The Public Square
Students of the political philosopher Leo Strauss are fond of quoting the master to the effect that the American polity is built on foundations that are low but solid. When the discussion turns to the constituting ideas undergirding our political institutions, and the ideas that characterize what might be called “the American mind,” the term inevitably invoked is pragmatism. Pragmatism, it is suggested by some, is at most a garden variety philosophy; it is more an attitude than a philosophy, and is, for all practical purposes, no more than practicality. It is a can-do, go-getting, commonsensical disposition that is sometimes fitted out with philosophical trimmings for intellectual occasions. Pragmatism is the doctrine that truth, or at least all the truth that matters, is the truth that “works.”
That is the long-standing caricature of the American mind that the Germans with their grand system-building, the English with their implacable empiricism, and the French with their elegantly convoluted flights into whatever have, at least until fairly recently, loved to deride, thus buttressing their sense of intellectual and cultural superiority to an offensively successful society with no mind at all. This long history of anti-Americanism among European intellectuals has been admirably chronicled by James Ceaser in Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (Yale, 1997).
It is not only European thinkers, however, who criticize as all too low and not so solid the philosophy, or mindset, called pragmatism. American critics, too, frequently complain about the American habits of mind that end up in instrumentalizing and relativizing truth claims, subjecting every argument or insight to the test of what works. And, at the most popular level, to the test of “what works for you.” A half century ago, in We Hold These Truths, Father John Courtney Murray praised the “American Proposition” for producing institutions that, he said, invite and facilitate a political process of citizens “locked in civil debate.” He left no doubt that it is the holding of truths that makes that debate possible. Today it is not unusual to find Catholic intellectuals sharply criticizing Murray, and arguing that our political and economic order insidiously undermines the holding and debating of truths in common. Among evangelical Protestants, the ideas of “reconstructionism” associated with the late R. J. Rushdoony are, albeit in tempered form, more widespread than is commonly acknowledged. Catholics appealing to natural law and the rich anthropology of Catholic teaching join with evangelicals appealing to biblical law and an explicitly Christian worldview in declaring, or sometimes strongly implying, that the American experiment is fundamentally misfounded. At the heart of the mistake, it is sometimes said, is the way of thinking called pragmatism.
Reflection on the American mind, or habit of mind, is provoked by a spate of recent books. As veteran readers of these pages know, each summer I take with me to the family cottage in Quebec a bundle of readings, old or new, on a general theme. This year the theme was the American mind, and the books were mainly new. The most intellectually ambitious of them is Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. Menand, who is professor of English at the City University of New York and contributing editor of the New York Review of Books, might have been tempted, with some justice, to use the definite article, The Story of Ideas in America. Centering on Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey—with many fascinating intellectual excurses along the way—Menand presents the story of American ideas as the story of pragmatism. For reasons to be specified below, Peirce is, for the most part, outside the story line, and Menand finally leaves him out in the metaphysical cold. Holmes, as Menand admits, would never have called himself a pragmatist, and James uneasily wore the label because he was chiefly responsible for its currency. The Metaphysical Club (the title refers to a discussion group, established in Boston in 1872, to which several of the principles belonged) is, finally, the story of the triumph of the pragmatism of John Dewey. If Menand’s story line does not hold together as firmly as he suggests, it must be admitted that no other story line depicting the American mind of the last century and more suggests itself as an alternative.
Casting the American mind back to the eighteenth-century founding, there is H. W. Brands’ The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, and David McCullough’s best-selling John Adams. There is also Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers, which we have had previous occasion to discuss in connection with the question of truth and scholarship (see “The Tangled Web,” November). Each of these books contributes to our understanding of the story of ideas in America, from the founding era and then, with Menand, from the Civil War up through the end of the Cold War. The ideas of the Puritan founding get short shrift, except as they bear, usually in indirect ways, on the formation of men such as Franklin and Adams. Whether these books, spanning the most influential public thought of more than two centuries, justify the claim that pragmatism is the story of ideas in America is a question very much worth considering. The claim is more believable if we entertain the possibility that there have been several pragmatisms in play over the years, frequently in conflict or uneasy coexistence, and that Dewey’s pragmatism, far from being the culmination of this story of ideas, is an effort to lay a foundation other than the foundation, low but solid, laid in the beginning.
Franklin’s Moral Algebra
I’ve done my bit of reading of and about Benjamin Franklin, and I confess that I have never warmed to him. There is not much on which I agree with D. H. Lawrence, but he was on to something in his reaction to the sayings of Franklin’s Poor Richard, usually published under the title The Way to Wealth. Franklin comes across, said Lawrence, as a self-centered and dour grinder, a “snuff-colored little man.” He read Franklin as a boy and, “I haven’t got over those Poor Richard tags yet. I still rankle with them. It has taken me many years to get out of that barbed wire enclosure Poor Richard rigged up.” In view of Lawrence’s dissolute life outside the enclosure, we may have doubts about the wisdom of his rebellion. But many have rebelled against Franklin in a similar way and, although H. W. Brands does not remark it in his The First American, that rebellion against Franklin is very much like Franklin’s rebellion against the moralistic oppressiveness of Cotton Mather in Boston, from which he fled as a boy. With respect to the mix of religion and morality, Franklin is a representative of what I have elsewhere described as “the narrow-escape syndrome.” All his life long, every time he felt the encroachment of religious orthodoxy combined with moral rigor, he recoiled, lest he be caught again in the world of Cotton Mather from which he had narrowly escaped.
The First American is a big book of more than seven hundred pages, and by the end of it I found myself thinking more of Franklin than I had before. Considerably more. There is no doubt that his is an important part in the story of ideas in America. The variousness of his practical achievements amaze: He organized in Philadelphia the first lending library, the fire department, and an effective voluntary militia, in addition to his much more famous experiments with electricity. For his capturing of lightning and invention of the lightning rod, he was hailed in Europe and America as the greatest genius of his age (in France, along with Voltaire, of course). Reacting against the felt oppression of Puritan Boston, he became something of a rake, and later, during his many years as American commissioner to the court in Paris, something of a lecher. Early on he wrote Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, in which he dismissed the idea of right and wrong, but he soon changed his mind, concluding that certain acts are right or wrong not because they are commanded or forbidden but “might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us.” This led to his 1728 “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion,” which reads like a pragmatist tract written by Cato. For Franklin, Cato and other classical authorities were safe; they did not threaten his narrow escape from his boyhood Christianity.
Franklin was, in fact, an inveterate moralist. He could and he did write a half-whimsical essay advising young men on the advantages of taking an older woman as a mistress. He could be morally playful, but he certainly did not want to be thought morally frivolous. Brands writes: “Thus Franklin, having previously wandered from the pietistic moralism of his Boston upbringing to the agnostic—almost atheistic—amoralism of his [first time in London], now found his way to a pragmatic moralism that made man the measure of virtue rather than virtue the measure of man. . . . A more practical philosophy, or one better suited to success in tolerant but sober Philadelphia, was hard to imagine.” Brands says this “settled the philosophical issue” for Franklin, and maybe he’s right, but his own account indicates that Franklin kept tinkering with his ideas, laying out new plans for the conduct of his life, and sometimes making dramatic revisions, among them in his moral presuppositions.
On the boat back from London, in addition to speculating about the causes of the Gulf Stream, making astronomical observations, and studying the ontogeny of crustaceans, Franklin busied himself with devising four commandments for his life (be frugal, speak the truth, work hard, speak ill of no man), and twelve cardinal virtues necessary to keeping them (temperance, order, sincerity, justice, etc.). Number twelve was “Chastity,” to which he appended the explanation, “Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.” Chastity in moderation, so to speak. A Quaker friend who examined the list said, to Franklin’s surprise, that some people thought him proud, so he added a thirteenth: “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” While he was almost perpetually involved in plans of self-improvement—at least until the later years when he laid back to enjoy his celebrity—he also thought it advisable that he accept limited imperfections in himself lest he be accused of “a kind of foppery in morals.”
There was that smugness and complacency to which so many have reacted negatively. Having narrowly escaped from the Mathers of Boston, he was determined to live above the world of certainties and the contentiousness that too often attends them. His was the open-minded and universal view befitting the “scientific” disposition of an age of Enlightenment. He evidenced, writes Brands, “an equipoise that nearly everyone who knew him noticed and that many remarked upon. It could make him seem smug or shallow; while others agonized upon life’s deep issues, Franklin contented himself with incomplete answers, maintaining an open mind and seeming to skate upon life’s surface.” The penchant for the scientific could lead him to the silliness of devising a complex system in which he weighed the pros and cons before making an important decision, assigning a certain mathematical weight, positive or negative, to each item and then arriving at the optimal decision by what he called “moral or prudential algebra.”
The General and Particular Government of the Universe
Franklin’s was a very superior mind, and he knew it. Because it was so very superior, most others did not mind his knowing it but, rather, took pleasure in celebrating his gifts, which were also theirs, for this was an age caught up in an exhilarating dream of progress of which genius was the engine. His discoveries about fire and heat led to the invention of a new kind of fireplace, the Franklin stove, which, as with his other inventions, he did not patent. He thought the invention should be free, being among his gifts to the age. He made his living as a printer, and everything else was gratis. He was not, says Brands, “what the modern age would call a true intellectual.” He did have an endlessly inquisitive mind, and it was aimed at what might make life easier, more productive, or happier. “His view of science mirrored his view of religion. Where faith was sterile if it failed to produce good works, so science was sterile—even if interesting—if it failed to produce good inventions.” Although the term would not come into philosophical use for more than a century, he was, in short, a pragmatist.
The same Franklin, however, cultivated a lifelong friendship with the celebrated British revivalist George Whitefield, who drew vast throngs by his rhetorical powers that could, it was said, reduce listeners to tears simply by uttering the word “Mesopotamia.” Franklin organized the building of an arena in Philadelphia for Whitefield’s rallies, since he was barred from the local pulpits. Franklin thought competition in religion a good thing, although there may have been more to it than that. In 1768 Franklin wrote Whitefield of his worries about British policies toward the colonies, a worry made more distressing by his deep devotion to Britain and aversion to the thought of conflict. In his letter he continued their theological debate of thirty years. “I see with you that our affairs are not well managed by our rulers here below; I wish I could believe with you that they are well attended to by those above.” But, “though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence or imprudence, as either may happen to be uppermost.” In the midst of anxieties, however, he wrote to another friend, “Take one thing with another, and the world is a pretty good sort of world; and ‘tis our duty to make the best of it and be thankful.” But to whom, or Whom, is it our duty to give thanks?
Franklin certainly flirted with atheism at times in his life, and still today is usually described as a Deist. When he was an old man, Ezra Stiles of Connecticut asked him about his religious convictions, in response to which Franklin penned what he called his creed. “I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That He governs it by His providence. That He ought to be worshiped. . . . That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.” As for Jesus, “his system of morals and his religion [are] the best the world ever saw or is likely to see. . . . I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.” Franklin asked Stiles not to publish this letter, since it might scandalize the orthodox. One may suggest that its approximation of orthodoxy might rather scandalize the many, then and now, who assume that Franklin was a closet atheist who pretended in public to be a Deist.
At the early age of twenty-two, he wrote what Brands describes as “one of the most famous epitaphs in that lapidary genre.”
The Body of
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.
So was Ben Franklin what John Dewey would call a pragmatist? Many have tried to make him into one, and there is certainly material there with which to work. If pragmatism means no more than practicality, Franklin was a pragmatist on all fours. But if it means, as it did with Dewey, a doctrine of inexorable progress, a denial of inherent conflict and of intrinsic good and evil in human affairs, and a religious devotion to the political process of democracy, then Franklin was of a very different spirit. Of course “democracy” was not a term favored by the Founders; indeed it was commonly thought to denote nothing more than mob rule. “Republic” was the favored term. Recall Franklin’s famous answer to the matron who demanded to know what he and the other delegates had produced in their secret deliberations at the constitutional convention: “A republic, if you can keep it.” But that republic was not for Franklin the embodiment of religious faith that democracy would be for Dewey. It was the best that could be managed under circumstances not of their choosing and not under their control.
A merit of Brands’ book is to underscore how very reluctant a revolutionary was Benjamin Franklin. He had a profound love for Britain and almost everything British, and, it is not too much to say, was heartbroken that King and Parliament did not understand that wiser policies could have kept America in the empire and enhanced its wealth and prestige many times over. He was in London as commissioner for the colonies, and labored mightily to resolve the disputes that, if exacerbated, would lead to the separation that he feared, and it was only when British politicians turned on him viciously and personally that he was forced to the realization that his love was, and would remain, unrequited. John Adams had a somewhat similar experience and opined, “Britain will never be our friend until we are her master.” Which, more than two hundred years later, is pretty much how some would suggest things have turned out. At the time, however, Franklin did not share Adams’ confidence in, or enthusiasm for, the great power that an independent America would become. He indulged in his share of the patriotic rhetoric required by the times, but for Franklin the Revolution was not a glorious crusade. It was more a matter of making the best of the hand that had been dealt.
To be sure, by the time revolution came, Franklin was a venerated sage and much older than the generation in the lead of prosecuting it and then consolidating its success in a new political order. He was an active participant in the constitutional convention and made crucial interventions (although perhaps not as many as Brands suggests, since McCullough and other historians attribute to Adams some initiatives with which Brands credits Franklin). But mainly Franklin, with his bald head, rough coat, benign countenance, and spectacles (he, by the way, also invented bifocals), was watching the unfolding of consequences he had not foreseen, but for which he bore considerable responsibility, and, all in all, he was pleased. He made proposals that were respectfully received but quickly shelved. For instance, he suggested that nobody in the executive branch should get paid, since this would inevitably lead to corruption. A younger generation—that would soon become the class of professional politicians that has been with us ever since—was understandably cool to that idea.
Then there was the matter of prayer at the constitutional convention. After a month in which the delegates had made little progress, Franklin wondered why, although they had searched history and examined other governments for guidance, they had not prayed. “How has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings?” During the earlier Continental Congress, at the onset of the troubles with Britain, each day was begun with prayer. “Our prayers were heard, sir, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed the frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. . . . Have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need assistance?” Franklin noted that he had lived to an old age. “And the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
He cited the biblical text, “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it,” and added, “I firmly believe this.” Without God’s aid, “Our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a by-word to future ages.” Although it was seconded, Franklin’s motion got nowhere. Hamilton and others worried that word would get out that the convention was praying, which would be interpreted as a sign of desperation, while Hugh Williamson of North Carolina observed that the convention lacked funds for paying a chaplain to lead the prayers. Franklin was amazed. At the bottom of the written copy of his speech, he wrote, “The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary!”
Earlier, while representing America in Paris, Franklin became worried about the number of European adventurers who entertained delusions about the fame and fortune awaiting them in the new nation. He wrote for such people a little tract in order to put things in perspective. “Though there are in that country few people so miserable as the poor of Europe, there are also very few that in Europe would be called rich. It is rather a happy mediocrity that prevails.” Not that excellence is not pursued, and he cited the existence of nine colleges or universities and numerous academies. It is true, he said, that the several states employed many people, but most serve at personal sacrifice. “It is a rule established in some of the states that no office should be so profitable as to make it desirable.” (As would become evident, that was more Franklin’s rule than that of the political class aborning.) America was for people who understand the virtues associated with “happy mediocrity”—and perhaps not just mediocrity as defined economically.
“Industry and constant employment are great preservatives of the morals and virtue of a nation. Hence bad examples to youth are more rare in America, which must be a comfortable consideration to parents,” he wrote. Comforting, too, was the liberty and tolerance afforded religion. “Atheism is unknown there, infidelity rare and secret, so that persons may live to a great age in that country without having their piety shocked by meeting with either an atheist or an infidel. And the Divine Being seems to have manifested His approbation of the mutual forbearance and kindness with which the different sects treat each other, by the remarkable prosperity with which He has been pleased to favor the whole country.” There is a complacency and smugness that can be found in such sentiments, if that is what one is looking for. But there is also something like humility. To be sure, not necessarily the humility of Jesus and Socrates that the younger Franklin added as the thirteenth virtue. But a humility appropriate to an understanding of the limits of history and politics, and becoming to a nation that would, many years later, add “under God” to its pledge of allegiance in the hope of encouraging among its people an awareness that “‘tis our duty to make the best of it and be thankful.” Whether or not it should be called pragmatism, it is preferable to most ways of thinking about history and politics with which the world has been afflicted.
Jefferson in the Pantheon
The best-selling status of David McCullough’s John Adams should come as no surprise. He’s a fine writer with a solid record of mining rich veins of the American experience. Whole passages of his book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge (The Great Bridge) came to mind every time I crossed it, driving toward the skyline from which rose, before September 11, the towers of the World Trade Center. His Truman flinched from facing the full horror of that President’s decision in favor of the indiscriminate slaughter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it succeeded brilliantly in presenting a man in full, if fullness consists in being quintessentially an American. McCullough has said that he started out to write a dual biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but finally decided to go with Adams, treating Jefferson only as he is part of the Adams story. And, of course, Jefferson is a big part of the story.
He made the right decision, I think, but then I am biased. I have never much cared for Jefferson, and have long protested the dominant role he has for so long been given in the telling of the American founding. That has been changing in recent years, with Jefferson taking his licks from one historian after another. I confess to being pleased with this turn. There may be just a touch of schadenfreude in my pleasure, but, if so, it is just a touch. I certainly take no pleasure in the apparent slanders of Jefferson, such as the claim he had a child by Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. That and similar libels are simply part of the politically correct campaign to discredit the Founders as yet another cabal of dead white men, and thereby to discredit the putatively oppressive political order that they produced. No, my aversion to Jefferson has different roots, and goes back to the time when he was, in the standard account of things, the reigning and unchallenged deity in the pantheon of founders.
On my first and only visit to Monticello, in the company of a friend who teaches at the University of Virginia (where it is compulsory to reverently lower one’s voice when referring to “Mr. Jefferson”), I’m afraid I shocked both my friend and a guide who was within hearing distance by remarking on the boringly contrived house that befit an achingly enlightened and overproud Deist who presumed to rewrite the Gospels while, from his aristocratic haven, he cheered on distant revolutions in which common folk were massacred, all the time communing with his private and ever so superior muse as he penned paeans to liberty in indifference to the slaves at their sweated labor outside his window. Those may not have been the exact words I used, but they were words to that effect. To judge by the response, my observation was much like breaking wind in the temple. It was one of those times, and not the first time, that I probably should have bit my tongue.
McCullough’s book is a biography of John Adams illumined by contrast with Thomas Jefferson. The contrast is not harshly drawn; McCullough is subtle but devastatingly effective. There is good, solid, straightforward, and honest Adams in his lifelong and loving partnership with Abigail. (It might be observed that McCullough did write a dual biography after all, a biography of John and Abigail. Although often separated, they were inseparable.) By way of contrast, there is Jefferson. There was no comparable bond of devotion and fidelity in his devious life. Because his teachings were subject to the changes of his fancy, he did not always live in contravention of what he taught. Jefferson wrote glowingly about the virtues of the yeoman farmer and warned against the corruption of cities, yet gave full rein to his self-indulgent tastes, and ran himself ever deeper into debt, when presented with the chance in London or Paris. “He relished all that Paris offered in the way of luxurious shopping, architecture, painting, music, theater, the finest food, the best wine, and the most cultivated society in his experience—never mind what he may have written about cities or the expenses he incurred.”
Adams was never rich, and he and Abigail had to live very frugally at times, but he left a substantial inheritance. Jefferson, by contrast, died with debts exceeding $100,000, more than the value of Monticello, its land, and all his possessions, including his slaves. Among his contributions to the public character—about which he wrote so much, underscoring the indispensability of republican virtue—was the launching of the first state lottery in order to pay off his debts. It failed. McCullough writes, “In January 1827 on the front lawn of Monticello, 130 of Jefferson’s slaves [he had freed only five in his will] were sold at auction, along with furniture and farm equipment. Finally, in 1831, after years of standing idle, Monticello, too, was sold for a fraction of what it had cost.” One reason for Jefferson’s later animus toward Britain is that the English were imprudent enough to give him loan after loan, and then impertinent enough to press for repayment. After its revolution of 1789, his beloved France was in no position to advance him money, and, knowing his improvidence, might not have done so if it could.
Jefferson composed his own epitaph and designed the stone obelisk that marks his grave at Monticello.
Here Was Buried
Author of the Declaration of Independence,
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom,
And Father of the University of Virginia
Many have remarked on the modesty of it. There is no mention of his having been Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice President of the United States, or President of the United States. Perhaps it was modesty. Or perhaps it was that those offices had been and would be occupied by lesser mortals. Jefferson wanted to be remembered for what were singularly his achievements. (Even though his draft of the Declaration—a task to which Adams named him—was substantially rewritten by others at the Continental Congress.) As McCullough observes, he wanted to be remembered for his “creative work.” He was, after all, an intellectual.
Adams did not write his own epitaph. He did, however, compose an inscription that was carved on the sarcophagus lid of Henry Adams, the first of the family to arrive in Massachusetts, in 1638.
This stone and several others have been placed in this yard by a great, great, grandson from a veneration of the piety, humility, simplicity, prudence, frugality, industry, and perseverance of his ancestors in hopes of recommending an affirmation of their virtues to their posterity.
The difference between that genuinely modest inscription and the obelisk at Monticello tells much about the difference between these two founders. Jefferson the intellectual was an enthusiast for the French Revolution, and was not deterred even by the bloodletting of the Great Terror. At the time, he praised “the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs,” and wrote to his fellow Americans, “Let us then, my dear friends, forever bow down to the general reason of society.” The general reason of society, guiding what Rousseau would call “the general will,” sometimes had a sharp and bloody edge, as with the guillotine. No matter to Jefferson. “The tree of liberty,” he wrote, “must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Human blood as manure; it is not an edifying image. At the height of the terror he wrote that he considered the Jacobins of France “as the same with the Republican patriots of America.” Then, most chillingly, Jefferson, “whose personal philosophy was to get through life with the least pain possible,” observes McCullough, “who shunned even verbal conflict,” wrote this:
The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest [in France]. . . . Rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every continent, and left free, it would be better than it now is.
Years later, as July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of Independence, approached, the day on which both Jefferson and Adams would die, they were asked for a public statement. Jefferson complied with yet another radical rant, declaring that Independence would be “the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves.” “All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man,” he wrote, once again identifying himself with the bloodstained slogan of the Jacobins. “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth”—and here come the well-known Jeffersonian words—“that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.” But, of course, the words were not Jefferson’s. He lifted them without attribution, as he had done before, from Richard Rumbold, Cromwell’s lieutenant, who said on the scaffold, “I never could believe that Providence had sent a few men into the world, ready booted and spurred to ride, and millions ready saddled and bridled to be ridden.” A difference, to be sure, is that Rumbold appealed to Providence, while Jefferson appealed to “the light of science.” As I say, both Jefferson and Adams were asked for statements on this momentous anniversary. “I will give you,” Adams said, “Independence forever!” Asked if he would not like to add something more, he replied, “Not a word.”
Years after both men had left public office for many long years of retirement, they struck up an extended correspondence. Adams’ letters, which were much more frequent, are marked by candor, a sense of gratitude and well-being, and a determination to set right the story of the founding, as best he remembered it. Jefferson, on the other hand, offered, along with the usual radical vaporings, a cautious, calculating, and often self-defensive account. To his credit, he did come around to a guarded apology for his earlier enthusiasm for the bloodletting in France. Much of the richness of McCullough’s story is derived from his astute use of this correspondence, and especially of the letters from Adams. McCullough is never polemical, but the reader is left understanding well enough why he dropped the idea of a dual biography and decided to write about Adams, with only enough about Jefferson as the story required. At the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, we have all seen his words inscribed: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” One is left wondering whether the same reflection ever prompted him to tremble for Thomas Jefferson. God only knows. Certainly Thomas Jefferson left no evidence of it.
Pulling Down and Building
John Adams was, like Franklin, a reluctant revolutionary. In the sweltering, fly-infested Philadelphia of the summer of 1775, where dysentery had broken out and Adams, despite his rheumatism and fierce cold, was working twelve to fourteen hours a day as a chief mover, if not the chief mover, of the business of the Congress, he wrote to Abigail, who was herself recovering from severe illness. They must prepare themselves, he wrote, “minds and hearts for every event, even the worst.” From when he first embraced the “Cause of America,” he said, he thought the crisis would not be resolved peaceably, and this was the source of much “disquietude.” “The thought that we might be driven to the sad necessity of breaking our connection with Great Britain, exclusive of the carnage and destruction which it was easy to see must attend the separation, always gave me a great deal of grief.”
In 1776, the appearance of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense electrified the colonies, becoming, Adams said, the “common faith.” (An anticipation of John Dewey’s little book by that title a century and a half later?) While he recognized the impact of Paine’s revolutionary enthusiasm, he was not taken in by it. Paine’s understanding of government is “feeble,” he wrote Abigail, and he “has a better hand at pulling down than building.” Almost alone among members of the Congress, McCullough writes, Adams “saw no quick victory, but a long, painful struggle.” This appreciation of what might be called the fragility and the tears of things stayed with Adams all his life. Years later, when France descended into its revolutionary paroxysm, he took the side of Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France against the likes of Paine, Jefferson, and his cousin Samuel Adams. To his cousin he wrote, “Everything will be pulled down. So much seems certain. But what will be built up? Are there any principles of political architecture? . . . Will the struggle in Europe be anything other than a change in impostors?”
One is most impressed by the fundamental decency and humanity of John Adams, and those qualities were most importantly formed and sustained by the abiding friendship with Abigail. Her words to Adams when the shape of a new government was being debated are frequently quoted by feminists: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Her letter went on in that vein, which McCullough describes as being not entirely serious. “In part, in her moment of springtime gaiety, she was teasing him. But only in part.” Adams picked up on the teasing spirit, beginning his response with, “I cannot but laugh.”
Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.
Later, when Adams was forced to be absent, as was the case during long periods of their marriage (otherwise we would not have these marvelous letters), Abigail reflected on her responsibilities. Inflation was rampant, basic foodstuffs were scarce, and she was struggling not only to stay out of debt but to make improvements on the homestead. Adams deplored the fact that he was being of so little help to her. She wrote him in Philadelphia, “I believe nature has assigned each sex its particular duties and sphere of action, and to act well your part, ‘there all the honor lies.’”
A Reprehensible Act
The great blot on Adams’ later presidency, and on his character, has always been his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. McCullough notes that he “had not asked for or encouraged” the acts. They “must be seen in the context of the time, and the context was tumult and fear.” Long after, Adams wrote of the acts as “war measures.” “I knew there was need enough of both, and therefore I signed them.” McCullough adds, “Beyond that, the United States was at war—declared or not—and there were in fact numbers of enemy agents operating in the country.” There were thousands of refugees from the French turmoil, and also the “wild Irish” refugees from the Irish Rebellion of 1798, many of them agitating against the policies of the new republic. As it turned out, Adams never invoked the Alien Act, which authorized deporting such troublemakers, but did close down, under the Sedition Act, some of the more strident newspapers. And, of course, the acts had the overwhelming support of the Congress and country. “Vice President Jefferson,” McCullough notes, “having no wish to be present for the inevitable passage of the Sedition Act, or anything more that might take place in such an atmosphere, quietly packed and went home to Monticello.” During most of the decisive conflicts of the nation’s early years, Jefferson was abroad or taking refuge in Monticello.
Abigail, on the other hand, urged strong action upon her husband. “Yet daringly do the vile incendiaries keep up . . . the most wicked and base, violent and culminating abuse. Nothing will have effect until Congress passes a Sedition Bill,” she wrote. McCullough says of the measures that they “were to be rightly judged by history as the most reprehensible acts of his presidency.” But then, he finds little or nothing else in the Adams presidency to be reprehensible, so the distinction of being “the most reprehensible” is easily won. The Alien and Sedition Acts have long been fodder for the fury of civil libertarians, but, seen in the context of tumult and fear that then prevailed (a context not unlike our own after the attack of September 11), they appear as an instance of understandable excess in the country’s long history of trying to balance the imperatives of liberty and security. In any event, they did little harm, and were quickly repudiated when the panic subsided. That being said, it must also be said that they were reprehensible, especially the Sedition Act.
Religion on Duty
In many textbook accounts, the American Founders were Deists or closet atheists who paid lip service to a Christian past that had been decisively displaced by Enlightenment rationalism. Hence the primacy of Jefferson in the founding pantheon. In a long delayed correction of that distorted version, recent years have seen a number of books accenting the Christian presuppositions that permeated the revolutionary period, along with the writing and ratification of the Constitution. McCullough does not make a big issue of it, and he is never argumentative, but in the early pages the reader is put on notice: “Adams was both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that. He was hard-headed and a man of ‘sensibility,’ a close observer of human folly as displayed in everyday life and fired by an inexhaustible love of books and scholarly reflection.”
In 1779, Adams wrote the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the oldest functioning written constitution in the world, and a major influence on the U.S. Constitution that would come almost a decade later. “The body-politic,” declares the preamble, “is formed by a voluntary association of individuals. It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” That compact theory is proposed against the horizon of a higher authority. The constitution does not mention freedom of religion, but affirms the “duty” of all people to worship “The Supreme Being, the great creator and preserver of the universe,” and stipulates that no one is to be “hurt, molested, or restrained in his person, liberty, or estate for worshiping God in the manner most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience.” In other words, freedom is grounded in duty. This, although it is commonly forgotten, is also the logic of Madison’s argument for religious freedom, which is premised upon a conscientious discernment of a “prior duty” to God that both precedes and transcends political allegiance.
Adams had no doubt that the central ideas in the founding had their provenance in Christianity. Equality was much in the air, and Adams wrote to a friend, “How the present age can boast of this principle as a discovery, as new light and modern knowledge, I know not.” Equality was at the heart of Christianity, he said, rooted in the Golden Rule to love your neighbor as yourself. He thought it should be obvious that, when he wrote in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights that “all men are by nature free and equal,” he meant “not a physical but a moral equality.” Similarly, eighteenth-century philosophers were much taken with the idea of the perfectibility of man, an idea that, “abstracted from all divine authority,” Adams found entirely implausible.
It is an idea of the Christian religion, and ever has been of all believers of the immortality of the soul, that the intellectual part of man is capable of progressive improvement forever. Where then is the sense of calling the perfectibility of man an original idea or modern discovery. . . . I consider the perfectibility of man as used by modern philosophers to be mere words without a meaning, that is mere nonsense.
Adams was not unappreciative of the age called Enlightenment. On the contrary, as he wrote to Jefferson near the end of their lives, he thought they had lived in the greatest of times that, for all its errors and vices, was “the most honorable” to human nature. “Knowledge and virtues were increased and diffused; arts, sciences useful to man, ameliorating [his] condition, were improved, more than in any period.” Choosing his words carefully, perhaps in the hope that they might be acceptable to his skeptical correspondent, Adams proposed this bare-bones creed, “He who loves the Workman and His work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of Him.”
A Policy Patched and Piebald
In contrast to Jefferson’s dry Enlightenment principles, combined with ferocious flights of revolutionary rhetoric, Adams understood the history in which they had played their parts as a matter of human improvisation under a guiding Providence. Joseph Ellis writes: “As Adams remembered it, ‘all the great critical questions about men and measures from 1774 to 1778’ were desperately contested and highly problematic occasions. . . . Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible to the soldiers in the field at Saratoga or the statesmen in the corridors at Philadelphia. ‘It was patched and piebald policy then, as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.’” In Adams’ view, writes Ellis, “they were making it up as they went along, improvising on the edge of catastrophe.”
This sense of human fallibility under Divine guidance, of history as the mystery of God’s unfolding purposes, contributed powerfully to one of Adams’ most attractive characteristics, a profound humility before what man cannot understand. In Philadelphia, at the Congress in 1776, Adams attended, “led by curiosity and good company,” a Catholic Mass, and his description of it is often quoted to show the anti-Catholic bias of the Protestant founders. But there was much more to it than that. The Mass at St. Mary’s Church on Fifth Street was, writes McCullough, “an experience so singular that he reflected on it at length both in his journal and in a letter to Abigail.” It could not have been more different from his lifetime of Sabbaths at Braintree’s plain First Church where “unfettered daylight through clear window glass allowed for no dark or shadowed corners, or suggestion of mystery.” “For the first time, Adams was confronted with so much that generations of his people had abhorred and rebelled against, and he found himself both distressed and strangely moved.” The music, the ceremony, the candles, and incense were, Adams wrote, “so calculated to take in mankind” that he wondered how the Reformation had ever succeeded. He stayed through the long service, approved of the priest’s sensible homily on the duties of parents to see to the temporal and spiritual interests of their children, and at the end found the whole experience was “awful and affecting”—the word “awful,” of course, then meaning full of awe and conducive to reverence.
There was a similar experience in Paris. In 1785, Queen Marie Antoinette gave birth to a son and a Te Deum was offered in Notre Dame, with everybody there, including Louis XVI and his Queen, all the nobility, plus Jefferson, Adams, and young John Quincy Adams. John Quincy reports a similar experience of the “awful and affecting,” this time with a sharp political lesson:
. . . and as soon as his Majesty had got to his place and fallen upon his knees, they began to sing the Te Deum, which lasted half an hour, and in which we heard some exceeding fine music. . . . What a charming sight: an absolute king of one of the most powerful empires on earth, and perhaps a thousand of the first personages of that empire, adoring the divinity who created them, and acknowledging that He can in a moment reduce them to the dust from which they spring.
John Adams was a pragmatist, in the sense of being a practical man who adopted measures to desired ends, but he would have dismissed as nonsense the claim that the truth is what “works.” When it came to fitting means to ends he was, one might say, the true skeptic. “It was patched and piebald policy then, as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.” We are to love the Workman and do the best we can with His work, knowing that the only judgment to be trusted is His. Almost two centuries later, in 1954, the nation would add to the pledge of allegiance “under God.” I expect that Adams would have approved, even as he might have been more than a little surprised and worried that such a fundamental truth was widely thought to have been forgotten.
While he was in Paris doing his best to pin down French support for America’s struggle against Britain, Adams had occasion to ponder the luxury he saw all about him, and to contrast it with his circumstance and that of his nation aborning. That was the setting in which he wrote those oft-quoted words:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
From politics to porcelain, there is a hierarchy of goods, and it is consistent with his general view of the limits of politics—the limits of the good that politics can accomplish, and the limits of the claim that politics should make upon our attention. Not for Adams was Jefferson’s thought of heaven being like the U.S. Senate in perpetual debate (even though Adams was, in this life, much more inclined to the give-and-take of political debate than Jefferson). The above reflection is unlike Adams, however, in that it would seem to anticipate a time when politics and conflict would be transcended by the finer things of life. More typically, Adams understood that politics and conflict, although they are of a lower order, would not disappear. Uncertain, unsatisfactory, and improvisational as the task of politics may be, so it ever was, and ever will be, world without end. That moment of Parisian reverie excepted, Adams, like Burke, was profoundly anti-utopian in his understanding of the necessity, the limits, and the fragility of the political task. In this, too, he exemplified what is variously admired or derided as American pragmatism.
Chance and Determinism
Fast forward a century and two, and we come to the story told by Menand in The Metaphysical Club. The period he intends to cover is from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Cold War. As mentioned earlier, his four representative figures are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, all of whom are, not without considerable problems, included in the philosophical category labeled pragmatism. Menand has arguments to make, but he is above all a storyteller, and the stories he tells are, almost without exception, fascinating. When an argument gets in the way of a story, it is usually the argument that has to accommodate itself. Menand sees everything—philosophy, science, religion, mathematics, politics, wars, and personalities—connected to everything else, and is seldom able to resist pursuing the connections. For that the reader is grateful, since it results in numerous excurses that do, more or less and more often than not, eventually get back to the main story. In the afterword to the book he writes, “There was no part of the trek I did not find almost fatally fascinating, and (this is something I never thought I would say about writing a book) I am sorry it is over.” This reader, for one, was also sorry when it was over.
In the mid-and late-nineteenth century, says Menand, the great issue was free will vs. determinism. He has great fun describing the breakthroughs in statistical theories as they touch on probability and order, and how various thinkers applied their implications to quite different, and sometimes conflicting, ends. The work of Charles Darwin was used by many to advance the argument for laissez-faire politics, laissez-faire economics, and even laissez-faire morality. “One reason for the relatively rapid acceptance of Darwin’s theory of natural selection,” Menand writes, “was that it seemed another example of order underlying chance.” Similarly, the enthusiasm for statistics in economic behavior.
Markets operate just the way nature does: left to themselves, they can be counted on to produce the optimum outcome over the long run. The individual pursuit of self-interest [as Adam Smith taught] conduces to aggregate efficiency. Of course, like all appeals to natural laws as a justification for human arrangements, the “discovery” of the laws reflected the arrangements to be justified. Nineteenth-century liberals believed that the market operated like nature because they had already decided that nature operated like a market.
Never mind Menand’s jaundiced view of appeals to natural law; his description does help explain why Darwinism was, quite apart from its scientific merits or lack thereof, so readily embraced. As for Darwin’s own intentions, they were not entirely scientific, according to Menand. “The purpose of On the Origin of Species was not to introduce the concept of evolution [which others had earlier espoused]; it was to debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence—the idea that the universe is the result of an idea.” There were at the time, as there are today, thinkers prepared to accept the idea that progressive adaptation is simply the way that God selected to realize His intentions. They missed Darwin’s point.
What was radical about On the Origin of Species was not its evolutionism, but its materialism. Darwin wanted to establish something even his most loyal disciples were reluctant to admit, which is that the species—including human beings—were created by, and evolve according to, processes that are entirely natural, chance-generated, and blind. In order to do this, he had to do more than come up with a new set of scientific arguments. He had to develop what amounted to a new way of thinking.
There was very little science, in the usual sense of that term, in Darwin’s argument. He did not document even one instance of natural selection in action. “Darwin gleaned his evidence for the inheritability of variations from domestic dog and pigeon breeding, which is intelligent selection par excellence. And since Darwin did not know the science of genetics, he was unable even to explain how characteristics get passed on.” But his “new way of thinking” provided, in the view of many, the best hypothesis for accounting for what was known. Some adopted the newly fashionable hypothesis for reasons not entirely scientific. “He was a Darwinian for fun,” wrote Henry Adams about Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams. Adams wrote: “One could not stop to chase doubts as though they were rabbits. One had no time to paint the surface of Law, even though it were cracked and rotten. For the young men whose lives were cast in the generation between 1867 and 1900, Law should be Evolution.” Menand remarks of Darwinism that “its fitness was generally appreciated before its rightness was generally established” (assuming, as he does, that its rightness has been established). Thinkers such as Charles Peirce wanted to probe more deeply into questions such as whether the law of causation has a cause, and, correlatively, whether the law of evolution had itself evolved. Darwin was of little help here. As Menand tartly observes, “On the Origin of Species is actually silent on the question of origin.”
A Single Idea
The discussion of Darwinism and its reception is but one of Menand’s many fascinating excurses or “treks.” He explores numerous scientific, philosophical, and cultural highways and byways, including the complexities of the debates over the abolition of slavery leading up to the Civil War, in order to set the stage for the appearance of what would come to be called pragmatism. With that appearance, however, Menand’s story line begins to fall apart; or, to put it differently, the several stories he tells so nicely fail to support what the book is presumably about, the story of pragmatism. He keeps trying to keep Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey in line, and they, just as persistently, keep going their own ways. In the preface (which, as with most books, was likely written after the main text), Menand indicates his awareness of this difficulty and settles for the claim that the four had in common an attitude toward ideas.
“If we strain out the differences, personal and philosophical, they had with one another, we can say that what these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea—an idea about ideas.” That idea was, in turn, composed of four ideas. First, the idea that ideas are not “out there” to be discovered but are tools for coping with the world as it is. Second, ideas are not produced by individuals but are social. Third, ideas do not develop by their inner logic but are entirely dependent upon their human carriers. Fourth, since ideas are responses to particular circumstances, they survive not because they are immutably true but because of their adaptability. Such is Menand’s effort to tie together the four very different protagonists of his story. Acknowledging those differences, as he regularly does, Menand nonetheless refers to “their philosophy” in the singular, and the name he gives that philosophy is pragmatism.
In fact, all four disliked the term. Holmes, for good reason, never described himself as a pragmatist. James inadvertently gave the term currency because he wanted to acknowledge his debt to Peirce, and that was the term he thought Peirce had used. James preferred “humanism.” Peirce himself called his philosophy “pragmaticism,” in the hope that such an ugly word would not easily be hijacked by others. Dewey privately said he rejected the term, but recognized that he was publicly stuck with it, and so made the most of it. What most writers mean by pragmatism today, as both a philosophy and intellectual attitude, is mainly associated with Dewey. In a secondary and very ambiguous way, James may be viewed as a pragmatist; Peirce’s relationship to the term is essentially antagonistic; and it fits Holmes hardly at all. Menand’s references to “their philosophy” in the singular is the chief instance of his argument giving way in order to accommodate the telling of his story. At points in the story, Menand recognizes as much:
Pragmatism seems a reflection of the late-nineteenth-century faith in scientific inquiry—yet James introduced it in order to attack the pretensions of late-nineteenth-century science. Pragmatism seems Darwinian—yet it was openly hostile to the two most prominent Darwinists of the time, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley; it was designed, in James’ version, to get God back into a picture many people felt Darwin had written Him out of; and it had nothing in common. . . with the eugenics movement, which was based on the work of Darwin’s cousin, the statistician Francis Galton. Pragmatism seems to derive from statistical thinking—but many nineteenth-century statisticians were committed to principles of laissez-faire that James and Dewey did not endorse, and many turn-of-the-century statisticians (Galton was one of the most renowned) were committed to ideas of race-building and social engineering that are alien to everything James and Dewey wrote. Pragmatism shares [Ralph Waldo] Emerson’s distrust of institutions and systems, and his manner of appropriating ideas while discarding their philosophical foundations—but it does not share his conception of the individual conscience as a transcendental authority.
Pragmatisms in the Plural
Dewey presumably inherited the mantle of pragmatism from James, but halfway through his very long life (1859-1952) he stopped doing serious philosophy and devoted himself to grand schemes of educational and social reform. James was of a very different spirit. “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms,” he wrote, “and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets.” Bigness, success, and grand schemes for reform result, he said, in mendacity, hollowness, and brutality. He favored, rather, “the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and in an immediately unsuccessful way, underdogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.”
Menand puts it this way: “James’ pragmatism was not a philosophy for policy makers, muckrakers, and social scientists. It was a philosophy for misfits, mystics, and geniuses—people who believed in mental telepathy, or immortality, or God. James was never able to believe unreservedly in any of those things himself; but to the end of his life, he tried.” James would not, I think, have put mental telepathy in the same category as immortality, never mind God (although he did ask his brother Henry to stay around for six weeks after he died to see whether he, William, could communicate with him from “the other side”). Nor would he refer to such mysteries as dismissively as does Menand. Nor would he recognize himself in this sentence: “James and Dewey described a universe still in progress, a place where no conclusion is foregone and every problem is amenable to the exercise of what Dewey called ‘intelligent action.’”A universe still in progress? Yes, James hoped so. Where no conclusion is foregone? Not quite. He decisively decided against meaninglessness and in favor of free will and transcendent ends. Every problem is amenable to intelligent action? Emphatically no. That was Dewey, not James—and certainly not Peirce or Holmes. (It is worth noting that, as Menand gets farther along with his story, Peirce and Holmes tend to drop out. It winds down into being more and more a story about “James and Dewey,” and finally about Dewey.)
Menand knows the great differences between his protagonists, and even has a chapter titled “Pragmatisms” in the plural. But even at the end of that chapter he speaks of pragmatism in the singular as “a school of thought.” The two great deficiencies of that school of thought, he says, are, first, that it takes interests for granted without asking where they come from or how we determine whether they are worth pursuing. “We form beliefs to get what we want, but where do we get our wants?” Second, he observes, history is made by people for whom ideas are things other than “instruments of adjustment.” “Pragmatism explains everything about ideas except why a person would be willing to die for one.” That is probably true of Dewey, although it should be noted that he supported America’s engagement in two world wars, and gave reasons for his support. Whether his reasons were drawn from his philosophy, or even consistent with it, is another matter.
Of Menand’s four, Oliver Wendell Holmes stands out for his impatience with what is generally meant by philosophy. He did as a young man, in 1876, write to Emerson, then in his dotage, that “the law opens a way to philosophy as well as anything else, if pursued far enough, and I hope to prove it before I die.” But Holmes had given up on any hope for what he called “a glimpse of the infinite,” and contented himself with arguing for the dignity of professionalism (which he sometimes called “jobbism”) in getting on with the task at hand. “If one does one’s job as well as one can one achieves a practical altruism, and it doesn’t matter so much how one feels about it,” he wrote to a friend. Or, for that matter, how it fits into the great scheme of things, if there is a great scheme of things. Deal with the facts and the big picture will take care of itself, “for every fact leads to every other by the path of the air.” Alone of the four, Holmes had fought in the Civil War and bore the scars in both body and mind. “The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in a sentence,” writes Menand. “It is that certitude leads to violence.” He was averse to causes of whatever political or ideological stripe. Late in his very long life (1841-1935), he wrote to his friend Harold Laski, “Some kind of despotism is at the bottom of seeking for change.”
In the course of his story, Menand highlights nicely the ways in which a deeply conservative Holmes was, especially when he reached the Supreme Court, lionized by liberals who misunderstood him, and how Holmes, enjoying the attention, was not eager to correct the misunderstanding. Along with Dewey, Holmes had slight interest in individual rights; for both of them the claims of the collective were trump. For the progressivist Dewey, this led to socialism in politics and public policy, while for Holmes it meant being a “realist” in working the system and resisting any dramatic jolts to it. Holmes’ philosophy of law was that law does not operate by philosophy. The good lawyer, meaning the successful lawyer, is concerned only about knowing how the judge will rule. The first sentence of his first law review article, in 1870, is still famous today: “It is the merit of the common law that it decides the case first and determines the principle afterwards.” He spent the rest of his life trying to explain why this does not mean that legal decision making is arbitrary, as have many professors of jurisprudence since. Holmes’ pragmatism, if that is the right term, was practicality with a vengeance. It is not surprising that he and his old friend William James drifted apart. He attended James’ funeral in 1910, but privately made clear his lack of sympathy for James’ thought, claiming that he had made uncertainty an excuse for believing in more than the facts at hand. Of James he caustically remarked, “His wishes made him turn down the lights so as to give miracle a chance.”
Charles Sanders Peirce was by far the most penetrating and ambitious thinker of the four whose stories Menand tells. There is today something of a revival of interest in Peirce, as described in Edward Oakes’ “Discovering the American Aristotle” (FT, December 1993). His thought, to which James attributed his inspiration and for which Holmes had no use, will likely always remain a cultivated taste, however, not least because the shambles of his personal and professional life precluded his ever publishing a book. Peirce’s father, Benjamin, was a Harvard mathematician who believed that the world is constructed to be known by the mind—“the two are wonderfully matched,” he insisted—and Charles agreed, but with a difference. He rejected the earlier and scientistic “billiard-ball theory” of matter (which as promoted in the mid-nineteenth century sometimes sounds eerily like the “chaos theory” that was so popular only a few years ago), insisting that the universe is charged with indeterminacy and, at the same time, is intelligible. Words such as “cause” and “effect” do not denote fixed characteristics or entities but are to be understood within a “logic of relations” intricately connected with his theory of language as signs. In a pervasively relativistic world, however, Peirce was no relativist, insisting as he did on the possibility of making statements that are true (without quotation marks).
The mistake of nominalism, going all the way back to William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, was not, Peirce wrote, in its insistent devotion to the particular rather than the universal, but in its reliance on individual rather than communal perception. No individual mind is capable of accurate and objective knowledge; no two astronomers, or even one astronomer on different days, perceive the same star in the same way, yet that does not throw into question the reality of the star. Complete certainty about the position of the star requires an infinite number of observations. “But,” Menand remarks, “Peirce was not in a hurry.” Peirce wrote, “The personal prejudices or other peculiarities of generations of men may postpone indefinitely an agreement in this opinion, but no human will or limitation can make the final result of an investigation to be anything else than that which it is destined to be. The reality, then, must be identified with what is thought in the ultimate true opinion. . . . The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.” What Menand barely hints at, however, is that, for Peirce, there is one who possesses this ultimate true opinion, this final knowledge, namely, God. Menand’s final, and somewhat dismissive, comment is, “Peirce’s pragmatism has the Midas touch,” by which I take him to mean that, in Peirce’s view, all human inquiry finally becomes theology. Put differently, Menand’s definition of pragmatism resists any sense of ending; everything is everlastingly open-ended; and, by that definition, it is doubtful that Peirce was a pragmatist.
“Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey were modernists,” Menand writes; “the eventual obsolescence of their work would hardly have shocked them. Even Peirce, who did not share with the others a belief in the pure provisionality of ideas, thought that the opinions of one generation were destined to be superseded by the opinions of the next.” Well, yes and no. As Oakes points out, Peirce was somewhat more ambitious than that. “[I intend] to make a philosophy like that of Aristotle,” he wrote, “that is to say, to outline a theory so comprehensive that, for a long time to come, the entire work of human reason, in philosophy of every school and kind, in mathematics, in psychology, in physical science, in history, in sociology, and in whatever other department there may be, shall appear as the filling of its details.” So much for ideas as being very much like the invention of forks, things useful for achieving the purpose at hand.
The task of the philosopher, as Peirce understood it, is not to invent what is useful but to discover what is true, although the invention of the useful is part of the process of discovery. Nominalism, followed by Descartes, followed by Kant, followed by Freud, and by innumerable others throws us back upon what we work out in our heads, what we invent. Peirce worried that James, too, was slipping into subjectivism with his pragmatism understood as what “works.” Against all that, Peirce was an adamant realist. There really are laws of nature that we can discover, and they really do govern nature, and we can discover them because law, nature, and mind are “wonderfully matched.” Michael Raposa, a leading Peirce scholar, puts it this way:
These laws can be regarded as “ideas” only because the universe itself is of the nature of a Mind, a vast representamen or argument “working out its conclusions in living realities.” The nominalist, however, would make the human mind the author rather than the reader or interpreter of the “book of nature.” Nominalist principles render scientific inquiry farcical, Peirce contended, by dissolving the reality of those general laws that it is the task of the scientist to discover. If the world’s generality, its intelligibility, is solely the product of human intellect, then the fundamental purpose of theoretical science cannot be, as Peirce had stipulated, to acquire knowledge of “God’s truth.” Clearly, Peirce’s theism, in addition to and as an ingredient of his philosophy of science, supplied an important incentive in his battle for the cause of realism.
Dewey as Theologian
Of the four figures examined, it is finally only John Dewey who comfortably fits the notion of pragmatism in Menand’s “story of ideas in America.” Of course, there are important overlappings in the thought of the four. Like Peirce, for instance, Dewey discounted the powers of the individual. Empiricists counted up the preferences, interests, and perceptions of individuals in order to arrive at the social will, but that, said Dewey, is to get things exactly backward. “Society in its unified and structural character is the fact of the case; the non-social individual is an abstraction arrived at by imagining what man would be if all his human qualities were taken away. Society, as a real whole, is the normal order, and the mass as an aggregate of isolated units is the fiction.” Unlike Peirce, however, Dewey stopped with society. He did not press on to the Mind of the universe that is God.
Put differently, it is not too much to say that, for Dewey, Society is God. And because democracy is the necessary form for the advance of society, Democracy is God. Toward the very end of his story, Menand says that the pragmatism he has been describing underwrites “the theory that democracy is the value that validates all other values. Democratic participation isn’t the means to an end, in this way of thinking; it is the end.” Here “the end” is to be taken very seriously, as in the final telos, the ultimate object of devotion. As we shall see, Dewey made this quite explicit in his little book of 1934, A Common Faith (which for some reason is not mentioned by Menand, although it could hardly be more pertinent to his story). And it is quite explicit in the thought of Richard Rorty, who is today’s most prominent claimant to the mantle of Dewey, as I have discussed in “The Gods of Left and Right” (FT, March 1999).
In an older tradition, philosophy begins in wonder; with Dewey and many other moderns, philosophy stops at the edge of wonder. Although Menand does not mention it, “pragmatism” had an accepted meaning before there was a school of thought by that name. The first definition of pragmatism offered by the OED is “officiousness, pedantry.” In 1863, Cowden Clarke wrote of a Shakespeare character, “He is a moral teetotaler, a formalist, a pragmatist.” Pragmatism connoted littleness of mind, a failure of imagination, an inclination to the safe and smug. It is a disposition represented in aspects of Dewey’s thought. Menand writes: “Dewey thought that ideas and beliefs are the same as hands: instruments for coping. An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks or something inherent in the nature of soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon.” Precisely.
In 1894, Dewey had been much impressed by—Menand describes it as almost a conversion experience—the teaching of Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, that conflicts of interest are finally “unreal.”
His strategy was to promote, in every area of life, including industrial life, democracy, which he interpreted as the practice of “associated living”—cooperation with others on a basis of tolerance and equality. He hoped that in the long run this would lead to a more just order. The hope had its philosophical justifications, which Dewey spent his career trying to spell out. But it was also the expression of a singularly irenic personality. He had taken Addams’ teaching to heart: that antagonism is unnecessary, that it is based on a misunderstanding of one’s best interests, and that it leads to violence.
The antagonism between truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, good and evil, is finally illusory. Such things do not exist “out there.” They are ideas and ideas are tools; if ideas are not functional, there are plenty more where they came from. If your fork is not doing the job that is at hand to be done, reach for a spoon. Put so bluntly, one may end up with a caricature of Dewey’s philosophy, but it is not, I think, a caricature by much. “Philosophy recovers itself,” he wrote in an influential 1917 essay, “when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.” One might observe, however, that the problems of philosophers are the problems of men when men are philosophers.
When Truth Is Not the Problem
Dewey was delighted with G. K. Chesterton’s complaint that “pragmatism is a matter of human needs, and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” Chesterton’s complaint, thought Dewey, only confirms pragmatism’s most basic claim, namely, that what people choose to believe is just what they think it is good to believe. Chesterton had, in his view, perfectly closed the circle. But, of course, Dewey missed the point. The human need, according to Chesterton (along with Peirce, James, and most of the history of philosophy), is not to choose an agreeable belief but to discover the truth. Or, as St. Augustine put it centuries earlier, the human need is not to be deceived about how things stand with the world. For Dewey such concerns were outside the province of philosophy defined as a method “for dealing with the problems of men” for whom truth is not a problem.
Dewey was no fool. Unless one agrees with the Psalmist that the fool is one who says in his heart, and in innumerable publications, that there is no God. He was in many respects a wise, and certainly an eminently decent, man, who in the course of a long life probably had a greater influence on social reform than any other American intellectual. That is the argument persuasively made in Robert B. Westbrook’s fine 1991 study, John Dewey and American Democracy (see “The Real John Dewey,” Public Square, January 1992). While Dewey’s socialism is now discredited, and his educational theories are regularly pilloried (and not only by conservatives), it is as a public intellectual and social reformer, and not as a philosopher, that he has left his mark on our common life. The Metaphysical Club is a brilliant book by many measures, but the thought of James and Peirce does not converge and culminate, as Menand suggests, in John Dewey and his legacy. Holmes better fits the story line of pragmatism’s belief in ideas as tools, although he seemingly did not share Dewey’s driving—and, for all his intelligence, naive—faith in democracy and progress.
In the larger picture, when people speak, either in praise or derision, of the American mind as “pragmatic,” John Dewey is more the anomaly than the norm. Franklin, Adams, Madison, and others who shaped the American mind were pragmatic in the sense that they were exceedingly practical and attentive to the ways in which the world actually works. They were very modest in their claims to understanding or control, trusting in a Providence who ineluctably worked His purposes through history. With few exceptions that trust was explicitly Christian, always it bore the unmistakable stamp of Christian faith. Lincoln is probably the best exemplar of this combination of practicality and reverence, which is why he has been called, with considerable justice, the greatest theologian of the American experience. Dewey, too, enjoined modesty, and in his personal life he practiced it. His philosophy, however, while seemingly modest, was in many ways an exercise in hubris. Chesterton famously said that the problem with a man who won’t believe in God is not that he will end up believing in nothing but that he will end up believing in anything. To which I would add that he may end up believing that he is God. Or, in Dewey’s case, that “we” are God. Which brings us back to A Common Faith, delivered as the Terry Lectures at Yale.
The Religious versus Religion
Dewey understood that human beings are naturally religious. The problem is with religion. The first chapter of the little 1934 book offers a summary of his thinking and is titled, “Religion versus the Religious.” If the religious can be liberated from its captivity to religion, “the religious aspect of experience will be free to develop freely on its own account.” Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants (Dewey has little to say about non-Christian religion) “agree on one point: the necessity for a Supernatural Being and for an immortality that is beyond the power of nature.” Atheists who reject such beliefs agree with those who accept them on the “identification of the religious with the supernatural.” That is the identification that Dewey challenges. His proposal is against religion, with its supernatural trappings, and in favor of the religious. He intends to set forth a way to be religious after the death of God.
He knows that some of the tough-minded will criticize him for advocating “a timid halfway position,” “a view entertained from mere tendermindedness, as an emotional hangover from childhood indoctrination, or even as a manifestation of a desire to avoid disapproval and curry favor.” But he will not be deterred by such criticism. He makes more than amply clear that he is keenly aware of the fear, superstition, authoritarianism, and narrowness of religion which lead many to reject not only religion but also the religious. His proposed “common faith” is very different:
It trusts that the natural interactions between man and his environment will breed more intelligence and generate more knowledge provided the scientific methods that define intelligence in operation are pushed further into the mysteries of the world, being themselves promoted and improved in the operation. There is such a thing as faith in intelligence becoming religious in quality—a fact that perhaps explains the efforts of some religionists to disparage the possibilities of intelligence as a force. They properly feel such faith to be a dangerous rival.
On the one side are the devout adherents of “intelligence in operation,” and on the other are the religionists. Such intelligence is not mere rationalism, but includes moral aspiration. At another point he writes, “I should describe this faith as the unification of the self through allegiance to inclusive ideal ends, which imagination presents to us and to which the human will responds as worthy of controlling our desires and choices.” This faith is committed not to any particular subject matter of belief but simply to “the method of intelligence.” Here Dewey admits the term “God,” provided that it denotes not a Being or anything supernatural but “the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and action.” The doctrines and dogmas of religion are simply no longer believable, and, in addition—here he follows in the tradition of Ludwig Feuerbach and others—are revealed as projections of our fears and hopes. Such doctrines and dogmas are quite unnecessary.
The reality of ideal ends and values in their authority over us is an undoubted fact. The validity of justice, affection, and that intellectual correspondence of our ideas with realities that we call truth is so assured in its hold upon humanity that it is unnecessary for the religious attitude to encumber itself with the apparatus of dogma and doctrine.
He does not insist upon using the word “God,” and he knows its association with religion can lead to misunderstandings. But there are forces in nature and society that generate and support our ideals, which are further unified by intelligent action that gives them solidity and coherence. “It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name ‘God.’ A clear and intense conception of a union of ideal ends with actual conditions is capable of arousing steady emotion. It may be fed by every experience, no matter what its material.” That is the doctrine that, according to Dewey, needs no doctrine, the experience of the religious that he posits against religion. It is, one might observe, the non-church church of those committed to “intelligence in action,” a faith sustained and transmitted without myth or liturgy, requiring no priestcraft except the professoriat, open to all who think clearly, and recognizing no excommunicatable sin except offense against what is defined as intelligence.
The atheist is lacking in natural piety, says Dewey, leading to the isolation of man in the universe or, alternatively, to man becoming the object of worship. References to “God” and the “divine” keep our devotion centered on the active relation between the ideal and actual, remembering that the ideal, the actual, and the relation between them suggest nothing beyond man and nature. There is even a kind of eschatology in this proposed common faith: “Religion would then be found to have its natural place in every aspect of human experience that is concerned with estimate of possibilities, with emotional stir by possibilities as yet unrealized, and with all action in behalf of their realization. All that is significant in human experience falls within this frame.”
His Critique of Liberal Protestantism
Dewey recognized that liberal Protestantism had for a long time been moving in the direction he espoused, but it still refused to cut the Gordian knot with the supernatural. Under the pressure of scientific rationality, liberal religion subscribed to a dualism of prose as distinct from poetry, of fact as distinct from value. This is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. “The general mind is thus left in a confused and divided state. The movement that has been going on for the last few centuries will continue to breed doubleness of mind until religious meanings and values are definitely integrated into normal social relations.” Dewey is very much a monist, against all dualisms and against any eschatological deferral of the absolute and discontinuous realization of possibilities. All that ever was, is, or ever will be is integrated into us in our social relations—is, in sum, what we are and will be by participating in the active relation between ideal and actual.
In his final lecture, Dewey explains why, were his common faith commonly adopted, it would not necessarily mean an end of religions:
The transfer of idealizing imagination, thought, and emotion to natural human relations would not signify the destruction of churches that now exist. It would rather offer the means for a recovery of vitality. The fund of human values that are prized and that need to be cherished, values that are satisfied and rectified by all human concerns and arrangements, could be celebrated and reinforced, in different ways and with differing symbols, by the churches. In that way the churches would indeed become catholic.
Dewey is pleased that liberal churches are becoming more this-worldly, “that they take a more active interest in social affairs, that they take a definite stand upon such questions as war, economic injustice, political corruption, that they stimulate action for a divine kingdom on earth”—all this is “one of the signs of the times.” But now they must take the decisive step of dropping any claims to having a special relationship to the supernatural or to “the supreme values and motivating forces” of human action. Such claims “make it impossible for the churches to participate in promotion of social ends on a natural and equal human basis.” For Dewey, any hint of inequality is a heresy against a core article of the creed of the common faith, namely, democracy. “I cannot understand,” he wrote, “how any realization of the democratic ideal as a vital moral and spiritual ideal in human affairs is possible without surrender of the conception of the basic division to which supernatural Christianity is committed.” And in the Church of Intelligent Action, what John Dewey can or cannot understand is a matter of great doctrinal moment, for his authority is by no means equal.
What We Most Prize
A Common Faith is in many ways a thoughtful reflection, and much of what Dewey says should surely be accepted. Although the polemical use of stereotypes is unattractive, a critique of religious authoritarianism, of superstition, of anti-intellectual fideism, and of individualistic revivalism is always in order. Nor can one object to his insistence that every dimension of life should be made vital by a sense of “the religious.” Moreover, his vibrant humanism should strike a responsive chord in orthodox Christians who believe that God became man, and it is not possible to be more humanistic than that. Dewey’s concluding coda is not untouched by grandeur:
The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying, and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it. Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race. Such a faith has always been implicitly the common faith of mankind. It remains to make it explicit and militant.
Dewey’s identification of “God” with the human project has some resonance with a deeply Christian understanding of incarnation, the crucial difference being that Christians believe that God became man and, therefore, while a man, Jesus the Christ, is God, man—not even in his participation in the active relation between the ideal and the actual—is not God. Atheists who signed the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and thought Dewey was one of them were outraged by his affirmation of “God” and the “divine.” Dewey assured them that he was keeping the faith, as it were, but thought it wise to make concessions to such terminology in order to have his common faith more commonly accepted. More touching, as Westbrook describes, is the number of liberal Protestant theologians who pleaded with Dewey to withdraw, or at least temper, his criticisms of them, assuring him that they meant nothing more by “God” than he did. They were, they insisted, innocent of the charge of believing in the supernatural or anything transcending the human. Dewey was pleased to receive their assurances, although he remained somewhat skeptical. That theologians feared being excommunicated by John Dewey tells us much about both the stature of Dewey and the state of theology at a peculiar moment of what was taken to be the mainline “story of ideas in America.”
It is a weakness in Menand’s otherwise brilliant telling of that story that he ends with everything converged and conflated in John Dewey. Where William James, and especially Charles Sanders Peirce, cannot be accommodated within that story line, their deviations—and they are many and important—are usually briefly mentioned and quickly dropped. And even in the treatment of Dewey, the more ambitious reaches of his thought are not explored and, as in the case of A Common Faith, are not even briefly mentioned. Dewey, to his credit, understood that his devotion to liberal democracy, the note on which Menand ends, entailed a radical break in the story of ideas in America. His protests notwithstanding, he was proposing not just a new appreciation of “the religious” but a new religion. To his chagrin, most Americans already had a religion and so declined his proposal. Toward the end of his story, as we have noted, Menand says that for pragmatism “democratic participation isn’t the means to an end; in this way of thinking, it is the end.” He then adds the cautionary note, “Whether this nineteenth-century way of thinking really does have twenty-first-century uses is not yet clear.”
In Times of Testing
That “nineteenth-century way of thinking,” one may note, extended far into the twentieth century, and in Dewey’s version of liberal democracy as a religion still holds sway today over large sectors of American thought and sensibility. Dewey claimed that this way of thinking was “implicitly the common faith of mankind” that he only wanted to make “explicit and militant.” But from his Terry Lectures and other writings, we know that he understood the novelty of his proposal. His pragmatism was not the pragmatism of others associated with the philosophy that goes by that name, and certainly not the pragmatism of intellectual modesty and commonsensical practicality that—Jefferson and a few others excepted—marked the American founding. That was a pragmatism that, as Leo Strauss understood, built on foundations low but solid. In the understanding of men such as Franklin and Adams, the institutions of the republic, of what is now called liberal democracy, do not require a full account of the human circumstance, never mind the nature of reality. It is required only that they be adequate to political purposes, and politics does not include “those things in civilization we most prize.”
The government the Founders designed requires arguments in its defense, but those arguments are not and cannot be supplied by the government. Such arguments come from elsewhere. In this sense, in contrast to the monism of John Dewey, the Founders were unapologetic dualists, or even pluralists. The Religion Clause of the First Amendment represents something utterly unprecedented; never before in history had a regime adopted the self-denying ordinance that denied it a role in controlling the reasons by which it was morally legitimated. Such reasons—essentially religious in character, as Dewey well understood—usually remain in the background, implicit rather than explicit. But in times of great testing, they move to the fore and become the matter of the most earnest public debate. The disagreement over slavery was one such time, and then the civil debate descended into civil war. Disagreements over abortion, the biotechnical redesign of humanity, and who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility represent another such time of testing. And now, after September 11, the clash of civilizations forces a greater public explicitness about the values and truths, more often than not Christian in their provenance and continuing force, that define our side in this contest.
Had Dewey’s religion of liberal democracy been democratically accepted, we would be having a very different kind of argument. But it was not, and is not ever likely to be. Menand wisely subtitles his book “a story of ideas in America” rather than the story. To the extent that his story ends up being the story of John Dewey, he is describing an aberrant moment in the story of ideas in America, although the hold of that moment is by no means entirely broken even today. When people speak, whether in praise or derision, of the American mind as pragmatic, the chief reference should be to those who, like Franklin and Adams, built on foundations low but solid, and to the history of a nation that has been, all in all, remarkably successful in maintaining a constitutional order that is accountable to transcendent reality but does not presume to supply the truths about that reality by which the order is both justified and judged. Contra A Common Faith and religious devotion to democratic participation as a final end—which, in an older vocabulary, is nothing less than idolatry—the genius of a worthier tradition of pragmatism in America is rooted in the recognition of an embarrassingly elementary but regularly forgotten truth, namely, that we are not God.
A Familiar Beast
David I. Kertzer’s second attack volume is out, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (Knopf). The first, it may be remembered, beat up on the nineteenth-century Pope Pius IX who adopted and reared a Jewish boy who had been taken from his parents because he had been baptized at a time when it was against the law for Christians to be reared by Jews. We will have a review of the new volume in due course, but suffice it for the moment that Kertzer, professor of history at Brown University, has discovered (brace yourself) that popes of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century sometimes shared and expressed the negative view of Jews that was nearly all-pervasive in the Europe of that time. Moreover, some popes did not censure but supported churchmen who publicly promoted anti-Judaism and what, in retrospect, can be recognized as the seeds of the racial doctrine of anti-Semitism. One would have to be pretty naive, or hold to a preposterous doctrine of the moral impeccability of popes, to be surprised, never mind shocked, by Professor Kertzer’s “discovery.” As the Church has always taught, and as the present pope has relentlessly reiterated, the Church on its earthly sojourn is, from top to bottom, composed of sinners. None of us—Christian, Jew, or whatever—is exempt from the consequences of the Fall.
A Catholic commentary, referring to the Kertzer book, speaks of “an unprecedented series of attacks by Jewish authors on the Catholic Church.” That is both false and dangerous. Over the last two centuries and more, anti-Catholicism, which should never be taken lightly, was much more virulent, both in Europe and America, than it is today. As in the past, so also today, many of the more strident attacks are by Catholics, or at least by people who insist that, despite all, they are Catholic. Witness recent books such as John Cornwall’s Hitler’s Pope, Garry Wills’ Papal Sins, and James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword. Cornwall and Wills leave no doubt that their motivation in attacking the papal office is to promote changes in Catholic teachings and practices from which they dissent. Carroll is more ambitious, advocating a wholesale recasting of the Christian gospel that eliminates the centrality of the Cross and Christ’s redemptive suffering. Their purposes are understandable, even if they do not excuse distorting history and pandering to anti-Catholic bigotry.
It is somewhat surprising that the New York Times Book Review gave the Kertzer book to such a notable pope-basher as Garry Wills, but not surprising at all that Wills uses the occasion to assault, once again, what he has called papal “structures of deceit,” ending with yet another swipe at John Paul II. So what else is new? Please do not misunderstand; I am not saying that we should get used to it. I am saying we should not be surprised by it. The Catholic Church, in its teaching and its very constitution, is profoundly offensive to much in our elite and popular culture. The Church should never court hostility. Being countercultural is not a virtue to be cultivated. It is simply the consequence when so much of the culture is counter to the truth to which the Church bears witness.
We should try to make that witness as attractively, persuasively, and winsomely as we possibly can. In this we have no better example than John Paul II. But we also should have no illusions. There are people who deeply dislike and even hate the Church, and they are frequently masters of the teaching of contempt for all things Catholic. Many of them are Jewish, many of them are Protestants, of both liberal and fundamentalist stripes, and many of them are simply militant secularists whose ideology prescribes that religion was supposed to have disappeared a long time ago, and they view the Catholic Church as the chief obstacle to that desired end. And some of the teachers of contempt are Catholics who insist that they are wrongly accused of anti-Catholicism. They say they are only opposed to Catholicism as it is. They are enthusiastically supportive of Catholicism as they think it ought to be. They are very confused, of course, and usually very angry, but we should try to engage them as best we can, knowing that, like the poor, they are always with us. Most certainly, we should not be intimidated by them.
From Voltaire’s Écrasez l’infâme to today’s usually more tempered railings and whinings, anti-Catholicism is a familiar beast. We dare not think it entirely tamed, for it can turn very nasty, but neither should we be overly alarmed by its every stirring. The thing to do is to keep an eye on it, and alert others to its continuing presence and potential dangers.
While We’re At It
• “An Evening of Readings and Carols” with the Westminster Chapel Choir at Princeton University is an immensely popular annual event. There is the problem, however, of Christmas being so very, well, you know, Christian. The program notes by choir director James Jordan say that the event “was inspired by the format of the Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge.” But there is a crucial difference. “The format of the King’s College program tells the story of Christmas through biblical readings and illustrative music. While the format of music with interspersed readings is maintained in Westminster’s program, the intent is not to tell the story of Christmas, but to perform music and readings that reflect the universal themes of the season: birth, hope, anticipation, good will, and joy.” Instead of biblical readings, there is, among other readings, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and a Christmasy excerpt from Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The music, however, is Christmas. Or, as Mr. Jordan explains, “The season of Christmas has provided the framework and texts for the great composers and writers throughout the ages.” Not exactly. Before there was “the season of Christmas” there was Christmas, as in the Christ Mass. And before that, the birth of a specific child whom many call the Christ. There is nothing less universal or more particular to the elite sensibilities of the academic subculture than craven obedience to the dictate that the universal requires the displacement of the particular, resulting in the artistic and spiritual incoherence that is the Westminster Choir’s embarrassingly parasitical program, “An Evening of Readings and Carols.”
• Who is served by “diversity quotas”? Speaking recently at a small college in Minnesota, I was told by a faculty member that they were having a hard time making their diversity quota. College-ready black students, in particular, are in short supply. The best go to bigger and more prestigious schools that can offer them more money. “We’re left scrambling for the left-overs,” he said. “So why are we doing this? Not for the black students, most of whom drop out along the way. Not for our other students, for whom their first experience with blacks is with blacks who can’t make it and are messed up in various ways. We’re doing it because we adopted a quota, and because having minorities around makes us feel better about ourselves. We’re doing it for ourselves.” Despite his misgivings, he wanted me to know that he supported the diversity program. I stayed for the Sunday Mass, where the bulletin announced that the offering that day would go to a housing program for low-income families in a nearby city. “The program now provides housing to some sixty people, thirty of them children, with families that include people of Somalian, Hmong, African American, Native American, European, Latino, and Asian descent.” That’s exquisite. A little arithmetic suggests that there must be one to three families for each group. The affluent congregation at Mass I estimated to be at least 98 percent Caucasian. Being people of refined sensibility, they feel a little guilty about that. Why specify the ethnic and racial diversity of those who are the objects of their charity? Would it make a difference if the housing program was helping sixty Mexicans or sixty Somalians or sixty Native Americans? Well, yes, it wouldn’t make them feel as good about themselves. The ethnic and racial specification certifies that these good people at Mass are committed to diversity. And they undoubtedly are good people. ‘Tis a pity that they feel guilty about who they are.
• It hardly seems possible that new writings of St. Augustine (354-430) could still be turning up, but recent years have witnessed the discovery of batches of sermons and letters hitherto unknown. They give us a more intimate feel for the everyday life of Augustine as a bishop, says Peter Brown of Princeton, that most celebrated of contemporary Augustine scholars. While his see of Hippo (in present-day Algeria) was far from the centers of power in Rome and Ravenna, Augustine was a famous man toward the end of his life and was constantly besieged by people seeking his counsel. In order to respond to these requests, he had to set aside work on such major projects as the Tractatus on the Gospel of Saint John and City of God. He writes to Possidius, a fellow bishop and friend, in 419: “I am annoyed because of the demands that are thrust on me to write, arriving unannounced, from here, there, and everywhere. . . . They never stop.” Brown quotes, in order to correct, a historian of our day who says that, after the conversion of Constantine, the bishops became the undisputed spiritual leaders of a society “in which church and state had become inextricably interdependent.” Augustine, writes Brown, “would have pointed out that, seen from Hippo in the 420s, the saeculum, the continued non-Christian habits of ‘the world’ had lost none of their power. We should not be misled by the statements of many textbooks on the rapid rise to power of the Catholic Church in late Roman society. The victory of Christianity in the age of Augustine had been, in many ways, spectacular but fragile. Over a century after the conversion of Constantine, ‘church and state’ were far from being ‘inextricably interdependent.’” Imperial officials and great landowners were very much in charge and “the Catholic bishops of Africa had remained little men, with little power.” The bishops protested and tried to protect whom they could, but the cities and the poor continued to be oppressed, Augustine wrote, “while we groan and are unable to help.” Particularly moving are Augustine’s futile protests against the slave trade that passed through Hippo, supplying African peasants to estates in Italy and southern Gaul. These traders “traffick not in animals but in human beings,” he protested to the emperor, adding, in an appeal to the emperor’s patriotism, “not in barbarians but in loyal Romans.” All to little avail. These newly found letters and sermons, together with Peter Brown’s commentary, increase our wonder at Augustine’s great philosophical and theological treatises, written in the whirligig of incessant demands upon his attention. He declared in a sermon: “We who preach and write books, we write in a manner altogether different from the manner in which the canon of the Scriptures has been written. We write while we make progress. We learn something new every day. We dictate at the same time as we explore. We speak as we still knock for understanding.” The great Augustine had no delusions that he was in control, nor that the Church had triumphed. From that we in our times might derive a measure of consolation.
• Even the strongest proponents of parental choice in education have been known to harbor a terrible fear. Namely, once independent schools of all sorts are brought within the orbit of government funding, through vouchers or other means, the state will be in a position to impose its standards in a way that turns them into de facto government schools, virtually indistinguishable from the current public school system. In this way, genuinely independent schooling, and with it even the limited parental choice that now exists, would be effectively destroyed. That nightmare is the dream of James G. Dwyer, who teaches law at William and Mary, and has just published Vouchers Within Reason (Cornell). He is a great champion of vouchers because they “represent an opportunity for states to accomplish what they have been unable to do in the past—namely, to bring academic accountability to religious schools, many of which fail to provide a good secular education.” I believe Dwyer’s dream and our nightmare can be prevented by vigorous resistance to government controls, but it is useful to have someone present an alternative scenario with such candor.
• Arguing from a sola scriptura (the Bible alone) premise, Pastor Ronald Marshall of First Lutheran Church, West Seattle, Washington, explains in Forum Letter what he believes is his pastorally caring approach to homosexuals and homosexuality. “So I uphold the Old Testament prohibitions repeated in the New Testament,” he writes. The fact that Jesus did not explicitly confirm such prohibitions “does not mean he opposed them, only that he assumed them.” Pr. Marshall continues: “Furthermore I do not agree that the Bible has been misunderstood on same-sex matters as it was on women’s issues or slavery. The cases are not parallel. For women and slaves there were conflicting New Testament examples that undercut the verses which were against women and for slavery. No such examples exist to undercut the verses against same-sex acts. So in the case of homosexuality there is no reason—as there was in the case of women and slavery—to protest. It hasn’t been misinterpreted because the needed conflicting examples in favor of homosexual behavior are simply not in the Bible. Without those examples the needed tension for generating a corrected interpretation is missing. Finally I also disagree that when the New Testament says homosexuality is unnatural it does not apply to those who are naturally homosexual because of their inherent orientation. Being born homosexual does not exempt them from the curse. This is because the word natural in the New Testament does not mean how-one-is-inclined-from-birth. Rather it means how-things-were-set-up-in-the-Garden-of-Eden at the time of creation. That is the biblical meaning of the word natural. On that score homosexual behavior is unnatural because it goes against the pairing of the two opposite sexes created in the beginning—male and female. So homosexual behavior is wrong because the Bible says it is. This I believe. Therefore it would be perfectly hateful of me to affirm homosexual behavior. No, the only loving response I can make is to disapprove of homosexual behavior. Anything else would be to throw my gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends into harm’s way.” What about that don’t you understand?
• A subscriber who has read Christopher Beem’s recently published The Necessity of Politics: Reclaiming American Public Life (Chicago) wants to know what I think of it. I think it’s a thoughtful contribution to an important discussion about politics and civil society. Beem contends that in the early phase of the civil society movement (sometimes overlapping with what is called communitarianism) Peter Berger and I set it on an excessively anti-politics and anti-government direction, exaggerating one side of Tocqueville’s anxieties about the future of democracy. (At one point he even accuses us of a libertarian bent.) Beem is happier with what he views as the post-Berger-Neuhaus civil society discussion led by Robert Putnam and others, which emphasizes the weaknesses of family, church, neighborhood, etc. that Berger and I call the “mediating institutions.” In short, he thinks we’re too sanguine about people and people-sized institutions and too skeptical about politics and government. That’s worth arguing about, but I’ll still take the side of the argument advanced in our little book, To Empower People. Where I begin to seriously disagree with Beem is in his notion that the government can enforce something like a “moral consensus,” and where I think he starts edging over the top is with his appreciation, admittedly a critical appreciation, of Hegel’s inflated notion of the State. That being said, I do not view The Necessity of Politics as an attack but as an intelligent intervention in a necessarily continuing conversation.
• According to the Glasgow Herald, Father John Fitzsimmons “has become for many Scots the voice of the Catholic Church.” Formerly the rector of the Scottish College in Rome and now pastor of a parish in Renfrewshire, Fr. Fitzsimmons, “tubby, avuncular, and clad in Calvin Klein slippers” (among other things, one hopes), approves of abortion and homosexuality, and is positively enthusiastic about contraception. The Herald quotes him as saying of the current pontificate: “There is no spirit of openness. It is utterly authoritarian under this pope. He has polarized the Church. Pope John Paul II is tearing the Church apart and making it hard for people like me to remain a part of it. The Church has got to get rid of the baggage the Pope has brought. It has failed to live up to my expectations of it.” There you have it, the Church has failed to live up to his expectations. One is reminded of the many articles by like-minded Catholics published under the generic title, “Why I Remain a Catholic.” To which one imagines Christ and the Church saying, “Please, do us no favors.”
• There’s right to life, and then there’s right to life. A different meaning of the phrase is provided by the Australian Philip Nitschke, president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Research Foundation, who is planning to launch a “euthanasia boat,” modeled on the “abortion boat” that sails in international waters near countries where abortion is illegal. Nitschke is also the inventor of the “deliverance machine” and “peaceful pill” for people who want to go it alone. He is asked by an interviewer: “Would there be any restrictions on who would be served on your boat? Do you see any restrictions that should be placed on euthanasia generally? If I am depressed, do I qualify? If an elderly woman’s husband dies and she says she no longer has anything to live for, would you help her kill herself? What about a troubled teen? Who qualifies? Who decides life is worth living?” Nitschke responds: “This difficult question I will answer in two parts. My personal position is that if we believe that there is a right to life, then we must accept that people have a right to dispose of that life whenever they want. (In the same way as the right to freedom of religion has implicit the right to be an atheist, and the right to freedom of speech involves the right to remain silent.) I do not believe that telling people they have a right to life while denying them the means, manner, or information necessary for them to give this life away has any ethical consistency. So all people qualify, not just those with the training, knowledge, or resources to find out how to ‘give away’ their life. And someone needs to provide this knowledge, training, or resource necessary to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, [and] the troubled teen. If we are to remain consistent and we believe that [individuals have] the right to dispose of their lives, we should not erect artificial barriers in the way of sub-groups who don’t meet our criteria. This would mean that the so-called ‘peaceful pill’ should be available in the supermarket so that those old enough to understand death could obtain death peacefully at the time of their choosing. It’s hard enough to imagine how such a development would affect society, but I believe the impact would not be as great as people fear. One group to clearly benefit from such a development would be those terminally ill patients who would derive immense comfort from knowing that they now have such control in their hands. We have a great deal of anecdotal evidence from the clinics I run in all Australian states that the acquisition of such substances or drugs takes away a great deal of uncertainty associated with the feeling of loss of control. Perhaps it is a paradox, but we see it time and time again, that the acquisition of lethal substances that would guarantee a peaceful death enables those suffering to keep on going, living longer, and getting more out of the remaining part of their life. So empowering the entire population in this way could result in a net increase in the integrated total of human life, something I’m sure that many of the detractors of voluntary euthanasia would support.” One can see the television ads: “Take charge of your life. The Peaceful Pill.”
• Economics 101: “A popular, though probably apocryphal, story of the era illustrates something of people’s attitudes about stretching a dollar. It seems an FBI man had confiscated a counterfeit $20
bill and asked that the hotel manager place it in the safe until he left in the morning. The manager needed some cash to pay for repairs on his car. So, not knowing the bill was bogus, he borrowed it. The garage owner accepted the bill and immediately went to the grocery store and used it to buy food for his family. The grocer used the fake twenty to pay a bill at the hardware store, whose owner turned around and purchased some things from a traveling salesman using the same $20
bill. The salesman checked in at the hotel and paid for his room with the counterfeit bill. The hotel manager finally put the bill in the safe and returned it to the FBI in the [morning]. Everyone used a single counterfeit bill to transact $100 worth of business without using legal tender.” That’s from Walter W. Benjamin’s The Magical Years, a boyhood remembrance of growing up during the Depression in a small Minnesota town (published by Beaver’s Pond Press). It’s a bittersweet, but mainly sweet, story, bearing this epigraph from Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!: “Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”
• The lethal logic moves on most logically. The leading center for the treatment of premature babies in the Netherlands has announced it will no longer provide intensive care for babies born before twenty-five weeks gestation. It was explained that only 34 percent of them survive, and half of those have physical or mental handicaps by the age of two. It might be pointed out that the same reasoning could be applied to the elderly who are severely ill. But, of course, the Netherlands has already attended to that.
• Damon Linker, our new book editor, asks, “Do we notice junk books like this or just pass over them in silence?” Ordinarily we ignore them, but I’ll make an exception for the book that raised the question. It’s Daniel C. Maguire’s Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions. Another pro-abortion tract by ex-priest Maguire of Marquette University, one of the more strident but lesser known dissenting theologians, is hardly worthy of notice. But it provides occasion to note the death of its publisher. Fortress was once the press of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) and a powerhouse of serious religious and theological publishing in America. When the LCA was merged with the American Lutheran Church (ALC) in 1987, Fortress was merged with the ALC’s Augsburg Press—which also once published books of consequence—under the meaningless title Augsburg Fortress. Many have observed that the merged denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is much less than the sum of its previous parts, but nowhere is that lessness more sadly evident than in its publishing house. Sacred Choices, it says here, is one in a series “in collaboration with” something called the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics. Fortress Press. RIP.
• It is over a year since the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Boy Scouts to exclude leaders who, on the basis of their public statements and actions, raise a question about their possible interest in doing rude things with little boys. This policy of discrimination prompted the editors of the New York Times to declare that the Scouts are outside the American mainstream and “something akin to a hate group.” Leftists of sundry stripes went into high gear with a campaign to get public schools, corporations, and organizations of every possible kind to cut their ties with the Scouts. So how is the Boy Scouts of America doing? Quite well, thank you. At least that’s the report by Peter Ferrara, who teaches law at George Mason University and, or so it says here, is executive director of the ACLU. Schools and other public institutions are being judicially overruled on their “viewpoint discrimination” against the Scouts, and the public continues to think that the editors of the Times are way out of the mainstream. A recent poll shows 75 percent of Americans holding a favorable view of the Scouts, with 11 percent unfavorable. After those polled are told of the Scouts’ policy regarding homosexual leaders, the favorable rating increases. Yet the campaign against the Scouts goes on. Mr. Ferrara concludes: “All of this illiberalism stems from a fundamental change in the gay rights movement. It began by arguing that adults should be free to do what they choose in the privacy of their own bedrooms, without government interference. But today, the movement advocates the very different proposition that the power of government should be used to force everyone to approve of homosexual conduct, morally and socially. That cannot be achieved by liberal means, because it is not a liberal goal.”
• Among U.S. medical doctors, according to a recent American Medical Association study, there is a big difference—22 percent vs. 9 percent—between the rank-and-file and members of the AMA’s House of Delegates when it comes to support for a law allowing physician-assisted suicide. Otherwise, there were only two variables that seemed to make a difference in the position that doctors take: political orientation and religion. “Physicians who said they were politically conservative were more likely to oppose physician-assisted suicide. . . . About 47 percent of politically conservative doctors opposed doctor-assisted suicide, compared with the 19 percent of politically liberal physicians who opposed it. When it came to religion, 45 percent of Catholic physicians opposed physician-assisted suicide, 32 percent of Protestant physicians opposed it, and 16 percent of Jewish physicians opposed it. Also, those who said that religion was ‘very important’ were far more likely to oppose legalizing physician-assisted suicide—55 percent of them—than doctors who said religion was ‘not at all important,’ 18 percent.”
• I suppose nobody has done more than Mark Noll of Wheaton College to help us understand the strengths and weaknesses of evangelical Protestantism. His new book, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Blackwell), is treated at length by David Martin in the evangelical publication Books & Culture. Martin shares Noll’s long-standing concern about what he has called “the scandal of the evangelical mind.” Martin writes: “Let me put it this way. One knows plenty of ‘hard’ scientists who are evangelicals, and evangelicals are also well represented in practical and useful sciences, like medicine and agronomy. The Victoria Institute in London to which Noll refers was full of such people, but the real problem lies in the different kinds of souls which exist to inhabit the ‘many mansions’ of eternity. Evangelicalism is clear about our equal need of redemption but poor in its provision for artistic and sensitive souls. Catholicism may be less democratic, but it is decidedly superior in its provision for the varieties of the human spirit.” Why is it, Martin asks, that a community so zealous for “the Word” has produced so little in terms of notable writing? “This minatory history of literature is also the spiritual biography of thousands who, if their imaginations had been fed, might have been part of an opening of the evangelical mind. As an Oxford don put it to me, herself an evangelical and teacher of English, you cannot engage in practical criticism with an overmastering interest in godliness and virtue. It is not remotely possible even with Milton, Renaissance Puritan though he was. If you are apt for Christian sustenance then you turn to the metaphysicals, to Johnson, Hopkins, Auden, Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, and the like—none of them evangelical, and usually Catholic or high Anglican. Once again here lies a clue as to why evangelicals turn to writers like C. S. Lewis.” As for contemporary music, Martin notes that there are outstanding composers of strong Christian commitment—Pärt, Tavener, MacMillan, et al.—but they are Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Lutheran. Evangelicalism, to be sure, has Havergal, Crosby, Sankey, and others who have put the “old, old story” into music that speaks directly to the soul, but it is a limited genre. Martin writes: “The contemplative mode offers a clue here, because participation can be coercive, and especially so in requiring positive feelings and collective happiness. Just because conversion brings tears of joy and turns a soul from bleak despair to ‘rejoicing in the light,’ there is some kind of ban on listening to ‘the still sad music of humanity’ and the ‘lachrymae rerum.‘ We are too easily forced back to the kind of childishness represented by the repetitions of ‘I’m H.A.P.P.Y.’ or ‘A little talk with Jesus makes it right.’ ‘Loathéd melancholy’ is as great a sin for evangelicals as acedia was for medieval Christians.” The crucial insight here, I think, is on making provision for the varieties of the human spirit, which is incompatible with the coercion of participation and positive feelings. It is by no means a problem limited to evangelicals. A Catholic priest who is under the misimpression that the liturgy is his platform rather the Church’s worship that he is to serve begins a Mass with the exuberant declaration, “This morning our hearts are overflowing with joy!” Not quite, thought a father in the congregation who had just learned that his son, who has been on dialysis for years, received a final refusal for another kidney transplant. Music, literature, liturgy, and preaching that does not comprehend the lachrymae rerum, the tears of things, proposes a victory that too often seems to have bypassed the Cross. The problem is with a piety of abundant answers made implausible by the failure to take the time to understand the questions.
• At one of those impossibly tedious late-night preparatory sessions for the United Nations summit on children’s rights, a Canadian delegate, tired and exasperated, finally blurted out that of course the phrase “reproductive health care and services” includes abortion. Pro-lifers at the meeting and elsewhere were exultant. For many years, pro-abortionists had denied what the Canadian delegate admitted. Their strategy has been to get language such as “reproductive health care and services” ensconced in the “customary law” of international agreements, in the hope that at some point a tribunal would rule that such language includes abortion, thus establishing abortion as an international human right. This strategy is made explicit in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP). The suit aims to overturn the “Mexico City policy” that was established by President Reagan, rescinded by President Clinton, and reinstated by the Bush Administration. That policy forbids the use of U.S. funds for overseas groups that promote or perform abortions. The CRLP suit asserts, “Generally recognized international legal norms may, if endorsed and accepted by the vast majority of nations, become part of customary international law and thus binding on the U.S. even if it does not ratify or endorse those norms.” The cat is now out of the bag, so to speak. CRLP and its allies, says Brigham Young law professor Richard Wilkins, are anticipating “the eventuality that Roe v. Wade may be overturned by the United States.” He adds that this strategy demonstrates “CRLP’s contempt for the American political system, as well as a disregard for more general notions of national sovereignty and democratic self-determination.” The unwonted candor of the Canadian delegate and of the CRLP suit, it is hoped, will alert more UN delegates to the sly jargon employed in bypassing political accountability in order to advance the pro-abortion agenda.
• Long-term readers know that we have very definite views about “the judicial usurpation of politics.” When the courts decide that the people cannot be trusted with the really important decisions, the result is not only “the end of democracy” but the end of politics. A long time ago, Marx prophesied that the government of men would be replaced by the administration of things, which is another way of saying the end of politics. Government as the rational and just administration of social goods has a great appeal for academics who are skilled at coming up with theories of what is rational and just. And for judges who think of themselves as philosopher kings. That approach has decidedly less appeal for politicians whose job it is to broker among conflicting interests and their attendant understandings of what is rational and just. This matter is framed very nicely by British philosopher John Gray in the Times Literary Supplement: “It is only during the past thirty years that political philosophy has been ruled by the strange idea of a theory of justice. From Aristotle onwards, philosophers have tried to find reasons for our judgments about justice, but most have believed that when we differ about what it demands, it is not a theory that we require. What we need then is politics—a practical activity in which history, sentiment, and the sense of belonging in a common enterprise are at least as important as any kind of theoretical reasoning. With the ascendancy of an American orthodoxy in which political philosophy is viewed as a branch of jurisprudence, however, the center of gravity of the subject has shifted. No longer do philosophers aim to improve the political reasoning of ordinary citizens. Instead, they see their task as providing a body of principles which can be interpreted by a court. In this view, best represented in John Rawls’ deeply meditated and intricately reasoned, yet supremely parochial and unhistorical book, A Theory of Justice (1971), politics is redundant. Philosophers supply principles dictating the scope of individual liberty and the distribution of social goods; judges apply them. Little if anything of importance remains for political decision. Rawls calls his theory ‘political liberalism,’ but it is more accurately described as a species of antipolitical legalism.”
• Sexual Fulfillment: For Single and Married, Straight and Gay, Young and Old is a new book by the former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Herbert Chilstrom, and bishop emeritus of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Area Synod, Lowell Erdahl. The gist of the argument is that “sex is a wonderful gift from God, given to us for our enjoyment.” The bishops have good things to say about “self-pleasuring,” a.k.a. masturbation, favor the ordination of gays and lesbians in “faithful relationships,” and propose that such “holy unions” should be blessed by the Church. “We oppose abusive and domineering sexual behavior,” they write. “But we also believe that we should be concerned about all of the wonderful pleasures we have failed to enjoy.” It is not clear whether the last sentence is intended autobiographically. Since they provide no principled argument and consistently reject any appeal to tradition (such as what the Church has always believed and taught), it does seem churlish of the bishops to deny to sadists and masochists the abuse and domination that they think necessary to their “sexual fulfillment.” Perhaps it is simply that the bishops recognize that, even among libertine Minnesota Lutherans, there is a felt need to draw the line somewhere. To paraphrase Mrs. Campbell, “I don’t care what they do, so long as they don’t do it in the barn and frighten the cows.” Lake Wobegon has come a long way.
• There was much sadness, embarrassment, and casting of blame when Danny Almonte of the Bronx pitched that perfect Little League game but then turned out to be too old for the Little League. People tend to have very strong views about anything touching on the exploitation of children. Not always, however, as Lionel Tiger of Rutgers University points out in a column taking off from the Almonte affair: “The national culture is usually savage about this kind of violation. But not always. That execrable rant, The Vagina Monologues [an off-Broadway play], contains a scene in which a mature woman with dark skin describes to audience applause her luscious sexual seduction of a thirteen-year-old, dark-skinned girl who had never seen the apartment of such a prosperous woman, with a glad stereo and all the branded drinks. Virtually no one drew attention to this statutory rape . . . and the show plays every night without a peep of complaint. The lesson is that if you are going to commit moral fraud about the young, do so with the wind of community sanctimony at your back.”
• A remarkably broad coalition has gathered in support of a Federal Marriage Amendment proposed by the Alliance for Marriage. The amendment reads: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.” An amendment to the Constitution faces formidable barriers, which is how the Founders intended it, but this one certainly deserves the widest possible public debate, and should, I think, be supported. Interestingly, the proposed amendment has been attacked by gay activists and some conservatives, both claiming that it violates the federalist understanding that marriage and family law is left to the states. The gay tactic here is an instance of high disingenuousness, since they have made no secret of their game plan, which is to force other states to recognize same-sex unions (as in Vermont) under the full faith and credit provision of the U.S. Constitution. They are also counting on the U.S. Supreme Court, which in the 1996 Romer v. Evans ruling declared that a Colorado referendum prohibiting what the voters viewed as special rights for gays manifested an irrational “animus” against homosexuals. The gay game plan to legitimate same-sex relationships as marriage is precisely and explicitly aimed at overriding federalism. As Judge Robert Bork, who helped draft the proposed amendment, has written, “One way or another, federalism is going to be overridden. The only question is whether the general rule will permit or prohibit the marriage of same-sex couples. . . . The Federal Marriage Amendment is an attempt, and perhaps the only hope, to preserve marriage as an institution of incalculable value.” Bork and other supporters of the amendment note the parallels with the notorious Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 regarding abortion, arguing that, if the gay movement succeeds in its strategy, we are facing the probability of another such instance of the judicial usurpation of politics. The alternative is to submit the question of what will count as marriage to the debate and decision of the people through our representative political institutions, which is precisely what the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment aims to do.
• On February 11, Gao Zhan was at the Beijing airport on her way home from a family vacation with her Chinese-American husband and their five-year-old son. She was arrested, imprisoned, relentlessly interrogated, and otherwise abused for five and a half months. World magazine had a moving story, underscoring her testimony to Christ who sustained her through the ordeal (the family is Missouri Synod Lutheran). Her faith is at the heart of the way she tells the story. A few weeks later the New York Times Magazine had a story on what she had been through. Not a mention of you know what or You Know Who. Maybe the Times interviewed a different Gao Zhan who had a similar experience?
• The surprising thing is that Michael Lind’s vaporings were carried by United Press International. Lind, a prolific social critic and champion of the gay and lesbian cause, explodes at the remarks of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Gustav Niebuhr of the Times seized on Falwell’s remarks in particular, which were made on Robertson’s 700 Club, and the story had, as they say, long legs. Falwell pointed at the ACLU, pro-abortionists, and the gay lobby for corrupting the morality of America and inviting the judgment of God, as evident in the September 11 attacks. Falwell’s remarks, at that time and on a nationally televised program, were, to say the very, very least, injudicious. The next day he issued a statement emphasizing that he blamed nobody but the attackers for the attack. Since that fateful day, however, there have surely been similar discussions in thousands of Bible classes and millions of homes around the country. After all, the belief that rampant evils have consequences and may invite Divine judgment is hardly out of the mainstream. Lind writes, however, that such views “are un-American.” But he has even graver charges to make. “Like Tokyo Rose during World War II and like Jane Fonda during the Vietnam War, the leaders of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition have given aid and comfort to the enemy. . . . Their fundamentalist ideology is essentially identical to that of the Muslim extremists.” He goes on to lump them with William Bennett, Robert Bork, William Kristol, Charles Colson, and your writer, all of whom, he says, are promoting “a theocratic crusade of a ‘Judeo-Christian America’ against an equally theocratic enemy.” “In this war, V is not going to stand for Virtue. It is going to stand for Victory,” Lind asserts. “Whatever you Blame-America-First conservatives may think, we know that this is not a holy war between your medieval religion and theirs. It’s a war of reason and tolerance against medieval superstition.” Continuing in that ever so reasonable and tolerant vein, he notes that after the attack many leaders were speaking of Americans as “people of faith.” To which Lind spurts, “‘People of faith.’ The very term sounds ominous after last Tuesday.” I do not say that Michael Lind is un-American, but he is beyond doubt angrily alienated from what in this case is aptly described as the mainstream of the American experience. He should be very grateful that Christians and Jews and, yes, most Muslims in America adhere to truths that include him, despite his vituperation, in the continuing community of moral discourse and concern, even if he excludes them. That they do so is a virtue. Perhaps when the heat of the moment has passed, Mr. Lind will calm down and recognize his dependence upon the beliefs that he holds in such vulgar contempt.
• Those who have been wondering whatever happened to Father Charles Curran, the Catholic moral theologian who was some years ago decertified as such, may want to take note of his The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis, recently published by Georgetown University. Fr. Curran, who now teaches at Southern Methodist, aims to rebut John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, employing a Relational-Responsible Model of morality that is attuned to contemporary culture’s “big church,” as distinct from the narrow and authoritarian Catholic Church. Fr. James Burtchaell reviews Curran’s project in the British-based Studies in Christian Ethics. According to Burtchaell, Curran’s system is helpful in drawing a moral distinction between “the unconsidered IUD, the hasty abortion, and the solipsistic masturbation,” on the one hand, and, on the other, “the relational-responsible intercourse with someone else’s needy husband, the just-this-once removal of Mom, and the compassionate visit to the I-Thou bathhouse.” In the book, Curran sets himself against Methodist ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, who argues that serious morality is always tied to a particular tradition, and who for that reason has the highest regard for John Paul II and Veritatis Splendor. Burtchaell observes in passing: “One cannot entirely avoid the irony that the astringent Hauerwas is read attentively by critical audiences of every church and none, while Curran’s presuppositions, concerns, and even vocabulary confine his arguments so intramurally to a (non-‘big’) Catholic audience.” There is nothing so stiflingly parochial as a facile universalism.
• Maybe there is accounting for taste after all. BBC News reports on a psychiatric study at a London hospital that shows a connection between brain power and a liking for classical or pop music. In a study of dementia patients, as brain power diminishes the patients sometimes change from liking classical to liking pop, but not the other way around. “What this may mean is that you require more gray matter to appreciate classical music and that you don’t need so much gray matter to appreciate pop music, so as you lose gray matter your taste in music changes accordingly,” explained Dr. Raj Persaud. Dr. Susan Hallam, who has done studies in music and the human attention span, is skeptical. “I know some highly academic people who like pop music,” she says. So what does being an academic have to do with it?
• I don’t know what to make of this. For a long time it’s been okay for blacks to use the N-word. Co-opting slurs directed your way may be smart strategy, or simply evidence of feeling very secure. In any event, Steven Spielberg is among those who are funding a new magazine edited by twenty-five-year-old Jennifer Bleyer. It’s called Heeb, an old ethnic slur for “Hebrew.” Ms. Bleyer of Brooklyn says it’s part of an “image makeover.” “Who wants to call themselves Jew? We’ve been called Jews for four thousand years. It’s played out. Heeb just sounds so much cooler.”
• A couple of years ago I suggested here that we would know a corner had been turned when the New York Times weddings section included same-sex unions. We are almost there. Joseph Quenqua, a p.r. executive, submitted an announcement of his union with Art Smith, hoping that the paper’s advocacy of same-sex unions and what he calls its “extreme efforts to include gays and lesbians” in all aspects of its coverage would result in its being published. News editor William Borders responded, “We don’t feel able to open our pages to civil unions in part because that would amount to taking an editorial position in the news columns on an issue that still very much divides society.” Mr. Quenqua, quite logically, responded that the Times should accept in its own pages what it urges the rest of society to accept. Mr. Borders assured him that the policy is “under regular review.” Meaning, it is reasonable to infer, that the corner is very near.
• “In necessary things unity; in doubtful things liberty; in all things charity.” I attributed it to the seventeenth-century English divine Richard Baxter. That’s the attribution in The Oxford Book of Quotations. But Jack Hartigan of New York has come across an article by Hans Rollman in Restoration Quarterly that claims Baxter, in The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, attributes the maxim to Paraenesis votiva pro pace ecclesiae ad Theologos Augustanae Confessionis by Peter Meiderlin (Rupertus Meldenius), a German Lutheran writer of the time. I seem to have mislaid my copy of Paraenesis and so can’t check it out, but I thought you might want to know. In any event, and to the disappointment of some Catholic friends, the maxim is certainly not original with John XXIII, although he gave it renewed currency.
• Stupidity by Avital Ronell is just out from University of Illinois Press. The catalogue description opens with this: “Nietzsche, Einstein, and Deleuze agree: the question of stupidity, its unremitting sway, needs to be dealt with. This book explores the urgency of stupidity, its hiding places as well as its everyday public appearances.” Doing our bit to deal with it, we did not order the book for review.
• “Workers’ Rights Suffering as China Goes Capitalist,” is the headline in the New York Times story by Erik Eckholm. It seems many private and foreign companies in China are paying low wages without health or retirement benefits. Capitalism will do that every time, just as Chairman Mao said. Oh, for the good old days of mass starvation and reeducation camps.
• The mystery has been solved! At least as solved as such mysteries sometimes can be. I have on different occasions noted that a much-quoted statement by President Eisenhower may never have been stated by him. Now Professor Jon Butler of Yale sends me an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (XLIX/1) by Prof. Patrick Henry of Swarthmore, “‘And I Don’t Care What It is Is’: The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion Proof-Text.” In a delicious sendup of tradition-textual-critical sleuthing, comparable to Henry’s more accustomed sleuthing in the texts of the Church Fathers, he persuasively demonstrates that President Eisenhower, at around noon on Monday, December 22, 1952, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York at a luncheon sponsored by the Freedoms Foundation, actually did say: “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” These words have been many times cited by, inter alia, Will Herberg, Sydney Ahlstrom, Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, Martin Marty, William Lee Miller, and your scribe in order to demonstrate, variously, the shallowness or depth of American civil religion, and of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The problem is that the Eisenhower statement was differently quoted by different authors who were footnoting one another as their source. In the context now unearthed by Prof. Henry, Eisenhower was recounting a discussion with Marshal Zhukov of the Soviet Union. He was explaining the foundation of the American government by reference to the Declaration’s statement that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Then came the famous italicized sentence above. Immediately after that, however, was this: “With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.” He added, “So what was the use of me talking to Zhukov about that? Religion, he had been taught, was the opiate of the people.” Far from demonstrating that Eisenhower was addle-brained or believed in a “religion in general” in which all religions are equally valuable (the conventional interpretation of the statement), he was simply asserting an unexceptionable truth about the American founding, and about democracy more generally. We are all indebted to Prof. Patrick Henry for his detective work.
• Across from the United Nations building on First Avenue are inscribed the majestic words of Isaiah 2: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Each year there is a prayer service at the Church of the Holy Family next to the UN marking the opening of the General Assembly. It is attended by the Cardinal Archbishop of New York and the General Secretary of the UN, along with numerous delegates and other dignitaries. This year’s reading of Isaiah 2 went like this: “He will settle arguments between nations. They will pound their swords and spears into rakes and shovels; they will never make war or attack one another.” Other scriptural readings were similarly dumbed-down and degraded. It is deeply embarrassing. One is asked why Catholics do that sort of thing. I wish I had an answer that would not add to the embarrassment.
• In a Wall Street Journal column a year ago, after again perusing the fine arts catalogues for the “holiday season,” I again complained that, at least in this department, Christmas has not been commercialized nearly enough. In response to the column, well-meaning folk have contacted me to report that they found a nice item here or there—a handsomely carved Peruvian manger scene, a bronze reproduction of a Sicilian Madonna and Child, and so forth. Fair enough. I didn’t say that there was nothing of specifically Christian significance on offer. But there is precious little. I suspect that David Brooks has his finger on one reason why that is the case. In his Bobos in Paradise, he notes that bobos (bourgeois bohemians) engage in one-downsmanship, one form of which is to co-opt the art of certifiably oppressed cultures. “An educated person can feel a sense of benevolence while appreciating the beauty of their iconography. Sometimes it will be the religious objects of an oppressed culture that will be displayed in an educated home: Amazonian figures, Native American totems, Egyptian deities, animistic shells, or Shinto statuettes. It is acceptable to display sacred items in an educated person’s home so long as they are from a religion neither the host nor any of his or her guests is likely to profess.” That helps to explain what is offered in these classy “Holiday Season” catalogues from major museums aimed at the bobo market. There is a lot of Judaica, however, which is a partial exception to Brooks’ non-profession rule, it being understood that Jews are economically a prime market and psychologically an oppressed people. If there are the oppressed, there must be the oppressor, and the only candidate for the latter role, religiously speaking, is Christianity. An Indian totem, an Aztec doll, or a Chagall print of a stetl bris are all evidence of cultivated sensitivity, whereas a reproduction of a fifteenth-century crucifix, no matter how artistically worthy the craftsmanship, might offend. An exception might be made for one of those charmingly primitive Mexican crucifixes with the wood all painted like blood, since it would be understood that the decidedly non-Mexican bobos who display it are within the non-profession rule. What is not permitted is the religious art from the world’s richest tradition of art, namely, European Christianity. Mr. Brooks explains that bobos are into things that are “distressed”—distressed wooden tables, distressed fabrics, distressed pots and pans such as one gets at the Restoration Hardware stores. They are also into distressed peoples and their art, if tastefully distressed. Most Christian art fails the distressed test. To disapprove of such art is the bohemian side of the bobo sensibility. So I suppose it is the case that the source of my complaint about those fine arts catalogues is that they are put together by bobos for bobos. Understanding that does not make it less distressing.
• You remember “supply-side economics.” That’s the theory that supplying a product creates demand for the product. It is confirmed again and again when people say, as they often do, that they didn’t know they had been looking for FT all these years until they stumbled across it. You can do your part to support supply-side stumbling by asking your local public (or college or university or parish) library why they don’t carry FT. The same thing has been known to work very effectively with book stores. Thank you.
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Garry Wills on David Kertzer, New York Times Book Review, September 23, 2001.
While We’re At It: Peter Brown on Augustine, Reflections, May 2001. Ronald Marshall on homosexuality and the Bible, Forum Letter, April 2001. Fr. John Fitzsimmons on John Paul II, Glasgow Herald, April 2, 2001. Treatment of premature babies in the Netherlands, SPUC press release, June 11, 2001. On discrimination against the Boy Scouts, Weekly Standard, June 11, 2001. American Medical Association statistics, American Medical News, June 4, 2001. David Martin on evangelicalism, Books & Culture, May/June 2001. On “reproductive services,” Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute press release, June 21, 2001. John Gray on political philosophy, Times Literary Supplement, April 20, 2001. On Lutheran sexual fulfillment, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, July 7, 2001. Robert Bork on the Federal Marriage Amendment, Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2001. On Gao Zhan, World, September 1, 2001. Michael Lind on theocrats, UPI, September 17, 2001. Fr. James Burtchaell on Fr. Charles Curran, Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol. 14, No. 1. On music and brain power, BBC News, June 24, 2001. On “Heebs,” New York Observer, July 30, 2001. New York Times wedding page, New York Observer, July 30, 2001. China goes capitalist, New York Times, August 22, 2001.