of Sam's perhaps more controversial points above, I want to emphasize that Sam seems to me quite correct on all three influences with respect to the thought of learned commentators such as Coke, Hale, St. German, and others (perhaps even as late as Mansfield and Blackstone, for example), as well as judges such as the one who wrote the lead opinion in cases like Thomas v. Sorrell (1673/4). "[G]iven the cross-confessional argument and pollination in the early modern period across the republic of letters," Sam contends, "it is plausible to think that sharply demarcated “Catholic” and “Protestant” intellectual traditions are from a later time." As I say, just when that "later time" began is difficult to determine, as Sam properly acknowledges (the 19th century seems quite late, indeed), but at least as to the earlier common law writers, his view seems (to this admitted non-expert in English legal history) persuasive. Check out this very fine piece.
Tuesday, May 2, 2023
Authors hope and fear for their work. Will it endure? Will it be forgotten? Will it be read and considered, or crumble away as if it never had been written?
Here is the Roman poet, Statius--a magnificent writer in his own right, but today largely forgotten--at the conclusion of his masterpiece, the Thebaid (concerning the travails of the Seven Against Thebes), with a lovely reflection on these perennial anxieties:
Wilt thou endure in the time to come, O my Thebaid, for twelve years object of my wakeful toil, wilt thou survive thy master and be read? Of a truth already present Fame hath paved thee a friendly road, and begun to hold thee up, young as thou art, to future ages. Already great-hearted Caesar deigns to know thee, and the youth of Italy eagerly learns and recounts thy verse. O live, I pray! nor rival the divine Aeneid, but follow afar and ever venerate its footsteps. Soon, if any envy as yet o’erclouds thee, it shall pass away, and, after I am gone, thy well-won honours shall be duly paid.
Tuesday, April 25, 2023
From Chapter 25 of Lewis's The Screwtape Letters:
The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart--an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes in them in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual year; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.
Now, just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty...The demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire. The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both. And again, the more rapacious this desire, the sooner it must eat up all the innocent sources of pleasure and pass on to those the Enemy forbids. Thus by inflaming the horror of the Same Old Thing we have recently made the Arts, for example, less dangerous to us than, perhaps, they have ever been, 'low-brow' and "high-brow' artists alike now being daily drawn into fresh, and still fresh excesses of lasciviousness, unreason, cruelty, and pride...
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will. It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful. The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking 'Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?' they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on. And great work has already been done. Once they knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective 'unchanged' we have substituted the emotional adjective 'stagnant.' We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain--not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
Saturday, April 1, 2023
Here is the text [UPDATE: and the video] of a talk I was delighted to give a few weeks ago for the inaugural conference of the Center for Law and the Human Person at Catholic University School of Law, ably directed by Elizabeth Kirk. A bit of a manifesto, I'm afraid, which I offer here now on the 19th anniversary of Mirror of Justice, a forum that has meant a great deal to me.
Do You Wish to Know? Notes on a New Humanism in Legal Education
March 14, 2023
A center for law and the human person is a center devoted to considering questions about humanity, about human nature, about what is good and bad for human beings. About what their ultimate ends are. About who humans are and what they should do.
Such a center, I will claim, is not only about these central questions concerning humanity, but also about the disciplines that have come to be known as the humanities, and the way that the humanities contribute to the formation of fully human beings—in the case of the center, fully human beings who also happen to be lawyers.
What would such a center pursue as part of its core humanistic mission?
Here there are some major challenges that such a fledgling center would confront. There is some bad news. Familiar bad news, perhaps, but bad news nonetheless worth reviewing. The humanities—the study of language (ancient and modern), history, philosophy, literature, the arts, and, on some understandings, religion and theology—are in free fall. The numbers of undergraduates majoring in these fields is shrinking dramatically. Dramatically, in fact, does not do the shrinking the barest justice.
Such is the lack of interest in the humanities that many colleges are eliminating humanistic study altogether. These include Catholic colleges, like Marymount University in Virginia, which recently announced the cutting out of humanistic learning. But not only Catholic colleges. Colleges, religious and secular, are doing away entirely with majors in these subjects, and they are also reducing humanistic study drastically. If these reports are credited, there simply is no longer even the minimal student interest in them necessary to sustain departments or self-standing courses.
And this is not an issue only for what are regarded as less elite institutions. An article in The New Yorker just a few weeks ago observed that over the last decade, humanities majors have dropped at an average rate of 50% at schools like Ohio State, Arizona State, Tufts, Notre Dame, Columbia, and Harvard. In fact, Harvard’s numbers are particularly striking. In 2012, the number of humanities majors at Harvard was 20%. In 2022, it was 7%. The numbers are forecasted to fall even more after that. Good economic times, bad economic times, and everywhere in between, the numbers continue to decline.
The explanations are many and sufficiently plentiful that one can insist on whichever reason one might prefer. Some say that the advent of technology like iPhones and social media (Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and so on) has made the activity of the reading of humanistic books superfluous or uninteresting. There is surely some truth to this, a truth from which I do not exempt myself. I know (to my shame) that I am reading fewer books today than I read even ten years ago. I am consumed with my own phone. As a recent NY Times piece on what is wrong with the humanities put it, “The answer to any question, ‘What is Wrong…” is or ought to be, ‘I am wrong.’” The line was Chesterton’s, actually.
It has also been claimed that the language of centuries past is increasingly inaccessible or impenetrable to today’s generations of students, who prefer and are accustomed to a different way of communicating more suited to current circumstance. Again, there is also some truth here. I have found that a good meme can do as much to make, say, Marbury v. Madison memorable as can close attention to its elegant but difficult text.
Others say that economic concerns predominate. College is extremely expensive, and only becoming more so. Most students are required to take on crushing loans. Those loans put great pressure on students to find employments that are immediately remunerative, so that they can then proceed to even more well-paying work later. The humanities are not seen as safe bets in an environment of such pressure. Employers are not looking for history or language majors. The skills taught by history professors in history departments are not seen as marketable. They do not distinguish a candidate as desirable, as they once did.
In a related development, witness the meteoric ascent of STEM fields. At Princeton University, where I am visiting this semester, a gigantic new engineering program is being constructed—a colossus that will dwarf the existing educational structures and that will, I am told, drive a massive expansion in Princeton’s student admissions in the coming years. Just as humanities majors have precipitously declined, so, too, have Computer Science majors and other applied science majors exponentially grown. The current Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, has emphasized repeatedly that colleges and universities must “meet the needs of the economy,” and those needs are connected overwhelmingly to education in STEM fields, not the humanities.
And universities, here and abroad, have become, as Adrian Pabst puts it in a recent piece in the New Statesman, “managerially controlled and market driven.” College and university administrators (some of whom, I hasten to add, are lovely, lovely people, Dean Payne), whose rise in numbers and power within the universities has often been remarked, tend to see the function of the university in these terms as well. They are liable to ask questions like (as one administrator did recently ask me), “Why are you assigning Plato in your free speech and free inquiry class? What does that offer the students?” What, indeed, when a STEM-exclusive education can produce marvels such as ChatGPT, which, some say, makes humanistic study even more useless and anachronistic than it was already.
And, of course, a final explanation for the collapse of humanistic learning is internal. Humanities professors themselves increasingly disdain or even are ashamed of the learning and the knowledge that form the core of their own disciplines. Classical languages departments at the most elite universities have begun to do away with requirements in the very languages that constitute their discipline. A Latin major with no Latin. English departments rename themselves something else—anything else—mortified by the learning that constitutes their own field. As one Harvard English professor put it in the New Yorker piece, “One of the tragedies of the British Empire is that everyone read Dickens, so we must read him too.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Dickens, though that is about the best that one can hope for in the way of defense. Small wonder that large numbers of students flee such disciplines. This is the death of learning, as the title of a recent book by John Agresto puts it, “not by murder, but by suicide.”
I do not intend to pick among these explanations or spend much more time surveying reasons. Probably they all have some explanatory role. I want instead to think about effects. About what this collapse means. After all, one might reasonably ask, so what? What difference does it make that many fewer students are interested in these subjects? Disciplines come and go in the history of human thought. Astrology was once studied in universities. Alchemy was, too.
Academic disciplines can become extinct, and there need not be any regret at their dying. Or they can transform themselves into something else. Psychiatrists today are trained to be chemists where once they were trained to be psychoanalysts. English departments can become social media studies departments. And, at any rate, the appetite for the study of Assyrian or Linear B or even the Romance Languages probably never was all that high to begin with. Perhaps it should not be.
The death spasms of the humanities are only to be regretted, and efforts to resuscitate them undertaken, if we can conclude that there is something of worth in them, that they continue to contribute something of value. That requires a defense of some kind. An apology, one might say, for the humanities. So…do they? The author of the New Yorker article that I mentioned observed: “scholars have begun to wonder what it might mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before.”
That author might have consulted a law professor or two for answers. After all, we get lots of undergraduates right after their college years, so that if there are effects of the moribund humanities to see, we might be likely to see them.
Saturday, March 18, 2023
Here's the video of a panel with Professors Ernie Young, Kevin Walsh, and me, discussing what I think of as a long-existing, though now emerging, method of constitutional interpretation and law. We all brought different perspectives to the matter, and it was fun to talk together. The program is part of Professor Joel Alicea and Professor Walsh's Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at The Catholic University, Columbus School of Law. I enjoyed the conversation and questions very much.
Monday, March 6, 2023
I am delighted to be participating in this conference at Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, next Tuesday, together with fellow MOJ-ers Profs. Mary Leary and Lisa Schiltz, as well as Prof. Carter Snead. The conference inaugurates the new Center for Law and the Human Person, directed by Elizabeth Kirk. The theme of the conference is "Rightly Ordered Law and the Flourishing of the Human Person."
The title of my talk is "Notes on a New Humanism in Legal Education." I'm told the conference will be recorded, but if you are in DC, please register at the link and do stop by and say hello! I'll have more to say about the substance of my talk soon.
Thursday, February 16, 2023
From "Reconceiving the University and the Lecture," in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry 230-31.
The preliberal modern university was a university of enforced and constrained agreements. The liberal university aspired to be a university of unconstrained agreements and hence its abolition of religious and moral tests, and hence also, so I have argued, its present endangered state. Such reformers as those who propose some version of the Great Books curriculum ignore the fundamental character of our present disagreements and conflicts, presupposing possibilities of agreement of a kind which do not at present exist. What then is possible? The answer is: the university as a place of constrained disagreement, of imposed participation in conflict, in which a central responsibility of higher education would be to initiate students into conflict. In such a university those engaged in teaching and enquiry would each have to play a double role. For, on the one hand each of us would be participating in conflict as the protagonist of a particular point of view, preserving and transforming the initial agreements with those who share that point of view and so articulating through moral and theological enquiry a framework within which the parts of the curriculum might once again become parts of the whole. The second task would be to enter into controversy with other rival standpoints, doing so both in order to exhibit what is mistaken in that rival standpoint in the light of the understanding afforded by one's own point of view and in order to test and retest the central theses advanced from one's own point of view against the strongest possible objections to them to be derived from one's opponents. So systematically conducted controversy would itself contribute to systematically conducted moral and theological enquiry, and both would inform that teaching in which students were initiated into both enquiry and controversy.
On the other hand, each of us would also have to play a second role, that not of a partisan, but of someone concerned to uphold and to order the ongoing conflicts, to provide and sustain institutionalized means for their expression, to negotiate the modes of encounter between opponents, to ensure that rival voices were not illegitimately suppressed, to sustain the university -- not as an arena of neutral objectivity, as in the liberal university, since each of the contending standpoints would be advancing its own partisan account of the nature and function of objectivity -- but as an arena of conflict in which the most fundamental type of moral and theological disagreement was accorded recognition.