Liberal self-examination

My favorite part of a favorite book (Philip Gorski’s American Covenant, published last year) involves competing concepts of political time. Liberals understand political time as linear, pointing onward and upward on a graph (x = time; y = progress) – time as never-ending progress. In contrast, many conservatives understand political time as cyclical. For them, no new thing appears under the sun, and the future eventually leads back to the past.

Timothy Snyder’s book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, released two weeks ago, is largely structured around these time concepts. In Russia over the past decade, though, a cyclical cycle became “the politics of eternity” as Putin sought to keep power by way of creating crises and pretending that outside forces were acting to challenge the Russian people’s inherent innocence. Eternity is in the present; there is no political future — no plan of succession and no plan for a polity’s self-correction.

Russia has, therefore, already arrived in the political millennium. Putin’s millennium is different than the end of history Marx envisioned and the Soviet Union was working toward. Marx was, after all, a “Left Hegelian,” while the white nationalist philosopher championed by Putin, Ivan Ilyin, was a “Right Hegelian.” But all political eternities involve magical thinking as a replacement for history and facts, so Putin, in championing the old Soviet Union as an ideology-free Russia, can ignore Ilyin’s detestation of the Soviet model. Ilyin, as Snyder points out, would have loved Putin’s revisionism.

The ease by which Russia switched from cyclical to “eternal” thinking may explain how easily virulent nationalism has infected American conservatism over the past two years.

True American conservatives, mostly known by reference to their conquerer as “Never Trumps,” are already reassessing what went wrong and exploring how their political understanding was so quickly routed from the nation’s consciousness. Liberals, though preoccupied in opposing to Trump, need to reassess how their worldview also aided Trump’s rise.

How was liberalism complicit in the political atmosphere that gave rise to Trump’s election? Three things come to mind. First, American liberals failed to see how their “politics of inevitability,” as Snyder characterizes it, blinded them to Russia’s response to the failure of its own “politics of inevitability” in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Russia is, in this sense, thirty years ahead of us, Snyder argues. Our purblind politics is evident in retrospect: we laughed in 2012, for instance, when Mitt Romney declared Russia as our greatest adversary.

Second, American liberals failed to understand how their lockstep pro-choice position on abortion has for decades alienated half of the American electorate and undercut their fundamental argument about the primacy of life as a moral guide in crafting other areas of public policy. For many pro-life voters, national elections have for years represented a deflating contest between their hearts (morality) and their heads (middle- and lower-class oriented policies; financial regulations; steps to combat global warming, etc.).

Third, both the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity purport to be irresistible. In this sense, both deny agency, and therefore both have little need of or care for a vibrant public sphere. Because the politics of inevitability is irresistible only in the long run, it better protects the public sphere and the positive freedom that the public sphere requires. But not much better. This failure to regard public freedom (i.e., positive freedom, as opposed to negative and private, First-Amendment freedoms, generally understood as freedom from politics) should be a matter of liberal self-reflection, too.

If liberals take up self-examination along with the conservatives, self-examination could become, to a large extent, a joint conversation, maybe the first sane and extended one between the two factions in generations. The means by which such a conversation would occur could p0int to the rebirth of the public sphere.

[Photo of Timothy Snyder taken in 1996. By Frauemacht – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47883997 ]

Dénouement

Washing dishes this morning while listening to the HomePod play the New World Symphony. Hannah Arendt isn’t the only one who writes about the new world’s work on the old one’s mind. Reading between Tocqueville’s lines, of course, one learns more about the old world than the new. Democracy in America is about the beholder.

Dana Villa, writing in 2005, resolves his chapter on Tocqueville’s conception of a public sphere akin to “Montesquieu’s pouvoirs intermédiares” with this reversal of fortune:

It is an irony of history that the political conception of civil society Tocqueville introduced to Europe must now be reintroduced to America — from, of all places, a democratic and secular Europe.1

Researching the HomePod, I was sickened by this Apple ad. Our protagonist leaves a cramped public space — she apologizes her way out of an elevator car packed with impersonal shoulder blades — for her small apartment, which she widens with waves of her hand as the HomePod plays a favorite. If our new worlds are private ones, Tocqueville warns, the old world will hunt us down.

Title page of the autograph score of Dvorák’s ninth symphony

  1. Villa, Dana. Public Freedom (2008) at 45, 48.

DO NOT CONGRATULATE

I quit Facebook again. Maybe I’ll stay quit. I’ve seen hashtags encouraging people to quit Facebook. The irony is lost in a snowbank of wishful thinking. I’m not sure Instagram (owned by Facebook), Tumblr or Twitter is any safer or any more scrupulous.

Arteries

The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars

– T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Found myself tearing up this morning in gratitude for the postal service. How much has been preserved of Jefferson’s thought (what I’m reading now) through his friendships with distant people and this slow means of communicating! And to read his thinking in the context of these friendships and conventions and the dates (and times) they were written is a privilege. The dome of Monticello is a transmitter shooting off bolts that wagons and ships lugged to New England and back to the Old Country. And we can read the letters.

How much of gratitude is like our instinct to survive? It moons over the dark, beaten paths of our short-term memory with silver light. It surfaces our love for the now-on-earth, and it admits that our abstractions, even our ideals, move through the same narrow, concrete pipeline entwining us and our thoughts.

Two cardinals, two blood clots,
Cast loose in the cold, invisible arteries of the air.
If they ever stop, the sky will stop.

– Charles Wright, Appalachia

[Featured photo “cardinal flower” by Dave Bonta, and insert photo “male cardinals” by Sean. Both used by permission.]

To have more talk

Every year I hear these words, new to each succeeding class of ninth graders, at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some will be pardoned, and some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Hannah Arendt

When I thought at all about the prince’s command to talk — and I didn’t most years I read it — I thought the prince was Shakespeare trying to generate buzz: “go hence, to have more talk” means “go talk about my play.” But Hannah Arendt put the prince’s command in a new light for me this morning, as Victoria and I talked about what I had just read in Arendt’s On Revolution.

Arendt is not the first writer to observe that the American Revolution was a success and the French Revolution was a failure. But why, then, she wonders, do all the subsequent revolutions model themselves after the French one? She concludes that the difference is in the talking. The French never stopped discussing their revolution, while the Americans stopped talking political theory almost as quickly as they began revering their new Constitution.

° ° °

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

° ° °

After introducing her idea about Americans’ failure to talk, Arendt steps back into a brief discussion about learning and memory, something that immediately felt familiar to me as a teacher:

For if it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself. (212)

To translate Arendt’s observations here into always-helpful educational jargon, “all thought begins with remembrance” means that learners “build on prior knowledge.” Aware of this, teachers create “anticipatory sets” largely to put students in mind of what they already know about an upcoming lesson. Arendt’s distillation “into a framework of conceptual notions” means that teachers have students do something with the new learning: students apply it to a project, they discuss it in small groups and write down summaries of what they discuss – in other words, students begin the process of making the learning their own. To employ the title of a famous book by the psychologist and educational theorist Jean Piaget, “to understand is to invent.” The converse is also true: no invention, no understanding.

Part of the invention is talking. Many of my blog posts come out of Victoria and my “devotionals,” our term for our deliberate morning talks and prayer we’ve committed to only after a quarter-century of marriage. We discuss what we’ve been reading, thinking, and feeling, and because we’re two different people – in our case, two completely different people – we’ve taken some time to learn how to relate the other’s perspective to our own perspective in order to enrich the latter.

This is deliberate talking. It doesn’t replace, nor can it really be compared with, the talking we do in the course of living together. But I think the deliberate talking helps the rest of the talk.

Arendt goes on talking about talking:

Experiences and even the stories which grow out of what men do and endure, of happenings and events, sink back into the futility inherent in the living word and the living deed unless they are talked about over and over again. (212)

What does Arendt mean by the “futility inherent in the living word and the living deed,” particularly as it applies to the American Revolution? In his address to Springfield’s Young Men’s Lyceum 180 years ago this month, Lincoln seems to amplify Arendt’s concern about the “futility inherent”:

I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. . . they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest.

Lincoln goes on to propose that reason’s materials “be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws” so that, upon George Washington’s rising at the last trump, he will find “that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last.” Lincoln’s seeming reliance on reason alone is belied by the patriotic image of the sleeping Washington. A fidelity to the dead, and a reinvention of the dead consistent with the stone-cold facts, keeps them warm in our memory through our talk.

° ° °

……………………………………………………………“Do
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
“Nothing?”

……..I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.

° ° °

T.S. Eliot

How much, for instance, we’ve talked of Alexander Hamilton over the past two years! Sometimes I think theater has saved us, just as comedy saved us in 2008. But I think we need a firmer, more local foundation based more on our own talk because our national civic resources are running out. One hopeful sign appears in this morning’s Washington Post, which contains the paper’s annual list of what’s out and what’s in. “Running (for office)” is in, and running can help if there are local public spaces and actions left for those candidacies to generate our talk. Jefferson also had a great idea: he “devoted many of his later years to the promotion of a system of local ‘wards’ or ‘hundreds,’ which were intended to be ‘little republics’ and schools of democracy.” 1 How could we create this kind of public space for public talk?

The next installment from Arendt:

What saves the affairs of mortal men from their inherent futility is nothing but this incessant talk about them, which in its turn remains futile unless certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference, arise out of it. (212)

A Swiss stamp honoring Jean Piaget

My blog posts are never as good as the talking. There is no comparison, of course: they are different genres. But I often want the writing to contain some of the turns of phrase, turns of conversation (including 180-degree non sequiturs) and other charms of the talking. The challenge, never met, at least helps the writing come. (More educational theory: talking leads to writing.) And the writing, in turn, is important, Arendt would say, because it helps “to generate incessant talk about” the principles and practices that led to the American Revolution. Her book proves it: as Philip Gorski points out, Arendt’s On Revolution “quickly became required reading for young advocates of ‘participatory democracy’ during the 1960s and 1970s.”2

But blogging is a way for me not to generate talking but to invent by making my talking and my reading my own. Facebook, by contrast, can’t help me talk or write. I think it’s because most of Facebook is the kind of talk that makes talk impossible. Already our physical architecture, our social strata, our racism, our suburban planning, and our technology keep us from talking. Now even our talking keeps us from talking.

° ° °

O O O O that Shakespearian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So Intelligent
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”

° ° °

Social media generates buzz, but it doesn’t generate talk. Quite the opposite, overall — it displaces talk. Shakespeare, I now think, wasn’t trying to generate buzz through the prince’s final command to talk, any more than God was through Moses when, after giving the law, he issued this command:

And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deut. 6:7, KJV)

To understand this command to talk as pertaining to hermeneutics or theology is to see ourselves becoming only founts (or spouts, anyway) of scripture. But if we go with the action verbs, which I think are indicative rather than exclusive, we’d find a context for deliberate talk in the things we do every day: sit, walk, lie down, get up. (Note: we don’t buzz.) When we add deliberate talk to our daily talk – that is, to the kind of talk we do anyway when we do other things we do, then the words work themselves into and enrich our days. The words move from theory, if you will, to practice. We reinvent the words we speak and apply, and they become our own.

How do we do this? Not through social media or any other form of that enervating oxymoron, a “national conversation,” favored by pundits and some national politicians, who don’t really, when all is said and done, talk. All talk is local and is usually in the context of daily action. We need to talk in the coffee shops, in the spas,3 at work, and in our marriages. To the extent we don’t talk in these places, then we need to understand them better by reinventing them.

The talk isn’t necessarily deep or theoretical or practical or personal — at least not all at once. We may need help in “reclaiming conversation,” to put to use another book title, this one by Sherry Turkle. But the talk will lead to new thinking that we can reduce to a kind of shorthand as we get to know one another again. In this regard, I recall E.D. Hirsch’s account of his father’s business associates becoming familiar with his allusions to Julius Caesar. I’m not advocating cultural literacy at this point, of course — just talk. But my final installment from Arendt suggests how such relationally developed shorthand can serve memory and future talk:

How such guideposts for future reference and remembrance arise out of this incessant talk, not, to be sure, in the form of concepts but as single brief sentences and condensed aphorisms, may best be seen in the novels of William Faulkner. Faulkner’s literary procedure, rather than the content of his work, is highly ‘political’, and, in spite of many imitations, he has remained, as far as I can see, the only author to use it. (307)

William Faulkner

That’s all she says about Faulkner, but I think I know what she means. Faulkner’s characters, even the usually silent ones, are obsessed by talk. Some action, some speech – some spark – causes a character to respond with largely aphoristic remarks that incorporate the past and present. These remarks often make evident an obsession with and reinvention of the past that makes the present possible, if (particularly for Faulkner’s characters) often unbearable. Maybe they help to make a desired future possible, too, if we accept more agency than a lot of Faulkner’s characters seem capable of. When Faulkner’s character, the lawyer Gavin Stevens, says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he speaks with an understanding of talk and reinvention that I think Abraham Lincoln4 would have admired.

° ° °

The above inserts, of course, are from T.S. Eliot’s “A Game of Chess,” the second section of The Waste Land. At a New Year’s Eve party last night, Victoria complained to friends that she still often doesn’t know what I think until she reads it somewhere. Check. Perhaps reinvention has its limits.

[The feature photo is of our development in Leesburg early last month, just before dawn.]

  1. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 65.
  2. Gorski, supra, at 146.
  3. Gorski points out that Reagan understood freedom in mostly economic terms — free to make money without government interference. For Reagan, “the true domain of human freedom was the marketplace, not the public square.” Gorski, supra, at 188. If I asked you to color-code a map of your town or city for these two kinds places — red, say, for areas that serve as marketplaces and green for those that serve as public squares — I suppose the marketplace color would predominate.
  4. Gorski’s understanding of Lincoln’s understanding of the political past is, I think, the correct one: “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. Gorski, supra, at 108.

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 yourmorals.org 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.

Stand

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?