skip to Main Content

An “Ever Better” Constitution? Progressivism as Ideology and the U.S. Constitution

An “Ever Better” Constitution? Progressivism As Ideology And The U.S. Constitution

As a document written in the 1700’s, all the framers of the U.S. Constitution as well as their immediate relatives, friends, and colleagues are now deceased. We are only left with the document itself and The Federalist Papers for contemporary interpretation. The Federalist Papers are, “the single most important resource for interpreting the Constitution, it provides a wise and sophisticated explanation for the uses and abuses of governmental power” (Meyerson, 2008, ix).

One issue that liberals and conservatives fight over regarding the Constitution is whether the Constitution is a progressivist document. By progressivist, people assert that the document was written in the 1700’s, and the ideas, beliefs, and concepts are dated and incapable of having any practical application today. One policy area where this idea is vociferously argued is the second amendment. A cursory Google search shows articles and videos of people who believe that the second amendment was referring to primitive guns like muskets, and was never intended to cover the high-powered precision artillery of today.

In the following article, the case is made that the U.S. Constitution is not a progressivist document, and that the founders did not subscribe to the ideology of progressivism. This argument is made in three parts. The first part discusses the tenets of the progressivist ideology, originally known as Meliorism. The second part articulates the Tragic Nature of the human condition, Meliorism’s diametric opposition. The final section extrapolates the tenets of the competing ideologies and then compares and contrasts them with the Federalist Papers.

Briefly, a basic explanation of the conflicting beliefs is necessary. Meliorism emanated out of the Enlightenment. The first Meliorist was Jean Rousseau. He believed that human beings were born benevolent and naturally good, but society corrupts us (Melzer, 1990). The evil in the world comes not from within us as human beings, but is introduced to us from without, via society (Melzer, 1990). The Meliorist believes that because society is the source of evil, by tinkering with and adjusting society, we can bring about a more equitable and perfect world. This is the first principle premise of Meliorism. The second principle is a belief in progress- not of science, technology, medicine, or even how we treat people- but progress in human nature. We, in the present age, are better than previous ages.

Meliorism’s opposition is the Tragic Nature of the human condition. The evils of the world are introduced not from without, via society, but are sewn into the very fabric of the human condition. The Tragic nature of the human condition also believes that human nature is constant. We, as human beings, are no better, worse, or any different than our ancestors.

Now that a basic understanding of the conflict is understood, a deeper discussion is necessary. The work and thought of Edmund Burke and Jean Rousseau are heavily relied on to support these points. Following the section on the Tragic Nature, a table comparing the two ideologies is made to help the reader.

Meliorism

The single most important premise in the Meliorist philosophy is predicated on Rousseau’s belief in the natural goodness of man. As Rousseau said, “man is naturally good, and that is solely by these institutions that men become wicked” (Rousseau, 1762, p. 2). Rousseau acknowledges that this is the single most important idea in his work and thought. He said:

“The fundamental principle of all morality, upon which I have reasoned in all my writings and which I developed with all the clarity of which I am capable is that man is a being who is naturally good, loving justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and the first movements of nature are always good.” (Rousseau, 1762B)

Those who follow in Rousseau’s footsteps believe that, “evil derives from society rather than from their sinful natures and that it may be cured or ameliorated through human . . . action” (Melzer, 1990, p. 19). Because evil comes from without and not from within, “then perhaps it could be overcome by reordering society. In principle, Rousseau opens up radical new hopes for politics, utopian, messianic . . . hopes that it can transform the human condition, bring secular salvation, make all men healthy and happy” (Melzer, 1990, p. 23).

The natural goodness of man means that we are devoid of an evil inclination. Rousseau thus felt that, “the first of all goods. . . is freedom” (Rousseau, 1762B). Societal restraints and laws corrupt us because they prohibit the natural goodness of man from shining. Melzer commented that, “In short, Rousseau attempts here to bestow on virtue the splendor of self-creation, absolute freedom, or what later came to be called ‘autonomy’” (1990, p. 105).  Autonomy and freedom are the pinnacle of human action for Rousseau and his disciples, believing it is the first and most important step towards transforming human nature for the better. Rousseau and his disciples believe man needs as much freedom as possible, obviating the need for restraint.

Reordering society, tinkering with our laws, customs, and traditions, is Rousseau’s way of bringing about utopia. Rousseau’s desire to, “transform the human condition” (Melzer, 1990, p. 23) and bring about utopian and messianic transformation relates to his belief that, “there is no original perversity” (Rousseau, 1762B) in man. The word, “Original” in this phrase alludes directly to the Augustinian doctrine of Original-Sin. Original-Sin is the idea that Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, ate from the Tree of Knowledge, sinning. God punished them for it by casting them out of utopia, where everything was provided for them without any concept of scarcity. The concepts of labor and tragedy were concurrently introduced as punishment. Eve must labor via childbirth, and Adam, by the sweat of his brow for his sustenance. No longer is life utopian. Now, it is tragic.

The rejection of Original-Sin by Rousseau is a rejection of god and the Church (Kirk, 1967). No longer needing god and the church for salvation, “Man must become his own savior” (Cassirer, 1989, p. 76). Since our natural benevolence is corrupted by society and not Original-Sin, we are capable of messianic and utopian perfectibility. As Marks (2005) said, “Perfectibility enables human beings, over time, to be altered or to alter themselves in response to circumstances” (p. 27).  Rousseau felt that perfectibility was:

“the specific gift that differentiates man from all other natural beings. . . . He does not tarry in his original condition, but strives beyond it; he is not content with the range and kind of existence which are the original fights of nature nor does he stop until he has devised for himself a new form of existence that is his own” (Cassirer, 1989, p. 105).

Man can create a new form of existence better than the one given to him via nature. Rousseau said, “One who dares to undertake the founding of a people should feel that he is capable of changing human nature . . . of transforming each individual” (Rousseau, 1762). That transformation has a logical concluding point for Rousseau: perfectibility (Marks, 2005, p. 3).

Perfectibility is attainable because evil emanates not from within, but is introduced from without via society. As Kautz said of Rousseau’s belief:

“that the human being is almost infinitely malleable . . . that the history of the human species . . . so distances us from our original nature that it is hard to see any longer what guidance our speculations about nature or human nature can provide for our various pursuits” (as quoted by Marks, 2005, p. 11).

Rousseau believed in a “state-of-nature” (Melzer, 1990). This state-of-nature existed before there ever was a formal version of society, an ideal Rousseau longed to return to (Melzer, 1990). However, because it was so long ago, it and its lessons are too remote for us today in the present to matter. This is the origin of Rousseau’s belief- and the Meliorists after him- of progress in human nature.

This is why Rousseau said, “the human race of one age [is not] the human race of another” (Rousseau, 1753). The human race of today is not the same one of yesterday because, “human nature does not retrograde” (Rousseau, 1753). We do not move backwards, only forwards. Hence, progress in human nature. The progressive element of human nature further means that, “Yesterday’s law is not binding today” (Rousseau, 1762C). Rousseau must “create new human beings” (Melzer, 1990, p. 90) to create a better world in the future.

Again, because of our natural goodness and lack of Original Sin, the corrupting nature of society, the progressive nature of man, and our infinite malleability, Rousseau felt confident that by altering our political systems, “through revolution, men can aspire not only to change rulers but to transform the human condition itself” (Melzer, 1990, p. 262). He said, “It is certain that all peoples become in the long run what the government makes them” (Rousseau, 1762C).

One of the goals Rousseau believed the government should aspire to is to make man return to the natural equitable state we lived in before society corrupted us. As he said in the Discourse on the origin of inequality (1753):

“The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, “This is mine,” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: “Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!’” (Rousseau,  P. 44)

We were born as pure equals living happily in our state-of-nature (Rousseau, 1753). It was only until a person selfishly decided to appropriate property as his own that our corruption began. From that moment forward, civil society existed, and through it, the corruption of our natural goodness.

Thus, the goal of Rousseau’s social engineering: a return to our natural equality before society corrupted us. This equity was the ultimate goal of the General Will, Rousseau’s raison d’etre. As Rousseau said, “The social compact established an equality between the citizens. . . such that they all engage themselves under the same conditions and should all benefit from the same rights” (1762, p. 34). Melzer refers to Rousseau as a, “passionate egalitarian,” (1990, p. 155); he created the General Will, a, “rigidly egalitarian doctrine and realistically clung to it” (Melzer, 1990, p. 155). He believed that in our state-of-nature, we were equals, but with civil society’s inception, “inequality. . . had come about through a tragic fall into social relations” (Blum, 1989, p. 54).

Rousseau sought a return to this type of equitable utopia. His vision was a world where:

“one in which each member can be known by all, and where no one is forced to charge a man with a greater burden than he can carry, the one which can get along without other peoples and which other peoples can do without. The one which is neither too rich nor too poor and can suffice unto itself, finally the one which unites the consistency of an ancient people with the docility of a new people” (Rousseau, 1762C).

Rousseau believed this utopian existence was possible because he had, “This innate benevolence for my fellow man” (Rousseau, 1782). This is a belief that human beings are all brothers and sisters, and we are all one people.

The means of achieving this utopia of a united people would require a person of superior abilities, a great-man capable of rising above the masses. He said:

“To discover the best rules of society appropriate to the Nations . . . it would take a superior intelligence, who sees all human passions and who does not experience any of them, who would have no connection with our nature and who would know it to the core, whose happiness would be independent of us and yet who would be willing to take care of ours” (Rousseau, 1762C).

Thomas Sowell refers to this type of person and this person’s duty to guide us as, “the vision of the anointed” (Sowell, 1995). The anointed are enlightened, exist on a higher intellectual and moral plane than the rest of us, and they know what is truly best for everyone, so we must follow their will (Sowell, 1995).

The utopian faith in our natural goodness, the universal benevolence of man, our natural equality, and faith in the anointed are the reasons Rousseau wanted to concentrate power in the General Will. He wanted there to be no intermediary bodies between the individual and the general will (Rousseau, 1762). This amalgam included the church, the family unit, and the corporate trade guild of the Ancient Regime (Rousseau, 1762). This lack of middle institutions creates a strong centralized governmental body, as opposed to a decentralized government with checks and balances on power.

Rousseau was the godfather of the Enlightenment and his work and thought set the stage for all of those who came after him. Rousseau believed that, “the appropriate manipulation of environmental factors could lead to human perfectibility” (Wintston, 2005, p. 31), and that, “if the individual- the basic building block of society- could be perfected, so too could the entire social order” (Winston, 2005, p. 21). Rousseau influenced men like William Godwin, Condorcet, the Abbe Sieyes, and James Mackintosh, his fellow Meliorists. All the premises Rousseau established, they built upon to further the Meliorist ideology.

As the Abbe Sieyes once said, “religion. . . was the first enemy of man” (as quoted by Sewell, Jr., 1994, p. 12). He opined that, “the perfectibility of man is arrested, his efforts diverted; rather than increasing his knowledge and his pleasures on earth, these are transported and led astray in the heavens” (Sieyes, as quoted by Sewell, Jr., 1994, p. 12). Just as Rousseau rejected the doctrine of Original-Sin, so too did he. By freeing himself from the grip of the church, religion, and god, he was no longer concerned with heaven and the afterlife. He then reasoned that he, as well as those who believe as he does, should forego waiting for rewards in the afterlife and should instead attempt to bring heaven here on earth, i.e. utopia. Social engineering is the way to achieve it.

William Godwin, a man Thomas Sowell (1987) referred to as the first social-justice warrior, believed in, “the progressive nature of man” (1793, p. 161); that the, “principles of justice proceed on the equality of mankind” (1791, p. 181); that, “every generation is further removed from in its physical structure from the savage” (1793, p. 467); that because of the distance from the state-of-nature, “Nothing must be sustained, because it is ancient, because we have been accustomed to regard it as sacred, or because it has been unusual to bring its validity into question” (as quoted by Sowell, 1987, p 40). Godwin, believing in the progressive nature of man, believes that older things are by their very nature obsolete. He strongly felt that, “One of the most unquestionable characteristics of the human mind appears to be its progressive nature” (Godwin, 1793, p. 567). We are, “capable of unlimited improvement” (Godwin, 1793, p. 501).

In the same vein as Rousseau, who believed that we must reorder society to bring about a better world, Godwin felt that, “excellencies and defects of the human character not derived from causes beyond the reach and the ingenuity to modify and correct” (1793, p. 110). Tinkering with society to fix the world is supported by his belief that, “Politics is a science” (1793, p. 273), and because of the natural equality of man, we can apply, “rules, uniform in their nature, are equally applicable to the whole of the whole human race” (1793, p. 407). Human beings are equal and will universally respond to formulaic social engineering as though they are pieces on a chessboard.

Condorcet, a contemporary of Godwin’s, shared his optimism of the human condition. He said he believed in a, “Gradual advance towards absolute perfection” (1794, p. 31); the, “natural equality of man” (1794, p. 132); the, “moral goodness of man susceptible to indefinite improvement” (1794, p. 233); and the, “science of calculations to the individual” (1794, p. 225). This is the same belief as Godwin’s in human beings responding to social policy like mathematical formularies.

Condorcet believed that we are progressing away from a state of brutality. He said, “as every prospect assures us, the human race shall not again relapse into its ancient barbarity” (1794, p. 204). This progress in human nature lead him to the same distaste for anything old: “everything that bears the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect” (as quoted by Sowell, 1987, p. 40). As we move further in time, we journey further away from the state-of-nature, and we experience, “progress in principle of conduct, and in moral conduct” (1794, p. 211).

Another Meliorist of this period, James Mackintosh, believed his time was the, “commencement of a new era in history” (Mackintosh, 1791, p. 52). He knew that, “the miseries of the human race are about to be alleviated” (as quoted by Stanlis, 1991, p. 122), and that, “society is inevitably progressive” (as quoted by Stanlis, 1991 p. 123).

While there are other elements to the Meliorist doctrine, the forgoing elements discussed are the most important. The Meliorist is one who believes in the natural goodness of man and who does not believe in Original-Sin; someone who believes in the perfectibility of man; the perfectibility of society through social engineering; that human beings are susceptible to social scientific formulas like pieces on a chessboard; that human nature is infinitely malleable. The Meliorists believe that society corrupts us; that human nature and society are progressive; the progressive nature of society makes older things obsolete by virtue of their age. They believe in “the anointed” to lead the rest of civilization; is utopian in nature; that the progressive nature of man necessitates new rules, customs, traditions, and laws; that rules imposed on us by society are preventing our natural goodness from prospering and therefore must be exorcised. For the Meliorists, freedom and autonomy are the highest forms of human action. They believe in a concentration and centralization of political power.

The next section articulates the counter-Meliorist ideology, the Tragic Nature of the human condition. Following the conclusion of the next section, a chart comparing and contrasting the two ideologies is made to help the reader.

The Tragic Nature of the Human Condition

The Tragic Nature of the human condition is diametrically opposed to the Meliorist view of life. As the most important premise of Rousseau’s thought was the natural goodness of man and the rejection of Original-Sin, that is the most appropriate and logical starting point to articulate the tenets of the Tragic Nature of the human condition.

Those who believe that the human condition is tragic believe we were born neither purely good, nor purely evil, but with a dualism instead. As Edmund Burke once said:

“We must soften into a credulity below the milkiness of infancy to think all men virtuous. We must be tainted with a malignity truly diabolical, to believe all the world to be equally wicked and corrupt. Men are in public life as in private, some good, some evil. The elevation of the one, the depression of the other, are the first objects of all true policy” (Burke, 1770).

Burke was weary of the idea of the natural goodness of man. He felt elevating man to a place of natural goodness was dangerous. As Burke said, “There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief” (1791, para. 8). Believing exclusively in the natural goodness of man ignores the possibility that men are capable of harm and evil. This was wildly incongruent with Burke’s view of human nature.

Burke understood that, “We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality” (Burke, 1790, para. 144). Unlike the Meliorists, those who believe in the Tragic Nature of the human condition believe that, “by definition, human nature is constant. Because of that constancy, men of vision were able to describe the norms, the rules for mankind” (Kirk, 1989, p. 39). Human nature is constant, fixed, and unchanging. We are not progressing, but instead are no better, worse, or any different than our ancestors. As it said in the book of Ecclesiastes, “One generation passeth away, another generation cometh, but the Earth abideth forever” (Ecclesiastes, as quoted by McDonald, 2004, p. 111). Because human nature is constant and unchanging, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes, as quoted by McDonald, 2004, p. 111). Human beings are the same as we have always been, and will continue to be.

The Tragic Nature of the human condition tells us that we can never perfect human nature. As Burke said, “That man thinks much too highly, and therefore he thinks weakly and delusively, of any contrivance of human wisdom, who believes that it can make any sort of perfection” (Burke, 1780). Burke knew that, “There is by the essential fundamental constitution of things, a radical infirmity in human contrivance” (Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, 1986, p. 178).

Burke, like many of his contemporaries, was a devout Christian (Kirk, 1967). This is the reason Burke felt perfection was an impossibility. Burke believed that due to Original-Sin, there exists an inherent defect in humanity. Eden was utopia, a place we were cast out of for this sin. We can never have utopia on Earth again. God introduced scarcity when we were exiled; God introduced tragedy in our lives with our exile. God punished us for Original-Sin with labor. As Burke said:

“It is the common doom of man that he must eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, that is, by the sweat of his body, or the sweat of his mind. . . .Every attempt to fly from it, and to refuse the very terms of our existence, becomes much more truly a curse” (Burke, 1797, pp. 267-268).

No matter how much governmental social engineering we apply, we cannot eradicate the Tragic Nature of the human condition. Tragedy is sewn into the fabric of humanity, and it is immutable. Fighting it will only cause more problems than we would have had initially, had we accepted this premise in the first place.

The combination of the constant state of human nature plus the norms predicated on the Tragic Nature of the human condition is what T.S. Eliot referred to as, “the Permanent Things” (Eliot, 1939). The Permanent Things are diametrically opposed to the Meliorist view of progress in human nature and perfectibility of the world. When we, as imperfect creatures, fight the Permanent Things, we fall (Kirk, 1989).

Adam Smith shared Burke’s sentiments. He knew human beings were flawed, and that these flaws lurk inside each and every one of us. He spoke of, “all the passions of human nature, those not expected to do the least honour to our species, such as lust, hunger, avarice, envy, revenge” (Smith, 1759, p. 112).  These are flaws that emanate from within; they are not introduced to us via society. These flaws prevent human beings from attaining perfection.

Smith believed that human beings are not as malleable the Meliorists will tell you. He said, “He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard” (Smith, 1759, p. 140). Human beings are irrational and therefore unpredictable (Haidt, 2013); we cannot attach formulas to them and expect results. He continued, as he said, “but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it” (Smith, 1759, p. 140).

Burke and Smith shared congruent sentiments of the government’s ability to make men. Burke said, “We cannot think of making men and binding nature to our designs” (1791, para. 44). Burke understood that, “Politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature” (1769).

The nature of man is not benevolent, but beastly. Burke knew that men have unruly passions and appetites that necessitate restraints. He said “a life of absolute licence tends to turn men into savages” (Burke, 1757). He further felt that when you, “Leave a man to his passions . . . you leave a wild beast to his wild and capricious nature” (Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, 1986, p. 168). Therefore, Burke felt men necessitate restraints- the exact opposite belief of Rousseau- which is why he said:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters” (Burke, 1791).

Burke did not share Rousseau’s opinion that we need as much freedom as possible. He felt that restraint was the pinnacle of human action, rather than autonomy.

Burke refused to accept Rousseau’s mind frame that supported the idea of universal benevolence. He said, “their moral hero constantly to exhaust the stores of his powerful rhetoric in the expression of universal benevolence” (Burke, 1791, para. 28). The man Burke refers to here is none other than Rousseau himself. Burke continued: “whilst his heart was incapable of harbouring one spark of common parental affection. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy” (Burke, 1791, para. 28). Burke’s line of, “whilst his heart was incapable of harbouring one spark of common parental affection” (Burke, 1791, para. 28) alluded to the fact that Rousseau had five children, all of whom were dropped off at an orphanage before he even bothered to name them (Stanlis, 1991). Universal benevolence was highly hypocritical coming from this self-indulgent  man.

Burke admired both the law, and the work of William Blackstone (Stanlis, 1989). As Blackstone said, “As it is impossible for the whole race of mankind to be united in one great society, they must necessarily divide into many” (Blackstone, as quoted by Stanlis, 1989, p. 86). Burke believed that, “the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle . . . of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind” (Burke, 1790, para. 75). Burke knew that a person could not love the whole world, nor could that concept be the starting point of affection. Burke believed that our concept of love starts first and foremost in the family, and then springs forth outward to local community, then national, and then if possible, the word at large.

Burke believed that we were born first and foremost into families, which are hierarchical. This is a direct negation of Rousseau’s state-of-nature hypothesis, where we are born free, equal, and unencumbered by society’s evils that corrupt our natural goodness. He knew neither Rousseau, nor anyone else, could substantiate or prove the state-of-nature theory. Burke knew our origins were an agnostic pursuit, as he said: “Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable” (Burke, 1791). This was Burke’s staunch defended the hierarchical family unit as our only tangible origin point in life (Botting, 2006). He defended the idea notion of just-inequity and hierarchy, as he said, “those who attempt to level, never equalise. . . .The levellers therefore only change and pervert the natural order of things” (1790, para. 79).

Rousseau and the Meliorists valued equality and what is new as moral foundations. This vaulted their own opinions, sense of personal reason, and a belief in what is latest is best at the expense of deferring to their elders, superiors, or history. They chose instead to look inwards, something Burke disagreed with completely. Burke believed that “They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one.” (1790, para. 146)

Burke believed that custom and tradition were handed down to us as the wisdom of our ancestors. Tradition is the manifestation of that wisdom, distilled for us. No one human being could ever possess the sufficient intellectual capital to understand the totality of the human condition in the same manner that tradition could. He said, “the individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right” (Burke, 1782). History is the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors, and it is an invaluable tool in lighting the way for humanity as we would otherwise fumble in the dark. If the work and thought of Burke could be succinctly summarized into one idea, it would be that human beings necessitate restraints on their passions and appetites, lest they run amok. Power is one of those unruly passions and appetites, necessitating restraint.

To conclude, the believer in the Tragic Nature of the human condition believes that human nature is constant and unchanging; the human condition is tragic; Original-Sin introduced tragedy, scarcity, and labor into our lives. The Tragic Nature teaches us that we are not equals, and hierarchy is natural and just; we are not benevolent, but beastly; we cannot treat human beings like they are pieces on a chessboard who respond to formulaic laws; we must conform law to our nature, not try to conform nature to our laws. History is a valuable tool, not the dead-weight of yesteryear. The corrupted nature of man is intrinsic to the human condition and not introduced via society. No one person can know enough to dictate what is best for society. Traditions and custom represent the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. They are not only an assemblage of valuable lessons, but a guidepost for future generations.

Table Comparing Beliefs

Table 1: comparing beliefs

MeliorismTragic Nature
Human Nature:PerfectibleFlawed
Human Nature: ProgressiveConstant
Human Nature:Naturally GoodEthical dualism
Human Beings:Naturally EqualNatural and just inequities
Governance:Fit people to formulas, laws, and ideasFit formulas to people, human nature, and the natural law
Governance:Superior beings to leadUse history instead of individuals
Government:Capable of changing human natureIncapable of changing human nature
Governance:Concentrate power in a fewRestrained & decentralized power
Knowledge:UnlimitedLimited
History: Dead weight of yesteryearSource of guidance
Source of problems:SocietyHuman beings
Goal of Society:Socially engineered utopiaIncapable of socially engineering utopia, make life tolerable
Religion:Prevents enjoyment in the presentJudeo-Christian belief in afterlife
Religion:Anti-Original-SinBelief in Original-Sin

 

Relation to Mankind: Universal benevolenceLimited loyalties; world too big to love everyone
Societal Restraints:Prevent natural goodness of manNecessary to prevent beastly nature of man

 

This table serves as guide to interpreting the Federalist Papers to determine which of the two beliefs systems they appear to conform to. The next section articulates a detailed examination of the Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers

The Federalist papers are, “the authoritative papers on the Constitution” (Furtwangler, 1984, p. 17). They are, “an authority to which appeal is habitually made bay all” (Furtwangler, 1984, p. 37).  Dietze (1960) said they are a, “Treatise on free government in peace and security” (p. 3). The Federalist Papers, “are an interpretation that draws out the reasoning latent in the text” (Kesler, 1987, p. 4), which helps us understand the constitution.

The Federalist Papers are essentially an instruction manual, a guide, and a tool that aids in our interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. To assess the question as to whether the Constitution is in fact a progressivist document, they are the key. The Federalist Papers are referred to in this section numerically. For example, instead of writing Federalist Papers number one, they are hereby referred to as, #1.

The first point of assessment for the Meliorist ideology would be the perfectibility of man. Do the Federalist Papers support this ideological belief?

Throughout the Federalist Papers, there is an overwhelming amount of discussion about, “the imperfection of the human faculties” (#37, 1787, p. 172), “the infirmities and depravities of the human character” (#37, 1787, p. 174), that the, “reason of man continues fallible” (#10, 1787, p. 42), that, “latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man” (#10, 1787, p. 43), that, “the causes of faction cannot be removed” (#10, 1787, p. 44), and that, “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man” (#85, 1787, p. 429). As Dietze said, they take, “on the whole, a rather pessimistic view of view of human nature: This raises the question of whether. . . believe man can be improved. The answer is in the negative” (Dietze, 1960, p. 259). This supports a belief in the Tragic Nature of the human condition: imperfectible, with these imperfections sewn into the fabric of our nature instead of introduced to us via society.

Should the Federalist papers take a view that human nature is progressing, they would treat history as the deadweight of yesteryear. History, and the things emanating from it, would be obsolete. It would also take a superior view of the present over the past. History is mentioned throughout the Federalist Papers, most heavily in numbers 18-22. Publius said it, “would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages” (1787, p. 21); “the Roman Republic attained to the pinnacle of human greatness” (#34, 1787, p. 154); and, “Let us consult experience, the guide that ought always to be followed whenever it can be found” (#52, 1787, p, 258). In #25, Publius said, “For it is a truth, which the experience of all ages has attested” (1787, p. 117). This is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s phrase, “the Permanent Things,” and the passages from Ecclesiastes quoted in the previous section. These quotes from Publius illustrate the utility of history, its wisdom, and lauding of a bygone era’s excellence. These quotes are aligned with the Tragic view.

Another tenet of the Meliorist philosophy is the application of formulas to human beings, believing it will work in manipulating human action like the pieces on a chessboard. Publius said, “Nothing can be more fallacious that to found our principle calculations on arithmetical principles” (#55, 1787, p. 272). Clearly, Publius finds this viewpoint to be predicated on a faulty premise. This quote also corroborates the idea that the government’s laws cannot change human beings, but that laws must be made to man’s nature.

Do the Federalist Papers take a utopian view of the world? Do they believe in man’s natural benevolence and that we are all brothers? As Publius said in #6, “A man must be pretty far gone in Utopian speculations” (1787, p. 21), indicating a negative belief in utopianism. Publius also said, “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt a practical maxim” (#6, 1787, p. 26). Publius believed the world is a large place, factions are inevitable, and that envy and jealousy- two words used throughout the Federalist Papers- are intrinsic to the human condition. Publius understood that jealousies and the corrupted nature of man lead to the fact that, “Neighboring Nations. . . are natural enemies of each other’” (l’Abbe de Mably, as quoted by Publius, 1787, p. 26). The world is large, human beings are tribal and factious, and neighbors fight. In #17, Publius said, “It is a known fact in human nature that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. . . . A man is more attached to his family than his neighborhood, his neighborhood than to the community at large” (p. 78). This is nearly identical to Burke’s idea of the “little platoon,” which believes that we love according to the principle of subsidiarity.

The theory of the natural goodness of man lead Rousseau to believe that freedom is the most important good for man. Restraints imposed on us by society corrupt us and prohibit the natural goodness of man from reaching its full potential. Burke believed that human beings necessitate those societal restraints to prevent the beastly nature of man from taking over. Should Publius believe in Rousseau’s Melioristic vision, they would advocate for removing restraints, but if they believe in Burke’s view, then they would advocate for them.

First and foremost, the thrust of the U.S. Constitution is a system of checks and balances. The idea is that concentrating power into one person or branch leads to tyranny, and therefore, good government necessitates restraints. This is the exact opposite sentiment of Rousseau’s general will. As Ryn said, “It is important to note that Rousseau regards the general will as incompatible with constitutional restraints on the people. . . .The cause of the good society is not threatened by man’s first impulse, which is always good” (Ryn, 1978, p. 13).

One of the more famous lines of the Federalist Papers, in #15, is, “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint” (1787, p. 70). They knew that, “Power is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained” (#47, 1787, p. 242). Publius, in another of the classic lines from the Federalist Papers, opined that, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” (#51, 1787, p. 254). At the conclusion of the paragraph the previous quote came from, Publius said, “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” (#51, 1787, p. 254). Publius concluded the paragraph when he said, “You must enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. . . .Experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions” (#51, 1787, p. 254).

The most striking aspects of these thoughts and quotes is the similarity to Burke’s thought and syntax. In his Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795), Burke said, “This maxim is not made for a middle sort of beings, who, because they cannot be Angels, ought to thwart their ambition and not endeavour to become infernal spirits” (p. 336). Burke and Publius both understood that a government needs the ability to not only control the governed, but also themselves. Burke said:

“Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights” (Burke, 1790, para. 95).

The people are not alone in necessitating restraint. The government needs it too.

Additionally, just as Burke spoke of the “common doom of man that he must eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, that is, by the sweat of his body, or the sweat of his mind” (1797, p. 267), Madison expressed similar language in a similar thought, albeit at a later day. He said: “Heaven, in decreeing man to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow” (Madison, 1792).

Finally, Pubius uttered the words that, “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and not improbable, corrupt his integrity” (#10, 1787, p. 19). Burke, in an almost identical thought, said, “One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is, that no man should be judge in his own cause” (Burke, 1790, para. 94).

These similarities in syntax do not necessarily prove anything about Publius’ beliefs. However, they do provide an additional piece of evidence linking Publius and Burke.

One of Burke’s famous lines was that our “passions forge our fetters” (1791). Burke believed that our passions were running the show, and reason was a subordinate second-in-command. Levin (2014) articulated that the Enlightenment was known as the “Age of Reason.” People began abandoning tradition and custom as the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors in favor of looking inward towards their own natural reasoning. Burke believed that our passions instruct our sense of reason, something corroborated by modern neuroscience (Haidt, 2013). What did the Publius gentlemen have to say about this?

In Federalist #6, Publius said: “momentary passions . . . have a more active and imperious control over human conduct” (1787, p. 23). Publius knew that, “When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation” (#16, 1787, p. 74). Finally, in #50, Publius said that, “unfortunately, passion, not reason, must have presided over their decision” (1787, p. 251). This demonstrates a proclivity for passions over reason, not the other way around.

As Rousseau believed all human beings were born free and equal but society corrupts us, the Meliorists tend to view equity as both our natural way, and a desired outcome. Does Publius support this view? In #5, Publius asked, “yet what human contrivance can secure the continuance of such equality?” (1787, p. 19); Publius refers to politicians who have, “erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions”(#10, 1787, p. 45). Epstein (1984) said of this quote that, “Madison’s point is that one cannot expect to eliminate inequality if one protects men’s natural faculties” (p. 75). Essentially, declaring people equals on paper and believing people to be equals in your heart does not actually make it so. No human scheme can truly make human beings equal. Inequality is sewn into the very fabric of the human condition, something we are supposed to learn early on in life, as we are born first and foremost into our hierarchical families.

In #2, John Jay said, “One united people- a people. . .professing the same religion” (1787, p. 8).  That religion of the founding fathers Jay spoke of was Christianity: “With no more than five exceptions . . . they were orthodox members of one of the established Christian communities” (Bradford, as quoted by Kirk, 1990, p. 56). In #55, Publius said, “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence” (1787, p. 275). This is a dualistic opinion of human nature, something congruent with Christianity. Dietze (1960) opined that all three of the Federalist authors advocated for the dualistic nature of man (pp. 257-256). The dualistic nature of man means that they believe in both good and evil. The entirety of Rousseau’s thought, which served as the basis for the Meliorist philosophy, was predicated on the natural goodness of man. The presence of good and evil inclinations in the hearts and minds of man in the thought of Publius suggests evidence against the Meliorist belief system.

To conclude, as Dietze (1960) said, “While the Federalist is often stressing the shortcomings of human nature, the whole work does not contain a suggestion on how human nature itself can be improved” (p. 1980). Dietze continued, as he said it is, “a discussion of how human shortcomings can be checked” (1960, p. 180). The Federalist Papers clearly take a viewpoint that lacks support for the natural goodness of man. They respect history as the wisdom of our ancestors and a light to guide the future; they show a belief in the flawed and imperfect nature of man; a belief in the necessity of restraint over freedom; that the flaws of the world are sewn into the fabric of the human condition, and not introduced via society; a disbelief in the universal benevolence of man and various utopian leanings; a favorable belief in the just-inequities of the world; and a belief in the constancy of the human condition.

Conclusion

It is highly doubtful that Publius, as the authors and framers of the U.S. Constitution, believed in the ideology of progressivism. As Epstein (1984) said, Publius’ words “reflects the difference between a founder who, in Rousseau’s description, changes human nature, and founders who temporize with prejudices and selfish interests which antedate their own innovation” (p. 31).

The founding fathers bequeathed us the Federalist Papers as a legend on a map for our lives. They believed in the constancy of the human condition, the dualism of the Judeo-Christian religion, the flawed nature of man, and the value of history guiding the present. The Tragic Nature of the human condition is an ineradicable aspect of life; it is one of the Permanent Things.

The Permanent Things are predicated on the combination of the constancy of human nature plus the tragic nature of the human condition. The Permanent Things are norms, which, “means an enduring standard. It is a law of nature, which we ignore at our peril” (Kirk, 1989, p. 17). These enduring standards are what the founding fathers predicated our constitution on. If we, “assume norms are no better than the pompous fabrications of . . . ancestors . . . then every rising generation will challenge the principles of personal and social order” (Kirk, 1989, p. 17). People who challenge the Permanent Things, “will learn wisdom only through agony” (Kirk, 1989, p. 17). Should we in the present ignore the norms bequeathed to us via Publius, we will fall.

Publius understood that, “Real progress consists in the movement of mankind towards the understanding of norms, and towards conformity to norms” (Kirk, 1989, p. 20). The enemies of the Permanent Things believe that we, in the present, are better than the past; we must therefore create new norms for a new man. Nothing could be further from the truth. As it says in the book of Psalms, “He set the earth on its foundations, never to be moved” (Psalms, 104:5). We cannot change human nature, nor can we can change the Tragic Nature of the human condition. The fictitious state-of-nature is not one we can validate, for as it is written in the book of Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding” (Job, 38:4).

“Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master” (Kirk, 1989, p. 46). That fact, to the founding fathers, was the tragic nature of the human condition. Human nature is not progressive, it is constant. The human condition is not perfectible, it is tragic. Publius understood this concept. When Publius authored the U.S. Constitution, they did not have progressivism as an ideology in mind. The U.S. Constitution is not a progressivist document. The founders intended for this document to serve us now, as well as in the future. We are not new, we are not special, we are not better, nor are we any different than our ancestors. The founding fathers believed this, and they were not Meliorists.

 

References

Blum, C. (1986). Rousseau and the republic of Virtue: The language of politics in the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Botting, E.H. (2006). Family feuds: Wollstonecraft, Burke, and Rousseau on the transformation of the family. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Burke, E. (1963). The best of Burke: Selected writings and speeches of Edmund Burke. In Ed. P. Stanlis: The best of Burke: Selected writings and speeches of Edmund Burke. New York, NY: Regneris Publishing.

Burke, E. (1770). Thoughts on the cause of the present discontent. Retrieved from http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/burke-select-works-of-edmund-burke-vol-1–5

Burke, E. (1790). Reflections on the revolution in France. Retrieved from: https://www.bartleby.com/24/3/6.html

Burke, E. (1780). A bill for shortening the duration of Parliaments. Retreived from https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/burke/Works07.pdf

Burke, E. (1769). Observations on the late stat of a Nation. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/cihm_20628/cihm_20628_djvu.txt

Burke, E. (1757). An essays towards an abridgement of the English History. Retireved from: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16292/16292-h/16292-h.htm

Burke, E. (1791). A letter to a member of the National Assembly. Project Gutenberg. Retreived from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15700/15700-h/15700-h.htm#MEMBER_OF_THE_NATIONAL_ASSEMBLY.

Burke, E. (1796). Letters on a regicide peace. Indianapolis, IN: The Liberty Fund.

Burke, E. (1782). Speech on the reform of the representation of the commons in parliament. Retrieved from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/burke-select-works-of-edmund-burke-vol-4/simple

Cassirer, E. (1989). The question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press.

de Condorcet, J.A.N. (1794).  Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind.  London, EN: Forgotten Books.

Dietze, G. (1960). The Federalist: A classic on federalism and free government. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University.

Eliot, T.S. (1939). The idea of a Christian society. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Epstein, D. (1984). The political theory of The Federalist. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Furtwangler, A. (1984). The authority of Publius: A reading of the Federalist Papers. Ithaca: Cornell University.

Godwin, W. (1793). An inquiry concerning political justice. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Hamilton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J. (1787). The Federalist Papers. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Job, the Book of. (N.D.) The Book of Job. Retrieved from: http://ebible.org/asv/JOB01.htm

Kesler, C. (1987). Saving the revolution: The Federalist papers and the American founding. New York, NY: Macmillan Inc.

Kirk, R. (1990). The conservative Constitution. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway.

Kirk, R. (N.D.). Edmund Burke and natural rights. The imaginative conservative. Retrieved from http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2012/04/russell-kirk-edmund-burke-and-natural-rights.html

Kirk, R. (1967). Edmund Burke: A genius reconsidered. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.

Kirk, R. (1989). The enemies of the permanent things. Peru, IL: Sherwood, Sugden & Company.

Levin, Y. (2014). The great debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the birth of right and left. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Mackintosh, J. (1791). Vindiciae gallicae and other writings on the French revolution. Indianapolis, IN: The Liberty Fund.

Marks, J. (2005). Perfection and disharmony in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Madison, J. (1792). Property. Retreived from: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s23.html

McDonald, W. (2012). Russell Kirk and the age of ideology. Columbia, MI: University of Missouri.

Melzer, A. (1990). The natural goodness of men: On the system of Rousseau’s thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Meyerson, M. (2008). Liberty’s blueprint: How MAdison and Hamilton wrote the Federalist papers, defined the Constitution, and made democracy safe for the world. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Psalms, the book of. (N.D.). The Book of Psalms. Retrieved from: http://ebible.org/asv/Psalms.htm

Rousseau, J. (1753).  Discourse on the origins of inequality. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Rousseau, J. (1762A). Four letters to Monsieur de Malesherbes. Retrieved from: http://ucispace-prod.lib.uci.edu/bitstream/handle/10575/1094/16demanportablerousseaumalesherbes.pdf?sequence=22

Rousseau, J. (1762B). Emile, or education. Retrieved from http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/rousseau-emile-or-education

Rousseau, J. (1762C). The social contract. Retrieved from https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/rousseau1762.pdf

Rousseau, J. (1782). Confessions. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3913/3913-h/3913-h.htm

Ryn, C. (1978). Democracy and the ethical life: A philosophy of politics and community. Shreveport, LI: Louisiana State University.

Smith, A. (1759). The essential Adam Smith. In Ed. Robert Heilbroner. New York, NY: Norton and company.

Sewell, Jr., W. (1994). A rhetoric of bourgeois revolution: The Abbe Sieyes and what is the third estate. Durham, NC: Duke University.

Sowell, T. (1987). A conflict of visions: Ideological origins of political struggles. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Sowell, T. (1995). The vision of the anointed: Self-congratulations as a basis for social policy. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Stanlis, P. (1986). Edmund Burke and the natural law. Shreveport, LI.

Stanlis, P. (1991). Edmund Burke: Enlightenment and revolution. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Winston, M. (2005). From perfectibility to perversion: Meliorism in eighteenth-century France. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

 

Notes

[1] The motto of the University of Rochester, the Author’s graduate alma-mater, is, “Meliora: Ever Better!”

Steven Kessler

Steven Kessler received his Ed.D. from the University of Rochester in Higher Education Administration. He is the Edmund Burke Society Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He has published in places like "The Conservative," "The European Conservative," "The Imaginative Conservative," and "The Journal of Liberal Arts and Sciences."

Back To Top