As I have often done, I recently revisited C. S. Lewis’s classic of 1944, The Abolition of Man, and as usual was rewarded by gems of which I needed to be reminded and others that I missed before. This small book is Lewis’s masterful critique of man’s being and purpose and in it, he confronts the great question of post-modernity–can we live well without moral truth? His answer, supported by convincing logic, is no. His foundation is the Confucian concept of the Tao (The Way), known in the West as the natural law or traditional morality or first principles of practical reason or the first platitudes–pick a favorite. And for Lewis this is not one among a series of possible systems of value; it is the sole source of all value judgements. Common to all characterizations of this concept is what he calls the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are, and he feels very strongly throughout his writings that if nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.
As I was rereading these thoughts I remembered President Calvin Coolidge’s speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, in which he confronted those progressives who might consider this document outmoded in its outdated reliance on self-evident individual rights by reaffirming its reliance on the truth of its principles as follows: “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions”. We should revisit these principles regularly.
And I would add a corollary that I drafted years ago, and which for me has particular applicability in our crisis of order today:
- Neutrality as to the diversity of sectarian practices and particular religious beliefs or the absence thereof is consistent with our Founders’ intent.
- But if by neutrality we mean neutral on the validity of the ideas espoused in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence;
- If we mean neutrality on the validity of the foundational belief in a moral order undergirded by natural law with its origins in divine law;
- If we mean neutrality on the degree to which the freedoms and equality we champion can be sustained only within this moral order;
- Then our civic republican ideal of ordered liberty under the rule of law cannot survive.
I think Lewis and Coolidge would agree.