Written by Nancy Salvato
May 7, 2008
By Nancy Salvato
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” – James Madison, Federalist #51
By reading the Greek historians Herodotus (484BC-425BC), Thucydides (460BC-395BC), known as the father of scientific history and political realism, Polybius (203BC-120BC), who wrote about political balance, and Plutarch (46AD-120AD) who emphasized the importance of virtue, and philosophers Plato (428BC-348BC), known for his theory of forms and Aristotle (384BC-322BC), who created a system of philosophy, and the Roman philosophers Cicero (106BC-43BC), the famous orator and historians such as Livy (59 BC – AD 17), the framers became well acquainted with the greatest thinkers of Greek and Roman civilizations.
From Plato and Aristotle, “they learned about monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic constitutions, about oligarchies and democracies, about tyrannies and kingships, about the origin and nature of government, and about the polity—that regime described by Aristotle as essentially a limited democracy blending the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements of government, in which the greatest political power is exercised by landholders.” From their extensive studies, they concluded, as indicated in Thomas Jefferson’s own words, that, “History informs us what bad government is.”
A good constitution enables society to have a high degree of liberty, order, and justice. When people expect a perfect union instead of a more perfect union, this is when we’re headed for trouble. No country has ever attained perfect freedom, order, and justice for everyone, though some have tried to force such a goal. This sort of utopianism breeds disastrous consequences.
Modern Political Philosophy
Leo Strauss (1899-1973), a “political philosophy” professor, despised utopianism, an impossibly idealistic social theory of which modern day examples include Nazism and Communism. He was well acquainted with the danger wrought by any regime that aspired to global domination, having lived through the rise of Hitler and Stalin. Strauss spent most of his career teaching at the University of Chicago and studying the writings of the ancient Greeks. Strauss understood that America is founded on a mixture of classical (Greco-Roman), Biblical, and modern political philosophy which included the ideas of Machiavelli (1469-1527), whose Discourses on Livy explained how to start a republic with the necessary checks and balances, Hobbes (1588-1679), an English philosopher who wrote in Leviathan about the need for strong central authority, and Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher, who developed a naturalistic philosophy putting trust in human reason. Modern political philosophers were reacting to the dominant influence of revelation in their day. Their philosophies were rooted in science and reason.
Protestant biblical philosophers, such as Luther (1483-1546), who challenged the authority of the Papacy by writing that faith need not be mediated by the church, and Calvin (1509-1564), a French Protestant Theologian were, at first, authoritarian and gave sovereignty to the monarch. This was in contrast to Catholic theorists, who limited the power of Kings to preserve their own authority and the autonomy of the Church. Protestants, for obvious political reasons, enlisted the aid of the Kings to resist the Catholic Church. However, Protestant sects soon rejected the top-down ecclesiastical structure of power in favor of a bottom-up approach. Their own church was to be run by members of the congregation and they began to think of political authority in the same way. Anglicans were more politically conservative, favoring governmental authority, whereas Quakers tended toward more radical democratic ideas.
Strauss learned much from his study of religion, classical, and modern political philosophy. He recognized that religion could be constructive or destructive, depending on the belief system. He also recognized religion’s role as a balance to moral relativism, the replacement of moral authority with progress and science. He focused his teachings on the tension that has evolved in western civilization between what he called “life in accordance with Revelation or the life according to Reason — Jerusalem versus Athens.”
Strauss taught his students that the liberty that we take for granted and which stems from the mixture of classical, Biblical, and modern political philosophy is at risk not only from outside forces, but from swinging too far in the direction of the radical left and radical right wing factions in this country. Outside forces, such as radical Islamists, who use terrorism as a tool to wage violent Jihad against our country are not open to talk and persuasion. Militant and religious extremists inside our own country do great damage to individual freedom, as well.
Know Thy Enemy
Straussians are critics of multiculturalism. They believe this movement has contributed to a decline in education and that within this institution there is a need to revive a, “sense of citizenship and civic responsibility.” There is also a need to repair, “vital national institutions such as the armed forces,” so that we can protect ourselves from our outside enemies. But first we need to recognize our enemies. William Bennett said it best after 9/11, stating that we need a moral clarity so that we can recognize evil.
Nancy Salvato is the President and Director of Constitutional Literacy Program for Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) research and educational project whose mission is to re-introduce the American public to the basic elements of our constitutional heritage while providing non-partisan, fact-based information on relevant socio-political issues important to our country, specifically the threats of aggressive Islamofascism and the American Fifth Column.