The Federalist and human nature

August 24th, 2012

In part two of his series on the Federalist Papers, Tony Williams of the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison Institute examines the view of human nature presented in the essays. Check out his full post here, an excerpt from which appears below:

[T]he view of human nature as presented in The Federalist is a crucial question for understanding the Constitution. It should hardly surprise us that in an overwhelming Protestant nation of various denominations, Publius formed a generally pessimistic view of human nature based upon Original Sin. Indeed, in Federalist #51, James Madison uses religious language to explore the basic nature of man. Madison averred:

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.

The implicit conclusions Madison draws from his conditional (if-then) logical statements are plain. Men are not angels, and therefore government is in fact necessary. Moreover, men are not always governable by angels or God. The people follow their passions and leaders suffer from ambition for power. Thus, internal and external controls on government are necessary because men are governed by men.

Madison continues, explaining how to frame a republican government, considering his argument regarding human nature:

In framing 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.

The writers of the Federalist were also steeped in classical philosophy and believed that man was mired by passions, self-interest, and habits of vice but also capable of self-control, reason, and habits of virtue. They believed, with Aristotle, that each person had an ethical duty and the reason to govern himself and restrain his vices to live a happy and free life. So too could a people govern itself justly and virtuously in a republic. [… In Federalist #55, Madison wrote:]

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

Read the entire essay here.

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