From tomorrow’s Washington Post: “After 22 years, a synagogue study group finishes reading the Torah from beginning to end.”
From tomorrow’s Washington Post: “After 22 years, a synagogue study group finishes reading the Torah from beginning to end.”
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
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.
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.
° ° °
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
° ° °
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)
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
“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)
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.]
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.
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).]
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
(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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
“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)
For two hours online before almost every show, Hamilton sells up to forty tickets by lottery for ten bucks each. Your odds of winning are less than one in four hundred. Two weeks ago, on our first try, we won.
Victoria had applied on the train to New York, and she told me we had won as we checked into the hotel. I didn’t believe it. I searched the Internet to learn more about this scam. Nothing. We went to the theater, and they put us at the front of the line. Victoria took a picture of me there with the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” marquee over my shoulder.
We gave the ushers our golden tickets, and they seated us in the second row.
Hamilton says it holds the lottery for people who want to see the show but can’t afford tickets. That’s a good definition as any of most teachers I know. I feel as if Victoria and I that afternoon somehow represented all teachers.
Hamilton is about how you make it. It starts with Aaron Burr singing this question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore . . . Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”1 We all have accidents of birth, such as our gender, race, our family’s religion and its social and economic conditions – heck, even our parents themselves, and our siblings, relatives, and neighbors, not to mention our own personalities. How does Alexander use or, in many cases, overcome these accidents?
I use the word “accident” in its Aristotelian sense, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a property or quality not essential to a substance or object; something that does not constitute an essential component, an attribute.”2 If Alexander is not the sum of his accidents, who is he? What, in other words, is his “essential component”? Does he – do I – even have a core identity?
Personal identity has political as well as ontological and psychological implications, and Hamilton is, of course, a political play. The play itself is tame as political plays go. Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted to tell a great story, innovate by making most of it hip-hop, and get the facts (mostly) right. In these respects, Hamilton can be compared to, say, Edmund Morris’s Dutch, the Reagan bio that reads extremely well, introduces an important innovation (a fictional character), and gets the facts (mostly) right.
To get the facts right, Miranda made friends with Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow. When Miranda first rehearsed part of the first act, Chernow was “shocked”: all the Founders are black and Latino. According to Miranda’s book on the musical, Chernow got over his shock in five minutes and became “a ‘militant’ defender of the idea that actors of any race could play the Founding Fathers.” (“Militant” is Chernow’s word.)3
It’s the casting rather than the lyrics that raise Hamilton to a truly political play. In other words, the casting moves the play from one about historical politics to one about political mysticism. The casting examines equality, which I think is the political term for “essential component” — or true identity.
Representative government itself is a form of political mysticism. I vote for or against my congresswoman, and by my participation on Election Day she stands in my stead in Congress. Voting, in this way, is an act of faith, much as receiving the Host as the body of Christ, in whatever sense you might do so, is an act of faith.
Consider the representation happening the night Mike Pence, freshly elected to represent us all as the Senate’s president, saw Hamilton. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Burr, spoke for the entire cast in addressing Pence from the stage after the show. The cast, he said, represented a particular America: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America . . .” The cast, standing behind Dixon, was visibly diverse in terms of race, gender, and national origin.4
Their costumes made the representation more pointed. The blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women, and men behind Dixon were dressed in Revolutionary-War-era clothes artfully brought up to date. The diverse America, Dixon seemed to be claiming, is the original or essential America – the new and true America.
In this respect, Dixon was only making explicit what the show’s casting had always made implicit: because “all men are created equal,” anyone can relate to the Founders.
At the heart of our country’s political mysticism is our relation to the Declaration’s Equality Clause. This relationship allows me not only to travel to every session of Congress in the person of my representative but also to travel in time to our nation’s Founding. Lincoln describes this mysticism in an 1858 speech. Although half the country has been settled by people whose forebears weren’t in America at the time of the Founding, Lincoln says, they still relate to the Founders in a way that is stronger than blood relation:
If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.5
This connection – this “electric cord” Lincoln discovers in the Equality Clause – is an act of political faith based on who we are – the children of God. I believe with Lincoln that, with a lot of hard work, this connection can again link “the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together.” Once we make that connection, we may rediscover our polity as a large family of our brothers and sisters.
It’s understandable that a newfound belief that people of color may play the Founders made Chernow “militant.” A reconnection with our nation’s mystic origins (another way of saying that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”) can reconnect our spirits with our patriotism.
We bring this love-based militancy to political battles in which some forces seek to define some group – a race, a religion, a socioeconomic class, or the unborn, for instance – as less than human. If my vote is an adult expression of my divine origin, as I have implied, then a commission that seeks to disfranchise me seeks to make me less than human. If the Supreme Court rules, after purporting to review the circumstances of our country’s Founding, that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit,” then the ruling is void ab initio.
Whites have no reason to be proud that the culture currently celebrates people of color playing the Founding Fathers. It’s not as if all people of color have always been dying to play the parts. The Black Panthers, for instance, quoted Chief Justice Taney’s “no rights” language extensively to discredit the racial basis of the Constitution.6 I think also of James Baldwin:
I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.7
The Panthers saw the Equality Clause differently than they understood the Constitution: they argued extensively that the Clause is inconsistent with racism.8 And Baldwin’s implied counsel to whites points us back to the difficult work of discovering our true identity. Because only what is ab initio matters; all else are mere accidents, even the events of the Founding. Hear Lincoln’s praise, the year following his “electric cord” speech, of the Equality Clause’s author:
All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.9
Lincoln says, then, that the events depicted in Hamilton, and the Declaration of Independence itself, are “merely revolutionary.” They are merely the plot and lyrics, not the casting. “Merely revolutionary” may sound like an oxymoron, but compared with the ontological content of the Declaration’s Equality Clause, the events of our nation’s Founding are mere accidents.
It’s sad that the chapters of our revolutionary history are filled with accidents: our nation’s gestation and birth were in large part products of genocide, fratricide, slavery, and war.10 It’s shallow and self-defeating to hide from our sad history or to censure those who bring it up. But we can’t fully confront our history, either, if we don’t discover through spiritual work that we’re loved despite it all. The key to that work is discovering our true identity. Our nation, finally, is not the accidents of its birth, important as they are, just as we are not the accidents of ours.
For me, then, Hamilton is about how the country makes it. Our sights must be trained on the invisible, inner man.
It’s not all hard work, I guess. Even monks, who dedicate themselves to their interior lives, have days off. Thomas Merton, then over sixteen years a monk, one day found himself on a Louisville street corner. Then and there, he had an epiphany: he was human. Everyone around him, he then knew, whether he knew them or not, were his brothers and sisters. “A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.”11 It changed his life.
Happy Fourth. May we, in some mystical sense, reconnect with ourselves and with our nation’s Founding, and act from there.
All mentors are signs that know, at some level, that they’ll be pulled out when that which they signify appears. Love is what remains of them.
In this way, I think, all my friends – all men, really – may be my mentors.