Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sensus Communis and Natural Law

As requested by several, here is a copy of the presentation that I delivered in Princeton. Half is a critique of the view that the "Natural Rights" founding of America was as central as is often believed, and is as praiseworthy as most at the conference held; the second half was a recommendation to consider the "Natural Law" critique of "Natural Rights" thinking that does not resort to the very kind of Cartesian/Kantian rationalist abstraction (often stripped bare of sociological and strongly prudential consideration), of the sort that one tends to find in the "New Natural Law" thinking. For that part of the lecture, I rehearsed some of the arguments of Giambattista Vico - a name not often associated with Natural Law thinking.

In sum, I sought to offend all parties in attendance, and based upon the response, that I somewhat succeeded.

“Sensus Communis and Nature’s Law: Why Communities Know Natural Law Better Than Philosophers”

Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University

As could be expected, there has been much discussion at this conference about the Founding and its significance. And, as could be expected, there has been spirited debate and even disagreement about the particulars and even the more fundamental nature of that Founding. Yet,- also as expected - there has been no disagreement about what our Founding was or who our Founders were.

So, never being one content to toe the line, let me inject discord into this fair assembly, and allow me base my departure from this unanimity by appeal to “the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written about America,” in the inimitable words of Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. For, Tocqueville discusses the Founding, but of course it has always been something of a scandal that he does not once in his enormous tome mention the Declaration of Independence, and can devote only one chapter to the Constitution itself. As for his discussion of our true Founding – which he states reveals to us our fundamental nature as a nation, as sure as “the man is, so to speak, a whole in the swaddling clothes of his cradle” – he insists therein one can find the “key to almost my whole work.” That key lies in his recognition that the American Founding was rightly to be identified with the Puritan settlement in New England and, in particular, the distinctive combination of the “spirit of liberty” and the “spirit of religion” that it introduces to and that shapes the character of the new nation.

The idea of liberty at the heart of the Puritan tradition is at considerable odds with that of the Lockean Natural Rights tradition. Jeffry Morrison made mention yesterday of Wilson Carey McWilliams’s lifelong study of the “two voices” in American political thought, the one deriving from Lockean sources, and the other, less “official” voice from the Biblical tradition. Yet, those two voices – which Jeffry at least intimated could be made consonant with one another – McWilliams wrote was an “unresolved argument” and was the source of a deeper incoherence of the American political culture. The deepest source of that incoherence was profound disagreement over the definition of liberty, one which – deriving from our Natural Rights tradition – defines liberty to be based most fundamentally in the rights of individuals, and the other – deriving from our Puritan Founding – understands human liberty as fundamentally communal, and insists rather upon the learned capacity of humans to moderate and even sacrifice their own interests for the good of the whole.

There is no better explication of this orientation than that of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, whose speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” has become a justly famous expression of Puritan social and political views. Aboard the Arbella, Winthrop explicates to his fellow pilgrims the kind of society they should aspire to build upon their arrival in the New World.

Winthrop begins by acknowledging that humans are always placed in positions of inequality. But, rather than lamenting (or celebrating) our respective conditions as individuals, he argues, we need to understand our differences as gifts of God, in particular as manifestations of our insufficiency and partiality, of our mutual reliance, of the fact that we might recognize that we have need of each other. God creates humans differently, he writes, “so that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be knit more nearly together in the bond of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy, etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.”

Our differences are actually signs of our deeper equality, and standing calls to consider the ways that our different gifts are to be employed for the benefit of the community. Neither are the wealthy to feel self-satisfied for their fortune, nor are the poor to harbor resentment and envy; rather, all distinctions are ultimately to be understood as distinct parts of a larger whole, a part of the created order and for God’s glory alone. Every person, however situated, is called to contribute their share to the common weal. While justice is a necessary aspiration, it is insufficient – our primary duty is to emulate the love of Christ, that gratuitous form of charity that is freely given for the benefit of others. Winthrop writes that the people must be governed “under a due form of government” in which “the 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.” The entire orientation of Puritan society was to be toward the good of community, a lived experience that was ultimately to reflect and emulate the love of God for the people. Thus, where Locke treats equal rights as a means to differentiation, Winthrop makes difference a means to equality; whereas Natural Rights begins with the idea of the naturally autonomous individual who consents to political order, Puritanism hearkens back to an Aristotelian conception in which one can only truly become an individual by and through the context of human community.

As acknowledged by many people who have spoken at this conference, the inheritors of the Puritan tradition understood that they had at least an “overlapping consensus” with the more secular vanguard on the eve of the Revolution, but we should not confuse a prudential “strange bedfellowship” with full-throated agreement or any sort of easy synthesis. In various representative works at the time, there is clear articulation of a more fundamental disagreement with their Lockean political partners, a recognition that a momentary political alliance could not and ought not to be confused as a common worldview. There is no better expression to be found of this wariness, and bold articulation of the differences between these “two voices,” than in several sermons delivered in 1774 by the Calvinist revolutionary (and eventual Anti-federalist), Nathaniel Niles. Niles acknowledged that he sought to make common cause with anyone supporting separation of the Colonies from Britain, but also used the occasion of especially his first sermon to articulate a fundamental and decisive disagreement with those who were advancing a Natural Rights republic. In that sermon – a shrewd and crafty piece of rhetoric, which included footnotes that even more forcefully and radically stated his disagreements with Lockeans, in case his first listeners missed the point – early in the sermon he stated that “originally, there were no private interests.” Rather, what we regard as our private rights are actually the consequence of community – he writes that our private rights and interests are “distributed among … individuals according as they appear in the eyes of the body politic, to be qualified to use them for the good of the whole.” This follows from Niles explicit rejection of Lockean understanding of property in his first lengthy footnote, in which he argues that our “ownership” of things is really only a temporary loan from God, that humans in fact are given creation to be “managed for the grand company” of angels and God.

According to Niles, humans are given nothing that they can truly call their own, not even their own bodies – all of which is understood to belong ultimately to God, and which humans must offer for the benefit of fellow citizens and the greater glory of God. Thus, it follows – as elucidated in this same footnote – that regimes based upon appeal to private right are illegitimate. So, (in an original form of “equivalency thesis”) he compares the illegitimacy of a single tyrant – such as that of George the Third – to an illegitimate regime based upon contract or consent whose aim is to secure the private interests of individuals. Thus, he writes, “It matters not whether men who build their notions of government on self-interest, call themselves whigs or tories, friends to prerogative, or to the liberties of the people.” Being based on the private interests of either the one or the many, both are illegitimate.

For Winthrop and Niles, the community is an embodied education in proper liberty, the locus where private interest is moderated and even subordinated to the good of the whole. Politics is not simply the negotiation of interests, but the learned capacity for self-government, both of individual and collective. Embedded in this conception of the community as the locus for common weal is a conception of the human good and human flourishing, a particular end or orientation that the well-formed community is obligated to foster and encourage. It is in these arguments that one sees evidence of a more classical conception of human flourishing, the learned capacity for human virtue, namely the exercise of self-rule over passions and interests. It was for this reason that Tocqueville came to see a deeper connection between the babe in the cradle and the grown man that he was witnessing especially in the New-England townships, those places where the “arts of association” were practiced, where “the heart is enlarged,” where civic life constitutes a kind of education in virtue and self-governance.

And, it was for a number of Anti-federalists precisely on these grounds that they opposed in principle the proposed Constitution, fearing that some of its deepest assumptions and ultimate trajectory would undermine just such an inculcation in civic virtue, and replace that ongoing and ceaseless form of civic education instead with an emphasis on private right, avarice, and a weakening, even evisceration of more local civic practices. A particularly articulate defender of community as a school of virtue was Melancton Smith, the great opponent of Alexander Hamilton during the New York Ratification debates. In the midst of more specific arguments about the size of the House of Representatives, Smith offered on several occasions a more comprehensive vision of an alternative understanding to politics than that represented in the Constitution, one that was based firmly in locality, in which an inculcation of virtue was its aim, and in which local knowledge and practice was understood to be a better basis of understanding and familiarity with the Good than that available to distant and abstract experts. The emphasis of Smith’s arguments was that the good human life was the result of a kind of habituation in virtue within local communities.

That is to say, in all of these various iterations and defenses of human community that are consonant with America’s first founding, there is a deeper implicit understanding that only within the context of strong, stable, long-standing, modest, and relatively small and local communities, can a true, intimate and lived experience of the human good be instantiated. While it may seem a stretch to make this suggestion – for this is not the language that is used by any of its defenders – it could be baldly stated that it is only within such communities that the basic precepts of the natural law can be truly instantiated, as a set of practices and kind of civic education in virtue aimed at human flourishing. Indeed, it could be even be argued that the Natural Law derives from the conditions of such a lived existence, not primarily as a set of philosophical precepts, but rather as pre-reflective set of lived experiences instantiated in the life and practices of such properly constituted communities. The philosophers may be able to describe the Natural Law, but its only locus of existence is in such communities.

In making these claims, I have in mind the writings and arguments of a natural law philosopher who is rarely, if ever, mentioned in such gatherings – (indeed, who didn’t make the cut on the forthcoming NEH sponsored website on Natural Law, Natural Rights and the American Constitution) – but who is an invaluable guide in understanding this deeper relationship of the natural law and human community. I refer to the Italian humanist, philosopher, rhetorician, historian, philologist and jurist, Giambattista Vico, whose years are 1668-1744. (not suggesting that Vico inspired the Puritans or Tocqueville, but merely think his thought sheds light on the implied relationship of natural law and its presence in the life of particular communities). Vico explodes the notion that there is a contradiction between the Natural Law and the beliefs and practices of particular communities, but rather – in his remarkable and incomparable book, The New Science, published in its final form in 1744 – argues that the two arise together and at best are mutually reinforcing. Vico argues that the natural law is instantiated and guides human behavior in the lived experience of human beings within human communities. Responding to the philosophical and methodological individualism of the likes of Descartes and Hobbes – and, in particular, rejecting Hobbes’s stark distinction between “nature” and “culture,” portrayed above all in the State of Nature scenario – Vico instead argued that the natural law arises from within human culture, and that culture is itself is the consequence of human nature.

Vico’s answer to the question of the origins of the natural law is perhaps puzzling and counter-intuitive for moderns, accustomed as we are – in the shadow of Descartes – of separating universal truths from contingent particularity. Descartes, after all, begins his Discourse on Method by rejecting the idea that anything universal can be known from the varied evidence of culture, and instead investigates the question of what can be known by shutting himself within a room and even within his own mind. By contrast, Vico argues that the universal can only be truly known through the particular – indeed, that the natural law itself comes into being in the lives of moral human communities, inasmuch as custom itself is natural to human beings. Life lived under the natural law is manifested, as it were, inductively from human practice within cultures, rather than deductively from philosophical principles through reason and reflection.

Vico identifies three basic features of human nature that are everywhere manifested in the practices of human cultures, therefore at once universal in their presence, but various in their particular practices. Those three features are 1. Fear and worship of the gods; 2. The solemnization of marriage between man and woman; and 3. The burial of the dead. Vico explains that “in no nation, however savage and crude, are any human actions performed with more elaborate ceremonies and more sacred solemnity than the rights of religion, marriage and burial. For, by the axiom that ‘uniform ideas, born among peoples unknown to each other, must have a common ground of truth,” it must have been dictated to all nations that from these three institutions humanity began among them all, and therefore must be most devoutly guarded by them all, so that the world should not again become a bestial wilderness” (¶ 333).

Vico seeks to elucidate that the natural law derives from the natural sociability of human beings, and moreover, is most fundamentally manifested in the settled practices and customs that arise from that natural sociability. The three universal facets of human nature that give rise to various human cultures – the facts of religion, marriage, and burial – are all particularly noteworthy inasmuch as they point to the requirement of their realization in human community, within settled and ongoing sets of relations among particular people, and within which particular practices and customs are developed that nevertheless reflect these universal facets of human nature. All three of these manifestations of our embedded nature, according to Vico, in a sense make us human – deriving simultaneously from our animal nature and our freedom as humans, providing an ongoing set of practices that lead to settled relationships and form the moral basis for sustained human communities in which the fostering of such practices, customs and traditions allow for generational transmission of norms that derive from the natural law itself.

Vico concludes that the natural law is manifested within these universal, yet varied cultural practices that are to be found, above all, in moral human communities where such practices have come into existence as a consequence of human nature itself. Moreover, such practices are not the result of reflection or philosophizing about the natural law, and do not originate or even in the first instance require appeal to a universal standard of right that is understood to be in distinction to the customs and practices of particular communities. Vico notes that communities precede conscious agreement on their principles – that is, they are pre-philosophic – not vice versa (as Hobbes held), and thus, that the natural law is most fundamentally manifested in the life of communities. He writes, “[Thus], the natural law of the gentiles is coeval with the customs of nations, conforming one with another in virtue of a common human sense, without any reflection and without one nation following the example of another.” His reference to “common human sense” is a translation of sensus communis, “the sense of the community” or even “common sense,” the embedded understandings of human communities that are manifested and reinforced in practices and customs, and which – without arising from reflection or philosophy – nevertheless are guided and informed by the natural law inasmuch as their manifestation arises from the nature of humans themselves. Culture is thus the expression of the sensus communis, and its transmission is itself a community-wide education in natural law, not as an abstraction, but in the communal life and even prejudice of place and custom. The natural law is inherent in culture itself, not a contrast or even contradiction to the particularity of culture. Thus, according to Hans-Georg Gadamer, “For Vico …, the sensus communis is the sense of the right and the general good that is to be found in all men, moreover, a sense that is acquired through living in the community and is determined by its structures and aims. This idea sounds related to the natural law...” - although in a way that Gadamer stresses is directed against "theoretical speculations" about that law (22).

Vico’s argument – initially developed in response to the abstract and universalist methodology of Descartes and the anti-cultural anthropological reductionism of Hobbes – also serves as a corrective today to the tendency to abstract considerations of natural law from communities in which they must necessarily be manifested. For instance, in an essay by Joseph Boyle that appeared in a volume edited by Professor Robert George, Boyle acknowledges that there is at least a version of natural law thinking which disassociates considerations of the natural law from its embeddedness in human communities: “For the natural law account of moral life and thinking includes a set of views according to which much of moral thought is not essentially dependent upon the lived values of a moral community” (11). Vico’s argument, by contrast, argues that the natural law is best known and experienced in the life and practices of community itself, and not as an abstract set of principles developed primarily by philosophers or through more narrow forms legal reasoning and application. Those who would support the natural law – in accordance with Vico’s arguments – need necessarily to attend to the health and vitality of settled and decent human communities, emphasizing a moral culture and a broader understanding of law that is inclusive of culture itself.

To return to America: Tocqueville, like Vico, worried about the destruction of local communities due to philosophies that promoted individualism. Tocqueville was profoundly aware of the “two voices” in American political life, that older if threatened voice that echoed from the Puritans and which hearkened back to the older philosophies of Augustine and antiquity, and the more fashionable, newer voice of rights and individualism from the natural rights philosophy. Even while Tocqueville admired the “local freedoms” of Americans, the practical expression of “the arts of association” within those townships whose origins could be traced back to Puritan forbears and which he viewed as “the great schools” of democracy, he worried about the transformation that America’s official philosophy would eventually have upon its character.

Tocqueville was not uncongnizant of the reality of America’s official philosophical doctrine, the more individualistic and self-interested claims of its official Lockeanism. He noted a strange fact about Americans – every action they undertake, even those that are clearly motivated by fellow-feeling and self-sacrifice, tended to be justified in terms of self-interest. He writes almost with a kind of perplexity over this American propensity, writing that “they do not do themselves justice; for one sometimes sees citizens in the United States as elsewhere abandoning themselves to the disinterested and unreflective sparks that are natural to man; but the Americans scarcely avow that they yield to movements of this kind. They would rather do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves.” (502). What Tocqueville identifies is a gap or lacuna between the official language of Americans and their actions. What he saw was the practical legacy of Puritanism – the active engagement of self-governing individuals toward the achievement of the common good in conformity with the Good – but what he heard was philosophical Lockeanism, that stated claim which the philosophy is more honored than the actions. He identified a puzzling disjuncture between word and deed, and worried whether over time word would begin to shape deed, whether our actions would increasingly conform to our claims. In worried tones he wrote, “one must expect that individual interest will become more than ever the principle and unique motive of men’s actions; but it remains to know how each man will understand his individual interest.”

Yesterday, Jim Ceaser suggested that one test of the fitness – even naturalness – of the Natural Rights Republic was its success of the past 200+ years, one that has provided a stable political settlement and widespread prosperity for many Americans. To his at-least half-glass full analysis, let me conclude by adding my own at-least half-empty portion of the glass. By Vico’s estimatation, we are entering into what he predicted was a new barbarism – the “barbarism of reflection” when philosophies of abstraction would lead to the evisceration of culture and the demise of civilization itself. Vico would emphasize the evidence of declining measures of religious observance, of lasting marriages, and even worrisome trends in the burial of the dead (there is the rising phenomenon of “anonymous burial” which are accompanied by no funeral and no grave marker), which Vico doubtless would have concluded suggests that basic constitutive elements of culture are evaporating before our eyes. Vico’s analysis finally suggests the discomfiting notion that America is at least an inhospitable place for community and the lived experience within the natural law, and may even be designed to eviscerate its lived existence, inasmuch as much of its official philosophy was grounded in the abstract natural rights reasoning that can trace its lineage back to Descartes, Hobbes and Locke.

Moreover, Tocqueville’s observation that Americans will be likely over time to conform their actions to their “official philosophy” suggests that it may be too soon to judge the success of this project. It may well be that the apparent success of the American experiment may more fundamentally derive from its first founding – its first voice – an inheritance upon which the “second voice” of the Natural Rights tradition has been parasitic without the capacity to replenish what it has drawn down. Relying on the self-sacrifice of families, religion, communities and citizens, the official philosophy at the same time empties those institutions and roles of their vitality and officially sanctions a view of human anthropology that undermines their legitimacy. Gathering evidence all around us – the destruction of the family, the depletion of communities as the meritocracy siphons off the most talented young people for bit parts on Wall Street, the depravity of our schools, the debasement of our universities, to the emptying of our Churches, the degradation of our public servants, the corruption of our economy, and the destruction of the natural world on which we rely for our lives – all this and more prevents me from sharing Jim’s confidence that we can declare “mission accomplished.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Natural Law in Princeton

Today and tomorrow I am attending, and will be presenting at, a conference on "Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the American Republic." My presentation tomorrow at 11:15 is entitled "Sensus Communis and Natural Law: Why Communities Know Natural Law Better than Philosophers Do." Should be fun - come by if you're in the neighborhood.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Against Great Books?

My essay "Why the Great Books Aren't the Answer" (my working title was "Against Great Books") has generated an interesting number of responses. Noteworthy among them are several:

-- J.M. Anderson, "Why The Great Books ARE the Answer."

--A Mr. Jaried Hall asks the right questions of Mr. J. M. Anderson.

--A summation of my argument here.

--Peter Lawler at "Postmodern Conservative."

--"Sticky Green Leaves" responds.

--A lively debate at "The American Catholic."

--Another lively debate spurred by Joe Carter at "First Things."

Methinks I will have to soon post a follow-up essay, and with end-of-semester work nearly completed, I shall. But, in the meantime, for anyone who missed the original essay, I paste it here, below. One caution: please note that I am not against reading great books. Try to get past the title.

"Why the Great Books are Not the Answer"

For several decades, conservative critics of higher education have argued against trends toward the elimination of "core" curricula and with equal ferocity against their replacement by "distribution requirements" or even open curricula. They have, in particular, defended a curriculum in "Great Books," those widely-recognized texts in the Western tradition authored by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Mill, and Nietzsche, among others. This curriculum - preserved still in some of the nation's leading universities such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University - as well as at the heart of the longstanding Great Books approach of St. John's College - is seen as a bulwark against contemporary tendencies toward relativism, post-modernism, and political correctness.

More recently, even some faculty who would eschew the "conservative" label have sought to restore sustained study of the Great Books to some place of pride in the curriculum. Some twenty years after the height of the "culture wars" over the Western canon - during which the phrase "Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go" was chanted on the Stanford campus - there seems to be a growing sense among some moderate faculty that the curriculum has become too fragmented, and that something valuable was lost in the politically-motivated elimination of a common core. Notably, at Harvard an ad hoc effort by some faculty to establish a Great Books track in the "Gen Ed" requirement was advanced before crashing on the shoals of Harvard's new fiscal reality (as well as the opposition of some faculty).

This reassessment has been most articulately argued by Anthony Kronman - a moderate liberal - in his recent book Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman, a professor and former Dean at the Yale Law School, laments the abandonment of a serious engagement with the Great Books. Their neglect has led to the decline of an examination of "the meaning of life," an activity that he argues should be at the heart of the university experience. He praises a period in the history of American universities which was dominated by what he calls a worldview of "secular humanism." This period of "secular humanism" followed the widespread disaffiliation of traditionally religious institutions and preceded the rise of the modern research university and the concomitant rise of political correctness in the humanities. He urges modern institutions of higher education to adopt something like the Yale program in "Directed Studies" - in which he teaches - which requires students to engage in a concentrated study of the Great books ranging from Homer to Luther, from Machiavelli to Kant, from Plato to Nietzsche - over a two year span.

While there is much to admire in Kronman's arguments - especially, in my view, his penetrating critique of the scientific basis of the university and his critique of "political correctness" - his defense of the "Great Books," and its basis in the worldview of "Secular Humanism," is deeply problematic and reveals the deep flaw of this longstanding tack by conservatives. Indeed, his argument suggests not that study of the Great Books is a true alternative to the relativism among professors of humanities on today's college campuses, but in fact was the breeding ground of the very relativism that a curriculum in the Great Books purports to combat.

The Great Books have long been recommended by figures ranging from Allan Bloom to William Bennett as the basic texts of a liberal education and for containing essential knowledge about the Western tradition. An education in the Great Books was seen as essential in the cultivation of the educated person, and as the source of ideas that gave rise to many of the treasured inheritances of the West - including constitutionalism, liberal democracy, separation of Church and State, individual rights, a free-market economy, and the dignity of the human person. Knowledge of the constitutive texts of the West was seen by many of its defenders as the prerequisite for the informed citizen, someone not only who would believe in the traditions of the West, but be able to muster an articulate defense of the same.

However, for anyone with even passing familiarity with those constitutive texts, it is readily evident that these texts provide nothing of the sort. These texts are hardly primers on liberal democracy or any other political, ethical or economic system, but rather contain a wide and ranging set of debates over the nature of the good and best life, the good and best polity, the good and best economic system, and so on. The texts typically listed in such a course of study are marked by severe and profound disagreements. For example, on the list of books provided by Kronman that have been recently assigned in the Yale Directed Studies Program, they have included such radically distinct books as The Hebrew Bible, The New Testament, Aristotle's Politics, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Machiavelli's Prince, Rousseau's Social Contract, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, the Federalist Papers, Mill's On Liberty, Marx's Communist Manifesto, Kant's Metaphysics of Morals, and Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals. Thus (to be somewhat reductionist), students are exposed to arguments on behalf of Judaism, Christianity, Teleology, Pessimism, Classical Liberalism, Conservatism, Utilitarianism, Progressive Liberalism, Communism, Deontology, and Nihilism (among many other alternatives). On point after point and issue after issue, basic elements of each theology or philosophy contradict some fundamental aspect of all the other philosophies listed here (and others that go unlisted). An education in the Great Books is a potpourri of conflicting views, a set of strongly articulated arguments that continuously strive to refute other views that purportedly comprise a single "tradition." The "Western tradition" is a ferocious and ongoing set of disagreements about the most basic human beliefs.

What Does it All Mean?

Any student confronting such a wide variety of texts will be driven to make some sense of them, to evaluate their strong and contradictory claims. It's not enough to state that higher education should consist of an exposure to the Great Books and leave it at that: students will need some way of negotiating their way through the philosophical thicket into which they are being thrown. For Kronman, this is exactly the point: exposure to this diversity of views encourages a probing examination of the best way to live, or "the meaning of life." Any student confronting these texts in even a remotely serious way cannot be left complacent -he must confront his own presuppositions and articulate a response to the many challenges to which he will be exposed.

A confrontation with the Great Books, according to Kronman, is to disrupt easy assumptions about the meaning of life and force students to more deeply articulate their beliefs. But Kronman is quite explicit that arriving at life's meaning will be the result of an individual's negotiation between these various texts. The "meaning of life" will be developed from each person's own capacity to arrive at a personal response to the many challenges these books represent. Confrontation with these texts reveals the expansiveness of possible ways of life, beliefs, ethics, and economics: they teach us that "each of us can make, and wants to make, a life uniquely our own - a life that as no precise precedent in all the lives that have gone before and that can never be repeated exactly." These books reveal the "plasticity of human nature."

Thus, even as each student will be encouraged to arrive at a deeply informed and highly articulated "meaning of life," a deeper lesson is advanced by such a curriculum: the "meaning of life" is always highly personal and relative to each person. A person may arrive at a "philosophy of life" that is not itself relativistic - for instance, finding in the Biblical texts a religious basis for their beliefs - but overall, such a conclusion will take place within the context of a curriculum that is itself fundamentally relativistic, in which each student is encouraged to come to their own conclusion about the meaning of life, and thus to arrive at a personal set of criteria by which to evaluate all the respective arguments.

Indeed, such an approach in fact suggests that there is a single "meaning to life," and that meaning is fundamentally "decisionist." Most curricula in the Great Books offer the various philosophies as inherently coherent and valid systems, suggesting to each student that there is finally no basis on which to decide which philosophy to adopt other than mere preference. One must simply decide. This Nietzschean (or Schmittian) lesson is reinforced by the typical organization of such curricula (where they persist), which is typically chronological. Given that most students today have deeply ingrained progressive worldviews (that is, the view that history has been the slow but steady advance of enlightenment in all forms, culminating in equal rights for all races, all genders, and all sexual preferences), a curriculum that begins with the Bible and Greek philosophy and ends with Nietzsche subtly suggests that Nietzsche is the culmination of Enlightenment's trajectory. The fact that his philosophy is reinforced by the message that an education in the Great Books consists in exposure to equally compelling philosophies between which there is no objective basis to prefer only serves to deepen the most fundamental lesson of a course in the Great Books, which is a basic form of relativism. The choice of a personal philosophy is relative, and the basis on which one makes any such choice is finally arbitrary, the result of personal preference or attraction. De gustibus non est disputandam.

A Brief History

This basic feature of Great Books draws attention to the curious feature of Kronman's chronology that goes unremarked upon. According to Kronman, religiously-affiliated institutions with a longstanding emphasis on a classical education (particularly Classics and Biblical studies) dominated the American landscape until the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. Then, he argues, there was a brief flourishing of "secular humanism," during which the study of the Great Books was a central component of the curriculum. This period marked the rise of a view that life's meaning was not regarded to be unified in a religious creed, but rather that meaning was to be increasingly fashioned by individuals in an age of "pluralistic" belief. This phase lasted less than a century, followed in the mid- to late-twentieth century by the rise of the science-dominated and politically correct research university.

If we extend Kronman's analysis chronologically into the past, however, we would need to acknowledge that in one form or another, the religiously-affiliated university has dominated the scene in the West since the Middle Ages, persisting roughly for a millennium or more. By contrast, the age of "secular humanism" lasted not even for a century, a scant blink of an eye compared to the longer tradition of the religious university. Seen in this light, we need to ask why the very ideal recommended by Kronman was so fleeting and unstable in the light of the longer history of the Western religious university.

The irresistible conclusion is that the age of "secular humanism" was a brief period of transition between the decline of the age of the religious university to rise of the age of the scientific and "politically correct" university. Secular humanism sought briefly to provide a different kind of "scripture" to that which had been displaced - now the Great Books - but lacking any kind of philosophical or theological principle by which to assess the competing claims advanced by those texts, this period was destined to usher in a period of philosophical relativism and the rise of the science as the only form of knowledge that could provide certainty and true knowledge.

Many conservatives have long argued for the reinstitution of the Great Books without acknowledging that this is to serve as a kind of "replacement scripture," in the main satisfied that some common knowledge of the great texts of the West could constitute a common culture and supply the appearance of agreement in the absence of a deeper set of religious and cultural commitments. But, by the time this became a "conservative" argument, the more traditional defense of a more constitutive system of belief by which competing philosophic claims could be judged had long been displaced from the heart of the university. By the time Allan Bloom wrote of the thirty elite universities in the United States in the mid-1980s, he was writing of long-since religiously disaffiliated institutions that were already well on their way to complete relativism. Bloom argued not for belief in something, but on behalf of "the Socratic knowledge of ignorance," a kind of middle-point between skepticism and certitude. For Bloom, an education in the Great Books was to be at best a perpetual kind of suspension of belief, an eternal kind of play of ideas by philosophers. If Bloom resisted the "decisionism" that one sees in Kronman, at the same time he rejected the idea that there could be, or ought to be, any criteria by which one ought to judge between various philosophies. In the end, his peculiar understanding of Plato was to be recommended - the knowledge that we do not know.

This might be an appropriate goal for philosophers (though I doubt it), but it cannot exist as a reasonable curriculum for students who will enter the world wondering how they should live. Where they exist, contemporary arguments on behalf of the Great Books are often as pernicious, and even indistinguishable from, the forms of value relativism that they purport to combat. Many conservative academics have become lazy in the defense of the Great Books, content to let the phrase stand in for a deeper and potentially more contentious examination of the various arguments within those books and the West itself, and of the need for university faculties to provide some kind of organized and well-formed guidance to students on how best to approach these texts.

In my view, the reinstatement of the Great Books would accomplish little in the contemporary academic context. What is needed is a more serious and potentially contentious discussion of the underlying philosophy within which these books would be read and taught. Teaching as I do at a Catholic and Jesuit university, I would like to see these books taught explicitly within the context and in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide (I would be satisfied if this were done solely within the context of my own institution, leaving aside for the moment the sticky issue that I may merely propose a set of internally coherent institutions between which students would have to choose. This is merely to push relativism from the individual to the institutional level, but I would regard this as "progress"). If this would mean that the arguments of Marx and Nietzsche would be subject to severe critique, it would mean also that the writings of Locke and even the Founding Fathers would not escape criticism for their highly individualistic and Enlightenment basis. It would mean, too, that the work of Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas would receive special pride of place. The Great Books would and should be taught, but not as if the faculty is indifferent to the ways that they should be received. Students should at least know that these books cannot be rightly approached from a basis of "neutrality," since that approach itself contains a teaching, and that teaching is one that reinforces the relativist orthodoxies of our age. Better to rub against the grain than - in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson - go with the flow.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Two crises are unfolding half a world apart, competing for space on the front pages of the world's newspapers and otherwise apparently disconnected. The first has been the unfolding disaster of the "spill" in the Gulf of Mexico (this word, "spill," seems highly inaccurate to me - it is a hole, a gash, a cavity in the earth that we have created and from which crude oil is spewing forth. "Spill" makes it sound like it's an accidental tipping out of liquids we have gathered, giving the impression that somehow we are in control It's not a spill, it's a "spew"). The other crisis - suddenly arriving at everyone's doorstep yesterday - is the Greek debt situation, precipitating what was momentarily a 1,000 point fall in the Dow yesterday, before settling in for a 3% loss and similar losses overnight around the world.

Despite their apparent disconnection, each of these crises arise from a similar source - our collective inability to live within our means. All accounts of the "spew" suggest that in our insatiable search for replacement of declining amounts of crude oilavailable in places where it's relatively easier to bring it to the surface (i.e., on land), we are now increasingly forced to probe for oil in highly inhospitable places where the odds of just such disasters are substantially increased. Our national policy of "drill, baby, drill" in deep sea environments - endorsed alike by such political "opponents" as Sarah Palin and President Obama - can only be expected to result in growing numbers of such accidents, just as a nicotine addict can be expected to burn his fingers when he probes more deeply at the bottom of an ashtray for a butt that still might have something left to inhale.

The Greek debt crisis - what many "in the know" believe to be the first of several, and even many such national crises, likely to be replayed in some form in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, even England and possibly even the U.S. - is quite simply a consequence of a nation that has grown accustomed to living beyond its means for a long time, and which now believes itself entitled to that condition on a more or less permanent basis. The ancient Greeks, particularly its great philosophers Plato and Aristotle, worried that democracy was a debased and self-destructive regime because it consisted of the "many poor" who would engage in class warfare against the "few rich" and create an unstable condition of "stasis" and civil war. Some ennobled version of democracy might be imaginable, but only if democracy was understood to mean more fundamentally a form of "self-rule" - based upon an ideal of citizenship in which citizens would "rule and be ruled in turn." What is now taking place in the streets of Greece is the most visceral manifestation of ancient fears - if not now the theft of the "many poor" from the "few rich," then the theft of the many living from the not-yet-born. The marches, riots, looting and civil unrest consists most fundamentally of the demand that future generations continue to support the unruliness of the current generation. The ancients may, all along, have been correct - democracy can only "flourish" when it is based upon theft. We have simply not seen it for its true nature, because that theft has been labeled "growth," and the main source of that "growth" has been the fuel now leaking in the Gulf.

Thus these two crises are even more deeply connected than a glance at the newspaper might reveal, as the worldwide belief that we could live permanently beyond our means was literally fueled by our brief and exuberant burning of most of the world's supply of "easy oil." Over the half-century or so, the world has enjoyed seemingly unlimited economic "growth" whose source was most fundamentally a sea of accumulated sunlight that was never "ours," but which we treated as the property of the living generation without regard for the effects of our massive addiction upon the substance for future generations. This accumulation of millenia - allowing us to live for a time under the impression that humans no longer were dependent upon or governed by the earth - was tapped over the course of 150 years at increasing rates that led to its greatest amount in the early 2000's (and the stock market at its highest level), and then suddenly began its inevitable decline with $150/barrel oil and a predictable economic crash whose inevitability was discernible to anyone who knew that the age of growth was over, and that our debt could only be repaid (if at all) by a long and painful time of austerity. We are living through the aftershocks of a world pressed by limits to growth, and - addicted to that condition of permanent thoughtlessness, and having been told that the permanence pf growth was ensured by the solidity of industry and government alike - today demand increasing debt to make up for declining wealth. The worldwide deleveraging that we have sought to forestall by means of "stimuli" and financial chicanery will be all the more painful and dislocating with every day that we put off our reckoning.

The ancient Greeks were the source of a kind of wisdom about self-government that today's Greeks - and the rest of the world - have forgotten, only after Europeans and Americans (especially) over the past several hundred years explicitly overturned their influence - particularly the legacy of that inheritance in Christendom. Bans against "usury" - now regarded as quaint and incomprehensible - were most fundamentally bans upon current generations stealing from future generations. Limits upon debt were established to prevent people from living beyond their means, to constrain their appetites to what was appropriate within the limits of the world. It is an ancient teaching that we are rediscovering not by dint of wisdom and a habituated capacity to embrace self-rule, but by dint of having no other choice.

Several nights ago, Wendell Berry spoke to a packed - overflowing - auditorium in the Arlington library. Some hope is to be found in the fact that the audience was overwhelmingly composed of young people, wanting to hear from that older man some words about what we are now to do. And he concluded a marvelous evening of reflections and thoughts with a response to a question about Oil and Limits with the reply that he was waiting - as we should all be waiting - for someone to tell us that "we've got to use less," that someone must make a criticism of our "standard of living" and speak in terms of "limits and context." The context of which he spoke explicitly was that nature was speaking - "very noisily" - to those who would listen, and that the "news from the world" was quite clear that we needed to begin speaking and living under self-imposed limits - or those limits that would be violently imposed upon us.

The news is hard to ignore. We may still wish to regard such stories as discrete and separate items with no fundamental relation and no bearing upon me, but that's just to ignore willfully what is becoming everyday less possible to hold off at arm's length.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Wendell Berry in the Big City

Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky will be in the Greater D.C. area this week, appearing at the Arlington Central Library Auditorium on Tuesday, May 4 at 7 p.m. His appearance is part of the "Arlington Reads 2010" program, which is devoted to the topic of "Know What You Eat: Food and Sustainability."

I led a library-sponsored discussion of Berry's novel The Memory of Old Jack several weeks ago, and based on the enthusiasm and great turn-out of that event, I am confident that Berry's appearance will generate a great deal of interest, and would advise those who are interested to come early. I suspect the Arlington Library Auditorium will seem a bit cramped before the evening is done.