“The American Founders famously supplied constitutional mechanisms to remedy what they called the darker motives of man. And with their rather Presbyterian view of human nature, the founders’ hope was that we could correct for some of mankind’s defects through principles and institutions that would check the thirst for power, and would prevent government from becoming oppressive or tyrannical.
At the same time, they were under no illusions about the possibility of having a successful scheme of ordered liberty without there being some substantial virtue in the people themselves. And they knew, crucially, that virtue could not be ordered by the government. It couldn’t be produced by the economic system. It couldn’t be dictated by a judge.
They knew that the virtue needed for constitutional government, for ordered liberty, would be provided by individuals themselves, with the assistance of what we call the institutions of civil society — beginning with the family, the marriage-based family, and all the other institutions that are influencers and shapers of people.
Our Founders themselves understood their work, their project, as an experiment. And experiments can fail. And they understood that. Republics, after all, had been tried time and time again throughout the course of history; and they had failed, and most societies had given up on them.
This is why Lincoln, in giving his formal explanation for why he didn’t simply let the South go, famously said that, what is at issue in this contest is not simply whether republican government would last on the North American continent. No, he said, what is at stake is whether government of the people, by the people, and for the people — republican government — would perish from the Earth.
Because if it were tried, and then failed within less than a century, the lesson for all of humanity, at least for the indefinite future, would be that republican freedom simply doesn’t work. We have to go with another theory: some kind of benign authoritarianism is the best that we can do.
And republican government, as I say, requires a certain kind of virtue in its citizens… The Enlightenment French philosopher Rousseau famously said that, ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’
Well, is man born free?
There’s a certain profound sense in which we human beings are not born free. We are born into a form of slavery, and the whole project of a life is to liberate oneself from that slavery.
What I have in mind here goes back to a thinker who was not especially friendly to democracy, and depending on how we read his Republic, not especially friendly to freedom. But Plato had something important to say about character and character-formation: that the project of a human life is overcoming what is perhaps the most abject form of slavery — the slavery to one’s own desires, the slavery to one’s self.
As Plato himself put it, the goal is to achieve a proper order in the soul so that the rational element of the self has control over the appetitive element. A good life, in this framework, is one in which wisdom has the whip hand, harnessing reason to bridle desire and control the big I-want.
And our parents, and our religious institutions, and our schools (when they are healthy) are all about the business of soul-shaping. The goal of those institutions is getting the little baby, who is all absorbed in want satisfaction, to grow to be a responsible human being who is master of himself, who has control over his own desires. And when that works, then you have got human beings who are fit for freedom in the full political sense, who can be entrusted to be the guardians of their own liberty, who can be entrusted with republican government, who have the virtues that are necessary for ordered liberty.”
Charles Krauthammer’s response:
“I appreciate what Robbie is saying about the necessity of virtue. But to me, the lesson of the American experiment is precisely the opposite.
The Declaration does not speak about the pursuit of virtue or the exercise of reason. It speaks about the pursuit of happiness.
The premise of our republic is that we would have an economic system based on, essentially, capitalism, as described by Adam Smith, where everybody is pursuing their own ends but the invisible hand works it out. And Madison translated that into a political free market, where he said that the greatest guarantee of liberty would be the multiplication of factions, all of whom will be acting in their own narrow self-interests. And if you could construct a system in which the factions would compete against each other, and prevent coalitions of a majority that would crush the other side, you could then have the same kind of invisible hand working itself out.
So I would say, unlike a lot of other political systems, which are based on the notion of the virtue of the individual, the American system is constructed in a way that it requires it the least. In fact, to me the American system was and is the most realistic in understanding the fallen condition of the human being and expecting very little of the individual, but understanding that if you can construct the system — which they did ex nihilo, and it has endured for a quarter of a millennium — you don’t have to rely on virtue of the individual, because if you did, no republic would ever be possible.”
My transcription of an exchange between Charles Krauthammer and Princeton law professor Robert P. George on the subject of what was the American founders’ conception of human nature.
This conversation took place in June, at the 2013 Bradley Symposium in Washington, DC. The question considered and debated by the various speakers and panelists was “Are We Freer Than We Were Ten Years Ago?”; Krauthammer, who gave the event’s keynote address, supplied his answer in the form of an autopsy of the GOP’s 2012 bid for the White House. His comments were refreshingly even-handed yet searingly critical of the Right. Although I often disagree with him, Krauthammer has a seriousness, a knack for self-criticism, and an understanding of political philosophy that make him worth listening to each time you hear his papery and discerning voice.
I plan on posting and writing more about his Bradley talk and exchange with George in the future.
In the meantime, read an anecdote Krauthammer cited in his speech, about Winston Churchill talking political philosophy in the restroom. Then check out Ronald Reagan’s letter about what the founders meant to him, or read Mark Leibovich’s recent interview about how their vision has been corrupted by today’s Washington:
Churchill in the Restroom
The American Founding according to Reagan
A Political Culture that Rewards Cowardice