As noted previously, virtue is never on the extremes, but in the middle. Surveying our current political malaise from the standpoint of more than two millennia of rich development of the art of politics in the West, I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that both those among us who mock the concerns of the ordinary citizen and those who readily cry for the citizens to rise up and revolt represent the two vicious extremes, not the virtue.
The one persistently courts tyrannical distortion of civics by confusing self-aggrandizement with governance.1 The other persistently courts bestial civic dissolution by confusing licentiousness with liberty.2
The one constantly reacts to the never-ending condition of Modernity – crisis! – by invoking what C.S. Lewis called the perversity of governance by “omnipotent moral busybodies.” The other constantly reacts to such self-righteous virtue-signalling by viciously assaulting the very logic of order itself, putting in its place a poisonous and society-destroying obsession with equality that refuses to acknowledge one of the most fundamental created realities of all, hierarchy and its attendant duty for inferiors to honor and submit to their superiors.
The one substitutes the maintenance of elite personal privilege for the pursuit of public statecraft, heeding the Siren song of civic salvation by administrative bloat. The other blunt-mindedly redefines political liberty as absolute equality, avoiding destruction in the maw of the Charybdis of homogenizing Statism by instead steering the body politic to the jaws of the Scylla of pluralistic glutting of individual desire.3
At the root of all these contrasts is one fundamental and lamentable fact: the very vocabulary of politics, so thoroughly and carefully developed in the sources of our own American tradition, has suffered catastrophic loss in our times. So many of us spend our days doing little other than talking incessantly and with great passion about something we call “politics.” Yet too few of us have any notion at all that we just flat don’t even have most of the words that our ancestors had, and so we can’t even begin to meaningfully conceptualize, let alone navigate, the wide realms of reality that those words marked out.4
Where, then, is true political virtue to be found in our extreme times?
Given the fundamental impatience of character that frequently issues forth in the unreflective “Take action, NOW!” mentality of we Americans, true political virtue isn’t going to be found in defiant rebel yells or taking to the airwaves and streets to let Them know in no uncertain terms that, NO!, “We’re not gonna take it anymore!”5
True political virtue isn’t going to be found in populist theological-preachy rabble-rousing that makes nearly every currently disputed issue a matter of analogizing from the Apostles facing down the Sanhedrin and declaring, “We have to obey God rather than men!”6
True political virtue isn’t going to be found in being “too busy” to read a real political book or two7 drawn from the actual sources that our American Founders knew by heart and regularly consulted while writing out the treatises that gave birth to our liberty, yet somehow having tons of time to engage in faux-political Farcebook-ing and Tweet-bombing in imitation of media personalities who do little more than stoke our egos with their intemperate diatribes about their own smartness and everyone else’s stupidity. (Thus do we unvirtuously replace serious political thinking with mere populist passion-raving.)
Where, then, is true political virtue to be found in our extreme times?
I suggest – perhaps too radically – that we can only begin to make a stab at finding true political virtue by first coming to agree with thinkers as diversely-unified as Solomon and Socrates that true wisdom comes only to those who come to admit that they don’t actually know what they think they know. For it is only by first distrusting much of what immediately appears on the surface level of our consciousnesses that we’ll be in a position to see what’s underneath those “obvious” things.
Think of the hordes of passersby in Proverbs: they’re in too big an all-fired hurry to listen to some lady crazily talking about sitting down (!) and listening (!) to elders (!) and practicing moderation of desire (!) and carefulness (!) of speech and action. The lures of quick, obvious gain promised by the sweet-talking, sexy deceivers are so much more relevant, not to mention so much more easily attained.8
I suggest – perhaps too radically – that we can only grow in finding true political virtue by applying the fundamental conviction that we don’t know what we think we know by making the intentional choice to engage with others with whom we disagree in two seemingly counterintuitive ways. On the one hand, we should engage them as if they actually are fellow image-bearers of God deserving of some type of genuine respect from us. On the other hand, we should engage them as if there might be some nuggets of truth in what they say if we are only patient enough to listen and winnow and refine.9
What if we actually believed our own theology, that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and so could see others as having pretty much the same problems we have, only taking different routes to try to alleviate them? 10 This attitude would not entail coming to agree with their politics or economics or religion or anything else. It would only entail coming to be less quick to praise Ourselves for having superior insights while being too quick to demean Them for not. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if such isn’t a violation of the spirit of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:7 that whatever good we have is the result of grace, thus short-circuiting all boasting.
Lastly (for now) I suggest that true political virtue in our extreme times might only be found by making a commitment to being more aware of the fact I’ve mentioned multiple times – that as a people, our American character is just fundamentally stamped with impatience, intemperance, and the imprudence that frequently follows from the first two.
I’ll add here, drawing not just from older writers like de Tocqueville, but newer ones like Orwell (1984) and Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), that we Americans are absolutely enraptured by a “cult of ignorance.” By this I mean a vicious and sinful disdain for – and sometime fanatical avoidance of – the very capacity of discursive, reasoned thought with which God has gifted us and which most fundamentally separates us from the animals.11
In this connection, I’ve liberally sprinkled throughout the posts of this short series references to classical books and themes. Frequently I hear about how invoking these sorts of sources shows that I’m “arrogant”, that I think I’m “better” than others who haven’t read such sources. Fewer charges could be further from the truth. And probably the best way to refute the emotionalism of that charge would be for those who like to make it against others to spend some time pondering Captain Beatty’s speech to Montag in Fahrenheit 451 about why, in this dystopian near-future, books were outlawed in the West and came to be the target of mandatory burning.12 It might help, too, after reading Beatty’s speech, to follow the downward spiral of Montag’s wife, Mildred, sitting hour after hour plugged into her “family” in a room paneled by flatscreen TVs and what we today call an “always on” Internet connection.
The true “arrogance,” in other words, isn’t something necessarily associated with booklearning, but which, rather, might just arise and grow out of control in fertile ground that isn’t sown with the seeds that alone provide the proper food of the mind – knowledge.
To close – the three practical paths I’ve outlined above – (1) seeking wisdom by admitting that we don’t know what we think we know, (2) looking for truth in the words of our opponents rather than only falsehoods, and (3) becoming more self-aware of our American character flaws, might help us in these troubled times of extremism everywhere to seek instead real political virtue rather than its many, and far more persuasively-articulated, imitations.
It will be a difficult path, no lie. But virtue never is easy, even though it’s always in the end far more worth it than vice.
- Speaking classically, a paradigm example here would be the Athenian democracy’s treatment of Socrates at his trial, for which see Plato’s Apology.
- A paradigm example here would be the Cyclops in Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, a talking brute who, like today’s “Libertarians,” wants to set his own standards for everything and cares not at all for any attempt to externally moderate his personal whims.
- By the way, I make no apologies for my multiple references to Homer, chiefly The Odyssey, throughout these posts – that ancient worthy is one of the profoundest political thinkers ever, yet in our “conservative” American circles one of the least heeded.
- I’m always thinking here of the popular tendency to speak and act as if economics only has two categories, “Capitalism” and “Socialism,” as if politics only has two categories, “Conservative” and “Liberal,” and as if the overarching framework in which all these things are to be discussed only has two categories, “Truth” and “Lies.” The simplistic childishness of conversation that ensues among us all – I include myself! – simply because our vocabulary is desperately impoverished seems impossible to repair.
- Pretending to be making a respectable conservative political statement by “humorously” invoking some of the worst poster children for 1980s teenager-rebellion is a real example, by the way, foisted on the Internet some months ago by the president of an independent Christian Liberal Arts college.
- The radically diseased form of the doctrine of conscience that lies behind this hyper-spiritual sort of demagoguery needs thorough treatment of its own and needs to proceed through patient textual analysis of sources as diverse as Sophocles’ Antigone, Augustine’s Confessions, Aquinas’ Summa Theologia, and Luther’s Freedom of a Christian.
- Plutarch’s Lives, anyone? Aristotle’s Politics? Cicero’s On Duties? We live in a time of unprecedented access to all these things. For the mere price of your monthly Internet connection, you can pretty literally commune with the Wisdom of the Ages any time you like. Except in the most extreme of personal circumstances, I doubt that there really is a good excuse not to.
- Fascinatingly, this imagery of self-control vs. seduction isn’t just biblical: the Greek writer Xenophon tells us the same truth in his story of Hercules at the Crossroads.
- To my shame, I must admit I have seldom been good at this difficult activity myself. For I, too, am an impatient, intemperate, imprudent American who too easily surrenders to the “Take action, NOW!” mentality of the very air I breathe with all the rest of you, my fellow citizens. Yet frequent failure is no disproof of principle, let alone an excuse to cease trying.
- The notion at the root of our common view of “politics,” that there is a good and noble Us who is always Versus a bad and ignoble Them, and that politics consists of always trying to avoid being overpowered by Them by ourselves overpowering Them first, is just horrifically diseased, a reflection of disordered and shrunken souls that generate disordered and shrunken concepts of the world, ourselves, and others. In reality, we’re all in the same boat. None of us actually want what is bad, and we all seek the good. The problem is that we’re all usually too blind to see the latter and so too frequently seize upon the former.
- I’ve started expounding this in the first episode of my new podcast, Classically Practical.
- Regrettably, I cannot locate the speech itself online, so getting at it will require getting the book itself!