Posts Tagged ‘government’

Books for Political Philosophy

Dear Reader,

My oldest (just finishing up 11th grade) has an interest in political science so, at his request, I created a course for him this year in what is probably best termed political philosophy. I looked at the AP comparative government course but it requires one to know a lot about and to then compare specific countries. This is not really what I was looking for for him. My goal instead was to have him delve into the ideas behind government. The overall plan for the course was fairly simple: read and narrate a bunch of books and then write a term paper at the end. As I write this, the term paper is still in the final stages (due Friday!), but his reading for the year is finishing up so I thought I would share with you the books we found for studying political philosophy.

I used two more textbook-y books as spine books: A Short History of Western Civilization by Sullivan, Sherman, and Harrison and Political Science: A Comparative Introduction by Hague and Harrop. Honestly, this is not a subject I ever studied in an organized way and I was hesitant about it. I chose these books to make sure we weren’t missing any big concepts. I only had my son read selections and though he did one or the other of them most days, the readings were using around 5 pages so it was not overly burdensome or a big part of what he was doing.

For these and many of the other books, I had him make notes rather than do a straight narration. We began the year by sitting down together and trying to come up with questions we might ask about any government. We came up with a list of 10 or so along the lines of: Who is in charge? Where does power come from? How does the government relate to the religion? I then encouraged him for each era, place, or philosopher he read about to think about these questions and to make notes answering them. I consider this a focused narration. In some sense, you could say we are starting with some sense of the ideas we expect to find, rather than just narrating and hoping ideas rise to the surface. I don’t know how Charlotte Mason would have felt about this, but I think it is an approach that works well for this subject.

Our approach was mainly chronological so we began by looking at the Greeks and Romans. (Egyptians and Ancient Near East were covered in his Western Civilization spine but not in other reading.) Our book for this was The Ancient City; a study on the religion, laws and institutions of Greece and Rome by Fusel du Coulanges. This is a dense book so I did go through it ahead of time and select passages for him to read. Because the goal of this course is to study the theory of government, we weren’t interested in every twist and turn in the government of each of these places, but more in the big trends and the reasons for them.

For the Middle Ages, we used On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State by Strayer. This is a thin book. I didn’t want to get too bogged down in this time period so it was a perfect fit. Moving into modern times, I had him read two slim volumes: The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction by Loughlin and Magna Carta: A Short Introduction by Vincent.

Because I found it for free, we used On Democracy by Robert Dahl. This is a history of democracy and discussion of its pros and cons.

As we moved into modern times, our focus became more on philosophies and theories than on events and places. I came up with a list of major political philosophers and we read the relevant portions from various books. The philosophers we looked at were (in order):

Machiavelli, Luther and Calvin, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Bastiat, Kant, The Federalist, Burke, de Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, Hitler, and Nietzsche.

The books we used were:

History of Political Philosophy by Strauss and Cropsey — A thick book of the college textbook sort, but well-written if dense. I usually skimmed through each section and marked specific paragraphs and sections for my son to read since it is so dense. The style is relatively engaging, however, and the tone is friendly to our beliefs.

10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read by Benjamin Wiker — These are excellent books and every student should read them whether they are studying political philosophy or not. We didn’t do every chapter in them, just the ones relevant to politics. For 10 Books that Screwed Up we used the audio- book. It was very well done. The reader had the perfect tone for it. I would look for any of Wiker’s other books as well (he has one on the periodic table we have used).

The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul — Similar to Wiker’s books. I didn’t love this one quite as much but it is still very good and worth having any child read. We used the audio-book version again (we had a lot of car time this year).

We ended our reading for the year with some books from a particular perspective; our denomination (the RPCNA) traces its roots to the Scottish covenanters and historically is very committed to the idea of Christ’s mediatorial kingship over the nations. This principle is laid out in William Symington’s Messiah the Prince.  There is a simplified and updated version called Messiah the Prince Revisited. I read both and opted to have my son read only the original. I found that in the revised version the arguments are simplified to the degree that they don’t come through clearly. But if you are having problems understanding the original, you could read it side by side with the newer version. A more accessible book is Founding Sins by Joseph S. Moore. This is a wonderful book. Again, one everyone should read. If you think the US was founded as a Christian nation, you need to read this book.

That is all the books we used. As I said, the year ended with a term paper designed to pull from many of these sources.





Law and Government: A Review of Whatever Happened to Justice?

Dear Reader,

I have been guilty of not prereading everything I give to my kids. With four of them all reading a number of different books, this is often impossible. But in this case, it appears I really should have. I noticed earlier in the school year that my older son was getting some odd ideas as he worked through Richard J. Maybury’s Whatever Happened to Justice?, but I still had him persevere and finish the book. Along the way we did discuss the bits he was repeating that I disagreed with, but, honestly, it took a while for me to convince me son of my position, so strong was the effect of what he had read. The subject was dropped for  a while when he finished the book, but now as I plan for the coming year, I have to decide if I will have my daughter read this book or if I need to find something else. So I figured it was time for me to finally read it myself.

Whatever Happened to Justice? is the second book in a series known as the Uncle Eric books which seem to be quite popular with homeschoolers, particularly conservative Christian ones. My two older children have both read the first one in the series, Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?, which deals with economics. Though I only skimmed that volume, it had seemed quite good and they appeared to learn quite a bit from it. Which is part of the reason, other than laziness and time constraints, that I did not bother to preread the Justice book. I viewed it as being from a well-respected series that we had used before and I wasn’t concerned about its contents.

Mayhew’s Argument

Mayhew defines his political philosophy as  juris naturalis and is in favor of very limited government, ideally even of no government. There is quite a lot of what he says that I would either agree with or have no reason to disagree with. But I do think that his overall outlook, his world view, if you like, is different from mine. And, more importantly, his outlook  is not biblical. His view of law and government is not in line with that found in the Word of God and his view of humanity is also off.

Let me begin by summarizing as best I can what Mayhew has to say about law and government. Mayhew believes in a Higher Power (though, as we will see, this is not the Christian God not does it seem to be the God of Judaism or Islam either) who has created what he terms Natural Law and placed it in the minds of men so that they are able through reason and scientific thought to discern its principles. The laws which people thus discern he calls Common Law. Common Law, Mayhew says, is founded upon two basic principles from which all the others derive. They are:

  • “Do all you have agreed to do.”
  • “Do not encroach on other persons or their property.”

(Justice, p. 40 and elsewhere)

These two, he says, are agreed upon by peoples from “all major religions and philosophies” (p. 35).

Mayhew idealizes Europe under Roman rule when the government was far away and there was little local control. During this time, he says, there were judges who would settle disputes, using their reason to discover the principles of Common Law. A key point for him is that they would discover these principles which were part of the Natural Law, much as scientists discovered the Law of Gravity and other scientific laws.

In contrast, today, Mayhew says, we have only political law. When our country was founded, our forefathers still believed in Common Law, but over time our government has grown to such an extent that what we have now are politicians who make up political laws. That is, they create rather than discern laws and they do so to further their own political power. Another key point for Mayhew is that political power corrupts. And he seems to believe that it always corrupts; that no one is immune from its effects.

The best government for Mayhew governs least. His desire for America would be a return to a time like was had under British Common Law (at least as he sees that time; I am skeptical that it was as good as he says). He says we need intelligent people to return to the principles of Common Law and to use their reason to discern principles that affect us today so that we can resolve the many undecided issues we face today including abortion, capital punishment, drugs, and many others. Even wars, he believes, could be avoided if nations, like people, obeyed the principles of Common Law. And this is another major point for him — that nations should be held to the same principles as individuals. Taxation he sees as encroachment by the government and therefore contrary to Common Law. A couple of final points: he eschews democracy which he says allows the majority to oppress the minority and he bolsters his claims with evidence that the countries which have the least government interference have the strongest economies.

To sum up, then, these are Mayhew’s main points:

  • There is a Higher Power — though Mayhew rarely refers to Him (her? it?) as God and does not define him/it at all.
  • There is a Natural Law, given by this Higher Power, which we can discover.
  • Human reason and scientific thought can derive the right principles — these principles are Common Law.
  • All peoples agree on the two basic principles (do what you say; don’t encroach) — he speaks of all major religions and philosophies agreeing but also says that, in the many, many talks he has given worldwide, he has never met an individual who disagrees with either of them.
  • Governments should be held to the same standards as individuals. Therefore governments also should not encroach.
  • Political power corrupts everyone.
  • Those societies which have the least government interference are best, meaning most economically prosperous, which shows that Mayhew’s philosophy is correct.

My Response

The first two points above I agree with – though I would word them differently. There is a God and He has a Law which He has placed to some extent in the hearts of men. Certainly, He holds all men up to its standards whether they have overt knowledge of it or not. It is when we come to the third point that my disagreement with Mayhew begins. Human nature is fallen in all its aspects. Though we have some sort of innate knowledge of the Law of God, it is corrupted. Our reason is also fallen and cannot be completely trusted by us. Indeed, people are quite adept at reasoning themselves into all sorts of sinful behavior. Thus, human reason in its current state is not sufficient to guide us infallibly to correct principles.

The two principles which Mayhew cites as the most basic ones are good principles, and as he states, they are biblical. The Old Testament and the New both sum up the Law of God in two principles; but these are not identical to Mayhew’s. In the New Testament book of Matthew, we read:

“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40)

Notice that the second commandment cited by Jesus is essentially identical to Mayhew’s principle of not encroaching. However, in both the Old and New testaments, the first and foremost commandment regards our behavior not towards our fellow man but towards God Himself. The second flows out of the first and in biblical terms has little meaning without the first as it is our love for God, and His for us, that allows us to love our fellow man. Nonetheless, I myself would not want to legislate religion or love for God so I would concede to Mayhew that the second commandment is a better basis for human law.

I am very skeptical of Mayhew’s assertion that all people agree to his two basic principles. They may be found in most major religions as he says and it may be also that most people would agree with them when they are put to them. But I suspect that in practical matters there is not such wide agreement. There is a lot that may or may not be included in encroachment and there is a lot as well in the word “persons.” For example, many Islamic countries even today are well-known for restricting the rights of females, even of allowing their most basic rights to be violated with impunity. While a rulers from such a country might stand before us and say that, yes, he agrees witsh te two basic principles, he may mean very different things by them.

We turn then to Mayhew’s statements about government and political power. I am a little surprised, I have to say, by how fervently he maintains that political power corrupts. Indeed, it can. The Bible acknowledges this when Israel asks for a king — God warns them how the king will multiply horses and wives for himself at the expense of his people. But this is a far cry from saying that political power always corrupts everyone so that all politicians are always working for their own benefit.

I also do not agree that governments must be held to the same standards as individuals. It is beyond the scope of this post to look at all the Bible has to say about governments (another post perhaps?), but suffice it to say that the Bible does recognize that governments have powers (like imposing capital punishment) that individuals do not. It also implies that taxation is acceptable.

Finally, there is Mayhew’s evidence to support his view — that the most limited governments produce the most prosperous societies. This may be true; I would venture to say that it is likely true. But I am not sure that the most economically prosperous societies are inherently the best ones. We must ask first what the measure of success for a society is. I have always heard that some very socialistic nations in Europe report the highest levels of happiness among their citizens nor would their citizens willing trade what they have in goverment services for the freedoms we have here. I don’t think happiness would be my measure of what is best either but it is at least as valid as economic prosperity as a measure of success.


My biggest conclusion from all this is that Mayhew’s philosophy is not biblical. He never claims that it is, of course, though he does claim that his two basic principles are in line with the Bible and he does tend to assume that members of all major religions and philosophies would agree with his arguments. But I think the real key here is that Mayhew has underlying ideas, wrong ideas, which inform his philosophy. He criticizes modern-day Americans who look to the government to solve all their problems. I agree that we as a people have a tendency to do so and that it is wrong of us; it is a kind of idolatry that arises from our lack of reliance on God. But Mayhew himself does rather the opposite — he blames all our problems on the government. On the one hand, his view of human nature is too high — he seems to think that if we only could return to Common Law and to a time without government that all would be good and that people would regulate themselves well. On the other hand, he has too low a view of politicians, saying that all those who enter politics are utterly corrupt. We all need in our philosophies to account for the evil in the world, and particularly in ourselves and our fellow man. Mayhew’s solution is to say that while most people are capable of being good and doing good in the right circumstances that political power is the repository of all evil. When I looked at various homeschooling philosophies, I found that for many of them, what they believe comes down to their view of human nature — Are we basically good or evil? If good, where does the evil we see around us come from? So too I find for Mayhew that the point where he goes wrong seems to be at the very foundation of his thinking in his view of human nature.

I do not completely regret having my son read this book; it has provided us with some useful discussions — and of course, at least one very long blog post for me :), but I do not think my daughter will be reading it nor could I in good conscience recommend it to other homeschooling parents. As an adult, I am learning to read books critically and to discern the author’s’ assumptions, but it would be a lot to ask a high schooler to read this book that critically and to pick out the good ideas in it from the bad.

Now if anyone has other book recommendations for government, I am all ears . . .





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