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The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“In Defense of Political Reason” –Professor Daniel Mahoney in The American Mind

by James Wilson Institute on August 3, 2019
History, Other, Politics

In an essay for The American Mind titled “In Defense of Political Reason”, Professor Daniel J. Mahoney reaffirms reason’s place within the conservative legal and political tradition. Responding to Yoram Hazony’s scathing denunciation of modern reason in The American Mind, Professor Mahoney acknowledges the destructive effects of rationalism while attempting to rescue premodern reason as fundamental to the natural law. He praises the unique synthesis of theory and practicality demonstrated by history’s conservative statesmen, arguing that their greatness shares a common foundation of reason rightly-understood. Though he finds Hazony persuasive in condemning modernity’s corrosion of mores, Mahoney shrewdly defends that form of reason which instructed a long line of conservative theorists and statesmen from Cicero to Lincoln.

Some excerpts from the piece:

“Hazony fails to fully appreciate—or at least adequately articulate—just how ‘unreasonable’ Enlightenment rationalism finally is. It reduces humanity to ‘matter in motion’ and forgets the soul, the source of consciousness and moral agency. In addition, the premodernnatural law and natural right traditions of the West never succumbed to what Leo Strauss called a ‘doctrinaire’ natural public law. Such ‘doctrinairism,’ to cite Strauss in Natural Right and History, fails to see that political theory must always be ‘supplemented by the practical wisdom of the statesman on the spot.'”

“In addition, modern rationalism paradoxically entails a terrible self-limitation of both theoretical and practical reason. Modern rationalists have a hard time distinguishing the noble and the base, good and evil, honor and dishonor. Modern rationalism culminates in the fact-value distinction: all claims about the good are reduced to arbitrary decisions that can make no claim to being reasonable.”

“Statesmen were needed, men of thoughtful nobility, who were committed to saving the liberties and moral inheritance that informed Western civilization at its best. Modern rationalism and doctrinaire natural public law had no place for the ‘political reason’ of statesmen such as Cicero, Burke, Lincoln, or Churchill. It was a ‘theory’ that did not and could not take politics, prudence, or common life seriously.”

Read the whole essay here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790