I’ve been listening to Thomas Pangle’s course Great Debates: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution, part of the Great Courses at the Teaching Company. I had the great privilege, as an impressionable freshman, of taking Professor Pangle’s course on the History of Political Philosophy, studying Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli, among others. It had a tremendous influence on my intellectual development.
I’m only on the second of 12 lectures, and I’m sure I’ll have more to write about as the course goes on. So far already, though, there are two points that have struck me, particularly in light of modern-day politics. In describing the debates between the federalists and the anti-federalists, professor Pangle notes that the anti-federalists opposed the Constitution, and criticized its proponents, in part because the Constitution and its proponents’ arguments diverged from the classical notion of what a republic should be. The federalists, however, took this criticism as a complement, noting that earlier, classical republics had many flaws, and taking great pride in their innovativeness.
In many walks of political life today, we see a similar dialectic playing out. As an example, there are those who believe in a strict constructionist view of the Constitution, and those who believe it is a living document. The former belief is not just conservative politics, it is a conservative world view. Edmund Burke talks of the appreciation we should show for “prescription, prejudice, and dutiful obedience.” The past has proven itself, and we should let it be our guide. The moderns, not having proven themselves, should not be trusted, and we should defer to the ancients.
The federalists then, and more generally liberals today, believe that they should be in charge of their lives. To defer to old, dead men seems a losing proposition. So the federalists were proud to be innovators, taking charge of their own lives, as those who believe in the Constitution as a living document believe they should reinterpret the Constitution in light of modern events, and take responsibility for the rules they make for our society.
A second point from Professor Pangle’s course comes from his discussion of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. In contrast to the classical notions that a republic should be led by those of superior virtue who have as their task to raise the virtue of all of society, Montesquieu argues for a more democratic republic, where the representatives are much like the people they represent, in wealth, in education, and in culture. Unexpectedly, perhaps, it is the Republicans who seem to follow Montesquieu–people voted for Bush because he was the one they most wanted to have a beer with. Democrats, on the other hand, seem more likely to defend placing people of superior intellect and talent in political office–they would like the smartest person to be president, not necessarily the most likable.
I look forward to listening to more of the course, and reporting back as it raises thoughts and ideas.