And back to the philosophy we go. This series is going to jump around a bit. We took a couple of days off and dealt with some other topics. But now we are back to it. We have now begun to understand why philosophy is important and gotten a grasp on some of the terminology and thought processes as they apply. Now we will get a chance to see some of that philosophy applied to the founders. We often are taught to believe that the founders were infallible geniuses who we just had the good fortune to have around when we needed to form a country. Not so. They were merely men who did the best they could with what they had…
So for the next part of our philosophy series we are going to look at where the founders went wrong. It is obvious that the vision for America was a fairly solid one, based on good intentions. With that being the case, we have to question how it is that we could have possibly gotten to the point we are at now. Returning to us is Just A Citizen with another article discussing the thought. I know that the philosophy stuff is still a difficult read for some, and it tends to make some of us feel as though we are lost. But continue to follow along. It might help to take 20 minutes and go back to read last week’s stuff again. I know this road we are taking you on is winding, and sometimes confusing. But if you follow along, it will all make sense in the end. So without further delay, Just A Citizen brings us another installment:
WHERE THE FOUNDERS WENT WRONG Just a Citizen
We have discussed why philosophy is important to our task of resurrecting our nation as well as reviewed the various branches and some investigative methods. My constant harping on the need for a philosophical foundation should raise several questions with regard to our nation’s current situation.
- What was the philosophical foundation on which America was built?
- Is our current situation due to problems with the original philosophy or just mechanical flaws in the Constitution?
These were the questions I had a couple of years ago when I came across an essay by Dr. Leonard Peikoff, a colleague of Ayn Rand, that provided what I consider a well thought out explanation. In December 1973 Ms. Rand included Dr. Peikoff’s essay as a two part series in The Ayn Rand Letter. The essay included excerpts from Dr. Peikoff’s soon to be released book, The Ominous Parallels. The following is a reproduction of much of his two part essay, with a few comments added by me for emphasis. Please enjoy!
“Since the golden age of Greece, there has been only one era of reason in twenty-three centuries of Western philosophy. It was during this era’s final decades that the United States of America was created as an independent nation. This is the key to the country – to its nature, its development, and its uniqueness: the United States is the nation of the Enlightenment.”
The Age of Enlightenment was the culmination of over 400 years of philosophical progression that resulted in secularizing the Western mind. The Enlightenment brought with it a genuine respect for reason for the first time in modern history.
“The trend that had been implicit in the centuries-long crusade of a handful of innovators, now swept the West explicitly, reaching and inspiring educated men in every field. Reason, for so long the wave of the future, had become the animating force of the present. For the first time since the high point of classical civilization, thinkers regarded the acceptance of reason as uncontroversial. They regarded the exercise of man’s intellect not as a sin to be proscribed, or as a handmaiden to be tolerated, or even as a breath-taking discovery to be treated gingerly – but as virtue, as the norm, the to-be-expected.”
The European Enlightenment came to America in the early eighteenth century, eventually becoming the dominant philosophical power. This “American Enlightenment” represented a complete reversal of the Puritan’s philosophy, which had dominated until then. “Confidence in the power of man, replaced dependence on the grace of God – and that rare intellectual orientation emerged, the key to the Enlightenment approach in every branch of philosophy: secularism without skepticism.”
Prior to the Enlightenment nature had been viewed as a realm of miracle manipulated by God, “a realm whose significance lay in the clues it offered to the purpose and plan of its author.” Now nature became a realm of reality, a realm governed by “scientific laws”. Miracles were no longer allowed as a reasonable explanation and the unanswered became the focus of further study not mystic explanations. Supernatural explanations were no longer required. The unexplained was simply explained as a lack of knowledge, and nothing more. There are no contradictions in nature, only that which we do not know. Cause and effect are observable and measurable. All objects of the universe are identifiable and can be described and most importantly they do not change to fit the whim of God or some mystic.
The fundamental epistemological principle became “the sovereignty of human reason”. Ethan Allen titled his book Reason the Only Oracle of Man. Thomas Jefferson writes to a nephew expressing his viewpoint that he should: “Fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is on, he must more approve of the homage of reason, that that of blindfolded fear.”
“Reason, according to the characteristic Enlightenment conception, is a faculty which acquires knowledge by derivation from the evidence of the senses; there are no divinely inspired, innate ideas. It is a faculty which, properly employed, can discover explanatory principles in every field, and achieve certainty in regard to them. Since these principles, it was held, are absolute truths stating facts of reality, they are binding on every man, whatever his feelings or nationality. In other words, knowledge is objective. It was not heavenly illumination or skeptical doubt or subjective emotion that the Enlightenment mind extolled (“enthusiasm,” i.e., irrational passion, was regarded as the cardinal epistemological sin), it was the exercise of the fact-seeking intellect – logical, deliberate, dispassionate, potent.”
“The consequence of this view of reason was the legendary epistemological self-confidence of the period – the conviction that there are no limits to the triumphant advance of science, of human knowledge, of human progress. “The strength of the human understanding is incalculable, its keenness of discernment would ultimately penetrate into every par of nature, were it permitted to operate with uncontrouled and unqualified freedom,” writes Elihu Palmer, a militant American spokesman of the period. “…it has hitherto been deemed a crime to think,” he states; but at last, men have escaped from the “long and doleful night” of Christian rule, with its “frenzy,” its “religious fanaticism,” its “mad enthusiasm”’ at last, men have grasped “the unlimited power of human reason” – “Reason, which every kind of supernatural Theology abhors – Reason, which is the glory of our nature…” Now, “a full scope must be given to the operation of intellectual powers, and man must feel an unqualified confidence in his own energies.””
“After centuries of medieval wallowing in Original Sin and the ethics of unquestioning submissiveness, a widespread wave of moral self-confidence now swept the West, reflecting and complementing man’s new epistemological self-confidence. Just as there are no limits to man’s knowledge, many thinkers held, so there are no limits to man’s moral improvement. If man is not yet perfect, they held, he is a least perfectible: just as there are objective, natural laws in science, so there are objective, natural laws in ethics – and man is capable of discovering such laws, and of acting in accordance with them; he is capable not only of using his intellect, but also of living by its guidance (this, at least, was the Enlightenment’s ethical program and promise).”
And here is a critical point. The Enlightenment resulted in a changed view of man as a being. We were no longer just pawns in some mystic world of divine manipulation. Man was now a self-confident rational being. Man was no longer unworthy but a basically good, potentially noble being. Man was now seen as a creature of value, in and of himself. Why is this so important you ask? Well let’s look at the logical philosophical conclusions that evolve from such a view.
“Metaphysically – thinkers held – since reality is the world of particulars, the individual is fully real. Epistemologically and ethically, since reason is an attribute of the individual, the potency and value of man the rational being, means the potency and value of the individual who exercises his reason. Thus when the Enlightenment upheld the pursuit of happiness, the meaning (Christian contradictions aside for the moment) was: the pursuit by each man of his own happiness, to be gained by his own independent efforts – by self-reliance and self-development, leading to self-respect and self-made worldly success.”
“The leaders of the American Enlightenment did not reject the idea of the supernatural completely; characteristically, they were deists, who believed that God exists as nature’s remote, impersonal creator and as the original source of natural law; but, they held, having performed these functions, God thereafter retires into the role of a passive, disinterested spectator. This view (along with the continuing belief in an afterlife) is a remnant of medievalism, but, in terms of its operative influence on the period, it is in the nature of a vestigial afterthought, which diminishes the role and power of religion in men’s lives. The threat to “Divine religion,” observed one concerned preacher at the time, was “the indifference which prevails” and the “ridicule”; mankind, he noted, are in “great danger of being laughed out of religion…”.”
“Throughout history, the state had been regarded, implicitly or explicitly, as the ruler of the individual – as a sovereign authority (with or without supernatural mandate), an authority logically antecedent to the citizen, and to which he must submit. The Founding Fathers challenged this primordial notion. They started with the premise of the primacy and sovereignty of the individual. The individual, they held, logically precedes the group or the institution of government. Whether or not any social organization exists, each man possesses certain individual rights. And “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – or, in the words of a New Hampshire state document, “among which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; and in a word, of seeking an obtaining happiness.”
“These rights were regarded not as a disparate collection, but as a unity, expressing a single fundamental right. Man’s rights, declares Samuel Adams, “are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.” Man’s rights are natural, i.e., their warrant is the laws of reality, not any arbitrary human decision; and they are inalienable, i.e., absolutes not subject to renunciation, revocation or infringement by any person or group. Rights, affirms John Dickinson, “are not annexed to us by parchments and seals….They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.””
“And “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” The powers of government are, therefore, limited, not merely de facto or by default, but on principle: government is forbidden to infringe man’s rights. It is forbidden because, in Adams’ words, “the grand end of civil government, from the very nature of its institution, is for the support, protection, and defense of those very rights…”
In plain language, “the state is the servant of the individual; it is not a sovereign possessing primary authority, but an agent possessing only delegated authority pursuant to the voluntary decision of the citizens, charged by them with a specific practical function – and subject to dissolution and reconstruction if it trespasses outside its assigned purview.”
According to the new American model the state was no longer the ruler of man but exists to prevent the division of men into rulers and ruled. Government’s role is to enable the individual, in Adams’ words, “to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule”.
Jefferson expressed the general sentiment of the times with “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Note that Jefferson does not declare his hostility towards tyranny over man in general but over the mind of man. Without man’s ability to freely use his mind according to his own nature, it is impossible for man to survive, without submitting to the yoke of slavery.
The Founders did not limit their battle to opposing theocracy and monarchy. They included democracy among those forms of government antithetical to man’s liberty. The system of unlimited majority rule was recognized as simply “substituting the tyranny of a mob for that of a handful of autocrats”.
According to Jefferson, we need to recognize that the will of the majority “to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.” In a pure democracy Madison noted “there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
“When the framers of the American republic spoke of “the people,” they did not mean a collectivist entity one part of which was authorized to consume the rest. They meant a sum of individuals, each of whom – whether strong or weak, rich or poor – retains his inviolate guarantee of individual rights.”
And, as John Adams said, “It is agreed that the end of all government is the good and ease of the people, in a secure enjoyment of their rights, without oppression; but it must be remembered, that the rich are people as well as the poor; that they have rights as well as others; that they have as clear and as sacred a right to their large property as others have to theirs which is smaller; that oppression to them is as possible and as wicked as to others.”
“The heroism of the Founding Fathers was that thy recognized an unprecedented opportunity, the chance to create a country of individual liberty for the first time in history – and staked everything on their judgment: the new nation, and their own lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” “The genius of the Founding Fathers was their ability not only to grasp the revolutionary political ideas of the period, but to devise a means of implementing those ideas in practice, i.e., of translating them from the realm of philosophic abstraction into that of socio-political reality.”
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT, THE PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATION FOR OUR NATION. But, how could something that seems so solid have gone astray? Have you used your new investigative skills to find the cracks yet? No, you say. Well then let’s continue.
“The American approach to politics, however, rested on the basic philosophy of the Enlightenment – above all, on its view of reason and its view of values, i.e., its epistemology and its ethics. And in regard to basic philosophy, the Americans of the revolutionary era were counting on Europe”.
“There was no American attempt to give systematic, comprehensive statement to the ideas of the Enlightenment mind, and little concern with the technical issues involved in their defense. The American thinkers functioned within an intellectual atmosphere largely taken for granted as incontestable, made of generalized emphases and tendencies absorbed from Europe – an atmosphere whose elements were invoked as and when necessary, in no particular order, in the course of countless letters, pamphlets, essays, etc. It was an era dominated by men of action, philosophically minded but eager to apply in political practice the abstract principles they had learned; men who assumed – insofar as they raised the question at all – that the ultimate validation and philosophic base of their principles had already been established beyond challenge by the thinkers of Europe.”
“The Americans were counting on what did not exist. There was not such base in Europe. In every fundamental area, the thought of the European Enlightenment was filled with unanswered questions, torn by contradictions – and eminently vulnerable to challenge.”
“John Locke, widely regarded during the Enlightenment as Europe’s leading philosopher, taken as the definitive spokesman for reason and the new science – is a representative case in point. The philosophy of this spokesman is a contradictory mixture, part Aristotelian, part Christian, part Cartesian, part skeptic – in short, an eclectic shambles all but openly inviting any Berkeley or Hume in the vicinity to rip it into shreds.”
“When the men of the Enlightenment counted on Locke (and his equivalents) as their intellectual defender, they were counting on a philosophy of reason so profoundly undercut as to be in process of self-destructing. The same destruction was occurring in Europe in the field of ethics. Although Locke and many others had held out the promise of a rational, demonstrative science of ethics, none of them delivered on this promise; none could produce or define such an ethics. Meanwhile, European voices, rising and growing louder, were declaring that the principles of ethics are ultimately based not on reason, but on feeling.”
Per James Wilson, American legal philosopher and signatory of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution (reflecting Hume and others): “The ultimate ends of human actions, can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason. They recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of men, without dependence on the intellectual faculties.” Morality, he states, derives from man’s “moral sense” or “instincts” or “conscience.” And furthermore, “I can only say, I feel that such is my duty. Here investigation must stop…”
You see our Founders did not identify the basis of a rational, scientific ethics. “Whether they admitted it or not, they were basing their ethical guidance on what they felt to be moral.” And now for the grand finale, drum role please………..
“The Americans were political revolutionaries, but not ethical revolutionaries. Whatever their partial (and largely implicit) acceptance of the principle of ethical egoism, they remained explicitly within the standard European tradition, avowing their primary allegiance to a moral code stressing utilitarian service and social duty. Such was the American conflict; an impassioned politics presupposing one kind of ethics, within a cultural atmosphere professing the sublimity of an opposite kind of ethics.”
“The signs of the conflict, and of the toll it exacted from the distinctively American political approach, were evident at the beginning – in Jefferson’s proposal for free public education; in Paine’s advocacy of a variety of governmental welfare functions; in Franklin’s view that an individual has not right to his “superfluous” property, which the public may dispose of as it chooses, “whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition”; etc.”
“Philosophically, America was born a profound anomaly: a solid political structure, erected on a tottering base.”
“The Founding Fathers did not know that the era in which they lived and fought and planned, was on the threshold of yielding to its antipode. They did not know that they had snatched a country from the jaws of history at the last possible moment. They did not know that, even as they struggled to bring the new nation into existence, its philosophical grave diggers were already at work, cashing in on the period’s contradictions: in the very decade in which the Founding Fathers were publishing their momentous documents, Kant was publishing his.”
“Symbolically, this is America’s philosophical conflict, running through all the years of its subsequent history: the Declaration of Independence, with everything it presupposes, against the Critique of Pure Reason, with everything to which it leads.”
Ayn Rand offers the following Postscript at the conclusion of Dr. Peikoff’s essay.
“I would like to call Dr. Peikoff’s essay to the particular attention of two groups, both of whom believe that the solution of this country’s problems requires no new philosophical thinking, but merely an uncritical return to the unsolved contradictions of the past. These groups are: 1. The conservatives, who believe that capitalism can stand on a base of mysticism and altruism. 2. The businessmen, who believe that philosophy has no practical influence – as taught by their philosophy, Pragmatism.”
And now for my closing thoughts. If we are to succeed we must resolve the contradictions left unanswered by our Founders. In the next article we will review one persons proposed solution. As I promised last week, we will review the philosophical system of Ayn Rand.
And there we go. Some thoughts on where the founding fathers may have missed their mark. I have often cringed a bit when folks tell me that “the founding fathers gave us this perfect country and this perfect document and we the people allowed it to be screwed up.” Because to me the bottom line is that if the document was perfect, the people wouldn’t have been able to screw it up. There is no doubt that the founding documents have been bastardized by all levels of government and every party to have held office in this country, but that was made possible by the flaws in the creation of the documents. If we are going to fix things, it starts with eliminating those flaws and contradictions.