Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

FEDERALIST PAPER 51 (Government and Ecclesiastes)

Reading through the Great Books often reminds readers of the old saying: the more things change the more they stay the same. The book of Ecclesiastes (GB Series 5) phrases it very eloquently: “there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.” We could reply; of course there’s something new, how about computers? The author of Ecclesiastes obviously didn’t know about computers; or cars or microwave ovens or pacemakers. Ecclesiastes is just plain wrong. There are lots of new things. Besides, what does all that have to do with the Federalist Papers?
These essays were written nearly 250 years ago. But look at this claim James Madison makes in Federalist Paper 51: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.” That statement could just as easily have been written in today’s newspaper (even in online computer format). Civil rights is a topic that’s been on the American radar screen for a very long time. And religious rights have moved back onto center stage in the context of faith-based “factions” (the phrase Madison used) and their relationship to national health care issues. Madison didn’t know about the Civil Rights Movement and he wasn’t aware of the fine print in modern health insurance policies. But he knew a lot about human nature.
So what, we ask? Is “human nature” all that important in an essay about the structure of government? Wouldn’t “human nature” be more appropriate for a philosophy class? Madison doesn’t think so. When it comes to the subject of government Madison thinks it matters a great deal that we take into account the kind of creatures we’re trying to govern. Which leads us right back to one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy: what is man? What is the nature of man? Or, to put it in a way that sounds a little odd, what is the nature of human nature? (This sounds like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz asking: What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in ape-ricot?) What is the “nature” of human nature? What makes us human?
This question is very much on the mind of someone trying to figure out the best form of government; human government. So Madison asks the readers of Federalist Paper 51, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Our answer to the question “what is human nature” holds the key to answering the question “what is the best form of government.” What Madison is looking for is a government that will work for human nature as it really is, not as we wish it would be. And here we have to be honest. We can’t ask men to do more than they’re able to do. We can reasonably expect men to do the right thing most of the time, but we can’t expect them to act like angels all the time. Madison says “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Since men aren’t angels, what kind of government is best?
This is not a new question. When the curtain of history goes up on the world’s stage we already find civilized people living in towns and cities. They aren’t sitting around a campfire in a cave someone found by accident. They’re building cities and pondering the question: what kind of government is best? In the Federalist Papers people are building a new nation and pondering the question: what kind of government is best? In a way, there really is nothing new under the sun. Computers are new, communication is not. Cars are new, transportation is not. Microwave ovens are new, eating warm food is not. Pacemakers are new, medicine is not. The author of Ecclesiastes was apparently looking for an underlying principle of things. In that sense, there really is nothing new under the sun, not even new nations. In that sense, Madison agrees.


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