President George Washington recognized in his maiden State of the Union Message that a Republic whose glory is liberty would degenerate into tyranny whose glory is domination and force without a wise and virtuous citizenry.
He elaborated: “To the security of a free constitution, [knowledge] contributes in various ways–by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights. …”
As Thomas Jefferson noted, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Cultivating a wise and virtuous citizenry is a challenge of the highest order. The DNA of the species covets power, money, sex, creature comforts, and celebrity. The search for wisdom or virtue are learned thrills that require bringing our DNA to heel, not succumbing to its seductions. The acquisition of wisdom, moreover, is a daunting, lifetime, 24-7 endeavor.
If learning is confined to the classroom, the result will be a nation of imbeciles incapable of self-government and the preservation of liberty. That describes the American citizenry today. In plain daylight, the Executive Branch exerts limitless power to crush liberty and reduce Congress to an ink blot in our constitutional dispensation. No Paul Reveres are awakened to warn against and protest the tyranny of one-branch government.
The current conga line of presidential candidates miss this key point. They are fixated on student loans, school choice, testing, teacher evaluations, funding or curriculum. They ignore that all school learning will be for naught in preserving the Republic’s glorification of liberty unless citizens are motivated to crave wisdom and virtue as the summum bonum.
The secret of wisdom is a mastery of human nature. And the secret of acquiring that mastery is a 24-7 devotion to the pursuit of knowledge — especially an understanding of power — without ulterior motives. Self-esteem and self-identity must pivot on that unflagging dedication.
Wisdom is elusive because human actions and motivations are riddled with contradictions or self-destructive narratives that defy Aristotelian logic.
Discovering a general theory of man requires a trenchant survey of political societies from the beginning of recorded history to detect recurring themes. They are there to be found. As elaborated in Ecclesiastes, “What has been will be again, what has been done with be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” The DNA and chromosome pairs never change.
In order to motivate citizens to wisdom, our prevailing juvenile culture infatuated with drivel and electrified by amusements must be abandoned. Our wretched, vulgar, or insipid icons must be replaced by moral philosophers and thinkers. Teenagers should be encouraged to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s “The Vindication of the Rights of Women” over J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Plutarch’s “Lives” over Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” They should be encouraged to admire or emulate Homer’s Nestor and Plato’s Socrates over professional athletes, movie stars, fashion designers, the fabulously rich, warriors, or hip hop or pop music celebrities.
More than 50 years ago, then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minnow assailed television as a “vast wasteland.” It is vastly worse today: a repellant kaleidoscope of mindless, violent, sex-saturated, coarse displays of depravity, inanity or blather. Citizens should be encouraged to read books and banish television from their dwellings.
Leaders are saddled with a moral responsibility through example to cultivate a culture of wisdom and virtue necessary to to sustain a Republic and celebrate liberty.
None of the presidential candidates fits the bill. Depend upon it. Irrespective of who wins in 2016, the Republic will continue its eclipse of liberty with tyranny. If you want a preview of the nation’s destiny, take a peek at Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”