Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, September 05, 2014

FEDERALIST PAPERS Summary: Government and the Great Books

Let’s start at the beginning. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (GB Series 1). Wait. Not that far back; just back to the start of our own country. As an eloquent writer once put it: “In the beginning, when the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, the charter for a national government included three obligations: (1) to ensure the safety and welfare of its citizens; (2) to defend their liberty; (3) to preserve the peace and tranquility of the nation. Safety, liberty and peace.” (SMJ) These are all good goals. But are they the only ones we could have used to build a new nation from scratch? No. The Great Books include other ideas too.
One of the oldest foundations for a nation is based on the gods or God. This was the powerful idea we find in the book of Exodus (GB Series 1). The Egyptians built a very wealthy and successful civilization based on several prominent gods and had a strong Pharaoh as the god’s executive authority on earth. Then Moses came along to lead the Hebrews out of bondage to the Egyptians. What forged the Hebrews together was a new and powerful idea: monotheism. Hebrew faith includes only one God, the sole creator and sustainer of the universe. Jewish civilization was founded on this one simple idea. But whether it’s an Egyptian or Hebrew idea, the purpose of government in Exodus is the greater glory of God. The idea of secular government, a wall of separation between church and state, would never occur to these people.
A different purpose of government is envisioned by Aristotle. In his selection On Happiness (GB Series 1) he doesn’t address the problem of monotheism or polytheism. There may be one God. There may be many gods. Or there may be no gods at all. But what Aristotle’s interested in is life as it is here and now, on this earth. For Aristotle the purpose of government is to give us a better way of life. Living in organized society opens up opportunities we would never have if we lived outside of society. For Aristotle the most important function of government is to provide a framework so we can develop our human talents and human virtues. We can never be happy (in fact we can’t even be fully human) unless we interact freely with other citizens.
But in order to be happy we have to be alive. Dead people aren’t happy. Under this scenario the primary purpose of government is to keep us alive. All that other stuff, developing our talents and virtues, getting right with God, won’t happen unless a government can first protect its citizens. This was the main point Thomas Hobbes (Origin of Government, GB Series 2) wanted to make when he said that without government life would soon become “nasty, brutish and short.” That doesn’t necessarily mean we should try to survive at all costs. There may be conditions where life wouldn’t be fit to live. The question the Melians faced in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (GB Series 3) was this: are we willing to live as virtual slaves to the Athenians? Their answer was, no; and their government chose death rather than slavery.
We could go on. In Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (GB Series 4) the purpose of government is personal glory. In Mill’s Utilitarianism (GB Series 4) it’s individual liberty. In Weber’s Spirit of Capitalism (GB Series 4) and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (GB Series 2) the purpose of government is material well-being. All of these ideas may be contained within the larger context of the Federalist Papers; to defend the principles of good government. But perhaps the greatest test of any government is a very simple one: how does the average citizen live? What is their overall quality of life? It’s good to have good government and all that; but sometimes a man just wants a nice warm overcoat. And that’s what we’ll be looking at in our next reading.


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