Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 30, 2015


John Locke had a theory of human nature and government that was very appealing to the colonists.  But these early American leaders were also hard-headed politicians.  They didn’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses and they saw clearly that the world may be a rational place as envisioned by Locke but it can also be a tough neighborhood.  Thomas Hobbes was a philosopher from the-world-is-a-tough-neighborhood school of thought.  His pessimistic philosophy helped balance out the more optimistic writings of Locke.  One of the most difficult questions facing the colonists was this.  Would the colonies be safer under the protection of England? Or would they be more secure if they protected themselves?  They decided they could do a better job themselves.  It was true the English government had provided a certain amount of safety, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.”  Hobbes believed revolution was one of the worst evils in the world.  The Founding Fathers countered that fighting against the English government was not only their right, it was their duty.  The colonists declared they weren’t revolting against legitimate authority.  They were merely restoring their lawful rights because “the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.”  The colonists don’t want to become rebels but the King has left them no choice. 

The Declaration acknowledges Hobbes’ major point that the primary purpose of government is to provide security for its citizens.  Hobbes had a dim view of human nature.  He believed “men are continually in competition for honor and dignity” not to mention competition for money and land and everything else.  Hobbes believed only a strong government would be able to keep people under control and prevent them from attacking one another.  So the purpose of the state under his theory is first of all to preserve safety and order.  Without safety and order all the other rights aren’t worth anything.  That’s why the Founding Fathers were determined “to provide new guards for their future security.”  Their main goal, stated in the Declaration, is to prevent “the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States” no matter if it’s the King of Great Britain or anyone else.  Over and over again the Founding Fathers declare they tried to resolve the conflict with English government through peaceful means.  “We have warned them…we have reminded them…we have appealed to their native justice…we have conjured them…”  And the result?  The English “have been deaf to the voice of justice.”  The Declaration wants to make it perfectly clear.  Justice is on our side; the time for talk is over.  Now it’s time to fight for justice.

A question comes to mind.  If justice really is on their side, why do they need to declare it in a written document?  Why don’t they just fight it out and try to win their separation from England on the field of battle?  Because the Founding Fathers believed “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  This belief is rooted in Aristotle’s theory of human nature and government.  Aristotle said “the first society to be formed is the village.  And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family…”  Two key concepts apply to the American colonies.  First, it’s “natural” for them to want government based on their own needs.  Second, they want to join the family of nations in the world.  So they declare openly to everyone the reasons why the colonies have to fight with England.  Aristotle said “the natural outcast is a lover of war.”  Americans aren’t lovers of war.  They just want to become members of the international family.


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