The spirit of democracy

We had dinner in D.C. with a friend and her new boyfriend not long after the 2016 election. He’s a civil servant, high up in a federal bureaucracy, so I took the opportunity to ask him what many of us were worried about: Would the new administration destroy American democracy?

He was no fan of the president-elect, but he reassured me that American republicanism was up to the challenge. Our norms and institutions, including our federal bureaucracy, would easily withstand this threat.

Just over five hundred years ago, a similar threat presented itself to republican Florence when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici took over the city with a papal army. The Florentine historian and political theorist Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and an acquaintance of his countryman Nicollo Machiavelli, wondered if Florence’s republic would survive the invasion.

Guicciardini’s Florence were a liberty-loving people. This was significant to Guicciardini because it limited what a would-be tyrant could do. A ruler, Guicciardini thought, was limited by the nature of the people he ruled. In a way, this approach to how a city could be governed anticipates Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Both Guicciardini and Montesquieu argued not for government based on universal standards but based on what a particular people needed. Guicciardini believed that “it is useless to speak of government abstractly and in general,” summarizes J. G. A. Pocock in his 1975 book The Machiavellian Moment. “One must take into account the individual character (natura) of both the people and the area (luogo, sito) to be governed.”1  And for the Florentines who were used to governing themselves, “good government is no substitute for self-government.”2

Guicciardini examined his country’s past. The Florentines were “anciently free.” (Pocock here characterizes Guicciardini’s thoughts.) Maybe the Florentines had taken a hiatus from this freedom in the years before the Medici family first came to power in 1434 to resolve Florence’s extreme factionalism, Guicciardini acknowledged, but Florence was free when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici and his army invaded Florence in 1512.3 In 1495, in fact, a year after the Medici family was first overthrown, Florence had adopted a constitution that included the Consiglio Grande, a legislative body that institutionalized a democratic element in the Florentine republic. Thanks to the Consiglio Grande, according to historian Kenneth Bartlett, “never before had so many [Florentine] citizens been able to serve the state.”4 Even before the new constitution, Guicciardini argued, Florence was (again, in Pocock’s words) “addicted to concerning themselves with public business.”5

Detail from Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Leo X and His Cousins, Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi (1518 – 1519).

Such an addiction can change a people, Guicciardini argued:

The natures of the men, or at least their social and political dispositions, can be changed; but the only two forces recognized as capable of working such a change are custom and use on the one hand, which work slowly, and political participation on the other, which quickly works effects that it takes time to undo.6

Based on the quick work of Florence’s democratic innovations, Guicciardini concluded, the reign of the restored Medici was insecure.3 If de’ Medici was to be successful in converting Florence to an autocracy, he had better act slowly.

One wonders if the 2016 election found the United States with the “custom and use” of democracy or with the “political participation” to withstand the president’s depredations. Before the election, had we been fundamentally transformed in Guicciardini’s sense by our custom and use or by our experience of political participation? Would a ruler’s actions taken to delegitimize our elections, our intelligence community, our free press, and truth itself come across as acting “suddenly and brutally,” to use how Pocock describes Guicciardini’s characterization of the Medici’s actions, so that there would be little opportunity for the people “to forget the experience of citizenship”?8

I don’t think so. Our public realm, for the most part, is but a sleep and a forgetting. We have little democratic “custom and usage” or “political participation.” Voting is important, but it isn’t democracy. (Until the recent past, in fact, voting was considered an aristocratic practice; sortition was the more democratic way of filling offices.9) We have forgotten what Tocqueville discovered about us a generation after the Founding, which can be described in the same way that Sheldon S. Wolin defined democracy: “originating or initiating cooperative action with others . . . throughout the society in response to felt needs.” Through this action, “political experience is being made accessible, experience that compels individuals to deal with the complexity of interests and the conflicting claims that have hitherto been reserved for politicians and bureaucrats.”10 This is the transformative experience that would slow down or stop Guicciardini’s would-be tyrant. Instead of this, however, we have what Wolin in 1989 called “a politics without memory” and a “democracy without the citizen.”11

Florence’s democracy, limited though it was, exceeded ours in direct participation. Despite this, just before Medici’s army entered Florence in 1512, most of the functions of the Consiglio Grande had been taken over by an aristocratic senate.12 Likewise, we began to self-identify more as consumers than as citizens long before 2016. Wolin, in fact, wrote Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism eleven years before our last presidential election. We’re used to being managed.

Medici, who later became Pope Leo X, and his successors in Florence ultimately destroyed the country’s republic. From the time of the 1512 invasion, the Medici family ruled Florence continuously until 1737.

  1. J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, at 141.
  2. Id. at 141.
  3.  Id.
  4. Kenneth Bartlett, The Italian Renaissance Course Guidebook, The Teaching Company 2005, at 162.
  5. Pocock, supra.
  6. Id. at 144. This is, again, Pocock’s summary of Guicciardini’s writing.
  7.  Id.
  8. Id. at 143.
  9.  Id. at 134; see also Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws 2.2 (13): “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy.”
  10. Sheldon S. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, at 150.
  11. Id. at 184.
  12. Pocock, supra, at 122.

The unvanquished

Last night we bought a bed. Before we did, we had a date. The salmon was as good as I’ve ever had. It lay on a wonderful reduction. She had trout crusted with parmesan and ate it all.

Our waiter was an older man, and he was busy. But he had us say our names. He repeated them deliberately, first looking at her and saying her name, then doing the same with me. Then he never called us by our names. Maybe he’s using them now in prayer. The service, anyway, was good.

Before our meals came, I looked at her, and I found myself looking at her. Our eyes met every so often, and she averted hers, unless she was speaking. I’ve always liked this.

On one level, she’s aware I’m looking at her, and she likes it, too. Closer to the surface, she’s thinking. She averts her eyes to continue thinking. I’m watching her think.

My eyes can rest with very few people. My mother’s another. She’s 92, convalescing slowly from a fall, and when I visited her in Richmond last weekend, I told her that she meant a lot to me because she was one of the few people with whom I can sit in silence and simply see.

Brynmawr in the 1920s.

Eye contact has a lot to do with silence, I think. There’s a story somewhere in Conversations with William Faulkner about Faulkner reducing an angry stranger to silence over several minutes by only looking at her. There’s a story, too, in Douglas Steere’s Prayer and Worship, published the same year as The Unvanquished, about Peter Scott, who tried to give a homily to a bunch of unemployed Welsh miners:

They said nothing back to him as he talked and talked. But their silence searched him, choked him, and at last reduced him to silence. He went away inwardly humiliated, but he returned soon to throw in his lot with theirs, to help them pool their capacity, to work and to rebuild their community on a basis of co-operative and self-help enterprises.

The “Brynmawr Experiment” began.

This week I read that fear and hatred stick immediately to the nerves, while gratitude and appreciation don’t stick unless we wait on them for at least fifteen seconds — much longer than it takes for me to read a Tweet. (This fifteen-second rule is from Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness as summarized in Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance.)

A “national conversation” is an oxymoron. We can’t change a thing if our eyes haven’t met.

All the king’s men

We who appear guilty today are in fact those who stayed on the job in order to prevent worse things from happening; only those who remained inside had a chance to mitigate things and to help at least some people; we gave the devil his due without selling our soul to him, whereas those who did nothing shirked all responsibilities and thought only of themselves, of the salvation of their precious souls.

– Hannah Arendt, from “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” (1964), summarizing a defense made frequently at the Nuremberg trials

A history of Jupiter

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.

Mice!

This morning I found three of our dark chocolates under the cages covering the stove’s burners. Little pieces of foil had been torn away, and the chocolate had been chewed. It’s a new condo. How did we come to have mice?

“It’s cold out,” Victoria said as we cleaned up.

I thought of the few of us, blogging still or blogging again.

Ilk & elk

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.

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men (EriK, 2017), at 113.
  2. Hanna Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Houghton Mifflin, 1968), at 311.

Chipping away

Bethany dug out most of my car yesterday. We have a two-hour delay this morning, so I’ll finish.

Bethany’s jewelry party went well Saturday. Victoria and I invited three or four circles of friends. Early on, hosting a party seems like a lot of shuttling among circles.

I remember this church in England: plexiglas had replaced a wall bombed off during World War II. From the sanctuary we could see the fields.

Survivors

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?

Action & the news

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.

  1. Kant, Immanuel, quoted in Arendt, Hanna, The Life of the Mind, at 260. Emphasis original.
  2. Arendt, supra, at 257.
  3. Id. at 261.

Outcomes

This morning Victoria and I walked by a sign bearing a locally famous name. “I dated his daughter a couple of times,” I told her. At the time, I thought I could have married rich. We’ve been married twenty-seven years, and it was the first time I had told Victoria about her.

“Destitution was her muse,” Waldo Emerson said of his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson.1 The hard persistence of destitution and racism cause characters in Ralph Ellison’s and James Baldwin’s fiction to eventually wake up. Maybe Maslov’s triangle should be inverted: we aren’t in danger of falling from our eminence of self-actualization into the trough of mere physiological needs. I am in danger, even with my relatively low income in this nascent Gilded Age, of preventing such a fall that would lead, eventually, to a self-actualization that I can’t envision, much less design.

A lot of Christians — I included — have used their born-again experience as a kind of contraceptive.

Jacob Needleman emailed me: was I the author of slow reads’s kind review of his Lost Christianity? It was a personal review in response to a personal book: I connected a decade ago to the seeking spirit with which he examined Christianity. And his email led me to pick up a more recent book of his — I Am Not I, which I began reading this morning before our walk. In I Am Not I, Needleman converses with his younger self to flesh out how the two of them imagine each other across time, across possibility and outcome. I’m grateful, thinking of how Needleman reached out to me as I was ten years ago. And thinking about how things work out.

“Money is a defense,” the Good Book says, but a defense from what? It doesn’t say, but the implication from the verse’s comparison of money and wisdom is that the former doesn’t give “life to them that have it.”

“I was then and am now your possibility,” the eighty-year-old Needleman says to his younger self. “But for my sake, and for your sake, I need to grow now. . . . You will not be born unless Purusha is born in me and I am born in Purusha.”2

Eckhart is right: I carry around the Christ like Mary before Bethlehem. Death, birth, and taxes.

  1. Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire, at 24.
  2. Needleman, Jacob. I Am Not I, at 17. Emphasis original.