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Thomas Ricks: Politics, as Seen from Aristotle to Trump

(Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law)

“And so I remembered from college: When you’re facing a problem that seems deeply puzzling, go back to fundamentals, go to first principles. So I took Aristotle’s Politics off my shelf, my old college copy, and reread it in the context of the election of Donald Trump.”

On January 5th, Thomas Koenig was joined by Thomas Ricks to discuss his latest book, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country. Mr. Ricks is a journalist and author specializing in military affairs and national security. He was part of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. In this interview with Mr. Koenig, Mr. Ricks discusses how ancient Roman and Greek philosophies can inform contemporary politics, how the Founders were influenced by these philosophies, and the policy changes he supports after having explored these ideas in First Principles. This interview was conducted one day prior to yesterday’s events at the United States Capitol.

A video of the conversation is available on YouTube.

Hi, I’m Tom Koenig, and I’m joined today by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Thomas Ricks. Mr. Ricks, thanks so much for joining us.

You’re welcome.

So we’re here today to discuss your new book, First Principles: What [America’s] Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country. So, Mr. Ricks, I want to start with a pretty straightforward question: What made you write this book?

The election of 2016. Sometimes people don’t know where books come from. I can tell you very precisely that about four years ago, I woke up on the Wednesday after the presidential election of 2016, and I went down to my library. And so I don’t understand what just happened: why the people of the United States elected Donald Trump as president, and what that says about the country.

And so I remembered from college: When you’re facing a problem that seems deeply puzzling, go back to fundamentals, go to first principles. So I took Aristotle’s Politics off my shelf, my old college copy, and reread it in the context of the election of Donald Trump. And I found it kind of illuminating. For example, Aristotle says, almost on the side, that the most unstable form of government is oligarchy. Well, that’s interesting because Donald Trump is kind of an oligarch, rule by the wealthy. Here’s a wealthy guy who believes that he should be in charge, and he’s going to pull in a bunch of rich people to rule with him.

And that led me to a lot of other ancient Greek philosophy, that led to Roman philosophy and history. And [it] led eventually to the fact that the American revolutionary generation was steeped in ancient Roman and Greek history of philosophy, especially Roman, and, indeed, they took their political vocabulary from it. So I spent four years reading what they read—after trying to read the editions they read and looking at how this shaped their view of the world and answer the questions they had as they first waged a revolution against British rule and, then, designed a new country.

Very interesting. So, the present moment led you to go all the way back into the past to the founders, then further into the past to see what sorts of thought and history were influencing them as they forged our nation. So you’ve already started to talk about the scope of your study, and I was wondering if you could just touch on briefly some of the core arguments and takeaways that you have in the book, particularly with respect to the ways in which the classics influence the Founders and their political thought.

What amazes me is how many different ways it influenced them. It wasn’t one way. So for example, George Washington, who was not a well-educated man. He didn’t read a lot, [but he] absorbs the ancient culture, especially ancient Rome, through the elite culture of his day. His favorite play is Cato, about the Roman statesman, very popular in the 18th century. And Cato becomes kind of a model for George Washington. Cato is prudent, frugal, stoic, wise, and reserved. And this becomes the model for what George Washington wants to be as an adult and achieves very much. And I actually think—in retrospect—after I wrote the book, looking back, I think that he brought to the presidency the qualities of Cato, and those became kind of the norm that we associate with the presidency: that reserve that sort of sense of dignity, kind of being above the fray.

John Adams, his successor, [who] takes a very different approach, is really locked on Cicero, the Roman politician and statesman. [He is] more a fan of stoicism than a stoic himself. Quite vain, like John Adams. But Adams really achieves his ambition of becoming the American Cicero. Unfortunately, he’s very focused on stability as President, as Cicero was. And that leads him, I think, to misunderstand what’s happening in the 1790s as American politics begins to emerge. He confuses being political with a form of treason, of factionalism, and cracks down on critics, jailing a number of newspaper editors simply for criticizing him.

Thomas Jefferson comes along. He’s almost the exception, always the exception. He’s more Greek than Roman, very influenced by Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who says the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain. And I think there’s a lot more of Epicurus in the Declaration of Independence with its emphasis on happiness, especially in the first few paragraphs, that has been recognized.

And finally, Madison. Little Jimmy Madison was, in some ways, my favorite. He’s small. He’s sickly. He has some form of epilepsy. He does not have a good speaking voice. He’s not a particularly good writer. There are no really memorable phrases we associate with him. Yet, Madison is the most rigorous in his use of the ancient world. He studies it closely for years in preparation for a Constitutional Convention. And then he dominates the early part of the Constitutional Convention because of that research. He’s able to say, “This is the way the Greeks did it. This is the way the Romans did it. Here’s how a Greek confederation worked.” One reason that we have two senators from each state—whether the state is big or small—is because that’s the way the Greeks did it in one of their confederations.

So let’s actually focus on Madison a bit more and Washington. So the first and the last two of the Founders that you focus on in the book and just mentioned there. And I want to focus on them in the context of the concept of virtue. What you kind of stress on throughout—it’s a theme throughout the book—is that the Founders, including Washington (even though he might have lacked some of the formal education because there’s this classist, colonial culture at the time), they really imbibed this notion of the importance of virtue, of public-spiritedness, in the context of republican politics.

But then, events intervene, things like the Revolution and the failures )or the troubles_ under the Articles of Confederation convinced some of them, Washington included, that perhaps you can’t premise a republican policy entirely on virtue. That you need to counteract ambition with ambition, self-interest with self-interest. And that’s, of course, where Madison comes into play. And the Constitution is very much influenced by this line of thinking. That’s, of course, influenced by the classics. But at the same time, it’s kind of repudiating some of that wisdom. So, could you talk about how you track that through line and that development in the Founders’ thought?

I think that’s a very good summary you just gave. What is striking to me, to begin with, is that words have very different meanings, sometimes—in the same way that their ancient world is not our ancient world. Rome looms much larger for them than Greece; Sparta they were more impressed by than Athens, which they saw as kind of anarchic. And nobody really read, except for Jefferson, the great Greek dramatists; that’s more a 19th century phenomenon. So there’s a generational difference, I think, between Washington and Madison. Washington goes in a big believer in virtue, public-mindedness, working for the common good, self-sacrifice. And he realizes—in a way that I think was kind of deep political philosophy during the revolution—that it isn’t working. Virtue is important to have, public-mindedness, but it’s not enough to get us through. And I think that resonates.

And I suspect—I can’t prove this—I suspect that when Jefferson is off knocking around Europe, that’s when Madison and Washington, I think, began talking about this. Young Madison and this great general, who’s going to become president one day. And I think they have this moment when they say, “Yes, we’ve got to have to come up with something different.” And they begin talking about it. And out of that emerges, as you say, Madison saying, “Let’s not try to get by on virtue alone. Let’s also balance ambition with ambition. Vice with vice.” How do you do that? Well, they look especially to Montesquieu: the dispersal of power, and it’s a brilliant insight.

Unlike, say, England, the model that they knew best (where Parliament and the executive are all jumbled up together, where the gap in the cabinet is drawn from members of Parliament, members of the House of Lords), instead you ever sharp division between branches of government. And Madison and the others in the Constitution disperse power between the states and the federal government, within the federal government between three branches, and within the legislative branch between two houses. And the result of this is anybody who wants to make progress in this new society they’re designing is going to have to learn to compromise, to make deals, to form alliances. And that way, Madison says, is the way out of the virtue problem. And it also will help us with the other question that Montesquieu poses: Can a big republic exist? Montesquieu concluded that you could really only have city-states as republics. Here, they’re trying to have a continental Republic, a very different proposition, something that had never existed on the earth before.

Yeah, so, that’s the interesting part about the connection between Madison and Montesquieu. Although he’s taking that idea of separation of powers in order to disperse power (because of all the benefits thereof that you just mentioned), at the same time, he’s flipping the small republic wisdom on its head by saying, “Actually the large Republic lends itself to further dispersal of power,” correct?

That’s right. He’s trying to address the questions that Montesquieu poses. Can you have a large republic? Can a republic be sustainable? And, I think, that’s one reason I really came to appreciate the resiliency of the Constitution. That, yes, it’s a deeply flawed document. It has huge problems in it. They wove slavery into the fundamental law of the land. But it has survived the centuries, and there’s no sign of it ending now. Where I would fault us is: They planned it to be amended. They amended it freely.

But over the last 100 years or so, Americans have been much more reluctant to amend the Constitution. And I think we really need to get back to the spirit they brought to it, which was, they’re sitting around talking on a hot summer’s day in Philadelphia. Well, who should impeach the president? Should it be the Supreme Court? Should it be the Congress? How many senators should come from each state? And they’re balancing and thinking about it. At one point they’re discussing, should the presidency be one person, two people, or three people? And they say, “No, the tribes didn’t work out well for ancient Rome. Let’s go with one person.” Once you take that on board, you realize that they discussed this and then went out for a few beers. I think it’s easier for us to imagine amending the Constitution, which I think we should be doing, especially when it comes to the role of corporations and big money in American elections. They would say that was corruption. And they would, I think, criticize us for drifting toward oligarchy.

So that’s, I think, a good segue into one of the final questions here to turn towards your epilogue, which I think you call, “What can we do?” And building off this concept of amending the Constitution, reviving our politics in different ways, you talk about 10 different ways, ideas, policies, principles to resuscitate that would put us kind of back on track—back on track with these, what you call “revolutionary principles.” These principles that were, of course, influenced by the Founders’ study of the classics. So can you talk to those 10 ideas and policies and constitutional amendments as well, that you support now, especially having gone through this intellectual journey with this book?

Sure. First, I would say don’t panic. I think a lot of people are feeling panicky these days. What we’ve seen with Donald Trump as President is that he stamps all over norms that we had kind of thought were law but turn out just to be the way we expected people to behave. But the Constitution has proven resilient under Trump. But we should consider: Are there norms that have been violated by Trump, that perhaps we should think about writing into law, whether as a constitutional amendment or simply the law?

One current example is: It had been assumed that people would be dignified and graceful in turning over power when they lost an election. Trump is not doing that. So perhaps there needs to be written into law: At some point, you have to begin an orderly process of transition within 10 days, of say, an election or something like that. And we’re still seeing this problem in, I think, deeply unpatriotic ways at the Pentagon, where people are trying to prepare for a looming confrontation with Iran right now. In the Biden campaign, it said they are not getting good cooperation from some Pentagon officials. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing I would say is there are some things we should consider amending. One thing I like is that when they wrote the Constitution, people did not generally live to be 80 or 90 years old. That was exceptional. Now, you have Supreme Court Justices, who conceivably can serve for four or five decades. That was not their intention. So perhaps we need to think about 18-year terms for Supreme Court members. And then, that would also give predictability to appointments. You’d have a couple of appointments come up in every presidential term, and that might diffuse control of the Supreme Court a little bit from the presidential campaign because there’s no prospect that five or six justices will be named by one president.

Another thing we should think about is [that] conservatives have kind of captured the OG originalist interpretation of the Constitution. I think we should think about the phrase that occurs twice in the Constitution, “common defense and general welfare.” I don’t think we think enough about general welfare. We have made our interpretation of law far too focused on property law—and not on more general common good. So, for example, the environment is a common good. Yeah, we kind of auction off pieces of the environment to air polluters. Another aspect of the common good that really stands for in the forefront this year is public health. What we’ve kind of seen this year is a tragic experiment. What would it be like to have a pandemic in modern America under the Articles of Confederation government? That is to say, a very weak central government, and the governors each trying to come up with answers and solutions. Well, it didn’t work in the Articles of Confederation with Shay’s rebellion. And it didn’t work this year with the virus pandemic. So I think public health has been neglected. Similarly, education, transportation, infrastructure: These are all things that are more common good than is recognized or discussed. And I would love to see us focus more on that. And as I alluded to earlier, I think we need to do something about getting big money out of politics.

Those are a lot of ideas. And they’re obviously informed by your study with this book. It’s First Principles. The author is Thomas Ricks. Mr. Ricks, thank you again for joining us today.

You’re welcome. I appreciate it.

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