Questions of justice pursue us from freshman-year discussions in Valentine through the headlines and dinner party conversations of our later lives. Specifics change, but the core issues remain—issues of right and wrong, justice and injustice, the use of force to override the choice of the individual. The conversation about these issues is called political philosophy, and I began to learn it in the classroom of Hadley Arkes, the Edward N. Ney Professor in American Institutions (Political Science), Emeritus. Hadley taught us that political philosophy is everybody’s business, and that it’s an urgent adventure (and an awfully fun one). 

Illustration by Melinda Beck

I’m not talking about the kind of political philosophy that is an arid antiquarianism: a survey of what a disconnected series of authors in the past had argued. In Hadley’s class, one had to understand what they argued, of course, but one then had to ask whether, in fact, these authors were correct: whether their accounts of the good, of the just and the unjust, were accounts that corresponded to reality. These conversations were his method of teaching; they started in the classroom, but they continued in his responses to our work—those typed-out, pages-long commentaries on every paper he graded.

We knew, of course, that Hadley was not a detached academic. He did his own legwork: he periodically disappeared to Do Things in Washington, or perhaps more precisely, to Get Up To Things there. But we also knew his priority: he was a teacher. And if he was, as one former student has described, something of a Nero Wolfe, an armchair detective sending all of us Archie Goodwins out into the world, he only ever sent us out for the City’s good, and ours.

And what was it he taught? First of all, he taught us to read—slowly, closely—and to argue. Teaching us to write was there as well, but the writing came second to speaking, I think. Reading him, one can hear his teaching voice in one’s head. I say first of all: it did not end there. It was not that he taught something like “thinking skills,” to be deployed toward whatever end one wills. Rather, he taught that reasoning is a genuine and reliable tool that leads one toward what’s real. He demonstrated that all of our legal traditions, all of the beliefs that we (in our good relativist childhoods) had held about human rights, depended on there being such a thing as human nature—human nature that was stable and not subject to willful redefinition, either by individuals or by societies. 

Handley Arkes
From Arkes, students learned to read—slowly, closely—and to argue. Reading his scholarly work, one can hear his teaching voice in one's ear.

His approach was, well, somewhat different from those of others who have taught in this tradition. Of course we were assigned all the usual suspects—Aristotle, Locke, Kant—but Hadley is the only one I know of who encouraged a Garments of the Court and Palace approach to (for example) printouts of certain dissenting Supreme Court opinions—and above all, to Lincoln.

We were expected to read especially the formal court opinions with alertness to the power of these words. Written by those in a particular office, in a particular circumstance, they had a power not completely divorced from the liturgical, but we also were aware of being invited into the company of teachers, of friends, of people who did us honor by welcoming us into their conversation, through the ceremonious activity of reading. And the ceremony was not decreased just because one was reading in a coffeehouse on North Pleasant Street, rather than in exile outside Florence.

It’s easy to get this wrong, to misunderstand. There was no worship of the authority of our authors, here. Where a writer went wrong, though he might be a chief justice, he had to be challenged—and, in fact, especially then. The authority was not in the office, but in reason, in reality; any freshman might talk back to a judge on the bench, if he could substantiate his counterarguments.

But the power was in the office, and so when one read the bad opinions—even those that reached the right conclusions, but through the means of unjustified or vague premises and muddled reasoning—one had the sense of witnessing a slow disaster: Pompeii, but with ash and lava overtaking the city at a hundredth of the speed.

think I would still be pro-life even without having run into Hadley, but I might well be too stressed out and panicky and incoherent to write about abortion (and about other things where the stakes are frighteningly high) if it hadn’t been for him. He helped me find out how to write about the most important things in a way that’s not just an expression of my own feelings but that is accessible to public reason, and how to nevertheless remain sensitive and passionate about the topics of my reasoning.

Hadley instilled in us what might be described as an affirmation of the potential effectiveness of reason. Learning from Hadley, one knew in one’s bones that if the argument worked—if the structure was right and the premises were accurate and the conclusions, therefore, followed—then the actual carrying out of any physical-world consequences was a sort of mopping-up operation. All the work of statecraft and law and politics is done in the classroom, in the courtroom, in conversation, in the pages of journal articles or in the margins of returned papers.

Leaving the Octagon, walking down the hill toward Frost Library, one might turn to him and say, “But that implies that…” and name a physical-world consequence. But a good deal of the work had already been done. (Burke would be appalled. To think there are people out there who believe Professor Arkes to be a conservative.)

The heart of what he argues is that positive laws, to be just, must flow from just premises in the natural law, or must not violate them; that law, to be real law, must be a matter of reason and right, not merely will and expediency. And where this is not the case, bad premises will, eventually, bear bad fruit: arid drawing from historical precedent will, in the absence of genuine reason, lead to terrible legal decisions—decisions that were implied, though perhaps hidden, in the initial premises.

A recent dinner celebrating Hadley’s retirement after 50 years at Amherst, held at The Union League Club in New York, was effectively a reunion of many generations of his students. There were people just a few years younger than Hadley himself, from the first class he taught; there were people who had been in his most recent class, in fall 2014. 

I sat next to Alexander Vega ’16, a double major in math and classics who is now considering law school; it was a lawyer-heavy event. But the ex-student who gave the blessing was an Episcopal priest: Phil Jackson ’85, who had taken a law degree at Yale, and indeed had practiced, before seeking ordination. “I’ve been told I approach preaching strangely,” he said at the event, “that I make arguments when I preach. I’ve been told that I preach like a lawyer. I don’t preach like a lawyer. I preach like Hadley Arkes.” 

There was a sort of ceremonial Reading of the Telegrams—only it was emails of course—from people who couldn’t be there. David Eisenhower ’70 wrote eloquently of Hadley’s contributions to the pro-life movement, describing a “great mind that pressed this and related issues over the course of 40 years, educating politicians and judges, educating a generation of opinion makers and leaders.”

There’s no use pretending that this reaction is universal. Eisenhower’s email hints at why that’s the case. I suppose I could write this piece as though it were merely an appreciation of an uncontroversial elder statesman of the academy, but that would be disingenuous. The controversy Hadley has provoked is important because it is substantive: the points at issue remain keen and sharp, and the debates lively. 

It is not, however, the hostile reactions that he called forth that should surprise us; what was perhaps surprising was the numbers of those who were drawn, often with a combination of delight and unease, to accept his arguments on many issues—and to accept, in doing so, what is called moral realism. 

In the classroom, Hadley engaged us in substantive moral questions through the consideration of specific cases in law. The ground-level questions in moral and political philosophy that are his central concerns are instantiated, again and again, in particular cases; the argument is one that plays itself out in courtrooms, but it is no “specialist” matter, of concern only to lawyers. The meat of the legal questions addressed by these cases is the same as that of the ethical questions hashed out as well in pubs, in classrooms, at dinner tables and in bedrooms—wherever people find themselves arguing over matters of right and wrong. 

Even though he is now officially emeritus, Hadley will teach one last “Political Obligations” class this coming fall. He continues to write at a fierce clip, and he has recently founded the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding in Washington, D.C. Its supporters and friends include many former students; it grew out of an Amherst group, the Committee on the American Founding, and its assistant director is Garrett Snedeker ’09 (whose late father, William Snedeker ’79, had also been a student of Hadley’s).

The institute has begun a series of regional seminars that bring practicing lawyers and judges a taste of the reasoning to which Hadley introduced his Amherst students: the understanding of the natural law on which the Founders based the American regime—and on which Lincoln preserved it. 

Hadley Arkes has, it seems to me, an unusually pronounced ability to create knock-on effects in the lives of his ex-students: knock-on effects that tend to generate stories worth telling. There’s one, for example, about Geoff O’Connell ’70, who, dodging bullets as CIA chief of station in Beirut, found himself thinking: “And I got into this to test out the ideas in that ‘Bureaucracy’ class of Hadley’s.”

For other students, one symptom of the Arkes knock-on effect has been a habit of participating in a particular sort of debate, and even participating with a particular style of argument that has followed us from the Amherst campus through the rest of our lives. It is not a style of reflection one can shake. Making these arguments, pursuing them and deploying them, is not something that one stops doing after college: that was, many of his students have found, only the start.

One of his colleagues is known for asking of his classes: “Does law ask us to be better than we are?” Well, if it doesn’t, what right could it possibly have to ask us to do anything? What may one legislate if not morality? If a law does not seek justice, then why would magistrates be justified in enacting and enforcing it? Either Option A: the law asks us precisely to behave better than we do, or Option B: it tells us what kind of ice cream to order. And Option B is tyranny. Because we’re persons who act, by asking us to behave better than we do, the law is asking us to become better than we are.

Hadley always asked us to become better than we were, by asking us to think more clearly than we did, to read more carefully, to state our case more precisely. He asked us to love wisdom. And he asked us to love it on behalf of people who could not yet love it themselves. He taught us it was possible to desire the good and to delight in it, to hunt it down in its lair. And if some of us have found that it was hunting for us all along, I don’t think Hadley has been too taken aback. 

About the author: Susannah Black ’99 is associate editor at Providence magazine and a founding editor of Solidarity Hall. Her writing has appeared in First ThingsFront Porch Republic and elsewhere. She blogs at Radio Free Thulcandra and tweets at @suzania. An earlier version of this article appeared in Ethika Politika