Tuesday, October 16, 2007

America’s Lasting Principles

Tibor R. Machan

Do the principles of the Declaration of Independence have lasting significance? Are they stable and enduring—or applicable only to a given time and place? What about the principles expressed in our Constitution? Is that, as some political leaders and even jurists of our time have claimed, “a living document,” meaning, is it something malleable, flexible, to be adjusted to different historical periods?

What matters is whether such principles are fundamentally applicable to temporal yet ubiquitous human community life. Are they consistent with human nature, and do they reflect how we ought to live in each other’s company?

It is known, for example, that when studying adolescent psychology, the principles involved cover only an early stage of human life. Are the principles of the Declaration and those that underline the US Constitution principles of this kind, able to inform us only about a given historical period, maybe even only in a given geographical area? Or are they "universal" in the sense of being relevant to every known human society?

Certainly the founders thought they were in fact appealing to enduring principles. They did not make this claim casually. Only after they had studied the basic principles of human organization as articulated by such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu, and as manifested in history, did they affirm what they regarded as lasting ideas and ideals.

These they regarded as derived from our basic human nature, which doesn’t change from year to year and place to place. A human individual was Aristotle's "rational animal" 2000 years ago, and this is still so today. Which is why we can still read the ancient authors—Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and the rest—with profit. All these and millions of other people—historians, poets, novelists, scientists, explorers and jurists—speak to us intelligibly across the ages. If we could resurrect them, we could sit down and have a discussion. Maybe not about the Internet, but certainly about child-raising, friendship, politics, beauty, all the elements of our shared humanity—all the values and concerns that do endure. Because human nature endures.

For example, all human beings, in all ages and places, have been creative. They invent things. The don't merely rely on what happens to be available in the environment, as do other living things. Plants and lower animals survive and flourish by following built-in directions. Much of our own physiology is also hard-wired. But most other living things don’t have to learn, don't have to figure out how things work and how they might contribute to their lives. We need to learn—and, as we well know, some people refuse to. We face alternatives, and therefore have moral responsibility for what we do.

If human beings foul things up, we know well enough that it’s often their own fault. Unlike animals, people can make bad choices— as when they judge others not by the "content of their character" but by their national or ethnic or racial background, or when they molest children, or betray their country, or engage in professional malpractice. We are able to betray the principles we ought to live by.

All this is in the nature of a creative being. What the Declaration gave eloquent voice to is that certain basic principles of community life rest on these lasting, stable, fundamental facts about our nature. Accordingly, those principles, too, are lasting, stable and fundamental within any community of human beings, recognized or not.

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