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Mulhern Offers New Ideas On Constitutions

For The Heights

Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

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Daniel Lee / Heights Editor

 

On Wednesday at 4:30, John J. Mulhern gave a lecture in McGuinn 121 titled “The Prospects for Constitution Making: Two Ancient Perspectives.” The event was part of a series of lectures held by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy and the Boston College Legal History Roundtable.

The lecture consisted of an overview of two different ancient schools of thought and their application to the world today. The two contrasted methods of thinking about constitutions were those of Aristotle, Plato, and the Ancient Greeks, and those of the Stoics of Ancient Rome. While the Aristotelian thought stresses the idea that each group of people is different and therefore must be governed differently, Stoics believed that all people are inherently the same and therefore can be governed under the same constitution. Stoicism, Mulhern argued, is seen often in the modern world.

“In short, these two ancient perspectives are very different from each other, and the Stoic ideas can be seen in much of today’s societies,” said Mulhern, who described the path that can be traced from the Stoics to philosophers such as Locke and Aquinas and into the modern societies today.

“For the Stoics, the same constitution is the best everywhere,” said Mulhern. “Men are the same everywhere, so one doesn’t have to worry about the customs.” He discussed the political issues in the world today, especially those in Egypt, saying that much of the Western world expected Egyptians to want the same idea of democracy that works in Europe and the United States. “Perhaps in some places, or even many places, constitution making is a good idea,” Mulhern said. “But it may not be for all. Egypt is a good example of this.”

Instead, Mulhern argued for a more Aristotelian idea, which takes into consideration the differences between cultures. He argued that the leaders and the citizens are different and therefore will require constitutions that apply to each group individually rather than humanity as a whole.

“One cannot be sure what the results of one’s efforts in constitution making will be,” Mulhern said. “There is no one silver bullet that will make  constitution making successful.”

The idea that the modern world is in need of a change in perspective when it comes to creating a constitution was discussed as well. “All of this was understood thousands of years ago, but was lost sight of,” Mulhern said. “Even the document we call the U.S. Constitution has not done very well with the arrangement of offices.” He also discussed the importance of the people who are part of each civilization, and the relationship they must have to the constitution. “The paper will only mark out the form. Men are the substance, and must do the business.”

Mulhern is an adjunct associate professor of classical studies and government administration at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, and has worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia as a research editor and administrator of the Research Department. Currently, he is on the editorial board of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

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