Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


We are Americans and we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… This idea is so firmly planted in our minds that we can’t possibly imagine how it could be any other way. Of course all men are created equal. It’s just plain common sense. That’s what America is all about. Thomas Jefferson was just expressing the beliefs of American citizens: we’re all in this together. We may not all be on the same level socially or economically, but we’re all equal under the law. Jefferson goes on to state that everyone, regardless of their social status are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights were given to use by the Creator of the world. They are “unalienable” which means they can’t be given away or sold. But since people aren’t angels there are some men who will try to take away our happiness, or our freedom, even our lives. Therefore Jefferson says that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. People band together and form governments to protect these unalienable rights. To repeat, this idea is so firmly planted in our minds that we don’t see how it could be any other way. It sounds almost like a natural law that “the people” should be in charge of their own government. And yet the greatest of philosophers disagrees with this notion. Socrates never trusted “the people” to make wise decisions. He had these words for his student Crito: But why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many?... the truth is, that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance. (Plato’s Crito) This is a very different view of “the people” and what they’re capable of accomplishing. And it should be disturbing to American readers who are fans of both Socrates and our American Declaration and Constitution. There’s a tension between these two views and they’re hard to reconcile. Was Jefferson mistaken about all men being equal? Is that a starting point for establishing government or is that the ultimate goal? Was Socrates wrong about “the many” not being able to do anything good? Does he really believe that “the people” act randomly and without political wisdom? What are we to make of these statements? Jefferson admits that we need government. He says prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes… accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. Jefferson seems to be saying that even bad government is better than having no government at all. But when bad government becomes so bad that its citizens are being abused then it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Surely Socrates would agree with Jefferson on this point, right? Wrong. Socrates does not agree. Jefferson and Socrates have different visions of what the State is and what a Citizen is. Socrates has this question for Jefferson: Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? (Plato’s Crito) Look Mr. Jefferson, don’t you think our country is even more important to us than our parents? I do. And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right. Socrates is saying something like this: This is my country, may she always be right. But right or wrong, she’s still my country and I will defend her with my life. So would Jefferson. But Socrates believes that a man must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just. Jefferson on the other hand believes that it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off (bad) Government.


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