My brother introduced me to the Old Crow Medicine Show perhaps a dozen years ago, when their album O.C.M.S.had just dropped to instant critical acclaim and put them on the cusp of major commercial success. Their song, “We’re All in this Together”, instantly struck me as the best track of the album, and a real song of America:
The song is not only American, but also philosophical, historical, theological: perhaps I ought to have said, it is American precisely to the extent it is all three together and at once.
The procedure of the narrative, from seeing, sounding, to seeming – and then to to the certain knowledge of memory, which is found “in between”, thus naming the metaxy as the space of recollection in which we live presently – the presence of the past, the presence of the present, and the presence of the future, as St. Augustine articulates the power of memory to make us who we are in Book X of the Confessions – in the space that is caught between the beginning and the beyond – before us and behind us, as Emerson says in his Experience and as Cavell retells in This New Yet UnapproachableAmerica – takes us through enough of that history, and barely avoids dropping (picking up?) enough names along the way, to make us think of breadcrumbs, or materials strewn on the ground: from the aforementioned “in-between” to the line that harkens to Plato – a line I’ve always understood Plato to mean for us to cross – dividing faith from fear – to the admission of intention in either constructing or collapsing eschatological tension in an explicitly Pauline register with the invocation of ourselves as images in mirrors, and the call for us to “put this thing together” and walk the path that worn-out feet have trod (a thoroughfare for freedom, as in another song of America?), and the appeal to evidence (of fellowship enduring) through the taste of salt in tears.
I will not now insist on hearing “the slow road to freedom” invoke the methodos – the hard road – of philosophy (recalling perhaps the ancient notion of philosophy as a way of life and preparation for death), though I cannot fail to tell you that I hear it.
One of these days, I am going to pull together the essay that has been percolating for more than a dozen years, involving some critical observations of Stanley Cavell in his collection of essays In Quest of the Ordinary, in which Cavell revisits Thoreau’s revision of Emerson’s assertion that the whole history of philosophy is contained in a single American day – an idea I thematize in The Soul of a Nationas placing America in the way of philosophy by placing the projects of civilization and history in America, thereby making America to stand in the way of the history of order as such:
More to this, as in order further to place America in the way of philosophy: wonder—an experience possible only in community—the experience of the community of the divine and the human, is the condition and the constitutive of the experience of order. Socrates’ interpretation of the Delphic oracle is a challenge to the city (one that cannot be known not to be a mortal threat, at least not prior to examination). Thoreau would have America take up Socrates’ challenge to the city—to embrace, rather than indict Socrates’ commitment to philosophy. This is to say, Thoreau would make America to stand or fall on her ability to make good on Socrates’ commitment. Thoreau’s claim to be contemporary with the most ancient philosophers ought to be read in this light. Consider now the following from Emerson’s essay, “Nature”:
“Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sunset and moonrise my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams. (Carpenter, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Representative Selections, 17)”
Emerson, the American scholar, here claims that the whole history of civilization, and all philosophy is contained in one American day. This claim, in its turn, establishes the question of America’s relation to philosophy, as one, not of negation, but of assumption. To the extent that there is an America to speak of, it will have in it the whole project of civilization—and in a way that leaves open the question whether America depends on that project, or whether that project depends upon the success of America, and finally, whether these are really alternatives, i.e., really mutually exclusive.
I will have to include the OCMS song, as a sort of test-case, along with the three versions of “America the Beautiful” – though to say how and why were to write the essay. Here is a promise…
A chance hearing of a bit of this song the other day put the whole thing in my head. I keep returning to it, and I keep wondering: “Why are we so afraid?” and “What are we so afraid of?” – I mean broadly and generally: could anyone hitch-hike from Saginaw to Pittsburgh today? Would anyone dare? I mean to say: it probably was not the most prudent course to take even in 1967, and the song’s character’s disposition is one of clear vision and disenchantment, so we cannot imagine that his choice should have been rooted in care-freeness or naïveté.
The man in the Gabardine suit may well have been a spy, you know, but Kathy’s traveling companion chose to poke fun – a deflection (is that the right word for it?) that as such did not directly challenge the premise on which the call to caution was based.
Then again: no candid mind can deny that the phenomenon we once unproblematically called “mass hysteria” is at least as American as (Mrs. Wagner’s?) apple pie. Think Witch Trials and Snake Oil and Utopian Separatism and EO 9066 and “safety-this” and “safety-that” and a hundred-hundred other things between.
Perhaps this is the reason for the journey and the deflection (if that’s what it was): it is as if the survival of America – wherever America is, and if America is out there at all – depends in any given moment on whether each of us – whether any one of us – will stick his thumb out and place himself in the hands of – a stranger? – a fellow traveler? – and laugh (not uncompanionably) at the lady afraid of the Man in the Gabardine Suit who might be a spy but is on the bus.
As one who has spent a lot of time counting cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, and traveled more than most through space and time in search of America, I wonder…
“If we take seriously the idea that Jefferson and Adams thought representatively, that they were, in the words of their mutual friend and fellow founding father, Benjamin Rush, “[T]he poles of the revolution,” and that, while others wrought and fought, “[They] thought for [them] all, (letter to Adams, october 17, 1809)” then their thinking with and against one another will have a claim to being the first expression of an American tradition of thinking. That claim was substantiated when we found, in the subsequent history of America, the presence of the arguments that constituted their conversation.” – The Soul of a Nation, 199
The question is whether we have words left for a conversation:
“America, like philosophy, exists only and entirely in an endless conversation. One cannot stop either; engagement in each is a matter of finding oneself (engaged) in it.” – ibid., 4
David McCullough is a national treasure. Here he is being engaged by Librarian of Congress James Billington on writing history, especially on writing about the man who was in my estimation the greatest Founding Father, John Adams.
L-R Dr. Andrea Chiappetta , Prof. Kevin L. Flannery SJ , Prof. Paolo Savarese, Prof. Christopher R. Altieri, Prof. Giorgio Salzano (the lovely lady in the foreground is Avv. Ester Rita, AKA Mrs. A; the young fellow to her right with his eyes fixed on the moderator and his elbows on the table is my son, Joseph)
Unfortunately, the recording I made of the event was corrupted.
Since several friends and colleagues have asked me what the book is about, and what was said at the presentation, I’ve decided to make a recording of the summary of the work I prepared when I was defending it as my PhD dissertation.
I decided to have some fun with this little exercise: I stayed pretty close to the prepared text, but I tried not to make it a “straight read” as we say in the trade, and I added a little music, top and tail, and have a couple of ad libs. I hope you all enjoy it (and if you do enjoy it, please do share it around).
The text of the presentation is below the audio.
This work considers an actual, historical political society as an apt field of study in and for the general science of order.
The work shows how the people that was formed through common experience on the northeastern littoral of the North American continent is particularly apt for this type of study. The aptness of the chosen historical society, however, becomes visible only during the course of the work, itself.
Specifically, that which emerges during the course of the work is that the debate over the kinds of institutions that are best for governing, which took place in the latter half of the 18th century among British colonists in the New World, was in reality a primarily anthropological debate – a debate over the nature of man and the constitution of society.
In the public square, the debate over the nature of man was intermingled with the debate over the right kinds of institutions for the specific mass of humanity that was living on or near the North-Eastern littoral of the North American continent. For those, who were actually conducting the debate, however, the anthropological question was prior to the institutional one – they knew that institutions are for human beings living in society.
Most importantly, the debate in the British colonies during the second half of the 18th century was a real, historical, practical example of the insight with which Plato began the critical scientific reflection on politics: the city is a man writ large, while society is a cosmos in miniature.
Thus, the work takes as its starting point the symbol in and around which that group of humanity, which was present along and relatively close to the aforementioned littoral, began to develop consciousness of itself as a distinct people – namely, “America”. America is the starting point, as I said, and it is also the object of the investigation – the point de depart and the point d’arrivée.
Here it is worthwhile to note that “America”, is a geographical designator and at the same time the name of a peculiar conceptual space. The geographical significance is rightly applicable to a broader territory than that comprehended by either the original littoral or even the present continental expanse of the United States, though the term has acquired its peculiar acception in the physical space occupied and governed by those human beings, who have become the people of the United States.
The point, here, is most emphatically not to deny that there are other conceptual spaces in the geographical area called America – perhaps the most pertinent example of which is Latin America, which extends through several geographical regions and constitutes a peculiar cultural-linguistic and political worldview. The point is rather that these are other conceptual spaces, with peculiarities and structures that qualify them as other than what citizens of the United States call “America”, peculiarities and structures that are independent of the conceptual space of the United States.
The United States is now and has been for some time possessed of enormous power and influence, for good or for ill, and the exertion of that power, the exercise of that influence is now and has been for many decades cause of, and occasion for considerable resentment among other peoples of the Americas and elsewhere. This work is not concerned with providing a criticism of, much less an apology for, the existence and exercise of U.S. power and influence. It is concerned with the generation of the conceptual space in and under which the people who created the United States came to recognize themselves as involved in a common way of life; as a matter of fact, the name they gave to that conceptual space is “America”.
As philosophers, we ought not to be scandalized by the phenomenon, but driven as by an impetus internal to the science we practice, to understand it. This is the spirit in which this work takes “America” as its object.
Basic Premise and Problematic
The basic premise of this book is threefold:
That the forma mentis of the founders of the political society that is often viewed – by its members and by those external to it – as the non plus ultra of modernity, that is, the United States of America, is really steeped in the more ancient tradition of thinking that began in Athens and continued – continues – through the Christian centuries.
That the essence of human society is simultaneously to represent its’ members’ self-understanding and their understanding of the universal order in which the members participate by virtue of their human nature, is one of the deep and abiding currents of Western thinking.
That the society in form for action in history in and through and under the symbol, “America” – in other words – is an apt field for the study of the general problem of order.
The present circumstances of science and of society, however, are certainly colored, even though they might not be entirely defined by attempts to render that deep and abiding current inaccessible. Whether by ignoring, obstructing redirecting, interrupting or by some other how, such attempts are characteristic of much thinking done since the disintegration of the social-political order that was known as Christendom.
This meant that I wanted a method that would allow me to recover the current within the structure and order of American society. The order of America, in fact, informed and directed the structure of American society, though the availability of that (or any) order would be only and entirely in the history of the society itself.
The procedure upon which I settled, then, sought to discover what Voegelin calls, “the unfolding of the typical in meaningful concreteness,” in America. This procedure, however, is not an innovation; it is rather a recovery.
Insofar as it was concerned with discovering and elaborating the structure of experience, the work might have found itself placed in the way of phenomenology. The work was also concerned with the development of a language symbol, and this – on its own – would have made the work essentially hermeneutical. Taken together, however, the two moments placed the work in the way of Platonic anamnesis.
Now, anamnesis is not simply an epistemological and psychological doctrine among others; it is the word Plato used to describe the soul’s experience of openness to the transcendent ground of the order of being.
Conscious and critical exploration of the experience is achieved in and through a particular way of living in the world, one he called philosophia – though the conditions for philosophia are given only in human society, itself at once a man writ large and the cosmos writ small.
This work attempted (I should say with some degree of success) to render possible the search for the general principle of order within a given political society in historical existence – namely, within America.
The essay engages three 20th century philosophers, Eric Voegelin, Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Cavell.
In critical conversation with them and with the founding fathers, I basically show how a broad conversation regarding the constitution of society is constitutively present in the public discourse of the peoples that began to recognize themselves as such – I mean to say, as peoples, and eventually as one American people – during the imperial crisis of the late 18th century in what was then called British America; that the participants in that conversation have at least an inchoate awareness of society as at once cosmic and anthropological; that this makes the political society founded on the northeastern littoral of the North American continent particularly apt for a recovery of the kind of thinking that recognizes an actual, historical political society as an apt field of study in and for the general science of order.
Said shortly, the five chapters of the book recover the forma mentis of the U.S. founders and trace the development of their way of thinking, at least so far as to allow me to locate the founders’ forma mentis in the broader tradition of philosophical inquiry – broader, I mean to say, than the tradition of 17th and 18th century political liberalism in which it is usually located – and therefore to see it as a distinct, though not a separate moment in the history of the general science of order that has been called episteme politike and also “political philosophy”.
Overview of the Body
The work was accomplished in five chapters, with an interlude between the third and the fourth chapters, conceived as a break between and a passage from the first phase of the work to the second.
The first phase saw with Eric Voegelin that the basic problem of political science is the problem of representation, and that America, insofar as it emerges in history as a contest over representation, is an especially apt field for study of the basic problem.
After establishing the aptness of America as a field for studying the basic problem – now recognized as representation, though in a sense at once broader and more layered than the merely elemental or institutional – the next step was to observe the ordering forces at work in America, and in observing those forces, it became apparent that they originated in social and theoretical contexts that pre-dated the historical emergence of America.
This meant – this means – that the way of interpreting existence through the generation of America – the symbols that represent the truth and existence of America, including but not limited to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were constitutive of a tradition of inquiry, and at the same time, possibly, of nationhood.
The next step was to observe that, and to a certain extent, how the search for order at the founding moment of American political independence was conducted as something I called with Stanley Cavell, a quest for the ordinary.
This was, broadly and roughly, the work of the first three chapters – and this work established that it would be at least arguable to claim the American tradition as one at once of inquiry and nationhood.
The final two chapters – the fourth and the fifth – constitute the second phase of the work and contain the conceptual nucleus of the project.
The order of society in America that had begun to emerge through the earlier chapters in a manner amenable to theorization, actually began to be theorized in the fourth chapter, which, you will recall, dealt with the presence of Gnostic threads in the fabric of America.
I would not dwell overmuch, at the present juncture, on the question of Gnosticism – at least not on its own merits. Ideally, this would be the time to turn to the theme of marriage in America – though I really cannot do more than mention that it is at this point in the work that marriage emerges as an explicit thematic concern.
The final two chapters also engaged the larger discussion of the project of philosophy as the science of order, though the engagement was with a view to establishing or recovering the beginnings of America’s theoretical articulation.
I have more to say in this regard, but I will say it in connection with my discussion of the nature and scope of the conclusions I reached – a discussion to which I now turn.
Nature and Scope of Conclusions
The concluding review did not seek to put a bow on definitions of problems exhaustively treated during the course of the work; rather, the basic task was to offer a sort of status quaestionis and articulate a series of further questions that were only, or at least much more readily amenable to formulation in light of and as a result of the work accomplished.
This is not to say that the conclusions are somehow hedged. The point is that to take the measure of a work in progress is delicate, and often difficult work; to conclude a stage of progress in a given task with a series of questions, the asking of which was either impossible, or only dimly possible, at the outset, is the sign of progress in the task of philosophy.
Most importantly, the work shows how the problem of America is intrinsically philosophical: it shows that, and how, questions belonging to philosophy arise in and under America, and it also shows that the human experience of awe at the order of creation, and of the intelligibility – is also the experience the founders discovered at the beginning of America. Specifically, the founders experienced this as a conversation of which they were neither the initiators, nor the concluders – an endless conversation.
The institutions erected by Americans emerged in these pages as an exercise in managing existential tensions that, while inevitably arising in and under elements of government, nevertheless bear principally on the constitution of the society for which those institutions are given.
America is, in short, a conceptual framework in which anthropological and social-constitutional questions inform and direct the search for answers to questions regarding the right structure of the elements of representation – that is to say, the former order of questions informs the institutions of government, so that America provides a reply to, and possibly a way to overcome the basic political problems of Modernity.
At the same time, the history of order in and under America shows how there is no ultimately or perfectly effective institutional guarantee against the decay of a society’s spiritual health. In other words, the general idea of freedom to pursue the good together in society, which America represents, can degenerate into post-modernity, and this possibility cannot be institutionally arrested or curtailed – at least not without violating the human freedom on which the experiment is based.
The video below (shot by my wife) contains a moment in which I respond to Fr. Flannery, SJ’s careful – even gently placed – criticism of my use of Plato, specifically my discovery of the idea that the city is a man writ large and society the cosmos in miniature, as a motive force and an ordering element in the forma mentis of the founding generation. It takes me a while to get into the issue – there was some work of gratitude to do – and I am confident I owe him more words on the subject, and better chosen ones – but no matter.
I also realize, having listened to my response, the debt I owe to Stanley Cavell – I seem to be channeling – almost parroting – him in a few moments (the audio is shaky – it was a big room and this was shot on a phone – but it sounds fine in a headset):