Patrick J. Deneen prepares us for a philosophical journey in Chapter 1 of Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents (2016). He begins with Aristotle’s assertion that “all men are by nature political animals”. We don’t thrive as solitary creatures; we need each other. Patriotism is the recognition of a debt that we owe to others, especially our forefathers. It’s a deep love of our “regime” but like any kind of love, it must balance unquestioned devotion with a healthy limit to that love based on intelligent thought and virtue.
The book’s foundational chapter reminds me of the beginning of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on God. Descartes began with a long passage about how reasoning about God does not mean that he is irreverent – the introduction was aimed at the Church because people were put to death for blasphemy in 1637. Deneen is clearly a patriotic U.S. citizen and he doesn’t want his readers to think that he is betraying American ideals by setting forth his penetrating ideas on Government.
He’s a political theorist and a good theorist cannot disregard the history of thought and ignore how we arrived at where we are now. He cites Descartes’ Discourse on Method (the famous cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am) thought experiment by which Descartes purports to start with a complete state of doubt about all inherited knowledge. But even Descartes recognized that any attempts to eliminate all preferences will result in preferences all the same. A blank slate philosophical approach makes you a “free rider” on the wealth, security, generosity and anonymity provided to us for just being born in the U.S.A. Our vast and rich intellectual history cannot be ignored. So, our War Chest journey embarks from a sturdy cognitive garage of gratitude and patriotism on a road to an even deeper devotion to America. Next week, Alexis de Tocqueville takes the wheel.