Anyone interested in what shaped the United States’ founding generation’s views on human nature, virtue and purpose ought to read Carl J. Richard’s The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome and the American Enlightenment. Richard’s comprehensive study of the founders’ classical reading provides a clear and useful reference point to square back to when confronting modern problems.
The founding fathers, as you are likely aware, were a fascinating group of individuals whose ideologies were as distinct as their personal backgrounds. Richard notes that they lived in an era that “witnessed a shift form ‘classical republicanism,’which emphasized civic duty and social cohesion, to ‘liberalism’ (or ‘modern republicanism’), which stressed individual rights and the self-regulating marketplace.”
Richard went on to note that “Classical Republicanism was, in many ways, the parent of liberalism. The birth of liberalism was messy, painful and debilitating to the parent. Liberalism has since reached a hardy old age and seems destined to outlive even its own prodigal son, Marxism. Whether it will serve as parent to yet another ideology remains to be seen.” An intriguing thought, wouldn’t you say?
While much on earth has changed due to the scientific and commercial advances over the last couple of decades, I venture to say that human nature has not changed one iota. The risk of devolving into absolutism is no less likely than it was in the early years of our country.
Granted there is much more momentum in the direction of liberalism and its underlying tenets, but the possibility is still there, especially given the propensity on the part of so many to refuse to exercise the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with their individual rights and decline the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing political discourse in any meaningful (read: not just complaining) way.
While I am not convinced that human nature was always as problematic and slippery as it is now, it is what it is at the moment and there remains a great need to continue to have societal structures in place that keep it under control. One particular quality that must be emphasized and reinforced is the matter of restraint. Unrestrained, human nature tends toward excess, as is evidenced by the challenges facing the administrators of our states across the country.
Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO, spoke at a recent TED conference on the theme of state budgets and education, a topic in terrible need of a fresh and saner perspective. Gates’ presentation is just ten minutes long, nevertheless it is chock-full of food for thought:
When Gates’ talk is set against the backdrop of the recent data on Detroit’s population crash over the last decade (http://tinyurl.com/47hz4ax), it is clear to me that our old accounting and our former ways are no longer valid in the new reality.
We live in a time as tumultuous as that of our founding fathers. While they were faced with the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Financial Revolution, the Commercial Revolution, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and more, we are faced with the new realities ushered in by the Globalization of Trade, the failure of Communism, the Information Revolution, the Rise of the East and more.
In my experience in small business, the component parts of a corporation are most easily moved during times of tumult. If the principle applies in a broader sense, I have to wonder if we are witnessing as well as being offered the chance to participate in the conception of the child of Liberalism?
If so, we had better be on our toes. We had better look at the problems we face with the understanding that the world and the way things work have changed – not just incrementally, insignificantly and temporarily – but appreciably, and for good. To fail to do so puts us at risk of regression in a time when forward and upward movement is just as possible and likely an outcome.