Don’t fix civics class. Fix civics.

The rise of Donald Trump has led to calls to fix high school civics. Some want to change its content, others its delivery, and still others its share of the curriculum. Representing this last view is the Washington Post‘s Colbert I. King, whose column includes this peroration: “The declining civic portion of public education . . . is a threat to our democratic values. It must be addressed, and now. Only a demagogue would argue with that.”

I argue with that.

In Kansas, the Post informs me this morning (we demagogues, unlike our victims, still read the paper), six high school boys are running for governor. The article is full of ironies: the would-be governors aren’t old enough to vote; one candidate, Tyler Ruzich, rushes from a debate to his part-time work as a grocery store cashier; and Ruzich observes that, in Hamilton’s time, “someone my age could be commander of a frigate.”

The article’s climax involves an interchange among two of these candidates, Ruzich and Jack Bergeson, and Soledad O’Brien on her nationally syndicated show. The show is taped the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The article implies that the Florida shooting makes O’Brien take the candidates seriously: O’Brien “didn’t ask whether they were old enough to drive.”

Instead, she asks Ruzich about Parkland.

Instead of finding better ways to tell teens the political facts of life, many adults after Parkland have begun to listen to and learn from high school students. As a high school English teacher, I’ve spent years learning from them through their discussions and research papers, most of which address matters of public concern. Now some American students, suddenly in the news, are taking their learning outside the classroom to discover how the kind of argumentation they’ve been trained in, based on facts and reasoning and respect, works in our public realm.

Parkland students were in the galleries when, days after the shooting, Florida’s House of Representatives voted two-to-one not to consider a bill banning the kind of military weapon that mowed down their friends. One Parkland student was photographed covering her mouth as if she were about to sob or vomit. So it goes.

At his hotel with his mom the morning of O’Brien’s show, Ruzich watches Parkland student David Hogg address Florida’s lawmakers on CNN: “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.”

But most of the action recently has come from the students. They – and we – are up against what Hannah Arendt calls “automatic historical or political processes,” ones that seem both disastrous and inevitable. Yet action – “the work of faith,” as Arendt calls it – can perform miracles to interrupt these processes1:

. . . in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them – men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.2

Man’s civic action stems from his ontological relation to the world, Arendt says: “man is a beginning and a beginner.”3 Because these teens are closer to their beginning than adults are, as I see it, Arendt’s “men” now include boys.

On national television, Ruzich, a Republican, answers O’Brien’s question about gun control:

If I’m making an enemy of the NRA, that’s something I’m kind of proud of, to be honest. I’ve seen what gun violence does. It’s time that we change the rhetoric and the discussion. Because clearly we are too far gone to say it’s a mental illness problem.

The students in Florida and Kansas are not just entering public space; they are creating it.

Our public realm is shrinking. As Philip Gorski puts it, our society believes, with Ronald Reagan, that “the true domain of human freedom [is] the marketplace, not the public square.”4 We are not far behind China in this respect. Our students are trained in civics, but they leave high school or college for the “real world” in which leadership and creativity are not often put to the public’s service but to private gain. American conservatives used to mistrust the modern marketplace – a liberal idea, after all – precisely because it tempted citizens away from republican virtue.

We vaguely believe our democracy is modeled after ancient Athens’s, but we’ve forgotten our civics lessons that informed us about Athenian democracy. It wasn’t just the city’s small size that permitted more participation. After all, Athens became the center of a Greek empire after the Persian Wars, and most places its league conquered became their own democratic poleis. Athenian juries sat not twelve but at least five hundred.5 Any citizen could speak at the general assemblies. In nearly every civic position, Athens had not a single officeholder but a college or a group of magistrates, and the citizens rotated in and out of office annually. These policies were inspired by the Athenians’ fear of tyranny.6 Many Americans believe that a fuller democracy leads to demagoguery and tyranny. But the Athenians reasoned that the greater the democracy, the smaller the chance of tyranny.

Mr. Trump wasn’t elected because of democracy; he was elected because of an institutional check on democracy that gave him the election despite his losing it by almost three million votes.

A lack of democracy causes misinformation, which in turn can lead to tyranny. King cites a study indicating that only a third of American adults in a recent survey could name their country’s vice president. But misinformation that exploits powerlessness is worse than ignorance. Vast numbers of Americans believe, for instance, that Trump won the popular vote and should postpone our next presidential election until he is satisfied that the system is no longer rigged. This isn’t the result of an inadequate civics curriculum. It’s the result of inadequate civics. Our politics is a spectator sport, and a dull one at that. People are susceptible to believing anti-government, “deep state” conspiracies because they feel powerless and invisible.

This invisibility worried John Adams. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, he believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.7

Of course, Adams’s observations about the poor’s lack of free time apply as well to a large portion of today’s American middle class, which works longer and harder than its counterparts in other industrialized countries. Our emphasis on the marketplace over the public square is costing us.

Compared with today’s America, my public high school is a hotbed of democracy. Its many clubs and teams resemble what Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his 1835 classic Democracy in America. Like most high schools, the cafeteria is broken into cliques, and students must learn how to navigate among them, a great skill in a pluralistic society. Students are inoculated against demagoguery not so much by learning the three branches of government as by learning how to distinguish popularity from friendship and truth. The student-officeholder-to-student ratio is high. When they vote – and they vote in both class and schoolwide elections, and their turnout is near one hundred percent each election – they listen to candidates who are empowered to make changes that affect how students experience high school. Officeholders negotiate with the school administration to realize changes that are outside of their direct control. By the way, the civics classes and teachers are first rate. I saw all of this at my previous high school, too.

How does this high school civics experience apply to the civic responsibilities students face when they graduate from high school or college? We consider an adult a model citizen if she doesn’t dodge jury duty and votes once a year. Is that enough democracy? The students go from practicing democracy in school to becoming mere spectators as adults, and the school’s inoculation against demagogues, in many cases, loses its efficacy.

How can we transplant high school’s civic engagement to our adult world? For one thing, we should seek to shield politics from necessity. We can learn even from the Athenians’ practice of slavery if we understand the institution as a cruel means of conquering necessity, which for the Greeks constituted a private, pre-political sphere. Only Athenian men who had conquered economic necessity could participate in public life. A school tries to insulate students from some aspects of poverty – it institutes clothing drives and free and reduced lunch programs, for instance – in part for the same reason Athens allowed only free men in its polis – so its members can learn and participate without the distraction of necessity, and so the community can have the benefit of their talent and insights. If we believe in equality, then we could take steps to move the poor into the public realm, not because they otherwise wouldn’t be adequately represented but because they otherwise wouldn’t be seen – wouldn’t be fully human in our eyes, despite our idealistic protestations to the contrary. In the private realm, their poverty is measured by their lack of life’s necessities. In the public realm, though, their poverty is measured by their transparency and ultimately by our own commensurate civic poverty.

High school teaches us also to take responsibility for the local. We connect to government if we participate in it. What if we took steps to take responsibility for our subdivisions the way the Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are taking responsibility for their school community? What if the states ceded more power to the local governments, and the local governments more power to the precincts, boroughs, and subdivisions? What if the local mattered again? Edmund Burke may have gotten it right if one applies his idea of the local not to love but to civic friendship and engagement:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.8

We need a revival of local, civic engagement. Our republic, in other words, needs a deeper democracy.

Public space can be created by policy, as the Athenians created it, or by acts of faith, as the members of the French Resistance created it when, as Arendt puts it, “without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute wily-nilly a public realm where – without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe – all relevant business in the affairs of the country were transacted in deed and word.”9

Through action, these students in Kansas and Florida are creating public space. At the risk of sounding like a demagogue, I think we could learn more about democracy from our children.

Feature image: “Philly students #CounselorsNotCops rally” by Joe Piette. Above image: “Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws” by Lorie Shaull. Both used by permission.

  1. Arendt, Hanna. Between Past and Future, at 166.
  2. Id. at 169.
  3. Id.
  4. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 188.
  5. McInerney, Jeremy. “Athenian Courts and Justice.” The Age of Pericles.
  6. McInerney, Jeremy. “Democracy and Government.” The Age of Pericles.
  7. Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279.
  8. Burke, Edmund, quoted in Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, at 359.
  9. Arendt, supra, at 3.

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.

° ° °

“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

……..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.

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.

Hero time

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

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

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

Thor and his brother Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He that sitteth at meat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Mayhew


Last night, Victoria showed me a Facebook post picturing a couple and their three young boys. The mother is pregnant with triplets — all girls. I’m still waiting for the 19th Amendment to hit home.

But maybe at the national level it’s “greater and opposite” as opposed to “equal and opposite reaction.”

Jefferson wanted “a system of local ‘wards’ or ‘hundreds,’ which were intended to be ‘little republics’ and schools of democracy,” Gorski writes in American Covenant (65). Without such a close atmosphere, we lather ourselves with anti-government sentiment like sunscreen.


In the library, playing with lighting. My friend W. says that light is more important than paint. We have freshly painted, gray walls that go warm and cool, depending on the sun. It’s a bit beige at three with purple shadows at dusk. I bought an architect-style desk lamp that toggles among four tints of white, and Thursday I screwed a GE Reveal LED bulb into the library’s floor lamp. White, but not blue-white. Like the walls — every shade but yellow.

I just finished Philip Gorski’s chapter on the Puritans in his new book American Covenant: A History of Civil Religions from the Puritans to the Present. Gorski’s chapters on things I know nothing about — Puritanism, for instance — seem enlightening and, for all I know, erudite. Those on things I know more about — today’s culture wars and Lincoln, for instance — seem facile. Was it I. A. Richards who described books as thinking machines? Sometimes I think books are little more than that.

Philip Gorski

Gorski sees American history in large part as a struggle “between civil religion and religious nationalism.” This helpful framework echos the Jaffa-Rhenquist struggle between equality and natural law, on the one hand (Jaffa’s), and a bottomless conservatism that leads inexorably to nationalism and nihilism, on the other (Rhenquist’s). In this respect, Gorski’s American Covenant should get to know Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution. I think the two frameworks are met in John Locke. Locke feels like today’s liberalism, but not so. Locke was as covenant-related as Winthrop or Lincoln.

Anyway, Gorski should read Jaffa and not be so dismissive of Lippmann’s “public philosophy” (natural law).

Today’s liberalism isn’t part of either conversation. (MLK and others are, though. King grounded his liberalism in covenant and natural law, like Locke.) This lack of philosophical ballast is why Democrats struggle to become anything more than a regional party specializing in municipal governing even with the president’s approval ratings at tauntingly record lows. Now that nationalism has taken root in half the country, one can feel an unmoored, whipsaw aspect to liberalism’s causes. Today it’s sexual predation, yesterday it was global warming. Lots of lines but no cleats — dangerous when the wind kicks up. And the current administration is bent on wrecking the ship of state all at once. An issue a day is frenetic, but it’s not fast enough.

Crazy how the Republicans of the Founding generation saw little distinction between the American and French Revolutions even after Robespierre and even Napoleon. Washington and Adams stuck with neutrality, and both paid for it politically. While Adams sent emissaries to France, Vice President Jefferson “was already in the thick of a secret campaign to sabotage Adams in French eyes.” Jefferson

advised the French to stall any American envoys sent to Paris: “Listen to them and then drag out the negotiations at length and mollify them by the urbanity of the proceedings.” Jefferson and other Republicans encouraged the French to believe that Americans sided with them overwhelmingly, and this may have toughened the tone that the Directory adopted with the new administration.

Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (548 – 549). Jefferson’s — dare I say it? — treason may have been partially responsible for the XYZ Affair, which he believed to be a Federalist hoax. Fake news. Will Trump go down as another Jefferson? Like Jefferson’s, will his party reign for a generation?

I think we’re seeing an infiltration of a foreign government into our domestic political life that we haven’t seen since the Adams administration. Just as many Republicans of Jefferson’s day related to France’s revolutionary fervor and found the Revolutionary French more American than the Federalists, so many Republicans today relate to the “family values” Putin espouses and find his muscular, illiberal nationalism more American than the politics of the American left. In a kind of senility, we’re reverting to our infancy. Maybe we’re getting back to the Founding after all.