By Robert Capehert
Happiness is not based on onself, it does not consist of a small home, of taking and getting. Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own personal world, and the world in general.
—Lee Harvey Oswald
IN William F Buckley, Jr.’s autobiographical reflection of his Roman Catholic faith in his book, “Nearer My God,” he wrote, “Years ago, the late Professor Richard Weaver pointed out what should be obvious, namely that Marxism and Communism are redemptive creeds, while liberalism [classical] has no eschatology, no ultimate sense of consummation. Free speech and private party are terrific, but they do not deal with the great ends of life.”
Buckley’s concession of 18th century liberalism’s limits was, in Madisonian terms, purposeful. Forming a system in which the state decides on beginnings from ends in regards to cosmological verity—of eschatology and consummation—would require all knowing, perfect men and women. Such men and women do not exist. They never have, and never will. History teaches those who think they have ontological or epistemological certainty lord over those under their control.
How did the Founders protect against such usurpation from the state?
The goal for the Founders was to limit the “acreage” the state was responsible for, by limiting it. The first step was people governing themselves. Self-government is the primary political ethic of the U.S. Constitution. And the moral purpose of the U.S. Constitution is individual liberty. And so, what control there would be would be limited twofold. It would be limited to external considerations—where government belongs. Consequently, government would be limited by a separation of powers between three distinct branches of government.
Further limitations exist on the federal jurisdiction of such authority, in alliance with more separated powers, within state and local governments. This meant a limited government hedged in by enumerated, constitutional powers, exercised within federal, state, and local governments. It also portended, according to Enlightenment era ideas, giving way to Lockean Liberalism philosophy; the ultimate ontological and epistemological questions of life—what the late Buckley aptly called “the great ends of life”—would not be under the authority of government.
Thomas Jefferson once famously lamented, ‘if it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg, what do I care?’
History taught the framers if the state grasped such an elevated role the logical end was tyranny. It was not an educated guess, but the lesson history taught. America’s Revolution with Britain was fought against a Monarchial power. King George was the sovereign, lofty perched above his servants, the common people.
Still, such concessions do not mean the great ends of life do not exist. They do—and, always will. Generation upon generation must contend with their verity. And because they do, the cultivation of private institutions engaging such ideas is important to a liberal society. Polemical arguments engaging aesthetics, human conduct; the quality of art and life are crucial to societal health. Edmund Burke called society’s divergent, private institutions “little platoons”, crucial islands of separation, preserving engines of freedom and virtue.
The Church in America was, therefore, one such “platoon”—wholly apart from the state, above the state’s importance, with a different sphere of authority. But the ends of life matter. And history’s tyrannical ‘ism’s answer them with earthly bound redemptive utility—all serving the state as prime mover of the dialectic.
In the end, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F Kennedy, on Nov. 22, 1963, was a man driven to Marxist-Communist fealty out of the need for a redemptive rune—his own personal experience of life, namely subjective, fitted organically into the whole—or “the world in general”, i.e., the epistemic dialectic. Though an alleged murderer of the nation’s Commander And Chief, among other things, Oswald was correct in his quote to his brother Robert.
Life and the world compose more than getting and taking.
Life is more than happiness.
Life is struggle. Brimming with lachrymose textures, embraced by sorrow and suffering, life gallops across a Balzacian redemptive theatre. Our world is particular—its specificity, its purposefulness. It is a world of penultimate boundaries, and sempiternal destination. A world without end approaches. Where the exigencies and deeds of life are intelligible, ever echoing into eternity.
And so, the animation of 18th century conceptions of liberalism in our republic must likewise realise liberalism’s metaphysical limitations. Those limitations are to ensnare the state within limited power, animating individual liberty. But the limitations of our 18th century liberal republic dare not inform us such questions of eschatology, history, and consummation, are unimportant.
They are the most important—they are eternal and ever true.
Dare I say, the notion such important questions are kept from the state’s purview make them all the more pertinent. Questions of what is history and what are people?—Wendell Berry’s famous essay “What are People For?” comes to mind—are the primal questions of existence. They were thought to be so important the Founders deemed the state unfit to decide them.
It was not simply because such questions are mysterious, but because they are universally relevant.
Each election cycle Americans are feasted upon by ravenous political analysts pulling hair about the gridlock in Washington, D.C., destroying the country. Mainstream commentators inform viewers ad nauseam American voters want Democrats and Republicans to work together—uniting along common ground. Some of this is true, and where it is, American’s hold their government as too important.
I am in constant befuddlement of such idealism.
The point of separated powers and liberal government is to ensure scant “progress” is made. The reason, from the Founder’s perspective, is progress in governmental terms, amplifies state power, eroding freedom, and thus creating dislocations and complications upon individual life. It’s an issue of liberty. Always. The point of enumerated powers, reigning in government—defining its limited role—presupposes that much of what government does is not of urgent importance.
Government in 18th century liberal terms does not (and should not) comprise matters of the great ends of life. Not if individual freedom is the moral purpose behind the U.S. Constitution. Of course, where urgency is required, such as National Security, the U.S. Constitution gives enormous “energy” [Alexander Hamilton’s words in Federalist 70] to the Chief Executive.
Logically, if America is invaded, congressional gridlock is unacceptable. It would be national and individual suicide.
But such consideration does not remove the necessity for classical liberalism to allow for, and build room for, polemical debate and exchange concerning eschatology and consummation as Buckley indicated. I would suggest the religious affections of many of the Founding Fathers, including James Madison presupposed eschatological dualism, inherent in Protestant exegetical development.
The notion of a Sacred realm existing outside the confines of the secular, where state authority resided, was preciously what Madison indicated in his writings—something Madison took from Dr Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers. While many of the Founders were not believing Christians, Christian ideas about the Sacred and secular permeated their reasoning about penultimate and ultimate authorities.