Modern and American Dignity: Who We Are as Persons, and What That Means for Our Future
by Peter Augustine Lawler
(ISI Books, 2010).

In response to the essay collection Human Dignity and Bioethics, published by George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, Steven Pinker, the best-selling writer and Harvard sociobiological psychologist, argued in a New Republic essay that human dignity is a worthless concept. Corresponding to no measurable scientific reality, human dignity is more about fear, irrational belief, and represents hyper “religious impulses” that are “imposing a Catholic agenda on American secular democracy.” Quite simply, given the lack of empirical rigor supporting the dignity project, it must, must be true that its real motives are “pro-death, anti-freedom” and “well outside the American mainstream.” In Modern and American Dignity: Who We Are as Persons, and What That Means for Our Future, Peter Augustine Lawler, professor of government at Berry College and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, brings to bear his immense learning and wisdom to ground the concept of human dignity and advance its claims against the likes of Pinker, et al., and, more importantly, the philosophical founders of modern liberationist thinking.

Pinker’s shallow positivism, while regnant in intellectual circles, is easily dispatched. However, as Lawler is at pains to describe, the philosophical architecture of autonomism is the more robust, if equally false, alternative to a full notion of human dignity in our period. Modern conceptions of personhood rest on liberation from believed external constraints. “The modern individual–the modern self–aims to be autonomous, to use the mind as an instrument of liberation from or transcendence of dependence on material or natural necessity.” The autonomy project’s dedication to liberation from any givens of the body and nature, not to mention the a priori rejection of God, has formed and maintained a virtual stranglehold on modern conceptions of the self.

Lawler demonstrates that in the crucial forums of higher education, the judicial class and its emasculation of politics, the biotechnology industry, and our increasingly unconstrained notions of the family, this cast of mind exerts its influence in substantial ways. Of course, this view of the self-sufficient man, cut loose from the horizontal traditions of community and family, and the vertical traditions of religion, renders man unable to think coherently about the moral structure of reality. Indeed, when he does reflect upon the past of his nation, culture, or lost religion, it is as a spectator set free from arbitrary and irrational constraints that were reflective of a sexist, racist, fascist, theocratic past with nothing to teach the contemporary individual. There being no moral structure to human choices worth the fuss, in any event.

Adding a decisive twist to the debate is that autonomy is really losing out to a conception of personhood defined by productivity. As between the existential freedom of the autonomous individual and the amazing productivity of the middle-class American, autonomy and its appendage, consent are becoming the undercarriage of a robust productivist logic. To be sure, autonomy and productivity hold hands in their distinct but not separate undertakings. The person, however, now stands defined almost exclusively by what he makes and consumes for himself and others.

This is the age when the smartest, prettiest, and most talented rather than living with confidence in their superiority find themselves racked with anxiety and strain over their self-worth, which is always one achievement away from being realized or lost. As Lawler observes, for this class “the pressure is on like never before.” However, does not modern and American dignity demand, as it were, some positive accounting for autonomy and production? This is, after all, a commercial republic in some of its deepest inclinations, a country kept in motion by free individuals willing to be useful to others in their productivity.

The author’s dialectical answer to this question forms the complexity and richness of the book. What is needed, the author informs, is for the denizen of late-modernity to recover the essence of personhood, and how it distinguishes him from being an autonomous chimp, ora disconsolate self hurling itself against a meaningless world. For this, Lawler brings the reader to the profound transformation achieved in human understanding and freedom by Augustine’s reflections on the Incarnation and Trinity. Summarizing the Bishop of Hippo’s insights, Lawler reasons as follows:

Each human being longs to be and is an exception to the general, necessaritarian laws that account for the rest of creation. Each of us has the freedom and dignity that comes with personal transcendence: The laws of nature can’t account for our free will, for either our sinfulness or our virtue, for our love of particular persons (including the personal God), for the misery of our personal contingency and mortality without a personal, loving God, for our capacity to sense, even without revelation, that we were made for eternal life through our ineradicable alienation in this world . . .

Confronted by Augustine was the distant, past-tense God of classical natural theology and the era’s confining civil theology, which insisted that man was merely part of the polis and nothing more. As Augustine records in his Confessions, his conversion to Christianity was prepared “by some books of the Platonists,” but he also notes that these texts were not determinative for him because, ultimately, they did not speak to the freedom and strangeness of his being.

Acutely sensed by Augustine were that his desires, reason, and will, and their searching wonder and contingency, were unexplained by the god of the philosophers and the rigid impersonal ordering of every living thing the classical view of the cosmos entailed. A man who inquired into the order of being with ferocious energy, and also agonized over his inability to govern his carnal nature, had become open to the truth about himself. Of course, Augustine’s wonder, his limited knowledge of himself and God, is the wonder sensed by all men. Here is where the dignity of the person receives its unavoidable content. A being capable of these insights about himself, of understanding the truth of his limited, embodied being, its misery and joys, and homelessness on earth, forms the bedrock of a humane and free culture and civilization.

The problem of late-modernity, Lawler contends, is that those who have articulated the integrity of the individual have done so by abstracting certain features of man’s existence and then formulated them as universal norms for human action and understanding. The vital thread connecting Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Darwin, Marx, among others, is their philosophic nominalism, the believed inability of our words and language to connect with reality. This is not to ignore the substantive conceptions these thinkers put forward for understanding human liberty and political life, or, in the case of Darwin and Marx, their denial. But the nominalism of modern thought slowly corrupts freedom and dignity. Being unable to know truth with others, and thus share things in common, the conscience is emptied of any substantive content. Save for his subjective will, guided by no superintending principle, nothing but low interests guides man’s searching, his practical pursuits, or his political life in this conception of man.

Words, as Locke contends in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, are mere weapons used by individuals to secure their existence against the indifference of nature or the overreaching tendencies of his fellow man. This understanding, of course, leads to the impossibility of naturally shared goods that we participate in and defend when needed. The consequences entail a self-understanding that increasingly connects relations with others on terms of contract and consent. The other is evaluated and used by us according to our transient interests. Our embodied beings and time-bound existence, not to mention our reaching to others from our in-laid loves and desires, does not mean that family life and lumpy civil society are natural things, or that political society is a necessary reality. As to the latter, on this view, the honor of the patriot, General George Pickett’s exhortation at Gettysburg that “each man marches today for Ol’ Virginia” is really for suckers.

Lawler reminds the reader that the autonomy project’s contemporary goal of getting beyond politics, either through decisions of the United States Supreme Court, or the edicts from various European Union councils and commissions, is a revolt against the political nature of human beings. Putting his finger squarely on these difficult situations in modern political life, Lawler asks whether modern liberalism ultimately leads to the end of political life. Do not the demands of natural rights, the notions that contract and consent mark human interactions and secure freedom, and that government is actuated by the will of sovereign individuals displace the action of politics? The transformative ability humans possess to alter their self-understanding, to revolutionize their material existence by science, technology, and the market, this being facilitated by the incredible space given to Western man in liberal regimes, is breathtaking. Yet liberalism’s story, its very life, seems tired, almost lifeless in its European home. In this regard, America remains something of an exception despite our mounting troubles.

The Lockean contract notion of government, built on this transformative capacity of the liberated individual, gave way in the nineteenth century to the extension of government power and science liberating the individual for even further greatness and autonomy. No one should be surprised at this development, Lawler suggests. Of course, the theoretic nominalism of modern liberal thought factored heavily in the Hegelian and progressive reinterpretation of the purpose of government and its relationship to its citizens. Government action was now directed towards developing individuality through both the depoliticization of politics and the relief from competition in the market.

Lawler’s argument obviously places this corruption deep within the modern philosophic project. In short, the problems of the American political order may not be so much a foreign intrusion of Continental philosophy as much as a dialectical extension of modern thought, found in the American mind as much as in the mind of the German university, or the annual Davos Forum. One significant difference, Lawler notes, is America’s remarkable religiosity and the remedial work it has always performed on our political life, a process of compromise found working from the beginning of the American Republic.

The Declaration of Independence may have grounded man’s equality on “Nature’s God” but the document also contains the appeal to the “Supreme Judge” for “the rectitude of our intentions” in declaring independence from Great Britain with “reliance” on “divine Providence” in the coming struggle. These attributes of the personal God were revisions forced upon Jefferson’s original draft Declaration by Calvinist members of the Continental Congress. The Declaration’s inclusion of Jefferson’s impersonal deity and the references to an active Creator evidence Fr. John Courtney Murray’s notion that the Founders unconsciously built better than they knew. We were saved from a document that probably would have been read as a political precursor to the French Enlightenment, or a document that would have been too confining, too theological, in its defense of the American separation from Great Britain. In short, what was achieved was the founding of a capacious political tolerance, properly understood, even if unintended.

The larger truth is that liberalism in American has not been emptied of its content or led to the automatic diminution of politics, nor has civil society collapsed because of government growth or an apathetic citizenry. The contradictions within liberalism were mediated by this nation’s provision for the transcendent destiny of its citizens. The protection afforded religious liberty in the First Amendment is our regime’s open acknowledgment of the unchanging, eternal element of man that always stands in judgment of politics. The state can never become all in all. Within this space, government’s intrusion is unwarranted.

The limits to American government are not ultimately found in the parchment barriers of federalism or separation of powers but in the human soul and its capacity for moral excellence. As go the souls of individual Americans will go the future of our country. The heroic belief of self-government was always supported by the dignity of the person, and the limits that his natural reasoning and transcendence places on government. For communicating this truth to us in a profound manner, working from Augustine to the dawn of the American nation and its contemporary deformations, Peter Lawler’s book should be studied so that we too can be open to the truth about ourselves and our country.  

Richard M. Reinsch II is a fellow in the Co-Sponsored Program at Liberty Fund, Inc., and the author of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary, published by ISI Books (July, 2010).