Postmodern Conservative

Against Rage and Despair

So I just finished reading the most recent contributions to Postmodern Conservative. The quality is high, and the depth and breadth of insight is real. And I wish I could say something to show I’m anywhere near their pay grade when it comes to classical or contemporary events.

I agree with Pete that the Republicans in Congress and the president should both avoid rage and despair. That’s good advice in almost every situation. It is, of course, typically Tocquevillian advice. 

To tell the truth, however, when I read the words “rage” and “despair,” I mainly remembered some stuff the theologian Stanley Hauerwas said at dinner when he was at Berry College last week. He said some relatively discouraging things about the future of both the (orthodox and Christian) church and liberal education. Someone asked Stanley: Do you despair? His Christian response: Despair is a sin, a vice. And, someone could add, to be hopeless is to blind to the most fundamental truth.

But without bringing who God is and what God does into the picture, the reasonable short-term institutional hope is that both the church and liberal education will become, as Stanley said, “leaner and meaner.” The truth, a truth that might start becoming more clear again, is that we can’t live well without both of them.

The truth is, as I say too often, that, just beneath the surface of our happy-talk pragmatism, it’s easy to hear, as Solzhenitsyn did, the howl of existentialism. And that our howling is a kind of rage that causes us not to be able succumb gently to the fatalism of despair, even in the Epicurean form of “serenity now.” Maybe the big, most unacknowledged threat to liberal education is its deformation through oscillation between the extremes of rage (over-the-top anger) and despair (or theoretical cynicism untouched by joy).

The technical response is let’s get our minds on what we can do, even if we can’t touch — much less change — anything fundamental. The busy, productive person has no time for rage or despair, and even in his free time he sensibly diverts himself from those counterproductive moods. With screens everywhere, nobody any longer ever has to fear being alone with himself again. As Tyler Cowen happily predicts, the future, for hyper-productive men and women, will mostly be about losing ourselves in challenging games (such as chess or fleshing out theories about everything). For marginally productive people, they’ll be less-challenging games and porn. If the screens were really enough, however, it would not be the case that so many of our mega-technophiles believe they can effectively “rage against the machine” (that is, their hopelessly ephemeral bodies) by working on behalf of the foolish hope of  the (transhumanist) coming of the Singularity. 

As Peter Thiel points out, it’s the existentialist insight about the irreducibility of one’s own singularity — one’s conscious refusal to be nothing, or a “zero” — that causes one to techno-rage against the nature that’s all about random and inevitable personal extinction and to reject hopeless fatalism when it comes to one’s own biological demise.

Someone asked Stanley whether, given the huge technical challenges facing higher education today, the joyful sharing of the truth about who we are as more than technical beings should be given over completely to the church. His response was that the job belongs both to our colleges and to our churches. Surely, after all, their future is somewhat interdependent. And it couldn’t really be the case that higher educators have nothing to say to students about who they are and what they’re supposed to do, that it can deny or abstract from the insistently personal “truth claims” of philosophy, theology, poetry, and so forth. 

In any case, here is Stanley’s idea for the foundation of liberal education: All freshmen should read Plato’s Republic, and then all seniors should read it again. I said that was obviously the correct way to go, but the problem is convincing college presidents (with Berry’s president sitting right next to our guest). Our president responded, cleverly and with sincerity, that he would have no objection to that, but the problem is that the faculty would never recommend it. He didn’t say the buck stops with him.

So the problems might be that too few (among both the administrators and the faculty) are thinking “holistically” — or not technically — about the formation of relational persons. Still, the theory of liberal education is that the college has, in some fundamental sense, that very mission. And that mission is only accidentally connected to the acquisition of seemingly (but far from really) precise competencies such as critical thinking and analytical reasoning, which are allegedly so prized in the competitive marketplace. That is not the only mission of higher education, of course, but surely it is the one that all students should share in common. Not everyone is going to be a philosopher or physicist or doctor or teacher or lawyer or journalist or accountant or preacher or president, but all of us still share certain privileges and responsibilities given to each member of our singular species.

On the other hand, if you want a handbook on the skill or competency of “collaborative learning,” literally nothing ever written beats one of Plato’s dialogues. Apart from its relevance to “team-building” in the marketplace, there might be no more intrinsically valuable skill for “lifelong learning” than being able to have a leisurely conversation that goes beyond networking and in the direction of enduring and endlessly enjoyable friendship based on the shared discovery of common goods. It goes without saying that any such real conversation is risky business that takes each participant way out of his or her “comfort zone.” One danger is that it can even ruin very capable young people for being satisfied with being productive members of a free society. Another is that it’s challenged, especially early on, by the possibility of devolving violently into inarticulate rage or passively into self-indulgent fatalism.    

Stanley actually said he was an Aristotelian. And that the most important ethical teaching of Aristotle is about friendship. Friendship is even higher than justice. For Christians, our relationship to God is much more friendly than judgmental, although, like any true friend, he is both. Aristotle said that God or the gods are too distant from us to be our friends, but that’s not what the Christians believe.

Rage and despair, studies show, are often characteristics of people who are too wounded to trust their friends as much as they should. It’s possible to have friendships rooted in shared rage or shared despair (the friendships many Republicans and Democrats seem to have with like-minded members of their own party), but they’re obviously inferior to those rooted in shared loves.

 In order to avoid a specifically Christian conclusion, let’s not forget that Aristotle’s view of friendship (a view that includes the friendship between husband and wife, contrary to some famous classical prejudices) has nothing to do with belief in some personal god.  He, in some large measure, turns our eyes away from “the city” and the gods and toward the shared pleasures and responsibilities of at least relatively intimate personal life. Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s apparent effort to reduce friendship to merely civic friendship is his way of showing us that liberal education is about a lot more than civic literacy and civic deliberation, although it’s always about civilization. A society fit for real people leaves a lot of “safe space” for friendship, which means it educates people to be virtuous enough to be able to see and act upon the good in themselves and others.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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