Hannah Arendt doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, political or otherwise. I agree: no philosopher can be such a prose stylist. I read philosophy, too, but philosophy seems to be about tearing down and rebuilding foundations, and I stumble among all the forms and footers. I like the tone of Locke, Kant, and Hobbes, though. For all their precision and rhetorical rebar, I find a passion that gets below the frost line.
I’ve always read for tone even when comprehension escapes me. When I was thirteen, I read The Brothers Karamazov and Tom Jones for tone alone, I believe, because for years all I could remember of them was their respective tones. I liked the passion that pushed Dostoevsky’s tragic pen and Fielding’s comedic one, but I can’t say I could have analyzed them well, for what that would have been worth.
Arendt reads philosophers for tone, too. In a beautifully developed metaphor, she compares the tone in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, and the rest of the big-name philosophers since Machiavelli to “children whistling louder and louder because they are whistling in the dark.” These men are a few steps ahead of us in this darkness, she believes: they understand before we do the ramifications of the loss of tradition and authority (the darkness is this loss) in Western politics due to the separation of church and state, itself due (in part) to the scientific revolution. (This separation ended a successful marriage of princely power and Papal authority that had begun in the fourth century. Of course, this marriage itself was one of convenience, coming as it did when Rome was losing its political authority, and I think for most of a millennium there were separate bedrooms.) In Arendt’s darkness metaphor, the break didn’t scare our big-name philosophers, but the darkness’s silence did. What will life be like when the silence gives way? We live after “the thunder of the eventual explosion” – Stalin and Hitler, presumably – so we can “hardly listen any longer to the overloud, ‘pathetic’ style” in the philosophers’ writing.1
What’s even more frightening for Arendt than Hitler and Stalin is what gives rise to them and what is still not addressed. She finishes her metaphor: the thunderous exigencies of the recent past – and of the present, we may now add – have “also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not ‘What are we fighting against’ but ‘What are we fighting for?’”2 We are against bureaucracy, white supremacy, and plutocracy, nationalism and fascism, but confusion reigns whenever we ask ourselves the latter question, as we must. We have quick answers, but they’re the stuff of coalitions, not of foundations. To read Arendt is to join her in exploring the silence.
Arendt has taught me not to blame the philosophers, with the possible exception of Plato. (More on him, perhaps, in another post.) These men intuited the problem and explored solutions, all of which Arendt believes failed. But if one views their proposals as theories, and if one further defines “theories” as that term was understood before the scientific revolution (“a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had been not made but given to reason and the senses,” and not the later “working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it ‘reveals’ but on whether it ‘works’”3), then the philosophers are helpful. I can’t blame Hegel for Hitler or Marx for Lenin and Stalin.
Nor can I blame Ivan on Smerdyakov, much as I still love The Brothers Karamazov. And I no longer blame Smerdiakov on German historicism, bad as it is. Arendt is a better political theorist than Dostoyevsky.
Arendt – not a philosopher but a political theorist – is the philosophers’ supporter and friend. (She was also, of course, for four years Martin Heidegger’s lover.) She takes in centuries of philosophy – and history and literature, concerning which she’s also no slouch – and explains how the philosophers call and answer one another over time and space. I would be as good at understanding these communications as I would be at decrypting whale talk. She may touch on current events – she may write a book on German and Soviet totalitarianism and another on Eichmann – but all of her books, topical or otherwise, synthesize theory and history and speak to our present political predicament better than do our own commentators.
Our news commentary is, of course, shallow and divided, and it’s worse for having for its never-changing subject such a figure as our president. If today’s political climate were as funny as those desperate sketches on SNL insist it is, I’d read Fielding again. Tom Jones, a protean force, illegally shoots a partridge in one chapter, and the entire next chapter is given over to Tom’s schoolmaster and his family’s friend contextualizing the killing within their narrow, longstanding, competing, and futile political worldviews. In the succeeding chapters, of course, Jones, oblivious to the subtleties of such debates, is off on more misadventures.
Fielding’s two commentators, “Mr. Thwackum the Divine” and “Mr. Square the Philosopher,” roughly represent the views of today’s two-party system. One could read Tom Jones as an early warning about what Arendt calls “the rise of political movements intent upon replacing the party system.”4 And one can read Thwackum and Squire any time on any number of news outlets, left and right.
Arendt is above – or, rather, beneath – all that. She writes in the spirit of Goethe, who compared the West’s political world to a big city:
Like a big city, our moral and political world is undermined with subterranean roads, cellars, and sewers, about whose connection and dwelling conditions nobody seems to reflect or think; but those who know something of this will find it much more understandable if here or there, now or then, the earth crumbles away, smoke rises out of a crack, and strange voices are heard.5
If political philosophers create foundations, then Arendt inspects them. She nods when we’re together and I see more smoke.
I’ve had lots of literary companions over the years, mostly for my private sphere. Now that the night’s thunder is reverberating again in our public world, I’m finding new poets, historians, theorists, and spiritual writers to walk in the dark with me. My favorite literary companion, though, is Arendt.
If you take me up on reading Arendt – perhaps by giving up political commentary for Lent (and to that limited extent re-coupling church and state) – you might start with something more concrete and topical, such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann on Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and On Revolution (mostly about the United States, Arendt’s new home after escaping Nazi Germany). Then move to Between Past and Future, the scariest and most hopeful book I may have ever read outside of scripture. The chapter on education is hardly worth reading, but I’ve read much of the rest of it four or five times so far. I’ve started another collection of Arendt essays cobbled together twenty years ago by Jerome Kohn, Arendt’s literary trustee, entitled The Promise of Politics. Promise serves as an understudy for Between Past and Future, and it fills in a lot of the historical and philosophical blanks the more lively and daring Between Past and Future leaps over.
Finally, I can’t recommend Richard J. Bernstein’s book Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? enough, though I’ve never read it. It won’t be released until June. But considering the title and the author, it should be good. At only 110 pages, Why Read will be on my nightstand, the Lord willing, with Timothy Snyder’s diminutive On Tyranny, not to mention Arendt’s Between Past and Future, the holy scriptures, and by then who knows what else.
[Featured image: “Storm” by rod amaru. Used by permission.]
Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future (1968), at 27. ↩
Why do some recent writers lump Hannah Arendt with the liberals? She castigates liberalism. She thinks twentieth-century liberalism’s wish to further divorce religion from politics works against its goal of freedom. Liberals see any setback to progress as a threat of totalitarianism, she says, while conservatives are more apt to care about distinctions among authoritarian regimes, tyrannies, and totalitarian states — distinctions that she also cares a great deal about.
Arendt is not even a Lockean liberal. She understands classical liberalism as she does Christian and Jewish teaching: life is the highest ideal. But she calls concerns about life “pre-political” — they must be addressed before we walk out the door each morning into a public realm in which “not life but the world is at stake.”
Arendt is pre-Locke, a democrat — small “d” — and she loves democracy in what she considers its purest expression, the Greek polis. She doesn’t advocate a return to the polis, which she concedes would be impossible. (She doesn’t often advocate a return to anything, thankfully, though she wants history and philosophy clearly heard and understood as we move in and out of politics, searching for it, as we do, like a receiver trying to pull in a long-lost signal.) But she understands from the polis that freedom is possible in politics alone, and the best politics involves a public space in which free men and women work at living together.
In such politics wisdom is possible and reason, despite its severe limitations within a given individual, wins over majorities. Her understanding of reason is Madison’s, and she quotes Federalist 49 with approval: “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.”
But pure democracy may not be liberal. The Athenian polis, of course, was underwritten by slavery, the system that allowed husbands and slaveowners to leave their domestic tyrannies and walk into the polis as free men, and the equal of other free men, all unencumbered by necessity. Without slavery, is a polis — a community of equals who can dedicate time to political speech and action — possible? And in what sense today can we consider necessity “pre-political”?
Does the first nonpolitical use of the word “freedom” — Jesus’ reference in John 7 to being free from sin — suggest a way to a polis of sorts among those who, like Jesus, have chosen to live a life without fear of necessity? Is this one reason Arendt advocates mining the Gospels for a theory of faith that would spur political action against our grinding world systems? Or are we doomed to put up with our corrupted version of the polis in which only the rich can afford to use our politics as their plaything?
Buried in today’s local section, a Washington Post article reports that “a rare parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence” has been unearthed. John Quincy Adams’s State Department had ordered two hundred copies printed, and this exhumed copy was one of two from Adams’s edition given to former president James Madison. This copy was first hidden and then forgotten – hidden during the Civil War by those who knew its value and forgotten since then by those who didn’t.
Its rediscovery – and past reports of rediscoveries of several other copies – remind me of the discovery of the Mosaic covenant while the Bible’s King Josiah was having God’s temple repaired.1 Today we’re missing the covenant’s public reading and the subsequent repentance, though, that would complete my analogy. Maybe in the future, the rediscovery of a rare copy of the Declaration might cause the kind of self-examination and action that good King Josiah models.
Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.
Lincoln’s initial notion of what he called “political religion,” as he had articulated it fourteen years earlier in his Lyceum address, had involved merely a call to obey law and to exercise reason. By 1854, though, Lincoln’s concept had grown to incorporate a biblical understanding of covenant.
American civil religion is based on covenants, such as the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration, and it has its prophets, such as Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, and others. These prophets don’t predict things – or, if they do, they’re not functioning in their prophetic capacity, strictly speaking. Instead, prophets unearth covenants, which terrorize the powerful like the stalking corpses exhumed by Jesus’s crucifixion. Civil prophets practice what Walter Brueggemann calls “a historical imagination”:
The practice of imagination is a subversive activity not because it yields concrete acts of defiance (which it may), but because it keeps the present provisional and refuses to absolutize it. The practice of a historical imagination maintains the possibility of a future that is not continuous from the present. 2
Covenants give the phrase “historical imagination” – otherwise, a political oxymoron – its sense. America’s civil religion allows us to understand the past through covenants in order to imagine together a common future.
This relation of past and future confounds most political thinking today. A desired future is not a wholesale rejection of the past, as some progressives envision it, nor is a desired future a replica of a golden past, as some reactionaries envision it. A desired future is especially not the fixed continuation of the present, as authoritarians would have it.
A covenantal future, instead, is promising: it can be the result of actions taken consistent with commitments to one another. After all, a covenant by definition involves two or more people and nourishes their relationships in the future. A covenant acknowledges a society, it creates responsibility, and it offers a realistic future of both promise and contingency among its members. Above all, covenants allow us to participate in the freedom of God since the future is unknowable to all but him. Covenants in which God participates thereby give us the confidence to act as if actions matter.
The best American covenants are both normative with respect to the present and aspirational with respect to the future. The most easily recognized American covenant is the Constitution, which in its primarily normative capacity serves as a legal yardstick. The Declaration, by contrast, is a covenant with a more primal and spiritual normative function. With it we can take a more essential measure of our candidates, our leaders, and their policies, as I did in an exercise involving candidate Trump over a year ago.
The most aspirational aspect of either of these two covenants is the Declaration’s Equality Clause. Compared to this clause, Lincoln said with a certain irony, the rest of the Declaration is “merely revolutionary.” “All men are created equal,” Lincoln asserted, was “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” though it certainly wasn’t in practice when he spoke those words about it in 1859. The Equality Clause is both a yardstick and an aspiration.
How do civil prophets move from a normative assessment of the present to an aspirational view of the future? (As I understand it, timing means a lot in prophetic speech and action.) My question may be part of a larger one: once the powerful succeed in making the future into a frozen present, how can the future – and with it the present – be thawed? How can political time resume?
This prophetic movement from the normative to the aspirational – using Brueggemann’s terms, the movement from “gestures of resistance” to “acts of deep hope”3 – mirrors a covenantal view of American history. In this view, Americans make a compact, fall away from it, and return to its spirit to either renew the old compact or to cut a new one. The prophetic voice during the slow slide from a covenant is normative – it is resistance arising from lamentation. As Brueggemann says, “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve.”4
While our present politics are not at the stage in which “acts of deep hope” would serve anything more than what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness” or “the false consciousness,” the time for such acts will come. But whether our actions stem from legitimate grief or legitimate hope, they create political space that has never existed before.
In politics, to move from the claustrophobic present to a desired future takes what Hannah Arendt calls “the work of faith.”5 Against such works are arrayed “historical processes” that “can only spell ruin to human life.” Because human action, over time, always devolves into this future-denying “automatism,” Arendt sees no event that can ever, “once and for all, deliver and save a man, or a nation, or mankind.”6 In this sense, the need for political acts of faith is more obvious in some times and places than in others. History, to Arendt, amounts to long “processes of stagnation” interrupted by “human initiative.” 7 This human initiative creates “freedom,” a word that Arendt, like Brueggemann, associates with deliberate action that creates public space.
This post is an outline of my still-early understanding of the prophetic in civil religion. My view of today’s news about the recently discovered Declaration copy is itself perhaps a small prophetic exercise, one that finds the spiritual side of American covenant peeking through our consciousness as something like what the New Testament calls a “shadow.” A “shadow” is something concrete serving as an analogy for something more abstract, and it is something from the past serving as an analogy for something in the present or future. (Examples of Biblical “shadows” are in Hebrews chapters 8 and 10.) Some friends and I have broadened our concept of “shadows” to include things in the cultural sphere that serve as analogies for something current in the political or spiritual spheres.
There is one further detail from today’s “shadow” that I should explore, the one that I started with: the Post buried today’s story by putting it in its local news section. I speak facetiously, however, since I am beginning to understand the local’s importance to national concerns. I agree with both Brueggemann and Arendt that an effective response to an ignored covenant must start with recreating the local. Brueggemann speaks of the necessity and difficulty of creating a “subcommunity,” which he defines as “a community of peculiar discourse with practices of memory, hope, and pain that keep healthy human life available in the face of all the ‘virtual reality’ now on offer in dominant culture.”8 One of Arendt’s major theses in her 1963 book On Revolution is that the American Founders erred in not structuring local political participation into the Constitution. Action, she believes, is the essence of politics, and my watching the news and voting each year isn’t sufficient action to create the public space necessary for a healthy democracy over the long term. Instead, smaller local communities must be created or re-purposed to involve us socially and politically.
Social media, which economic and now political powers have begun to control and use for their own aims, is no substitute for public space.9 If you use social media, you may find it expedient not to look at it as a substitute for public space. The Pilgrims entered into a compact face to face on a small ship heading to America. Communities like that came together two centuries later in Philadelphia to, in Lockean terms, move from a state of nature into a national community. To realize the Equality Clause, we may have to do the kind of hard, face-to-face work that preceded the Founders’ covenant on July 4, 1776.
I have seen an example of this capacity to grieve at an exhibit by Teju Cole in Chelsea last summer entitled “Black Paper.” The exhibit featured a black wall covered with small photographs suggesting the process of grief Cole undertook following the 2016 elections in the United States. ↩
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.
So much of a devotional is what you pack of it. Last night, Victoria recalled Jesus’ impossible command to “love your enemies,” the nub of what we had read that morning from Matthew, and applied it. The impossible becomes possible when I chunk my learning.
“Love your enemies” may be an example of Hannah Arendt’s “certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference” that I wrote about three days ago and that serve as bridges between talk and talk — the bridges and the talk that will help revive the spirit of the American revolution.
If we look at these guideposts as short-term memory aids — as “takeaways” from our reading for us to apply in the emerging public sphere — then we won’t dismiss them or, worse, revere them as aphorisms. They’ll be on the level of the sayings of the Desert Fathers — wisdom reduced to aphorism but made mysterious (i.e., infinitely scalable) by either lost or extant context.
The aphorisms, so understood, don’t just carry us from one talk to the next. They aren’t minutes to be read at a next meeting. They frame experience and permit experience — all of experience, and not just the harshest of it — to teach. Life becomes, in a way, what we look for in the best computer simulators, technology that, as educational theorist Ulrich Boser puts it, “allows people to apply their skills in a real-world setting without the high stakes.”1
These aphorisms frame, and then are forgotten. Experts are generally poor teachers of their expertise because they have automated what we once had in common with them — aphoristic knowledge suitable for our narrow but essential short-term memory:
. . . most of what experts know is simply beyond their actual ken. They don’t really know what they know; they made it fully automatic. (55)
The automation comes from a steady diet of word and context. The words, no longer needed and relegated to books, are forgotten. So I’m evolving my curriculum to speak less in class. Boser again:
Fewer words—and more breaks between ideas—make it easier for people to grapple with new information. (42)
Lincoln, someone whose life’s mission was to restore what he understood to be the revolutionary spirit, wrote with a lawyerly reductionism. He liked words like “nub” and “rub.” Here’s how the president-elect ended his letter to his friend, Alexander H. Stephens, the future vice-president of the Confederacy:
You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us. [Emphasis original]
Here’s practice in the emerging school of democracy: talk, pith, experience, repeat.
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.]
Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 65. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
I met a few writers this year who seem to understand who I am and encouraged me in the direction I’m heading. Chief among them is the Austrian philosopher Eric Voegelin.
Voegelin is considered a conservative political philosopher; in fact, Mark Lilla introduced me to Voegelin through an essay dedicated to him in Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, published last year. What initially impressed me about Voegelin was Lilla’s account of Voegelin’s conversion of sorts. Here’s Lilla’s summary of his account of Voegelin’s conversion from political reaction: “his historical nostalgia did not survive the assault of his limitless curiosity” (26).
Lilla places Voegelin with political philosophers, left and right, who fled Hitler, such as Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, philosophers who believed that “it was transformations in Western thinking that had prepared the unthinkable, and that a new intellectual path had to be found before a political one could be.” Voegelin’s thinking initially wasn’t much different from others Lilla labels as reactionaries – Voegelin believed that the bifurcation of religion and government that developed after the Middle Ages gave rise to the politically religious qualities to Fascism, Marxism, and nationalism – and he won followers among American conservatives for this analysis detailed in his earlier books.
These conservatives tended to overlook Voegelin’s views about what came before the rise of modernism (Christianity was at fault for the bifurcation of religion and government) and what should come after (he did not call for any kind of religious nationalism) (31 – 32). But his conversion, which I’ll attempt to explain shortly, left them feeling betrayed.
Lilla’s retreat from a fall-and-restoration narrative mirrors my own late-in-life distaste for so-called prophetic narratives of the political fundamentalism of some Christians and Muslims, as well as the historical narratives of Marxism, Fascism, and other –isms. All such movements wish to “immanentize the eschaton”— Voegelin’s most famous expression – that is, they wish to bring on a kind of millennium or end of history in the political here and now. (Shakespeare’s Macbeth is, to me, primarily a warning against immanentizing the eschaton.)
Voegelin’s concerns about hastening the end of history start early in his writings, but after his conversion he understood his own unwitting participation in such a project. His newer view of history and the future is more like my own: it is mysterious in both a religious sense (“a field where the divine and human meet,” as Lilla puts it) and in a categorical sense (“a mystery in the process of revelation,” as Voegelin puts it) (39).
Was Voegelin’s conversion more than simply a philosophical one? Yes and no, I think. I got a sense of his conversion when I started reading the 1977 English translation by Gerhart Niemeyer of Voegelin’s 1966 book Anamnesis, a short and dense book (well, all of his books are dense) of his more experimental writings from 1943 through 1977 (the English translation includes two essays written since the 1966 original). Anamnesis reads like a mashup of Samuel von Pufendorf and St. John of the Cross – political theory not just in mystical terms but understood only as a form of mysticism. And the entry to this mysticism is both a religious and philosophical conversion, which I assume Voegelin must have experienced.
Voegelin in Anamnesis understands Aristotle’s insistence on “what is right by nature” to come not from the adherence to “a set of external, immutable propositions” but from asking the spoudaios – a mature man or, more generally, “existentially the right order of man.” Man does not become rightly ordered through adhering to ethical norms but through “the permeability through the movement of being, i.e., the openness of man for the divine; the openness in turn is not a proposition about something but an event . . .” (65). Such language suggests that the “event” involves the transformation of the inner man, the end of many religious faiths. This is why I am bold enough to use the word conversion to describe Voegelin’s approach.
Consider the initial stages in this conversion “toward the divine ground of existence”: attraction from the divine, a desire to know about the ground, a questioning in confusion, and a consciousness of ignorance (97). These are steps towards religious conversion, not of the initial kind to a set of religious tenets but of a later kind described by John of the Cross as the night of sense – one that leads to transformation.
The reason I answered “yes and no” to my question regarding the nature of Voegelin’s conversion – whether it was “more than simply a philsosophical one” – is that, for Voegelin, philosophy as understood by Plato and Aristotle is a kind of mysticism:
Hence, philosophy in the classic sense is not a body of “ideas” or “opinions” about the divine ground dispensed by a person who calls himself a “philosopher,” but a man’s responsive pursuit of his questioning unrest to the divine source that has aroused it. (96)
Even though we have no biographical evidence that Voegelin adhered to any creed or indeed believed in a personal god, his philosophy is based in large part on the notion of mystical transformation.
Philosophy, understood mystically, is one such means to the ground of being; Voegelin refers to it as “the event of philosophy as flowing presence” (133). Another comes courtesy of the Ecumenic Age (the eponym for Voegelin’s fourth installment of Order and History with its mea culpa that Lilla finds exemplary), which makes this experience available to all. During the age of the first empires, conquering nations disrupted the fixed, tribal cosmos of smaller civilizations, causing the smaller civilizations’ inhabitants to question their received understanding of the way the world worked. The clash of myths accelerated the questioning and helped the spread of Christianity, which offered a beginning and a beyond that accounted for more than that of the original culture. Here we are introduced to how this “differentiation” – this movement from a fixed cosmos and its myths to the ground of being that underwrites all of it – moves from an individual to a culture.
But the movement from individual to culture – the idea that the ground of being affects individuals first and cultures second – is significant for political theory. History is built on individuals’ movements to the ground; therefore, “all ‘philosophies of history,’ which hypostatize society or history as an absolute, eclipsing personal existence and its meaning, are excluded as false” (114). Voegelin refers, of course, primarily to Hegel and secondarily to Marx. History cannot be understood as “an object that could be known ‘intersubjectively’ and thus would present about the same phenomenal image to everyone.” Instead – and here Voegelin sounds like a Doctor of the Church – the tension in being that becomes history
. . . must be experienced personally and [it] therefore presents itself in a manifold of experiential modes on the scales of compactness and differentiation, of transparency and obliqueness, of anxiety and faith, of libio dominandi and charity, of despair and hope, of acquiescence and rebellion, humility and defiance, opening and closing oneself, apostasy and return, promethean revolt and fear of God, joy of life and contemptus mundi. (133)
In moving towards the ground of being, we live in the metaxy, the “’in between,’ in a temporal flow of experience in which eternity is present” (133).
I feel as if I’ve been searching in the dark for years, but Voegelin and other authors I’ve read this year (particularly Philip Gorski and Jonathan Haidt) have exposed me to ideas similar to my own, only far more developed or researched. Voegelin’s philosophy has affirmed so much of what I’ve come to understand almost intuitively about politics and mysticism to this point beyond just, you know, avoiding the immanentization of the eschaton. Here are six ways I’ve felt affirmed by Voegelin.
First, the Equality Clause’s “all men are created equal” is a proposition in the historical sense but is primarily relational and secondarily functional in the religious and political sense, based as it is on the hierarchy among God, man, and nature (one way of understanding Voegelin’s “existentially right order of man”). Voegelin here summarizes his historiography:
. . . history is not a field of indifferently objective materials from which we may select some according to arbitrary criteria, in order to “construct” a tableau of history. Rather, history is constituted by consciousness, so the logos of consciousness decides what is and what is not historically relevant. Be it noted especially that the time in which history constitutes itself is not that of the external world, in which the somatically founded life of man leaves its traces, bu rather the inner dimension of consciousness of desire and search after the ground. Since, regarding this dimension, all men are equal, the field of history is always universally human, even if only a relatively small sector of the philosophers’ position would be materially known. (158)
History, despite uneven recordings based on inequality (a focus on leaders, inventions, or wars, for instance) is based on consciousness, which in turn means on a search for the divine ground thanks to mankind’s ontological equality.
Second, the individual must precede the culture politically. The tension in a healthy society stems from what Reinhold Niebuhr describes in The Irony of American History as an individual’s inability to find fulfillment without her society, while her experience teaches her also that she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society” (62). What came first, if you’ll indulge me, the chicken or the roost? Insofar as my question is an analogy to political theory, the chicken. While we are social animals, our political standing must be our individual standing before God as pictured in Locke’s state of nature or in other accounts that comport with the Hebrew story of Adam’s creation and his initial relationship with God alone.1 Otherwise, a government eventually ceases to recognize our status as children of God and even our humanity.
Third, our individual repentance and transformation (what I call the “transformation of the religious” as opposed to “religious transformation”) is the only means to meaningful political change. My extensive reading of James Baldwin three years ago convinced me of this mystery, but Voegelin gives me a more systematized way of understanding it.
Fourth, a kind of political religion based on an individual’s movement to the ground of being amounts to a middle way between today’s nationalism and today’s liberalism. The fight between these forces that have largely defined modernity has led to some gains but has been largely futile:
If one, however, simply follows rebellion as a guideline, one finds the desire for knowledge again blocked, for the rebellion aims not directly at the reality of knowledge but at its forms of decay, i.e., against the theological and metaphysical dogmatisms. These older dogmatisms, which we first encounter as we turn around, are closer to reality than the rebellion against the ground, even though they have the character of a parekbasis. We must not forget, though, that they, too, suffer from a kind of loss of reality which has provoked the ideological rebellion since the eighteenth century, and that, on the other hand, the rebellion has freed socially effective areas of the world, society, and history that the social oppression of orthodoxy sought to keep under cover. (188)
The increasing focus by these combatants on the evils their opposites present shows how ineffectual either side’s eventual victory would be toward healing our society.
Fifth, a movement to the divine ground, much like a religious conversion, can tempt those newly enlightened to impose their understanding on others in the political realm:
The differentiating experience . . . can be so intensive that the man to whom it occurs feels transformed into a new being. The new image of the world resulting from the experience can be misunderstood as a new world; and the process of change itself can turn into a structural datum of reality that can be extrapolated into the future. (166)
(True, immanentization of the eschaton is an example of this.) Voegelin’s warnings along these lines are worked out in greater detail in a section of the introduction to The Ecumenic Age called, “The Deformation of Philosophy into Doctrine” (36 – 43). Political religion is a tricky thing, but the virtue most associated with a proper approach is moderation. (Moderation, in fact, is the chief political virtue of a proper eschatology. Consider this koan-like adage from St. Paul in Philippians: “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” – KJV. I also like Young’s: “Let your forbearance . . .”) As Gorski points out, many people confuse civil religion with religious nationalism and indiscriminately want shut of both (18 – 21).
Sixth, a proper political religion exists, it has been helpful (even salvific, if you will) at critical times in American history, and it is best exemplified by the life and writings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln turned to the past not in reaction (i.e., in a call for a return to a golden age) but as a means of reinterpreting the past in language familiar to a culture. Voegelin, who returns again and again to the language by which differentiation is expressed to those still in the cosmic (early) stage of movement to the ground, puts it this way:
The human universality of the desiring and searching participation in the ground results further in the equivalence in the symbolisms in which the consciousness of the ground is expressed. By equivalence I mean the fact that all experiences of the ground are in like manner experiences of participation even though they may differ considerably from each other on the scales of compactness and differentiation of finding and missing the ground. The equivalence of the symbols thrown up in the stream of participation, finally, leads to the loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past, since they express phases of the same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself. (158 – 159)
In Lincoln’s case, this “loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past” chiefly means his elucidations of the relative roles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he likens to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, respectively – “phases of the same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself” – as Lincoln reinterprets the Equality Clause as the “sheet anchor of American republicanism.” With that ontological anchor, America may yet differentiate itself from a compact, slave society into one that lives out a kind of polity closer to the ground of being accessible to individuals within that polity.
(A good companion to Voegelin is Ted V. McAllister’s book Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order.)
Here are the books I’ve read this year, listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names.
Berman, Marshall. The Politics of Authenticity.
Bonta, Dave. Ice Mountain: An Elegy.
Boser, Urlich. Learn Better. (Read 2 times)
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton.
Cole, Teju. Blind Spot.
Durant, Will and Ariel. The Age of Reason Begins: A History of Eurpoean Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558 – 1648.
Frankin, Al. Al Frankin, Giant of the Senate.
Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. (Read 2 times)
Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.
Knoll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
Lilla, Mark. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.
McAllister, Ted V. Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order.
McInerney, Jeremy. The Age of Pericles (Great Courses Lecture Series).
Mussolini, Benito. The Doctrine of Facism.
O’Brian, Patrick. 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey.
O’Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Commodore. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Hundred Days. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Ionian Mission. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Letter of Marque. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Nutmeg of Consolation. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Reverse of the Medal. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Thirteen-Gun Salute. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Truelove. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Wine-Dark Sea. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. (My fourth read.)
O’Donnell, William E. Culture is Everything. (Read 2 times)
Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago.
Prothero, Stephen. Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): A History of the Religious Battles that define Amerian from jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Read for the umpteenth time)
Snyder, Timothy. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.
Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. (Read for the umpteenth time)
Voegelin, Eric. Anamnesis.
Volker, Ulrich. Hitler: Ascent, 1889 – 1939.
Waldman, Michael. The Fight to Vote.
Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
To this agrees Hannah Arendt, writing in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Men are unequal according to their natural origin, their different organization, and fate in history. Their equality is an equality of rights only, that is, an equality of human purpose; yet behind this equality of human purpose lies, according to Jewish-Christian tradition, another equality, expressed in the concept of one common origin beyond human history, human nature, and human purpose— the common origin in the mythical, unidentifiable Man who alone is God’s creation. This divine origin is the metaphysical concept on which the political equality of purpose may be based, the purpose of establishing mankind on earth. Nineteenth-century positivism and progressivism perverted this purpose of human equality when they set out to demonstrate what cannot be demonstrated, namely, that men are equal by nature and different only by history and circumstances, so that they can be equalized not by rights, but by circumstances and education. Nationalism and its concept of a ‘national mission’ perverted the national concept of mankind as a family of nations into a hierarchical structure where differences of history and organization were misinterpreted as differences between men, residing in natural origin. Racism, which denied the common origin of man and repudiated the common purpose of establishing humanity, introduced the concept of the divine origin of one people as contrasted with all others, thereby covering the temporary and changeable product of human endeavor with a pseudomystical cloud of divine eternity and finality.” ↩
Your basic American, whom I and others are calling on to save his democracy, isn’t a theorist. And as much as twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt accepts the proposition that all men are created equal, your eighteenth-century American patriot, she believes, wasn’t much motivated by political theory, either. The patriot leaders generally were, though, she acknowledges. But the average American revered the Constitution quickly after it was adopted not because he was steeped in constitutional theory but because he and his countrymen were living out a tradition of working together to overcome common problems.
This tradition of covenants and social contracts started, Arendt says, with the Mayflower Compact. In this tradition, the Declaration of Independence became the first national covenant by a people who had been involved in covenanting at the settlement, county, and colonial level for over a century.
“In the beginning,” Locke said, “all the world was America,” and Americans lived out Locke’s progression from a state of nature to a society to a government. In fact, Arendt suspects that Americans suggested the progression to him.1 Practice sometimes leads to the best theory.
My newest book, John Dunn’s 1969 classic The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the “Two Treatises of Government” is symbolic of your American’s distaste of theory. I purchased it second- or third-hand, discarded by its first owner, the library of the General Motors Institute, now Kettering University. The date due sticker inside the back cover shows that the book was checked out on an average of less than once a year between 1968 and 1996. But I’m glad that the library thought the book was worth buying in the first place.
The Locke book may not involve engineering, but it’s not dry political theory. Dunn is a stylist. Check out this excerpt from the preface:
. . . the reasons why I have confined by attention to giving an effective exposition of Locke’s argument and refrained from systematic formal criticism are bleakly autobiographical. I simply cannot conceive of constructing an analysis of any issue in contemporary political theory around the affirmation or negation of anything which Locke says about political matters. The only argument in his entire political philosophy which does seem to me still to be interesting as a starting point for reflection about any issue of contemporary political theory is the theme of the Letters on Toleration, and in Locke’s thought this rests firmly upon a religious premise. Indeed one of the central expository points made throughout this book is the intimate dependence of an extremely high proportion of Locke’s arguments for their very intelligibility, let alone plausibility, on a series of theological commitments. (x – xi)
Your American, whether or not he is religious, understands the theology behind “all men are created equal” better than he does any political theory connected with it. Whether or not any of Locke’s political theory is behind the Declaration’s “all men are created equal,” his theology is. It amounts to this: we are all equal as God’s children.
I love Arendt on how covenanting helped to make the American Revolution a success and broke down some of the harmful social distinctions important to the countries they left behind. Here’s an excerpt from On Revolution:
[For the American patriots] power came into being when and where people would get together and bind themselves through promises, covenants, and mutual pledges; only such power, which rested on reciprocity and mutuality, was real power and legitimate, whereas the so-called power of kings or princes or aristocrats, because it did not spring from mutuality but, at best, rested only on consent, was spurious and usurped. They themselves still knew very well what made them succeed where all other nations were to fail; it was, in the words of John Adams, the power of “confidence in one another, and in the common people, which enabled the United States to go through a revolution.” This confidence, moreover, arose not from a common ideology but from mutual promises and as such became the basis for “associations” — the gathering-together of people for a specified political purpose. (173 – 174)
The twentieth century German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin sets a high spiritual bar for philosophers, but his book Anamnesis, published in 1978, has a surprise ending: a successful society needs few true philosophers: common sense among most citizens is enough:
The term common sense . . . must be understood in the sense of the Scottish School, especially of Thomas Reid. For Reid, man is rationis particeps, in Cicero’s sense; and common sense is a compact type of rationality. “There is a certain degree of it which is necessary to our being subjects of law and government, capable of managing our own affairs, and answerable for our conduct towards others: This is called common sense, because it is common to all men with whom we can transact business, or call to account for their conduct. (211 – 212)
Common sense, as Voegelin defines it, requires a society built on compacts and covenants. Character and relationships built from making and fulfilling promises create trust, which in turn tends to break down idealistic or tribalistic distinctions that keep us from cooperating to achieve political purposes.
So our lack of an agreed-upon public philosophy (Arendt’s “common ideology”) doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Political ideologies are worthwhile only if, at their heart, they are accurate and significant expressions of our humanity. They shouldn’t venture far from that heart, either. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves, as we do now, associating and gathering together mostly at political cross-purposes. A student at Kettering, growing (hopefully) in the sense of common sense that Voegelin speaks of, would understand that without checking out any volume on Locke.
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).]