Visit to a Familiar, Now Distant Place

I was invited, a week ago, to a Catholic college that has been one of my favorites over the years.  The chief attraction is that I have friends teaching there in Political Science and Philosophy;  it has a faculty into whose hands parents can comfortably deliver their children.

But when I say that I was invited, I mean that I was invited to visit “remotely,” by Zoom, as we are now in the days of COVID.  The surprise, though, is that I was invited by a group of students, more conservative and Catholic than most of the other students swirling around them, and I was invited to speak, of all things, on Natural Law.

The fact that a group of undergraduates these days would have been alerted to my writings, or to my sojourns through the land, making the case anew for Natural Law, already bespeaks a sensibility that is not found in most places.

And these students had also summoned the nerve to come together in – gasp – a Republican Club.  That is a move of no small courage these days even in a school that is nominally Catholic. The students were quite welcoming of the pro-life argument, open to arguments on marriage;  and the faculty who participated were quite supportive, another rare thing in my receptions of late on the campuses.

But of course these students have been enveloped, inside and outside the school, by the progressive doctrines that permeate the media and the universities, on issues of gender identity and sexual liberation.  It was only to be expected that these currents would be absorbed even by students within this group.

And so it was no surprise to hear the clichés that command the credulity of people caught in these academic enclaves. The point of interest was to see what lines of argument were now afloat, and treated seriously even by these students who see themselves as conservative.

The most memorable, offered earnestly, was this one:  Same-sex marriage now seems so familiar, so widely accepted, that we could see it as “natural,” for the homosexual inclination has endured in the human experience.

Of course, there were few institutions as durable and “familiar” in the world as slavery, up through the 19thcentury. That it was familiar and widely practiced was somehow never taken as a warrant for its rightness.

As I pointed out, there was a lure here to that mistake marked by Immanuel Kant:  it was a serious error to work out a theory of “human nature” by simply generalizing on the checkered record of our species. With this mistake, one of our most notable jurists wrote that infanticide and incest must be in accord with natural law, for they seem to spring from something intractable in human nature.


But what was most distinct to human nature was reasoning, and most notably, reasoning over matters of right and wrong.  It has been part of the same nature then to reason over the matters that are good or bad, better or worse – and the parts of human nature that are higher and lower.  Lincoln caught the precise sense of this when he appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”

Creatures of that kind, “moral agents,” could bring reason to their love:  They could understand what enduringly commanded their admiration and respect for their wives or husbands, even as looks altered with age.

The purpose of sex, the reason we are made as men and women, is the telos or purpose of begetting.  But for creatures of this kind, which form of begetting would be preferable in principle: a random, evanescent coupling with attractive strangers;  or a framework of commitment to bind the partners and envelop the care and nurturance of children?

With a commitment firmed in law, even the child may sense that his parents have forgone the freedom to quit their connection with him – or each other – as it suited their pleasure.

Of course, not all marriages bring forth children, and that required a more complicated argument about the meaning that must ever attach to certain couplings of bodies even when children may not issue.

But if marriage is detached from that function of begetting, then why isn’t it open to an ensemble of three or four, with people who insist that their loves are not confined to a coupling?  And we see already the emergence of “thruples,” groups of three, forming a household, as sex has been radically detached from marriage.

Another student, pressing this question, insisted that marriage was more rightly confined to couples.  Yes, I said, for there was a strong case to be made for “exclusivity” in marital relations.

But given the premises of the movement for gay rights and same-sex marriage, what principle, what necessary truth, about the model of “two people” could possibly override that claim raised to a battle-cry:  that “people should be free to marry the ones they love”?

I was surprised to hear again that claim that there are no grounds for challenging any arrangement that has the “consent” of the participating adults. But we long ago banned dueling even though it had the consent of the parties.  We have barred people from renting out their bodies for consenting buyers, and most critically, we have barred people from waiving their freedom in a contract for slavery or peonage.

Our courts will not uphold contracts of that kind.  I reminded the students that we had an ancient name for this state of affairs:  we called some things “unalienable” rights, rights that we are not free to alienate even for ourselves.

As the line goes, the questions are so old that we may forget the answers. But we may recall Chesterton’s remark that the purpose of education is to make young people old – to free them from the tyranny of being children of their own age.

And for my friends on the faculty, remaining at their posts, they are summoned again to do the work they must ever do.


*Image: The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, 1563 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.