Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Publications

Governed By Reason

Res Publica

August 2015

by James Coyne

I guess you’re right,” I said begrudgingly in a sentence barely registering above a whisper.I did not want to say it.It embarrassed me. I tried my best to not sound defeated,though,I knew I had been. I was wrong and my enemy – in reality, just a friend I was debating – was right. We had been discussing the merits of protectionism, though that is unimportant. He had showed me that my line of thinking was completely wrong, leaving me to walk away in shame.As I tried to sleep that night,I thought about the exchange. I thought about how I could better respond to his arguments to prove my original views right and to avenge myself for the blow I was dealt earlier.No such relief came. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how wrong I was. By the time I finally got to sleep,I had become firm in my opposition to my original point of view. I still, however, felt no appreciation towards my friend.He had proven me wrong and that was an embarrassment,not a service worthy of my gratitude.

As time has passed and I look back, however,I realize the great service my friend did me. He proved me wrong! My friend did me the best thing a person can do for another: he showed me truth. While we hate to admit it, we are not perfect beings. We often err. I may have gone my entire life advocating a view completely incompatible with simple reasoning, but because of this friend, I will not. Reflecting back on the incident, just one of many like it in my life, I consistently find myself asking the same question: Why was it such an embarrassment to have been proven wrong?

We love our opinions because they are our own.They belong to us and as a result we cherish them.When someone challenges our opinions, it is as if they are stealing our lunch money.They are disrespecting what is ours.We see an attack on our beliefs as an attack on our person, a dangerous mindset for a self-governing people to possess.In America,where patriotism is inherently dependent upon thoughtfulness,this discussion is important.

A democratic people should not develop devotion to their opinions; they should love only what is true. Of course, to demand this is to demand what human nature makes difficult: a denial of self-love.In one sense, for a democratic people to remain free, they should act as Socrates.When he is watching the processions of nations at the Piraeus, moved only by what is good. Instead, too often we act as Thrasymachus, hoping to merely prove ourselves right at the expense of the good. This tension between loving one’s own opinions and loving what is good is not one nascent to the American mind. In Federalist 10, James Madison reminds us that, “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.”In democratic societies,where men are free, it is even more challenging for reason to triumph over passion. “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates,” Madison proclaims, “every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Where men are able to freely associate with those who share their opinions, factions naturally form. Combating those factions, and their effects, is the challenge of the democratic statesman. For these reasons, the Founders placed safeguards among the legislature to combat faction. Among the people, however, reason was left free.

America is a nation dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” What makes America the greatest nation in the world is that it is dedicated to the good, but if its citizenry loses sight of that fundamental fact, then she ceases to be extraordinary. The nation, as a result, risks being relegated to the ancient barbaric principle that nations are great not by adherence to a transcendent principle of justice, but by “accident and force.” American patriotism will cease to be thoughtful and revert to blood and soil as justification for national pride.

What is necessary to avoid such a tragic fate, is rededicating ourselves, as individuals and Americans, to love what is right. We must have our hearts ennobled and want to earnestly pursue truth.We must live up to the characterization of a democratic people put forth by Thomas Jefferson that“here we are not afraid to follow truth where it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” The purpose of discussion should not be to bludgeon your opponent into submission. Such polemics, the tool of the sophist, are useless in promoting thoughtful reflection and arriving at truth.In fact, they stand as the antithesis of all America was founded upon. Like Thrasymachus, they only deceive those earnestly looking for what is good. Discussion must aim at truth and we must follow it wherever it may lead.

Reflecting on that argument I had with my friend,I realized that what drove my argument was not reason, but merely devotion to my views. I felt no gratitude for my friend because I thought he insulted me by disproving me. In reality,he showed me truth,but I was a reluctant follower. After allowing my embarrassment to fade, I quickly gave him my thanks, an inadequate gesture for the great service he rendered me. Our argument was meaningful because it proves true Thomas Jefferson’s sincerest desire that “man can be governed by reason.” The biggest mistake one can make after being proven wrong is not paying gratitude to the person who showed you the error of your ways.