Chapter 4 (Awakening from the American Dream) and Chapter 5 (Manners and Morals) of Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents (2016) are pretty intuitive. Chapter 6 (Progress and Memory) highlights the importance of thinking in what Professor Deneen calls the “full horizon of temporality”; living in the past, present and future without neglecting or overemphasizing any of the three of them. Chapter 7 (What is Conservatism?) and the remaining five chapters are where the really powerful ideas are revealed. They are fascinating, sometimes unpleasant, but undeniable truths that mainstream thinkers ignore or try to deny.
Deneen descends deeply into the philosophical and intellectual sources of conservative thought concluding that today’s Republican and “conservative” writers are missing the true nature of conservatism. He boils it down to four concepts: 1) human society and politics should be based on virtue (Aristotle’s “the Good”); 2) law derives from an affirmation of human culture; 3) Edmund Burke’s notion that the full spectrum of time (past, present and future) should guide human conduct [see my 7/29/15 post]; and 4) modern democracy must maintain “forms” or formalism because an emphasis on equality tends to obliterate forms. Lawyers, according to Tocqueville, are the great defenders of forms and formality.
Attorneys are noble intellectual sentries guarding against the evil egalitarian tendencies of democracy, well, at least those of us that have a deep respect for the rule of law. The numbskulls who think the Constitution is a “living” document that means whatever a politician says it means are not noble and would have us all succumb to the tyranny of the majority. A regime based purely on equality makes people resist and push against the barriers, limits and forms that are necessary in a virtuous culture. There is a powerful intellectual sword guarding Your Estate Planning War Chest and the virtues within it (aristocratic duty, self-control, personal discipline and decorum) from the malevolent forces of democracy (mob rule, legal recklessness, impatience, living only in the present and the pursuit of facile and immediate pleasures that ignore gratitude to prior generations and responsibility to future generations).
Robert Gould Shaw was the Union colonel who accepted command of “The 54th” – the first all African American regiment of the North in the civil war. He was portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the movie Glory (1989). The military heroism of Shaw was not his most admirable virtue. It was his decision to accept command of The 54th in the first place. He didn’t have to do that. Shaw left his friends in the comfortable, well respected 2nd Regiment to assume a “dubious” command of the lesser trained and inexperienced “negroes in the 54th”.
Their legendary military valor in the battle of Ft. Wagner (1863) was unexpected and Shaw may not have proved to be so honorable if things didn’t work out the way they did. His decision to accept the commission was a form of “lonely” or “civic” courage. It’s the willingness to sacrifice not just one’s life, but one’s sacred honor; one’s place of self-esteem in the eyes of others. Honor is a rare and extraordinary human virtue.
The paradox is that those who act or speak out against prevailing immoral beliefs or practices should be honored, but, and here’s that catch again, they cannot be, at least at the time of their courageous action or utterances. And the human attribute of honor becomes even rarer in a mass democracy like ours. Alexis de Tockqueville (1805-1859) articulated the “religious terror” of democracy. He called it “Tyranny of the Majority”.
It’s that soul crushing fear of being persecuted for having differing views from the masses; the extreme pressure to just go with the flow. And the masses are more wrong now than they’ve ever been; screaming ridiculous worldviews with increasing ferocity through their institutional advocates in the media, government and main-stream academia (Deneen is a dissident conservative). It’s vitally important that we honor our historic heroes like the founding fathers and Robert Gould Shaw because to honor, is to necessarily know what honor is. And that’s what gives us the strength and wisdom to live our lives honorably, even if that means risking our sacred honor in order to speak out or take action against prevailing majority views.
Deneen’s third essay is about virtue; not just the morality of doing no wrong, rather the much higher, more ancient, demanding and courageous virtue of Honor. He uses the words and actions of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence as his first example. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin worked bravely and tirelessly to move the Continental Congress to declare independence from England. The signers did not stand to gain much personally but stood to lose everything. Benjamin Franklin famously said “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately”.
They were committing treason against England and took great personal risk to give us the liberty that so many Americans take for granted today. The last phrase of The Declaration illuminates what was at stake. “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor”. Their willingness to pledge their lives for liberty is based the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704), who believed that the sole purpose of Government is to protect our individual rights – life, liberty and property. It’s the Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) social contract theory that we value self-preservation more than TOTAL liberty because we are willing to give up some liberty so that Government can protect our lives.
Locke noted that soldiers couldn’t be forced to fight but that superior officers clearly have the right to shoot their own men if they refuse to fight. Self-preservation is then up to each soldier – either refuse to fight and die, or take your chances with the enemy. John Adams legally defended the British Boston Massacre soldiers successfully on the grounds that they had to kill those civilians on the grounds of self-defense. What a paradox – the principle of self-preservation must be defended by the willingness to die. What’s really going on is that we value something more than life, liberty and property – we value the ancient virtue of honor. Honor is an aristocratic virtue of warrior societies and it’s built into the United States and into our War Chest.
The signers of the Declaration were not only willing to give up their lives, liberty and property – they pledged something much greater, their sacred honor. Imagine if the patriots had lost. Nathan Hale (who honorably said at his execution “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”) would have gone down in history as a traitor and Benedict Arnold would have been a hero. The signers were making a huge bet. They ended up being the most honored men in our nation’s history but, and here’s the catch, their words and actions were not guaranteed to be honorable at that time. Next week, we’ll look at Deneen’s other example of honor – the civil war hero Robert Gould Shaw.
There are 37 footnotes in Chapter 2 of Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents (2016), most of them citing Democracy in America (1835) by Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville is increasingly quoted on the political economy because he turned out to be so prophetically correct about how democracy evolves. Tocqueville wrote of the American restlessness of spirit. A political over emphasis on equality creates anxiety. Americans are always peering around the corner, fearful something better lies ahead, making us discontent with our current position.
Everyone has friends or relatives who experience sudden job changes and winding career paths. Americans think of their work as a “job”; rarely do we view our efforts as a vocation – a calling from within us and from outside. The reason for this economically is that in advanced industrial societies there is a necessary division of labor. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is driven by self-interest. Deneen is laying the foundation upon which he will later explore deep concerns about the philosophical ground on which our country and economy are built. The U.S. Constitution is based on the individualist notion of liberty from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. It’s the idea that we are born free and then enter into a social contract to protect our inalienable rights. It’s negative liberty giving us freedom from Government interference in our pursuit of happiness.
Representative Government under such philosophy is a system liberating people from the onerous task of self-government. Those of us that are more inclined and qualified to run public affairs should be in charge because of the enormous complexity of our economy. It’s a division of labor – like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. The problem is that the “job” of public office, like private pursuits, are then based on self-interest and getting ahead. Deneen believes the Hobbes/Locke philosophical starting point creates the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. The starting point according to Deneen is that man is an inherent political animal connected to one another over time. He suggests, along with Tocqueville, that the more ancient ideas of positive liberty and aristocratic virtues of duty and honor get pushed aside more and more in an egalitarian democracy.
Our efforts and intellectual energy should be more than a job. To govern and be governed, as Socrates and Aritstotle knew, is a calling – a vocation of citizenship. Our War Chest heeds the call as we continue through Daneen’s guided tour of American wealth, poverty and the end of history. Next week, we’ll pledge our sacred honor.
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.
The preamble of the UNESCO Constitution begins with “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed”. Wealth preservation, along with current political and economic discourse, is warfare – bitter tribalism. Defending our position requires that our minds be attuned to the carnage so we can understand why so many feel helpless and powerless. The number of discontents is growing and the economic dissatisfaction is permanent.
Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) addressed the deep fundamental tension in all human civilizations. The individual’s primitive instincts and quest for freedom must be tempered by society’s contrary demand to repress freedom – to restrain dark primal impulses (violent, sexual, selfish, avaricious tendencies). But suppressing human nature without acknowledging it results in anxiety and dissatisfaction. As Schopenhauer and Nietzsche taught, it is the human mind and will that conquer stagnation, mediocrity and weakness.
Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents (2016) by Patrick J. Deneen, is a fascinating exploration of current political, legal and economic discontents. He’s an intellectually courageous, brutally honest writer (unlike many in the academic world). Deneen relies on great thinkers like Aristotle and Tocqueville to shed light on what the hell is going on in the U.S. economy. Let’s take a War Chest journey into the mind of a Notre Dame Political Science Professor like we did with Hayek. Maybe a current thinker who is wise enough to base his ideas on historic geniuses can help us understand the complex moral and intellectual hostility roiling our political economy and drowning so many people in a sea of economic despair.
When Pulitzer Prize winning writer George Will began his career he asked William F. Buckley, Jr. “How will I ever write two columns a week?” Buckley responded – easy; at least two things a week will annoy you, and you’ll write about them. Jonah Goldenberg tells that story in his book Tyranny of Clichés (2013) to explain what motivates him (or me or anyone else) to write regularly about law, economics and politics:
Annoyance is inspiration, aggravation a muse. That which gets your blood up, also gets the ink – or these days, the pixels flowing. Show me an author without passion for what he holds to be the truth and I will show you either a boring writer or someone who misses a lot of deadlines, or both. Nothing writes itself, and what gets the writer to push that boulder uphill is more often than not irritation with those saying wrong things righteously.
Today’s mainstream thinkers are obstacles to the truth about wealth. Institutional leftist bias has run amok. Thomas Sowell explains that the intelligentsia is a barrier to truth because they dictate “things you cannot say, even with a mountain of empirical evidence behind you, and other things you can shout from the rooftops, without a speck of evidence behind you, in defiance of whatever evidence exists to the contrary”. Today’s writers have to navigate a maze of political correctness in order to address anything controversial or untoward about wealth. Not me; I’m not beholden to a liberal university department head or left leaning editor. It’s my clients, their wealth and intellectual honesty that I’m passionate about.
Too many thinkers devalue honesty and truth, disabling clear, rational thinking about wealth and economics – wouldn’t want to offend anyone. They avoid unpleasant realities and the unpalatable aspects of wealth, which makes them dishonest. It reminds me of the old joke about a prospective employer interviewing a job candidate. The interviewer asks the candidate “What is your greatest weakness?” The candidate replies – honesty. The Interviewer says I don’t think that’s really a weakness, to which the candidate quickly replies – I don’t give a fuck what you think.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) saw this state of affairs developing when he wrote that American democracy promotes mediocrity among thinkers. He believed that those who possess true virtue and intelligence are left with only two choices: They can engage in very limited, honest intellectual circles to explore the weighty and complex problems facing society or they can use their superior talents to amass wealth in the private sector. The Estate Planning War Chest gives you both by engaging weekly with the clearest, most honest thinkers on wealth (most of whom are dead), which should only be undertaken after your family’s assets have been secured with good financial and estate planning.