What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Happy 10th Anniversary CRB!

The Tenth Anniversary number of The Claremont Review of Books arrives propitiously for readers of What’s Wrong with the World. The auguries are with us this time. Not only have we a just tribute to the best journal of political philosophy and statesmanship in America; it is our true fortune to have, among many fine essays and reviews, a brilliant and challenging treatment of none other than Alexis de Tocqueville himself, by America’s best political philosopher, Harvey Mansfield of Harvard.

Professor Mansfield gives us a fascinating picture of the great Frenchman. Mansfield’s Tocqueville had a definite and positive teaching on religion in public life. Why it should be left a man who did not himself believe, or at least who struggled profoundly with agnostic indecision, to compose a theory of democracy that owed so much to the private action of religion on public mores, is an example of the caliber of question that Mansfield raises.

Private action: mark that distinction. Mischievous commenters here have of late adduced claims of Tocqueville secret allegiance to the ancien regime, which is how they interpret his steady caution about modern democracy’s capacity for justice; but certainly on this point only a really brassbound fool would insist on contrarianism, and present Tocqueville as pining for the old regime’s iron unity of church and state. He was fully persuaded by Americans on this point. Tocqueville privileged liberty, of conscience above all.

So Tocqueville embraced the modern liberal separation of church and state; but this by no means meant, for him, that religion was out of the game. Far from it. He reproached the Puritans for their theocracy; but he praised their remarkable capacity, in earthy practice, to give religion influence without coercion; in word, their capacity to inculcate voluntary civic virtue. As Mansfield puts it, “They not merely offered an idea but also were able to live it, transforming it into the mores of a social state that could be considered the ‘first cause’ of American democracy.”

So I cannot recommend Prof. Mansfield’s essay more enthusiastically. That I disagree with him on certain points does not detract of the overall impress of the argument. I should feel myself duped or misled for sure if I found myself agreeing with everything in one of these Straussians’ essays.

The rest of this CRB issues is similarly packed with quality writing, sharp analysis, rich review, grounded challenge. Sign up for this one now. Make sure they understand you want this double issue.

Comments (7)

I really didn't need to get it, but I did. And the worst happened, just as I expected it to - I now have a new list of about 67 books I want to read.

Seriously, though, I loved Jean Bethke Elshtain's response in the letters section - anyone who has any residual affection for Simone de Beauvior really, really needs to re-think that.

Kamilla

Paul,

I was just getting ready to write you an excited private email about the new CRB and you stole my thunder. Of course I was going to point you to the Mansfield essay, but I was also going to highlight the book review by Wilfred McClay. He reviews what seems like a fascinating study of American social history called Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character by Claude Fischer. Given our recent discussion about the dangers of democracy/capitalism, these section of the book review stood out for me:

...But neither is he a Pollyanna for whom everything is steadily getting better in every way, and the only ones doing the complaining are the toad-like "enemies of the future." He acknowledges the possibility of profoundly ironic results arising even out of the most straightforward and incontestable of improvements, such as the progress made in rendering our lives more predictable and less precarious.

To make this last point vivid, he cites the example of Abraham Lincoln, "the most powerful man in the Western Hemisphere" in early 1865--and yet a man who had lost his grandfather (killed by Indians), lost his mother when he was ten, lost his older sister when 19, lost his special friend Ann Rutledge to typhoid, buried two of his four sons before they were 12, and a third at 18--not to mention having an emotionally unstable wife, suffering from depression himself, and coming to a violent end. Lincoln's entire life was enveloped in a sense of fragility and danger that we would find almost inconceivable today. And yet, as Fischer acknowledges, our much greater security today has not translated into an equivalent loss of anxiety. As he observes, it may be that "reducing the mundane risks of life made the remaining risks or emerging ones more fearsome."

Similarly, "the volume and magnificence of goods" produced by the modern American economy and made available to even the most common person surpass the wildest dreams of the wealthiest Americans of a century ago; and this plenty served to "expand the culture of American volunturism," creating a national economy in which everyone could participate. Yet this same lavish productivity has led at times to a condition in which Americans are "possessed by their possessions," caught up not only in a spiral of acquisitive or emulative desire, but in the role played by such possessions in common social practices...

What's more, the voluntarism that Fischer regards as the most important defining feature of American life had to be braced and moderated by other essential commitments whose source was less well defined. Hence a too-relentless expansion of voluntarism, he admits, could have "problematic consequences." How for example could families succeed in their principal tasks if marriages are regarded as provisional in character, a matter of "until inconvenience do us part" rather than "until death do us part"?

The same concerns apply to the making voluntary of all other social associations: congregations, neighborhoods, and friendships alike. A world of the most rich, enduring relationships may also be a world with limited choices, while a world of unlimited choices may leave all human associations impoverished. Fischer allows for that possibility. "The expansion of choices, from the mundane like foods to the profound like spouses, both enriched and taxed modern Americans." Indeed, it is possible that Americans "paid a psychic or emotional price" for the freedom to be more or less "entirely responsible" for their lives and associations. Yet Fischer is cautiously inclined to see "growing joy" in the long run.

[...]

Fischer seems confident--far more confident than Tocqueville was--that social atomization, the breaking down of all those involuntary or semi-involuntary bonds (marriage, family, neighborhood, and other forms of intermediate private and civil association) that serve to support the voluntary ones, will never occur. I think he is far too casual about that, given the powerful role the state itself can play (and has played) in hastening that breakdown. "The more [the state] stands in the place of associations," Tocqueville wrote, "the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other."


Wilfred McClay is a fine writer. His essays are always worthwhile. I was most impressed with a recent essay of his on Whig history in First Things.

Kamilla -- that letter endeared me to Jean Bethke Elshtain as well. I'm a sucker for a journal with a good Letters column myself.

I think he is far too casual about that, given the powerful role the state itself can play (and has played) in hastening that breakdown. "The more [the state] stands in the place of associations," Tocqueville wrote, "the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other."

Jeff, I'm not so sure about attributing more than caution to T, and then contrasting him to Fischer based on the respective quotes (I haven't read the review yet.) Note the preceding sentence below in the full quote. Also, in Nolla's 1990 translation that I used, considered one of the better ones, it uses "social power" instead of "governing power." I'd be interested in knowing how other translations render it, but even if it is rendered "governing power", it isn't clear to me you can simply insert "the state."

It is easy to foresee that the time is coming when man will be less and less able to produce by himself alone the things most common and most necessary to his life. So the task of the social power will grow constantly, and its very efforts will make it greater every day. The more it puts itself in the place of associations, the more individuals, losing the idea of associating, will need it to come to their aid.

1) One of T's most persistent memes is the powerlessness of individuals, in any type of government. He is insistent and repetitious that are all "powerless," of a "common powerlessness" and weakness. Maybe that factors in here and maybe it doesn't, but I don't share his view of the powerlessness of persons, then or now.

2) It seems the point you wish to make by quoting T depends on T's view that (presumably) because of the increasing industrialization and specialization people will be more dependent on external associations, whether the "general association" (government) or voluntary associations. I don't think he is saying it must be the former at all, but rather it will be one or the other and to the extent that it is one it will be less the other. Can this be characterized as a more pessimistic take than your quote of Fischer shows Fischer to be? T's seems pretty neutral to me, but maybe I'm misunderstanding something.

3) The sentence that contains the assertion you wish to make depends entirely on first that I included. There are senses in which the first proposition is true, but I think there are more in which it is not. And if there is anything certain in this it is the ways that industrialization and specialization has brought about surprising mitigating factors in various ways. Many of us have new freedoms from new developments that we often don't exercise because of spiritual problems.

I think it is valuable to speak of these debates in terms of pessimism/optimistism, because at the end of the day that is the real difference in my view. In other words, we are talking about attitudes. I think it is a mistake to confuse symptoms of spiritual crisis with symptoms of political corruption, and I'm not persuaded that we can simply say since the latter could cause the former that it must have somehow. The fact is spiritual crisis is inevitable, and can't be dealt with politically. Here is a funny take on how people commonly lose their perspective, and so true.

I think my point 2 was poorly stated. But suffice it to say that it seems clear to me it is a statement mainly about industrialization, which is open to question. Critics of industrialization are going to say "yeah great point about democracy," whereas those who think we have it pretty well, in spite of the losses, are going to say "I dispute the premise," or at least the premise's support of the conclusion.

Mark,

A couple of responses:

1) The entire block quote is McClay -- no Singer opinion is inserted in there so your argument is with the good Professor, not with me;

2) That said, I do think the fact that T. says "losing the idea of associating" suggests that McClay's interpretation is correct -- T. really does seem to be suggesting that over time people will turn toward the government rather than forming associations on their own.

3) On the other hand, like you, I'm more of an optimist in many ways, and agree with Fischer that despite all the "social atomization", I look around and still see plenty of Americans associating (even using the web to do so). I wonder if Putnam's famous book Bowling Alone still holds true?

4) I have different worries than McClay, which Putnam himself has addressed in later work, although I wonder if Fischer's book deals with the subject?

Mark,

A couple of responses:

1) The entire block quote is McClay -- no Singer opinion is inserted in there so your argument is with the good Professor, not with me;

2) That said, I do think the fact that T. says "losing the idea of associating" suggests that McClay's interpretation is correct -- T. really does seem to be suggesting that over time people will turn toward the government rather than forming associations on their own.

3) On the other hand, like you, I'm more of an optimist in many ways, and agree with Fischer that despite all the "social atomization", I look around and still see plenty of Americans associating (even using the web to do so). I wonder if Putnam's famous book Bowling Alone still holds true?

4) I have different worries than McClay, which Putnam himself has addressed in later work, although I wonder if Fischer's book deals with the subject?

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