Michael Novak

Michael Novak died over the weekend. Samuel Gregg has a wonderful tribute at Public Discourse:

For in the end, Novak was always wrestling with distinctly religious questions. As his bestselling Belief and Unbelief illustrates, Novak engaged seriously with those people of good will who struggle to believe that there is a God, let alone the God who is Truth and Love revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. That in turn led Novak to ponder why human beings, made as imago Dei, were capable of such great evil and profound good. And if there was any figure who made the word “saint” real to Novak, it was unquestionably his fellow Slav, Saint John Paul II.

The world has lost a humble spirit and a powerful intellect.

Read the rest of Gregg’s tribute here.

Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 13

In Chapter 11 Holloway shifts from the domestic to the international with the French Revolution. New to me was the revelation Alexander Hamilton was not an immediate opponent of said revolution at its outset. He wasn’t a proponent of it either, but his vehement opposition would not come until 1792/93. For an individual often maligned as a monarchist this is a shocking disclosure. Even for someone reticent about revolution in general, his early willingness to “wait and see” indicated the overarching concern for liberty and justice Hamilton valued almost above all else, politically. This concern for liberty and objectively ordered human flourishing engendered within Hamilton a desire to hope for the best of the events in France…but expect the worst.

In short, Hamilton’s Augustinian perception created his bleak outlook. While, as Holloway remarks, he “approved of the movement to establish liberty in France” (p. 208), he was very much afraid that once roused, the people could not be checked – the principle fear of Hamilton and the Federalists, again reflecting Saint Augustine’s theological understanding of humanity. Interestingly, Hamilton is also highly critical of the intransigence of France’s nobles, making them equally at fault. Summarizing Hamilton, Holloway writes, “The people were inclined to demand too much, and the nobles were inclined to give too little” (p. 209). While many still propagate the notion Hamilton was a lackey to the “elites,” this is further evidence he was more than willing to call everyone to account in the cause of justice regardless of their status.

Although anxiety over the American “plebiscite” was ever-present among Hamilton and the Federalists, they were ultimately balanced out (for a time at least) by the fact America’s “patrician” class did not behave with the obstinacy of their counterparts in France. For example, whether Hamilton was serious about his suggestion of the President serving for life pending good behavior, and regardless of its merits, such a proposal gained no traction regardless. The point being, while delegates such as James Madison and James Wilson proposed what we know as a Popular Election to determine the President, a compromise was reached with implementation of the Electoral College so the people have an indirect say. In other words, the plebiscite wasn’t simply cast aside (which some assert), but was considered, vigorously so, unlike in France, and a middle-ground was forged in an attempt to curb the worst extremes on both sides, the very thing Hamilton was seeing in far-off France: the people “demanding too much,” and the nobles “giving too little.”

Hamilton likewise castigated the leaders of the French Revolution, but castigated for possessing a worldview inauthentic to “‘human nature’” and spearheading an irrational and subsequently doomed cause (p. 210). Contrasted with America’s leaders – even the Unitarian rationalist Jefferson – the difference couldn’t have been more stark to someone like Hamilton. America’s leaders not only went out of their way to justify and ground their revolution in religion, but relatedly, in the natural law tradition unique to the Christian West and the related comprehension of the nature of Man. This natural law tradition was the entire rationale for revolt to begin with! The French rationale, meanwhile, was the subjective notion of their own autonomous reason, as John Courtney Murray characterized it.

Similarly, what finally transitioned Hamilton into the aforementioned opposition was its “‘atheism’” (p. 212). Hamilton contended the French abandonment of, and assault on, religion and Christianity was an affront to their “‘ancestors’” and “‘reason’” itself. Here, Hamilton conspicuously referenced the Christian tradition that built and sustained France and the whole of Europe and affirmed its relationship to reason – the Divine Logos. This is all the more noteworthy today given Europe’s rejection of this heritage, so much so it rather infamously makes no mention of it in the charter document of the European Union, and instead opts for a vague reference to the “religious inheritance” of Europe from which the “inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person” originate from….

Consequently, while many, such as Thomas Jefferson, argued the French Revolution was a continuance of the American uprising (and still do), Hamilton thus indicated there was “‘no real resemblance between what was the cause of America and what is the cause of France’” (p. 212). For those who downplay the significance of Christianity and religion in the American Revolution (and the founding generally), they need to consider the Revolution’s contemporaries and how Christianity and religion was the litmus test to distance ourselves from the nominally same cause in France. If there was any doubt, Hamilton elucidated Americans are “‘a sober temperate and humane people, friends of religion, social order, and justice, enemies to tumult and massacre, to the wanton and lawless shedding of human blood’” (p. 213).

Perceptively, I believe, Holloway posits atheism was a tipping point for Hamilton because, no longer were the means illicit, but so too were the actual goals now. For Hamilton, the attack on religion was an assault on reason because it rejected the wisdom tradition had to offer, regardless what an individual may hold about faith. Atrocities such as the regicide of Louis brought “ignominiously to the block,” of which Hamilton also devoted fair space in his letter, are additional components of this hubris, this untethering from tradition and the past. It’s no coincidence Hamilton links these two concurrently: regicide and atheism.

What we see in this chapter is a desirous Alexander Hamilton for the cause of liberty and human fulfillment, yet an Augustinian-infused one that expects the worst of the French plebiscite, because, well…they’re the plebiscite. But the French nobility and “philosophers” are equally guilty: the nobility for their stubbornness and the so-called philosophers for their disordered leadership. And in the end, Hamilton would reject the events in France over the assaults upon Christianity and religion, which he considered assaults upon reason and history, respectively, because of its disregard for the wisdom of the past.

Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 3

Part 2

Part 1

I have previously asserted “it was inevitable Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson would contest one another” because “each held as opposing a view of human nature as there could be and these views justified every respective position they explored – for what is more elemental and pervasive than human nature?” And in Part 2 of my book review I explored this theme a bit more, suggesting one of the reasons the American states that had paid off their Revolutionary War debts were against Hamilton’s assumption plan was due to Man’s “selfish, short-sided” nature, incapable of rising above their “petty self-interest” for the greater good, nor capable of grasping how aiding the greater good benefited them, without some sort of prodding. So it’s only fitting Part 3 of my commentary series continues this trend.

Holloway begins Chapter 3 by highlighting some of the key features that distinguished Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, as men, politicians, and their particular worldviews. He posits “Hamilton took a longer view of fame, that he was willing to endure a temporary unpopularity” whereas Jefferson “took a shorter view and was unwilling to serve the people in the face of their present dissatisfaction” (p. 39). Holloway comments this explains the “commonplace view” of the two men, of the “aristocratic” and “elitist” Hamilton and the “democratic” and “populist” Jefferson. “What Hamilton might view as justifiable resistance to public opinion for the country’s ultimate good, Jefferson might view as an anti-republican effort to force policies on the people that they have a right to reject. And what Jefferson might view as proper deference to a people who have a right to rule themselves – such as resigning at the first signs of their dissatisfaction – Hamilton might view as a dereliction of public duty,” Holloway further writes (p. 39). What is lacking in these statements, though, is the cause for Hamilton and Jefferson to take these attitudes. The cause is worldview – in this case, how each understands human nature.

In short, Hamilton viewed human nature negatively; Jefferson, positively. However, Hamilton believed the individual could rise above his predisposition (toward sin, to carry the Augustinian theme to its conclusion), though perhaps it would be more accurate to say “act contrary to his nature,” and consequently Hamilton believed political leaders should be comprised of individuals of this sort. If this seems contradictory, it is akin to the axiom, the individual is rational while people are irrational. In turn, these individuals could steer the masses toward the good they would not otherwise strive for, or the good they would not otherwise be capable of comprehending. Thus, as far as Hamilton was concerned, public opinion was irrelevant, at least during the Washington Administration (this would be amended later in his life, as a necessary concession to domestic realpolitik).

Jefferson, being much more secular than Hamilton, much less influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, did not share Hamilton’s negativity of human nature. Jefferson believed in the plebiscite. He trusted the plebiscite. Left to its own and freed from entanglements the plebiscite would bring about a good Hamilton and those elitist Federalist couldn’t conceive. This is why Jefferson’s critics could, and can, so easily label him a demagogue; why Jefferson was so willing to acquiesce to public opinion; why Jefferson was a proponent of an agrarian nation and detested the Early Republic equivalent of “Wall Street,” banking, and industry that Hamilton allegedly curried favor with.

These competing worldviews of human nature and how best to respond to it probably is a significant factor in the verity Hamilton (and the Federalists) thought “nationally” and Jefferson (and the Republicans) thought “confederally” (p. 43). In other words, Hamilton looked beyond local provincial concerns to the greatest amount of good that can be achieved by those select few operating at odds with their sinfulness. Jefferson meanwhile almost exclusively devoted attention to these provincial concerns, arguing in effect the parts are greater than the sum. To Jefferson’s mind, if the parts are functioning free from outside interference, then the sum will naturally be addressed without the need for direct guidance or leadership.


I’ve changed the title and ceased referring to these posts as “reviews” because they aren’t properly reviews. Instead, I am now calling them “Commentaries.” I will write up a more traditional, summative review once I’ve finished the book.