Love and Carey McWilliams

by Peter Augustine Lawler

 Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of perhaps the most erudite and most lovable student of American political thought ever–Wilson Carey McWilliams. Carey was certainly the warmest and most genuinely entertaining member of the American Political Science Association I’ve ever met. Carey’s daughter, Pomona professor Susan McWilliams Brandt, posted this profoundly personal except from his writing this evening:

Love moves us to sacrifice at a least a considerable measure of dignity and rank in the interest of elevating the other: parents clown with children; philosophers return to the cave; God descends to man. And in that descent, love finds its own excellence and higher nobility.

So the philosopher stands here between the parent and God the Father who sends his Son on behalf of all his children. That, some would say, misunderstands who the philosopher is. The philosopher-kings in the Republic have to be compelled to return to the cave to rule. They love the idea of the Good, it seems, and not their families, friends, or fellow citizens–and not even their fellow philosophers. But maybe those philosopher-kings–basically characters in a play (or even poem) two steps removed from reality–aren’t meant to be confused with the philosopher-persons (so to speak) who actually walk the earth. Philosopher-persons are seekers or searchers; the fictional characters are displayed as wise men.

Carey, in any case, wasn’t a Platonist but a Calvinist and a defender of the idea that animated the egalitarian civic/creaturely personalism of our Puritan (pilgrim) founders. Carey will always remain an indispensable source for anyone who wants to understand the whole truth about the American view of who we are and what we’re supposed to do.