Prudence Amid the Fireworks

Catholic tradition sometimes hails St. Augustine as the doctor of Original Sin. If Congress ever gets around to creating similar titles for our nation’s historical figures, I would nominate James Madison. During this month of fireworks and hoohah about the American Founding, Jefferson tends to get the lion’s share of quotations. Everybody knows “All men are created equal”. But fewer and fewer people in our culture make note of Madison’s opinion that, however equal we are created we must also bear in mind that we are equally fallen. Jefferson envisioned a nation of prosperous, happy gentlemen farmers living out of the goodness of their hearts in accord with Nature and Nature’s God. Madison–sober, realistic Madison–saw a nation of people behaving as they have ever behaved: selfishly. Accordingly, he declared “If men were virtuous, we would have no need of government at all” and set about the creation of a constitutional government of checks and balances predicated on the idea that nobody-absolutely nobody-can be trusted with power.

This is worth remembering at the present time, when everybody is besotted with the ethic of “I’m just as good as everybody else!” Madison’s reply to that was “You think that’s something to be proud of?” Being “as good as everybody else” in the midst of the race of Adam is like a student at the School for the Blind declaring “I see just as well as the rest of the class!” It’s not a boast to write home about. It is to overlook the fundamental reason for equality before the law. to help provide a shield for the weak against the depredations of the strong because of our equal badness.

And so the idea of the Founders was to create a system of state at eternal cross-purposes with itself, in the clearly articulated and intentional hope that a government busy fighting with itself would have a great deal of energy diverted from amassing power and dominating us. Today, the very thing the Founders intended is lamented as the tragedy of “gridlock.” People who offer such laments should remember that it was men like Hitler and Mussolini who made the trains run on time. The Founders were willing to put up with a few inconveniences if they could be spared the assaults of a fully mobilized and unified regime aiming to Do Things To Us For Our Own Good.

Madison, in short, was wise as a serpent where other more idealistic types saw only original goodness in human nature. Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers hailed the equality of all as though we were still in Eden or could get back if we tried. Madison, like Jeremiah, knew that the heart was desperately wicked and distrusted it. Like Augustine, Madison had a healthy awareness of original sin (whatever theology or lack thereof he may have had) and planned accordingly. And his dim view of human perfectibility gave us a system which, while not perfect, works tolerably well.

This reflects something of the paradox of Catholic theology as a whole. He who loses his life saves it. He who saves his life in this world, loses it. Madison was willing to swallow pride and acknowledge we are fallen and that nothing in this world was perfect. Result: he helped create a system which fostered human liberty and creativity on an immense scale. Later ideologues insisted on human perfectibility and happiness in this world. They rejected the Christian belief in the fall as a hindrance to our upward march toward the glorious freedom of the human spirit-and ended by giving us the Gulag, the Holocaust, and all the other bloodbaths of the 20th Century.

Prudence is the art of seeing what is before trying to will what we want in the teeth of reality. Thanks be to God for the prudence of Madison.


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