Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'If angels were to govern men'

By a quite unplanned series of links, I stumbled across The Federalist#51 and read it for probably the first time since high school.

It was far more interesting than I remembered it to be, and one passage struck me not only because of its insight but because of its odd poetry. (Eighteenth-century English is often tiresome and needlessly florid, but perhaps for that reason there are exceptions that stand out all the more clearly.)

It is part of an argument by the author, James Madison, about the necessity of 'checks and balances' between different departments of government:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

There is, obviously, a great deal of context--both personal and political--in which this passage (and the essay as a whole) could be placed, and I'm far from an expert on this (or any other) period of American history.

But simply as a statement in itself, I think it has stood up quite well, over the centuries.


Tom said...

I think Belief in God is the biggest "check" on human tyranny.

Thus, it is not merely the opinion of current Biggest Cheese Alpha Male (i.e. Putin in Russia), but "all men are endowed by their Creator" with the human rights that have made America so great. Still imperfect, but great.

J. Carter Wood said...

I appreciate your comment, Tom, but I disagree completely.

It's not difficult to find examples in the world of of tyrannies where belief in God is alive and well.

Such as...well Putin's Russia, for example, just to take up the case you mentioned. The mixture of religious (in this case Orthodox Chrisitanity) fanaticism, nationalism and militarism is quite powerful there, you may have noticed.

I would suggest it's the belief in the rights rather than in the creator (along with probably several dozen other economic, social and cultural factors, along with a healthy dose of contingency) that has made America the quite tolerable republic that it is, by historical standards.

Those founders were not stupid men, and they were sceptical about the Big Cheese in the Sky.

One more reason to respect them.

Thanks for stopping by.