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Contrarian’s Wisdom

An anguished journey to understanding America.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By JAMES SEATON
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 In a series of portraits of figures ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Lasch explored the possibilities of a populist tradition “grounded in loyalty to families and friends, to a particular piece of earth, and to a particular craft or calling,” a tradition that, refusing to accept science as the last word, persisted in an attitude toward reality that Lasch characterized as “wonder—an affirmation of life in the teeth of its limits.” 

Miller notes that Lasch called Ralph Waldo Emerson “the central figure of the book.” Emerson was central because Lasch’s interpretation allows him to connect, however tenuously, populist social views with a quasi-religious faith in the ultimate “goodness of things.” Emerson’s view of reality, according to Lasch, was not a version of transcendentalism or philosophical idealism but instead amounted to “a kind of theology of producerism.” Emerson, Lasch argued, has been “misunderstood as a radical individualist.” He was, in reality, “a nineteenth century populist” whose writing “transposes the political economy of populism .  .  . into the higher register of moral and ontological speculation.” Emerson retained what Lasch called the “insights” of Calvinism but without the baggage of orthodox Christian doctrine. 

Miller, a sympathetic but shrewd observer, notes that Lasch’s omission of any reference to “the incarnation and resurrection of Christ” in his list of “insights”—the “power and majesty of the sovereign creator of life; the inescapability of evil in the form of natural limits on human freedom; the sinfulness of man’s rebellion against those limits; the moral value of work”—reveals “a telling weakness” in his argument. Lasch, it seems, needed Emerson as a model because he himself wanted the spiritual advantages of Calvinism without paying the price of accepting the creed of Calvinist Christianity. The weakness is all the more telling since “compensation,” Lasch’s primary exhibit for Emerson’s “producerism,” points out that “everything has its price—and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained.”

Miller is surely right both in claiming that The True and Only Heaven is a “high and distinguished achievement .  .  . a work of profound scholarship,” but he is also right to note that “the sweeping nature” of Lasch’s “critique of American culture and society demanded more than what the populist tradition, as he presented it, had on offer.” It was sweeping indeed: Whether as a radical who looked to Marx and Freud or a cultural conservative who turned to “the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition of individualism,” Lasch remained obdurately opposed to capitalism in general and convinced that a capitalist United States required cultural and political transformation.

On the evidence of his own writings and of Miller’s sympathetic biography, Lasch never worked through the moral, political, and economic arguments on behalf of capitalism made by thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, nor did he ever confront the practical difficulties of any transition to socialism. More important, he never seems to have paid enough attention to the inarticulated but undeniable conclusions arrived at by his fellow citizens, the vast majority of whom have never, whatever their dissatisfactions, found reason to search for a replacement for capitalism. Life in the United States has never been as morally and spiritually empty as Lasch often seemed to claim, and as Miller acknowledges, Lasch’s failure to carry out “a careful, sympathetic examination of life on the ground made it too easy for critics to dismiss him as a cranky, if brilliant ideologue.”

Eric Miller has written a biography that does justice to its subject, admiring yet thoughtfully critical; he strikes only one false note—and that one is not really his fault. In his epilogue Miller offers George Packer as, somehow, a comparable figure to Lasch. Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is perhaps best known for a September 10, 2010, posting on the New Yorker website explaining why President Barack Obama seemed, in Packer’s opinion, “less and less able to speak to and for our times.” Obama, according to Packer, was “the voice of reason incarnate” and thus “too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia.” Packer lamented that “evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind don’t stand a chance these days.” 

On Miller’s behalf, it should be noted that his biography was published before Packer’s words were posted, and no one knows what Lasch’s response to the current political scene might have been. It is tempting but unprofitable to speculate as to whether, for example, Lasch would have considered the Tea Party movement an expression or a perversion of the populist tradition. In the books he did write before his untimely death, however, Christopher Lasch repeatedly demonstrated that “the liberal mind” nowhere reveals its limitations more clearly than when it preens itself on what Lasch called “its imagined superiority to the average unenlightened American bigot.” It is thus reasonably certain that Lasch would have considered any attempt to explain away the unwillingness of the lower middle class to embrace liberalism with the claim that “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as something other than “the voice of reason incarnate.” 

In any case, Miller is entirely persuasive in arguing for the permanent value of Lasch’s books and essays, whatever one thinks of Lasch’s personal politics. Christopher Lasch was an intellectual whose cultural self-criticism of the intellectuals remains exemplary. He was willing to take his ideas where they led him, even if it meant he would no longer be welcome at the New York Review of Books. Lasch studied Marx and Freud with such seriousness that he eventually recognized their limits, finding that the religion they had criticized and dismissed so authoritatively possessed insights that surpassed theirs. Let us hope that Eric Miller’s well-written, well-researched study will encourage readers to seek out Christopher Lasch’s own works and to emulate in some degree Lasch’s moral seriousness and intellectual integrity.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.

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