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Friday, February 21, 2003

Wieseltier vs. Menand.

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily yesterday for finding a referee for the skirmish over Orwell's legacy. Tim Rutten takes a close look at Leon Wieseltier's controversy with Louis Menand. (Background reading here and here.)

In The Metaphysical Club — definitely worth reading — Menand clearly buys Oliver Wendell Holmes's assertion that "certitude leads to violence." Holmes preferred a kind of adjudicatory liberalism, keeping every party a bit off balance so that no one had the upper hand for long. It wasn't so much that truth was in the middle; he thought that truth was merely a tool — a club — that each party wanted to use. But William James never embraced this variety of pragmatism. Instead he saw the tragic necessity in having to choose. He explicitly acknowledges in Pragmatism that there is no guarantee that truth or right will prevail, and that people do act on the basis of what they believe most strongly. Consequently, he went looking for "a moral equivalent to war." That's worlds apart from Holmes's anti-certainty.

And Wieseltier is right to poke at this weakness in Menand's argument. Holmes, Brahmin to the end, liked being an impartial arbiter; it was his version of the old Yankee "disinterestedness." A liberal democratic state manages conflict in ways that we often take for granted, but it's quite an achievement for a society to make space for disinterestedness. It's also quite dangerous to forget that a liberal democratic state is a human and therefore vulnerable achievement, not a state of nature.

Risks of commitment.

But Menand is getting at something important. When I read Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith, it occurred to me that it isn't really possible to avoid finding one's "ultimate commitment" in symbols, or in what Tillich calls "concrete concerns," which are never truly ultimate. We always encounter transcendence through non-transcendent things; we discover truth in part, but never wholly; our piety always has an idolatrous dimension — and idolatry, Tillich pointed out, does unleash demonic powers.

(Or, as James Baldwin puts it more excitedly in The Fire Next Time: "Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have." Freud might point out that no human being can help denying the "fact of death" — that's actually what the "pleasure principle" is all about — but that's another post for another day. For now, latching on to some "identity" in order to avoid meaninglessness is exactly what Tillich is describing as idolatry.)

The danger of idolatry motivates Tillich to place such a premium on the "Protestant principle," the critical spirit that denies that our ideas of God are ever adequate. And this is why criticism is always dangerous to the status quo: There is a point at which certitude dismisses all critics, denies that its claim to truth is not absolute, and adopts violence in the name of its vision. That's the story of totalitarianism.

Menand doesn't like tragedy, however. Tillich's "Protestant principle" protests against idols in the name of the "God beyond God"; Menand protests against commitment itself. And Wieseltier goes to town on him for it. I would like to believe that we can banish violence from politics (or, to euphemize a bit, "coercion from human interactions"), but here in the real world, the question is how to expand the realm of human freedom so that people can pursue their commitments with the smallest threat of violence. For me, that requires a strong commitment to extending and strengthening political and cultural freedom — even though I know that holding this commitment involves some tragic risks. (I examine one commonly-held Unitarian Universalist commitment here.)

Every bad idea has had unforeseen consequences. We often forget that every good idea does, too. Which reminds me: Read Isaiah Berlin. I especially recommend "The Pursuit of the Ideal" in The Crooked Timber of Humanity.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 21 February 2003 at 6:03 PM

Previous: Have liberals been duped?
Next: Billy Collins.

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