Democracy and Tradition

by Jeffrey Stout

Princeton, 400 pp., $35

GEORGE ORWELL once quipped that T.S. Eliot had managed the unlikely feat of making modern life seem worse than it actually is. In "Democracy and Tradition," Jeffrey Stout attributes something similar to a pair of contemporary academics, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian Stanley Hauerwas--both known for their unflinching criticisms of modern liberalism and their advocacy of virtue in local communities.

The argument is interesting. One knew MacIntyre and Hauerwas were influential, but who suspected that they made the republic tremble? In "Democracy and Tradition," Stout makes some reasonable criticisms of what he labels the "new traditionalism." But his alternative account of the public philosophy of American democracy--his attempt to articulate a high liberal "ethical inheritance" that might stand up against the dangerous assaults of MacIntyre and Hauerwas--is surprisingly thin. And what he does say ends up in some measure confirming the worst suspicions of the radical critics of modern liberalism.

The chief point of dispute is whether the recovery of virtue requires a commitment to a conception of tradition that is antithetical to democracy. Stout thinks the answer to that question depends on one's conception of virtue. Democracy in itself is not opposed to tradition or virtue, according to Stout, but only to certain forms of tradition and virtue. Instead of a return to premodern models, of the sort promoted by MacIntyre and Hauerwas, Stout pushes for conceptions of tradition and virtue compatible with our democratic commitment to "the freedom to decide important matters for ourselves."

Stout wants, in other words, to carve out a position between the advocates of premodern tradition and those who think that modern liberalism is to be celebrated precisely because it destroys all traditions and privatizes every good. Indeed, Stout lays part of the blame for the radicalism of MacIntyre and Hauerwas on the most popular defenders of modern liberalism. "The more Rawlsian our law schools and ethics centers become," Stout contends, "the more radically Hauerwasian our theology schools become." John Rawls may have hoped that works like his "Theory of Justice" would bring consensus, but they have instead produced an increasingly acrimonious divide between a complacent liberalism and a reactionary anti-liberalism.

Thus, when Stout suggests that we need narratives that aid us in finding our place in the current cultural landscape, narratives that do not paper over injustices and irrationalities in cultural and political life, he would certainly find support in MacIntyre and Hauerwas. When he argues that we need to consider the grounds for anger and despair, on the one hand, and for hope, on the other, he would again find agreement.

Stout's disagreement becomes pointed only when we consider that, for MacIntyre and Hauerwas, the liberalism of the modern nation-state--with its bureaucratic individualism, its instrumentalist rationality, and its utilitarian economics--does not provide a way to do any of this. Both see the modern nation-state as the great enemy, although they do so for slightly different reasons. Insisting that "the true history of the world . . . is not carried by the nation-state," Hauerwas, America's best-known pacifist theologian, worries that Christians court idolatry when they identify among their primary responsibilities the support of the secular state.

Meanwhile, the philosopher MacIntyre argues that "the modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services . . . and, on the other, as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one's life on its behalf." It is, he said, "like being asked to die for the telephone company."

STOUT RIGHTLY, if predictably, observes that these accounts of modernity are distortions, even straw men, designed to set up local communities of virtue as the only refuge from the corrosive forces of liberalism. The more interesting criticism in "Democracy and Tradition" is that this crude way of depicting modernity puts each thinker at odds with his own thought. MacIntyre has had much to say about the nature of rationality and reasonable debate; he insists that the best test of a position involves subjecting it to the best arguments from rival views, and this in turn requires that one possess a kind of imaginative sympathy with the position of one's interlocutor.

Yet, MacIntyre's hasty dismissal of the modern nation-state fails to examine liberalism in its complexity. Similarly, Hauerwas sometimes willfully refuses to engage certain kinds of questions. In response to the question, "Do I support democracy?" he states, "I have to confess that I have not got the slightest idea, since I do not know what it means to call this society 'democratic.' Indeed, one of the troubling aspects about such a question is the assumption that how Christians answer it might matter."

STOUT WANTS TO PRESS this point further and insist, on the basis of Hegel's account of social rationality, that modernity itself provides at least part of the social substratum that makes even our criticisms of modernity possible. Against MacIntyre and Hauerwas, Stout urges that believers in local communities of virtue should be able to "identify with their community even as they express their alienation from it." They should "maintain their convictions while taking up their responsibility as citizens."

Building upon this, he concludes that MacIntyre and Hauerwas "actively foster alienation from public discussion"--despite the fact that they have a much greater appetite for public argument than most of their liberal critics. "Democracy and Tradition" does admit the importance of recovering the language and practice of virtue, but only through such distinctively American authors as Emerson and Dewey.

For Stout, this need not entail radical individualism. His vision of the "pluralism of modern democratic society" involves the "co-existence of multiple subcultures." But it is not at all clear how we are to understand the relation of local subcultures to the whole of American society, or what will keep the diversity from becoming a homogeneity.

Despite chapters on "The Emergence of Modern Democratic Culture" and "The Ideal of a Common Morality," Stout does not have much to say about the content of our public philosophy or about the constitutional, legal, and pedagogical structures needed to preserve our ethical inheritance. "Democracy and Tradition" is disappointingly slim on key questions concerning how and where virtue is to be cultivated and how it is to be defended against the many modern threats MacIntyre and Hauerwas so carefully enumerate.

In the end, Stout proffers an Emersonian vision of democratic excellence, but some of what he says on this score plays directly into the hands of his opponents. He rules out as irrational and psychologically debilitating certain conceptions of religious life. He takes aim at a doctrine central to traditional Christian theology, original sin, which he describes as a "blight." He explains, "Masochistic self-abasement is not a virtue at all by Emersonian lights, even when it goes misleadingly by the name of piety."

But for whom has masochistic self-abasement ever been a virtue? There is a long and decidedly premodern tradition of distinguishing true from false piety, humility from scrupulosity, and obedience from self-degradation. For that matter, if Stout wants to articulate the "ethical inheritance" of America, it is difficult to see how he can discard original sin, some version of which was affirmed not only by the Puritans who formed so much of American thought, but also by the authors of the Federalist Papers. Not so overtly as Rawls but nonetheless palpably, Stout wants to refashion Christianity to suit a certain strain of liberalism.

JEFFREY STOUT is surely right that there is more to be said on behalf of modernity than MacIntyre and Hauerwas allow. Unfortunately, in "Democracy and Tradition," he never gets around to saying it. Modern liberalism needs to be rescued from the radical individualists if it is to be philosophically defended from its critics. But Stout's attempt to construct a middle ground crumbles at the least touch back into the same old implacable divide--between the Panglossians who insist that liberalism's dissolution of tradition and virtue is exactly what makes modernity so wonderful, and the doomsayers who reply that liberalism's dissolution of tradition and virtue is exactly what makes modernity so despicable.

Thomas Hibbs is dean of the honors college at Baylor University.

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