Over the years, as I have taught students how to read the Declaration of Independence, one of the most difficult humps to get over comes very near the beginning, when it says “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” What is a self-evident truth, I ask? Students often flounder about pretty badly trying to answer that question.
Alexander Hamilton is a great help in answering this. His Federalist No. 31 begins this way:
“In disquisitions of every kind there are certain primary truths or first principles upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence, which antecedent to all reflection or combination commands the assent of the mind. Where it produces not this effect, it must proceed either from some disorder in the organs of perception, or from the influence of some strong interest, or passion, or prejudice.”
His context is the continuation of the previous essay’s argument for the completeness of the new national government’s taxing power, as a corollary to its self-evident need to “contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care.” But this brief essay contains the kernel of a whole epistemology of politics, if that phrase is not too grand.
Among self-evident truths, Hamilton writes, we find certain “maxims of geometry” that are the beginnings of all reasoning on that subject. And there are similar “maxims in ethics and politics.” This will seem strange to people who think of geometric axioms as fixed and certain, while ethics and politics are full of flux and uncertainty. But while admitting that “it cannot be pretended that the principles of moral and political knowledge have in general the same degree of certainty with those of the mathematics,” Hamilton insists that the principal difference is that what we have at stake in moral and political debates adversely affects our reasoning—not that reasoning to a decent certainty is simply impossible:
“The objects of geometrical enquiry are so entirely abstracted from those pursuits which stir up and put in motion the unruly passions of the human heart” that human beings readily come to agreement on whatever our mental faculties can grasp. “But in the sciences of morals and politics men are found far less tractable.” And the “obscurity” that we attribute to some alleged absence of principle “is much oftener in the passions and prejudices of the reasoner than in the subject.”
Seldom has a faith in the power of human reason been expressed with so little in the way of utopian expectation regarding reason’s achievements.
(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)