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?

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.

Winning two lotteries

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.

  1. Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: the Revolution: Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, with a True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America. New York, NY, Grand Central Pub., 2016, at 16
  2. “Accident.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/1051?rskey=JeB09H&result=1#eid. Accessed 3 July 2017.
  3. Miranda, supra, at 33.
  4. Mele, Christopher, and Patrick Healy. “‘Hamilton’ Had Some Unscripted Lines for Pence. Trump Wasn’t Happy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/us/mike-pence-hamilton.html?_r=1. Accessed 3 July 2017.
  5. Lincoln, Abraham. “Speech at Chicago, Illinois.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher, Library of America, New York, NY, 1994, pp. 439–458, at 456.
  6. Meister, Franziska. Racism and Resistance: How the Black Panthers Challenged White Supremacy. Bielefeld, Transcript-Verlag, 2017, at 65.
  7. Baldwin, James. “Down at the Cross.” Baldwin – Collected Essays, New York, NY, The Library of America, 1998, pp. 296–347, at 300.
  8. Meister, supra, at 78 – 79.
  9. Lincoln, Abraham. “To Henry L. Pierce and Others.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, Library of America, New York, 1996, pp. 18–19, at 19.
  10. A great book in this respect is Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750 – 1804. It is also the role of a Machiavelli, according to Leo Strauss, to dismiss the founding of our nation because of the injustices that led to it. Machiavelli, according to Strauss, “would not hesitate to suggest a mischievous interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase and of the fate of the Red Indians. He would conclude that facts like these are an additional proof of his contention that there cannot be a great and glorious society without the equivalent of the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus.” Thoughts on Machiavelli, pages 13 – 14.
  11. Merton, Thomas. “A Member of the Human Race.” A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell, Doubleday, New York, 1996, pp. 345–346, at 346.

That’s all

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.

Folds

There’s a book I loved as a child in which every turn of the boy’s sheet and blanket became a mountain range, a series of waterfalls, an army, or a field of cows or stars. A cloud of witnesses. I don’t think the boy himself was pictured. Was he sick that morning? Or an invalid, and never left his bed? Were the blanket’s folds the way from sleep – the pages of a devotional, as it were – and the bed made up on his rising?

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Photos

I’m reading Scheindlin’s introduction to his translation of Job, thinking of my widowed friend, and V is by our bed, passing me pictures we took of their kids and our kids playing. Job moves by concatenation, Scheindlin says, so it matters little if a single author wrote the book or if it accreted over centuries. V has disappeared again: our bed rests on boxes of unsorted photos. I dreamed of our bed as a sleigh, not long ago, its horses pulling us over the packed-down past.

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Fire and rain

As a teen, I thought that sages lived in a rosy kingdom of their Twenties. No one understood more than James Taylor and Neil Young. Older people, except for Bobby Kennedy, lived elsewhere. Bobby was dead and pushed his hair out of his eyes, so we listened to him, too. How long have generations passed on early, their lives cut short by the next generation? What started it, radio or war? It seems as old as the Divided Kingdom, founded when Rehoboam likened his pinkie to his father’s dick.

Cache

When I read my students’ papers, I think of a chewed-up cache of my own papers my teachers read and marked. My father recently found the cache while cleaning my childhood attic. The professors corrected a few wording issues, raised some questions in the margins, and never required second drafts. One teaching assistant, though, wrote all over my papers with enthusiasm and judgment. Some of his comments were exactly as I’ve remembered them years since.

And I think of my dear father, strewing the silverfish and saving my writing.

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The slighter gestures

B and her boyfriend just got into Reykjavík. They’ll tool around Iceland for about eight days. Lots of pictures, please.

B’s into the better self-help books. Last Tuesday she told us about two favorites, one of the go-getter variety and one that points out the virtues of acceptance (“very Zen”). She likes the tension between the two. Victoria quoted Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which defines navigating this tension as wisdom.

resistance photo
Photo by Monika Kostera (urbanlegend)

Can I justify avoiding a public life? I don’t mean a grand one, which I don’t have the personality or calling for. I could avoid a “normal” public life by claiming that there is no longer a public realm — at least not the kind that would support a republic. No public means no public life and no republic. B’s a sculptor, among other things, and maybe she can show me how to help chisel a public realm out of our mass culture.

But a person’s action can create a public space, and even, for a moment, a public and a republic. My sister, to my knowledge, doesn’t hold up signs, but she volunteers to help the poor. That’s creative as art.

Calls to elected officials and a meeting with the local police chief have felt very republican. Protests have felt very democratic. It’s funny that political parties have taken on these names. In Georgian England, if you were called a republican, you were accused of wanting to set up a republic. Similarly, democrats back then were accused of plotting a democracy. The names meant something. I’d like to see the United States restored to both forms of government.

It may be like what Merton says about saints and men: if I want to be a saint, I’ll first have to become a man; that is, I’ll have to discover my humanity. And if we want to be something other than a plutocracy, we’ll first have to discover public life.

Thomas Merton likes E.M. Forster on World War I: “For what, in that world-gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?” One can perceive Merton’s struggle for wisdom in this monologue about Forster’s quote:

Genuine dissent must always keep a human measure. It must be free and spontaneous. The slighter gestures are often the most significant, because they are premeditated and they cannot be doctored beforehand by the propagandist.

And so perhaps it is saner and nobler to expect effective protest from the individual, from the small unsponsored group, than from the well-organized mass movement. It is better that the “slighter gestures” never find their way into the big papers or onto the pages of the slick magazines. It is better not to line up with the big, manipulated group.

True, he who dissents alone may confine his dissent to words, to declarations, to attitudes, to symbolic gestures. He may fail to act. Gestures are perhaps not enough. They are perhaps too slight. (160)

Merton goes on to praise the then-current Civil Rights movement.

One can hear Merton’s search for wisdom also in the title of the book from which I’m quoting: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1965).

Photo by MJWein