It is an age-old adage in political philosophy to have a well-ordered soul, which corresponds to a well-ordered regime.
The famous ancient Greek command to “know thyself” should not be lost in what seems to be the coming era of American disorder.
Any viewing of popular culture suggests that we, as Americans, have forgotten who we are and no longer contemplate our societal or interior existence.
The most recent MTV Video Music Awards demonstrate that we have not just lost a sense of modesty, but of shame, innocence, reverence, respect for life and the dignity of the human person. If, as Socrates suggests, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” perhaps ISIS has a point for targeting the West. We are lost. We don’t know who we are as individuals, or a nation-state.
OUR ONTOLOGICAL being is blurred by the shadows cast in Plato’s allegorical cave. We are oppressed by popular figures, celebrities, politicians and academics who push agendas on “we the people” in the form of truth – or, rather, as opinions of truth, rather than truth itself – which must be ever carefully guarded, and ever carefully investigated. This is the point of political philosophers; this is the point of my series of columns that will follow.
Where do we begin? At the beginning, of course.
American exceptionalism is a unique regime, established and protected by a unique Constitution, considered sacred in political terms by the 55 Founding Fathers – who were also, even with their obvious character flaws, exceptional in their own right.
To save that exceptionalism, we must return to the past.
This is Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous argument in Democracy in America: “Peoples always feel (the effects of) their origins. The circumstances that accompanied their birth and served to develop them influence the entire course of the rest of their lives.”
For de Tocqueville, America’s point of departure begins with the New England colonies, which had two remarkable features that characterized our nation’s birth: township independence, and an awe of God manifested in religion.
On townships, by which we understand as local governance, de Tocqueville writes, “One sees them at each instant performing an act of sovereignty; they name their magistrates, make peace and war, establish police regulations, give themselves laws, as if they came under God alone.”
He continues, “Nothing is both more singular and more instructive than the legislation of this period: there above all one finds the password to the great social enigma that the United States presents to the world in our day.”
This enigma is local colonial governance, manifested by colonial charters, that often take the form of covenants (if the reader requires proof of this, seek out the Connecticut Code – Constitution – of 1650).
WITHIN THIS PERIOD, the New England colonists understood Plato’s concerns that the political regime could not be well-ordered if individual souls were disordered. So, the colonists made their local codes, through a process of direct democracy not seen since antiquity, moral in tone, based on their religion.
Russell Kirk writes, “All the aspects of any civilization arise out of a people’s religion. … For until human beings are tied together by some common faith, and share certain moral principles, they prey upon one another.”
They understood that to have a decent society – a stable society – they must create the conditions for a stable soul. Through such mechanisms, de Tocqueville writes, “one can say that the township had been organized before the county, the county before the state, and the state before the Union.”
How far we have devolved from this original point of origin.
But we have also ventured away from religion. Even for those who don’t profess faith, like some of our Founding Fathers, it is best for society to silence public disbelief, for the sake of preserving the fear of God in others. This is needed for a well-ordered society – and, for some, a well-ordered soul.
The roots of our moral order, so lost today, date to Moses. Kirk writes, “Yet it is the Law made known through Moses that has survived, and which still works upon the society in which we live.”
It is this law that created the moral foundations for colonial society – a law which tied moral conduct, when rightly observed, from individual to individual and to God. In other words, the community meant something; individuals understood their responsibilities to the self, to their family, to their neighbor and to God.
TODAY WE HAVE lost respect for these two common foundations of American society: local governance and respect for religion. Both of these variables point to a need for adherence to personal responsibility. Both teach personal responsibility. Even if one does not believe in religion, one can still see the moral fabric it can sew into society by decent individuals, creating the common moral foundations that lead to stability.
It’s a stability that would stop cop-killings – an order where “black lives matter,” an order where tolerance and diversity are upheld because the people understand we are equal under,
as Jefferson put it, “The God of nature” and “Nature’s God.”
To resolve our country’s ills, we must examine the present through the past. When we do, we find two elements missing: township independence and religion.
Is it merely a coincidence that as our society increases its centralization, hedonism and atheism that our national debt and violent crime increase, and we witness a return to racial prejudices by individuals of all skin tones?
Perhaps a return to the virtues of our past can remedy our future.
(The writer is an assistant political science professor at Augusta University. You can follow him on Twitter – @polscountrydoc.)