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.
We may be dreaming of great acts of displacement while failing to notice in the displacements of our own lives the first indications of God’s presence.
– Henri Nouwen
When I woke up day after Helsinki, I wanted to act. So I made a sign and took it to the White House.
There I met two women who had woken up the same way. They had met as I met them: their signs had served as signals. The three of us became a fast people.
We would separate, walking along the fences, and return. When things were quieter, we told one another something of our stories. We were heckled a little, not much. Many tourists, mostly from overseas, took pictures of their families standing with us. After a couple of hours, when it started to rain, we turned again to one another. “I’m coming tonight. Are you?” And we left.
I thought of the big tree in whose branches refugees from the town found one another in Capote’s The Grass Harp. I thought of Henri Nouwen: “Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to recognize.”1 And Hannah Arendt’s concept of freedom in action separated, ultimately, from its consequences.2 And Rosa Parks, and all the Rosa Parks before and after her who were stoned and sawn asunder.
We didn’t see one another at the big rally that night. The big rally was kind of like a big rally. An overseas media outlet interviewed me. There were television cameras, a short speech, chants, a longer talk that, with its pacifying drone, frustrated the crowd. The rally was purposeful and strategic, as necessary in its way as the senseless act of faith.
Then I waited for the train home. Another woman sat beside me on a concrete bench and put her own sign at her feet. When the train came, we walked into separate cars.
Paul Manafort helped [former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych] to pursue a “Southern strategy” for Ukraine reminiscent of the one that his Republican Party had used in the United States: emphasizing cultural differences, making politics about being rather than doing.1
– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom (2018)
If politics is speech and action, as Hannah Arendt claims, then Nixon’s and Manafort’s strategies weren’t politics at all. For Arendt, there is no “politics of being.”
Arendt also wouldn’t like today’s “identity politics,” the liberal version of the conservative politics of being, even though this liberal mix of being and politics demands action instead of inaction.
While true politics (and timely action or inaction) is not being, it must be rooted in being. Politics’ roots are ontological: equality is political identity since it points to each person’s relationship with others before God.
But equality on paper is not what equality leads to, which is suffering and (eventually) maturity. A culture that recognizes maturity generally adopts lively, long-lasting politics and political institutions.
Immaturity is another term for the false self. The immature man puts pieces of himself together to serve as identity much as a child puts pieces of the world together to create generalities. This inductive reasoning eventually succeeds in putting the functional world together but doesn’t lead to maturity — that is, to true identity. Only suffering does.
To bring maturity, suffering must have two components, permission and pain. Both permission and pain were present in the word “suffer” during King James’s reign. In the Bible James commissioned, Jesus bids his disciples to “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” Jesus himself is made “perfect through sufferings.” Though both of these uses of “suffer” involve both permission and pain, the former use emphasizes permission, and the latter use emphasizes pain. The opening we give to the universe when it waits at our door, peddling pain, and our long, fitful intercourse with this visitor, bring maturity.
I leave out how love figures in this.
The kingdom of God, like Arendt’s politics, is action. The action comes from maturity (i.e., true identity). God’s kingdom is the model for civil government and the authority for legitimate civil government. Other visions of politics, like Nixon’s and Manafort’s, are groundless imitations that keep us asleep on the couch.
Republican virtues, like private virtues, are important, but only if they get us off the couch and to the door when the universe calls. Virtue only prepares us for transformation. We have to be not what we thought we were to see the kingdom of God. And we need a few such men and women to lead the rest of us to virtue, which itself is but a path to our own front door.
- Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (pp. 141-142). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition. ↩
John Stuart Mill surfs tension. In one chapter of Considerations on Representative Government, he pleads Tocqueville-like for democratic participation, but a couple of chapters later, his distrust of public opinion leads him to something like Hegel’s “universal class” – bureaucracy.1
Hegel thinks bureaucracy is history’s answer to history: bureaucracy’s professional universalism will resolve history’s tribal divisions. Bureaucracy is, admittedly, a bland eschatology, Hegel’s version of clouds and harps. But there’s peace.
Tocqueville’s greatest disciple, on the other hand, describes bureaucracy as “rule by nobody . . . an ever-present danger of any society based on universal equality.” In a bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt warns, “the personal element of ruler-ship has disappeared.”2
Ironically, the authoritarian Hegel gives a better account of today’s federal bureaucracy than the democratic and republican Arendt. The president’s withering attacks on the intelligence services test the universal rule of law. But is the rule of law also “rule by nobody”?
Just as ironically, then, the appeal of Arendt’s republican view of bureaucracy aids Trump. Mueller and the “deep state” (an updated, sinister “rule by nobody”) intelligence agencies have little power against what Hitler approvingly calls “the authority of personality.”3
Nationalism has its own eschatology, and eschatology puts tension to rout. The American government, of course, is built on tension. The Constitution both separates the government’s branches and redefines federalism to create tension. As history’s wave again begins to crest, Americans may choose to destroy their government rather than to endure this tension. Anything for peace.
[Photo of John Stuart Mill]
The rise of Donald Trump has led to calls to fix high school civics. Some want to change its content, others its delivery, and still others its share of the curriculum. Representing this last view is the Washington Post‘s Colbert I. King, whose column includes this peroration: “The declining civic portion of public education . . . is a threat to our democratic values. It must be addressed, and now. Only a demagogue would argue with that.”
I argue with that.
In Kansas, the Post informs me this morning (we demagogues, unlike our victims, still read the paper), six high school boys are running for governor. The article is full of ironies: the would-be governors aren’t old enough to vote; one candidate, Tyler Ruzich, rushes from a debate to his part-time work as a grocery store cashier; and Ruzich observes that, in Hamilton’s time, “someone my age could be commander of a frigate.”
The article’s climax involves an interchange among two of these candidates, Ruzich and Jack Bergeson, and Soledad O’Brien on her nationally syndicated show. The show is taped the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The article implies that the Florida shooting makes O’Brien take the candidates seriously: O’Brien “didn’t ask whether they were old enough to drive.”
Instead, she asks Ruzich about Parkland.
Instead of finding better ways to tell teens the political facts of life, many adults after Parkland have begun to listen to and learn from high school students. As a high school English teacher, I’ve spent years learning from them through their discussions and research papers, most of which address matters of public concern. Now some American students, suddenly in the news, are taking their learning outside the classroom to discover how the kind of argumentation they’ve been trained in, based on facts and reasoning and respect, works in our public realm.
Parkland students were in the galleries when, days after the shooting, Florida’s House of Representatives voted two-to-one not to consider a bill banning the kind of military weapon that mowed down their friends. One Parkland student was photographed covering her mouth as if she were about to sob or vomit. So it goes.
At his hotel with his mom the morning of O’Brien’s show, Ruzich watches Parkland student David Hogg address Florida’s lawmakers on CNN: “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.”
But most of the action recently has come from the students. They – and we – are up against what Hannah Arendt calls “automatic historical or political processes,” ones that seem both disastrous and inevitable. Yet action – “the work of faith,” as Arendt calls it – can perform miracles to interrupt these processes1:
. . . in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them – men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.2
Man’s civic action stems from his ontological relation to the world, Arendt says: “man is a beginning and a beginner.”3 Because these teens are closer to their beginning than adults are, as I see it, Arendt’s “men” now include boys.
On national television, Ruzich, a Republican, answers O’Brien’s question about gun control:
If I’m making an enemy of the NRA, that’s something I’m kind of proud of, to be honest. I’ve seen what gun violence does. It’s time that we change the rhetoric and the discussion. Because clearly we are too far gone to say it’s a mental illness problem.
The students in Florida and Kansas are not just entering public space; they are creating it.
Our public realm is shrinking. As Philip Gorski puts it, our society believes, with Ronald Reagan, that “the true domain of human freedom [is] the marketplace, not the public square.”4 We are not far behind China in this respect. Our students are trained in civics, but they leave high school or college for the “real world” in which leadership and creativity are not often put to the public’s service but to private gain. American conservatives used to mistrust the modern marketplace – a liberal idea, after all – precisely because it tempted citizens away from republican virtue.
We vaguely believe our democracy is modeled after ancient Athens’s, but we’ve forgotten our civics lessons that informed us about Athenian democracy. It wasn’t just the city’s small size that permitted more participation. After all, Athens became the center of a Greek empire after the Persian Wars, and most places its league conquered became their own democratic poleis. Athenian juries sat not twelve but at least five hundred.5 Any citizen could speak at the general assemblies. In nearly every civic position, Athens had not a single officeholder but a college or a group of magistrates, and the citizens rotated in and out of office annually. These policies were inspired by the Athenians’ fear of tyranny.6 Many Americans believe that a fuller democracy leads to demagoguery and tyranny. But the Athenians reasoned that the greater the democracy, the smaller the chance of tyranny.
Mr. Trump wasn’t elected because of democracy; he was elected because of an institutional check on democracy that gave him the election despite his losing it by almost three million votes.
A lack of democracy causes misinformation, which in turn can lead to tyranny. King cites a study indicating that only a third of American adults in a recent survey could name their country’s vice president. But misinformation that exploits powerlessness is worse than ignorance. Vast numbers of Americans believe, for instance, that Trump won the popular vote and should postpone our next presidential election until he is satisfied that the system is no longer rigged. This isn’t the result of an inadequate civics curriculum. It’s the result of inadequate civics. Our politics is a spectator sport, and a dull one at that. People are susceptible to believing anti-government, “deep state” conspiracies because they feel powerless and invisible.
This invisibility worried John Adams. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, he believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings:
The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.7
Of course, Adams’s observations about the poor’s lack of free time apply as well to a large portion of today’s American middle class, which works longer and harder than its counterparts in other industrialized countries. Our emphasis on the marketplace over the public square is costing us.
Compared with today’s America, my public high school is a hotbed of democracy. Its many clubs and teams resemble what Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his 1835 classic Democracy in America. Like most high schools, the cafeteria is broken into cliques, and students must learn how to navigate among them, a great skill in a pluralistic society. Students are inoculated against demagoguery not so much by learning the three branches of government as by learning how to distinguish popularity from friendship and truth. The student-officeholder-to-student ratio is high. When they vote – and they vote in both class and schoolwide elections, and their turnout is near one hundred percent each election – they listen to candidates who are empowered to make changes that affect how students experience high school. Officeholders negotiate with the school administration to realize changes that are outside of their direct control. By the way, the civics classes and teachers are first rate. I saw all of this at my previous high school, too.
How does this high school civics experience apply to the civic responsibilities students face when they graduate from high school or college? We consider an adult a model citizen if she doesn’t dodge jury duty and votes once a year. Is that enough democracy? The students go from practicing democracy in school to becoming mere spectators as adults, and the school’s inoculation against demagogues, in many cases, loses its efficacy.
How can we transplant high school’s civic engagement to our adult world? For one thing, we should seek to shield politics from necessity. We can learn even from the Athenians’ practice of slavery if we understand the institution as a cruel means of conquering necessity, which for the Greeks constituted a private, pre-political sphere. Only Athenian men who had conquered economic necessity could participate in public life. A school tries to insulate students from some aspects of poverty – it institutes clothing drives and free and reduced lunch programs, for instance – in part for the same reason Athens allowed only free men in its polis – so its members can learn and participate without the distraction of necessity, and so the community can have the benefit of their talent and insights. If we believe in equality, then we could take steps to move the poor into the public realm, not because they otherwise wouldn’t be adequately represented but because they otherwise wouldn’t be seen – wouldn’t be fully human in our eyes, despite our idealistic protestations to the contrary. In the private realm, their poverty is measured by their lack of life’s necessities. In the public realm, though, their poverty is measured by their transparency and ultimately by our own commensurate civic poverty.
High school teaches us also to take responsibility for the local. We connect to government if we participate in it. What if we took steps to take responsibility for our subdivisions the way the Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are taking responsibility for their school community? What if the states ceded more power to the local governments, and the local governments more power to the precincts, boroughs, and subdivisions? What if the local mattered again? Edmund Burke may have gotten it right if one applies his idea of the local not to love but to civic friendship and engagement:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.8
We need a revival of local, civic engagement. Our republic, in other words, needs a deeper democracy.
Public space can be created by policy, as the Athenians created it, or by acts of faith, as the members of the French Resistance created it when, as Arendt puts it, “without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute wily-nilly a public realm where – without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe – all relevant business in the affairs of the country were transacted in deed and word.”9
Through action, these students in Kansas and Florida are creating public space. At the risk of sounding like a demagogue, I think we could learn more about democracy from our children.
- Arendt, Hanna. Between Past and Future, at 166. ↩
- Id. at 169. ↩
- Id. ↩
- Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 188. ↩
- McInerney, Jeremy. “Athenian Courts and Justice.” The Age of Pericles. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/age-of-pericles.html. ↩
- McInerney, Jeremy. “Democracy and Government.” The Age of Pericles. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/age-of-pericles.html. ↩
- Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279. ↩
- Burke, Edmund, quoted in Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, at 359. ↩
- Arendt, supra, at 3. ↩
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.]
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?
[Featured photograph by Giorgio Raffaelli. Used by permission.]
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.
This is not impossible. In his 1854 Peoria address, Lincoln called for a Josiah-like rediscovery of the Declaration:
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.
- 2 Kings 22 ↩
- Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Kindle loc. 2503. ↩
- Brueggemann, loc. 178 ↩
- 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. ↩
- Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, 166. ↩
- Id. at 167. ↩
- Id. at 169. ↩
- Brueggemann, loc. 178. ↩
- As Timothy Snyder says, “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen.” On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 83. ↩
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, supra, at 146. ↩
- 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. ↩