April 2011

Do We Still Believe in Self-Government?
By Michael Schwarz on April 03, 2011

For the past three months I’ve enjoyed the inestimable pleasure of teaching a course on Thomas Jefferson’s life and legacy to a group of bright undergraduates.  Judging by the conversations that have unfolded both in and out of class, the experience has shown me that thoughtful people, in this case young people, remain fascinated by the most radical proposition in the history of Western civilization: the idea that human beings can govern themselves. 

This proposition lay at the heart of our foundational documents, many of which, literally and figuratively, contain Jefferson’s fingerprints.  In 1776, we declared to the world that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed.  Little more than a decade later, “We the People” decided precisely what powers our national government should have.  After centuries of priestly, monarchical, and aristocratic dominance, we Americans embarked upon an “experiment” in self-rule.  

Do we still believe in that experiment?  If so, do we find that belief reflected in the dominant political ideologies of our day?

The uncomfortable truth is that modern progressives and conservatives long-since have grown skeptical of self-government, and perhaps with good reason.  After all, human beings are fallible creatures who betray violent passions and pursue their own interests, sometimes relentlessly, often at the expense of others.  Observation confirms this; so, too, does history.  Progressives trace their skepticism to the Industrial Revolution, when capitalists’ unrestrained avarice, they say, produced unprecedented inequalities of wealth and condemned the laboring masses to lifetimes of toil and misery.  Conservatives, on the other hand, trace their skepticism to the French Revolution, when bloodthirsty tyrants, in the name of popular government, plunged Christendom into one of its darkest epochs.  

Each side, however, draws different lessons from its particular reading of history.  An honest progressive might say, “I have serious doubts about your capacity for self-government.  Therefore, I must govern you.”  Whereas, an honest conservative might say, “I have serious doubts about your capacity for self-government.  Therefore, you cannot govern me.”  

Of course, our eighteenth-century ancestors also harbored severe doubts about self-government, drew different conclusions from their doubts, and allowed those conclusions to divide them into political factions.  Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists—aristocratic in temperament, deeply attached to all things British, and terrified of the French Revolution—believed that popular government could not survive but with a powerful central state guided by a well-born elite capable of controlling men’s violent passions.  “We have serious doubts about your capacity for self-government,” they might have said to their countrymen, “therefore we must govern you.” 

To a certain extent, Jefferson’s Republicans shared Federalists’ fears about popular rule, but they did not share Federalists’ enthusiasm for elitist government.  “Sometimes it is said,” Jefferson declared in his First Inaugural Address, “that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself.  Can he then be trusted with the government of others?  Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?  Let history answer this question.” 

Some conservatives prefer to claim Hamilton’s Federalists as their ideological forebears, in part because Federalists championed things conservatives like, such as ordered liberty and economic nationalism, and rejected things conservatives don’t like, such as the French Revolution and French philosophy.  The truth is, however, that on the most important proposition in Western political history, man’s capacity for self- government, the Federalists bequeathed their ideology not to modern conservatives but to modern progressives.

The question remains, then, do we still believe in self-government?  Happily, most of my students seem to think that we do, although they’ve subjected the idea to serious scrutiny.  For me, at least, the answer depends upon whether we regard ourselves as the ideological descendants of Jefferson or of Hamilton.  Jefferson’s Republicans acknowledged the dangers of self-government but nonetheless defended it as far preferable to the alternatives, including the Federalists’ vision of an elite-dominated, British-style centralized state.  In short, if we can tell the difference between “I must govern you,” and “You must not govern me,” and if we can understand which of these promotes real liberty, then I see no reason why we should not answer in the affirmative

Nature and Nature
By Brad Blue on April 06, 2011

In his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), René Descartes criticizes (what he takes to be) the Scholastic conception of nature and final cause. Concerning nature, he writes:

“a clock constructed with wheels and weights observes all the laws of its nature just as closely when it is badly made and tells the wrong time as when it completely fulfills the wishes of the clockmaker […] Admittedly, when I consider the purpose of a clock, I may say that it is departing from its nature when it does not tell the right time […] But I am well aware that ‘nature’ as I have just used it has a very different significance from ‘nature’ in the other sense. As I have just used it, ‘nature’ is simply a label which depends on my thought; it is quite extraneous to the things to which it is applied […] But by ‘nature’ in the other sense I understand something which is really to be found in the things themselves.” (Sixth Meditation)

Nature in the sense of purpose is extraneous to things. According to Descartes, if we examine a clock, we will not discover that its purpose is to measure time. We will discover only how its parts move together according to the laws of motion. As Amy Schmitter comments, “the only properties we can find in the clock that enable it to serve any use lie in its configuration of parts. As such, the clock is properly understood as a configuration of extended parts, which happens to be pressed into service by humans, who manipulate it to serve an extrinsic end.” (“How to Engineer a Human Being: Passions and Functional Explanations in Descartes”) By analogy, the human body is properly understood as a configuration of extended parts, which happens to be pressed into service by God, who manipulates it to serve an extrinsic end.

What extrinsic end does God have in mind? According to Descartes, that question cannot be answered:

“[God] is capable of countless things whose causes are beyond my knowledge. And for this reason alone I consider the customary search for final causes to be totally useless in physics; there is considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of investigating the purposes of God.” (Fourth Meditation)

“When dealing with natural things we will, then, never derive any explanations from the purposes which God or nature may have had in view when creating them. For we should not be so arrogant as to suppose that we can share in God’s plans.” (Principles of Philosophy, I, 28)

We cannot know why God created man. That is, we cannot know man’s ‘nature’ or ‘final cause.’ All we can know is how man’s parts move together according to the laws of motion. The latter is man’s true nature, the nature that is really to be found in the thing itself.

Though we cannot know why God created man, we can still admire his handiwork:

“The function of the various parts of plants and animals etc. makes it appropriate to admire God as their efficient cause – to recognize and glorify the craftsman through examining his works; but we cannot guess from this what purpose God had in creating any given thing.” (Meditations, Fifth Set of Replies)

Descartes gives detailed descriptions, both in the Discourse on Method and the Passions of the Soul, of the functions of human organs. And he holds that “these functions follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.” (Treatise on Man) Thus, the functions of the parts of man follow from his true nature.

It is curious that Descartes opposes purpose and function, and claims that the latter follows from the arrangement and motion of man’s parts, i.e., from his true nature. Someone familiar with Aristotle may wonder whether Descartes unwittingly adopts something like (or at least consistent with) the Aristotelian notion of natural teleology.

For Aristotle, there is an intimate relationship between form and function. The form or structure (eidos or morphe) of a substance enables it to do various things. Consider a Swiss Army knife (assuming it is a substance). It’s structure, the shape and arrangement of its parts, enables it to cut, screw, saw, etc. These are the knife’s functions. Thus, the form of the knife enables it to perform various functions. Put in the technical language of De Anima (see Book II, Chapter I), the knife’s first actuality (its form) produces a set of second potentialities (the things that the material is able to do in virtue of having the form of a Swiss Army knife). These second potentialities are themselves actualized when the knife is actually functioning, e.g., actually cutting or sawing. Such actualities are second actualities.

To talk of the form and second actuality of a substance is, for Aristotle, to talk about its nature and end (telos). The nature of a plant, for example, is its substantial form, its soul. And its final cause is the actualization of its second potentialities. What’s more, the latter follows from the former. The form or structure of the plant is what enables its function, the exercise of which is the plant’s end. In this sense, we can speak of the plant’s ‘purpose’: it’s purpose is to act in the way enabled by its form.

The question to ask of Descartes is whether his notion of function enabled by structure is sufficient to support a version of Aristotelian natural teleology. That question, in turn, figures in a larger one: Can the use that Aristotle makes of natural teleology as the foundation for ethics be made of Descartes ‘true nature’ and function? That is, can something like virtue ethics be founded on Cartesian physics?

Short Video: Hadley Arkes on Political Order and Natural Law
By David Kidd on April 08, 2011

Hadley ArkesHadley Arkes agreed to face a camera and tell it like it is at the 2010 Summer Institute at Princeton.  This video is one of the fruits of our session with him.


Herbert Hoover-Related Film on PBS on 4/11
By David Kidd on April 09, 2011
The Great Famine

George Nash brought to my attention today a brand new documentary film, "The Great Famine." It will be broadcast on "American Experience" on PBS on Monday, April 11. It must be my imagination, but it sure sounds to me like George Nash's voice in the preview.  In any case, the story is fascinating--a great, little-known moment in American History--and it looks like PBS has done an excellent job with the film's production too.

An excerpt from the show's introduction:

The little-known story of the American effort to relieve starvation in the new Soviet Russia in 1921, The Great Famine is a documentary about the worst natural disaster in Europe since the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. Five million Russians died. Half a world away, Americans responded with a massive two-year relief campaign, championed by Herbert Hoover, director of the American Relief Administration known as the ARA.

Have a look at the website for a trailer and more.

Wilfred McClay's "The Soul & the City"
By Peter Haworth on April 12, 2011

Many of you will enjoy reading Wilfred McClay’s fine article, “The Soul & the City,” which was just posted on ANAMNESIS and previously published in The City. McClay explores various themes related to Tradition, Place, and Things Divine. These include topics on urbanism, agrarianism, how these relate to American History, and Christian limitations on seeking perfection on Earth.

The Perils of Pride and Prejudice?
By Michael Schwarz on April 14, 2011

Mark Mitchell's recent Front Porch Republic post on "Why We Need Jane Austen," available here or through the American Liberal Arts Network (right), piqued my interest on several fronts.

First, I plan to incorporate Austen's Pride and Prejudice into my upper-level History course on Eighteenth-Century Britain (well, long eighteenth century, defined as 1688-1815, which is why I can get away with using Austen), and I'm curious if any non-literary-critic types like me have used this novel in their classes, how it went, and what they might suggest for generating good discussion.

Second, I was struck by Mitchell's description of the following scene that unfolded in his classroom:

Just the other day, when we were discussing Darcy’s first proposal and Elizabeth’s adamant refusal, a bright young man raised his hand and said he had a question for a particular young lady in the class. He looked at her in all seriousness and said “Ashley, in light of your beauty and amiability would you be so kind as to accompany me to the Liberty Ball?” Several moments of stunned silence followed as the rest of us tried to discern if this was a joke or a legitimate invitation to the spring formal. The young man held his gaze with steady expectation, and in perfect Jane Austen fashion the young lady blushed. And being no less equal to the occasion than an Austen character she smiled demurely and remarked that in light of Elizabeth’s first response, she would have to say no. The young man gulped, she smiled, and then graciously accepted his offer. The rest of us broke into applause.

No doubt some who read this will be tempted to scoff and to cast aspersions on such a quaintly old-fashioned scene. However, if reading Jane Austen inspires this kind of exchange, isn’t it a dramatic improvement over the obscene pick-up line in a beer soaked frat house where a misshapen adolescent propositions a young woman who has never learned how to blush?

Picturing this scene entirely from the young man's perspective, my initial reaction was to admire his courage and cheer his success.  A young woman who adores Jane Austen's novels and whose opinion I respect, however, suggests that I should temper my admiration.  Unless the courageous young man already knew that Ashley a) likely would say yes, and b) would not feel pressured by having been put on the spot in so dramatic a way, then, this young woman says, his approach was too presumptuous and even aggressive, for he denied her an opportunity to say no without creating the most awkward scene imaginable.  Propositions of this kind can and do end in awkwardness, as evidenced, ironically, by the two marriage proposals Lizzy Bennet refuses, one from the unintentionally hilarious Mr. Collins and the other, at least initially, from Mr. Darcy.  In the novel, these two rejections play out in private.  I wonder how Professor Mitchell would have maintained the class had Ashley seriously declined the young man's very public invitation.  Furthermore, when the most intelligent and even slightly old-fashioned young woman of my acquaintance tells me that she might recoil from such an approach, I'm left to wonder if perhaps, only for a moment, young Ashley might have thought herself somewhat cornered.

In any case, Mitchell's piece is well worth reading, in part for this straight-from-a-Meg-Ryan-movie kind of scene involving two young people who have my sincere best wishes, and in part for Mitchell's thoughtful commentary on gentlemen and ladies.       

Internships: Paid or Unpaid?
By Lee Trepanier on April 17, 2011

There is a recent article in Inside Higher Ed that raises some of the ethical questiosn regarding internships for college credit. Should interns be paid and receive college credit? Should they be unpaid and receive credit? What should be the relationship between earning credit and receiving pay, if any?

Personally, I don't see a problem of having interns receiving pay and earning college credit, as long as the pay is coming from an external source from the university. If the employer is willing to pay a student, why not let the student benefit from it?

Top-Five Books in Early American History: Number Five
By Michael Schwarz on April 18, 2011

We all love to read, and we all love to talk about what we’ve read.  In an interdisciplinary association of academics, these are two things on which we all can agree.  But what exactly do we love to read?  What are the really great books in our fields, what makes them great, and why do we enjoy them so much?

Keep reading.


Business Education: Utility Isn't All That Useful
By John von Heyking on April 20, 2011

This New York Times article on recent criticisms of undergraduate business education is illuminating.  In the quest to offer students a vocational business education, in the quest to be entirely useful, business education ends up being not about anything in particular.  Pure utility is entirely useless.

The article cites several studies that show how little business students work for their degrees as compared to other majors.  This is not necessarily a reflection on their personalities.  It is the incentives contained within their educational programs.  Take the ubiquity of group assignments.  Everybody knows the hard workers do most of the work.  Moreover, in dividing up tasks in group assignments, tasks will be taken according to the strengths of each individual.  The student strong in math will do the statistics, the artistic student will prepare the visual layout of the Powerpoint, etc.

Worth noting too is that Ivy League and elite liberal arts institutions do not offer undergraduate business programs.  They recognize employers seek the skills that other majors offer:  communications skills, critical thinking, etc.  The main reason students attending lesser institutions take business is to get connected.  One might think of an undergraduate business program as a finishing school for the middle class.

I’m less inclined to regard liberal education as the bastion of the upper class.  Even so, business education isn’t going anywhere, so let’s give the last word to McGill’s Henry Mintzberg, whom the article quotes as saying: “The object of undergraduate business education is to educate people, not to give them a lot of functional business stuff.”

Top Five Books in Early American History: Number Four
By Michael Schwarz on April 22, 2011

Continuing the countdown from Number Five to Number One...


Number Four

George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1952)

Winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in History, this splendid book merits a place on my top-five list not for any particular interpretation or groundbreaking scholarship but for the sheer pleasure I have derived from reading it, again and again.  In short, The Era of Good Feelings demonstrates that sublime historical writing, informed by erudition, can become literature. 

Through memorable character sketches and felicitous turns of phrase, Dangerfield brings to life one of American history’s most obscure epochs, the decade-plus between the end of the War of 1812 and the election of Andrew Jackson.  John Quincy Adams’s famous diary, for instance, “projects us into a scorched and gloomy world where almost everyone is sooner or later engaged in a conspiracy to retard or ruin the career of Mr. Adams.”  Of the eccentric Virginian, John Randolph of Roanoke, “People used to say in those days that he was more than half demented; but demented or not, he was certainly demoniacal.”  Elsewhere, British hostility toward America at the dawn of the nineteenth century “seemed to proclaim a decision to reduce the United States to the position of a colony that paid its own expenses.  This was not true, of course, of enlightened British opinion; but under the administrations of the Duke of Portland and Spencer Perceval enlightened opinion was in abeyance.”  As for the history itself, Dangerfield makes two major contributions.  The first is a colorful and comprehensive description of political events that unfolded during the transformation from Jeffersonian Republicanism to Jacksonian Democracy.  The second—and here is where Dangerfield’s English origins make for a unique voice—is a keen understanding of the dynamic relationship between American politics and British statecraft in an era when the aggressively protectionist demands of British mercantilism began to give way to the free-trade demands of British industry.       

A summary, however, cannot encapsulate this book’s merits.  Like most of the great ones, it must be read to be appreciated.


Coming soon: Numbers Three through One

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