We need better fireworks.
Americans can find them in The Federalist Papers. This is where several Founding Fathers expressed fear of lodging unchecked power in the hands of one person or one institution. They had a negative word for this kind of power—a word that’s become so commonplace today that any caution against it will likely set off some fireworks. That might be a good thing.
The word: unbounded.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers. These men were part of a broader culture that had a different take on human nature than we do today, according to Harvard professor Daniel Walker Howe. In Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, Howe writes that the colonists built a society with “a structure of bounded desires.” Americans “believed that if we kept our desires within certain bounds, we would be doing the best thing for ourselves as well.”1
The wisdom of hemming in human desires came from several sources: Renaissance humanism, Christian theology, Enlightenment science, and Scottish-American moral philosophy. These views came together in a cultural consensus calling for self-control as a moral imperative. It was rooted in an understanding of human nature as composed of moral, rational, and animal powers. The “moral and rational powers (because they partook of the divine nature) had precedence over emotional and inquisitive impulses (animal powers),” Howe writes. The moral powers included conscience and prudence.
Animal powers on the other hand were of a lower order. Yet if conscience or prudence became corrupted, they too became an animal power or an “unregulated faculty.” This animalistic faculty “was called a passion,” Howe writes. This was how the Framers tried to achieve the common good, by binding passion inside “a combination of conscience, prudence, and wise institutions.” It was a tough task, for “although conscience was rightfully supreme, it was notoriously the weakest of motives; the emotions (passions) were the strongest, with prudence somewhere in between. It was therefore essential to devise means to strengthen the conscience in the interest of preserving society—that is, in the interest of the common good.”2 The challenge, as John Adams sadly noted, was that “human reason and human conscience are not a match for human passion.”
This is why, in Federalist #51, Hamilton wrote eloquently about curbing and containing what he called (and feared) the “passions of the people.” The Founders created a bi-cameral legislature with a Senate conceived as “the saucer into which the nation’s passions are poured to cool,” a separate executive branch and an independent judiciary to “prevent the rabble from passing sweeping new legislation in response to some passion of the moment.” It was a way of binding passion (considered a vice) inside conscience, prudence, and wise institutions (considered virtuous).
This of course sounds like ancient history to modern ears. Howe writes that Americans have since reworked their sense of identity. Being bound feels bad today. Individualism is in, institutional authority is out. Conscience was next.
In the 19th century, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud set out to “cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of the Judeo-Christian culture,” Paul Johnson writes in Modern Times.3 The key was getting rid of conscience. “It has been discovered that in order to bring down tyranny it is first necessary to loosen conscience;” Philip Rieff observed in The Triumph of the Therapeutic.4 Darwin reframed origins—humans are not designed in God’s image. Hence, no conscience. Nietzsche reframed morality—no longer rooted in God but in power. Freud reframed wellbeing—no longer rooted in the theological but in the therapeutic. “Freud expressly asserted that the cultural tasks performed by Christianity could be taken over by science,” notes Antonius A.W. Zondervan.5 Without the binding force of institutions and conscience, prudence no longer had fixed points. Passion was loosed upon society.
That’s a problem. Passion is animalistic, as in Jeremiah 2:24, where the “wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness… sniffs the wind in her passion.” It’s a mark of the fall, as in Romans 1:26, when God gives fallen people over to “degrading passions.” Passion is powerful, as when Paul urged singles without self-control to marry; “for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” But only prudence can bind passion inside conscience and institutions. This became nonsense after Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud. Prudence was associated with being a prude. Passion was understood as being paramount. That of course caught the eye of marketing genuises. Passion became the new mantra of Madison Avenue.
Faith communities were once a contributor to the common good, or what is known as shalom. The Framers were right. It is essential to devise means to strengthen the conscience in the interest of preserving society—that is, in the interest of the common good. Conscience ought to be the forte of faith communities. They ought to be considered an expert in building institutions. They ought to celebrate the prudence of boundaries and demonstrate checks on unbridled individualism. There is no creativity without boundaries. There is no society either. In the face of a growing barbarism, such talk will likely set off some fireworks. But again, some better fireworks might be a good thing.
1 Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). p. 3.
2 Howe, American Self, p. 13.
3 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991, p. 5.
4 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006 Edition), p. 127.
5 Antonius A.W. Zondervan, Sociology and the Sacred: An Introduction to Philip Rieff’s Theory of Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005,) p. 7.