This year’s reads, Voegelin in particular

I met a few writers this year who seem to understand who I am and encouraged me in the direction I’m heading. Chief among them is the Austrian philosopher Eric Voegelin.

Eric Voegelin

Voegelin is considered a conservative political philosopher; in fact, Mark Lilla introduced me to Voegelin through an essay dedicated to him in Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, published last year. What initially impressed me about Voegelin was Lilla’s account of Voegelin’s conversion of sorts. Here’s Lilla’s summary of his account of Voegelin’s conversion from political reaction: “his historical nostalgia did not survive the assault of his limitless curiosity” (26).

Lilla places Voegelin with political philosophers, left and right, who fled Hitler, such as Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, philosophers who believed that “it was transformations in Western thinking that had prepared the unthinkable, and that a new intellectual path had to be found before a political one could be.” Voegelin’s thinking initially wasn’t much different from others Lilla labels as reactionaries – Voegelin believed that the bifurcation of religion and government that developed after the Middle Ages gave rise to the politically religious qualities to Fascism, Marxism, and nationalism – and he won followers among American conservatives for this analysis detailed in his earlier books.

These conservatives tended to overlook Voegelin’s views about what came before the rise of modernism (Christianity was at fault for the bifurcation of religion and government) and what should come after (he did not call for any kind of religious nationalism) (31 – 32). But his conversion, which I’ll attempt to explain shortly, left them feeling betrayed.

Lilla’s retreat from a fall-and-restoration narrative mirrors my own late-in-life distaste for so-called prophetic narratives of the political fundamentalism of some Christians and Muslims, as well as the historical narratives of Marxism, Fascism, and other –isms. All such movements wish to “immanentize the eschaton”— Voegelin’s most famous expression – that is, they wish to bring on a kind of millennium or end of history in the political here and now. (Shakespeare’s Macbeth is, to me, primarily a warning against immanentizing the eschaton.)

Voegelin’s concerns about hastening the end of history start early in his writings, but after his conversion he understood his own unwitting participation in such a project. His newer view of history and the future is more like my own: it is mysterious in both a religious sense (“a field where the divine and human meet,” as Lilla puts it) and in a categorical sense (“a mystery in the process of revelation,” as Voegelin puts it) (39).

Was Voegelin’s conversion more than simply a philosophical one? Yes and no, I think. I got a sense of his conversion when I started reading the 1977 English translation by Gerhart Niemeyer of Voegelin’s 1966 book Anamnesis, a short and dense book (well, all of his books are dense) of his more experimental writings from 1943 through 1977 (the English translation includes two essays written since the 1966 original). Anamnesis reads like a mashup of Samuel von Pufendorf and St. John of the Cross – political theory not just in mystical terms but understood only as a form of mysticism. And the entry to this mysticism is both a religious and philosophical conversion, which I assume Voegelin must have experienced.

Voegelin in Anamnesis understands Aristotle’s insistence on “what is right by nature” to come not from the adherence to “a set of external, immutable propositions” but from asking the spoudaios – a mature man or, more generally, “existentially the right order of man.” Man does not become rightly ordered through adhering to ethical norms but through “the permeability through the movement of being, i.e., the openness of man for the divine; the openness in turn is not a proposition about something but an event . . .” (65). Such language suggests that the “event” involves the transformation of the inner man, the end of many religious faiths. This is why I am bold enough to use the word conversion to describe Voegelin’s approach.

Consider the initial stages in this conversion “toward the divine ground of existence”: attraction from the divine, a desire to know about the ground, a questioning in confusion, and a consciousness of ignorance (97). These are steps towards religious conversion, not of the initial kind to a set of religious tenets but of a later kind described by John of the Cross as the night of sense – one that leads to transformation.

The reason I answered “yes and no” to my question regarding the nature of Voegelin’s conversion – whether it was “more than simply a philsosophical one” – is that, for Voegelin, philosophy as understood by Plato and Aristotle is a kind of mysticism:

Hence, philosophy in the classic sense is not a body of “ideas” or “opinions” about the divine ground dispensed by a person who calls himself a “philosopher,” but a man’s responsive pursuit of his questioning unrest to the divine source that has aroused it. (96)

Even though we have no biographical evidence that Voegelin adhered to any creed or indeed believed in a personal god, his philosophy is based in large part on the notion of mystical transformation.

Philosophy, understood mystically, is one such means to the ground of being; Voegelin refers to it as “the event of philosophy as flowing presence” (133). Another comes courtesy of the Ecumenic Age (the eponym for Voegelin’s fourth installment of Order and History with its mea culpa that Lilla finds exemplary), which makes this experience available to all. During the age of the first empires, conquering nations disrupted the fixed, tribal cosmos of smaller civilizations, causing the smaller civilizations’ inhabitants to question their received understanding of the way the world worked. The clash of myths accelerated the questioning and helped the spread of Christianity, which offered a beginning and a beyond that accounted for more than that of the original culture. Here we are introduced to how this “differentiation” – this movement from a fixed cosmos and its myths to the ground of being that underwrites all of it – moves from an individual to a culture.

But the movement from individual to culture – the idea that the ground of being affects individuals first and cultures second – is significant for political theory. History is built on individuals’ movements to the ground; therefore, “all ‘philosophies of history,’ which hypostatize society or history as an absolute, eclipsing personal existence and its meaning, are excluded as false” (114). Voegelin refers, of course, primarily to Hegel and secondarily to Marx. History cannot be understood as “an object that could be known ‘intersubjectively’ and thus would present about the same phenomenal image to everyone.” Instead – and here Voegelin sounds like a Doctor of the Church – the tension in being that becomes history

. . . must be experienced personally and [it] therefore presents itself in a manifold of experiential modes on the scales of compactness and differentiation, of transparency and obliqueness, of anxiety and faith, of libio dominandi and charity, of despair and hope, of acquiescence and rebellion, humility and defiance, opening and closing oneself, apostasy and return, promethean revolt and fear of God, joy of life and contemptus mundi. (133)

In moving towards the ground of being, we live in the metaxy, the “’in between,’ in a temporal flow of experience in which eternity is present” (133).

I feel as if I’ve been searching in the dark for years, but Voegelin and other authors I’ve read this year (particularly Philip Gorski and Jonathan Haidt) have exposed me to ideas similar to my own, only far more developed or researched. Voegelin’s philosophy has affirmed so much of what I’ve come to understand almost intuitively about politics and mysticism to this point beyond just, you know, avoiding the immanentization of the eschaton. Here are six ways I’ve felt affirmed by Voegelin.

First, the Equality Clause’s “all men are created equal” is a proposition in the historical sense but is primarily relational and secondarily functional in the religious and political sense, based as it is on the hierarchy among God, man, and nature (one way of understanding Voegelin’s “existentially right order of man”). Voegelin here summarizes his historiography:

. . . history is not a field of indifferently objective materials from which we may select some according to arbitrary criteria, in order to “construct” a tableau of history. Rather, history is constituted by consciousness, so the logos of consciousness decides what is and what is not historically relevant. Be it noted especially that the time in which history constitutes itself is not that of the external world, in which the somatically founded life of man leaves its traces, bu rather the inner dimension of consciousness of desire and search after the ground. Since, regarding this dimension, all men are equal, the field of history is always universally human, even if only a relatively small sector of the philosophers’ position would be materially known. (158)

History, despite uneven recordings based on inequality (a focus on leaders, inventions, or wars, for instance) is based on consciousness, which in turn means on a search for the divine ground thanks to mankind’s ontological equality.

Second, the individual must precede the culture politically. The tension in a healthy society stems from what Reinhold Niebuhr describes in The Irony of American History as an individual’s inability to find fulfillment without her society, while her experience teaches her also that she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society” (62). What came first, if you’ll indulge me, the chicken or the roost? Insofar as my question is an analogy to political theory, the chicken. While we are social animals, our political standing must be our individual standing before God as pictured in Locke’s state of nature or in other accounts that comport with the Hebrew story of Adam’s creation and his initial relationship with God alone.1 Otherwise, a government eventually ceases to recognize our status as children of God and even our humanity.

Third, our individual repentance and transformation (what I call the “transformation of the religious” as opposed to “religious transformation”) is the only means to meaningful political change. My extensive reading of James Baldwin three years ago convinced me of this mystery, but Voegelin gives me a more systematized way of understanding it.

Fourth, a kind of political religion based on an individual’s movement to the ground of being amounts to a middle way between today’s nationalism and today’s liberalism. The fight between these forces that have largely defined modernity has led to some gains but has been largely futile:

If one, however, simply follows rebellion as a guideline, one finds the desire for knowledge again blocked, for the rebellion aims not directly at the reality of knowledge but at its forms of decay, i.e., against the theological and metaphysical dogmatisms. These older dogmatisms, which we first encounter as we turn around, are closer to reality than the rebellion against the ground, even though they have the character of a parekbasis. We must not forget, though, that they, too, suffer from a kind of loss of reality which has provoked the ideological rebellion since the eighteenth century, and that, on the other hand, the rebellion has freed socially effective areas of the world, society, and history that the social oppression of orthodoxy sought to keep under cover. (188)

The increasing focus by these combatants on the evils their opposites present shows how ineffectual either side’s eventual victory would be toward healing our society.

Fifth, a movement to the divine ground, much like a religious conversion, can tempt those newly enlightened to impose their understanding on others in the political realm:

The differentiating experience . . . can be so intensive that the man to whom it occurs feels transformed into a new being. The new image of the world resulting from the experience can be misunderstood as a new world; and the process of change itself can turn into a structural datum of reality that can be extrapolated into the future. (166)

(True, immanentization of the eschaton is an example of this.) Voegelin’s warnings along these lines are worked out in greater detail in a section of the introduction to The Ecumenic Age called, “The Deformation of Philosophy into Doctrine” (36 – 43). Political religion is a tricky thing, but the virtue most associated with a proper approach is moderation. (Moderation, in fact, is the chief political virtue of a proper eschatology. Consider this koan-like adage from St. Paul  in Philippians: “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” – KJV. I also like Young’s: “Let your forbearance . . .”) As Gorski points out, many people confuse civil religion with religious nationalism and indiscriminately want shut of both (18 – 21).

Sixth, a proper political religion exists, it has been helpful (even salvific, if you will) at critical times in American history, and it is best exemplified by the life and writings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln turned to the past not in reaction (i.e., in a call for a return to a golden age) but as a means of reinterpreting the past in language familiar to a culture. Voegelin, who returns again and again to the language by which differentiation is expressed to those still in the cosmic (early) stage of movement to the ground, puts it this way:

The human universality of the desiring and searching participation in the ground results further in the equivalence in the symbolisms in which the consciousness of the ground is expressed. By equivalence I mean the fact that all experiences of the ground are in like manner experiences of participation even though they may differ considerably from each other on the scales of compactness and differentiation of finding and missing the ground. The equivalence of the symbols thrown up in the stream of participation, finally, leads to the loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past, since they express phases of the same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself. (158 – 159)

In Lincoln’s case, this “loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past” chiefly means his elucidations of the relative roles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he likens to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, respectively – “phases of the same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself” – as Lincoln reinterprets the Equality Clause as the “sheet anchor of American republicanism.” With that ontological anchor, America may yet differentiate itself from a compact, slave society into one that lives out a kind of polity closer to the ground of being accessible to individuals within that polity.

(A good companion to Voegelin is Ted V. McAllister’s book Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order.)

Here are the books I’ve read this year, listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names.

Berman, Marshall. The Politics of Authenticity.

Bonta, Dave. Ice Mountain: An Elegy.

Boser, Urlich. Learn Better. (Read 2 times)

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton.

Cole, Teju. Blind Spot.

Durant, Will and Ariel. The Age of Reason Begins: A History of Eurpoean Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558 – 1648.

Frankin, Al. Al Frankin, Giant of the Senate.

Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. (Read 2 times)

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

Knoll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Lilla, Mark. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.

McAllister, Ted V. Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order.

McInerney, Jeremy. The Age of Pericles (Great Courses Lecture Series).

Mussolini, Benito. The Doctrine of Facism.

O’Brian, Patrick. 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey.

O’Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Commodore. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Hundred Days. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Ionian Mission. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Letter of Marque. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Nutmeg of Consolation. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Reverse of the Medal. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Thirteen-Gun Salute. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Truelove. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Wine-Dark Sea. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. Treason’s Harbour. (My fourth read.)

O’Donnell, William E. Culture is Everything. (Read 2 times)

Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago.

Prothero, Stephen. Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): A History of the Religious Battles that define Amerian from jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Read for the umpteenth time)

Snyder, Timothy. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. (Read for the umpteenth time)

Voegelin, Eric. Anamnesis.

Volker, Ulrich. Hitler: Ascent, 1889 – 1939.

Waldman, Michael. The Fight to Vote.

Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.

  1. To this agrees Hannah Arendt, writing in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Men are unequal according to their natural origin, their different organization, and fate in history. Their equality is an equality of rights only, that is, an equality of human purpose; yet behind this equality of human purpose lies, according to Jewish-Christian tradition, another equality, expressed in the concept of one common origin beyond human history, human nature, and human purpose— the common origin in the mythical, unidentifiable Man who alone is God’s creation. This divine origin is the metaphysical concept on which the political equality of purpose may be based, the purpose of establishing mankind on earth. Nineteenth-century positivism and progressivism perverted this purpose of human equality when they set out to demonstrate what cannot be demonstrated, namely, that men are equal by nature and different only by history and circumstances, so that they can be equalized not by rights, but by circumstances and education. Nationalism and its concept of a ‘national mission’ perverted the national concept of mankind as a family of nations into a hierarchical structure where differences of history and organization were misinterpreted as differences between men, residing in natural origin. Racism, which denied the common origin of man and repudiated the common purpose of establishing humanity, introduced the concept of the divine origin of one people as contrasted with all others, thereby covering the temporary and changeable product of human endeavor with a pseudomystical cloud of divine eternity and finality.”

Checked out

Your basic American, whom I and others are calling on to save his democracy, isn’t a theorist. And as much as twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt accepts the proposition that all men are created equal, your eighteenth-century American patriot, she believes, wasn’t much motivated by political theory, either. The patriot leaders generally were, though, she acknowledges. But the average American revered the Constitution quickly after it was adopted not because he was steeped in constitutional theory but because he and his countrymen were living out a tradition of working together to overcome common problems.

This tradition of covenants and social contracts started, Arendt says, with the Mayflower Compact. In this tradition, the Declaration of Independence became the first national covenant by a people who had been involved in covenanting at the settlement, county, and colonial level for over a century.

“In the beginning,” Locke said, “all the world was America,” and Americans lived out Locke’s progression from a state of nature to a society to a government. In fact, Arendt suspects that Americans suggested the progression to him.1 Practice sometimes leads to the best theory.

The due date card in the back cover of John Dunn’s The Political Thought of John Locke (well, of my copy of it)

My newest book, John Dunn’s 1969 classic The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the “Two Treatises of Government” is symbolic of your American’s distaste of theory. I purchased it second- or third-hand, discarded by its first owner, the library of the General Motors Institute, now Kettering University. The date due sticker inside the back cover shows that the book was checked out on an average of less than once a year between 1968 and 1996. But I’m glad that the library thought the book was worth buying in the first place.

The Locke book may not involve engineering, but it’s not dry political theory. Dunn is a stylist. Check out this excerpt from the preface:

. . . the reasons why I have confined by attention to giving an effective exposition of Locke’s argument and refrained from systematic formal criticism are bleakly autobiographical. I simply cannot conceive of constructing an analysis of any issue in contemporary political theory around the affirmation or negation of anything which Locke says about political matters. The only argument in his entire political philosophy which does seem to me still to be interesting as a starting point for reflection about any issue of contemporary political theory is the theme of the Letters on Toleration, and in Locke’s thought this rests firmly upon a religious premise. Indeed one of the central expository points made throughout this book is the intimate dependence of an extremely high proportion of Locke’s arguments for their very intelligibility, let alone plausibility, on a series of theological commitments. (x – xi)

Your American, whether or not he is religious, understands the theology behind “all men are created equal” better than he does any political theory connected with it. Whether or not any of Locke’s political theory is behind the Declaration’s “all men are created equal,” his theology is. It amounts to this: we are all equal as God’s children.

I love Arendt on how covenanting helped to make the American Revolution a success and broke down some of the harmful social distinctions important to the countries they left behind. Here’s an excerpt from On Revolution:

[For the American patriots] power came into being when and where people would get together and bind themselves through promises, covenants, and mutual pledges; only such power, which rested on reciprocity and mutuality, was real power and legitimate, whereas the so-called power of kings or princes or aristocrats, because it did not spring from mutuality but, at best, rested only on consent, was spurious and usurped. They themselves still knew very well what made them succeed where all other nations were to fail; it was, in the words of John Adams, the power of “confidence in one another, and in the common people, which enabled the United States to go through a revolution.” This confidence, moreover, arose not from a common ideology but from mutual promises and as such became the basis for “associations” — the gathering-together of people for a specified political purpose. (173 – 174)

The twentieth century German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin sets a high spiritual bar for philosophers, but his book Anamnesis, published in 1978, has a surprise ending: a successful society needs few true philosophers: common sense among most citizens is enough:

The term common sense . . . must be understood in the sense of the Scottish School, especially of Thomas Reid. For Reid, man is rationis particeps, in Cicero’s sense; and common sense is a compact type of rationality. “There is a certain degree of it which is necessary to our being subjects of law and government, capable of managing our own affairs, and answerable for our conduct towards others: This is called common sense, because it is common to all men with whom we can transact business, or call to account for their conduct. (211 – 212)

Common sense, as Voegelin defines it, requires a society built on compacts and covenants.  Character and relationships built from making and fulfilling promises create trust, which in turn tends to break down idealistic or tribalistic distinctions that keep us from cooperating to achieve political purposes.

So our lack of an agreed-upon public philosophy (Arendt’s “common ideology”) doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Political ideologies are worthwhile only if, at their heart, they are accurate and significant expressions of our humanity. They shouldn’t venture far from that heart, either. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves, as we do now, associating and gathering together mostly at political cross-purposes. A student at Kettering, growing (hopefully) in the sense of common sense that Voegelin speaks of, would understand that without checking out any volume on Locke.

  1. Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution at 160.

The circle strikes back

To explain to his countrymen the rise of the Roman Republic, the Greek historian Polybius thought it would be necessary to explain political time. It wasn’t as linear as his people had thought.

Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (Penguin Edition cover)

Right-wing nationalism, and its champion Vladimir Putin, want us to know that political time, and with it political agency, is in the long run out of our hands. We are Greeks, but he is strong. I think we live in another age of Polybius, who set out in his Histories to broach the political facts of life with his countrymen.

As the political children of Greece, we find it hard to understand Rome’s cyclical understanding of political time. When Hannah Arendt in her 1963 book On Revolution speaks of the Greeks, she speaks of us:

The Roman feeling of continuity was unknown in Greece, where the inherent changeability of all things mortal was experienced without any mitigation or consolation1 . . .

But maybe our love of democracy will force us to reassess change, to reexamine whether the future is necessarily progress, and to reroute our path to the future. Maybe the future isn’t a straight line from the present.

Progressives generally understand political time as linear. According to Yale sociologist Philip Gorski, their historical consciousness is “governed by the metaphors of ‘progress,’ ‘development,’ and ‘evolution.'”2 Progressives acknowledge setbacks that wrinkle the line, that make the line jagged, lumpy, what have you. Two steps back, three steps forward. Always forward. Is that a realistic account of political history?

Of course it’s not realistic, a progressive may respond, if by “realistic” one means the status quo or, worse, some kind of larger, Hegelian system that reduces us all to spectators. No, political time is aspirational. Aspiration breathes in the future and breaths out the present. We may not progress as much as we want, but without political aspirations for our societies (a line from here to there, if you like), our societies will never change.

And perhaps we’re talking only about time zones. The East understands time in more cyclical terms, certainly, and the West understands it in more linear terms. Whatever understanding of time a culture adopts controls it. But Polybius wasn’t having any of this.

Cyclical time is not just across the sea in Rome, Polybius told his countrymen. The regime-change cycle is part of “the inevitable law of nature.” The cycle can be seen most clearly in the history of a people, like the Romans, “whose origin and growth, have from the very beginning followed natural causes.”3 The Greeks, presumably, had not done that.

But part of the Greeks’ unnatural history, Polybius assured his people, was by wise design. Polybius believed, for instance, that Lycurgus had shared Polybius’s insights into the regime-change cycle and had built against the cycle by giving Sparta a balanced constitution with monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements, the three positive phases within the cycle.4

One might say, then, that a wise constitution has the deleterious, long-term effect of blinding those living under it to Polybius’s “inevitable law of nature,” i.e., to the six-stage cycle of regime change, which Polybius summarizes here:

Our position, then, should be that there are six kinds of constitution — the three commonly recognized one I have just mentioned [monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy], and three more which are congenital with them: tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy or mob-rule. In the natural, spontaneous course of events, the first system to arise is monarchy, and this is followed by kingship, but it take the deliberate correction of the defects of monarchy fo it to develop into kingship. Kingship changes into its congenital vice — that is, into tyranny — and then it is the turn of the aristocracy, after the dissolution of tyranny. Aristocracy necessarily degenerates into oligarchy, and when the general populace get impassioned enough to seek redress for the crimes committed by their leaders, democracy is born. And in due time, once democracy turns to violating and braking the law, mob-rule arises and completes the series.5

It may be difficult for us to accept that Montesquieu’s and Madison’s separation-of-powers theories grew out of the theory of Polybius, whom Arendt called “perhaps the first writer to become aware of the decisive factor of generations following one another through history.”6 Polybius understood separation of powers as a means of merely slowing down, but not ending, nature’s depressingly cyclical pattern of regime change.

To the extent that we still have a democracy, Polybius’s cycle would indicate that we’re moving into the kind of mob rule Putin leads in Russia. It might be worth looking more closely at Polybius’s account of this most relevant transition among the six:

[The people] convert the state into a democracy instead of an oligarchy and themselves assume the superintendence and charge of affairs. Then so long as any people survive who endured the evils of oligarchical rule, they can regard their present form of government as a blessing and treasure the privileges of equality and freedom of speech. But as soon as a new generation has succeeded and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become by this time so accustomed to equality and freedom of speech that they cease to value them and seek to raise themselves above their fellow-citizens, and it is noticeable that the people most liable to this temptation are the rich.7

Democracy, then, tends to digress into mob rule in part because of the failure of a generation — particularly the failure of the rich among that generation — to appreciate “equality and freedom of speech.”

Can anything save us from plutocracy? From Arendt’s perspective, ironically, the poor have saved us from not only the political excesses of the rich but also from Polybius’s entire regime cycle. She credits John Locke as well as the Old World’s idea of the New World with ending Polybius’s cycle for all time in the form of modern revolution. How? For Arendt, “the ancient cycle of sempiternal recurrences had been based upon an assumedly ‘natural’ distinction of rich and poor.” The Old World had understood the New World as a “symbol of a society without poverty,” and the possibility of such a society freed the European poor to understand potential societal roles as more than a zero-sum game. Locke’s state of nature then provided an important theoretical support for modern revolution since it did not associate labor with poverty, as economic thought had done for centuries, but recognized labor as “the source of all wealth.” Consequently:

the factual existence of American society prior to the outbreak of the Revolution had broken this cycle [of regime change] once and for all.8

For the first time in history, the poor act politically. To Arendt, modern revolution was, in a sense, something new under the sun.

Yet even if Arendt is correct in her assessment that the circle is broken, a linear historical narrative advanced either by the left or by the right can be as enervating as a cyclical one. What remains? Perhaps a return to Abraham Lincoln’s covenantal understanding of political time. Gorski’s book American Covenant, published this year, attributes a different geometric shape to Frederick Douglass’s and Lincoln’s notion of political time:

The historical consciousness of Douglass and Lincoln was spiral, rather than circular or linear. Like the literalists but unlike the progressives, the civil religionists emphasized the periodic return to sources. They envisioned the future by not only revisiting but also reinterpreting the past: there lay the break with the literalists. Like the progressives and unlike the literalists, the civil religionists also emphasized the possibility of moral progress in human history. But for them, “progress” involved a vindication of the past, a realization of its aspirations, and not simply a break with the past or a supersession of its principles: there lay the break with the radical secularists. In this view, time was neither a line nor a circle, but a spiral, widening upward and outward toward higher principles and greater inclusiveness.9

The elections in 2018 and 2020 are important, but they are not as important as the fight for, and the reexamination of, political time itself. Hopefully, not many Americans will get out of this tough era with their political thinking and activity — or lack of either — unchallenged. Like Polybius, who had extensive contacts among Romans, we might make friends with and learn from those who seem, to our limited lights, complicit in democracy’s decline. And in the new year, may we find time to reflect and places to act.

[Featured image: The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817) by Joseph Mallord William Turner (c. 1775-1851).]

  1. Arendt, Hanna. On Revolution at 18.
  2. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present at 108.
  3. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Penguin Edition, at 305.
  4. Polybius, supra, at 310.
  5. Polybius, The Histories, Oxford Edition, at 373.
  6. Arendt, supra, at 18.
  7. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Penguin Edition, supra, at 309.
  8. Arendt, supra, at 13.
  9. Gorski, supra, at 108.

Evolution and moral foundations

Last Saturday, a friend of mine had five people over who had recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt argues that today’s conservatives have a built-in advantage in American politics because they understand moral psychology.1 They relate to what Haidt describes as six foundations of morality, while today’s liberals relate to only three. Liberals relate to Haidt’s care, fairness, and liberty foundations. Conservatives do, too, though not as strongly as do liberals to the first two. But conservatives relate also to Haidt’s loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations.2

Haidt’s 2012 book describes varieties of morality in social evolutionary terms.

(If you want to see how Haidt might lump you along his six-foundation continuum, go to and enjoy some of the surveys there. The results from many of these surveys contribute to his book.)

I anticipated the evening as one of those rare opportunities to explore ways of bridging the left-right divide, but we never tried. None of us were emissaries from either side. Instead, in the course of talking about and around The Righteous Mind, each of us seemed not so much to bridge the divide as to dwarf it. Our stories reflected growth that, to me, kept suggesting what a poor job political packages do in accounting for an engaged life. We are dynamic characters, I kept feeling, and the “divide” helps to keep people from themselves, primarily.

Haidt, a social psychologist, defines morality descriptively, and his definition builds on the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who wrote at the turn of the last century. Durkheim wrote that “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to . . . regulate his actions by something other than . . . his own egoism.” According to Haidt, morality developed to support mankind’s evolution from uncooperative creatures (such as chimpanzees) to creatures capable of building societies.

It’s ironic that conservatives use a moral toolkit that is best accounted for by some version of social evolution, from John Calhoun’s crude version to Haidt’s thoughtful and well-researched version. It’s ironic also that liberals are slow to accept what Haidt describes as half of what makes us feel moral compunction despite the recent research in social evolution. Which side really believes in evolution?

Our evening was loosely structured around our stories, and Haidt’s book is loosely structured around his. One casualty to Haidt’s structure is the orderly presentation of the moral foundations. In one chapter, he builds five, but only a turn in his personal narrative brings the sixth foundation along in its own chapter. But, as he points out and as our evening made clear to me, we use our personal stories in part to construct and understand ourselves, and this is what moral foundations help us do, too.

But beyond Haidt’s personal, professional, and political evolution, the book gives little account of an inner life, the side of life that would lead to the stories I heard at dinner. Anything described as transcendent in the book comes through group participation or drugs. Haidt offers a compelling understanding of our social and moral sides. Linking the two felt a lot like Confucianism, though, and as I read the book, I often felt Chuang Tzu at my shoulder. To me, the distinction and interaction between our inner and outer lives is different and more interesting than the distinction (and possible interaction) between liberals and conservatives.

  1. Kindle loc. 2620.
  2. Kindle loc. 2660.

Reason and American scripture

The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him.
– Proverbs 18:17 (RSV)

Here’s a question for those of us who discover in our nation’s founding a covenant-based civil religion1: Could the U.S. Constitution be a primary source of virtue for our civic life, much as the Bible is for Christians?

From our bedroom this morning

One of my favorite verses about the relationship between text and virtue is from one of Paul’s letters to Timothy, in which he refers to what Christians now call the Old Testament:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16 – 17, KJV)

Scripture leads to correction and instruction, which in turn leads to maturity. Can civil scripture do the same in our civil life?

Two New England Federalists came to different conclusions. Timothy Dwight believed that constitutions and their ilk cannot foster virtue:

The formation and establishment of knowledge and virtue in the citizens of a Community will more easily and more effectually establish order, and secure liberty, than all the checks, balances and penalties, which have been devised by man.

Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and later a Yale president, took a position similar to Jonathan Mayhew’s before him, according to Philip Gorski’s American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present. Gorski’s summary: Mayhew and Dwight “believed that the endurance of a republic depended more on public virtue than on institutional design” (71). While both are important to a republic’s health, public virtue is separate from institutional design, and if Dwight would have had to have picked one, he would’ve picked the former.

John Adams, though, believed that institutional design fosters public virtue. In his 1787, three-volume book A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Adams made out this causal relationship:

The best republics will be virtuous, and have been so; but we may hazard a conjecture, that he virtues have been the effect of the well-ordered constitution, rather than the cause.

Adams wrote before the U.S. Constitution has been drafted or ratified, but Madison agreed with his faith in the then-proposed U.S. Constitution’s instructive powers. In Federalist No. 49, Madison implied that the Constitution, if adopted, would begin to frame public debate and, in the process, inform it.

Madison wrote No. 49 in response to those who advocated that any argument between branches of government be resolved by the direct intervention of the people. In many such anticipated questions, Madison said, the multitude would be more influenced by the combatants than by the Constitution’s provisions, and the constitutional question “could never be expected to turn on the true merits of the question.” The nature of good republican government, by contrast, is to increase the chances that reason would override passion. Madison summarized the outcome of a direct appeal to the people:

The passions, therefore, not the reason, of the public would sit in judgment. But it is the reason, alone of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government. The passions out to be controlled and regulated by the government. [Emphasis original]

Charles Kesler understands Madison’s position in No. 49 as placing the Constitution as mediator between the public’s passion and its reason:

So the reason of the public controls the government, which in turn regulates the public’s passions. Notice that this is not a formula for the direct rule of reason over passion in politics. It calls rather for the reason “of the public” to control the passions through the mediation of the government. The direct rule of reason over passion in politics might be said to dictate the suppression of rights and freedom in the name of duties or virtues. Publius does not endorse this, but neither does he allow rights to sink to their lowest common dominator, to become expressions of mere self-interest or passion. Instead, he calls for the “reason of the public” to become responsible for the passions of the public. He defends a form of government that will encourage rights to be claimed and exercised responsibly. The Federalist‘s concern for veneration fo the Constitution shows that a purely calculative or self-interested attachment to government is not sufficient to secure republicanism. The Constitution must attract the loyalty, admiration, pride, and even reverence of American citizens if the rule of law is to be firmly grounded — if republicanism is to be responsible.2

The Constitution, then, was constructed in part to teach civic virtue by permitting the rule of reason and the subjugation of passion. But how does this happen?

I’m no longer a rationalist, at least as Jonathan Haidt uses the term: “anyone who believes that reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge.”3 Haidt has persuaded me that my reason is mostly a construct to justify myself or my intuitions to others.

But Haidt acknowledges that reason is essential in public bodies:

I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than resigning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of an individual’s ability to reason. [Emphasis original]4

Madison, I think, would have agreed with Haidt. In the same Federalist 49, he wrote that “The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. ” [Emphasis original] As Haidt points out, however, to be able to reason with one another presumes that we are in relationships that are conducive to listening to one another.

John Marshall’s Supreme Court represents such a relationship. For most of twenty-nine years, this Federalist chief justice worked with the appointees from mostly Republican presidents bent on reshaping the court’s outlook. These presidents largely failed. As Jean Edward Smith points out in John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, most of the court’s opinions during most of Marshall’s tenure were unanimous. Smith attributes this frequent unanimity to Marshall’s insistence that the justices live and take their meals together.5 The justices were, therefore, forced to recognize their political opponents’ humanity. In many cases, they ended up liking their opponents and got used to reasoning with them to come up with thoughtful opinions that probably would have eluded the pens of justices acting alone.

The Constitution and other American covenants, such as the Declaration of Independence, can still frame our debates and teach civic virtue, but only in the context of a civic body. Civic virtue through our Constitution and laws requires a polity, just as spiritual growth through scripture requires a church. Without a greater body, our timid reason will remain the mere instrument of our passion, and each of us will stay walled up in his political ghetto, uncritically absorbing his political ghetto’s version of the news.

  1. I’ve been examining our covenant-based civil religion. I’ve written elsewhere about how Lincoln spoke of the Constitution as part of a civic/sacred text. It’s a flawed text, Lincoln believed, and it would be superseded (or “fulfilled”) in certain places by the Civil War Amendments after Lincoln’s death, much as the Mosaic covenant is said to be fulfilled in Christ.
  2. Charles R. Kesler’s introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Federalist Papers, at xxix – xxx.
  3. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, page 7.
  4. Kindle loc. 1632.
  5. Page 507.


Feeling organized. The office is right. The desk and the chair go up and down. The chair is wooden, so I can’t sit on it too long before I need to stand and raise the desk. But it’s a rocking stool, so one moves even when one sits.

B and J came by last night. While she and V were decorating our lower floor, she stole away with armfuls of nutcrackers. The nutcrackers ended up along my bookcases, as did some of B’s college art.

Office with nutcrackers

Today I’m switching organization apps from OmniFocus to Things. OmniFocus doesn’t let me put today’s tasks in the order I want to tackle them, but Things does. Meta-organization: organizing my organization. I always feel most organized when I change how I organize.

Am I ready to take on a sixth class (a fifth college composition class) this week?