Christopher Lasch’s untimely death in 1994 deprived America of its most loving critic, a man who in his intellectual work followed John Winthrop’s counsel, “We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.” Impossible to pigeonhole politically, Lasch seemed to be simultaneously to the left and to the right of most people. Possessed of a deft pen and a blessed impatience, he exposed cant and false posing among intellectuals, and railed against the false constraints of contemporary political discourse. But his polemicism was always directed to a clear end: the end was to revive, for a democracy prone to rely on mere optimism, the great Christian virtue of hope, in both its expectant and humble forms.
In the two books published shortly before his death, The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, Lasch elaborated on the distinction between hope and optimism, seeking to show his American readers that “the party of hope” was not, as Emerson had said it was, identical with the “party of innovation” and arrayed in opposition to the “party of conservatism” and its fidelity to memory and the past. Most often appealing only implicitly to the long theological tradition that connects hope and humility, Lasch argued on behalf of a number of “conservative” cultural positions—even while condemning the inequalities, loss of individual liberty, and social instability bred by modern capitalism—and he made his argument in the name of, not in spite of, his devotion to democracy.
Lasch questioned the widespread modern and liberal American assumptions that commonly identify democracy with progress, individualism, and secularism; he wrote of hope’s connections to and reliance upon memory, virtue, limits, and humility, and, finally, of hope’s source in the spiritual discipline of religion. He sought to reclaim hope from those who had lifted it from its theological context, and who had thereby separated it from any conception of limitation or humility. Lasch affirmed a conception of human equality that arose from a shared sense of human frailty. In his view, it is upon this shared sense that democracy ultimately rests.
Lasch observed that populist forms of democratic equality, promoted most fervently at the end of the nineteenth century, had during the twentieth century been routed by a liberalism that promised progress, meritocracy, cosmopolitanism, scientism, the “therapeutic” regime, and secularism. By surmounting the natural sense of human limits, liberalism had sought to open up endless possibilities for advancement and individual cultivation, but it did so at the expense of democratic virtues that had once been inculcated in local communities—such “middle-class” virtues as moderation, a sense of limits, and an acknowledgement of the inescapability of tragedy in human life. In the name of left-wing populism and egalitarianism, Lasch found himself siding with the “conservative” critics of liberalism against the progressive assumptions of left-wing liberals.
Modern progressives identified democracy with radical individualism on the one hand and global interdependence on the other. This simultaneous narrowing and near-infinite expansion of the human horizon resulted in modern individuals who resisted the intermediary position of citizenship—a position that insists on the necessity of common undertakings and yet resists the dissolution of local forms of life in the name of opportunity and progress. Lasch recommended concrete rather than abstract recognition of our interdependence, insisting that an interdependence personally encountered would more readily lead to the virtues necessary for a democratic community. Instead, modern liberals justified the “secession of the successful” in the name of individual liberty, the abandonment of the less fortunate in favor of “lifestyle enclaves” where the elites could live in comfortable isolation. Even the fading sense of noblesse oblige among an older set of aristocrats was preferable to the widespread sense of self-congratulation among contemporary liberals. Prevailing notions of individual entitlement to the fruits of one’s own superior labor meant that one owed no duty or obligation to those who hadn’t succeeded. Moral and civic equality had been effectively replaced by “equality of opportunity”—a form of equality that resulted in radical forms of material inequality and that had given rise to a new “aristocracy of talent”; and, strangely, this new aristocracy claimed to have arisen as a result of the increasing perfection of democracy—now understood as progressive market-based liberalism.
For Lasch, these developments represented a betrayal of democracy: citizenship had been replaced by individualism; virtue had been supplanted by an ethic of material success; belief in equality and in civic obligations had given way to claims of individual liberty and an emphasis upon autonomy. Curiously, while the spirit of aristocratic generosity had all but vanished, in its place appeared an even more inegalitarian form of attention to the less fortunate—namely, “compassion” and its attendant therapies. The ethic of self-creation gave rise to a widespread sense that one was solely responsible for the outcomes of one’s own choices. The failure of the underclass was explained as the product of poor choices, and these poor choices were attributed to various social pathologies that could be cured by means of social intervention. The elites could believe that their enviable position was simply the result of superior effort while diagnosing the failures of “second-class citizens” as due to social, psychological, or physical circumstances beyond their control.
A curious paternalism was the result: recourse to the impersonal helping professions replaced the duty of individuals to be responsible to one another. An underlying acknowledgment that we share a common destiny gave way to the reductive categories of health and illness. Most importantly, democracy ceased to be defined as a system of self-governance based upon the assumption of common competence. As Peter Lawler has written, Lasch believed that “the self-indulgence of compassion allows both classes to shy away from the hard work really required to raise the competence of everyone. Compassion-based toleration is really a form of apathetic indifference for the characters or souls of our fellow citizens.”
In its place, Lasch recommended a populism that aimed at a more “strenuous and moral definition” of human excellence, in particular with the democratic goal of “universal competence.” In The True and Only Heaven, Lasch repeatedly praised those thinkers in the British and American traditions who recommended lives and economies of independence rather than interdependence. Democracy, for Lasch, did not rest upon the ability of each person to produce his or her own means of survival, but it did depend upon those beneficial forms of psychic independence that result from populist politics and local economies. It could not thrive in a society of consumers or on the mentality of dependence exhibited by wage-laborers. Forms of basic economic self-sufficiency were part of Lasch’s conception of democratic equality. Lasch rejected the linkage of democracy to the liberal economic notion that highly advanced economic development would extend equality—understood as “equality of opportunity”—by means of economic interdependence. The predictable result of such theories was an economic and social stratification that divided elite “symbolic analysts” from ordinary manual laborers. Liberalism aimed at liberation, but only for those few highly successful meritocrats who thereafter successfully ceded from the common life of democratic society.
Strenuous self-sufficiency, Lasch argued, was the only means to ensure self- and mutual-respect among equal citizens. Far from seeing their lives as separate and unconnected, self-sufficient populist democrats were keenly aware of human limits and of the need for a self-governance undertaken in common. Modest populist economies tended to be more local—and within such circumscribed civic contexts, one could more readily perceive the links that were forged between citizens who were considerably more self-reliant than contemporary interdependent individualists. On behalf of democracy Lasch insisted upon the superiority of visible local interchange to abstract global interdependence.
Such local forms of life also afforded the space for more than merely economic interchange. Called by Ray Oldenburg “third places” between the private sphere of home and the public spaces of official life, such settings were the wellspring of vital civic practices. Offering dignity and equality, such spaces inculcated the “art of conversation.” Lasch expressed disagreement with communitarians who, in his view, assumed that community was a space of automatic unanimity and comfortable conformity. Lasch praised such localities not because they easily produced agreement but rather because they offered opportunities for heated exchange and disagreement. The art of conversation that had been lost as those spaces had given way to an increasingly atomized existence in suburbs, lifestyle enclaves, and bloodless international markets. In contrast to liberal thinkers who advanced a form of democracy-as-decision-making by which elites and experts forge appropriate policies that are approximately guided by the inchoate opinions of otherwise unbothered and apathetic citizens, Lasch praised democratic dialogue because of its inefficiency:
If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment.
Democracy deserves our embrace not for enabling governmental stability or efficient production of goods and information, but as the form of government best at fostering more complete human beings. Underlying Lasch’s conception of a local, dialogic, egalitarian democracy of independent yet engaged citizens is an anthropology not altogether different from Aristotle’s: human beings are by nature “political animals” who achieve full faculties of judgment and civic virtue by means of participation in ruling and being ruled in turn.
In advancing this conception of populist democracy as an alternative to the predominant liberal conception (and in claiming as proponents of it such figures as Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Carlyle, Orestes Brownson, Abraham Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King), Lasch sought to reintroduce a link between democracy and limits that had been broken by liberalism’s promise of near-infinite economic, material, and even moral progress. For Lasch, the attempt to supplant the local ecology in which democratic life flourishes risks the destruction of the very conditions that make democracy possible. Liberalism was disassembling the very moral sources that it relied upon. Though speaking in the name of equality and liberty, liberalism advanced political (expert) and economic (meritocratic) beliefs that corroded the virtues necessary to democracy. With its promises of controlling nature, releasing individuals from all forms of necessity and limitation, and finally overcoming human alienation, liberalism was supremely dangerous. Lasch believed it was premised upon an infantile psychology.
Lasch feared that democracy was imperiled by liberalism’s adherence to a voluntarist conception of human relationships. For Lasch, an inescapable limitation upon human beings is their givenness: one cannot escape one’s condition as a created being. The effort to do so results in internal psychological damage; it also endangers those other humans who might come to be regarded as obstacles to the fulfillment of one’s individual happiness. Lasch’s insight that democracy is primarily premised upon an attitude of “acceptance” rather than “transformation” is evident in his many discussions of family. Givenness is especially a feature of the relationship between parents and children: each child is a surprise, a gift, a unique and unpredictable adventure, as well as a visible sign of one’s willingness to sacrifice much of one’s own personal preference and freedom. For Lasch, the modern embrace of both no-fault divorce and abortion policies that justify unlimited infanticide stood as concrete and horrific evidence of the modern effort to subject all human and natural phenomena to control and planning. The modern abortion regime is but one reflection of “an unquestioning faith in the capacity of the rational intelligence to solve the mysteries of human existence, ultimately the secret of creation itself” and the desire to engage in “the conquest of necessity and the substitution of human choice for the blind workings of nature.”
Lasch argued that the prospects for democracy, and perhaps for the soul of humanity, hang in the balance. Arrayed on one side are modern elites who claim the mantle of democracy in the name of personal autonomy, mobility, meritocracy, and cosmopolitanism. They seek the mastery of necessity and the overcoming of accident by means of the awesome controlling power of science and technology. In the background is their vision of overcoming tragedy—of never having to choose between incommensurable goods—and ultimately escaping all limitations, finally death itself. In the foreground is their condemnation of various parochialisms, patriotisms, and unchosen loyalties that limit personal autonomy and voluntarism. This elite threatens to betray democracy, to leave behind (under the care of attendant therapeutic experts) those who are undereducated and less mobile—the losers in the meritocratic sweepstakes—and to abandon a shared conception of universal “democratic competence.”
What modern elites mean by “democratic faith” is their belief in the ability of some, if not all, to make themselves wholly at home in the world by means of scientific mastery and the overcoming of human alienation, and what this entails as its likely result is a disdain for ordinary people—a “betrayal of democracy.” One can expect to find among the cultural, intellectual, and economic elite, says Lasch, a “snobbish disdain for people who lack formal education and work with their hands, an unfounded confidence in the moral wisdom of experts, an equally unfounded prejudice against untutored common sense, a distrust of any expression of good intentions, a distrust of everything but science, an ingrained irreverence, a disposition (a natural outgrowth of irreverence and distrust) to see the world as something that exists only to gratify human desires.”
On the other side are ordinary citizens in the populist tradition, mistrustful of various forms of progress, willing to assume obligations that arise from family, community, and nation (thus more likely to enlist in the armed forces), less likely to feel cosmopolitan yearnings and the attractions of mobility. Such populists are far more likely to accept, even to embrace, human limitation. Embeddedness in daily life, the willingness to forgo immediate pleasures and personal convenience for the sake of others, and the cultivation of common “democratic competence” rather than exclusionary expertise are more likely to lead to an endorsement of “democratic realism,” even as cultural elites are likely to regard such “realism” (born of limitations and imperfection) as fundamentally antidemocratic. Those who readily acknowledge human limitation, the limits upon progress, and the enduring mysteries of existence are most apt to recognize that “alienation is the normal condition of human existence.”
Contributing perhaps most profoundly to the recognition of the inescapability of human alienation, and hence to the need for loyalty and limits rather than “escape” and “progress,” is the persistence of religious belief among most ordinary citizens. This persistence offends the cultural, intellectual, and economic elite, and even fosters anxiety among them, because it flies in the face of the Enlightenment creed that religious faith would be overcome with the advent of scientific progress, economic development, and political liberalization. Seen by elites as superstitious and unwarranted, religious belief is derided as intellectual pabulum and false emotional security, while public policies that arise from religious traditionalism (including limits upon divorce, abortion, and efforts to protect the cohesion of local communities) are viewed as irrational, inegalitarian, illiberal, arbitrary, and oppressive.
Lasch wrote with particular vehemence in disputing this portrayal of religious belief, arguing that religion is profoundly misunderstood by its liberal opponents, as well as by some religious adherents. Religious belief is not to be understood as a source of complacent self-righteousness or easygoing comfort and security, but rather as a source of profound challenge. Lasch wrote that the standard liberal caricature of religion
misses the religious challenge to complacency, the heart and soul of faith. Instead of discouraging moral inquiry, religious prompting can just as easily stimulate it by calling attention to the disjunction between verbal profession and practice, by insisting that a perfunctory observance of prescribed rituals is not enough to ensure salvation, and by encouraging believers at every step to question their own motivations. Far from putting doubts to rest, religion has the effect of intensifying them. It judges those who profess faith more harshly than it judges unbelievers. It holds them up to a standard of conduct so demanding that many of them inevitably fall short. . . . For those who take religion seriously, belief is a burden, not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. Self-righteousness, indeed, may be more prevalent among skeptics than believers. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion.
Lasch’s theological understanding, drawn from a variety of sources, but prominently dependent upon a tradition of Augustinian Calvinism that found an American voice in Jonathan Edwards, advances a complex interplay of belief and doubt, faith and anxiety, affirmation and renunciation. Belief in a beneficent divinity does not result in the easygoing conclusion that God’s creation is aligned in humanity’s favor or that His will exists in seamless accord with human desires. The immediate and chastening consequence of such belief is the unavoidable acknowledgment, in the words of Leszek Kolakowski, that “God owes us nothing.” Rather than suggesting humanity’s centrality in divine creation or lending support to a view of humanity that endorses efforts to conquer nature and render fortune and tragedy altogether tractable, real religious belief forces the religious penitent to acknowledge human dependence and weakness, and to regard temptations toward mastery as forms of sinful and hubristic pride.
Lasch endorses Jonathan Edwards’ view that most forms of belief in self-sufficient human agency are born of fundamental rebellion against human createdness and dependency: “Rebellion against God, according to Edwards, was simply the normal condition of human existence. Men found it galling to be reminded of their dependence on a higher power.” Religious belief combines a recognition of the inescapability of sin, pride, and attendant evils in the created world with a confidence that the universe is essentially good, since it has been created by a loving God: “Religious faith asserts the goodness of being in the face of suffering and evil.” With renunciation of the idea that humanity has a “right” or entitlement to happiness arises the possibility of a truer form of happiness; this happiness springs from a heightened sense of human dependency and contingency: “the secret of happiness lay in renouncing the right to be happy.” Acceptance of the tragic combined with searching self-examination and a keen sense of human dependence—this gives rise to the theological virtues of hope and charity. Lasch believed that these were also profoundly democratic virtues.
Hope is that “middling” form of belief in the possibility of amelioration, but it eschews the optimistic assumption that our efforts will always lead to clear and immediate success. At the same time, hope holds at bay the likely retreat into despair that apparently fruitless efforts can prompt. Hope curbs our impatience and frustration, lessens our sense of self-righteous expectation, moderates our insistence that all injustices be overcome immediately “though the world perish,” while maintaining our belief that justice is a worthy civic mission. Hope allows us to believe that in the end the goodness of creation, and of the Creator, will solve the problems we ourselves could not solve. For Lasch, “hope without optimism” is the disposition necessary to achieving the “spiritual discipline against resentment”:
Hope is the rejection of envy and resentment and all that invites them. It’s not difficult to see why those would always seem to be compelling moral postures, because we live in a world that doesn’t seem arranged for human convenience. It’s a world in which human happiness is not the overriding goal, and our plans go awry, and there are terrible limitations on what we can know and understand and control. And in any case our lives are very short. The fact of death is always there, haunting our imagination. All of which seems to justify a renunciation of any belief in the possibility that the world, in spite of these facts, is good, just, beautiful. None of this, of course, implies that this is the best of all possible worlds or that the struggle against injustice ought be suspended on the grounds that whatever is, is right.
Hope is the primary disposition of the “democratic realist”: we share innumerable miseries together in the saeculum, with little expectation that we can exert control over the existence of sorrow and suffering—yet we hope, in the light of God’s grace, for relief and final joy. Because of our shared condition of suffering, dependency, and weakness, democracy is the form of government most fully in accord with our condition. Democracy, so understood, arises out of mutual need, and finally points to the overarching necessity of a shared sense of democratic caritas, or charity.
Lasch’s argument was counterintuitive by the standards of contemporary political discourse, in which “liberals” are more attendant to the sufferings of the weak, and “conservatives” are more likely to call for self-reliance and rugged individualism. Lasch embraced classically “conservative” arguments, with their stress on human limitation and their profound mistrust of the optimistic belief in progress, but he did so in order to ground securely a “liberal” sympathy for those most apt to be abandoned or overlooked. “Limits and hope”—this combination of concepts points to our condition of frailty and imperfection, and thereby exhorts us to be keenly attentive to the suffering and alienation all of us confront. Such attentiveness impels us to acts of generosity and charity. This “spiritual discipline against resentment” chastens our impatience with injustice precisely by emphasizing the necessity for love. This emphasis upon mercy was, Lasch concluded, perhaps the most difficult virtue for humans generally, and modern man especially, to sustain. And yet, he concluded, it was a message needing repetition and renewal, even in the face of likely failure. Hope demands nothing less.
For Lasch, history does not justify optimism; instead, it reminds us that mercy is both a challenge and a necessity: “In the history of civilization . . . vindictive gods give way to gods who show mercy as well and uphold the morality of loving your enemy. Such a morality has never achieved anything like general popularity, but it lives on, even in our own enlightened age, as a reminder both of our fallen state and of our surprising capacity for gratitude, remorse, and forgiveness, by means of which we now and then transcend it.”
Patrick J. Deneen teaches political theory at Princeton University. This essay is drawn from a forthcoming book, Democratic Faith, to be published in 2005 by Princeton University Press.