I continue to listen to Charles Anderson’s lectures on Political, Economic, and Social Thought. We just finished Plato and have started Aristotle. Professor Anderson made the point that the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers tried to deal with and come to terms with the notion of change. According to Anderson, the Greeks appreciated stability and were unnerved at the notion that the only constant in life is change. In discussing Plato, he notes that the theory of the forms is a way for Plato to reestablish stability in a changing world–the reality behind the things in our world is stable and unchanging.
My Mind&Politics colleague Archibald Grea, in his inimitable way, critiques Stephen Presser’s account of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling (Liberty lost? The Supreme Court punts). I think Grea misses the point, however. Presser insists that, in the tradition of the English legal system, “ours is a government of laws, not of men, and that the Constitution exists to reign in arbitrary power.” Presser, it seems to me, channels Plato. He is extremely uncomfortable with the notion of arbitrariness in the unfolding of human society; which is much akin to the Greek discomfort with the idea that all is changing. As Plato posits that the unchanging forms provide the necessary stability to our world, so Presser posits that the unchanging Constitution provides stability to our society.
Plato believed that in theory the best society would be that ruled by the Philosopher-King, who truly understood justice. But Plato realizes two things; one, that there can be no Philosopher-King, since absolute truth is beyond the ability of men; and two, that the people would not understand and accept a Philosopher-King, and would rise up to kill him. Plato then turns to The Republic, where the Guardians are educated to come closer to understanding truth and justice, but this, too, is unsatisfactory. In his later writings, particularly The Laws, Plato acquiesces to human imperfection and describes the laws, which is a best-effort attempt to put a restraint on human society.
It is interesting to note that the framing of the Constitution, and the nation, followed very much from this understanding that humans have a hard time governing themselves, and need a framework which allows for balance between destabilizing tendencies. But more interesting, I think, is that this need for something to counteract relentless change and arbitrariness seems visceral to much of humanity.
Victoria Kennedy, widow of Senator Ted Kennedy, recounted in an interview with George Stephanopoulos that “This health care reform was the cause of my husband’s life. He believed that it was a moral issue, that it defined the character of who we were as a society, who we were as a country, and that decent quality, affordable health care should be fundamental right and not a privilege.” (See Paul Ryan: Repeal health law because rights come from God.)
In rebuttal, Paul Ryan added, “What Ms. Kennedy and others were saying is that this is a new government-granted right. We disagree with the notion that our rights come from government, that the government can now grant us and define our rights. Those are ours, they come from nature and God, according to the Declaration of Independence — a huge difference in philosophy.” What I find telling is Rep. Ryan’s silence on the Constitution, as if to say that the Constitution, granting the Supreme Court the right to make decisions like these based on principles like that of taxation written in the Constitution, has failed us, and we must now turn to something more fundamental, nature and God, with a word thrown in that these are the foundations of our country as stated in the Declaration of Independence. If a government can’t grant and define our rights, can it even know what our rights are? And if not, how do we govern ourselves?
These philosophic arguments and psychological needs point back to that more fundamental question, “Who gets to decide how we structure our lives, our society, and our nation?” Is it our contemporary selves, acting in accordance with our beliefs, experiences, and traditions; or must we adhere to natural law and those who have come before us? If the latter, even Plato recognized the problem; the Philosopher-King who can make those judgements does not exist and would not be allowed to rule. Who are, then, the proper group of people who can determine from nature and God what rights citizens have?