Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Writers of the Great Books ponder great questions. How should we live is one of those great questions. And pondering how we should live makes us consider how we should govern ourselves. In Federalist Paper #51 James Madison asks: what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. Since we’re not angels, how should we govern ourselves? In a sense the idea of America is all about finding answers to that question. Other Great Books writers have held various opinions about government. Aristotle’s Politics says all government helps provide the basic necessities of life but good government helps its citizens live the good life. Hobbes in his Leviathan believes government provides safety and security. We need an army and a navy and a police force to protect us from foreign enemies abroad and from murderers and crooks at home. John Locke says the purpose of government is to preserve our life, liberty and property. We need laws and courts to provide ground rules for living peaceably. These three foundations of government rest on certain assumptions about what human beings are like. Human nature needs a responding form of government and our views of human nature don’t always agree. That’s why we have liberals and conservatives and Libertarians and Socialists etc. They all start from a specific view of what human beings are like and what human beings can accomplish through their own efforts. For example, Aristotle believes that human beings are social creatures by nature. Birds of a feather flock together. We want to be with other people because we’re hard-wired that way. Hobbes believes that human nature is aggressive and violent. He agrees with Aristotle that humans want to be with other people. But Hobbes believes it’s because we want to be safe, not because we want to socialize. In nature it’s always the weak and the stragglers who fall prey to predators. So for Hobbes, there’s safety in numbers. And then Locke believes that every human being is born with certain rights that can only be taken away by fraud or force. These basic rights include our lives, our freedoms and our private property. We cannot live fully human lives unless we are guaranteed these basic human rights. This is the background for reading The Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson coined the famous phrase We hold these truths to be self-evident…and then goes on to claim the following “self-evident truths” (1) all men are created equal (2) they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights (among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness) (3) Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed and (4) it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off (bad) Government. Armed with the theories of Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke we’re now prepared to ask a couple of crucial questions about these four “self-evident” propositions: (1) Are they true? (2) Are they self-evident? There are at least three distinct possibilities. First, all these propositions really are true and they’re self-evident too. Every reasonable person agrees with them. For example, everyone wants life, freedom and happiness. This is just common sense. The second possibility is this: these propositions may be true but they’re not all self-evident. For example, it’s not clear whether all men really are created equal. That might be true but it might not. It certainly doesn’t seem to be true on the surface. It hardly seems that even two single people are equal, much less a whole population. The third possibility is this: these propositions aren't even true, much less self-evident. For example, why does Jefferson assume that governments are instituted by men? When we read Exodus it seems as if government is instituted by God, not by man. Pharaoh may think he’s in charge but there’s a bigger force than Pharaoh working in the stream of human history. And America was also born in the great stream of human history. American citizens must ponder these great questions about history and human nature. The Declaration of Independence is our primer on civic education.


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