Statesmanship and the Constitution
By Lee Trepanier, November 10, 2010 in Outside the Classroom, Professional Development, ISI in the News

At the Lehrman American Studies Center Regional Seminar at Amherst, we talked about the role of statesmanship and the Constitution. Hadley Arkes talked about the importance of first principles in the Constitution, while George Nash discussed the education of the Founders. We concluded with a discussion of how to teach statesmanship and the Constiution in the classroom. One of the questions that was raised by one of the participants and that was unresolved was the relationship between first principles and the text of the Constitution. Does the importance of first principles make the text of the Constitution itself irrelevant? If not, then what role does the text have in the Constitution?

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Anonymous on Dec 4, 2010 at 12:55 pm


It seems worth considering the relation of first principles (or the general precepts of the natural law) to the Constitution as an instance of the relation of natural law to human law more generally. For this person's question about whether first principles render the Constitution itself irrelevant to make sense, then Aquinas's account about the relation of natural law to human law would have to be virtually unintelligible. There's simply no reason to think that a natural law foundation for the Constitution or even natural law jurisprudence would render the Constitution itself irrelevant. To think so would be to assume a straw man view of natural law. For natural law is under-determinate with respect to most all (though I think not all) the particularities of human law. Human law amounts to "the determination of generalities," which is Aquinas's way of speaking of the application of first principles to particular circumstances. The most basic precepts of the natural law are necessary. But most (not all) applications of natural law to a given society is a matter also of contingency. The questioner has forgotten to consider that both contingency and necessity are present in human law. His/her question assumes that it's either all one or the other. And this just isn't the case.

Lee Trepanier on Dec 5, 2010 at 4:56 am

I think your analogy of Aquinas’ relationship between natural and human law is spot on! It was too bad that you weren’t able to make it to the seminar!

Last updated on Dec 5, 2010 at 4:56 am.
Anonymous on Dec 5, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Such gatherings are how the university should function--big questions, honest exchange, etc. But since we have the system we have, at least these gatherings give us opportunities to experience academic life as it should be and provide the opportunity for improving the system we have, where we can. All that to say . . . I rather wish I had been able to be there as well. Sounds like it the discussions were engaging.

Lee Trepanier on Dec 6, 2010 at 1:09 am

If there was only someway to reform the universities along the Lehrman seminars . . . !

about the author

Lee Trepanier
Lee Trepanier

I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. I teach courses in political philosophy as well as the Introduction to Political Science course. I received my B.A. in Political Science and English Literature with a Minor in Russian Studies at Marquette University and my M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at Louisiana State University. My research interests are in Russian politics; politics and religion; politics, literature, and film; and political philosophy with a focus on the works of Eric Voegelin.