I have often expressed my conviction that, during the generation in which the United States came into being, America came closer to realizing Plato’s ideal of “philosopher kings” than any other in the history of humankind. The wisdom that prevailed among America’s founders remembered the first meaning of “philosophy”, which has to do with the love of wisdom.
It did not involve Plato’s purely intellectual “ideas,” content to dwell in the mathematical heavens of pure reason. Rather, it arose from that generation’s walk with the profoundly more practical wisdom that “cries out; that utters her voice in the streets. She cries out in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she utters her words” (Proverbs 1:20). It is the proverbial wisdom of the Incarnate Word made flesh that dwelt among us (John 1:14).
Though we are these days everywhere invited to forget it, the Biblical Wisdom of the Incarnate Word, is not averse to breaking our hearts if that helps to amend the break with our Creator that keeps us from our true way of life. Amidst the blessings he recounted Matthew: 5-7), Christ spoke of being insulted, persecuted and slandered for his sake. And he spoke truth to the rich young man, even when it broke that man’s heart and made him turn away. (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:16-30). In this respect, Christ is unlike those preachers in America today who are willing to stifle and subdue the voice of Wisdom in order to enjoy the full-pews friendship of the world; or those who are unwilling to risk the persecution that already punishes friends of Wisdom with the loss of their material goods.
When I revisit the thought and writings of America’s founding generation (which I do with ever increasing frequency in these days of ever increasing ignorance and folly) I am constantly reminded of that generation’s imitation of Christ in this respect of truth. Some of the prevalent founders were counted, like the rich young man in the Biblical account, among those first in riches and power among their contemporaries day. They were one those we refer to now as our “elite.” Yet though they championed a form of government duly dependent on the good will of the people, they did not speak obsequious lies. They were not silent about the dangers of the form of government (democracy) that derives its force directly from the will and power of the people.
Rather they spoke frankly about the record of democracy’s failures and dangerous excesses. They emphasized the fact that, when entrusted with the voice and choice that represents God’s sovereign authority in human affairs, a people must accept the confining discipline of that sovereign duty. That discipline requires that even the greatest possible human powers be constrained in their use, so as to remain within the boundaries of God-endowed right. True liberty thus seeks justice for all, not just the self-willed freedom of those stronger in numbers or material strength.
These days even many of those who acknowledge and appreciate the honesty of the founding generation in this respect fail to revisit and think through their analysis of these dangers. They fall into the trap of seeing political danger in terms of either a) the calculating ambition of the materially well-endowed elitist few (the view mostly identified with those we call “the left”); or b) the angry or envious passions of the materially less endowed, who are many. This latter view is not uncommon among so-called Republicans, though in some of them it is primarily a tactical consideration, a single-minded concern for the politics of power, hiding behind a rhetorical mask of sympathy and compassion.
America’s prevalent founders certainly appreciated the dichotomy between the many and the few, the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful. They saw it as more or less a permanent feature of human affairs. But unlike many of the left- or right-wing ideologues of our day, they did not view that dichotomy as a matter of simple opposition. They saw it as a matter of interaction, as for example a chemist sees the reaction that occurs between the molecules of an acid and a base. Just as, in organic terms, an imbalance between the acid and alkaline substances in the body can be life threatening, so an imbalance between the many and the few threatens the life of the body politic.
Any given faction is the result of an interaction between one or relatively few people and a larger group for whom they act as the focal point. In terms of society as a whole, the larger group may be a minority or majority of the whole.
As a class, the founders referred to the focal points of faction as “demagogues”, a class characterized by tyrannical ambitions, pursued without regard for any rule except what contributes to the power required to achieve them. This does not mean that demagogues simply have no use for right and laws that accord with it. It means that they care for them only when the pursuit of power requires it. “Might makes right” is, in the end, the ultimate slogan of faction, though it almost never appears on its banners.
On account of this subservience to power, demagogues have no conscience about its source. They will value power from whatever source derived, regardless of right and wrong, justice or injustice. From this perspective, conscience is not a guide, but a source of weakness, to be avoided in oneself, and exploited in others. Far from being a demagogue’s friend, therefore, wisdom is just another commodity, deployed when it enhances power, but otherwise held in contempt.
Though many Americans these days continue to surrender to the politics of faction, not all of them are doing so because they consciously reject the wisdom of America’s Founders. I believe that, in fact, a majority still respects the premises and principles of America’s founding. One sign of this is that almost all of the candidates now competing in the Presidential candidate selection process, particularly on the GOP wing of the elitist faction’s partisan sham, are promising, in some form of words, “to restore America’s greatness.”
Though it rings with false elitist pretensions, that mantra indicates the longing Americans feel for their true home — the land of those emboldened by their thirst for justice, and who have, time and again, humbly consented to exercise their rightful liberty in its service, whatever the risks. Voters who thus sincerely desire to see America restored would do well to revisit the founding wisdom that planted and nurtured it. Indeed, restoring that wisdom may be the only true path to restoring the spiritual hope, beyond material greatness, that America is supposed to represent. But we will never reclaim our nation’s original wisdom if we have become incapable of understanding and acting upon the words in which was expressed.
These words invite us to think through the true meaning of our sovereignty as a people, so as to distinguish between those who, indifferent as to God and right, are ready to exploit, thwart or fulfill our passions, whichever serves their goal of power; and those worthy to represent us as we strive to deserve our Constitutional office as citizens of the United States. For our claim to that office derives from our mutual commitment to act as faithful executives of God-endowed right. It will only be sustained if we have honored that commitment.