Studying Political Classics

This picture is from the Ashbrook Scholar program which has a great reading list on politics and philosophy. Click on the picture above.

This is proving to be a challenging year for teaching government.  With Hillary swinging between the extremes of barking like a dog or snapping in anger at a questioner, with an aging Socialist drawing massive crowds, with large crowds attending the Republican debates–as participants, not candidates, and with Donald Trump being himself, politics and current events have been crazy.  Switching from the political updates, ranging from terrorism in Brussels to tangoing in Cuba, to serious political philosophy is tough.  It is like watching the classic Shawn Michaels vs. the Undertaker WWE match and then switching over to a stock market report.

But the current political dust will settle.  Fewer people will remember Chris “Krispy Kream” Christie than those who remember former Vice President Thomas R. Marshall.   Most of the current political rants, diatribes, promises, and oratory will become, to borrow from Macbeth’s words, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This is not to denigrate politics, government, the election cycle, political debates and rallies, or the importance of the Virgin Islands delegation in the event of a brokered convention.  Bismarck, the wily Prussian politician of the past, warned that it was best not to watch sausage and laws being made.  The same might be said for the political process of electing leaders.

Beyond that are the political classics.  There are books that have endured through the ages.  They reflect discussions, debates, ideas, and concepts that generated conversations that have never ceased.  They don’t comment on the issues we face, obviously, but the quips and quotes, the bits of blinding wisdom, concise summaries of human propensities, and the reflections on the human condition speak to our times and all times.

Mark Twain said that a classic is a book that everyone talks about, but nobody reads.  That was before our time when nobody even talked about classics.  But there have always been remnants, hold-outs, individualists, and even odd balls who counter-march against the culture.  In other words, someone always keeps reading the classics.  The flame flickers, but never goes out.

I took one government class in college and CLEPed out of a second one.  Along with a number of history and literature classes, none of these took us into the riches of political classics.  Thankfully, given enough time and true repentance, we can survive our own educational deficiencies.

In my Ancient World Humanities class, we have been battling our way through Plato’s Republic.  It is, I must admit, over the heads of my 9th graders, also my 10th, 11th, and 12th graders.  It’s over my head as well. I have told the students that they are in kindergarten and I am in 1st grade.  Nevertheless, our perseverance has paid off and we will finish Plato this week.  We have struggled with the concept of the Ideal State and rule by Philosopher-Kings, the vision from within the cave and the mission of those outside the cave, and the delineations Plato/Socrates makes on every statement.  My hope is to make it to 2nd or maybe even 3rd grade through this reading.

By the way, we use the Dover Thrift Edition of Plato’s Republic.  I do not recommend it.  The translation was done by Benjamin Jowett, who was an esteemed classicist in his day, but I have found the Hackett Classics edition, translated by C. D. C. Reeve, much better.


In government class, we are reading from The Federalist Papers by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.  This reading is following some study of the Constitution.  I first made it all the way through The Federalist Papers some years ago when teaching government.  Usually, our classes focus on reading at least 10 to 20 of the 80 plus essays.  I have found the best edition for this work is The Federalist Papers in Modern Language Indexed for Today’s Political Issues, edited by Mary E. Webster.  Dr. Webster has modernized the punctuation, added sub-headings, and added some notes that ease the reading of these essays.

Some of these essays raise questions that seem obvious.  For example, the first series concerns whether one nation (or one united confederacy) would be superior to having multiple nations.  Since we have grown used to the idea of the original 13 states (grown now to 50 states) being united as one, we forgot that this was a serious contention.  Historical references abound in these essays.  The authors knew history and used history.  The insights into human nature are profound.

The Federalist is not just history.  There are any number of current issues that are discussed or foreseen in these essays.  For example, in recent weeks there has been lots of debate about whether the Senate is obligated to basically rubber-stamp Pres. Obama’s nomination of Garland Webster to the Supreme Court.  Suddenly, Democrats are touting views that are totally opposite views they had when Republicans held the White House.  An appeal to recent history (such as Joe Biden’s flip-flop) is interesting, but the study of Federalist 69 is defining and weighty.  There we are told that “the president had was the power ‘to nominate, and, WITH THE ADVICE AND CONSENT OF THE SENATE, to appoint.’”

We can be assured that there is no limit to the wisdom of these essays.

On my own, I recently read John Stuart Mill’s work On Liberty.  This was the first time I had the book, or lengthy essay.  It is brilliant.  I determined to make no notes and mark no passages with this first reading.  That was difficult.  This is not to endorse everything that Mill said or to buy into his system.  He is a strong proponent of individualism and free thought.  In what was probably a time where there was little independence of ideas, Mill was pushing the envelope.  In our age, I am not sure he would be all that pleased with all who march to their own drummers.

On Liberty is one of the best political works I have read.  Certainly conservatives and libertarians would enjoy and benefit from this book.  I would not mind adding it on to the teaching load, if only we could squeeze it in.

This last political classic may be the least known.  Yet, I think it is the most important.  I read this book near the end of 2015 and am currently reading it again.  It is published by Wordbridge Publishing, which is under the direction of Ruben Alvarado and is the publishing house for some outstanding works on political philosophy.

Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (my story of the man from the year 2008) , commonly just referred to as Groen, is one of the greatest Christian political thinkers and activists of all time.  His realm of action was in the Netherlands during the 1800s.  He was a court historian who turned his scholarly labors to dealing with political issues of his time.  He rightly determined that the philosophy stemming from the French Revolution was a poison that would destroy Christian culture and the political order of Christendom.

Groen, along with others, started a political party.  He and his political allies worked to create one of the most vital ingredients for a Christian society, Christian schools.  His labors involved writing and assembling the Christian history of the Netherlands and the contributions of Christian thought and action from the time of the Protestant Reformation.  Specifically, he labored for the freedom and opportunity to start Christian schools.  It turned out to be an 80 year battle for the heart and soul of the Netherlands.

As with many Christian works, the first fruits are short lived, but the labors have long-term effects.  We are still tapping into the resources of Groen’s thought.  His name is overshadowed by that of his colleague and successor Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper’s brilliance and many accomplishments are not to be minimized, but without Groen, there would have been no Kuyper as we know him.

Groen’s main work was titled Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution.  It consisted of talks he gave to a group of interested friends on the impact of the French Revolution and how that movement was at heart unbelief.  That work, which was his earlier work, and Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution were originally in Dutch.  Outside of some Reformed theological circles and Neo-Calvinist philosophical circles, few people look into the writings of Dutch theologians and philosophers.

It is amazing how the little country of the Netherlands produced a whole array of brilliant Christian thinkers during the 1800s and early 1900s.  The names include Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, H. Van Reissen, G. C. Berkouwer, Klaus Schilder, and many more.  We can add the names also of those who crossed the pond from the Netherlands to North America.  Louis Berkof, Gerhard Vos, and Cornelius Van Til are among the esteemed names we give here.

Basically, our current political struggles are a re-fighting of the issues of unbelief.  I don’t want to simplify and over-simplify current politics so as to boil this down to two charts with one being the good guys (belief) and the other being bad guys (unbelief).  We are not talking about current candidates, the two-party system, or the 2016 election cycle.  Unbelief is a deeper problem than Bernie’s Socialism, Hillary’s emails, Donald’s tweets, or Ted’s abrasive personality.

The problem is not located in the candidates, but in the heart and soul of the country.  We expect flawed sinners to bring us “hope and change.”  We expect walls to keep out problems and bombs to make the world safe.

We need to get back to some deeper issues.  Some of the answers–or at least the right questions–can be found in Plato’s Republic, The Federalist Papers, and Mill’s On Liberty.  As we get serious about rebuilding a political and social culture, we have to mine the gold found in those Dutch writers like Groen van Prinsterer and in this fine book Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution.

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