Many times in public discourse one finds oneself repeating the old line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” We disagree about the terms of the debate, but also fail to address the more substantive disagreements that lie below the surface. Few thinkers speak as clearly as Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. “Self-awareness is, indeed, an obligation of democratic citizenship,” George writes. By that reckoning, he is a model democratic citizen. George’s newest book, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas…
The destructive urge, said the anarchist Bakunin, is also a constructive urge, presumably because one can, at least in theory, build anything one likes upon a foundation of ruins. The cities of Dresden or Coventry do not really bear him out; but these days the destructive urge focuses more on intangibles, such as social limits or boundaries, than on buildings or infrastructure.
Modern man seems unwilling to accept any inherited limits or boundaries, which is to say any that he has not set for himself or that cannot be justified by a valid argument starting from an indubitable Cartesian point that he acknowledges as such. I suspect that this unwillingness is the consequence of the mass rise in self-importance, but that is by the by. Since we live in a social and even physical world composed more of continua rather than of categories, it is not surprising that limits and boundaries tend to dissolve under this intellectual regime: not any given limit or boundary, be it noted, but limits and boundaries as such.
I thank the Law and Liberty site, and Dr. Bruce in particular, for their respectful attention to my book, in a new edition by St. Augustine’s Press, Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics.
Dr. Bruce nicely frames the question of Calvin’s theology in relation to modernity, and there is surely some validity in what he says about the limitations of my enterprise as a comprehensive guide to Calvin’s political teaching. It is certain that I focus almost exclusively on the Institutes, and it may be that I sometimes concede too much to venerable authors like Emil Doumergue. (Still, does Bruce mean to deny, against Doumergue and myself, that there is a pronounced antimonarchic element in Calvin’s teaching, one that emerges, unsurprisingly, when he is discussing biblical passages that tend that way?)
I’m afraid, though, that Dr. Bruce misses my point when he characterizes my approach as a kind of middle way “between the two extremes” of secular and religious interpretations of modernity, and, likewise, when he gives me credit for a “modest judgment of [my] own work.”