Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


In his great essay on Civil Disobedience Henry David Thoreau makes the famous statement that I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least.” He goes on to make a more extreme statement when he says... "That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Think about that for a moment. The best government, for Thoreau, doesn’t govern at all. To most of the writers in the Great Books tradition that’s just plain nonsense. It’s like saying that the best ballplayer is one who never plays ball. Furthermore, when will men EVER be prepared to live with no government at all? Rousseau might have been intrigued by that possibility; but not serious political writers such as Aristotle, Hobbes and Tocqueville. Still, Thoreau poses some good questions: why do we have government? What purpose does it serve? What is it supposed to do? How much government is necessary? These are questions that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay take up in The Federalist Papers. To say they do a good job is an understatement. The fact is they give the best explanation of democratic political theory ever given by anyone, anywhere, at any time in history.

Here are some sample excerpts from their deliberations: …you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. (#1) To “deliberate” is to follow a rational method of examining a question. These writers don’t base their political ideas on sentimental notions like Thoreau’s dream of a world in which government wouldn’t be necessary. They accept the world the way it is and proceed accordingly. This new Constitution won’t be written for some utopian people living on some faraway island. It will be written for ordinary men and women. What the Federalist writers want to determine is whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. (#1) The great question America poses to the rest of the world is this: can ordinary people govern themselves? One of the great problems of democracy (“rule by the many” or ordinary people) is that democracies tend to fall apart into special interest groups. Madison called these little separate interest groups “factions.” He defines the term this way: A faction is a number of citizens who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens. (#10) This is the problem facing a democratic form of government: how can small groups of private citizens with diverse interests cooperate for the common good? Will they set aside self interests for the good of the whole body of citizens? The answer is no. Madison believes that As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed…The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man (#10) Madison, Hamilton and Jay ask some of the same questions as Thoreau but the Federalists give better answers. Q: why do men have government? Madison: Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. (#15) Q: what purpose does government serve? Madison: what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. (#51) Q: what is government supposed to do? Madison: Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. (#51) Q: how much government is necessary? A: Enough to get the job done. Hamilton: A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government. (#70) Q: Are modern-day Americans more like Thoreau, or more like Madison, Hamilton and Jay? A: Both.


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