Since at least the time of the Old Testament and ancient Greece, men have sought to understand human nature by discerning the things that differentiate human beings. What accounts for the variety in human customs, practices, opinions, habits, and virtues? And what may we learn about ourselves, and about human nature more generally by uncovering the source of these differences?
In the Old Testament, of course, the fundamental distinction between all peoples is that between pagans and the Children of Israel. The gulf between the followers of the God of Abraham, and those who follow other gods, is at the heart of the multitude of lesser differences in beliefs and practices.
Among the Greeks, there were two schools of thought on the question. Aristotle and other followers of Socrates thought the source of variations among human beings lay in the character shaped by different forms of government or "regimes." For Aristotle, a regime was the arrangement of offices and honors in response to three questions: "who rules?," "for the good of whom?," and "to what end?" From these questions, each regime can be seen to have a central principle or idea (arche) to which it is devoted, and which determines the understanding of what makes a good citizen. Every regime, then, serves a different purpose and fosters a particular kind of human being by consciously encouraging certain habits and discouraging others.
This was in contrast to an earlier view, promulgated by the historian Herodotus, which attributed the diversity of customs and opinions to broad "civilizational" variations among, for instance, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, and Scythians. These civilizations transcended particular political units; they were defined, rather, by a trans-political culture, closely associated with a common language, and often with a common race or "ethnicity."
With the end of the Cold War, there has been renewed interest in the question of what accounts for variations in the human condition as people around the world reexamine, and in some cases reinvent, their political systems. In his influential essay, "The Clash of Civilizations," Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington provided a Herodotean response to this question. He identified seven or eight distinguishable "civilizations," clashes among which, he argues, will replace the political, ideological, and spatial conflicts of the past. Huntington's provocative thesis has generated a great deal of debate.
Angelo Codevilla, a senior fellow of The Claremont Institute, offers a challenge to Huntington's thesis in his important new book, The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility. Playing Aristotle to Huntington's Herodotus, Codevilla stresses the importance of the regime in shaping human character and activity. While Codevilla stipulates the fundamental importance of civilizations in creating differences among human beings, he contends that "within the bounds set by any given civilization, the various broad categories of regimes tyranny, the several kinds of oligarchy, and democracy have peculiar effects on the capacity of people to be prosperous and civil, to live spiritually meaningful lives in families, free from foreign domination."
Codevilla, who teaches international relations at Boston University, seeks to answer two questions. First, what is the impact of political choices on a people's character, especially their capacity to be productive, happy (in the Aristotelian sense) citizens. Second, in light of the answer to the first question, what will become of America?
To answer these questions, he divides his book into three parts. The first part deals with regimes in general. Following Aristotle, he describes a regime as the "arrangement of offices and honors that fosters a particular complex of ideas, loves, hates, and fashions that sets standards for adults and aspirations for children." For Codevilla, a regime is more than the arrangement of constitutions and laws; it includes those opinion-makers in and out of government who create society's standards.
Regimes are important because they encourage certain habits that shape the character of their people. A regime can habituate a people to virtue or vice. Indeed, until this century, "political science" was primarily concerned with how to structure the regime in order to foster appropriate character traits in the light of given circumstances.
The second part of the book examines a number of regimes and their different impacts on the economic, civic, familial, spiritual, and military habits of those who live under them. Arguing that it is necessary to contemplate the truly awful in order to understand the good, Codevilla begins with an examination of the now-defunct Soviet regime, and its impact on prosperity and civility. When one considers what nearly seven decades of Soviet rule did to the Russian soul, it is no wonder that attempts to liberalize Russia continue to founder. The consequences of the war launched by the Soviet regime against the family, against religion, and against the habits that foster prosperity will affect Russia for a long time to come.
Codevilla also looks at other regimes, e.g. Sweden, Japan, China, Western Europe, Mexico, and Chile. He concludes that although none have gone as far as the Soviet Union did, most have undermined prosperity and civility by discouraging the habits that underpin them. In his survey, Codevilla confirms the Aristotelian point that regimes have the capacity for both good and ill.
In the third part of the book, Codevilla examines how changes in the way Americans are governed have affected the way they live. His conclusions are sobering:
It is not necessary to protract the list of contrasts to see that our lives today differ more from those of Americans one generation ago than they differ from those of our contemporaries in western Europe. In short, we have changed enough to change countries....Since we are continuing to change, a generation from now we might well live in yet another kind of country.
By looking at changes in America, Codevilla makes clear what Aristotle meant when he observed that the very same country could be one thing before a political change and something entirely different afterward. This phenomenon is given poignant expression by a statement of Justice Antonin Scalia from Romer v. Evans that Codevilla uses as the epigraph to his introductory chapter: "Day by day, case by case [the Supreme Court] is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize."
To convey the scope of the regime changes that the United States has undergone, Codevilla looks to Tocqueville. The original American regime was founded on the belief that mankind lives under a single set of God-given, objective laws equally binding on all. This regime understood the United States to be founded upon a small number of self-evident truths, which in turn gave rise to the Constitution and the spirit of American laws. This regime habituated Americans to making and respecting their own laws and made them wary of the notion that anyone, even the people as a whole, could exercise broad, ill-defined powers.
The original American regime stressed the inseparable nature of citizenship and the rule of law. Law and citizenship in turn were understood to be inextricably linked to property rights and local prerogatives. This regime also emphasized the importance of an armed citizenry and "citizen soldiers" in defending American liberties.
Perhaps most importantly, religion, which Tocqueville called the first of America's political institutions, pervaded all aspects of the regime. "The American people's love of liberty," writes Codevilla, "was anything but morally empty libertarianism. De Tocqueville explained that the American devotion to law and civic duty was a commitment to equality and to doing the right thing."
Contrast that regime to the present one. Today's government endorses activities that were once prohibited, e.g. abortion and homosexuality, and prohibits activities that were once promoted, e.g. public piety and chivalry. Government has "become the main weapon of those who want to denigrate and diminish the role of family and religion in American life." Indeed, it has driven religion out of almost all public spaces. It has fostered the view that all forms of human relationships are as equally valid as the natural family.
The current regime has deprived Americans of self-rule, and therefore citizenship, by empowering judges to legislate concerning whatever they choose. It has undermined the habits conducive to continued prosperity by the politics of redistribution, creating welfare dependence among the poor, "crony capitalism" among the rich, and a general attitude of exploiting the "system" for a free ride. Finally, it has driven a wedge between American society and the military that defends it.
Codevilla captures the essence of the differences between the two American regimes in a single amusing paragraph.
Were a time machine somehow to cause any community of the founders' generation magically to appear among us, contemporary American elites would surely find it in violation of the most basic laws of the land....They would find the founders' intolerance of pornography and their mixing of religion in public life in violation of the First Amendment, their treatment of criminals in violation of the Eighth. They would deem pathologically anarchic their tolerance of firearms and their distrust of government. The founders, for their part, would likely beat a hasty retreat to their time machine, pointing their muzzle loaders at the atheist, servile folks who had perverted their republic.
The Character of Nations is descriptive, not prescriptive. Additionally, Codevilla does not discuss in any detail the philosophic roots of America's regime transformation. For those who understand that the founding view was supplanted by the historicism and scientism of the Progressive movement around the turn of the century, these are not fatal shortcomings. But those who really need to read and understand this book would have been better served had Codevilla treated these matters more fully. Perhaps he will treat them in a subsequent volume.
The Character of Nations is a critically important book. It should puncture the complacency of those who think American prosperity and security are assured for all time. As Codevilla illustrates, we are living off the capital of an earlier regime. The current regime is creating individuals willing to abandon virtuous liberty for what Tocqueville called "soft despotism." Citizens relinquish vigorous self-government in favor of a state that "provides for [their] security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry [and] spares them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living." Consoled in the knowledge that they have chosen their own masters, the people regard liberty as nothing more than sexual license and instant gratification.
As the current regime habituates us to servility and concern for mere security, it makes it less likely that the American people will maintain the character necessary to weather future shocks. And history teaches us that these shocks are coming.