We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler
The Testaments of Democracy
Adler presents an engaging discussion of what he classes as the three defining documents of the USA — the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (plus amendments, especially the First Ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights), and the Gettysburg Address, and their inter-relations, especially between the Declaration and the Constitution.
He calls them the American Testaments, since when interpreted together and in relation to one another, they are like the sacred scriptures of the nation.
Adler claims that through detailed examination and critical exegesis, much can be gained from them.
– From the Declaration — DERIVE the nation’s basic articles of political faith.
– From the Preamble & Amendments — UNDERSTAND the elaboration of these articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, structures and policies.
– From the Gettysburg Address — give to ourselves a full and rich CONFIRMATION of our faith in these articles. And also in the people who declared, formed the ‘more perfect union’ and perpetuated it.
Best Quote: We are not only the heirs of those people, we ARE those people.
The Parts of the Whole
The first part of the book is devoted to declarations about the importance of learning these three documents – both for understanding the nation and to charting the future course of democracy.
From then on, the book focuses on a minute examination of the three documents.
Before the exegesis commences, Adler indulges in a discussion about two words: Ideas & Ideals.
These two words look alike and sound alike but have different meanings, and form the very core of this book.
To summarize, we can distinguish the two thus:
– IDEAS — are to be understood, intellectually and can be theoretical or practical.
– IDEALS — are objectives/goals to be striven for, and realized/realizable through action.
Once an Ideal is realized, it is no longer an ideal. Only realizable goals are ideals, if not they are utopian fantasies. Genuine ideals belong to the realm of the possible.
We need only think of an ideal society to understand that most underlying ideas of any constitution remain unrealized. We have only remotely approximated most ideals, including the practicable ones.
Which is why we need to understand the ideas and their most ideal natures and objectives, to understand how they have served us and how they can serve us further.
Some of the ideas addressed are – equality, inalienable rights, pursuit of happiness, civil rights and human rights, consent of the governed, the dissent of the governed, people (form of by etc) and thus Democracy itself.
Of these ideas, Equality, happiness, etc. generates ideals that are clearly not yet achieved.
Democracy too is an idea that is also an ideal – i.e. not fully realized yet.
After delineating ideas and ideals, proceeds to set out the ideas and then examine if they have been realized and the ideals we need to aspire to realize more fully
The second part of the book is concerned with isolating and explaining the ideas identifiable in the Declaration of Independence & Lincoln’s famous speech. They are only considered as ideas in this section and their more important role as pursuable ideals are discussed only later.
The third part isolates the additional ideas found in the Preamble and then foes on to also consider them as ideals, still on the road to fulfillment.
The Fourth section of the book is devoted to the most important idea of the modern world – the idea of democracy. This is considered in great detail and more importantly, in both political and economic aspects.
Adler says that this idea has only recently been recognized as an ideal. Which is why it requires the fullest possible realization of Political and Economic Justice, Liberty and Equality. We are made to consider also the obstacles to be overcome if a true democracy is to ever be born for the FIRST time in the history of the world.
This was my favorite section of the book — most interesting being the discussion on the economic imperative of true democracy, without which it will always remain an ideal, an idea-in the making. Democracy is not a Political idea, it cannot be attained through political means alone. The goals have to include both political and economic ideals.
The Individual Obligation to Philosophy
Adler wrote this book as an homage to the second centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Mere flag waving, convocations or oratory will not suffice to celebrate such an event and its two centuries of development.
What would instead be a better homage to the idea of democracy is to focus on individual celebrations — by accepting the obligation to understand the ‘testament of the nation.’ I would go further and say that this spirit should be maintained at every election year, and even more, at every democratically vital moment a nation passes through.
I read this to gain that spirit as India prepped for the world’s largest democratic spectacle. In spite of studying the constitution many times, I have always felt that it had to be more than mere study that is expected. Adler has made me realize that it is direct engagement with the core ideas and ideals that is required along with constant reinterpretation of the arguments. That is the only way to make sure that we stay true to the ideals and keep re-charting the course we have taken.
To set out to understand the Ideas & Ideals enshrined in any constitution is nothing less than a philosophical undertaking, and that is what Adler demands of us.
It is true that Adler talks primarily of the American Constitution, but readers from any country can come away from this reading with a better appreciation of how to engage with their own Testaments. We are not merely the heirs of the people who gave them to us, we ARE those people and it is our duty, both to confirm them and to fulfill them.