How did the United States come to be the secular constitutional republic -- arguably also termed a democracy -- that it is now? Why aren't we ruled by a king or queen? Why aren't we a theocracy?
I've vaguely been interested in these sorts of questions, but I'm not a big history buff. So reading Matthew Stewart's book, Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, is pretty much my first serious venture into learning about my country's revolutionary origins.
In my last post I shared a bunch of quotations from the book. Here I want to take a stab at relating what I've learned so far (I've still got about fifty pages to read) in my own words, without quoting from "Nature's God."
After all, when I finish the book the usable part of the contents will be in my mind. It is less important that I understand exactly what Stewart is arguing, as that I understand it in my own way. So here's my reasoned take on some core themes of "Nature's God."
People often say that many of the leaders of the American Revolution were deists, rather than theists. This is true. They didn't believe in a personal god who took a special interest in earthly affairs. Or any affairs within the universe.
Their god basically was synonymous with nature. Thus understanding the laws of nature was the best way to understand God.
Knowledge doesn't come from some transcendent source. It is immanent, not transcendent. Meaning, we humans have the means to know reality via our senses, reasoning, experimentation, observation, analysis, and all the other characteristics of the "scientific method," broadly speaking.
Morality also is immanent. As is knowing how to be happy.
If we act in accord with Nature's Laws, this is the deist equivalent of obeying transcendent commandments handed down by a god. Revelation is useless for gaining understanding or knowledge, because it isn't founded on reason, evidence, observable reality.
So our Declaration of Independence speaks of the "pursuit of happiness."
Government exists to express the will of the people as to the best way to regulate human affairs so as to make this pursuit most fruitful. Again, it is a matter of learning, of experimentation, of trying things and seeing how they work, then changing direction on the basis of new knowledge.
Because there isn't a god-given sense of what is right and wrong, of what produces more or less happiness, it takes effort to learn what works, and what doesn't -- on both a personal and societal level. Discussion, debate, criticism, questioning, these are essential both for individuals (like in our own head) and for associations of people (like cities, states, nations).
Ideally, everyone has an equal capacity and right to take part in the messy, yet valuable, democratic processes of electing people to represent them, and then critiquing their performance.
The differences between people are small in comparison to what makes us similar. Thus it doesn't make sense to restrict control of government to people of a certain gender, race, education, wealth, or whatever.
Everyone is capable of using his/her reasoning ability to argue for certain policies and choices. It is the quality of reasoning that matters, not the quality of someone's character, faith, religion, ancestry, or such. This is the "radical" side of the American Revolution that, of course, doesn't seem radical or revolutionary at all to most of us today.
It just did back in the late 1700s, when it was widely assumed that power should reside in royalty, church officials, landed gentry, white people, men, and other subsets of humanity.
Left to ourselves, following our instincts, we often screw things up.
Thus we need to carefully consider the wisdom of our actions both on an individual and societal level. "I will..." is just as vacuous as "Thou shalt..." unless what follows is backed up by solid evidence, careful reasoning, considered discussion.
The reason why Epicurus and those who followed in his philosophical footsteps advocated moderation in most things isn't because this sort of "Middle Way" reflects a transcendent moral or ethical law. Rather, it is just the way nature operates.
If we eat too much, we feel sick to our stomach. If we drink too much, we get a hangover. If we have sex with every willing attractive person we come across, we complicate our lives. So moderation in food, alcohol, and sexual relations isn't a matter of morality, it is the best way of being happy in the long term.
Similarly, when left to themselves people often over-indulge on a social level. We will be tempted to usurp others' property, possessions, money, and so on. Thus government exists as a necessary social conscience. Again, this requires commitment to a "learning culture," just as individual happiness does.
Since there is no God looking after us, and no moral rules other than the natural consequences of nature's laws, we humans have to feel our way along as best we can. Our guide isn't a transcendent revelation of "This is the way things are." Rather, it is a never-ending search for truth, wisdom, knowledge, reality.
There is no end to this search.
Choices between better and worse ways of acting always will confront us, both as individuals and as members of the body politic. If we have good reasons for doing this rather than that, and learn from the results of our actions, that's the best we can do.
Such was the vision of our country's founders.
Naturally Matthew Stewart expresses this much more clearly and completely in his book than I've been able to do in this blog post. But it was enjoyable to give it a reasoned try.