WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler

WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this bicentennial year, the prolific social-political philosopher weighs in with his interpretation of the significant passages of the US Constitution and its amendments, He also analyzes how the Declaration of Independence's ringing affirmation that ""all men are created equal"" and are endowed ""with certain unalienable rights,"" namely, ""life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,"" was interpreted in the Constitution. Adler starts with the Declaration, leading us through the meaning of equality and how the ""unalienable"" right to liberty squares with imprisonment (criminals lose its ""temporary exercise"" because they have interfered with ""domestic tranquility) and the death penalty (which he thinks may be a violation of a ""natural human right""). He then tackles ""the pursuit of happiness,"" a phrase that has bedeviled political pundits since Jefferson first penned it. The Preamble to the Constitution does not mention happiness, but calls for promotion of ""the general welfare."" Adler contends that both require the economic wherewithal for everyone to live above bare subsistence. Although ""economic equality"" was, Adler says,"" not in the minds of the Founding Fathers,"" he believes that true justice will not prevail until everyone is sufficiently secure economically. He leads us through the two documents like a wise teacher, occasionally clarifying meanings in incisive 20th-century prose, citing historical precedents (Plato, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, etc.), discussing conflicting interpretations (Libertarian vs. Egalitarian, etc.), and supplying his own interpretation. He also discusses developments that the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen. These include world-wide military commitments (they envisioned limited forces, solely for ""the common defense""), a tremendous increase in the power of the Presidency, and the rise of an extremely wealthy and powerful corporate class. He suggests that the political-legal system should be overhauled to cope more effectively with these end other developments, but stops short of recommending a second Constitutional Convention because of the problems of single-interest groups (that would ignore ""the common good""), an intrusive media, and what he sees as ""the absence of statesmen"" comparable to those who drew up the Constitution. Adler repeatedly deplores widespread ignorance about the Constitution. Most people, he says, are even unaware that they--not their elected legislators--are the true rulers of this nation. He believes that ""a radical reform of basic schooling in the United States is. . .an indispensable prerequisite for making the degree of democracy we have so far achieved prosper, work better, or, perhaps, even survive."" He claims his aim is to set forth""what every citizen. . .should know about the ideas and ideals of the Constitution."" His text, however, is on a fairly ratified intellectual plane, and hence will probably attract only those readers possessing the philosophical lore and mental grit it requires.

Pub Date: March 20th, 1987
Publisher: Macmillan