Postmodern Conservative

Ancient Nobility in Modern America

Sorry to have been away for a week. I have excuses, but life’s too short or whatever.

Many readers (four) have asked that I post my whole response to Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop on Tocqueville’s Machiavellianism. And I would like to do that. But much of it was put together on the plane ride up to Boston, and I have to turn the scribbling into presentable text, which I will soon.

Meanwhile, if you want to hear me speak tomorrow, come to Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., where the great Tom Pope teaches. You can Google the details. The time is 5:30 p.m. I will talk on something like Tocqueville and Solzhenitsyn on the authentically postmodern understanding of freedom – that is, the one that subordinates technological progress to the one, true progress that occurs in the direction of wisdom and virtue over each particular human life.

And a week from today at 4:30 p.m., I will speak at Villanova on Tocqueville and individualism today.

I can share one paragraph from my response in Boston. Harvey and Delba claim that Tocqueville want to displace the Machiavellian-individualistic-Cartesian understanding of democracy with one rooted in a whole composed of democracy, Christianity, and ancient nobility. I have some reservations about the way they fleshed out that Trinity, but it’s pretty much right.  Here’s what I said about ancient nobility to supplement Tocqueville:

The question about how to talk up “ancient nobility” in America seems to have largely eluded Tocqueville, but maybe that’s because he couldn’t fully appreciate the aristocratic resource that is our South. Today, it’s easy to see how the nobility of the honorable and violent of the South — the place from which our country continues to draw a hugely disproportionate number of its warriors — has been detached from most of the monstrous injustice of the antebellum southern racist aristocracy. If you want to see “ancient nobility” democratized in America, watch Friday Night Lights or American Sniper or even read President Obama’s best speech ever about the proudly fearless men of Morehouse. In the South, we see ancient Stoicism reconciled with modern or Evangelical Christianity, and we see that our best citizens are otherworldly believers who manage to be rather seamlessly both magnanimous and charitable.

I don’t think this paragraph resonated all that well in residually Puritanical New England. But I’ve said before and I’ll say again that Puritanical egalitarianism also plays an indispensable role in understanding the contribution of Christianity to America. Just think about the education, after Morehouse, of that singular institution’s greatest graduate.

Harvey was criticized in Boston for not acknowledging that Tocqueville’s prediction that democracies wouldn’t have what it takes to have long and bloody civil wars was contradicted by American experience. My tentative thought was that our particular civil war wasn’t primarily a middle-class affair. The ferocious tenacity of warriors on both sides can’t be understood without considerable attention to the egalitarian idealism of the Puritans and the obstinate (or proudly unreasonable) honor of Southern aristocrats.

I don’t think I made that point in exactly the right way, because some thought that I was repeating the charge of neo-Confederates that Lincoln was basically a Puritanical fanatic. That’s not true! But the sober and infinitely moving dedication to the proposition affirmed in the Gettysburg Address does owe something to the Puritans, in my opinion. Many of the leading Southerners weren’t fanatics either, beginning with Alexander Stephens and Robert E. Lee, who thought the choice of secession (and so war) was more than a bit ill advised.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter 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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