Creating Statesmen, Part Final: The Rebirth of the Humanities

Madison in Federalist 10 writes:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

1. The considerable emphasis on property has led many a socialist or Marxist to argue that the Constitution is nothing but a product of some very wealthy elites imposing on the proletariat. That’s utter nonsense and has been refuted empirically: many of the Constitution’s creators and ratifiers were of very different backgrounds – their existence attested to “different degrees and kinds of property.”

The charge that Madison is not immune to, however, is the unrelenting materialism upon which this assessment of the political relies. For the ancients, there was such a thing as the “noble,” or “honor,” and we have discussed how it has driven fictional creations like Batman and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “The Departed.” In a very real way, it drives us every day, and the Founders, being familiar with ancient thought, knew just how real “honor” and “nobility” were. They didn’t want to be thought ignoble: the materialist/mechanistic assessment of politics, where our greatest desires are nothing but yearning after property, was the surest way to get freedom and security for all Americans at a time a proper Union was an open question.

The Founders were prudent and for their time wise. But there’s a problem, and we’re seeing it now. Who wants families? Who wants to be a mother or a father and take on the responsibilities and enjoy the pride of raising good children? Who wants stable relationships? Isn’t having lots of sex with lots of different people morally equivalent to being loyal? Who wants to do public service if it won’t get you into Harvard? Why should you share and excite people about what you know/can do when there are video games to play? Finally, who’s going to take bullets for us? Is it any wonder that the armed services are falling far short of their recruiting goals?

Without the “noble,” without the “honorable,” things like keeping promises, loyalty, service are indistinguishable from baser pleasures. The Federalist does us no favors nowadays when arguing that the only people who would want to be in politics are only defined by ambition, and can be constrained by their ambition. By casting suspicion on people who can go down in history as ignoble even having done their best, The Federalist makes a major strike in favor of modern anarchist/Progressive thought. Why do we need government, when we have technological progress and markets? Aren’t all politicians corrupt? Can’t we just set up free market incentives such that people will defend our country, even if loyalty to it is generally considered a load of crap? Or better yet – is it possible that technological progress can lead us to realize markets are actually inefficient, and give us statist solutions based on the latest knowledge?

So The Federalist sets up a problem whereby it may undo the very rationale for the Constitution: “We the People” is a moral claim, based upon the Declaration. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Trying to make this a science explicitly as we do now does make your patriotism questionable – you’re arguing that the moral foundations, not just the practical implementation of them, can be questioned and rejected. Questions come to an end somewhere, and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, rights for which governments have been instituted among men, are where it has to end for the non-philosophic. Unless you literally are wiser than everyone else, you can’t make claims otherwise. And the wisest aren’t so brash as to declare themselves better than everyone else, unless they have an ace up their sleeve.

2.  Going back to Madison, we see the potential problems more specifically:

  • “reason” being “fallible” leads to “opinions” – this is a cynical take on Plato’s Meno, where the fact we have opinions, some better than others, means there must be such a thing as Truth. Saying that “opinions,” faulty “reasons,” are backed up by “passions” compounds the problem: since Madison is going to accept this framework as how men actually behave, men as seekers of Truth who get motivated for the right reason has just been turned into another “faction,” not a goal we should seek for all citizens while preserving diversity.
  • The generality of “property:” this could refer to relics of saints, paintings and books, land, money, investments, anything. Are all these things of equal value? People died translating the Bible into the vernacular – is that the same thing as defending the right of a bank to perform a foreclosure? The leveling of value favors capitalism in the worst way: it is nothing but material acquisition.

Now again, I’m not saying Madison is saying this stuff because he hates humanity and all of us and he wants everyone to be greedy and beat up on poor people and artists. He’s purposely depreciating wisdom and emphasizing material gains because that’s the reality of a democratic republic. Self-governance means starting with what the people understand, and how they should be properly understood. Thinking of man as a “rational animal” excludes 99% of people from even being human, let alone being American.

Again, the deep problem is that today, even Madison’s vision has collapsed. Property rights are trampled on by everyone; the education the Founders themselves had is nowhere to be had; capitalism has just become straight-up greed, where Donald Trump and Paris Hilton are respectable because of their “success” – doing things the right way is a luxury, getting yourself money and the limelight is the main goal. You need to be somebody before you can be somebody good; notice how human dignity, stripped of any real opportunities for honor, has reconstituted itself on an entirely material plane.

3. The real statesmen are the ones creating the next generation of statesmen, the ones who don’t care to rule but are happy to be ruled prudently. My teachers and their teachers have worked indirectly for this greater goal non-stop everyday, I think, and I can’t wait to get this dissertation done so I can read their books properly and write about them here. As it stands, I can only offer my school a little bit of notoriety through this blog. I’m sure if I were more popular someone would pick up on this and say “Look! A Straussian that believes the better should rule” when in reality, what my teachers were doing is investing real faith in the generation as a whole. If you believe truly in people, you don’t deny them the right to rule even over you to a degree.

That humility was noted by previous generations as marking two of the greatest teachers, Jesus and Socrates.  For Socrates “prideful” makes no sense, and he certainly isn’t motivated by honor. The willingness to entrust others with the best of your thoughts is a kind of humility, we shall say here.

Of course, our generation has no real access to either of these teachers because at elite colleges, the Bible is considered nonsense, not even worthy to be read to understand literature throughout the centuries. And Plato had lots to say back in 300 B.C., but nothing for us now since he didn’t conceive of contemporary issues in philosophy of mind like “The Chinese Box Experiment.”

Now we do live in an age of religious pluralism, and not everyone can do philosophy, since most people don’t really want to do it. Again, the logic of The Federalist stands strong: how do we account for the fact people don’t want wisdom? They need “stuff” first, after all: you’ve got to feel secure in some way before chasing more refined goods.

To that end, we need the liberal arts – the Humanities – back fully. It’s not watered-down philosophy as it is qualitatively different, but can include philosophic problems presented in a human light, more accessibly than the hardest stuff in many cases (not all). Moreover, the humanities and arts encourage people to take others’ opinions seriously, and to look for criteria whereby opinions disagreed with can still be considered expressed well. Art is indispensable to our ability to conceive of what is honorable; news, we have learned the hard way, is the most untrustworthy source of value. Therefore I cite two minor disagreements with Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard. First, he indicates that perhaps art has no intrinsic value:

[a] Professor Garber appears to be one of the parishioners of the good Church of Our Lady of Art. For her art is a purely approbative word, and not merely a noun that permits many adjectives to reside beside it, among them: trivial, highly politicized, wretched, dreary, and simply crappy. Nor does she seem keenly aware that all these latter kinds of art appear to be in exceedingly great supply just now, with almost no demand for any of them, even though such art wins prizes and its creators are solemnly wreathed in honors and weighted down with gold…. [b] every artist is in business for himself and sets his own agenda. Scientists will tell you that, though Galileo, Newton, and Einstein were of course great geniuses, if they had never been born other scientists would have come along and eventually made their discoveries. But Marcel Proust, and with him all other major artists, was sui generis; no one else could have written A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Socrates says at the end of the Symposium that tragedians and comedians can swap places and do each other’s art well if they want to. For all the problem I would have with the Leftist, agenda-setting money-grabbing politics of Professor Garber, she’s got a point about what makes art work – we don’t use the more belittling adjectives until we have deemed it worthy of irreverence. In other words, a work of art is something we first approach as if it were divine.

If this sounds insane, consider that art as private didn’t mean art as secular necessarily for thousands of years. You could even own pornographic statues in Roman times of Centaurs and Satyrs displaying their “divine” assets. And secular art got its power from many times being a direct comment, or stemming from, religious art. Greek tragedy, as strange as it is, is perhaps the paradigm art because it is about recreating divine stories for the city. The author is present, yes. Yes, he has a commentary and is flamboyant. But perhaps it is most telling that the author is unafraid at times to be a character in his own play, as Aristophanes demonstrates. Something larger than any one person is going on in art: God’s status as Creator makes Him a God we want to worship.

Moreover, Epstein’s thought that art and the sciences are two different things entirely is the sort of logic that’s brought us into the mess we’re in today, where no one wants to know anything unless it involves money or power:

Professor Garber is attracted to the analogy of art with science in part because so much of science is done in universities and her book’s closing argument is that the best possible patron for the arts is now the contemporary university. She makes the point that, increasingly, much training in the arts is done in universities in departments of theater and acting, visual art, film and photography, music, dance, and creative writing. (When one thinks of all the would-be poets and novelists being churned out by university creative-writing programs, one begins to understand what Degas meant when he said that “we must discourage the arts.”) Professor Garber argues that the arts would be good for the university, but the greater question is whether the university is good for the arts?

Epstein’s argument relies on saying that what’s at stake here is great artists, whom of course no university program can generate.

But let’s be serious – no one reads poetry, no one goes to art galleries, worship in church even continues to get watered down and more disrespectful each passing moment. No one would know what the higher standards are even if shown the good stuff. Don’t universities have a job in creating educated people who could actually tell the difference between a Picasso and a Degas? And if they do, then shouldn’t the arts get a significantly increased priority?

On this count, Epstein and Garber are wrong. This isn’t about creating artists, this is about giving artists that exist now a fair shot. Money isn’t going to do that; education and a set of priorities will.

Our politics has suffered because we became dumber, and we became dumber because we obsessed over knowledge only to further rank materialism. That is no longer acceptable, as it isn’t clear whether our populist mass-marketed campaigns truly are politics, the contemplation and working through of pressing and substantial disagreements. Who would have thought politics was the most delicate of arts?

Addendum: The link between the arts and honor is in Aristotle’s Ethics and involves Achilles and courage. Achilles reasons about how he may be thought of when confronting a force of nature by analogy with how he is thought of in battle. Since courage in battle is standing up to other men, courage versus nature must involve fighting through the anger of the river. This logic implies that we only know about what is honorable through a moral imagination of sorts, created by fictional prototypes ultimately. For example: how did we know standing up to your enemy in battle was considered brave in the first place?

Our modern idea of “merit” simply is indeed an attack on “honor,” although it was integral to honor previously. The Greeks had their athletic games, too, complete with athletes as selfish and spoiled as ones today. Only: they were spoiled by rich patrons, their athletic achievement stood out for itself, it wasn’t a way of getting a generic “celebrity” which allowed for still more popularity. The major difference is the emphasis on piety and the city in those contests, something that is perhaps seen only in the modern Olympics, certainly not on a regular basis. “Honor,” I think we can safely say, meant a lot more than “merit.”

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