So any postmodern conservative who would want to give the strongest possible case for Walt Whitman would begin, as I have, with a long footnote to the 1876 preface to his LEAVES OF GRASS:

Given the necessarily inegalitarian manifestations of human greatness of war and politics that Whitman can’t help but acknowledge, they can’t, he concludes in his deepest reflections, be the source of the Amercan poem of “average identity” (the poem for you, “whoever you are,” that he claimed is his “Leaves of Grass”). “A man,” Whitman contends, “is not greatest as victor in war, nor inventor or explorer, nor even in science, or his intellectual or artistic capability, or exemplar in some great benevolence.” All of those forms of greatness Whitman regards as real, or not dependent on feudal or aristocratic illusion and of real benefit to democratic personal and historical progress. They are certainly not characteristic of average men and women.

War separates men into winners and losers, based on skill, strength, and courage. Few have the intelligence to be a Franklin or Lewis and Clark or Darwin, but their inventions and discoveries improve almost immeasurably both how and so who we are and what we know. The bards of past and future who, Whitman says, preserve, create, and give meaning to whole worlds have talent and imagination given to very few. And the benevolent exemplar Lincoln, of course, had for Whitman,  an altogether singular greatness that culminated in his being “Martyr in Chief.”

Whitman doesn’t claim that these natural inequalities of talent, virtue, and accomplishment wither away with the end of feudalism and the perfection of democracy. He even, despite himself, sort of agrees with Jefferson that one reason democracy deserves to prevail is that it allows the members of these natural aristocracies to rise to the top. The general, the poet, the scientists, and the “Martyr in Chief” never become dispensable or superfluous, and it would, in fact, be human regression if Marx’s predictions about unalienated, unobsessive, depoliticized “communism” ever became real. Whitman’s relatively modest claim (by the standards of nineteenth century progressivism or indefinite utopianism) is that, from “the highest democratic” view, there is a form of greatness both more average and somehow more singular than all these.

This is nothing more or less, it seems to me, than a poet thinking through what’s implied in the modern individualism originated by Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke and radicalized in the sense of openly celebrated in America by Paine: There is, in truth, nothing more singular and wonderful than ME. And that must, in some sense, be true of every ME, every personal identity.
Note how restrained Whitman’s language is: “man is most acceptable in living well in practical life.”

That human life is essentially practical is the modern view. Theory is for practice—or not for its own sake. We only know what we make for ourselves, and we make only on the basis of the undeniable knowledge  each of us have about the existence of the self or the person or the “I.” In practice, as Machiavelli and Marx says, we find the possibility of eradicating both all the cruelties and all the mysteries that have plagued the thinkers and societies of the past. And given the primacy of the individual or personal consent, practice can’t really be grounded in what the species in general does. That one reason—maybe the key reason—that Whitman insists that Darwin doesn’t explain it all, even from the point of view of science or what we can see with our own eyes. The undeniable human fact is that  “I do”—each of us does. So who I am—including my greatness—must be discovered in what I do. Nothing else could be an acceptable account of who each of us is and who we are.

In Whitman’s version of Hegel—which is a not completely implausible distortion of Hegel’s insight, history or “God’s will” must somehow preserve the infinite value or personal identity or indispensable significance of what each of us does. The highest thing each of us does, Whitman makes more clear than Hegel, is “manly and courageous” or living virtuously with what we can’t help but know about what we can’t help but know about our irreducible personal identity.

We aren’t most characteristically—I’m tempted to say essentially—warriors or thinkers or poets. The average person, Whitman claims, has the capacity to perform nobly in war and to be moved deeply by poetry. But those qualities aren’t what he or she most needs to live well most of the time, and so they can’t be the source of the virtue that’s most his or her own. The virtue that is most his own (and I’m now privileging being masculine because Whitman did distinguish between the characteristic virtues of men and women—because they are given different responsibilities by nature!) is living well with the “lot which happens to him as ordinary farmer, seafarer, mechanic, clerk, laborer, or driver.”
The task of the democratic poet and virtue is to identify and celebrate the virtue—we tempted to say the freedom and responsibility—that comes with living well with the ordinary duties most of us have been given most of the time. It’s in the duties of the “citizen, son, husband, father”—as well as those of the ordinary “employ’d person”—that the highest human greatness, from a democratic view, is found.

The goal is not to deny or negate the various social responsibilities we’re given by both nature, our relations with other persons, and society, but to celebrate their ordinary, virtuous acceptance by most people as the source of the undeniable greatness of who each of us is. Who can deny that Whitman is right that the poets and thinkers of the past unrealistically disparaged ordinary virtue—and so denied most persons the pride and dignity that they are due? Whitman, here, celebrates the person not as pure “idiosyncrasy” but as necessarily embedded in but not reducible to social and practical life.

The average man—with average identity—is, Whitman goes on, “greatest of all, and nobler than the proudest mere genius or magnate in any field,” when “he fully realizes the conscience, the spiritual, the divine faculty, cultivated well, exemplified in all deeds and words, throughout life, uncompromising to the end.” The morally cultivated average man displays his virtue in what he says and does; his is a whole life of living and dying well. This description reminds me at least of the portraits of the morally virtuous man in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, but without the haughty and unrealistic self-denials of the magnanimous man or the general contempt for practical life on behalf of the life of leisure. Still, this description itself, of course, implies real inequality.

Not every such life, surely, could ever be fully realized conscientiously or spiritually, and Whitman admits that most of the American lives he can see with his own eyes in ordinary times seem relatively superficial and merely materialistic. But America could only be fully justified if the there’s something real about the nobility or greatness of seemingly ordinary lives or workers of ordinary means. Surely any poetic celebration of democracy depends on the possibility that most people can display the capacity of living and dying well with who they really are. Who can deny that such an ordinary display of virtue is greater than “mere genius”?

The reason that the virtuous person, for Whitman, lives “a flight loftier than any of Homer’s or Shakespeare’s” and “broader than the poems and bibles” is that his life is most “Nature’s own,” meaning the one in most in accord with a true account of “Yourself, your own identity, body and soul.” The life of democratic virtue is the one most free of illusions, or the one that comports best with who we really are. Whether or not that is really true, we can see that Whitman has taken with dead seriousness the poetic project Tocqueville laid out of reconciling the greatness of aristocratic individuality (which always depended to some extent on vain illusions that justified injustice) and democratic justice.

Whitman, at his best, is at a much higher pay grade and level of moral aspiration than either Emerson or Thoreau. His failure really to provide the poetry and religion that he saw indispensable for celebrating and perpetuating personal identity in democracy’s future points us back to the genuinely personal theology he wrongly saw discredited by modern science. But that’s a topic for another post.

Articles by Peter Lawler


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