Category Archives: Power in Politics

Decline of American Legal Practice


Wednesday, May 26, 2010 Talk: Economic Roundtable[1]

I’m going to summarize for you the most important things  I have learned about successful conflict resolution during more than 40 years of experience in both public and private legal practice, and contrast it with what has become typical American legal practice.

Winston Churchill called his history of World War I The World Crisis.  What a prophet he was.  World War I was indeed a “crisis;” a cross road in which the great powers of the world took a decisive wrong turn leading to a new European order.  A reading of Churchill’s account of the senseless slaughters of World War I combat is likely to strike contemporary readers as utterly incredible.  How could the leaders of what were supposedy the most civilized nations in the world  continue to consent, over a four year period, to sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their certain death or mutilation in battle after battle after battle?  It was war by attrition, as deadly for the supposed victors as for the vanquished.

The greatest troubles of world history as measured by death and destruction found their culmination in the 20th century with the deaths, mutilations, and displacements of hundreds of millions of people throughout the planet.  The saddest stories of world history are, in other words, the stories of attempted conflict resolution by war. As Albert Einstein observed,

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”[1]

President Obama’s recent declaration of a new strategic policy emphasizing promotion of  “the renewed engagement of our diplomats” (NYT, 5/23/10) is likewiae a nod in the direction of Einstein’s insight.  In terms of civil conflict, the typical practice of law today where even moderately high stakes are concerned, have become like the battles of WWI: senseless battles of attrition with no prisoners taken and common sense be damned.  We like- wise need instead a greater commitment in civil conflict to the renewed engagement of lawyers as peacemakers and  problem-solvers, as counselors at least as much as advocates.

I therefore come here this morning to speak to you of conflict resolution by means other than by war; and specifically, in more than just a metaphorical sense, by means other than the civil wars fought in adversarial litigation by lawyers.  It has often been observed that Americans are the most litigious people on the planet.   We are not only inclined to say “There ought to be a law…” but also that “There ought to be a lawsuit to solve my problem.”  In contrast to this American disposition, I am an advocate of  conflict resolution in civil matters by peacemaking, problem-solving methods, through negotiation rather than through a warmaking, adversarial model of legal practice.  Some trial lawyers might say that in choosing this path, I don’t have the “killer instinct.”  I confess to that.  That is because I very much prefer healing to killing and life to death.

What are “the most successful conflict resolutions?” The most successful conflict resolutions:

(1) Satisfy all parties to the conflict to the maximum extent possible.

(2)  Involve the least possible expense in time, money, life disruption, and emotional distress.

(3)  Are real and long–lasting.  And

(4) Are least likely to create potential causes of new conflicts.

Conflict resolution, like medical practice, is an art, not a science. I consider one of my prime credentials for expertise in conflict resolution the fact that I have been married to the same spouse for 47 years –three times.  (Our divorce was a failure so we had to remarry each other.)  And my wife gave me one of the most valuable insights I have ever had into conflict resolution; an insight more profound than most lawyers in the present typical mode of legal practice are inclined to achieve: the first thing you must do if you want to resolve a conflict is to listen. [Joy story]


Learning how to listen and hear what is being said by a party with whom one is in conflict is the first and most important key to successful resolution of the conflict.  I want to say more about that in this talk, but first let me summarize briefly  five other key principles to successful conflict resolution that I have gleaned from more than 40 years of legal practice, especially during the last 20 years in private practice and conflict resolution:

1.     COMMON GROUND: Conflict presents problems to be resolved by finding common ground for a mutually acceptable solution.

2.     KEEPING A HUMAN VIEW and avoiding role-playing.

3.     DETERMINE AND KEEP IN MIND WHAT REALLY MATTERS to the parties involved. Minimize essentially irrelevant detours. (Lawyers’ tendency to avoid emotional issues; divorce case settlement.)

4.     BE OPEN TO GETTING HELP. The problem giving rise to the conflict may be different than it first appears, and may require the expertise not of just a lawyer, but, for example,  of an accountant, or an electrician, or a plumber, or a psychologist.

5.     SEARCH FOR POETIC JUSTICE. The greatest negotiating skills are not merely technical; they proceed from the human skills of observation, perception, understanding, empathy, reason, and imagination and focus on the very particular circumstances of each matter involved.

Let me state an important  footnote to all this: the problem of dealing with fools and knaves. Fools require empathy; knaves requre sticks and carrots.

OBSTACLES to Listening and Hearing:

Barriers to Hearing What is Beng Said

1.             Partial deafness, or other hearing problems.*

2. Competing sounds, or conversation, or physical barriers to hearing another person clearly.

3. Tone, pitch, or volume of voice.

4. Different, unusual, or ambiguous use of language.

Barriers to Hearing & Listening

5. Distraction, interruption, or preoccupation.

6. Fatigue, boredom, disinterest, or other inability to concentrate. Barriers to Listening With Your Heart

7. Judgment, Prejudgment, and Misjudgment

8. Bias and Personal Prejudice

9. Differences of Perspective

10. Alienation

* Note: (“Little known Disorder Can Take a Toll on Learning,” NYT, April 26, 2010)

In contrast to the peacemaking, problem-solving approach I have just summarized to conflict resolution, there is the approach emphasized in law school and typified by most American legal practice:  Seeing conflict as a matter to be resolved by reference primarily to legal rules with the prospect of litigation to “resolve” the conflict.  This is, in effect, what most of the typical law school curriculum teaches, how lawyers are mainly trained to think, and how most lawyers practice their profession. Most legal studies center on the failures of conflict resolution that have led to litigation. [2] Analogy to World War I trench warfare; DISCOVERY ABUSE; Victory by attrition.  Result: increased costs through defensive medicine  (Justin leg story).  Estimated between 8% and 24% increase in American legal costs.  “Lawyer,” “Attorney,”  “Counselor.”  Elihu Root.  90s books; settlement statistics (Loyola LRev)

CONCLUSION: Need for reform of legal education and practice to emphasize problem-solving and peacemakng instead of warmaking.  Negotiation a required bar course.  (Much more important than recovery caps.)  Lincoln:

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can.  Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser ––in fees, expense, and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.”


[1] Conflict Resolution and What’s Right and Wrong With Lawyers: The Litigation Problem A talk on the core principles of conflict resolution and how typical contemporary legal education and practice, by unnecessarily turning problems into lawsuits, burdens the economy and promotes civil discord instead of community peacemaking.

[1] This stark truth was, no doubt, what John Paul II had in mind when he wrote that “War should belong to the tragic past, to history;  it should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future.”

[2] American Principles & The Evolving Ethos of Aerican Legal Practce, 28 Loyola Unversity Chicago Law Jurnal 237, Winter 1996.

When Lawmen Ignore Rule of Law

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 1998

MACHIAVELLI, a government official with a practical grasp of political realities, gave the following title to a Chapter of one of his books:  “It Is A Bad Example Not To Observe the Laws, Especially on the Part of Those Who Have Made Them; And It Is Dangerous For Those Who Govern Cities To Harass The People With Constant Wrongs.”   I am a “law and order” man with a passion for the rule of law.  But the experiences I’ve had with our criminal justice system are making me think that too many lawyers responsible for law enforcement seem to consider what they are doing either a kind of game, a political career gambit, or just another business, despite their sworn oaths to uphold the law.

I have been practicing civil law for more than thirty years.  But in each of the only two serious criminal matters I’ve had –one of which involved two California counties– two of the three Assistant DA’s in the cases blatantly ignored the facts and the law for the sake of the game.  (As a San Franciscan, I’m pleased to add that the one Assistant DA out of the three who showed interest in the actual facts of the case, and who agreed not to oppose the truth, was the San Francisco Assistant DA.)  The first case was a Petition to a Court to certify that a man who had committed several felonies was rehabilitated (so he might qualify for a pardon). The Assistant DA of a Southern California County opposed the Petition, while admitting to me that his opposition memorandum was wrong –both as a matter of fact and as a matter of law– and that our memo was correct in both respects.  But he wouldn’t withdraw his opposition, he said, because it was the “policy” of his office to oppose all such Petitions.

In the second case, the records of the DA showed that he had never read or considered evidence we sent to him before he filed the complaint; evidence which showed that the defendant could not as a matter of law have committed the alleged offense.  The complainant was a local citizen with highly questionable motives.  A lawyer who was a supporter of the investigating detective (who was running for Sheriff), told me that it was the “policy” in that County, when a criminal complaint was made by a citizen, “to throw things against the wall and see if they stick.”  By my definitions, this is not obedience to the rule of law by prosecutors: it is arbitrary, tyrannical rule by those “who govern cities;”  —-and  it is government harassment.

One of the first purposes of our government as stated in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, is “to establish justice.”  I thought at first it was just my bad luck to run into two Assistant D.A.s whose narrow politics overruled the principle that the purpose of our laws is “to establish justice” –though this is a principle each of them had sworn an oath to uphold.  But I have been told by friends who practice criminal defense law –people of high integrity– that this attitude has become common among prosecutors.  Their excuse is often that they are just “too busy” to take the time to evaluate criminal complaints as seriously as they know they should, so they leave it to the courts to do the work of justice for them.

As a member of the middle class and a grandfather, of course I want our streets to be safe and criminals prosecuted swiftly and effectively.  But respect for the law is something that grows or shrinks by the example of those who make and enforce the laws.  A young person doesn’t have to be a bad character to get in trouble with the law once or twice during his impulsive youth.  What respect are young defendants likely to have for the law when, during such encounters, they learn from their private attorneys or public defenders that the DA’s office doesn’t really have time to consider the facts or, in many cases, even really care very much about justice?  In such an environment, you would expect, wouldn’t you, that a jury with men and women on it who knew of such prosecutor attitudes, might even want to free a guilty person now and then to set an example?   And you would also expect even young, idealistic criminal defense attorneys to learn soon that truth and justice are only hollow words to criminal prosecutors, so that they will have to “play the game” just as ruthlessly, whether their clients are guilty or innocent.  Level-headed Machiavelli told us that when those who make and enforce the law disregard it

“the consequence is that such disregard becomes the habit of the people themselves, who cease to organize the government for the general good, but instead only act with the view of benefiting their own party, which, instead of establishing order in the republic, only tends to increase disorders.”

If it takes more money to staff DA’s offices with people who can remember their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution while they’re doing their job, I for one would be willing to pay for it in taxes. The way DA’s offices work now, there is a good chance that any troublesome or disturbed person could cause me, or my grandchildren –or you– enormous unnecessary stress and expense because some DA is willing to “throw their complaint against the wall to see if it sticks,” without bothering to think about what that could do to me, or to my grandchildren or to you –or to our system of government.

(C) 1998, Harrison Sheppard


The Hazardous Future of Democracy in America: Tocqueville & Lawyers in America


[Published in edited version in The Envisioned Life: Essays in Honor Of Eva Brann, Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2007]
Harrison Sheppard
For St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico

November 5, 2004

Dedicated to the Memory of Jacob Klein

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, who wrote Democracy in America during the second quarter of the 19th century, believed that American lawyers of his time were “the most powerful existing security” against the potential excesses of democracy.   By “excesses of democracy,” Tocqueville  meant a tendency toward either a kind of anarchy or “mob rule,” or an oppressive tyranny of the majority leading to despotism.  In the course of this lecture, we will examine the reasons for Tocqueville’s beliefs.  We will then consider the significance of Tocqueville’s views as they relate to the prevailing character of American lawyers today.  The real subject of this lecture, therefore, is the likely future of the United States of America as it may be affected by the habits and practices of 21st century American lawyers.

Members of the legal profession in good standing are designated by three different titles signifying their diverse functions.  The first and most common title is “lawyer,” which, etymologically parsed, signifies “one who speaks the law.”

The second common title is “attorney,” which means “one who stands in the place of (or represents) another.”  (It is because of this meaning of the word “attorney” that one may be an “attorney in fact” as well as an “attorney at law.”)

The third title is “counsel” or “counselor,” signifying “one who gives advice.”  Such advice need not be limited to advising a client about what the law says.  As a Rule of Professional Conduct published by the American Bar Association stated, “In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation,” ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 2.1, “ADVISOR.”

Significant discourse about “lawyers” in America should include, and may perhaps best begin with, a clear understanding of the nature of the “law” that American lawyers are supposed to speak.  In this country, the U.S. Constitution and federal laws enacted in pursuance thereof are declared to be “the supreme Law of the land” (U.S. Constitution, Article 6), indicating that American lawyers should at least partly be governed in what they say about the law by their understanding of the provisions of the U.S. Constitution and its guiding purposes.  We should, however, consider the most fundamental definition of “law” in a reasoned discussion of the kind of law American lawyers are supposed to speak.  For this purpose, I choose to refer to the seminal definition of “law” given by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Treatise on Law in the Summa Theologica, namely, that

Law is an ordinance of reason, for the common good, promulgated by those who have the care of the community; Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law, Question 90, Of the Essence of Law.”

I suggest that this definition states a proper understanding of authoritative American law as the authors of our Constitution would have understood it. It is a definition that accords with John Locke’s view, reflected also in the writings of Blackstone (with which most of the Founders were familiar), that “the life of the law is reason.”   A political “ordinance” that fails to conform substantially to the Thomistic definition of law is something other than “law” properly understood; it is, rather, usually a mere edict, like a royal decree in antiquity, pronounced by those who have the power to enforce their will in a given polity, without necessarily possessing the authority of either reason or care for the common good.

It is with these premises that I introduce my discussion of what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say in the second quarter of the 19th century about American lawyers in his enduring and often prophetic work, Democracy in America.

I. Classical Criticisms of Lawyers

Tocqueville’s consideration of the part American lawyers play, or should play, in the American polity is, for the most part, highly complimentary, even flattering. This may come as something of a surprise to those familiar with the critical literature, both ancient and modern, condemning the character of the typical lawyer and the way he works.  Consider the following complaints about lawyers found in great secular and religious literature, ancient and modern:1

We can go back at least as far as the Bible to find admonitions against “going to law” against your neighbor.2 The Gospel According to St. Luke, however, includes the following direct condemnation of lawyers (Luke 11:46):

Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! For ye load men with burdens grievous to be borne and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers.

In Plato’s time, there were no lawyers, as we know them.   But what Plato has to say about the closest ancient Athenian equivalent to a lawyer –what Plato calls “the man of the law courts” in the Theatetus (at 172-73)– resembles what may be said about lawyers to this day:

But…the man of law courts is always in a hurry when he is talking….[He is] keen and high-strung, skilled in flattering [his] master and working his way into favor; [causing[ his soul to be small and warped.  His early servitude prevents him from making a free, straight growth; it forces him into doing crooked things by imposing dangers and alarms upon a soul that is still tender.  He cannot meet these by just and honest practice, and so resorts to lies and to a policy of repaying one wrong with another; thus he is constantly bent and distorted, and in the end he grows up into manhood with a mind that has no health in it, having now become –in his own eyes—a man of ability and wisdom.   There is your practical man, Theodorus.

Jonathan Swift skewers lawyers at length with an hilarious combination of fact and satire (Gulliver’s Travels, 265-266, Alfred A. Knopf pub., 1991):

I said there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black and black is white, according as they are paid.  To this society the rest of the people are slaves.

For example, if my neighbor hath a mind to my cow, he hireth a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me.  I must then hire another to defend my right; it being against all rules of Law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself.  Now in this case, I who am the true owner, lie under two great disadvantages.  First, my Lawyer being practiced almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an advocate for justice, which as an office unnatural, he always attempts with great awkwardness, if not with ill-will.  The second disadvantage is, that my lawyer must proceed with great caution: Or else he will be reprimanded by the judges and abhorred by his brethren, as one who would lessen the practice of law….

It is a maxim among these lawyers, that whatever hath been done before, may legally be done again: and therefore they take special care to record all the decisions formerly made against common justice, and the general reason of mankind.  These, under the name of precedents, they produce as authorities to justify the most iniquitous opinions; and the Judges never fail of directing accordingly.

In pleading, they studiously avoid entering into the merits of the cause; but are loud, violent, and tedious in dwelling upon all circumstances which are not to the purpose…

It is likewise to be observed, that this society hath a peculiar cant and jargon of their own, that no other mortal can understand, and wherein all their laws are written, which they take special care to multiply, whereby they have wholly confounded the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong; so that it will take thirty years to decide whether the field, left me by my ancestors for six generations, belongs to me, or to a stranger three hundred miles off.

To these may be added indictments of the practices of lawyers by Shakespeare (in Hamlet3 as well as in Henry the VI Part 2),4 Dickens5 (who clerked for a time in an English Inn of Court), Adam Smith,6 and by many scholars,7 wits,8 and muckrakers9 in the 20th century.

How may we summarize these classical and contemporary condemnations of the practices of lawyers?   This way, I think: Lawyers tend to be greedy sophists, devoted far more to the technicalities of the causes they advocate and the fees they are paid for their efforts, than to substantial justice.  Their characteristic method is eristic and sophistical argumentation hostile to discourses of reason that seek the justice of a case.  They are habitually wily in their practices and, at best, amoral.  They acquire habits of mind that positively lead them to dishonesty and, consequently, to the promotion of injustice.  By adhering to their sophistic arts instead of moral considerations, lawyers “touch not with even one of their fingers,” the real burdens borne by the clients whose best interests they are supposed to serve.

This widespread characterization of lawyers does not, however, express the dominant view of lawyers Tocqueville appears to take.

II. Tocqueville’s Fears About The Future of Democracy

Here is Tocqueville’s seminal statement about lawyers in Democracy in America:

I am not ignorant of the defects inherent in the character of this body of men; but without this admixture of lawyer-like sobriety with the democratic principle, I question whether democratic institutions could long be maintained; and I cannot believe that a republic could hope to exist at the present time, if the influence of lawyers in public business did not increase in proportion to the power of the people (Democracy in America, Everyman’s Library [hereafter “Everyman], Alfred Knopf, NY, 1994, Chapter XVI, Vol. I, “Causes Which Mitigate The Tyranny of the Majority in the United States,” p. 276, emphasis added).

To understand the meaning of this apparent heterodoxy, we have to understand, first, what Tocqueville feared about the possible future of democracy in America as it might prefigure ever-more pervasive democracy in the world; and, second, what he meant by “lawyer-like sobriety” in the context of the sentences I have just quoted.

In the Introduction to the first volume of Democracy in America, after surveying the history of Western civilization, Tocqueville concluded that the steady development of democracy –-by which he meant “a general equality of [social] condition among the people”— was an “irresistible revolution” and a “providential fact.”10 He eloquently summarized the reasons for this trend as follows (Everyman, Vol. I, p. 5):

From the time when the exercise of the intellect became a source of strength and of wealth, we see that every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea became a germ of power placed within the reach of the people.  Poetry, eloquence, and memory, the graces of the mind, the fire of imagination, depth of thought, and all the gifts which Heaven scatters at a venture, turned to the advantage of democracy; and even when they were in the possession of its adversaries, they still served its cause by throwing into bold relief the natural greatness of man.  Its conquests spread, therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge, and literature became an arsenal open to all, where the poor and the weak daily resorted for arms.  In running over the pages of our history, we shall scarcely find a single great event of the last 700 years that has not promoted equality of condition.

Tocqueville was a 19th century French aristocrat who confessed some sadness at the passing of the old order.  An evidently pious, if not conventionally religious, Catholic who declared “I believe, but I do not practice,”11 he sought to find and accept reasons to rejoice in what he characterized as the will of a just God.  The whole of Democracy in America was written, he said, “under the influence of a kind of religious awe…of that irresistible revolution which has advanced for centuries in spite of every obstacle…” (Everyman, Vol. I, p. 6).  As a political scientist, he undertook by coming to America, where democracy as he understood it was most fully developed, to study and to understand it, and then consider how its inevitable human imperfections could best be mitigated. He is explicit about this:

I confess that, in America, I saw more than America; I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress (Everyman, Introduction, Vol. I, p. 6).12

Like many, if not, indeed, nearly all, of the Founders of the American Republic, Tocqueville feared what common people  –the demos– might do with their power in democratic society.   He feared –one might even say correctly he predicted— that the democratic outlook would lead to the following political developments:

First, a highly centralized government tending toward a diminished concern for individual rights; second, an enormous expansion of governmental power in regulation of private enterprise and in providing for the public welfare; third, a consequent need for the development of countervailing aggregations of private power to prevent the government from becoming too oppressive; fourth, an increasing tendency toward political apathy, following an almost complete absorption in private business and affairs on the part of people generally; fifth, a reluctance of the people to withdraw their confidence in the government “in the midst even of its excesses and errors;” and, sixth and lastly, agreeing with Thomas Jefferson (who Tocqueville regarded as “the most powerful advocate democracy has ever had”), a greatly expanded power in the Presidency “at a distant period.”

Tocqueville’s fears about the future of democracy may be seen as focusing upon two main concerns: the possible development of a welfare state, which he eloquently condemns as a “despotic” polity promoting material well-being at the price of spiritual impoverishment,13 and the exercise of a “tyranny of the majority” oppressively disregarding the rights of minorities and of individuals.14 (These at least echo, as you will recognize, the prognosis for failed democracy in Plato’s analysis of polities in the Republic.15)  Tocqueville’s fears were, however, overridden by his faith that the flourishing of democracy was the result of “Divine Providence.”  He declares in his Introduction that, though he is “ignorant” of God’s designs, he “shall not cease to believe in them because [he] cannot fathom them, and [he] had rather mistrust [his] own capacity than [God’s] justice. “

Throughout Democracy in America, Tocqueville therefore looks for elements at work in American society that may operate to prevent the degeneration of democracy into anarchy, or into a benevolent but wholly materialistic despotism, or into a complete tyranny of the majority.  He finds five American institutions that give him such hope, in most of which lawyers may play a substantial part.  These are:

1. Private Voluntary Associations

2. A Free Press

3. Trial By Jury

4. The American Legal Profession Itself

5. The “Spirit of Religion”

Let us briefly consider each of these in turn, maintaining our focus upon what Tocqueville has to say about the American legal profession.

III. Tocquevillian Safeguards Against Democratic Anarchy, Despotism, and

The Tyranny of the Majority

1. Private Voluntary Associations. At the beginning of the 19th century, Tocqueville could accurately say that the United States was “the only country on the face of the earth where the citizens enjoy unlimited freedom of association for political purposes” (Everyman, Vol. II, Chapter VII, p. 115).  Tocqueville begins a Chapter in Volume I titled “Political Associations in the United States” (Everyman, Chapter XII, p. 191) with this observation:

In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America….In the United States associations are established to promote the public safety, commerce, industry, morality, and religion….

At the present time the liberty of association has become a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority.  In the United States, as soon as a party has become dominant, all public authority passes into its hands… There are [therefore] no countries in which associations are more needed to prevent the despotism of faction or the arbitrary power of a prince than those which are democratically constituted (Everyman, Vol. I, Chapter 12, pp. 191-185).

Tocqueville considers private voluntary associations, and private associations with a public purpose, as constituting “a separate nation in the midst of the nation, a government within the government.”    He views their continued existence as indispensable to the preservation of minority liberties by exercising collective, vocal power outside of government.  We should judge for ourselves the extent to which private voluntary associations continue to function as safeguards against either oppressive government or the tyranny of the majority in the United States; but we need also to consider the extent to which they may presently operate to entrench, rather than disperse, centralized power in the use made of them, for example, in political campaign financing. Might Tocqueville have had too narrow a view of the potential effects of private voluntary associations in America for good and ill?  The growing public apathy about politics Tocqueville feared as a likely development in American society seems to have been realized.  May that not operate to diminish the extent to which the most effective voluntary associations today are, on the whole, more likely to be associated with, rather than distant from, the axes of established political power, thus diminishing their Tocquevillian function as countervailing forces against the power of government?

2. A Free Press.  In Tocqueville’s day, a “free press” meant mainly the liberty of newspapers to publish independent opinions.  Tocqueville was restrained in his appreciation of liberty of the press.  “I confess,” he wrote:

that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature.  I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures (Everyman, Vol. I, Chapter  XI, “Liberty of the Press in the United States,” at p. 181).


This restraint was no doubt born in part from his awareness of how irresponsible and misleading the American press could be — perhaps even more in his day than in ours.  It was also partly the result of an observation he makes in the very first sentence of his chapter on liberty of the press (Everyman, ibid.):

The influence of liberty of the press does not affect political opinions alone, but extends to all the opinions of men and modifies customs as well as laws.


In his admiration of a free press for “the evils it prevents,” Tocqueville associates a free press closely with the salutary power of voluntary associations.  Given the likely geographic dispersion of the membership of voluntary associations large enough to exercise significant power, he argues that

There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers,…Thus it is in America that we find at the same time the greatest number of associations and of newspapers (Everyman, Vol. II, Chapter VI, p. 112).

We need not dwell on the importance of a free press for preservation of political liberty, its special power to help promote the security of minorities and the rights of individuals by providing the public with the information it needs, and to which it is entitled, if it is to be able to assess the actions of its government.  It is, I think, enough to note that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is, accordingly, the first of its “Bill of Rights,” is the Amendment that says in relevant part:

Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (emphasis added).

We do need to ask, however, how the provisions of the First Amendment have been interpreted and both restricted and expanded over the past 215 years; by whom it is authoritatively interpreted (lawyers and judges, of course); how the addition of radio, television, and the internet as means of communication subject to First Amendment protection have changed what we understand by a “free press;” whether, or to what extent, these modern media effectively enhance, or compromise, or even distort, the political functions of a free press as envisioned by the Founders. Consider, for example, Tocqueville’s concern about the effects of a free press on social custom when, as at present, they include the cultural effects of television. 16

In the 1930’s, public hearings were held to consider federal issuance of radio licenses. David Sarnoff, President of RCA, testified that it was “inconceivable” that the public airways would be used for commercial purposes.  One is tempted to ask whether the “public airways” are, in effect, now being used for any other purpose, even in the context of considering network television news broadcasts.  In considering America’s free press as a safeguard to liberty and check on governmental power, we should also ask these questions: Has the substantial decrease in the number of newspapers in the United States since Tocqueville’s day –during the past half century especially– coupled with the increasing concentration of major mass media generally, operated to reduce the availability to Americans of the range of readily available, politically significant information?  Has private censorship of the “public” airways significantly reduced the extent to which the American press represents and advocates minority political opinion?   Does the public continue to have sufficient access to the information it needs to judge the extent to which our government, in Lincoln’s formulation, remains a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people?”

3. Trial By Jury.  Speaking of the centuries long establishment, in English law, of the institution of trial by jury, Tocqueville says,:

A judicial institution which thus obtains the suffrages of a great people for so long a series of ages, which is zealously reproduced at every stage of civilization, in all the climates of the earth, and under every form of human government, cannot be contrary to the spirit of justice (Everyman, Vol. I, Chapter XVI, “Causes Which Mitigate the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States,” p. 281).

Tocqueville has a very high opinion of the effects of trial by jury –in both civil and criminal cases– on the people of a democracy.  He considers the institution as important an incident of the sovereignty of the people as the right to vote.  Trial by jury decisively affirms the sovereignty of the people in their most important encounters with governmental power.17 Jury service is, moreover, in Tocqueville’s view, an institution that educates and elevates people to exercise their democratic powers with greater prudence and regard for justice by imbuing

all classes with a respect for the thing judged and with the notion of right…It teaches men to practice equity; every man learns to judge his neighbor as he would himself be judged.  And this is especially true of the jury in civil causes; for while the number of persons who have reason to apprehend a criminal prosecution is small, everyone is liable to have a lawsuit (Everyman, Vol. I, p. 284).

The process of selecting a jury in both civil and criminal cases in the United States is generally in the hands of the judge and the attorneys on each side of a case.  In high profile criminal cases, and in civil cases where a great deal of money is involved, this has become a sophisticated art.  The recent Hollywood movie, Runaway Jury, may portray an exaggerated picture of this process, but it is suggestive of the extraordinary lengths to which contemporary American lawyers may go in their efforts to ensure that the “right” jury is selected for their respective purposes.   This brings us to the heart of our subject: Tocqueville’s view of the part American lawyers may play in avoiding the excesses of democracy and mitigating the tyranny of the majority.  Recall Tocqueville’s expressed opinion that without “lawyer-like sobriety” as a factor in American society, he could not imagine that American republican institutions would continue to exist.

4.  The American Legal Profession Itself. It would be difficult to overestimate the im- portance that Tocqueville attached to the conduct of members of the legal profession as the guardians of freedom in American democratic society.  “If I were asked where I place the American aristocracy,” he reports, “I should reply without hesitation that it is not among the rich [who the people are apt to mistrust and] who are united by no common tie, but that it occupies the judicial bench and the bar” (Everyman, Vol. I, p. 278).  The first sentence of his address to this subject, in the chapter titled  “Causes Which Mitigate the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States,” reads as follows:

In visiting the Americans and studying their laws, we perceive that the authority they have entrusted to members of the legal profession, and the influence that these individuals exercise in the government, are the most powerful existing security against the excesses of democracy (Everyman, Vol. I, p. 272, emphasis added).

The reason Tocqueville has come to this conclusion is one that should resonate with special significance to the members of this, the St. John’s College community of learning.  Here is the reason Tocqueville gives to explain why he views lawyers as “the most powerful existing security against the excesses of democracy:”

Men who have made a special study of the laws derive from this occupation certain habits of order, a taste for formalities, and a kind of instinctive regard for the regular connection of ideas, which naturally render them very hostile to the revolutionary spirit and the unreflecting passions of the multitude (Ibid.,  p. 273, emphasis added).

Tocqueville is explicit in his association of American lawyers with the old aristocracy.  “Some of the tastes and the habits of the aristocracy,” he says, “may be discovered in the characters of lawyers” (ibid.).   For example, “the habit of directing to their purpose the blind passions of parties in litigation inspires [American lawyers] with a certain contempt for the judgment of the multitude….They participate in the same instinctive love of order and formalities; and they entertain the same repugnance to the actions of the multitude…” (Ibid., pp. 273-74).  Tocqueville does not, however, assert that

all the members of the legal profession are at all times the friends of order and the opponents of innovation, but that most of them are usually so.  In a community in which lawyers are allowed to occupy without opposition that high station which naturally belongs to them, their general spirit will be eminently conservative and anti-democratic (Ibid. at p. 274, emphasis added).

Most of them,” he asserts with confidence, “are usually so.”  “Lawyers,” he goes on to say, “are attached to public order beyond every other consideration, and the best security of public order is authority” (Ibid., at p. 275).  Tocqueville goes so far as to say that lawyers generally value legality even above freedom, and fear tyranny less than disorder; that they are even willing to accept limitations upon individual freedom so long as they are properly authorized by the duly constituted legislature.  He accurately observes

The government of democracy is favorable to the political power of lawyers; for when the wealthy, the noble, and the prince are excluded from the government, the lawyers take possession of it in their own right…since they are the only men of information and sagacity…who can be the object of popular choice (p. 275).

Six of the first ten U.S. Presidents were lawyers, including three of the six Presidents preceding the date Democracy in America was written.  In fact, until 1952, about two-thirds of our American Presidents were either lawyers or had some formal legal training.  Why would American lawyers command such a position in democratic society at least until the middle of the 20th century?  Tocqueville tells us why.  Lawyers, he says,

like the government of democracy without participating in its propensities and weaknesses; whence they derive a twofold authority from it and over it.  The people in democratic states do not mistrust the members of the legal profession, because it is known that they are interested to serve the popular cause; and the people listen to them without irritation, because they do not attribute to them any sinister design…Lawyers belong to the people by birth and interest, and to the aristocracy by habit and taste; they may be looked upon as the connecting link between the two great classes of society (Ibid., at pp. 275-76, emphases added).

The conservative, aristocratic tendencies of the habits of English and American lawyers as Tocqueville perceived them is fortified by Anglo-American reliance upon legal precedent, which is not as binding on their French equivalents.  In marked contrast to Jonathan Swift’s condemnation of the use of precedent “to justify the most iniquitous opinions,” Tocqueville approves of habitual reliance upon precedent as a brake on democratic excess.   The deference an American lawyer pays to the opinions of his forefathers, Tocqueville points out, “necessarily give him more timid habits and more conservative inclinations…than [a lawyer] in France” (Ibid.,  at p. 277).   Here, then, is Tocqueville’s summary of the reasons he has concluded that American lawyers “as a body, form the most powerful, if not the only, counterpoise to the democratic element:”

When the American people are intoxicated by passion or carried away by the impetuosity of their ideas, they are checked and stopped by the almost invisible influence of their legal counselors. They secretly oppose their aristocratic propensities to the nation’s democratic instincts, their superstitious attachment to what is old to its love of novelty, their narrow views to its immense designs, and their habitual procrastination to its ardent impatience (Ibid., at p. 278, emphasis added).

We need to consider how Tocqueville’s assessment of the character of the typical American lawyer of the 1820’s relates to what we may observe about the character of contemporary American lawyers.  Before doing so, however, we will briefly consider what Tocqueville has to say about the “spirit of religion” as the fifth check upon the excesses of democracy.

5. The Spirit of Religion.  Tocqueville feared that the tendency toward materialism he found in the democratic spirit might lead to a despotic welfare state.  (In this he might be regarded as foreseeing the possibility of a Soviet style regime.)  He also observed among Americans a spirit of individualism of a kind he thought most congenial to despotism.

No vice of the human heart is so acceptable to [despotism] as selfishness; a despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love one another.…Despotism, then, which is at all times dangerous, is more particularly to be feared in democratic ages. (Everyman, Vol. II, Chapter IV, p. 102).

In contrast to this tendency, Tocqueville congratulates Americans for the way that their free political institutions combat “the tendency of equality to keep men asunder” (Ibid., at p. 103).   But it is materialism that Tocqueville fears and hates most.  It is his view that democracy in America will succeed in avoiding the worst of its excesses only so long as the “spirit of religion” remains widely diffused.  In his summary formulation, Tocqueville states his opinion that “liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith” (Everyman, Vol. I, “Author’s Introduction,” p. 12). The faith of which he is speaking, however, is not one of adherence to any particular religious dogma.   It is the spirit of religion, a capacity for faith in the value of higher things, in which Tocqueville places his hopes, for the following reason:

It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits into the world, nevertheless suggests to men some very dangerous propensities.  It tends to isolate them from one another, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification.

The greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles.  There is no religion that does not place the object of man’s desires above and beyond the treasures of earth and that does not naturally raise his soul to regions far above those of the senses.  Nor is there any which does not impose on man some duties toward his kind and thus draw him at times from the contemplation of himself (Ibid., at p. 22).

American civil law, like religion, is also concerned with one person’s duty to another; and lawyers, like clergymen interpreting their bibles, are, or should be, deeply devoted to interpretations of what may be called “civil scripture,” and their “regular connections of ideas.”   Abraham Lincoln implicitly noted this parallel in his Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in 1838 with the following words:

Let reverence for the laws…become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

While ever a state of feeling such as this, shall universally, or even very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

In Tocqueville’s day, lawyers could rightly be termed “the secular ministers of American democracy,” especially in their function as counselors of restraint and respect for the spirit of the law.  This may be the chief reason Tocqueville so much admired the American legal profession as he perceived it.

IV.  A Comparison of 21st Century American Lawyers As a Body With American Lawyers Praised by Tocqueville

How relevant are Tocqueville’s observations about the redemptive character of American lawyers to the American legal profession today?  I am unhappy to say that, while they may remain highly relevant to consideration of what we may need to preserve our civil liberties, they are no longer accurate characterizations of the American legal profession –except perhaps for Tocqueville’s observation about a tendency toward procrastination.  The degeneration of the American legal profession from the model Tocqueville had in mind has a long history, beginning as early as the post-Civil War period.18 Since the 1960’s, however, the character of the American legal profession as Tocqueville admired it has not been just further eroded; it has virtually disappeared.   Signaling this catastrophic loss, a number of books were published in the 1990’s by authoritative authors with titles and subtitles such as these:19 The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession; The Betrayed Profession: Lawyering at the End of the Twentieth Century; The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America; A Nation Under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession is Transforming American Society.  The authors of these books include a Yale Law School Dean, a distinguished member of the Harvard Law School faculty, and a former Chairman of Xerox Corporation who was also Ambassador to the Organization of American States.

Lawyers are no longer generally educated, trained, or employed to cultivate a love for  “for the regular connection of ideas.” Though each of them swears an oath upon admission to the bar to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States (and their respective States), they are not likely to take those oaths very seriously.  Very few American lawyers today are likely to be able to quote the words, or even summarize the sense, of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution in substantial part –which would probably not have been the case in Tocqueville’s day. Lawyers are no longer generally inclined to fulfill their function as Tocquevillian counselors, skilled in checking their clients’ passions or the impetuosity of their ideas –where money is to be made by indulging their passions and impetuosity.  The practice of law in America has become much more of a business –with the applause of some American economists– than one of the three traditional “learned professions” that distinguished the practice of law from a merely commercial enterprise.   The present dominant ethos of American legal practice is the will to win at any cost that the client can afford, including the cost of truth.  As William Braithwaite of St. John’s Annapolis campus has written, that is Why Lawyers Lie: they no longer generally care about the truth in what they do as lawyers  (Braithwaite, Why Lawyers Lie, in THE GREAT IDEAS TODAY 231, Mortimer J. Adler ed., 1994).

There are many reasons for these sad developments.  Some of them may be manifestations of the very character of American democratic culture and materialism as Tocqueville himself perceived and feared them.   There have, however, been a number of specific institutional developments during the past quarter century or so that have clearly contributed significantly to the present situation. Chief among these, in my judgment, are, first, the U.S. Supreme Court’s authorization (on First Amendment grounds!) of commercial advertising by lawyers in Bates vs. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977), which had been generally prohibited by State Bar ethical rules of practice before 1977; second, the spectacle of Watergate, in which the Attorney General of the United States and the Counsel to the President were successfully prosecuted for violations of law demonstrating their contempt, while in office, for faithful execution of the laws of the United States and fidelity to their Constitutional oaths; and third, the proliferation of large and very large law firms (a rarity before the 1970’s).  This development has been especially pernicious.  The growth of large law firms in the U.S. has had the effect of both eliminating the ethical mentoring of young lawyers, and creating virtually irresistible pressures for the generation of “billable hours” as a higher priority than pursuit of prudent measures designed to resolve disputes efficiently (let alone achieve justice).

Fourth and finally, though a passion for justice, equity, and right may yet animate most students entering law school, such aspirations are virtually mocked by typical law school training as naïve and simplistic, and are then usually entirely crushed as law graduates quickly learn that the will to win at any cost –while billing the maximum amount of hours possible– is now the dominant ethos of typical legal practice in America.  The need for radical change in legal education has become increasingly apparent since it was urged as a necessity early in the 20th century; a necessity which I have been personally advocating in my own writings for the past decade.20

What might Tocqueville say about all this?   I will offer my opinion, but this is a question that may be worth exploring in our discussion after the lecture.

I seriously doubt that Tocqueville would find that “lawyer-like sobriety,” in the sense in which he intended that phrase, now typifies American lawyers, either in how they practice and “speak the law,” or in the way most Americans perceive them.  The great founding organs of the American polity —The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution— were intended to harmonize a diverse people through the music of their law of reason.   Tocqueville considered American lawyers, the chief exponents of that law, to be essential harmonizers, a “connecting link between” different factions of American society.   They have now, however, generally become agents of its division as they cash in on its conflicts.21 Nor can we say that most people today “do not mistrust members of the legal profession,” or “do not attribute to them any sinister designs.”22 In short, the essential attributes of American lawyers Tocqueville thought made them the “most powerful security against the excesses of democracy,” do not appear to be operating in the United States today.

Tocqueville was not alone in fearing that democracy in America might end in some form of despotism.  Benjamin Franklin in fact predicted that would be its outcome. At the conclusion of the constitutional convention, he had this to say:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such…[T]here is no Form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other. (As quoted by Gore Vidal, Inventing a Nation, Yale U. Press, 2003, at pp. 30-31, punctuation and emphasis in original).

But I do not wish to end this lecture without some notes of hope  –for this audience in particular.

V. Conclusion: The Need For Renewal

On December 27, 1938, Walter Lippman, one of the most distinguished journalists of the 20th century, who was one of President Woodrow Wilson’s most trusted young advisors at the Versailles Peace conference, published a column in The New York Herald Tribune titled “The St. John’s Program.”  In that column, Lippman compared the institutions of the American polity to “a great and noble pipe organ” capable of producing the most beautiful music by those who knew how to play it.  He told a story of how this pipe organ had been carefully constructed by its owner; how, as the organ was passed to the maker’s son and grandson, it fell into disrepair, so much so that, in the course of time, no one could even find the parts needed to repair it.   Lippman then made the point of his tale explicit:

This sad tale will serve, I think, as a parable of the history of the free peoples during the past three or four generations.  For they have inherited great and noble institutions from their forefathers. But because they have not inherited the knowledge which enabled their forefathers to make these institutions, they do not really know how to preserve them, repair them, and improve them.

“Men are ceasing to be free,” Lippman continued, “because they are no longer being educated in the arts of free men,” the classical liberal arts.  Lippman saw in the St. John’s program, the possibility of a “seedbed of an American renaissance” of understanding the design, purpose, and rationale of the American republic.

The principal Founders of our American polity –Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and Gouvernor Morris — all regarded the democratic republic they had created as a great “experiment.”23 In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln reasserted this view by stating that we are a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and that the Civil War was testing whether a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” could “long endure.”  The experiment has so far endured for more than 200 years; but it may yet fail.  It is more likely to fail if its chief safeguards wither away, and are not renewed.  One of the authors read at St. John’s College anticipated Walter Lippman’s prescription for American renewal by over 400 years.  That author is Machiavelli, a passionate republican who, in his Discourse on the First Ten Books of Livy, written in 1521, had this to say about the renewal of republics:

There is nothing more true than that all the things of this world have a limit to their existence; but those only run the entire course ordained for them by Heaven that do not allow their body to become disorganized. But keep it unchanged in the manner ordained…And as I speak here of bodies such as republics, I say that those changes are beneficial that bring them back to their original principles   And it is a truth clearer than light that, without such renovation, these bodies cannot continue to exist; and the means of renewing them is to bring them back to their original principles (Discourses on Livy, Book III, Chapter 1, 1521).

Machiavelli’s reference to Heaven may remind us of Tocqueville’s belief in the providential future of democracy, and the “spirit of religion” he thought indispensable to the preservation of American liberties.  The kind of faith of which Tocqueville was writing was demonstrated by a young law school graduate during a period when “loyalty oaths” and confessions of political affiliations were requirements for admission to some State bars.  In 1950, George Anastaplo graduated at the top of his class at the University of Chicago Law School.  In his examination for admission to the Illinois State Bar by a “Committee on Character and Fitness,” he refused to answer a question about his political beliefs, relying upon his faith in the political principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and his First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.  The young Anastaplo personally argued his case before the U.S. Supreme Court when his admission to the Illinois Bar was denied because of this refusal.   He lost his case in a 5-4

decision against him (366 U.S. 82, 1961).24 In a truly eloquent dissent to the majority opinion on that occasion by Justice Hugo Lafayette Black,  Justice Black said that Anastaplo’s main fault, if any, was that he had taken too much responsibility upon himself to protect the integrity of the bar and the duty of American lawyers to uphold the U.S. Constitution.   Justice Black implicitly applauded Anastaplo’s courage in the concluding, resonant words of his dissent, words which he asked be read at his own funeral as his political testament:  “We must not be afraid to be free.”  Though not a practicing lawyer, George Anastaplo demonstrated not only his courage, but also his understanding of the first virtue –Justice— and the final good –Liberty— referred to in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.  In doing this, Anastaplo also exhibited the redemptive character of the American lawyer as Tocqueville understood it.   Anastaplo does not stand entirely alone as a living example of what I have called the “redemptive character” of American lawyers.  Even today, some –even if relatively few— lawyers may be found in America whose practices have such redemptive qualities.   I have described these qualities in greater detail in a booklet titled What’s Right with Lawyers/What’s Wrong with Lawyers.25 “What’s right” with lawyers in America today has much in common with what Tocqueville said was right about them.

In large part, Tocqueville was led to admire the American lawyers of his day because of their characteristic admiration of the classical virtues and aspiration toward them through their education and intellectual habits.  Study of the classical virtues of courage, prudence, justice, and temperance –virtues that sustain and enable one another– is, in effect, part of the St. John’s College curriculum.  In light of the liberal education you have freely chosen, and are now privileged to enjoy, there may rest upon you some special duties: the duty to help keep the American experiment alive; the duty to use the power of your acquired understanding of its original principles and design to help restore them, whether you become a doctor, or a manufacturer, or a computer technologist; but especially if you choose to become an American lawyer.   I therefore conclude my lecture to you, the students and future alumni of St. John’s College, by repeating Justice Black’s admonition: “You must not be afraid to be free.”



(C) September 17, 2004. Harrison Sheppard

1 These are collected in Sheppard, “American Principles & The Evolving Ethos of American Legal Practice,” 28 Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 237 (Winter 1996) [hereafter “Loyola”] at pp. 246-249, notes 20-28.

2 See, for example, Jesus’s admonition in Matthew 5:25: “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him, lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.”  See also St. Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians 6:1-7: “Dare any of you, having a matter against one another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?….Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because  ye go to law with one another…”

3 “Why, might that not be the skull of a lawyer?  Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?  Why does he suffer this rude knave to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery?  Hum!  This fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt?  Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures?  The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?” (Hamlet, Act 5, sc. 1, lines 98-112).

4 “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” Henry VI, Pt. 2, Act 4, sc. 2, line 86 (The Yale Shakespeare ed., 1923).  This often miscited lawyer-bashing quote, uttered by “Dick the Butcher” in the context of a revolt against the power and luxury of the English upper classes, does not necessarily reflect Shakespeare’s own attitude toward lawyers.  For a detailed examination of the significance of this most commonly quoted lawyer-bashing line, including its possible implications in understanding Shakespeare’s own view of lawyers, see Kornstein, Kill All the Lawyers: Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal (Princeton University Press, 1994).

5 “In such an afternoon, some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be…mistily engaged in one of ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep on technicalities…and making pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might.  On such an afternoon, the various solicitors in the cause…ought to be…ranged in a line…between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to…master’s reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them…This is the Court of Chancery…which gives to monied might, the means abundantly of wearying out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honorable man among its practitioners who would not give –who does not often give—the warning: ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!’” (Bleak House 2, Gordon N. Ray ed., The Riverside Press, 1987).

6 “Justice however, never was in reality administered gratis in any country. Lawyers and attorneys, at least, must always be paid by the parties; and if they were not, they would perform their duty still worse than they actually perform it.  The fees annually paid to lawyers and attorneys amount, in every court, to a much greater sum than the salaries of the judges” (Wealth of Nations, bk. V, ch. 1, pt. II, at 677, The Modern Library ed., Random House, 1937).

7 E.g., Roscoe Pound:  “The sporting theory of justice [is] so rooted in the profession in America that most of us [mistakenly] take it for a fundamental legal tenet [even though] the idea that procedure must of necessity be wholly contentious disfigures our judicial administration at every point” (Pound, The Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction With the Administration of Justice, 29 A.B.A. Rep. Pt 1, 395, 1936, reprinted in Landmarks of Law 180, 186-87, Ray D. Henson ed., 1960).

8 E.g.,  H.L. Mencken: “A lawyer is someone who protects us against robbers by taking away the temptation” (Mencken, Sententiae, 1916, quoted in Jonathan Green, The Cynic’s Lexicon 14-38, 1984).

9 E.g.,  “Lawyers are competitors…they tend to look at what they do as a sport.  The way law is practiced today is to get away with what you can” (Nader & Smith, No Contest: Corporate Lawyers And The Perversion of Justice in America, 1996, p. 16).

10 Everyman, Vol. I, p. 6.

11 See Doris S. Goldstein, Trial of Faith: Religion and Politics in Tocqueville’s Thought,  Elsevier Scientific Publishing company, New York, 1975; and  John Lukacs, “The Last Days of Alexis De Tocqueville,” The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. L., No. 2, July 1964, explaining Tocqueville’s refusal to take communion on his deathbed and the significance of Tocqueville’s declaration of faith without practice.

12 For a highly informative discussion of Tocqueville’s political – as opposed to merely philo- sophical– purposes in writing Democracy in America, see Marvin Zetterbaum, Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy, Stanford U. Press, 1967 (Stanford, CA).

13 See Everyman,  Vol. II, Chapter 6, “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear,” p. 316 et seq.

14 See esp. Everyman, Vol. I, Chapter 15, “Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States and its Consequences.”

15 Plato’s Republic, Bk. 8, 555 et seq., esp. 561-564.

16 For an instructive discussion of the deleterious effects of mass media, and television in particular, on American political life, see Anastaplo,  The American Moralist: On Law, Ethics and Government, Ohio U. Press, 1992 (Athens, Ohio) in the section titled “The Use and Abuse of the First Amendment,” esp. Chapter 17 at pp. 261-273, which includes the following observations at p. 261: “The modern mass media tend more toward centralization of power, while the old fashioned press tended to be more localizing in its efforts and effects….[With the nationalization of mass media] is there a tendency toward homogeneity of tastes and opinions as well as a general lowering of effective moral, political, and intellectual standards?…[With modern industrialization and] its marvels-laden technology…one is forced into a passive role: not the role of the alert observer, but that of the pampered slave.”

17 For a discussion of the relationship between trial by jury and the “Blessings of Liberty” under the U.S. Constitution, see Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist Notes on the First Amendment, Southern Methodist U.  Press, 1971 (Dallas, Texas), Chapter VIII, “The Blessings of Liberty.”

18 See, e.g., John Dos Passos, The American Lawyer, Fred B. Rothman & Co., Littleton, Colorado, 1996, at pp. 12-13: “I am drawing a line between the period before and after the Civil War, and I put the old generation of American lawyers on the farther side, and the new ones on this side of the line….The fundamental difference between the old and new regime of lawyers is this: the great aim of the old lawyers was to master the elements of law; they depended upon an eloquent presentation of their causes; the judges had the time, and it was their pleasure, to listen to the advocates; ‘commercialism’ did not exist; there were less legal tricks or technical legerdemain to resort to, because the dire plague of codification had not yet spread itself over the profession, and destroyed its science, as it existed under common law, where, while form was strictly observed, the substance or merits of a controversy, were principally sought for.  The lawyers of today are case and code lawyers.  The search for principle is subordinate to an investigation for precedent.  The right or justice, or the merits of controversies, disappear under a mass of irreconcilable decisions and forms.  It requires a different kind of intellectual development to be a lawyer than it did in the days long gone by” (emphases in original).  Dos Passos’ first prescription for reform of the American legal profession is to correct “deficiencies, imperfections, and looseness in the preliminary, elementary, and legal education of law students” (Ibid., at p. 165).  It is this lecturers’ first prescription as well; see Sheppard, “Legal Education and the Future of the Republic,” a talk to the San Francisco Yale Club, published in Vital Speeches of the Day, April 15, 1998.

19 A more complete list, fully cited, may be found in Loyola, at p. 246, note 19.

20 See note 18 above.

21 See Sheppard, “Cashing in on Conflict,” The Washington Post, June 6, 1996, p. A23; David Luban, “The Noblesse Oblige Tradition in the Practice of Law,” 41 Vanderbilt Law Review 717 (1988) at p. 724: “The common good will be realized in a society such as the United States, by blunting or mitigating conflict, especially class conflict; Brandeis espoused this theme as did de Tocqueville.”  Luban also points out that the reconciliation of conflicting interests “is one of the most ancient conceptions of the function of law, appearing originally in The Laws of Plato…Because factionalism and class war will inevitably destroy a city unless it is governed by the rule of law, not of men, the lawmakers must attempt to reconcile the conflicting elements of society” (Ibid., at note 31).

22 To the contrary, American Bar Association polls and surveys of the last decade show that “the more contact people have with lawyers, the less favorably they look upon the legal profession;” see the sources cited in Loyola , note 48 at p. 261.

23 See Loyola, note 38 at p. 253, quoting, inter alia, Washington’s statement in his first inaugural address that the “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered as deeply, and perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people” (only the last emphasis is added).

24 The Anastaplo decision may have been effectively overruled in later cases; see, e.g., Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S. 36 (1961).  One consequence of Anastaplo’s denial of admission to the Illinois State Bar is that Prof. Anastaplo (now at the Loyola University of Chicago Law School) has produced as prolific a body of writings on the American Constitution as any contemporary American; his bibliography occupies more than 80 printed pages in the two volume tribute to him titled Law and Philosophy: The Practice of Theory, Essays in Honor of George Anastaplo, edited by John A. Murley, Robert L. Stone, and William T. Braithwaite, Ohio U.  Press, Athens, Ohio (1992).  These notably include The Constitutionalist: Notes on the First Amendment, Southern Methodist U. Press, Dallas TX (1971); The Constitution of 1787: A Commentary, The Johns Hopkins U. Press, Baltimore, MD  (1989); The Amendments to the Constitution: A Commentary, The Johns Hopkins U. Press, Baltimore, MD (1995); and Abraham Lincoln: A Constitutional Biography, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD ( (1999). The Lincoln book includes a chapter on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It is reviewed by the author of this lecture in an essay closely related to its subject in Sheppard, “American Law & the Past, Present, & Future of the American Regime,” 28  Interpretation No. 1, pp. 89-106, NY (Fall 2000).

25 What’s Right  with Lawyers/What’s Wrong with Lawyers (2003), available at some college, univer-rsity, and law school bookstores and through the internet at

Returning to the Cave: The Loss of Classical Light in Modern American Teaching

Every State is a community of some kind,
and every community is established with a view to some good…
He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need
because he is sufficient for himself,
must be either a beast or a god….
The determination of what is just is the principle of order in political society.

Excerpts from Aristotle, Politics, Bk. I, Chaps. 1 and 2


I. Introduction

I begin my remarks by expressing my cordial thanks to the members of the Hellenic American Professional Society of Northern California for inviting me to speak at this Annual Commemoration of Greek Letters Day.  I consider it a privilege to be invited by you to address a subject which, though concerning education, is far from merely academic: the progressive decline, during the past half century or so, of classical teaching and learning in our public and private schools, colleges, and universities.  I look forward to the conversation among us, which I hope will follow my talk, concerning the theme of my remarks.

The title I have given to my remarks is “Returning to the Cave: The Loss of Classical Light in Modern American Teaching.”  The title refers to a celebrated image constructed by Plato in Book 7 of his dialogue, the Republic, written sometime between 386 and 367 B.C.  The Republic is generally considered to be Plato’s greatest work.  It is an inquiry into the nature of Justice, explored partly through the imaginary construction of an ideal state which, Plato makes clear, could never actually exist in this world.  It is, as Socrates tells us in the dialogue, only “a model laid up in heaven” illustrating philosophical judgments about the nature of the truly just human being and state.

The image of the cave in the Republic follows Plato’s description, in Book 6, of the relationship between different kinds of knowing to different aspects of being (or to what really is) in comparison to opinions about different kinds of appearances (that is, what only seems to be).  Plato’s analysis tells us, for example, that we can know with certainty the things that mathematics can teach us; but we can only have opinions –without such mathematical certainty– about the world of appearances, and images of visible objects.

After exploring these questions about the nature of knowledge and being,  appearance and opinion, Plato turns, in book 7, to an image of “human nature in its educated and uneducated state.”  Notice: Plato tells us in advance that he is about to give his audience –us–  an image of “human nature in the educated and uneducated state.”  It is for this purpose that he constructs the metaphor of the cave from which I take the title of my talk.  Let me quote the dialogue at this point, which describes the cave shown in the diagram I have handed out.  Socrates is speaking:

“Imagine men in a cavelike underground dwelling with a long entrance, as wide as the cave and open to the light.  The men have been chained foot and neck since childhood.  The chains keep them in place and prevent them from turning their heads, so that they can only see forward.  Light comes to them from a fire burning at a distance above and behind them.  Between the fire and the prisoners, higher than they, imagine a road with a low wall built alongside, like the screen set in front of puppeteers, over which they show their puppets…Then see people walking along the road carrying things on their heads, including figures of men and animals made of stone and wood and other materials.  These extend over the top of the wall…

“Do you think such prisoners would ever see anything of themselves or each other or the things carried by the other people except their shadows thrown by the fire on the facing wall of the cave?”

“How could they [Glaucon replies] if their heads were held still all their lives?”

“Now, if they could talk to each other, don’t you think they’d believe what they saw was reality?”

“Necessarily.”    —Republic, Book 7, 514-515b).

This image looks so much like people chained to chairs in front of their television sets, that I can’t resist remarking on that.  But Plato is concerned with something even more fundamental than such particular numbings of our wakefulness.  After giving the basic description of the cave I just quoted, Socrates goes on to describe what would happen if one of the men was freed from his chains, and turned around to see both the fire and the objects carried along the road.  He describes how the light of the fire would at first blind such a person, and how he might be confused when he first sees the real objects he had only seen before as shadows, while he was in chains.  Socrates then continues his description of the cave and its inhabitants.  He asks us to imagine someone who was dragged entirely out of the cave into the real light of the sun.  He asks us to consider how the sun’s brighter light would at first completely blind such a person, and how he might even be tempted to run back into the cave because the shadows seemed so much easier to see (at first) than what was outside the cave.  But then, again, Socrates asks us to consider what would happen if such a man stayed long enough out of the cave for his eyes to adjust to the sunlight.  Wouldn’t he be filled with wonder and delight at the clarity and beauty of what he saw, compared to the dim and shifting shadows that were all he was able to see before?  Finally, Socrates asks us also to imagine what would happen if the man came back to the cave and sat down in his old place.  “Wouldn’t darkness fill his eyes,” Socrates asks, “after suddenly coming in from the sun?

“And if again he had to ‘evaluate’ those shadows down there in competition with the perpetual prisoners, then in that short time of habituation in which his eyes were dimmed and unrecovered, he’d make a fool of himself, and they’d say he came back from above with ruined eyes and the trip wasn’t even worth the attempt.  And if they could get their hands on the one who was trying to release them and lead them upward, wouldn’t they kill him?”

“Most violently,” Glaucon replies.

Now anyone even a little familiar with the story of the life of Socrates is likely to recall, when hearing this description, what actually happened to Socrates himself because of his devotion to philosophy, and his constant questions about the nature of things other Athenians took for granted: the Athenians sentenced him to death.  (We might also be led to think of Jesus, whose early followers called him “the light of the world,” 5 Matthew 14; see also 8 John 12.)  And we can all understand the factual basis for the image: whether we go into the light from the dark, or the dark from the light, our eyes need some time to adjust to its surroundings.  It is a often a struggle to learn something new; and it is sometimes difficult to see things from the point of view of others who haven’t.

I have taken this time to recall to you Plato’s image of the cave in some detail, because considering it may suggest answers to the central questions raised by my subject:  First, why has classical teaching and learning declined so much in the last half of the twentieth century?  And, second, what have we lost and what further may we be in danger of losing by that decline?  To help get your attention to what I am about to say, let me give you my short answers to these questions:  First, what we have lost: We have lost an appreciation of the paramount importance of seeking to understand the nature of the human soul and spirit. And what are we in danger of losing?  We are in danger of losing the democratic civil liberties that are the greatest legacy of classical learning and teaching, and sinking voluntarily into a disguised, but nonetheless progressive and degrading, slavery to our economic, material existence. That is why I say that the topic of my remarks is far from merely an academic subject.

II.  The Decline


Before giving you the reasons for these sobering conclusions, let me define, or at least describe, what it is we are talking about.  When I was a high school student in Philadelphia in the 1950’s –nearly half a century ago– it was assumed that if you were headed for a college education, you would probably study Latin.  Fifty years before that, it would also have been assumed –among the very few then privileged to plan a college education– that they would probably also learn some ancient Greek.  Now, of course, the reverse assumptions are made.  I do not know the statistics, but we can take informal notice of the fact that the study of Latin and ancient Greek in our public and even private schools is now uncommon, even rare.  Likewise, in the 1950’s, a general liberal education was presumed to include at least two years of introduction to what has been called “the canon:” a study of the greatest works of Western literature, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers, playwrights, and historians.  In fact, for most of nearly 2000 years, no person who sought to be educated would have failed, for example, to read either Euclid’s Elements of Geometry or Plutarch’s Lives of The Noble Grecians and Romans.  The twentieth century “canon” also embraced what Robert Hutchins called the writings of the “Great Conversation:” works which assumed some acquaintance with the great ancient writings and, philosophically, continued the inquiries the ancient Greeks had so notably begun.  When I speak of the abandonment of “the classics,” I therefore mean to include those works of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and of modern times that acknowledge the continued importance, in our search for human understanding, of considering what the ancients had to say.  Alfred North Whitehead, for example, a great twentieth century mathematician and natural scientist, famously observed that whenever he (Whitehead) approached a philosophic problem, “he met Plato coming back.”  He also said that “all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”

The gradual decline in classical teaching and learning that began after World I  — when extended formal education became more and more common– accelerated after World War II.  In the late 1950’s, after the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, the subordination of liberal learning to contemporary physical science gave a shock to the classics.  The flower power movement of the late 1960’s, launched nearly contemporaneously with the free speech movement at the University of California, began a radical questioning of the value of classical studies in higher education.  It instituted student demands for greater control over the curriculum which led, finally, to total rejection of the idea that to be educated meant, at least partly, to be educated in the classics.  The “canon” was condemned as the bastion of “dead white males,” unfairly depriving students, first, of familiarity with cultures other than that of Western civilization; and, second, of introduction to subjects perceived to be more immediately “relevant” to the ordinary anticipated challenges of everyday life.  By the early 1980’s, even Stanford University had abandoned the requirements of its traditional core curriculum, and faculties of colleges and universities throughout the United States trembled –and I mean literally trembled– at the increasing demands of students for more “relevant” and “politically correct” curricula of their own choosing.  The faculties trembled in their classical convictions, and then they fell, mostly in the name of greater democracy in education.  The result has been an increasing ignorance –I would say a generally abysmal ignorance– of the philosophical and spiritual roots of that democracy itself.  Nominally “well educated” young people are, typically, now almost entirely ignorant of the seminal teachings, both secular and religious, of Western culture.  The scope of such ignorance is often astounding.  It commonly includes ignorance, not only of the ancient, Renaissance, and Enlightenment legacies of philosophic thought and Judeo-Christian doxology, but even of the chief events of World War II.  In the broadest descriptive terms, this is the kind of educational loss we are talking about.


III. The Nature of The Loss


“And a good thing, too,” many will be apt to say.  In the following remarks, I will summarize, as forcefully as I can, the major arguments of those who are happy to see classical teaching and learning rejected as a standard for higher “liberal” education.

It is no accident, these opponents of classicism might confidently assert, that the decline in classical education started after World War I and rapidly accelerated not long after World War II.  Ten million people were killed in World War I; twenty million in World War II.  These atrocities of the first half of the twentieth century testify to the bankruptcy of the classical ideal of education and classical modes of thought in terms of advancing the human condition.  World War I was entered into by government leaders, and fought by a European officer corps, entirely educated in the classical tradition.  Both the Nazis and the Italian Fascists sought to imitate ancient pagan glories even in their architecture, as their World War II conquests progressively enslaved the democracies of Europe.  The Germans were, moreover, the greatest classical scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Nearly ten million Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and other Non-Nordics were slaughtered in the name of a pagan ideal as interpreted by the Nazis.  Nor were these the only 20th century political catastrophes related to classicism.  Thirty million or more of the Soviet people were butchered by their own regime in the name of Marxist-Leninism and Soviet Communism.  Karl Marx was deeply educated in the classics; in fact, a great classicist.

In contrast, these opponents of classicism may go on to argue, look at what the 20th century has given us as a result of greater education in the sciences rather than wasting hours contemplating abstract speculations of classical philosophers and theologians: Epidemic disease has been conquered to a degree that would never have been imagined in the ancient world.  In developed countries, we have now arrived at a point where there is more than a fifty percent chance that a girl born today will live past 100.  Longevity has been greatly increased, and both the incidence and risks of serious illness and disease have been greatly reduced, in advanced societies.  Moreover, if economic prosperity is a human good, look at what has been happening here, and in Europe, and in Asia, since we generally got beyond the classics in Western education.  The developed nations of the world may, at this very moment, be enjoying the most prosperous times in world history.  Technological advancements have brought the peoples of the world closer than they have ever been, and one does not have to read Plato, or Aristotle, or Sophocles, or even Alfred North Whitehead, to operate a computer or start up a dot com bringing new economic efficiencies to the world.

Finally, these successful iconoclasts may argue, as to a more democratic rule in education: How can you possibly object to the principle that a student should be free to choose to study whatever the hell he or she wants to study, and not what someone else tells the student is best for him or her?  Isn’t that what democracy is all about?  It is my life, and I should be free to choose how I spend my own dollars and my own time in my own education.

I take the preceding and kindred arguments to be the chief justifications –historical, philosophic, moral, political, social, and academic– for minimizing, if not altogether eliminating, study of the classics from higher education in America.

How can these diatribes be answered?  Let me begin with the later arguments first, the ones about how well we have been doing materially without an emphasis on the classics as a necessary, or at least highly desirable, part of higher education.

It cannot reasonably be disputed that modern medicine and technology have generally advanced our physical and economic well-being.  Furthermore, although the ancient Greeks were among the first human beings we know of who inquired methodically into the nature of the material world, they have very little to teach us about the applied sciences.  Except, of course for their original foundations in observation, logic, and mathematics.  It is worth pointing out in this connection, for example, that Charles Darwin, commenting on how he arrived at his theory of evolution, said “Linneaus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in different ways.  But they were mere school boys compared to old Aristotle.”  (Aristotle’s  biological and botanical classifications are, by the way, still used in those sciences.)

The valid claims for the gifts of modern science do not, however, dispose of the question at issue.  The question about the relative value to us as human beings of educationally devoting ourselves to applied science (that is, seeking to learn how to manipulate the material world to our benefit) as opposed to inquiring into the classical questions of moral philosophy (such as “What is our nature as human beings?” “Is there a human nature?” or “What is a good life?” or “What is justice?”) is not a 20th century question.  It is a question, in fact, that was first raised by Socrates in the fourth century B.C.; and it was his answer to this question that cost him his life. In Plato’s dialogue, the Apology, Socrates tells us that when he was a young man, he was intrigued by the inquiries of  natural philosophers such as Anaxagoras into the nature of the physical world.  (Anaxagoras is perhaps the first known person to identify the moon and other heavenly bodies as entities which were as material as the earth, and not composed of more ethereal substance.)  But Socrates concluded that inquiring into the nature of the material world was not as important to him as other inquiries.  He thought the most important thing he –or any other human being–  could come to know and understand was himself, as the Delphic Oracle told him he should try to know.  And so the Delphic admonition, KNOW THYSELF, became the wellspring of Western philosophy.

If we want to see what we have lost from our virtual abandonment of classical learning and teaching, we need to think about the choice that Socrates made.  His choice was one that involves reflections and decisions each one of us is still free to make.   It was a choice that proceeded from the opinion that an unexamined life is not as likely to lead to realization of the best in us as an examined life.  It is a choice that includes consideration of what critical thinking is; what the alternatives are for our human conduct; what these alternatives presuppose or imply; and how we can make the most practical, prudent judgments about the course of our lives in relation to particular situations.  So if we do not want to live mechanical lives  –lives shaped mostly, or even entirely, by things outside ourselves– but, rather, want to reflect upon who we are sufficiently to increase our chances of living with integrity to ourselves, then we must consider the wisdom of the choice Socrates made.  He chose to devote his life to inquiring into the nature of human being and our ethical and spiritual condition.  As I shall argue, abandonment of classical learning in its larger sense is, in essence, an abandonment of that Socratic inquiry.

Unlike the progressive findings of applied science, the most recent opinions about our ethical and spiritual condition are not necessarily the best or the most illuminating.  In this sphere of human concern, “newer” is not always “better.”  In certain respects, the ancients had a firmer and clearer grasp than most celebrated moderns do of the character of our human condition.  In this assertion,  I share Professor Bernard Williams’ opinion, expressed in his fine book, Shame and Necessity (University of California Press, 1993), that when we study the ancient Greeks, we are looking at ourselves.  “The Greek past,” Williams has written, “is specially the past of modernity…The modern world was a European creation presided over by the Greek past.  In some ways, the basic ethical ideas possessed by the Greeks were different from ours, and also in better condition” (emphasis added).  Or, as the poet Shelley wrote more enthusiastically: “We are all Greeks.  Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their roots in Greece.”

Who can ever know who he or she is, if they do not inquire into how their past has shaped them, and what implicit choices they have made about the character of the lives they are living, not deliberately and consciously, but by influences that have shaped them?  None of the writings of Plato, Sophocles, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Hegel, or Freud (to take just a few examples related to the quest for self-knowledge) is now generally required undergraduate or university reading.  Such condoned ignorance about the most thoughtful inquiries into human nature compounds the difficulties for anyone wishing to follow the Delphic admonition to Know Thyself as the first principle of philosophy for mature intellectual souls.

And this brings me back to the first, and perhaps most chilling arguments against classical education: Its alleged identification with the tragedies of World War I, World War II, and 20th century totalitarianism.  The answer to those arguments is essentially this:  They are exactly wrong.  The twentieth century has provided perhaps the greatest examples in all recorded history of the tragic consequences of the abandonment of classical moral thought and, later, the influence of corrupted and misunderstood ideas upon human events; consequences that have rightly moved its surviving victims to say “We must never forget.”

The German Kaiser, intoxicated with his personal power as Emperor and arrogantly determined to expand it, had relieved from the helm of his government one of Europe’s most prudent statesmen, his Prime Minister Otto Von Bismarck.  It is now known that almost immediately after the order had gone out from the Kaiser to his general staff to commence the hostilities of World War I, the Kaiser, realizing the tragedy that was about to unfold, tried to stop it.  But it was too late.  The technology of the early 20th century military machine had been unleashed, and could not be stopped in time to undo it.  In response to the invasion of Belgium, the idealistic young men of England, following their patriotic ideals (and belief in a short war) enlisted in a war led by a general staff that stupidly refused to adjust its critical thinking to the technology of modern warfare, leading to the truly tragic slaughter of almost an entire generation of fine English youth.  One does not have to be a Platonic scholar to conclude that it was not anachronistic classicism that led to this slaughter; it was, rather, ignorance and disregard of the importance of the classical virtues of prudence, temperance, and even courage.

As to the Soviet regime, its chosen philosopher, Karl Marx, had abandoned classicism for a “dialectical materialism” he invented, a conceptual engine derived from Hegel’s logic but loosely founded on ideas of applied (sociological) “science.”  The Soviets prided themselves on the “scientific” nature of their regime –and its godlessness.  And though Nietzsche was an ideological foe of organized Christianity and more skeptical even than Socrates, he would have detested the Nazi version of the “superman” as a totally ignoble perversion of his vision of human being at its best.  The Nazi ideologues were, moreover, supported in their fanaticism by a philosopher –Heidigger– who specifically rejected the ancient classics (Socrates’ thinking in particular) as the source of what he called a “magnificent error.”

The tyrannical corruptors of twentieth century political life were partly motivated by a will to personal power, and partly by claims related to the achievement of human “freedom” as they claimed to envision it.  The idea of “freedom” is one of the paramount –perhaps the paramount– political idea of our world civilization.  The classical idea of freedom was grounded on an understanding of human nature and the duties of ethical behavior.  We must carefully consider what abandonment of attention to this idea of freedom may mean.  Is a healthy future even possible for any civilization in which the idea of “freedom” becomes progressively confused and identified, not with duty, rationality, and ethical behavior, but with greater and greater individual license, and absorption in the pursuit of narrow material self-interests?  Both Plato (in the Republic) and Alexis deTocqueville (in his prophetic work, Democracy in America) expounded the tendency of democratic peoples to turn liberty or freedom to license, and to forget the importance of duty and rational moral behavior as indispensable to the best and wisest possible realization of human being, whether in community or individually.  Where is there now, in our technological consumer society, anything with a power even remotely comparable to this tendency –the now socially approved tendency to look out only for ourselves– to help remind us of its possible consequences, and to help combat it?  It is classicism that reminds us, as the ancient Greeks thought and believed, that our human being is inseparable from our shared community with other human beings.  In Aristotle’s maxim: “Who would live alone…is either a beast or a god.”

In sum, among the things we have lost in our abandonment of classicism –and I won’t even mention in detail the aesthetic sublimity of its literature– is promotion of an understanding of what it means to live free in community with others, through the use of prudent reason as a guide and regulator of our self-interested passions; a deepened understanding of our ethical and spiritual condition, rather than an almost exclusive preoccupation with our economic and material habits and aspirations.  The  characteristic disdain of contemporary Western culture for the timeless teachings of classicism, is a potentially tragic misdirection; one that threatens to disenable us from achieving our fullest human potential as we swim more and more deeply into the materialistic consumer morass.  And this brings me to what I regard as the greatest potential future loss we may suffer as a result of the decline in classical teaching and education: the actual threatened loss of our democratic freedoms.


IV. What We Are in Danger of Losing


We are confronted, right now, here in the United States, with a potentially fatal Constitutional crisis of epochal proportions; one that is, however, virtually invisible to the vast majority of our people except in certain of its effects.  This crisis is directly related to the decline in respect for classical education as understood by the Founding Fathers of our democratic republic.  It revolves around the specific question: how should the United States Constitution be interpreted if those who interpret it are to carry out the original intent of its framers?

The characteristic twentieth century ethical and philosophic view is one that may be called “historicist relativism.”  It is cogently expressed in the view that “there are no absolutes;” that all opinions are no more than the expression of a set of biases local to a specific time and place (including, of course, the view that all opinions are just the expression of the biases of a specific time and place).  The dominant scholarly view of what law itself is, reflects this 20th century relativism.  It began its ascendancy in American legal thought with an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1928.  In a case called Black and White Taxicab Co. vs. Brown & Yellow Taxicab Co. (276 U.S. 518, at 533-34, 1928), Justice Holmes rejected as a “fallacy and illusion” the idea that judges might be able to discern, through reason, enduring principles forming the substance of the common law.  Justice Holmes declared in that opinion:

“If there were such a transcendental body of law outside of any particular State but obligatory within it unless and until changed by statute, the Courts of the United States might be right in using their independent judgment as to what it was.  But there is no such body of law.”

We need to consider this statement of Holmes’s in the light of Plato’s metaphor of the cave.  Viewed from the classical perspective, Justice Holmes was declaring in this opinion: “There is no fire; there is no sunlight.  There are only shadows.”  Holmes’s opinion was a seminal expression of a view of the law called “legal positivism” or “legal realism.”  It is a view holding that the law has absolutely no moral basis other than what a majority of people, or their representatives in a democratic republic, say the law is.  Under this opinion of what valid law is, if a law were duly enacted through established procedures –say by a Constitutional Amendment– declaring, for example, that the property of all people of Greek-American descent, or Jewish blood, or Islamic faith, was to be forfeited to the State, and that all such people were to be interned in concentration camps –or worse– there would be nothing inherently unjust about it, as much as you might personally dislike it!  For justice is defined totally, under this view, by what a majority of people say that it is.

This is not the view of the law taken in the 18th century by Thomas Jefferson; or in the 19th century by Abraham Lincoln; or even in the 20th century by advocates of conscience such as The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr..  But it is the dominant view among legal theorists today; and not only academics, but the view of many of our most powerful judges.  The view of the foundations of law taken by Jefferson, and Lincoln, and King, was that expressed in our Declaration of Independence: that the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” endowed all men, who are “created equal,” with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Lincoln’s view, in other words, was, like Jefferson’s, that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were intended by the Founders, following their Enlightenment beliefs, to be written into the U.S. Constitution.  Lincoln believed, in effect, in principles of natural right and natural law, generally in accord with the idea of law propounded by St. Thomas Aquinas, namely, that law, properly understood, had, by definition, to be

an ordinance of reason
for the common good

by those who are at the head of a community.

This Thomistic definition of law has its roots, in turn, in the teachings of ancient moral and political philosophy; more specifically, in the writings of Aristotle.  It was on the basis of this view of the law that Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to say that his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was a call to the conscience of America to make good on its promises in the Declaration of Independence.  It is on the basis of this natural right view of the law, that we can say a law that is unjust cannot command our consciences, even though we believe in the principle of majority rule.  As Thomas Jefferson said in his First Inaugural Address:

“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”  (emphasis added)

In contrast to the natural right view of the law held by our Founding Fathers, a number of the present Justices of the United States Supreme Court –including the Chief Justice, and perhaps even the present majority of Justices– have declared themselves to be legal positivists, opposed to the Lincolnian view of the Constitution and the principles of natural right and natural law referred to in our Declaration of Independence.

Let us consider for a moment, the likely potential practical consequences of this state of affairs.

We are an increasingly diverse society, enjoying the liberties of a democratic republic for a longer period than that enjoyed by any great power in world history.  We have entered into a period of moral relativism in which the dominant public ethos is one of fierce individualism and an almost obsessive consumerism.  The most powerful interpreters of our laws –and, indeed, the major portion of the legal profession as a whole– accepts no compelling moral basis for the nature of our law other than the principle of majority rule.  In fact, they are imprudently dogmatic in the view that there are no absolutes.  The classicist approach to matters of human being is, on the contrary,  not intrinsically dogmatic.  It is skeptical: it asks questions, and more questions, and more questions.  But it holds to the view that there is a human nature, and part of its nature is endowed with reason and right.  Is not abandonment of this view in our highly diverse society a recipe for increasing social discord among competing groups? Is not such rejection of all principles of conscientious reconciliation –other than the force of a majority– a guarantor of increasing discord in a highly individualistic, fragmented community?  And if such discord escalates to the point of regular, traumatic violence –as it nearly did in the decade of the nineties– isn’t it likely that the public at large –the majority– will be willing, increasingly, to narrow the scope of our civil liberties to obtain greater civil security against violence?

This is the ultimate future prospect we face from the progressive decline of respect for classical teaching and learning, and the timeless human search for enlightenment as to the nature of our human being.  It is an abandonment of what classical learning has to teach us in the false name of democracy, from a shadowy view of individual self-fulfillment, and from a short-sighted elevation of material well-being above concern with our full human character as material and spiritual beings.  It is an insistence that we return to the cave, and continue to stare at the wall, and deny the existence of a clearer light.  In this situation, I genuinely fear for my grandchildren’s future freedom.  What, I wonder, can we do about it?


(C) January 23, 2001 Harrison Sheppard