Our most recent reading for the Great Books of the Western World reading project is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or at least a few chapters of it. Here, after having read the Constitution and several of the Federalist Papers last month, we are treated to a commentary upon the Constitution by one of the great thinkers and observers of the early 19th century.
While it is difficult to choose just one aspect of Tocqueville’s observations and thoughts to comment upon, what stood out to me the most is Tocqueville’s assertion, near the end of the selection we read, that the sort of government the United States has, in particular the limited powers of its executive, is only possible in a country that, like the United States, is granted a certain degree of security by its geography. (Also, I want to commend myself for the excellence of that run-on sentence.) Tocqueville posits that if a European country were to adopt a constitution which so severely curtailed the privileges and prerogatives of its executive it could not last long.
There seems to me to be a great amount of truth to Tocqueville’s observations here. The United States has only been in a position in which it was forced to defend its very existence twice in its history (or thrice, if we count the Revolution as well, though I omit that from consideration here as this predates the Constitution). While the United States has fought several wars, only the Civil War and World War II could be accurately understood as wars for survival. In both instances, the government has found it necessary to vastly expand the powers of the executive and temporarily suspend the limits typically imposed upon the executive and legislative by law. Lincoln was the president who came closest to the powers of a monarch and Roosevelt the president who came closest to the length of a monarch’s reign.
All of this raises important questions for the future of democratic government in the United States. In the face of the ever-present threat of terrorism and the ever-decreasing size (so to speak) of the world, the geographic isolation of the United States seems less important now than at any previous time and will, undoubtedly, continue to lose significance. Is it, then, inevitable that the United States must change its system of government and social life through a reduction in the liberties of the people and an increase in the powers of the executive in order to ensure its very survival? The advocates of, for example, the Patriot Act would seem to say that this is the case. Yet, the United States has a very firmly entrenched culture of individual freedom and limited government. Will this culture survive? Can it? Should it?
Our most recent readings for the Great Books of the Western World reading project are, I believe, among the most interesting that we have read this year as well as the most truly essential. Included in September’s readings are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few of the Federalist Papers, the editorials published by Jay, Hamilton, and Madison in defense of the Constitution.
Each of these readings is essential reading for an American and each is an exhibition of a belief that I have come over the past several years to hold: namely, that the United States is, while not the exclusive representative of Western Civilization, its most pure and significant representative. The work of the Founding Fathers is, in its essence, a distillation of all of the previous history and thought of Western Civilization. They drew, through their own classical educations, upon the history of the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans of the ancient world as well as the Christians of the Middle Ages and later who brought these previous cultures into a great synthesis within their new ideological context.
In so doing, the Founders of the United States drew out of each of these aspects of the heritage of Western Civilization the best elements and avoided the worst errors. The subsequent history of the United States has, in large part, been the sorting out of what all of this means. The Civil War, the various social movements of the last 150 years, and so on each have at their heart the question of what it all of this heritage means and how it is to be lived out. Because of this, these works are essential readings for all Americans as well as the other denizens of Western Civilization.
As I continue my journey to catch up in the reading for the Great Books Reading Project, I just completed the reading for May 2015, Machiavelli’s famous tract on leadership, The Prince. This is now the fourth time in my life that I have read The Prince and I was struck, as I have been in each reading since the first, in how different its effect upon was from previous readings.
The first time I read The Prince I was a teenager and, like all teenagers of an intellectual bent, a lover of Nietzsche. At that time, Machiavelli seemed to me to be a sort of proto-Nietzsche, and I loved it. I read The Prince again twice during my college years, for two different classes, one of which was while I was in my early 20s and the other while I was in my mid-20s. I think the line of separation that stands between these two readings is the experience of war. In the first, I was just beginning my time in the military. In the second, my stint in the Army was drawing to a close. As a result, in the first reading of the two college-era readings I saw in Machiavelli a brutal realist and in the second I saw in Machiavelli a realistic brutality.
It is only a thread that separates this brutal realism and realistic brutality from each other, but there is a world of difference in that thread. On the one hand, I think it is possible that Machiavelli is merely describing what he sees, and this was certainly my impression from my early college reading of him. On the other, he does seem to take some delight in describing and to turn his descriptions into prescriptions about how a prince should behave, which, in a sense, positions him as an advocate for a more brutal world.
I am undecided as to where I stand this time around, though I have to say that I like Machiavelli less each time I read him and this reading has been no exception. What are your thoughts? Is Machiavelli describing how to succeed in a brutal world or is there something brutal in Machiavelli himself that he prescribes for his prince? Or … ?