The uneasy conscience of the academic

Peter Josephson is Professor of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

I write for readers of an academic bent during a time of political crisis. There is a temptation to ensconce ourselves in some version of the life of leisure, to move on from the constant tumult and mendacity and evil of these years, and to treat political engagement as a merely instrumental chore on the way to better things. This is a temptation for almost everyone, I suspect, and not only for those of us with an academic bent. And there are good reasons to follow that temptation; for more than two millennia canonical thinkers, both ancient and modern, have pointed to the tension or contradiction of the lives of action and contemplation. But there is a certain reading of the tradition of Madisonian constitutionalism that may itself intimate a way for readers of an academic bent to embrace political engagement, and to do so from perspectives of ethical commitment and self-knowledge.

In a letter to his wife Abigail, penned in May 1780 during America’s revolutionary war, John Adams explained that he studied “politics and war” so that his grandchildren could study “painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” There is in Adams’ account a kind of classical telos: politics is for the sake of other, presumably higher goods. Political action is for the sake of leisure; the life of contemplation is the best life.

But Adams spent his entire life concerned for and engaged with problems of American politics, and so did his son. The teleological horizon – the life of leisure – may lie beyond a single lifetime, or two lifetimes. In one passage of the Talmud heaven is described as a great academy, where souls gather every day to read Torah and argue about the law. That sounds like heaven. Or a Liberty Fund colloquium.

Meanwhile, back on earth, we face an ethical challenge. What we are witnessing now is the manifestation of the profound ugliness of political life. Thoughtful people often hesitate before the precipice of action because they see the imperfection of any action they might choose. Yet for us now a life of political engagement is, practically speaking, an unavoidable and even essential part of the human condition. But the fundamental political problem – the problem of individual and community, particular and general, diversity and unity, rights and duties (that is to say, the problem of justice) – cannot be solved. It can only be addressed. All “solutions” are only approximations. The great challenge for those of us with an academic bent is to deepen our engagement and our commitment to the life of action even in the face of profound ugliness. In some sense that engagement will require us to compromise our ethical commitments to truth or humanity. In another sense it can deepen our ethical commitments to the nation. Now we must be patriots and partisans.

During the French Revolution Alexander Hamilton and James Madison engaged in an extended debate about the character of America’s policy commitment to France, and the ethical framework that would shape the nation’s foreign policy-making into the future. In his fourth “Pacificus” letter, Hamilton developed a remarkable account of the divergent ethics of the nation and the person. His was not the first such account; Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, and Rousseau had tread that forest earlier. But Hamilton produced his work for an educated popular audience, and in doing so he established a particularly American context for such considerations. Hamilton was asking whether one nation has an obligation of gratitude to another, and so whether the United States owed a debt of gratitude to France, and what such an obligation could mean during the French Revolution. In that context he made a larger claim, that “the rule of morality is . . . not exactly the same between Nations as between individuals.” Where individuals might afford to be generous, grateful, forgiving, or benevolent, the nation’s interest is so much greater and so much more lasting, and the costs of neglecting the national interests are so great, that “self-denying and self-sacrificing” policies cannot be justified. To put the point in its starkest terms, the Christian duty of agapic love cannot be realized by the political community. There is a profound difference between the ethical commitments of the citizen and those of the person.

There is an analogy here to our present circumstance. Among our many, often conflicting, obligations to ourselves, to our families, to the political community, to all mankind, and to Truth, one obligation in particular asserts itself in this moment. We have an obligation to engage in our political crisis, even though in doing so we may sacrifice some portion of our other commitments – even though we may participate in ugliness.

The life of leisure – minding our own business, tending our own garden – is attractive in part because it promises such purity. Our consciences can be at ease (if only the republic weren’t endangered). In our current predicament our consciences cannot be easy.

As moderns, we believe in the possibility of perfection; we are secretly utopians. We therefore become complacent. From the beginning the modern outlook has aimed at the extension of human power, and often with the aim of serving the apparent goods of human life. Modern political culture emphasizes the Baconian and Cartesian faiths in progress – faith that social and health sciences will solve our existential problems, or that laissez-faire economics can produce a harmony of public and private goods. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr explained that our modern American belief in progress, in the natural human capacity to overcome sin, is evident in both the aspirations of social science to develop a progressive plan that can solve our social problems (what John Dewey called social “engineering”), and in the laissez-faire economic program (which promises a harmony of public and private interests through the work of an invisible hand). Both groups of idealists believe “in the possibility of achieving an easy resolution of the tension and conflict between self-interest and the general interest.” Our complacency – our easy conscience – is rooted in our faith in progress, coupled with what Niebuhr called “the illusion” that historic development would result in a harmony of public and private, universal and particular. According to Niebuhr (and Niebuhr credited James Madison with this insight), these are false hopes; they do not accurately describe the dynamics of political life.

The essential political problem, which is the problem of justice, cannot be solved. The self-righteousness of our contemporary puritans of the right and especially the left is therefore a fundamental failure of self-knowledge or self-awareness. Political justice is not as simple a formula as “individual rights” or the “good of all” (two principles that are, really, in opposition to one another). And any attempt to resolve the problem of justice will, inevitably in Niebuhr’s account, involve us in some injustice; that’s an inescapable part of the exercise of power.  In politics the exercise of power is unavoidable, and “[p]ower cannot be wielded without guilt.” Thus “the dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood for human society is one which will never be fully realized.” The demands of maintaining a working society – of order and coherence and the distribution of power – prohibit political communities from behaving as individuals might. Such communities will always tend to divide along economic, racial, or nationalist lines. Only an approximate solution to the political problem is possible.

The proximate political solution is found in Madisonian liberalism, a politics that accepts and even demands a diversity of interests, experiences, and opinions, and that structures constitutional institutions which provide a political technology that is conducive to better politics. Broadly speaking that political technology includes checks and balances, a separation of powers, and federalism in recognition of the epistemological and ethical limits of any single political perspective. It is a system that recognizes, employs, and addresses the problem of hubris. And Madison extends that technology beyond government into public life more broadly conceived. In Federalist 51 Madison writes, “The policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.” This is why our contemporary puritans of both the right and the left are mistaken in their zealotry. They misunderstand their own character (they believe they do not exercise power, or they believe that their exercise of power is free from any possibility of injustice), and they misunderstand the character of a healthy political life (which actually depends on a distribution of both public and private powers, and the capacity of each to balance the other). Niebuhr’s proximate solution to the political problem is Madisonian constitutionalism.

The Madisonian constitutionalism that we often take for granted today proves to be quite fragile. The promise of a perpetual political technology in which ambition counteracts ambition may contribute to a kind of complacency, a belief that “the system” will do our politics for us. If we believe that the system will be enough for establishing and maintaining political life, and turn our attention to policy alone, we neglect the fundamental, perpetual work of politics which is the ongoing preservation and realization of the principles of our constitutionalism. Constitutionalism itself is a continuing work. Nation-building, for lack of a better term, always leaves a “dentation” (as in Machiavelli) or “intimation” (as in Oakeshott) of future work.

Madisonian constitutionalism actually engenders and demands a certain kind of character – assertive and vigilant, but also prudent and modest. A constitutionalism that demands a merely pragmatic or necessary compromise – acceptance of half a loaf – does not quite capture the full spirit of the understanding that grounds it, because the merely pragmatic compromise can still be marked by certainty that one is in the right; only of necessity has one accepted the half loaf. (If only one had more power, one could take the whole loaf.) The spirit of the constitutional enterprise may be more Aristotelian than that. “For all fasten on a certain sort of justice, but proceed only to a certain point, and do not speak of the whole of justice in its authoritative sense,” and “most people are bad judges concerning their own things.” In Federalist 37 Madison remarks on the importance, and rarity, of a “spirit of moderation,” and advises that “we must perceive the necessity of moderating still further our expectations and hopes from the efforts of human sagacity.” The Madisonian constitutionalist accepts compromise not only from pragmatic necessity – because of a lack of political power – but also from a standpoint of epistemological modesty – because (as Aristotle says) the pursuit of justice “involves a question, and political philosophy.” As Madison writes, moderation and prudence demand that we “keep in my mind that [we] are but men and ought not assume an infallibility in rejudging the fallible opinions of others.” Madisonian liberalism is designed for people with an academic bent.

The forces of America’s current psychosis cannot be resisted effectively by means of pacifism, or civic education. Hobbesian anarchists can only be met by force, and by exercises of political power. Those of us with an academic bent hesitate before we compromise our intellectual impartiality by committing ourselves to a political cause. We are trained to understand and appreciate many sides of an argument. And we feel that committing ourselves to a political program will come at the sacrifice of intellectual independence and creativity. That concern is well founded. In addition to that concern for the intellectual compromises there will necessarily also be ethical compromises. The exercise of power will entangle us in our own injustices, even as we work to address the dangerous mendacity of Trumpism. We must recognize the complexity of our situation, and the moral peril inherent in both political action and political inaction, but that complexity is not an excuse for inaction.

In the system of Madisonian constitutionalism those of us with an academic bent thus face two tests. The first is the test of the citizen, who must stand firm for the normative foundations of the regime and for the particular political cause of the moment. The second is the test of the academic, who must acknowledge the limits of knowledge and self-knowledge, who must be self-critical and doubting, and who must acknowledge that at least part of the truth lives on the other side of the aisle. Citizens must know things; academics must know that they know nothing. Viewed in that way, the obligations of the citizen and the academic are quite different – divergent and perhaps even contradictory. We must face both obligations at the same time.

We must become Machiavellian in our defense of liberal constitutionalism. We must recognize that our constitution institutionalizes balance of power politics, and we must reconcile ourselves to the exercise of power. We must identify our “own arms” (metaphorically speaking) and use them; we must embrace the appearance of virtue, and the soft power that such an appearance brings; we must remain flexible enough to change with the times; we must accept that a little popular crime can go a long way; we must take advantage of crises. We must use cruelty well. All of this comes at a cost. Two months before his death in 1527 Machiavelli wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori, “I love my native city, more than my own soul.”

To face the two tests of Madisonian constitutionalism together may invite us to reconceptualize the relation between action and contemplation. Modern democracy especially has denigrated the life of contemplation (which seems elitist) in favor of a life of action (understood as pragmatic motion). And those with an academic bent have faced the choice between making their work utilitarian in service to the regime (like John Dewey or Richard Rorty), or accepting the opposition between action and contemplation, but with an avowed preference for the purity of contemplation. Either course contributes to what Hannah Arendt called “the degradation of politics.” But our Madisonian tradition has left us with another possibility. Madison tells us explicitly that the founders’ constitution will require work by future generations to realize more fully its promise. (Consider, as a model for our good behavior, Lincoln, who sees the self-evident truth of the Declaration as a “proposition” – that is, as a truth that must be realized in action.) Our tradition has left us dentations and intimations for our future work.

There is an opportunity now for the ennobling of action, and even the ennobling of contemplation. Politics is the point of human activity at which the necessities of power meet the demands of justice. Politics requires both action and contemplation in a way no other human activity (with the possible exception of the performing arts) does. This is the claim of Aristotle’s statesman. A life dedicated to such political work, accompanied by an awareness of the moral complexities such work involves, may prove to be the life most worth living. At the very least, we must now engage in politics so that our grandchildren can study poetry.

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