Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Final Thoughts

When the history is written, it seems likely that not only will 2008 go down as the year when the fissures of the American way of life were made plain, but it will be understood to be the date when the beginning of the end of the American empire was made manifest. No empire of significant power falls in a day or a year, but in stages, like the slow motion internal degradation of a rotting building.

Historians will write with amazement and wonder at the madness that had swept the land, such that even (or especially) the best and the brightest believed that something - a great deal, in fact - could be had for nothing. In the course of a few months this year we went collectively from feeling wealthy and insulated from any great harms, to discovering that our entire edifice was built on a foundation of unsustainable risk. The last bit of breaking news of the year was the revelation of a massive Ponzi scheme, a bit of financial chicanery by which newer "investors" are fleeced in order to line the pockets of older "investors." The massive scheme hatched by Bernie Madoff - not now on impoverished little widows and orphans, but the power elite of America and even the world - was a smaller morality tale of the entire American financial system, one that had been all along premised upon impoverishing the young and the unborn for the sake of the living and soon dead.

Stories will be told about this year, with amazement that humans could have attempted to organize a society around a belief in the utter efficacy of self interest. This philosophy appeared to work for a time, and was well-designed to do so by virtue of the presumed existence of two phenomena that it neither created nor replenished. What allowed this philosophy of the Enlightenment - so-called - to succeed for a time were two gigantic reservoirs that the philosophy fundamentally held in contempt, yet nevertheless assumed to exist and even to persist: a long prehistoric accumulation of material and moral inheritances.

First, it assumed the existence of ample material that could be converted from a state of "waste" - to use John Locke's term for the natural condition of material things that had not been yet mixed with the sweat of human labor and use - that, upon being rendered useful for human use and consumption, would undergird a consumptive growth economy. The contradiction, of course, that lie in this assumption was the belief in a permanent co-existence of consumption and growth. The earth is a finite system, a closed natural system that has a finite amount of material and energy (including the constant stream of energy that is received from the sun). The assumption of modern economics was that increases in efficiency and the productive employment of energy, human labor and ingenuity would annually increase the overall value "created" the human economic system. What in fact occurred was the employment of a rich and seemingly inexhaustible store of non-renewable energy forms that, for a time, made it possible for humans to transform the "waste" of the natural world into the greatest wealth that humankind had ever known (yet, a better way of thinking about this "wealth" was that it was in fact the accelerated use of nature's bounty. We consumed in a century what might otherwise have been available to countless generations. In this sense, another way of looking at our wealth was that it was generational theft).

Prone as humans are to self-delusion and capable of fostering immense and engrossing distractions, we believed that we had created something wholly new and permanent - a civilization based upon human ingenuity that represented a new and permanent departure from the backwardness and myopia of previous ages. We refused, or were incapable, of seeing the reality of our "achievement": we had, for the first time in human history, tapped a finite resource base and built a civilization upon the assumption that it was somehow infinite. Even today, when the faith-based adherents of modern economics are confronted with proof of the finite limits of our non-renewable energy forms, the response is the assertion that human ingenuity will solve the problem. The "problem" was never subject to human ingenuity, since the problem itself arose not from the victory of human ingenuity, but from the foolishness of human ingenuity. Our inventiveness allowed us to employ with extreme wastefulness and lack of foresight a store of resources that had been accumulated over eons of human pre-history - we used what we thought was ours, and congratulated ourselves in the process. Our ingenuity appeared to be the be the source of this employment, but in fact it was the pride in our ingenuity that led our willful incapacity to see the endgame of this gambit.

What allowed us to submit to this delusional belief that the laws of physics had been suspended due to human ingenuity - particularly that we could ignore the second law of thermodynamics, dictating that all energy flows from organized and productive forms to dissolution and unusable forms, the entropic equilibrium that dictates the motions and destiny of the universe - was an explicit rejection of the moral inheritance of ancient pedigree, the Greek and Christian ethical systems - and their lived, everyday manifestations - that were explicitly and virulently attacked by the advanced men of the "Enlightenment." They urged the overthrow of the ancient prohibitions as so many arbitrary and inhuman oppressions, the unjustified circumscription of natural forms of human liberty that purportedly existed in some natural, pre-human condition. The success of this new philosophy relied upon the success of these attacks, the lifting of ancient beliefs and practices that, in particular, would induce generational amnesia, a forgetting of our debts to the past and our corresponding obligations to the future. A new conception and experience of time was introduced, one that - for the first time in human history - permitted, indeed encouraged, human beings to live solely in the present. The success of the modern project rested upon the overcoming and rejection of the legacy of antiquity.

At the same time, it should be understood that more deeply, the modern project relied upon the very inheritance that was being attacked - just as it rested upon the existence of a created natural order that it held in contempt as so much "waste." The inheritance of the ancients provided habits of living that stretched far into modern times - much like (to borrow an image from Vico) the sweet water of a river will travel uncontaminated for time into the brackishness of the seas, eventually mixing in until the freshness is dissipated. What we have seen in this culminating year of the American empire - and, quite arguably, the modern project, though it will continue on for a time, even oblivious to its having passed a zenith - is that very dissipation of those fresh waters that had continued to freshen the brackish waters even deep into the corrosive currents. Longtime habits of virtue, enactments of responsibility and unconscious acknowledgement of generational bonds had continued to maintain the order upon which the modern system rested and flourished, but in no way renewed or replenished. Thrift; moderation; liberality; self-sacrifice; these, and other virtues, continued for a time, but in this year were revealed to have been overthrown by the mad, even insane pursuit of temnporary and fleeting gains. We discovered at once that we had passed a tipping point in our consumption of supposed infinite energy, even as we discovered as well that we had passed a tipping point in the maintenance of the virtues that might have prevented us from such abandoned consumption. We found that neither our leading citizens nor the ordinary working stiff any longer exercised prudence or forsight in making some of the basic decisions that ensures the future of a civilization. The Ponzi scheme was suddenly revealed, and the house of cards came crashing down.

I suspect that we will now enter a time not unlike the five stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The expectation awaiting the savior - in the form of soon to be President Obama - indicates clearly that we are firmly in the first stage, denying any permanent significance to this moment. We await the righting of our ship of State, the restoration of American power and majesty, and more deeply still, the rejuvanation of the modern project of human conquest. In claiming an ability to "heal the planet," Obama offered the ultimate promise to moderns who are increasingly aware of the destruction that this project had wrought: to employ our massive powers to healing a planet that we ourselves had scarred, and in so doing, allowing us to continue our project of human dominion. The planet was never ours to destroy or to heal, but upon which to live: the belief that we can re-tool the economy to reverse the damage, achieve a non-damaging relationship with the natural world, create "green jobs" that achieve an equilibrium between human activity and natural processes - all the while restoring American power, status, and economic growth - is the newest and most ridiculous yet of the delusions that we have adopted in our enlightened times. Most telling to me is the fact that the Obama agricultural policy will remain wedded to a system that relies on limited fossil fuel inputs to achieve maximal caloric outputs at the cost of the ultimate viability of our capacity to grow food into any reasonable future time. Our willingness to ignore the massive damage to and erosion of the remaining topsoil of the American continent reveals most deeply that we are wedded to our continued belief in the our God given human prerogative to extract whatever we want, when we want it, at whatever price to be paid at some future time. Even as we laud our democratic accomplishments, our relationship to the world is totalitarian.

We will at some point in the nearer future achieve "acceptance" - as with any terminal patient, we will have no choice. We will accept the inevitability of the demise of our modern wager, the faith-based belief that we could master nature without being mastered by the consequences of our purported dominion. Acceptance will entail the death of a way of civilization and a philosophy that spawned it, but will likely not mean the death of humankind. It will instead mean that we will be forced into the realization of the limits of the natural world and the limits that any human philosophy must acknowledge. We will, in one way or another, discover our fallenness, our proneness to pride, sin, avarice, sloth, living in the shortest of terms. We will discover that our age was a profound heresy, a new living-out of the oldest temptation that bore humankind East of Eden, the craving to taste the fruit that we should not eat. We will, in time, discover that ours was neither an "environmental" nor "economic" nor "political" crisis, but a theological failing.

And, from this realization may come wisdom and a better way. For whatever reason - a trial imposed upon us by God for reasons we cannot understand - humankind seems to be destined to go through historical cycles in which we believe ourselves to transcend our condition, to be permitted to go beyond right or due measure, even to believe ourselves to be God. And, inevitably - whether we call it hubris or sin or nature - we are reminded of ourselves, of who we are - and who we are not. While ours, and likely the next, will be the generation that curses its fate not to have lived during a time of plenty and excess, and we will wonder why it was our bad fortune to have lived in the aftermath of an empire's glory, if we are capable of deeper and better perspective, we will understand the blessings of our age. From such times of trial a certain deeper wisdom has been made possible - one thinks especially Augustine's great blessing to have lived in a time that made it possible to write The City of God - and we may yet come to know, and accept - even embrace - the knowledge that our falsity will have spawned. While for most we will despair over our losses and pains, perhaps later if not sooner we will understand the blessings of this - our - time of trial.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Road Dependency

A recent article in the Washington Post outlines what is likely to be a battle that the political Left is likely to lose more decisively than the choice of Inauguration Day pastor - namely, whether the lion's share of the infrastructure stimulus will go toward existing transportation projects, or toward the creation of a new, "green" economy. Obama has already signaled that he will push for immediately effectual stimulus through the funding of "shovel ready" projects, meaning projects aimed at enlarging or reinforcing the current transportation system. Even without the exigencies and pressure for immediate stimulation of the economy (and the creation of large numbers of unskilled jobs), there was a strong likelihood that the lion's share of any stimulus package was going to go to "traditional" sorts of public works projects that have been at the heart of the great American build-out for the past 50+ years. There are simply too many interests, organizations and lobbying groups to ignore; demands by Congress alone would have ensured that legislation would be over-brimming with a variety of locally desired pork projects. With the added pressure for immediately effective economic stimulus, any efforts for long-term and not immediately stiumulative investment in a new, alternative "green" future are all-but likely to be put on permanent hold. Path dependency is simply too determining, especially in this case.

It is either farce or tragedy that we will invest further in an economic model premised on permanently cheap and readily available energy sources at a time when we have had our first taste of the reality and experience of peak oil. We will sink more of our increasingly limited funds (or, increasingly limited ability to borrow funds that we can no longer create) in maintaining or expanding a transportation system that, for a few months at least in the last year, was decreasingly being used as the price of energy rose so high to be a disincentive to travel. We saw - and continue to see - the housing of the far-flung suburbs losing its value as people began to re-think the wisdom of purchasing more house at distances that not only entailed lengthy and deadening commutes, but which were becoming so cost prohibitive to force people - for the first time in decades - to consider distance to be a factor in considerations of where to live. And, we are likely to sink more money into a transportation system at just the moment we witness the collapse of America's automobile industry - the industry for which the massive investment in roads was largely built to support and expand. Growing up alongside the massive public investment in roads, bridges, and the corresponding build-out of auto-based businesses, that in one way or another employs so many Americans that the taxpayer was not only on the hook in making the growth to such massiveness possible, but is now on the hook in preventing its collapse. The reason for its demise was long in the making, but the nails in its coffin were being nailed in when it was decided that it would continue on its own path dependency of massive energy wastefulness in placing all its bets on the SUV even after our first and second experiences with various energy shocks and the industry's (and government's) awareness that the era of fossil fuels was reaching its apogee.

The decision to bail out the automobile industry is essentially born of the same set of necessities that will orient the stimulus package in sustaining and expanding our current transporatation system, and more fundamentally, our current economic model. At the most obvious level, we have thrown so much of America's wealth into the creation of this system that it cannot be allowed to collapse, even though that collapse is taking place because of our confrontation with a permanently constrained energy future. More deeply, it cannot be allowed to collapse because the American way of life has become defined by the massive expenditure and waste of finite resources. We will continue to maintain this system - of roads, automobiles, suburbs, vast and wasteful supply lines, and in general our "consumer" culture - because it is who we have become. Yet with each additional dollar that we throw into this black hole of unsustainability, we spend ourselves closer to the collapse of this groaning, creaking, crumbling system that has no future. Nearly every dollar we spend privately and that is appropriated publically now goes to sustaining the unsustainable. Yet we can be certain that we will continue to spend what is remaining to be spent to do just this - holding off, if for only a few years or months longer, the demise of a way of life that was from the outset based on wishful thinking, short term thinking and deeply flawed assumptions about a future of bottomless energy and infinite growth.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Today is the winter solstice, the day with the least sunlight. According to James Frazier in the "Golden Bough," on this day (or Solstice eve) it was the practice in a number of ancient European cultures to collect large logs (including the "Yule" log) and burn them on the highest point in the surrounding land, thus lending heat and light to the sun in an effort and hope that its powers would again wax in subsequent days. Eventually it became the practice to burn the evergreen - the tree that remained green even during the dead of winter - to add vitality to the attempt. Invariably the effort worked - daytime increased each passing day until the summer solstice six months later. In this way ancient cultures not only practiced a form of pagan magic and ritual, but marked the seasonal passing of time, the annual cycle of the earth's rotation around the sun and the entry into the season of winter and the hope of warmth and life to follow.

Frazier intended his book as a kind of expose of the pagan practices that underlie Christianity, but such exposure could only really have purchase in an increasingly Protestant culture that sought a purified form of Christianity (or to expose it as a nonsensical collection of cultural practices that were not essentially Christian). Early on, however, it was easy to see how Christianity was able to adapt aspects of these ancient practices, given that they were not contradictory to the way in which time was experienced in the life of the church. While there have been many claims that Christianity introduces a linear conception of time, the life of the Church is experienced in a circular fashion - from Advent to the birth of Christ, through the "Ordinary time" in which the words and deeds of Christ are recalled, into the Lenten season of penitence and fasting (during the deadest months of winter and just before the bursting of Spring), to the Triduum and the Easter celebration of resurrection and renewal (coinciding with the beginning of Spring, with all of its images and resonances of fertility), and again into "ordinary time" until the coming again of Advent. The Church's calendar was overlaid on these ancient practices, recognizing the coming and passing of seasons, of planetary motion and of the course of human birth, life, death, and (it was hoped) renewal.

It has been persuasively argued by a number of scholars that linear time is the result not of Christian historiography (though aspects can be found there), but rather a modern conception of measured time that increasingly divorces the marking of time from the natural world and instead resorts to mechanical tools for measuring time (see, for instance, Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum's History of the Hour, which dates this development to some time beginning in the 14th century). Even if this dating is correct, it can be safely assumed that most people continued to live less by the demands of the clock than the movement of the sun and the passing of the seasons: this would be especially true of societies still fundamentally based upon, and populated by, agricultural work and farmers. The explosion and increasingly monolithic experience of linear time comes especially during the 19th-century with the rise of the industrial revolution, decreasing numbers of farmers in favor of industrial workers (whose lives do become increasingly parceled out by the time clock, or the factory whistle), and - as Wilfred McClay has pointed out in his book The Masterless - the need for uniform time zones due to the demands of railroad scheduling. From that point midday is no longer marked by when the sun is at its zenith in one's spot, but rather by a standard measurement of time that may occur as much as an hour before or after the sun's zenith, depending on where one lives in one's time zone.

Above all, the sense of linear time is not only experienced because of mechanical measurement, but due to a sense that time now marks not the rhythmic cycle of birth, life, death and renewal, but rather a clear and perceptible advance of human progress in the world - in particular, the growing human capacity to govern and master the natural world. We understand years not as cycles, but accumulations, as growth rather than circularity. As our mastery of nature advances, our basic reliance upon, and connection to, the natural world decreases, further eviscerating any sense of the ancient conception of circular time. Our use of non-renewable energy forms - beginning with coal in the 19th-century and petroleum in the 20th - divorces us from a deeply lived understanding of the connection of our use of energy for life from the sun. While fossil fuels are ultimately extremely potent forms of stored sunlight, we do not intuitively understand that connection, and rather both extract, process and use the substance with and for machines. The motions of the earth - the seasons, its influence on agriculture, our sense of the cycle of life, the resulting forms of humility and gratitude that result - are all hollowed as we increasingly believe ourselves to be divorced from those slow, steady, and predictable cycles. Our new industrial economy is based upon and celebrates straight lines, not cycles: roads that are blasted through mountains and are suspended over ravines; the trajectory of the bullet and the laser; the skyscraper that pierces the sky....

On this night with my children we light a solstice fire outside to warm the sun; we talk about the movement of the planets and the cycle of the seasons; we talk with expectation about the birth of Christ and the promise of everlasting life that attended his birth - that in this season of empty trees and chilling cold, the spring awaits and even now new life gathers itself. Our linear culture ravages and destroys everywhere; where possible, we should preserve what circles and cycles that, even where attenuated, still inform our sense of time and season. The fundamental things still apply, in spite of our willful efforts to ignore or overcome them.

Friday, December 19, 2008

False Analogies

A column in today's Washington Post decries President-elect Obama's selection of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the Inauguration in a month's time. The selection has caused an uproar in the Left blogosphere, with many arguing that the choice constitutes a betrayal of Obama's promise for a more equal and inclusive Administration. Already it is evident that Obama is likely to be in for a rough ride from an energized Left that believes it is responsible for his election.

It's hard to know where to begin on this issue, one that almost belies belief that it is an issue at all. What is most risible about the pro-gay marriage Left's response is that it reflects a view that Obama has betrayed them by selecting Warren, who supported Prop. 8 in California (recognizing marriage only between a man and a woman, and thus de-recognizing same-sex marriages that were sanctioned in the wake of a court decision). Yet, one could quite reasonably conclude that Obama is actually acting consistently, having throughout the primaries and general election declared his personal opposition to gay marriage, while insisting that civil unions would generally suffice. In this sense, Obama's views significantly mirror Warren's own, and he bases his opposition to gay marriage on a similar (if more soft-pedaled) view that marriage should be defined exclusively as a recognized bond specifically between a man and a woman.

In today's Post column, Joe Solmonese compares the selection of Warren to the hypothetical choice of an anti-Semite to deliver the invocation. He asks, "but would any inaugural committee say to Jewish Americans, 'We're opening with an anti-Semite but closing the program with a rabbi, so don't worry'"? Toward the closing of the column he decries the choice of the "anti-gay" Warren. Given that Obama also opposed same-sex marriage during the campaign, are we to assume that the support of Obama - even by members of the activist gay community - was "anti-gay" and comparable to the support of an anti-Semite?

Of course, it is widely believed that Obama didn't really believe what he said, and was only currying favor of Middle America (in which case, he arguably owes his election more to them, and thus must indeed respect the widespread opposition to gay marriage that many there hold. One could conclude that in selecting Warren he is being inclusive). After all, even while claiming to personally oppose gay marriage, Obama opposed the passage of Proposition 8, a curious if expedient position. Few have failed to notice that it was on his coattails - particularly his appeal to socially conservative black and Hispanic voters - that Prop. 8 passed. It's interesting that people like Rick Warren and the Mormon church bear the brunt of the fury of the gay community, while those ethnic communities - part of Obama's base - are given a pass. I have heard that they need to be educated, while it appears the Mormons need to be eradicated.

What this response begs for is a strong resistance to the notion that opposition to gay marriage constitutes a base and baseless prejudice akin to anti-Semitism or racism (another frequently invoked analogy is bans on interracial marriage). These are deeply flawed analogies, but their frequent repetition has the intended effect of convincing many well-meaning people that they are true and therefore there can be no argument. No one wants to be accused of anti-Semitism or racism, and if opposition to gay marriage is akin to these reprehensible prejudices, then clearly it's irrational and unjustified to oppose gay marriage.

The aim of this tactic is to paint opposition as irrational - purely faith-based, prejudiced, traditionalist and mean-spirited. Arguments that are brought by opponents to gay marriage are heckled, twisted or ignored. Solomnese alludes to a basic argument against gay marriage - that in sundering the connection of marriage to reproductive biology of one man-one woman, it wholly opens the definition of marriage to any combination of partnerships, such as polygamy, polyamory or incest (indeed, these relationships would biologically have a STRONGER claim to state-sanctioned legitimacy) - but summarily dismisses some of its main points without counterargument, but merely contempt. "More recently, he [Warren] even compared same-sex marriage to incest, pedophilia and polygamy. He may cloak himself in media-friendly happy talk that plays well on television, but he stands steadfastly against any measure of equality for LGBT Americans." Solomnese regards such analogies as outrageous, worthy only of ridicule or dismissiveness - refusing to address the legitimate claim that underlies them - even as he peddles analogies that are in fact outrageous. It is the word "even" that galls in the previous passage - as if such concerns are unworthy of consideration or below contempt. It's inconceivable that there is an reasoned basis by Warren or others who raise such concerns - rather, such considerations are further evidence of irrational and baseless prejudice.

It is a curious pass: we are not debating whether gays should or should not be arrested for illegal private acts, as was once the case. We are not debating whether or not gays should be rounded up and put in concentration camps, as the analogy to anti-Semitism is intended to intimate is the secret wish of opponents. In most cases, we are not even arguing whether or not gays should be accorded the rights and privileges pertaining to civil unions: indeed, my best understanding of Proposition 8 is that it would not have added a single civil benefit for gay couples already protected (and still protected) by civil unions. Yet, those who oppose gay marriage - including, apparently, President-elect Obama - are accused of being "anti-gay," of being comparable to anti-Semites and racists, and of being in the grip of wholly unreasoned and unreasonable set of fanatic religious beliefs and ugly prejudices.

I, like many of my friends on the Left and too few on the Right, deplored the usage of phrases such as "feminazi" used by the likes of Rush Limbaugh to mock and deride his opposition. Feminism in its many guises is a legitimate position to hold with reasons and arguments in its favor. It should be understood to be a basic requirement of citizenship to treat those positions respectfully, even if one opposes some or many aspects of its overarching argument. What we see happening now developing around the gay marriage issue is a similar and lamentable effort to paint reasonable and reasoned opposition to gay marriage - an opposition I share, and which I can elaborate more upon in a future post - as nothing other than sheer and spiteful prejudice. This might be a moment for a probing national conversation on this issue, but I fear the burden of irresponsibility falls on gay activists who have become so certain of the rightness of their cause that opponents to their position are increasingly being implicitly compared to members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi party. This slash and burn effort may in the end accomplish its aims, but only at the cost of any prospect of future civility and exchange of reasons that should rightly be the basis of democratic discourse. Of course mine is the audacity of hope.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Democracy, Rightly Understood

Rounding out a set of recent postings on democracy in America (here and here), I excerpt here a recently published essay that has appeared in the fine journal Critical Review. Critical Review is a theme-oriented quarterly journal of high-quality essays that are written by academics but generally accessible to an intelligent reader. I credit its editor - Jeffrey Friedman - in his judicious use of invitations and his refusal to adopt the deeply flawed "referee" system of journal publication. A good editor and editorial board can and should be able to publish top quality work that someone will actually read. Another excellent journal - Perspectives on Political Science, edited by Peter Augustine Lawler, follows the same model, and for that reason publishes work of high quality and wide interest. I am happy and honored to publish work in both places, and commend both journals to your attention.

My essay was written in response to an invitation to consider a series of previous articles on the findings of numerous social scientists (including Philip Converse, in a classic 1964 article) that the American citizenry demonstrates low levels of civic knowledge and competence. For some this is cause for despair over democracy's prospects and reason to believe that an elite-centered bureaucratic system is to be preferred. For others, it is a clarion call for civic education and increased levels of competence. These two responses were part of the theme of my last book, Democratic Faith, in which I explained that the responses to the data reflects less any empirical necessity than relative faith - or disbelief - in democracy as a system of government. In this essay I conclude with a reflection on the fact that we should not be surprised by this data - after all, given our system that was created to relieve us of the burden of civic activity and attentiveness, it should be no surprise that civic muscles have atrophied. The only mistake in the data is to assume that somehow this system should be called a "democracy." I argue that social scientists, and for that matter any number of elites with purported commitments to democracy, as well as a broad swath of the citizenry, need to broaden and deepen their definition of democracy.


A Different Kind of Democratic Competence:
Citizenship and Democratic Community

Patrick J. Deneen
Department of Government
Georgetown University

Democracy Wrongly Understood


The persistence of calls for good government that require the circumvention of other commitments to popular participation has deep historic precedence dating back to the nation’s founding. For all of the differences between the Progressives and the Framers – and the differences are manifold, as many scholars eagerly point out (e.g., Pestritto, 2005) – there nevertheless exists this striking continuity: both the Founding and the Progressive Eras are dominated by thinkers who praise the rule of the electorate even as they seek to promote systemic governmental features that will minimize electoral influence in the name of good policy outcomes. Indeed, it is curious and perhaps erroneous to debate the “democratic competence” of the American public, given that the system of government explicitly designed by its Framers was not to be democratic. The authors and defenders of the Constitution argued on behalf of the basic law by explicitly rejecting the notion that the Constitution would result in a democracy. They sought to establish a republic, not a democracy. As Madison would famously write in Federalist 10, “hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions” (Madison, et. al., 126).

In Federalist 10, Madison argued in particular that the dangers of democracies – conceived as small-scale republics (in his mind, roughly corresponding to the size of the American states, or smaller still) with a high level of participation by the citizenry – could be avoided by two recourses: first, by “the representative principle” of the new science of politics; and second, by “extending the sphere,” that is, creating a large-scale political entity that would minimize the possibilities for civic combination (“faction”), increase the numbers of interests, and discourage political trust and activity amongst the citizenry. Even while retaining an electoral connection that would lodge ultimate sovereignty in the people, Madison was clear that representatives should not be overly guided by the will of the people: the desired effect of representation, he argued, is “to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country…” (Madison, 126, emph. added). Furthermore, by enlarging the orbit, Madison sought to foster higher levels of mutual distrust amongst a citizenry inclined to advance particular interests, rendering them less likely to combine and communicate: “where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.” A portrait arises of citizens who each face a large mass of fellow citizens whom they are inclined to mistrust, and a class of representatives who – while elected by the citizenry – take it upon themselves to govern on the basis of their views of the best interest of the nation.

The very origins of mass democracy, then, appear to be bound up with efforts to minimize the creation of an engaged democratic citizenry. The dominant American political narrative – consistent from the time of the Founding to the Progressive era and even to the present day – is simultaneously one that valorizes democratic governance while devising structures that insulate government from excessive popular influence (more recent examples include “blue-ribbon commissions” and the growing influence of quasi-governmental but largely insulated agencies like the Federal Reserve).

What requires more reflection are the deeper presuppositions of what constitutes “good policy” [of the sort consistently called upon by social scientists who study civic competence]. Good policy for the Founders and Progressives alike were policies that promoted the economic and political strength of the American republic and the attendant expansion of power in its private and public forms. For all their differences, what is strikingly similar about the thinkers of the Founding era and leading thinkers of the Progressive era were similar efforts to increase the “orbit” or scope of the national government concomitant with increases in the scale of the American economic order. Only in the backdrop of such assumptions about the basic aims of politics could there be any base presupposition in advance of the existence of “good policy” – and that policy tended to be whatever increased national wealth and power. In this sense – again, for all their differences – the Progressives were as much heirs as the Founders to the modern project of seeing politics as the means of mastering nature and “the relief of man’s estate” (Bacon 2001 [1605] 36).

The Founders and the Progressives alike sought to increase the influence of the central government over disparate parts of the nation, while increasing economic efficiency and activity by means of investment in infrastructure and communication. Just as the Founders could promote the “useful arts and sciences” as one of the main positive injunctions of the Constitution, so a Progressive like John Dewey would praise Francis Bacon as “the real founder of modern thought” for, among other things, his insistence that “knowledge is power” (Dewey, 1957 [1920], 28) – or, implicitly, for maintaining that only discoveries or information that increase human power over nature are worthy of the name “knowledge.” For all of Dewey’s valorization of “democracy,” it should not be forgotten that his definition of democracy is bound up in whatever outcome would ultimately favor “growth.” For the Founders and the Progressives alike, the expansion of what Madison described as “the empire of reason” (Madison, 1999 [1791], 500) should be paramount, and on that basis stated trust in popular government was to be tempered by structural limits upon popular influence over good public policy.

Democracy Rightly Understood

Debates over “democratic competence” such as those engendered by Philip E. Converse’s essay “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Democracies” thus take place in a context that can only at the outset be considered to be problematically or dubiously democratic, at best. Indeed, the American political system was designed explicitly to avoid being a democracy - at least one that sought the expansion of popular participation on the local scale - and it was, arguably, designed to foster the political, economic and cultural preconditions for the disengaged, politically disinterested citizenry that authors ranging from Lippmann to Converse to Friedman lament as deficient. While these authors lament insufficiently democratic capacities of a citizenry, they ignore the very political structures and context that undermine the kinds of competencies that otherwise expect. There is a self-fulfilling quality to the laments, with evidence being presented that was in fact itself the result of a set of political arrangements that have been intentionally designed to render just such outcomes.

What is lacking in all these laments is a conception of democracy that fosters and inculcates the very competencies that are deemed to be absent. Such an alternative conception of democracy must encourage democratic citizenship rather than accept the basic premises of institutional arrangements that aim to limit or restrict active citizenship. Thus, attention must be given to a conception of citizenship that is fostered within a more robustly democratic context. That one finds little evidence of civic competence in the midst of increasingly global polities and commerce is not only unsurprising, but to be expected – and indeed, from the viewpoint of proponents of such an outcome – even ultimately welcomed.

There is perhaps no better indication of the impoverished conception of democracy that dominates contemporary discussions than the near-exclusive emphasis upon elections as the main feature and indication of democracy. The Federalists would regard this particular belief as curious at best, since the occasional and periodic election of representatives was to be one of the features of the new Constitution that prevented the new constitutional order from becoming strictly democratic. While the Federalists had a firm understanding that the modern liberal state was to avoid high levels of political engagement by the citizenry – a condition that could only result in mob rule (Federalist, no. 55) – in the post-Progressive period, many social scientists and theorists alike remain in a state of internal conflict, at once seeking to advance the idea and instances of rule by the people, even as they continue to valorize good government and objectively desirable policy in accordance with deeper commitments to the growth of the modern political and economic system. Thus, contemporary debates about “democratic competence” center on participation levels and relevant electoral knowledge without raising questions whether those very outcomes – low participation and meager knowledge – are not in fact consonant with, rather than problematic for, this form of government.

By contrast, a different conception of democracy – one attendant to a host of other considerations beyond elections – suggests that the current debate is fundamentally misdirected. Other theorists – drawing on ancient theory and critical of the handiwork of the Framers in this regard – would argue on behalf of “an older, more comprehensive understanding that makes citizenship, rather than voting, the defining quality of democracy” (McWilliams, 1980, 79). In particular, by such an alternative conception, what becomes the object of concern are the necessary political grounds for a flourishing form of democratic citizenship, the practice of which is likely lead to a variety of habituated democratic “competencies.”

Rather than beginning within the unquestioned context of an emaciated form of representative democracy whose citizenry is acting just as the Founders intended — distant and under-involved with governance, and regarding fellow citizens with a considerable dose of mistrust — concerns for “democratic competency” ought rightly to begin by raising questions about our understanding of democracy. A different debate might arise if we began by entertaining the possibility – even likelihood – that we have the citizenry appropriate to the regime; and rather than beginning by damning (or excusing) the citizenry, we might question aspects of the regime instead.


If the liberal philosophy of the Founding begins by presuming every individual to be a discrete and separate entity according to nature, an Aristotelian understanding begins by assuming that the “city” is prior by nature to the “individual”: we begin not at the level of separated individuals, but even in our various parts as constituted by a larger whole. As Pierre Manent has expressed this view, “In a body, the whole is present in each part: the same life animates each part because it animates the whole…. In a political community, each element is both itself and the whole. In this sense, every political community is a body of sorts…: each member lives within it both its own life and the life of the community” (Manent, 2006, 136).
Still, our bodies and their longings show us to be irremediably separate: the base fact of our corporeal apartness that underlies the political philosophy of the moderns is a challenge to the assumptions of the ancients. For this reason, Aristotle (and after him, in a distinctively modern way, Tocqueville) argued that much of political life must occur on a small and local scale: because our senses are limited and our longings are often lodged in the body or extend only to a limited number of people close to us, our capacity to subordinate our private interests for the sake of the public tends to be limited to relatively small and palpable dimensions. A democracy composed of public-spirited citizens is possible (if only with difficulty) on a small scale where we are likely to know and care about our fellow citizens, where personal sacrifice is not too divorced or distant from our experience of public weal, and in which there is the possibility of practicing the arts of ruling and being ruled in turn. In such a setting, citizens are likely to be deeply invested in the outcome of political discussions; and their influence on the outcomes of those decisions is more evident, and the effects more immediate.

In a nation of the scale and complexity of our own – and in which important aspects of the nation are increasingly giving way to global politics and commerce – there can be little wonder that civic engagement and civic knowledge are both dismally low. What is curious is that government on such a scale and complexity, such a distance from the citizenry whose role in its guidance is necessarily limited, can be regarded in any significant respect as “democratic.” Until we are willing to acknowledge that debates over “democratic competence” within the context of the modern political and economic system are largely specious and based upon a flawed premise, there is little hope of engaging in an actual conversation either about what would constitute democracy or civic competence.

In the absence of forms of meaningful participation in self-governance based in civic practice; civic education in the habits of “ruling and being ruled in turn”; a cultivation in what Tocqueville called “the arts of association”; direct investment in outcomes of political decisions within the communities in which citizens live; and the prospect that one’s voice matters in arriving at those conclusions, we can expect that “democratic competence” and participation will remain dismally low. But while we should not be surprised by current measures of democratic competence, neither should we have any right to expect otherwise, or to suppose that this is an indictment of democracy. While possibilities to encourage truly democratic political possibilities are constrained by the Constitutional system, there is room to begin considering ways of strengthening local possibilities for meaningful self-governance.
One of the first requirements for such a consideration, however, is to challenge the notion that our current system can be meaningfully called a democracy. A second is to challenge the idea that a major aim of government is to ensure that “good policy” decisions can be reached by limiting democratic influence; rather, in a democratic setting, what constitutes “good policy” will be the determination of actual democratic deliberation among a wide swath of the citizenry and vested in local circumstance, not a largely pre-determined goal that accords with the broad presuppositions of the modern nation-state which, in turn, by definition diminish the conditions for democracy. A third requirement, then, is to entertain the possibility that democracy cannot be defended either as a good in itself or as an instrumental good, but rather as a form of government that properly accords with human nature (thus, in certain respects being both good in itself and instrumentally good, but not exclusively either of these).

This is, of course, a controversial claim, resting upon an understanding of human nature in which only through an active engagement in civic life can human flourishing within human communities occur. However, while some modern liberals claim to have liberated human beings from constraining conceptions of human nature – i.e., the conceptions that would demand greater involvement in the public life of communities – liberalism rests no less on a conception of human nature, one that is deeply premised upon the centrality of individual self-interest. If many of our contemporary political scientists and theorists alike find themselves anguished about the lack of political knowledge and competence in the public, then perhaps rather than indicting our fellow citizens, we ought first to question our deepest (but thereby largely unconscious) theoretical commitments, which may be fostering the very conditions that discomfit us.

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Dewey, John. “My Pedagogic Creed.” In The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Vol. 5. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1972.

Friedman, Jeffrey. “Democratic Incompetence in Normative and Positive Theory: Neglected Implications of ‘The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.’” Critical Review 18 (2006), no. 1-3: i-xliii.

-----. “Introduction: Public ignorance and democratic theory.” Critical Review. Astoria: Fall 1998. Vol. 12, Iss. 4; pg. 397, 15 pgs.

Madison, James; Alexander Hamilton; John Jay. The Federalist.

Madison, James. “Consolidation.” In Madison: Writings (New York: Library of America: 1999 [1791].

Manent, Pierre. A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State. Trans. Marc LePain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

McWilliams, Wilson Carey. “Democracy and the Citizen: Community, Dignity, and the Crisis of Contemporary Politics in America.” In How Democratic is the Constitution? Ed. Robert A. Goldwin and William A. Schambra. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute: 1980.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, ed. Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

Pestritto, Ronald J. Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of American Liberalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Purcell, Edward A., Jr. The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1973).

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Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. George Lawrence. Ed. J. P. Mayer. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Wollheim, Richard. “A Paradox in the Theory of Democracy,” Philosophy, Politics and Society, ed. Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman, 2nd Series. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Democracy, Ancient and Modern

An essay long-completed and hardly awaited is slated to appear as the conclusion to a forthcoming edited book entitled Democratizations with MIT Press. Written when I was on the faculty at Princeton, it attempts to explain the transition for an older definition of democracy - drawn primarily from an Aristotelian conception of citizenship - to the new one based on rights and individual liberty and autonomy. What fascinated me in particular was the way in which Aristotle intimates that a true egalitarian democracy (absent a slave or laboring class who were barely free) would only be possible in a technological society, but that a technological society (such as that conceived by Francis Bacon) requires the rejection of the form of self-rule defended by Aristotle (namely, based upon an Aristotelian conception of nature that is rejected by Bacon). Thus, a basic conundrum arises in which a substantive egalitarian democracy of the sort imagined by Aristotle requires technological conditions that make such substantive egalitarian democracy untenable. At a deeper level, I aim to raise the question whether the democratic ideal of self-rule is possible in modernity. I attempt a modestly hopeful, if chastened, answer in the closing paragraphs.

I paste a few relevant pages of the essay, here, for those who would like a taste and can't wait for the appearance of the $37 paperback in March.


Democratic Prospects in Undemocratic Times
Patrick J. Deneen

The Paradox of “Democratizations”

The ancient conception of democracy [as shared self-rule of a small group of citizens] is rejected out of hand for its historical association with inequality, particularly the existence of slavery and the complete absence of a public role for women. Ancient democracy held a robust and committed conception of citizenship, but that conception relied extensively on the effective disenfranchisement of a large segment of the population. Modern democracy, by contrast, strips citizenship of its substantive expectations, and by making it primarily a matter of formal recognition, extends suffrage universally. As Wollheim formulates the difference, “in classical theory the people is identified with a section or part of the population, whereas in modern theory the people is identified with population as a whole” (1962, 72). However, if in practice ancient democracy required this radical division as a means for making possible political liberty for relatively few citizens, there is nothing endemic to ancient theory that makes this the case. Aristotle suggested that distinctions between citizen and slave would evaporate if the work of “mere life”-–basic survival-–could be performed by mechanized “tools”: “For suppose that each tool could complete its work either by being told to do so or because it perceived what was to be done in advance...”--–in which case “managers need not assistants or masters need not slaves” (Aristotle, 1253a-1254a). Aristotle promptly admitted that such a scenario was more the fancy of poets than remotely within the power of realization within Hellenic civilization. But the larger point remains: inequalities marking ancient democracy were the result of material circumstance, not a fundamental failing of ancient political theory.

Modern theory solves the problem by releasing humankind from restraints that formerly pointed humans away from the domination of nature. Francis Bacon inaugurated the tradition aimed at providing “relief to the human estate,” promoting the useful arts and sciences as the handmaiden of modern politics, thus unleashing at once creative energies hitherto unseen and a transformation of nature breathtaking in its thoroughness (Bacon, 2001 [1605]; White, 1968). Yet herein lies the paradox of “democratizations”: if the modern project aimed at the “conquest of nature” makes possible those very material conditions that Aristotle fantasized might make the realization of universal civic equality possible, those very conditions appear to require a fundamental transformation of philosophy that in fact points people away from the ancient conception of civic equality and shared rule. The selfsame argument that emphasizes the priority of individual self-interest, the pursuit of material goods without limit, and the elevation of private over public goods, at once promotes the very material conditions imagined by Aristotle and the poets that might emancipate people from brute drudgery. Yet, at the same time, this philosophy also undermines the democratic beliefs that at base inspired the ancients’ fantasy of “tools” that could relieve human drudgery in the first place. In order to realize the conditions that might make ancient democratic forms universally possible, history suggests that one must develop an alternative philosophy aimed at mastery of nature that, in effect, makes the realization of robust democracy implausible if not impossible.

In light of this recognition, it’s likely that there is no plausible likelihood of “democratizations.” The complexity and interdependence of modern peoples, the massive growth in world population, the inability of most contemporary democratic citizens to rely extensively on their own economic products, makes even the most well-intentioned efforts to instantiate ancient conceptions of democracy frightful to contemplate, with outcomes more likely to resemble the French terror than a beatific vision. Yet the fact remains that, at least in the realm of theory, one can envision a form of democracy distinctive from the modern form, and begin more clearly to see the radical insufficiencies of modern democracy not only at the fringes of social policy, but on democratic grounds. Ancient political theory offers a corrective principle which points to the need for attentiveness to political democracy itself, rather than to the lip service to paid its pale shadow of economic choice and personal satisfaction. Ancient conceptions remind us of the nobility of rule and an even greater majesty of assent to rule (given that such assent may be against our immediately perceived “self-interest”), of those first grounds for democracy involving ruling and being ruled, of the civic whole that precedes the parts. These ancient teachings afford an encounter with a justification of democracy on the basis of human equality rather than as a utilitarian arrangement that best suits the modern project of nature’s domination and the belief that democracy is the fulfillment of the misguided claim “to live as one likes” (Aristotle, 1317b).

Prospects for Democracy in Undemocratic Times

In these overly self-congratulatory of democratic times, the prospects for democracy according to its more ancient understanding are meager if not moribund. The most ardent proponents of democracy in contemporary times largely eschew such alternative democratic commitments. On the Right, many equate democracy with the opening of markets and the continued growth of human mastery over nature. On the Left, many embrace non-economic liberation as the sine qua non of democracy, equating democracy wholly with personal autonomy in all of its forms, yet maintain distrust of economic libertarianism even as many of the manifold forms of personal autonomy that it recommends rest extensively upon the material advances and leisure afforded by modern economics. While the Left expresses more explicit commitments to political forms of democracy than the more economics-oriented Right, more often than not such civil devotions are manifested by calls for participation in movements and dramatic democratic “action,” evincing impatience for the hard discipline and even inglorious grind of daily democratic attentiveness (Mansbridge, 1986; Kelly, 2001). Perhaps more significantly, both the Right and Left are wedded to the project of globalization, whatever their differences over its specific character.

A conception of democracy that focuses instead on citizenship--not merely formal extension of electoral rights, but substantive commitments to shared civic life and public deliberation as a daily undertaking--finds less obvious support in these purportedly democratic times. Modern peoples schooled in a conception of democracy that recommends, above all, individual satisfaction and likely to equate the word “politics” with the distant cynical exploitation and manipulation of interests, are hardly disposed to embrace a conception of democracy that stresses discipline, sacrifice, and the willingness to reconsider one’s apparent interests in the light of the good of the polity. The very absurdity of the notion that there can be a single “good” of a polity of such vastness and overwhelming anonymity should already reveal to us the utterly foreign, even incomprehensible, tenor of such a conception of civic democracy.

At the same time, one must marvel at the near-universal embrace of democracy and the widespread ambition to effect various “democratizations” throughout the globe. Belief in the promise of democracy, even in these times of pallid democratic forms, nevertheless courses deep. Underlying modern democracy’s commitments to rights-based citizenship, jurisprudential political activity, representative democratic forms, and its recommendation of individual self-concern, nevertheless may lurk a devotion to democracy in its more robust civic conception.

This possibility was disclosed particularly in the United States on September 11, 2001 and during the days that followed. On that day, fanatics opposed to democracy flew above the skies of New York City and Washington D.C. searching for suitable targets, the destruction of which would symbolize their hatred of and momentary triumph in particular over modern democratic forms. In New York City, they chose two towering skyscrapers, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In Washington D.C., they targeted the Pentagon. In short, they set their sights on America as “military-industrial complex,” that entity against which President Dwight Eisenhower had warned America becoming in his Farewell Address of 1961. The attackers had concluded that America manifested the complete triumph of modern forms of democracy expressed through economic expansion and military domination, but for the fact that they altogether overlooked the nobler democratic commitments that also mark the civilization they despised.

Were one to have asked any average American what structures or symbols best represented their own self-conception of America in those two cities on September 10, 2001, it’s doubtful many would have named the buildings that were attacked on the following day. Instead, one modestly speculates that most would have named, in New York City, the Statue of Liberty; and in Washington D.C., the Capitol, the White House, or possibly the Lincoln Memorial. That many would have chosen these political monuments over financial and military structures as the paramount symbols of their nation is all the more noteworthy given that many Americans have been tutored to think of democracy as a system allowing for the fullest expression of personal preference and may in many cases lack a strong admiration for politics in its daily incarnation. The overwhelming and spontaneous willingness to donate blood, time, and treasure especially for those victims in New York City--a place that many throughout the country had been rumored to love to hate before September 11--momentarily revealed the residue of civic commitments persist in spite of modern democracy’s prevailing commitments to self-satisfaction. Like a palimpsest, the ancient devotions of democracy--shared political equality and a belief in our linked common fates--lingers below the surface of its contemporary definitions, leaving those more robust civic forms legible for those with the willingness and patience to discern their presence and to make their subdued teaching more visible amid the more obvious manifestations of modern democracy.

Tocqueville, more explicitly than others, discerned this dual nature of democracy in modern times. He noted that Americans tended to justify their actions in terms of self-interest, even when their motivations were considerably more selfless than they admitted. He noted that modern democrats – captured by the influence of liberal and individualist philosophy and capable solely of expressing even their noblest actions in the cramped language of self-interest – often “would rather do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves” (2000 [1840], v. 2, pt. 2, ch.8, 502). Yet he worried that actual motivations eventually would conform to the explicit language in which those motivations were framed and justified, eventually undermining the nobler motivations of the people in favor of their philosophic claims.

Still, Tocqueville also hoped that even such stated self-interest could be moderated through participation in democratic politics itself. He observed that citizens might understand their initial engagement in political activity as a means of advancing their apparent self-interest, but by means of the very interaction with other citizens, and by exposure to countervailing concerns, varying backgrounds, and alternative proposals, democratic politics itself leads to the possibility that each citizen’s “heart is enlarged” (2000 [1840], v. 2, pt. 2, ch. 5, 490). Above all, democracy might flourish where there persists a commitment to cultivating “the arts of association”--those formal and informal political activities by which individuals are transformed into citizens and in virtue of which a conception of the common good could be achieved through the dynamic interaction among democratic citizens.
Tocqueville predicted the rise of “individualism” and the decline of active civil life. But more hopeful aspects of his analysis--a hopefulness that was momentarily justified in the civic response to the terrorist attacks--suggests that perhaps multiple forms of “democratization” are possible after all. Tocqueville maintained such hope in spite of the formidable paradox that exists at the core of modern democracy--that is, the embrace of modern forms of material progress and emphasis on economic freedom which make possible the liberation from the drudgery of “mere life” also simultaneously undermines our capacity to acknowledge a common civic purpose and shared fate. For even contemporary democratic faith rests most fundamentally on a belief in democracy’s potential and in the possibility of a political whole that transcends the many parts that comprise it. Like any faith, it offers grounds and inspires justification for greater humility--in this instance, for a form of civic humility that points to the fact that democracy is neither easy nor automatic, but rather requires extensive, even heroic civic commitments. While commentators from William James to Jean Bethke Elshtain have insisted that democracy is “on trial,” perhaps we do better instead to conceive democracy as a trial (James, 1897; Elshtain, 1995). According to its ancient conception, democracy’s trial takes the form of hard discipline. It involves the cultivation of civic capacities of rule and being ruled as well as the restraint of immediate self-interest. It requires the hard task of discerning a common purpose underlying our manifold interests. In its modern form, democracy’s trial inheres in a double temptation: the inclination to lose sight of democracy’s basic commitment to political self-rule, and its tendency to surrender wholly to its explicit foundation on self-interest. Because of its citizens increasing inability to resist these temptations, and the absence of statesmen and leaders who remind them of these ancient teachings, democracy is increasingly imperiled. By attending to the fragility of democracy in spite of its apparent powerful and reigning modern forms, we can again recognize democracy to be a shared civic project and an activity rather than a set of institutions, and thus carve out even a small space for the possibility of democratizations in these otherwise undemocratic times.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Babel Tower

The Washington Post has run a lengthy article rehearsing the origins of the financial crisis, particularly the chicanery and incredible conflicts of interest involved in the packaging of toxic debt in order to appear like sound investment vehicles. At every level the greed and willful suspension of disbelief coincided to create a grand mutual conspiracy of self-deception. Investment firms under pressure to perform, and in the pursuit of quick and easy profit, aggressively peddled this new product. "Investors," eager for outsized returns and asking few if any questions (until it was discovered that they were holding worthless bonds), eagerly dumped massive percentages of their funds into these vehicles. The government was only too eager to look the other way, pleased that these vehicles were the means for many people to purchase houses - whether or not they had any business holding mortgages that could not be repaid in the (likely) event that the housing market ceased its upward rise. Lenders were only too happy to generate these loans, collecting the fees and immediately selling them upstream so that the consequences were off their books. Borrowers believed that they could get rich quick - seeing the incredible (i.e., "not to be believed) rise in housing prices, they were willing to take loans on terms that that they could not realistically repay, on terms that often appeared reasonable (interest-only, teaser-rate, variable loans that promised low monthly payments for a few months, and the consequences be damned after that.

At the moment various story-tellers attempt to craft narratives that will fix the blame on one party or another - Wall Street, Fannie Mae, the government, speculators, people who overreached in taking on oversized mortgages, etc. - but what we should acknowledge is that nearly everyone was involved in some way, at some level. There was a confluence of interest, all revolving around the great American dream of getting rich quick, painlessly and without cost. A self-induced fantasy overrode good sense and old lessons that previous generations once admonished younger and over-eager young people to heed before acting rashly and without thought of consequence. In this case, however, it was many of our "wisest" people - political and business leaders particularly - who set a tone of irresponsibility and unreality. We have ourselves to blame, though that narrative doesn't produce satisfying winners and losers, or victims and predators.

It was a toxic and short-term bubble of an increasingly bubble-ridden economy. The immediacy of the various bubbles - their frequent inflation and violent puncturing - obscures a more fundamental truth that our frantic efforts to deal with the near-constant inflating and popping of smaller bubbles obscures. That is, the entire economic system, and its deepest philosophical presuppositions, is itself a gigantic fantastic and fanciful bubble. Its deepest basis rests upon the idea that it is possible to achieve infinite and permanent growth on a finite and limited planet. From the time of the industrial revolution - when we began extracting and utilizing various fossil fuels for the first time in a sustained fashion aimed to revolutionize world civilization - we had set ourselves on the course of the ultimate bubble. While we experience the jarring ups and downs of daily and annual economic turbulence, the overarching trend of the world economy since the industrial revolution has been upward, as a simple glance at the Dow stock chart since the turn of the last century will indicate:

Our entire political, economic and social system is based upon the idea that this line - notwithstanding temporary ups and downs - will continue its upward trajectory forever. The recent efforts of the worlds' governments - whether called "conservative" or "liberal" - has been to reinstate the upward climb of economic growth at any cost, whatever the later or ultimate consequence. Every aspect of our society is premised upon the permanence of this growth - the infinite inflation of the ultimate bubble. We have in all likelihood extracted as much of the most potent and most cheaply accessible forms of energy in fueling this upward climb. As a consequence we have generated the greatest amount of the fungible form of that energy - money - in world's history, and subsequently sought ways to put it to work in spite of the obvious depletions of our planetary bounty. Like a man climbing a mountain who refuses to acknowledge that he is at the peak, like a cartoon character we have used past momentum to ascend higher than the ground, hanging for a short time suspended over a nearly bottomless chasm, and now find ourselves plummeting downward in a cascade of unraveling finances that was in part precipitated by the encounter with energy depletion. We are experiencing the mother of all forms of economic entropy, having dissipated the greatest concentration of planetary energy (short of fusion, which seems to be exclusive to the sun) and unleashing a resulting entropy that is enveloping the globe with no less comprehensiveness and universal impact than the ascending form of "globalization" and "wealth creation."

I cannot say whether this represents the final peak on our ascent of the mountain of modernity - or whether we will find that this is but one severe and violent valley that we can expect to be a frequent occurrence as we near the top - but if we are not at the point of our decline from the peak of modernity (which I think to be a very real possibility), then we are closer today than we were a day ago and much further along than that time a mere century-and a half ago when we began our ascent. Only those who believe that humankind can create a balloon of infinite elasticity can believe otherwise. And unless we reflect on this path, we will find ourselves facing a precipice of dizzying and incomprehensible height and with so little oxygen remaining that it will elude our capacity to find a footing as we descend. While we act like Chicken Littles looking for a way to suspend the sky, we ignore the reality that the sky only appears to be falling because our Babel Tower grows higher, and more precarious, with each passing day.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What's in a Name?

In a column last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof proposed that Barak Obama should consider re-naming the Department of Agriculture to "The Department of Food." This change would signal a fundamental commitment to altering the course of agricultural policy in the United States, away from destructive forms of industrial farming in which a few centralized industrial players are given substantial advantages and smaller farmers either "get big or get out," and toward sustainable practices that emphasize more local crops, smaller producers and fewer petroleum inputs. Now that's change I could believe in.

In particular, Kristof calls for reduction of subsidies on "unhealthy calories" like high-fructose corn syrup, more and decent space for farm animals, and in general an overall reduction in the amount of costs being "externalized" by reducing the amount of costs like sewage and soil runoff being shifted to the public. In effect, the proposed name-change - emphasizing "food" - is to call for policies that would assuredly increase the cost of basic foodstuffs (almost all of which is derived from subsidized corn or soy), and thus result in a shift in the American diet and even a reduction of the overall calories being eaten. If we were to name things properly, we would be shifting from the Department of Gluttony to the Department of Temperance.

Yet it's odd to propose this one example of an encouragement to governance of appetite while on a far greater scale we promote the re-inflation of the great American consumption machine, witnessing a deep and fundamental agreement by Republicans and Democrats alike that massive amounts of money must be printed or borrowed in order to allow the "consumer" again to employ credit for the purchase of disposable non-necessities. Having bailed out banks, insurers, mortgage underwriters and investment firms, now we are about to underwrite failed automobile companies whose product lines were designed to appeal to American vanity and wastefulness.

What's more, the taxpayer will be asked to subsidize a company - General Motors - which turned the business of "externalizing costs" into a billion dollar industry, reaping wildly enormous profits while taxpayers paid not only for roads, automobile pollution, inadequate disposal of countless amounts of tires, oil, batteries and automobile hulks, a blighted landscape that sprung up to service the automobile industry, the destruction of existing neighborhoods to accommodate America's passion for the open road (see The Power Broker, about the life of Robert Moses and his profound altering of the neighborhoods of New York), but in fact assisted in undermining viable mass transportation systems. Forgotten is that GM was responsible for destroying a number of urban mass transit systems - especially the great competitor to the automobile, the street car (a form of transportation that is still used in urban centers around the world, and which was an encouragement to greater population density). GM purchased a number of mass transit systems over time through front companies and proceeded to dismantle mass transit in order to force upon people the option of choosing one of a variety of automobiles - while eliminating the choice not to drive. In this way they succeeded in promoting the illusion of choice while in fact eliminating certain choices. This is the company that now comes to the representatives of the citizenry in order to demand that they dig deeper to bail out a company that is too big to fail. How they became too big is conveniently forgotten, induced by a collective amnesia that a culture based upon instant gratification was designed to induce.

So, while we are at the business of renaming various entities of the Federal Government, let's consider a few other candidates. Starting with the Department of the Treasury let's call it by its proper name - the Department of Greed - or consider reforming it by renaming it the Department of Thrift. Rather than the Department of Defense (a wild misnomer - the Department of War at least had the virtue of honesty), let's either consider calling it what it is - the Department of Wrath, or perhaps Pride - or eliminate it in favor of a citizen militia run by the States. It's hard to run an empire with State militias, a major reason the Anti-Federalists opposed the existence of a standing army.

A few other suggestions. The Department of Education (or, sloth?) - let's call that the Department of Pointless and Endless Standardized Tests. The Department of Interior? The Department of Commerce? The Department of Transportation? The Department of Energy? Perhaps these can all be folded generally into a Department of Lust (luxuria), given their collective and shared aim is the increase of our material comfort by means of exploitation of the earth's resources and destruction of our human habitat in the pursuit of comfort and cheap plenty (whose costs are externalized to future generations).

Looked at in this light, what is evident is that the main organizations of our Government are designed to encourage, promote, and foster widespread lack of self-governance. The government governs an ungoverned populace - people who are consumers - driven by appetite - not citizens who govern themselves and in concert govern together. While we are in the business of renaming, perhaps we should stop calling that entity "Government" and instead call it "Appetite." This would have the virtue of honesty, and allow us more clearly to understand the basic aims and functions of the vast and powerful entity that - in deep concert with massive private firms - seeks to encourage the ongoing delusional belief that consumption is the aim and end of human life.

No, I don't expect Obama to change the name of the Department of Agriculture anytime soon. That would open a can of worms no President of the American Appetite would want to unleash. Best to allow the current abuse of language to continue, a fact that Orwell would appreciate, even if we largely cannot.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sam

Today is the 173rd birthday of America's greatest writer (or at least arguably), Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. Twain lived so many places and wrote books of appeal to so many people that nearly everyone growing up in America identifies with him at some level. My own life has always seemed deeply intertwined with that of Twain: growing up in Windsor, CT, and only a few miles from Hartford, from a young age it was an annual rite of passage to attend a school trip to his magnificent house in Hartford. If you have never visited the house - or even if you have - should you find yourself in the vicinity of Hartford, take the time to tour this stone and wood storybook of Twain's own imagining, down to its likeness to a steamboat from certain angles (what's more, you'll help keep it open - like many undertakings, the Twain House museum society is in dire financial straits).

I grew up next to a family named Clemens. The two sisters who lived there - slightly older than my immediately younger brother and I - regularly tormented us in the way that only older girls can do (at least that's how I remember it; I'm sure they'd have a different take). One day they were taunting us that "Deneen" wasn't a famous name at all, and that they were related to Mark Twain. I taunted back, informing them that their last name was CLEMENS, not TWAIN, so they couldn't be related, to which they shot back some cockamamie story about Twain being originally named Clemens. I shot inside our kitchen to ask my all-knowing Mother, who informed me that indeed Twain WAS born Sam Clemens, much to my chagrin. I asked her if WE were related to anyone famous, and she told me that we were, and gave me the lineage. I marched proudly out to those uppity Clemens sisters and told them that we WERE related to someone famous. "Yea, who," they asked. "Adam and Eve," I informed them, repeating my mother's information. It's a wonder I still talk to that woman.

When I was in the fourth grade I took a shine to my Fourth Grade teacher (Mrs. Carenza - where are you now??), and proceeded to finish my whole English workbook way ahead of schedule. She decided that I should have some more challenging reading and gave me copies of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper and Puddinhead Wilson. I found the books tough going at first, but eager to please Mrs. Carenza, I plowed through them and eventually caught on to Twain's manner of writing, coming to love the books and reading them many times during my youth. Do we still have teachers like Mrs. Carenza? I'm probably a college professor now at least in part because of her.

In college I happened to take a class with a political theorist named Wilson Carey McWilliams, who it turned out was a great and passionate reader of Twain. Not to be missed were his lectures on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and his fabulous re-telling of Twain's long story "An Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," a story that features a character in heaven named McWilliams from New Jersey and thus which, in Carey's view, must be theologically true.

In August, 2001 - by that point I was a professor at Princeton - Carey asked me if I'd like to attend the Fourth International Conference on the State of Twain Studies at Elmira College in Elmira, NY, very near to where Twain's wife Olivia's family lived and where Twain spent most of his summers and did a great deal of his writing (the conference meets every four years, and thus the Sixth Conference is coming up). I was profoundly honored to spend that time in Elmira with Carey, during which we visited Olivia's house, Twain's writing study (An octagon shaped study since moved to the Elmira campus), and a moving visit to Twain's grave, where he lays with Olivia and several of his children.

For the occasion of that Conference, I wrote a paper that I'd always had tumbling about my brain and had for a time considered for inclusion as a chapter in my dissertation (a study of the political theory of the Odyssey and its reappearances in the history of political thought). You see, it had always struck me that Huckleberry Finn had all the earmarks of being deeply based upon the basic framework of the Odyssey, but some other people had noticed this and the observation was probably not worthy of an entire chapter. But during my graduate study I had the chance to visit the Twain papers at the Huntington Library, and discovered that Twain had written an unpublished, mock review of a new German translation of Homer's Odyssey, which he purported to attribute to a new German author named "Herr Homer" (one of its best lines: Twain objects to its setting in Troy and Ithaca, finding it unlikely that a Greek hero would spend so much time in upstate New York). This review was written just as Twain was finishing Huckleberry Finn, and was for me the "smoking gun" that Twain was indeed thinking of the Odyssey as he wrote his classic, and served as the key evidence in my broader claim that there is both plot and philosophic kinship between the two works. My paper, I must submit, made a bit of a splash, and was subsequently included in a CD-Rom of significant secondary works on Huckleberry Finn and published in the journal Modern Language Studies (Vol. 32, 2003). For those interested in the argument, and who may have a bit of free time on this rainy day on the East Coast, I include the original paper I delivered in Elmira in 2001 (it was somewhat altered for publication), which I still like better because it saves the "smoking gun" for the end. Comprising about 12 typewritten pages (minus additional pages of notes, which I don't include here; should you wish a copy with citations, just holler), it's a moderate read, but I think an interesting one, and my effort to honor the memory of that great American author, Mark Twain, as well as my teacher who so loved Twain, Wilson Carey McWilliams. Happy Birthday, Sam!


Was Huck Greek?: The Odyssey of Mark Twain

Patrick Deneen
Princeton University

Since its publication, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been recognized as perhaps the consummate American novel. This assessment was articulated most famously, and succinctly, by Ernest Hemingway, who declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn … it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that.” The critic William Lyon Phelps intoned in 1920s that “is not only the great American novel. It is America.” Yet more magisterially, Clifton Fadiman anointed Twain as “‘our Chaucer, our Homer, our Dante, our Virgil,’ because Huckleberry Finn is the nearest thing we have to a national epic.” Twain scholar David Sloane has recently confirmed these sentiments, noting that “Huckleberry Finn is one of the most steadily experienced projections of America and the American spirit.”

It would seem almost a form of national sacrilege to suggest that Twain’s classic novel could be considered anything other than purely American; it may even appear recidivist to suggest that one of those influences is one of the pre-eminent “dead white males” so widely maligned in the past decade. Yet, Twain’s vision was certainly large and capacious enough to incorporate many streams of influence in his composition of his work, and we might accuse him of either not being prescient enough, or perhaps compliment him for anticipating the need to be willfully resistant toward, contemporary suggestions that one must choose sides in the “culture wars.” For, there is circumstantial evidence, and furthermore, archival proof, to suggest that Huckleberry Finn is not only a consummately American novel, but one that might be viewed as remarkably Greek as well, given its remarkable resemblance to that most ancient of classical epics, the Odyssey of Homer.

The “ancient,” even Homeric qualities of Huckleberry Finn have been long acknowledged, but not as extensively as may be justified. Lionel Trilling compared the place of Huckleberry Finn in the life of an American child as similar to the place of the Odyssey for an Athenian child; Alfred Kazin has suggested that Huck must “become our American Ulysses in order to survive; T. S. Eliot has also noted the similarity inasmuch as “we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet, and other great discoveries man has made about himself.”

It is not difficult to perceive the immediate similarity of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey: both are books about long journeys held loosely together by adventurous episodes at various stops along the way. Both journeys unfold over water, and water is portrayed in each work as both a friend – providing escape and comfort – and as a foe, threatening destruction and death. Each work seems holds out a tension between the attractions of “home” – whether the settled life of “civilization” or Ithaca – and the temptations of undiscovered land. Just as Huck returns to “civilization” at the end of the novel, only to indicate that he intends to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” (229), in a similar fashion Odysseus must take up a journey anew to a wholly unknown place so far inland that its populace is unfamiliar with the purpose of an oar, mistaking it for a “winnowing fan.” Tradition holds that Odysseus takes up this new task with some relief, as he is likely to feel as constrained by “civilization” as Huck after having beheld the wonders of his journey.

Yet, beyond these most obvious features, upon further comparison the similarities multiply and deepen. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like the Odyssey, is a sequel to a successful earlier work. A secondary figure from each earlier work – Huck Finn and Odysseus – becomes the main, even title characters in each sequel. There are narrative similarities in each sequel: like Huckleberry Finn, told in the first person by Huck, a significant portion of Odysseus’s tale is told by himself before the court of the Phaiakians, from Books 9-12 (in contrast to the third-person, omniscient voice of the narrator in both Tom Sawyer and the Iliad). Both works rely heavily on cultural oral traditions, the Odyssey literally performed from memory by rhapsodes, and Huckleberry Finn drawing extensively from dialects of the south, as Twain points out in the “Explanatory” statement at the beginning of the novel.

Along with such structural similarities, there are more specific similarities in character between all the works, original and sequel alike. Tom Sawyer, the main character in the original novel, is, like Achilles of the Iliad, concerned almost above all with honor. Consistent with his portrayal in Tom Sawyer, Tom declares in Chapter 35 of Huckleberry Finn, while speaking of “stealing” Jim, that “there’s more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn’t one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head” (188). Achilles, of course, is also concerned with the perception that his actions are honorable, and seeks recompense for his great deeds, which have been withdrawn by Agamemnon:

“Yet still the heart in me swells up in anger, when I remember
the disgrace that [Agamemnon] wrought upon me before the Argives…
as if I were some dishonoured vagabond."

By contrast, both Huck and Odysseus are supremely concerned with the efficacy of their actions, and not, in the first instance, with the perception by others that their actions are honorable. As Huck declares in response to Tom’s elaborate machinations for freeing Jim, “as for me, I don’t care shucks for the morality of it, nohow. When I start to steal a nigger, or a watermelon, or a Sunday-school book; and if a pick’s the handiest thing, that’s the thing I’m agoing to dig that nigger or that watermelon or that Sunday-school book out with; and I don’t give a dead rat what the authorities thinks about it nuther” (194). Similarly, Odysseus is not ashamed to reveal to the Phaiakians during his long tale that he willingly plundered cities during his attempted homecoming; that he did not defeat the Cyclops by force, but by chicanery; that he willingly lies to protect his identity, using the name “Noman” to protect himself (against the standard heroic code of declaring one’s identity and the identity of one’s father as well). Perhaps as an ultimate measure of Odysseus’s willingness to sacrifice honor for efficiency, it is revealed that he willingly used poisoned arrows as a method of fighting, a practice at odds with the accepted norms of Homeric warfare.

Moreover, both characters are renowned for their trickery, theft, facility with disguises, and for their overall cleverness. Both Huck and Odysseus assume different identities as the situation warrants: Huck pretends, among other things, to be a young girl while gathering information before setting out; to be an abandoned or lonely young boy (not a long stretch, in point of fact), as he often claims on the raft (often to protect Jim); and even, at the novel’s conclusion, to be Tom Sawyer. Odysseus tells five separate stories upon his return to Ithaca to different people, each time claiming to be a different person who has arrived on Ithaca by means of different adventures. During most of the second half of the Odyssey, Odysseus is disguised in the outfit of a poor beggar, only identified by means of a scar on his leg by his nurse of old, Eurycleia. Both Huck and Odysseus are often and expressly concerned with the current condition of their stomachs, and each willingly steals food to fill it. Both characters, notably, perform many of their activities at night, endowing their actions with a sense of hiddenness and undetectablity, and suggesting a life led in a shadow-world outside the regular diurnal activities of most people. Above all, each character, borrowing Homer’s description of Odysseus from the first line of the Odyssey, is polutropos: boy and man of many ways, devices, tricks, skills, minds.

All of these similarities strike one as superbly coincidental, but, like many literary comparisons, fascinating coincidences that deserve the briefest mention, and hardly further commentary. However, further commentary appears warranted, because archival investigation suggests the strong possibility that these apparent coincidences were noted and even encouraged by Twain. Archival evidence from Twain's papers suggests that during and especially toward completion of the manuscript of Huckleberry Finn, Twain was thinking about the story of the Odyssey and even implicitly inviting comparison of the epic to his nearly-completed novel.

Twain composed Huckleberry Finn in several stages. He composed one half - approximately four-hundred manuscript pages - in 1876, to the end of Chapter 17. He completed chapters 17-20 and part of 21 after slow progress in 1880, and completed the manuscript in a burst of activity in 1883, when he wrote chapters 21-43. As Twain was completing the manuscript in 1883, he also composed a burlesque book review of Homer's Odyssey, which has been never published - unfortunately, as, in addition to its comic wit, its wider dissemination might have made the comparison between Huckleberry Finn and the Odyssey more evident and unavoidable.

Entitled "Book Notes: Eine Erzählung aus der Alten Welt. Von Die Odyssey," on twenty-five pages written in long-hand, Twain purports to review a book of adventures "evidently by a new hand," a German author named "Herr Homer." While Twain claims the manuscript is not without "merit of a certain kind," he is largely critical of the new entry in the travel literature for a number of glaring errors, not the least of which is the title, which Twain observes is a bad pun on the story itself, "the-odd-I-see."

There are more serious problems with the book, in Twain's view, including a number of narrative difficulties in the text. He opens with a critique of the poetic form: "verse is not in this writer's line, and it is not a good vehicle of travel anyway." This critique is amusing, but all the more striking when one considers that in September 1880, as Twain took up writing Huckleberry Finn again after a long hiatus, Twain wrote the following verse by John Sheffield in his Notebook (no. 19):

"Read Homer once, and you can read no more
For all books appear so mean, so poor;
Verse will seem prose; but still persist to read,
and Homer will be all the books you need."

Sheffield effectively criticizes the "proselike" character of Homer's verse, but insists that a reader "persist to read." These lines may have been in Twain's mind as he wrote the burlesque, especially given Twain's own attention in Huckleberry Finn to narrative considerations, and indicated how seriously he took the relation of narrative form and the travel genre, and his own interest in matching a contemporary travel narrative to the "native" style of the U.S. Twain seems to confirm these narrative kinds of considerations in his hilarious critique of "Herr Homer's" use of German as straining credulity.

The main critique in Twain's "review" concerns the substance of Homer's adventure tale - the story itself is not believable, the exotic descriptions co-existing at such odds with its setting in upstate New York cities like Troy and Ithaca - and filled with unsatisfying and unsavory characters. Ulysses, in particular, receives the disapproval of Twain, for, while "Ulysses was a king," he "was a king with the morals of a burglar and the appetites of a tramp." One disturbing aspect of the story is the constant attention to eating in the book: "There is too much space given over to eating…. The people in this volume eat almost as often, and almost as much, as do Mr. Dickens' characters, and the food is usually as repulsive as is Mr. Dickens' food." The character of Ulysses, in short, bears a striking resemblance to notable features of Huckleberry Finn, who, while not a king, does appear from time to time to have the morals of a burglar - after all, he believes that he has helped steal Jim from Miss Watson - and one can easily count over a dozen instances in the novel when rather explicit detail is paid to the appetites and meals of Huck and various characters.

Despite his distaste for these various qualities of the Odyssey - features that bear striking resemblance to Huckleberry Finn - he goes on to note something worth praising in Mr. Homer's work: "But [Ulysses] does finally get himself out of the State of New York, and then your confusion dissipates, your embarrassment ceases, and you soon begin to take an interest in the excursions and the way he inflates his facts." Despite those aspects that Twain purports to find distasteful about the book – its unbelievability, its crass dwelling on appetites, its immoral characters, Twain nevertheless finds the story itself altogether absorbing and praiseworthy. In short, if one considers that Twain writes this “review” at the same time that he completes Huckleberry Finn, one might conclude that Twain to some extent “anticipates” a number of criticisms that will be lodged against his own travel novel, and by poking fun at them in the context of the Odyssey – a recognized masterpiece – he effectively seeks to disarm such future critiques of his own book, and by extension both seeks to make an implicit comparison of Huckleberry Finn with the Odyssey, both its “weaknesses,” but more importantly, its status as a “classic” in spite of those purported weaknesses.

This latter suspicion is all but confirmed when one considers one of many reviews of Huckleberry Finn that could be citing the same criticisms that Twain leveled at Herr Homer’s Die Odyssey. Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1954 New York Times review is an excellent case in point, in which he wrote:

"Everybody knows that Huckleberry Finn is an unintentionally bad novel in certain fundamental respects. Much of it is so improbable as to become at times wholly unconvincing on one level of understanding. It is also episodic, clumsily plotted, and sometimes as crudely melodramatic as a dime novel. One could reasonably argue that, as a whole, it is a botched job…."

Yet, even as Krutch finds aspects of the plot almost irredeemably hopeless, like Twain in his “review” of the Odyssey, he finally finds the description of the journey itself to be the saving grace of Twain’s novel:

"The river journey is as unforgettable as the march of the Ten Thousand or the wanderings of Ulysses. By comparison to that fact, the badness of the plotting or the “unconvincing” aspects of the episodes is as irrelevant as the “unconvincing” aspects of the story of the Cyclops."

As improbable as it would seem that Krutch read Twain’s unpublished burlesque review of the Odyssey, he appears to so unconsciously echo the main criticism of Twain’s review so closely – even comparing the story, as well as the “unbelievable” plotting of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey – that one marvels more at Twain’s prescience than Krutch’s unaware echoes.

Beyond this prescient undermining of future criticisms of his novel, Twain may have wished to invite comparison of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey for more substantive thematic reasons. Both works, after all, beyond their similarities as tales of journeying, homecoming and new departures to the wilderness, are depictions of the sacrifices that human beings are willing to make on behalf of other human beings. The Odyssey highlights this feature by beginning, famously, in medias res, on the island of Calypso, the location where Odysseus spends seven of the ten years of his homecoming. Calypso makes Odysseus an offer that few men, it is suggested, can refuse: Odysseus is offered immortality if he will remain on the island with her for eternity, forgo homecoming and forget his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus and the people of Ithaca. Homer artfully reminds us how difficult it is for mortals to decline the offer of immortality: he begins Book 5 – the book that begins the tale of Odysseus’ homecoming after the first four books tell of Telemachus’ search for his father’s whereabouts – by departing from the usual formulaic invocation of Dawn spreading her rosy fingers, and instead states, “Now Dawn rose from her bed, where she lay by haughty Tithonus.” Homer implicitly invites us to compare Odysseus – who consistently declines Calypso’s offer of immortality – with the example of Tithonus, who, offered immortality by Dawn, accepts readily only to find as the years pass that he forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. Despite the hazards of accepting the offer of immortality, the example of Tithonus suggests, it remains the fond wish of mortals to believe they can be the exception to the rule of death’s finality.

What makes Odysseus’ decision to return to Ithaca all the more remarkable is that he – unlike most mortals – has seen the horrific afterlife that awaits him after his death, now ensured once he has left Calypso’s island. We only find out the dire import of his decision to decline immortality when, in Book 11, he tells the Phaiakians of his journey to the underworld. “Life” there is horrific: the dead can only speak when they have drunk the warm blood of a slaughtered sheep; they are insubstantial shades, incapable of embracing or being embraced; each seems frozen forever with bitterness at the circumstances of their deaths. Yet, even having journeyed to the underworld, Odysseus chooses his own inevitable death, claiming that his connections to the people he loves – despite, or perhaps because of their imperfections – transcends any temptation he might have to prolong his life at the expense of achieving his homecoming.

Odysseus’ choice is echoed by that portentous choice made by Huckleberry Finn in Chapter 31 of Twain’s novel. Believing that he is wrongfully helping Jim escape, he writes a note to Miss Watson telling her where she can find her missing slave. Believing he has done the right thing, he thinks how close he came to “being lost and going to hell” (169). For all of Huck’s claims that he wouldn’t mind going to the “bad place” when receiving his religious education at Miss Watson’s hands in Chapter 1 (p. 8), he clearly fears for the state of his eternal soul in this dark moment of choice in Chapter 31. Yet, having written the note to Miss Watson, he then thinks about the concrete instances of fellowship and friendship that marked his relationship with Jim:

"And got to thinking about our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was…; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper." [169]

Like Odysseus, Huck’s affections are concrete, his vision of immortality challenged the real affections and love that binds him to specific people. Like Odysseus, he knows how perfect immortality (now, in heaven) promises to be, and knows (via Miss Watson) how horrific Hell forebodes to be. Yet, he decides in favor of his affections and against the narrowly self-interested protection of his own soul, and thereby ends up doing the right thing:

"It was a close place. I took [the paper] up, and held it in my hand. I was trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
'All right then, I’ll go to hell' – and tore it up." [169]

Like many of the other resemblances between the two works, the fundamental choice of life-paths that face Odysseus and Huck, one promising an easy immortality, the other a harrowing existence in a horrific afterworld, presents a remarkable, startling similarity that might be discounted as coincidence but for the knowledge that Twain himself was thinking about the Odyssey as he completed Huckleberry Finn in 1863. The resemblance may simply point to the recurrent themes of sacrifice and friendship that underlie many enduring works of literature. Or, if we are to take into consideration Twain’s own attentiveness to the “Herr Homer’s” epic at that critical time, we may be led to conclude Huck was not only the consummate American, and not only a little Greek as well, but, like Odysseus, a human being above all.