See Disclaimer Below.

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Allen Mendenhall: Is the Rule of Law Dead?

In History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law on October 26, 2022 at 1:59 pm

Libertarianism and the Common Law

In Arts & Letters, Libertarianism, History, Law, Economics, Humanities, Philosophy, Britain on October 20, 2022 at 6:00 am

Allen Mendenhall and Josh Herring Discuss Richard Weaver

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature on September 15, 2022 at 6:00 am

Trent England of Save Our States Interviews Allen Mendenhall

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics on May 31, 2022 at 7:00 am

Review of Benjamin and Jenna Storey’s “Why We Are Restless”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Scholarship on May 26, 2022 at 6:45 am

Reviewed by Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in the Journal of Faith & The Academy.

Almost 2500 years ago, Aristotle posited that what distinguishes humans from the animals is not only our judgment and rationality, but also our unique capacity for love, affection, and bonding. The coronavirus pandemic is frustrating because, among other things, it forces us to suppress and neglect the very qualities that set humans apart from the rest of creation. Enforced isolation and social distancing deprive us of the opportunity to gather and fellowship, hug and touch, cultivate community and family. Alienation and quarantine are contrary to our nature as free and social beings.

For over a year I wondered whether I would embrace my 85-year-old grandmother again. She was confined to a nursing home just outside Atlanta; no family could visit her until recently. Restricting guests was for her own protection, but it didn’t feel right or good. Because the coronavirus isn’t sentient, doesn’t possess moral properties or exercise an agency of its own, we can’t get angry at it, punish it, argue with it, or condemn it as wrong or unfair. Hence our anxiety multiplies.

The pandemic only worsened an already pervasive problem, namely a growing sense of restlessness and unhappiness even as we in the United States enjoy widespread economic opportunity and astounding material prosperity. Benjamin and Jenna Storey, married professors who run the distinguished Tocqueville Forum at Furman University, diagnose this condition—societal malaise—in Why We Are Restless, the latest in a fascinating book series edited by Robert P. George and published under the imprint New Forum Books of Princeton University Press.

Their answer to this question about restlessness? It’s complicated.  

Short-term thinkers might point to the opioid crisis, social media, political parties, climate change, work hours, around-the-clock news, police brutality and so on to pinpoint root causes. These are merely symptoms of larger problems, however. Long-term thinking, an understanding of centuries of philosophical and historical trends, free inquiry, a willingness to adapt when new evidence presents itself, facility with foreign languages and difficult texts from different times and traditions—these make for a rational and dispassionate examination of the social ills of our moment. And the Storeys are adequately equipped and prepared for the task. They have selected four modern French intellectuals—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)—to guide readers on a “quest” (the Storeys’ term) for contentment, which is, according to the Storeys, antithetical to restlessness or malaise.

The narrative goes something like this: Montaigne’s ponderous essays are, on the whole, about learning how to die, or coming to terms with the irrefutable reality of mortality. He developed the concept of “immanent contentment” to refer to the good life to which reasonable and thoughtful people should aspire. “Immanent contentment” involves “moderation through variation,” affirmation and friendship, and stability or equilibrium with some diversity of experience thrown in for good measure. Pascal came along to refute “immanent contentment,” suggesting that humans by their sinful nature are, unhappily, divorced from God. A proper life, in his paradigm, seeks reunion with the divine, or wholeness. Rousseau wasn’t much cheerier, acknowledging as he did the inevitable sadness of the human condition as well as the unavoidable futility of the relentless pursuit of happiness. His so-called “sentiment of existence,” however, posited ways we can enjoy the experience of being alive without despairing. Tocqueville, alas, located the industrious chase for immanent contentment within democracy and majoritarianism, social and political categories connected with labor and materialism. The Tocquevillian risks much suffering from the constant drive for happiness. Why? Because that drive makes the lack of contentment feel like failure, as if we tried but couldn’t succeed when in fact no amount of effort would have changed our lot.  

So where does that leave us? Perhaps with an amalgamation of instructive perspectives. Montaigne teaches us “to learn to be at home within ourselves and within our world, and to cease measuring our lives against any transcendent goal or standard.” Pascal renders the “restless unhappiness at the core of the modern soul, sadly seeking to absorb itself in a form of contentment not capacious enough to meet the demands of its self-transcending nature.” Rousseau imparts that “we cannot quiet our restlessness by going to either extreme”—the “natural and solitary” on the one hand and the “social and artificial” on the other—because “both are only parts of what we are: human beings are as social as we are solitary, as historical as we are natural.” Studying Tocqueville, we discover that we’re “[g]eographically transient, and never knowing what to expect from others in a social world always in flux.” Moreover, we “crave the reassurance” of our “fellows’ approbation, which proves to be as allusive as their whereabouts.”

The Storeys’ analysis of these four Frenchmen doesn’t lead inexorably to any one political platform or position. Conservatives and liberals, right and left, are equally wrong, reductive, and simplistic, according to the Storeys, because human complexities defy crude caricature. “Conservatives,” they tell us, “see liberals not as people earnestly if misguidedly working to alleviate entrenched injustice but as insular cultural elites signaling their virtue; liberals see conservatives not as people sincerely if mistakenly working to preserve traditional morality but as rich white men perpetuating their privilege.” Elsewhere the Storeys state, “The case our right makes for free-market economics assumes that perpetual economic growth is self-evidently good, an assumption little challenged by human beings accustomed to thinking of happiness in terms of immanent contentment, to which an ever-proliferating variety of goods and services is useful.” By contrast, “[w]hen our left argues for the redistribution of the same kind of resources, its position often rests on similar assumptions about the kind of flourishing our political arraignments should support.” The Storeys add that “the social aim of unmediated approbation frequently underlies both the celebrations of familiar intimacy dear to the right and the defenses of free erotic connection dear to the left.”

The Storeys’ copious endnotes are a store of knowledge and wisdom. One could spend an entire decade following the numerous lines of inquiry drawn here. That’s before one exhausts the extensive bibliography that rounds out this handsome hardback.

There are no throwaway lines in Why We Are Restless. In fact, this book is difficult to review because each of its sentences is carefully crafted, and each of its chapters contains memorable axioms and nuggets of insight. For instance, from the chapter on Montaigne: “The human problem lies not in our failure to cultivate our distinctly human faculties but in our misbegotten and doomed attempts to rise above ourselves.”

From the chapter on Pascal: “Modern human beings can follow their passions and pleasures, indulge idle or even voyeuristic curiosities, accumulate wealth and achieve ambitions with less shame or need for apology than their forbears. But doing so seems only to add to the mounting pile of evidence that the decisive obstacles to immanent contentment do not lie in the laws and moral norms modern peoples so relentlessly critique and overturn. The unhappiness that remains when such liberations have succeeded must have its source not in our laws but in ourselves.”

From the chapter on Rousseau: “Man’s fall is an accident of history; indeed, it is the accident that brings history into being. Our misery is of our own making; we are wicked only because we have adulterated ourselves. And yet we knew not what we did.”

From the chapter on Tocqueville: “The very hold the sentiment of human resemblance has over democratic human beings often prevents them from noticing just how remarkable it is. Human difference, after all, is more visible than human resemblance: our eyes see big human beings and small human beings, males and females, dark-skinned and light-skinned, the fine tailoring of wealth and the dishevelment of poverty. We never see a human being simply, which is an abstraction; we always see this or that human being, who has qualities that differentiate him or her from others.”

Some of these lines are summaries of the subject author’s texts or claims but articulated in the Storeys’ unique voice and vocabulary. That these passages are unoriginal—restating established sagacity—does not make them any less profound.

If you’re looking for self-help therapy, specialized research, pop-psychology, or easy-step prescriptions for success, grab another book. The contentment that is the Storeys’ subject is elusive, achievable only through difficult work, deliberate solitude, serious contemplation, deep learning in the liberal arts, and the kind of hard-won discernment that enables one to make good choices.

Advertisement

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Chris Shaffer, Author of “Moon Over Sasova”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, History, Humanities on January 12, 2022 at 12:28 pm

Alabama’s Constitutions

In History on October 21, 2020 at 6:45 am

What is Magna Carta?

In History, Law on October 7, 2020 at 6:45 am

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Abraham Lincoln

In American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on September 30, 2020 at 6:45 am

Review of Marcus Witcher’s “Getting Right with Reagan”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities on July 29, 2020 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here at the Alabama Political Reporter. 

I am, as they say, a “Reagan Baby.” This fact used to stun people. “How can someone born in 1983 be a full grown adult?” they would ask. “Where has the time gone?” they wondered.  

Things have changed; years have passed. These days my undergraduate students have no memory of 9/11, let alone any realistic notion about what quotidian life was like in the 1980s, which, for them, is that strange and distant era of big hair, synthesizers, neon clothing, and bad films.

Marcus M. Witcher’s cleverly titled Getting Right with Reagan, recently released by the University Press of Kansas, sheds light on this transformative period, in particular on its leading political figure, the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Having written much of this book as part of his doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Alabama, Witcher (himself a Reagan Baby who’s now a Reagan scholar) argues that Reagan was not the stalwart conservative that Republican iconography and mythology have made him out to be. Rather, this telegenic, charismatic movie-star-cum-president was also conciliatory and pragmatic, appeasing Democratic politicians to transform aspirational public policy into operative legislation.

Republicans under 40 might be surprised to learn that Reagan’s conservative contemporariesjournalists especially, didn’t believe a Reagan Revolution had ever occurred, or that if it had, then it hadn’t accomplished what its proponents desired in terms of large-scale, long-term effects.

So why do conservatives today celebrate the coalition-building Reagan as their purist standard-bearer? Why are Republican presidential primary debates held, symbolically, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library? Why are Republicans obligated to pay lip-service to Reagan to demonstrate their conservative bona fides and party loyalty?

Witcher supplies five principal reasons. The first is that future Republican presidents, namely the Bush father and son, were not sufficiently conservative. They expanded the federal government in domestic areas such as education while adopting the foreign policy of a Woodrow Wilson rather than a Robert A. Taft. The second is that, in Witcher’s words, “fortuitous historical events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, … made [Reagan’s] policies appear prescient.”

The third reason is that the recession following the 2008 financial crisis resulted in conservative nostalgia for the more prosperous 1980s. The fourth is less about remembering and more about overlooking: “Social conservatives have forgotten how frustrated they were with Reagan during the 1980s for his inability to pass a right-to-life amendment and a school-prayer amendment.”

Finally, Reagan’s withdrawal from politics after he left the White House repaired his reputation. He was no longer a partisan target. The same might be said of George W. Bush, whose popularity has risen, even among Democrats, during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

Witcher traces evolving perceptions of Reagan over the last 40 years. Readers looking for hero worship or biographical accounts of Reagan’s everyday experiences in the Oval Office should consult a different book. Those who are curious about Reagan’s role in the historical development of the conservative movement and its practical adjunct, the Republican Party, will find here the definitive study, one that implicitly raises grave questions about the future of conservatism during its present state of fracture and division.

Witcher’s claims are not without critics. For example, Paul Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College, referring to Witcher’s rendering of Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, writes, Witcher sticks to an old argument about Reagan that appears to have staying power among liberal Reagan scholars who will not let go despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.”

My astute friend Don Devine, who served in the Reagan Administration as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, has, in a convivial context, quarreled with Witcher. I was fortunate to witness firsthand a constructive, unplanned, and unexpected debate between doctors Devine and Witcher over cocktails in the hallway of a reception during a recent Philadelphia Society meeting. Both men are, shall we say, vocal in their opinions. And both stood their ground regarding their differing interpretations of the Great Communicator.

Getting Right with Reagan is admirably researched, with well over a hundred pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. But it reads, mercifully, like popular, highbrow entertainment, free of the pedantic jargon and convoluted syntax that so often mire scholarship published by university presses.

Witcher will become a faculty member in the history department at Huntingdon College this August. He is at work on future projects about American conservatism and will, I suspect, contribute to Montgomery’s intellectual scene, and maybe even improve its mediocre political discourse.

We all, critics and adherents alike, have much to learn about conservatism: what it is, why it is, and where it’s headed. If we can make sense of how Reagan became a figurehead of the mainstream Republican establishment, perhaps we can understand, if only a little better, our current political moment, with all its rancor and tumult.

%d bloggers like this: