July 3, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
The authors of the Federalist Papers often cite Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. I, too, am amazed in Plutarch’s broad, holistic analysis of ancient peoples and places. When I first read Plutarch’s works, their current applicability surprised me. I am no longer surprised by this. Rather, I return to his words again and again as a way of understanding contemporary issues. His vast understanding of human nature, the human spirit, and most importantly, of human societies, transcends all time.
Hamilton valued Plutarch for similar reasons. In Federalist #6, Hamilton asks some pointed questions about the proposed republic. He focuses on man’s weaknesses – questions about man’s nature which have been asked since the beginning of time and which will continue far beyond my lifetime. Though it is necessary to read about these struggles, no single text provides all the answers. Each generation, each age, each society must speak for itself. The Federalist Papers, though, continue in Plutarch’s tradition of combining a great amount of research about human nature. They question every aspect of man, from his individual pursuits, to his joint ventures, to the grosser tendencies of mob behavior. These Papers examine man’s darker spirit throughout history. As such, they are helpful as a guiding voice among the cacophony.
In Federalist #6, Hamilton says that republics are noted for their spirit of pacifism, but that it is also naive to think that men, even in a republic, will be passive. He writes:
“A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that, if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”
In other words, Hamilton views man’s nature as fixed. He writes, however, that capitalism is often thought to contain the ability of coordination. Those in a capitalist society, it was thought, will have mutual interests to bind them together. So, while some may be greedy and concerned only with personal gain, if all personal gain is tied to a single entity, then man will seemingly behave better. Man will be interested in the affairs of others because supporting others also supports the self. Hamilton cautions, though, that man will ever be man. His nature is one of profit. Hamilton asks,
“Is it not (we may ask these projectors in politics) the true interest of all nations to cultivate the same benevolent and philosophic spirit? If this be their true interest, have they in fact pursued it? Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interest, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice? Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by MEN as well as the latter? Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships, and desires of unjust acquisitions, that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities? Is it not well known that their determinations are often governed by a few individuals in whom they place confidence, and are, of course, liable to be tinctured by the passions and views of those individuals? Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or dominion? Has not the spirit of commerce, in many instances, administered new incentives to the appetite, both for the one and for the other? Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.”
Hamilton’s abbreviated list of transgressions (which includes Sparta, Athens, Rome, England, Holland, etc.) certainly proves his point. The question is, how to tame human nature in such a way that it respects equity and justice? Perhaps an answer may be found in Plutarch’s. In the life of Pericles, he writes:
“[V]irtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men’s minds as to create at once both admiration of things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. The goods of fortune we would possess and would enjoy; those of virtue we long to practice and exercise. We are content to receive the former from others, the latter we wish others to experience from us. Moral good is a practical stimulus; it is not sooner seen, than it inspires an impulse to practice, and influences the mind and character not by a mere imitation which we look at, but by the statement of the fact creates a moral purpose which we form.”
Understanding Plutarch’s point here is a central question in the upcoming Harrison Middleton University July Quarterly Discussion. How do the authors of the Federalist Papers contemplate virtue? How do they propose to incorporate it (or not) into a republic? Consider discussing this question with us in 1.5 hours of conversation about the Federalist Papers. Everyone is welcome. Email as****@hm*.edu for more information.
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