Saturday, October 17, 2015

Epstein on Natural Law, Ancient and Modern

A few brief thoughts I may return to later, time and study permitting.

One of the many wonderful things about our modern life is how quickly and easily accessible things are which would have been either inaccessible or time-consuming to access just a few brief years ago.  I recently stumbled upon a couple of Richard Epstein talks recorded on youtube.   They virtually allow one to attend those talks from the past – from any time and place.  How remarkable, if you pause for a moment to not take the development for granted.

This one here, in particular, is well worth watching:

It is entitled “Natural Law in Ancient and Modern Guise.”  It is from 2010, and runs about one hour, with extra time for questions/answers. 

Epstein, a prolific academic writer and thinker, speaks, as always, in complete paragraphs, quickly and effortlessly.  He clearly knows his topics backwards, forwards, and sideways.  Even if one is inclined to disagree with him altogether, or in part, it is always most challenging and rewarding to hear the opposite side of the argument cogently argued.

For those inclined to agree, watch it twice. 

Or thrice.

I find that many who think well and deeply about political theory and philosophy are relatively uninformed about, or ignore altogether, economics and the revolution in economic life over the last quarter millennium.  Economists, however, often have a na├»ve or diminished view – or even an unmanly contempt for - the political and cultural structure that necessarily provides the foundation for a free and peaceful economic life.  

Epstein falls into neither camp.  He has a commanding grasp of both economic theory and of political philosophy.  He comes at all this, somewhat uniquely, from the standpoint of the law, and as a law professor.  As a non-lawyer I find this intriguing.  When he talks about economics and political theory, he typically thinks about not just the theory and broad “constitutional” questions (meant here not to only refer to the US constitution) but also the very specific legal issues that arise.  His description of Roman law and the pre-Thomistic “natural law” is fascinating.   He ties this to Anglo-American law, written and unwritten.

(There is also an insightful question and answer exchange around the question of natural right and natural law.  One is reminded that Leo Strauss pointed out that the ancient philosophers contrasted “nature” and “law/custom[nomos].”  Justinian Roman law, one assumes, could think about laws which are natural [not customary] since the Empire had created a universal political and legal system, a situation distinct from that of the ancient city).

Epstein's strong preference is for the classical liberal position, in politics, in law, and in economics.  He explains how these are intrinsically linked.

The concluding remark is this:  “Essentially the lesson is, unless you can master the ancient conceptions of natural law, you will never be able to do modern public policy well.”  How he gets there is an hour well spent.

Epstein also has a “new” book out (2014) that is on my list to read.  “The Classical Liberal Constitution: The Uncertain Quest for Limited Government”

Amazon link:

He gives another fine talk on that book and on Hayek here: