To my right lies a book written by hymn writer and philosopher Isaac Watts, a textbook once used at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale for generations, to train men in the art of reason. It opens thusly:
The pursuit and acquisition of truth is of infinite concernment to mankind. Hereby we become acquainted with the name of things both in Heaven and earth, and their various relations to each other. It is by this means we discover our duty to God and our fellow-creatures; by this we arrive at the knowledge of natural religion, and learn to confirm our faith in divine revelation, as well as to understand what is revealed. Our wisdom, prudence, and piety, our present conduct and our future hope, are all influenced by the use of our rational powers in the search after truth.
What soul, what power, what infinite glory Watts expresses by delivering this, his introduction to a logic textbook! Modern man reels in disbelief at the living expression of spiritual man, the unity of reason and the divine pursuit of meaning, of proper relations of man with man, of civilization!
Had this been but a single, atypical expression of our once glorious Western civilization, I would not push the matter further. But if one takes a moment to peer into the works of Locke, of Grotius, of Blackstone and even the deist Thomas Paine (and I neglect to speak of others still), he would find no different. These treatises on liberty and law, justice and progress many times began not with calls to reason alone, but reason beginning with the fall of man, with Adam’s paternal authority, with Gideon and the prophet Samuel’s denunciation of kingship, with the significance of the Law, of duty to Creator and neighbor, of good and evil and heaven and hell. Westerners oftentimes tout the essays of Mill and the wild proposals of Nietzsche; but liberalism was truly birthed by men like Calvin, writing of Biblical liberty of conscience and of the separation of church and state (Institutes, Book 3, chpt.19, sect.15; Book 4, chpt.11, sect.9). The flames of enlightenment and liberty had begun to smolder by social liberalism and nihilism, but they caught blaze with men like Locke, condemning every law which contradicted the Law of Scripture (Second Treatise, sect.135-136).
I’ve gotten myself into quite a bit of trouble for rejecting the secular position of Mises — an intellect whom I greatly admire, and whose economic teachings I find the most enlightening since Adam Smith. It’s been said that Human Action was a treatise on economics, and that if I was looking for spiritual meaning, I must look elsewhere. It’s been said that total avoidance of religious claims doesn’t equate to meaninglessness, and it’s been said that religion has no part in economic doctrines, that some portion of life, being entirely alienated from the divine, has no need for revelation, for guidance from heavenly oracles. To some degree, these claims are correct: we didn’t learn of dental hygiene and parliamental regulations by reading the book of Genesis. Spiritual man and economic man may be one and the same, these men say, but neither aspect need influence the other. Modern man, in this sense, appears to his ancestors as entirely schizophrenic.
But take a simple glance at the above treatises, crucial to the formation of Western civilization and the United States of America. See that at America’s most enlightened moment, when we were the most noble, the most productive, the most solvent, the most respectable, the most truly progressive; when the entire world beheld us in reverent bewilderment, was not after economics, law, and justice had become atheistic, but before. One may attempt, if one chooses, to abandon any dependence upon God, and seek civilization in reason alone; but the society he creates will not be the great America of yesterday. It would be something entirely different.
Mises, revolutionary sage, could you not see that the glorious age of liberalism, the passing of which you mourned, had shone brightest when the West stood upon pillars of spiritual regeneration? How is it that you, with such penetrating economic insight, could relegate religion to a corner, when the West’s spiritual reformation so blatantly championed the liberty of which you spoke (as you noted)? You say that liberalism exalted the West above the East, but who created liberalism? The voice of reason, according to the principles of Scripture, spoke to Locke, and he with his pen tore down tyrannies. Today, Locke has no equal. His followers often praise the effects of his thinking, but deny the foundation; they write economic treatises, and appeal to earth as though heaven did not exist.
Perhaps even in youth, I may be a relic. Perhaps the days are gone when spiritual man, legal man, and economic man were considered one, when his eternal purpose permeated every aspect of his life, when every act and every thought begot a divine end. And perhaps the libertarians may be right, in that such Biblical conservatism has no place in modern America. But if America was ever beautiful, she was beautiful yesterday. Am I wrong to long for her, while reading Tocqueville? Is it so backward to cherish what was, and regret with deepest passions a beauty marred not by necessity, but by choice?
I have rejected libertarianism not because its promises aren’t sweet, nor because its economic propositions are all false (I assert, Mises is largely right), but because in forfeiture of my Christian heritage and its necessary influence upon every aspect of human life, the sweetness will matter little. It would be akin to losing my wife, and taking solace in the fact that my home still stands. The comfort of my chair satiates the senses for but a moment, a cold glass of orange juice would momentarily refresh a grieved soul, and then I would return to the same bedroom, with the same chair, books, and pillow, but without the voice I’d come so long to adore. I would reside in my home, but the home would be empty.
My heart breaks for the America I love, but will never see. I search day and night for the spirit, long dormant, which breathed life into a booming market, and yet penned the Battle Hymn of the Republic; I wish to see men write again about economic liberty from the viewpoint of justice toward one’s fellow man, in service to both personal happiness and God’s Law. Is this so fanciful a dream? Is it so slanderous to say that those who abandon such a noble vision, do not understand the importance of the divine?
Once again, I must not be mistaken for opposing freedom of speech, religious liberty within the laws of nature, the free market, or wealth itself; nor would I dare challenge man’s right to pursue happiness, insofar as that pursuit takes place within the boundaries of eternal goodness. And last, nor do I disagree with the overwhelming majority of Mises’ economic claims. But it is not simply the frame of a free society which I desire; I want to feel the spirit of heavenly liberty coursing through my veins. My attachment to this soil, this history, these stars and stripes and amber waves of grain, is not simply intellectual. It borders just as much on romance.
Reason, liberty, justice; blood, soil, and heritage; good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell! Form your ideas upon reason and liberty alone, if you can, and see what’s lost; I choose not the Christian conservatism of today, but that of yesterday, because it emanates from my very concept of being and purpose. I have much in common with the views of libertarians, but the soul — the soul of my philosophy, that is mine alone.