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Big Ideas?

George Weigel recently posted an essay about the current presidential campaign on the blog of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Its entitled: Campaign 2012: Burke vs. Hobbes? Its a good thing he put a question mark at the end of the title. Although Weigel wants to make big claims about a conflict of worldviews implicit in the election, the sketch he gives us ought to raise a big question mark. Heres his grandiose introduction: [T]he 2012 race for the White House is something more, something more profoundsomething with deeper historical roots in modernitys wrestling with political power and how that power contributes to the common good. This is a contest, to take symbolic reference points, between Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797).OK, Ill bite. How is it a contrast between Hobbes and Burke?

Hobbes tried to drive religious conviction out of the modern public square, while Burke fashioned a vision of political modernity that drew in part on the rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages.

So by this analogy President Obama is driving religious conviction out of the public square? This is curious. What about his consistent support for and work with faith-based initiatives? What about his frequent references to the importance of his own (Christian) faith in forming him for service to our country? Conversely, the Republican party is the party of rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages? Weigel goes on to state:

In a Hobbesian world, the only actors of consequence are the state and the individual. In a Burkean world, the institutions of civil societyfamily, religious congregation, voluntary association, business, trade union, and so forthmediate between the individual and the state, and the just state takes care to provide an appropriate legal framework in which those civil-society institutions can flourish.

So Governor Romney is a champion of trade unions? And Barack Obama, the dyed-in-the-wool community organizer, has no regard for the role that voluntary associations and so forth play in civil society? This is getting curiouser and curiouser.Weigel pulls back a bit at the end, saying the issue here is one of tendencies, orientations, visions of possibility. Yet he concludes that 2012 really is shaping up as a contest between Hobbes and Burke.Color me unconvinced. But, after all, what do I know about Hobbes and Burke? Steven Millies, of the University of South Carolina Aiken, on the other hand, is an expert on Burke. And he has commented on Weigels essay at his blog. Interestingly, he doesnt think Weigel has got Burke right at all.

For Weigel, Burke's praise for mediating social institutions like churches distinguishes him from Thomas Hobbes, who envisioned a powerful state that "monopolizes power for the sake of protecting individuals," and whose vision of human relationships went no farther than "contracts and legal relationships, period."That is true about Hobbes, and Weigel is quick to condemn contracts as a political metaphor. But he fails to read a little further into the Reflections on the Revolution in France, where Burke allows that, "Society is indeed a contract," but no mere ordinary contract. Instead, "the state ought... to be looked on with other reverence.... It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection." In its most sacred sense, because "the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."This is not the contract that Hobbes had in mind. But it is "a contract." As "a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world," it must sound better to Weigel. But there is none of Weigel's dismissiveness about the state in Burke's description.George F. Will has spent four decades writing newspaper columns, but he has a doctoral degree in political philosophy from Princeton. In 1982, he wrote that, "It is perhaps marvelous that people who preach disdain for government can consider themselves the intellectual descendents of Burke, the author of a celebration of the state. But surely it is peculiar--worse, it is larcenous--for people to expropriate the name 'conservative' while remaining utterly unsympathetic to the central tenet of the greatest modern conservative."What was Burke's "central tenet?" Only that portion I quoted above, the partnership "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those to be born." Though churches and other social institutions play a vital role for Burke, they do not maintain that partnership. That is the role of the state.The long Christian political tradition that pre-dates Hobbes and Burke agrees. Both Christianity and the classical political tradition that influenced it saw political authority as that which makes life good and good life possible. That is a Catholic idea older than anything Weigel has mentioned. But it is not only a Catholic idea. Indeed, the idea of good kingship that inspired Hobbes to hope for a Leviathan only could have come from the historical influence of Roman Emperors and English kings. Burke had those same historical influences, by the way. That enables us to say--with distinguished scholars of Burke's work--that the affinity for subsidiarity didn't reach Burke by way of "the rich social pluralism of the Catholic Middle Ages." It came down from Aristotle and Cicero.

Pretty devastating. You can read the whole thing here. I must admit, after reading Millies, I was unable to take Weigels argument seriously on its own terms. And, in a certain sense, its too bad. There ought to be discussion of big ideas as the United States prepares for an important election. But this isnt one of them.


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It's often said (and quite correctly, I think) that this country would profit enormously from a genuinely Burkeian conservative movement. But that would be quite a different animal from a Weigelian conservative movement, however much he may appeal to Burke's vision. And even more different from an Ayn Randian movement. Many years ago I found the treatment of Burke in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind very enlightening (Kirk was one of the founders of the post-New Deal new conservative movement). I suspect that Weigel might profit from reading that more carefully.As he might also profit (this is a REAL long shot!) from a careful reading of Benjamin Disraeli's "Sybil: or the Two Nations," about the "condition of England" question in the mid-19th century, and what an intelligent conservatism might do to improve the lot of the lower nation. (It's also a pretty good novel).

In the beginning of the year I was open to an alternative to Obama. Some startling things happened to close that opening. The most provocative was Romney accepting the sound bites of the angry right to the point where outright lies occurred. That coupled with the 100 degree turnaround of Romney from actually being a pioneer on health care to actually opposing his own ideas. The same with his absolute statement that he was pro choice. All of us understand that politicians will spin. But blatant lies are another thing. Sadly Ryan is also involved in the equivocation. Catholics like Weigel pose a more troubling problem. From the outrageous endorsement from "previous ambassadors to the Holy See" to EWTN doing everything but outright endorsement of Romney. Weigel epitomizes this hyperbole which as I see it is as outright lying. I have always found it troubling that a religion should want the support of the government. As if that will validate it as fulfilling its mission. We have already tried (in Europe) where there is a marriage of church and state which resulted in the churches having people arrested, refused employment, tortured and killed when they refused the dogma in the church. Weigel, Ewtn and the bishops are contributing to a culture of hatred in this country whereby Catholics and others are seriously saying that the country is in great peril with the Obama presidency and that the President is a Muslim and the anti-Christ. The banter about the birth certificate is no longer humorous. It is a sad state of affairs where Inquisition minded Catholics are stirring up hatred over beliefs. While they do not constitute a real threat to the stability of the country they should be called on their partisanship and desire to create a near theocracy as they did under W Bush. Much of this is centered on pro life politics as if this is the solution to the country's ills.

Bill: they are NOT pro-life politics; they are anti-abortion, anti-contraception politics.Don't dignify the latter by equating them with the former.

Americans should realize how lucky they are to have Obama. Catholic bishops have dragged the church in the mud by playing politics and playing it badly. Not quite, they played the contraception card brilliantly if the aim was (1) to cover up the sex scandal stink; (2) to get catholics discussing the morality of contraception once more, 44 years after they rejected the ill-starred encyclical. However, if Obama were a vengeful man, the bishops would have condemned themselves to four years in the political wilderness. Personally, I hope Obama somehow punishes them -- it would be good for them!

Hello All,Rita's post has led me today to violate a personal rule I have set for myself, which is to avoid reading anything written by George Weigel. (From past experience I have concluded that reading anything written by Mr. Weigel does nothing to improve either my intellect or my character, so I try to follow this rule. I have set myself similar rules with respect to a number prominent sources, with the result that there are quite a number of media outlets, periodicals and web sites I simply avoid.) Personal stuff aside...I much appreciate Professor Millies observations regarding Burke that Rita shared with us here. It so happens I am a minor Hobbes scholar, having taught Hobbes' works for many years and published several essays on Hobbes' moral and political philosophy in refereed journals. So Rita's post got me quite curious and I visited the EPPC web site and read Mr. Weigel's essay. I have to say I'm not sure I can agree with anything Weigel says in this essay about Hobbes. I know that this short essay is not meant to serve as Hobbes scholarship, but I find the remarks about Hobbes at best unclear and possibly quite misleading. For one thing, Hobbes believes that religious convictions play a terribly important role in public life, so much so that he thought it was the responsibility of the state to regulate the promulgation of religious doctrine. It might (and I mean might) be right to say that Hobbes believed that the state might for the common good set some strict limits on the religious ideas that may be promulgated or debated in public, but that's a far cry from the view that religious conviction should be banished from the public square altogether.What is beyond scholarly doubt is that Hobbes was a vigorous and vocal opponent of the Roman Catholic Church, in no small part because Hobbes believed the Roman Catholic Church was trying to regulate the conduct of people outside its jurisdiction, the Papal States. I'm in fact a bit surprised Weigel did not make this the basis of the claim that we're now choosing between Burke or Hobbes, given the many claims I've seen, heard and read (I can't avoid everything it seems!) that President Obama is such an mortal enemy of the Roman Catholic Church. But I would not accept the claim that we're now choosing between Hobbes and Burke on this basis, either. I have to admit I don't believe the religious liberties we enjoy are anywhere near so endangered by the Obama administration as some would have me believe.I don't know if I should have also communicated a similar response to Weigel's essay on the EPPC web site, but there doesn't seem to be a clear way to respond to essays posted there.

Hobbes -- brutal individualism -- Romney-Ryan.Burke -- organic tradition-respecting society -- Obama.

Hello Joseph (and all),Thanks for your post, which got me to thinking. . . While it is not so well known except among Hobbes buffs (like myself), Hobbes in fact maintained in his Leviathan that the state should provide some form of economic welfare for people who are unable to provide for themselves economically. (Hobbes' grounds for this are quite straightforward. He recommends that the state provide some form of economic assistance for the economically needy in order to forestall the serious social unrest he believes will erupt of the economically needy are not provided for.)So I suppose that, given very recent public statements by Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan, one could mount a case that we should expect that a continued Obama administration would be more Hobbesian than would a Romney administration with respect to public economic assistance for the poor.Of course, leaving aside that Weigel's article that Rita had pointed us to says nothing at all regarding Hobbes' economic ideas, if one agrees with me that Hobbes advocated a sort of social safety net, that would not by itself lend any support to Weigel's claim that we are choosing between the Obama's allegedly Hobbesian vision for our country versus Romney's allegedly Burkean vision. I agree with Rita and the others who have responded here (including you) that Weigel does not make much of a case for this in his article.

Peter, Joseph, et al--It is true too that Burke strongly opposed public assistance in his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, preferring private charity to some sort of government safety net (The people maintain [the government], not they the people). Of course, Mitt Romney has said he believes in a safety net for the "very poor," and that he would create a better safety net.So all of this points to the fundamental problems in drawing comparisons between 17th and 18th century writers and 21st century politicians and problems--problems all the more evident when we compare the magnitude of poverty with the resources available to charities. What seemed right to Burke in the 18th century may, in the 21st century, fail to meet the "Christian duty to extend charity to the poor" Burke also described in Thoughts. Burke himself never would have rigidly applied 18th century solutions to 21st century problems. His own sensitivity to history was too great, far greater than that of many who invoke Burke today.

It seems to me that we need to distinguish the poor, the very poor, and the destitues, and much of the argument here requires that those terms be defined. I'd say that "destitute" is a matter of not having the necessities nor means of one's own of getting them. "Very poor" means having some of the necessities but not all (e.g., having food and shelter, but not health care), and "poor" means having a minimum but of inferior quality.MItt Romney seems willing to help only the destitute. Obama is willing to help the very poor, and to help the poor get adequate health care. Romney needs to explain why he would not help the others. Obama needs to make clear why we ought to help them all. And we really shouldn't appeal to Christian values here -- not if we're talking simply about the common good and the rights of individuals regardless of theology.


About the Author

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press).