Posted by: George | April 15, 2018

Lessons from The Federalist Papers, No. 23

This is one of the truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it, and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 23

As a rhetorician, I was struck by the idea that a proposition could carry “its own evidence along with it.” Of course, Hamilton qualifies this idea. It only works for someone with “a correct and unprejudiced mind.”

In Federalist No. 23, Hamilton is arguing that the federal government should not be limited in protecting us against foreign threats. This proposition carries “its own evidence along with it” because it implies what Aristotle would call a common topos, an accepted argument that can apply to most situations—the necessary relationship between the ends and the means. If we agree the federal government should protect us (the end), then it should have the necessary means to do so (the means).

This is not the ends justifies the means argument in a qualitative sense, that is, a good end justifies bad means. Rather, it is the ends warrants an appropriate means argument in a quantitative sense, that is, a necessary end warrants a sufficient response. Hamilton does not argue here for moral expedience. He does, rather, argue for the democratic process.

The argument is interesting, but what is more interesting is Hamilton’s faith that this argument will find minds that are “correct and unprejudiced.” Can we, in this time, advance sound arguments with the same optimism? If Hamilton were here, I think he would say, “We must.”

M.M. Bakhtin, the Russian discourse theorist who lives through the Stalinist purge, wrote about addressivity. The audience we address can shape our discourse because we expect a certain kind of reaction. The reverse is true, also. The nature of our arguments can shape the response of our audience—potentially even transform the audience.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of maintaining our values. We should not allow Trump to turn us into Trump. We need to practice sound arguments, hold to our values, and trust our fellow citizens. If we are unwilling to trust the democratic process to protect democracy, then we have already lost.

Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.

I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.

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