What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks & Romans | Thomas E. Ricks
In Episode 166 of Hidden Forces, Demetri Kofinas speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Thomas Ricks about his book “First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks & Romans.” The two discuss the influence of Greco-Roman thought and culture on America’s founding generation, while drawing lessons that can be applied to our democracy today.
First Principles is a timely book, in that we find ourselves grappling today with many of the same questions, concerns, and anxieties that animated and vexed the drafters of the American constitution. It is also a deeply profound one, because it reminds us that America was, is, and always will be an experiment. The constitution was constructed after all, in the midst of the Enlightenment.
“What was most important and really new about the Age of Reason,” writes the scholar William Goetzmann, “was the sublime confidence of the intellectuals and societal leaders in the power of man’s reason...Human nature, like all other nature, was a constant that yielded to rational inquiry.” In other words, the enlightenment showed the founding generation that it was possible to use reason and observation to discern the eternal laws of nature and then to use that understanding to aid human progress. To be enlightened was to have an energetic way of examining the world with skepticism and self-confidence and that self-confidence came from the knowledge that the world was knowable, that truths could be discovered, and inquiries made into the nature of things. “To be enlightened,” as the intellectual historian Caroline Winterer put it, “was to be filled with hope.”
It was with this sense of hope and empowerment that America’s founding generation set about to construct the American constitution and bill of rights. What were their objectives? Who did they look up to? What books did they read? And why the obsession with the ancients? What lessons did they take from the successes and failures of the Greeks and Romans? What did they value in themselves and in others? How did these values inform their construction of the union? And what can we learn from their experience when grappling with our own challenges today, whether we’re talking about executive power, media censorship, political division, or any of the other issues that animate the spirit of today’s generations?
The purpose of this episode is to provide a historical context for the challenges we face today in an effort to understand that they are not altogether new, nor are they insurmountable.
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Producer & Host: Demetri Kofinas
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Episode Recorded on 11/24/2020