Comp class yesterday was quite fun. We started out digging into the text of the Declaration of Independence, a document that, for good reasons and bad, has become a sort of canonical document in America, good for quoting and waving as a talisman but not often good for reading. My students immediately picked up on all of the John Locke and Montesquieu in the document; what they didn’t immediately see was that the document was not addressed to the English government at all but rather to the rest of the world. The declaration part of the Declaration is a note to the nations that diplomatic relations should from this point forward happen directly with the government of America, not through the Crown. Setting things in that frame helped, I think, make some more sense of the list of complaints.
We also spent a bit of time on Tom Paine, whose railing at the concept of hereditary monarchy in Common Sense is always fun to read. If the royal family started out as the toughest gangster on the block, he writes, why in the world should anyone pay that institution any respect at all? No grand philosophy going, but as people say facilely about certain public figures, his rhetoric is so powerful!
The bulk of the class, though, we spend talking about Montesquieu monumental On the Spirit of the Laws. Most folks know it as the “separation of powers” document, and indeed it does prescribe that the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the government should not fall into the same human being’s hands. But the real wonder of the document has to do with the spirit part–Montesquieu develops a full ethical theory of government after the manner of Plato’s forms of the city, and his insights bring together the best of Locke’s Commonwealth theory and the best sort of Platonic psychology to form a new theory of democracy.
In a despotism, Montesquieu holds, the chief virtue of the population is fear: what angers the despot is deadly for the people, who have no protection from the laws, so the people who fare best are the ones who stay down. In a monarchy, where laws buttress the state, honor is the premium, or rightful respect for the rightful king. Here the people know their place (under the king) but nonetheless rightly expect a certain fixed order beyond the leader’s will. In a republic or democracy, on the other hand (Montesquieu does not distinguish between the two), the people must be possessed of manhood, or somebodiness. (I made that word up, though I’m sure I’m not the first.) Because in a democracy every person is the highest authority (because everyone is an equal authority), education in that system must move towards a self-respect rather than respect of a king-who-is-not-one’s-self, and the fruit of that self-respect should be active participation in the community.
We finished off with one of the Federalist papers, in which Madison, writing as Publius, sets forth regional representatives as the cure for the mob rule to which pure democracy is prone. I told my students that, although regional representation is simply the way things are for us, Madison and the Constitutional Convention really were sharp on that, given that their chief models for genuinely non-monarchical government were Rome, where the patrician families controlled the state, and Athens, where the population was only a few thousand. I’m not sure that I communicated that as well as I should have, but such is life.