Checked out

Your basic American, whom I and others are calling on to save his democracy, isn’t a theorist. And as much as twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt accepts the proposition that all men are created equal, your eighteenth-century American patriot, she believes, wasn’t much motivated by political theory, either. The patriot leaders generally were, though, she acknowledges. But the average American revered the Constitution quickly after it was adopted not because he was steeped in constitutional theory but because he and his countrymen were living out a tradition of working together to overcome common problems.

This tradition of covenants and social contracts started, Arendt says, with the Mayflower Compact. In this tradition, the Declaration of Independence became the first national covenant by a people who had been involved in covenanting at the settlement, county, and colonial level for over a century.

“In the beginning,” Locke said, “all the world was America,” and Americans lived out Locke’s progression from a state of nature to a society to a government. In fact, Arendt suspects that Americans suggested the progression to him.1 Practice sometimes leads to the best theory.

The due date card in the back cover of John Dunn’s The Political Thought of John Locke (well, of my copy of it)

My newest book, John Dunn’s 1969 classic The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the “Two Treatises of Government” is symbolic of your American’s distaste of theory. I purchased it second- or third-hand, discarded by its first owner, the library of the General Motors Institute, now Kettering University. The date due sticker inside the back cover shows that the book was checked out on an average of less than once a year between 1968 and 1996. But I’m glad that the library thought the book was worth buying in the first place.

The Locke book may not involve engineering, but it’s not dry political theory. Dunn is a stylist. Check out this excerpt from the preface:

. . . the reasons why I have confined by attention to giving an effective exposition of Locke’s argument and refrained from systematic formal criticism are bleakly autobiographical. I simply cannot conceive of constructing an analysis of any issue in contemporary political theory around the affirmation or negation of anything which Locke says about political matters. The only argument in his entire political philosophy which does seem to me still to be interesting as a starting point for reflection about any issue of contemporary political theory is the theme of the Letters on Toleration, and in Locke’s thought this rests firmly upon a religious premise. Indeed one of the central expository points made throughout this book is the intimate dependence of an extremely high proportion of Locke’s arguments for their very intelligibility, let alone plausibility, on a series of theological commitments. (x – xi)

Your American, whether or not he is religious, understands the theology behind “all men are created equal” better than he does any political theory connected with it. Whether or not any of Locke’s political theory is behind the Declaration’s “all men are created equal,” his theology is. It amounts to this: we are all equal as God’s children.

I love Arendt on how covenanting helped to make the American Revolution a success and broke down some of the harmful social distinctions important to the countries they left behind. Here’s an excerpt from On Revolution:

[For the American patriots] power came into being when and where people would get together and bind themselves through promises, covenants, and mutual pledges; only such power, which rested on reciprocity and mutuality, was real power and legitimate, whereas the so-called power of kings or princes or aristocrats, because it did not spring from mutuality but, at best, rested only on consent, was spurious and usurped. They themselves still knew very well what made them succeed where all other nations were to fail; it was, in the words of John Adams, the power of “confidence in one another, and in the common people, which enabled the United States to go through a revolution.” This confidence, moreover, arose not from a common ideology but from mutual promises and as such became the basis for “associations” — the gathering-together of people for a specified political purpose. (173 – 174)

The twentieth century German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin sets a high spiritual bar for philosophers, but his book Anamnesis, published in 1978, has a surprise ending: a successful society needs few true philosophers: common sense among most citizens is enough:

The term common sense . . . must be understood in the sense of the Scottish School, especially of Thomas Reid. For Reid, man is rationis particeps, in Cicero’s sense; and common sense is a compact type of rationality. “There is a certain degree of it which is necessary to our being subjects of law and government, capable of managing our own affairs, and answerable for our conduct towards others: This is called common sense, because it is common to all men with whom we can transact business, or call to account for their conduct. (211 – 212)

Common sense, as Voegelin defines it, requires a society built on compacts and covenants.  Character and relationships built from making and fulfilling promises create trust, which in turn tends to break down idealistic or tribalistic distinctions that keep us from cooperating to achieve political purposes.

So our lack of an agreed-upon public philosophy (Arendt’s “common ideology”) doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Political ideologies are worthwhile only if, at their heart, they are accurate and significant expressions of our humanity. They shouldn’t venture far from that heart, either. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves, as we do now, associating and gathering together mostly at political cross-purposes. A student at Kettering, growing (hopefully) in the sense of common sense that Voegelin speaks of, would understand that without checking out any volume on Locke.

  1. Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution at 160.