Who was David Starr Jordan? He was a political activist that I suppose did more good than harm. Although I don’t know how much we would have agreed, I do like his observation on the relationship between wisdom and virtue. It makes clear that whereas wisdom requires understanding, virtue requires courage and perseverance.
In our era I fear we have too little understanding of either wisdom or virtue. The understanding required for wisdom involves religious instruction, and that is now rare. The courage and perseverance needed to be virtuous too many have set aside as something other people do. Instead, we substitute momentary pleasure for virtue. So even as we speak our society is teetering, threatening to collapse into rubble.
Perhaps that is why Judge Napolitano wrote What if government rejects the Constitution?
What if the government never took the Constitution seriously? What if the same generation – in some cases, the same individuals – who wrote in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” also enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to criticize the government? What if the feds don’t regard the Constitution as the supreme law of the land?
What if the government regards the Constitution as merely a guideline to be referred to from time to time, or a myth to be foisted upon the voters, but not as a historic delegation of power that lawfully limits the federal government? What if Congress knows that most of what it regulates puts it outside the confines of the Constitution, but it does whatever it can get away with? What if the feds don’t think that the Constitution was written to keep them off the people’s backs? (continued here)
Napolitano asks many questions, but his editorial does not suggest a solution. So what is the solution? We The People have to work to understand the choice we are making. We must gain the wisdom to understand the distinctions between the alternatives, and we must choose courageously and persevere in our choice.
In his latest book, Ameritopia, Mark R. Levin considers what the Founding Fathers understood about government. By reviewing what they had read before the American Revolution, Levin helps us to understand the choice we must make today. Here is an excerpt.
Montesquieu wrote of the nature of governments. “There are three kinds of governments: the republican, the monarchical, the despotic. To discover the nature of each, the idea of them held by the least educated of men is sufficient. I assume three definitions, or rather three facts: one, republican government is that in which the people as a body, or only a part of the people, have sovereign power; monarchical government is that in which one alone governs, but by fixed and established laws; whereas, in despotic government, one alone, without law and without rule, draws everyone along by his will and caprices” (1, 1, 2). In republican government, Montesquieu explains, the people must be able to vote in elections. “A people having sovereign power should do for itself all that it can do well, and what it cannot do, it must do through ministers. Ministers do not belong to the people unless the people name them; therefore, it is a fundamental maxim of this government that the people should their ministers, that is, their magistrates” (1, 2, 1).
Montesquieu points out, “There is this difference between the nature of the government and its principle: its nature is that which makes it what it is, and its principle, that which makes it act. The one is its particular structure, and the other the human passions which set it in motion” (1, 3, 1). He explains, “There need not be much integrity for a monarchical or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself. The force of laws in one and the prince’s ever-raised arm in the other can rule or contain the whole.” As for republican government, Montesquieu asserts that “in a popular state there must be an additional spring, which is Virtue. What I say is confirmed by the entire body of history and is quite in conformity with the nature of things. For it is clear that less virtue is needed in a monarchy, where the one who sees to the execution of the laws feels that he is subject to them himself and that he will bear their weight….But in a popular government when the laws have ceased to be executed, as this can come only from the corruption of the republic, the state is already lost” (1, 3, 3). In a despotic government, “virtue is not at all necessary to it” (1, 3, 8).
In fact, from another translation, I found that Montesquieu put it succinctly this way.
As virtue is necessary in a republic, and in a monarchy honor, so fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it, and honor would be extremely dangerous. (from here: 1, 3, 8).
Is our republic already irreversibly corrupt? Because instruction in religion is not permitted, virtue is not something we can readily learn about in the public school system. Nonetheless, if our republic is to continue — and for sake of our immortal souls — we must learn that which enabled the people who founded this nation to be virtuous.