Robert Maynard
Freedom, truth, and President Obama
By Robert Maynard
May 3, 2010

With the retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, President Obama will have another opportunity to select someone to the highest court in the land. Some have argued that selecting Supreme Court justices is probably the most influential role a President has in shaping our nations's future. With the pending choice of a new Supreme Court Justice, has come renewed discussion of President Obama's Judicial philosophy. In following just such a discussion on a blog the other day, I came across a post, which was digging into the relevance of the following quote from President Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope":

"It's not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or "ism," any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them. They were suspicious of abstraction and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity."

I found this quote to be absolutely fascinating as it gets the matter completely wrong. The truth is 180 degrees the opposite. Our founders rested their experiment in ordered liberty in what they referred to as "Self Evident Truths." The early Christian settlers were quite aware of the necessary connection between truth and freedom from Christ's quote "You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall set You Free." In addition to looking to the Bible as an authority on the relationship between truth and freedom, or justice, founders like Ben Franklin also looked to Socrates. The whole basis of Socratic thought was an affirmation that justice did indeed rest on the foundation of absolute truth. It was his philosophical opponents, the Sophists, who rejected the notion of absolute truth. It is from the Sophists that we derived the term "Sophistry."

The Sophists were a group of traveling teachers of rhetoric who had studied the customs of various societies and came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as absolute truth. This premise led to a very interesting conclusion on the nature of Justice. In Plato's famous work entitled "The Republic," a well known Sophist by the name of Thrasymachus argued that in the absence of any absolute truth justice simply was the "advantage of the stronger." In other words, "might makes right." Socrates countered that humans had a particular nature, which required an absolute standard of justice. The combining of this Socratic notion of justice with the biblical views on the matter was at the basis of a system of thought known as "Natural Law," from which our notion of "Natural Rights" came from. Natural Rights are referred to in our Declaration of Independence as "Unalienable Rights."

Natural Law proponents have long insisted that the rejection of absolute truth as the ground of freedom can only lead to tyranny. Even fierce opponents of the Natural Law tradition like Friedrich Nietzsche recognized this fundamental truth. Nietzsche rejected the Natural Law tradition and its insistence on absolute truth not as an impediment to freedom, but because it prevented the rise of the "Superman" who would impose a new value system on mankind. Nietzsche's views had a major impact on Hitler and the Nazis. The "Superman" was not hindered by notions of a higher absolute truth, but was free to follow his own "Will to Power" and usher in a new age.

President Obama is not alone in his view that our experiment in ordered liberty rests in a rejection of absolute, or "self-evident," truths. This is a fundamental assumption of much of academia. It is also a major reason why many judicial theorists have rejected the "original intent" interpretation of the constitution in favor of their own pet theories. They see themselves as more "enlightened" and thus have a better grasp of how to preserve our liberty. Of course those of us who still see the notion of self-evident truths and the Natural Law philosophy from which this notion sprang as a needed foundation for freedom, will insist on sticking to original intent. This is a distinction that should be kept in mind during the selection process for our next Supreme Court Justice unfolds.

© Robert Maynard


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