Horizons

All my life, I have been a sucker for horizons. “Horizons,” I once thought to myself, “are just the earth in profile.”

With a horizon, you get beyond the welter of particular features and see the broad horizons 1incontestable outline of things. And after that, and without losing any awareness of it, you can attend to a good deal of complexity without losing your sense of the vision as a whole.

Back when I was studying humor more systematically than I am now, I ran across this from Max Eastman’s The Enjoyment of Laughter.

The mind should approach a body of knowledge as the eyes approach an object, seeing it in gross outline first, and then by gradual steps, without losing the outline, discovering the details.

I was so excited I just put the book down and went for a walk. It said a great deal about me that I had never heard that said before and it may or may not be true that, as Eastman says, “the mind should.” I think it is most certainly true about my mind and that I why I call myself “a sucker for horizons.” It is that “gross outline” that always grabs me.

I have recently been grabbed again and that I what I would like to think about today.

I have recently been grabbed by the level of generalization that Peter Stearns routinely uses. He provides the kind of horizon I seem to crave. I recently wrote that he is “my guy” on gender relations , referring to his excellent historical analysis of gender relations in the West. [1] Lately, I have been heading and listening to [2] his course on world civilizations. All of the world civilations, not just ours.

horizons 3And it isn’t just history. In preparing for a Bible study course that begins in September, I have been studying the Old Testament prophets. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me that there were three major categories of those prophets. Only three. There were the pre-Exilic, whose message was that God is going to punish (“discipline” in some of the prophets) you for your godless ways. And then there were the Exilic prophets, who said to Israel, “Your sentence is almost up. God is going to restore you to your homeland.” And there were the post-Exilic prophets who, with the exception of Jonah, said, “The holiness of the temple and the city and the worship of Yahweh have all been compromised while you were gone. Put things back to the way they should be.” [3]  This is someone’s notion of what the prophet Amos looked like.  He was one of the pre-Exilic prophets.

Three kinds. No more. Each with a characteristic message. I will get a good deal deeper into a study of those prophets before next September, but I will always have that horizon available to me. Which kind of prophet—and therefore which kind of message—are we talking about? Given that there are, you know, only three kinds.

horizons 5When I hit my first communitarian sociologist, Frank Hearn, I was fascinated by his allocation of all kinds of “social problems” to one of three places. His own preference as a sociologist is that most problems be considered as “social problems,” by which he means problems rightly referred to communities using their own local institutions. But that means that he has to have a nasty name for the practice of referring those social problems to other places, where they really shouldn’t be. [4] Problems that are rightfully social, but that are referred to the polity instead, have been “politicized.” Problems that are rightfully social, but have been referred to the economy instead, have been “commodified.” Three places to put problems: no more. Horizon.

Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks in his column and Ross Douthat, in his column, referred to a book by Patrick J. Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame. Deneen’s book is called Why Liberalism Failed. Note the past tense of the verb. Deneen says that of the three systems active and plausible in the 20th century, communism and fascism have already failed. The third, liberalism [5] is failing right before our eyes. Why is that? Notice again the three and only three. Horizons again.

In Deneen’s view, liberalism is not a sustainable system. Here are three small clips from his work. [6]

The ancient claim that man is by nature a political animal and must…through the … practice of virtue learned in communities, achieve a form of local and communal self-limitation–a condition properly understood as liberty–cannot be denied forever without cost.

Note the identification of “local and communal self-limitation” as the meaning of “liberty.” That sounds odd, certainly, but if the alternatives are distant and bureaucratic limitation, on the one hand, or unrestrained individualistic excess on the other, then it is a definition worth taking seriously.

If my analysis is fundamentally accurate, liberalism’s endgame is unsustainable in every respect: It cannot perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of constitutive social norms, nor can it continually provide endless material growth in a world of limits.

I think this quote is truly helpful. It puts the two requisites down together. Liberalism has to be able to do one or the other, he says. Then he says that we cannot enforce order on individuals who have no access to “communal self-limitation” (see the previous paragraph). That is not sustainable. Nor can we provide endless material growth, which Deneen sees as the other alternative. There are, in short, only two ways out of our current dilemma and we can’t do either of them. That is his point.

If I am right that the liberal project is ultimately self-contradictory, culminating in the twin depletions of moral and material reservoirs upon which it has relied even without replenishing them, then we face a choice.

Here he points to the choice we have. If we can’t do the one (communal self-limitation) or the other (endless material goods), then we have a choice to make.

Ross Douthat’s complaint is that Deneen doesn’t go on and say just what choice that implies, but I think that is more up Douthat’s alley than Deneen’s and I imagine that Douthat—and very likely, David Brooks as well—will get around to it.

As dismal as this may seem, I find it refreshing. We can swim in or drown in the horizons 4complexities of today’s policy proposals. DACA or not? Amnesty or not? Enhanced legal immigration or not? But all of these questions take the present political system—the old classic post-medieval Liberal system—for granted. And Deneen says that system is running out of fuel and can’t be saved.  I’m sure this picture is an ad for a business of some kind, but note the similarity to Deneen’s communalist picture of liberty.

That means that all such questions are really just one kind of question. That question is, “Can we find a way to undo either of the limitations Deneen sees and if not, to what kind of system do we go as an alternative?” Is there a post-Liberal system?

Liberal or post-Liberal. Horizons.

[1] I think it is unfortunate that the title is Be a Man! A much better notion of what he is writing about is conveyed by the subtitle: Males in Modern Society.
[2] His Great Courses title is A Brief History of the World. Does that suggest “horizons” to you?
[3] Oh, and kick the squatters off of your ancestral lands.
[4] And in a stroke of wit, he made these names not only pejorative, but also ugly.
[5] Liberalism in this very historical use refers to the political and economic institutions that replace the feudal system. All modern liberals and conservatives are “Liberal” in this sense and so is capitalism and so is democracy.
[6] I used to run out and by books that look as interesting as this one. Now I search the electronic storerooms for an article-length version of the book’s argument. I am quoting here from an article he contributed to the journal First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, back in 2012. It is called “Unsustainable Liberalism.”

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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