The Ancient Wisdom of the Founders

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Tuesday, January 3, 2017 1 comments

by Bill Fortenberry

“It may seem obvious to you that government without the consent (permission and agreement) of the governed should not exist. Such a notion, however, was still very new and revolutionary in the 1600’s.” -English philosopher, John Locke, in West’s American Government

How many times have you heard something like this? I know that I hear it all the time. Just about every time that I discuss the history of our nation, someone else will pipe up with the claim that our nation was founded as the implementation of a bunch of new and radical ideas about government which were developed during the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, this is the primary view of our nation’s founding that is taught in grade school through graduate school. And it is absolutely 100% fictional.

The idea that America was founded on new and radical philosophies developed during the Enlightenment is a fairy tale from the progressive left that has been force fed to our children for several generations. If we take a moment to look at the actual writings of Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, we will see a very different tale begin to emerge.

Progressives like to claim that the world’s leading philosophy of government prior to the enlightenment was a philosophy known as the divine right of kings. This is often presented as the Christian doctrine that the king derives his authority directly from God and that his subjects must submit to him in all things regardless of any written laws to the contrary. According to the progressives, this religious notion of the divine right of kings ruled the world for millennia until their champion, John Locke, was finally able to break free of the chains of religion and begin teaching the new and radical philosophy of government by the consent of the governed. But what did John Locke have to say about the new and radical philosophy of his day?

“In this last age a generation of men has sprung up amongst us, that would flatter princes with an opinion, that they have a divine right to absolute power.” (source)

Wait… what did he just say?

“In this last age a generation of men has sprung up amongst us, that would flatter princes with an opinion, that they have a divine right to absolute power.”

Yes, you did read that correctly. John Locke claimed that it was the philosophy of the divine right of kings that was the new and radical philosophy of the Enlightenment. And that’s not all. Locke’s entire Two Treatises of Government is a refutation of the leading defender of the divine right of kings philosophy, a man named Robert Filmer. Locke wrote of Filmer that, “Sir Robert Filmer seems to condemn the novelty of the contrary opinion, yet I believe it will be hard for him to find any other age, or country of the world, but this, which has asserted monarchy to be divine law.”

And a little further on Locke adds, “Sir Robert Filmer’s great position is, that men are not naturally free. This is the foundation on which his absolute monarchy stands ... But if this foundation fails, all his fabric falls with it, and governments must be left again to the old way of being made by contrivance, and the consent of men making use of their reason to unite together into society.”

So here we have John Locke, the supposed champion of the progressives, renouncing the very foundation of progressivism. Instead of claiming that he was throwing off the chains of religion and presenting new and radical philosophies for an enlightened mankind, Locke accused his opponents of introducing new philosophies and presented himself as a conservative seeking to defend the wisdom of the past.

Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, defined the conservative view of government when he wrote, “We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty which were understood, long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption.”

This idea that the great principles of government, morality, and liberty are ancient principles which will never be changed or refuted is the primary claim of conservatism. All the great philosophers of the Enlightenment (Locke, Blackstone, Montesquieu, Harrington, Sydney, etc.) all agreed with this idea. And the American founders established our nation on this same idea, as John Adams explained when he wrote, “I will hazard a prediction, that after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity than those you have received from your ancestors.”

So what was this ancient wisdom which was defended by the philosophers of the Enlightenment and implemented by the founders of our nation? That is the question that I will begin to answer in my next two blog posts as we retrace the footsteps of our founders.

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David Odegard said...

Thank you for your article. I too have little regard for the way progressivism parasitically attaches itself to advances not their own as a way of feeding off of the life and blood of others, which is the perfect encapsulation of their mode of existence.
Personal liberty, the right of voluntary association pre-existed the divine right of kings doctrine forever past. Centralization of power is what allowed the monarchy to begin to assert itself in a more and more absolutist way. This was fueled by enlightenment principles, to the contrary of contemporary textbooks.
In Rome, one begins with the Republic and limited government and ends with an absolute emperor on the top of centralized power. This story is the same in France with centralization beginning with the Carolingian dynasty and continuing up to Louis XIV who claimed absolute power, "I am the State."
On the contrary, our the founding of the United States was all together different. The original proposal for the Great Seal was to have Moses and the pillar of fire in the desert on one side to depict God's shepherding of our nation, and on the other side Horsa and Hengist (the original Saxon invaders of Brittany) to depict Saxon law which was rooted in personal liberty, limited government, and voluntary associations (willingly vowing one sword to their lord, for instance).
Just a few thoughts of agreement. Cannot wait for the next couple posts. Blessings.