Saturday, October 31, 2009
In the evening I delivered a lecture entitled "The Sustainable Republic and the Alternative Tradition in America." The lecture was part of a series on the theme of "Republics, Ancient and Modern." I took the title as a point of departure, and - as my introduction below argues - rejected the notion that there is any such thing as "modern republicanism."
I will begin my talk tonight on a most ungracious note – namely, by disputing the title of this lecture series, "Republics, Ancient and Modern." I take issue with the title of the series because, I want to suggest, there is – strictly speaking – no modern theory of republicanism. What is commonly regarded as modern republicanism is an outright contradiction of ancient republicanism which – in my view – is the only republicanism that is deserving of the name. What goes by the name “republicanism” in modernity is a form of extremely clever and cagey sleight of hand, by which modern theorists co-opted the deeply positive connotations of the ancient term “republic” in order to lend legitimizing force to the arguments of a radically different position. Modern theory is anti-republican; the only legitimate form of republican theory that has ever existed in a fully articulated form is the ancient theory of republicanism, or modern variants of those same arguments. We are, as ever, engaged in an argument between ancients and moderns, but the moderns have decisively confused this debate by laying claim to a political term that intentionally obfuscates the true nature of their theory.
Republicanism – as the name suggests – is a political theory with an abiding and fundamental concern for public things. It is a theory that begins, in the first instance, by seeking to chasten private claims. The claims of the body tend to be the most immediate and instinctive forms of private claim, and, according to ancient theory, it is the role of the polity to ensure that these immediate individual demands are chastened and governed. The public sphere is conceived as an embracing form of civic and ethical education in which we come to understand that the public weal has priority over our individual desires.
According to ancient theory, only through the governance of desires can we actually achieve a true form of liberty. After all, ancient theory understood that desire is infinite in nature: in attempting to fulfill the infinity of our desires, we in fact put ourselves into a condition of servitude to them. By inculcating our innate but not instinctive capacity to govern our desires, we achieve the highest form of liberty, the liberty of self-governance that is otherwise compromised by the pursuit of, and enslavement to, our infinite desires.
This form of governance occurs through an habituation in continuous self-government, a foremost task of the architectonic science of politics. A well-ordered political community aims to foster self-governance in and among its citizens, not only through encouragements in the realms that might be thought of as “private,” but perhaps above all through the practice of citizenship itself. Citizenship, as famously described by Aristotle, consists in “ruling and being ruled in turn.” The self-governance of the individuals of the polity is both mimicked and exemplified in the actions of citizens, who share in the activity of governance with a view to putting themselves under laws that are collectively self-imposed. Laws are thus not imposed from outside or even from elected representatives – producing a likely recalcitrance and opposition from subjects who might perceive such laws as impositions upon their freedom – but rather are generated by citizens for citizens – the self-imposition of limits over our own actions.
Among those areas subject to governance by the commonweal are economic activities. As Aristotle wrote, there are two kinds of economies – one based upon the view that acquisition is without limits; and one that exists within due measure of both human nature and the natural world. Aristotle wrote that some believe in the priority of “business,” that is, the idea that economics involves the accumulation of goods “without limit” and is therefore ungoverned by law that enjoins constraint. However, Aristotle contended, such a belief is concerned only with “living,” not “living well.” To live well, he argued, one must strive to understand the distinction between goods that are necessary for “living well” and those that are superfluous, and which thereby contribute to our enslavement to our desires and appetites. To “live well” one must subordinate the imperatives that drive economic logic of accumulation without limit to the governance of political life and a conception of human flourishing within limits and common good. As such, the “market” occupies space in the city, not vice-versa.
Still, the ancients recognized the reality of our human condition. We are born and die as individuals, and the demands of our bodies and our limited loves should not, nor finally cannot, be eliminated. Governance of our appetites is, if not wholly contrived, nevertheless a challenging achievement of art, persuasion and habit, the fulfillment of our natural capacity for self-governance. As embodied creatures we are not infinitely capable of extending the governance of personal appetite in the name of res publica; once appeals to the common weal go much beyond our immediate senses, any such commitment becomes theoretical and is subject to hypocrisy or disillusionment. For this reason ancient republican theories insisted upon polities of small scale, comprehensible within the range of our senses and thus more capable of persuading us that our personal interests might more fully align with the common weal. Small republics were likely to be more modest and less ambitious; the very limits for the expansion of power had the salutary effect of limiting the temptation toward expansive forms of luxury, pride and ambition. Only on such small scale was the prospect of an inculcation in virtue – that is, a condition of self-governance within limits in accordance with our nature as humans and within the context of the natural world – realistic and attainable. Republicanism was an active and organized effort of a kind of comprehensive civic education in limits and self-governance, one which rested upon the strong existence of public spiritedness which in turn perpetuated itself from one generation to the next in the form of gratitude to the past and obligation toward the future. The city was prior to the individual, which is to say, according to ancient theory, the whole “preceded” in priority the parts. The good of individuals could only be conceived and achieved in the context of a well-ordered, self-governing polity. Only through such an understanding could a commitment to public things – res publica – be achieved.
The modern view of liberty rejects this ancient theory. On almost every count, modern theory – though it called itself “republican” – rejected these ancient prescriptions for the achievement of res publica, the inculcation of “public things.”
Whereas liberty according to ancient theory was the achievement of self-government, liberty according to the modern teaching was understood to be the condition in which ever greater opportunities for the satiation of desires is made possible. Of course, modern thinkers such as Machiavelli and Montesquieu shared the view of the ancients that human appetite was limitless. Machiavelli had noted that “desire is always greater than the power of acquisition,” an insight that Montesquieu further developed by observing the human propensity not to find satisfaction in any objective measurement of accomplishment, but only by comparative measurement to others, which ceaselessly gives rise to “more desires, more needs, more fantasies.” Both anticipated the fruition of this notion in the phrase that promised “the pursuit of happiness” without its likely attainment. However, this observation, rather than being an argument against efforts for the governance of appetite, was in fact a recommendation for its embrace, the redirection of activities that had formerly sought to achieve an education in self-restraint for one that sought the unleashing of frenetic activity aimed at an always imperfect fulfillment. Accompanying this unleashing of appetite were modern theories of the state that were expansionist, not only in the physical space that they occupied, but further, in their devotion to the ever-greater increase of human power directed at the control over nature.
The great innovation of modern theory was to argue against self-restraint and self-governance in recognition of the limits of nature – human and worldly – and instead to assert that the aim of life and politics should become the active effort to increase human dominion. Obstacles to the satiation of desires were to fall before the expansion of human power over nature – and while it was recognized that this would, in turn, only generate further desires, it was believed that the possibility of the human expansion of power was potentially limitless. As John Milton was to write in his early essay “Prolusions,” “when the cycle of universal knowledge has been completed, still the spirit will be restless in our dark imprisonment here, and it will rove about until the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest…. Truly [man] will seem to have the stars under his control and dominion, land and sea at his command, and the winds and storms submissive to his will. Mother Nature herself will have surrendered to him. It is as if some god had abdicated the government of the world, and committed its justice, laws, and administration to him as ruler.” The logic of the modern project was not the liberty achieved by self-government, but the final liberty that would be achieved by displacing God as governor of the universe and installing Man in His place, as supreme ruler – or despot.
For the ancients, since human desire was insatiable but our capacity to fulfill it was limited, the theory of republicanism was the result – a difficult apprenticeship in liberty as self-government. Modern theory argued, by contrast, that public power should serve the fulfillment of private interest. Public power, in particular, should be put in the service of those techniques that would expand our practical ability to exert dominion over the natural world. What is called modern “republicanism” is, in fact, a reversal of the basic premise of ancient theory. It does not aim at the primacy of “public things,” but in fact subordinates the public realm to the demands of private interest. Liberty came to be understood not as the achievement of the hard discipline of self-government, but as the overcoming of obstacles that were presented in the natural world. The modern state, the modern economy, and perhaps above all, modern science were its results.
We are today reaping what modern theory has sown. All around us are the accumulating signs of the devastation wrought by a theory whose fundamental premise was the elimination of natural obstacles in the fulfillment and expansion of human desire. Today we increasingly see with eyes no longer capable of self-deceit the consequences of the subordination of res publica to a theory that held out the promise of endless satiation and endless growth – and yet, so defined are we by these modern theories that we have largely lost the capacity to adequately judge our current situation with frank cognizance and acknowledgment of its sources. Indeed, our dominant political standpoints today are simply iterations of this modern theory, more likely to deepen the wounds than to redeem our course.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
If you're in the area, do drop in.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Diversity is a word that slips easily off the tongue of today’s college denizen, but rarely do we give it the scrutiny that it deserves. While academics will argue about nearly anything, one sees little evidence that there is much argument over the virtues or vices of diversity.
A Diversity Initiative is currently underway at Georgetown, in which it seems that there is widespread agreement that diversity is desirable and that we need to explore ways of promoting tolerance and respect of the many varied people and cultures on our campus. The various committees were not formed to debate whether we should acknowledge diversity and encourage toleration and respect, but rather how to reach these ends.
A peculiar logic lies behind current discussions of diversity: While it begins by appearing to affirm diversity, more fundamentally we are encouraged to adopt a homogenous and identical stance toward the fact of diversity. While diversity appears to be celebrated, our first and foremost requirement is to exhibit toleration and respect toward differences among people.
A curious outcome seems to be the result: In response to diversity, we are all to become identical. Whatever our many differences, what is to be more basic and fundamental is our commitment to toleration and respect. Our liberal toleration is to trump our diversity.
Such an outcome actually renders our diversity secondary and even tenuous. If our first commitment is to a form of liberal toleration, then the forms of diversity that can be sustained are only those that can be reconciled to our primary stance of liberal toleration. This means, in effect, that we should expect to see an overall diminution of substantive diversity and instead a broader uniformity of outlook and disposition. An actual diversity in which liberal toleration is potentially confronted is to be trumped by the uniformity of toleration.
One expected outcome of a campus-wide — and globalized — commitment to liberal toleration is a decrease in substantive commitments to views and beliefs that cannot be reconciled with liberal toleration. We learn to be wary and suspicious of commitments that could substantively trump our primary commitment to liberal toleration, especially cultural and religious commitments.
A legitimate concern is that certain substantive commitments could manifest themselves as vicious forms of intolerance. Of course, there should be no place for hateful or violent denigration of difference. But what of respectful but serious disagreement? Is there room for viewpoints and perspectives that do not, strictly speaking, seek to tolerate difference, but whose commitments may consist in judging other beliefs or ways of life to be wrong?
The dominant form of toleration implicitly recommends indifference or apathy toward different ways of life. Yet many cultural and religious traditions are not indifferent to the question of how we should live — they are, to use an unpopular word, judgmental. Can an overarching culture of toleration in fact tolerate a judgmental stance?
From the perspective of the person whose worldview is defined by liberal toleration, those who judge certain behaviors and ways of life to be praiseworthy and others to be wrong would appear to be intolerant. Rather than to debate the substance of the difference, the tendency is to accuse a judgmental person of intolerance, and thus seek to end the dispute. But this is simply to say that such a stance of toleration seeks the evisceration of the beliefs that define a rich tapestry of cultural and religious traditions. This form of toleration is actually hostile toward true diversity.
In other words, the dominant expression of toleration has difficulty making space for cultural and religious traditions and beliefs that are not indifferent to every way of life. Among other consequences of this dominant view, one result is that every college and university (indeed, every institution, and eventually every individual) in America and beyond become more identical. Those who refuse to sanction every way of life are condemned and pressured to become tolerant.
For instance, on Friday, Oct. 2, in this newspaper, an editorial excoriated The Catholic University of America for refusing to recognize CUAllies, the university’s LGBTQ student group, as a student organization. In the name of diversity, however, isn’t there a compelling argument to be made that the religious commitments of that institution should be permitted, even accorded, respect? In a free society such as ours — where one can freely choose which institutions to join and which ones to eschew — isn’t there room for a rich diversity of institutions, some which will embody diverse faith and cultural traditions?
Doubtless, hard questions about intolerable intolerance need to be explored, but as part of that conversation it should also be discussed whether there is also an intolerable form of tolerance that is hostile to actual diversity, and an attendant danger of a globe of indifferent liberal individualists in which everything is permitted, but nobody really cares.
Monday, October 19, 2009
At this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.
As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities — in their research, teaching and writing — have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?
Since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in preprofessional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.
As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.
Nicely said, but then there's something of a retort by the President of the University of Wisconsin (where I almost accepted a position over Georgetown), calling for an intensification of "more of the same":
"Educating and Credentialing..."?? Calling George Orwell!!
"More Better" has been the mantra of higher education for some years now, a worldview that been an accessory to crimes that continue to be committed in the name of "growth": what matters most is getting more, easier, quicker. For once, I'd like to see Harvard actually lead a "Less, Harder" movement, but I think the horse is out of the barn. Of course, "international competition" will continue to direct Harvard's actions more than pieties from its President.
Friday, October 9, 2009
APSA has just learned that Sen. Coburn (R-OK) has proposed an amendment to eliminate
NSF's political science program. It is an amendment to the Senate Commerce, Justice,
Science appropriations bill, which is currently on the Senate floor today.
Calls today to your Senator's office are important. The message should be:
vote against Coburn's amendment to eliminate the political science program at
the National Science Foundation (NSF). It is amendment No. 2631 to the Senate's
consideration of HR 2847.
There is more information on Senator Coburn's position here,
that may help you craft a response.
The letter tells its membership what our position on this amendment should be, urging us to call for its rejection. As an Association, we are supposed to have a unified position on the issue of government funding of social science research. But why should this be the case? Why is the default position to be that we, as an association and profession, require funds from the Federal government in the "production of knowledge"? This form of governmental support contains a political philosophy, one based upon Progressive era assumptions (and before that, Baconian philosophy) about the need for a social science to do for human institutions and arrangements what the natural sciences have done in the natural world - one that I've sought in various places to elucidate - that would itself be worthy of investigation, reflection, and thereby, conscious evaluation. In the same manner that the natural sciences were to extend human mastery over the natural world, the social sciences were to extend our capacity to more perfectly order and control the human and political realms. Yet, at the very time when increasing numbers of people are realizing that the fruits of this effort toward mastery in the natural world are eliciting in tremendous damage to the planet, there has been no corresponding reflection upon the question of whether social science might not have analogically destructive effects upon the human world, undermining its social and political "habitat."
The "science of politics" as originally conceived by the ancients was originally devoted to the examination of regimes - the range of possible alternatives by which human beings can and perhaps should organize themselves. It was originally the probing exploration of human possibility and the honest and often unsettling examination of the relative virtues and vices of all regimes (so potentially offensive that Socrates was put to death for his discomfiting questions by the "open" regime of Athens). What becomes of this prospect when the official position of a "discipline" is to seek out, and be extensively reliant upon, government funding? Do we, as a result, become implicitly subject to the deepest presuppositions of liberal democracy as a result, increasingly incapable of an honest examination of its virtues and vices? Do we become, in effect, its agents, employees, even wards? One does not see these sorts of questions in any sustained way a subject of disciplinary examination. Is it any coincidence that much, if not nearly all, of the profession now regards with near unanimity that the sole legitimate form of government to be liberal democracy? Are we involved in the creation of a political monoculture as damaging as the agricultural and economic monocultures of other modern sciences? Can we be so certain that our increasing reliance upon government funding (particularly in these straitened economic times) is not an avenue to purchasing a legitimizing function of the academy, largely unperceived?
This little action by Senator Coburn nearly succeeds in removing the scientist mask from our profession, revealing the deepest philosophical presuppositions of political, and further, social sciences, and shows that the one thing it is incapable of examining - and for which we can expect no NSF funding - are its own deepest presuppositions.
In the meantime, I will indeed be contacting my Senators. But I will think for myself, thank you very much A.P.S.A.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Writing on the occasion of Ronald Reagan's death, the NY Times columnist David Brooks articulated the roots of Reagan's success in as accurate and succinct a way as I've seen. Reagan "revolutionized" American conservatism insofar as he transformed it from what had been a disposition to defend tradition and custom - and thus one with an orientation toward the past - to a movement motivated by a deeply optimistic belief in progress - and thus, marked by an upbeat view about the future and America's providential role in advancing progress. As Brooks wrote,
To understand the intellectual content of Reagan's optimism, start with American conservatism before Reagan. It was largely a movement of disenfranchised thinkers who placed great emphasis on human frailty and sin, the limitations of what we can know, and the tragic nature of history.
Conservatives felt that events were moving in the wrong direction and that the American spiritual catastrophe was growing ever worse. Whittaker Chambers observed that when he left communism and joined the democratic camp, he was joining the losing side of history. In his influential book ''Ideas Have Consequences,'' Richard Weaver argued that American society was in the midst of ''a fearful descent.'' To describe modern life, the leading conservative thinker Russell Kirk used words like barrenness, sterility, inanity, hideousness, vulgarity, sensationalism and deformity.
Conservatives looked back sadly to customs and institutions that were being eroded. What was needed, many argued, was a restoration of stability. ''The recovery of order in the soul and order in society is the first necessity of this century,'' Kirk argued.
Reagan agreed with these old conservatives about communism and other things. But he transformed their movement from a past- and loss-oriented movement to a future- and possibility-oriented one, based on a certain idea about America. As early as 1952 during a commencement address at William Woods College in Missouri, Reagan argued, ''I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.''
Reagan described America as a driving force through history, leading to the empire of liberty. He seemed to regard freedom's triumph as a historical inevitability. He couldn't look at mainstream American culture as anything other than the delightful emanation of this venture. He could never feel alienated from middle American life, or see it succumbing to a spiritual catastrophe....
Unlike earlier conservatives, he had a boyish faith in science and technology (Star Wars). He embraced immigration, and preferred striving to stability. On the economic front, he inspired writers like George Gilder, Warren T. Brookes and Julian Simon, who rhapsodized about entrepreneurialism and wealth creation.
Perhaps among the most revealing things about Reagan - and modern American "conservatism," for that matter - is that Reagan frequently quoted from his "favorite" Founding Father, Thomas Paine, and in particular, Paine's line "we have it in our power to begin the world over again." Paine - an eventual supporter of the French Revolution - was, of course a bete noir and chief critic of Edmund Burke, widely considered (correctly) to be the founding voice of modern conservatism. What does it say of anything calling itself "conservatism" when a main source of inspiration is a thinker that exhibited a Gnostic hatred for the world?
Also revealing is Reagan's epitaph. The first line on Reagan's California grave reads "I know in my heart that man is good." A conception of human sin, fallenness, and the propensity for evil - what historically might be considered to be a defining feature of a conservative disposition is wholly absent in these few words meant to sum up Reagan's life and legacy. Such a form of "conservatism" bears little fundamental difference to the transformational optimism that has always marked Progressivism - the belief in the Gnostic possibility of human perfectibility ranging from such thinkers as Condorcet to Comte, Mill to Dewey, Emerson to Rorty.
Thus, I found it surprising over the weekend to read the concluding call in Steven Hayward's fine essay in the Washington Post for conservatives to engage in a deeper and more sustained critique of progressivism Hayward is the author of an impressive new hagiographic book entitled The Age of Reagan (recently discussed, among other places, in Ross Douthat's column), and worked under Reagan during the years of his Presidency. He knows as well as anyone that one of the distinctive features of modern conservatism, born in the image of Reagan, is its grand transformation into the party of Progress - and no longer (to use Emerson's categories) the party of Memory. (Personal aside: Steve and I have a Simon-Ehrlichesque friendly wager that oil will cost over $75 a barrel on June 2, 2011. I like my chances, and fully expect to enjoy a nice and really expensive locally-produced dinner on Steve's tab. I should have added a small side bet on the price of gold).
Hayward concludes his reflection on the current lamentable intellectual state of conservatism thusly: "The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level, in particular over the meaning and nature of progress. In response to the left's belief in political solutions for everything, the right must do better than merely invoking 'markets' and 'liberty.'"
Sign me up. But here is the rub: how can any of the leaders of contemporary conservatism legitimately launch a critique of progressivism when so much of modern American conservatism is defined by the sunny brand of optimism launched by Reagan, and continued today by the likes of Newt, Mitt, and Sarah? Where is the harrowing self-examination in conservatism's complicity in what can only be regarded as the massive defeat of most recognizable core beliefs and commitments of a conservative disposition over the past thirty years, often of Republican party ascendancy? Have we strengthened our communities? Have localities gained more opportunity and capacity for self-rule, with power devolving from the center to the peripheries? Have we enacted robust forms of subsidiarity? Are families at the heart of our personal and national commitments? Have ideals of morality and virtuous character been maintained, much less been strengthened? Have religious commitments deepened, and in particular, provided strong resources against a dominant culture of hedonism and materialism? Have our schools and universities aided in supporting these and similar commitments?
Or, can it be any surprise that a modern "conservative" movement that took Paine's belief that "we have it in our power to make the world over" culminated some thirty years later in an economic collapse that was precipitated in the belief that we were no longer to be governed by limits over our wants and wills? That we became engaged in a set of nation-building wars that were premised upon the stated belief that "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world" (GWB Second Inaugural). Can various recent catastrophes, foreign and domestic, not be attributable to the very belief among conservatives (not to mention liberals) that we "have it in our power to make the world over," including the elimination of limits and the belief that we could eradicate original sin?
If "conservatism" over the past thirty years has achieved anything, it has been the evisceration of older virtues such as thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice and a certain stoicism that might have prevented broad swaths of the population from gorging themselves in a credit fiasco generated in the belief that we could forever have something for n0 money down. It has been in the forefront of efforts in the international realm to remake the world in our own image, a neo-liberal paradise of hedonic-based markets, the wanton exploitation of nature, and the destruction of those communities and cultures of stability and continuity that provide not only "family values," but the proper understanding of what constitutes living well. The progressive John Dewey argued that the aim of all life was "growth"; have conservatives, so-called, argued otherwise? Or are we all now partisans of a process that can only be said to culminate in cancer?
Hayward says a mouthful in his concluding sentences, but one wonders if he really knows what it would mean seriously to begin to question the "liberal" commitment to progressivism, and whether he (and others) are willing first to look at the logs in their own eyes before they pluck out the speck in the eyes of their brothers. If modern "conservatism" really wants to discover where it went wrong, it could do worse than picking up a few volumes by those thinkers that Reagan and others discarded - such as Kirk, Weaver, and Nisbet, among others - and, by all means, easing their Paine.
Cross posted at Front Porch Republic.