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?

Les philosophes and the Federalists

“The philosophes cultivated their connections with power, and their fraternizing with the enemy cost them heavily. It distorted their tactics, long circumscribed their freedom of action, sometimes seduced them into intellectual dishonesty, and blurred their radicalism, not only for others but for themselves as well. . . . Most of the philosophes found much to cherish in the existing order. Seeking to distinguish themselves, the philosophes had little desire to level all distinctions; seeking to be respected, they had no desire to destroy respectability. Their gingerly treatment of the masses, which became less patronizing as the century went on, reveals their attachment to the old order and their fear of too drastic an upheaval.” — Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Vol. 1 (1966)

“The stress placed upon the Adams-Hamilton feud pointed up a deeper problem in the Federalist party, one that may explain its ultimate failure to survive: the elitist nature of its politics. James McHenry complained to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of their adherents, ‘They write private letters to each other, but do nothing to give a proper direction to the public mind.’ The Federalists issued appeals to the electorate but did not try to mobilize a broad-based popular movement. Hamilton wanted to lead the electorate and provide expert opinion instead of consulting popular opinion. He took tough, uncompromising stands and gloried in abstruse ideas in a political culture that pined for greater simplicity. Alexander Hamilton triumphed as a doer and thinker, not as a leader of the average voter. He was simply too unashamedly brainy to appeal to the masses. Fisher Ames observed of Hamilton that the common people don’t want leaders ‘whom they see elevated by nature and education so far above their heads.'” — Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004)

Jean Huber. Untitled. Un dîner de philosophes.

The wrong side of history

Many progressives believe that history is linear, that mankind moves inexorably toward universalism and greater individual rights. Many reactionaries also believe that history is linear, that their tribe’s story moves inexorably from an idyllic past to the present pollution to a future restoration of the idyllic past. In a sense, these progressives and these reactionaries both prophesy.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare examines the notion that prophecy is not an attempt to see the future but to shape it in the broad daylight of the present. Prophetic rulers sometimes bring rapid regime change or suffer from a tragic blindness, or both. How about the ruled? They’re unlikely to act if, with respect to the future, the fix is in. Religion is not the opiate of the masses; prophecy is.

The progressive idea that, despite inevitable setbacks, history inexorably bends to progressive ends can be seen in one of President Obama’s favorite opprobriums: something or someone is “on the wrong side of history.” This notion’s underlying assumptions are tragic: the future (including the prophetic present) sees the past (and, because of it, the present) cooly and clearly, progressive values will ultimately prevail no matter what we do (or don’t do), and it is possible for the clearsighted to see his opponent in a light both objective and disparaging.

But the future is not fixed. Only history is fixed — or, rather, only the past is fixed. History is debatable, and the future is malleable. In fact, history is warmly debated in large part because the future is malleable.

Hero time

Some specialists are rushing to hold the republic together. I’m reading two more books that recast two lifetimes of research and thought as efforts to chip away at the thickening wall between left and right. One book’s approach is psychological; the other’s is philosophical. The first book, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, admits this rush:

People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything. Books have been published in recent years on the transformative role in human history played by cooking, mothering, war . . . even salt. This is one of those books.

Friends of friends of mine, prophets, came to town years ago and asked me point blank what made me tick. “I want to save the world,” I admitted rather sheepishly under some questioning that seemed intense, given the social context. They shook their heads sadly.

Thor and his brother Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

I told that story to a friend of mine. “Saving the world is something people give up in their teens,” she reflected. Yes, well, that’s because most people spend their youth testing their limits. I spent mine balancing my idealism by reading a lot, first Mad Magazine and later the Bible, both of which helped me develop a greater sense of irony. (Reinhold Niebuhr also learned his irony from the Bible: The Irony of American History is based on the Bible’s ironic worldview.)

Haidt’s ironic statement, evincing both self-deprecation and purpose, probably will lead to a lot of head-shaking. But it’s an idealistic age, even if some idealists, like me, wish to help talk some part of the world off the high ledge of political idealism.

After Thanksgiving dinner, we walked through the lit, empty outdoor mall by our condo to see Thor:Ragnarok. After long captivity, Thor tries to escape by throwing a large red ball through a window. He’s halfway through a refrain — an inspirational and idealistic proclamation about heroism — when the ball bounces off the glass, hits him in the head, and floors him. The motivational, non-diegetic music that accompanies the proclamation stops, too. But the music resumes as Thor gets up, completes his statement, and files through the window thanks to the crack the ball has made.

Today’s comic-book heroes enjoy irony, which separates these movies from the dark-and-light banality of their comic-book predecessors. But Thor:Ragnarok could be the marriage of comic-book Thor and Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot of Mad, whose satirical comic stories featured antiheroes and loads of prepubescent irony.

Our ideals, Thor: Ragnarok seems to suggest, must grow to accommodate irony and to encounter setbacks and even self-understanding. We cannot become like Thor’s trickster brother Loki or his captor Valkyrie, who let their experiences and cynicism trap them in selfishness in the universe’s hour of peril.

The second book, the philosophical one? American Covenant: A History of Civl Religion from he Puritans to the Present by Philip Gorski. Both books start with what we know: the country is divided, hopelessly so. Seemingly hopelessly. Both, then, start like comic-book movies.

Each of us, having dedicated our lives to something we now understand can save the republic, must come to understand that we are only one of those so dedicated and so motivated. And we must admit that we may have missed out on some normal stage of development.

He that sitteth at meat

Christian republicanism is a thing. So asserts Philip Gorski in his American Covenant, citing John Milton first and Jonathan Mayhew, a Harvard-trained Congregationalist minister, foremost (67 – 68). Mayhew’s most influential work was the widely published text of his 1750 sermon “Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission,” which Gorski calls “an exceedingly clever defense of popular resistance to political tyranny”:

[The sermon] took the locus classics for the doctrine of passive obedience (chapter 13 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans) and used it to justify a natural right to resist unjust rule. In Mayhew’s interpretation, Paul argues “not in favor of submission to all who bear the title of rulers, in common; but only, to those who actually perform the duty of rulers, by exercising a reasonable and just authority, for the good of human society.” (68, emphasis original)

In asserting a right to resistance, of course, Mayhew echoes earlier writings by Aquinas and Locke.

Mayhew’s distinction between a titular and an actual ruler came up in our devotional reading this morning:

And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.  And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth. (Luke 22:24 – 27, KJV)

Maybe Christian republicanism gets its understanding of what constitutes a true ruler from Jesus’ brief discourse here.

If republicanism is waning in America, maybe it’s due to how we see one another. If we elected a king — if the future bears out our fears that we voted out the republic last year — is it because we see one another as Jesus and the Jews of his community saw the Gentiles, as those outside the covenant?

Jonathan Mayhew

Silence in paradise

An espousal of equality, even the ontological equality at the intersection of Christianity and Lockean liberalism, must get around to answering this: what about property? (We saw a school production of Robin Hood Saturday that brought the issue back to mind.)

To someone steeped in the Book of Genesis as well as in Locke’s Second Treatise, property accumulation may feel like the moral equivalent of divorce. Jesus says that “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” And John Locke’s version of the Garden of Eden, the state of nature, involved no accumulation of property as a means of oppressing others.

Joyce Appleby saw that Locke’s version of paradise connects property “with a moral end: God’s desire to provide sustenance for man. The labor which made the common gift into private property executed God’s design. The picked apple facilitated nourishment at the same time that it became private. The introduction of money,  however, destroyed the moral purpose associated with God’s gift of the earth, for it removed the check on accumulation” (Appleby’s Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination at 88 – 89).

Joyce Appleby

Appleby says that Locke later, in effect, contradicted himself by championing the old balance-of-trade monetary theory during the recoinage battle of 1696. In that battle, he argued that mankind “put an imaginary value upon gold and silver. This intrinsic, unique value of specie had created the utility of money because it made possible a standard for all other commodities. Because men held gold and silver in unique esteem, they were willing to trade useful goods for them.” (I’m quoting Appleby’s summary of Locke’s position, not Locke himself.) Therefore, the king couldn’t put an arbitrary value on coins because people would always weigh the coin’s silver and trade it based on how much the silver was worth. Locke’s view was discredited on economic grounds, but it led to his conclusion that “the value of money was rooted in nature” (Appleby’s words), or at least in nature in the sense of beyond the reach of man or even kings to fix or change.

Locke was wrong from a macroeconomic standpoint, but he laid the metaphysical groundwork for Adam Smith some eighty years later. Smith added the market to liberalism’s doctrine as something that had a mind of its own — discernible, but incapable of being contradicted by tyrants or by anyone else, really — like natural law itself.

Looking out his Parisian window at pre-Revolutionary France, however, Jefferson wrote to Madison that the existence of the “unemployed poor” meant that “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.” In a society with unemployment, private property  is no longer God’s means of providing for his children but a means of oppressing them.

A longer excerpt from Jefferson’s letter:

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Jefferson here seems to propose the end of primogeniture with regard to inheritance, an indexed property tax rate, and the grant of small parcels of land. But he leaves a qualified door open for other ideas (“legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind”).

But why “silently” in Jefferson’s “silently lessening the inequality of property”? Because the rich would otherwise discover the lessening and stop it? Because (as happened in France a few years later) the loud lessening of equality means violent revolution? Because the dignity that people find in work requires that any supports remain silent, almost providential?