On Written Constitutions

Yesterday my politics professor made a point about constitutions that I had never heard before. According to him, the first written constitutions were the constitutions of the American colonies, which started a trend in Europe. In Ancient times, politics was viewed as the whole life of a people, aimed a forming their moral character in relation to a concept of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Because it was a life, it didn’t have to be (couldn’t be?) written down. But, said my professor, once constitutions started to be written down, they ceased to be concretely concerned with forming a good life and instead became the abstract judges of a good life. Thus, for example, in contemporary American political life it is possible for the Supreme Court to judge school prayer, a matter of spiritual life and moral character formation, to be “unconstitutional.” By writing down the constitution, character formation has been separated from politics and politics has become an abstract and merely material end unto itself.

A very intriguing thought, to be sure. I wonder how the point might interact with the usual Protestant understanding of the Scriptures as a kind of “constitution” for the Christian life.

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One Response to On Written Constitutions

  1. Peter Escalante says:


    You’ve put your finger on something important. Political reflection in the tradition of Weber often points out the mechanical, instrumental character of the modern State, making it a sort of fortress with artillery, contended for and serially occupied by parties which have no common ground or sense of common good.

    But although written constitutions in the modern sense are, well, modern, it is not quite as simple a matter as “unwritten” (like the vaunted British Constitution) meaning something like collective character, and “written” meaning a patent system of rules. The medievals knew the idea of the pact as constitutional (consider the Old Law of Bizkaia, Magna Carta, et c), and could appeal to their “constitutions” in defense of their rights as readily as Americans do now (perhaps more readily, in fact) . Van Caenegem’s ” An Historical Introduction to Western Constitutional Law” is an excellent starting point.

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