Brian Brown Nebraska Realty Ad

Support the population-we™ Movement here...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Confucius, Classics, and the Constitution Part II

Thank you for joining us for Part II of my interview with author, Michael Austin. If you missed Part I in the series, population-we™ readers can view it at this link.

One of my studious friends from my school days remarked to me that history was the study of dead people. While that is stating the obvious for history that spans periods longer than the human lifespan, I never quite thought of it that way. I think it is so wonderful that we have recorded and oral histories so that we can learn about those who lived before us. I mourn the records destroyed of amazing civilizations by conquerors who didn’t value their societies. As someone who always liked history starting in grade school and continuing in high school, I was even more mesmerized when I took World Civilizations I in College as I learned about the people in Ancient Greece and Ancient China with names that I probably still don’t pronounce correctly. I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders when my professor gave me the assignment to write about the lessons of history. I was barely 18 and hadn’t synthesized this whole history thing. I’m still a work in progress. This is a large part of why I seek out such connections to this day. In high school, I also had a defining moment my senior year when the English teacher spoke of the themes that I should have known like the back of my hand such as: man vs. man, head vs. heart, and man’s inhumanity to man. I had avoided the heavy classes in English that were so intimidating for me. I am still playing catch up. Michael Austin has rekindled my desire to learn more of the lessons of history and great literature. Following is the continuation of my interview with Austin:

Topic: Founding Fathers 
Q: What can we learn about compromise from the Founding Fathers?

A: Quite a bit, really. If we look at the Constitutional Convention, we can see that our government could never have come into existence without compromise. But we also see that the Founding Fathers didn't like compromising with each other any more than we did. They did not compromise because they were the sort of people who liked to compromise, but because there was no other way forward.

In order for a compromise to work, there need to be two conditions: 1) something--a value, an idea, a goal--that everybody shares, even though they may disagree with almost everything else; and 2) a mechanism that cannot move forward without substantial agreement. This is what the Constitutional Convention was. The participants all agreed that the 13 colonies needed to be joined into a single nation. They disagreed about almost everything else, but the rules of the convention required that they come to a substantial agreement about the specifics--otherwise, there would be no Constitution and the Articles of Confederation would remain in force.

The 39 signers of the Constitution all agreed to move forward to create the nation, and they were willing to give up some of what they wanted on less important questions in order to move forward on the goal that they all shared.

Topic Founding Fathers 
Q: How do you think the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and philosophers such as Locke and Milton influenced the Founding Fathers?

A: An excellent question. Perhaps the most important thing that the Founders took from the Greeks was the idea that Democracy can work. The great flowering of Athenian civilization under democracy--the first of its kind in the world--gave the Founders a model to work from. The early Roman Republic, with its powerful Senate, extended the model. But the Greeks also gave the Founders a set of concepts about an ideal government, largely from Plato and Aristotle. This kind of ideal government revolved around a class of civic minded people who studied philosophy and entered the government in order to govern philosophically (i.e. the "Philosopher King"). The first generation of American politicians held this as an ideal, but it didn't work out so well in practice. The last President in this mode was John Quincy Adams, who was trounced by Andrew Jackson and the very partisan political system that he introduced.

Locke was--along with the French philosopher Montesquieu--one of the two most important pillars of the American Constitution. Locke's Second Treatise on Government provided most of the ideas for the Declaration of Independence: that there is a natural law, that society exists as a way to extend natural rights, that people enter into a compact with a government in order to secure their natural rights, and that this compact can be revoked if it ever stopped protecting natural rights. Locke formulated these ideas to justify the British "Glorious Revolution" of 1788, and they worked very well for the American Revolution.

Locke also identified the three basic purposes of government, which became the Three Branches of Government under the Constitution: the function of making laws to protect liberties, the function of using force to enact those laws, and the function of adjudicating disputes. These are the main principles of the Second Treatise on Government, and they became the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of government.

Locke also wrote a very important essay called "An Essay on Toleration" in which he argued that religious ideas should participate in a free market of ideas. This is also something that Milton wrote about in his essay "Aeropagetica." Jefferson and Madison were well versed in these essays, and they lay beneath the ideas of both religious liberty and separation of church and state--in effect arguing that America would have an essentially secular government that would protect all religious ideas equally.

Last, though you did not ask about Montesquieu, it bears noting here that his notion of "separation of powers" was extremely important to the Founding. Montesquieu believed that the only way to prevent a government from becoming a tyranny was to separate the legislative, executive, and judicial powers into separate hands so that they would check and balance each other. The Founders very purposefully incorporated this into the Constitution.

Topic Lessons From History 
Q: What are the lessons that we can learn from history?

A: One of the great lessons that we can learn from history, I think, is that whatever is happening to us has probably happened before, probably lots of times. I think that this is crucial. So many times in the last election, I heard people say things like, "American politics have never been as divided and contentious as they are today." But they have. Many times. From the standpoint of 1800, or 1828, our political discourse is actually rather tame. The same goes for statements like, "The _________________ administration has made unprecedented attacks on our Constitutional freedoms." 

These sorts of statements will almost never be true. Something like almost everything that happens to us now has happened before.

So, why is it important to know that things have happened before? In the first place, it calms us down and moves us out of the space of frenzy and anxiety that comes with thinking that our particular modern problems are unique and uniquely horrible. This is not a productive response. Furthermore, historical perspective can give us a good dose of humility. Whether we think that our problems are the worst problems ever, or our achievements are the best ever, we are probably wrong. And realizing what other people have suffered and accomplish can help us learn the very crucial lesson that we are not the sole focus of time and history.

Most importantly, though, understanding other people's problems--and how people have historically solved problems--can give us assurance that we can solve our problems too. And, if we read history carefully and critically, it can even give us some good suggestions about what we can do.

In short, I love how the patterns of Austin’s answers to my questions about the Classics, the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, and Confucius reveal so much about the importance of relationships and compromise.

(Editor’s note: The more we seek out the teachings of great thinkers both past and present--the more we can learn to think for ourselves. Just a reminder to all of our population-we™ readers: we are all encompassing and welcome diverse political views here.)

-population-we™ blog post by Barb Bohan
© 2013 population-we, LLC 
If you enjoyed this post, make sure to leave a comment, 'Pin' or 'Like' it.

Pin It

No comments:

Post a Comment