Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980
New York: Basic Books, 1984
xii + 323 pp., $23.95
Advance copies of Losing Ground were must reading in the Old Executive Office Building last summer, for not since 1969, when Edward Banfield published The Unheavenly City, has a social scientist given conservative prejudices a better massage. Moreover, this attack upon the welfare policies of Lyndon Johnson's administration adds to the intellectual veneer of being social scientific the considerable moral luster of being written by an ex-Poverty Warrior (see p. 278 n. 5, p. 293 n. 4, and p. 312).
Losing Ground's subtitle is somewhat misleading: In the main, this book addresses the policies of the national government and elevates only those policies designed to improve the condition of "the poor" which originated after 1964 and before 1969. By identifying social policy with economic welfare policies for the less well-off, Murray shows that he participates wholly in the leading political superstition of our day, the irrational conviction that the excellence of a society is measured by the condition of its poor. In the grips of this superstition, social scientists, who are otherwise ignorant of English literature and loathe to quote it at all, much less authoritatively, cite Samuel Johnson's opinion that civilization is measured by "a decent provision" for the poor as if it were the latest, federally sponsored statistical survey (see p. 16). Within the confines of this gross prejudice (i.e., supposing that civilization has nothing to do with human excellence or human happiness), Murray's book is a good one. Viewed more objectively, it is a rehash of all the neo-conservative arguments about the War on Poverty which have been in the air since 1970. In fact, the book is far more interesting as a document of recent political history than as a contribution to social science.
Still, one has a duty to mention the two major contentions of Losing Ground. In the first place (Chs. 1-10), Murray contends that the War on Poverty did not reduce poverty, but that after 1964 the social conditions of the poor improved more slowly than before 1964, or even worsened: "Progress stopped coincidentally with the implementation of the Great Society's social welfare programs" and "[h]uge increases in expenditures coincided with an end to progress" (p. 63). In particular, the conditions of what Murray calls "the disadvantaged," by which he means young, black males (pp. 54-55), became markedly worse; for this group, unemployment and participation in the labor force skyrocketed, family life became unstable or nonexistent, criminal activity increased, and educational achievement decreased. Indeed, the title, "Losing Ground," only applies precisely to the conditions of the disadvantaged relative to those of young, white males (see pp. 74-75).
The extreme relativity of Murray's statistical measures ought to be emphasized. By poverty, Murray means-at base-officially defined poverty, which is income equal to three times the cost of a federally defined adequate diet. As Murray points out in an interesting footnote (pp. 270-72 n), this definition is problematic because it is arbitrary. Although official poverty did not decline as fast after the War on Poverty was declared as it had during Eisenhower's presidency, "the War on Poverty had very nearly been won" ; by 1978 (p. 273). Accordingly, Murray's concern is not with that "poverty" against which Lyndon Johnson declared war, but with "latent poverty," which is Murray's jargon for dependency upon government for income. Therefore, Murray's first contention amounts to this: Official poverty has declined rather steadily over the past generation, but latent poverty, especially among the young, has skyrocketed.
Since Murray contends, in the second place (Chs. 11-17), that the War on Poverty caused the degraded, dependent conditions of the disadvantaged, and since the habits of a lifetime are usually established in youth, an appalling conclusion ought to be drawn from Losing Ground: Even by Samuel Johnson's standard, the War on Poverty was barbarous.
Murray does not draw this conclusion. "We"-Murray's overly familiar way of referring to himself, his readers, and other Poverty Warriors-were "generous people" with "the simplest, and most benign of objectives" (pp. 236, 15). Certainly not barbarians! Unfortunately, that same "we," by which he also means "the intelligentsia . . . the upper echelons of (in no particular order of importance) academia, journalism, publishing, and the vast network of foundations, institutes, and research centers that has been woven into partnership with government during the last thirty years" (p. 42), were blinded by "elite wisdom." According to Murray, the "elite wisdom" of the 1960s and 1970s held that "the system" is responsible for the condition of the poor and disadvantaged. This wisdom is to be distinguished from "popular wisdom," which appreciates self-reliance and individual responsibility and which is "the inarticulate constellation of worries and suspicions that helped account for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1960." On the basis of their wisdom, the intelligentsia preferred policies that relieved the poor and disadvantaged of the responsibility for improving their condition. So "the system" would take care of them, and "gaps [in the social indicators] would narrow" (p. 136). "It would be inconceivable," says our author, speaking from his point of view during the 1960s, "to predict anything else."
Murray does not quite say that the intelligentsia of the 1960s and 1970s was the victim of a system that kept it from seeing social and political reality. However, he does ask, in effect, that the architects and administrators and evaluators of the War on Poverty be excused for the evils and expenses they visited upon their innocent fellow citizens. Murray seems to suppose that social scientists can be forgiven for being more ignorant of social reality than Archie Bunker, so long as they were good-hearted and disinterested. Besides, Losing Ground may be taken to show that today's intelligentsia is older and more experienced, albeit no less generous or enlightened than the Poverty Warriors. Today's intelligentsia can see the consequences of their policies and confess their failures. All that they ask is that their motives not be impugned.
Ought America's failure to make proper provision for its poor be seen as the unintended consequences of well-intentioned, if stupid, social scientists and welfare bureaucrats?
Murray contradicts himself in explaining the action of the intelligentsia in the 1960s and 1970s. At first he says it was merely ignorant of social reality; it did not understand that putting people on the dole would make them dependent; it did not understand that dependent people were likely to be socially and economically irresponsible, if not criminal. However, Murray is compelled to admit that the failures of the War on Poverty were well known within the intelligentsia.
Beginning in the mid-sixties, welfare bureaucrats and other advocates of the War on Poverty knew that their pet policies were failing: "the loss of innocence came early" (pp. 36-39). The evidence mounted thereafter. Therefore, on the substantial evidence of Losing Ground, it is ludicrous to claim, as Murray and other neo-conservatives do, that the growth of the dependency of the American poor, the rewarding of morally irresponsible, anti-social, and criminal behavior by federal welfare programs, and the squandering of billions in the name of the poor were unintended consequences of good-hearted social reformers. Rather, what Murray says about employment programs for ex-cons is true of most federal welfare policies, "To some extent, whether they worked or not was irrelevant" (p. 39).
It was irrelevant, because the intelligentsia was not interested in understanding or improving social reality. On the contrary, the intelligentsia was blind to social reality because it was intent upon "slay[ing] the folk belief that welfare makes people shiftless" (p. 150). And it wished to slay that belief because of its political passion to blame "the system" for every human ill. The intelligentsia was not just "elitist," as Murray contends, for to blame the system is really just to blame democracy. The intellectuals were antidemocratic, insofar as they denied the capacity of the citizenry for self-government; e.g., by claiming that the American people are fundamentally racist, selfish, filled with unarticulate fears, etc. Accordingly, the intelligentsia's preferred policies have been anti-democratic, insofar as they destroy the capacity for self-government in millions. Murray contradicts himself because he does not see-or rather, because he takes absolutely for granted-the profoundly oligarchic passion of the intelligentsia.
That is why he is so charmingly naive about the self-interest of the intelligentsia. His claim that Poverty Warriors and the rest of the intelligentsia were "generous people" (pp. 15-55, cf. p. 235) would be quite silly if it were not so sincerely believed by so many. Is it generosity to encourage government to give away other people's money? No more than it is generous to squander anyone's wealth, even one's own. Every dollar represents the time spent earning it, a piece of someone's life, and to waste it is to waste human life. Further, it is the opposite of generosity to use other people's money to buy the political gratitude of the poor. If what Murray says about the failure of the War on Poverty is correct, only illiberality and greed, not concern with the public interest, keeps alive the welfare-education-media complex of federally funded institutes and research centers.
Murray has shocked the Washington intelligentsia by doubting the efficacy of most of contemporary national economic welfare programs, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Unemployment Insurance, Job Corps, and so on. However, Murray nowhere proposes the abolition of these programs, much less any moderate reform of them. On the contrary, he believes they will continue for the foreseeable future. As we have seen, he does not blame, he even praises, those who will continue them. So, at best, Murray's book serves the purpose of deflating the exaggerated claims of the intelligentsia on behalf of "the poor." In other words, Losing Ground is useful in President Reagan's current attempt to hold down the increase of domestic spending.
At its best, Murray offers "a synthesis of [elite and popular] wisdoms" to his readers (p. 146). More fundamental reforms of the American welfare state will have to await the formation of a new intelligentsia.
DEMOCRACY AND ARMS CONTROL
Arms Control: Myth Versus Reality
Richard F. Starr, Editor
Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1984
224 pp., $14.95
By John W. Coffey
This collection of essays makes a major contribution to public discussion by considering arms control as a problem involving fundamental principles of democratic regimes. The conjoined issue of arms control and what the authors call "political culture" is reflected on by an array of contributors including Colin Gray, Richard Harris, Werner Kaltefleiter, Robert Kiernan, Richard Pipes, Mark Schneider, Richard Starr, W. Scott Thompson, and William Van Cleave.
The cardinal defect in our policy has been our apolitical and astrategic approach to arms control. Ignoring the disparity between the American and Soviet regimes and their goals, arms control enthusiasts indulge in a mirror-imaging according to which the Soviets accept the global status quo and, like us, desire relief from the arms race. Both sides share a mutual interest in acquiring a survivable, stable deterrent and in reducing the risk of war. This misconception leads Americans to invert the proper relation between means and ends. Agreements for their own sake become the end rather than one means by which we seek to enhance national security. Failure to appreciate the underlying conflict between regimes perpetuates the delusion that successful arms control can be achieved apart from a genuine political accommodation. As Churchill noted of the disarmament campaign of the 1930s, "It is the greatest mistake to mix up disarmament with peace. When you have peace you will have disarmament."1
The U.S. approach to arms control, moreover, neglected to integrate that enterprise into a coherent, overall strategy. Consequently, the influence of SALT produced a sharp discrepancy between our declared doctrine of limited, counter-force options, affirmed by four Administrations, and the actual programs we undertook. SALT restrained us, though not the Soviets, from deploying the kind of flexible threat that, if deterrence should fail, would allow a rational defense of vital national interests.
A twenty-year pattern of treaty asymmetries to the advantage of the Soviets suggests that the dynamics of democracy make arms control negotiations a threat to national security. Democracies pursue arms control as a way to lower defense budgets; thus, due to the mistaken belief that SALT would curb armament, the Western defense effort steadily decreased during the 1970s, while precisely the opposite occurred in the Soviet Union. As the perception of a Soviet threat diminished, the political will for defense atrophied. Democratic leaders cannot one moment try to convince their citizens that another nation threatens their existence, then the next moment smile with that nation's representatives on television. The media's recent preoccupation with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's style encourages such self-deception.
Several essays in this volume treat the subject of verification and compliance in the arms control record. The baleful fact from the 1930s to the present has been democratic passivity in the face of totalitarian noncompliance with arms agreements. Compliance, not verification, is the primary issue in arms control.
Almost twenty-five years ago, Fred Iklé, now the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, named the decisive requirement for arms control: "In entering into an arms control agreement, we must know not only that we are technically capable of detecting a violation but also that we or the rest of the world will be politically, legally, and militarily in a position to react effectively if a violation is discovered."2
Thus, it is cause for considerable dismay that the Reagan Administration, like its predecessors, allows the Soviet Union to break agreements with impunity and fails to inform citizens of the danger this creates for their security. The President's letter of transmittal for the latest report to Congress on Soviet noncompliance reiterates the verity affirmed last year that "Soviet noncompliance is a serious matter. It calls into question important security benefits from arms control, and could create new security risks. It undermines the confidence essential to an effective arms control process in the future." The Administration asserts it will not accept anything less than "strict compliance with all provisions of arms control agreements" but, in fact, manifests an unwillingness to do anything about Soviet perfidy. Instead, it will "continue to press these compliance issues with the Soviet Union through diplomatic channels" while, incongruously, the United States will "carry out its own obligations and commitments under relevant agreements."
This latest report updates two similar reports in 1984 and contains ominous findings. In addition to other breaches of SALT and non-SALT treaties, the gravest violation stands as an indictment of the centerpiece of arms control, the 1972 ABM Treaty. The ABM Treaty was supposed to establish a stable nuclear balance by severely limiting the defensive capability of the United States and the Soviet Union, thus guaranteeing their mutual vulnerability to assured destruction. To prevent the erection of a territorial ABM defense, that Treaty limited the deployment of ballistic missile early-warning radars to the periphery of the country and stipulated that they be oriented outward; a 1974 Protocol permits each nation to deploy one ABM system at either its capital or at a single ICBM site.
The Soviets deployed an ABM system at Moscow, while we dismantled ours at Grand Forks, North Dakota, but they have lately constructed a large phased-array radar at Abalakova in the Krasnoyarsk region of Central Siberia, which happens to be located near several SS-11 and SS-18 ICBM fields. According to the report, the siting, inward orientation, and ABM battle-management capability of the Krasnoyarsk radar violate the 1972 Treaty. Furthermore, "ambiguous" evidence pertaining to activities concerning mobile land-based ABM components and "probable" violation of the Treaty by testing SAM systems in an ABM mode lead to a dire conclusion: "The U.S. Government judges that the aggregate of the Soviet Union's ABM and ABM-related actions suggest that the USSR may be preparing an ABM defense of its national territory." When the report was released, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director Kenneth Adelman remarked that he is often asked why we pursue new agreements with the Soviets when they violate existing ones. His reply that new negotiations do not mean we condone past Soviet actions and that we can obtain verifiable agreements skirted that poignant question. Adelman did add, however, "To be serious about arms control is to be serious about compliance."
A discussion of arms control invariably returns to the centrality of public diplomacy, the endeavor to depict the nature and scope of the conflict between a free regime based on the dignity and natural rights of man and a totalitarian one based upon the degradation of man. Our first problem is how to persuade the American people that the empire with which we deal is really evil. Until this is done, arms control negotiations will always be subject to asymmetrical pressure for agreement because American citizens will imagine both nations share common "values." In fact, until this is done, citizens will not understand why there should be any struggle worth caring about, much less sacrificing for, at all. Here, the chief obstacle transcends traditional partisan concerns and lies rather in the moral nihilism that pervades our age. In the Politics, Aristotle shows how truly human action is moral action. Through the faculty of speech men denote what is good and evil, just and unjust, useful and inexpedient. Men are political animals because in the first place they are moral animals. Loss of the capacity to distinguish between good and evil and of a spirited desire to fight for the good will result in the collapse of political community.
One should reread Joseph Cropsey's brilliant essay explaining morality's dependence upon freedom, which in turn is sustained by the integrity of a regime able and willing to go to war. The view that nothing matters but survival Cropsey aptly termed "nihilism without intestines."3 Before we can engage the totalitarian challenge, public diplomacy must first reeducate American citizens in the principles of liberty and the price that must be paid for it. The question is whether it is still possible, as Jefferson said of the intent of the Declaration of Independence, to place before them "the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent."
1Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm, Vol. 1: The Second World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), p. 102.
2Fred Charles Iklé, "After Detection -What?" Foreign Affairs, XXXIX (January 1961), p. 208.
3Joseph Cropsey, "The Moral Basis of International Action," in Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 184.
BARBARISM WITH A HUMAN FACE
Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984
xvi + 320 pp., $16.95
By Ralph C. Hancock
Twentieth-century liberals from Dewey to Rawls have attacked the foundations of liberalism so persistently that we can expect them to forgive Benjamin Barber, a nonliberal, for continuing this attack. Thus, although Barber, former editor of Political Theory and noted democratic theorist, makes no secret of his hostility to liberalism ("liberalism serves democracy badly if at all," p. xiv), he probably calculates right when he courts the favor or the acquiescence of our modern liberals. He assures them that he does not mean to attack liberalism (p. xi) and spares no effort to persuade them that he is the kind of man they can do business with, conceding that "strong democratic practice can only come as a modification of liberal democracy" and that "liberal anxieties" about direct democracy merit discussion (p. 262). Barber is even willing to grant to liberals that the "inertial force of the American Constitution," though not, of course, its underlying principles, might perform a useful, if ever-diminishing, function in checking possible democratic excesses.
The secret of Barber's ability to attack and befriend liberals at the same time may lie in their common taste for conversation that "responds to the endless variety of human experience" and that aims at "rich ambiguity rather than narrow clarity" (p. 185). Barber rejects clarity because it implies "clear winners and losers," and he observes this rejection quite profusely if not entirely consistently. The narrow-minded reader will likely be frustrated or wearied by Barber's many murky and effusive hymns to Strong Democracy, his praises of its mysterious power of "transformation" and of the delights of "public imagination" and "common consciousness." It is possible, however, to discern a rather clear intention behind this cloud of talk. Barber, unlike the liberals he seeks for allies, seems to know that the winners in politics are often those who think more clearly than they talk. By clarifying Barber's intention, we will see the tendency of contemporary liberalism more clearly than liberals see it; furthermore, Barber's critique of his liberal allies will show us why the alliance he seeks to lead ought to be opposed by all true friends of liberalism and of democracy.
That liberalism is in crisis Barber takes to be universally acknowledged. This crisis is visible, he reminds us in his preface, of the fact that the world has become ungovernable and that citizens everywhere are alienated. He dismisses the hope that a party realignment might once again give citizens control of their government; clearly the prospects for Barber's transformation depend on the opinion that a cure is impossible.
Part One of Strong Democracy consists in a diagnosis of the sickness of liberalism. He sums up this diagnosis in the observation that liberal democracy is "thin democracy"; that is, that liberalism does not value democracy as intrinsically good but only as a "means to exclusively individualistic and private ends" (p. 4). In order to value democracy intrinsically, we must liberate it from the "Newtonian" metaphysics and the "Cartesian" epistemology that stand behind it. Barber proposes to increase the value of democracy, not by supplying a more adequate metaphysical and epistemological foundation, but by renouncing metaphysics altogether, including the residual metaphysical assumptions of liberal epistemology. Thus Barber intends to "shift the burden of justification from the invisible to the visible world" (p. 44). To give democracy intrinsic value, it is thus necessary to accept the fact that "democracy may exist entirely without moral foundations . . ." (p. 65).
In Part Two, Barber offers his prescription for the "transformation" of liberalism, which consists essentially in the destruction of representative institutions. For Barber, the liberal preference for representation over participation is the institutional consequence of the liberal belief in some metaphysical truth behind politics, of the disposition liberals share with pre-liberals to represent the truth as something not made by human beings. This weakness, according to Barber, is shared by "unitary" or "totalistic" democracy, despite its nonrepresentative appearance. Barber's critique at first appears not to apply to "totalism" in its specifically modern form (what others would call "totalitarianism," a term Barber explicitly rejects), since modern totalitarianism does not appeal beyond the human will to man's "higher nature," that is, since it makes humanity the ultimate authority. But Barber points out that even modern totalism finally represents the people as an "impersonal abstraction," a predetermined "symbolic collectivity" such as "the nation" or "the Aryan race" or "the communal will" (p. 150). (Barber does not mention "society" or "history.") Strong Democracy will be the first true, direct democracy because it will place no "truth" between the people and political power. In Barber's New Age, public ends are "literally forged through the act of public participation. . . . Freedom is what comes out of this process, not what goes into it" (p. 152). Strong Democracy will dispense with "truth" by compelling citizens to see their individual interests "in the context of human interdependency," to learn "we-think" and to forget or overcome the private mode of thinking characteristic of a liberal age. And with a new way of thinking will come a new way of talking; vague and informal "talk" must replace articulate "speech," because speech implies the articulation of interests or of some other reality asserted to be outside human control and therefore non-negotiable.
Barber's rejection of "truth" and representation rests upon a view of human nature that he proposes as an alternative to the liberal view. He argues that the liberal understanding of human nature consists essentially in the assertion of the autonomous existence of the individual: "man mimicking the self-sufficient God he has rejected" (p. 71). The political meaning of this claim to self-sufficiency is, however, simply acquisitive selfishness. Barber is at his best in describing this paradoxical combination of godlike autonomy and animalistic egoism that lies at the heart of liberalism:
By apotheosizing individual consciousness and its defining creativity, [the anarchist disposition in liberalism] lends to our hedonistic impulses the dignity of higher purposes. By conceiving man as maker, it transforms the relentless search for power and for mastery over man and nature into an exercise in artistry and a scientific enterprise. In anarchism, the subhuman and the superhuman are confounded, to the advantage of hope. For in the less-than-human qualities of man the hedonist can be found more-than-human omens of man the divine (p. 81).
In proposing an alternative to the liberal god-beast, Barber seems for a moment to flirt with a traditional, "in-between" view of human nature. His purpose, however, is to reject the very idea of a constant human nature, but without simply falling back on the theory of the "social construction of man" with its collectivist or totalistic implications. What is needed is a "dialectical" view of man, and Barber finds such a "post-Marxist" theory ready to hand in the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The basis of Barber's argument-and, I will argue, of its failure to avoid "totalism"-is nowhere more clearly exhibited than in the following passage which he quotes from Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality:
"Man is biologically predestined to construct and inhabit a world with others. This world becomes for him the dominant and definitive reality. Its limits are set by nature, but once constructed, this world acts back upon nature. In the dialectic between nature and the socially constructed world, the human organism itself is transformed. In this same dialectic, man produces reality and thereby produces himself" (p. 215, 183).
Barber understands Strong Democracy as the political consequence of this dialectical theory. Strong Democracy embodies this dialectic when it "places human self-realization through mutual transformation at the center of the democratic process." This possibility of "mutual transformation" is the key to Barber's attempt to escape liberal individualism without positing some new "truth" and thus falling into "totalism." The genius of Strong Democracy, Barber claims, is that it rests neither on the "generic" (i.e., thin or instrumental) consensus of liberalism, nor on the "substantive" consensus of totalism, but on the "creative consensus" it makes and transforms (that is, destroys and remakes) for itself.
The essential defect of this argument and of the sociological theory on which it rests comes to light in examining Barber's understanding of his own role in the "dialectical" self-transformation of society. Readers still addicted to a narrow clarity will naturally ask: If Strong Democracy makes itself, then what is Benjamin Barber making? If it rests upon a "biologically predestined" historical "dialectic," then what is the point of Barber's theory? Barber's understanding of his own activity emerges briefly when he intends to discuss the "evolution" of language but, in fact, shows that language does not simply evolve but is controlled by the winners of successive battles to impose new "visions" or "paradigms." In a moment of candor, Barber clearly implies that he is engaged in just such a contest, but then immediately remembers the uses of unclarity and launches an attack on the "elites" who dominate our language. Barber would have us think that we are already collectively capable of controlling our language, of producing "reality" and therefore ourselves, or that we are all equally subject to the "evolution" of language and of reality. But before we can begin mutually to transform and to be transformed by our talk, Barber knows that he must transform the very way we talk. He must make us citizens fit for Strong Democracy by engineering a "permanent confrontation" (p. 153) that will peacefully or gradually compel us to trade in our opinions for negotiable and equal "values." Only the sacred "dialectical" theory itself will escape equalization. And the priest who creates and guards this shrine is the author of Strong Democracy himself; for him alone is the world imposed on others as "the dominant and definitive reality"- in the full sense, a human creation.
The confrontation must be permanent in order to keep the "inputs" equally subject to the "dominant and definitive reality" created by the dialectical theorist, for the (natural?) "human aspiration to certainty" (p. 130) always threatens to concoct yet another "truth" and thus to violate human "autonomy." The cost of freedom is the continual, collective war against nondemocratic values:
A moment's complacency may mean the death of liberty; a break in political concentration may spell the atrophy of an important value; a pleasant spell of privatism may yield irreversible value ossification. Democratic politics is a demanding business (pp. 190-91).
A demanding business indeed: We may hold beliefs only for the purpose of destroying them in the democratic process; opinions are grist for the relentless mill of Strong Democracy. This destruction is the effectual truth of Barber's "creative consensus."
Barber believes this destruction is "consciousness expanding." To be truly conscious for Barber is to destroy the "dominant and definitive reality" of the world we necessarily create, not by appealing to a higher reality, but simply by recognizing that the world is necessarily our creation. It would seem to follow that the world is no longer "dominant and definitive," and that Strong Democrats are more radically free as individuals than the anarchistic liberals Barber attacks. But the freedom the author of Strong Democracy offers to its citizens consists only in a consciousness of necessity; to emancipate the will of mankind he must teach individuals, or compel them to recognize, that their collective consciousness is the only reality, that it is futile to appeal beyond it. It follows that the essence of politics is neither simply selfishness nor "the selfless pursuit of a higher good" nor even something "in between." Rather, "'we are creatures who can be seen in . . . both of these seemingly incompatible ways. . .'" (p. 215, Barber quoting Hannah Pitkin). That is, our collective and biologically predestined selfishness takes the place formerly occupied by a "higher good"; Strong-Democratic mankind is the collective god-beast. But this new divinity is only fully self-conscious in the person of the Creator. Only Barber himself is free to savor the sublime consciousness of creating individually a world that becomes definitive reality for mankind as a whole. Barber is the liberal anarchist liberated from constitutional restraints.
Like Marx, Barber evokes the ideal of a society in which the free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all. However, again like Marx, he realizes that human consciousness will have to be transformed by political power under the guidance of the right theorists before this condition of freedom can be achieved. In seeking to transform what he says transforms itself, the founder of Strong Democracy exempts himself silently and perhaps unconsciously from humanity's universal confinement to the world it supposedly has no choice but to construct. This assertion of a political choice masked as historical necessity is the fundamental cause of the failure of Barber's attempt to attack liberalism without falling into totalism. The political evidence of this failure can be seen in Barber's plan for a corps of government-sponsored "transitional leaders" and "facilitators" represented at the highest level by a "special services corps" (pp. 237-42, and chapter 10) who will assure that individuals become citizens by being schooled in and then practicing the orthodox definition of fairness. (Barber assures us, of course, that these helpers of democracy will refrain from influencing the "substantive" outcome of "free" participation.)
Unlike Marx, however, and contrary to his own "dialectical" view of human nature, Barber is willing to admit that nature might always pose a problem for Strong Democracy. The people's autonomy from natural elites will always require the protective services of certain "facilitating" leaders, the representatives of the people's fairness. This helps us to understand why, for Barber, the political meaning of Berger and Luckmann's "dialectic between nature and the socially constructed world" is not the free or unrepresented evolution of society, but "the dialectical interdependence of man and his Government" (p. 215, my emphasis).
Barber fails to see his kinship with "totalism" because he fails to see his likeness to liberalism as he describes it. He believes liberals imitate the sovereignty of the God they have rejected, but clearly this applies with more force to Barber's autonomy than to Locke's natural liberty. He attacks the formalism of liberal psychology for putting method over substance (p. 47), and then immediately proposes to define truth as the outcome of a process (p. 65). He castigates the solipsistic notion that "to think is to be conscious of thinking, to reflect on oneself as a thinker and on one's mode of thought" (p. 65), and then promotes a mass solipsism that confines thinking to consciousness of the world we necessarily imagine. He describes the liberal as at once subhuman and superhuman and then, adopting a superhuman or nonhuman perspective, defines freedom as the unconditioned consciousness of an ultimately biological predestination. Barber's theory is fundamentally, if not intentionally, totalistic because he unknowingly imitates the aspects of liberalism he most persuasively attacks. This imitation will undoubtedly enhance the appeal of Strong Democracy to contemporary liberals.
Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment
Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1984
xxvi + 272 pp., $18.95
By R. S. Hill
Back in 1978, Carry Wills's Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was greeted with immense acclaim, much of it from people who should have known better. I read the book and was filled with such indignation at its shabby scholarship in the service of sinister ends, that I wrote an angry, careful, and devastating review which was printed in Policy Review in Winter 1980. Strangely undeterred, Wills went ahead with a sequel: Explaining America: The Federalist. I exposed its error and menace in another review, in Policy Review, Winter 1982. Wills's program calls for subsequent books on the Constitution and the Supreme Court. But in the meantime he has turned aside to write a book on George Washington, and duty calls. This is getting tiring, though, and less fun.
It is easy to see why Wills was lured into this digression. He seems to be intent on eradicating America's low "individualism" in favor of a lofty "communitarianism," and is starting with its past. So in Inventing America he denied a Lockean provenance to the Declaration of Independence. Then in Explaining America he discerned in The Federalist the outline of a political structure consonant with a "communitarian" foundation: not one applying "the policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives," but one in which a people dedicated to the common good are served by a corps of disinterested political leaders. Now if there ever was a deliberately and conspicuously disinterested political leader, sedulous in inculcating dedication to the common good among the people by example as well as precept, it was George Washington. The portrayal of this undeniably and unsurpassably virtuous figure may help lend a certain plausibility to the perverse thesis of the earlier books. Wills might say what Hamilton did: Washington is an aegis very essential to him.
There is, to be sure, something disarming about Will's efforts. Shouldn't every voice added to the chorus of praise for the immortal Washington be welcomed? Even one a little cracked and off-key? Perhaps. But Wills has written no mere eulogy, or even a book mainly about Washington himself. The subtitle of Cincinnatus is George Washington and the Enlightenment, and what looks like a second subtitle shows up on the dust jacket: Images of Power in Early America. The subject is Washington as an epiphenomenon of the culture of his day and as viewed by its publicists and artists.
There are a lot of nice pictures in this book. Its most entertaining passages are devoted to their explication. How exhilarating to be conducted on a whirlwind tour of a collection by its learned, keen-sighted, quick-witted curator! But sometimes, after we catch our breath, how unsatisfying. Here is a gallery featuring Horatio Greenough's massive bare-chested Washington, modeled after the Elian Zeus of Pheidias, we are told, a description of which is read to us. A modern attempt "to invoke the great image" is displayed: Ingres's Jupiter and Thesis-in which the right hand not the left holds the scepter, the scepter is not encrusted with jewels and is not tipped with an eagle, the other hand is not holding out victory, and the head is not encircled by a garland. In both ancient and modern instances, however, the god has taken a seat. The shift of the scepter is pointed out and touches off an exposition of the significance of right-handedness and left-handedness, especially in neo-classical art. The right is masculine and active! Thus, in David's Oath of the Horatii, the three brothers "stride forward on their right feet," we are told, "raising their right hands in the oath. . . ." When we look at the picture, however, we see that two of the brothers are striding forward on their left feet, raising their left hands. Before this objection can be raised, our guide has anticipated another: What about Trumbull's two Revolutionary War surrender scenes, where the vanquished seem to be on the active masculine side? His answer is that the victors are mewing capitulation and hence are properly pictured as passive. We may be puzzled that he chooses to illustrate the problem with the Trumbull painting of the surrender at Yorktown, where the defeated officer is in the middle and the victors are on both sides. And we may wonder about the solution when we recall that Trumbull showed Washington submitting his resignation as Commander-in-Chief from the passive and feminine side. We know there was some sort of explanation for that, but we have no time to remember it, for we're back at Greenough's statue. We can now see why Washington has to use his left hand to proffer his sword to the people, maybe-but we are perplexed over why Trumbull's Burgoyne delivered up his sword and Trumbull's Washington handed in his resignation with their right hands.
The little tour just completed may serve as a specimen of the manner and substance of Cincinnatus: a darting passage from one subject to another, directed by word association; dazzling at first in its broad range of allusion, soon appalling in its carelessness and superficiality. I am disappointed to find Wills as untrustworthy on the fine arts as I had known him to be on philosophy.
Life is too short to be spent in correcting all the errors of Carry Wills, or even in observing them. Let a few examples suffice, taken from what he has to say about Washington's religious attitudes. He portrays him as so thoroughly secular as to await complacently the weakening of religion's influence. This keeps Wills from making anything of Washington's insistence on the necessity of "national morality" in the Farewell Address-which could be very useful to him-because it is inseparably connected to the encouragement of religion. Wills deprecates that passage by noting that Washington "softened" the words of Hamilton's, draft and by failing to note that Washington contributed the significant inference from the need for piety to the need for education. Furthermore, Wills mistakenly reports that Washington shared the views of Jefferson and Madison on separation of church and state, whereas Washington did not favor their attempts to prohibit a general assessment for the support of the clergy. Washington was satisfied with that kind of "plural establishment" and showed it also in his decision to permit every Army regiment to select a chaplain from the denomination of its choice. Wills reproduces Washington's opinion on this matter, as though it buttressed his point. Perhaps he thinks it does because he understands Washington's toleration as issuing not from the policy of promoting piety but from hostility to religion, tempered by the expectation of its demise. Wills's Washington is, after all, a Creature of the Enlightenment, differing from Robespierre only in his circumstances.
The most practically useful review of Cincinnatus would consist of four words: "Read Marcus Cunliffe instead." George Washington: Man and Monument, now available in a revised edition as a mass-market paperback, is a pleasure to read and it should stir the reader to thought. It offers a succinct, well-proportioned biography of Washington and a balanced and therefore deeply appreciative appraisal of his deeds and character. The two good things in Wills's book- the portrayal of Washington as a classical or neo-classical hero and as a self-made object of didactic art-were set forth clearly and judiciously by Cunliffe. Wills tries to bend them to his own purpose.
With what success? Washington's exemplification and inculcation of public-spiritedness reflect his conviction that it is an indispensable, though not sufficient, condition for a healthy republic. Again and again-in pacifying restless unpaid officers, in promoting canal-building, in combating sectional animosities-he made duty and interest march together. The "stern virtue" of those "who could neither be distressed nor work into a sacrifice of their duty" is, he knew as well as Publius, "the growth of few soils." The accommodations to self-interest that are required are made tolerable by understanding the value of public-spiritedness to lie above all in its forwarding of the public good and in understanding the public good to consist in the security of private rights. The pursuit of private interest within the limits imposed by the private rights of others was respectable enough to be engaged in by Washington himself, exemplary as always. Wills makes much, indeed almost everything, out of Washington's departures from public life. But he avoids understanding them as teaching that in some sense the private is that for the sake of which the public exists. Wills makes much, indeed almost everything, out of Washington's departures from public life. But he avoids understanding them as teaching that in some sense the private is that for the sake of which the public exists. (Washington was fond of quoting "The post of honour is a private station," from Addison's Cato, without regard to the qualification: "When vice prevails, and impious men bear away.") Those departures are treated merely as examples of Washington's selflessness-selflessness for its own sake, which seems to be what Wills cherishes as "communitarianism."
A final point; George Washington said little against slavery; none of it, so far as I can recall, in public. What he did against slavery was to act, in his characteristic paradigmatic way, by providing for the freeing of his slaves. Carry Wills dwells on this with satisfaction. But how does he or can he explain it? "There was one horrible blot on this idyllic world of the southern farmer," he writes, and it was-not slavery-"slaves." One might think that these black folk added just the right touch to the picture, and in any case that they were necessary conditions of that "idyllic world." Washington could not have found a model for his anti-slavery principles in the republicanism of Rome, nor would he have found any encouragement for his project in the Enlightenment "communitarianism" of Rousseau. I call this to the attention of those who might feel that the "individualism" that called forth the employment of Washington's heroic virtue is something too mean and base.
LIBERAL EDUCATION: THE BECKMANN RETROSPECTIVE
The Beckmann Retrospective
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
December 9, 1984 - February 3, 1985
By Harry Neumann
"Do you not see that we poets cannot be either wise or upright? . . . Our masterful command of style is an insane lie; our honorable reputation a farce, the people's tolerance of us most ridiculous. To attempt to educate through art is a dangerous gamble which should be forbidden. For how can anyone be an educator whose ineradicable and natural tendency is for the abyss . . . for knowledge has no dignity or strength of purpose. It is knowledgeable, understanding, forgiving, without firmness or fixity. Knowledge sympathizes with the abyss; knowledge is the abyss."
(Aschenbach in Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, V)*
Max Beckmann (1884-1950) faced life's crucial conflict with rare honesty-notably in his self-portraits, less directly and therefore less candidly in the grandiose earlier (impressionist) and later (triptych) work. I will concentrate on the self-portraits, particularly the 1922 woodcut. Tucked away to the side of an exhibition room along with other graphic masterpieces, the woodcut at first was hardly noticeable. Yet it is difficult to notice anything else, once confronted with its alarming combination of medieval gothic and modern Nazi. By "Nazi," I mean what Karl Loewith (Cesammelte Abhandlungen, pp. 122-23) noted in his discussion of Heidegger's Nazism:
The spirit of National Socialism was not so much concerned with the national and the social but much more with that radically private resoluteness which rejects any discussion or mutual understanding because it relies wholly and only on itself. . . . At bottom, all its concepts and words are the expression of the bitter and hard resoluteness of a will asserting itself in the face of its own nothingness, a will proud of its loathing for happiness, reason and compassion.
That loathing and its price are nowhere more evident than in Beckmann's 1922 woodcut self-portrait. To be sure, the compassion and humanity often ascribed to Beckmann is there too. That is the gothic element, reflecting faith in some ultimate redemption from life's nihilism. But Beckmann is not Gruenewald or Riemen-schneider. Ancient-medieval or even contemporary soporifics are, at bottom, illusions for him, annihilated by that Nazi loathing which Thomas Hess (New York, May 5, 1975, pp. 98-99) caught in his criticism of Beckmann and George Grosz:
The images spell out the archetypal horrors lurking behind the massive forehead and bulldog glare with which Beckmann fortified his ego in a long series of self portraits . . . Grosz's and Beckmann's contempt is all embracing. There is a bullying streak, an edge of hard cynicism in these fervent anti-nazis that takes them perilously close to the Brownshirts' credo. . . . Coarseness, brutality, vulgarity!
The archetypical horror springs from realization that nothing, no divine or natural order, endows anything with a nonarbitrary being, an identity not subject to radical change at any moment. There is nothing in or behind or above things to make them more than empty experiences, impressions as Hume called them. Beckmann's best work reveals the terror inspired by awareness of this universal nothingness.
Here the paths of men part; the crucial line is drawn between those with faith in something, especially in any moral-political cause, and those who see reality for the emptiness that it is. I side with the nihilists or atheists for whom everything high or low (including the distinction between high and low, good and bad, truth and falsity) is radically devalued when seen in its essential nothingness. This devaluation seems ridiculous to the vast majority whose faith in their common-sense identity, in their being something rather than nothing, makes Beckmann's world seem ridiculously pessimistic.
In an unpublished fragment, Nietzsche rightly notes the need for the rarest form of courage here: "The courage of the knower reveals itself not where he inspires wonder and terror . . . but where he must be experienced by the non-knower as superficial, low, cowardly and trivial." This courage, which Nietzsche in his Zarathustra (IV:4) called the "conscience of science," informs Beckmann's woodcut self-portrait.
Like anyone confronting reality's void, Beckmann did indeed experience a boundless need to fortify his ego. It surely is no accident that sleep eluded him for his last twenty-five years. Intellectual honesty is difficult, probably impossible. In his diary (March 19, 1944), Beckmann writes: "I still hold my head high like a drowning man-yet sooner or later the black waves of nothingness must crash together over me . . . well, I am prepared to become a nothing again in spite of the immense effort I have made to become a self."
Being a self, being anything rather than nothing, is illusory in reality's emptiness. There Beckmann's emphasis on becoming a self makes as little sense as anything else: "Nauseating and amusing life. A chaos of weakness and exultant, useless strength" (Diary; July 10, 1949). To live, to be something rather than nothing, is irrational. Life's impossible, self-contradictory situation in a nihilist world is captured in Beckmann's best work. His family or group pictures, except a few in insane asylums, show individuals hardly, if at all, aware of the others in the group. The stark black and white of his graphics catches this horrifying privacy and loneliness better than his colorful oils and watercolors.
Color's richness is far more tied to mankind's usual retreat from nihilism, common-sense's comforting lies, than are those bleak, startling graphics. Encouraging no quixotic aspirations to selfhood, the graphics, especially the woodcut self-portrait, leave artist and observer with nothing. Of course, it holds no terror for those shielded from reality by the common-sense faith that they and their world really are something and not nothing. Nothing more prevents an understanding of Beckmann than this "stimulating" delusion.
Beckmann's work demonstrates, insofar as demonstration is possible, the abyss obfuscated by ancient-medieval pieties, but also by their remnants in contemporary "science" and "education." In this crucial sense, Beckmann is more scientific than a Newton or an Einstein, if science means knowledge of reality. His tortured, resolute nihilism shows the impossibility of any non-arbitrary community or communication. This grim realization is at the core of his final self-portrait (oil, 1950), although it is less "Nazi" than the 1922 woodcut. It also informs the famous tuxedo self-portrait (oil, 1927). Here, at the peak of Beckmann's worldly success, arrogant with cigarette in hand, that hopeless resolution in the face of reality's void still dominates. The art critic Fritz Stahl condemned its Prussian arrogance as Thomas Hess deplored Beckmann's need to fortify his ego with that "bulldog glare." But how else can men knowledgeable about reality create in themselves the illusion of being something rather than nothing!
When I recommend the 1922 woodcut, as I usually do in every class, I do not do so because it belongs to an academic "discipline" called "art" in order to promote "interdisciplinary" studies between "art" and "philosophy" or "science." Concern with disciplines misses the point of education. I use the Beckmann exhibit (as I use Wagner's Tristan and Isolde or Grosz's Ecce Homo) because it is one of the few attempts to seriously confront the horror of self-knowledge and knowledge of one's world or worlds. This is the only worthwhile goal of any study, "disciplinary" or "interdisciplinary."
In that decisive sense, no real distinction exists between sciences or humanities or between any of the so-called disciplines. What any school worthy of the name does for its students and teachers, is done, insofar as it can be, by serious reflection on the works in this Beckmann exhibit. If the goal of education, as distinct from propaganda, is unflinching confrontation with the truth, Beckmann is one of the very few who hazarded the agonizing enterprise of learning and teaching.
Awareness of that agony is responsible for Beckmann's pedagogic superiority. The superiority was brought home to me by an exchange between a student and a professor about the worth of a class. The student asked how the course would help her to know herself and her world. The professor saw the course primarily as "rounding out the major" in his "discipline." His was a safe, conventional answer to her dangerously unconventional question.
"Discipline" is a military term. One disciplines oneself to reject "forbidden fruit." "Discipline" substitutes for rational persuasion, particularly when reason is with the forbidden, life-threatening temptation. The professor's flight to his discipline reflects his conscious or unconscious need to flee "the archetypical horrors lurking behind . . . the bulldog glare with which Beckmann fortified his ego in a long series of self-portraits." Anyone seriously contemplating Beckmann's work realizes the powerful need for the professor's intellectual dishonesty.
The student was asking for genuine knowledge of herself and her world, blissfully unaware that "knowledge is the abyss"! The professor's cowardly unwillingness to risk her question indicates greater awareness of its horror. This awareness was mercifully obfuscated for him by pride in his "discipline."
That obfuscation is anathema in any school whose aim is education and not propaganda on behalf of salutary myths. In Mann's Tristan (10), the usual futility of education is deplored by Spinell:
"The world is full of what I call the 'unconscious type' and I cannot stand all this dumb, unknowing, uncomprehending life and action, this world of infuriating naiveté around me! It tortures, me, driving me irresistibly to explain, to articulate all existence, to bring it to self-consciousness as far as I can . . . unconcerned whether the consequences are helpful or harmful, whether it brings relief or intensifies the pain."
Beckmann demonstrates that education always intensifies the pain.
The professor's flight from the student's question avoids that pain. When those sharing his intellectual cowardice band together, they create, over centuries, a shield of respectability for their "disciplines" and for their propaganda on behalf of schools as refuges where they are free to bury themselves in disciplinary or interdisciplinary studies. For them, Beckmann is an "artist" whose work is best evaluated by "experts" in German expressionism in art "departments." Each department is free to deal with its own discipline by its accepted "methodologies." This is the usual meaning of academic freedom. Shielded by this freedom from the harshness of the student's question, the professor confidently ignored it. In this decisive respect, he mirrors the liberal democracy shaping his defective pedagogy.
Liberal democracy's pluralism encourages faith in the right to form groups to defend one's group-interests. Generally political liberals see as little arbitrariness in this right as academic liberals see in their defense of their discipline's interests. Indeed the same liberally inspired intellectual dishonesty sparks faith in both academic and civil rights, for if no "laws of nature and nature's God" exist to endow men with "unalienable rights" to life and liberty, those rights are grounded in nothing. Then all efforts to secure the rights are no better than Beckmann's futile willing of selfhood in a nihilist world. Beckmann's awareness of this futility made him an honest teacher.
The same candor sparked the Communist Bukharin's final apology (1938) to his judges. Whittaker Chambers urged that his words be prominently displayed in all American classrooms. He hoped that this would awaken at least a few American professors to the depth and power of Communism's (and Nazism's) threat to their dreams about anyone's rights to anything.
Remember that Bukharin publicly confessed to crimes of which he was innocent:
I shall now speak of the reasons for my repentance . . . for when you ask yourself: "If you must die, what are you dying for?" . . . an absolutely black nothingness suddenly rises before you with startling vividness. There was nothing to die for if one wanted to die unrepentant. . . this, in the end, disarmed me completely and led me to bend my knees before the party and the country. . . . And, at such moments, citizen judges, everything personal . . . all personal rancor, pride and a number of other things fall away, disappear.
I doubt that the cry from the abyss informing both Bukharin's words and Beckmann's self-portrait could eliminate the intellectual dishonesty responsible for the professor's evasion of the student's question. Probably such terrors would only strengthen his resolve to hide whatever doubts he had behind dedication to his discipline and to the civil rights supporting that dedication. His illusions can be maintained only in a liberal democracy whose faith in its God-given rights has not suffered dissolution by rejection of the traditional pieties supporting the rights. Most liberal professors are unaware that their attack on those pieties (as outmoded superstitions or prejudices) also undermines their academic (civil) right to avoid serious education by fleeing to their disciplines. Should they be deprived of that right, the real meaning of education might well dawn upon them. This will occur if America loses its war with Russia. If the subsequent loss of all rights leads to perception of their emptiness, even liberal professors will be confronted by the terrifying choice forced upon Bukharin and Beckmann by genuine education: Frank acknowledgement of reality's "black nothingness" or fanatic commitment to its obfuscation. Until that grim day, the Beckmann retrospective offers one of the best available antidotes to the cheerful intellectual dishonesty endemic to liberal democratic schools.
Liberating him from that dishonesty, Beckmann's education precluded joining liberal artists and intellectuals who, while acknowledging the external world's emptiness, nevertheless find meaning in their own individual selves. These are the apostles of self-expression, the champions of the sanctity of individual freedom and its "rights." Among artists or poets, theirs is so-called abstract or nonobjective work which denies the meaningfulness of objects, of the external world, while affirming the richness of inner experience.
At his most perceptive, Beckmann, unlike Klee, Kandinsky, or Pollock, realized that man's inner world is as devoid of substance as the external. No inner complexity or integrity exists in reality. Only men alive to life's total nothingness are as scientific-as knowledgeable about existence-as men can be. Other intellectuals, whether humanists or "scientists," liberals or conservatives, are no more than conscious or unconscious propagandists. Beckmann was no propagandist!
Beckmann's contempt for the regnant academic (liberal) propaganda left his work open to life's only serious struggle: the war between reason and passion. Reason (insight into reality's nihilism) is repellent to passion. All passions are teleological, striving to obtain some good or avoid some evil. Consequently all passions are irrational subsisting on faith in common-sense's teleological world of goods to pursue and selves to pursue them. When genuine science, liberal education, forces abandonment of this faith, the wrath and frustration of the passions is directed against reality itself. Like liberalism (their external, political reflection), the rabid, because enlightened, passions now demand their "rights." That demand becomes more strident, the more its inanity is realized. The 1922 woodcut's "Nazi" pride in its "loathing for happiness, reason, and compassion" reflects reason's response to this rebellion by the passions against reason.
The ground of the terror informing Beckmann's best work is evident in Mann's Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus. There the murderous, because enlightened, drives destroy the liberal education which liberated them. Theirs is the fury of passions deprived by reason of the illusions necessary to sustain faith in their "rights." No powerful desire can tolerate education or science unless they are domesticated, that is, degraded into uplifting propaganda. At his best, and that is frequent, Beckmann adamantly refuses to domesticate science.
The warning against genuine education has been sounded from Aristophanes' Clouds and Genesis (2-3) to Mann's Death in Venice and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Nowhere is it more alive, and therefore less welcome, than in Beckmann's 1922 woodcut. As a whole, the Beckmann exhibit reveals a life-long war with education by one of the very few who knew what it really is.
Nietzsche rightly found at the heart of science the most terrifying war or experiment: Can truth be incorporated into life without destroying it? Is the examined life really livable? "In relation to the importance of this struggle everything else is trivial: The final question about the conditions of life is here raised, and the first attempt is here made to answer this question experimentally: How far does the truth permit incarnation (Einverleibung)?-that is the question, that is the experiment'' (Joyful Science, Aphorism 110). This question the Beckmann exhibit, like all serious thought, confronts.
*The research for this article was aided by the John Brown Cook Association for Freedom. The problems of nihilism, education, and politics are further elaborated in "Political Philosophy or Nihilist Science? Education's Only Serious Question," in Natural Right and Political Right: Essays in Honor of Harry V. Jaffa (Durham, 1984) pp. 365-74; "Nietzsche," Ultimate Reality and Meaning (December 1982), pp. 280-95; "Politics or Nothing! Nazism's Origin in Scientific Contempt for Politics" (to be published in The Journal of Value Inquiry, 1985).
Leo Strauss and Christianity
REASON, POLITICS, AND CHRISTIAN BELIEF
The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of a Christian Theology
Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982
xiv + 172 pp., $15.95 (cloth), $6.95 (paper)
By Walter Nicgorski
When a respected scholar and teacher like Father Sokolowski treats the "foundations" of his professional concerns, which happen to be man's most important concerns, all the attention we can give is worthily spent. This short book ranges from commentary on classical arguments for the existence of God to reflections on the Scriptures and on the Christian sacraments. This range, apparent on the surface to the casual surveyor of the book, masks the unity and profundity of the inquiry. Also included are significant reflections on the relationship between natural and theological virtue and a short appendix that extends the argument of the book to an examination of the relationship between religion and politics as treated "in the writings of Leo Strauss and the political philosophers who work under his influence" (p. 157).
Although these two aspects of the book will be of particular concern in this review, it is necessary and appropriate to state the central thesis of the book and how Sokolowski unfolds it. He writes to "disclose" what he calls "the Christian distinction." This distinction manifests the Christian understanding of God which allows the preservation of both "the integrity of reason" and "the distinctiveness of faith" (p. xi).
The Christian idea of God is especially evident in the understanding of Creation, for it is an understanding that entails a new and radical distinction between God and the world. That distinction comes into clearer light when contrasted with ancient non-Christian views of God or gods in relationship to the whole of being. Aristotle locates the divine "in the highest and first substances that govern the world," but his prime mover or self-thinking thought is a part of the world, coexistent at the most with the necessities that govern the world (p. 15). Conceding that "Plato's notion of what is divine and ultimate is more elusive" than Aristotle's, Sokolowski nonetheless argues that "even the One or the Good is taken as 'part' of what is: it is the One by being a one over, for and in many, never by being One only alone by itself" (p. 18).1 The step to understanding beings as possibly never having been at all and correlatively understanding "God as capable of existing, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world had not been" is the step to the Christian distinction (p. 19). So the Christian sense of God is "distinguished not only from natural necessities" but even "from the oneness and goodness that permit such necessities to be what they are and appear as they do" (p. 51). The world, then, in terms of the distinction is seen as "a gift brought about by a generosity that has no parallel in what we experience in the world." Its existence "prompts our gratitude, whereas the being of the world prompts our wonder" (p. 19).2
Granted his hesitation and call for continued theological reflection, it is evident, as Sokolowski insists, that the sense of God within the Christian distinction entails a clearer formulation, allowed by faith, of the otherness of God. So too does Sokolowski bring to the fore, as he must, a claim that Christ contributes decisively to the manifestation of the Christian distinction. It is in the life of Jesus that the distinction was "most originally" lived and expressed "after having been anticipated and hence to some extent possessed, in the Old Testament history which Jesus completed" (p. 23). The Christian sense of God as Creator is "completely disclosed in the life of Jesus and in the church's understanding of who and what Christ was" (p. xii). In contrast to the theologies of ancient poets where gods are parts of the world and necessarily stand distinct from other parts, Christ being both human and divine contributes to our understanding of a God who "is not part of the world and is not a 'kind' of being at all." And accordingly, in the light of such a God, "the incarnation is not meaningless or impossible or destructive" (p. 36).
What is here done with the incarnation, the central Christian mystery, exemplifies the deeper or further intent of this book. Sokolowski emphatically draws attention to the Christian distinction in order to make sense of Christian experience; in his words, "to permit the other Christian mysteries to be thought as mysteries and not as incoherences" (p. 37). The sweep of the book from its consideration of redemption, grace, sacraments, Scripture reading, and the church, to that of the natural and supernatural virtues and politics shows the author moving through Christian experience and clarifying how it can be understood as true and meaningful in the light of the God of Christian faith. The basis for the endeavor, however, is what the author properly calls "the primary task of Christian theology, . . . to clarify how the God we believe in is to be understood" (p. 1). Thus Christian and non-Christian can appreciate Sokolowski's inquiries.
Despite the significant substance and overall compelling argument of the book, the claims for its method seem overdrawn. The book exemplifies and defends "the theology of disclosure," which is set off against "the theology of things." The latter "assumes" the Christian distinction and deals only with the subjects that constitute its terms. It is to complement a theology of things. The features of the "new" theology of disclosure are that it "comes to terms with modern philosophical treatments of appearances or phenomena and with the historical emphasis found in modern thinking" (p. xiii). Nonetheless, this reader finds the claims for the distinctive contribution of the theology of disclosure either elusive or so evident that it is unpersuasive to imply that this perspective is lacking in the old masters of "the theology of Christian things" like Thomas Aquinas.
Let us note one example of Sokolowski's approach. In turning "disclosure" upon the issue of human subordination, Sokolowski sets the Christian view that human beings were created equal by God over against the Aristotelian view that the distinction between the naturally superior and the naturally inferior is the "last thing" or fundamental fact in human affairs. For Christian thinkers, as for later political philosophers like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, "the subordination found among men, at least in its servile form, stands in need of explanation. It is not a natural and fundamental phenomenon" (p. 96). One reason this example fails to persuade this reader of the fruits of "disclosure" is the serious question about the terms in which it is set up. On the one side, Aristotle's own challenge to conventional subordination, notably the servile form, is overlooked. In fact, though Aristotle properly attends to the distinction between the naturally superior and the naturally inferior, it is hardly the center or fundamental fact for his practical philosophy. Rather, it is the evidence of equality among humans and the necessity of equality in human affairs that emerges for Aristotle as a corrective to the inclination to apply master-slave or father-child models to political affairs and as the basis for his qualified support for democracy.
On the other and Christian side of the contrast is Sokolowski's overly simple association of the broad idea of human equality with Christianity in the light of its distinctive understanding of Creation. Correct as it is to derive equality in some respect from man's creation in God's image-though we should note that the literal words "created equal" or anything comparable are not to be found in Genesis-there still remains the question: In what sense or in what aspects are humans equal? And as Sokolowski specifically concedes, much of the Christian tradition (with the exception of Augustine) and Thomas Aquinas, do not run with the idea of equality to the point of denying a natural basis for familial and civic subordination and alleging that all subordination is caused by sin.
In arguing thus with the author about a properly Christian treatment of equality in the light of an alleged Aristotelian understanding, we may in fact be bearing out his best hope and most defensible explanation for "the theology of disclosure." Disclosure "tries," writes Sokolowski, "to show how Christian things are differentiated from things experienced in nature" (p. 97). To find ourselves asking what if anything a belief in a Christian Creator does to "the way things are in themselves" (p. 98) is to inquire into the Christian difference. It is very clear overall that encouraging such inquiry, rather than asserting a dogmatic and complete Christian theology, is the author's primary intention. Taken as an example of disclosure, the book as a whole manifests a reflective paying attention to Christian living, to what Christians think and say-above all, on the question of who their God is. The priority of a lived Christianity does not, however, leave Sokolowski prey to a theology of public opinion (though a defense against this is not explicitly worked out). The protections are there, for Sokolowski does note that it is Jesus who "originally . . . lived and expressed" the Christian life, and that all of us are ever in need of someone-the church-to indicate God to us. Then, too, Sokolowki explores Christianity with the likes of Anselm, Augustine and Aquinas, not the man in the street, nor even much of the man of the contemporary university and divinity school.
Sokolowski thus brings laudable direction and vitality to theological inquiry. The Socratic spirit is evident in this man of faith asking what difference does it make to profess the Christian God? And yet it is not clear that this approach requires or notably benefits from the book's deep bow to phenomenology and the recent historical emphasis.
Sokolowski seems clearest and most persuasive when he is putting limits on the modern emphasis on history. He cautions against historicism: Although the Christian "distinction must be made somewhere and at some time . . . what is distinguished and manifested need not be reduced to what happens in that place at that time" (p. 99). This observation recalls one by Leo Strauss that is among his most revealing on and most accommodating to history. In the essay, "Political Philosophy and History," Strauss conceded the apparent "historically conditioned" character of the political teaching of political philosophers but protested against the gratuitous assumption that "the relation between doctrines and their 'times' is wholly unambiguous. The obvious possibility is overlooked that the situation to which one particular doctrine is related, is particularly favorable to try discovery of the truth, whereas all other situations may be more or less unfavorable" (What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies, p. 64).
Sokolowski also warns of the danger of being diverted to historical curiosities. "Historical materials," he writes, "acquire their significance because of their involvement in the distinction and the terms distinguished." Just earlier, Sokolowski observed that knowing "all about the circumstances, languages, and personalities involved in achieving a distinction may shed some light on the distinction itself and on the things that are manifest in it." His use of "may" shows how hesitant is his invitation to the historical emphasis. Quite rightly he observes that the distinction "can be made available and kept alive even if some of the historical information concerning the circumstances of [its] origins is incomplete or unavailable. The faith did not begin only when critical history arrived on the scene" (p. 99). Where then does that leave his claim that disclosure acknowledges "the necessity of history in Christian faith"? In what way are we carried further than we were, for example, by Augustine's City of God?
It is useful to recall that the explicit discussion of disclosure occurs in the clarification of the relationship between natural and theological virtue. This discussion in turn supports the thesis that the realm of nature and accordingly reason's integrity are affirmed rather than undercut by the nature of the Christian God. Sokolowski gives unqualified support to Aristotle's ethical teaching not only "as a true account of human ethical behavior," an account that "avoids some serious obfuscations" of modern thought (p. xii), but also as the natural foundation for a Christian perspective on ethics. The "Christian illumination of what is to be done consists first of all in confirming what is good by nature, and in appreciating that what is good according to nature is not simply good in itself but also good because created and therefore willed by God" (p. 83).
Aristotle's ethical teaching, Sokolowski believes, gets us out from under Kant and puts us in touch with natural moral phenomena. Rare as the Aristotelian virtuous man is, this man as moral agent provides "ballast and direction" for ethical reflection. Through the revival of Aristotle's ethical teaching, Sokolowski sees the prospect of a restoration of attention to habit, character, and social environment in moral education, and a check on the Kantian internalizing of moral phenomena, which developed and holds its sway partly through the influence of Christianity. Sokolowski. endeavors to concretize moral thinking in a given situation, thus restoring the role of the ancient virtue of prudence, rather than seeing moral thinking simply as "the consideration of maxims and the placing of a case under a general rule" (p. 66).
The author's appreciation for Aristotle's ethics turns on its key distinction between full virtuousness and the single excellence of self-control (enkrateia). The character marked by self-control has not the harmony between inclinations and reason that belongs to the simply virtuous man. With effort, the man of self-control "generally masters his inclinations and usually does what is good" (p. 57). This distinction of Aristotle helps one to see the Kantian constriction of modern moral philosophy, namely a tendency to concentrate "moral theory on self-control instead of virtue," forcing "the separation of moral reason from inclination." This constriction assumes that "everyone is structured the same way, with passion opposed to reason," and that "there is no need to identify, publicly and in open behavior, different kinds of character. The moral issue becomes the internal experience of conflict and the resolution of such conflict" (p. 63).
The same Aristotelian distinction enables one to appreciate how the context of moral agency changes in the light of Christian faith and how this new context might contribute to a narrowing of moral theory. Sokolowski explores the nature of the supernatural or theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity as well as the "infused" dimension of moral virtues possessed in the context of grace. Virtues, here, are gifts of God. "We do not have the resources to enter into this life. . . . It would be an incoherence to think a creature could do so on its own. . . . The full story of what happens in Christian action is not the visible generosity or patience or courage" (p. 73). There is a hidden dimension linking such action to a final setting not limited to the world. Because the supernatural context is given rather than achieved (like "the condition" for faith in Kierkegaard's "autopsy" of it), "virtue and vice seem therefore to recede as permanent moral states," and moral behavior is most appropriately described "in terms of strength and weakness in self-control." God's law, or the example of Christ seems to be over and against our inclinations, to demand "a permanent struggle for self-mastery," for among human beings "only Christ is theologically the fully virtuous man . . ." (p. 75).
Sokolowski argues persuasively that the Christian distinction, properly understood, embraces a reasoned understanding of natural virtue and vice as orientation points for ethics. Moral phenomena need not suffer reduction to internal struggle. Christian virtue is thus shown consistent with human virtue. Christians are not "to disparage natural virtue, call it pride, and claim that even the weak and the despised, if they live in grace, are 'better' than the virtuous." So too is it wrong to look at Christian virtue as a diminution of human excellence, nobility yielding to obsequiousness. Sokolowski emphatically rejects the suggestion that Christian belief diminishes "the public honor that is due to virtue, and it obviously does not imply that public responsibility should be given to the ignorant or the incompetent instead of to those who are suited for it" (p. 84). He would disabuse Christians who regularly indulge the conceit that their commitment in faith allows the abandonment or "transcendence" of natural political wisdom.
What then are the issues in Sokolowski's encounter with Leo Strauss? The author himself begins to draw out the implications of his thesis for politics by observing and lamenting the separation of religion and politics. Sokolowski wrote, of course, before the discussion of this topic occasioned by the 1984 Presidential campaign and, needless to say, he probes more profoundly. Noting "the contemporary silence on religion and politics" (p. 157), he asks for a serious consideration of their relationship. Many will recognize the vulgar form of "the silence" he laments in an attitude that has pervaded the academic world, the media, and "polite" society. Thus the shock in all those circles in the last few years with the recognition that large numbers of believers expect a relationship between religion and politics-at the very least they feel a necessity for a careful examination of the matter.
Sokolowski rightly notes that the writings of Leo Strauss and the political philosophers who work under his influence mark an exception to the contemporary silence. They follow in the grand tradition of ancient thought; medieval Christian, Jewish, and Moslem thought; and even Machievelli and Hobbes in "expressly" treating the relationship between religion and politics. Sokolowski asks, in effect, if the "Straussian" school properly treats Christianity once it is understood in the light of the Christian distinction.
What Sokolowski finds in Strauss and "the Straussians" are essentially two defects as seen against the background of the Christian distinction. First he points out a tendency to collapse beliefs about the divine and supernatural into the conventional and, in the light of the centrality to classical political philosophy of the nature/convention distinction, to dismiss, in effect, any special claim of Revelation upon the human horizons set by the standard of nature and the high calling of philosophy. The crudest expression of this tendency is found in support for religion as a useful, though sometimes dangerous, custom that overall contributes to political stability and the moral qualities that might, in appropriate cases, mature into philosophic excellence. The second concern of Sokolowski flows more directly from his specific claims for the Christian distinction. It consists in an objection to Strauss's emphatic claim of the discontinuity and tension between the natural and the supernatural, between the life of philosophy and the life of faith, between Athens and Jerusalem.
In commenting on these "defects," I wish to sketch a framework for a fuller discussion, which can at best be only opened here. Let us directly engage the thought of Leo Strauss himself on these delicate matters of primary importance. What can be said about Strauss regarding the interesting and possibly competing claims of faith and reason seems best stated in the form of two caveats to the inquirer. First, one should not underestimate the respect Strauss has for the life of faith. Secondly, one should not underestimate that tension Strauss finds between the life of faith or piety and the life of philosophy or reason.
To see the claims of Revelation and thus of piety as simply a part of the conventional ways of the city above which philosophy must and does rise is not to appreciate the distinctive character and strength of those claims for Strauss. This collapse of Revelation into convention joined with a teaching on esoteric writing makes understandable the view to which Sokolowski alludes and of which "Straussians" are suspected; namely, that great minds like that of Thomas Aquinas embrace an apparent life of faith to protect and advance the life of reason.
Furthermore, it is understandable but not in the end correct to read Strauss himself as accepting the collapse of Revelation into the conventional. Strauss does after all observe that Revelation's claims are usually encountered through the traditional or the ancestral, and it is the ancestral that is at the heart of the ways of the city. Strauss also draws attention to the related phenomenon of variety in divine codes and contradiction between them, a problem that parallels the situation among human conventions and that raises questions about "the idea of a divine law in the simple and primary sense of the term . . ." ("The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy," The Independent Journal of Philosophy, 1979, p. 111). And then too, Strauss has written in a way as to suggest, though not to say, that religion is solely a matter of the city. "Philosophy is as such trans-political, trans-religious, and trans-moral but the city is and ought to be moral and religious" ("A Giving of Accounts: Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss," The College, April 1970, p. 4).
Strauss knew, however, that Revelation can and does question the city's ways in a manner similar to that of philosophy. More importantly, he reiterated that the encounter between the Bible and Athens is the most fundamental tension in the West, in which each pole offers a wisdom that is trans-"cultural," therefore trans-political in the sense of "the cultures" of specific cities ("Jerusalem and Athens," Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, 1984, pp. 149, 171-73). Nor does Strauss collapse Biblical wisdom into that of the poets, leaving the fundamental encounter to occur between poetry and philosophy. Rather, both poetry and philosophy appear to represent Athenian alternatives set over against that of Jerusalem (Ibid., p. 149, and "On the Interpretation of Genesis," L'Homme, 1981, pp. 19-20).
Sokolowski properly apprehends Strauss's sense of the "incompatibility" between Jerusalem and Athens. This tension is such that, we note, it cannot even be resolved in words or in principle as can that between nature and convention in the model or perfect city. Strauss took the "radical opposition between the Bible and philosophy" to be "the secret of the vitality of the West" ("The Mutual Influence ...," p. 113). Sokolowski observes that the "unsettled and unsettling relationship between theology and philosophy . . . has been one of the major courses of motion in Western civilization" (p. 46). Strauss found the basis for the deep opposition between the Bible and philosophy in an essential fact of the former's cosmology, namely the createdness of the world. Sokolowski points out that the Christian distinction between God and the world brings Christian theology into an inevitable engagement with philosophy. Strauss's most telling and direct statements on the opposition take the form of denying that "a happy synthesis" is possible. "Syntheses always sacrifice the decisive claim of one of the two elements" ("On the Interpretation . . ." p. 19). "No one," wrote Strauss, "can be both a philosopher and a theologian . . . or a synthesis of both. But every one of us can be and ought to be either the one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy" ("The Mutual Influence...," p. 111). Accordingly Strauss thought there could not be Jewish philosophy or Christian philosophy. Although Sokolowski's endeavor is one of harmonization if not synthesis, it is important to note his own awareness of the reality of the opposition Strauss stresses. Sokolowski writes of the Christian distinction as being "at the intersection of reason and faith" and then quickly adds that "because of it the Christian faith remains faith, but a reasoned faith" (p. 39). In his criticism of transcendental Thomism, Sokolowski protests a neglect of "the density of the simply natural, the fact that it has its own kind of wholeness on its own kind of terms . . ." (p. 90).
Sokolowski, nonetheless, finds that Strauss's view of the opposition between faith and reason leaves too great a gap, too much of a tension between them. The "special Christian understanding of God" allows a "harmony between faith and reason" that is otherwise not achievable (p. 163). Strauss is seen to emphasize will too strongly in understanding the Biblical God. "But in Christian theology God is . . . primarily neither will nor wisdom but esse subsistens, on which both will and wisdom are based" (p. 160). Thus we return to Sokolowski's important and welcome defense of the integrity of reason and nature.
Surely a world endowed upon us as the free gift of a God who stands apart is known as such only through the gifted horizon of faith. In the terms of Strauss, the synthesis or harmonization of Sokolowski is decisively on the side of faith. More, however, must be said, lest with Creation accepted, harmonization thereafter comes too easily and to an extent not really possible. As long as the will of God and the mystery of God loom large in our created origins, as they must, we cannot definitively measure the God who gave us this world. To do so would be to confine God's will to the initial endowment. The inclination to do so would appear to work to preclude the incarnation. Sokolowski is aware of the difficulty: "We seem to be left with a dilemma between arbitrariness that appears to undercut necessity and necessity that appears to dominate the creator" (p. 44). Warning against misreading the distinction between God and the world "as one of the distinctions we naturally and spontaneously make between things within this world," Sokolowski turns to Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas as a speculative way of overcoming the difficulty (p. 46). At this point readers get a fuller view of a God who is esse subsistens. Sokolowski writes, "'What things are' retains its necessity because the essences of things are the ways esse can be determined, but esse subsists only in God, so the basis for the determination of things is not distinct from him: it is his own existence" (p. 45). The resolution proposed seems to invite two challenges: First, have we lost the initial sharpness of the distinction between God and the world; second and more important, have we not, despite protestations to the contrary, confined God to what we naturally understand? It would be wrong to conclude this commentary on Sokolowski's encounter with Strauss without using the occasion to endeavor to clarify some frequently misunderstood aspects of Strauss's teaching on the deep opposition between the life of faith and the life of reason. Where Strauss has written of the opposition or "incompatibility," note should be taken of the precise point of incompatibility, that being at the ultimate horizon where Revelation either answers or directs in a significant way the quest for understanding. Overall the incompatibility does not arise with respect to morals and politics. Quite the opposite is the case, for Strauss regularly drew attention to how the Biblical tradition and the classical philosophical tradition shared an understanding of morality that made much of modern thought a common opponent.
There is, it must be added, some evidence that Strauss believed that Christian medieval philosophy played an important part in the change in the character of philosophy between ancient and modern times. This whole issue requires much more extensive and patient examination of Strauss's writings, and it appears that Strauss thought the matter required more inquiry on his part. It is likely that Strauss thought that "Christian philosophy" pushed too hard for completeness, a removal of the mystery that both Biblical religion and the best of ancient philosophy acknowledged at the ultimate horizon. The secular offspring or imitators of this effort led to the distortions, judged by the standard of ancient philosophy, in philosophy and science, which have dominated the post-medieval world.
There is evidence that Strauss was convinced that the totalistic passion of modern philosophy was responsible for a general misreading of the ancient philosophers. Even Aristotle, the "hard" case, does not have "a completed philosophic system" according to Strauss, for "the primary and necessary form of philosophy" is not to be identified with "a set of propositions, a teaching, or even a system" but with "a way of life" ("The Mutual Influence . . ." p. 113). That way of life is not incompatible with what it strives to eliminate; namely, the apparent truth of ultimate mystery. Strauss chose the life of philosophy with an awareness that its best models, the ancient philosophers, gave witness to the elusiveness of the final object of that way of life. And so rigorous and self-critical was Strauss's devotion to this way of life that he observed that "the choice of philosophy is based on faith . . . the quest for evident knowledge rests itself on an unevident premise" ("The Mutual Influence . . ." p. 118; see also Spinoza's Critique of Religion, 1965, p. 30). Such considerations make clearer the ground of Strauss's deep respect for the life of faith and piety.
1Sokolowski properly concedes Plato's elusiveness and hesitates somewhat in sharply contrasting the Christian with both the Platonic and the Heideggerian statements of the ultimate. Plato in The Republic did write that not only the intelligibility of things "but also existence and being are in them as a result of [the good], although the good isn't being but is still beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power" (509b, Bloom translation).
2Cf. Kenneth Schmitz's 1982 Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University. Published in the same year as Sokolowski's book but more limited in scope, The Gift: Creation contains a development and amplification of two important parts of the argument of The God of Faith and Reason.
A MISOGYNISTIC MACHIAVELLI
Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli
Hanna Fenichel Pitkin
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984
354 pp., $24.95
By Ronald Maurice Peterson
Today, the most distinguished and profound works on Machiavelli amount to four: the long-lived Scritti su Machiavelli, of Federico Chabod; the Thoughts on Machiavelli of Leo Strauss; Claude Lefort's massive study, Le Travail de Foeuvre Machiavel; and Harvey Mansfield, Jr.'s exigetical book Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders. They share a common genius: They are fertile, intelligent, and powerful, particularly when arrayed against the other-narrow and often partisan-Machiavelli scholarship.
Hanna Pitkin's work is partisan: It is for feminists, any feminist who is angry, for it extends the charge of male denial of power and respect for women to Machiavelli and the entire Renaissance. But Pitkin is a mild-mannered feminist, free of radical hatred or grotesque charges against the male half of the race. She does not write as one who is furious at the glory centuries of male domination, but tries to understand it in the supposed impartial light of psychoanalysis. With Machiavelli as its inspiration, the whole Renaissance is reduced to a problem child. Hence, Machiavelli's figurative allusion to Fortuna as a woman to be rudely dominated becomes for Pitkin the foundation of a major inquiry that indicts, if gently, an entire age. At the same time, her study of Machiavelli reduces his political thought to his struggles against the threat of female interference with manhood.
Pitkin's inquiry combines her own reading of Machiavelli with the psychoanalytic writings of Erik Erikson and Freud and a rather considerable number of feminist works. She claims to have truly found the key to Machiavelli's teaching: his ambivalence about manhood, namely, his "anxiety about being sufficiently masculine and concern over what it means to be a man" (p. 5). And the problem of manhood is autonomy, which overcomes ambivalence, since autonomy frees man from ties he once had to the maternal figures (p. 7). Autonomy, Pitkin says confidently, is the cardinal problem that Machiavelli faced and also his city of Florence. The consequence of this quest for autonomy from female domination or from being too much like women is his political teaching which, then, is but a reflection of the lurid subpolitical. Hence, "Machiavelli raises the problem of the relationship of republican, activist politics not merely to fascism, but also to misogyny and what we now call machismo" (p. 5). Pitkin even reduces Machiavelli's conception of virtu to a male instinct that is often "personal and sexual." Moving carelessly through psycho-history, she leaves one breathless for precise milestones. "[P]olitical, military, and sexual achievement are merged, so that political power and military conquest are eroticized, and eros is treated as a matter of conquest and domination" (p. 25).
Even Rome is sexual. And of course it was. (Recall Hegel, if you will: Roma is amor spelled backward.) But in this book we understand the sexual as Freudian. We are told that the true Roman authority is to be understood from the root of the Latin word for authority, viz., augeo, which means to augment, i.e., in Pitkin's words, to generate. What is more patriarchal and therefore more manly than the (pro)creative ability to make of impotent men (namely, of foxes) virtuous citizens (pp. 49-50)? The greatest of all these patriarchs is the "Founder." This Founder is a superhuman and mythical creature not to be confused with "historical human beings who have founded actual institutions or states"; "it" (not "he") is "an unmoved mover," having "a generative paternity so potent that it can create lasting masculinity in other men" (p. 54). (She finds this unheard-of being in Machiavelli's Art of War.)
Of course, all this marvelous potency runs aground on the woman, Fortuna, who epitomizes the threat of women to masculinity. "Women constitute a danger to conquerors, princes, and tyrants" (p. 117), and men are well-attuned to this risk because they are born of them and live under their formidable dominance throughout childhood and into their adulthood. Not only this, women can be as "ambitious as men" in ways that "privatize and tend to fragment the community." Also, "their power to exploit the divisive effect of sexual concerns takes on legendary proportions." In fact, "it caused the first internal division in Florence" (p. 119). And so, in the chapter on "psychological theory" we are treated to a drama which shows Machiavelli personifying in female figures the huge forces against which men struggle. This theme continues on a different plane in the chapter on sociological theory, in which we discover that the Renaissance wreaked vengeance on the relatively high status of women in the Middle Ages. At this point the chapter examines the "impact of the wet-nurse system" (p. 224), and suddenly the book soars into an imposing non sequitur, for we are taught that in Florentine homes using wet-nurses, children come to "resent women," with all the baleful political consequences to follow:
[C]ivilization, liberty, law, politics, history, culture . . . are then understood as male enterprises won from and sustained against female power-the engulfing mother, the captivating maiden, the vindictive wife-women as the "other," symbolizing all that man is not, or wishes not to be. The struggle to sustain civilization and republican liberty thus reflects the struggle of boys to become men." (p. 230)
Pitkin produces legions of hobgoblins from scattered metaphors. Perhaps Machiavelli and the Renaissance had contempt for women, but to force Machiavelli's teaching to accommodate this complaint rather than to interpret his political philosophy on the political and philosophical levels on which he presented it is to caricature his work.
Contrary to Pitkin's view, whatever struggle Machiavelli observes lay first in man's original quest for security before fortuna had yet seriously to touch earthly affairs, as the ambition for glory and dominion that challenge Fortuna had yet fully to arise in man's breast. The relation between the sexes, whatever form it may take in Machiavelli's teaching, is entirely subordinate to this original struggle or labor. Political communities emerge from the attempt to "escape these perils." In this earliest of human epochs, virtue "is known in two ways: the first is the choice of the site; the other in the organization of the laws," Circumstances (circostanze), not fortuna, are the principal medium of the primordial struggle. Once men have set themselves on their course, the actions of fortuna become more evident, but not in a way sympathetic to Pitkin's views.
The conditions and instruments for conquering Fortuna mature in the hands of great and virtuous leaders; in the case of Rome, virtu is advanced by Fortuna's design to glorify Rome. Thus, the struggle continues in more complex and more extreme ways. But in all this, Machiavelli gives us no reasonable evidence for supposing that fortuna's gender has any significance for the social struggle of men against women: Indeed, the
social struggle is beside the point. It is Fortuna's inscrutable and unpredictable, but powerful, interference with human political destiny that is Machiavelli's sole focus. Her interference arises from her inscrutable "designs" (orditi). The same can be said for his comments on women (e.g., Discourses, III, 26, "How Because of Women a State is Ruined"). The manner in which Machiavelli brought forth modernity was shocking, but it
was prudent shocking; Hanna Pitkin's interpretation is shocking because it is imprudent.
SOCRATES AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
Four Texts on Socrates: Plato's Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito and Aristophanes' Clouds.
Translated with Notes by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West. Introduction by Thomas G. West.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984
186 pp., $27.50 (cloth), $4.95 (paper)
By Gregory B. Smith
Morally and politically our age has frequently been described as a time of crises, subsumable ultimately under a comprehensive crisis, the crisis of the West. That comprehensive crisis is one in which ancient beliefs and traditions that had sheltered and defended the possibility of nobility, piety, justice, and indeed all the virtues, have been shaken to the roots. In the resulting vacuum, man's reason has been called upon to replace the cumulative wisdom of the ages and has enjoyed only ambiguous success. Simultaneously we have witnessed the appearance of unprecedented phenomena: the growth of large uniform mass societies dominated by ideological politics, the extension of the arena of human decision-making until it becomes global in scope, steady technological change which brings a constant revolution in social existence, and the advent of techniques that can manipulate the very fabric of nature, both human and non-human. As a result, man frequently seems overpowered by alien forces, by a fate and destiny beyond his control and seemingly beyond his ken, at a time when he has no sheltering beliefs. In the end, rootlessness and alienation arise as seemingly eternal and necessary problems man must continually confront throughout his future.
Yet intellectually ours is an exciting and exhilarating age, for the collapse of ancient traditions and the resultant unearthing of the roots of our civilization have brought to our sight questions that have perhaps been unavailable for millennia. And these ancient questions have been reborn for us with a force and vitality that to a certain extent makes ours a privileged age. The relationship between reason and tradition, philosophy and poetry, man and the gods, truth and the city, are no longer matters of simple historical interest, the business of those who wander absentmindedly in the dust of the past. They have become living issues, matters of decision for us in the present. Yet our intellectually privileged position, and the joy and exhilaration it brings with it, is but the opposite side of our moral and political crisis. To grasp this relationship is to understand the peculiarity of our age as well as something about the nature of human existence in general.
It was Hegel who, in his own Olympian fashion, first called attention to the unique nature of our age. He raised the possibility that something cultivated long ago had finally borne its ultimate fruit and that a political and moral problem lurked in that impasse. But it was Nietzsche who drew the most radical conclusion, that when all the latent possibilities of an epochal legislation have been acted out, what is left is decadence and eventual decay into nothingness. In response Nietzsche tried to show that what he saw as the resulting nihilism of contemporary humanity could be traced to the very roots of the Western tradition, to the door of Socrates and Socratic rationalism. For Nietzsche, the task was to recover the health of a more "natural" age, to consciously negate the negation that Socrates represented. Agreeing with Hegel, Nietzsche saw a uniformity to human history and indeed an inevitability that led inexorably from conception to decadent culmination. But for Nietzsche, that moment of conception was traceable to a human act which, even if not performed self-consciously, had no divine or cosmic support. Hence what was born of a human act could be overcome and replaced by a human act, this time self-consciously enacted. Socrates was the great example of what could be done as well as of the problem that had to be reversed.
For Nietzsche, the politically and morally exposed state of contemporary man was the direct result of the Socratic replacement of the "natural," unself-conscious man of "good form" by the resentful, highly self-conscious man who could give a reasoned account to justify his actions. This latter, Socratic, man was allegedly unequipped to compete in the world except by imposing the standard of reason and self-conscious explanation upon others, a standard that would become increasingly universal and blind to the particular differences among men. Through the hegemony of this Socratic man, self-conscious reason tried to reorder and remake the world, in the process making superfluous the "natural" man who was dominated by a fortuitous efficient causality. Hence Socrates was seen as the father of that optimistic scientific faith that reason could remake the world, which thereby need no longer be the scene of an infinitely extended tragic play. In Nietzsche's view, what Socrates did was provide the basis upon which the poorly turned out could gain hegemony over those better endowed, and thereby destroyed the only basis for law, reason being incapable of providing a substitute.
After Nietzsche, Heidegger likewise saw the time of Socrates and Plato as a great turning point in the history of man, which led inevitably to the "oblivion of Being" and the "darkening of the earth." Elaborating upon the analysis of Nietzsche, Heidegger saw the Socratic/Platonic turn in thinking as the basis of the technical rationality that tries to dominate and manipulate beings rather than disclose them as they really are. This faith in reason's capacity to change Being led to a greater and greater alienation from Being itself. Hence Heidegger, like Nietzsche, saw the reversal of this Socratic/Platonic influence as the means to a cure for the political and moral problems of our age.
Leo Strauss has also made Socrates a center of attention, yet, unlike Nietzsche and Heidegger, presents himself as a friend of Socrates. But beneath the seeming agreement with Socrates, Strauss's real understanding is more difficult to penetrate than we can hope to do here. The surface of Strauss's later works that deal thematically with Socrates is that of a mere restatement of the text under consideration. Strauss's actual interpretation has to be inferred after a careful juxtaposition of the seeming restatement with the text itself. Without presuming to have penetrated very far in that understanding, perhaps we can at least venture to say that Strauss does not see Socrates as simply representative of an error. Instead Socrates is presented as struggling with a tension inherent in the nature of human existence, a tension that can never be resolved but only recovered and reconstituted anew from age to age. For Strauss, political philosophy in its original form is born of a recognition of a necessary tension between philosophy and the city that cannot be transcended by History or Science, nor by the victory of one of the contending parties. Only continual reapproximation of a balance leads to the most sanguine solution to the human problem that can be hoped for. The moderation that this understanding implies is at the heart of political philosophy, a moderation which, while being a partisan of reason, never overestimates its capacities and thereby never underestimates that the natural horizon of the city is that of opinion. For Strauss, reflection on Socrates could lead in our time to that conscious act which is political philosophy, and which does make a difference, although it would not lead to a simple repetition of Platonic/Socratic rhetoric and poetry. In this one respect at least, Strauss takes his stand on the side of Nietzsche against both Hegel and Heidegger, who saw History as primarily the History of Being, not of autonomous man, a dispensation in each case over which man seemingly had little control.
We cannot pursue these issues beyond this very general level, but we can at least conclude that Socrates and what he stands for has come to the cutting edge of thinking about the unique situation of our age. For that reason it is a pleasure to greet the publication of Thomas and Grace West's Four Texts on Socrates. Studying Plato's Euthyphro, Apology and Crito, and Aristophanes' Clouds will help give access to what was really at stake in those momentous and epoch-making days of Socrates. The only regret one might have is that Plato's Phaedo, with all the curious ways in which Socrates' deeds contradict many of his famous doctrines, is not also included, but perhaps we can expect to see that translation in the future.
These translations appear to accomplish a judicious balance of literalness together with elegance and readability, while erring, if at all, in the direction of literalness. I am aware of no better translations for those without access to the original Greek. The texts are also followed by a useful, if not exhaustive, "Selected Bibliography." The translations are preceded by an "Introduction" by Thomas West. Here West gives summaries of the individual texts which are valuable and raise a number of intriguing questions. The general thrust of these remarks will be familiar to readers who have studied West's previously published commentary on the Apology. Given the constraints of space, I wish primarily to address myself to a general issue that arises from reflection on the remarks in the Introduction taken as a whole.
West proposes that a significant reason for studying Socrates is that he represents a potential alternative to the two reigning political dispensations in our time, Liberalism and Marxism. And for West an alternative is necessary, for "in our time the superiority of modern thought, and of the political practice based upon it, is no longer evident" (p. 10). For West, both Liberalism and Marxism are defective because they regard mere freedom as the end of political life, while neither is concerned with the substantive ends that freedom should pursue. For West, "a political community that endorses that life eventually arouses self-hatred, frantic but aimless activity, or timid indifference" (p. 10). Marxism initially appears to bring high purpose back to political life, but only on an interim basis, for the ultimate end is a liberation where "all serious purposes have been done away with" (p. 11).
But taking Socratism as an alternative to Liberalism and Marxism raises at least one fundamental problem. Socrates frequently questioned the laws of his city and its gods. He would not accept as correct and binding any position for which a reasoned account could not be given. But he simultaneously professed that his highest wisdom was knowledge of his own ignorance, that he was ignorant of the highest and greatest things. This raises the possibility that "he seems to have been unable to provide the Athenians [nor us, for that matter] with a satisfactory alternative account of the ends of human life." West's response to this possibility is that while Socrates negates the reigning opinions of his time without knowing the "greatest things," he is exonerated because "knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance." Furthermore, Socrates knew that what he did not know was that which was most worthy of pursuit, hence that the best way of life was "philosophy" (West's quotation marks). Therefore, "tentatively, but for practical purposes finally [my emphasis], virtue is defined as the philosophic life and, by extension, includes the condition of the soul and political community that makes that life possible." Hence for West, the well-being of philosophy is posited, "for practical purposes," as the end of the political community. This hegemony of the philosophic life as that most needful is the Socratic alternative to the gods and traditions of Athens, and leads to what West characterizes as a combining of "rigor with skepticism without succumbing to the temptation of absolutism on the one extreme or relativism on the other." And the Socratic understanding, when applied to the crisis of our time, "may offer a basis for defending a healthy constitutional government, one that secures political liberty without hesitating to check the licentious conduct that would destroy freedom as well as the philosophic way of life" (all references to p. 12).
Let us assume for the present that this is a fair presentation of Socrates' teaching, while leaving open as a question whether Plato's understanding differs, and reflect upon whether this "solution" is unproblematic. First, "knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance" may be true from a theoretical perspective, but from a practical point of view this leaves one with next to no positive guidance at all. Indeed politically and morally, cognizance of this understanding about the unknowability of the most important things would leave one in a state of flux. Obviously the political community must believe in its laws as correct and binding, and this understanding would make that next to impossible. But a still greater problem may arise from setting up philosophy as the end for practical activity to pursue, for that would be to establish an inappropriate standard by which to judge practical activity. While contemporary positivist-inspired social science tends to judge the political in light of the subpolitical, this judges it in light of the supra-political. Each attempt transcends the horizon of the political community. It is not clear how a political community can overcome "frantic but aimless activity" or a "tired indifference" by taking its bearings by something that transcends it altogether. Perhaps the political community must be open to certain possibilities that transcend it, yet it cannot take that as its guiding star. The political community must take its bearings "internally" if it is to remain political. But taking our political and moral bearings internally is precisely what is problematic in our age, the age in which ancient traditions have been exploded. Hence, one might respond, in our age how can the political community generate a nomos or authoritative convention if not through the auspices of philosophy? But philosophy understood in the Socratic mode seems to offer something that cannot be assimilated by the political community-i.e., "rigor conjoined with skepticism."
West offers another possibility that seems more promising. He observes that "Socrates was right in holding that the desire for gain, for distinction, and for knowledge are inherent in human nature" (p. 11). Nature, not philosophy, is the basis for the internal generation of a nomos. What philosophy should do is not hold itself up as the end of the political community, not even a practical imitation of itself, but legitimize and emancipate those natural longings that can ground it from within. One of the three natural longings that West mentions is available to the political community only indirectly (philosophy), while another is, especially in the liberal West, fostered to the point of blinding intoxication (gain). It is the natural love of honor and distinction that may provide the internal basis by which the political community can generate its own ends. Emancipating and legitimizing the natural desire for honor, the faculty that predominates in what Aristotle called the "great-souled man," can become the basis for the regeneration of purpose for contemporary man. This would seem to be more promising than the attempts of philosophy to act on its own, for that seems inevitably to lead in the direction of the glorification of the will as the ground for creating "values."
West is by no means unaware of the distinction I have attempted to draw, although he seems to stress the side of it that appears most problematic. Needless to say, one could take no comfort in the prospects for genuine philosophy in an age that revels in nothing but the unmitigated love of glory. But that hardly seems to be the main problem in our time. A greater danger is to be expected from overestimating what the philosopher can accomplish, especially in the way of willing a nomos for practical humanity. Nature may have ordained a teaching for men that needs the restraint and tutoring of philosophy, but that may still be a teaching upon which philosophy is incapable of improving. Philosophy may better serve its own ends by preserving and channeling that for which it cannot provide a surrogate. This understanding may in fact be the ground of the Platonic transformation of Socratism, and may explain why the poetry and rhetoric of Plato attempted, as West notes, to present us with a Socrates made "new and noble." One might stress especially the need to make Socrates, and thereby philosophy, appear noble.
The American Novel and the Way We Live Now
John W. Aldridge
New York: Oxford University Press, 1983
166 pp., $16.95
Panic Among the Philistines
Bryan F. Griffin
St. Louis: Regnery Gateway, 1983
259 pp., $12.95
By Lindsay Thompson
Writers are supposed to be motivated by alienation, by the urge to instruct, or by some combination of the two. Sometime after World War II they gave up both and undertook the mass production of plotless, formless, vacuous garbage which the votaries of The Media proclaimed as high art. Writers thus made famous found it easier to be celebrities than to be good writers. So conclude Griffin and Aldridge in their respective examinations of the sorry state of American literature.
* * *
I think it was Richard Armour who wrote that the United States had no need or use for the Virgin Islands when they came upon the market, but that there was something about the name which made Congress cast caution to the winds. A similar flight of whimsy must have seized the editors at Regnery, a normally sound publishing house, when Panic Among the Philistines came over the transom.
Panic originally appeared several years ago as a two-part essay in Harper's. In the Harper's essays, an angry, Goetz-like Griffin stalked the Republic of Letters and blasted away at the menacing thugs who had turned American literature into a combat zone. Griffin heralded the reawakening of a public long gulled by the posturing of writers well known for being well known, and middle-aged men like Norman Mailer, obsessed by sex, profanity, and nihilist plot lines. Now the people, realizing Pauline Kael and her counterparts in book reviews were pied pipers, were demanding Real Art, and the leaders of postwar culture were terrified: "Old facades were suddenly crumbling, older masks were finally rotting, and everywhere there was the unspoken fear that the game might soon be up."
Amusing stuff, tellingly told, and well enough left alone, as an essay. But no . . . presumably on the theory that if some is good a lot more is still better, Griffin has traded his revolver for a B-52, bloating his essay into a violent, splenetic screed which leaves only smoking ruins behind. Griffin's book is an enormous catalogue of malefactors whose work he does not like. It is a long and comprehensive list, from E. L. Doctorow, "a popular writer of rather smutty political novels," to "literary sexologist Gay Talese" and "schlock novelist John (Carp) Irving," and on to the "clever young writer of explicitly erotic novels named Scott Spencer," John Barth, John Cheever, Christopher Isherwood, Joyce Carol Oates, William Styron, Don DeLillo, Jerzy Kosinski, Truman Capote, a clutch of critics, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and New York Review of Books tote bags, after which demolition, Griffin ostensibly vindicates good taste in a cautionary peroration as slushy as the worst self-congratulatory excesses he quotes from his targets.
The revitalization of American fiction is a worthy ideal, if you assume it needs it. Taking Griffin's claims at face value, one still finds his argument undermining itself. He goes on too long and too violently. The reader is battered by 259 pages of unrelieved, smirking sarcasm of a rather sophomoric cast. But even if you emerge, staggering, from Griffin's house of terrors, you will find that contradictory arguments are put forth which leave one wondering in which direction he really intended to point his flamethrower. On the one hand, Griffin argues for the return of a literary elite to guide and form the malleable reading preferences of the masses. On the other, Griffin argues that the misled masses began to awaken on their own around 1980, and have already rejected the glitterati and all their false works. It cannot be both.
Stylistically, Griffin deflates the occasionally effective roar of his wrath by adopting the over-the-shoulder style popularized by David Halberstam ("Later, the reader would realize he had been had"). And if by 1980 the game really was up for the old order, and if "most of the well-known books of the last thirty-five years will have been swept up and forgotten by the turn of the century," what's the point of the book? On balance, not much.
While devotees of R. Emmett Tyrrell's incendiary style may want to save a place on their asbestos-lined shelves for Panic next to their old numbers of The American Spectator and their new copy of The Liberal Crack-Up, Griffin's complaints are really nothing new. "All dare to write, who can or cannot read," wrote Horace; Juvenal commented on how "an incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts." In 1751 Dr. Johnson observed in The Rambler:
No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library; for who can see the walls crowded on every side by mighty volumes . . . now scarcely known but by the catalogue. . . . Of the innumerable authors whose performances are thus treasured up in magnificent obscurity, most are forgotten, because they never deserved to be remembered, and owed the honors which they once obtained, not to judgment or to genius, to labor or to art, but to the prejudice of faction, the stratagem of intrigue, or the servility if adulation.
And in 1920 H. L. Mencken covered the American literary waterfront better, and more briefly, in his essay, "The National Letters." Panic Among the Philistines is cocktail party fodder for those who wish to appear knowledgeable without having to think, and should soon take its place in Dr. Johnson's library.
* * *
What Griffin torches, the University of Michigan's John W. Aldridge illuminates in The American Novel and the Way We Live Now. Aldridge has set for himself the task of a critical review of all the major post-war American writers worked over by Griffin; The American Novel is the fifth book in the project. Aldridge's measured pace allows for more considered judgments of the various writers' works, not just their press clippings and cocktail party chat. Aldridge finds that in an era in which Sony lets every man truly march to his own drummer, self-absorption and separation are the real causes of the decline of the novel as a source of entertainment and instruction. "The authority of the novel," Aldridge suggests, "never has been and probably never can be viewed as separable from the nature and quality of the human experience which, at any historical moment, may form its subject matter." All the myths have been exploded, truth is really stranger, and thus fiction comes to chronicle the meaningless life of the suburban couch potato, in which mental and moral inertia are disturbed only by aperiodic bursts of sex and violence.
Different writers deal with this dislocated world in different ways, and Aldridge sets out to analyze their responses. Philip Roth adopted the paranoiac monologue as both theme and plot device. Kosinski places characters in a ruthlessly Hobbesian world of manipulation and abuse where self-preservation is the theme. William Gaddis takes the chaos he sees in life as the basis for chaotic narratives of chaotic lives. Thomas Pynchon tries to re-create the process of entropy in the structure of his books, and John Barth turns old forms-the travel narrative, the epistolary novel-inside out with increasing preciousness and artificiality. Each of these and more Aldridge treats with a chapter.
Among Aldridge's best moments is his dissection of William Styron who, like Thomas Wolfe, has the Southern storyteller's gift of massing heaps of dialogue and information but cannot make much of it. "This has been particularly burdensome for Styron," Aldridge dryly observes, because
while there is little to indicate that he is a writer struggling to express a major vision of life, he has all along given the appearance of being a writer driven by the most intense ambition to be considered major, and he knows he must appear to possess major themes. . . . He must also engage them at the right time, when the public for one reason or another find them topically important or intellectually fashionable.
Aldridge then dissects Styron's attempts to be Faulker's heir (Lie Down in Darkness), a sixties existentialist (Set This House on Fire), the politically relevant Southerner (The Confessions of Nat Turner), and, finally, the conscience of the universe (Sophie's Choice). Where Griffin pulls together goofy quotations by Styron-a job any clipping service could do-Aldridge has clearly considered the work of Styron, and comes to a better, more reasoned, if equally dismissive, assessment. It is the difference between scholarship and polemicism which sets the two books apart. The American Novel has limitations, but they are for the most part limitations of scope and comprehensiveness of evaluation chosen by the author. The result is a good little book of interest and instruction for the reader of current fiction.
* * *
All of which still leaves hanging the question posed earlier: Is all this fuss necessary? George Panichas has declared that "the critic's task . . . is diagnostic, and his purpose should be that of conserving values and defending standards, out of which solutions should ideally emerge."
But too often the defense of standards tends to be the plague-on-all-your-houses denunciation of a Griffin, or an extended sulk about the disrespect one must endure from academic lounge lizards who think Alison Lurie should be awarded the Nobel Prize. Such approaches take the easy course, denouncing the new by citing the old, and arguing that the future lies in a return to the past. This is more often than not literary pathology: From a few samples a critic of the diagnostic school can declare the patient terminally ill, then send a report back to the surgeon with a stern message on how things were better before the patient took up such wicked, wicked ways. It satisfies, but neither resolves nor cures.
In the end, both of these books fail on two diagnostic grounds. First, they assume that whatever the problem is, it is the authors' fault (with an occasional nod to the public and their indiscriminate tastes). In fact, many other factors have contributed to the sorry state of some parts of American letters which are not treated by these books. The effects of television on book-buying habits, and the subjects treated, have probably been significant, if not precisely measurable. The wave of corporate acquisitions of publishing houses in the 1960s and 1970s has had an enormous impact on what gets published, how hard it is pushed, and how soon it gets remaindered, all to the detriment of the higher common denominators among authors, books, and publishers. Add to that the impact of book clubs and chain booksellers, and you have a strong economic argument for the virtues of writing and publishing garbage.
Second, neither of these books inclines me to believe that, assuming American letters are in a bad way, there is much we can do about it in a concerted way. Rather, time and taste will, as always, resolve alarms about literature. Gresham's Law may appear to be winning in the short run; seeing Garfield the Cat cartoon books occupy three or four slots in the best-seller fiction lists is surely disheartening. But on the other hand, one cannot reach for The Brothers Karamazov every time the urge to read strikes. There may be a place for the schlocky and transient, if only on vacations and long railway journeys. Over time, however, the roving character of the mind's search for improvement and diversion will run up the score in favor of those who have had something good to say and who have said it well.
And the rest, the subjects of these two books? Some may stay the course, but Griffin is probably right about their turn-of-the-century prospects. They will wend their way to their resting places: beach houses, ski condos, paperback stands in airports, B. Dalton remainder tables, church rummage sales, and finally to the shelves of Dr. Johnson's library of forgotten books, where they will provide years of harmless employment for graduate students. Barth and Kosinski, Mailer and Lurie, DeLillo and Didion, Sontag and Irving, let them have their laughs with Johnny Carson, their fulsome praise from The New York Review of Books, their press conferences at French congresses on the arts and liberation movements: It's dark and very quiet down in the stacks.
WILLIAM KENNEDY, REVISED EDITION
New York: Viking, 1983
227 pp., $5.95 (paper)
The Ink Truck
New York: Viking, 1969
278 pp., $16.95 (cloth)
New York: Penguin, 1975
317 pp., $5.95 (paper)
Billy Phelan's Greatest Game
New York: Penguin, 1978
282 pp., $5.95 (paper)
By Lauren Weiner
Ironweed, by William Kennedy, won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize and National Critics Circle Award for fiction. It was the third in Kennedy's cycle of novels of Albany, New York, in the 1930s. Kennedy is a former journalist who wrote his first novel, The Ink Truck, in 1969-but not many people noticed either that effort or the first two parts of the Albany cycle, Legs and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. Ironweed was rejected by all the major publishers before Viking brought it out in 1983. It became celebrated and then all of Kennedy's books were rescued from the dustbin.
When an author triumphs after such treatment, the bumper crop of repentant raves in the newspapers can be so large as to be almost unseemly. Even the reaper of that rich harvest, William Kennedy, thinks so. In an interview with the New York Times the author said: "When Ironweed came out, the good response to the other books was as if they never had been published before." Kennedy is right to remark on the reviewers' scramble to "discover" him after he had been around for ages. But their clumsiness is perhaps not their biggest fault; it would be excusable if it were a masterpiece they were late in recognizing. The Albany cycle is far from that.
The cycle's three protagonists are the real-life Jack (Legs) Diamond, and Billy Phelan and his father Francis Phelan, both fictional. They are a gangster, a bookie, and a bum, respectively. The reviewers see them as antiheroes who follow moral codes of their own devising. Robert Towers of the New York Review of Books says a Kennedy character "has his own peculiar standards to uphold." George Stade of the New York Times calls it having "a perverse kind of integrity," and R. Z. Sheppard of Time magazine uses the phrase "private validity." It might, however, be more accurate, to settle on a less fancy term like "criminality."
Readers today think they should approve of any nonconformity a novelist throws their way. When they meet up with shady characters portrayed with affectionate lunacy by a windy Irishman, their response is empathy in quantities even greater than the Irishman may have been looking for. It is bad enough that the critics are trying to hustle Kennedy into the ranks of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats (such inflations indicate we are in a literary recession of major proportions); what is worse is that, to lionize a Kennedy anti-hero, they will enthusiastically excuse him for acts neither the anti-hero nor his creator find "privately valid." To see what I mean, let us begin with the bum.
Francis Phelan, an ex-major leaguer, first took to the road because he used his great third baseman's throwing arm to hit and kill an opponent with a potato-sized rock during an Albany trolley strike. Francis returned to Albany to his wife and three children years later, only to kill his infant son by accidentally dropping him on the floor. He is also directly or indirectly connected to five other violent deaths.
Francis's guilty conscience has turned him into the gaunt, shiftless alcoholic we see revisiting Albany at the opening of Ironweed. He and his bum companion Helen, a sort of second wife to him, are staying at a Bible mission and soup kitchen where they decide to reform themselves. Not that they buy any of the fundamentalist Protestant scolding doled out with the soup-they may be bums, but they are Catholic bums. They just want to get cleaned up and dried out. However, their plans go awry. They go to the Gilded Cage Saloon to look up an old friend; they end up taking that unintended next drink, and slide right back into penniless transience and stay there for the rest of the book.
Kennedy is a good enough storyteller to understate the failed rehabilitation of Francis and Helen and make it sad. But Elaine Kendall writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The two of them [Francis and Helen] define dignity to suit themselves and there's no reason to feel sad. They don't, why should you? What looks like misery and degradation to outsiders is freedom to them." Anyone who has read Ironweed will be too depressed to respond to this existential pep talk. For those who have not read it, rest assured that what "looks like misery and degradation" in Ironweed really is misery and degradation.
This failure to carry out a good intention, one among many of Francis's failures, is important: Is he responsible for it? The answer is, yes and no. Kennedy will often pile up the "yes" and "no" components of responsibility for human action, balancing will and extenuating circumstance until they come out-or momentarily seem to come out-even.
Ambiguous responsibility for sin and failure is the major preoccupation of his fiction. Yet he handles it with little success. The character of Francis Phelan represents an improvement over earlier protagonists. Francis is more complicated than they, and since he is in pain, he provides a better way to pose the tough questions of right and wrong that Kennedy wants to get at. Still, in Ironweed (and more so in Legs and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game), Kennedy loses control over those questions. He feels the need, for example, to have Francis, who mulls over his checkered history in flashbacks throughout the novel, add a fresh murder to his sins at the very end. It is committed in defense of a friend and with one skilled swing of a baseball bat-another display of athletic talent with fatal consequences. Ambiguity is a valid literary tool, but when unchecked, it paves the way for "open-minded" readers to bulldoze the fragile moral structure he appears to be trying to build.
With Francis, Kennedy goes further in his probe of conation than he does anywhere else in his fiction; yet the critics fail to follow Kennedy's lead. On the one hand there is the egregious Kendall, who sees Francis and Helen as a liberated couple. On the other hand there are the rest of them, who lament that Francis is unliberated and hence unable to get rid of his bothersome conscience. Webster Schott of the Washington Post finds it mysterious that, after the things Francis has done, he would run away for twenty years, unable to face his guilt. After all, the trolley incident of his youth resulted in no prosecution, and his wife never told a soul that their baby did not fall but was dropped by him. If he was not going to get in trouble for either death, why not stay put? Schott does not solve the mystery, and shrugs: "It's uncertain. It's unimportant. The man is real." Robert Towers asks in the New York Review of Books: "Did or did not Francis, the glorious ballplayer, mean to kill the strike-breaking trolley conductor? At one point he contemplates 'the evil autonomy of his hands.'" There can be no doubt about his intention: Francis explains to a friend that he did mean to kill the man because the man took his job. It is the legitimacy of the intention that is supposed to be uncertain, and torturous in its uncertainty.
So Francis does stare at his hands, but not to reason away murder by virtue of its spontaneity. Elsewhere in Ironweed, Kennedy also has him contemplate "his compulsive violence and his fear of justice." Francis concludes here that "[e]verything was easier than coming home, even reducing yourself to the level of social maggot, streetside slug." The extent to which frontal self-condemnations like these are either twisted or ignored by commentators, to redeem a character whom it is not clear Kennedy wants ultimately to redeem, is astounding.
Catholicism impinges on Kennedy's work. He has said he borrows the Catholic definition of sin to avoid the "vapidity of guilt" he finds in much of modern literature. But it does not help to look to Catholic opinion on Kennedy to assess whether he is putting that definition to good use: George W. Hunt, literary editor of the Jesuit weekly America, says more muddle-headed things on the subject than the secular critics. Of the scene in Ironweed where shades appear with Francis in a graveyard and judge his past, Hunt says that some spirits, because they do not have their wings yet, can afford only to be "accusatory in a relaxed way."
George Stade of the New York Times is alone in seeing Francis's deep compunction as warranted. It is the more surprising, then, when Stade too succumbs: "We soon come to value this loser [Francis], who loses largely because he plays by stricter rules than he sets for anyone else." Stricter rules? One of the skid-row rules we learn about in Ironweed-and Francis accepts and goes by it-is that to find a warm spot for the night, one often has to have sex with strangers before being allowed to sleep in peace beside them. When Francis finds Helen a place to sleep in a broken-down car and leaves her there next to the car's drunken owner, Kennedy makes it unmistakably clear that both Francis and Helen recognize two things: that this is an act of intentional self-cuckolding, and that it is shameful.
No one has to bend over backwards to exonerate Jack (Legs) Diamond; this time Kennedy does the honors for us. For one thing, Legs isn't hard on himself about his misdeeds the way Francis is. It is probably accurate to ascribe "private validity" to this rich, dashing psychopath; if he were not equipped with something of that kind, he would not be able to enjoy extorting, torturing, and killing as much as he does throughout Legs.
Many events in the trilogy are historical, such as Francis's trolley strike of 1901 and the 1933 kidnapping of the political boss's nephew that is central to Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. 0 Albany!, Kennedy's autobiography, describes the New York capital from its settlement by the Dutch in the 17th century to its political domination by the Irish in the 20th century. One can find in O Albany! background on Kennedy's use of real events and people for his fiction. In Legs, his plan was, in his words, "to assimilate all the truth, all the lies, all the fudged areas in between, and reinvent Jack." Kennedy does not want to make him over entirely-"His cruelty pervades my book"-but reinventing him necessarily involves some cozying up to him.
The cozying is done through the narrator of Legs, a narrator who is also the gangster's sidekick. This is Legs's friend and defense lawyer, taken from real life and given the name Marcus Gorman. Gorman plays Nick Carraway to Legs's Gatsby, a literate, retiring hanger-on irresistably drawn to an exciting bootlegger. There is a lot of 1930s detail, a lot of violence and surreal Kennedyesque rambling-and a lot of skillful apology by Gorman on behalf of his infamous friend, both in the courtroom and outside of it.
Gorman is often embarrassed about his adulation of Legs, as when he confesses to neglecting his own law practice to go traipsing after him:
I had no pressing business in New York, but I made it a point to go . . . because I was now addicted to entering the world of Jack Diamond as fully as possible. I was unable not to stick around and see how it all turned out. And yes, I know, even as a spectator, I was condoning the worst sort of behavior. Absolute worst. I know, I know.
Because we know he knows, we are supposed to respect Gorman's honesty and join in his feeling that Legs "was a liar, of course, a perjurer, all of that, but he was also a venal man of integrity, for he never ceased to renew his vulnerability to punishment, death and damnation." I was pleased when Legs finally, after many narrow escapes, proved vulnerable to three bullets in the head as he lay sleeping in an Albany boarding-house.
Billy Phelan is not as bad as the others. He is merely a city slicker, a sport, whose flair for bowling, pool, dealing cards, and taking bets gives him his living. He is even attractive in some ways. Yet, like Legs, he is supplied with a sycophantic chronicler, a journalist named Martin Daugherty. Daugherty, though not the narrator, is the character whose thoughts are sampled most often throughout the story. Like Gorman with Legs, Daugherty presses Billy's mythic qualities upon us just a little too eagerly. At the opening of Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, it looks like Billy might bowl a perfect game against the local champion. Daugherty is thinking of writing his next column about Billy if he succeeds (he misses by one pin):
He would point out how some men moved through the daily sludge of their lives and then, with a stroke, cut away the sludge and transformed themselves. Yet what they became was not the result of a sudden act, but the culmination of all they had ever done: a triumph for self-development, the end of something general, the beginning of something specific. To Martin, Billy Phelan, on an early Thursday morning in late October, 1938, already seemed more specific than most men. Billy seemed fully defined at thirty-one (the age when Martin had been advised by his father that he was a failure).
Billy gets caught in the middle of the kidnapping of a political boss's nephew but has too much dignity to be a subservient go-between in the effort to get the boy back. The missing boy's uncle controls the city government, and his father controls Albany's gambling and drinking concessions. The family of the real-life Dan O'Connell, political boss of Albany for fifty years, is the model here. The two brothers have marked the uncooperative Billy bad, and they order the denizens of the bars, clubs, and pool halls that form Billy's universe to give him the hazing treatment. No more drinking or gaming on Broadway for Billy.
The deprivation nearly drives Billy to suicide. (This is an unwitting clue to just what a punk he really is, for all his admirable toughness and self-sufficiency.) In a final sycophantic turn, it is Martin Daugherty's column about him in the Times Union that explains to the community the vindictive reason for banning this independent young man. The newspaper column reinstates Billy with the gang on Broadway and lets him live again.
In some ways, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game is the most readable novel in the Albany cycle. It shows the gentlemanly niceties of the newsman-politician relationship in pre-Watergate, pre-Vietnam American life. Also, authentic locale is Kennedy's strength. It is fun to arrive in this bygone urban world of fedoras, diners, five-cent cups of coffee, streetcars, and Dutch place names, where bowling alleys had pin boys to set up the pins and where the Democratic machine and the Knights of Columbus held the citizenry-mostly white ethnics-together.
The Ink Truck is not considered part of the Albany cycle, although in a sketchy way it takes place there. It has nothing to recommend it; it neither raises interesting moral questions nor has a flavorful atmosphere. The main character is a labor radical, a devoted one rather than an occasional one like Francis Phelan. His name is Bailey. Bailey's goal is to let ink flow in the streets to dramatize his union's grievances against the newspaper company he works for as, typically, a columnist.
The Ink Truck was written in the sixties. In it Kennedy sows wild countercultural oats ("In marijuana clarity Deek once leaped over his father's head from a standing position"). With its crazy Irish-American Quixote pursuing a hopeless labor cause, the novel is an unsatisfying, pseudo-poetic version of John Kennedy Toole's brilliant comic novel of that time, A Confederacy of Dunces. Bailey, with his "hulking, erudite wildness," is reminiscent of Toole's Ignatius J. Reilly, a fat, Boethius-spouting crank who stirs up trouble against his absentee bosses at a dilapidated clothing factory. However, Bailey is not a cowardly faker like Ignatius J. Reilly, but a serious revolutionary. So unlike Toole, Kennedy is trying in The Ink Truck for something more than farce-unfortunate, because the serious point falls flat and so does virtually all of the humor, preventing the book from succeeding as farce.
This was the first of Kennedy's attempts at creating a character who is an interesting failure. Bailey's cause is lost but, in the way of these things, it is all the more beautiful for being lost. He is not afraid to mix it up with the police; he beats up and gets beat up, commits arson, gets kidnapped, goes on a hunger strike, rolls a company truck into a wall, releases a skunk in the company advertising office, and sings "Nell Flaherty's Drake" and other old songs of the Irish rebellion. Despite all these activities, it is hard to sustain interest in this failure, who says things like, "We're all victims of our own matrix, that's the problem; and it could be solved if there were only a matrix mart. But since there isn't, certain radical measures are called for." Parnell and peyote, like driving and drinking, should not be mixed.
What accounts for the success of these books, with their hallucinating rogues and profound ne'er-do-wells? A wealth of unused or ill-used talent is one reason for their appeal. Billy Phelan might have been a bowling champion if he put his mind to it; Francis Phelan, his father, might have been a great professional baseball player; Helen Archer might have been the singer her musical training prepared her to be; Martin Daugherty was supposed to end up, not a local newspaperman, but a famous writer like his father; Marcus Gorman gave up a promising political career to be the friend of a gangster; and Bailey might have been Charles Stewart Parnell, or at least Bobby Sands. There is genius under every rock in Kennedy's world. And in ours too, or so we believe in this age of self-help and potential maximization. Who among us looks forward to living the unfulfilled life and dying the undistinguished death of Kennedy's "mute inglorious Miltons"? Very few of us. But by offering to his characters what we ourselves
may have to make do with-a pat on the back for "what might have been"-William Kennedy, the newspaperman who was himself, until recently, a might-have-been, has gained a wide following.
Another reason for their appeal, related to the first, is that Kennedy's particular defect as a writer meshes with the different and less pardonable defect of his audience. These ordinary Joes who are not so ordinary upon closer acquaintance act on very complex motives. But Kennedy's zeal to complicate their motives often muddies up the picture. Not given a clear understanding of the characters' failings and failures, the reader, if so inclined, may skip this formality and jump right to affirming those failings and failures as "I gotta be me" virtues and successes. If this seems a strange inclination, the reviewers show it in its purest form. They take the opportunity Kennedy offers and run with it: in finding "private validity" in the failings and failures of his characters, they demonstrate their inability to bestow public validity-the approval that members of a community feel when agreed-upon standards are adhered to-upon the decent impulses Kennedy sprinkles in with the bad. Hence his more conscientious efforts go to waste, and his aim to put back into private conduct some sense of moral choice cannot but miss the mark.
Some of the reviewers, no doubt, have themselves written unsung novels. Maybe in holding Kennedy up as a writer of the classics of tomorrow, many of them are merely cheering on one of their own. In itself there would be nothing wrong with that. It is just that the books they are cheering are not great, and their very cheers resound with the increasingly unreflective, lazy love of individualism-and anything that might look like it-with which our culture is smitten.
NOBILITY IN THE AMERICAN FOUNDING
American Political Writing During the Founding Era, 1760-1805
Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz, editors
Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983
Two volumes, 1417 pp., $26.00 (cloth), $13.50 (paper)
By Thomas G. West
This collection allows the nonspecialist to test Jefferson's claim that the authority of the Declaration of Independence rests "on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc." Hyneman and Lutz have assembled seventy-six selections that illuminate the common sense of the Founding era.
Most of the writings are private publications-sermons, a number of political pamphlets and newspaper items, and some excerpts from books. There are one or two statements of formal political bodies.
The overall impression left by this collection is that Jefferson was right. Particularly in the pre-1776 period, there was a remarkable unanimity among Americans concerning the principles and ends of government. John Locke's argument that all men are equally free by nature; that all therefore possess a natural right to life and liberty; that the right to property is equally fundamental, being inseparable from life and liberty; that government must be based on consent and that consent must be effectual both in the founding of government and in its operation; that the people retain the right to overthrow their government if it violates the rights that it was instituted to protect-these principles were accepted by all.
The Hyneman-Lutz collection, then, confirms the old-fashioned view of the Founding-that it was based on the Lockean natural rights teaching. This may come as something of a surprise to readers of today's historians. Influential authors like Gordon Wood (The Creation of the American Republic, 1969) have made a name for themselves by arguing that virtue and selfless devotion to the community were vastly more important to the Founders of '76 than any concern for individual rights. Wood cited a large number of obscure pamphlets and sermons, many of which are reprinted in the Hyneman-Lutz collection. Contrary to Professor Wood's claim, the Lockean themes of the Declaration are just as prominent in these lesser-known writings. (A reading of the sources collected here confirms the devastating critique of Wood by Gary Schmitt and Robert Webking published in the 1979 Political Science Reviewer.)
Gordon Wood does have a point, however. The importance of virtue and the common good has been neglected by many interpreters of the Founding. To say that the Founders were Lockean is not to say that they were unleashing amoral capitalism or, worse, "the pursuit of happiness idiosyncratically understood" (Walter Berns's phrase). (This view of the Founding has been recently promoted by a number of prominent Straussians, though it never was by Strauss himself.) This neoconservative notion of the
baseness of the Founding receives a healthy corrective from these documents. For example, we learn that preachers generally assumed that individual natural rights were perfectly compatible with Christian duty. Indeed, according to these preachers, the true Christians are those who oppose, with warlike and manly vigor, enslavement to the will of a king. Those who humbly crave peace at any price are dismissed as cowardly hedonists and slaves (see items 17 and 21). The theology of our Founding era had almost nothing in common (thank God!) with the long-suffering, monkish superstition that Machiavelli so justly attacked on the ground that it would lead to the victory of evil in this world.
More generally, we learn from Hyneman-Lutz that the Founders viewed the rights of man as the occasion for noble aspiration, not the elevation of "do your own thing" over human excellence. These men all distinguished between liberty and license. They generally thought of the state of nature as a pre-political condition where men are obliged to limit their passions and desires by the moral law inherent in human nature. (Probably the most satisfactory theoretical account of Locke's state of nature understood in light of the traditional moral law is in Samuel West's 1776 sermon, item 33.)
I am not sure that the editors meant their collection to refute the Gordon Wood thesis or the neoconservative thesis on the Founding. Some of the editorial notes introducing the items seem to reflect the Wood view. And the selections themselves-heavy on sermons, and including some pretty quirky items-seem somewhat tendentious. This collection alone is not an adequate introduction to the Founders' thought. There is just too much missing, especially statements of official political bodies, which are much more reliable as indications of intelligent American sentiment than privately published sermons and pamphlets.
Why not include the 1762 Massachusetts Assembly Instructions to Jasper Mauduit? Samuel Adams' Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting (1772) (a very influential piece, explicitly grounded in Locke)? John Adams' Novanglus letters (1775)? The Suffolk Resolves (1774) (crucial in the break with Britain, but hardly available in print anywhere)? Jefferson's Summary View of the Rights of British America? James Wilson on Parliament (1774) and on law?
Room could have been made for these. There are a number of items which hardly meet the criterion of "best" writings from the period; for example, Perkins on Moral Freedom and the anonymous Rudiments of Law-items 13 and 39-not to mention large sections of volume two, which are of much less intrinsic interest than the pre-1787 selections in volume one. Still, there is much that is valuable, particularly from the period of state constitution-writing after 1776. Of special interest is a number of anti-slavery pieces, some from Southern authors, showing the antislavery consensus in principle (if not in practice) during the period.
An unknown gem is the 1774 appeal by the Continental Congress to the French Catholics in Quebec to join the fight against Britain (item 20). Here is the first statement of America as a melting pot, a nation of men united by common dedication to the universal rights of men, transcending divisions of race and religion. This little item goes far to refute today's canard that America's Founders were an exclusive club of white-Protestant-Englishmen, as later racist admirers (Stephen Douglas, Roger Taney) and liberal critics wrongly maintain. Here we see the Founders' "noble sentiments and manly eloquence" at their best.