Southerners, of all Americans, have been the most acute and the most persistent in their analyses of what has ailed and threatened our culture, certainly since the end of the War for Southern Independence. Only consider a Robert Lewis Dabney or an Albert Bledsoe in the years immediately after that conflict. Then, more recently, recall the Southern Agrarians centered in Nashville. No one but a Southerner, a person whose family had gone through four years of devastating war, seen his society despoiled, witnessed the violent attacks on his heritage, and understood what was lost, could have written what a Dabney or a Donald Davidson penned with such burning prescience and world-weary sagacity.
The volumes, essays, and jeremiads of such giants, and of those more contemporary Southern writers like the late Mel Bradford and Tom Landess, however, while directed in particular to their fellow Southerners, take on special significance not only for those south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but as a closely-argued examination of what has happened in and to the United States, in its entirety, during the past 150 years. It may well be precisely because of Southern defeat on the battlefield—that indelible experience and its unique aftermath—that men like Dabney, Davidson, Allen Tate, and Bradford were able to fathom far more deeply the actual problems that envelope the declining American nation, and that they have been able to pinpoint and diagnose the decay more accurately.
Indeed, it was Dabney (in his Discussions IV: Secular) who predicted the headlong rush of the post-War American republic into hedonism and atheism, the perversions of mass democracy, the rise of runaway international capitalism and ungovernable imperialism, the destruction of the firmaments of the older order based in tradition and heritage, and a dismantling of the Constitution which attempted to mirror the laws of nature and of God. It was Dabney, as well, who lamented towards the end of his life that his role was like that of Cassandra at Troy, “destined to prophesy truth, but not to be believed until too late.”
Like the English poet, Jack Clemo in his poem, “The Broad Winter,” Dabney and Bradford understood all too well–
“The darkness comes as you foretold.
You hear the fretful moan,
The alien winds that rave
As bitterly the grey truth breaks
On disillusioned Church and frantic world.
You see what form the judgment takes,
What harvest faithless generations reap:
The folds half empty, no clean pasture for the sheep;
Soil sterile where the liberal waters swirled
Which now have hardened into mud
Of festering ethic, fruitless hands grown chill
With their starved, pallid blood;
And the sky freezing still.”
There is an old phrase—a kind of historic truism—that in its original form dates back more than two millennia, to at least the Greek playwright Sophocles, but more recently and more familiarly popularized by American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make [go] mad.” Before Longfellow, the English essayist (and Latinist), Samuel Johnson, had rendered the phrase as: “Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.”
Our world—America in 2019—has, as our Southern visionaries foresaw, gone literally insane, at least a considerable portion of it.
Dabney, the Southern Agrarians, and Bradford observed a phenomenon that appears to infect much of modern society, and, in particular, whole segments of our population: a kind of lunacy, a madness which isolates the individual, that is, separates him from both the laws of nature and the Divine Positive Laws of God, Himself. This realization underlies the work of those great Southerner writers of the South and their understanding of what has occurred since 1865, and it is a condition they identified as increasingly infecting the American republic.
Although in historic Christian teaching both natural law and Divine Positive Law emanate ultimately from God, natural law—the law of nature—is recognized by reason and observation of “how things work” around us, while Divine Positive Law is derived from Divine Revelation and regards the duties and obligations of men in respect to God.
The concepts are not novel, and are not just found in Christian tradition. Natural law is found discussed at some length by the Greek and Latin philosophers. Examining the early texts of Plato (cf. Timaeus; Gorgias; and significantly, Politeia), he declares that the well-organized and ideal society is one which would “be established in accordance with nature [nature’s laws].” Aristotle is even more detailed (cf. his Rhetoric, for instance): the laws observable as operative in nature, in the world around us, are universal and “binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other.”
The Roman legist Cicero added to this, giving us perhaps the best definition of natural law that we have. And he was often quoted by our Southern forebears, and his insights were absorbed by the Nashville Agrarians. Indeed, Southerners from Jefferson to Dabney and many others cited his views of society, especially on the laws of nature. Rome and Roman culture and legal tradition were models for men of the South
Here is Cicero on the natural law in his De RePublica:
“There is indeed a law, right reason, which is in accordance with nature; existing in all, unchangeable, eternal. Commanding us to do what is right, forbidding us to do what is wrong….No other law can be substituted for it, no part of it can be taken away, nor can it be abrogated altogether….It is not one thing at Rome, and another thing at Athens: one thing to-day, and another thing to-morrow; but it is eternal and immutable for all nations and for all time.”
In the Christian West, during the High Middle Ages, this understanding of nature and the laws that regulate it was organized and given supreme exposition by the great St. Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas did not just simply regurgitate the views and insights of Aristotle or Cicero. For he understood the great religious tradition and contributions of the “people of the Pentateuch,” the Hebrews of the Old Testament, who gave to Christianity an understanding of God’s Revelation and the existence of Divine Positive Law that came from God and required our assent.
That Divine Positive law in no way contradicted the natural law; indeed, it served to both confirm and refine it in its many applications, such that much of subsequent Christian theology is based on an understanding of both and their agreement: a sinful act in respect to Divine Positive Law is also a violation of the laws of nature. Thus, the act of willful murder violates Divine Positive Law (“thou shalt not kill”), but also the natural law which posits a natural “right to life.” One may die in battle or be sentenced to death for a committed crime, but seen from the perspective of God’s creation and from the natural existence of creatures, murder, while it happens, is never viewed as “normal.” A human being will, given his nature, grow to be an adult; and God’s wish is for His creatures to do likewise, and with His grace.
The great Medieval writers also noted that the reality of natural law—the existence of the laws of nature, of a normative “way things operate and work” in the world—was not exclusive to just to the Greeks, or to Romans, or to the ancient Hebrews. Other cultures and societies had analogous concepts—they also recognized that there was a normative order in the world around us that in a very real sense governed us and our existence, and that the violation of this observable order could and probably would have disastrous consequences for those who violated it or revolted against it.
Following the great Medieval Scholastics, later English jurists, including Henry de Bracton and Edward Coke, translated the natural law and its practical applications into English common law, and Edmund Burke gave powerful voice to it in the late eighteenth century. As the late Russell Kirk has detailed, that inheritance was handed down to the Framers of our own Constitution—and to our Southern forebears.
When I was studying philosophy and theology many years ago, one of the major influences on my thinking was the late Dr. Heinrich Rommen (d. 1967), whose volume The Natural Law was and still is a primary source, a kind of modern summation of 3,000 years of Hebraic and Christian understanding about the laws of nature and how those laws, those actual rules within society serve as the basis for order—and that true justice and natural law were inextricably bound. The truth of “nature and nature’s God”—the natural and Divine Positive Law—is justice, and justice is dependent on their observance and proper functioning:
“The foundation of law is justice. ‘Truth grants or refuses the highest crown to the products of positive legislation, and they draw from truth their true moral force’ (Franz Brentano). But truth is conformity with reality. And just as the real and the true are one, so too the true and the just are ultimately one. Veritas facit legem. And in this profound sense of the unity of truth and justice the words, “And the truth shall make you free,” are applicable to the community of men under law. True freedom consists in being bound by justice.”
Notice two critical points that Rommen makes: (1) “truth” is defined as “conformity with reality,” and (2) “true freedom consists in being bound by justice.”
What we are witnessing today in America is the creation of a “counter-reality” which has long existed, sometimes in the fetid shadows, but has now shown itself visibly and publicly as never before as an advancing and dominating force in our cultural, religious and political life. It is that “counter-reality” that I call a form of lunacy, because it is not in conformity with reality, that is, with the laws of nature and Divine Positive Law. And thus it ultimately perverts justice, truth and true freedom.
One can find crude signs, indications of this, I believe, in the descriptive language that Hillary Clinton, for instance, used to define those who opposed her as “deplorables,” and then there was Obama’s descriptive term, “bitter clingers” who cling to their guns and Bibles. In effect, both Clinton and Obama were attacking “normal people,” persons who go about their business and perform their jobs, raise their families, attend church, pay taxes, and who accept, at least implicitly and normatively, those laws and limits of the laws of nature, in many cases as incorporated in our historic constitutions and the enacted laws of the land which flow from those constitutions.
Does not their target in so many ways include specifically—if unnamed—millions of our Southern people who cling to those norms?
That “normalcy” goes much further than our guns, for we have inherited traditions and beliefs, including religious beliefs that incorporate Divine Positive Law, which serve to govern our lives, even if at times we only give lip service to them or attempt to circumvent them. In a real sense it is that “great chain of being,” that accumulated past and all it includes that makes us who we are, shapes us and gives us meaning. Thus, the Western tradition and understanding of property rights, of the inherent rights of the family (found in natural and Divine Positive law), of the “right to life” (as opposed to the modern abortionist materialist idea about life), of the sacredness of marriage (and the irreconcilable opposition to such barbarisms as same sex marriage), of patriotism and love of country, and, yes, of the right to possess and own weapons and guns—these “rights” come to us vouchsafed as a consequence of our obedience to and observance of the laws of nature and Divine Positive Law.
The often virulent and unbridled opposition to these God-given “possessions” of mankind is, in effect, a form of lunacy, the product of the counter-reality which strives to replace the order created by God and consistent with the laws of nature. The wonderful imagery of the great English essayist G. K. Chesterton helps us understand in few words what great theologians have taken thousands of words to explain about the relationship between men and the laws of nature and God. In his volume, The Poet and the Lunatics (1929), he defines the “lunatic” as “he who loses his way and cannot return,” the man who is “outside the world of reason and the natural law,” indeed, as he adds, “raging with a desire to be outside of everything.”
Natural law and the Divine Positive Law provide a kind of road map for humanity—they have done so for two millennia. They are the basis for our civilization, and, indeed, they are the only basis we have. We have no other, at least no other that has been remotely successful.
They provide the basis for our rights and our duties, give us order socially and politically, clothe us with belief, and present to us the lessons and wisdom of tradition and counsel and examples of great (and not-so-great) men who have gone before. And they are, in reality, the only means of securing true freedom and justice based upon truth in this world.
The great “heresy” of our age we see all around us is this: the denial of what the poet Robert Lee Frost once called, “the truths we keep coming back to” (in his poem “The Black Cottage”). It is the proclamation of a counter-reality, of a “new” Paradise on Earth aborning, of a “New World Order” that rejects the insight and wisdom of two millennia. It perverts both the natural and Divine Positive Law and, like Dante’s hungry beast in Inferno, demands we look upon its horrid face, and asks “what think ye of me?” It is a demonic lunacy, a madness of those who have lost their way, deny and, in effect, denounce their Creator, and therefore demean and dehumanize mankind who become nothing more than brute animals—without a past, without an annealing culture and inheritance, and without God.
And it is this that we stand—that we must stand—against.
That is our obligation…as Southerners and as inheritors of a Christian inheritance and grace that stretches back two millennia.
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote 1, 600 years ago: “He who created us without our help, will not save us without our help.”