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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. John Grant On Aquinas And The Natural Law Doctrine Vs. American Progressivism

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HH: Welcome to the last hour of the radio week. It is the Hillsdale Dialogue, that hour of the week that I spend with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and one of his colleagues, this week, Professor Grant. Dr. Grant teaches politics at Hillsdale College. He got his B.A. from Reagan’s college, Eureka College, his M.A. and his PhD from the University of Dallas. He has been here before to opine on Cicero, and he is back to help us do something unusual that we haven’t done before in the two years of the Hillsdale Dialogues that they have been running. And all of those are collected at, or you can go to all of the courses that Hillsdale has at It is an encore of sorts. After four weeks of Thomas Aquinas that many of you have sent us letters about saying thank you, that you had been afraid, as I was, of Aquinas, and that Dr. Arnn and Professor Cole had helped you get over that fear, we thought you needed more. And so we got an encore, and we have Professor Grant, who is teaching Aquinas as we speak at Hillsdale College to come and join us. Professor Grant, welcome back. And tell people what you are teaching and why this segment is as different from the four that we did before, our focus.

JG: Well, I am teaching courses on medieval political philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students here, two separate courses, and we are doing most of the course on Aquinas in both classes because of, partly because of his natural law doctrine, which we’re going to be talking about today, which is of tremendous importance, and also because of his take on the relationship between faith and reason, which is related to his natural law teaching and important for all thinking human beings to wrestle with.

HH: Now Larry Arnn, you in particular wanted to make sure that we spent some specific time on the natural law, and specifically the second part of the first part, and the questions 90 through 94 that deal with his treatises on natural law. Why? Why do you think it’s so important to make sure that our audience hears it?

LA: Well you know, I gather, Hugh, that George Will has just said that you’re a brilliant interviewer, and you’re all puffed up about it. and you have just asked me the perfect question, and I’m prepared to answer it.

HH: Okay.

LA: I’m teaching this week the Constitution course. I’m teaching this semester the Constitution course, and we’re toward the end of the term now, and so we’re dealing with the progressives. And I’m going to read to you from one of them. This man is Frank Goodnow, and he was one of the founders of the American Political Science Association. He was a colleague of John Dewey at Columbia, and then he was president of Johns Hopkins, and he’s one of the people who invented the kind of politics we live under today. This is from his essay, The American Conception of Liberty. “The end of the 18th Century,” he writes, “was marked by the formulation and general acceptance by thinking men in Europe of a political philosophy which laid great emphasis on individual private rights.” Now ellipses and go down a paragraph. “While there was no justification in fact for this social contract theory and this doctrine of natural rights, their acceptance by thinking men did lay the ground,” and then he goes on to say, “for our new kind of liberalism, which is not grounded in any understanding of nature or right or anything prior to human thinking.”

HH: Wow.

LA: That is the progressive era right there, the conception in the Declaration of Independence that there are laws of nature and of nature’s God, that you are a kind of being with inalienable rights, that any interference with those rights is always wrong, that is the thing that has been rejected.

HH: Goodnow has really cast of. And were people aware of it at the time how radical that is?

LA: It presents itself, because of course at this time, early in the progressive era when he’s writing this, this is 1916. And so it’s an academic thing, right? And since I mentioned that John and I are teaching, of course, this term, let me read you this thing, too, because it’s really crazy. He says, I’ve got to find it, “We teachers, perhaps, take ourselves too seriously at times. That, I am willing to admit. We may not have nearly the influence that we think we have. Changed in economic conditions for which we are in no way responsible bring in their train, regardless of what we teach, changes in beliefs and opinions.” In other words, the sacred experience you have in the classroom, studying great and beautiful things that elevate the soul of the students, is nothing to this man, because the human understanding is contingent on the circumstances around it. So the reason there’s no human freedom in nature is that there’s no human independence from necessity in nature. And that’s what gets swept away, right? I mean, Barack Obama wrote in the Audacity of Hope before he was elected president of the United States, “Implicit in the Constitution’s structures,” this is a quote, “and the very idea of ordered liberty is a rejection of absolute truth.”

HH: Yeah, now I want to ask Dr. Grant if you’ve just heard Mr. Goodnow, Professor Goodnow write that, and we turn to question 94 in the first part of the second part, and people will understand that from our previous conversations, he poses six questions, Aquinas does – what is the natural law, what are the precepts of the natural law, what are all acts of virtue are prescribed by the natural law, whether the natural law is the same in all, whether it is changeable, whether it can be abolished from the heart of man. And Goodnow would say, of course, those are all silly questions, wouldn’t he?

JG: That’s exactly right. He would, Goodnow and the progressives in general all deny that you could understand human nature apart from the society in which you find it. So Dewey says, John Dewey in a book called Liberalism And Social Action, that society is that in which man moves and lives and has his being, and he’s taking that from Acts 17, replacing God with society. Society makes us, and you can’t understand human nature or natural law, moral precepts apart from that, in those current social circumstances.

HH: So what do those people of a hundred years ago think of those people of 800 years ago? I mean, what would Goodnow or Dewey, I don’t want to bring Wilson in, because that clutters it up with our image of him, but the pure progressive intellectual think of his vast output and his work on the natural law? Just an aberration of monks caught in a cell of cells?

JG: Well, Dewey said people like Aquinas or Locke later, another natural law thinker, didn’t understand historical relativity, that they thought that you could find a truth apart from the current context in which you find yourself, historical context, and that was their great error, and now we supposedly know better.

HH: And Larry Arnn, this seems to me to be the question. Why did they feel entitled to break with the past? What was is that they thought they had that people as prodigious in output, as magnificent and obviously so a thinker as Aquinas, could not keep them leashed?

LA: That’s it. So radicalize the statement just a little bit. If everything is governed by your historical context, what is the independence of my own thought? What is the value of the propositions that I put forward? Why am I able to pronounce? And the answer is, the way Hegel puts the point is the owl of Minerva flies at dusk. At the end of history, we become better able to see. And what we see is that history, that events, that circumstances are all. And by the way, since a science has been born that lets us perceive that truth, we can now use that science to get command of history. We can become an engineering project to remake the society. And just to repeat, the reason I think it’s so important to dwell on the question of the law and the political understanding of Thomas Aquinas is because it is such an answer, you know, from, what, how many, 500 years before the founding, it is such an answer to this relativism that first of all deprives people of some standard by which to judge, but second, because it turns into this engineering project, permits the government, I mean, it is everywhere and it is growing. And the realm of private liberty is shrinking all the time. And you can see the idea of an independent private liberty specifically rejected in the words of the founder of the American Political Science Association.

HH: And with one minute to the break, Professor Grant, what would the founders have said of Aquinas’ understanding of natural law as opposed to the progressives?

JG: They were in broad agreement with at least the general idea that you can understand right and wrong, natural law, moral guidance apart from your particular historical context. So they had disagreements in some particular matters, but in general, they were in agreement with that. That was key to their understanding.

— – – –

HH: Professor Arnn, Dr. Arnn, I want to go back to something Stephen Breyer said on this show a few years ago, that people certainly can criticize and pay attention to the Court in general. Of course they can criticize. But there are different approaches to these very grand problems, very different. And I think, for example, originalism doesn’t work very well, Justice Breyer says. I think it’s pretty hard. I don’t think George Washington knew about the internet. I think our basic job here at the Court, and I paraphrase there, is to take the values in the Constitution which don’t change, they’re virtually the same now that they were in the 18th Century, they’re the values of the Enlightenment, and apply them to today’s world which changes every five minutes. I mean, yes, George Washington didn’t know about the internet, nor did James Madison know about television, et cetera, and the world keeps changing. So what do you say to that?

LA: Well, first of all, a good question to ask him would be what about these values, and which ones are they that don’t change? And how do you account for they’re not changing, because right now, everything is changing, right? I mean, we’re redefining the family. We’re, you know, there is a change in these progressive writings on how we understand human freedom. And the idea, you know, John Dewey, John quoted him, John Grant quoted him, he specifically states that you get your rights from your social context. And that means if your social context changes, then you don’t have the same rights anymore. And you know, he’s writing before 1937 and 1938 in Hitler’s Germany when those changes got really radical. The question for Stephen Breyer is on what ground do you repudiate that? And he does repudiate it, by the way, but how does he?

HH: Yeah, now Question 94 has the six questions within it, Professor Grant. One of them is, is the natural law changeable? I think Justice Breyer like the progressives say there isn’t a natural law, so the question is out of order, right?

JG: Yes, that’s exactly right.

HH: All right, so would you take us back to how Aquinas originally answers what is the natural law before we talk about whether or not it can be changed?

JG: Yeah, for Aquinas, the natural law is what we can know about how we should act, our moral actions, with our unassisted human reason. And we can know that by looking at our inclinations. And if we think about those inclinations, so say our inclination to preserve ourself is the first inclination we know about, or our inclination to live in society with others, if we think about how to make those inclinations good for us, then you get the content of the natural law.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, he added make those inclinations good for us. What about those inclinations which aren’t good for us, to chase after everyone that we wish to bed, to drink as much as we wish to drink, to eat as much as we wish to eat, or to rule all that we can see? What about those inclinations?

LA: Well, then, you have to be able to distinguish better and worse. And the way you go about that is pretty simple. You can look at each kind of being, and that means inanimate beings, too, and you can see what is it about them that makes them what they are, what is their nature. So look at human beings, and you can see cowards and liars and gluttons and wantons. They are not living in a way that is good for the human being. The human being doesn’t thrive under those conditions. And so it’s not being like the thing it is. That’s why if you read Othello, where you know, one of the worst men in all of Shakespeare is found, and of course, when he describes a man as bad, he can really do it. What is Iago like? And what is he like when no one is looking?

HH: Right.

LA: It’s that he’s a sour-looking person, and he is riven with jealousy and hatred, and there’s no happiness in his life of any kind. And he’s just jealous of his boss, and he decides to destroy him and destroy his boss’ wife whom he adores. But he can’t have her, and so he will destroy her and Othello. So you see, in other words, if you just think the human being functions in a certain way. And when it functions well that way, like describe Iago and then think of my favorite example of bravery, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton. And everyone who saw him there, and what he did there, everyone looked at that and thought it is a privilege to have beheld such a thing. It’s just hard to believe it could even happen.

HH: Would you tell the audience who have not heard of it what he did there?

LA: Well, what he did, he’d won the Battle of Trenton by going across the Delaware. It’s 1776, and he’s getting whacked. He took Boston, but then at Long Island, the British just completely outmaneuvered him. It was his first attempt to maneuver a big army anywhere, and he was no good at it. And so he runs his tail all the way down New Jersey, and it’s winter, and he gets across the river and he hides. And he’s thinking we can’t yet let the first year of the war, the year of the Declaration of Independence and without winning something. And so he decides to go across the river on a party night when the Hessians will be drunk, and surprise them early in the morning and kill them, because that’s how he thinks he can beat them. He’s late when he gets there. They win anyway. At one point, the guy organizing the boats said we’re late, sir, and you said we couldn’t win if we didn’t get there by dawn. And Washington says it doesn’t matter, we’ll be dead in a week anyway if we don’t win today. So he wins, but then he learns that Cornwallis, a very able general who managed to lose all the big battles in the war, is coming down with a force, and they’re at Princeton. And he can see that his victory which he now proclaim for the rest of the winter is about to be taken away. So he’s got to go up there and stop them. And when he gets there, the American troops are running. And we have a man named Fitzwilliams, who was his adjutant who records what he saw. And what he saw was that in this occasion, there were other occasions were Washington behaved differently and equally bravely, on this occasion, Washington walks his horse toward the British, and he doesn’t look to the left or the right. And so Fitzwilliams says he doesn’t have any way to know that anybody’s there with him. And he walks toward the British, and there’s a volley. The British fire at him. And he’s pointing his sword. And he’s shrouded in smoke, and Fitzwilliams covers his head with his cap, because he can’t bear when the smoke clears to see the dead George Washington. And when the smoke clears instead, neither Washington nor his horse has altered their course in any way. And everybody on the battlefield stared at that, and then the British ran away.

HH: You know, you tell that so well. And Dr. Grant, I think it would be Aquinas’ position that that sequence always and everywhere would be understood because of the natural law to be virtuous and good.

JG: That’s right. That’s exactly right, and you know, the reasoning, you think about our inclinations, and then you look at our experience, and so Dr. Arnn mentioned the refashioning of the family that’s going on in our day, and Aquinas would have opposed that not out of a sense of tradition, well, on that ground, too, but especially because nature shows us that human beings are happiest when men and women get together, marry and stay together and raise children together. And he talks about that when he talks about that question. You can know that by nature.

— – – – –

HH: And Dr. Grant, Aquinas writes, “It is therefore evident that is regards the general principles, whether of speculative or practical reason, truth or rectitude is the same for all, and is equally known by all.” Now that’s simply, that’s a pretty sweeping statement. And a lot of people would look at Washington and say he’s crazy advancing on the British at Princeton, not virtuous. How do you respond to that?

JG: Yeah, the general, what Aquinas means by that, general principles are things, he clarifies this later in Questions 99 and 100 of the Treatise on Law, like the second table of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments as they apply to human beings, that’s something anybody who thinks about our inclinations clearly can know that it’s wrong to cover another’s wife, steal from them, to murder them, things like that. The higher virtues are commanded by the natural law, but Aquinas says you can’t expect everybody to have those. Either they can’t figure them out, or they are unable to act on them in a way somebody like Washington could with his courage and his prudence together. They’re very rare qualities.

HH: The very next question, Dr. Larry Arnn, whether the law of nature can be abolished from the heart of man, I want to argue that Aquinas is right and the answer is no, but it seems to me that the opposite is triumphing right now.

LA: No, you know, hypocrisy, they say, is vice flattering virtue. And so of course, we carry on constantly about how we’re in favor of the good and the moral and the right, and we have to make complicated arguments about things we’re doing today, how they are that. And so it’s not, Aquinas’ real case about the natural law is that the general precepts of them, you know, do the right thing, don’t lie, don’t cheat on your wife, don’t cheat with somebody else’s wife, don’t…honor God. Those things, he says, they cannot be wiped out.

HH: But now I have to say the obvious thing. He actually says, “In no ways can it be blotted out.” That is the translation that I’m using from the Dominican Priory. But in fact, the courts of the United States with regards to the definition of marriage, Professor Grant, have blotted it out. And so he says no ways can it be blotted out, but it has been blotted out.

JG: Well, what can’t be blotted out is we have an inclination to procreate and raise children, but reason has to figure out how to make that inclination work well, which if reason is working, Aquinas says, you’ll understand that’s marriage as it’s traditionally been understood, a man and a woman raising children together, their own children together.

HH: But then is the court in the United States, Dr. Arnn, departing from the natural law? And if so, are they not breaking the Constitution which was designed to be framed, to frame the natural law?

JG: Well, you know, the opinion was written by Justice Kennedy, and he, you know, what he does is he takes one principle and uses that in this context, so he’s serving some other good, right, which is equal rights for all. But that doesn’t mean the fact that he’s done that, and the fact that he’s an authoritative man with his four others who joined him, that doesn’t mean that he’s right or that can abide. For example, in the Wall Street Journal today, there’s a really good article by Charles Murray. And it says the keys to happiness, and you probably know Charles Murray as this statistical social scientist.

HH: Yeah, at the American Enterprise Institute, for the benefit of our audience.

JG: And he’s been figuring out, you know, through the course of his career and through the course of his living, by the way, what makes people happy and do well. And he used to say that he could prove statistically that if you will get married and stay married, and get a job and keep it, and finish high school, you are extremely unlikely to spend a significant amount of time below the poverty line. He adds to that now get married earlier, find a spouse who agrees with you ethically, that is about right and wrong, and by the way, whose habits don’t annoy you, and then he says get interested in religion. And he announces in this article that his wife is a Quaker, and that he started going to services with her, and he started reading religion, and he finds it’s a massive thing and extremely impressive. And he says my unbelief is being shaken.

HH: Ha.

— – – – –

HH: And so I want to go to this natural law doctrine one more time for the benefit of people who are just tuning in late, Dr. Grant. It’s in the human heart, Augustine, Aquinas points out, said it was there. He points to Aristotle saying it was there. But at the end of this Question 94, to which you particularly directed us, he said, “The natural law can be blotted out from the human heart either by evil persuasions just as in speculative matters errors occur in respective necessary conclusions, or vicious customs,” he adds. So both individuals and entire societies can be stripped away from and bent from the natural law.

JG: In the secondary precepts, so if the things that are not immediately obvious, that can happen. That’s right, and if you don’t reason properly. That’s why reason is so, so our inclinations give us a start, you might say, but if we don’t think clearly about them, or if we take one at the exclusion of others, as Dr. Arnn just mentioned, take the good idea of equality and misapply it, then you can have ruin, And those secondary, those secondary precepts which are very important.

HH: Well, this is why I always confound my law students on the first day of class by asking if it was okay if we were to decide to hold the vote and abolish Catholicism or any other major religion, just simply declare it unlawful. And they struggle with that, and you know, I have two-thirds of the Congress pass it and three-quarters of the states ratify it, and Catholicism is barred from the United States. And they find trouble with that, Dr. Larry Arnn, and they don’t know why. And I think it’s because they don’t, they’ve never been taught natural law before.

LA: Yeah, in other words, one of the things you need, and it’s the reason I thought we should talk about this on the radio is, people need to know that there’s an argument that vindicates the common sense of the subject. And we were talking about the family. Here’s the common sense of the subject. Human babies take a long time to grow up, longer than other kinds of creatures. Our biological processes have more influence on us than most other beings. Our eldest daughter’s getting married next summer. That’s a really big deal. But you know, she’s 27 or 28 years old, I can’t remember how old she is right now, and if she were some other kind of creature, we wouldn’t know who she is anymore, right?

HH: Right.

LA: And so the truth is, you know, she’s going to give us a grandchild, probably, and then you know, and that fellow she’s marrying, whoever he is, and actually, he’s a great guy and he’s the best possible, I’ve got to say all that, right? And then she’s going to embark on that thing. And we’re going to spoil those kids. And she’s going to need her husband, and the children are going to need them both. And that is written in the nature of things, and you can see that. Well, there’s an argument, and it’s old, that vindicates what your eyes can see. And by the way, these new arguments are self-contradictory.

HH: But our friends in the gay and lesbian community and Justice Kennedy would say there are, for example in California, 8,000 same sex couples with many, many thousands of children who are being raised well, and are prospering and love both of their same sex parents, and that that’s not contrary to the natural law.

LA: The fact of the thing can happen doesn’t mean that it is the natural way for it to happen, and that’s because, by the way, they don’t produce those children, and so they have to adopt others. But there is, obviously, the way that millions of children get raised, and that is their parents undertake the act of charity lasting for decades to raise them.

HH: I am curious if Dr. Grant thinks that the study of Aquinas would eventually be outlawed by a truly progressive regime, because they really can’t accept Aquinas as a truth teller, can they?

JG: I think it could. I think a more likely outcome would be we’ll just treat this as a historical curiosity, that no serious person could possibly think this way.

LA: That’s not a prediction, by the way. That’s what it is now.

JG: Well, it’s very common. Yeah, that’s, well, if you want to read that, that’s fine, but no thinking human being, serious human being, would think that you’re going to learn something about how to live from this, because that’s primitive, outmoded thought, and we’ve transcended that.

HH: Now you know, I’ve gone to the seminar at Thomas Aquinas College where they have read the Summa in the Latin and then debate it. It cannot be destroyed, because it’s not really Aquinas, is it, Dr. Arnn?

LA: No. His own case is that, you know, Winston Churchill said you can force nature away, but it will return at a gallop. And so these, Thomas’ claim is that these ways that things are, that they assert themselves. Like for example, here’s a test. James Madison says that if you don’t get the structure of the government right, you will not be able to assemble enough power to protect the nation and have that power not be a danger to the people. And so Frank Goodnow and John Dewey and these people, Woodrow Wilson, and these people we’ve been quoting, they think that we’re past all that now, that we live in an age where the government is not going to be a danger to the people. Is that widely believed today by the American people?

HH: Two weeks ago, John Kerry said Vladimir Putin was not acting in the way that we are supposed to act these days. And of course, that’s a repudiation of everything we know from history. Of course he’s acting the way that people have acted from the beginning of time.

LA: That’s it.

HH: Dr. Grant, when your students finish the course and they understand natural law, are they optimists that the rule of right reason will regain footing?

JG: I, well, I spend a lot of time in the course talking about contemporary politics, which does not leave them feeling very optimistic. But I also try and remind them that this shows you the perennial opportunity to recover right reason is there, and try and make mention of the great statesmen who help us recover this, people like Lincoln, Churchill and Washington who help us recover this in our political life.

HH: Dr. Arnn, and do you find your students believe that right reason returns at some point and at a gallop? Or is it really kind of hobbled right now?

LA: No, well, remember, like in our Constitution reader, for example, we go through the authoritative arguments into three waves, as I put them, of American history. And they get to compare the claims of the Declaration of Independence with these claims of Frank Goodnow. And they get to think that through for themselves. And yeah, put them down together and see which one makes most sense.

HH: That’s why we’re still talking about Thomas Aquinas 800 years later. Dr. John Grant, Dr. Larry Arnn from Hillsdale College, thanks to you both. Sign up for Imprimus, get all of the Hillsdale Dialogues at

End of interview.


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