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Greek Books, American Life

From the June 20, 2005 issue: The wisdom of Eva Brann, tutor and philosopher.

Jun 20, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 38 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Modernity is discussed in the central chapter of this supposedly disordered book. Modernity, we are told, comes from modo, meaning "just now." Modernity is about novelty, the constant reworking of nature into concepts, making, or as we say, "creating," a "thingless perceptual after-world." One of these concepts is human equality, from which can come conformity, relativism, and individualism--the last being, by a miracle, the goal of our Constitution. The Constitution has "a large-minded liberality of governance" that sets limits so as to contain humans, but sets them widely so as to give them space. The "contrived newness" or "systematic production of novelty" characteristic of modernity elevates method over substance, and reason over nature. It works well for us in politics, in procedural democracy, which is "our political salvation," but it leaves us vulnerable to "eager beaver" intellectuals and academics who want to reform us.

Much of the danger comes with modern psychology that replaces soul with self. When Socrates urges "Know thyself," he means that you must learn to know the common human soul within yourself, not the peculiar disposition of your self. When, instead of learning about your endowment, you get to know your peculiarities, you start to look and soon find some excuse for them. You give up the idea of self-control and give yourself over to expert control from outside, from experts in human vagaries that have been declared no longer to be sins. And what do the experts say? They urge experimentation with yourself as if you were a scientist testing a new hypothesis on a subject. A scientific experiment of this sort cannot fail because a negative result is still something positive learned, but a spell of what is touted as "experimentation" on your soul can wreck your life.

Our principle has become Just-Now. Nobody can live by that principle consistently, and so nobody should try to do so. It's crazy to live all the time in your own time, regarding the past as a junkyard. You can instead choose to live with discrimination in the modern age, rejecting the idea of any historical necessity to stay within your zeitgeist. While the modern hurtles ahead toward the postmodern--and that very name shows that both modern and postmodern are clueless about what lies in the future--you can watch TV and rejoice in the good fortune of being an American. At the same time you can send your children to St. John's College.

Well, that is a friendly gibe. It means only that Tutor Brann wants you to recognize that there is no alternative principle to Just-Now. At least for the present. A good education, if you manage to get one, will teach you to distrust modernity but not to reject it. Our modern Constitution allows you to be critical even of modernity. It gives you the opportunity to learn about the soul, where modernity is to be distrusted. But it would be a good idea to hold fast to the Constitution, which is modern and based on the self.

It goes without saying that American higher education, always trumpeting the goal of diversity, takes no notice of the diversity it already has--think of St. John's--and that devotees of feminism, always on the lookout for disregarded heroines, overlook superior women living modest lives under our very noses, like Eva Brann.

Harvey Mansfield is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of government at Harvard.