Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fear and Trembling

One blog I visit with some regularity is "University Diaries" by Margaret Soltan, a professor of English at the University of Maryland. Her virtues include a keen eye for administrative hypocrisy (especially where the corrupt intersection of sports and higher education are concerned) and, perhaps more imporantly, a fondness for both Christopher Lasch and Don DeLillo. How can one gainsay such good taste?

I found a recent post comforting, after a fashion. She discusses, with admirable candor, the nervousness that descends before lecturing. She writes:

"I was, in my first years, rather nervous before each class - could feel my heart beating. I'd rifle through my notes, fingers atremble. The students were abstractions to me, a set of challenges to overcome: get their attention, deal with distracting behavior, impress the following five points upon them...."

My own reaction to reading this was one of relief - "I'm not the only one!" No matter how confident I am about the material at hand, or how well-developed are my lecture notes, I always feel a sensation that I can only describe as stage fright that descends upon me a good half hour before lecture time. Like stage fright, it grows more keen as the hour approaches, and then tends to dissipate once I begin my "performance." And, while perhaps I am still only "in my first years," I find that the nervousness accompanies me ceaselessly and unremittingly. One might conclude I haven't reached the point of professional maturity to have overcome such fear.

But, I turn over another possiblity in my mind. I would, in fact, be worried if I weren't nervous anymore, because that could be a sign that I no longer cared enough about whether I was going to do a good job in the classroom. My nervousness is always bound up with the anxiety that I'll bomb, I'll fail to convey the basic theme of the lecture, I won't adequately hold attention, I will fail as a teacher. In this best sense, the anxiety is not so much concern for my own standing or reputation, but rather a concern that the students benefit from their time in the classroom. Of course, my own standing is bound up with this - if I do my job well, I hope to be well-regarded by the students. But I hope that regard results as a consequence of a job well done.

This is why, I think, "timocracy" is the second-best regime in Plato's description of the various regimes in Books 8-9 of the "Republic." Timocracy - a regime based upon honor - is second best, because our motivation to do justice is not compelled by a standard that is objectively true, eternal and unchanging. Honor is a lower standard, because honor is based upon opinion. Thus, a professor can be honored by students not because he is an excellent professor, but because he is an excellent entertainer. Student evaluations are dangerously opinion-based instruments. However, honor can also be a relatively high standard, since it points to our care for something or someone outside of our selves. We desire the esteem of others, and we seek to avoid shame. While such care can be debased, it is potentially ennobling - in and through that care, we can aspire to improve or ennoble those others.

So, whenever I feel the swell of nervousness before entering the lecture hall, I feel vaguely comforted to know that I haven't stopped caring about teaching, and that (if I am not self-deceived) my reasons for being in this "business" remain true.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Choosing the Right College

Yesterday I was a speaker at an I.S.I. event aimed at informing parents and prospective students how to evaluate college choices in more substantive ways that go beyond considering campus social life, dining options and layout of the dormitories. Over 100 people were in attendance, and all appeared to be keenly attentive to what was being said. I found it very encouraging that so many parents turned out so early on a Saturday morning to get the low-down, and this gives me hope that things will change, if slowly, on college campuses. Administrators, so keenly conscious of education as a market-driven commodity, will be forced to adjust to parent and student demands that changes be made on college campuses. It may spell the end of a time in which no questions are asked about what goes on after the tuition check is written.

The speakers included John Zmirak (whom I met for the first time, and I hope not the last), Mark Henrie, and myself. Some of my comments are here:

“Finding Value in a Higher Education”

Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University

I teach at a religiously-affiliated University whose stated goal is to provide a liberal arts education to its undergraduates. It is an old and storied University, founded in 1789 – the same year as the ratification of the American constitution – and has ever external, and many internal, appearances of carrying on the tradition of excellence in education. The question which needs to be asked – and asked of any similar institution of higher education - is whether the appearance matches the reality.

If you take the campus tour, you will be told that there is a core curriculum, one that requires our students to take courses across the curriculum with special emphasis on theology and history. You will be told that the education of a Georgetown undergraduate aims at “cura personalis,” education of the whole person in keeping with the Jesuit and Catholic identity of the University. You will be told that Georgetown retains its commitment to undergraduate education, including extensive interaction between students and faculty, and ample opportunity for leisured intellectual interchange. The religious “identity” of Georgetown will be stressed, perhaps the great tradition of Jesuit classical learning. You will be told that Georgetown retains its commitments to age-old traditions that link the experiences of past generations to its current students.

You will be told these and many other attractive sounding things, as one ambles through a lovely campus dotted with impressive looking gothic buildings, a bit of ivy here and there, lawns that look as if they invite small groups of students lying on blankets who will discuss Plato, Aquinas, and Shakespeare and you might even spot the occasional Jesuit priest laden under a pile of books. The student guides will point out places on campus where George Washington delivered a speech, the dormitories where Antonin Scalia or Bill Clinton lived when they were students, or where a Cardinal or even Pope trod. I’ve walked behind more than a few of these student tours, and inevitably find myself quite attracted to the institution they are describing.

And then, I shake my head, come to my senses and WISH I worked and taught at that university. For, everything they say is formally true but substantively falls short of being deeply and profoundly true. Georgetown is a bit like that old story about my father’s old axe – the one that eventually needed to have its original handle replaced, and then its axe-head, but otherwise, in every other respect, is still my father’s old axe. It is, and it isn’t, the Georgetown that continues to exist on the same campus and in the same buildings that have existed since 1789.

The situation is not hopeless, but more than ever students and parents alike must approach a University education with care, foresight, and even some planning – now, not only with a view of successfully completing assignments and achieving high test scores, but undertaking to craft a curriculum by which students will become truly liberally educated. There is a profound problem here we must acknowledge: students are now thrust into a situation of needing to know what constitutes a liberal education, the very knowledge that a solid liberal education is supposed to impart. In effect, those students most in need of a classical liberal education will likely never received one, not knowing what it is they should be seeking in the first instance, whereas those students who enter the University with well-formed characters and an understanding of what constitutes a liberal education in substantial ways are already well equipped. This is a consequence of the massive repudiation of responsibility by contemporary faculty and administrators. But, the fact that you are here today attests to an awareness of the need to go beyond reliance of what you are told by today’s Universities leaders, and from this independence of thought a kind of renaissance within Higher education might be born.

As bad as the situation is at many of today’s most elite college campuses, there are almost always a significant or even adequate number of bright spots on even the most politically correct campuses. Just as the gothic towers remain as kind of architectural testaments to what Universities once were, so on most campuses there are vestiges of those who understand their vocation to provide a classical liberal education. In a sense, it’s necessary to see that every University and college is effectively, in point of fact, two Universities or two colleges. One is the predominant form – those faculty and administrators who seek to effectuate an education in “critical thinking,” whose fundamental loyalties lie not in educating undergraduates or a care of the form or end toward which such an education is directed, but rather their own professional standing, a standing that is achieved in particular through the now dominant reward system of arcane and jargon-ridden publication and hyper-specialization – “academics” in its most pejorative form. The other “University” or college is almost always miniscule, indeed, oftimes almost undetectable given the predominance of this first form of modern University. Much less evident than the gothic-style buildings, this “other college” is a kind of residue of the older form of University education. Rather than oriented outward, toward professional rewards and disciplinary recognition, the focus is inward, in particular toward the education of undergraduates.

How did these two Universities come about, inhabiting the same space if fundamentally opposite and even hostile – how, in effect, was the older University superseded and nearly annihilated by this new and very different form, almost a kind of colonization or even infestation that has corroded from within? The “older college” can trace its roots back to its origins as Medieval religious institutions (hence, we are still called “professor," a vestige of a time when it was our faith that we fundamentally professed) - as well as to the ancient academies. Hence, among other things, it was expected that students who studied under the direction of this curriculum would have familiarity with the classical languages, Greek and Latin, so that they could read the constitutive texts in the Western tradition, the classics of Greece and Rome and the great theological treatises of the Judeo-Christian tradition. These texts formed the “core” of a liberal education, which aimed at the transmission of knowledge which the greatest minds had painstakingly originated, elaborated upon, and preserved. Education was understood to be the transmission of one’s own tradition, the preservation of knowledge and understanding. Its campus center was the library, the very locus of the preservation of knowledge, and the book its mode of transmission, an object of reverence and even of awe (so often a book is pictured in the great university’s Seals). Its main subjects were classical literature, rhetoric, theology, history and philosophy, as well as mathematics and natural sciences. It was well understood how these subjects fit together in the effort to cultivate good character. Even where some specialization existed, faculty saw their part of education as aimed toward a greater whole, the flourishing of soul within each student. Rather than aimed at “critical thinking,” such an education was infused with a kind of reverence and piety, of gratitude and respect.

Most importantly, such a classical education was oriented toward a certain end – the formation and cultivation of the virtuous character. That is, it had an END to which it was oriented, an end which was determined by the human creature as that tradition had come to understand it, a creature endowed with a certain nature. That nature was both noble and prone to failings – in the Greek, to vice and “hubris,” for the Christians, marked by original sin and prone to sin. Liberal education was understood not to “liberate” us from that nature, but, by properly instilling an understanding of human nature, of teaching students about self-governance and adherence to the Laws of Nature and God. By properly understanding the created order of which humankind was a part, liberty as self-rule was the goal and aim. While we laugh sometimes at the old-fashioned notion of “the gentleman’s C,” what was most important about that too-familiar saying is not that C’s were more common, but that education had something to do with the cultivation of gentlemen and gentlewomen.

The modern University was born with the birth of modern philosophy and the overthrowing of classical philosophy and traditional Christianity. At the heart of this sea change was the new and different belief in human freedom – now liberty as understood as the overcoming of those limiting aspects of nature, including human nature. The aim and goal of education was the perfectibility of humans, and hence, the overcoming of any given “nature.” Its animating spirit was the belief that nature could become subject to human dominion and mastery – including human nature. Progress, and not tradition, was its watchword. The laboratory is its representative location on campus (characteristically, John Dewey – the great American articulator of this new form of learning – began the “Lab School” in Chicago, and replaced a curriculum based upon books with “experiential learning.”). The Universities became places that sought to create new knowledge, not to preserve and transmit old knowledge. As such, the rewards for faculty became research and publication of original articles and books, not transmitting a heritage to new and subsequent generations. Indeed, the old teachings became suspect. One could not teach “the great books” as if they had something to teach. The teacher had to understand herself as superior to the old, dead, white men who wrote them, and thereby, rather than acknowledging a debt, rather assert her superiority by finding its flaws and failings. The imperative to prove that progress could occur in the world of ideas meant that all that was old and traditional had to be overthrown. Core curricula were increasingly seen as obstacles to the new learning, and were strenuously overthrown on campuses around the country. As a parade of protesters at Stanford University shouted in the 1980s, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go…”

Today’s Universities combine these two institutions, although the latter dominates because its philosophy governs, and accordingly it seeks, attracts, and rewards a faculty which demonstrates fealty to its worldview. The older form of the university persists in corners and tucked away spaces, and must be actively sought.

Most often this “alternative college” takes the form of somewhat older faculty members who themselves had the benefit of receiving a liberal education and went through graduate training both before the skewing of academic rewards away from undergraduate education and before the dominion of political correctness in the modern academy. That is, they were taught, and in turn teach, under the now suspect belief that great books have something to impart and something permanent to teach, and that a liberal education is properly directed toward the end of cultivating excellence of character and the virtuous soul. These faculty most often are classical “liberals” – often lifelong Democrats whose desire not to be associated with the narrow-minded conservatism that once supported virulent racism acceded to the transformation of the University to the point at which they are now regarded by their progeny as hopelessly recidivist. Some have become fervent conservatives (these were the original neo-conservatives), and many others are simply befuddled and confused how they came to be seen as the enemy. But, as a rule, they are great teachers and care deeply about undergraduate education. These faculty, sadly, are literally dying out. But, they can still be found on most campuses, and finding them has now been made much easier through such publications as ISI’s guide “Choosing the Right College.”

Finding this “alternative college” is of the utmost importance for a student who seeks a classically liberal education. Without finding these faculty, it does not matter how much a University touts its commitment to classical liberal education, its commitment to teaching, its embrace of its religious traditions, its core curriculum – all of those claims are simply undermined and effectively defeated by the overwhelming presence of faculty and administrators who have no regard, and indeed who harbor active hostility, toward such residues. The most obvious example of this is the meaningless of the contemporary core curriculum absent appropriate faculty who embrace its overarching reason for existence. In most cases – and Georgetown is no exception – the fundamental reason for the existence of a core curriculum has been lost in the fog of time, and faculty willy-nilly create courses that fulfill the core requirement without any thought of how they are supposed to contribute toward the end of a liberal education. Most often, predictably, faculty understand their core courses to teach ‘critical thinking,’ not to be a source of conveyance of knowledge about the deepest roots of our own tradition. The core – once intended to transmit accumulated wisdom – is now most often employed to inculcate mistrust of the past, and to encourage “free thinking” unmoored from any deeper understanding of where such free thought is supposed to lead.

So, let me conclude by trying to provide some concrete answers to my stated assignment – how to find value in higher education today. As I’ve stressed, one has to begin with a deep mistrust of the sales pitch of today’s colleges and universities. You have to be prepared to ask questions, and to pose them to people who will not hesitate to tell you the truth. This means, as you make campus visits, take some time away from the student-led tours and seek out the counsel of one or several faculty who, to the best of your ability, you can identify as committed to a classical liberal education. Again, “Choosing the Right College” can be an invaluable aid, since it actually “names names.” Try to arrange a brief meeting with one or several of these faculty and ask as many questions as you can about the institution – its intellectual life, campus life, faculty- student interaction, the nature of the core curriculum and especially for the names of other faculty with whom students ought to seek out.

Second, encourage students to get as much out of the core curriculum – what of it there is – as they can. This means understanding its purpose and aim, whether or not administrators or faculty understand it anymore. As such, students need to overcome the tendency of seeing such requirements as onerous duties that need to be checked off, but rather embrace them as the foundation that will allow the full flourishing of their educational experience. This means that they have to go beyond just signing up for course titles that fulfill the formal requirement, but undertake some research to discover whether some, and which, of the required courses are being taught by faculty who are devoted to classical liberal education. It may not even be their favorite course topic or subject, but that in fact matters less than the faculty member who teaches it. A great teacher can make any topic soar and inspire achievement from devoted students, whereas a great subject can be slaughtered and gutted by a professor who wants to be anywhere else but in an introductory course. Choose your classes wisely. In its crassest terms, each class at a typical elite university works out to costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 a course. Don’t toss that investment, and the even more important investment of limited time, down the drain.

Third, students should actively seek to cultivate relationships and even friendships with faculty outside of the classroom. Make it a point to get to know at least one of your professors every semester. Make that your job each semester (doing well in classes is a given). Go to office hours; invite the professor to dinner at the dining hall; have a coffee, or where legal, a beer together. The best teaching goes on outside of the classroom (I can attest that I learned most of what I know in academia in the office of a beloved professor with fellow students over cups of bourbon). Understand that these relationships are good in themselves and good for other ends as well. These relationships are the store from which eventual references and letters of recommendation can and will be drawn. In an age of grade inflation, every student applies to grad. school or law school with 3.9+ grade point averages. What distinguishes the best students now, more than ever, is the personal and knowledgeable testimony of a member of the faculty who actually knows and cares for the student. Get to know faculty. The best ones crave such bonds – in the end, that’s why they entered the professoriate.

Lastly, to the extent you are able, try to impart some understanding of the value of an education – not merely as prepatory to a career or professional school, but as providing the capstone of the cultivation of character and of the soul. Education at its best refines and elevates, directs our vision the very highest things even as it remind us of our propensity to fall toward the low. It encourages aspiration while discouraging degeneration. It aims toward the end of human flourishing, the deepest forms of happiness which is liberty of thought and self-governance of soul. Help students to understand that such an education is rare and difficult to achieve, and will require their best efforts and commitment. It will not fall into their laps accidentally, but can be had. If sought out, one can grasp it and in fact get one’s money’s worth. Or, you can pay for the diploma, which is what most parents finance. In an age when parents do so much to protect and care for their children from the very youngest age, why do we so suddenly neglect the most essential things when it comes time to send them away to college?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Two Waves of Modernity?

During the APSLP meeting earlier in the month, I had an interesting conversation with Nathan Tarcov, and I've been turning it over in my mind for some days. I had written (and since posted here) that what passes for modern American conservatism falls under Strauss's "first wave" of modernity. In a sense, then, it is "conservative" if one compares its properties to the subsequent historicist (e.g., Rousseau/Kant/Hegel) or nihilist (i.e., Nietzsche/Heidegger) waves that Strauss discusses. Tarcov was somewhat agitated by my argument, in part, I think, because it created a certain cognitive dissonance. The reason for this dissonance was that Tarcov was forced by his politics to disagree with Strauss. Strauss argued that there was fundamentally a necessary and unavoidable descent from the first to the second and to the third waves, that, in effect, the "first" wave necessarily ushers in the others. Strauss thus posited that modern historicism, relativism, and even nihilism resulted from the "first wave" of modern natural right - i.e. from early modern liberalism itself. Far from representing an alternative, the "first wave" actually represents the first step in an inexorable progression. When I pressed Tarcov about this, he stated he did not agree with that part of Strauss's thesis. And, how could he, or anyone who considers themselves "conservative" in the "first wave" sense? For, if one agrees with Strauss, then one is implicated in the road to nihilist modernity. One must also therefore acknowledge that the effort to "hold the line" to the first wave is a futile and rear-guard action. But, it's also a difficult thing for a Straussian to acknowledge so fundamental a break with Strauss's own understanding of the fundamental options that are available.

I think this is a critical, indeed rather essential point that warrants further reflection and investigation. If Strauss is right, then modern "liberal" conservatism is fooling itself. A great many people who have argued that "progressivism" represents a betrayal of classic liberal principles (e.g., that progressive political theory and jurisprudence has undermined the original Constitution), such as most of the Claremont Straussians and my colleague George Carey, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of modern natural right if Strauss's "inevitability thesis" is correct. However, if these students of Strauss (Jaffa, and Tarcov, among others) are correct, then one can presumably "hold the line" and modern natural right represents a fundamental alternative to both ancient natural right AND the subsequent "historicist" waves. I'm inclined to agree with Strauss, and I think I have history, as it were, on my side. For, there can be no denying that modern natural right - classical liberalism - created the conditions that made possible the rise of historicism, relativism and nihilism. The debate to be had is whether it was a necessary, or an avoidable, outcome.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

15 Minutes

Check it out - I'm famous. Well, if you get to the back page of the Wall Street Journal and to the middle of the article, anyway...

Here are a few snippets - the whole article is here:

January 19, 2007


The New Campus Dissidents


January 19, 2007

Higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today's students," declared Allan Bloom in "The Closing of the American Mind," a book that chastised a generation of academics and students with its biting, furious analysis about the decline of American liberal education. Twenty years ago, at the time of the book's publication, things looked bleak for those who shared Bloom's qualms about the effects of relativism on the academy.

Recently, Bloom's heirs have been hammering on the closed door, trying to reopen the American mind a bit. Their latest door-opening move hasbeenan effort to create scholarly centers on campuses around the country. These centers would be devoted to the great books of Western civilization and the study of the American Founding, and they would be conducted in a rigorous, pre-1960s classroom style. Is there a chance of success?

The prototype of the idea--the Founding center, as it were--is the JamesMadison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, begun in the summer of 2000 by Prof. Robert P. George. The program has featured a traditional curriculum devoted, as advertised, to "American ideals and institutions," and it has attracted an array of visiting scholars, many of whom have gone elsewhere to try to seed similar institutions....

But one center cannot, by itself, open up America's narrow university culture. "If the light of veritas was going out when Bloom was writing," asks David DesRosiers of the Manhattan Institute, alluding to Yale's famous motto, "where are we now?" The answer seems to be that things are better, but only marginally so. To follow up on the Princeton model--to share the veritas--the Manhattan Institute has recently inaugurated the Veritas Fund, offering support to academics of a Bloomian bent. "To the degree that we find people that are interested in these subjects, in the name of intellectual pluralism we need to support them," says Mr. DesRosiers, the fund's executive director.

Patrick Deneen, who heads the newly formed Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown University, attracted the attention of the Veritas Fund right away. He wants to return to "an emphasis on classic texts, and particularly the way in which the American tradition draws on classical Western tradition and biblical tradition." The Tocqueville Forum has adopted Georgetown's emblem as its own--an eagle clutching a globe, the calipers of rationalism in one claw, a Christian cross in the other. In October, Mr. Deneen hosted a conference on American civic education. Justice Antonin Scalia was the keynote speaker, and much of the conservative professorial elite was in attendance.

Mr. Deneen, who taught at Princeton from 1997 to 2005, notes that, "for many people, there was a sense that universities had largely been lost to the forces of political correctness, softheaded multiculturalism." The Madison Program, he says, "energized many people throughout the academy." It provided "a legitimate intellectual and academic space where the kind of questions that lie at the heart of a classic education could be discussed." The Tocqueville Forum is trying to open up a similar space on Georgetown's campus.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Household Management

We moderns like to congratulate ourselves for overcoming the abusive backwardness of our ancestors who enslaved other human beings to do their work for them. Yet, as with humans in all times, we are myopic about the ways in which we are not self-sufficent: our self-congratulation is built on a different platform of leisure, now granted through the "employment" of some different "workers" on our behalf. Consider this portion of a speech by Hyman Rickover delivered in 1957. I came across this via a speech delivered two days ago on the floor of Congress by Republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland.

"With high energy consumption goes a high standard of living. Thus the enormous fossil fuel energy which we in this country control feeds machines which make each of us master of an army of mechanical slaves. Man's muscle power is rated at 35 watts continuously,'' little more than you are working, but you have got to sleep, ``or one-twentieth horsepower. Machines therefore furnish every American industrial worker with energy equivalent to that of 244 men, while at least 2,000 men push his automobile along the road, and his family is supplied with 33 faithful household helpers. Each locomotive engineer controls energy equivalent to that of 100,000 men; each jet pilot of 700,000 men. Truly, the humblest American enjoys the services of more slaves than were once owned by the richest nobles, and lives better than most ancient kings. In retrospect, and despite wars, revolutions, and disasters, the hundred years just gone by may well seem like a Golden Age.''

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Political Correction

I come from a gathering of numerous and sundry Georgetown faculty, namely a workshop organized by the Provost to discuss undergradutate teaching and learning. While there was much of interest that might be discussed, I was particularly struck by a moment at the end of the keynote lecture by Harvard professor of Public Policy, Richard Light. Light was disclosing the results of a new "assessment" that seeks to track values of both entering undergraduates and graduating seniors at Harvard. The question devised to measure these values (as best I recall) was: "In your judgment, who are the three most important individuals to have lived in the last 100 years." Before disclosing the results, Light predicted that there would be two groans (this, based on his experience reporting these results at other Universities), and he was right - there were groans when he mentioned result numbers 3 and 7. His study showed that the top eight responses by students were:
1. Gandhi 2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt 3. Ronald Reagan 4. Martin Luther King 5. Winston Churchill 6. Nelson Mandela 7. Margaret Thatcher 8. Anwar Sadat

He then discussed another "values" measure, namely the following question: "In your judgment, what is the greatest speech in American history?" For incoming freshman, the overwhelming response was Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" Speech. However, graduating seniors named Abraham Lincoln's "Second Inaugural Address," followed in second by Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." When Light disclosed this latter result, there was THE SAME GROAN in the room as had gone up when he named Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the previous question. The first set of groans one can ALMOST understand, if not excuse, as evidence of predictable contemporary academic partisanship (what does it say about faculty views of the numerous students who presumably named those two figures?). The second groan, frankly, nearly - but not wholly - baffles me. Has academia arrived at the point at which Abraham Lincoln's greatest speech is regarded as politically incorrect? Did anyone in that room actually know what Lincoln said? Doesn't Lincoln's relevance to King's own views bear any reflection (indeed, consider the location of King's speech). The mind reels at the kneejerk ignorance of America's "best and brightest"...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Berry Good

I have an essay coming out in a collection devoted to exploring the thought of Wendell Berry. One description reads: Wendell Berry: Life and Work should be available in bookstores in March, a publication date that will roughly coincide with Wendell’s and Tanya’s fiftieth wedding anniversary (May 29). The book will feature a chronology, a selected bibliography, an index, five photographs of Wendell (each adorned with a short quotation about him by a writer not included in the table of contents, including Robert Hass, Barry Lopez, Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder, and Wallace Stegner), and of course thirty superb essays.

I post here an earlier version of the chapter that will appear in the book. There are enough changes in the chapter to officially qualify it as a new essay - so, buy the book!

Against the Grain:
The Alternative Tradition of Wendell Berry

Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University

In his early book, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry described America as a nation with two fundamental “tendencies.” These two tendencies were set in motion by the earliest European settlers in America, and continue to define the fundamental worldviews of most contemporary Americans – and increasingly, the modern world. The “dominant tendency” was manifested as a proclivity toward mobility and restlessness that aimed at maximum extraction of resources and accumulation of profits from the bounty of the new continent. Berry acknowledges that this worldview was dominant because it was “organized” at the very inception of the settlement of the new continent. However, Berry also recognizes “another tendency” that characterized a great many other settlers: this “weaker” tradition was marked by “the tendency to stay put, to say ‘No farther. This is the place.’” The first tendency took the form of liberalism, both philosophically, politically and economically. The “weaker” tendency lacks a philosophical label, but has found varying expressions within America as traditionalism, agrarianism, and populism. Over time, this weaker tendency has only lost ground to the dominant tendency, to the point that many have come to conclude that there is really only one tradition in America - liberalism.

America’s “dominant tendency” was drawn philosophically from older sources, such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes; derived from early modern sources ranging from John Locke and Adam Smith; was articulated domestically by figures like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson (sometimes), James Madison, Alexander Hamilton; and was officially instantiated in America’s founding documents. At the heart of this tradition is a belief in natural scarcity, of a recalcitrant nature which only grudgingly provides the basic necessities of human existence. The modern age was conceived as the effort to increase the offerings of nature by means of the increase of human power and dominion. According to Francis Bacon, science was aimed above all for the “relief of man’s estate.” Francis Bacon initiated the modern scientific project of conquering nature with the aphorism “knowledge is power.” According to Bacon, nature was comparable to a prisoner who withheld its secrets from his inquisitor. The modern scientific project sought to increase our knowledge about those secrets by any means, including, Bacon suggested, torture.

Building on this foundation, liberalism was conceived by assuming that humans are, by nature, self-interested and self-maximizing individuals. Bacon’s one time secretary, Thomas Hobbes, declared that the inescapable motivation of human being was their endless and restless pursuit of “power after power that ceaseth only in death.” Human existence was, by nature, one of conflict and warfare. In this natural condition – one in which human life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” – there is no culture or industry, no productive economy of any kind. By means of a “social contract,” or an agreement of convention, humans are enabled not only to ensure peace and security, but to achieve “commodious living.” Comfort, plenty, and culture can only be achieved in a condition that is unnatural; “nature,” including human nature, is hostile to the goods of human life. As such, it must be harnessed, controlled, and subverted.

John Locke – America’s philosopher, according to some – expanded this commendation of “commodious living,” arguing in The Second Treatise on Government that the fundamental aim of human society was the increase of economic growth. According to Locke, early human societies permitted the accumulation of only an amount of property that was sufficient for the continuity of human life. However, with the invention of money – a contrivance that allowed humans to circumvent the one-time limitation on accumulation, namely, only so much material that would not spoil – unlimited acquisition became both possible and desirable. This unlimited acquisition did not prejudice or fundamentally disadvantage even those who were ill-equipped or even unwilling to increase their holdings, since, according to Locke, the increase of prosperity of some individuals led to the increase of wealth of the society at large. Thus, Locke argued – anticipating Ronald Reagan’s adage that “a rising tide raises all boats” – that the poorest day laborer in England (i.e., a growth economy) was wealthier and thereby a more desirable estate than the greatest Indian chief in America (who presided over a non-growth economy). Society was devised in order to secure not only peace, but the perpetual and unlimited increase of human wealth based upon the extraction, accumulation and manipulation of natural resources.

America was conceived in light of the aims of this modern project, and arguably is the nation par excellence in embodying its belief in the preeminence of individuals who aim above all to harness nature toward the end of increasing material wealth. Its founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, attest to the liberal presuppositions and framework that have guided the nation and formed the citizenry since its inception. The Declaration of Independence enshrines the centrality of natural rights – “endowed by their Creator” – in America’s self-understanding. Rights both precede and are retained within political society: they are “inalienable” and inherent possessions of each individual, thus establishing a central presupposition among Americans that the individual precedes and in theory and practice is prior to government and commonweal. In political terms, the theory of liberal rights leads to a stress upon individual liberty and suspicion if not outright hostility toward government (cf. Thoreau’s claim, attributed to Jefferson and similar to statements of Thomas Paine, that “that government which governs best, governs least”). In economic terms, the theory of liberal rights lends itself to a thoroughgoing belief in individual agency in the use and disposal of one’s property. Liberalism’s base assumption that all human motivation arises from self-interest further undermines the claims for a common good, and rather privileges the priority of individual choice and economic growth, regardless of the consequences to both moral and economic ecology. While the American Left and Right have tended to highlight one side of liberalism – with the current Democratic Party most protective of political liberalism particularly in the realm of “lifestyle choice,” and the Republican Party a vociferous defender of free market libertarianism – as a whole, the American polity and its major political actors predominantly share a common embrace of the major tenets of liberalism. It is almost inconceivable to imagine a political leader raising doubts about the priority of liberty as a national ideal, or questioning the continued wisdom of growth as the major ambition of our economic system. It would seem that there is simply no alternative tradition to this dominant liberal tradition.
Wendell Berry contests this supposition, both in practice and theory. He points to an alternative tradition in America, initially composed of settlers who sought to put down roots, to foster community, and create colonies in the original sense of that term. This early American worldview, according to Berry, has been subsequently and variously defended in the written work of such figures as the Founders, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and members of the American “Southern Agrarian” movement, especially Allen Tate. It has been instantiated in the practices and the worldview of American agrarians and populists. Yet, while it has been a distinctive American tradition, Berry acknowledges that over time this “tendency” was rendered almost invisible, not only because it was not “organized,” but because the dominant tendency was actively hostile toward the “weaker” tendency. “Generation after generation, those who intended to remain and prosper where they were have been dispossessed and driven out, or subverted and exploited where they were, by those who were carrying out some version of the search for El Dorado. Time after time, in place after place, these conquerors have fragmented and demolished traditional communities…. They have always said that what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible.” A more aggressive and hostile form of colonization has displaced its more modest counterpart over time.


Berry’s anti-liberalism is not articulated in strictly philosophic terms, but nevertheless has a remarkable philosophic pedigree, at least in terms of family resemblance. Perhaps the most intriguing philosophic source of Berry’s thought is only implicit at best, and is most probably a resemblance not deriving from strong first-hand knowledge but simply philosophic sympathy. Remarkably, at various instances throughout his corpus, Berry sounds uncanny echoes to the thought of Aristotle. His standard, like Aristotle, is nature. Nature sets the terms and establishes limits to human undertakings. Humanity is best positioned to thrive not through the successful conquest or exploitation of nature, but rather through a respectful heeding of nature’s laws and limits. Nature – of which humanity is a part, in both Berry’s and Aristotle’s reckoning – is the whole that governs all of its constitutive parts. While liberalism tends to focus upon and give priority to the various “parts” of nature, including and above all the individual – and hence leads to the foolish belief that those parts can escape the implications of their connection to, and reliance upon, nature – Berry’s alternative understanding gives priority to “the whole” and understands all parts within that context. Berry writes:
We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself. But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back together. For the parts can be reconciled to each other only within the pattern of the whole to which they belong. Like Aristotle, Berry argues that the whole precede the parts in priority, that is, that the parts can only thrive when the whole is considered, comprehended, heeded and cultivated.

Further, like Aristotle, the seemingly simple standard of “nature” turns out to be a challenging and imprecise guide, one that requires judgment and prudence more than science and logic. Berry rejects the typically “polarized” contemporary views of the relationship of humankind to nature, one comprised of “nature conquerors” and the other, purported lovers of nature. The former claim that there is a thoroughgoing adversarial relationship between humans and nature; the latter claim that there is no fundamental disjuncture or tension between the two. The former reject that humans are part of nature altogether while the latter tend toward pantheism. Berry finds both positions to be facile. Instead, in strikingly Aristotelian terms, he advances instead the “roomy and bewildering” alternative of “the middle.” Humanity is at once a part of, and separate from, nature, which is at once “hospitable to us, but also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it.” The two “polarized” positions represent fundamentally false choices: humankind cannot live wholly as parts of nature, inasmuch as they must consciously decide how to use it. There is no escape from the necessity of using nature; there is only the choice of how best to establish that relationship, whether as exploiters or stewards. On the other hand, while humans can live for a time in an exploitative relationship with nature, in the long term nature will exact a cost for this alternative extreme and make continued human life increasingly difficult if not impossible.

Thus, much like Aristotle’s recognition that humans are “by nature political animals” – that is, that it is in their nature to be conventional creatures, albeit ones governed by certain laws, above all by the law of being a human and not a “god or beast” – Berry recognizes that humans occupy a vast middle ground in which the human relationship to nature must be guided by conscious decision, cultivation, and judgment. Humans cannot be the unconscious “animals” of the pantheists any more than they can be the self-sufficient “gods” suggested by those who would establish human dominion over nature.

Humans uniquely possess the conscious capacity to determine their relationship to nature, but can do so only reasonably within the bounds established by nature – both “wildness” and human nature. Culture is the inescapable medium of human life and the conduit of the human relation to the natural sphere, as is the case as well for Aristotle: “To take a creature who is biologically a human and to make him or her fully human is a task that requires many years….” It is culture, including the acculturation within polities, above all, that makes us “into humans – creatures capable of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues.” Like Aristotle, Berry observes that, absent this cultivation of the human animal into the human being, humanity has an opposite tendency to become worse than beasts: “for our history reveals that, stripped of the restraints, disciplines, and ameliorations of culture, humans are not ‘natural,’ not ‘thinking animals’ or ‘naked apes,’ but monsters – indiscriminate and insatiable killers and destroyers. We differ from other creatures, partly, in our susceptibility to monstrosity.”

Above all, humans must exercise prudence, or the Aristotelian intellectual virtue of phronesis. Humans must integrate culture and nature, neither assuming their actions to be wholly in accord with, or derived from nature simpliciter, nor that they can flourish apart from, or in hostility to, nature. Akin to Arisotelian phronesis, judgment must be formed not based on abstraction or “theory,” but upon particular circumstance and local knowledge (albeit, particularity that is always guided by the demands and limits set by nature). Humans must “consciously and conscientiously ask of their work: Is this good for us? Is this good for our place? And the questioning and answering of this phase is minutely particular: It can occur only with reference to particular artifacts, events, places, ecosystems, and neighborhoods.”


Because of the importance of particular knowledge and experience, Berry, like Aristotle, stresses the central importance of locality, that is, an embodied and real set of relationships of particular people in particular and relatively delineated and exclusive places. Berry is an unapologetic defender of community, albeit not the contemporary liberal version of communitarianism that seeks simply to add a dollop of “responsibility” to the continued dominant discourse of “rights,” such as one finds in the thought of Amitai Etzioni. For Berry, rather, community is a rich and varied set of personal relationships, a complex of practices and traditions drawn from a store of common memory and tradition, and a set of bonds forged between a people and a place that – because of this situatedness – is not portable, mobile, fungible, or transferable. Community is more than a mere collection of self-interested individuals brought together to seek personal advancement together. Rather, community “lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness.”

Berry does not shy away from the conclusion, nor is embarrassed to acknowledge, that community is a place of constraint and limits. Indeed, in this simple fact lies its great attraction. Community, properly conceived, is the appropriate setting for flourishing human life – flourishing that requires culture, discipline, constraint and forms. At the most elemental level (again, echoing Aristotle, if unconsciously), community is both derived from, and in turn makes possible, healthful family life. Absent the supports of communal life, family life is hard pressed to flourish. This is because family life is premised, in Berry’s view, in the first instance upon certain suppression of otherwise individualistic tendencies toward narrow self-fulfillment, particularly ones erotic in nature. Berry commends
arrangements [that] include marriage, family structure, divisions of work and authority, and responsibility for the instruction of children and young people. These arrangements exist, in part, to reduce the volatility and dangers of sex – to preserve its energy, its beauty, and its pleasure; to preserve and clarify its power to join not just husband and wife to one another but parents to children, families to the community, the community to nature; to ensure, so far as possible, that the inheritors of sexuality, as they come of age, will be worthy of it.

Communities maintain standards and patterns of life that encourage responsible and productive forms of erotic bonds, particularly with an aim toward fostering strong family ties and commitments that are the backbone of communal health and the conduit for the transmission of culture and tradition. Communities thus supercede the absolutist claims of “rights bearers”: for instance, Berry insists that communities are justified in maintaining internally-derived standards of decency in order to foster and maintain a certain desired moral ecology. He explicitly defends the communal prerogative in the field of education to demand certain books be removed from the curriculum; to insist upon the introduction of the Bible into the classroom as “the word of God”; and even reflects that “the future of community life in this country may depend on private schools and home schooling.” Family is the wellspring of the cultural habits and practices that foster practical wisdom, judgment and local forms of knowledge by which humans can flourish and thrive in common and rightly claim the primary role in the education and upbringing of a given community’s children.

The priority of community begins with the family, but extends outward to incorporate an appropriate locus of the common good. For Berry, the common good can only be achieved in small, local settings. These dimensions cannot be precisely drawn, but Berry seems to endorse, at a minimum, the town as the most basic locus of commonweal, and at the utmost, and mainly in the economic and not interpersonal realm, the region. Berry is not hostile toward a conception of national, or even international common good, but recognizes that the greater scope of these latter large units tends toward abstraction and hence come always at the expense of the former, namely, at the expense of the flourishing of real human lives. Larger units than the locality or the region can only flourish in the proper sense when the constitutive parts flourish. Modern liberalism, by contrast, insists upon the priority of the largest unit over the smallest, and seeks everywhere to create a homogenous standard to be imposed upon a world of particularity and diversity. One sees this tendency across the board in modern liberal society, from education to court decisions that effectively “nationalize” sexual morality, from economic standardization to minute and exacting regulatory regimes. The tendency of modern politics – born of a philosophy that endorses above all the expansion of human power and control – is toward massification, the subjection of all particularities to the logic of market dynamics, the resulting exploitation of local resources, and an active hostility toward the diversity of local customs and traditions in the name of progress and rationalism.

Modern politics, as Berry has pointed out, is impatient with local variety, particularly forms of life that do not accept the modern embrace of progress, and most especially material progress in the form of economic growth and personal liberation from all forms of work that are elemental or forestall mobility and efficiency. Berry is a strong critic of the homogenization that modern states and modern economic assumptions enforce upon the variety of local forms. He is a defender of “common” or “traditional” sense, that sense of the commons that in many respects can prove to be resistant to the logic of economic and liberal development and progress. Much like Giambattista Vico’s earlier critique of Hobbesian instrumental rationality, Berry is a defender of the “sensus communis.” Such “common knowledge” is the result of the practice and experience, the accumulated common store of wisdom born of trials and corrections of people who have lived, suffered, and flourished in local settings. Rules and practices cannot be imposed based upon a pre-conceived notion of right, absent the prudential consideration and respect toward common sense. This is not to suggest that traditions cannot be changed or altered, but, much as in Burke’s understanding, traditions must be allowed to change internally and thus with the understanding and assent of people who have developed lives and communities based upon those practices.
Berry excoriates the exploitative sensibility of economic agents who most often have no connection to a locality, and see it only in terms of what use any particular place can have for economic growth overall. Calling this the “absentee economy,” he notes the way in which local particularities are largely reduced to their usefulness for other parts of the country or the world.

The global economy (like the national economy before it) operates on the superstition that the deficiencies or needs or wishes of one place may safely be met by the ruination of another place. "To build houses here, we clear-cut forests there. To have air-conditioning here, we strip-mine forests there. To drive our cars here, we sink our oil wells there. It is an absentee economy. Most people aren’t destroying what they can see…." All the critical questions affecting our use of the earth are left to be answered by “the market” or the law of supply and demand. An economy without limits is an economy without discipline.

According to the assessment of the “market” – a seeming impersonal force, the collection of individual decisions that transpires without planning or collective intention – there can be no calculable “valuation” of what is disrupted or destroyed by the extraction of resources, or the exploitation of labor, from various localities. The objections by any such localities that economic logic may prove destructive of longstanding communal forms can have no effect, inasmuch as such forms of life almost never contribute to an increase or improvement in the bottom line. All evaluations are made in terms of whether there is a short-term increase in wealth, prosperity, and efficiency.

Berry’s refuses to depersonalize the destruction wrought by modern economic forces upon local communities by rejecting the dogma that the “market” or “globalization” or progress itself is an impersonal and thus uncontrollable force. He articulates not only the particular set of assumptions and preferences built into those seemingly impersonal “forces,” but points to the particular agents who carry out those assumptions. In particular, he gives a face and personality to the humans whose economic assumptions have the effect of eviscerating local traditions and mores. He lambasts the condescension of “experts” and “progressives” who presume to know what is better for a community than the people who live in that community, ones who otherwise view such places as “fly-over” country and practice a form of “absentee” exploitation. He notes that this “powerful class of itinerant professional vandals” brings no capacity to assess the value of locality in terms other than profit and growth. Such people, above all, lack the capacity to assess the non-monetary value of localities because they have been raised and educated both to avoid any such local commitments, and even to disdain them as untoward forms of limitation. They are formed to be “the purest sort of careerists – ‘upwardly mobile’ transients who will permit no stay or place to interrupt their personal advance. They must have no local allegiances; they must not have a local point of view. In order to be able to desecrate, endanger, or destroy a place, after all, one must be able to leave it and forget it…. Unlike a life at home, which makes ever more particular and precious the places and creatures of this world, the careerist’s life generalizes the world, reducing its abundant and comely diversity to ‘raw material.’”

These modern elites – mobile, homeless cosmopolitans – are the product of a particular system of education that induces particular preferences and produces particular outcomes. Not simply or reductively the product of a neutral “market,” the “market” is itself the product of a certain culture – in this case, a culture against culture. Berry is particularly critical of modern universities for their betrayal of an earlier mandate to educate young men and women of particular localities (particularly at land-grant institutions) in order that they might gratefully contribute to the very communities that sponsored their course of study. Classically understood, “education is, literally, ‘to bring up,’ to bring young people to a responsible maturity, to help them be good caretakers of what they have been given, to help them to be charitable toward fellow creatures.” By contrast, according the practices of modern universities, education that orients people to leave home becomes a “commodity” – “something to be bought in order to make money…. To make a commodity of education, then, is inevitably to make a kind of weapon of it because, when it its dissociated from the sense of obligation, it can be put directly in the service of greed.” A university education becomes yet one more portable commodity, a ticket into the exploiting class.

For Berry, there are two economies, and correspondingly, two kinds of education. The first kind of economy is that which we currently have: oriented toward the short term in pursuit of quickly-won wealth, it is an exploitative economy that hollows out traditional and communal forms of life and thereby induces amnesia about how to sustain and work in concert with nature’s limited bounty. One is less “educated” than “trained” in this first economic context. The second kind of economy, and the values correspondingly inculcated through such an education, takes into account the economic whole – not only the “bottom line” with the presumption that growth and increase of human power and comfort are the aim, but an economy that accounts for both moral and physical ecology, that considers its effects upon future generations, that hews more closely to the wisdom of past tradition and eschews the easy assumption that new always implies progress and “better.” The first economy is based upon the control of nature that permits unrestrained human greed; the second economy is based upon the self-control of properly educated human beings.


Bertrand de Jouvenel has written that the core assumption underlying liberalism’s constitutive State of Nature theory – that human beings can be conceived as naturally autonomous, rights-bearing and rationally calculating individuals – is proof that liberalism was conceived by “childless men who have forgotten their childhood.” Classical liberalism, Jouvenel points out, is based upon an abstraction of human beings from human life in all of its particularity, materiality, and rich diversity. It reduces humans to abstract, calculating individuals, stripping them of their past, their relations, their culture and their traditions. Built upon this foundation, liberalism contributes to an abstract way of thinking and acting in such a way that pervades modern society, depriving most people of the once easy and obvious forms of reality that are necessarily imposed upon our vision in the context of a more traditional setting. Modern life divorces us from the sources of that life; by contrast, life within cultures and traditions cultivates not only our understanding of those sources, but a sense of gratitude, wonder, and honor. In such an alternative setting, we are enabled to see more readily our past, in the structures erected with care and thought of permanence by our forbears and the honor we pay them; in the customs and practices that we learn from our parents and from the elders of our community; in the more elementary forms of economy that permits us more closely to perceive the ways that our food and goods of human life are cultivated, produced, distributed, and replenished; and the fact of our limits, including that ultimate limit of our mortality, evinced at every turn by the constraints imposed by community, lessons of self-control gained through our education, and a variety of traditional “forms,” perhaps above all the inescapable presence of memorials to the dead.

Modern society obscures our acts from their sources and their consequences. Modern life puts temporal blinders around our eyes, forcing to see only the present and inducing a blindness toward the past and permitting an exceedingly narrow view of the future. Short term thinking – the use and destruction of nature for our satisfaction today – is undertaken and justified in light of a blinkered and unjustified belief that any shortages or adverse consequences resulting from our current activities will be solved by technological progress in the future. This restricted temporal horizon severs us from the past. Technological optimism and blind faith in progress can only be embraced if one simultaneously harbors a “hatred for the past.” What appears to be our belief in the future – our technological optimism – in fact manifests itself as a free pass to live irresponsibly in the present. It serves as an easy excuse to avoid confronting the consequences of one’s current actions. Our seeming future-orientation is nothing more than a deeply constricted form of presentism. Our disinclination to recall the past induces an unrealism about the future, and thereby leads us to a drastically constrained short-term time horizon. Berry’s work – bound up in the inescapable rhythm of time in which past is present and future is, like agriculture, a seed that will take a certain form under certain conditions of cultivation (or, will fail to flourish with in the absence of cultivation) – seeks to restore the entirety of the human temporal horizon and thereby restore the possibility of realism.

Perhaps above all, Berry calls for thoughtfulness in all of its forms. The abstraction induced by the modern economic order leads to pervasive forms of thoughtlessness. The mainstream of modern humanity, operating under the assumptions governing free market ideology, has a tendency to reduce all value to monetary terms. Herein lies the origins of modern relativism: in this view, nothing contains an inherent worth. This assumption was already carried to its natural conclusion by Hobbes in the Leviathan, when he wrote that “the ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another.” Human life itself, beginning but not limited to our labor, is but one more commodity to be accorded a price on the open market. Money is the everyday practical symbol of the abstraction of our economy, and is one of the features of that economy that blinds us to the reality of work and its intrinsic value. Because of the abstraction of our lives, it is likely that there has never been a populace more ignorant about how to evaluate truly the reality of our world. “Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink or clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself to be as superstitious a mind as ever existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?”

Indeed, this “ignorance” of the true sources of human sustenance is undergirded and aggravated by an active hostility toward manual forms of labor, that is, toward what is otherwise considered to be “drudgery.” Berry describes this modern aversion as arising from a belief in the possibility of “economic redemption” from the divine injunction that humans must earn bread by the sweat of their own brow. According to modern valuations, physical labor, or drudgery, has been degraded as have all ways of living that implicitly acknowledge our lack of thoroughgoing power. Because such labor is and remains a necessity, it is an affront to our belief that modernity entails our increasing escape from necessity. Thus, Berry observes, “to speak of such work as good and ennobling, a source of pleasure and joy, is almost to declare oneself a pervert. Such work, and any aptitude or taste for it, are supposedly mere relics of our rural and primitive past – a past from which it is the business of modern science and technology to save us.”

Our pervasive ignorance of the sources of the most basic necessities of human life – an ignorance abetted and aggravated by this modern hostility to “drudgery,” and hence our widespread ignorance of the intrinsic merit of such work – leads to the inability to thoughtfully understand the sources and consequences of our economy, especially in the forms of our consumption and the production of waste. “Money does not bring forth food,” Berry writes. “Neither does the technology of the food system. Food comes from nature and from the work of people. If the supply of food is to be continuous for a long time, people must work in harmony with nature.” Because of the disconnection, in this instance, between our consumption of processed and packaged food and the origin of that sustenance, we consume thoughtlessly and wastefully. By valuing food because of its low price, we thoughtlessly support destructive forms of industrial agriculture, ones that reap enormous crops – and profits – in the present, at the cost of future productivity due to the loss of topsoil, the destruction of ecologies due to the pervasive introduction of agricultural monocultures (the agricultural version of our human monoculture, such as most forms of popular “culture”), and the depletion of resources such as water and fossil fuels. Only by full valuation of labor and the fruits of that work can we begin properly to evaluate – to accord proper value upon – our patterns of consumption and waste. Only by accounting for what is lost or destroyed by present practices and the burdens those actions will impose upon our children and future generations can we begin to calculate the true cost of our actions.

At the heart of Berry’s critique of this thoughtlessness lies a rejection of Adam Smith’s assumptions that an economy could work best based upon ever-greater forms of specialization. Berry does not reject the necessity of the division of labor as such; however, extensive specialization takes place in a philosophic context that actively discourages thoughtfulness about the connections of all the various forms of work in a complex industrial economy. The “whole” is understood to be an aggregate of individual choices, an “invisible hand” that spontaneously orients society in the direction it “chooses.” We are relieved of the duty or obligation to reflect upon the implications of our work: such reflection forms no part of our actual work. For Berry, this represents not the proper form of work; it is, in fact, bad work.

Most of us get almost all the things we need by buying them; most of us know only vaguely, if at all, where these things come from; and most of us know not at all what damage is involved in their production. "We are almost entirely dependent on an economy of which we are almost entirely ignorant. The provenance, for example, not only of the food we buy at the store, but of the chemicals, fuels, metals, and other materials necessary to grow, harvest, transport, process, and package that food is almost necessarily a mystery to us. To know the full economic history of a head of supermarket cauliflower would require an immense job of research."

Not only does the complexity of the modern economy make the likelihood of perceiving the various connections between different kinds of worth exceedingly difficult; before even arriving at that recognition, modern economic theory in fact discourages such thoughtfulness by its tendency instead to encourage short-term, individualistic, value-based (i.e., relativistic), and resource exploitative ways of thinking. Thoughtlessness is our default tendency, a tendency that is only exacerbated by the resulting complexity of the extreme specialization resulting from the available kinds of work.

Good work, by contrast, involves our thoughtful reflection on these sources and connections. Such work does not entail our full comprehension of all the constitutive efforts that go into the creation of a head of supermarket cauliflower, or any product of a complex economic system. Good work, rather, entails the effort to see through a glass darkly toward the whole of which we are all constitutive members. Such an effort, in the first instance, acknowledges the existence of a whole: it forces upon our consciousness a recognition that we act not merely as partialities nor as autonomous or monadic individuals, but as members of a large, living organism of civilization. It forces to our consciousness recognition that, by acting in certain ways, we assent – or potentially withhold our assent – to the destruction of that whole. We move beyond thinking that there is an “environmental crisis” – since, the “environment,” recall, is something “out there” and separate from us – but rather, that we are experiencing “a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens.” We begin to understand how our actions implicate us in the whole, how we are inextricably linked in the creation of a common culture – or the undermining of that culture – and in the forging of a common good – or, more likely, the neglect of that good in the absence of commonality.

Thoughtfulness, from the perspective of liberalism, potentially deprives us of our full-blown liberty. Its consequence is to explode the assumption that we can act solely based upon our individual rights and the resulting freedom of choice. It dissolves the supposition that we can and ought to dispose of our property – what we have paid for, using our money – in whatever manner we see fit. Such thoughtfulness does not give a priority of the “right” over the “good” – indeed, it recognizes that only the good can be right. Such thoughtfulness becomes a source of support for robust political action – actions that potentially, and likely, will restrict the liberty of individual actors, whether in the “economic” or “personal” spheres. As such, Berry contends that liberalism finally falsely understands liberty.

Thoughtfulness, and the resulting understanding, enables a true form of liberty – the liberty that results from proper choices within properly understood limits.
Ironically, the accumulation of our individual decisions leaves modern liberals profoundly unfree. They are, first and most basically, in the thrall of their appetites. They lack self-control, and hence are incapable of the freedom of self-rule. But, further, in ways that become daily more evident to us, because of our dependence on globalized sources of labor and essential resources, we are subject to forces far beyond our capacity to exert influence or control. America has abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of economic self-sufficiency as a core basis for political liberty. In developing dependencies upon foreign powers, we are inevitably and inescapably drawn into the vagaries of foreign politics, into concern over the future of oft despicable regimes, and into “foreign entanglements” that have historically led to the transformation of republics into empires. For the sake of cheaply produced goods and the avoidance of “drudgery,” the republic increasingly loses its actual freedom – ironically enough, in the name of freedom (now, freedom from any form of physical labor and the freedom to buy the cheapest goods): “The United States has chosen (if that is the right word) to become an import-dependent society rather than to live principally from its own land and the work of its own people, as if dependence on imported goods and labor can be consistent with political independence and self-determination…. The economic independence of families, communities, and even regions has now been almost completely destroyed.”

In this sense, Berry seeks to return us to reality – not the fantasy of imagined freedom, but the actual liberty that can be achieved by individuals, families, communities, and polities with an appropriate understanding of limits and the choices possible within those bounds. We will return to reality, either by choice or by the force of natural limits imposed upon us. Berry urges us to take the path of freedom.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Interview with Me

An interview with conservative student newspaper on campus, "The Federalist" appeared just before the Christmas break. I don't think it's online, and, even if it were, the printed interview had to cut the whole interview more than a bit. The interview itself touches often on a campus initiative which I've begun, The Tocqueville Forum. I offer the interview here, in its entirety:

Q: There is talk of a “counter-culture” against the stale beliefs predominant on campuses developing, but few in the general college population know what the “counter-culture” is. Could you elaborate on how you see this phenomenon coming into fruition at Georgetown?

PJD: Of course it is ironic to suggest that there is the need for a “counter-culture” on today’s college campuses, since that the term gained prominence with the rise of the New Left during the 1960s. Given that college campuses are now largely dominated by faculty who came of age in the 60s, a contemporary “counter-culture” would necessarily seek to correct that now-dominant worldview. In practice, such a “counter counter-culture,” if you will, opposes several core assumptions that were rampant during the 1960s.

First, it rejects the view that patriotism, and by extension, loyalty to one’s nation, is unjustified and the “refuge of scoundrels.” Patriotism is a form of gratitude for what has made us who we are, and particularly toward those generations of patriots whose sacrifices secured the rights and privileges we enjoy today (including the privilege of attending this great University). Patriotism is the love of one’s own country, its history, its institutions and its future. It is not uncritical, but it begins with a core of sympathy toward one’s own that is born of familiarity and understanding of one’s own tradition. Contemporary critics of patriotism often enjoy the fruits of our nation more than most, and their near-automatic denunciation of America reflects not only ingratitude, but outright petulance.

Secondly, in this spirit of gratitude, such a “counter counter-culture” calls for a deeper understanding of the American constitutional order, including knowledge of American history sympathetically presented, an understanding of American politics, and an engagement with its animating political philosophy. For instance, all students should have familiarity with The Federalist Papers, in which the Framers articulated the theory behind the familiar structures of our government. Such a familiarity, in turn, demands working knowledge of Western political philosophy and, I would argue, Biblical theology, inasmuch as modern republicanism and classical liberal theory have their roots in both traditions.

Lastly, as these previous positions suggest, one of the legacies of the 1960s is the suspicion that “traditional” knowledge is necessarily the repository of sexism, colonialism, and racism. Core curricula at America’s universities were overthrown out of a belief that this action represented a liberation from the oppression of repressive authors. The result has been the complete loss of a common education in the core texts of our tradition, and the loss of our intellectual patrimony. Students have been deprived of the deepest forms of self-understanding that comes with understanding the ideas that made our culture what it is, and which made students who they are. Students today think they are self-created and that their culture arose ex nihilo. They are, in general, profoundly ignorant, and the fault lies not with them, but with their teachers. There is an irony here: the generation of the 1960s criticized the core texts of the Western tradition for various perceived failings, but at least that generation had been accorded the privilege of an education in those texts. Today’s students are deprived of that education, and thus of the ability to know whether the tradition that formed the very culture in which they live is deserving alternatively of praise or criticism. This deprivation represents a monumental betrayal of one generation toward the next.

Q: For most Georgetown students your name is synonymous to the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy. What is the Tocqueville Forum and how does it relate to the growing counter-culture?

PJD: The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy was conceived as a conscious corrective to this betrayal I have described. The intiative was named for Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who wrote the greatest book ever written about democracy and the greatest book about America, Democracy in America. Tocqueville understood that a healthy democracy rested ultimately upon the virtues of its citizenry, not institutional mechanisms nor elected representatives who did the work of government. He commended informed civic engagement and religious faith as the twin pillars of a healthy and flourishing democracy.

In this spirit that we launched the Tocqueville Forum. We believe that an institution like Georgetown should provide both a civic and liberal education. It was once assumed as a matter of course that college students received a significant education in American and Western thought, both in their primary and secondary schooling, and in the form of a deeper philosophic education once in college. That assumption no longer holds true: students by and large know very little about the American constitutional order and its roots in the Western philosophic and religious traditions. There are courses constantly taught around this University that would offer students elements of this education, but no one locus that consciously and insistently seeks to articulate the comprehensive grounds for taking such classes, and provides students a sustained picture into the many strands of thought that comprises our tradition. Students might, with luck, stumble into such a course, but lacking a comprehensive understanding of how such a course might comprise part of a liberal education, would fail to recognize the broader significance of such a course. The Tocqueville Forum is an effort to help outline such a course of study, to bring the grounds for such a course of study to the forefront, and to afford students, graduate students, faculty, alumni, and interested members of the Washington D.C. community with numerous opportunities to explore our tradition in a probing but sympathetic manner.

Q: A recent study suggested that college students do not receive enough education on the American system of government. What can be done to rectify the situation at Georgetown, a school which has increasing emphasized international education over American civic education, in order to develop graduates ready to participate in the American governmental process?

PJD: This study was conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and disclosed that entering freshmen at Georgetown know more about American politics and history, political philosophy, and free-market economics than graduating seniors! They called this, rather quaintly, “negative learning.” I, for one, do not think that colleges and Universities are appropriate places for rote learning about the facts of history and politics. Rather, it should be hoped and assumed that incoming freshmen come equipped with a good working knowledge of the basic facts of our system, and that we can provide a deeper understanding of the sources and nuances of those facts. Most critics of this study focus on perceived failings of methodology without addressing the question of whether the study is fundamentally accurate. Most faculty I know around the country are unanimous that the study “proved” what we all already know. What this study reveals to me, above all, is that there is pervasive inattentiveness to a firm grounding in American history, institutions, and political philosophy throughout the American educational system. It confirms that we work in an environment in which knowledge of “one’s own” can no longer be assumed, and indeed, that the American education system practices a kind of “benign neglect” toward our own tradition. I would submit, however, that this “benign neglect” is simply a mask covering a deeper hostility, one widely shared among America’s educational elites, toward the Western tradition generally. Above all, it throws into doubt the prevailing belief that we can simply urge our students to embrace a “cosmopolitan” or internationalist education with the assumption that they already know their own tradition. Concerned faculty have known for decades that students do not have any such intimate knowledge of their own intellectual tradition. The emphasis on cosmopolitan education to the exclusion of knowledge of one’s own tradition is based upon a false premise.

Q: In September, you were named The Eleni and Markos Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair in Hellenic Studies. Do you feel that a greater emphasis on instruction in Classical thought and theory will help Georgetown students better understand the origins of the American system?

PJD: I ended up studying the ancient Greek political thought because I was interested in understanding American democracy. In my view, this is what must happen as a matter of course. When James Madison was preparing a draft of the document that became our Constitution, he engaged in a lengthy study of ancient institutions and history. Readers of the Federalist Papers quickly come to realize how far back they need to study if they want to understand our own system. You might begin with the realization that, to understand our Constitution, you need to study Locke and Montesquieu. To understand them, you need to study Machiavelli and Hobbes. To understand them, you need to study Aristotle and the Bible. And, present at the creation, is Plato. You cannot avoid Plato – not if you wish to understand who you are and the culture that made you.

It should be noted that Madison thought that Greek democracy, in particular, had little to recommend it (in that, he shared many reservations about democracy with Plato and Aristotle). The American constitutional order was consciously erected in contrast to Greek institutions. That said, there is much continuity that links our system of government to the political thought of the Greeks, and none more so than the shared view that humans are imperfect and imperfectible. We are in need of a government of laws because men are frail vessels.

Q: In your book Democratic Faith, you propose that “democratic realism”, which denies the democratic idealism taught by the establishment, specifically the belief in the perfect man, should be adopted. How do incorporate the idea of democratic realism into your classes and do you think Georgetown’s Jesuit heritage better helps in its adoption?

PJD: As my previous answer suggests, one of the great continuities of our tradition, from the ancients and the Christians to early modern liberal republicanism, is the view that humans are imperfect and imperfectible. Universities once provided an education that instructed students about the permanence of human nature, a nature that included the capacity for improvement but also, inescapably, human imperfection. Schools like Georgetown required daily or weekly mass or chapel as a reminder of our propensity toward sin and a call to serve others (and not self or Mammon) and the great and difficult virtue of forgiveness. Georgetown has crucifixes in the classrooms in order to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice, and the distance that separates perfect divine love from our own self-love. (I am told that the crucifixes were placed in classrooms some years ago only after strenuous student efforts persuaded a reluctant administration). According to these assumptions, education can improve us, but such improvement only occurs in the context of our permanent frailty and ultimate imperfectability.

This view was challenged by a new, more optimistic intellectual elite during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill in England and John Dewey in America believed that education could lead to the establishment of “the Kingdom of God on Earth.” Today’s universities are built upon such progressive assumptions – we can make better humans, and that there are no inherent limits to improvement. This belief requires the rejection of a belief in an unchanging human nature, and hence the rejection of Greek, Christian, and early modern liberal assumptions. It further means that modern Universities are actually hostile to “traditional” authors, except as quaint legacies that were once read by credulous and uneducated ancestors. Universities are today largely devoted to the creation of “new knowledge,” not to the transmission of classical liberal learning. For this reason, most contemporary Universities have abandoned an education in a core curriculum.

The prevailing worldview in modern Universities is one of toleration – except toward those who argue on behalf of human nature, for limits and the role of law and forms as constraints upon our desires and whims. Toleration and “non-judgmentalism” are the sledgehammers that demolish those who hold now antiquated views about human nature. John Stuart Mill, for instance, called for complete freedom of speech to explore any issue, and in the same essay “On Liberty” decried “Calvinism” and its view that humans are inescapably born with original sin. Toleration does not extend to those who maintain the existence of human nature, and this fact helps to explain why, on college campuses today, you are far more likely to see various “conservatives” shouted down by “tolerant” liberals, and not vice-versa. At base, Mill’s views predominate on college campuses, though most students don’t know it because they probably haven’t read Mill and know next to nothing about Calvinism.

Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning to the readers of this publication that it’s this same progressive promise of human perfection that has led to an impatience with Constitutional forms and constraints that were designed under the assumption of human imperfectability. Our contemporary jurisprudence is the result of these progressive assumptions. On the one hand there are those who maintain the need for “forms,” for the rule of law that governs the human propensity toward depravity in all of its forms. On the other hand, there are those who view such “forms” as obstacles to our ever greater autonomy and individual perfection. Law, viewed flexibly, is seen as a tool for social engineering and perfectibility, not as a source of constraint and forms.

Q: Many student members of the counter-culture have had professors at one time or another who impress the views of the establishment on the class without leaving room for debate. What, in your opinion, would be the best way for a student to approach such a professor?

PJD: I’m sure that among students there are fairly good informal sources of information about not only the ideological perspectives of most faculty, but whether certain faculty actively discourage contrary views. Conservative students may finally wish to avoid the latter, though I would encourage conservative students to take many courses from liberal professors who are more (truly) tolerant. Frankly, conservatives get a far better education on college campuses today than do liberals. It is only through being confronted with opposing viewpoints that one can better articulate, develop, and ultimately defend one’s own position. Because of the dominance of liberals on college campuses, conservative students get more for their money because they are constantly being challenged, while liberal students bask blithely in a sea of unexamined assumptions. Whenever you become frustrated at the absence of like-minded faculty and students, I would only suggest recalling that you are simply getting smarter.

Q: What can members of the Georgetown community do in order to facilitate the growth of the counter-culture?

PJD: There are significant obstacles to a true change in atmosphere on today’s college campuses. Faculty and administrators pursue objectives developed in the 1960s largely without interference. Alumni are pleased by high rankings in U.S. News and World Reports, and parents want their children to graduate with a prestigious degree. Very few people ask what is being taught and what students are learning. A college education is increasingly a commodity, one whose price rises incommensurate to its actual quality. It would be helpful if students talked about these issues with their parents and with alumni – these are the people who can urge, and support, changes on college campuses. Nevertheless, one has to understand that any significant change will be generational, and one must take the long view.

Students can do little in terms of changing the University wholesale, but they can ask for courses that would provide them an education in the American and Western traditions (with this caveat: the instructors of those courses may prove to be hostile to those traditions!). Talk to trusted professors about what courses you should take. There are many guides about how to become liberally educated, even lists of books one should read. Students can, and should, read great books for the love of it and, most importantly, talk about them with their classmates. If these books are not being offered in your classes, start a reading group. Invite good faculty for informal conversations in dormitories and dining halls. Be active. Students should attend events that would deepen their self-understanding – for starters, check the Tocqueville Forum website. It’s YOUR education – take control of it in a conscious and thoughtful way, with the full realization that four years will evaporate sooner than you think and it’s doubtful you’ll again have the opportunity to pursue a liberal education such as you now have. Don’t let the innumerable assignments and minutiae of daily life allow you to lose sight of the ultimate aim of an education: to flourish as a citizen, as a human, and as a child of God.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Rhetorical Victory

Lest someone conclude from my review of Swaine's book that I peddle only in attacks, I post a soon-to-be published review on Bryan Garsten's book "Saving Persuasion." It is slated to appear imminently in "The Weekly Standard" - which, very likely, CAN be found at a newstand near you.... Read the book - it's excellent.


Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment by Bryan Garsten

Harvard University Press, 2006

Reviewed by: Patrick J. Deneen, Georgetown University

There is a storyline that underlies much contemporary teaching of the history of political thought. In the beginning were the Greek philosophers who, while subtle and profound, nevertheless at the end of the day were unreconstructed elitists. Plato, for one, viewed democracy as a form of mob rule and urged instead governance by specially-trained philosopher-kings who had superhuman abilities to discern and apply the solutions for the problems of cities. Aristotle, if apparently more sympathetic to democracy, begins by excluding broad swaths of people from citizenship, including slaves, women, and “vulgar mechanics” – blue collar workers, in a manner of speaking. By the time you account for all the excluded classes of people in Aristotle’s “democracy,” what’s left of the citizenry looks increasingly like Plato’s elites.

As the story continues, the Greek view held sway for much of human history, essentially until the Enlightenment with the rise of a kind of “democratic faith” expressed by such thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and, at times, John Stuart Mill. If occasionally expressing reservations about democracy, nevertheless such thinkers inaugurated an era marked by growing belief in the moral progress of humanity from brute existence to increasing refinement and even “perfectibility.” Such thinkers rejected the dour Greek view of human capacity for rational self-rule and increasingly endorsed democracy as not only practicable, but the only justifiable form of political organization. As our enlightenment has continued, we rejected not only the ancient pessimism about democracy, but even the residual reservations about democracy of the early modern period, and have now reached an age in which democracy is universally recognized as the only justifiable form of government. Today’s academy, where inheritors of Rousseau, Kant, and Mill reign, is the locus of articulations of defenses of more extensive democracy – in John Dewey’s words, a belief that the cures for the problems of democracy lie always in more democracy. A dominant school of thought in today’s academy seeks to extend “deliberative democracy” in all instances, articulated and advanced by such thinkers as the late John Rawls and Juergen Habermas. We have come a long way from the cramped ancient view, now having achieved an enlightened rejection of elitism and an embrace of democratic egalitarianism and supreme confidence in the democratic capacities of the people.

So the story goes, and students are rarely advised that the evidence may not fit the narrative. Putting aside cant (if not Kant), clear-eyed thinkers cannot avoid noticing that the apparent contemporary confidence in democracy in fact masks a deep and pervasive mistrust toward broad swaths of the citizenry which might, in an open democratic setting, introduce to the public square what modern “deliberative democrats” regard as “unreasonable” arguments. Modern academic democrats offer extensive and elaborate criteria for what arguments and reasons can be admitted into political discourse. Designating acceptable arguments as ones that clear the bar of “public reason,” today’s most ardent democratic thinkers seek to ensure that a mechanism is in place to prevent the inclusion of arguments – or citizens who make them – who might question the basic liberal orthodoxies of the day. Through this pre-definition of what constitutes “reasonable” arguments, such thinkers ensure that there will be very little disagreement among pre-screened “deliberative” citizens. Unreasonable arguments include any reasons that appeal to religious grounds; arguments that can be deemed to be based upon unreasoned prejudice, such as those based upon tradition or custom; and, essentially, any arguments that would limit the contemporary assumption that “democratic” means thoroughgoing individual autonomy. Restrictions on abortion, divorce on demand, gay marriage, or any other arguably debatable issues are regarded by contemporary “democrats” as beyond the pale of acceptable democratic discourse. Today’s democrats are, all too often, highly self-satisfied in their felt sense of intellectual superiority to previous thinkers who expressed concerns about democracy, yet often even more restrictive about who is permitted full democratic access than those previous thinkers they excoriate.

Bryan Garsten, currently an assistant professor of political theory at Yale University, has masterfully documented the origins of this modern mistrust of the masses and the rise of exclusionary procedural liberalism in his recent book Saving Persuasion. Contemporary thinkers have long been aware that the roots of contemporary versions of “deliberative democracy” lie in the philosophical reflections of thinkers ranging from Thomas Hobbes to Immanuel Kant. Garsten ably explores the ground that animated the early modern exclusionary move toward “public reason” (a phrase first used by Hobbes and then later reiterated by Kant), namely, those fears held by early-modern thinkers that arose over religious divisions marking the Reformation. In the face of Protestant preachers appealing to the individual “conscience” of members of their flocks, and the fears of widespread division that would result from each person following his or her own belief in what the word of God demanded in the current conflicts, thinkers like Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant each appealed to a form of “public reason” as a standard that would garner greater societal conformity to the pronouncements of one sovereign. “Public reason” became the measure of what “reasonable people” would agree to if they actually thought reasonably about a particular issue. The conclusions demanded by “public reason” were thus invoked in the name of the people, as being those decisions the people would reach hypothetically under optimal philosophic circumstances. Public reason thus maintained the patina of democratic legitimacy, even as it justified extensive and even absolute rule by, alternatively, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rousseau’s Legislator, and Kant’s “enlightened ruler” whose advisors consisted of – yes, little surprise – the professoriate.

But Garsten’s account is even richer, and more revealing, than those studies that recognize the animating fears of these thinkers (fears that explain the contemporary resurgence of interest in “public reason” in the wake of the widely acknowledged demise of the “secularization thesis”). For Garsten further recognizes that the form of discourse that was rejected by early-modern proponents of public reason was not unreason, but rather, persuasion based upon classical rhetoric. Persuasion and rhetoric were explicitly the object of attack and derision by thinkers ranging from Hobbes to Kant, and remains regarded with deep and abiding suspicion by contemporary liberal thinkers who associate rhetoric with the unreasonable manipulation of people’s emotions, fears, and prejudices. Indeed, the thoroughgoing victory of this viewpoint goes a long way in explaining the pejorative understanding with which most people today regard the very word “rhetoric.”

In contrast to contemporary assumptions that ancient thought was a repository of anti-democratic elitism, Garsten shows how classical thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero defended a politics of rhetoric and persuasion on both prudential and principled grounds. According to these ancient sources, a politics based upon persuasion assumes that people begin with different stances but that, through a thorough exploration of an issue by a series of well-trained orators, some portion of the citizenry can be led to change their initial view on a matter or issue and the polity can set a course with the support of a considerable majority of that citizenry. A politics based upon extensive use of rhetoric thus contains several assumptions that are categorically rejected by theories of “public reason.” First, it holds that no argument should be pre-judged to be out of bounds: even those arguments that might, according to some, appear to be “unreasonable” might in fact have a basis in the shared reality of a polity and prove justified according to the shared reasons of a polity. Political decisions are best reached politically – through the give and take of political debate and discourse – rather than by the imposition of a standard of “pubic reason” pre-determined by intellectual elites. Secondly, it assumes that the citizenry possesses a store of “common sense” that has its source in the shared life of a city. Such a view argues for the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of opinion and tradition, and against the often hurried imposition of pure theories upon an imperfect polity. The politics of rhetoric is a politics of patience. Third, a politics that stresses rhetoric places an emphasis upon the faculty of judgment, and thus, in the language of Aristotle, in the development of phronesis, alternatively translated as “prudence,” or “practical wisdom.” One size does not fit all: political circumstances will always demand reflection and judgment of a citizenry that is itself educated by and through oratory. Lastly, a politics of rhetoric assumes that citizens can and ought to be moved by an appeal beyond narrow self-interest and can be persuaded that the common good may and can justify changing one’s mind in light of one’s interest more broadly conceived.

As may be obvious, theorists of “public reason” favor courts and bureaucracies for the pursuit of the politics of “reasonableness”: harboring fears of a democratic citizenry, they seek out political venues that can arrive at “reasonable” decisions in the name of the people but are in fact likely to be least influenced by the people. A politics of rhetoric and persuasion favors legislatures and more local public venues of the sort Tocqueville extolled in his 19th century tour of America. Beneath heated contemporary debates over judicial activism and top-down bureaucratic uniformity lie a deep set of philosophical debates about the nature of democracy itself, debates that Garsten ably traces and clarifies.

Garsten does not ignore the legitimate fears of classical and contemporary critics of political rhetoric: opening a significant sphere for the employment of political rhetoric always invites the possibility of manipulation and demagoguery. Yet, Garsten also rightly recognizes that, in a democracy, rhetoric is always likely to be employed in the effort to secure political advantage. A democratic polity that does not give rhetoric some pride of place – including an education in rhetoric, not only of orators, but of those citizens who will more often be listening than practicing oratory – leaves the field largely open to the manipulators and demagogues. If contemporary suspicion toward manipulative rhetoric would seem to be justified, that is perhaps one gets the rhetoric that one expects. Rather than shrinking from widespread civic deliberation in the name of “public reason” pre-determined by elites, Garsten rightly calls for today’s citizens to “once again look directly at one another and speak directly to one another.” Note that neither silence nor shouting are commended in a politics of rhetoric, but, above all, speech to, by, and among citizens. In a polity in which rhetoric is no longer derided and gains esteem, it might be expected that politics itself might come to be regarded as enobling and worthy of our shared devotion.