Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, November 30, 2015


Our recent readings have emphasized three different views of human nature and government.  Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” showed us Abner Snopes.  Snopes fits the profile for Hobbes’ theory that men are by nature very selfish and aggressive creatures.  Chekov’s short story “In Exile” gave us the Tartar.  The Tartar fits the profile for Aristotle’s theory that men are social by nature.  John Locke thinks human nature “has a law of nature to govern it.”  This theory says men are reasonable by nature and therefore have individual rights which must be respected by everyone.  These three strands of political theory converge in possibly the greatest political document ever written: the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.

The Declaration relies heavily on Locke’s theory of government.  Locke thinks men are reasonable creatures so the Declaration tries to persuade readers with rational arguments to accept American independence.  The Founding Fathers wanted to base a new country on the firm foundation of law because, as Locke wrote, “reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind.”  In that sense the Declaration is the primary teaching manual for all American citizens.  It explains in simple terms the American view of human nature and government.  The Declaration claims government is only legitimate when it is based (in Locke’s words) on “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  That’s why it begins with the words “When in the course of human events...”  Human events take place during specific times in history and affect specific peoples.  But the laws of Nature and the laws of God are universal and apply to everyone.  Any reasonable person, anywhere, anytime, can read this Declaration and understand what the American theory of government is all about.  So what is it exactly that the Declaration is declaring?                  
The Declaration says “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” and then lays out four distinct truths based on natural law that any rational creature can understand.  These truths are (1) we’re all created equal; (2) we all have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; (3) the only legitimate government is one based on “the consent of the governed”; (4) citizens have a right “to alter or to abolish” any government which doesn’t respect the other three political truths.  Locke wrote his treatise on government with these political truths in mind.  He claimed first of all that everyone is equal in a state of nature because “all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”  The colonists believed they were being denied equal power and jurisdiction to direct their own political affairs.  Locke also claimed that governments are formed when citizens “unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”  The colonists declared these liberties were not being safeguarded by the English government.  But they had to be careful about the way they used the term “liberty” because Locke also said the “state of liberty is not a state of license.”  The colonists wanted to form a new government based on “the consent of the governed” but not so Americans could then do whatever they wanted.  This document tries to give American citizens liberty without the license.  So it relies on Locke’s guidance that citizens must necessarily give up some of their natural liberty in order “to be regulated by laws made by the society” they live in.  We may not agree with every single law of the United States.  But in order to be American citizens we still have to obey those laws.  If we don’t like certain laws we can either work to get them changed, or we can leave.  That’s what the colonists wanted to do, leave.  This Declaration claims they tried over and over to get the laws of England changed to no avail.  Now they want to leave the political society of England and form one of their own.  The Declaration thus makes a very powerful argument based primarily on Locke’s political theory.


Post a Comment

<< Home