Some of you know that I have talked about “selective nostalgia” before. I have “borrowed” the term from Mark Henrie, although I think I’m more selective in my nostalgia than Mr. Henrie is.
Selective nostalgia is, of course, aroused in anyone who takes seriously Tocqueville’s “things pretty much are usually getting better and worse” mode of comparative analysis. Democracy is better when it comes to prosperity, technology, and (mostly) justice. But it is worse than aristocracy when it comes to some aspects of relational life and sustaining the greatness or the displays of soul of particular human persons. It is also worse when it comes to understanding the limits of human progress. All that means that in democracy the recognition of the truths embodied in theology and metaphysics loses ground. And democracy is weak on those virtues that are rare and noble, such as magnanimity, generosity, and even charity, which it reduces to empathy. It is also weak on appreciating “caregiving” for what it is, and in thinking of the transcendence of political life by particular individuals as for joyfully knowing the truth in common—in, for example, the organized body of thought and action called the church, but also in the genuine community of philosophers and scientists. Democracy confuses science with technology and scientism.
One of the greatest threats in higher education in America today is the opinion that justice and technology are all there is to know. Justice morphs into political correctness, and technology and its measurable productive outcomes reduce every other human “value” to a mere preference or hobby.
So selective nostalgia saves us from the optimism of Peter Thiel (which was once shared by Karl Marx) and the pessimism of Wendell Berry and Alasdair MacIntyre.