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Intellectual Love

  Altman-akhmatova

"Love as a moral force that deepens a person, organizing human minds around other souls and lifting them so they are capable of great acts of service and devotion."  So writes David Brooks in the midst of his chapter on George Eliot during an aside.  He shares the story of one night in Leningrad in 1945 when the poet Anna Akhmatova and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin met and spent all night in conversation.  A paradigm example of the passion of intellectual love.  

About this event Brooks writes:

The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a certain sort of communication.  It's communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is found not in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity's inherited storehouse of moral, emotional, and existential wisdom.  It's a communication in which intellectual compatibility turns into emotional fusion.  Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading.  They believed you have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and how to make subtle moral and emotional judgments.  They were spiritually ambitious.

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Generous Sympathy

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In The Road to Character, David Brooks chooses to explore the virtue of love through the story of novelist George Eliot.  It seems an odd choice for two reasons--every chapter of the book up till then has been about an early or mid twentieth century American and because Eliot's lifelong spousal relationship was with George Lewes, a man married to another woman.  So, not your conventional marriage story, but that seems to have been one reason he picked her.

Also because her story is good.  She spent her youth and young adulthood falling in love with the wrong men and only came to a mature long-lasting love after much personal growth.  And once she found this kind of love is when she thrived, as her spouse was the one who encourage her novel writing.

He writes that as a young woman she was known for "an intense intellectual honesty, an arduous desire to live accordingto the strictures of her conscience, an amazing bravery in the face of social pressure, a desire to strengthen her character by making the necessary hard choices, but also a bit of egotism, a tendency to cast herself as the star of her own melodrama."

The social disgrace of her relationship with George Lewes helped to develop her ability to understand others.  Brooks writes, "He genius as a writer derives from the fact that she was capable of the deepest feeling but also of the most discerning and disciplined thought.  She had to feel and suffer through everything.  She had to transform that feeling into meticulously thought-through observation."

He continues:

Eliot herself believed that the beginning of wisdom was the faithful and attentive study of present reality, a thing itself, a person herself, unfiltered by abstract ideas, mists of feeling, leaps of imagination, or religious withdrawals into another realm.

Brooks labels Eliot a "meliorist," a term I know from William James but otherwise never see.  Brooks defines it as "She believed in the slow, steady, concrete march to make each day slightly better than the last."  And she believed she did that through literature.  "Her books were aimed to have a slow and steady effect on the internal life of her readers, to enlarge their sympathies, to refine their ability  to understand other people, to give them slightly wider experiences."

In summary of her story he writes, "She had to grow out of self-centeredness into generous sympathy."

The previous post in this series was on the dignity of A. Philip Randolph.


The Road to Character

The Road to CharacterThe Road to Character by David Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Instead of watching the presidential address last night, I chose to finish reading this book on the formation of moral character.

When I first ordered this book I was curious whether it might be something to use in teaching my Ethics class (and I probably will use portions of it), but by the time I began reading it, the book took on new importance as it has become quite clear that the moral and social fabric of the nation are in tatters, otherwise a moral reprobate such as Donald Trump never could have achieved the presidency. So, I read the book as part of my effort to understand, work for common ground, and repair the fabric of the country.

I've been blogging throughout my reading and now need to catch up by blogging about the final four chapters, so check out my blog for more detailed reflections.

View all my reviews

Dignity & the Philosophy of Power

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As a paradigm of dignity, David Brooks selected A. Philip Randolph.  Brooks writes, "Confronted by humiliating racism, [his family] hewed to a code of moral refinement and gentlemanly conduct that jarred with their material circumstances."  About Randolph's father a biographer wrote that he was "guided by the values of civility, humility, and decency, inspired by religious and social service, and utterly devoted to the idea of dignity."

About Randolph, Brooks writes, "These qualities--his incorruptibility, his reticent formality, and above all his dignity--meant it was impossible to humiliate him.  His reactions and internal state were determined by himself, not by the racism or even by the adulation that later surrounded him."

What a stirring tribute.  I hope I sometimes embody that kind of dignity.

Randolph was a civil rights and labor leader and Brooks writes that "the chief challenges of Randolph's life were: how do you take imperfect people and organize them into a force for change?  How do you amass power while not being corrupted by power?"  These are excellent questions.

Yesterday I was reviewing an essay by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on faith and politics in which we wrote, "The difficulty is that following a crucified Lord entails embodying a politics that cannot resort to coercion and violence; it is a politics of persuasion all the day down.  It is a tiring business that is slow and time-consuming, but then we, that is, Christians, believe that by redeeming time Christ has given us all the time we need to pursue peace."

Brooks draws on David L. Chappell's book A Stone of Hope, which I highly recommend, to discuss the two different civil rights movements.  He writes, "The first was northern and highly educated.  People in this group tended to have an optimistic view of history and human nature."  The other group was the "biblical prophetic tradition" and they thought the optimists practiced a form of idolatry.  Brooks again:

One consequence of this attitude was that the prophetic realists were much more aggressive.  They took it as a matter of course that given the sinful nature of man, people could not be altered merely by education, consciousness raising, and expanded opportunity.  It was wrong to put one's faith in historical processes, human institutions, or human goodness. . . Change comes through relentless pressure and coercion.

How did nonviolence work?  "Nonviolence allowed the biblical realists to aggressively expose the villainy of their foes, to make their enemies' sins work against them as they were exposed in ever more brutal forms."  We must not be fooled into thinking that nonviolence didn't mean exposing the sins of the opponents.

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In this chapter Brooks also draws attention to Bayard Rustin, the gay man who contributed essential elements of the philosophy of nonviolence and organized the March on Washington.  He writes that Rustin viewed nonviolence as a form of discipline which would weed out our own moral corruptions.

Brooks also details the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, though I believe the civil rights leaders moved beyond Niebuhrian realism to a more liberationist theology.  Nevertheless, this section on Niebuhr is informative for current religio-political movements of protest and resistance:

Niebuhr argued that, beset by his own sinful nature, man is a problem to himself.  Human actions take place in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension.  We simply can't understand the long chain of consequences arising from what we do, or even the origins of our own impulses.  Niebuhr argued against the easy conscience of modern man, against moral complacency on every front.  He reminded readers that we are never as virtuous as we think we are, and that our motives are never as pure as in our own accounting.

I admire the concluding paragraphs of this chapter:

The story of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin is the story of how flawed people wield power in a fallen world.  They shared a worldview based on an awareness of both social and personal sin, the idea that human life is shot through with veins of darkness.  They learned, Randolph instantly and Rustin  over a lifetime, to build an inner structure to contain the chaotic impulses within.  They learned that sinfulness is battled obliquely through self-giving, by directing life away from the worst tendencies.  They were extremely dignified in their bearing.  But this same sense made them aggressive in their outward strategy.  They knew that dramatic change, when it is necessary, rarely comes through sweet suasion.  Social sin requires a hammering down of the door by people who are simultaneously aware that they are unworthy to be so daring.

This is a philosophy of power, a philosophy of power for people who combine extreme conviction with extreme self-skepticism.

You can find the previous post in this series, on the magnanimity of George Marshall, here.


Neoliberalism

This piece in the Guardian explains the rise and dominance of Neoliberalism, how the failures of the philosophy are to blame for many current problems (including the rise of Trump), and how the left has developed no coherent alternative.

An excerpt:

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.


Magnanimous

George-Marshall

David Brooks writes, 

[George] Marshall lived in the world of airplanes and the nuclear bomb, but in many ways he was formed by the moral traditions of classical Greece and Rome.  His moral make-up owed something to Homer, to the classical emphasis on courage and honor.  It owed something to the Stoics, with their emphasis on moral discipline.  But particularly later in life it also owed something to the ancient Athenian Pericles, who embodied the style of leadership that we call magnanimity, or great-souled.

The magnanimous leader is called upon by his very nature to perform some great benefit to his people.  He holds himself to a higher standard and makes himself into a public institution.  Magnanimity can only really be expressed in public or political life.

But George Marshall didn't start out that way, he achieve magnanimity over a lifetime of self-mastery, as Brooks narrates it.  He was not particularly brilliant as a child but exerted great effort to achieve his success.  He writes, "His rise in the ranks of life would not come from his natural talent.  It would come from grinding, the dogged plod, and self-discipline."

Marshall's character was formed in the military, first at the Virginia Military Institute and then in the U. S. Army.  Brooks writes that VMI was not a great academic institution but that it existed in a "moral culture that brought together several ancient traditions: a chivalric devotion to service and courtesy, a stoic commitment to emotional self-control, and a classical devotion to honor."

In the Army, Marshall became an Organization Man, sublimating his own ego and ambition to the institution.  His career was not stellar, often being passed over for promotions.  Some of that may have come from his aloofness, an inability to form close friendships being the downside of his devotion to duty.

But he was admired for his administrative abilities and finally was in the right place at the right time and became Army Chief of Staff who then successfully led the Army through the Second World War, though he never had a battlefield command.  When he became Chief of Staff he purged the officer ranks of incompetent men and radically reformed the institution, as only an institutional man could have, which prepared the Army for the coming war.

After his retirement he was routinely called upon to serve in new capacities, including two posts in the Cabinet at Secretary of State and then Defense.  He was, of course, the architect of the Marshall Plan.  Brooks writes that all his post-Army service was out of his sense of duty and obligation to the nation, when what he really desired was to finally have a private life.

The previous post in this series, one on Dorothy Day, is here.


Spiritual Adventure

Dorothy-day
 

Even as a child, Dorothy Day was "filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure" (her own words).  She is the next person discussed in David Brook's exploration of character.  Despite her childhood spirituality, the saintly Day emerged from a life of struggle and a very bohemian young adulthood.  Brooks uses her as an example of how character emerges from struggle and suffering.

Brooks uses the opportunity of recounting Day's life to explore the impact of suffering on building character.  He makes an important point near the beginning of that discussion, "When it is not connected to some larger purpose beyond itself, suffering shrinks or annihilates people."

How do we grow from suffering?  Brooks makes three points.  First that it "drags you deeper into yourself."  Suffering compels you to face your sins and weaknesses and won't let you get away with the easy answers.  Second, it teaches us our limitations, what we can and cannot control.  Finally, it teaches gratitude for the thinks we take for granted in good times.

He concludes,

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease.  Many people don't come out healed; they come out different.  They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically.  Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them.  Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love.  They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments.

 

Three other points I want to comment on in this chapter.

First, this:

It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously Day and others took it--reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books.  Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.

I think I read like this, or at least something similar.

Second.  He writes about Day's choice to live among the poor and experience their suffering and poverty.  I was once drawn to such a Christian conviction , though I never acted on it.  In the mid-Aughts I was reading much theology and Wendell Berry.  I was influenced by Day indirectly and others.  At the time I was coming out and worried about losing my calling as a pastor, I considered that if everything went south, then I'd choose some commitment to poverty.  But, life didn't lead in that direction, and my calling was clearly different.

I contrasted Brooks' discussion of Day in this chapter with Kittlestrom's discussion of Jane Addams and her relationship with Hull House in The Religion of Democracy.  In my blogpost on that chapter, I wrote about Addams's encounter with Tolstoy and how she ultimately rejected his ethical purity for a pragmatism she thought was more likely to solve problems.  These days I tend in the Addams direction.

Finally.  In this chapter I began to feel the constraints of Brooks' presentation and further admiration for Kittelstrom's figures. Brooks has yet to explore any figure who advocated for personal liberation.  All of his characters are dominated by restraint.  I know that is one of the themes of the book, but it's beginning to feel a little stifling.  Consider the discussion of Thomas Davidson in Kittelstrom.  In contrast to the submission of Day is this idea: " to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe."

Again, my coming out experience has emphasized the important of authenticity, liberation, and self-expression.  Maybe a book on the important virtues from the queer perspective?

And, here was my last post in this particular series, on the virtue of moderation as expressed by Dwight Eisenhower.


Moderation

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"Moderation is a generally misunderstood virtue," writes David Brooks in his discussion of the moral character of Dwight Eisenhower (a previous blog post explored some other elements of this discussion).  "Moderation is not just finding the mid-point between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there."  

"On the contrary," he writes, "moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict."  Moderates don't think the world can be fit neatly together.  Brooks adds, "If you think all moral values point in the same direction, or all political goals can be realized all at once by a straightforward march along one course, you don't need to be moderate, either. . . Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together."

So, a moderate must accept "that you will never get to live a pure and perfect life," because there will always be compromises between competing values.

Brooks uses the opportunity of discussing this virtue in relationship to Ike to give a warning to political leaders.  Be careful what you do because "the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right."  Ike is often criticized for what he didn't do.  Maybe there was a good reason?

Brooks also contrasts Ike's farewell with Kennedy's inaugural.  Ike spoke with humility about finding balance, while Kennedy challenged the nation to move forward with confidence.  Brooks concludes with something that sounds like a dire warning at this particular moment,

Like the nation's founders, [Ike] built his politics on distrust of what people might do if they have unchecked power.  He communicated the sense that in most times, leaders have more to gain from being stewards of what they inherited than by being destroyers of what is there and creators of something new.


Camus & Sartre's break-up