Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Spiritual, Not Religious"

Numbers reported today by Charles M. Blow of the New York Times confirm what I hear often in my classes - more and more young people today affirm being "spiritual," but not "religious."

Tocqueville observed nearly 200 years ago that Americans - informed by a spirit of equality - would find "forms" to be unbearable. Forms - whether as "formalities," as boundaries, as rule-based distinctions, as disciplines - would be rejected as largely arbitrary limits upon the democratic freedom of individuals. He predicted that "formal" religion would decline in adherents, but that "exhalted forms of spirituality" would spring up to take their place, ones that would be noteworthy for their expansiveness, their absence of boundedness, their resistance to limits or chastening, and would manifest themselves as a kind of fanaticism. Moreover, he noted that this kind of "spirituality" would not be in contradiction to modern forms of materialism, but would exist comfortably alongside materialism.

All this is to be expected. Americans dislike most "formalities." Most of our contributions in the culinary area have been to transform every food type into ones that can be eaten by hand, on the run. Increasingly the use of "Mr." or "Mrs." have disappeared from the vocabulary of our young. Etiquette more generally has ceased to be a subject worthy of inculcation. Architectural forms have increasingly sought to incorporate design features that reject classical formalism, lines and features that were meant to accentuate the reality of the natural world. In universities, formal curricular criteria have been abandoned for amorphous "distribution requirements," and at some institutions have been altogether eliminated. The definition of family is subjected to redefinition according to preference. The "formalism" of the Constitution has been rejected in preference for the idea of a "living" document that is subject to evolutionary change. In all these instances, "forms" restrict our freedom, and as democrats, we naturally bridle against them.

Spirituality is another kind of reaction against "forms" - this time in the religious realm - but, as with these other kinds of "informalism," exists in order to overthrow the strictures and limitations that "forms" demand. As Blow reports, one woman arrived at spiritual "peace" by taking a vacation to Costa Rica, where she was able to overcome the "moral strictures" of her youth. Spirituality becomes the means to liberation, even dissipation.

Tocqueville argued that democracy would need forms, though it would seek their evisceration. Forms are necessary especially because democracy needs to inculcate the capacity for self-government, and self-government is achieved through an habituation in self-discipline that the forms provide. In so many areas of life today, it is obvious that our problems derive from our incapacity for self-governance, in the formal discipline of self.

What we need today is not a generation that is "spiritual, not religious." I would argue that what is needed is the studied capacity to be "religious, not spiritual." Let's make that the new buzz.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Meritorious Problems

David Brooks has written a smart column in today's New York Times. While he has - like Thomas Friedman - generally been a cheerleader of "the new elite" that graduates from the top educational institutions in the U.S., unlike Friedman he has also been sufficiently discerning to note the downside of current meritocratic arrangements. In today's column he notes that as society has become more "meritocratic," the main institutions of society have become less respected and trusted. He distills several reasons for this seeming paradox, and - notably - they might be summarized as some of the main lines of critique of contemporary society that I have written about so often here and on FPR. Here I provide my own gloss (in bold type) with Brooks's analysis following.

1. Technique without "common sense," and a corresponding tendency to treat things of the world in isolation, shorn of their interconnections.

"First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating."

2. "Strip-mining" of talent from places, leading to the geographic and lifestyle concentration of the "meritocrats" and the undermining of social cohesion and a sense of shared fate.

"Second, this new system has created new social chasms. In the old days, there were obviously big differences between people whose lives were defined by “The Philadelphia Story” and those who were defined by “The Grapes of Wrath.” But if you ran the largest bank in Murfreesboro, Tenn., you probably lived in Murfreesboro. Now you live in Charlotte or New York City. You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town. Now the lifestyle patterns of the college-educated are very different from the patterns in other classes. Social attitudes are very different, too."

3. Meritocracy selects for and fosters competitive character, intensifying mistrust and stressing the imperative to "take care of number one."

"Third, leadership-class solidarity is weaker. The Protestant Establishment was inbred. On the other hand, those social connections placed informal limits on strife. Personal scandals were hushed up. Now members of the leadership class are engaged in a perpetual state of war. Each side seeks daily advantage in ways that poison the long-term reputations of everybody involved."

4. The inculcation of short-term thinking, and loss of generational perspective.

"Fourth, time horizons have shrunk. If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you’d hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking.

Now people respond to ever-faster performance criteria — daily stock prices or tracking polls. This perversely encourages reckless behavior. To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs.... There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified."

5. Meritocracy seeks to rationalize society, eviscerating traditions, myth and mystery (including religion) - which are necessary for the functioning of society. Human society is less a machine than an organism. Dissect a living organism, and it dies.

"Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn’t Galston’s point, but I’d observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it."


Brooks concludes, predictably, that "this is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day."

Yet, having laid out a rather substantive list of problems that contribute to a modern "crisis of confidence," I would think a New York Times columnist would have to do better than this conclusion. Yes, the older aristocracy was less just; but the new meritocracy, if more "just," is finally less humane. So, we need to ask: what is to be done?

Lurking behind each of these reasons for this contemporary crisis is the fact that meritocracy disconnects people from place, context, memory and obligation. Were Brooks, or any of the modern meritocratic cheerleaders, to follow the logic of their complaints, they would need to acknowledge that our deepest problems lie in the studied inculcation of placelessness, deracination, atemporality and selfishness. This deserves more than "oh well" and a shoulder-shrug. It calls for a different way of being in the world.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Friendship and Politics

Appearing today in a week-long symposium on Friendship at the Front Porch Republic:

What’s the Constitution between friends?”

--George Washington Plunkitt

We tend to think of friendship above all as a private set of relationships, distant and distinct from those shifting public interactions where interest, intrigue and even deception often reign. For Americans in particular, the idea that friendship should have relevance to public life seems a strange and even absurd idea. The American system, to a large extent, was officially designed to institutionalize mistrust. As James Madison argued in the most famous of the Federalist Papers – Number 10 – an “enlarged orbit” of the Federal system would have the salutary effect of increasing the number of interests in the political arena, as well as expanding the geographic area of the country, leading to great and even insurmountable difficulties for people seeking to form firm and ongoing political relationships. “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked, that were there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust, in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.” The size, scope, and sheer variety of interests will have the salutary effect (in Madison’s view) of generating mistrust, and we will view public life as an arena for the sheer combat of interests shorn of the dignity of trust, friendship, or love.

Yet, written only some seven years before the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation – which the Constitution ultimately replaced – began by asserting that the “states severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other” and that the origin of the Confederation was “better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different states of this union.” If Madison was to argue that the working basis of the Constitution would be its effective inculcation of mistrust among the citizenry, the original grounds for union lie in an aspiration to “Friendship.”

An older tradition – pre-dating the American Constitutional order, and persisting for a long time even within the context of that order – argued that public life was a sphere of dignity and even majesty precisely because it was the realm in which one of the highest human goods – friendship – could flourish. Moreover, at base it held that politics was based upon an aspiration to community and commonweal – involving the chastening of the demands of self and its interests – for the sake of others with whom one was bound in bonds of friendship and self-sacrifice. The measure of political life was not – as Harold Lasswell was to argue – “who gets what, when, and how” – but rather, as my teacher Wilson Carey McWilliams argued, above all “with whom.” 1 Citizenship was understood to be a discipline of friendship, the learned capacity to care for others outside oneself. Politics was the highest form of friendship, not its opposite.

Of course, this older tradition derives from an even older source, the ancient Greeks and above all Aristotle. Aristotle acknowledged that friendship was a fundamental human good, but further recognized that friendship was deepest sources of the bond that united citizens in their highest devotion to the common good. Thus, Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics that “if men are friends, there is no need of justice between them; whereas merely to be just is not enough - a feeling of friendship is also necessary.” (1155a). By this he meant that claims to justice between individuals are finally inferior to the relationships between friends. Justice demands only what is fair for me and you, and has deep in its origins the mistrust that you might be getting something more in the bargain than I am likely to be getting. Justice, then, is a standard of potential enemies, an even division of booty in which both sides are apt to view each other dimly and even with underlying hostility. Friendship, on the other hand, includes the willingness to get less than one deserves for the sake of another for whom one cares. The ultimate friendship –fittingly worth noting at the beginning of Lent – is that friendship of God to Man, and of Jesus to his fellow humans, who surely got less than he deserved and gave more than any godhead has ever been expected to offer to an inferior creature. As we pray every Sunday before receiving the body of Christ, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” We pray not for justice from God – for surely we would all burn eternally in Hell if justice was the measure – but for mercy, for love.

In turn, we are asked to emulate such generosity and charity to our fellow humans. This was the overarching message of what may have been the first political speech in (or at least near, or approaching) the new America – John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” a sermon he gave aboard the ship Arabella in 1630. Called upon to be “stewards” of God’s grace working in the world, as a company he calls upon his fellow Puritans to be “knit together by this bond of love." As they establish “a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical,” he insists to his fellow citizens-to-be that “care of the public must oversway all private respects by which not only conscience but mere civil policy doth bind us; for it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” If Locke and liberalism insists that our fundamental reason for agreeing to the creation of the political realm is to secure the rights of “life, liberty and estate,” Winthrop by contrast argued that “particular estates” are ultimately subordinate to “the public.” Thus we are called to see our selves as ultimately bound up in the shared fates with our fellow citizens (here echoing Aristotle that “a friend is another self”):

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together: always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body….. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of the world upon us.

(That famous concluding line – drawn itself from the Gospel of Matthew – was used to good effect by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, but to completely opposite purposes to those of Winthrop. By that point, the language of Winthrop had been co-opted to defend the politics of Lockean liberalism. It was the second greatest political swindle in American political history, just after the assignment of the label “Anti-federalists” to the party of true federalism.)

For a long time in American political history, the reality of political friendship – otherwise excluded in the official founding of America – was most visibly alive in that unofficial institution that sprung up to correct one of the glaring weaknesses of the new Constitution, namely, political parties. Parties arose as the glue for political groupings in a landscape otherwise hostile to political friendship, and were above all in the first century of American politics the main institution that linked local to national issues, while at the same time preventing the national tendency toward homogenization from running roughshod over local concerns. For this very reason, it was the Progressives in the early 20th-century who devoted ferocious energy to eviscerating the power of the Parties, and, in particular, the emotional bonds that motivated political commitments and the local attachments that forestalled complete identification between the individual and the nation. Thinkers and politicians like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt saw themselves perfecting the ambitions of Hamilton in the creation of “a national system” (Federalist 23). The main obstacles to the prevention of that national system – particularly one that would increase economic and military power – were local allegiances. Particularly as manifested in political parties, these needed to be eliminated through “reform.”

The Progressive reform movement gave rise to some of the great political essays in modern times - that is, by opponents to the Progressives who saw (in ways that are not longer evident to us) the main impetus for these “reforms” and who rightly discerned that the object was not the elimination of corruption, but rather a broadside against a conception and practice of politics based in local forms of loyalty, commitment, and commonweal (I would place in their number such relatively well-known authors as Randoph Bourne, Jane Addams, and Josiah Royce, and lesser lights such as George Washington Plunkitt, H. C. Merwin, and Henry Jones Ford). Perhaps among the greatest and most remarkable political science articles written at this time – if not exactly “forgotten,” since it’s doubtful that it was ever well-known – was an essay published in 1902 by the NYC settlement house reformer Mary Kingsbury Simkohvitch entitled “Friendship and Politics.” 2 In that remarkable article - unpublishable in the same journal today, which is now dominated by "empirical" political science - Simkohvitch diagnosed the motivations and ignorance of the “reformers” who sought to “solve” the problems of tenement poverty from the top-down, “working on the people, not with them” (199).

Above all, she discerned that the “reformer” – outside the actual interactions between local people – comes from a position of assumed superiority. In sentiment, if not language, that might have come from a Tea Party critic of government-from-a-distance, she wrote,
[The reformer] is distrusted, like every foreigner. He comes from a different environment. His English is a different tongue from the people he desires to reform. His experience is, for the most part, extremely limited. He is absolutely uncolloquial. He is unfamiliar with all those elements that make up the great traditions of party loyalty. He does not sympathize with those traditions, even if he knows them. He is an outsider. He is working on the people, not with them. He wants them to be different from themselves and more like him. In all this the position of unconscious superiority is alienating in its effect…. Added to the doubt of the reformer’s substantial merits there is often as well the dark suspicion that he is a decoy, a sort of forerunner of the rule of the capitalist, a man clever with words but leading one on to ruin. [198-9]

The real relationships of people in their localities is to be replaced by rationalized and approved “programs” – “justice” is to replace “friendship. Much of the domestic politics of the 20th-century has been precisely motivated by this ambition, to displace local loyalties, and with them, attendant limitations upon those loyaties, with an abstract loyalty to nation (and, now, to the “international community”) in which concrete relations are replaced by government programs. Justice – the inferior standard of mistrustful individuals – liberates us to pursue our interests without concern for the loyalties to places and communities. Fellow citizens become more often viewed as competitors and even enemies than friends: as Aristotle predicted, where civic friendship wanes, lawsuits fill the emptied public space. Accordingly, our general mistrust for the public grows, and our relationship to law becomes one in which we see it as an imposition from outside – by “foreign” elites – rather than as emanating from the interaction of fellow citizens with a shared and discernible concern for commonweal. Our “liberation” from the bonds and limitations imposed by friendship in politics leads to the rise of the felt sense of political tyranny. This analysis, of course, echoed Tocqueville's understanding that the rise of "soft tyranny" came not from "Statism" as such, but the isolation and weakness experienced by modern democratic "individuals."

Above all, what has been displaced is a different set of ends or purposes for human life. A politics based in more local and ongoing relationships among people who see their fate as shared and bound together makes substantive space for goods that go beyond utility, wealth and power.

Thus expendable are the goods of family, community, culture and tradition, the attendant practices of leisure, learning, art (especially shared story and song), and worship. Indeed, it is the shared bonds formed and deepened in these contexts and practices that chasten the more sinful, utilitarian, and self-interested motivations that have today come to dominate our understanding of politics and life itself. Politics today is about securing one's interests and the attendant need for growth in all of its forms, above all, the growth of power. However, to achieve this most unnatural form of political life, a concerted effort was needed to eliminate the reality, and even possibility, of friendship in politics. For those who would seek the restoration of republican liberty, at the forefront of their concerns should be to restore friendship to its rightful place – in the public square 3


1. Harold Laswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When and How? (1935); John Schaar and Wilson Carey McWilliams, "Uncle Sam Vanishes," New University Thought 1 (1961): 61-68.

2. Mary Kingsbury Simkohvitch, “Friendship and Politics,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 17, no. 2 (July 1902): 189-205.

3. For a lengthier treatment of these themes, see Patrick J. Deneen, “Friendship and Politics, Ancient and American” in Friends and Citizens: Essays in Honor of Wilson Carey McWilliams (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 47-66. Much of the essay is available online here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vico Contra Powerpoint

"Memory and imagination, as Vico says in the New Science, are closely connected to ingenuity (in Italian, ingegno; in Latin, ingenium) as the power to form hypotheses in science and metaphors in the arts, to perceive the similarity in dissimilars. Ingenuity, like metaphor, its product, cannot be learned from others as an adult. The mind must be led to it at the earliest age. Ingenuity is not method. There is no method for ingenuity because method is rigidified ingenuity. Once ingenuity leads us to a discovery, the means of the discovery can be articulated and formulated as a method to then be followed. Descartes’ method is not a product of method. It is a product of his own ingenuity that then can be apprehended by everyone with bon sens, adapted, and followed.

"Vico would look on in horror at the current basing of the earliest years of children’s education on mastery of the computer and electronic-based activity. Students whose sole object of concentration is thus directed will, as adults, have no ability to tell a story, certainly not a good story, nor to narrate their existence to themselves. In such education, wonder (thauma), in which philosophy originates and continues to require, as Aristotle says, will never appear because the pupil never stands before things pure and simple, unaided by the medium which is itself the message. As Gian-turco says, in beginning his introduction to the translation of the Study Methods: “We live in a Cartesian world, a world of scientific research, technology, and gadgets, which invade and condition our lives . . . .” In such a world, education in social management and counseling replaces education in civil wisdom."

Donald Verene, "Vichean Moral Philosophy: Prudence as Jurisprudence," Kent-Chicago Law Review, 83:3 (2008), 1114.

Warmer Climes

I'll be fleeing the aftermath of the DC "Snowmaggedon" for a few days next week in order to deliver a lecture on Monday in Tallahassee, Florida. For readers who may be located in that more temperate clime and interested in attending, here is the information:

"So, You Think You Know Conservatism?"

Monday, February 22, 2010
12:30 p.m.

Florida State University
College of Law
200 South Duval Street, Rm 102
Tallahassee, FL 32301-1738