Yes, Bring Back the Decalogue
The divine law corresponds to what is natural and rational. It is exceedingly relevant to our enlightened positive law.
The ancient treatise The Education of Children, which may or may not be by Plutarch, contains a number of sensible precepts that would, for that reason, grant it pariah status with today’s Therapeutic Industrial Complex and its servants in government, corporate human resources, and schools. Plutarch (I refer to him as the author for convenience) observes that bad education makes bad people.
The word “education” in the title may be misleading; Plutarch’s term is agōgē, and refers to something broader and more all-encompassing than, say, vocational certification. It is more like “leading, guiding, training,” though it does include the sort of thing we normally associate with the word “school.” (I note in passing that conservatives ought to think of education the same way: today’s educationalists understand the formative function of education better than many of us, which is why they are so zealous to make schools into factories of ideology rather than merely outposts of the three Rs.)
“Education,” that is, shapes character, which it creates through the inculcation of habits—certain ways of thinking, questioning, reading, speaking, and acting. “For character,” Plutarch says, “is habit long continued, and if one were to call the virtues of character the virtues of habit, he would not seem to go far astray.”
As he proceeds, Plutarch draws special attention to, among other things, the importance of finding the right kind of teachers for one’s children: those “who are free from scandal in their lives, who are unimpeachable in their manners, and in experience the very best that may be found.” When this doesn’t occur, it’s dad’s fault.
This was all a roundabout way of getting to my main point, to which I shall now, as it were, “circle back.” When dads have failed, here is what happens to their children, as translated by Frank Cole Babbitt:
When their sons are enrolled in the ranks of men, and disdain the sane and orderly life, and throw themselves headlong into disorderly and slavish pleasures, then, when it is of no use, the fathers regret that they have been false to their duty in the education of their sons, being now distressed at their wrongdoing. For some of them take up with flatterers and parasites, abominable men of obscure origin, corrupters and spoilers of youth, and others buy the freedom of courtesans and prostitutes, proud and sumptuous in expense; still others give themselves up to the pleasures of the table, while others come to wreck in dice and revels, and some finally take to the wilder forms of evil-doing, such as adultery and bacchanalian routs, ready to pay with life itself for a single pleasure. But if these men had become conversant with the higher education, they perhaps would not have allowed themselves to be dominated by such practices….
All of the items Plutarch mentions—adultery not least—are scourges that undercut the very fabric of society. It is a sad fact that some dads don’t know this, or don’t care; it is positively shocking that Michigan’s attorney general seems not to, either. On September 21, Attorney General Dana Nessel tweeted: “Adultery is a felony in Michigan. The prohibition was passed the same year as MI’s abortion ban. Do those who support the Texas abortion law also support granting standing to private citizens to sue adulterers when they violate the law? What say you Michigan legislators?”
This, of course, ignores the fact that there has been no landmark Supreme Court case recognizing a Constitutional right to adultery, the judicial tyranny and arbitrariness of which it is now incumbent upon states to attempt to counterpoise and overturn. On the broader point, I would have thought that a public official, having glanced at statistics on the state of the family in the United States, might easily conclude—as has virtually every stable society in human history—that, yes, there ought to be a social and legal sanction against adultery, given that it undermines civil society at its most basic level.
But the real tell—the real indication of the moral bankruptcy and scandalous ignorance of the principles of law of many of our public officials—came in the follow-up. Nessel wrote: “Do MI residents want to see me, the top law enforcement official in the state, start to prosecute crimes of adultery? I have used my prosecutorial discretion not to do so, but do the Ten Commandments dictate otherwise? Which legislators would like me to initiate such actions?”
The opening of the tweet has a bit of the “Yo Imma let you finish” vibe to it; but let that pass.
Nessel evidently thinks that this is a triumphant gotcha, an own than which none greater can be conceived. I understand the appeal. Honestly, who could be so stupid and backwards as to care about something as gauche and dated as the Ten Commandments? Why would we wish our enlightened positive law to resemble the law of those barbarians—worse, of those religious barbarians?
I mean, can you even imagine? Think about it: Following the Ten Commandments would mean outlawing crimes like…murder. Or theft. Nessel responded to a commenter who had agreed that adultery laws should be enforced by saying, “Ok. I only have so much money I’m appropriated to prosecute cases, so I have honed in on issues like sexual assaults, cold-case homicides and elder abuse. But If you say so…”—evidently without realizing that all the crimes she names are forbidden, either implicitly or explicitly, in the very Ten Commandments she had hoped to mock.
I trust that the reader can now see who was really being absurd; it was not the attorney general’s interlocutors, whether real or imagined.
Irony aside, there is a serious point to be made here. What the attorney general thinks is ridiculous is in fact what most people, in some version or another, have always believed, namely, that the definition of what constitutes crime must be rooted in a prior concept of justice that can be known by reason, and the state is obliged to both frame and enforce laws in keeping with that concept, as well as to frame and enforce only those laws that are in keeping with that concept.
We should not be distracted by Nessel’s use of the Ten Commandments as a bogeyman meant to dismiss her opposition as irrational anti-American Christianist theocrats. For Christians have long held that the precepts of the Decalogue are—unlike, for example, the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament—binding on all peoples in all places at all times precisely because they offer a convenient and divinely ratified summary of rationally demonstrable moral or natural law. For example, Philip Melanchthon, the 16th century Protestant Reformer and humanist, writes that “[in the Decalogue] all moral laws can be included” and that “[the Decalogue] pertains to all nations because it is the law of nature.” Similar sentiments could easily be multiplied from a wide variety of other sources. Reason and revelation are mutually supporting and reinforcing.
Indeed, this is clear from Melanchthon’s own treatment of the prohibition against adultery in the Ten Commandments. He notes that marriage has no greater praise than the fact that Moses’s Law commands it to be hallowed. But what it hallows is something that we know by nature—in fact, what hallows it is our nature itself. Thus he says, “The reason understands that sexual promiscuity is contrary to nature. It understands that debauchery and adultery are dishonorable and ought to be punished, and likewise that modesty and moderation in pleasures are especially appropriate to man’s nature.” The best evidence that the protection of the sanctity of marriage via the law is natural and rational is the protection of the sanctity of marriage via the law in virtually every civilized society in human history. As Melanchthon says in a later work, “The fact of marriages bears witness that this judgment exists in the reason.”
In sum, the principles the Ten Commandments epitomize are just those ordered toward the virtuous life, without which human society cannot exist. As indicated above, it is no wonder that adultery ought to be, and in Michigan apparently is, illegal: society is built on the household or family, and insofar as adultery undermines and destroys the family, it undermines and destroys the very society the law is intended to preserve.
None of this should be surprising. After all, a relief of Moses appears in the House Chamber of the United States Capitol Building. Why? Because Moses, who “received the Ten Commandments,” is one of 23 “historical figures noted for their work in establishing the principles that underlie American law.”
Ah, but we were so much scolder then; we’re funner than that now.
E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.