Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Mr. Deneen’s take (post just before this one) on the Inaugural is the most penetrating I’ve seen, or expect to see. The collusion between Kantianism and Machiavellianism is a very important insight, and in fact one that Harvey Mansfield has always seen very clearly (as in his “Moral Reasoning 13” class at Harvard in the 80s - and beyond? - you gotta love the numbering). One way (Mansfield’s?) of responding to this collusion in whose grip we find ourselves (if we ever find ourselves) would be to look for virtue, to assert virtue in the practical space that opens between these alien allies. Both Machiavellianism and Kantianism suppress the question of purpose, and thus suppress the soul, but the soul… happens. Mansfield has thus sought to affirm America’s Constitutional Soul (Johns Hopkins). In this strategy, as far as I understand it, constitutionalism itself functions as a kind of virtue that does not merely serve but that shapes and limits our desires. Thus, when Obama gives rein to a certain spiritedness in affirming the American way of life against its enemies, it is possible to sense in this affirmation something more than pure confinement within the modern project.

So such affirmations (we will not apologize) were parts of the speech that I warmed up to. It seems to me that such rhetoric (especially when coupled with the very striking: “these things are old , these things are true ) implicitly affirms a certain particularity of our national existence that cannot be reduced to the Machiavellian-Kantian project. To be sure, Mansfield has been very discreet, perhaps too discreet, concerning the connection between this elevated view of the constitution and other things that Americans have looked up to (like God, just to take an example). In this he may be described as pursuing a kind of Tocquevillean strategy, one that lets Americans keep their philosophy of enlightened materialism (“self-interest well understood”) while encouraging institutions and practices that cannot be explained by that philosophy. This contrasts of course with Patrick’s recommended “real change” towards the “inculcation of virtue.” And Patrick may be right; it may be that the Tocquevillean moment has passed, and that there is no way to stop, slow down, or even inflect our hurtling Machiavellian-Kantian progress without publicly and explicitly affirming the priority of virtue to freedom. I’m inclined to believe that our rapid progress towards the abolition of marriage, for example, might well be enough to make Tocqueville himself take another view of democratic Providence. But just how to be a post-Tocquevillean (and in that sense postmodern) constitutionalist – now there’s a tough one.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles