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Not to name names

| Friday, February 4, 2022

I’ve never been a fan of name-dropping. The idea that certain names should command automatic clout just doesn’t sit right with me. And if you need to rely on such a name to defend your own position or make your point, perhaps it’s not a very strong point to begin with. I often find people referencing celebrities whose names I’ve heard of, but I don’t even know what they do. “Actor” is usually the safest answer. Still, though, of what genre and in what movies or shows — who knows? Just through the power of their names, however, they hold some sort of lofty status of which I feel I should be in awe.

Philosophy and history classrooms are the perfect environments for name-dropping to run rampant, as we use “Big Names” to help us map out history and document different schools of philosophical thought. Take John Locke, for example, a household name in the U.S. Every good American knows that his philosophy helped contribute to our nation’s founding. Even if we don’t know what exactly he said or thought, we know it’s considered important.

I’ve had to read excerpts from his Second Treatise of Government in at least three college courses, so renowned are his contributions to American history and philosophy. He makes some quite reasonable and powerful claims about human nature, the origins of government and the right to revolt against a tyrannical government. In my most recent round of reading his work, however, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at some of his less publicized claims. For example, he argues in Section 11 of Chapter 2 “that every man, in the state of nature, has the power to kill a murderer.” As I sat in class listening to the lecture covering Locke’s life and philosophical contributions, my defiant side wondered, “Who exactly decided that we have to listen to John Locke and take his word as gospel? What about Mr. Locke is so special anyway?”

Before I go any further and throw philosophy professors into a frenzy, let me clarify that I have no particular quarrel with John Locke. I nod along in agreement with most of his work, and he had some truly fascinating ideas that sowed the seeds of the American Revolution and that defended liberty in general. He’s merely my target here for the sake of example, as someone we revere in American political thought to such an extent that we take his work almost to be factual and indisputable, rather than merely a man’s opinion. Of all the “Big Names” in history for which we do this, however, Locke is one of the least problematic.

Much more worthy of controversy are names such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. We have been taught to revere these giants of American history as champions of liberty, righteous opponents of tyranny and the creators of one of the most durable systems of government in the modern world. But as each of us has grown up and learned more than the superficial facts of America’s Founding, our illusions have been shattered about our Founders’ love of liberty: We learned that most of them owned enslaved people and that they drafted a Constitution that not only failed to abolish the institution of slavery but even had measures supporting its survival (See Article I, Section 9 and Article IV, Section 2 of The Constitution). Furthermore, they were all white, relatively wealthy men who established the government system that still governs us today, a racially and socioeconomically diverse population, about half of which is female.

All of these things have made us question the authority and influence that the “Big Names” of America’s Founding should have. Just how as we grew older, “Because I said so,” became an inadequate explanation from our parents, so too did, “Because Jefferson and Madison said so,” become insufficient support for America’s system of government.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the document that held “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,” owned over 600 enslaved people throughout his life. Why should we listen to anything that someone like Jefferson had to say?

Not because he was Jefferson. Not because he was an esteemed statesman. But rather because the content of the Declaration of Independence and the truths it professes, we judge by our own reason today to indeed be true. Because even if his words were empty to him, they are full of meaning for us. Because all men — and women — are, indeed, created equal; Jefferson just didn’t act like it.

Though we should detest the lifestyle and character of many of the Founders and the exclusionary manner in which our government was established, we shouldn’t be so quick to throw out the whole Founding. The principles themselves, of valuing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inherently and indisputably good (though we might disagree what exactly they mean and allow). For the most part, the problem isn’t the ideals on which the Founders claimed to base our government, but rather their failure to actually abide by them.

The same logic allows us to reject founding ideals and institutions with which we disagree. Venerating today only those that we can rationally judge to be good and shrewd lets us escape from the grip of founding principles and institutions that we don’t think are rational and just. We don’t have to continue to allow Supreme Court seats to be lifetime, unelected positions just because the Founders thought they should be, if we decide it’s not practical. (Though how exactly we could go about addressing this situation is a complicated issue, and I’m well aware of the difficulty of changing the Constitution.) We don’t have to keep our government the same as it was in 1789 because of some sort of reverence for Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Washington, and when we think things are silly or impractical, we can call for their overhaul. In other words, we don’t have to take the Constitution and other founding documents to be indisputable goods simply because now-famous Founders drafted them. American ideals and institutions introduced in the 18th century hold validity today only insofar as we consider them to be rational and desirable per se.

Therefore, in defense of the American structure of government and our nation’s governing principles, we are called not to name names (pointing to Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Washington, for example), but to uphold the institutions and values we still find to be rational and good — and to abandon those we don’t.

Thomas Paine provides us a good example here, as noted in Yuval Levin’s book “The Great Debate,” by refraining from quoting “familiar and learned authorities” in order to make his points and instead relying on reason to convince his audience (p. 153). Paine famously said, “I scarcely ever quote; the reason is, I always think” (I do hope he’d forgive me for quoting him here). He suggests that laws and principles do not obtain their validity because of their historical background — when or by whom they were established — but rather by our current use of reason to judge their merit. This is the filter through which we should respect the American Founding. We don’t have to drop the Constitution or Declaration (and many parts are so good that we shouldn’t), but the name-dropping of philosophers and Founders should stop.

 

A former resident of Lyons Hall, Eva Analitis is a senior majoring in political science and pre-health. Even though she often can’t make up her own mind, that won’t stop her from trying to change yours. She can be reached at [email protected] or @evaanalitis on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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