Jimmy Madison Teaches Centuries Later

During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison kept copious notes – fairly describing the strengths of others’ arguments and the movement of thought in the discussion while still engaged in speaking himself, making his own strong arguments. Few of us would have the energy, intelligence, analytic ability, and, frankly, character to wear those two hats. Of course, we can be grateful to people like Madison who thought in that way. Not that many even among these giants could reach such a height. Jefferson was awed when he returned from France and read this summary.

That was an anecdote from American Ideals: Founding a “Republic of Virtue”, in Daniel N. Robinson’s Teaching Company series. Listening last night, that example echoed in mind as I started on the last draft of my syllabus for freshman comp & rhetoric. Yes, not a bad example. Indeed, the whole series – from the Declaration of Independence through the Federalist Papers – isn’t a bad model. Certainly, I fall far from the mark, but it is good to have a goal nonetheless.

And it isn’t surprising that today’s opinion piece, The Partisan Worldview, by Cost in WSJ goes to Madison’s argument – he accepts our human nature (argumentative, lazy, stubborn) and helps us come closer to that mark:

What we see as the great moral march of just crusaders led by our fearless party leaders against the evil and/or ignorant opposition, Madison seems to think of as a faction that, if left unchecked, would lead to the demise of true republican government. We should think about that when we get so frothy-mouthed by our partisan worldviews. Madison imagined us getting frothy-mouthed, and resolved himself to divide political power six ways from Sunday to stop us from ruining our fragile republican experiment amidst our frothy furor. What does that tell us?

The psychological embrace of a partisan worldview is easy and satisfying. Both partisan narratives are easy to understand. Each helps us make judgments about a whole host of things for which we lack direct referents. Each is psychologically satisfying. Few things in life are more pleasurable than righteous anger. However, neither is all that valid on an empirical level. Embracing one might enable us to identify one actor as good and another as evil. It might allow us to feel good about ourselves. But it will not move us any closer to the reality of our politics. In fact, it will move us further from it.

Arguments of motivation, straw men, smears, red herrings – we would be less likely to fall into these if we honestly and carefully tried to record the real arguments of our opponents. If we assume our opponents are venal and we are not, selfish and we are not, vulgar and we are not – well, we can find in their behavior evidence. That is spin. But if we assume that, wrong as they may be, their motives are as just as ours are, then we are more likely to feel the need to deal with the arguments themselves.

This is a series of cliches; this is a post on the same old thing. But neither our virtues nor vices are new. In a way, it is the old questions that are always the interesting ones, the old problems the irresolvable ones.

(By the way, while I tend to fall asleep during after dinner tea & a lecture, I think our family has had considerable pleasure from Teaching Company desserts this summer. They are at a fairly general level, so specialists are not likely to find them so enjoyable, but we have liked them.)

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