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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, By Patrick J. Deneen (III)

The third essay in Dr. Deneen's collection is called, "Citizenship As A Vocation." (There appears to be some confusion between the essay titles, and the table of contents.)

Deneen picks up Tocqueville's contention that democratic man is "restless" or "restive" (depending on translation) and uses that as a starting point, and more like a central hub, to which he returns multiple times from various angles.

Tocqueville elaborates that democratic man is flighty, for lack of a better term, inconstant, owing to his fear of death, which even wins out over a desire for contentment. The problem, says the French theorist, is the openness of democratic societies, and democratic man's materialism in a double sense: a belief that most things have a natural explanation--as opposed to a supernatural one--and in the accumulation of things, ostensibly to distract from the fear of death.

Before we go on with Dr. Deneen's application of Tocqueville, and how it might apply in present situations, there is a big point waiting to be raised, one that could have an ongoing resonance: If the analysis of democratic man--and more specifically, American man--is correct, there can be no comprehensive political solution, because the problem is not political, but spiritual. But because there is a social dimension even to man's highest end, we find ourselves wrestling with sociopolitical effects from a spiritual problem.

Deneen points to a cultural shift away from the traditional understanding of "vocation" as a calling imposed from outside oneself that contributes to the common good, to a more individualistic notion that more closely accords with personal desires and preferences. I think it fair to say that the shift can be accounted for almost solely by the implicit or explicit adoption of materialism in the philosophical sense. It stands to reason then that either the Market, or the State would stand in for the final end in a materialist worldview.

Drawing from Adam Smith, who can be called as it were an expert witness on capitalism, and one of its chief proponents, Deneen shows that it would be inappropriate for individuals as market participants to wonder how their individual contribution benefits the whole, because, indeed, there isn't a "whole" to speak of. The substance of Deneen's critique comes into sharper relief: he disagrees with Novak, et al.--who hold a more pro-American and pro-capitalist view--because the division of labor mimics solidarity, whilst actually militating against it. That contention, my friends, is worth pondering, and praying about.

For my part, I find a compelling link between Deneen's outlook presented here, and the central thesis of Mayhew's "Congress: The Electoral Connection," which has influenced me greatly. Mayhew argues that the American people expect meaningful collective action from their elected representatives, while the political system itself actually incentivizes self-interest. Mayhew rightly argues that the political class is not composed of saints, in the main, so serious problems (and frustrations) are nearly inevitable. On a humorous personal note, Dr. Bryan Cross is somewhere finishing an intellectual victory lap before you can say, "performative contradiction."

Deneen laments liberalism's power to bleed into all spheres--personal, political, and economic--while persuading individuals that their fidelity to older virtues has not been severed.

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