Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Lawler on American individualism

Peter Lawler writes more than is humanly possible. The introduction to his forthcoming Stuck With Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future is available online here.

A sample:

To give [Mark] Lilla his due, evangelical Christians do not tend to give reality-based arguments to defend their relatively reality-based lives. They tend to think in terms of opposing “worldviews,” biblical and secular. And they often claim that if it were not for the absolute truth of biblical revelation, relativistic individualism would be the truth we would all share in common. Our evangelicals lack the confidence to say that what we can see with our own eyes about nature and human nature supports their dissent from the individualistic excesses of our time. They concede too much to the individualism they criticize, and the result is that they do not really engage in dialogue with their fellow citizens, such as Lilla, about the human goods we all—believers and nonbelievers alike—share in common. Lilla is right to criticize them for their faith-based secession from the intellectual life of our country. But that does not mean that our evangelicals have nothing real and valuable to offer that life. According to the astute British observers Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait, America, largely because of the influence of religion, is the only reality-based nation in the enlightened world. They write in The Right Nation (2003) that Europeans tend to live in a postreligious, postfamilial, and postpolitical fantasy, and that they do not think clearly with their futures in mind. By contrast, we relatively conservative Americans think of ourselves as parents, creatures, and citizens, as well as free and productive individuals. So we refuse to reduce all moral questions to merely technical ones, and we take responsibility for our futures as real human beings. The evangelicals’ dissent from the dominant libertarian sociobiology of the intellectuals is actually connected to the truth about the way people really are.

The essay is long, but it is worth reading, as, no doubt, will be the book.

Discussions - 22 Comments

Joe, you’re on a roll with your Noll and Lawler recommendations. Thanks (I hadn’t seen the Noll piece at all and I’d only read the Lawler in an earlier, less polished version).

I do not understand Lawler’s distinction between "fantasy" and "reality." Why do Europeans live in a "fantasy"? In most of Europe they have a high standard of living, they aren’t obsessed by Cholesterol, they don’t think a smoke from time to time is evil (though it is now banned even in bars in Italy officially), they work hours and take vacations that make family life more than a "fantasy." Overall, they have it pretty good. So what is he on about? Myself, there are things about Europe that I don’t like (by the way, I commute almost twice monthly, sometimes more between Europe and America) and I’m not idealizing Europe (the red tape is amazing; I will explain to you someday the hoops one needs to go through to give a month of lectures at the Sorbonne--including a character reference from one’s bank manager!). I like about the US that youth and irreverence and giving the finger to authority are all things that are admired, whereas Europeans are (generally) more deferential, more tolerant of authority, and more accepting of established institutions. Strangely, while the author you praise likes America because it is more conserative, it is Europe’s conservatism that I find to be its downside. I guess I like the non-conformist aspects of BOTH America and Europe. The greater social conformity of Europeans seems to go hand in hand with greater tolerance of individual lifestyle non-conformity. In Europe, in my professional circles, nobody cares what you drink, eat, smoke or sleep with (that’s good) but they do care if you say that the Commissioner of DG trade is an ass (and that’s bad). In America, it’s fine to say that the USTR is an ass in the same professional circles (actually he isn’t but rather a good guy who is a graduate of my law school), but watch that you don’t order wine with lunch, or induldge in any of the infinite other political incorrectnesses.

Dear Mr. Howse, part of what Lawler had in mind about "European" (not all Europeans! He even knows some French men who don’t subscribe to "European" views!) is: an official and wide-spread adherence to "the religion of humanity" (Auguste Comte); an official and widespread adherence to an ideology of the rights of man (complemented or completed by "the right to Difference" or banal multiculturalism); a ’presentism’ that informs and is vividly exemplified in the worrisome birthrates (except, of course, for certain immigrant groups); and the various versions of "the end of history," i.e., conflict, tragedy, and war no longer will, or should, mark the human scene (Pierre Manent has called this "the humanitarian temptation" and he has written about, and against it, for over a decade now). Knowing Lawler, he probably would also add the visible and precipitous decline in church-affiliation and attendance: this indicates for Lawler that many Europeans in truth are denying their souls’ longings and the characteristic human combination of "grandeur and misery."
Hope that helps.

Dear Mr. Seaton,

I had thought the ideology of "the rights of man" was foundation of the American polity! True, in post-WWII Europe it has made considerable inroads, but one would hardly believe that Europe could be distinguished for its GREATER connection to the ideology of "the rights of man" than the United States. As for "presentism," while there are clearly differences among different European states, overall the environmental policies and especially the positions of Europe on global environmental survival issues like those addressed by Kyoto, and more particularly on renewable energy, suggest a greater sense of stewardship of the planet for future generations than, generally speaking, the current
American policies. Again, we are dealing in broad generalizations, but I do think it is hardly right to say that relative to Americans Europeans are guilty of "presentism."

As for the wish or belief that war should never again mark the human scene, I myself think that such a wish is natural or a reflection of the classic view of natural justice--the city at peace is the true city or defines the best city, to paraphrase Leo Strauss. (The question of whether such a wish or hope is realistic or a prudent basis for a foreign policy is quite another matter). It is in any case Carl Schmitt, a European of a sort, who most vigorously opposed the DESIRABILITY of peace, identifying the presence or potentiality of mortal conflict with human seriousness, greatness, tragedy. Schmitt also, though, thought that the wish to abolish war was American or anglo-American and CONTRARY to the spirit of Europe. Is Mr Lawler a Schmittean? Perhaps he is projecting onto America a mentality alien to the American sensibility long before Europeans en masse started to be alienated from it, i.e. once its consequences were fully felt between 1933 and 1945.

Dear Mr. Howse, all fair questions on your end. Save one, perhaps. Lawler is not a Schmittian. (Since I don’t know you at all, I have no idea if you asked that particular question in a sincere vein or from other dispositions. It was, from my point of view, an odd question to ask on the basis of the little I said about contemporary "humanitarianism" on the Old Continent. But, to repeat, Lawler doesn’t share Schmitt’s "political theology" nor his hatred of liberalism. He, Lawler, is a friend of human liberty, human liberty properly understood, though, as he likes to phrase it.) As for "ideology of rights of man" I specifically said "ideology ... ." Now I am among the first to say that there are strands of American thought, present and past, that adhere to, or have version of rights, that could be fairly characterized as "ideological." I had a fairly specific notion of "the ideology of human rights" in mind, though, as characterizing much of contemporary European thinking. Many European thinkers have written on this phenomenon; since I know the French scene fairly well, I can refer you to Alain Finkelkraut, Chantal Delsol, the previously mentioned Pierre Manent, Philippe Beneton, and others. Roughly speaking, it is equivalent to, or has points of contact with, what many here call "secular humanism" (hence it’s connection with Comte’s "religion of humanity," which I also mentioned in the previous post.) It’s the complex notion that "man" or "mankind" is "autonomous," that "rights" can wholly and adequately organize society’s common affairs or public life, that "rights" can be attached to almost any particular subject (individuals, groups, animals) and objects (everything becomes the proper object of a legitimate claim), and that (with "the right to Difference" or multiculturalism) it suffices to articulate what man is.
Your point about the Green consciousness in Europe is a fair point, insofar as it qualifies what I called ’presentism’. One still has to account for the demographics in Europe; Lawler’s claim is that the unwillingness and incapacity to meet replacement levels of procreation/reproduction in Europe is connected with, in many ways a consquence of, secularized, self-focused, risk-averse European populations (or large swaths thereof). (Now, one can wonder if his account isn’t more applicable to Western Europe than "New Europe.") He has written extensively on Green consciousness; in part he connects it with Tocqueville’s discussion of pantheism being a logical development of specifically democratic consciousness. He probably would see the individualism inherent in non-reproducing Europeans and their environmentalism as two sides of a democratic coin. (That in no way means that he or I are "anti-environmental"; people can legitimately disagree about the facts, the best account thereof, and desirable and feasible solutions to such problems.)
I’ve gone on too long, so I’ll end. Hope this helps a bit.

Mr. Seaton,

The "Schmittean" element I had in mind was the notion that a final end to war would, somehow, diminish the human condition. I wasn’t casting personal aspersions at all--it just seemed to me odd that Lawler, given his other normative commitments, would profess sympathy for such a notion.

I understand better now the outlook you have in mind when you use the expression "secular humanism." My friend Joseph Weiler has written a critique of that outlook in a recent book that may interest you, L’Europa cristiana. I do not think the outlook of "secular humanism" can be described as simply an ideology; it is a product of the experience of Europe in the 20th century and reflects a hope and conviction that the degradation of man that occured, above all, between 1933 and 1945, should never recur. It is on the basis of this experience, and the hope that it never happen again, that the new Europe was built on the secular humanism you describe. Whether this is an adequate foundation is another issue. But, as regards multiculturalism, I do disagree with you that secular humanism embraces multiculturalism. In fact, secular humanism has a very troubled relationship to multiculturalism, as is displayed by the debates in France on the wearing of religious dress in public schools (though less prominent in the North American media, there have been similar issues in Germany and the UK as well).

On demographics, there could be many explanations; in Catholic Europe, for instance, a revolt against the church (that was the case in Quebec). But I’m not an expert on that issue, and I know there is some important writing on it.

On balance, I just don’t experience Europeans as more "self-focused" than Americans. In much of the Europe I know, to give one example, working professionals typically choose to take a break in the middle of the day to have a social lunch with friends, family or co-workers; in North America, generally such people if they have an extra hour or two will put it into more self-focused activity--working harder, going to the gym, etc. On a Sunday morning in New York and Boston, you will count many, many educated people in cafes, etc. all alone with their Ipods and newspapers, (apparently) content in a really self-absorbed world. On a Sunday afternoon in Paris or Rome or Geneva, almost everyone out in public is with family and friends (those lucky enough of course to have them).

At the same time, as a relative newcomer to the US I was quite impressed after 9/11by how in a culture that in many ways maximizes self-regarding, self-focused activity people were able to come together and rally. I don’t subscribe to the Robert Putnam "Bowling Alone" pessimism about America by any means; I just disagree that in relative terms Americans are less self-focused than European and think that, again in relative terms, if anything, it is the opposite.

I could go on and on about Europe and America but that would try your patience and you have already been very generous and thougtful in your responses. If you send me your snailmail address to [email protected], I’ll provide you with a copy of my co-edited book on conceptions of federalism in Europe and America. I think it would interest you.

Rob and Paul,
Very interesting...Thanks. I’ve never been called a Schmitt man before. I’m less bellicose than most, but it’s a fact that wherever you find human beings war will always be a possibility--as will love, friendship, families, politics, and God.

Lawler has arrived; I yield the floor. Plus the Yankees are about to take on the Red Sox.

Dear Peter, true, we agree on most things and I’m worried when we disagree, but when it comes to the Yankees you simply have a parochial blindspot. I ask you directly: who was "the team of the 90s"?
Lest you misunderstand, I have the highest regard for the Braves organization, starting with Bobby Cox; he, Joe Torre, and Tony LaRussa are the best managers in baseball as far as I’m concerned.
Apropos to European v. American attitudes: I like Joseph Cropsey’s formulation of long ago, that the (now about 51% majority of) Americans draw from "the spirited wells of modernity"; in contrast "Europeans" draw from, and with, the softer colors in modernity’s palette of sentiments and thoughts (e.g., compassion and humanitarianism) - and, as you know, the latter runs close to anti-specism and pantheism. But these are rough contrasts, perhaps best suited to chat rooms and "comments" sites.

The Braves’ record of regular season success overshadows (14 in a row!) even the eras of Ruth and Mantle. And no mere mortal can account for their repeated failure in the short and fortune-tossed playoff series.

Rousseau was the source of both the insane nationalism that produced World War I (one of the most strange and terrible pieces of evidence of the perversity of our species) and the sentimental reverie that has now replaced Christianity and civic spirit in Europe, the vision of paradise that doesn’t depend upon the power of man or the power of God (or, for that matter, the power of natural reproduction).

If you want to attribute the Braves’ remarkable consistency and consistent success to human power, then why denigrate the Yankees’ post-season success by tacitly ascribing it to fortune? Sounds a bit - just a bit - like sour grapes to me. I do note that the "evildoing" characterization/charge has been omitted.
Ah, Rousseau. Wouldn’t it be better to say, "vulgar Rousseauianism"? He was a teacher and advocate of "the nation," to be sure, but as you well know he was equally or even more a teacher of "patriotism" (not ’nationalism’) and as De Jouvenel rightly styled him, he was a "pessimistic evolutionist," so the explosion of the nation and various sorts of nationalism on the post-Napoleonic European scene would have surprised the heck out of him. And he certainly (?) would have sided with "liberal nationalism" rather than the biological or "zoological" nationalism of [some of] the Germans (I’m referring to Renan’s distinctions in his epistolary exchange with D. Strauss).
But, you’re quite right, actually; Pierre Manent, for one, (in "The Humanitarian Tempatation") credits or ascribes this dual, conflicting, dialectical set of options to tensions inherent in Rousseau’s own thought. I just wanted to save his honor a bit.

World War I had very little to do with racism. But of course we basically agree.

And--the more games you play, we learn from statisticians, the less luck plays a part in the results. So what happens over 162 games is much more reliable test than what happens over 5 or 7. Any major league team is easily capable of beating any other on any given night. That’s why the baseball season has to be so long to serve justice. Excellence emerges over the months, not over a week or two. The Yankees spend so much and may or may not see postseason this year. The post-Turner Braves spend very little, and they’re coasting right now.

Dear Peter Lawler,

No, there is nothing Schmittean to the assertion that it is a "fact" that war is always possible--however, your point of view as paraphrased in the original post suggested a very different position, namely that to seek to eliminate or to wish for the elimination of this possibility was something undesirable, or associated with a degraded outlook on the human situation.

I don’t understand your response on environmentalism--we are dealing with the sustainability of the planet as a home for future generations of all species, including our own.

While I myself don’t see much evidence for the proposition that pantheism is rampant in contemporary Europe, the outlook that you seem to favor, which places "man" above other species and indeed against them is one more likely to result in the types of atrocities and degradations that you mention than a "pantheistic" outlook; man’s placing himself in the position of God or a superior being in relation to nature ultimately results in the same posture towards human nature, and the tyrannization of man against himself, which really means of some men against others, in the very name of the "human."
That perhaps brings us back to Schmitt.

At least you didn’t say something good about the Yankees. I’m for the position that man is "above" the other species. I’m against the one that man is at war with the nature that is out to kill him. There’s a third alternative to the conquest of nature and "pantheism": Human beings have been given by nature particular excellences with corresponding responsibilities. Nature is not our enemy. We’re natural beings, but our nature existence is qualitatively different from that of the other animals. We are parents, children, friends, citizens, and creatures in fulfillment of our natural capabilities. We’re, much more, than technological beings. On these points, I’m a Thomist, and so there’s a lot to the "stewardship of nature" or ecological view. And so far, I have to admit, the Europeans are doing better--if not nearly good enough--on the regulation of biotechnology, which is a lot more important than the Kyoto treaty or the hypothesis of global warming.
To change the subject:
There is a strange Straussian fascination with Schmitt that doesn’t grab me at all. The one thing he said which is sort of true--The friend-enemy distinction is an ineradicable part of our nature due to our limited powers of knowing and loving--is said better by, say, Tocqueville or Aristotle or Plato. (Harvey Mansfield implicitly made this point in his recent WEEKLY STANDARD article about his post-9/11 indignation as a philosophical dilemma; the absence of this indignation from the soul of Benjamin Franklin, Jerry Weinberger shows us, makes him, despite his "philosophic" temperament and brilliance, rather repulsive.) "Our" interest in Schmitt is at least enhanced by Strauss’s Weimar-German-Heideggerian-Hitler personal circumstances. But to say the least, I’m no "decisionist," and I don’t think "politics or nothing" are our existential choices.

8-4. Division champions. Great closing stretch, win when you have to. Pop the champagne, you’ve earned it, Yankees.
Your tacit argument that the Yankees post-seatson success is largely attribuable to fortune and the explicit claim that the Braves lack of success is due to the same fickle mistress works the trick of demeaning success and ’justifying’ failure. Is the cosmos - or are the baseball gods - that arbitrary? You’re distinction between the full season and the post-season seems too facile to me. Especially over the medium long haul of the 90s (which was the main period I asked about: 4 World Series victories.).
BTW: what did you have in mind - oh informed member of the President’s Council - when you said Europeans are doing better at regulating biotechnology? I know particular states (New Jersey, California) here have gone off the deep end. Do France, Great Britain, and Germany restrict things (much) more than our federal government does (right now)?

Dear Peter Lawler,

I agree on the importance of regulating biotechnology and with her acknowledgement that Europe is certainly a better example than the US in this regard. I am no expert in Thomism but I would think that any perspective that does not make man into God cannot put man above other species in any unqualified fashion, i.e. giving man unqualified license to do what he wants to "nature." Besides any perspective except "hyper-humanism" might have to take account of the complexity of human superiority--that those capacities that allow men to "exceed" the other species also allow them to fall below, engaging in cruel and degraded behavior uknown in the non-human animal world (a point made very well by Montesquieu in the Spirit of the Laws and even more pointedly if sarcastically in his Pensees where he says "man is a monkey that didn’t come out right.")

You have I think cleared up the Schmitt issue well enough. You were not embracing the permanent possibility of war as something DESIRABLE for the human condition, you were merely stating what you consider an inalterable fact of that condition. I totally agree with you about the Straussian interest in
Schmitt--this is connected to one Herr Meier, and I have dealt at length and very critically with the way in which Meier has constructed this engagement Strauss/Schmitt. See

Apropos to the Braves rookies: all credit and congrats to Bobby Cox on handling them. We just had Mr. Cano. But in Joe Torre’s (and Brian Cashman’s) credit column: The original Yankees pitching staff was in shambles most of the season; they picked up Small (10-0), Chacon (7-3), and Wang (8-5, I believe) and rode them to victory. A-Rod took one year to adjust to New York and now he’s a MVP candidate; Sheffield (despite a few Sheffield comments) is a fine team player; and the old guys (Martinez and Williams) filled vital roles at certain junctures. There’s nothing "evildoing" about all that. And then there’s Mr. Class, Derek Jeter.
I, too, look forward to Mr. Howse’s discussion of Meier’s Schmitt.

I actually like Joe Torre, who’s (barely) good enough to coach all those multi- multimillionaires you listed to a championship. He wasn’t quite good enough to be reliably successful in Atlanta, where the challenge is so much greater because seduction (bribery) of the rich and famous away from other teams isn’t a real possibility.

Dear Peter, I’m not sure it is going to "disappear." But there certainly is common ground. We still have differences as to how we view contemporary Europe in relation to America, it seems. Also, there is the question of authority on which I think we would be quite far apart if we were to discuss it. The liberal thnkers who have most influenced my own liberalism, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Acton, were all Catholics who had problems with the claims of authority and obedience in mainstream Catholicism; contrary to certain oversimplifications, none were atheists.

I have always found Thomists to be fine interlocutors. When I was an undergraduate in Toronto I spend quite a bit of time with some Thomists who were students of Anton Pegis and Joseph Owen, both intellectually serious figures. I found that the Thomists were philosophically very competent and also at the same time genuinely interested in talking with non-Thomists. Unlike the Sraussians, who tended to be very cliquish and to make anyone who didn’t fit into their frat quite uncomfortable, an outsider. Certainly the Thomists seemed to grasp the meaning of intellectual friendship better than the Straussians. They combined theoretical rigor with genuine human warmth-respect and care for those who were not able to share, at least not fully, their approach.

By the way the radical humanist/atheist philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, whose work I have translated and written on, had Thomists among his preferred interloctors. I recently met Ambassador Lacarte of Uruguay, now in his 80s or even 90s perhaps, who remembered Kojeve very well from GATT negotiations in Geneva in the 1950s and 1960s--according to Lacarte one of the members of his delegation was an expert on Thomas and was constantly sidetracked by Kojeve’s intense interest in having a dialogue with him about Thomism--and Kojeve was a very hard guy to sidetrack!

Rob, That’s a very classy post--to which I can’t begin to do justice today.

So now it’s time for shameless self-promotion: For a "sort of" dialogue btwn. Kojeve and Thomism, see my POSTMODERNISM RIGHTLY UNDERSTOOD.

And for a positive and almost Thomistic appreciation of the new report on aging by the President’s Council on Bioethics,
see David Brooks’ column in the NEW YORK TIMES tody. Maybe Joe or someone else could post it. It mentions me at some length and positively, which is a first for the NYT. It calls the Council and especially me virtually German Christian Democrats, which, Rob, I really don’t regard as anything but praise. (Here’s how to avoid the charge for NO LEFT TURNS fans--save it to your hard drive and then post it.)

Dear Peter,

I shall read it with great interest. On postmodernism and catholicism, do you know Gianni Vattimo’s "I believe that I believe"? I am a great admirer of his thought, even if it is a bit too "Heideggerean."



Peter, send me the Brooks piece (as you can well imagine, I refuse to subscribe to the Paper of Record.) And good luck to the Braves.

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