Robert P. GeorgeDr. Robert P. George is the sixth McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. The New York Times once called him “the most influential conservative Christian thinker” in the United States.
Robert George – McCormick Professor of (RG-1)
I arrived at Princeton right out of graduate school. I did my doctorate in philosophy of law at Oxford after having gone to law school at Harvard here in the United States. But I arrived in the fall of 1985 and began teaching civil liberties and constitutional interpretation and philosophy of law. I was given tenure in 1993 and then elevated to the rank of full professor and installed in an endowed chair called the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence in 1999. Now Princeton does not have a law school. It had one very briefly after the Civil War. Granted, I believe 12LLB degrees before closing up and hasn’t had a law school since, but it has a long tradition, a distinguished tradition of teaching in public law and jurisprudence really going back to Woodrow Wilson, who was the first McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence. He was followed by Edward S. Corwin, who was the greatest constitutional scholar of the first half of the 20th century.
And he, by another very distinguished scholar, Elvis T Mason, and he, by my immediate predecessor Walter Murphy. When I inherited the McCormick chair, it occurred to me that we should try to do something to build on the wonderful tradition and history we have here at Princeton of teaching undergraduates and doctoral students in the areas of public law and jurisprudence. And that’s when I conceived the idea of the James Madison Program at American Ideals and Institutions to do that, I raised some money for the program from generous foundations and benefactors and took the proposal to the university administration. And I was delighted when the university accepted the proposal and allowed me to found the James Madison program in July 4th, actually of the year 2000. Now it’s 2021 when we’re having this interview and we’ve been at it for 21 years, it’s grown, it’s a large and very influential program on our campus and seems to be having an impact off our campus as well.
Robert George – James Madison Program: Studying American Law and Institutions (RG-2)
It’s been cloned as it were copied by other universities around the country. And there are similar institutes with different names, but devoted to enhancing the study of public law and jurisprudence, not in a vocational tech technical law school, off to the side, but rather right in the heart of the liberal arts college or university. And that means we take a different approach to law. We don’t ask the sort of technical questions that lawyers are rightly interested in, or that law students need to who learn about in order to prepare to be good courtroom advocates or drafters of contracts and other legal documents. We ask what I would like to call—and I think we’re justified in calling—the deeper questions. What is the nature of law? What distinguishes law from other normative systems in a society, morality, religion, other institutions of society, the political system, the economic system, what makes law just or unjust can we distinguish just from unjust laws?
Can we subject law, moral evaluation, moral scrutiny? And of course the great tradition of thought about law to which I’ve devoted myself in research and teaching the natural law tradition, which goes all the way back to antiquity begins with Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, and then becomes part of the Christian tradition, especially in the high middle ages with thinkers like Aquinas, that tradition is very interested in the question of, what makes law just or unjust? And what do we do about the problem of unjust laws? If a law is unjust, what do we make of the law? Do we obey it or disobey it? Does it bind us in conscience despite its injustice? Or does it injustice vitiate its power to bind us in conscience? These are questions that have been asked, as I say all the way back to antiquity and forward to current times, Martin Luther king in his famous letter from Birmingham jail written in 1963, raises exactly the same question.
What makes law just or unjust? What do we do in the face of an unjust law? Are we justified in disobeying an unjust law? Are we morally required as King thinks we are to disobey unjust laws and in making this distinction between just and unjust laws and subjecting law to moral scrutiny, King says that we have to evaluate law, human law, what we call positive law in light of the higher law, what King unreservedly refers to as the natural law and ultimately the law of God, the divine law. These are the kinds of issues that we address with our undergraduate students. They’re now 240 or so undergraduate fellows of the James Madison Program at Princeton. And also with our graduate students who are mostly doctoral students who are interested in moral and political philosophy, philosophy of law, bioethics, and other fields that fall under our general mission to advance the study of public law and jurisprudence.
Robert George – Integrating Law with Arts and Sciences (RG-3)
I had the experience of studying law, both in the American context and the British context, having done my American law degree at Harvard, I had the experience of studying in a vocational technical law school. Now it wasn’t as if these broader and deeper questions of law and justice were never asked, but they weren’t at the center. They weren’t at the heart of the law school’s understanding of its own mission. When I studied for my doctorate in philosophy of law at Oxford, I was studying in a system where law was fully integrated into the arts and sciences and not set off in a separate of a vocational school that was mainly concerned to be training practitioners. And I have to say that I felt much happier. I enjoyed much more studying law in the arts and sciences context than in the professional vocational context.
The opportunity to do the work I do at Princeton, where law is not set apart in a vocational school, the opportunity to build the Madison program with an understanding of law as fully integrated into the liberal arts. This has been a great blessing from my point of view. Now I’ve also gained some teaching experience in the law school context, I guess on five occasions. Now I’ve been a visiting professor back at my legal Alma mater at Harvard Law School. I don’t disdain vocational legal education. I think it’s important. I’d like law schools to move more in the direction of liberal arts approaches to law. But training practitioners is important. I can see the point of the American approach to legal education, but at a minimum I think it’s good that we have different options available for students who are interested in law. And those who are interested in law more as a liberal arts subject, more as an academic subject, not so much for vocational reasons, have the possibility to come to a place like Princeton here in the United States and explore the questions that are important to them.
Robert George – Family History & Father’s Experience as WWII Veteran (RG-4)
I was born and brought up in the Hills of West Virginia in north central West Virginia, Monongalia county, where Morgantown is, that is the home of the state university or the main campus of the State University West Virginia University. My family was not associated with the university. Both of my grandfather were coal miners. They were immigrants, one from Syria who spent his entire life as a mine worker and railroad laborer, and the other from Southern Italy. And he began in the mines, worked in the mines about 25 years, but was able to save up enough money to open a little shop, a little grocery store. And so by the time I came along, he was out of the mines and was a small business man.
My father was conscripted to serve in world war II. He went in in 1944, when he turned 18 years old, he hadn’t yet finished high school, but they pulled him or right out of high school later sent his parents a diploma, sent him for basic training and then off to fight in Normandy in Brittany, he was among the American and British and other allied troops who were on the troop carrier, Leopoldville crossing the English channel when it was hit by a German torpedo and went down about a half the men. Several hundred men on the ship were lost. My father was fortunate enough to survive and he was uninjured. The boat that rescued him, took them soldiers whom they’d rescued along to the Normandy beaches. This was after Dday, it was later than Dday, but took them to, to Normandy. And my father continued to serve in the Normandy campaign and the campaign in Brittany until the end of world war to the following spring.
And then he served with the occupation forces first in Germany, actually at Nurnberg. And then in Austria, until he had enough points to be sent home. When he came home, of course, it was a different world. There were new opportunities available to young men like him. He did not have to go into the coal mines. I like to say I was rescued from the coal mines by world war II. I’d probably be there myself today, were it not for world war II. I was born 10 years after the end of world war II, but because my father was drafted and went into service and came back with some skills and opportunities, he didn’t have to go into the coal mines. He got a job in sales and then he saved his money and began to invest in property in real estate. But he did not have the opportunity to go to college nor did my mother. I did not come from a family of college educated people, but my parents valued education and they saw education as the way forward.
Robert George – Educational Background & Time at Swarthmore College (RG-5)
And so there was no question when I, and my four younger siblings, all boys, five brothers were growing up that we were going to go to college. That was very important to our parents. And although our parents didn’t know a lot about higher education, they had a sense that there were colleges that were stronger and those that weren’t as strong. And they wanted us to go to strong intellectually vibrant colleges and universities. I went off to Swarthmore College. I was very fortunate to be admitted. I must have been admitted as an affirmative action, candid that on the Appalachian quota, there weren’t a lot of other Appalachians in my class. That’s for sure. And I doubt that I had the credentials that some of the other kids had. I certainly did not know anything remotely, like what the other kids knew. I was so far behind. And at first I tried to fake my way through when my fellow students would make references to things I’d never heard of or authors or thinkers that I knew nothing about, but I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work.
I found myself starting from pretty far behind, and I really struggled in my first year academically, because I just really wasn’t prepared for the kind of rigorous education that Swarthmore College was offering, nor was I in a situation to be competitive with most of my fellow students, just when it came to background knowledge. But I was very fortunate, very blessed that a couple of professors saw that I was struggling, perceived in me or thought they perceived in me some ability. And so they reached out, it was great to be at a small college where that kind of thing is possible and happened. They reached out to me and helped me brought me along and before long I was up to speed. And from there on things went very well for me academically. I was able to finish college at the top of my class and go on to law school at Harvard, and then from my doctorate at Oxford, and then to Princeton where I’ve spent my academic career.
Robert George – Spiritual Background & Intellectual Conversion (RG-6)
Now, although I wasn’t well prepared academically for college, I had a strong personal and spiritual formation from my parents and grandparents and other family members and from friends and from teachers and from coaches, I had something more important than the educational background, as important as that is I had a spiritual and moral foundation. I was brought up in the church. I was brought up as a Catholic. My father was actually Eastern Orthodox. My mother from the Italian background was Catholic. We were brought up my brothers and I in the Catholic tradition. And that was a great formation. It also was a formation that made me very interested in moral questions. And especially in moral reasoning, the Catholic tradition is not only a religious tradition, but a deep intellectual and philosophical tradition, and one that tries to take on board, the insights of antiquity of the great pagan philosophers, Plato and Aristotle figures like that.
All that was in my background and I think helped underwrite the success that I did have in college. But when I began my college career, I had just absorbed, I guess, from my circumstances, a highly instrumental view of education. I hadn’t yet gotten hold of the idea of knowledge as something that one can pursue, should pursue or its own sake. I had a more instrumental view that a good education and the knowledge that comes with a good education is something that can help you to get ahead in life, rise up in society, enter a good profession, make more money, achieve higher social status. This was not uncommon of course from kids from immigrant families like my own, but it was in my sophomore year at Swarthmore when something very much like a conversion, a religious conversion happened to me, but it was an intellectual rather than religious conversion. And it was the moment when I became aware really quite suddenly that the most fundamental reason for pursuing knowledge much more important than all of the instrumental benefits that education and knowledge bring is knowledge itself understood as something worthwhile for its own sake.
Robert George – Plato & Pursuing Knowledge for Its Own Sake (RG-7)
Getting hold of the idea that knowledge was intrinsically enriching of the human spirit inherently elevating of the kinds of creatures we human beings as rational animals are. And this happened when I was assigned Plato’s dialogue gorgias, it was the first dialogue of Plato’s I’d ever read. I’m quite confident I’d never heard of Plato before entering college, but I was assigned this dialogue in a survey course in political theory. And in that dialogue, Plato has Socrates, of course, his hero conversing debating with the sophists as usual debating partners. And they’re really debating this question about the instrumental as opposed to the intrinsic value of debate, discussion, dialogue, the pursuit of knowledge, education, and listening to Socrates’s arguments, reading the text opened my mind really. It’s not that I had considered and rejected the idea of knowledge as inherently or intrinsically worthwhile it’s that I had never considered it.
It had never been on the radar for me. I just assumed that the real value of knowledge was instrumental. Getting ahead, getting a professional career established, making more money, having more social standing or prestige or status or influence, all of which of course knowledge and education do help us to achieve. And none of which are bad in themselves, they can be for good. And it’s great when people do use them for good and I don’t disdain them, but I had neglected. I hadn’t understood. I hadn’t considered the possibility that the most fundamental good of knowledge, the most fundamental reason for pursuing knowledge and education was knowledge as a good for its own sake. And Socrates brought me round to see that it was really very much like a light bulb had gone off over my head, sitting there in the library, reading through the text.
Robert George – Thinking for Yourself vs. Tribal Politics (RG-8)
I remember it so vividly today. I could see that I needed to change my whole attitude toward what I was doing in life. At that moment, getting an education. I needed to begin thinking for myself, I needed to begin examining questions that I had always just considered to be settled or never raised. I began to realize some other things. I had strong political views. I’d grown up in a strong union democratic family in West Virginia. We were Christians and Jesus Christ was the most important thing, but only a few steps behind him was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the United Mine Workers of America and the democratic party. These were the 50’s and 60’s when I was growing up in West Virginia. And so I had a very tribal attitude toward politics. I believed what the democratic party and the United Mine Workers of America believed in.
And I thought that Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t quite a God, but he was something close to a Saint. And that’s how he looked at things. And I was good at arguing. I was a good debater. I was good at rhetoric. And I used those skills to advance my party and my tribe and my group’s view of things. It was all very partisan and it was reading gorgias. It was reading Plato that made me rethink all that and made me realize most of what I thought about politics. I thought basically for tribal reasons, not because I’d act thought for myself or thought these things through. That impelled me to begin really examining questions I knew really for the first time and some of my views, especially my religious views actually strengthened as a result of that. I became more persuaded of the truth of what I had believed, but some of my views especially my political views, I ended up abandoning. They just didn’t withstand scrutiny once I put them on the table and began looking at them.
And that launched me on a kind of Odyssey, a journey politically from being what I suppose in those days, you would regard as a liberal Democrat, although the term liberal meant something little different then than it does now. Toward being, not that anymore. And eventually becoming and accepting the label of being a conservative. And eventually, although this took quite some time, I guess I feared that my grandfathers would be rolling in their graves, actually becoming a Republican, registering as a Republican was the hardest part of the journey, because of course, where I grew up in West Virginia in coal mining country, not only did we not like Republicans, we didn’t know any, they were the rich people who owned the mines that lived outside of the state and exploited our fathers and grandfathers. We didn’t want to have anything to do with them. We were partisan Democrats. When I finally reached the point where not only was I not a Democrat anymore, but I was going to register as a Republican that I did with some trepidation that old family tie held me back really for some time.
Robert George – A Bluegrass Banjo Player (RG-9)
Well, I liked a joke that I was born and brought up in the hills of West Virginia, where little boys are issued banjos at birth. And I am in fact, a banjo player, an Appalachian banjo player, a bluegrass banjo player, but I didn’t get my banjo at birth. I started playing banjo when I was about 12 years old. I fell in love with the music of Flatten Scruggs and especially Earl Scruggs. Bluegrass Banjo playing this distinctive so-called three finger style of playing that he pioneered. And I started playing with bands sometimes with my fellow students, high school students or students at West Virginia University, which was in the town of Morgantown, where we lived. And then sometimes in fact, very often with coal miners and local guys who were very fine bluegrass musicians and would invite me to play with them at square dances, which were in rotten gun clubs and fire halls and those kinds of places.
And in those cases, playing with the minors, I could make some money. Most of my performances with my friends were not compensated, but I could make, I remember this $20 playing a square dance at a fire hall or county fair or something on a Saturday night. And that seemed like an enormous amount of money. And it meant that I didn’t have to do what some of my friends had to do, which was get up at five in the morning to toss newspapers onto people’s doorsteps or cut lawns in the heat of the afternoon in August. I could make money playing the banjo. It didn’t get better than that. And I’ve continued to play. When I’m in town, I play really every day and I still do some performing during the COVID. I haven’t been doing too many personal appearances, although I did, I guess, 65 banjo minutes on Twitter, where I posted brief banjo tunes, that I recorded myself playing.
Nobody can be too down and out when you hear banjo music, it’s such cheerful music. I thought I’d try to cheer people up with my Twitter banjo minutes, but it’s something I continue to love to do. I love the music. Bluegrass is Appalachian classical music, and I love to play it. And I love to listen to it. And it’s been a real blessing in my life and a little bit of West Virginia that I take around with me wherever I go. I mean, I took it to Swarthmore and to Harvard and to Oxford. And it’s with me here in Princeton. And it’s really a very important part of my life.
Robert George – Are you hopeful about the next generation of leaders? (RG-10)
I’m not only hopeful about the future, which I think we’re morally and spiritually required to be hope is a virtue. It’s a theological version, and I am hopeful, but I’m not only hopeful. I’m actually optimistic. Now you’re not required to be optimistic. And I am not always optimistic about things, but I am optimistic as well as hopeful. When I see the outstanding young people who are now stepping to the fore in our public life, especially some of the young public intellectuals in their thirties and early forties. I’m proud to say that a number of them are my former students, Ryan Anderson. Who’s now the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Melissa Moschella, whose a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, and also becoming a very prominent public intellectual Daniel Mark, professor of political science at Villanova University. Another one of my students, Anna Samuel, the founder and director of the CanaVox pro-marriage program headquartered actually right where we’re sitting for this interview at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, also becoming a prominent public intellectual. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, one of my star graduate students who I think now is really the premier public intellectual in the Orthodox Jewish community, and really even more broadly in the Jewish community today.
So many of my former students are really distinguishing themselves in our public intellectual life, and they’re distinguishing themselves not only by their brilliance, which is undeniable, but by their bravery, their courage. These are people who boldly speak up for the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, for marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and for the family, for religious liberty and the rights of conscience. These are stands that it’s difficult to take today in our current so-called woke environment. These subject you to the vicissitudes of cancel culture, and yet these young men and women in their thirties and their forties are standing up and speaking out boldly and bravely. Some are Jewish, some are Christian, have some that don’t fit neatly into religious categories, but nevertheless, there they are speaking out.
And there are others that I greatly admire who I did not have the privilege of having as students. Yuval Lavin, of the American Enterprise Institute, what an extraordinary young public intellectual, probably at this point in his early to mid-forties, he is just a brilliant spokesman for the most important causes. I got to know him when I was serving under the great Dr. Leon Kass on the president’s council on bioethics and Dr. Kass, as chairman, brought Yuval and another young scholar, Eric Cohen, aboard as young staffers for the commission. I’ve watched the two of them become such bold and brilliant, impressive, effective public intellectuals.
So when I look out there, I say, gosh, this generation, it’s really better than my generation. These young people in more difficult circumstances than my generation faced, are really proving to be heroes. So it’s very uplifting for me, and very encouraging for me. I’m just proud to have had the opportunity to teach and interact with so many of them.
Robert George – How would you describe your worldview? Imago Dei (RG-11)
At the foundation of my own thinking about ethics and everything that’s related to ethics, law, politics, culture, at the foundation is the principle articulated in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, that the human being, though fashioned from the mere dust of the earth, is made in the very image and likeness of the divine creator and ruler of all that is. It’s the principle of the Imago Dei, man being made in the image and likeness of God. And because I think that’s true, because I believe it, I believe that each and every member of the human family, no matter how all weak, no matter how poor, no matter how frail, no matter how badly fallen, we’re all fallen, every single member of the human family is the bearer of a profound, inherent and equal dignity.
That means that our obligations to word our fellow human beings are profound. That’s a fellow image bearer that I see, whether he’s a political friend or enemy, whether he shares my Christian faith or doesn’t, whether he is a religious believer or unbeliever, even a scoffer, no matter his race, no matter his or her sex, no matter ethnicity, none of these factors bears at all on the question of whether that person deserves my love and care and respect and support. That’s at the foundation of my thinking, and so it shapes my worldview.
Robert George – Faith, Reason, and Different Beliefs (RG-12)
I am a Christian, Catholic, I believe certain things on faith, but I do not believe that faith and reason are opponents, or even intention. I believe that faith is reasoned and reasonable, that a true faith, a sound faith, is reasoned and reasonable. We have reasons for believing biblical teachings, the teachings of Christianity, and those teachings give us reasons for our choices and actions.
I also believe that we have a great deal to learn from non-Christian traditions, including traditions of faith. Christianity has acknowledged this from very early on. The early fathers of the church and the great medieval thinkers who shaped so much of Christian thought drew extensively on the pagan Greek philosophers, on Plato, on Aristotle, on Cicero, on other thinkers from antiquity. Some of the great medieval Christian thinkers were influenced themselves by Islamic and Jewish thinkers, just as Islamic and Jewish thinkers were influenced by each other and influenced by Christian thinkers. There are thinkers from the enlightenment that I think have a lot to teach us, we have things to learn from.
There are some thinkers that I myself have made something of a career of being critical of. The best example here is John Stuart Mill, the great English philosopher, secularist, hardcore, down to the bottom secularist from the 19th century. I’ve spent a lot of my professional career criticizing Mill’s utilitarianism and Mill’s libertarianism, and I don’t take any of that back. Yet I still learn from Mill. He’s not wrong about everything. And even the things he’s wrong about in my opinion, he’s wrong about in interesting and even illuminating ways. That means that at least in my worldview, I don’t want any of my beliefs to be immunized from scrutiny or challenge. I don’t want to shut down anybody who wants to challenge my beliefs. Even my most deeply held cherished, identity forming beliefs, the beliefs that make me a Christian, I think those should be on the table for discussion. If I’m wrong, please show me that I’m wrong. You’re not offending me. You’re not assaulting me. You’re giving me reasons and I hope you’ll listen to my reasons. I hope you’ll be open to my critique.
Robert George – The Importance of Truth-Seeking & Protecting of Civil Liberties (RG-13)
So this is why, again, in my worldview, it’s important for us to be civil libertarians, to be defenders of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to dissent, freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry. I don’t think we have anything to fear from those civil liberties. Quite the contrary, that if we believe in truth, as we must, as we should, if we are committed to truth seeking, which certainly in universities, we should be, but really all of us should be whether we’re university folk or not, whether we’re university educated or not. If we believe even truth, if we value truth, we need to be aware, cognizant of our own fallibility, that we could be wrong about things, or only partially right about things and partially wrong about things.
And therefore we need to accept criticism, be open to criticism, not try to shut down people who challenge our beliefs. We live in a cancel culture where people, and to some extent, it’s on both sides. It’s worse on the left today than it is on the right, although historically, there have been times when it’s been worse on the right. But where there’s a temptation to try to immunize beliefs from criticism or challenge, to shut down dissenters, heretics, not let them talk, not let them challenge us. I believe that the truth has power in luminosity, splendor, Pope John Paul the II called the splendor of truth. It was the title of one of his great encyclicals.
Truth is sturdy. It can stand up. Let the challenges come. Let’s see what we can learn from the challenges. I believe in truth. I believe in moral truth. I believe that there are certain moral principles that we need to defend vigorously, especially the sanctity of human life, especially marriage and the family, especially religious liberty and the rights of conscience. But I also believe we need to defend civil liberties, including the liberties of those who disagree with us, including those who disagree with us on those profoundly important moral issues.
You’ve asked me about my worldview. My worldview is a Christian worldview, a worldview that I think embodies what Christianity has at its best, always reflected. That is a willingness to learn and incorporate truths from wherever we can find them.
Robert George – Friendship with Cornell West (RG-14)
Well, one of the great blessings of my life in academia has been developing my wonderful friendship, my brotherhood with Professor Cornell West. He and I are at different places politically. I’m a traditional conservative and a Republican. He is the honorary chairman of Democratic Socialists of America. Of course, he’s one of our nation’s truly premier public intellectuals. He and I began teaching together a little more than a decade and a half ago, and we found that despite our political differences on many issues, we have quite a lot in common.
We share an interest in the same basic moral and existential questions, questions of meaning and value, questions about what human life is for, what our purpose is as human beings. We’re both Christians. We both believe in the basic biblical principle of the inherent and equal dignity of all members of the human family. We draw different policy conclusions about a number of issues on that basis, but we agree on the foundational principle.
We’re interested in many of the same thinkers and writers, especially those who have reflected on the great existential questions, going back to Plato and Aristotle, and to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the great thinkers of the Reformation, the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, 19th century figures like John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman, 20th century thinkers and writers like John Dewey and C.S. Lewis and Martin Buber and Martin Luther King. That gives us a lot of common ground and a lot to work with.
There’s a certain chemistry between us that’s really magical. He’s very lovable and easy to love, and we love each other. We’re really buddies. We’ve gotten to know each other’s families very well. His beautiful and brilliant daughter, Zeytun, is a student here at Princeton and an undergraduate fellow of the James Madison program. She’s just a charming and delightful young woman. He knows my children.
We have written together, including a statement in 2017 that’s gotten quite a lot of attention called Truth-Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression, in which we make the case for a very deeply shared value, and that is the value of freedom of thought and freedom of speech to the truth-seeking process, and to the process of running a Republican democracy. We are 100% on the same place there. We stand together. We’ve written together against the evil of pornography. We’ve written together against indiscriminate drone strikes by our military. Sometimes what we say sounds more pleasing to people’s ears on the right. Sometimes what we say sounds more pleasing to people’s ears on the left. We just try to call them as we see them. And when we agree on important points, we like to get our joint statements out there.
We’ve taught together. We’ve written together. We go around the country lecturing together. We pray together. We pray together before our public appearances. We pray together whenever we can. And we sing together. Cornel loves to sing. I love to sing and play. So we do a bit of that. We’ve even broken into song hymns in our classes together on occasion, which the students got quite a kick out of. But I love him very much, and I’m so blessed to be able to work with him. I’ve certainly learned a lot from him, and he’s been kind enough to say that he’s learned a lot from me.
Robert George – Which worldviews are damaging the U.S. today? (RG-15)
Well, I’m a critic from a Christian perspective, the perspective of a believer in natural, unnatural rights, of woke ideology, which is now dominant in elite sectors of the culture. You find it not only in colleges and universities, where I gather it had its initial landing, but in journalism, in the professions, in philanthropy, in mainstream religion, even in corporations. Woke capital now is a big thing. Many so-called woke people are well-intentioned people. They want to do justice to others. They call themselves social justice advocates. They’re sometimes called social justice warriors. They believe that there are grave injustices that are the legacy of our history of slavery and discrimination and so forth. I don’t think that all of the wokesters are ill-motivated. I think most probably are not ill-motivated, but I think they go very, very seriously wrong in a lot of respects.
Robert George – Where Woke Ideology Goes Wrong (RG-16)
Woke ideology, I think, it has properly been characterized by John McWhorter, one of its leading critics as a religion. Now it’s not a religion in the focal sense of religion. It’s not trying to get right with the spiritual powers in the universe with God, but it is religion in the sense that it has certain dogmas. It has certain sacraments, holy days, saints, demons. It has some of the attributes of religion.
Where it really goes wrong, it seems to me, is that it is a fundamentalist and militant religion, a religion that does not brook dissent, a religion that tries to shut down heretics. If you are not with the faith, you are a heretic and you are not to be engaged. You are to be shunned. Your career is to be ruined. You’re going to be driven out of your place of employment. Cancel culture is part of the substance, actually, of wokeism. It’s not just an incidental feature. When you’ve got a kind of fundamentalist militant sect like this, it’s of the essence of the belief that heretics, dissenters are not to be tolerated. In fact, they’re to be destroyed.
Robert George – What are the roots of woke ideology? (RG-17)
The roots of woke ideology are deep. Certainly there are Marxist elements of woke ideology. There are radical individualist elements. That sounds contradictory because Marxism is collectivist, so how can it also be individualist? It turns out that it can be. It can celebrate individual self-will, while at the same time, advocating certain collectivists social policies. I think what squares that apparent circle, is its identitarianism. Identitarianism is very central to woke ideology. We build our identities around our race or our sexual proclivities or around our ethnic identity. It separates people from other people based on these features and factors, and it encourages that kind of identity formation.
It embraces causes that I think are quite destructive. Abortion, the redefinition of marriage, not only as including same sex partners, but increasingly to embrace polyamory. This is not old fashioned polygamy, which is bad enough, the idea that Harry be in a marriage with Jill and in a separate marriage with Joan and a separate marriage with Mary, but rather in polyamory, it’s the idea that Harry and Bill and Joan and Jane and Mary are all married together in a unit of five or seven or three, or whatever it happens to be. I think that this is extremely destructive for the family corrupting of our basic social institution of marriage.
Robert George – The Fair Competition of Ideas (RG-18)
So, I’m resolutely opposed to woke ideology. I regret that it has the profound influence that it has, the institutional basis that it has. I do not propose to use their techniques against them. I do not propose to violate their civil liberties, to shut down their freedom of speech or assembly, or their right to organize, to try to advance their cause or to operate in the democratic sphere. I don’t want to ban their books. I don’t want to ban their ideas. I don’t want to insulate myself or others, even young people, at least if they’ve reached a certain age, college young people, for example, I don’t want to shield young people from their ideas, but I don’t want their ideas to be given monopoly, not in schools, not in universities, not in culture more broadly.
Their ideas should compete with Christian ideas and with the ideas of other religions and philosophies on fair terms in the public square, not with a position of privilege, but where people can assess them on the merits and decide for themselves having fully taken on board the criticisms, as well as the arguments for the view, decide for themselves where they stand with respect to it.
Robert George – What is a person? (RG-19)
A question that any comprehensive philosophy or religion has to deal with, because it’s a question that occurs to people’s minds, a great existential question, is the question, what exactly is a person? What is a human being? In fact, are human beings persons? Are all human beings persons, or only some human beings? Are there some human beings who are human beings, but are not yet persons? Are there some human beings who used to be persons, but are no longer persons? Are there some human beings who, due to say severe cognitive disability, never were, aren’t now, and never will be persons? Are there non-human persons. These are all very important questions.
Christianity has a view about them, and the view is very much in line with some aspects or some thinkers in antiquity, but not others. Christianity’s view of the human person and the relationship of the person to the body and its view that all human beings are persons is in line with Aristotle’s view, but not with Plato’s.
Plato adopted a dualistic view. He thought the real person was the soul, the spirit and not the body. The body was more like a prison that the spirit was held in temporarily on this earth until death, when the spirit is liberated and then lives in the spirit realm. That kind of dualism has been embraced by other thinkers, including some within the Christian tradition, heretical thinkers within the Christian tradition, heretical on this issue.
Descartes, for example, believed that the person was really the soul, not the body. Cartesian dualism, as it’s sometimes called, I think is not inaccurately characterized as the idea that persons are ghosts in machines. Human persons are ghosts in machines, the body’s a machine, and the spirit is the ghost or the soul is the ghost that inhabits machine and until death.
Now the temptation to think that way, even or perhaps you might say especially for Christians, is that we do believe, as Christians, in the spiritual soul. We’re not materialists. We don’t reduce everything to the physical. We don’t think that the body all there is, and we certainly don’t think that when the body dies, that’s it. We believe that the soul is immortal and that our physical death, while real death, is not the end of the story.
And yet, as I said earlier, Christianity comes down on the side of Aristotle, not Plato. So what was Aristotle’s view? Aristotle did not think that the body and soul were separable as two distinct substances. He saw the human being as a unity of body and soul, a dynamic unity. The body is not merely the vehicle in which the person considered as the spiritual soul resides and can someday leave. The body is part of the reality of the human being. So is the soul. And there’s a relationship of body and soul, of course, and the body is not immortal. The soul is immortal. Christianity believes that in any case.
So how do we make sense of all that?
Robert George – Christianity & the Resurrection of the Body (RG-20)
Well, I think the best way for Christians to understand it is to ask ourselves the question, why did the Christian Church, the followers of Jesus, from the very beginning, opt for, come down on the side of, defend the belief, which became the doctrine, of the resurrection of the body. Wouldn’t it have been easier? Wouldn’t it have been a much easier sale to the pagan world not to claim that Jesus physically rose from the dead and that we would someday physically rise, but rather to say that resurrection is a spiritual event? The soul survives, the soul goes to heaven, liberated from the body and all the disadvantages of our bodily finitude.
You wouldn’t then be subject to empirical falsification. What if they discover the bones of Jesus? You could make sense of the idea of life after death, without imagining that it would involve the resurrection of the body. And who needs the body anyway? The body gets sick. The body gets dirty. The body gets smelly. We have bodily functions that we’re not thrilled about. We have to eat to maintain life. What’s the big deal with the body? Why does Christianity opt for it? Why not just say we believe in spiritual survival?
Well, the fact is that the church did go for the idea of the resurrection of the body. Its roots, of course, are in Judaism. There was a division within Judaism and the Gospels. We learn about the division between the Pharisees, who believe in the resurrection of the body and the Sadduccees, who do not. At one point the Sadduccees test Jesus on the question by asking about a woman who’s multiple husbands die, and which one is she married to in the end, if there’s a resurrection. But the Christianity comes down on the side of the resurrection of the body. That’s because we believe that the body is not simply a vessel or a vehicle in which the spiritual soul resides.
It’s not an instrument of the human being. We are not non-bodily persons, souls, spirits, who reside in non-personal bodies. On the contrary, we believe that the body is part of the personal reality of the human being and that we are dynamic body soul, body spirit unities, and that when we die, the body dies, the soul survives, and yet we are not whole. We are not fully ourselves. In fact, Aquinas went so far as to hypothesize that when the body is dead, but before the resurrection on the last day, our souls exist, but we don’t exist. We are our bodies and souls together. While there’s just a soul, what exists are spiritual remains, just as bodily remains exist. We don’t really exist again as a living person, until body and soul are reunited.
Robert George – A Unified Mind, Spirit, and Body (RG-21)
Now Aquinas’s view did not become the dominant view, but even those who don’t go as far as Aquinas, in the Christian tradition, among Orthodox Christians, I don’t mean Eastern Orthodox. I mean, believers in sound Christian doctrine, hold that we are incomplete persons prior to the resurrection of the body that we are not fully ourselves. We’re not fully persons. We’re not whole, without the resurrection of the body. And this shows that Christianity far from denigrating the body in the way that critics of Christianity sometimes accuse us of doing. And there have been Christian secs who are guilty of that. But the mainstream of Christianity; protestant, catholic, eastern orthodox does not denigrate the body. We esteem the body. The body is the work of the creator. The body is not a prison that we are trapped in for this life. Quite the contrary, the body is good. The body is to be affirmed. It’s not all there is, but it’s part of our reality just as the soul is not all there is, but it’s part of our reality.
When we conduct our lives, when we operate, when we go through our lives as acting persons, it’s not just the spirit acting in a body. It’s the person as a body-spirit, body-soul composite that is acting. I like to use an example. If I hold up that thing and I ask an audience, “What is this?” They will say, “Well, professor George, that is a cell phone or a smartphone.” And they’ll be right about that. Of course, that’s what it is. It’s not an elephant. It’s not my last will and testament. It’s a cell phone. You’ll notice it has a banjo inlaid on the back in my case. Now what’s going on. Two things are going on. You, for example, are perceiving this object. There’s perception going on. That’s a physical act, but you’re not just perceiving, are you? In addition to perceiving, you are understanding.
You’re understanding that object is a certain thing. It’s not an elephant. It’s not my last will and testament. It’s a cell phone, but are there two different things, two different realities, two different substances that are performing the two separate acts. Is there one thing that’s doing the perceiving and another thing that’s doing the understanding. If so, what’s the connection between the perceiver and the understander? Now, there’s one thing. You, the person that is you, the unified body spirit, composite body, mind composite that is at the same time doing the perceiving and doing the understanding. That’s a pretty good piece of philosophical evidence that we are in fact, not non bodily persons, inhabiting non-personal bodies. We are not ghosts in machines. We are unified people. The persons we are, are the body we see and the mind or soul or spirit. Now, how does this matter for contemporary ethical issues?
Robert George – Person vs. a Partial Human Being: Where do we draw the line? (RG-22)
This is something that I’ve written about fairly extensively. Well, the belief, which I think is an erroneous belief held by Plato or held by Descartes that we are ghosts and machines, does not commit one to believing that abortion is morally acceptable or euthanasia is morally acceptable, or that there can be such a thing as a transgender person. That is a person who’s physically male, but psychologically female, or doesn’t commit one to belief that marriage can be between people of two sexes, or I’m sorry, between people of the same sex, as well as people of opposite sexes or that people can validly be in five person marriages or seven person marriages.
It doesn’t commit you to believing those things, but it does put into place a predicate that will support those beliefs. So for example, anybody who knows anything about human embryology and developmental biology is under no illusions about when the life of a new human being begins or whether the developing embryo and fetus in the womb of a human mother is a human being, there may be ignorant folk who still want to say, “We don’t know when life begins,” but that’s because they’re ignorant. And if you know, even the most elementary things about modern human embryology, you do know that from the earliest embryonic stage, we have a new living member of the species, homo-sapien, a human being that is not debated, but it’s one thing to know that the child in the womb is a human being, but is the child a person? Smart supporters of abortion who don’t say foolish things like, “We don’t know when life begins, or we don’t know whether the being in the womb is a human being.”
People like my colleague at Princeton, Peter Singer, who know what they’re talking about when it comes to the biology and acknowledge and recognize the biological facts will say, “Of course, it’s a human being.” We don’t want to embarrass ourselves by saying that abortion doesn’t kill a human being. Of course, it kills a human being, but they say it’s nevertheless justified because though it kills a human being. It doesn’t kill a person because a child in the womb though a human being is not yet a person. It’s not a person until it can begin to perform certain intellectual or mental activities. Self-awareness a certain kind of reasoning, deliberation that kind of thing. And that doesn’t happen as Singer points out until well after birth, which is why intelligent and clear thinking and candid defenders of abortion will not only concede they’ll embrace the idea that the same argument that justifies abortion justifies infanticide. Something that professor Singer thinks is morally justified. And on his dualistic view that distinguishes human beings from persons, he would be right.
Certainly you don’t get anything approaching what we normally think of as human mental functions until well after birth. And they don’t occur in the womb. Some mental functioning does take place, but mental functioning that would really sharply distinguish a human being from say a rabbit ora fox. Those mental functions begin to be immediately exercisable only later in human development. If you believe that human beings and persons are two separate things and that some human beings are not yet persons that will enable you to justify abortion. Same with euthanasia, if you accept this dualistic anthropology, this idea that human persons are ghosts in machines or minds inhabiting bodies, or what have you. You can say, well, uncle Henry prior to getting Alzheimer’s was a person, but he’s no longer a person, the dementia does not mean he’s no longer a human being as a matter of biological fact, of course, he’s a human being. Any biologist would recognize him as a human being, but he’s no longer a person. And therefore may legitimately be killed by euthanasia. Let’s say a congenitally, severely cognitively disabled person.
That person is born that person maybe 11 years old or 23 years old. But because that person has not, and will not achieve the requisite level of mental functioning on the dualistic view, you would say, “Well, that’s a human being of course.” But is not, and will never be a person. From a moral point of view, some people who hold that view would say, “You could harvest that person’s organs.” You could kill that person to get those two healthy kidneys and the healthy heart and any other transplantable vital organs that might be used to save human beings who are persons, same with transgender ideology. If you embrace this person, body dualism, you could say, “Well, of course, biologically, this individual is a male, but psychologically that’s a woman. And the real person is the psychology, not the biology.
You could have a female trapped in a male body and to manipulate the body by surgeries and hormone treatments, to bring it more into line with what the person regards as his true gender to make that person more comfortable with her, they would insist true gender is perfectly okay because the biology isn’t the real person, the physical stuff isn’t the person that’s just stuff. The person is the psychological part, the mental part, the spirit, the soul. If the female spirit is trapped in the male body, then we should recognize the person as female, not as male, same with the concept of same sex marriage and principles of sexual morality on traditional Judeo-Christian principles, and very much shared by the other major religious traditions, Islam, and so forth. The basic understanding of the person was that the body is part of the personal reality of the human being.
Robert George – Bodily Dualism and the Degradation of Marriage (RG-23)
If you were really to unite in marriage, as persons, you would unite not only at the effective or psychological level, but at all levels of the human being beginning with the biological level, which accounts for why on the traditional understanding, not just in religious law, but even in secular law, consummation was required for marriage to be perfected. That an unconsummated marriage, this was the debate in the case of Henry VIII, an unconsummated marriage would be annullable. You wouldn’t need a divorce. It could be annulled because the marriage had never been completed. And consummation was achieved by the spouses performing an act, the marital act coitus that fulfilled the behavioral conditions of procreation, whether or not the non-behavioral conditions happened to obtain. You didn’t have to know whether a baby had been conceived. All you needed to know was had coitus occurred, had the behavioral conditions of procreation been fulfilled if so you got a consummated marriage because they have united at the biological level. And that biological unity becomes the foundation for the comprehensive sharing of life.
Not only at the biological, but at the effective or psychological at the rational disposition, even at the spiritual level that marriage is, or at least was always understood to be. But if you adopt the dualistic understanding that reduces the body to nearly the material of no personal significance, it’s just an impersonal or non-personal instrument of the person considered as the psychology, then marital union, the union of persons is at the effective level. And just as two people of opposite sexes can unite emotionally, so can two persons of the same sex, or so can three or five persons of whatever combination of sexes. You can suddenly make sense of same sex marriage, but only if you presuppose this dualistic understanding of the person, which of course, Christianity rejected from the very beginning in which Judaism itself eventually rejected. And so did several many of the other great traditions, philosophical as well as religious.
Robert George – The Glorified Body (RG-24)
There is this very interesting question that is raised by the accounts in the Gospel of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances first to the holy women at the [Zeer 01:17:31]. And then to the apostles, the story of doubting Thomas is the story of the apostles meeting with Thomas absent in a locked room, in a locked chamber upstairs. And Jesus suddenly appears, now how did he get in the doors were locked. He has a physical body because he’s been resurrected. He’s got a body, no question about that, but if he’s got a body, how did he get through the walls? How did he get through the locked doors? It seems to be a very special body. And yet at the same time, we know that it’s not a completely different body than the body that he had prior to his crucifixion and death. How do we know that? Because he appears again, a second time, this time with Thomas present.
Thomas had doubted the story told by his fellow apostles the first time and said, “I won’t believe that the Lord has risen unless I can probe with my fingers the nail marks in his hands and put my hand into his side.” And of course, when Jesus appears the second time to them, and Thomas is there, he looks at Thomas and says, “Please probe me with your fingers.” The nail holes in my hands, put your hand into my side, the crucified body with the nail marks, with the wound in the side is Jesus’ body. Those are the data that scripture gives us. We don’t quite know. I don’t think anybody has really known even the greatest Christian thinkers, quite what to make of all that. We know it’ll be a physical body. We know it’ll have a relationship to the body that we now have, and that of course molds away in the grave. And yet the term that theologians have used, I think traditionally to describe it is that it will be a glorified body. It will have different characteristics than attributes from the bodies that we now not only have, but are.
Robert George – What is natural law? (RG-25)
Okay. Natural law, is the body of norms and other principles that guide our choosing in situations of morally significant choice. These are norms and principles that provide reasons for actions including conclusive reasons. They direct our action toward what is humanly valuable because intrinsically fulfilling and away from the privations of those goods. When we grasp the intelligible points, say of friendship of having, or being a friend. And when we understand that we value our friends as friends for their own sake and not as means to other things, getting invited to good parties or getting jobs with valuable firms, or what have you. When we understand friendship as intrinsically worthwhile we’ve grasped a basic principle of natural law, that friendship is inherently fulfilling. And we have a reason to make and be a friend and to be a good and loyal friend, even if we don’t get any extrinsic benefit, like getting introduced to the beautiful people and invited to the fancy parties or getting a good job out of it.
There are many principles of natural law that direct our choice in action toward what is humanly fulfilling and away from what is contrary to that. Another is the pursuit of intellectual knowledge. When we study Shakespeare, not just to impress people at cocktail parties, with our knowledge of Shakespeare, or to get a job as a Shakespeare scholar, or to get a good grade on a test in the English literature exam. But when we read the plays or the sonnets and appreciate them and understand them just for their own sakes, we’re acting on a principle of natural law that directs our choosing toward the intrinsically fulfilling inherently enriching value of knowledge and away from what’s contrary to it, so ignorance. There are a range of what philosophers call natural law, there is sometimes called basic human goods, the irreducible constitutive aspects of human wellbeing and fulfillment.
Robert George – Natural Law & the Second Order Principles (RG-26)
And then in addition to the principles directing our action toward those goods and away from their privations, there are second order principles. What we would call moral principles that guide our choosing and action. I’m sorry, that guide our choosing and acting in view of the fact that there are many different human goods that can be instantiated in our lives in many different ways on countless occasions. And so we need some guidance from principles that would direct us toward choosing uprightly and away from choosing in ways that are, let’s say, unfair or fanatical or damaging to ourselves or others. Natural law refers among other things to the idea that these are truths of morality, truths of pertaining to human choosing that are accessible by our reason itself, that we can know not by special revelation from God, say in scripture or from the teaching of any authority, other than the authority of reason itself.
But we can know on the basis of our unaided reason, this is what St. Paul clearly has in mind, early in his letter to the Romans when he refers to a law that’s written on the hearts, even of the Gentiles who do not have the law of Moses. They don’t have scripture, they don’t have revelation, and yet they can understand some things are right, and some things are wrong and they can be held accountable for their failing to act in conformity with the principles of right and wrong. Some natural law theorists, I’m one now, or historically going all the way back into antiquity. And although Christianity embraced the idea of natural law theory, it didn’t invent it. We find it in the ancient Greek philosophers and in the Roman [jurost 01:26:08], but natural law thinkers now, and then do not deny that there’s a God or that God can reveal and has revealed many important truths.
Robert George – Natural Law & Scriptural Revelation (RG-27)
Sometimes the same truths that are accessible by natural reason or unaided reason, but they believe that in addition to revelation, there are truths that can be known even by the Gentiles who don’t have the law of Moses, even by those who don’t have revelation. And that we know them by our intellectual operations, by our experiencing and understanding and deliberating and judging what is right, and what is wrong. Now, as Christians, we believe that not only is the will weakened by the fall by original sin, but the intellect is darkened. We’re very grateful for divine revelation, which sheds an enormous, beautiful light, even on truths that are in principle knowable by unaided reason. But even though we understand that the intellect has been darkened by sin, we also recognize as Paul points out, that it is possible to know a great deal about the moral life about right and wrong, even apart from revelation and our reasoning about natural law also helps us to understand God’s revelation and scripture where it might otherwise be either inherently or in the circumstances we happen to be in a particular culture at a particular time, obscure.
Give you an example. In Genesis two we’re told about marriage the first and most important thing we learn about marriage. And it is that the man shall leave his mother and the woman, her home, and the two shall cleave together and become one flesh. Now in a society like ours, absent, philosophical reflection, absent, natural law thinking one could easily fall into the error of supposing that what scripture there is proposing, what the authors of scripture are proposing, what God is teaching us is that marriage is an intensely deep emotional bond. So deep, so intense that it’s analogous to being physically one it’s analogous to being one flesh. The husband and wife are so close emotionally that it’s like, they’re one flesh. But as I say, that would be erroneous. If we consider the natural law understanding of marriage, it helps us to understand that what scripture is telling us there is not that marriage is so emotionally intense that it’s like a physical union.
Scripture is telling us that it’s a physical union that its foundation is the biological unity made possible by the sexual reproductive complementary of man and woman that it’s in the actual marital act in the sexual congress of the married spouses that they find the foundation of their comprehensive sharing of life. I think it’s important for us to understand the way that revelation illuminates, what can be known by unaided reason, but it’s also important to understand how philosophical reflection, natural law thinking can also help to shed light on the correct understanding of scriptural revelation.
Robert George – Who are some great ancient-to-Reformation natural law thinkers? (RG-28)
Well, you ask about the great thinkers in the tradition of natural law theorizing. We would begin certainly with the ancient Greek philosophers, with Plato and particularly Aristotle, they are interested in knowing whether there is a moral law by reference to which the human law, the positive law, the law of the policy can be evaluated. Are there moral standards by reference to which we can design our laws in our policy so that the laws will be morally good, not morally bad, they’ll be just rather than unjust. Plato’s interested in that question. He explores it in significant ways in his dialogues. Aristotle is interested in that question and some of his treatises address it very extensively and directly more directly than Plato did the Roman Juris also play an important role in the history of natural law thinking, they are thinking about the human law and how the human law can be rectified.
Made up rightly. Here, I would say the greatest of them, although there are many important ones, but the greatest of them is Cicero. He explicitly explores the idea of natural law, the law that we can know by our reason that enables us to guide our lives in a way that conduces to our flourishing and organize our communities, including the laws of our communities in ways that are just rather than unjust in the medieval period, you have a great flowering of natural law thinking. The greatest figure of that era is certainly St. Thomas Aquinas, who works out very formally, a doctrine of natural law. We find it in the part of his great work called The Summa Theologica a part that we have designated the treat us on law. And here he talks about the moral law, the human law, the relationship of the moral law to the human law.
He explores the question, “How do we know the tenants of natural law? How do we grasp the first principles of natural law? How do we reason about morality? How are we able to understand the difference between right and wrong?” And his thought profoundly influences the Christian tradition going forward. The great reformers, Calvin and Luther have doctrines of natural law, not as comprehensively worked out as Aquinas’s, and in some ways they are more limited and they reject certain aspects of Aquinas’s thinking they place a much greater emphasis than Aquinas did on original sin and on the darkening of the intellect. And that continues, I think in some ways to be a difference between some reformation, not all reformation protestants and Catholics, Catholics tend toward Aquinas’s view of these things. Reformation, Christians tend more toward the views of Luther and Calvin, but it’s wrong to suppose, or say, as some people do that Luther and Calvin reject natural law, or that the other great performers reject natural law, they don’t, they have ideas about natural law.
They have in a certain sense, doctrines of natural law, although they’re different from Aquinas and in some ways quite radically different from those of the Greeks and the Romans.
Robert George – Who are some recent, modern natural law thinkers? (RG-29)
In our own time, my doctoral supervisor at Oxford, John Finnis, I think deserves an enormous amount of credit for the revival of natural law thinking in the broad western intellectual tradition, he is now retired from his professorship at Oxford. He also taught at Notre Dame and his work helped to recover Aquinas’s major contributions to natural law and developed them and applied them to contemporary problems.
But natural law was not lost prior to this in the 20th century, there were great figures like [Atan 01:35:16] Gilson, Jack Mariton, Eve Simone, Elizabeth Anske in England who made important contributions to natural law thinking and drew on the resources of the natural law tradition, especially the work of Aquinas to illuminate moral and political issues. Maryanne [Tan 01:35:43] applied natural law thinking to the problem of human rights and the aftermath of the second world war and the revelations about the Holocaust and so forth. People who are working in the tradition right now that I think are making important contributions include Hadley Oris. Who’s a retired professor from Amherst college. His book First Things was an important contribution to natural law thinking. J. Budziszewski at the University of Texas has written with illumination on natural law. There are competing schools of natural law thought. Some tend in a more neo-scholastic direction. Some including my own approach have been designated, although I think this is a misleading designation, as the new natural law theory. And there’re some interesting differences of approach there, but also many, many similarities.
So I’m glad to see that the tradition is flourishing today. There’s a vibrancy. I see some of my own students who are making important contributions. I mentioned Ryan Anderson earlier. Sherif Girgis, who’s a young professor at University of Notre Dame Law School is making important contributions to natural law thinking. Melissa Moschella, someone I also mentioned earlier who’s a professor at The Catholic University of America. She works in the branch of the tradition that John Finnis and I work in, the so-called New Natural Law theory.
It’s great to see so much fine work being produced, especially by younger scholars today when it comes to natural law. Now, most of the people that I’ve mentioned so far are Catholics, but there are Protestants who’ve become very interested in natural law and Jewish thinkers who’ve become very interested in natural law. One of the leading contemporary natural law theorists at the senior level is Rabbi David Novak, the professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. His book, Natural Law in Judaism is a very important contribution not only to Jewish thinking, but to the natural law tradition itself.
My former student Daniel Mark who’s a Jewish scholar teaches at Notre Dame, a Catholic school, but he’s a Jewish scholar who is contributing, especially on the question of the nature of authority, political and legal authority making important contributions to the natural law tradition. Andrew Walker at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is very interested and has been very recently making contributions to the field. He’s organized a group of evangelical thinkers to engage my work in a book that will be coming out in a year or so looking at various aspects of my work on natural law. There’ll be I think 15 or 16 evangelical scholars contributing, including my former student, Michael Watson, who’s a professor at Calvin College and is a good example of an outstanding young Protestant thinker who’s working on natural law and natural rights.
Robert George – Faith and Reason: Two Wings Flying Towards Truth (RG-30)
It’s interesting to me that within the major religious traditions, you find it in Islam, you find it in Judaism and you find it within Christianity, there’s a division between those who interpret the faith and its teachings in a fideistic way and those who don’t. By fideistic, I mean a way that supposes that the important truths about human life, most especially the moral truths can really only be known by God’s revealing them to us, whether it’s in scripture or through some authoritative source or another. The fideistic traditions within the larger traditions of faith tend to… More than tend to, they do place a very low value on reason and are often suspicious of reason. They see reason or rational inquiry as tending to corrupt the faith.
Within Christianity, a modern thinker who I happen to admire on other grounds, but I don’t admire this part of his thinking, but he represents that fideistic approach is Carl F. H. Henry. The late Carl F. H. Henry. Henry famously criticized the whole idea of natural law and was worried that it would corrupt Christian teaching and take us away from the only sure and reliable source of knowledge, the Bible. Those who do not embrace fideism in any of these traditions believe that there is a harmony between faith and reason. Within Christianity that has been the Catholic position. Not that all Protestants are fideists like Carl F. H. Henry. Plenty are not fideists and believe in the harmony of faith and reason, but some like Henry are fideists. But within Catholicism, the official doctrine is against fideism. The official doctrine is that faith and reason are harmonious and both are needed. This was articulated most fully and I think beautifully in an actual encyclical letter, an exercise of what Catholics call the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops in an encyclical letter called Fides et Ratio, Faith and Reason.
And in the very first sentence of the encyclical, the Pope says, this is Pope John Paul II, known to us as John Paul the Great. No, Saint John Paul the Great. He says that faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of the truth. You need them both. They don’t work against each other, they work in harmony. They’re not exact the same thing, but they are both necessary. They cooperate. They are parts of an overall truth-seeking apparatus in our minds by which we come to know the truth.
As you know I grew up in the hills of West Virginia, so I did a bit of fishing and hunting when I was a boy. And occasionally in hunting you would wing, but not kill say a ruffed grouse or a pheasant or a bird. And if you damaged one wing, no matter how good the wing was, you’d see that bird on the ground trying to get off the ground, trying to escape, and it’d be flapping that good wing really, really, really hard. No matter how hard it flapped though, it wouldn’t get off the ground. In fact, the harder it flapped the more it would just go in a circle on the ground because it takes both wings. And I think that that’s true. Here I’m being a very good Catholic, I guess. But again, it’s not just Catholics, Protestants in many cases believe it too, that we need both faith and reason. They’re not enemies. Quite the contrary. We have nothing to fear from reason.
Robert George – Christianity: A Religious and Intellectual Tradition (RG-31)
Now we shouldn’t become puffed up with pride. We shouldn’t imagine that reason alone can get us everything need to know. We should recognize that faith provides a powerful spotlight to illuminate what would otherwise see only through the darkest glass darkly. But we should not denigrate reason. We should not undervalue reason or think that we can get along without it. Even the interpretation of scripture itself requires reason. We need to be reasonable in our interpretation of scripture, we need to observe the principles of reason, of logic and so forth that are necessary if we’re to make sense of data, including the data that are supplied by sacred scripture, the data of revelation. As I’ve already tried to illustrate, there are some teachings of scripture like the teaching on marriage in Genesis 2 that we are almost certainly going to misunderstand unless we bring the resources of reason, the resources of philosophy to bear, to figure out what scripture is in fact telling us what in fact marriage is: the conjugal union of husband and wife founded on their biological unity which is made possible by their sexual reproductive complementarity.
So the magisterium of the Catholic Church has been very upfront, very forceful in teaching the harmony of faith and reason. Here it’s drawing on the long tradition of the church, going all the way back to the early church fathers. It shows that Christianity like Judaism, like Islam is a religious tradition to be sure and above all, but it’s also an intellectual tradition. It’s a tradition of reason and as well as a tradition of faith and not one that sees faith… Historically, at least that sees faith and reason as separable in anything more than a technical analytical way.
Robert George – Rise of the Religious “Nones”: Not Affiliated but Not Atheists (RG-32)
Well, polling data about religious belief, religious affiliation, religious sentiment is all over the map, but this much we seem to know, and that is church attendance is down significantly and religious affiliation is down. Fewer people affiliate or claim that they affiliate, identify with a part tradition of faith than was true when I arrived in Princeton in 1985 let’s say. What sense can be made of that? Well, the sociologists whose opinions on this matter I trust most, people like Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia, are suggesting that what has eroded significantly, what accounts for the data is on the whole weakly religiously affiliated people, historically weakly affiliated people have now just given up affiliation. People who didn’t attend church or didn’t attend church very often, but when asked, when put on the spot and asked, “What’s your religion?” Would say, “I’m Presbyterian or I’m Catholic or I’m Jewish.” Now don’t say that. They say, “I’m nothing. I’m one of the nones. Yes, I’m one of the nones. No religious affiliation.”
It doesn’t seem as though we’ve had a big spike of atheism or even agnosticism, or really strictly speaking secularism just as such. It sounds as though weakly religiously affiliated people no longer consider themselves to be religiously affiliated or identify that way, but regard themselves as in some sense spiritual, but not religious. They’ve got a problem with organized religion. They really don’t like it. They don’t warm to it. They think it’s been corrupted or what have you. But they’re not atheists on the model of French revolutionaries. Atheism is a much more prominent phenomenon in Europe to this day, and in England to this day than it is in the United States.
Robert George – Today’s challenge to religious traditions? Human Failure: Scandals (RG-33)
Now, there are still challenges for churches, even among those who are not weakly affiliated. Scandals, for example in the Catholic Churchmen. Not just the Catholic Church and not just within Christianity, you’ve had them within Judaism, you’ve had them within Islamic communities. Often they’re sex scandals, sometimes they’re financial scandals, but scandals have damaged people’s affection, a bond with their traditions. They’ve caused a lot of suspicion. They’ve opened a kind of gap between the faithful and the leadership, even in cases where the faithful still are regular in their church attendance.
So these are challenges that the Christian Church and all of the different denominations and traditions and the other American religious communities are facing right now. And a lot will depend on whether they do a good job in dealing with them. If they can reassure people, I think religion has a bright future in the United States. If they trip up yet again, if there are more scandals, if it looks like they will not fix their problems or take their problems seriously, I think there’ll be a greater erosion, not necessarily belief, but of practice, at least in the traditional sense of religious practice.
Robert George – Western worldview(s) today? Christianity vs. Secular Religions (RG-34)
… I mean, individual cases of course are individual, but if we look at the aggregate, people in general are going to have a religion or something like a religion in their lives. They’re going to have a tradition or a set of principles and understandings of worldview that enables them to organize their lives, make sense of themselves, identify who they are, decide who is like them and who is unlike them. People are going to have in that sense and maybe a derivative sense, but nevertheless, a not meaningless sense, a religion. The question is what will the religion be? It’s not today that Christianity so much competes with Judaism or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. Christianity in America today and I think really across the West competes with a non-traditional kind of worldview that sometimes is very woke, sometimes is very utilitarian, sometimes is very individualistic, sometimes is very collectivist, sometimes has important Marxian elements, but nevertheless, these are worldviews or a worldview with different instantiations or manifestations that does provide an alternative way of understanding the world, community, sense of belonging and so forth.
And I think Christianity has to take the measure of the challenge here of what we’re up against, and it has to propose, to quote scripture, a more excellent way. It has to say, “Look, the way forward is with the belief in the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family. The way forward is to affirm that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. The way forward is to believe that we’re required to love not only those who are good to us and kind to us, but even our enemies. That radical message of Jesus, that radical Gospel while radical because it’s true will have a powerful appeal to people if it’s presented to them and presented to them properly and not in a way that’s corrupt, not in a way that is manipulative.
The Gospel’s got to be exhibited in our lives, as well as preached with our mouths. And I think winning people away from the alternative religions of the day, these what might be called secular religions will more often be accomplished by the good example that we set than by preaching. Which is not to say we shouldn’t preach, preaching is also very important, but I think if we had to rank the importance of example and preaching, example would be the more powerful, the more important of the two.
Robert George – How should Christians live today? Be Christian, truthful, bold, and active (RG-35)
So what should Christians do today? Christians should do what Christians should always do, follow Jesus. Live the Gospel. Christians should bear witness to the fundamental truths of the Christian faith, beginning with the great biblical teaching that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Christians need to be bold. They need to be outspoken. They need to be brave. Bearing witness is not easy. It takes courage. We have to realize that today many of our fundamental beliefs, especially our moral convictions are not only denied, they’re held in contempt. They’re treated as if they’re a form of bigotry. If you stand up and speak out in their defense, if you proclaim them, if you support them in a public way, you’re going to be vilified, you’re going to be defamed. We need to be willing to bear that. That’s part of the job. That’s the cross, right?
Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” Well, today that’s how we take up our cross by in an outspoken way, in a public way, always with love, never with condemnation, but clearly and forcefully tell the truth, speak the Gospel, live the Gospel. Be clear in what we stand for. Now, do we need to attend to the health and wellbeing of our local churches and small communities? You bet we do. And this is the great truth in Rod Dreher’s concept of The Benedict Option. But that doesn’t mean and it shouldn’t mean that we should retreat to the monasteries. And I don’t think that’s what Rod thinks we mean. We need to tend to the health and wellbeing of our small communities, but at the same time, not retreat into those communities, rather go out from those communities to take the message to the world, even where the message is unpopular, even where the message is one that’s going to get one in trouble.
So my mission is here in Princeton University. This is not the most friendly territory for the pro-life message or the pro-marriage message, or the message that we need to respect religious liberty and the rights of conscience. You’re going to take some slings and arrows when you do that, but I’m willing to do that. Cheerfully willing to do that because I think it’s what we as Christians are called to do, and it’s what my personal vocation requires of me. But even if you’re not in the environment of a university, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what your profession, your walk of life, who you’re spending your days with, whether you’re a mom that’s bringing up kids and meeting with other moms on the playground, whether you’re working in the insurance business, whether you’re a big corporate executive, whether you’re a car mechanic, whatever you’re doing, you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to bear witness to the truth, including the great moral truths that are at the heart of our faith as people who believe in the Imago Dei that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.
Robert George – Christians: Fulfill the Great Commission! (RG-36)
Don’t shark it. Don’t shark it. It’s our obligation. We’re not allowed to shark it. Don’t make up excuses. Don’t excuse yourself. Don’t say, “Well, I haven’t been given a big platform. I haven’t been given a big chair in a prestigious Ivy League university. I haven’t been given a television platform. I’m just little old me, and I’m just trying to get along and I’m just trying to make a living, and I have a family to raise, and the last thing I can do is get in trouble and get my job in jeopardy or anything. And I’m worried about cancel culture. And I’m worried about woke ideology.” Maybe all that stuff are legitimate concerns for other people who are not Christians, but we have it from Jesus himself that those are not meant to deter us. We don’t have that option. We can’t make excuses. We can’t opt out. We can’t say that’s for other people, not for us. We’re all called to be martyrs. I know that’s hard. I know that’s tough. I scare myself when I say that, but we are. It’s the truth.
Jesus said, “You got to go out and preach the Gospel to all nations.” He gave us the Great Commission, right? Now, what was the message that he asked us to give? What is the message he told the Apostles that you’re preaching when you preach? What have you got to sell to the public you’re preaching to? Can you say, “Well, you should become a Christian, you become a follower of Christ, you should live in line with Christian morality because that’s going to make you rich, that’s going to make you happy, that’s going to make you popular, that’s going to make you influential”? No, that was never what we were told, right? We had to sell this message. Here’s what Jesus gave us to sell with the Great Commission.
You’ve got to go out and say, “People, you need to follow Jesus. You need to follow the Lord. You need to live the Christian life.” And when people say, “And what do we get out of it?” You say, “Oh, well, you get the cross.” That’s a tough sale. That’s a tough message. And we’re all asked to be Simon of Cyrene. We’re asked to help Jesus to carry the cross. It’s not going to be easy, and yet we can do it cheerfully, and we can do it lovingly because we’ve read to the end of the book and we know how the story ends. We know it’s tough now, but we know what the goal is, and we know at the end of the day just as at the beginning of the day, God is in charge, Jesus is Lord, we’re just the assistants.
Robert George – Why optimistic about America’s future? Hope and Young Leaders (RG-37)
… why am I optimistic about America? Well, first of course, and most importantly, more importantly than being optimistic is I’m hopeful. And I’m hopeful because Jesus tells us to be hopeful. Hope is a virtue. It’s a theological virtue. We’re all called to be hopeful. We can never give up hope. We can never leave that out of the picture. We can never be hopeless. That’s the sin against the Holy Spirit. That’s the unforgivable, unpardonable sin. Don’t go there. We have to be people of hope no matter how bad things are. But today I’m not only hopeful as bad as things are, I’m actually optimistic. Which I don’t have to be. Jesus doesn’t command you to be optimistic, and there may be times coming when I won’t be able to be optimistic. But why am I optimistic now? It’s because I spend my time teaching young men and women sent to us by Princeton’s wonderful Admissions Office, which means I get to teach really brilliant young men and women.
And while I see in our young men and women today many of the problems that we have in our society, people with their values askew, people forgetting to focus on what really matters like faith and family and friendship and compassion and decency and honor, and focusing on money and power and fame and influence and prestige. While I see all that, it’s amazing how many of our young people I see or see coming around to getting their priorities right. And not only getting their priorities right, putting money and power and fame and wealth and prestige in second place. Putting faith and family and friendship and honor and compassion and dignity in first place. Not only do I see them embracing that and coming around to it, I see them brilliantly defending it and exemplifying extraordinary courage in defending it.
It’s amazing to me. These kids, sometimes it’s really hard. They know they’re going to get blasted on social media. They know they’re going to get shunned in the dining halls, and yet they’ve got the courage to speak out. And they’re using the beautiful intellects that they have been blessed with, the powerful brilliance that they have to make the case to their fellow students. And often they win over their fellow students. They’re doing more of the work than we on the teaching faculty are doing when it comes to really bringing kids to seriously critically scrutinize their values and some of the orthodoxies that are out there, especially the woke ideology that you find.
So how can I be pessimistic when I see this? I can only be optimistic. I can only be hopeful. I can only be amazed at how brilliant and how courageous these young people are. And honestly, they put us older people to… Especially us older Christians to shame. We should be ashamed of ourselves. They are exemplifying courage that we should be exemplifying it. We’re not modeling it enough for them and they’re managing to do it anyway. Think of how many more and how much better they would do it if there were more people at the senior level if I can describe us that way, who were ourselves being their role models and exemplifying it. So let’s do that, let’s take inspiration from our youngsters and try to provide them with the support and the good examples that they need.
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