Reviving discussion and community in a fractured society

Susannah Black recently wrote a long essay on the civic dimensions of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. She writes that “Dreher advocates for engaging in practices of sociability and debate, to remind ourselves of our natures as political animals with rational souls. He discusses the work of Vaclav Benda, who during the years of Soviet domination of central Europe saw groups that deliberately engaged in such activity as a ‘counter-polis,’ a much-needed forum for exercising the rudiments of political thinking and action, in the midst of a totalitarian state that did not allow for this part of human nature to be exercised: a sort of secret public sphere.” Black expounds on a the role that these kinds of groups can play within American society:

Given the profound breakdown in civil communication and discussion that so many have noted, especially in this most recent election, and given the incoherence, lack of memory, and rejection of solidarity at the heart of both the left and the right branches of the American political community, what these groups can do is precisely what Benda himself called for them to do: to remember how to think and debate, to remember the deep origins of the best of even the liberal political idea, to fight for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word.” As Dreher puts it, “dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94).

When we say that these groups can help us exercise our political natures, this must be understood as politics in the broadest sense: They can teach us once again to be social in a rational way; they can certainly sometimes be fora for considering properly-political questions, but also for organizing beneficial projects of all kinds.

Such groups, which can (at least in theory) include both left and right, both Christians and non-Christians, can be means of blessing to both the local and the national communities. They can be training grounds for civility and reasoned debate. And these groups, too, can be a kind of salt-and-yeast in the body politic– even a kind of apologetic. Because the very process of debate, of discussion, of life in the public sphere in the liberal tradition, is one which rests on assumptions that are not those of materialism.

Those are things like the fact of a common human nature, of might that should be in service to right rather than defining it, of the value of protecting the weak, of politics that goes beyond the definition of a tribal enemy, of the possibility of rational discussion and the need to convince each other rather than to force each other to believe or do things.

All these bits of the liberal tradition were undermined by the Rousseauian/progressivist idea of the general will, which allows people now to shut down debate with those who are “on the wrong side of history.”

They were undermined too by the rejection of the idea of human nature: If we do not have rational souls as those made in God’s image, and if we are not political animals who are prone to friendship, whose telos is to live in peace with each other, then the best of liberalism has no foundation. To those who value freedom of speech, for example, we must say: Think about what that means. Why is it important that we be able to speak freely? What is it about human beings that makes discussion rather than coercion a just way to go about political life?

To those who fear a resurgence of white supremacism under Trump, we must be able to say: That kind of tribalism is only possible if one denies the vision of the world and of human nature which many secular liberals (though not all) also deny. A thoroughgoing white supremacist or neo-fascist (though the two are not identical) worldview rests precisely on a denial of the good, of true human nature and the dignity of each person, and of the possibility of real human political friendship. It’s only with a robust sense of what we share with and owe to every other person made in God’s image that we are able to also love our particular tribe, our nation, or our family, in the right context– otherwise we become pagans, who worship only the gods of the tribe.

There’s more: more ways in which such groups, and the political discussion they entail, can become a kind of evangelism. Political discussion is inevitably the discussion of the common good; we direct each others’ attention to the good that we share, and that directing is a kind of contemplative delight–and the ultimate common good is God.

And these groups can be the source of not just discussion, but of action as well: If it’s true that we do still have responsibility for and to the polity in which we live, we’ve got to see the utter necessity of doing projects for the common good, whether properly speaking the political common good or not– i.e. of making things, from parks to policies, that are not just for you and your family, but which aim at a common benefit, and which cannot properly be enjoyed alone.

These projects call out of us the kind of exercise of practical wisdom that helps form us in virtue, and requires us to act with tact and graciousness; public life together can become a kind of dance, the exchange of gifts and reasons and honor and deference and command according to the good of the one commanded; obedience in recognition of just authority, and criticism where authority is exercised unjustly. If every level of being can, in some way, reflect the divine order of the cosmos, then our job is to reflect that order as best we can—we won’t do it well, really, but we can maybe improve—in the order of each nonprofit we start, each CSA, each theater company, each neighborhood association.

That sounds grandiose, but there’s really no other way to think about how to organize such things: one wants to be gracious and fair and kind and not exploit one’s employees or volunteers, one wants to make things that are worthwhile, to cultivate the eggplants in the CSA according to the nature of eggplants rather than according to the nature of kale, and basically to show up and do well and be decent. And if one is the head of such an organization, then taking a kind of architectonic care to make sure as best one can that all these things are carried out well– delegating as appropriate– well, that’s just being a good manager. This is how we live together and do projects together; it is purely normal, as normal as planning a dinner party.

It is also in sharp contrast to the liberal vision of social life, which is inherently combative: men are not by nature political animals, in liberalism, but are naturally solitary and must be brought into relationship only by the loss of their freedom and by an artificial social contract. This loss might be worth it, but it constrains people; it’s another kind of fall. But that’s not the case: the constraint on us that enables us to live together is the constraint of the natural law, played out in particular and in many cases varied circumstances.

Political life is not possible if men do not share a common rational human nature. If we are non-rational animals, we may be subject to conditioning; if we are machines, we may be programmed; either way, with such things no political discussion and no communal life is possible.The fact that it manifestly is possible– that it happens every day– that we see it in the city around us and in our workplaces and in our friend groups and, yes, in the thick Christian communities that Dreher profiles in the book– is a strong apologetic argument in favor of a traditional Christian (and classical) anthropology. It is not only Christians, after all, who are by nature political animals, and the road to the truth of the Gospel can run through a reflection on and participation in political life of one kind or another, in seeking the good of a polity that in its own way points towards the true complete community that is the New Jerusalem.

There’s a lot to think about in the essay, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. But it was worth reading.

C.S. Lewis on the purpose of collective action

From C.S. Lewis’ lecture “Membership,” as it appears in The Weight of Glory:

The secular community, since it exists for a natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary. Great sacrifices of this private happiness by those who have it may be necessary in order that it may be more widely distributed. All may have to be a little hungry in order that none may starve. But do not let us mistake necessary evils for good. The mistake is easily made. Fruit has to be tinned if it is to be transported and has to lose thereby some of its good qualities. But one meets people who have learned actually to prefer the tinned fruit to the fresh. A sick society must think much about politics as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind–if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else–then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. (161-162)

One of the key distinctions that Lewis makes in the lecture is that to be a member originally meant being like an organ in a body, not exactly like all of the other members. Modern mass societies and groups operate in a very different way.

Liberalism and its enemies

Ross Douthat pointed to a long piece by Abram Shulsky on the tendency of liberalism to provoke “counter-ideologies,” from positivism to various types of socialism to Islamism:

However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.

Roughly speaking, there are two ideal types of counter-ideologies: those holding that liberalism is too disorganized to work well and hence cannot survive, and those fearing that liberalism will succeed (or has already succeeded) and will diminish human life as a result. These sound like mutually contradictory objections, but by calling them ideal types we recognize that in practice most counter-ideologies have elements of both: Liberalism is bad because it is successful in forcing or seducing people to adopt a “bad” way of life, but its faults mean that it will fail eventually.

His conclusion makes sense:

So to assess the health of liberal democracy, we must keep in mind two opposing thoughts: It is strong because it opens the way to the satisfaction of the real needs and desires of most people, most of the time; and it is weak, ultimately, because its own intellectuals no longer truly believe in it and because there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that it ignores or pretends do not exist—and, indeed, that its own liberality encourages into expression.

The “incidental” weaknesses (the “not invented here” syndrome and the stresses of transition) can perhaps be expected to fade over time, in some places more slowly than in others, no doubt. But the inherent ones [the lack of consensus on liberalism’s tenets and its exclusion of the “seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul”] are another matter. Our only defense against them, in the long run, is the inculcation in the body politic of a sense of moderation that understands the inherent limits of politics in the search for human happiness.

Of course, this is easier said that done because it requires those involved in politics to accept limits. The more I understand about the modern state (ca. 1648-present) and modern politics, the more evident it seems to me that political figures and theorists promote the state as the universal solver of all problems that truly matter, making it difficult for modern political leaders of whatever stripe to stay out of the happiness-promotion business.

Machiavelli reads the classics

Harvey Mansfield’s translation of The Prince includes Machiavelli’s letter to Florence’s ambassador to Rome, Francesco Vettori. Mansfield notes that the letter “has been called the most celebrated in all Italian literature” (107). In it, he describes a typical day and how he finally has a chance to read and the end of it:

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them. And because Dante says that to have understood without retaining does not make knowledge, I have noted what capital I have made from their conversation and have composed a little work De Principatibus [On Principalities], where I delve as deeply as I can into reflections on this subject, debating what a principality is, of what kinds they are, how they are acquired, how they are maintained, why they are lost. And if you have ever been pleased by any of my whimsies, this one should not displease you; and to a prince, and especially a new prince, it should be welcome. So I am addressing it to his Magnificence, Guiliano. Filippo Casavecchia has seen it; he can give you an account in part both of the thing itself and of the discussions I had with him, although I am all the time fattening and polishing it. (109, 110)

The work is, of course, The Prince. Mansfield notes that Machiavelli’s reference to Dante is from Paradiso, V, 41-42.

I first read or heard of this letter in grad school, and it was good to encounter it again.

Power for its own sake

The PrinceThe Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read this before in other translations, and I enjoyed Mansfield’s this time. As has been said many times before, Machiavelli’s ideal prince is one whose virtu (usually translated virtue) allows him to triumph over internal and external enemies. For him, virtu is manly, strong, and ruthless when necessary, allowing the prince to accomplish his supreme goal of keeping and expanding his power. His insistence that moral principles are only good in politics as far as they are useful is still a striking feature of his argument.

3 stars: enjoyable for its analysis of the messy world of politics and Mansfield’s presentation, bad for its advice untethered from ultimate right and wrong

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