I have just been conversing with one man, to whom no weight of adverse experience will make it for a moment appear impossible, that thousands of human beings might exercise towards each other the grandest and simplest sentiments, as well as a knot of friends, or a pair of lovers.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Politics,” 1844)
The president, the headlines have said off and on for weeks, may or may not declare a national emergency. It’s an off-again, on-again kind of possible national emergency. How, some ask, could there be a national emergency if the president himself must mull over whether the situation around our southern border is, or is not, a national emergency? Isn’t a national emergency, by definition, compelling?
Not according to the president. What is compelling, the president wants you to know, is his will. The president’s mulling, and not events at the border itself, generates suspense and focuses our attention. The declaration or non-declaration of a national emergency will be as much of a “big reveal” as a presidential Supreme Court nominee. The president is deliberately equivocal, in this as in most other policy matters, contradicting and reversing himself so as to focus our attention on his will. We are being trained in autocracy.
The president, of course, has the Constitutional authority to make court nominations. He does not have Constitutional authority to override Congress’s action or non-action by declaring a national emergency at the southern border. But we participate with the president in overriding our Constitution’s balance of powers by understanding his role as that of “the decider,” in the words of President George W. Bush. Obama, after Bush, riled half the country with executive orders that, because they generally lacked constitutional authority, were easy enough for his successor to reverse. All of this is part of our tragic project of replacing our Constitution’s balance of powers with a hegemony of function.
Is the executive “the decider”? The issue predates Bush, Obama, and the current president, and even our Constitution. When Thomas Aquinas argued for the primacy of man’s intellect over his will, he described the will, in Hannah Arendt’s words, as “an executive organ, necessary to execute the insights of the Intellect” and subservient to that intellect.1 Our seventh-grade shorthand for our government’s separation of powers reflects this Thomistic understanding: the legislature is the brains of the outfit, and it makes the laws. The executive merely enforces what the legislature passes.
We’re losing our civics-class understanding of the executive. Our modern understanding of the executive is more like that of Duns Scotus, Aquinas’s near contemporary during the thirteenth century. Scotus believed that (again, Arendt’s words) “the Intellect serves the Will by providing it with its objects as well as with the necessary knowledge; i.e., the Intellect in its turn becomes a merely subservient faculty.”2 Scotus’s notion of the executive, then, is that of Bush’s “decider.” Because the president has become “the decider,” Congress is becoming merely one of the president’s advisory boards.
Both Aquinas’s and Scotus’s understandings were variations on Augustine’s theme: man is memory, intellect, and will. One can see these three elements respectively in our Constitution’s three branches of government: the Supreme Court (memory), Congress (intellect), and the presidency (will). By making Congress the first among equals, the framers expressed their preference for Thomas’s view of the intellect’s primacy.
Thomas’s view of the intellect’s primacy, for instance, shows up in our Constitution’s requirement that Congress declare war. The president and the Armed Forces in his charge then execute that declaration. But Thomas’s cumbersome balance between the powers of the intellect and the will seems outdated in our push-button-annihilation age. And national emergencies, even slow ones and nonexistent ones, seem to be going the way of modern wars, becoming strictly executive prerogatives to declare as well as to execute. Is our Constitution out of date?
Yes, fortunately: our Constitution was out of date before it was even ratified. The theory behind the American constitutional arguments leading up to the Revolutionary War, as A. F. Pollard has pointed out, “was essentially medieval.” According to Samuel Huntington in his essay “Political Modernization: America vs. Europe,” the American colonies maintained the Thomistic notion of the rule of law over the more modern and Scotian notion of sovereignty:
In seventeenth-century Europe the state replaced fundamental law as the source of political authority, and within each state a single authority replaced the many that had previously existed. . . . In America, human authority or sovereignty was never concentrated in a single institution or individual but instead remained dispersed throughout society as a whole and among many organs of the body politic. . . . The continued supremacy of law was mated to the decisive rejection of sovereignty.3
This medieval understanding, according to Huntington, led the framers to create three coequal branches of government with blended functions but balanced powers. Our president, though, if we may use Huntington’s distinction, wants to bring our government fully into the modern age in which sovereignty is vested in what was formerly a single branch of government.
And our government could become modern. Huntington, who wrote his influential essay in 1966, begins its conclusion with this warning: “Divided societies cannot exist without centralized power; consensual societies cannot exist with it.”4 We are a divided society. Our doom seems complete, and only love can save us. Just as one man must love himself to maintain a balanced mind, so our polity must recreate what Lincoln in his First Inaugural called the Union’s “bonds of affection.”
Love seems a naive concept with which to end a piece on politics. But Emerson ended his essay “Politics” with this very proposition: see the above epigraph. (Who was Emerson talking to? I’d love to talk to that man.) And Augustine said that his man of memory, intellect, and will couldn’t present himself as a single constitution without love:
This will of Augustine’s, which is not understood as a separate faculty but in its function within the mind as a whole, where all single faculties – memory, intellect, and will – are “mutually referred to each other,” finds its redemption in being transformed into Love.5
Covenants, such as our Constitution, are grounded in, and provide the grounding for, the rule of law. But constitutions are like marriage covenants: they happen only in love. If our people, as Emerson put it, “can exercise towards each other the grandest and simplest sentiments,” then perhaps we can covenant again and save ourselves from this modern scourge of one man’s will.
And my Augustinian prayer for our president is that his will would “mutually refer to” the other branches and parts of local, state, and federal government, and that his will would find “its redemption in being transformed into Love.”
I’m reading a biography of Emerson to help me through another book, a good history of Transcendentalism. The people who seem to be in constant contact in the latter book – Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, Everett, Alcott – seem miles apart in the bio. That’s understandable: a bio puts people at home. They write letters, they kiss their children, they read the paper while sipping coffee. They walk with friends; they have fallings out with friends. Emerson had long fallings out even with Thoreau and Carlyle.
Like histories, timelines bring figures and events into close contact. I remember the planets, also, large and close, strung out like beads above the timelines in my childhood classrooms. Walking home, I sometimes expected Jupiter to rise as big as the moon.
Emerson is the American champion of subjectivity. He said that there is “no history, only biography.” But subjectivity alone is lonely. History and its claims to coherence permit a public life.
Is there a correlation among high ceilings, high church, and the highbrow? Among low ceilings, low church, and the lowbrow? I’m returning to a delicious, low-ceilinged affair on Groundhog’s Day, Graves Mountain Lodge’s annual Wild Game Night. Venison, buffalo, and bear with steak sauce. The last time I was there, February of 2016, I saw a sprinkling of red MAGA hats, the first ones I’d seen.
Our little condo boasts nine-foot ceilings. But where I’m from, high ceilings echo the big house. The indentured servants and the slaves didn’t live there. Most of the country still sleeps beneath low ceilings.
Emerson believed that Napoleon became “the idol of common men, because he had in transcendent degrees the qualities and powers of common men.”1 This is why, I think, European highbrows thought Elba his end. They considered Napoleon common. But the lowbrows found him common to a transcendent degree.
Emerson on Napoleon brings to mind Arendt on the Nazis:
…they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system.2
The highbrows didn’t consider this: many lowbrows owed their political awakening not to the French Revolution but to a dictatorship. Elba was mere interlude.
Alarums. We compared the sounds we use to move us from our dreams to the day to come.
And chimes. This morning’s wind, and we spoke of the high-hat cymbals crashing along suburban sidewalks. No low notes.
A teacher is a weather system, a symbol on a weather map. Students are the energy that activates him, that sends papers skittering across the linoleum. That came up, too.
Then this morning’s reading, taken from the prophet Isaias:
Israel’s watchmen are blind. . . . “Come,” says each of them, “let me fetch wine, strong drink, and we shall swill it down; tomorrow will be like today, or better still!”
The righteous perish, and no one is concerned; all who are loyal to their faith are swept away and no one gives it a thought. The righteous are swept away by the onset of evil . . . (56:10 – 57:1, REB)
I finished Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, written by Ariel Burger, a student. Wiesel talked warmly of his world before the camp:
We spoke of our love for the cadences of Talmud and the humor of Yiddish, the constant references to old texts and quotes from medieval commentators, the wordless melodies running through conversations. . . . I saw [Wiesel] as someone deeply connected to both the Old World and the New, and when he said, “We are here, after all, to build bridges between worlds,” this was a relief.
Wiesel’s death was a kind of rapture: one was taken, the other left.
From one of his pines hung my father’s wind chime. It clanked low like the steel buoys we’d sail to and climb as kids. It was a gull to the songbird-like wind chimes hanging from our neighbors’ porches. On windy nights the tidal James seemed to break its banks, and our house, now a hull, swam in it. Pop was its pilot.
Survivors die, eventually. Then what?
The Muslim ban began almost two years ago, on January 28, 2017. When a friend texted me about the executive order, I jumped in the car and drove to Dulles Airport, about fifteen minutes from home. I was surprised at the sense of local responsibility that had overcome me. The strangers I met that night at the international arrivals gate exhibited the same sense of responsibility.
Immanuel Kant distinguishes between the aesthetic judgment of the spectator and the moral-practical reason of the actor. The spectator in him admires the soldier and finds that war “has something sublime in it.” Further, “a long peace generally brings about a predominant commercial spirit . . . and debases the disposition of the people.” However, the “moral-practical reason within us pronounces the following irresistible veto: There shall be no war . . .”1
A lot has happened since that night at Dulles. Like Kant, whose aesthetic judgment causes him to scan the paper every day for news of the French Revolution2, I read the political news daily. Most of us do. Some of the current news is comforting, and a lot of it is discouraging. Both comfort and discouragement, of course, can be enervating. But I can indulge my complacency so long as I don’t confuse, in Kant’s terms, my judgment as a spectator and my moral-practical reason:
Even though Kant would always have acted for peace, he knew and kept in mind his judgment. Had he acted on the knowledge gained as a spectator, he would in his own mind have been a criminal. Had he forgotten because of this “moral duty” his insights as a spectator, he would have become what so many good men, involved and engaged in public affairs, tend to be — an idealistic fool.3
This coming year, I imagine, distinctions like this will become as difficult as they will be necessary. Still, if a draw occurs in a given case between (using Kant’s terms again) the judgment of the spectator and the moral-practical reason of the actor, I know how Hannah Arendt would resolve it. Better a fool than a criminal.
I want to do something different this quarter, a unit on identity and society. Students will choose one book to read from a short list of books, interview a United States resident born outside of the United States, and write (among other things) a profile of that person.
Which books, though. The college just approved my syllabus using Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. My thought was that students would choose between (and as a class compare) the experience of a member of a minority citizen and that of an emigrant.
But as I’m reading Invisible Man for the third time, I’m struck by how some of my high school seniors (it’s a dual-enrollment course) or their parents might be offended by it. If it were purely a college course, I wouldn’t think twice. My plan all along was to give them fair verbal and written warnings. It’s funny: more and more these days I feel like a troublemaker when I put certain works from the accepted American canon in a course.
To replace Invisible Man or to supplement the two choices, what about Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son? Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces? Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp? I’m even considering Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, which also deals with the individual and society, mostly from a political standpoint.
Every time we log onto our blogs, we WordPress bloggers (the .org ones, anyway) are required to prove our humanity. The solution of a simple addition problem constitutes acceptable proof. It seems a low standard of proof. I admit that humans are the only animals that can add using numerals, but I always wonder, logging on, why I’m asked to do something the bots wishing to take over my blog can surely do.
I must be missing something about bots, but bigger questions remain: doesn’t being human mean more than mastering simple addition? Shouldn’t I have to do more, or shouldn’t I have to be more, to prove my humanity?
These are two different questions, and I won’t address the first one. The second question, I discovered this morning, is at the heart of the Baldwin gospel. I was rereading the first essay in Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which distinguishes works that Baldwin has grouped into “the American protest novel” genre from more well-rounded novels. The former genre includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Despite their different epochs and tones, the two works, Baldwin believes, are two sides of the same flat coin because “they are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Protagonists in these two novels use entirely different strategies, but they fight for the same end — their humanity.
Wright supports his protagonist Bigger Thomas’s tragic quest to prove his humanity, but to Baldwin this exercise is what makes Wright’s and Stowe’s characters two-dimensional and their novels theologically (and therefore politically) flawed:
For Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, than he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it.
In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” employing the guise of literary criticism to explore human identity and its conflicts with society (see Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for an entire book pulling off the same trick with film criticism), Baldwin previews his gospel. He would later retreat from its purest form after the social and political disappointments of the 1960s and 70s. But he never ceased to recoil quickly from society’s trap of proving one’s humanity to oneself.
With eyes closed, I am talking to a quite lively ghost.1
My father died the morning of December 1. He would have been 95 this Valentine’s Day. His poor health, unusual for him, to some extent prepared us for his death over the past six months. It’s all grief, whether it came before he died or whether it comes now.
The first time I missed him was that afternoon. I was talking on the phone to an old friend of his, and I wanted to repeat to him something she said, to say, “Hey, Pop!” The family was together; it was strange that he wasn’t there.
“Just tell him!” his friend suggested. She is the Episcopal deacon who would officiate at his memorial service the following week.
So I did, cupping the phone a bit. We laughed.
It’s funny what processes the emotions. I was touched by the viral cartoon of George H.W. Bush’s fighter plane landing in heaven and his reunion there with Barbara and Robin, who had predeceased him. I’ve tried to describe the cartoon to different people, and I can’t get through it.
Bush and my father were born the same year (the former on my birthday), and they died within hours of each other. While the country was mourning Bush, we were mourning my father. I texted to my family what I imagined to be Bush’s last words: “Warren Stephens survives.”
They were a lot alike — public men with reputations for integrity. My father’s public, of course, was local, his beloved Newport News, where he spent his entire life outside of college, the military, and his last year with my mother near my siblings in a Richmond retirement community. (Here’s the story of his death in the local paper.)
This morning I wept, too, through Mary McCarthy‘s postface to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. Arendt had finished the second section (“Willing”) of this trilogy a week before she suddenly died. Arendt had finished “Thinking” the year before, and her friends discovered a sheet of paper in her typewriter containing only the word “Judging” followed by two epigraphs after she died. I wonder what the epigraphs were, but McCarthy keeps them between Arendt and herself.
There’s a lot McCarthy doesn’t say, which makes her postface, like the process of grief, so interesting. She says that she had worked with Arendt to edit several of her most well-known works. When she collaborated with Arendt as her editor, they got to know each other’s minds. Arendt thought that McCarthy’s Catholicism, which McCarthy had disowned, had adequately prepared her for philosophy. She saw McCarthy as a perfectionist — I assume most authors understand their editors as such — and McCarthy knew she could outlast Arendt if they disagreed. “‘You fix it,’ she would say, finally, starting to cover a yawn.”
She describes how her editing felt like collaboration while Arendt was alive. Arendt was going through her “Englishing,” and McCarthy for her part learned enough German to better understand Arendt’s thought expressed in her syntax. German allowed McCarthy “to make out the original structure like a distant mountainous outline behind her English phrasing.” From then on, McCarthy would put Arendt’s prose “into German, where they became clear, and then do them back into English.”
After Arendt’s death, the editing got harder, of course. Death proved more formidable than a foreign tongue. McCarthy still engaged in dialogues with Arendt, “verging sometimes, as in life, on debate. Though in life it never came to that, now I reproach her, and vice versa.” McCarthy even describes her nightmares — lost or (worse) newly found manuscripts — missing Arendt or uncovered Arendt — that throw over everything. There is something here of the danger and frankness and the feeling of internal process that I found, as a teenager, in the talk among the dead in Our Town.
Why isn’t grief, when it comes, as frank as the grave? Maybe Arendt can help. She liked to distinguish between the inside and the outside of the human body, and she lumped our “passions and emotions” with the likes of or livers and kidneys. Compare our emotions’ “monotonous sameness” with what they lead to, i.e., the “enormous variety and richness of overt human conduct,” she suggested in “Thinking.” Grief, I’ve read, has predictable stages, rather like digestion. But grief, like a Program Era writer who shows without telling, also expresses itself with the outer life’s variety and richness.
Maybe grief’s dekes and indirection are invitations from the dead. Hey, Pop.
- Mary McCarthy in the postface to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind ↩
So far I’m finding The Life of the Mind to be a philosophical defense of some of Hannah Arendt’s big political science concepts. Her “it-seems-to-me,” for instance, reappears here, but not strictly as a celebration of plurality as it appears in, say, Between Past and Future. In The Life of the Mind, it-seems-to-me becomes the glory of “the inter-subjectivity of the world,” a world of appearances in which one’s solipsistic five senses are “remedied” by a sixth sense — common sense — which brings one’s observations into “a common world shared by others.”
I think Arendt’s “common world” is her beloved Greek polis, and so her public space in her political books becomes, in The Life of the Mind, all of what we hold in common as humans. The Life of the Mind is the last book Arendt ever wrote, and I find in it the fullest exploration of the problem she addressed when she first met us — totalitarianism. Here, and now with references to Kant and Merleau-Ponty, is the common sense that, she warned in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarianism aims to destroy:
[The masses] do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, with may be caught by anything that is at one universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. . . . The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all “the plausibility’s of the world” (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationship in whose framework common sense makes sense.Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Schocken Books, 1951.
Forty years removed from her incarceration in Nazi Germany, Arendt does not mention totalitarianism in The Life of the Mind. Her final decade, the 1970s, is proving to be a high mark between two eras in which common sense, and “the whole sector of communal relationship in whose framework common sense makes sense,” are under deliberate attack. Arendt deserves the era of relative peace in which she last wrote.
• • •
I dipped in and out of lots of books this year. But here are books and Great Courses series that I read and/or listened to from cover to cover in 2018. I list them in the order I finished them. A hyperlinked title leads to a post discussing it.
- On Revolution by Hannah Arendt (read twice)
- Civil Wars: A History in Ideas by David Armitage
- The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self by Leo Damrosch (Great Courses series)
- The Republic by Plato
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
- The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann
- The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno deMesquita and Alastair Smith
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (23rd reading)
- Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt (read four times)
- The Life of Greece (The Story of Civilization, Vol. 2) by Will Durant
- The Promise of Politics by Hannah Arendt
- Public Freedom by Dana Villa
- America’s Founding Fathers by Allen C. Guelzo (Great Courses series)
- The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder
- How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
- The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology by Nicholas Wolterstorff
- How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman
- Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence by Garry Wills
- Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
- Caesar and Christ (The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3) by Will Durant
- Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama
- The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (second reading)
- Revolution (The History of England, Vol. 4) by Peter Ackroyd
- Common Law and Liberal Theory by James R. Stoner, Jr.
Because my list includes only books I read completely, some writers I read a good deal of this year aren’t represented in it. Sheldon S. Wolin is the writer in whose books I dipped the most.