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In Defense of Order - Part 2
Revisiting the Idea of the Mixed Constitution - and Why it Matters
In Part 1 of this post, I discussed the centrality of Order in the thought of Russell Kirk and beyond, exploring its meaning and how a focus on order might equip us better to analyze current manifestations of disorder especially fomented by progressivism, but implicitly aided by the conservative movement’s unalloyed emphasis on freedom.
In this second part, I want to focus on the constitutional dimension of order. As Kirk wrote in The Roots of American Order, the Founding Fathers prized both liberty and order, but then - as is arguably the case now - “they found it well, at that moment in American affairs, to redress the American balance in favor of order.” The Constitution, by this understanding, was predominantly an effort to establish order in light of the widespread disorder of the time in which it was forged.
While Kirk recognized that there is a “tension” between “order and freedom,” the Constitution - by this understanding - sought to establish order that would form the constraint upon bad forms and exercises of freedom. Thus, the Constitution - broadly understood - sought to form the overarching context in which freedom would be rendered both possible and salutary. A proper approach to constitutional matters - again, broadly understood - would place greatest emphasis upon whether our order was well-maintained, producing an obviously ordered society. Yet, for several generations, those most focused on constitutional matters - especially in the conservative movement - have instead emphasized that the primary aim of the Constitution is to protect and advance liberty.
Even the casual observer today recognizes that the absence of order does not lead to a flourishing of liberty, but widespread disorder in every domain of life. Without a primary and ongoing focus upon good order, there is little hope for good liberty. Instead, disordered liberty - of the sort with which we have become extremely familiar in the social, personal, as well as the economic domains of our society - will rapidly become the defining feature of our time.
A focus on constitutional order would forefront concerns with stability rather than disruption; proportion rather than imbalance; and harmony rather than individualistic improvisation. As a political matter, this priority would shift emphasis markedly from the progressive focus on individual self-invention, and the so-called conservative emphasis upon the unencumbered economic self. Instead, attention would turn to good ordering, patterning, “weaving,” and balance of the various potentially disruptive elements of society. Only a well-ordered polity has prospects for the social harmony and stability that lead to longevity of that order through widespread flourishing. Such considerations should strike us especially in their absence, underscored today by the loss of confidence for the prospects of longevity of the current regime.
Before discussing such high concepts in the political realm, it is perhaps helpful to resort to some visual assistance from a domain that constantly environs us - the architectural realm. After all, words like “order,” “stability,” “balance,” and “proportion,” among many related words, are central concepts and concerns in classical architectural styles.
Classical architecture takes many guises, but it widely shares certain universal principles, especially those mentioned above: balance, proportion, stability, etc. All of these concepts relate back to one main feature that most fundamentally informs classical architecture - a respect for, and deference to, the laws of nature. Classical buildings both prominently and often subtly demonstrate their respect for natural forces by various features that widely, nearly universally, provoke admiration and awe.
Some of those features are: a balance of two sides aside an identifiable center; proportion in which the various elements do not overwhelm (or diminish) each other, and which is fitting an appropriate to the (human) creatures who will inhabit the structure; stability born of structural forms in which the foundation and base are solid - including features that visually amplify how the structure is wider on the bottom as compared to the top. Other ways that the the forces of gravity are respected include features that maintain the structure where it is weakest - over doors and windows, for instance - in the form of pillars, arches, and so forth. The harsh natural elements must also be respected, require it materials that are strong, lasting, and can be easily maintained over a long period of time.
Without even consciously understanding these various forms and formalities of order, “we know it when we see it.” My students, for instance, are surrounded by such structures, but rarely contemplate why, for instance, they prefer “the Golden Dome” to, say, to a building intended to honor Notre Dame’s most famous president, Theordore Hesburgh.
Main Building, Notre Dame
Hesburgh Center, Notre Dame
Crowds don’t gather to take photos of the Hesburgh Center or selfies in front of its disorderly form, but guests will frequently all but stop traffic to get a shot of the Golden Dome down the long, beautiful street that provides a stunning perspective to the heart of campus:
Much of modern architecture represents the wholesale rejection of these principles and accompanying practices and disciplines. While we intuitively see these rejections as contrasts of “beautiful” and “ugly,” these are only the most immediate and instinctive manifestations of the deeper disorder that underlies modernism. Modernism’s rejection of classical principles are, at heart, a rejection of order in the name of freedom - freedom especially from the constraints of nature.
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Consider, for instance, some of my favorite examples (as my students can tell you), the contrast between the “original” and the “modern” campus library that exists on almost every college of a certain age and size.
Perhaps the most striking contrast between these two libraries in my own experience is found at an institution where I studied for a time - the University of Chicago. Harper Library was built according to classical principles, and represents the embodiment of classical principles of balance, proportion, stability - that is, order.
The interior is even more beautiful, intended to inspire students to the appropriate awe as they enter a building whose purpose is the preservation of the past in the form of books - that singularly and distinctive human attribute institutional memory.
I spent most of my study time at Chicago in the room pictured immediately above - even though it was officially the “undergraduate library,” and I was a doctoral student in the Committee on Social Thought. I spent my time in that arched chamber in studied avoidance of the more contemporary research library - Regenstein Library:
The interior was, if anything, more depressing (if less brutalist) than the exterior:
If you ask a student or innocent bystander the difference between the buildings, they will often answer, “beautiful” vs. “ugly.” But, understanding how to “read” buildings, the difference lies most fundamentally in one building that adopts order as its governing principle, and the other that adopts the modern emphasis upon liberty. One sees this most immediately in considering one basic difference of a main feature of the respective buildings. Harper’s building visually emphasizes stability, not only through its balanced form, but by highlighting how the widest elements are on the bottom - not only the foundation, of course, but the various pediments and decorative features, are designed to send a comforting visual signal of stability and longevity:
Regenstein is a declaration of independence from the forces of nature, actually becoming wider as it ascends. Its basic elements offend the eye before we have even consciously understood why, intending to reject any instinctive visual cues which provide the assurance that the building will stay up. It is designed to declare our modernist freedom from the oppressive constraints of nature:
I could provide countless examples of these designed and intentional offenses - for instance, the contrast between Riggs Library and Lauinger Library at the institution where I taught for seven years, Georgetown University. It was at Georgetown, in fact, where I became keenly interested in these comparisons, since it was my students’s stated and emphatic preference for Healy Hall and Riggs Library over Lauinger Library that allowed me to commend their sound instincts which completely refuted their casual relativism. We rightly crave order.
Lauinger Library, Georgetown University
What is the political equivalent of such architectural considerations?
Classical political thought, of course, which was supremely concerned with order. The aim was not dynamism and transformation, but stability. In keeping with the etymological origins of the word “order,” its main thinkers sought to establish in politics what classical architects achieved in stone: “formal disposition or array, methodical or harmonious arrangement.” For this reason, classical political thought sought to devise the political equivalent of the classically beautiful building - the idea of the mixed constitution.
Thinkers in this tradition recognized that all regimes were prone to either civil war or anarchy because humans, unlike stones, are always rearranging themselves, preferably to their own benefit. In politics, the parts of any city tend to seek their own advantage over the whole. Aristotle grimly observed that almost all known regimes in the world are one of two forms of vicious regimes: Democracy or Oligarchy, or rule by the many poor or domination by the wealthy few.
The hallmark of a bad regime is that a part of the regime rules on its own behalf: the many rule for the majority, but not all, and specifically, seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the wealthy; or the few wealthy rule on their own behalf, especially by keeping the poor at bay while retaining the wealth of the regime for themselves alone.
Imbalance is likely, and in the longer term, almost unavoidable. Disorder is a strong human tendency. Only a pronounced focus upon establishing and maintaining order can counteract these tendencies. For this reason, ancient constitutionalism encouraged statesmen, political leaders, and citizens alike to establish and maintain order, in most instances, through the form of the “mixed constitution.”
The mixed constitution was prized precisely because it offered stabibility through balance. Most regimes tend toward imbalance, the domination either of the few or the many. The ancient tradition argued for the goal of order achieved through a kind of mixing and balancing of these destabilizing forces. The classical authors commended the ideal of the MIXED Constitution - that is, a mixing and balancing especially of the two parties that constitute the political order, the “many” and the “few.”
Each of the two “parties” of a political order tend toward distinctive vices. The “few” possess the tools that allowed them to dominate the demos, in spite of their smaller number. They usually benefited from greater wealth, which allowed them to dominate the main institutions of society as well as conferring to them greater control of the military. They were additionally prone to self-congratulation for their good fortune, mistaking either chance or providence as their own singular achievement. They preferred to live exclusively among their own kind, geographically separating themselves from the teeming masses, and thus, comprehended little of their actual condition.
The many was likely to have its vices as well. They suffered from material want, and thus were often degraded, physically and culturally. They lacked the benefits of high culture, and their tastes - then and now - were coarse. They were prone to be parochial, and hence, xenophobic, mistrustful of people and things that are new, different, or strange. They were likely to harbor deep resentments toward the wealthy, and thus were susceptible to manipulation by a demagogue promising them the satisfaction of vengeance.
Yet the classical tradition also noted that each “class” was likely to possess certain virtues as well. The few were more likely to be refined, cultured, and supportive of a high and elevating culture. After all, it was the “elites” who built the beautiful buildings pictured above (and, alas, the ugly ones too). They benefited from liberal education - enjoying the freedom from “servile” labor - and rather were more likely to enjoy leisure and its attendant potential for gratuitous excellence.
The “many” could be repositories of “ordinary virtue,” the homely virtues born of moderate means, frugality, and mutual reliance. Because they often worked with the stuff of the earth, they recognized natural limits more readily than their elite counterparts. They developed roots and memory, often giving rise to “popular culture” that percolated from the bottom up (e.g., “folk music”), and not the contemporary, artificial form of “popular culture” that is today foisted on the many by the mandarins in Hollywood. Polybius noted that the “many” were likely to be more pious than the few, likely because they recognized more their reliance upon the blessings of God, while also fearing His wrath in their condition of greater precarity.
The classical tradition argued that a good “mixing” would amplify the respective virtues of each party while minimizing their attendant vices. Ideally, according to Aristotle, the extremes of each would disappear, leaving only a single moderate citizenry - a “middling element” that fostered the virtues that relied, ultimately, on the condition of moderation between the extremes to which both individuals and cities were prone.
[For those interested in these themes, they are at the heart of my argument in my most recent book, Regime Change]
We are not mistaken to recognize the similarity of classical architecture and classical political philosophy. Order was prized above all. Stability was a main principle, achieved through balance and proportion (a form of moderation). Longevity was to be one of its primary results. Both approaches sought to provide a good home for humanity, a home built according to the nature of humans and respect for the limitations imposed by nature. Imbalance, instability, rapid change, dynamism, “progress” - none of these supposed requirements of the modern age were in any way recommended by the ancient authors. We have ignored them in our belief that their lessons have been superseded. But at least one modern conservative sought to remind his contemporaries of their teachings.
In discussing the priority of order, Russell Kirk regarded the ideal of the “mixed constitution” as the distinctive contribution of Athenian antiquity to the American republic, conveyed by the practical statesmanship of Solon, the political philosophy of Aristotle, and the investigation of the Greek historian Polybius of the exemplary nature of the Roman constitution. (Kirk did not mention, though doubtless knew, the influence especially of Aristotle and Polybius on Aquinas and, broadly, the medieval tradition of Constitutionalism that flowed into the early modern architects of American constitutionalism).
Kirk’s arguments faithfully echo the classical teachings on the desirability of a well-mixed and balanced constitution. Discussing Aristotle’s praise for “polity” - his label for the good mixed constitution - Kirk noted that its balance sought to give rise to a stable form of civic peace:
“Polity would join together various virtues of [each] form of government [regime]…. Domination either by the selfish rich or the envious poor would be avoided; aristocratic violence and popular roguery would be restrained” (91-2).
Etymologically, recall that order derives from concepts that emphasize “formal disposition or array, methodical or harmonious arrangement" and "fit or consistent collocation of parts.” Kirk discerns exactly these features of the classical ideal of the “mixed constitution,” one intended to result in “harmonious arrangement” of what are otherwise likely to be disharmonious relations.
“Polity is a community of friendship, founded upon common affections as well as upon common interests. In a state, men have everything to gain by peaceful cooperation, as if they were so many parts of the human body….”
The classical tradition stressed that the achievement of such a good “mixing” was supremely difficult, and Kirk praised the American founding precisely because it provided the form and conditions for achievement of such harmony. He viewed it as the special responsibility of the conservative party to emphasize order as the primary aim and purpose of the constitutional order. The achievement of genuine harmonious order is rare and difficult to maintain. Its continuation cannot be taken for granted, and forces in every society perpetually exist to tear it apart. Conservatism worth its name seeks, above all, to conserve and preserve any such order. Kirk wrote his book in 1974 to urge his fellow conservatives to attend to the demands of order.
His counsel went largely unheeded. Instead, the call for ever-more liberty became the rallying cry of a misguided conservative movement.
Imagine, however, a conservative movement that had embraced Kirk’s commendation of the ideal of the “mixed constitution.” Would it have made a difference?
In such a counterfactual world, imagine the dozens upon dozens of conservative institutions and the generations of young people trained within them whose main focus would have been on the question - “are we well-ordered? Are we a ‘community of friendship’? Are the parts harmoniously arranged? Is there imbalance among the various elements that constitute our social, political, and economic landscape? If so, how do we correct that imbalance, shoring up those points where instability might arise?”
We would continuously be asking, “how is the state of our ‘building’”? When confronted with an onslaught of statistics that point to crumbling of some of the foundations of the structure - especially today among the “many,” whether in the form of deaths of despair, the breakdown of marriage and family, their economic precarity, growing poverty rates, and widespread loneliness - the clear answer would not have been the invocation of more “freedom.” Rather, such a movement would have focused ceaselessly on the restoration of order, stability, and balance, in particular, harmony between the “many” and the “few.” Rather than congratulating ourselves on our growing overall prosperity, such fictive conservatives would have fretted decades ago about the gathering instability that could be expected from such imbalance and disorder.
Rather than regarding all forms of public and political authority as inherently bad - as a limitation of our “natural liberty” - it would instead have developed prudential ways of differentiating good from ill uses of political power. Good uses would be those aimed at a good “mixing” and especially avoidance of instability, imbalance, and disorder. We would eschew both poverty and excessive wealth, seeking to foster a widespread “middling element.” An economy that fostered widespread inequality would rightly be suspected of fostering DISORDER – imbalance, instability, and an “unmixed” regime. Those seeking to “conserve” a good constitution would foremost be vigilant and guard against these developments. A conservatism of ORDER would have a very different focus than the “conservatism” today that is generally supportive of disruption and instability.
Such a conservatism would constantly ask - in light of the ideal of the mixed constitution - “How are we doing?” One can easily imagine Aristotle, Polybius, Aquinas — and Russell Kirk — observing contemporary America and saying, “I told you so.” The defining feature of our “regime” today is an almost entirely that of an “unmixed constitution” (i.e., “constitution” in the widest sense). It should be absolutely clear to any observer that our nation – while often called a “democracy” – is unmistakeably an oligarchy. The left today is primarily the party of this oligarchy, one that cleverly claims the mantle of “egalitarianism.” Indeed, conservatives are mistaken to call the rise of “woke” a form of “cultural Marxism,” instead of seeing it as a useful shroud of an oligarchy that seeks to use the garb of democratic egalitarianism to hide the fact that it is an oligarchy. Yet, generations of so-called conservatives have been as committed to creating and sustaining the oligarchy as the ‘cultural left’, and so continue to advance the idea that the greatest threat facing modern America and the world is an insufficient amount of FREEDOM. A proper conservatism would immediately recognize: our problem is not a lack of freedom, it is a lack of ORDER.
Many former so-called “conservatives” (right-liberals or libertarians, such as Jonah Goldberg) have spent the past eight years bemoaning the rise of Trump and Trumpian populism, and not without some good reasons. Many currents coming from the right today are not salutary, and seem to be worsening, among them, coarseness, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and even racism. Many of the vices to which the party of the “many” are prone are coming to the fore, ones to be expected amid the worsening of the attendant vices of the party of the “few.” The conclusion reached by too many today that they have to pick a side, and thereby worsen the imbalance to and instability of the political disorder.
But rather than condemning Trump or his voters, such critics ought first to look within: during all the years in which they commended the dynamism and transformational benefits of liberty, did they give priority to order? Did they consider the demands of balance, stability, proportion, and harmony in the political order in the same way such concerns must inform the work of a classical architect? If not, were they not, in effect, building the political version of the Regenstein Library from behind a false facade of claiming to prefer Harper Library? If they truly despise the disorder of our political moment - and I believe truly that they do - were they not among those architects who are responsible? And is it not now time for a classically-inspired conservatism that prizes Order over Disorder?
Let us build anew on principles quite ancient, if not altogether forgotten.