Monday, February 21, 2005

Jefferson's Demons

I just finished this book. Wrapped up in the Powerline insulting email controversy, I was going to say nicely that the Powerline bloggers might get something out of it. I find a review
on the Claremont Institute website(two Powerliners are affiliated with the Claremont Institute). Dr. Yarbrough almost nails it. (MHO: Jefferson's idea of subdividing counties into smaller units may not be as related to Burke as Beran thinks in the note. It may be related to the Federalist claim (I'm 90% sure this is Hamilton) that a federal system is the equivalent of a republic because a large country has enough natural leaders to congregate together and make representative decisions. But does this cultivate republican virtues in individuals? Jefferson says no. I see in blogs a tendency to congregate people into a self-selected "platoon", where they can have practice in civic virtue if other users are willing to call them on comments that Kossacks would troll-rate and I can only call partisan lashon hara.) I take small issue with the final statement that emphasizing that Whig politics is drab, and that irrationality is necessary, does not "revive public virtue". I invoke the name of Rawls, who said that liberalism ("Whiggism", in Beran's terms) cannot prescribe the meaning of life. I also invoke the name of Gershom Scholem who points out that for all the rational religion that goes on to the credit of Judaism, it is kabbalah that provides underlying myths and reasons for people to be shomer mitzvot. Rationality and irrationality complement each other. Beran implies that Jefferson had and used myths of his own. There was the Greek/Roman myth involving fertility magic, the treatment of which Beran concludes by saying, "Art made possible the higher form of order known as love. It supplied the techniques that enabled men to turn what Jefferson called 'eager desire' [the lusts inherent in fertility magic] into something that 'kindles' not the 'senses only' but the 'imagination' as well. These processes changed lust into love, passion into noble architecture, bloody revolution into ordered liberty, and so on." (p. 107, bolding blogger's) That Beran also says that Jefferson is forced to reach this conclusion by the landscape in which he found himself is not a glorification of irrationality. It is saying that the use of irrationality is the imagination ordered by the process that creates love ("ordered imagination" gives you Nazism). Jefferson also used the prophetic myth and the myth of the republic being on the brink of disaster if a strong, centralizing leader such as Hamilton got his way. Jefferson himself became a myth of rationality. Beran does something of a service in emphasizing that this rationality was the product of struggle and shaking hands with irrationality in himself. In any event, individuals can become virtuous because of a myth (religious or political) or because of the rational pursuit of "American principles". The USA is a great country because a good citizen can follow abstract principles, and not necessarily founding myths. With the flood of books on the Founders, we show our commitment to how they understood the principles.

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