Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why philosophy is relevant to fellow conservatives



Philosophy today has a reputation for being a very liberal subject. And it's quite true that the discipline is today dominated by liberals, even by the standards of academic subjects. For this reason, the subject may have something of a bad name among conservatives - and to some extent, this reputation is deserved. (Some philosophers really are quite out there.)

But there are a number of historical philosophers covered in these classes whose ideas fit neatly into modern conservatism. A number of our Founding Fathers were political philosophers (many of whom had some very original contributions to the subject), and I need not remind my fellow conservatives how beloved they are to our tradition.


James Madison

Besides them, there are others that it would behoove conservatives to know a bit about, and I would like to discuss a few of these philosophers now. Before doing so, let me make clear that I am not trying to convince anyone to major or minor in philosophy, or even take a class in it. But I hope this will help my fellow conservatives to understand that not all philosophers are liberal wackos.



For starters, there are the philosophers that influenced the Founding Fathers. Though the Founding Fathers did have original contributions, they were influenced by a number of those who came before them; and many of their ideas were improvements on concepts from previous generations. Among the philosophers that influenced them were John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu.


John Locke

John Locke wrote a book over 80 years before 1776, which influenced the Declaration of Independence. The book is called "Two Treatises on Government," but it is the second treatise that influenced Thomas Jefferson.


Thomas Jefferson

Liberals often question Locke's influence on the Founding Fathers, probably because they dislike his defense of private property. (An excellent defense, by the way.) Thus, I will endeavor to prove his influence, by first showing the most famous (and philosophical) part of the Declaration of Independence, and then the parts of the Second Treatise on Government that influenced it.


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

From the United States Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."


John Locke

And from John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government":

"Man being born, as hath been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men." (Source: Chapter VII, Section 87)


Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Back to the Declaration of Independence:

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."


John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government" (18th-century American edition)

Back to John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government":

"When the government is dissolved, the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other, by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good." (Source: Chapter XIX, Section 220)


Thomas Jefferson

Back to the Declaration of Independence:

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

Back to John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government":

"The people, who are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance." (Source: Chapter XIX, Section 230)


United States Declaration of Independence - July 4, 1776

Back to the Declaration of Independence:

"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."


Battle of Bunker Hill, 1775 (the year before American independence)

And back to John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government":

"But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected." (Source: Chapter XIX, Section 225)


A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today

Not only are the sentiments the same, but some of the language Jefferson used is lifted right out of John Locke. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" sounds much like the earlier "life, liberty, and estate." "Most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness" sounds much like "most for their safety and good." "More disposed to suffer ... than to right themselves" sounds a lot like "more disposed to suffer than right themselves." And the part about "a long train of abuses" is an exact quote from John Locke, followed by a paraphrasing of what comes after it. Thus, it seems quite conclusive to me that John Locke influenced both Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.


Baron de Montesquieu

The other main philosopher that influenced the Founding Fathers was the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu. (His name is much longer, so it is often shortened to this, or even further to just "Montesquieu.") It was he that best articulated (perhaps even originated) the idea of separation of powers into multiple branches of government, and checks and balances between these branches.


James Madison

Our Founding Fathers, following the Constitution's first draft by James Madison, gave us three branches of government: the legislative (Congress), the executive (the president), and the judiciary (the courts). A separate legislature and executive were already in place in the British government (Parliament vs. the king), so one could argue this part is not original (even if better articulated than before). But the idea of an independent judiciary is, in my opinion, undoubtedly the original contribution of Mr. Montesquieu. And the checks and balances between them seems quite original to him.


The Constitutional Convention

Montesquieu's effect on the Founding Fathers can also be deduced from his being quoted in the Federalist Papers (written by three of those Founding Fathers). His name is mentioned in the Federalist Papers no less than 12 times. (Specifically, it is mentioned four times in Federalist No. 9, twice in Federalist No. 43, five times in No. 47, and once in a footnote to No. 78.) Examining these essays makes clear his influence on the Founding Fathers.


United States Constitution

So it might be said that the Founding Fathers stood on the shoulders of giants to create our system of government. They took the contributions of those that had gone before, and added some new innovations of their own.


Adam Smith

And before closing this post, I will mention three other philosophers whose ideas fit neatly into modern conservatism. They are Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. All three men were economists as well as philosophers, and they are much beloved by conservatives today. Adam Smith gave an eloquent defense of the free market (which is still read today), David Ricardo articulated the reasons for having free trade (basically a free market internationally), and John Stuart Mill argued for having "the greatest good of the greatest number" as a guiding principle of ethics.


David Ricardo


John Stuart Mill

So these are some philosophers who have been important to the conservative intellectual tradition. I would like to reiterate that I am not trying to convince anyone to major or minor in philosophy, or even take a class in it. But I hope this has helped my fellow conservatives to understand that not all philosophers are liberal wackos.

Other posts about philosophy


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