Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Robert Reilly’s new book America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius 2020) reveals a reversal of what many understood about the American Revolution. We know the chant against taxation without representation. Less known, says Reilly, is its ancient roots in Greek philosophy and Catholic scholasticism “Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tracatri.” What touches all must be approved by all.
Reilly, who spent twenty-five years in government service including in the office of the Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and in the Reagan White House, also served as head of Voice of America. He is now the director of the Westminster Institute.
I had the chance to speak to Mr. Reilly about his new book and what it reveals for us today. The American revolution we know was a fight against the principle of the divine right of kings. Contrary to popular belief that right did not go back millennia, but only as far as the protestant reformation and the enlightenment.
“To read what Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez say is a shocker to most people because they are under the illusion that the divine right of kings was a Catholic teaching or that it grew out of the Catholic Church. Of course, the case is that it is simply the opposite of that. It grew out of the Reformation and the abdication of the church to the prince or the king who then became the head of the national church. So, he was both priest and ruler whereas that was resisted by the Catholic Church even though it was affected by this as you know,” He explains.
The divine right of kings is that the monarch is the ultimate authority who cares for his people. He himself gets his authority from God and it is total. The sovereign rules as he or she sees fit and, therefore, becomes the law but is not subject to it. This is in order to keep peace in his kingdom.
The American Revolution fought for the consent of the governed. There is no king and the people rule now through elections and elected representatives. No one has the ultimate authority or is above the law.
Reilly explains that this was not a new theory in the world but has its roots in ancient Greek understandings of reason. It later developed in the Catholic Church in her religious orders during the middle ages and through the work of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.
“Going back to pre-Socratic philosophy and Greece with Heraclitus and Anaximander, they noticed there was an order in nature that was rational and that man could apprehend it through this reason and they wondered it how could this be so. Heraclitus speculated that there must be behind it a divine intelligence that he names logos, the Greek word for reason or word. This divine intelligence put forth the rational order of the universe. As well as providing man with his reason to understand it.
“Now this was a tremendously significant achievement of Greek philosophy of which we are the beneficiaries. Of course, when Christianity arrived we know from the beginning of the gospel of St. John that God is introduced as logos. In the beginning was the logos the word and the logos was with God and the logos was god and all things are made through him as logos and now we know we have a rational order in creation because god himself is reason because the logos enters his own creation,” says Reilly.
Since salvation is offered to all, all have the power to seek the logos — reason. This creates equals from which develops the consent of the governed not a class of those who govern by God’s design. Since all are God’s children, no one has authority over another.
In his writing, Reilly shows that the secular was originally a product of the sacred.
When Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, says to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, he makes clear the separation between the two realms and defines them.
“Man is not subsumed by the polis; rather the polis exists to serve man.” Reilly writes.
This builds upon Jesus’ teachings to the pharisees on even God’s rules. Such as that the sabbath was made for man and not the man for the sabbath.
Reilly explains that this changes with William of Ockham, a thirteenth century Franciscan friar philosopher who believed that the ancient Greeks were pagan and, therefore, had nothing to offer to Christianity. He created the understanding that God had the ability to do what he wanted. There was no order to God. He was not reason, logos; but will, voluntas.
Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, builds his Protestantism on Ockham’s new understanding of God.
Reilly: “Reason is so corrupted by original sin, man cannot know any of this and man cannot help but sin always and at all times. Man is basically a lost cause. It is just a landscape of sin and death and unlike Aquinas telling us that grace cooperates with nature, for Luther there is no intersection of grace and nature. Grace covers nature like snow covers horse manure; man is the horse manure. So, this gratuitous act of Christ to save the elect is something no one can give any account for or of and why he damns those who are not elect is not something that anyone can understand, but all of this has been determined before hand,”
Out of this comes the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan. He determines that the role of the king is to rule so that peace may remain. Therefore, all must be subject to the king for their earthly benefit. Reilly explains in his book that Hobbes exchanges freedom for survival.
The king becomes God’s representative and like God in Ockham and Luther’s theology, he too has the primacy of will. He can act as he sees fit with no rationale for his decisions. Reilly explains: “You find that the ruler also enjoys primacy of the will and since Luther thinks that God appoints him directly there is no intermediary through the people. The people are no longer sovereign. The consent of the people no longer required nor is any representation and the people have no right to rebellion against the tyrant.” [Contrary to the teaching of Aquinas].
“So, he denies all the constitutional principles that the Middle Ages built up and he reinforces the power of the ruler. He destroys the institutional church and leaves what is left in the hands of the prince who becomes the head of the church and the prince is accountable to no one. “
This opens the door to Machiavelli and the ends justify means ideas.
Reilly contends that the king now enters a relationship with the people similar to the father and his children. Just as the father does not need the consent of the children for his decisions, neither did the king.
“The king is the source of law but he is above the law. Everyone is subject to him in their life and death. So the claim could not be more absolute,” He said.
The American Revolution begins in the colonies because at first they are left alone and this gives them a taste of freedom not understood in Europe. They are not dealing directly with the demands of the English authorities.
Reilly: “By the late 18th century the claim to absolute rule had gravitated from the king to parliament. Parliament claimed the right to absolute rule and as they said in the Declaratory Act they could pass law for the American colonies in all cases whatsoever without their consent. The Americans said: ”No, we are rational creatures who are born free and our consent is required and our rule.” They quoted exactly the same medieval principle from canon law omnes tangit ‘what touches all must be approved by all.’
“Why is that so? Because we are born free and we are rational creatures. We must be ruled by reason. Reason is law and we must not be ruled arbitrarily.”
This break in understanding between the British rule on the continent and the freedom enjoyed in the colonies set the stage for the American revolution in which reason as law fights arbitrary will as law.
Reilly: “So, the American revolution was really a restoration. Of course, a restoration and further development of these ancient principles. So, we can look well past the enlightenment to find the origination of these principles. Those who say, as do some current Catholic critics, that it was fatally compromised by radical enlightenment ideas of individual autonomy are quite mistaken.”
History shows a political struggle between the consent of the governed and the divine right of kings. This struggle continues in our own country. We can even see it in our own government struggles fighting which branch holds the greater authority. The current response to the virus again reveals this constant struggle now going on in our country. As Hobbes teaching that survival is more important than liberty, so safety becomes more important than freedom in our own day.
Reilly: “I know that certain governors that are actually pleased to enjoy these absolute powers and dictate these things and for instance here I am in the Commonwealth of Virginia where the governor can designate what is an essential service and what isn’t. So, we find that abortion is an essential service but going to church is not an essential service. So, I was just curiously wondering when a doctor performs an abortion on a woman he is as close to her as a priest would give a communicant the body of Christ. Why is the former essential and the latter unessential.
“This is Hobbes to protect you from both the virus and from God. And Hobbes makes clear in Leviathan that Leviathan can succeed so as there is no dual loyalty and by dual loyalty he means this idea of some kind of independent Christianity. An allegiance to a god who is going to mete out awards and punish sin in the afterlife; no that cannot be. The sovereign state is going to approximate hell and heaven right here according to who obeys and who doesn’t.”
Reilly explains that what our country needs at this time is to return to the principles of our founding and bring them into the public square:
“We are becoming a Hobbesian state. We are administered arbitrarily. We are ruled according to regulations without our consent and the critics who look at this say: ‘this is all the result of our founding. The principles of the founding are now coming to fruition in this Hobbesian state and our original sin is in our founding.’
“My response is no you are absolutely wrong. All of this is in contravention of the principle of the founding and for you to say that this is an expression of the founding is not only illogical and historically inaccurate, it is profoundly demoralizing. The only hope for recovery here is to return to those principles not to deny them. And once you remove that as a possibility you are left a kind of hopeless situation--well what are we supposed to do now. Some Christians say ‘Just go home and pray and just to live well.’ Well isn’t that nice. That is not a serious response. You have obligations as a citizen; you must come to the rescue.
“You cannot abandon the public square to these lies of whom we are.”
Public square is a term meaning the public debate.
Reilly dedicated the book to his uncle Major Robert R. Egan, US Army Air Corps.
“I never met because he was killed in a crash of a B-24 in 1943. He entered into the war at an older age he did not have to go but he was single and said ‘I am going! if I don’t, a married man will have to, so I am going.’ ”
He takes this as a further illustration of sacrificing for freedom over safety.
Clearly, Robert Reilly has much to say to our country today. Some will applaud him and others will not, but no one can ignore the impact of understanding the difference between the rule based on reason and the rule based in will. As Reilly explains, the difference is as powerful as that between the American and French Revolutions, the former was preached from the pulpits across the colonies, the latter sought to destroy everything before it, especially Christianity.
Robert Reilly’s America On Trial: A Defense of the Founding is available through Ignatius Press