I would note a couple of complications for the Front Porch discussion of Strauss in relation to an Alternative Tradition in America. Discussion of these complications might help to clarify what, if anything stable and substantial, is really at stake between a Front Porch and a Pomocon position (assuming these are or can be made coherent bodies of thought).

Man’s antagonism towards nature was not an invention of modernity. Nor was his sense of alienation from his concrete, local community, his human city on a human scale. Leo Strauss knew this — it might indeed have been the main thing he knew — but I gather he wanted to be friends with Christian Natural Law types, so he mostly lays this thesis between the lines: the First Wave of Modernity is . . . Christianity. (So add “1” to all the other waves.) It is Christian universalism and individualism that irreversibly complicate the Front Porch project, long before these longings evoked by the Bible were reconceived as a project of human autosalvation.

Fortunately, though there is a powerful logic leading from each of the first three waves to the next, we are not permitted to believe in the inevitability of the ongoing slide down the slope. Otherwise, why was Strauss writing? Or, for that matter, why Tocqueville’s “Legislative” efforts, Tocqueville who understood the boundless slipperiness of equality, but found his duty and even his nobility or greatness in affirming a choice of a decent and just, though very imperfect democracy.

There is no such thing as pure modernity. Pure modernity is Nietzsche (Nietzsche is the pure Machiavelli), and Nietzsche is not, finally coherent — his passion to combine the nobility of Caesar with the compassion of Christ could only be sought by actually following Christ, and this I take it he could not consider. All modernity is adulterated, and the American Founding is so in an especially blessed way. The American Founding is already an Alternative Tradition, and every Alternative Tradition is adulterated. There is no pure theory of practice, either modern or “alternative.” Liberalism is indeed parasitic, and it is indeed very much morally depleted — no disagreement there on my part – yes, and shameless, pornographic, all that no doubt, too. But a wise “alternative” would have to be . . . yes, parasitic on liberalism (or on its roots in Christian universalism and alienation), too.

(On the question of natural depletion – the ecological question – I take Prof. Deneen’s concerns very seriously, though I may see a little more truth in the Lockean assertion or wager that much material value is in human labor and invention. But it is certainly true that the technological mindset is structurally blind to the good of wholes, even the whole human body. In any case, I believe the threats to our moral-spiritual-familial ecology are the most urgent. Or perhaps I’m just not smart enough o work on both problems at once.)

Thus I have already publicly raised the question whether “The Tocquevillean Moment is Over” — by which I mean the moment of trying to preserve felicitous religious and localist contaminations within liberalism without directly confronting the theory or notions of liberalism (self-interest well understood and all that). Does this post-Tocquevillean question move me towards the Front Porch?

Maybe this is where I differ from my more purely localist-traditionalist friends, and where I think I am not only, admittedly, more “Straussian” than they, but also, I think, more Tocquevillean: liberal individualism is partly true, and very American, and therefore irreversible short of some catastrophe it makes no sense to wish for. To contain and moderate this partial liberal truth it is necessary first to acknowledge it, otherwise we make enemies faster than we do friends. At the same time, liberalism obviously is not the whole truth – far from it. And to re-enthrone an “alternative” understanding that for our Founders was so firm that it could remain largely implicit, namely, that a good human existence, a truly humane existence, requires acknowledgement of “sacred limits” (Strauss) to individual self-expression, and therefore some shared horizon that is essentially religious, however general, that is, to re-enthrone “virtue,” this is a philosophical-political project, a kind of regime re-founding that cannot be defended or pursued by the via negativa of resisting federal incursions and praising family farms (which I think I like). We cannot break the compulsive grip of individualization/centralization except by confronting the understanding of the good from which it springs. (This of course does not mean constructing an alternative Pure Theory of the Good.) Lincoln was right about this at least: public opinion is everything, and I see no hope for our country short of a sea change in public opinion. I don’t know just how or even whether such a change is possible, but I am convinced that “all who remain enamored of the genuine greatness of man should unite and do combat” against this compulsive grip of extreme secular liberalism.

I have enjoyed addressing a word to your Front Porch. And now you can tell me if I’m right about where we agree and disagree.

blog comments powered by Disqus