Dabney, Discussions vol 3

I reject what Dabney says on race.  He is wrong.  He’s also wrong on the Lord’s Supper.  I am simply reviewing this as it is part of a key moment in 19th Century American life.

We remember Dabney as a follower of Common Sense Realism.  This volume is best seen as an application of that philosophy. It spans anthropology, theology, social ethics, logic, and philosophy proper.  


Calvinists mean by “will” the whole subjective activities.  This includes disposition and subjective desires, both of which lead to volition (III: 221).  The important point for Dabney is that volition–the act of willing–must be cause or influenced by something.  The Calvinist finds the proximate cause in our disposition and subjective desires.

While he doesn’t expand the point, Dabney’s comments show that Calvinists do not believe that the will is corrupt.  Rather, “‘corruption of will’…means rather the conative movements preceding volition, rather than volition itself” (281). 

 Dabney reduces–and clarifies–Edwards’ argument to this:  Motives determine volitions.  But what are motives? The soul’s subjective desire is spontaneous.   As Dabney points out concerning the word “necessity:” if we suppose that the subject motive is present, the volition will not fail to rise (238).  Well then, does that mean we believe in “free will” after all?  Not quite.  The will may indeed act spontaneously, but the intellect directs it (237).  This isn’t fatalism because an intellect’s directing the will is another way of saying that the action isn’t random and mindless.

This discussion explains effectual calling and regeneration: In regeneration God efficiently produces the holy disposition which regulates, concurrent with a renewed intellect (acts as proximate cause), man’s volitions (227).

Common Sense Realism

While he doesn’t have a chapter on Common Sense Realism, he does helpfully define its basics in his last chapter.  He notes, “We have found that whenever we see properties we must believe in substances to which the mind refers these properties.  Wherever we see action going on we must believe in substantive agents” (575).  The strength of CSR is the conclusions one draws from negating it:  “If I were to doubt my own consciousness, I should have to doubt everything else, because everything I know is known to me only through the medium of this consciousness” (574-575).  Thus, CSR is not a set of neutral principles, pace the Van Tillian, but rather a mode of knowing.  

Social Ethics

We are quick to reject Dabney on slavery, but we must be careful that in rejecting his view on slavery, we do not fall prey to Jacobinism (atheistic French Revolution). His larger question:  “What is the moral ground of my obligation to obey the magistrate, whom yesterday, before he was inducted to office, I would have scorned to recognize as my master, to whom today I must bow in obedience” (302)? There are several answers to this question:  Hobbesianism (I must obey any official simply because he is an official), social contract theory, and biblical theory.

  The Hobbesian theory rests on incoherent presuppositions.  If “Bob” is my master today, but he is usurped by “Jim” tomorrow (which action most would call sinful, per Romans 13), then Jim is the divinely ordained master.  Repeat ad infinitum.  While I may have to give Bob-Jim obedience for conscience’s sake, it is obvious that if two contradictory men, both of whom claim post facto legitimacy, neither can claim the moral high ground.  There is no moral foundation. Thus, Hobbesianism is morally bankrupt.  

Dabney deals likewise with Social Contract Theory.  Before we continue with infidel theories, Dabney has an interesting and challenging discussion of church and state.  He gives a solid criticism of the 19th century Scottish church:  when you accept government money, you have to accept the conditions the government lays down for having the money (325).  

Unlimited Rights Incompatible with Scripture

The Jacobin theory of rights asserts that no one in society may have a right and privilege that the other doesn’t have and you cannot impute the consequences of one to the other (and the reasoning is the same:  one man cannot be “above” the other in representing him).  

Dabney, following the Larger Catechism (Q. 124), says that we have obligations to inferiors, superiors, and equals.  Our functions and privileges differ, but the same law protects our common rights (Dabney 499).  We have different relations within society.  

Even more embarrassing for modern man, “God distributed the franchises unequally in the Hebrew commonwealth” (504).  And all of this leads Dabney to his comments on slavery.  We might not like them, but we must deal with what the Bible says. 

Even more, the Hebrew commonwealth has those who are neither domestic slaves nor fully enfranchised citizens.  Is that unjust? Dabney continues with a few more reductios.


This is not easy reading, but the essays do follow a logical pattern.   While we may not accept all of his conclusions, this is a remarkable snapshot of cultural life in the postbellum South.


Natural Right and History (Leo Strauss)


Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

This is a pivotal book by a world-class intellect.  Strauss discusses the genealogy of “rights” talk from the ancients to the present day.  He doesn’t really offer a program on how to move forward, but that’s not really his point, either.  Before we can work on human rights today, we need to know what the phrase means.

The difficulty in speaking of “natural right” is that we moderns are so far removed from the ancients.  They knew man had a telos. Nature is connected to the universe’s natural end (Strauss 7).

Strauss identifies the two main opponents of natural law: positivism (aka, university sociology departments) and historicism.  The former assumes the fact/value dichotomy, which doesn’t allow us to make value judgments on a particular society. The upshot is you can’t say a particular society is embodying the Good.  In fact, you can’t say good at all. That distinction breaks down, though. Even if a Weberian refuses to make a value distinction, he is working within his own framework of values and he filters the evidence through those values.

The Story of Natural Right

Prephilosophical man identified the pleasant with the good (83).  The right way is our custom. Philosophy begins when we doubt this ancestral code. Applied more broadly, this creates problems: if many communities’ ancestral codes are different, which one is right?  This forces us to search for the Good.

The ancient philosophers generally began to see that “nature” is the “actualization of a human possibility which …is trans-historical, trans-social, trans-moral, and trans-religious” (89).

Classic Natural Right

All knowledge presupposes a horizon (125). This pushes us to a view of the whole, which means we cannot rest with any single community code. To help them in their quest, the classics employed the term Politeia. It means constitution, but it means more than simply a legal code. “It is the factual distribution of power within the community” (136). It is a way of life determined by a form of government.

Here is where it gets interesting.  The Politeia should not act unjustly. This means it can’t engage in things like deception during war.  Therefore, we need a world-state to outlaw war! Seems rather extreme. In any case, the solution “to the problems of justice must transcend the limits of political life” (Strauss 151).

Variations of Natural Right

Aristotle: the relation of virtue to human nature is like that of act and potency (145; Ethics 1097b24).

Platonic: giving to everyone what is due to him according to nature (Republic 331c1-332c4).

Thomistic: principles of the moral law.  Points to man’s moral and intellectual ends.

Modern Natural Right

Hobbes: teleology is impossible. We do not begin with the nature of man, but in prima naturae (180).  Everyone is guided by the fear of death. The state, therefore, is not to safeguard virtue but simply protect our negative rights. 

Strauss then offers a penetrating critique of Hobbes.  Hobbes built his philosophy on the extreme cases, when the social fabric has broken down. We fear the violent death.  Yet Hobbes also said that the fear of violent death is sometimes overridden by heroism, virtue, charity, etc. Therefore, his principle isn’t universally valid.  In fact, it isn’t valid in the extreme case at all. Therefore, it is useless (196). Remember that scene in Batman where the Joker plants bombs on the ships to see who will blow it up first?  That scene is a complete refutation of Hobbes.

The Problems with Modern Rights

Burke pointed out that participation in political power “does not belong to the rights of man, because men have a right to good government, and there is no necessary connection between good government and government by the many.”  If anything, the rights of men point to a natural aristocracy (298).

That’s good.  Unfortunately, Burke held to the British sensualist view of art, which specifically denied a connection between intellectual beauty (e.g., mathematical proportions) and sensible beauty (312).  The result is an emancipation of sentiment from reason

Recovering Natural Right

Man’s true freedom requires “ends of a certain kind,” which must be “anchored in ultimate values” (44).

Hobbes: Leviathan


In the beginning of his treatise Hobbes stays very close to the “Received Tradition.” He does make some troubling moves, though, and quite subtlely. He rejects the idea of a “Summum Bonum.” His definition of natural law leaves out any reference to the eternal law or the mind of God. He views liberty as a zero-sum game.

Key themes:

Anthropology: Hobbes begins with anthropology, and his politics are logical inferences from it. Hobbes defines a “Body” as that which occupies space. Substance is matter, synonymous with body. The soul is simply the body living. He specifically rejects the idea that the soul is distinct from the body (639). Hobbes has defined man in purely material terms.

Not surprisingly, Hobbes rejects free agency. Liberty and necessity are the same thing: what a man does he freely does. Yet every act of man has a desire, and so a cause. And from that another cause, all the way back to the First Cause. This appears to be Jonathan Edwards’ view as well.

Social Contract: before the institution of the commonwealth, every man had a right to everything and by any means to preserve his own (354). This means that the State can never make an unjust law.
P1: Justice is when two agree to an exchange (if you didn’t agree, you wouldn’t do the exchange).
P2: You agreed to invest the state with authority (social contract).
Therefore, any law the state makes automatically has your agreement.

Zero-Sum ethics: Hobbes holds that what is mine cannot be yours; if the state has liberty, then the subject to that degree cannot. Since there is no summum bonum, there can be no sharing in the ultimate good. This, plain and simple, is the economics of Hell. Hobbes is not a pure capitalist, though. He argues elsewhere against private charity and for state welfare (387).

Religious Persecution

Hobbes argues that religious persecution is impossible, since 1) the state can’t do wrong, and 2) only martyrs can be persecuted. Further (2a) a person can only be a martyr if they have seen the risen Jesus, which rules out everyone after the Apostle John. Therefore, no one today can be a martyr. Keep in mind that thousands of Scottish Covenanters were being butchered on the basis of Hobbes’ argument. This reminds me of a time at RTS when a local Reformed pastor came in the book store and told me that he held to Hobbes’s view of the state. I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to end up in a FEMA camp.


My critique will follow Dabney’s (The Sensualistic Philosophy, pp. 15-20). Hobbes has to pay a high price for his materialism. If everything reduces to sensation, then whence come numbers, mind, any correspondence between my mind and the external world, all a priori judgments, logic, and abstract entities?

If everything is sensation, then what unites the sensations? (Hume’s famous line “a bundle of sensations”) Hobbes would have to answer yet another sensation. But what unites that sensation to the previous sensations? Ad infinitum. If Hobbes bites the bullet and rejects the need for a unity, then he needs to give up concepts like identity (and probably the concept of “concept” itself). This is the fatal consequence in rejecting philosophical realism. Hobbes is split between the One and the Many. His power-state collapses everything into the One, yet his nominalism reduces everything to an aggregate of an unconnected Many.


I give the book 1 star for its demonic content and 5 stars for its influence. Indeed, rebutting Hobbes is like casting down demonic strongholds (2 Corinthians 10). It’s fairly easy to read and there is no mistaking its influence (the “Father of Political Science”)