The Enlightenment has come in for a drubbing over the years, particularly from the Romantics. But was the Enlightenment actually wrong?
Here was the deal. Sir Francis Bacon, in the New Organon (1620), in the Elizabethan Age, noticed that conclusions were firmer if they were grounded on, well, the ground—something solid and tangible. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) picked up that philosophical torch and ran with it, claiming that the human mind was composed of collections of observations, and that thinking was the organization and reorganization of those observations. Thus, the mind was a creative reflection of reality. Sir Isaac Newton, in Principia (1687), a bravura conceptual performance if there ever was one, stunned everyone around by successfully putting all the pieces of the physics puzzle together and showing that reality, in its dazzling complexity, could be conceptualized geometrically and described mathematically. The earth, for example, was a sphere going round and round a larger light-giving sphere in precisely predictable cycles of time, in precisely predictable paths. The Enlightenment had well and truly arrived.
Everything was just a matter of calculation. Get the facts, measure it all, work out the logic, then draw the valid conclusions.
So, what was the problem?
The problem was that, for many people, such an extreme degree of logical factualness was too narrow and stringent to be satisfying, let alone inspiring. “The operation was a success, although the patient died” is the way some people put that. “Man does not live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4), as it’s also been put. It’s the same reason we put frosting on a cake, people from Pittsburgh vacation in Jamaica, and accountants read novels—we all need something beautiful and inspiring above and beyond the day-to-day routine of making a living. Empiricism is necessary to survive, but a little romance is also necessary in our lives; empiricism pays the rent, but romance makes paying the rent meaningful.
Thus, the Enlightenment—a stunning testament to the power and relevance of empiricism, a veneration of facts and logic, was followed by Romanticism—a veneration of emotions, relationships, and glorious ideals, for example, chivalry—noble self-sacrifice for a splendid cause.
Which brings up the Founders of America ... Now, there is a hidden mystery surrounding these boys. Where did they all come from? Why did they all show up at the same time? And where did they all go? Why has their equal not been seen since?
A provincial view of the American Founding Fathers is that they are purely a local, United States matter, of no concern to anyone else, buried deeply (though not deeply enough for some) in the dusty, shadowy corridors of American Studies programs. But a broader, more cosmopolitan view might be that the American Founding Fathers are representative of a certain timeless type of person, a certain noble character—educated, well-versed in practical arts, international in outlook and tastes, hard-working and prosperous, brave, idealistic and dedicated, generous and helpful, yet politically savvy. That is, as it were—human beings for all seasons.
Anyone around the world can take the Founders as role models should they so choose, and thereby can light their own torches in honor of political freedom, education, prosperity, and happiness. The following books provide data—snapshots as well as photo albums—of the Founders, for the curious and the ambitious.
The Hamilton Collection: The Wisdom and Writings of the Founding Father (Dan Tucker, editor, 2016) is a marvelous assemblage of copies of actual materials from Hamilton’s life within an informative, focused series of editorial comments by Tucker, which expand on and explain the materials in a linked panorama. This all forms a brisk and engaging sojourn through the life of an intellectual, political, and military luminary, an individual not necessarily superior to Washington or Jefferson . . . but close.
Hamilton was born of Scottish nobility (possibly), through raised by his mother in St Croix, in the Caribbean. As a teenager, Hamilton was apprenticed to a mercantile house of international trade, and soon was virtually running the family business— dealing with cutthroat traders, firmly but fairly negotiating prices, even planning navigation routes for ships through multiple ports. Boldness backed by courage, imagination linked to calculation, broad economic vision combined with scrupulous attention to particulars—Hamilton was an organizational phenomenon right out of the gate.
He emigrated to Manhattan and entered what is now Columbia University. During the Revolution, Washington appointed him aide-de-camp, and Hamilton distinguished himself at the decisive battles of Trenton and Yorktown as a bright, gutsy, successful combat leader. He eventually married and had a family, obtained legal training, passed the bar, and established a successful legal practice. Hamilton’s main emphasis in the designing of the American republic, possibly based on attitudes forged during his youth as a businessman on a small island, was that America needed to be strong and well-organized, particularly in finance; weak, poor, small nations were vulnerable.
James Madison and the Making of America (Kevin Gutzman, 2012) is something of a hybrid work. Mr. Gutzman seemed to feel that what the reader wanted was not so much a biography of James Madison, as a lengthy, detailed transcript of Madison’s arguments on behalf of the Constitution. For those readers who crave statements such as, “On July 21, Madison supported a motion to associate the judiciary and the executive in the veto power”, this is manna from Kevin. For readers of a less actuarial bent, although a fair amount of wading is required, enough information is presented here about Madison to gain a vivid picture of a deeply intelligent, dedicated, highly successful man, a calm and caring visionary of a daring democratic experiment on the edge of the New World.
James Madison is the sleeper of the Founding Fathers. A prosperous landowner and well-read in law, he didn’t pen the incendiary Declaration of Independence, unlike Jefferson, and he wasn’t much of a military commander, unlike the savvy, and ferocious, Washington and Hamilton. But Madison’s meticulous research and precise, unrelenting logic, and his smooth, patient debate skills may have been crucial in bringing the Colonies together, in winning the Revolutionary War, in hammering out the Constitution and getting it ratified, and in giving birth to a nation which, for a time, was a light of hope to oppressed people around the globe.
The Federalist Papers
You don’t realize how far public discourse has fallen until you read The Federalist Papers (2017)! This is a collection of numbered newspaper articles (initially carrying the title Federalist), authored by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay, from the period of the debate over ratification of the American Constitution. Where modern journalism says things like, “Yeah, baby, the Patriots can back up their trash-talking, they can show up with their game face on—they stomped the Giants again!”, The Federalist Papers says things such as, “To the People of the State of New York: Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of the faction.”
For modern readers, indeed, The Federalist Papers is a bit of a slog through a fancy vocabulary and long, convoluted sentences. (It’s not for nothing that the authors did all that reading in law!) Federalist articles have ever been seen as a portal into the minds of, primarily, Hamilton and Madison. Over eighty Federalist articles appeared, the pro-Constitution Federalist arguments ricocheting hither and yon depending on the recent accusations of the anti-Constitution camp.
Nonetheless, the basic position of Hamilton and Madison can be discerned: 1) It is naïve to believe that thirteen small, fractious ex-colonies can defend themselves against ambitious, wealthy, well-organized, well-armed opponents, such as Britain, France, and Spain, competitors hovering restlessly nearby. 2) Only rational, competent, adequately funded unification can protect the country. 3) The best way to unify is to honestly debate, and then ratify, a national constitution which does not favor small, aggressive, self-interested factions, but is fair to all, and thus, in national revenue-collecting and decision-making, can claim the allegiance of all.
George Washington: Gentleman Warrior (Stephen Brumwell, 2012) . . . is a “weighty tome”, as the saying goes. Probably not much about Washington’s career was left out, though that may not constitute one of the book’s virtues. There is a good deal of repetition, and so much detail that, throughout, the trees threaten to disguise the forest. However, the explanation as to how a Potomac farmer managed to defeat the British Empire is well-documented and satisfying.
First of all, Washington, in the spirit of the times, worked tirelessly on the development of his character, which he saw as the foundation of successful behavior. He even had his own personal book of commandments, his Rules of Civility, which begins, “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present”.
Second, Washington was a great admirer of the British military, therefore he meticulously and habitually imitated the model British officer—perfect posture and accoutrements, splendid mount, noble bearing, faultless comportment, extensive reading and training, complete bravery marked by calculated daring, and as much graciousness in victory as in defeat. Washington cooperated closely with the British military during the French and Indian War, where he learned to steel himself against, as well as to rise above, the devastating brutality of combat.
Altogether, Washington impressed everyone, everywhere he went, every time—from the Indians and the Colonials, to the British, the Germans, and the French, at home and abroad—with his elegant manners, his immense confidence, his cool shrewdness, and his ferocious toughness.
Shocking! Who ever imagined that George Washington was as energetic a businessman as he was a general? But First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His—and the Nation’s—Prosperity (Edward Lengel, 2016) makes the case. It’s no wonder the American dollar, that world-wide index of brazen prosperity, carries the face of Washington! George was just as dynamic and successful at land acquisition and farming, warehousing and trading as he was at running an army. He applied the same strategic and tactical attitudes and skills to making money that he applied to winning the Revolutionary War.
The breadth and depth of Washington’s commercial acumen is truly astonishing, a virtual template for a dauntless and prosperous country: trustworthy character, honest accounts, mastery of math, precision in legal contracts, love of business and enterprise, general optimism and energy, alertness in seeking, and boldness in exploring commercial opportunities, desire for wealth, ambitious visions linked to practicality, knowledge of investments, fascination with science, deep familiarity with inventions and technology, constant experimentation, employment of top-level experts, and reliance on the best materials and manufacturing methods, all contributing to first-class products and first-tier incomes. An icon of economic competence.
Washington was equally attentive to the social side of business—excellent contacts with powerful people, scrupulous attention to politics and laws, and lavish entertaining in his gorgeous home, Mount Vernon. There was, indeed, a remarkable skill overlap between building the prosperity of his estate, and building the prosperity of the country as president.
An eternally admirable individual, as trustworthy in business as in politics. A sterling role model, in many respects, for the nation, and, to an extent, for the world.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History (Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager, 2015) does a fine job of explaining why and how a comfortable and informal champion of the Common Person, a true son of Virginia, a wine-lover and farmer, launched his just-born America at the throat of dangerous, wily, unforgiving banditry across the sea.
The paradox of Jefferson is that he was largely a pacifist, and not much interested in rigid, elegant, hierarchical systems—more of an idealistic dreamer and charismatic writer; yet one of his most outstanding acts as president of the United States was to direct the Navy and Marines to contain and defeat the Barbery pirates in the Mediterranean. The justification was that the pirates had been harassing shipping, which grossly interfered with international trade, which threatened American prosperity.
There seemed to be, on the whole, several principles Jefferson tried to convey to the nascent nautical military arm under his command, principles which it strives to maintain to this day: 1) win; 2) do that with top training and technology, with shrewd tactics and indomitable courage; 3) be cognizant of local politics; 4) fight within principles of justice and honor; and 5) announce to the world, thereby, that the United States of America is a serious military force, as well as a force for good.
Now, there are two ways to look at these impressive biographies and records of the Founding Fathers. The first way, the regular way, is to conclude that Hamilton, Madison, Washington, and Jefferson were four smart fellas, who brought home the bacon. They all just happened to arrive in the same place at the same time, all happened to be well-educated, all happened to be luminously insightful, all happened to be sophisticated, all happened to be rich, all happened to be resolutely honorable, and all happened to be dedicated and self-sacrificing.
Well, how did all that happen?
That brings up the second way at looking at this psychosocial phenomenon—it wasn’t sheer coincidence. The character structures of Hamilton, Madison, Washington, and Jefferson likely were shaped by a splendid historical confluence of cultures. Specifically, they were shaped by a blend of Enlightenment cognition and Romantic idealism.
The Enlightenment is all about taking the real world seriously, observing and measuring it carefully, classifying everything, and drawing logical conclusions. From broad, deep, accurate information a reliable, empirical picture of the world can be constructed—the edifice of scientific knowledge.
On the basis of that empirical picture, successful, rational plans can be made for planting and harvesting crops, opening stores, building bridges, laying train tracks, building locomotives, designing cities, constructing ships, and establishing international trade links. From solid science flows powerful technology, as well as robust economics. The Founders, indeed, were fascinated by science and inventions, and were eager to develop both technology and trade.
Ironically, hope and self-confidence, and great entrepreneurship flourish in this Enlightenment hothouse of mathematics and iron. The reason is that empirical, pragmatic thinking sends numerous inspiring messages, as if to say: “You can do it!” “Don’t be afraid!” “There’s no boogeyman hiding anywhere!” “Get the facts, then move ahead!” “Figure out the path to your goal, then follow the path!” “Propose your ideal world, then build it!” That is, every idea is testable, which is profoundly reassuring.
The paradigm members of the Enlightenment are scientists, mathematicians, engineers, architects, economists and accountants, lawyers, and farmers—anyone who makes a living from hard, precise work involving facts and logic, materials and objects. The Holy of Holies in the Enlightenment world is Verifiable Truth. Clear cognition rules!
Romanticism is something of a belief system complementary to the Enlightenment, an intriguing, and perhaps necessary, counterbalance. Romanticism is all about emotions, poetry, novels, paintings, and relationships. Thus, the paradigm members of Romanticism are poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, and philosophers of intuition (e.g., the Critique of Pure Reason). The Holy of Holies in the Romantic world is Majestic Emotion. Powerful feelings rule!
Romanticism is about, say, wandering through lovely countryside, lost in thought, images, emotion, and language. For example, a visitor (Wordsworth), on the banks of the Wye River in Wales, remarked: “While with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy/We see into the life of things”.
The Romantics adopted a metaphysical premise that everything which is important in human life is not necessarily tangible. For example, the Scottish poet Robert Burns, in “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” proposed the very Founding Father-ish thought that, perfectly aside from rank or wealth, a person is a person, and ought to be respected as such. That is, all people have natural humanitarian rights aside from any royal proclamation or pedigree. The arch-Romantic writer Sir Walter Scott created an electrifying mythology about the poor Scottish clans and their fight against privilege, about their struggle for freedom, in the novel Rob Roy. In the Romantic tradition, the poet Tennyson wrote: “Some work of noble note, may yet be done/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods/. . . strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
Finally, is there a more powerful, charismatic description of glorious self-sacrifice and dedication to an idealistic cause than the immortal saga of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Galahad, and the noble quest for the Holy Grail? That is, the quintessential romance, from the Middle Ages to the Romantic Age, is—chivalry.
George Washington was quite aware that a substantial portion of his personality, and his pattern of living, were drawn from the principles of chivalry. And the chivalric impulse is evident in the lives and writings of Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson, who, at great risk, dedicated themselves to principles much larger than themselves. The Founding Fathers can be seen as exemplary blends of Enlightenment rationality and Romantic idealism—empiricist knights of the New World, seeking the Holy Grail of freedom and happiness for all.
Both the Enlightenment and Romanticism are magnificent cultural edifices—the first of science, including Adam Smith’s new field of economics, and the second of emotion-referenced art. For too long, perhaps, these two civilization milestones, these two monuments of cognition and of affect, have been seen as competing polarities. In the spirit of the Founders, it may be useful to unify the basic notions of the Enlightenment and Romanticism into a combined set of concepts, identified by one modern, functional term: rational idealism.
Synthesis: Rational Idealism
Rationality can be defined as facts and logic organized according to a beneficial purpose. That is, if thinking isn’t grounded on solid evidence and careful reasoning, it doesn’t qualify as rational. But if the thinking has no tangible payoff, it doesn’t quite qualify as rational either. “You call that rational? What was the point?”, might be the comment.
Idealism can be defined as a belief that some goal is so important as to justify enormous sacrifices to achieve it, including, possibly, life and wealth, even when the direct material benefit to the individual involved is marginal. Often, what idealism refers to is individual self-sacrifice within a larger frame of social gain. So, for example, Hamilton and Washington risked their individual lives on the field of battle on behalf of the American citizenry and, in an even larger sense, on behalf of the ideal of democracy, the idea that the Common Man and Woman form their own kind of intelligent royalty, a new and gleaming possibility in that era.
Purely rational people are often derided for being soulless, and purely idealistic people are often derided for being ineffectual. What is needed is, as one might say, a fruitful marriage of the two—brilliant chivalry. That is, rational idealism.
Rational Idealism can be defined as well-grounded, factual, logical thinking aimed at a magnificent, and perhaps immensely difficult goal, which, if achieved, would profoundly benefit humanity.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident” . . . that all people deserve respect, freedom, safety, a decent place to live, adequate food and medical care, and the opportunity to create better lives for themselves. And who can make that happen? “We the People”, of course—the Common Man and Woman. And who will lead them? Brilliant rationalists of chivalric character.
Earnest Hemingway once famously said that the magnificent city of Paris was a “moveable feast”. That may be true of Enlightened Romanticism, that is, of rational idealism—a cultural feast which can be moved to where it can be appreciated and can be useful.
Is there a good reason to leave a genius philosophy of character, life, and society lodged in the past, if it can be usefully imported into the present? Is there a good reason to ignore a beautiful and inspiring . . . philosophy for all seasons?