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Fall 2020 Ducharme Lecture: American Politics–Mount Style

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

ducharme feature

Stephen McGinley, Paige Hochschild and Gregory Murry

What would some of the world’s greatest thinkers such as St. Augustine, Plato, and Machiavelli think about America’s political landscape? What would they say is the collective goal of a political system? Would they muse about how our government should and shouldn’t react to a worldwide pandemic? On September 23, the Mount St. Mary's University community examined such questions during the Fall 2020 Ducharme Lecture: “Classic Thinkers and the American Political System.”

At the first ever socially distanced Ducharme Lecture, a panel of distinguished faculty members compared our political system with those proposed in Plato’s Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, and Machiavelli’s The Prince. The panelists used their expertise in philosophy, theology and history to shed light on these great thinkers. American citizens often argue with family and friends about which elected leaders can make their lives better. In this highly contested election year, many look for better ways to move forward.

Stephen McGinley, MTS, a lecturer in the Philosophy Department, explained that today’s American political system is based on a social-contract model, which places citizens in conflict with each other or at least competing for resources. Change under such a system “lacks a rule” and becomes little more than a “power play” that divides “winners and losers.” McGinley illustrates an alternative model using similar ideas from two men divided by time, distance and racial identity, who nevertheless share a common understanding of human nature: the ancient philosopher Plato and the modern rapper Tupac Shakur. Both Plato’s Republic and Shakur’s songs “Changes,” “Dear Momma,” and “White Man’z World” introduce a society motivated by “a deep and abiding love of the good”--a transcendent ideal based on reason, built upon our “social nature” and awareness “of the goodness of each creature.” 

While McGinley praised the Mount’s core curriculum, he stated that the nation’s system of higher education is “instrumental,” understood primarily as a means to get the highest-paying job possible. “Fundamentally,” he said, true “education is, through suffering, the turning of the soul to the good.” McGinley brought the audience back to our current troubles, particularly the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In the midst of great human suffering, the conversation turned to “how are we going to save our economy?” Here, McGinley highlighted the fact that when forced to lock down the country, the American political system valued money over what the philosopher Josef Pieper calls “leisure”--deep contemplation as an end in itself. As McGinley explained, the American polis has “failed to foster in her abundant children that love of the good, which makes life worth living, which gives us hope to endure famine and plague, which gives us reason not to blast ourselves.”

Theology Department Chair Paige Hochschild, Ph.D., expanded on this theme by examining St. Augustine’s City of God. She fit this text into a historical tendency in the West to develop new political thought when republican governments fail. Augustine wrote his classic work after the Goths had sacked Rome, a city that had remained secure for 800 years. “Bad times,” Hochschild said, “seem to be a good time to reflect on politics.” Augustine examined basic questions such as “What is your home?” “What do you love?” and “What marks you as a matter of belonging?”  Hochschild mentioned that scholars often falsely claim that Augustine’s political theory compares poorly with the robust articulation found in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. In reality, the Bishop of Hippo’s political theory is well developed and informed by his active engagement with the turbulent Roman society of Northern Africa.

Hochschild focused on two main points that we can apply to the American political system. The first is that Augustine defined civil society as “a commonwealth of rational beings united by common agreement on the objects of their love.” He understood citizens desire happiness above all things, and happiness cannot be obtained without peace.  For this reason, he distrusted the Roman understanding of “glory,” which is too often used to justify aggression.

The second idea is to take politics seriously but not too seriously.  Augustine respected a just and lawful society, but believed servitude to God is an essential social corrective to our natural tendency to fear and to desire power.  For this reason, citizens should approach civil society with modesty and humility because “human beings cannot locate their home in any one regime or political party,” and no leader can solve all human problems. To Augustine, Hochschild stated, “nothing destroys peace like the idolatry that leads to an extreme form of nationalism.”

Finally, History Department Chair Gregory Murry, Ph.D., focused on the pragmatic beliefs of diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, particularly his belief that society can turn private vices into public benefits. Murry explained that Machiavelli addressed the central question posed by the Mount’s core curriculum: “What does it mean to be human?”  Both Plato and St. Augustine would have answered “yes” to the question, “Are human beings social animals?” Machiavelli is the first Western political thinker who answered “no” to that question. According to Machiavelli, when humans integrate into a political community, they tend to behave worse rather than better.

The Prince argues that human beings are generally selfish and ungrateful, and, because self-interest informs political life, they are unlikely to follow moral law.  But Machiavelli nevertheless believed individual vices can work for society’s benefit. In The Prince, for example, he argues that the cruelty of rulers can contribute to the public good.  Adam Smith’s approval of free-market capitalism follows this line of thinking in assuming that one’s individual greed can potentially create a better society for everyone. Murry argued that James Madison utilized this same theory when he helped develop the U.S. Constitution, which survives in today’s political realm.  Madison fashioned a system that turned people’s self-interest and personal vices into checks and balances central to the American system. For example, the desire for power exhibited by the executive branch and both houses of Congress collectively prevent the abuse of power by any one of these entities.  “There is a problem with Madison and Machiavelli’s political philosophy,” Murry reflected, “and that is that this could eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” However, Murry argued that we can still take advantage of the cynicism of Machiavelli and his followers while assuming, like Plato and Augustine, that political life can make us better versions of ourselves.

The event ended with questions from students and professors alike, which accomplished the lecture series’ goal of integrating texts and issues explored by the Mount’s core curriculum, so students are well prepared to debate society's important questions. The Ducharme Lecture series is made possible by a generous gift from Mount St. Mary’s alumnus Raphael Della Ratta, C’92.

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts