Author Archives: mjwatson

About mjwatson

Husband, father, professor . . .

Lewis and Aristotle on our Political Moment

As long as we are thinking of natural values we must say that the sun looks down
on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two
friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests
him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as
they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing
the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of the spirit. Collective activities are,
of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary.

C.S. Lewis, “Membership” in The Weight of Glory

One of the most painful realities of this seemingly interminable political season has been witnessing, and feeling, the rise of rancor and frustration toward our family, friends, and neighbors who think so differently than we do about this or that political issue, or this or that political candidate. This is not unique, nor is it as bad as it has ever been. We’re not anywhere near Bleeding Kansas or brother against brother. But still. There are, or seem to be, normal rhythms of electoral disagreements and political bickering and partisanship in American politics. There are, or have been, limits. We have a build-up and an election and the arguments and the political fighting and then . . . things settle down somewhat even as we know there’s another building wave on its way out in the deep. Thanksgiving can be awkward around the table, but by Christmas we’re good.

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A series on the Founding

The John Jay Institute is hosting a series on the Founding and the Declaration, featuring an essay by Joseph Postell about whether the Founders relied on reason OR tradition and experience. Smartly, he finds it’s not an either/or. I try to bolster his case.

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Elshtain and Agamben on Sovereignty


I would not wish to add anything to Bryan’s lovely tribute to Jean Elshtain below. Just know that in the days since she passed I’ve heard similar sentiments from scores of other folks who knew her.

About five years ago I was asked to review Jean’s Sovereignty book alongside Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work. Whether due to its deficiencies or an overloaded publishing schedule, it never saw the light of day. Her passing reminded me of the piece, and I do think it gives one an sense of one of her many substantive and insightful works. Continue reading

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David Brooks, Jamie Smith, Charles Taylor, and me!

With that subject line the game to play is the old Sesame Street standby, “which one doesn’t belong?”

But David Brooks’s column yesterday summing up Taylor’s massive tome while mentioning Smith’s work gives me an excuse to link to the PDF of my own review of A Secular Age. An excerpt:

It is undeniably the case that there has been a massive shift from 1500 to the present day, and the orthodox believer owes Taylor a great debt for debunking the simple myth about the rise of reason at the expense of religion. But how to measure the extent of the shift? Taylor is nothing if not careful and circumspect in his observations, and he is surely correct to note that many believers recognize their faith as one option among many, and recognize this in a way that seems entirely anachronistic to ascribe to believers in the sixteenth century (31). Modern believers, Taylor argues, no longer understand themselves as open to external spiritual forces or seek objects which impart divine favor.

I’m not so sure. Because Taylor is interpreting underlying conditions of belief, he cannot rely on surveys or social science to support his claims. This is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that Taylor can investigate those elements of our culture not amenable to statistical measurement; the weakness is that he seems often to resort to his own sense of things. One wonders how ubiquitous the “we” is that he employs when describing the modern mindset.

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Trust and Cynicism and Perry and Windsor

We will be sifting through yesterday’s rulings and their consequences for days and years to come. Ryan Anderson has been doing yeoman’s work on the digitized printed page and on television responding and reacting to Perry and Windsor. For a good summary and initial response, it doesn’t get much better than today’s Public Discourse.

One of the prominent elements of both decisions is the place of standing. In both cases, the Supreme Court had to determine whether one of the parties in the case had even the right to be involved in the case proceedings. In Perry, the Court ruled that defenders of Prop 8 did not have standing, and in Windsor, the Court ruled that defenders of DOMA did.

Standing was only an issue because the representatives of the executive branch in each case refused to defend the law in question in court. Thus the attorney general of the state of California refused to defend Prop 8, enacted by a clear majority of California’s citizens, and President Obama instructed his solicitor general to refuse to defend DOMA, enacted by an overwhelming majority of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.

As Ryan notes, this is a scandal:

It is scandalous that the governor and attorney general refused to perform their duty. That abdication of their constitutional responsibility should not have prevented these laws from having a vigorous defense in court. This sets a disturbing precedent and distorts the balance of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. It would allow the executive branch to effectively veto any duly enacted law simply by refusing to defend it against a constitutional challenge.

This is surely right. Yet there is another element to this abdication that is deeply troubling and corrosive to our politics. It undermines the very social contract that we rely on in sharing a political and civic space with people with whom we deeply disagree about matters of fundamental import. Part of the deal we make in agreeing to a political culture is accepting that we cannot get everything we want. We accept the inevitability of losing on some things in exchange for the opportunity to make our case and have the chance of instantiating in law policies and principles we believe are crucial for the common good. We make this deal because it beats an absolutist approach that turns politics into a Manichean power struggle in which the only thing that matter is winning, and how we win is completely subservient to whether we win.

When it comes to the purpose of the executive branches, whether at the state or federal level, the duty is to execute and defend the laws passed by the legislative branches, regardless of whether the executive officials happen to approve of those same laws. This is part of the very purpose of the “rule of law”, and part of the compromise that makes principled politics even possible. It is why Lincoln defended the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act, though he found slavery repugnant. It is why presidents and governors should defend laws even if enacted by majorities of the other party. That’s what executives are supposed to do, that’s the deal we make in agreeing to democratic politics. If a policy or law is so repugnant that an executive cannot in good conscience carry it out, and other legal measures like the veto fail, the honorable thing to do is resign, and work to overturn the law through legislative means. Otherwise the very job definition of an executive requires an execution of the law, and a defense of the law when challenged in court.

To refuse to do so, to abdicate that responsibility, is in effect to say that my political tribe is the only player worthy of a seat at the table. Ryan is right to note that it changes, in an extra-democratic way, the structure of our political system. It goes even deeper than that, however, as it erodes the very trust citizens need to buy into the system in the first place.

Trust in American government has been falling among the American people. Rigging the legislative game such that majorities cannot count on having their duly enacted laws defended by the very same officials who take oaths to defend the laws will only serve to deep the cynicism already spreading like a malignant tumor in the body politic.

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Fathers and Formation

Patrick Deneen has written a characteristically brilliant essay on fatherhood. Particularly when compared with the natural and corporeal intimacy of the mother-child bond, fathers are more distant and so the connection between father and child is necessarily a chosen connection. It is the first relationship that fundamentally models reflection and choice, reason and faith, and so it provides the first means by which we come to understand human flourishing in its intentional capacities. Certainly mothers exercise choice and reason also, but the choice is much more stark for the father. There is no question, after all, that the child who emerges from her mother’s body belongs to the mother.

Deneen writes:

Human life is supported, sustained, and ultimately achieves flourishing through our capacity as self-conscious creatures who base our actions not upon instinct and immediacy, but through conscious reflexivity and artifice.  Our very humanness rests upon the cultivation of reason and faith as the most necessary, and the most distinctly human, of our many attainments.  The fact of our humanness is a direct result of our capacity to be – for want of a better word – “theoretical.”  And, the first and most powerful experience of this “theoretical” bond is through fatherhood, through the central role played by the father in the lives of children who experience the distinctive love of one who – in spite of the fact of greater distance and anxiety – nevertheless, embraces the fact of his fatherhood.

He goes on to note how this initial relationship sets the stage for four other crucial relationships that must rely on intention and reason: friendship, marriage, citizenship, and religion. All of these relationships are crucial for human flourishing.

Deneen’s entire essay is worth reading, particularly as he relates this specific dynamic of fatherhood to the crisis of fatherlessness that afflicts American society (and the even deeper crisis of not realizing this is a crisis). His linking the crisis to the thought of John Locke is a red herring perhaps for another time, but I couldn’t help but relate his essay to Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, which I’ve been working through recently.

For if Deneen is correct about fatherhood, and our human nature, then he is crossing swords with Smith’s contention that  we are not fundamentally thinking creatures but affective, or feeling and desiring, creatures.

Smith takes aim at a cognitive conception of human nature in his first chapter, “Homo Liturgicus: The Human Being as Lover.” To the extent that Smith offers a corrective to a Cartesian view of human beings as disembodied rationalists, Smith’s insistence that human beings become who they are first through practices and liturgies that are not chosen, but lived, is invaluable.

I bring Deneen’s piece into conversation with Smith here to address one aspect of Smith’s work that I have found puzzling. (Let me offer a caveat here that I have not read Smith’s further work, which may address this, nor do I think a quick blog post can comprehensively address such a rich and rewarding work as Smith’s book).

Here is how Smith sums up his privileging of human formation as precognitive as opposed to reasoned, or to use Deneen’s term, theoretical:

So when we say that to be human is to love, to desire the kingdom, we’re suggesting that this vision of the kingdom’s good life becomes inscribed and infused in our habits and dispositions and thus woven into our precognitive (second) nature.

And in a footnote on the same page, acknowledging thinking does have a place:

It will be important to step back and critically reflect on our dispositions and habits . . However, I think it is necessary to recognize two things: (1) Such reflection does not come first; in fact, such reflection presupposes prerefletive (“animal”) dispositions as the object of reflection; (2) Such reflection is not sustainable; at best, it is sporadic. Even the philosopher only inhabits a small part of any particular day engaged in conscious reflection. (Smith, 56-57)

Smith goes on to persuasively describe an Aristotelian understanding of how we come to know things through doing them even before we can rationally make sense of what we’re learning (something I took a stab at here).

There are two things to note here. The first is that Smith relies on Aristotle’s pedagogical psychology but does not mention that Aristotle’s conception of the fully flourishing human being is a contemplative creature, not an affective one (there’s a way to handle this, it seems to me, as Smith later rightly emphasizes our human vocation as worship,  but it is an odd omission).

The second and more important observation is what Deneen’s piece brought to mind. For surely Smith, and Aristotle, is correct as to how we learn things through practices and formation before we can comprehend them rationally. But what Smith leaves out, and Deneen emphasizes, is that that those practices are imposed on us by fathers and mothers, who think quite consciously, and attempt to think reasonably, about how best to raise their children. Indeed, the seminal thrust of Deneen’s piece is that the role of the father in choosing to identify himself with the child and the child’s mother compliments the more naturally connected love of the mother and sets in motion the foundation for that child’s flourishing.

Such flourishing will most certainly involve our desires and our loves, which are related but not identical (unless we agree with Hobbes that appetites=desires=loves.) We come to be the affective and reasoning creatures we are because of precognitive practices and formations, but these practices and formations are themselves chosen by those who not only come before us but more often than not bring us into being. Thus we see one potential problem with concluding that we are primarily affective creatures and only secondarily reasoning and theoretical beings. Such a conclusion, as articulated by Smith, seems to rely on viewing human beings one generational slice at a time, thus risking obscuring the intentional role of fathers and mothers in comprising the family as the most foundational locus of practices, loves, reasons, and formation.


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