Richard Rorty’s America had a wonderful run, even if it was short lived.
I well remember my senior year of high school in 1990-91. For the first few months of school Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had pride of place in our minds. We had furious debates as to the rightness or wrongness of our presence in the Mid-East. As military action looked more imminent, the arguments got more heated. I filled out my draft service card. Some thought the war could take years and become a dreaded “quagmire.”
The fighting actually started and a hush fell over the debates. And then, just as quickly, the fighting ceased. The ground war took no more than a week. We sat stunned for a moment, then, elation. Talk of world affairs ceased immediately. We all shifted into thinking about college, planning out our lives, and so on. The Soviet Empire had crumbled. What was left but Kant’s dream of perpetual peace and George Bush’s “New World Order?”
The end of the Cold War brought about the end of modernism in the mainstream and a shift towards the postmodern individualistic ethos. Professors like Richard Rorty from the University of Virginia rode the wave. Rorty hit the sweet spot. In contrast to some academics, he championed the American project and American exceptionalism, which went well with our post Cold-War confidence. He also gave free vent philosophically to our desire to maximize our individual idea of happiness as far as we wanted. No one grand narrative need control us. In fact, for Rorty the 1990’s allowed for America to truly fulfill her mission as a kind of blank slate for autonomous individuals. All could achieve happiness, none need worry about “Civilization” or religion.
Ah, the 1990’s. Good times, good times.
Peter Augustine Lawler tackles the thorny problem of the nature of the American Enterprise in his Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about our Souls. In his work Lawler examines the various attempts to craft a secular paradise in America from Thomas Jefferson down to Richard Rorty and Francis Fukuyama. Lawler agrees with many of the intellectuals he examines that America has essentially been about creating a republic of happy and secular individuals. In this way he mostly sides with the liberal interpretation of America vs. the religious and conservative interpretation. But he parts with them ultimately, stating that this dream, though seemingly close to realization at certain points in time, can never come to fruition.
Lawler published this originally just after 9/11. We might think that he would point to the terrorist attacks as destroying the liberal dream. True, he seems to argue, 9/11 did perhaps hasten the end of the most recent attempt at secular paradise, but it would have ended at some point in any case. To see this one need not exhaustively examine the thought of various thinkers over time (this indeed got old for me, as each thinker-guy in the book ran together in my brain). Rather, it was when Lawler looks to two of the most perceptive critics of America in Tocqueville and Walker Percy, that his own ideas make sense.
Most know the basics of Alexis de Tocqueville’s monumental Democracy in America:
- He came from an aristocratic background
- He came to investigate democracy, seeing it as the wave of the future
- He offered important criticisms of democratic practice, while giving it the nod in the end over the aristocratic past.
One could say a great deal about this work. Lawler focuses on an oft-overlooked observation of Tocqueville’s about aristocracy. Aristocracy has its flaws, but in giving people a definitive place and a definitive role they give people something to do. Aristocratic societies come with “meaning included” in the packaging. This goes not just for the elite. Even Odysseus’ dog knew he had purpose.
Tocqueville praises the machinery of democracy for making everyone equal to all. Everyone believes that this means they have worth as an individual, and they have reason for this belief. This rational pursuit of self-interest then creates a nation of those who create peace by a kind of selfishness, just as markets create equilibrium via constant competition. But even in the late 1830’s Tocqueville saw what we could not–that equality would actually create a large amorphous mass in which few of us would know where we stand. We are told to be whatever we wish, but more than a few of us respond with, “And what might that be?”*
Rorty and others no doubt praise this possibility as exactly the meaning of America, one that should persist into time immemorial.
History gives witness to others of like mind and goal to Rorty. Rorty rejected much of modernity and the Enlightenment, but he shared with Gibbon, Voltaire, Hume, and others of that time a belief that calm, rational self-interest could conquer the ills of “barbarism and religion”–a phrase used by Gibbon in describing the fall of Rome in his magnum opus, writing that, “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” For him, Rome had reached its zenith with the rule of the humane, tolerant, religiously skeptical and urbane Antonine Emperors (A.D. 96-180).
Like Edward Gibbon, historian Arnold Toynbee sought for universals amongst particulars in his multi-volume A Study of History, and so perhaps this helps explain why one particular quote of Gibbon’s fascinated Toynbee, as he uses the quote several times across his twelve volume work. In 1781 Gibbon wrote that,
In War the European forces exercised themselves in temperate and indecisive contests. The Balance of Power will continue to fluctuate, and the prosperity of our own or neighboring kingdoms may be alternately exalted or depressed; but these partial events cannot injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts, laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of Mankind, the Europeans and their colonists.
With the mild peace settlement after America’s victory in the Revolutionary War, Gibbon looked justified in his assumption. It seemed that Europe’s house was swept clean of the various bothers of the religious wars. It seemed that a paradise of calm rationality awaited them.
But 10 years after his utterance, the illusion disappeared utterly in France’s revolution (a nation that drunk deeply from the well of Enlightenment), engulfing Europe in 20 years of war that left perhaps three million dead.
Hugh Trevor-Roper writes in his History and Enlightenment about Gibbon that
. . . Gibbon gave a confident answer to the problems of his time. Since progress depended on science, and since science and the useful arts were irreversible in a world of free competition and inquiry, and since Europe, unlike the Roman Empire, was a plural society where competition could not be stifled by a single, repressive, centralized figure, a reversion to barbarism was unthinkable. Gibbon wrote that, “the essential engine of progress having been distributed over the globe, it can never be lost. We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real happiness, knowledge, and virtue of the human race.”
I think Gibbon’s quote above fascinated Toynbee because in Gibbon he saw of man of great intellect, good intention, and broad vision completely miss a seismic shift in the history of his times. Like Rorty and Fukuyama in the 1990’s, Gibbon thought that European civilization had truly arrived and that history had effectively ended for Europe in 1780.
Had Gibbon looked even at his own field of expertise he could have known his dream was doomed to fail. Yes, the reign of the mild, intelligent, and reasonable Antonines helped Rome. But the reaction against this was swift and brutal, beginning with Commodus and not really ending until 150 years later–a period that included decades of conflict between Rome’s generals. The Antonines could not quite connect with the real heart of Rome, and could not feed their souls on mild urbanity.
Lawler asserts that Tocqueville felt his dilemma keenly. Aristocracy relies on a kind of fiction and cannot stand up in argument to the exacting syllogisms of equality. Aristocratic societies, like tradition, just “exist.” Tocqueville had no arguments, but he saw the spiritual vacuum democracy could easily produce. The logic of equality satisfies our minds, but inclusion into the great mass in the middle would do little for our hearts. He feared what the absence of virtue would do to democratic societies.
Walker Percy’s novels touch on a similar theme as Tocqueville. He came from an aristocratic southern family, and he saw that their time had come and gone. Novels last The Last Gentlemen deal with the tension of knowing that the old way of living no longer works and not knowing how to replace it. In time Percy’s characters grow weary of “democratic diversions” and begin seeking something else. Percy knows that, while the southern aristocratic answer is better than nothing, it failed for the right reasons.** The quest must continue, but in what direction?^
Today we seem to be at another point of whether we will reaffirm something of what it means to be an American in a traditional sense, or change it dramatically, or, as is more likely, do some of both. We are discovering that the pragmatic, ‘rational,’ and soulless plurality of self-interest espoused by Gibbon, Rorty, and Marcus Aurelius has a definite shelf life. Commodus “went native,” the French Revolution unraveled centuries of tradition and killed thousands in the process, and today we have white nationalists and Antifa radicals. Thankfully for the moment we’re not nearly in the same place as Rome and France found themselves (or for that matter, the situation of Germany in the 1930’s after the ‘devil-may-care’ Weimar era).
Whatever merits may have been in rejecting the various “gods” of our past, we should be careful in discarding them wholesale.
When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left. On its arrival it finds the house vacant, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and dwell there; and the final plight of that man is worse than the first. So will it be with this wicked generation.” — Matthew 12:43-45
*Of course the mass of people must have someone to follow, and so we do have makers of taste and opinion. Perhaps a cynic of democracy might agree that these people alone have true freedom. But, an even greater cynic might point out that even these people quickly become subjects of mass opinion, and the people turn on them quickly when they fall out of line.
**I have read very little about the Civil Rights era, but Percy’s brief essay “Stoicism in the South” is the best analysis of why well meaning southern elites failed to bring about civil rights reform in the decades after the Civil War.
^My favorite novel of Percy’s is The Second Coming, a more profound (I think) sequel to The Last Gentlemen. In a famous passage found here, the character of Will Barrett wrestles with two unacceptable options of dealing with reality (warning: language). It is not quite the same as the aristocratic/democratic option, but hints at some of the same tension.