The recovery of political theory is necessary for American political life, for without it, our love of our country may be on unstable grounds. There is nothing more natural, wholesome, and genuinely conservative than to love those places we are from, even with—and perhaps especially because of—all their imperfections…
Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents by Patrick Deneen (St. Augustine’s Press, 2016)
In a stunning passage in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville makes the following observation in assessing the philosophical tendencies of the American people:
I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States…. Nevertheless it is easy to perceive that almost all the inhabitants of the United States conduct their understanding in the same manner, and govern it by the same rules; that is to say, that without ever having taken the trouble to define the rules of a philosophical method, they are in possession of one, common to the whole people. To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson used in doing otherwise, and doing better; to seek the reason of things for one’s self, and in one’s self alone…America is therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Descartes are best applied.
Tocqueville goes on to make the point that the equality of social conditions provided a real, albeit unconscious, intellectual framework for Americans. Not only have Americans been drawn and swept up by whatever is “new” but, even more perilous, there seems to be a sustained view about intellectual authority that may drive us “to give up thinking” itself. To give up thinking, in this context, does not appear to be something that would be done because we were forced by some all-encompassing power, like the “tutelary power” that Tocqueville aptly describes elsewhere. Instead, the giving up of our thought is something that seems to be willed, something we want for the sake of something else. And that something else is not only freedom but equality, in particular. In a similar vein, this is precisely the sort of concern seen in the work of Neil Postman. Postman’s persuasive and prophetic concern about the rise of technology was that it would eventually look to eliminate any pattern that is an alternative to it. Among others, Postman was concerned that the primary alternative pattern in a technopoly is thought.
These introductory remarks concerning thought are the foundation and context for an assessment of Patrick J. Deneen’s latest book, Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents. Dr. Deneen’s work is a collection of previously published essays and lectures given throughout the country that cover a variety of themes, which have been at the heart of his work for the last two decades. A most unique feature of Dr. Deneen’s book, and his thinking more generally, is his ability to see things from the perspective of the whole, and not merely to reduce his topics to parts. Dr. Deneen has brought together the wisdom of Aristotle, Tocqueville, Giambattista Vico, Edmund Burke, and Wendell Berry in a manner that bespeaks someone who is more than what Mr. Berry calls the “specialist or careerist.” Furthermore, that sad state of affairs known as “identity politics” aims to elevate human political life to a quasi-religious practice. This move to make politics the architectonic good of our lot in this world was already a perennial concern for Aristotle, who noted that if politics was the highest science, then man would be the highest being. Without a proper conception of the whole that is reality, the part that is politics will lose its place, always to our own detriment.
Dr. Deneen’s book is a much-needed response to the pervasive trends and methodologies to be found in the field of political science, and American political thought more specifically. While exceptions exist, much contemporary work in politics or political science is deeply rooted in the principles and forms of inquiry that are more akin to modern science and mathematics. This reductive view of politics has likened nature and human nature in a rather disturbing fashion. According to the methods of modern science, the created order can be manipulated and controlled for our own purposes. No longer is nature a reality to be known, but something “out there” that we ought to control. Likewise, a similar perspective can be applied to how we view human beings and life more generally. In this light, political and social life are often thought of in terms of observation, analysis, data interpretation, with the further aim of manipulating, changing, and transforming.
Dr. Deneen’s book, then, can be understood as an attempt to address the status of modern liberalism and political thought, especially within the United States. He argues that current cultural rhetoric in America too often seeks to posit liberals against conservatives, primarily those of the “political left” versus those of the “political right.” For Dr. Deneen, the political right “especially blames the role of expanding government for America’s social and economic disarray, and calls for a return to Constitutional principles of limited government, negative rights as protections of individual liberty, and economic laissez-faire.” In contrast to this, he writes that the political left “blames the rise of individualism as the source of fraying social bonds and calls for an enveloping national and even global ‘community’ to provide both equal opportunity and equal security.” Dr. Deneen considers this interplay of individualism and statism to be a false choice, stemming from deeper philosophic roots. Such roots are a substantial element at play in the American Founding, and it is to this problem that Dr. Deneen employs himself as a diagnostician.
The reason why the labels conservative/liberal are considered a false choice resides in the fact that both, upon further examination, end up being two sides of the same coin. Dr. Deneen argues that this is so since both are based upon a notion of freedom and society that is primarily liberal. Liberal political thought, seen especially in the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, articulates a view of the human person as primarily an individual. Human beings are no longer considered naturally political animals, in need of, and dependent upon, their local communities to become full and virtuous human beings. Rather, liberal political philosophy conceives human beings as existing in an ahistorical “State of Nature,” whereby they are free and autonomous. The reason why human beings enter into the social contract called “political society” is for the purpose of protecting our rights, and increasing our capacity to live as we so choose, in freedom.
For Dr. Deneen, here echoing sociologist Robert Nisbet, this notion of liberty and individualism does not give what it assumes. Since human beings are naturally political and social animals, they have an inclination and disposition to live in community with others. However, since liberal political thought attempts to cut off this drive in favor of being “autonomous,” a void is left to be filled. Eventually, the only organized body that will remain to satisfy this natural inclination will be that of the State. And, reciprocally, the State provides security and increases our freedom, thereby being the real “author” of our autonomy. Conservative calls for “liberty against the State” and Progressive calls for collectivism are unaware that each needs the other, and only end up reinforcing the broken connections at the heart of modern liberal political thought.
Predictably, some will read Dr. Deneen’s book, and come to the conclusion that he seems overly pessimistic and negative about America and perhaps disqualifies himself as a legitimate source for understanding where we are, or what can be done about it. Or, going further, one might even conclude that Dr. Deneen seems to think that the American Founding itself is somewhat pernicious, thereby leading his readers to quash any sort of patriotic love for their American homeland.
But such perspectives are not only grossly distorting of Dr. Deneen’s views, but they miss the fundamental key that helps to unlock his architectonic vision and the manner of his diagnostic assessment regarding America. Before mentioning this, I think it is important to highlight that Dr. Deneen’s book should be viewed as the first of three. By this I mean that the book should be read with others to be published in the not-too-distant future, namely, Why Liberalism Failed and Another America: Unearthing the Alternative American Tradition. I would argue that these three books will be best read together as a singular whole.
Now, the interpretive lens to which I want to draw attention here, and without which one would miss what Dr. Deneen is doing, comes from the opening chapter of the present work, titled “Patriotic Vision: Thoughts After 9/11.” In this chapter, Dr. Deneen recalls the ancient practice of the Greek theoroi, which is the foundation of political philosophy and political theory. The Greek theoroi were charged with the sacred office of attempting to observe (physically) the practices, customs, and cultural habits of other cities and localities. Their aim was not simply to have a “better understanding of other cultures,” but to provide a real kind of judgment and assessment of what they do and how they live. And this practice was fundamentally redirected at the homeland of the theoroi. They would look to return home to give an account (logos) of what they had observed. This was not for the purpose of condemning one’s own place and city of origin, but genuinely to consider the why of other people’s communal and political practices: Was some foreign tradition better or not, and on what grounds could such a claim even be made? Do the practices of those far-off lands seem more conducive to achieving the goal of political life by fostering happiness among their citizens?
In Dr. Deneen’s reckoning, these sorts of questions are fundamental for the practice of political philosophy and the perennial questions pertaining to the best way of life, and to the possibility of the best regime in this world. And, while the theorist may end up making a poignant and critical judgment upon his homeland, this is for the purpose of its own betterment. As Dr. Deneen argues, “theory kept the city open to improvement without loosening ancient loyalties. It helped to make the city a worthwhile object of devotion.” An unquestioned patriotism is one of the surest paths to tyranny, whereby the standard of judgment is nothing but the will, of either the rulers or the people. In describing the patriotism of the Greek theorist, Dr. Deneen writes:
The theorist was chosen, then, not only for a recognized ability to ‘see’ and apprehend with sensitivity the new and unusual, but equally for his abiding appreciation for the customs and practices of his own way of life. These are not mutually exclusive qualities, but intimately connected. A theorist was, by definition a patriot—one who treasured his cultural inheritance and traditions, knew intimately the stories and histories of his homeland, and saw these as fundamentally constitutive of his identity. At the same time, it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to a renewed devotion to those practices, in some instances, or to subtle questioning of dubious customs, in others.
Such a description would also aptly describe Dr. Deneen’s goal in this book. In a real way, Dr. Deneen has shown why a recovery of political theory is necessary for American political life. For without it, our love of our country may be on unstable grounds. And as Dr. Deneen perceives, this would be shameful, since there is nothing more natural, wholesome, and genuinely conservative than to love those places we are from, even with—and perhaps especially because of—all their imperfections.
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