This post from Clayton got me thinking about something I wrote last year when I was still writing on Live Journal for an audience of about 25 people.
When evaluating current events, a good knowledge of history is essential for being able to place those events in context and understand them. It makes sense why even very educated leftists often overlook history, or seldom appeal to it; leftism is a forward looking philosophy that desires to achieve the perfection of man.
The history of man is replete with evidence that he is not perfectible. Human history is really nothing but horror and brutality, followed by periods of civilization, which also contain horror and brutality, just on a lesser scale, and accompanied by wonderful achievements.
I am not a religious man, but I do think, as a philosophical construct, the Judeo-Christian notion that man is fallen from God is a worthwhile one. An agnostic would say that man is just a primate species that has language and thumbs, and otherwise isn’t all that different from most other hominids. Can we really expect perfection of a bunch of damned dirty apes with big brains?
I don’t believe in the perfectibility of man, but I do believe man can and should better himself, which is what our civilization, based on the values of The Enlightenment, is about. The radical elements of Islam wish to take us back to a pre-enlightenment age, essentially destroying our current civilization. Many people on the right and center right wonder how those of the radical anti-war left can be so dismissive of radical Islam as a threat, since it stands against everything the left claims to hold dear. But I think their desire to perfect man, rather than accept him as fallen, offers an explanation. While those of the left are products of our civilization, they despise its lack of perfection, and therefore have little issue with it being swept away and replaced.
I agree with John Adams that you need a moral society to have civilization, but you don’t need a religious society to achieve that. It is possible to achieve moral status without being religious. But you do need a population that buys into the moral constructs of your civilization. Where people like Clayton and I sometimes find disagreement is on what those moral constructs ought to be.
I think the moral constructs embodied in our Constitution, which I would note does not once mention God, and the other founding documents of our nation, which sometimes do, are our nation’s moral foundations. This was best summed up by James Madison in Federalist 51:
It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
Madison was aware that what was to become the federal government was to rely primary on flawed human being for its just administration. Our founders harbored few notions about man’s perfectibility, and thankfully our system was well designed to be administered by flawed human beings.
As much as I disagree with some religious folks on a great many social issues, the greatest risk we face as a nation is from those who desire to put too much faith in men, not those who put too much faith in God.