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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The flowering of the West in the American Founding

What are the roots of the West, that civilization that has given birth to so much that the modern world takes for granted: the rule of law, human rights, limited government, free enterprise, and so much else? Among conservatives, it is often said that the roots of the West are in Athens and Jerusalem, symbols of the classical Greek culture and the Judeo-Christian tradition that informs the moral, ethical and political basis of the Western patrimony. Others point to the great synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian faith that took place in the late classical and medieval period, when the light of faith centered in the Rome kept the fires of civilization burning in the West as barbarian waves reshaped the map and peoples of Europe. Still others look to the Enlightenment as the basis of the modern West, with its combination of optimism and skepticism, boundlessness and tragedy.

The roots of the West are undoubtedly found in Athens and Jerusalem and Rome, but that those three are insufficient to explain the full flowering of Western civilization and the full development of its ideals. It was the Enlightenment that adds to the full picture of the West and its meaning, but not the Enlightenment that so many look too -- the Enlightenment of Kant and Voltaire, of pure reason devoid of tradition, custom and context. Instead, the Enlightenment that mixed with Athens and Greece and Rome to form the great currents of the West at its zenith is the British Enlightenment. Informed by the great well-springs of English culture and law, nourished by study of the classical tradition and the Christian faith, the British Enlightenment built upon the traditions of the West rather than seeking to tear them down and replace them with the fancies of decultured reason. Not reason devoid of connection to real life but common sense bolstered by experience were the guideposts of inquiry. Rather than the rights of man viewed in terrible abstract, the rights of Englishmen were the concern of the British Enlightenment's ethics. The names of the men who brought us this British Enlightenment are familiar to any student of 18th century Britain: David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke.

And in America too the British Enlightenment took root, further vitalized by the frontier revivalism of Whitfield and the early Methodists. Benjamin Franklin -- great friend of philosophers and evangelists alike -- is the exemplar of this American Enlightenment, but others of the Founding Generation were part and parcel of this movement, perhaps none moreso than John Adams. America's British culture, as Russell Kirk called it, drank deep of the well-springs of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome and England, and it is in the Founding Period in America that the ideals of the West blaze forth fully in clarity and power, in many instances beyond the realization of the Founders themselves. As the late Peter Lawler put it so insightfully, "they built better than they knew."

The Founders were well-grounded in the law and theory of the British system of government, and many of them were quite well-read in the principles not only of the British Enlightenment but of the Continental Enlightenment as well. And to a degree difficult for many modern Americans to understand, the Founding generation was shaped by classical literature from Greece and Rome. Nearly every literate person had a least a passing acquaintance not only with the ancient Hebrew and Christian patrimony of the Bible, but with the stories, myths and literature of the ancient Mediterranean as well. A significant number of Americans could approach that classical heritage in one or both of its original languages -- Latin or classical Greek. Yet, classical education in colonial and early republican America wasn't primarily about learning Latin or Greek to read the classics -- it was about training people in virtue and civic responsibility. As a result, for America at the Founding, the great strands of the West all came together in a unique synthesis that resulted in the finest flowering of Western ideas in forms of the culture of the young American Republic.

To know the West, look to Aristotle and Cicero, to the Gospels and to Augustine, to Aquinas and Dante, and also to the American experiment of ordered liberty manifested in its public record: the Declaration of Independence; the Constitution of the United States; the constitutions of the individual States in Union; and the dialogues, speeches and letters of the American Founders.

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