We are “born as crooked creatures prone to waywardness and sin,” Yuval Levin writes in his new book, A Time to Build, originally delivered as the Charles E. Test Lectures at Princeton. As a result we continuously “require moral and social formation” to refine and develop our defective characters. What we have largely forgotten, Levin argues, is that institutions play a part in these processes of soul formation: They “structure our perceptions and interactions, and as a result they structure us. They form our habits, our expectations, and ultimately our character.”
But our institutions are breaking down. In an age that values the “unformed” self, Levin writes, we no longer try very hard to uphold the formative traditions of the institutions in which we find ourselves. Instead of giving our hearts to our little platoons, we affect a “cynical distance” from them and play the disgruntled outsider. We think of our institutions less as molds that shape our character than as platforms that enable us to market our “personal brands” through attention-getting stunts and playacting on social media.
Thus the presidency and Congress, Levin writes, become “stages for political performance art” by strutting politicians, the “university becomes a venue for vain virtue signaling” by disaffected scholars with a yen for street theater, and journalism becomes “indistinguishable from activism” as scribes seek cable-TV notoriety by staking out the most outré positions in the culture wars. Rather than commit ourselves to our institutions, we pack up and move on whenever we feel that a particular outfit isn’t “working for me,” as the duchess of Sussex is alleged to have said of the British monarchy before she and Prince Harry lit out for the fresher territory of the @sussexroyal brand.
None of these forms of self-indulgence is entirely new. But Levin argues that where once institutional mores restrained the more destructive forms of aggrandizement, today’s institutions have lost their corrective, soul-forming power: They no longer give us “the tools of judgment and character and habit to use our freedom responsibly and effectively.” He attributes this institutional decay to a “decline in the expectation” that our institutions should be formative. If we no longer believe that there are, in fact, objectively better and worse ways of being formed, we can only resent whatever character-forming practices vestigially linger in our institutions.
Liberal education is one casualty of this resistance to the institutional molding of character in accordance with an ideal. From the seminaries of Athens to the grammar school that helped form the mind of Shakespeare, teachers agreed that nothing was more likely to awaken and shape a young brain than a wallow in what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” But where untaught formlessness is the ideal, the formative character of such an enterprise is suspect, a threat to the authentic, untutored self. We’re all noble savages now.
Levin traces the same antipathy to soul formation in the professions. Before 1850, Henry Adams said, lawyers, physicians, professors, and merchants “were classes, and acted not as individuals, but as though they were clergymen and each profession were a church.” By contrast, today’s professional meritocrats, Levin writes, are “radically individualistic and dismally technocratic,” with little concern for the “distinctive integrities” of the institutions they tenuously inhabit.
Yet amid the general disintegration some institutions have retained their formative character. In the Vietnam era the code of the officer corps, “Duty — Honor — Country,” was in danger of being lost. “The only place I learned about these things,” a young captain said, “was from a copy of the Officer’s Guide that I happened to buy one day in the bookstore.” But the military refashioned itself and today maintains a high degree of institutional esprit de corps.
Even so the judiciary, which, Levin observes, has “done a better job than many other governing institutions in appealing to an ideal of integrity that is fundamentally institutional in character and also rooted in something of a professional ethos.” This institutional pride is clearly present in Chief Justice Roberts, whose heart is pledged to the code of the judge bound in honor, in his words, to pronounce judgment “without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch.”
But if Levin is right, these institutions are the exception. Americans, he observes, have long been skeptical of institutional allegiance. Our culture, he writes, has “its roots in a dissenting Protestantism that sought a direct connection to the divine and rejected as inauthentic or illegitimate most forms of institutional mediation.” A preoccupation with self-realization, he says, makes us suspicious of enterprises that seek to cast us in a particular mold. Yet it may be that radical Protestantism’s prosaic descendant, Yankee utilitarianism, has done quite as much as Calvinism itself to frustrate the ability of our institutions to command the heart.
At the bottom of every really vital institution there is always a whiff of poetry or mysticism. Man without mysticism may be, as Whittaker Chambers said, a monster, but institutions that lack it are soulless. Why does the judge don his robe, the priest his surplice, the scholar his gown, the barrister his wig, the queen her crown? It is all a piece of (perhaps not very impressive) magic, yet it has its effect. The art of the civilizing myth, the pleasing illusion, which once did something to hallow the institution, has given way to a dress-down cult of the merely functional, a culture of drabness. Ernest Renan said of his hometown of Tréguier in Brittany that it was “enveloped in an atmosphere of mythology as dense as Benares.” Christ Church, Oxford, was saturated, John Ruskin remembered, in a mysticism made palpable in the living and musical forms of its ritual and ceremony. Smoke and mirrors perhaps, yet Ruskin had no doubt that it animated the young toffs for “the highest duties owed to their country.” But we Americans, Wallace Stevens says, “never lived in a time / When mythology was possible.”
The failure of myth and mysticism in the modern institution is complemented by an obliteration of institutional memory. The traditional institution has its pedigree and its ancestral portraits, a poetry that brings to life the different phases of its growth, so that the past always is obtruding on the present, and the present is continuously throwing an unsuspected light on the past. But the typical organization today exists in the shallow present of Henry James’s Mrs. Worthingham, who “was ‘up’ to everything, aware of everything — if one counted from a short enough time back (from week before last, say, and as if quantities of history had burst upon the world within the fortnight).”
Levin is alive to the “lack of place, connection, and belonging” in American life and institutions, but his solutions seem a bit tepid and hortatory. He envisions lawyers developing a “professional code” that will hold them “to a standard that has more to do with integrity than with raw intellect.” But in fact the bar is always coming up with these kinds of reformatory codes. They are the work of committees and end in regulations that perpetuate all the vicious mediocrity Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, foresaw in efforts to create an English Academy that would codify the integrity of English letters.
Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” might be a better way forward. If the archaic techniques of the separatist institutions he proposes really can promote a richer and more satisfying common life — if they really are able to make of places and institutions what Florence was for Dante, a “fair sheepfold,” the center of a world — they will catch on; the rest of us will try to emulate them. On the other hand, we might learn something from the pastoral instincts of the now-discredited WASPs, who, Levin observes, “were raised and educated in ways intended to prepare them for responsibility and authority,” to live up to a code of public service, humility, and institutional devotion. After the Civil War, when WASPs found themselves overshadowed by Gilded Age plutocrats, they reinvented themselves as a service class by means of the boarding school: an institutional combination of muscular rigor (the football field), humane education (the classics), and poetical mysticism (the chapel) that bit deep into the souls of impressionable youths. Much in this pastoral approach will now seem as archaic as Arnold’s “Rugby Chapel,” but it may be that some of the techniques the WASPs used to foster a culture of civic conscience and institutional loyalty can be grafted onto our own soul-corroding schools.
Levin’s A Time to Build is a brilliant piece of work: lucid, dispassionate, composed in a calm and philosophic tone that rises above the rancor of the moment; its focus on institutional decline promises to change the terms of many sterile debates. But the institutional gangrene to which Levin draws attention seems to me to go beyond what the unguents in our current chrismatories can heal. To reform souls as crooked as ours, one wants a richer brew. One wants myths: But when one calls them “myths,” one implicitly concedes they aren’t true. A difficulty no amount of ingenuity can solve.
This article appears as “Twilight of the Institutions” in the February 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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