Tocqueville Continued. . .

What good does it do me, after all, if an ever-watchful authority keeps an eye out to ensure that my pleasures will be tranquil and races ahead of me to ward off all danger, sparing me the need even to think about such things, if that authority, even as it removes the smallest thorns from my path, is also absolute master of my liberty and my life; if it monopolizes vitality and existence to such a degree that when it languishes, everything around it must also languish; when it sleeps, everything must also sleep; and when it dies, everything must also perish?”

Alexis De Tocqueville- Democracy in America

Tocqueville Continued. . .

A Tocqueville 2 for 1 deal.  Two ideas to ponder for the price of one post.

The way I see it, two opposing narratives are put forth regarding the most fundamental principle or virtue that guides America.  The first says she is founded on liberty, while the second argues that America’s chief virtue is equality.   And while both may be found within our founding charter- only one can reign supreme.  After all, all things are not equal.  Equality, therefore, will always require personal, private and invasive government intervention and can only be fully realized at the expense of individual freedom.

It is certain that despotism ruins men more by preventing them  from producing than by taking the fruits of production away from them. . . Freedom, on the contrary, begets a thousand times more goods than it destroys, and in the nations that know it, the resources of the people always grow more quickly than do taxes.”

In this second quote Tocqueville argues that “a time will come;” and yet that epoch he describes sounds so eerily akin to contemporary America that one must wonder if it already has.

When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . . It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.”

Tocqueville Continued. . .

Tocqueville, it appears, may very well have identified the spirit of our oppressive bureaucracy well before it was even conceived:

“Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

Making America Great Again

lady liberty.jpeg

With election season upon us we approach the proverbial fork in the road. Regardless of what November 2016 delivers, it is hard to have an optimistic outlook regarding the future of our nation. Many people that I talk to seem to agree- left and right alike. So just how exactly do we aim to make America great again.  I am not entirely convinced that certain people who throw that phrase around have a convincing game plan. I mean sure, there is talk of lowering taxes.  But there is also talk of raising them.  There is talk of building walls.  And yes, every sovereign nation must secure and control its borders.  But some of our biggest threats to liberty aren’t “out there.” Rather, many of our largest problems have arisen from within America  herself.  These, like many others, are certainly issues that need to be addressed- but they will not set America aright again.  What will?

According to current data America currently ranks 13th worldwide in percentage of its population that is college educated and millennials are on track to be the first generation in American history who are less well educated than their parents.  Therein, I would argue, lies the problem.  Though as a Christian my own desire would be to see the restoration that only repentance can bring us as a nation- we must start by finding common ground with our neighbor.  I am convinced no progress can truly be made without a return to the classics- the very books and ideas that made the west great to begin with.  And yet, it seems some of our greatest institutions of higher learning seem to be letting the inmates run the asylum. I always had the impression that the reason one sought a college education was to receive knowledge where one previously possessed ignorance.  No longer so, at Yale, it seems.  The students claim to know better what they need to learn and not learn.  Brush up on said controversy here.

This, of course, is nonsense.  I still remember when I took a course called Western Masterworks at Coe College (which, at the time, was mandatory).  Starting with many of the great Greek Tragedians such as Sophocles and Aeschylus we were exposed to the very roots of Western Democracy.  From there we made our way through Plato, Virgil and Dante.  And what was readily apparent as we made our way through these authors in chronological order was that each successive work dealt in some manner with the ideas in the previous.  These men reached across time to be in conversation with one another. A rich dialogue had occurred.  From my perspective, western history was suddenly seen under a new light, and it was indeed this very conversation that helped conceive and give birth to our own great democracy.  But the candle hardly seems to flicker anymore and the conversation is in danger of being extinguished entirely.

If we want to get serious about Making America Great Again– we must get serious about great books again.  The endless stream of shock and awe you tube current events, tweets and arrogant political memes just won’t cut it.

Robert Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago (1929-1945), discussed the need for such a project nearly 100 years ago in more stark terms:

If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately require it.  If  people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure.  Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous.  If the people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed, Aristotle rightly condemned the mass of mankind to natural slavery, and the sooner we set about reversing the trend toward democracy the better it will be for the world.”

The Greeks believed that their statesmen ought to attend the theater before exercising political judgement as tragedy, it was argued, purged the soul of fear, pity and other emotions that tend to cloud sound judgement leaving one in a sober state of mind.

Likewise, I’ve decided to thumb back through Alexis De Tocqueville’s perennial classic Democracy in America, November draws closer. It is most fitting for an election season. Over the next few weeks I hope, as often as possible, to post some thought provoking quotes from his masterpiece.  It is a work of non-fiction, yet still a classic in every sense of the word.  Though written over 150 years ago, his insight is still keen and applicable.  This timelessness is indeed one of the marks of a true classic.

“One cannot say it too often: There is nothing more prolific in marvels than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship of freedom. It is not the same with despotism. Despotism often presents itself as the mender of all ills suffered; it is the support of good law, the sustainer of the oppressed, and the founder of order. People fall asleep in the bosom of the temporary prosperity to which it gives birth; and when they awaken, the are miserable.”  Alexis De Tocqueville

Downton Abbey: Classical Ideas & Contemporary Culture

Downton Abbey- Molesley

Downton Abbey, which is only a few days away from closing the curtain on its 6th and final season, is a British period drama that portrays the decline of the British aristocracy in the early 20th   century modern world. If you have yet to enjoy this show, you are most certainly missing out.  Written by Cambridge educated British producer Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey has boasted tremendous popularity in America arguably competing with prime-time television shows on America’s main networks while The Abbey remains televised on the modest public broadcasting stations.  Ironically (and if you have watched it you are aware of this) it is unlike anything produced for prime time American television.  It is not gory, it is not overly suggestive, there are no innuendos- implicit or explicit, and its language is rather clean in comparison with rest of the American television diet.  Many might hear this and immediately think: boring.  This could hardly be further from the truth.  As today’s culture seems infatuated with the thrill of bloody crime scene investigations, or the ever unrealistic reality shows such as the The Bachelor or The Voice, why the pull toward Downton Abbey?

Certainly its lure goes far deeper than charming British wit or the English fascination with juicy scandal.  Downton Abbey is proof that classical ideas never die.  Whether one is fully aware of the nuance that one is witnessing or not, The Abbey entertains timeless ideas about the perennial issues of society and the human condition that confront every age.  Further it is proof of the ancient idea that art and argument go hand in hand.  Indeed Aristotle argued in the Poetics that poetry is something more scientific than history because poetry deals with universal truths while history treats of particular individual facts.  The essence of art, according to Aristotle, is mimesis– or imitation.  Through making an image or likeness of reality the artist makes a statement about the way things are.  Remaining in the classical world beyond Aristotle, one can see the concepts of the mythos and the logos at work in Plato’s dialogues where the mythical or fictional plot elements of the work serve to point the reader to the underlying logic of the works big ideas.  In either case art has been classically understood as the most poignant way to dialogue on some of history’s most fundamental ideas be they political, philosophical or otherwise.  And the Abbey certainly bears the torch of this rich poetic tradition.  While it would take far more than one or two blog posts to unpack the myriad of ways that this has played itself out in 6 seasons of The Abbey, even a quick glimpse into season six lends generous insight into many classical gestures and conventions that help one consider the great ideas of ages past.

A concept that is fundamental to reading poetic works of the classical age is the idea of genre.  There is a very distinct set of conventions at work when one discusses genre that go far deeper than the categories that movies are sorted into when you peruse Netflix or Amazon prime. There are, in fact, only four classical literary genres: Epic, Comic, Lyric and Tragic- and it has often been said that the four literary genres were not invented, but rather, discovered.  They carry with them a marked measure of objectivity. As literary critic Louise Cowan once suggested “genre is a fundamental orientation towards reality.”  And Cowan argues that thieir objectivity is founded upon the fact that they each uniquely express “the basic gestures [and] actions of the soul.”  They are the way they are because the human condition is the way it is.  There is a strong sense of realism here. And I would argue that the near instinctive fascination with Downton Abbey is proof that this idea has merit.  We are drawn to it because it is true to life, and again, because it engages timeless ideas.

Over the course of all six seasons of Downton Abbey one can see the various conventions of all 4 genres employed.  Epic, among other things, often treats of “man at war” and we see this in action in seasons one and two as the British become entangled in World War I.  Lyric often deals with the beautiful and is suggested in Mr. Bates’ unyielding praises of his wife, or the beauty of the estate and the nostalgia and attachment that the Crawley family has for it.

But in season six, it seems that comedy and tragedy seem to take center stage.  We get a nearly textbook (according to Aristotle’s Poetics) tragic episode in the seventh show of the season.  One day Edith wakes up to find out that due to a death in the family the man who has been courting her has inherited the title of Marquess of Hexham-meaning Edith would be marrying into a rather distinguished position and, as her father Robert remarks, would “outrank [them] all.”  A grand proposition and one that comes crashing down as Edith rides out her sudden reversal of fortune resulting from one ‘fatal flaw’: her failure to come clean about her daughter Marigold with her husband to be.  Trust is broken, and all talk of the engagement is off.  Tragedy always treats of a significant loss of nobility- and the requisite fear and pity are certainly evoked.  But will there be redemption?

Redemption is the stuff that comedy is made of, and while only time will tell if there is redemption for Edith, Mr. Fellowes is certainly making significant comedic gestures.  Like all true comedies- redemption is often focused on the unlikely, or lowly. And in the case of the Abbey it is Mr. Molesley, a mere “footman,” who finds himself on this path.  As tragedy carries one along a downward trajectory, comedy carries one upward and offers hope.  Molesley is a character who, at many points throughout the show, seems to “miss the bus.”  After sharing with the headmaster of the local school that he believes “education is the gate to any future worth having” he is asked if he might have missed his vocation. His response provides a comedic foreshadowing:  “I’ve missed everything, Mr. Dawes.” In praising education Molesley articulates an idea as old as Plato’s Republic that offers counsel not just to his own modest position but to the uncertain historical moment at large.   Fellowes has primed Mr. Molesley for comedic redemption at this point, and he has suggested a rather poignant way forward for the new world with all its instability encroaching on life at The Abbey.

The concept that it is comedy’s task to envision a new world can be traced back all the way to Aristophanes.  The ordered world of the aristocracy was colliding with modern democratic ideals in a very radical and sometimes uncomfortable way.  Downtown Abbey does not shy away from this fact.  A revolution of sorts was underway and like any revolution- volatility was inevitable.  But Molesley, it would be revealed, did not “miss the bus.”  Rather, he was just in time.  A few episodes after Molesley’s conversation with the schoolmaster a new door opens when he passes his own exams and is given the opportunity to teach.  The viewer is offered a very touching scene when Molesley explains to his pupils that he spent most of his life in servitude but education had opened the door to a new vocation.  Children of the working and service class themselves, suddenly they are all ears. In building the motifs of servitude, education and liberty- one upon another- deeper conclusions are meant to be drawn regarding the human condition that are not to be lost on any age.

Where is the world headed? seems to be the burning question of the show.  And while history answers this for us, it is a question that is relevant to any historical moment and one we are still asking today as America itself stands at a watershed. Our classical western heritage, as Downton Abbey reminds us, bestows a rich tapestry of ideas where we discover that particular artistic and literary works point us toward larger universal notions.  It is within this tradition that we are introduced to the “great conversation.”  And Downton Abbey certainly confronts us with larger questions:  Does education offer hope to an otherwise uncertain future? Do education, liberty and mobility go hand in hand?  Does the comedic realm really inspire us to envision a new world?  I would contend that the answer here is yes, yes and yes.

As unsettling new ideas encroach upon our own Republic, we would do well to reflect upon the wisdom Molesley offers.  In many corners of our culture we seem to be willfully closing our ears to the “great conversation” and are becoming less and less acquainted with the great works of the past.  We are neglecting a legacy that was just as vital for Athens as it was for Jerusalem and remains equally vital today for both Washington and the Church.  If the classical vision teaches us anything it is certainly that there is much more going on inside the human soul and across the spectrum of the human condition than scientific method and statistical analysis can reveal to us.  And if we lose sight of the soul, what sort of liberty can we really boast?

Certainly Molesley was not that far off the mark when he said that “education is the gate to any future worth having.” Perhaps even among the rubble of a once great aristocracy Mr. Fellowes is admitting what all great men of the past have contended: as long as there is a true education there is both a true hope and a true freedom.   If we would retain the art of reading well we must endeavor to recover our classical heritage.  If Molesley was right, our future depends on it.