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.”
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.
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.
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.
In 1831, two young Frenchmen visited America, charged by their government with investigating the American prison system. They finished in nine months. They also spent those months months investigating “all the mechanisms of this vast American society,” as the leader of the pair, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it (Tocqueville vi). The result is Democracy in America, a book that implicitly critiques the French government and society of Tocqueville’s time through its largely favorable review of American government and society.
One American institution that struck the twenty-five-year-old de Tocqueville as quite different from anything in Europe was the United States Supreme Court. He was amazed: the Supreme Court can tell the rest of the American government what to do. By contrast, all European governments, no matter their form, show “the greatest repugnance to allow the cases to which it was itself a party to be decided by the ordinary course of justice” (123). He pointed out that, unlike European tribunals, when the Supreme Court hears cases between, say, New York and Ohio, it “summons sovereign powers to its bar.” And although Tocqueville didn’t mention it, he might have added that the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison settled early on that the Supreme Court has the authority to declare acts of Congress invalid if it finds that they are without Constitutional basis. In Tocqueville’s time, this kind of authority in the hands of an independent judiciary was unknown in other modern societies.
Tocqueville was so taken with the Supreme Court’s role that he felt that its reputation and preservation were more important than that of the other two federal branches of government, the presidency and Congress. Yet, more than the other two branches, the court was also more subject to injury from popular disdain. The justices are the “all-powerful guardians of a people which respects law; but they would be impotent against popular neglect or popular contempt,” he claimed, pointing out that the Supreme Court must act consistently with the nation’s understanding of the rule of law (124). We, on the other hand, often see our Supreme Court as the least important of the three branches and, because of the justices’ lifetime appointments, the least subject to adverse popular opinion.
We have some good authority to support our view. Tocqueville’s equally famous countryman, the political philosopher Montesquieu who lived a century before Tocqueville, thought courts were inherently powerless. Montesquieu influenced the framers of the American Constitution by updating the Roman notion of separation of powers, giving us the executive, judicial, and bicameral legislative branches we recognize today. In so doing, however, Montesquieu claimed that the the judicial branch is “in some measure next to nothing” (Huntington 392). After all, nobody (we would say today) comes to a game to see the umps.
Which Frenchman is right? Is the United States Supreme Court the most or least important branch of American government?
In exploring this question, it may be helpful to make two distinctions. The first is between power and function, and the second is between power and authority. Clarifying those three terms may suggest how the framers understood sovereignty and the rule of law as well as the Supreme Court’s role in maintaining this understanding.
We generally think of the Constitution as balancing three primary governmental functions. The Constitution separates functions, however, only to the extent that such a balance of functions achieves the document’s greater goal — a separation and balance of powers. The Constitution is designed to keep sovereignty away from any single part of government, whether it be a branch of the federal government or whether it be the states vis-a-vis the federal government. For instance, as American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington pointed out, “the judicial power to declare what law is became the mixed judicial-legislative power to tell the legislature what the law cannot be” (393 – 394). The Supreme Court also has a quasi-executive role since it can pass on the constitutionality of many executive decisions, such as the suspension of habeas corpus or the issuance of executive orders. The Constitution gives the court more than a judicial function in order to balance some of the powers the Constitution acknowledges.
This sharing of functions to create a true balance of power isn’t a modern invention. In fact, Huntington argued that the American government’s separation of powers is a holdover from the late medieval period before the rule of law began to be replaced by the rule of men. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the nations of continental Europe placed their sovereignty in kings while the English Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution eventually caused sovereignty to be placed in Parliament. The American colonists, however, kept to Tudor-era notions of the supremacy of common and natural law. As British historian Albert Pollard pointed out, “Americans instinctively revolted against the doctrine of the sovereignty of the State” (Huntington 388). At the time of the American Revolution, Americans were still resisting the modern “tendencies toward the substitution of sovereignty for law,” as Huntington put it (386). Americans kept Elizabethan notions of law, just as the the residents of the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Island retain certain Elizabethan speech patterns.
It would be helpful to define both sovereignty and the rule of law. Sovereignty, the jurist Jean Bodin says, is the notion that there is “a supreme power over citizens and subjects, unrestrained by law” (Huntington 384). Sovereignty, then, is the assertion of power over others, a concept that political theorist Hannah Arendt said hinders freedom: “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce” (Arendt, Between, 163). The rule of law, however, is the opposite of sovereignty. The rule of law is not to be confused with “law and order”; indeed, the significance of rule of law is in its scope and not its force or strength. Political Theorist Francis Fukuyama defines the rule of law as “rules that are binding even on the most politically powerful actors in a given society” (11). In other words, the scope of law must bind even kings and Parliaments. The American founders held to notions of natural law — law that is discovered by man but not generated by him — precisely to counter modern notions of sovereignty.
This idea of rule of law as exercising something like sovereignty points to the distinction alluded to earlier between power and authority. Power includes coercion, but Arendt said that authority cannot be equated with or rely on coercion — or, for that matter, even persuasion. In fact, she said that “practically as well as theoretically, we are no longer in a position to know what authority really is” (Arendt, Between, 92 – 93). She described where the political idea of authority came from — the founding of Rome — and she described also how the Roman Senate, even when it had no power, was consulted by Rome’s powerful rulers for its blessing on legislative or executive measures. The Roman Senate was the guardian of Rome’s founding, and its task was to measure every governmental action against that founding (120 – 122). That gives us some notion of what authority is even if the West no longer generally experiences it, as Arendt suggested.
Where, then, did authority in the West go when Rome fell? The Catholic Church took on the Roman Senate’s role; Arendt was fond of quoting a pope writing to an emperor at the end of the fifth century: “Two are the things by which this world is chiefly ruled: the sacred authority of the Popes and the royal power” (126). This pope-king tandem lasted in the West for over a thousand years, Arendt asserted, but it collapsed during the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. One can infer this collapse in the preoccupation with governmental legitimacy in the writings of the period’s political thinkers. Political theorist Alexander S. Rosenthal pointed out that Richard Hooker’s question “‘what conditions make the power to rule legitimate?’ became particularly important in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (107). Arendt believed that governments since then have frequently resorted to force — to power — as a tragic means of compensating for their lack of authority.
One modern institution attracted Arendt’s attention because of its authority, however — the American Supreme Court. Its lack of power and its lifetime appointments make it “the true seat of authority in the American Republic” (Arendt, Revolution, 192). She compared the Supreme Court directly with the Roman Senate, pointing out this small distinction: instead of giving political advice, the Supreme Court gives legal interpretations (193). She approved of Woodrow Wilson’s characterization of the court as “‘a kind of Constitutional Assembly in continuous session’” (192). The Supreme Court, then, gives the government and statutes the authority generated by the Declaration of Independence’s signers and the Constitution’s framers at our nation’s founding.
The Supreme Court’s powerlessness and its authority mean, of course, that both Montesquieu and Tocqueville are right. To maintain its authority — and thereby to maintain the entire government’s authority — the Supreme Court must not make mistakes regarding fundamental law that would undermine its standing with the American people. As Tocqueville warned, “If the supreme court is ever composed of imprudent men or bad citizens, the Union may be plunged into anarchy or civil war” (124). He was right: within twenty years of Democracy in America’s publication, the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision helped to bring about the American Civil War.
When the Supreme Court adjudicates, it must consider its function as the source of our federal government’s authority. If it fails to rule in accordance with the Constitution and natural law — i.e., in accordance with the rule of law — it will cause a large segment of the American people to lose their trust not only in the judicial branch but in our entire system of government.
Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Penguins Books, 2006.
Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin, 2009.
Fukuyama, Francis. Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Huntington, Samuel P. “Political Modernization: America vs. Europe.” World Politics, vol. 18, no. 3, 1966, pp. 378–414. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2009762.
Rosenthal, Alexander S. Crown Under Law. Lexington, 2008.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by Isaac Kramnick, W.W. Norton, 2008.
When Barack Obama last month came out of his brief retirement, he gave a speech expanding on his famous stump maxim, “Don’t boo. Vote.” His new list of don’ts leading up to “vote” includes “Don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment.” Yet such a loss is one way to understand the Christian gospel. Without it, I wouldn’t vote.
Irony is not cynicism, its lazy first cousin. In the public realm, irony is the essence of justice. The Psalms, the prophets, and the Sermon on the Mount all speak of justice in ironic terms. When Samuel is born, the formerly barren Hannah proclaims that “The bow of the mighty is shattered, but those-who-stumble are girded with strength” (1 Sam. 2:4 Fox). Jesus’ birth leads to similar strains in Mary’s song: “He has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places” (Luke 1:52 NAB). Isaac, which means “laughter,” is named when his old, barren mother laughs at the suggestion that she would conceive him. And God himself laughs: “He who is throned in heaven laughs,” we are told, at princes who conspire against him (Psalms 2:1-4 NAB). Reinholt Niebuhr, quoting this verse in The Irony of American History, hears in God’s ironic laughter the possibility of earthly justice.
All of these birth stories – those of Isaac, Moses, Samuel, Jesus, and others – involve ironic justice precisely because every man and woman is a living irony, or as Hannah Arendt puts it, “man is a beginning and a beginner.” The miracle of each person’s birth, Arendt says, challenges the “automatic processes [that] can only spell ruin to human life.”1 Pharaoh, Eli’s sons, and Herod all seek to swallow the future into the present by monopolizing the public world – as it were, by supressing the vote.
Private man wishes only that a state apparatus not impede the private sector, and he asks the state to impartially adjudicate among private concerns like his own. But this utilitarian understanding of justice could – and did – operate in such realms as the Third Reich, which eliminate the public.
Irony is the first step back to a true public square. Its justice doesn’t merely decide between private, atomized disputants. Instead, it recognizes the claims of entire communities (Rowan Williams’s “trade unions, ethnic and cultural groups, co-operative societies, professional guilds . . . and, of course, churches and faith groups”2; Tocqueville’s “political associations”3) to a public life. A state apparatus alive to irony becomes, in Williams’s words, “a reliable and creative ‘broker’ of the concerns of the communities that make it up.”4 This “ironic detachment” leads me to members of groups I don’t belong to that are neglected or misused by cruel and automatic processes.
Irony is the midwife of the gospel’s second birth. I am David, whose righteous indignation against a rich thief leads the prophet Nathan to charge, “You are that man.” I am the Roman Christian warned by Paul: “You that judge do the same thing.” The second birth discovers my sense of justice contorted and privatized. Christ’s invitation echoes the psalmist’s and Hannah’s ironic justice: “He who seeks only himself brings himself to ruin, whereas he who brings himself to nought for me discovers who he is” (Matthew 10:39 NAB). My discovery of myself is only possible by living for another – for Christ both in God and in others. Biblical conversion, therefore, insists on a public world. Or as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “our discernment of God is at the breaking points in human community.”5
The irony is, had I not left home, the Democrats would control Virginia’s lower legislative chamber today. My parents’ district last year was decided by a coin toss following a tie vote, and the toss gave the Republicans their one-seat majority. To round out my claim to abdicated power: I keep up with my home town’s politics, I always vote, and I was inclined to support the Democrat.
Yet the prevalence of such anecdotes does nothing to increase voter participation. Why? People stay home on election day not because their vote won’t decide an election. They stay home because of “automatic processes.” They stay home because their home is their only world.
I assign all Americans but a single book a year, and they must discuss it with their neighbors as part of an effort to reconstitute the local. I don’t think this is too much to ask. (Past assigned works have included Reinhold Niebuhr‘s The Irony of American History, James Baldwin‘s Notes of a Native Son, James Agee and Walker Evans‘s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Hannah Arendt‘s Between Past and Future.) This year’s book is the first new release ever assigned: Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.
I find most of my books while reading other books’ footnotes. Winton Solberg’s 1958 book The Federal Convention and the Formation of the Union, which came in the mail yesterday, is the latest example. I discovered it while rereading Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book On Revolution. Arendt cites Solberg’s book four times in her footnotes.
She sites him enough to tell me that she’s a magpie of a researcher. A main point here, an inference Solberg never made there, and an overall appreciation for the writer in all four notes. Her sources seem fewer and better considered than most academics’ sources. Her appreciation reminds me that all books are commonplace books; some are just better footnoted.
As I thumbed through this first-edition Solberg, which I got for pennies over the Internet (plus shipping), I thought about Arendt’s reading of Solberg. It occurred to me, pacing in my little library, that I was holding a copy of the very edition Arendt had held. And in a sudden bout of reverence, I almost dropped the book.