Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Good Introduction to Political Philosophy





White, Michael J.  Political Philosophy: A Historical Introduction.  Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.


In a lengthy and readable manner, White (Arizona State University) provides a capable introduction to major political philosophers in the Western tradition.  Generally, the text follows a traditional approach by surveying seminal thinkers and texts, but the author, influenced by recent efforts to place political philosophy “within the context of a more comprehensive moral, philosophical, or religious point of view” (p. 414), provides a supplemental basis of analysis for the reader to contemplate as well.  The underlying argument of the text is most laudable, but insufficient use is made of the recent scholarship that most closely conforms to this mode of interpretation. 

As a second edition, the book includes a new chapter on Cicero, and new sections on Marsilius of Padua and John Stuart Mill.  The chapter on Cicero addresses the interconnectivity between reason and morality in Cicero’s political thought.  Additional contributions of the text are the author’s attempt to introduce, and then explicate, the “enduring issues” of political philosophy as a framework (pp. 13-17) for better understanding contemporary politics, and the thoughtful treatment of Christianity’s role in shaping the political thought of the West (chapter 6).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

New, Groundbreaking Study of Burke


cover for Patriotism and Public Spirit
 
 
Patriotism and Public Spirit: Edmund Burke and the Role of the Critic in Mid-18th Century Britain is a groundbreaking study of the great political philosopher Edmund Burke.  The book provides a scholarly advancement of existing knowledge regarding Burke and the intellectual milieu that was so important to his development as a thinker.  Chapter one offers an assessment of the early influences on Burke’s life and political thought.  The limits of various “Enlightenment” metaphors often used to describe mid-18th century European intellectual life, and potential influences upon Burke, are critiqued with great precision and insight.  Burke’s first tome, A Vindication of Natural Society, is the focus of the second chapter of the book, and the author provides a definitive interpretation of the classic text that expands and refines earlier assessments by Carl Cone and Peter Stanlis.  The influence of Burke’s native Ireland as a continuation of earlier themes is explored in a most convincing fashion in Chapter Three. The author also dissects the perennial excesses of the tendency to manipulate the “Irish Burke” for political gain. In fact, Crowe argues that Burke’s formative political and academic experiences augment his defense of religious toleration and the refinement of the uses of public rhetoric.  Burke’s contribution to the study of aesthetics is assessed most carefully and with great illumination, with Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry serving as the centerpiece of the analysis in Chapter Four.  The last chapter is devoted to an explication of Burke’s “Abridgment of the English History," and the importance of restoring order amidst the chaos of social and political life.  Patriotism and Public Spirit fills a critical lacuna in British intellectual history, Burke scholarship, and political thought. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Imaginative Conservative: Plato Yes, Radical Environmentalism No

Plato Yes, Radical Environmentalism No: by Lee Cheek Lane, Melissa.  Eco-Republic:What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living (Princeton: Princet...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Save OBU: Brewton-Parker's Fledgling Accreditation: Even if ...

Save OBU: Brewton-Parker's Fledgling Accreditation: Even if ...: A couple weeks ago, we shared reports that Bretwon-Parker College, a Georgia Baptist Convention-related school, was again denied a 10-year ...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Lane, Melissa.  Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)

Plato Yes, Radical Environmentalism No

In this provocative and accessible reflection on the potential contributions of Platonic political thought to the resolution of contemporary environmental problems, Lane (Princeton) attempts to craft “an intuitive and imaginative model inspired by the ancients” (p. 6).  As a work in political theory, the book offers new insights into Plato and contemporary debates regarding climate change as well.  The book is divided into three coherent parts, each focusing on a central aspect of her interpretation.  Part one is devoted to inertia, a critique of the limitation of our current approaches to everyday life and the environment.  Instead of a simple refutation of current attitudes, Lane argues for improvement, suggesting the West can be “saved from itself” (p. 43).  Part two addresses how an improvement in our thinking about politics and society through a revitalized imagination can help offer new approaches to resolving environmental dilemmas.  Her use and explication of a moral imagination would have benefitted greatly from the integration of the work of a greater variety of theorists.  Lane’s erudite integration of Plato’s Republic is a significant accomplishment.  Part three deals with initiative, or how we can respond to change. Lane argues that we must change, but how we respond to the change is the most important consideration.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


The Methodist as Philosopher:

Lynn Harold Hough, Irving Babbitt, and Christian Humanism

by Lee Cheek

The First World War and the Great Depression provided myriad challenges to the mission of the Methodist Church. As a nation began to doubt its role in the modern world, one of the country’s most dominant and politically-engaged religious denominations sought to respond to the chaos by reconsidering its own attachment to the historical sources of Christian order. Amidst the crisis, Lynn Harold Hough, Methodist theologian, philosopher, and educator, offered an intellectual framework, guided by hope, and devoid of the messianic tendencies of the emerging ideological movements that had begun to influence many aspects of American Christianity, including Methodism.[1]

Hough was one of the greatest Methodist theologians and preachers of the 20th century;[2]however, his contribution has not received the sustained attention of scholars. For half a century, he published at least a book a year, served as a regular writer for numerous theological journals, was a contributing editor to the Christian Century--and these were his avocational interests.[3] Hough was deeply influenced by the scholarship of his friend and philosophical mentor, Irving Babbitt. It was Babbitt's attempt to renew the notion of humanism that most interested the young pastor, who was deeply embroiled in the religious debates of the 1920s and 1930s. Hough was attracted to the balance of sympathy and selection in Babbitt's presentation of the doctrine. The purpose of this essay will be to present Hough's elucidation and utilization of Babbittian Humanism, and demonstrate how Hough's understanding contributes to some of the important questions of philosophy and religion.

Hough graduated from Scio College in 1898 and Drew Theological Seminary in 1905. He was ordained into the Methodist ministry after his graduation from Drew and served pastorates in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. Hough spent the next two decades teaching historical theology at Garrett Biblical Institute, with a one year stint as president of Northwestern University, and appointments to several prominent pastorates, including Central Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit. At this point in his life, Hough was already a powerful figure in ecclesial and theological circles. Richard Fox, for example, notes in his important study of Reinhold Niebuhr that Hough served as the model for many aspiring theologians during this period including Niebuhr and Joseph Vance.[4] Floyd Cunningham demonstrates that “Niebuhr’sLeaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, based on his Detroit years, lauded the wealth of scholarship’ undergirding Hough’s ideas and praised his colleague’s ability to unite ‘religious emotion with aspiration rather than duty.’”[5]

By the early 1920s Hough had, according to his account, "already read pretty much everything written by Irving Babbitt."[6] In 1927 Hough met Babbitt and published an article on his work in The London Quarterly Review.[7] The relationship between the two men remained cordial and regular until Babbitt's death. Louis Mercier poignantly describes the association: "They were to remain in touch until Babbitt's death, and it was Lynn Harold Hough who spoke the last words at the [Babbitt’s memorial][8] service in the Harvard Chapel."[9]

In addition to Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, Hough was also an important contributor to the New Humanism movement. Through his major philosophical works, The Meaning of Human Experience, The Christian Criticism of Life, Evangelical Humanism, Christian Humanism and the Modern World, and other works, Hough introduced a new, more dynamic theophanic element to the "New Humanism," making it a more palpable concept to students of Christian theology.   Hough's interpretation of Babbitt's concept of humanism differs from Babbitt's own view in some respects; however, like Plato and Aristotle, Hough argued for a natural harmony in the relationship between humans and their world. The greatest test of such a harmony, Hough argued, was in the souls of the individual citizens who comprise a given republic. Perhaps Hough’s important departure from Babbitt involves Hough's conviction that the "New Humanism" could actually be preached and disseminated in a fashion similar to the way one might spread the good news of the Gospels. Unlike the "religious humanism" proposed by John Dewey, Hough reconciled Babbitt’s most important insights with the enduring witness of the classical, consensual tradition of Christianity. For Hough, true humanism served as a guide for a rigorous discipline of the mind. He attempted to counter the various ideologies of the time, while presenting Babbittian humanism refreshed with a Christian view of the moral order.


[1]For an overview of rise of ideological thinking among Methodists see Robert Wilson's Biases and Blind Spots: Methodism and Foreign Policy Since World War II (Wilmore, Kentucky: Bristol Books, 1988) [He also includes chapter on World War I]; and Mark Tooley’s Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Anderson, Indiana: Bristol House, 2012).
[2]For example, in 1924 Hough was voted one of the twenty-five leading clerics in the United States by the readership of the Christian Century.
[3]Even though Hough was one of the most prominent Methodist and "New Humanist" figures of the 20th century, he has never been the subject of a book-length study. Most recent studies in these areas of inquiry neglect Hough's contribution. Thomas Langford's Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition(Nashville: Abington Press, 1983) includes mention of Hough in a footnote (n. 2, p. 288); Russell E. Richey's "Drew Theological Seminary and American Methodism" [Daniel Clendenin, Editor, Scholarship, Sacraments and Service (Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press, 1990], conveniently skips Hough's long tenure as Dean of Drew Theological Seminary (1934-1947); Thomas R. Nevin's Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), makes one reference to Hough--citing an article Hough authored about Babbitt. Stephen L. Tanner's recent Paul Elmer More (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1987) quotes Hough at least three times without ever properly crediting his achievement or stature in the "New Humanist" movement. Claes Ryn's Will, Imagination and Reason (Chicago: Regnery Books, 1986) quotes Hough once, but refers its readers to a tome by Hough. The most thorough history of the "New Humanism" movement, J. David Hoeveler, Jr.'s The New Humanism(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), contains no mention of Hough or his contribution to the movement. On the other hand, several scholars have appreciated Hough's work; the most important study is Floyd Cunningham's "The Christian Faith Personally Given: Divergent Trends in Twentieth Century American Methodism" (Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1983), and his “Lynn Harold Hough and Evangelical Humanism,” The Drew Gateway, Volume 56, Number 1 (Fall 1985), pp. 16-30. On a related note, Hough’s tremendous contribution to American homiletics is evinced in many publications. See Edgar DeWitt Jones, American Preachers To-Day (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971); Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers, ed. Wiersbe, Warren M., and Lloyd M. Perry (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), p. 309; and Sermons from Duke Chapel: Voices From “A Great Towering Church,” ed. William H. Willimon (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 9-17.
[4]Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography(New York: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 196.
[5]Cunningham, Ibid., p. 19.
[6]Lynn Harold Hough, The Christian Criticism of Life (New York: Abington-Cokesbury, 1941), p. 276.
[7]Lynn Harold Hough, "Dr. Babbitt and Vital Control," London Quarterly Review, Volume 147 (January 1927), pp. 1-15. While the title of the article would indicate a certain lack of knowledge of Babbitt's academic history, this piece is much more perceptive than a number of the early articles on Irving Babbitt.
[8]Author’s note.
[9]Louis J. A. Mercier, Humanism in the New Age (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company), p. 88.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Culture Clash?  Maybe Not!

(Reflections on the upcoming consolidation of Gainesville State College and North Georgia College and State University)


The recent excitement over the impending union of Gainesville State College and North Georgia College and State University is to be both expected and is potentially helpful.  Aaron Hale’s front page article in Sunday’s paper was a stellar attempt to interpret the differences between the two institutions; however, some of the recurring misunderstandings were repeated.  I would like to address three central issues that must be considered. 

Gainesville State and North Georgia are outstanding and vibrant institutions, and comprise two of the most viable entities that Georgia’s Board of Regents has selected to “consolidate.”  Given the fact that a consolidation is not a merger, and one of the finest public institutions in Georgia will be created as the result of the consolidation, I want to explain three aspects of Gainesville State’s contribution to the union that have been overlooked: our academic environment, our faculty, and our existing programs.

1-Open Access Does Not Mean a Lack of Academic Standards.  Gainesville State is indeed an “open access” institution, but we simply provide an environment for academic success for our students, guided by a devotion to the liberal arts, student support, and dedicated faculty attention to the individual student.  Many great institutions in America were founded on this premise, and some have maintained this emphasis.  A classic example of an “open access” liberal arts institution is the City University of New York, which provided a start for the likes of Colin Powell, Jonas Salk, and Senator Barbara Boxer.  Gainesville State strives to be just such an institution.  All available data suggests our academic programs are rigorous in every regard.  “Open access” is best understood as giving those students a chance who would not otherwise have an opportunity to enroll in college; it is not an indictment of our academic integrity.

2-We have a “world class” faculty.  The main part of any college’s or university’s success is its faculty.  In our School of Social Sciences, for example, (and this would be the case for our three other schools as well) I can affirm that we have the most proficient social sciences faculty I have ever encountered as a former vice president and professor at three other senior institutions of higher learning.  Our School’s faculty contributions to the life of the Gainesville State College and the surrounding area have few rivals.  In terms of scholarship, within the last decade School of Social Sciences faculty have published over twenty books (including at least one “academic bestseller”), scores of articles, and presented dozens of presentations at professional meetings.  School of Social Sciences faculty serve on the editorial boards of nationally prominent publications like the Georgia Historical Review, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Humanitas, Contemporary History of Russia, Digest of Middle Eastern Studies, Political Science Reviewer, University Bookman, and other scholarly journals.

3-We Are A Bachelor Degree Institution.  Gainesville State is a “state college,” and we are already offering bachelor’s degrees in early childhood care and education, early childhood education, human services delivery and administration, theatre (in an amazing collaboration with our neighbor, Brenau University), applied science, environmental spatial analysis, biology, and psychology.  Before the consolidation was announced, we were on the cusp of adding bachelor degrees in communications, English, political science, history, and criminal justice, among many others. 

Amidst the media attention given to the consolidation, and the discussions that are taking place on both campuses, the accomplishments of Gainesville State College’s faculty and students should not be overlooked.  I certainly look forward to the consolidation process and supporting the great educational entity that will be created.




H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is the Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Gainesville State College, a former vice president at Athens State University and at Brewton-Parker College, and the author of numerous books, including Calhoun and Popular Rule (University of Missouri Press, 2004).  The views represented here are personal, and do not represent any institution, et al.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Agrarianism and Cultural Renewal



 

 
           Among the contributions to I'll Take My Stand, Allen Tate's "Remarks on the Southern Religion" is usually interpreted as the most acerbic, immoderate, and unusual essay in the collection.  All too often the essay is read as an apologia for violence or an eccentric defense of tradition.  In fact, Tate--like his fellow Agrarians--was seeking to remind his readers of the religious and political society that was once the South.  More importantly, Tate's essay is a plea for a recovery of what has been lost: a humane social order. 

            Nourished by daily labors in the fields, it was the properly ordered agrarian community that produced a more stable and wholesome environment for families and workers than industrialism could offer.  According to Tate, an agrarian environment encouraged a life more conducive to religious and ethical living as well.  In regard to farming, the experience of tilling the soil and harvesting crops embodied a sense of self-sacrifice and an attachment to a shared community.  Farming was by its very nature a communal, rather than a solitary act.  The primary aesthetic and spiritual needs of humankind were best fulfilled by the structure and corporate nature of an agrarian society.   Tate's close friend and fellow Agrarian, Andrew Lytle, convincingly reaffirmed this sentiment years later: "Agriculture is a limited term.  A better one is farming.  It is inclusive.  Unlike any other occupation, farming is, or should be, a way of life."

            Genuine cultural renewal could not take place without appreciating the agrarian worldview--grounded in a connection to the soil and love for the Creator that was increasingly less palpable to Tate's generation, and at the end of 20th century even the memory of such an existence is quickly fading.

            The root of the problem for Tate was simple: The significance of New England, and more specifically the Massachusetts Bay settlement and subsequent religious and political developments in American life had crowded out the agrarian alternative from public discourse.  For the Agrarians, the "American" political, religious and social experience, as well as the resulting vision for politics, was usually attributed to Puritan New England.  The late Sydney Ahlstrom argued that the "Puritan Ethic" of legalistic moral strictures, and a doctrine of labor as serving and pleasing God, became the American ethic.  And in the hands of the Puritan divines the "ethic" became incorporated into their understanding of politics, nourishing New England religious and political thought and influencing the Founding generation by providing a way of understanding the unique nature of the American political experience.

            The consummation of the New England ethic was the development of a civil theology based upon the special status of the American regime.  America was regarded as the "New Israel," expressing similarity with the Biblical and historical narrative modes of expression.  America's situation in the pantheon of world religious and political history was understood as unequaled.  The regime was special, a providential gift offered to the world, a city on a hill, a light amidst the darkness of political despotism.  The transcendent aspects of American civil theology served a rememorative purpose, providing a basis for appreciating the generosity of the Divine while also looking to the future. 

            As Tate noted, this was only half, and the least important half of the story.  Commencing with the earliest movement of American religious and political thought an important bifurcation in the conceptualization of a humane social order can be observed and is of great importance to the transmittal of an appreciation of the good life.

            While not as explicit as one would have preferred for him to be, Tate proclaimed that alongside the development of New England, there arose a less dogmatic and more explicitly pastoral presentation--and we should associate this with the other great colonial settlement, Jamestown.  The Virginia colony, nearly simultaneous in date of origin with the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony, shared a related history and many aspects of its political development, while also exhibiting a distinctiveness.

            The Southern and agrarian tradition in America produced a very different understanding of what was really most important.  Against the tendency to endorse a theocratic and unitary form of life, this experience accommodated divergent theological and political understandings of order and sought to nurture an ecumenism grounded in the acceptance of dissent and a diffusion of political power.

Liberty was conceived in terms of its corporateness, a societas, combining the family and larger units of an interconnected citizenry with each other to form associations.  Instead of the rigorous moral codes found in New England, the Southern colonies were more dependent upon the English model of ecclesiastic and civil subsidiarity, relying on representatives nearest the situation to provide order and preside over the deliberation of disputes.  In essence, the religious and political developments within the South were founded upon a spirit of localism in theory and practice.  The movement towards "establishing" state-sponsored churches met, for example, with great success in New England, while in the South a decentralized theory of control and the habit of localism in matters of church and state insured a greater autonomy and forbearance among the associations of the faithful and governing authorities.

            As Mel Bradford posits, the Southern "spirit" looked to Eden after the Fall as a model, with "the best of the gifts of this life," and anticipated that a fruitful social and political existence was possible only when "pursued with prudence, energy, honor, and regard for a wise prescription."  The implantation of the "garden" as a metaphor for explaining how the Southern understanding differed from the New England version deserves our attention.  Contrary to the New England understanding of precision in all religious and political arrangements, the Southern and agrarian worldview identified the ancient imperfections of a civilization with the need for an enduring pattern of improvement and refinement within human nature.  A society grounded upon the rock of such a prescriptive development of religious and political thinking was less likely to be consumed by ideological deformations of their understanding; conversely, it was also more reluctant to submit to a reformation of defects in the pre-existing worldview inherited from previous generations.  The distant and overbearing sources of ecclesial and political authority were not easily accepted and were viewed with skepticism.  In the long struggle within the development of an agrarian worldview, a distinct version of the regime was articulated, incompatible with the New England presentation, while sharing its original design for the diffusion of political authority.  From the colonial period we can witness the beginning of two divergent understandings of the reality of religion and politics, prompting the historian Nathan Hatch to suggest that at some point in the development the two great regions one "could draw upon precious few common traditions in defining their Americanness."  John Randolph, cousin of Thomas Jefferson and an influential model of statesmanship for the Agrarians, could defend the extraordinary position of an inherited Southern worldview in response to a confidant's query about his attendance at a religious gathering:


I was born and baptized in the Church of England.  If I attend the Convention at Charlottesville, which I rather doubt, I shall oppose myself then and always at every attempt at encroachment on the part of the church, the clergy especially, on the rights of conscience.  I attribute, in a very great degree, my long estrangement from God to my abhorrence of prelatical pride and puritanical preciseness; to ecclesiastical tyranny....  Should I fail to attend, it will arise from a repugnance to submit the religion, or church, any more than the liberty of my country, to foreign influence.  When I speak of my country, I mean the Commonwealth of Virginia.  I was born in allegiance to George III; the bishop of London (Terrick!) was my diocesan.  My ancestors threw off the oppressive yoke of the mother country, but they never made me subject to New England in matters spiritual or temporal; neither do I mean to become so, voluntarily.[1]


Within the South Atlantic region even as eccentric (and brilliant) a representative as Randolph could be appreciated as the defender of the verities of a mode of understanding that relied upon the reclaiming of a pre-existing order while recognizing the need for imparting this understanding with particular attention to a rapidly expanding republic.

            Randolph affirmed, as Tate and the other Agrarians would concur more elaborately a century later, the vision of a moral regime focused upon the idea of subsidiarity (or localism) in political and religious concerns.  Subsidiarity as a means of dividing public authority and political power and perpetuating the republic was dependent on the virtue of the citizenry within the states.  Contrary to criticisms offered regarding the philosophical progenitors of Agrarians (especially those of an Antifederalist and Calhounian cast), virtue was of great importance to their understanding of religious and political order.  The inculcation of virtue required a sustained effort to allow each generation to hear the "voice of tradition," Patrick Henry urged.  If the witnesses expired without fulfilling the need to "inform posterity," social and political life might suffer the consequences of such a collective loss of memory and purpose.

            Tate and the Agrarians also urged a spirit of inhibition or prudence towards accepting any radical innovation too quickly that deserves comparison with the paladins of industry’s plea for immediate action to maintain the regime during every period of unrest.   The Agrarians were neither a monolithic response against the prospects for confronting the modern world, nor a remnant of irredentist elements from the War of Northern Aggression.  Instead, the Agrarians accepted the imperfections of the American society concerning the decline of a true religiosity and the dangerous growth of governmental authority while advocating many impediments to the problems resulting from what George Mason decried as "the natural lust of power so inherent in man." 

             Even though the Agrarians were an assortment of representatives with many theoretical and geographical differences, they were united by an unwillingness to accept consolidationist measures, regardless of the form, and insistent upon protecting a decentralized, group-oriented society, as defined in a variety of ways.  But the Agrarians cannot be adequately fathomed by simply noting their negative response to particular issues; on the contrary, the Agrarians were part of a clear republican understanding of the nature of the American regime and religious experience. 

            For Tate and his fellow Agrarians the overwhelming practical and theoretical inheritance was established upon an appreciation of the necessary limitations of social and political life.  Primary among the means of limitation was the need for societal and personal restraint when faced with the possibility of radical transformation.  While change and social mobility were not the most commonly acknowledged aspects of Southern society, neither were such considerations beyond the pale of possibility.  As articulate representatives of agrarian republicanism during the  20th century, Tate could present an Aristotelian mean as the basis for installing an element of restraint in the operation of government.  If government could not be restricted and faith encouraged, the regime would necessarily lose a sense of liberty. 

Living within a society aware of its constraints, Tate also appreciated the limits of human experience, acknowledging the shortcomings of his own perspectives and holding utopian schemes in disdain.  The South had lost its heroic struggle due in part to a separation of its religion from its politics.  In fact, Tate’s essay rightly noted that tradition alone, devoid of the impact of religion, tends to be a tradition of violence rather than of spiritual empowerment.  And in terms of the conundrum of political and spiritual confusion, Tate’s own life bears witness to his inability to overcome just such a struggle.

Today, the centrality of the Agrarian's devotion to the preservation of an inherited worldview and way of life and its explication for a new generation of Americans must serve as the hallmarks of their thought, and as a remarkable testimony for the rising generation.  At a time when efforts to “create” or force a false and destructive sense of community upon us are widespread, it is time to revisit the Agrarian defense of an older, organic social order.  And to appreciate the Agrarian fatum, we must remember their love of the Creator and his creation, amidst our current confusion.



[1] "September 25, 1818," in Collected Letters of John Randolph to Dr. John Brockenbrough, 1812-1833, ed. Kenneth Shorey (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988), p. 21.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

W. H. Mallock Revisited


To challenge the prevailing social and political orthodoxies of one’s time and place often encourages recrimination and eventual neglect. Such has been the fate of William Hurrell Mallock (1849-1923), a seminal thinker of the late Victorian period and a figure who is deserving of greater popular and scholarly attention. Mallock’s increasing concern for the diminishing influence of personal restraint and ethical discrimination was at odds with Western society’s ennobling of plebiscitary democracy and state control of the means of production. For Mallock, a steady concentration of political and economic power in national governments, increasing social and regional hostilities resulting from the quest for control, and the debasement of democratic rule, were ominous signs of the future that awaited the West.

Mallock: His Life and Times

Born into a privileged family at Cheriton Bishop in Devonshire, Mallock was the oldest child of the Reverend William and Margaret Mallock. Both sides of Mallock’s family possessed personages of great influence and intellect, and most of his immediate family were members of the agrarian gentry who were Tories in politics and ultra-High Anglicans as churchmen. In his Memoirs of Life and Literature, written in 1920, Mallock gives the only account of his upbringing, contained within a larger study of the social and political world he had inherited.[1] In almost every regard, Mallock accepted and affirmed the aristocratic view of social and political life, and this influence would permeate all of his writings.

Mallock’s education began at home, under the private tutelage of the Reverend W. B. Philpot, a student of Matthew Arnold and a close friend of Tennyson. While under Philpot’s pedagogical care, Mallock began to question his teacher’s bent towards radicalism and innovation, themes the young student would continue to critique for the remainder of his life. In 1869, following in his father’s footsteps, he entered Balliol College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself as a writer of some ability. From most accounts, he was not an accomplished student, preferring to write verse and occasionally meet with prominent literary figures, including Swinburne and Browning. Indeed, his writing was his salvation, and his diligent work bore fruit: in 1871, at Oxford, he won the Newdigate Prize for a poem he composed on the Isthmus of Suez.

During this period, Mallock began to create a series of outlines that would eventually become his most famous work, The New Republic, which, upon publication in 1877, brought great acclaim to the young writer.[2] A satirical novel, The New Republic was Mallock’s first attempt to expunge the “disease” of liberalism and religious skepticism from civil discourse.[3] The publication of The New Republic provided Mallock with a literary reputation as a critic, and this work would remain his most popular novel, although many more novels would follow. The emphases of The New Republic, especially the problem of faith and the nature of truth, would form the first part of Mallock’s literary corpus. He would spend the second part of his career as a man of letters addressing the prevailing social and political issues of his age, and The Limits of Pure Democracy serves as his last major—and most important—political critique.[4]

Mallock continued to write for various publications, composing a wide variety of works, including poetry, novels, theological works, and political treatises. He was a prolific author who produced over forty books and as many articles during his long career. As a result of his commentaries and the ardent nature of his own beliefs, Mallock also had many detractors, including George Bernard Shaw, J. A. Hobson, and T. H. Huxley. As he advanced in years, the appeal of Roman Catholicism for Mallock became profound, but he never became a convert. He died on April 2, 1923, in Wincanton, Somerset.

Mallock on Human Nature and the Modern Predicament

Over time, Mallock became apprehensive about what he perceived to be the decadence of modernity. The very nature of social and political life was being transformed by the perversion of democratic and socialist thought. Mallock feared the tradition that he had inherited was being replaced by a radically different view of human nature that included new, malleable institutional entailments as well. In describing the human predicament in this fashion, Mallock affirmed the Hebraic-Christian conception of human nature, viewing humanity as divided between the higher and lower ethical possibilities, and in need of personal and societal restraint as protection against the impulse of the moment. Mallock's theory of human nature also rejected social contractarian typologies devoted to promoting humankind's inert strength and virtue or ability to survive amidst isolation. Mallock contended that humankind's primary obligations lie in his community and an aristocratic ordering of society. Self-discipline and love of neighbor begin with the individual, and spread to the community, and then to society as a whole. In other words, human nature serves to define the limitations of society and politics for Mallock on one hand, while on the other it presupposes and defends the necessity of a properly constituted community for securing the moral and ethical results concomitant to society's perpetuation.

Mallock’s view of society and politics affirmed humanity's situation between the earthly and the transcendent. The implicit role of the transcendent undergirds all of his writing, although his writings do not attempt to affirm a particular Christian worldview. If the fundamental religious tenets of Christianity were accepted, namely, immortality and the necessary vitality of belief, human freedom could be nourished and defended.[5]

Continuing to approach the fundamental questions of the human condition, Mallock undertook a comprehensive and demanding process of examination. Against the prevailing attitudes of most defenders of tradition during this period, Mallock refused to rely upon tradition alone; the practicality of everyday life for Mallock often coincided with the need for contemplation and reflection. Mallock assumed an empirical approach to politics, amassing data of various types, and basing his critiques upon the evidence collected. Amidst a long life, Mallock acknowledged the need for a serious study of the great principles of politics and the moral life. Mallock was a lifelong defender of tradition, claiming that he “unconsciously assumed in effect, if not in so many words, that any revolt or protest against the established order was indeed an impertinence, but was otherwise of not great importance.”[6]

Mallock as Critic
Mallock was a defender of aristocratic political, social, and economic theory and practice. Mallock endorsed a properly-constituted notion of popular rule, but the excesses of modern democratic thought were of great concern to him. The limitations of vague language pervaded most discussions about politics and economics, and Mallock feared such a lack of precision would undermine the political and economic order.[7] Without considering the diversity within the community itself, most theories of democracy assessed overall electoral outcome as the only indicator of preference, Mallock argued. Simple majorities were based upon electoral whims--Whitman’s “divine average”--a radical majoritarian understanding of participation that eschews all considerations besides the act of voting itself.[8] Such a concept of popular government requires a unitary vision of politics and the state, and Mallock believed J. J. Rousseau and Abraham Lincoln—especially—Lincoln’s “barren platitudes” found in his public addresses—were the most dangerous examples of such thinking.[9] Mass or “pure” democracy “reduces the units of influence [people] to their lowest common denomination.”[10] In addition, Mallock rejected the argument made by advocates of pure or plebiscitarian democracy, that the apparatus of voting can resolve all conflict, even profound crises where no consensus of opinion exists. Mallock believed the “mechanical” limits of pure democracy were always present, and that simplification of voting procedures or enlarging the franchise did not lead to salutary ends. To truly understand the stronger interests or combinations of interests, and to assume this to be the sense of the community, the aristocratic element within the political order must be integrated with the regime.[11] Resulting from its simplicity and facility of construction, pure democracy possessed a troubling propensity for reporting cumulative electoral outcomes without regard for the natural divisions of authority.

The leveling influence of pure democracy in politics and industry presumes that humankind can participate in governing and decision-making en masse, at every available opportunity, and with the necessary leverage to undertake any possible action. Mallock's fundamental criticism of such an understanding of democracy suggests that attaining a true majority under any circumstances is illusory at best, a “phantom objective,” and utopian at worst.[12] The simple majority can only function effectively in a political world devoid of geographical and economic divisions and without competing claims upon authority. In fact, Mallock argued that this pure democracy could not sustain authentic popular rule, and was incompatible with a comprehensive appreciation of the concept. Secondly, if popular rule is predicated upon providing the citizenry with an expedient option to initiate whatever they desire, then popular rule itself must no longer be claimed as the primary achievement of modern political life. Individual and communal assertion and preference, after all, are often prominently associated with other political systems, especially modern authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that discourage true popular rule in any concrete form while professing to represent the actual sentiments of an oftentimes amorphous populace. As the twenty-first century commences, Mallock's insights provide a guide for understanding and responding to the crisis of a postmodern internationalism in politics and economics that promotes a vulgarized model of popular rule and corporate decision-making that merely consists of the collection of individual wills and sentiments without regard to the substantial and historical limitations of humankind.

Mallock further argued that the electoral and participatory attributes of genuine popular rule suffer as the result of pure democracy's tendency to identify the majority as whomever votes in a particular election while disregarding the range of responses necessary to adequately canvass the citizenry. Moreover, the leveling theories of political socialism associated with Karl Marx, the Webbs, and George Bernard Shaw, only denigrated the genius of enduring, aristocratic influence on the body politic, weakening the infrastructure in terms of its ability to govern. [13] Finally, Mallock noted, if the spirit of restraint that is so essential to the English constitutional and political tradition suffers a devaluation, the future prospects for the regime are diminished.

Restraint--societal and personal--encourages a tenor of resiliency within the political and economic order by imposing some limitations upon a temporally elected majority's ability to assert sovereign authority. Imbued with societal and personal restraint, this type of government and political economy also guards against the impulse of the moment controlling its decision-making, while developing political and economic institutions that mirror those qualities premised upon restraint. It is precisely the inculcation of these habits into social, political, and economic structures that exemplified Mallock’s worldview.

Enduring Lessons

In his many works, especially the Limits of Pure Democracy, Mallock successfully developed a science of conservatism based upon an affirmation of personal restraint, aristocratic rule, and market economics.[14] He attracted a wide array of critics and supporters from diverse perspectives. The epigones of his detractors remain consistent in their criticisms.[15] The defenders of Mallock’s work have also recently experienced a resurgence of scholarly activity, which proves the continuing relevance of his perceptive insights for contemporary situations.[16]

For Mallock, pure democracy was a practical and theoretical impossibility. To resolve the dilemmas facing the West, he urged systematic research and the rejection of simplistic responses, such as the “crude puerilities” proposed by Marx and others.[17] Published in the assumed heyday of plebiscitarian democracy in 1918, at the end of World War I, combined with Britain’s approval of the Representation Act that enfranchised women, it is possible to dismiss the profound insights offered by Mallock in The Limits of Pure Democracy. But to neglect Mallock’s vital rearticulation of popular rule, and his stress on the need for ethical-political restraint in all its modes, is to also diminish the prospect of recovering a humane social order in an age of increased social fragmentation. To the end, Mallock remained hopeful for a regeneration of the spirit and character of authentic democratic life.







[1] A portion of this essay appeared originally in the Salisbury Review, Volume 25, Number 2 (Winter 2007), and is included in this essay with permission. W. H. Mallock, Memoirs of Life and Literature (New York and London: Harper and eBrothers, 1920). For studies of Mallock’s early life, see Douglas P. Brown’s “The Formation of the Thought of a Young English Conservative: W. H. Mallock and the Contest for Cultural and Socio-Economic Authority, 1849-1884 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Missouri, 2004); Russell R. Gartner, “William Hurrell Mallock: An Intellectual Biography” (Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1979); Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1995); William O. Reichert, “The Conservative Mind of William Hurrell Mallock” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1956); and J. N. Peters, “William Hurrell Mallock,” in H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 36 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 337-338.

[2] W. H. Mallock, The New Republic: Culture, Faith, and Philosophy in a English Country House, intro. John Lucas (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1975). [3] Memoirs, Ibid., p. 89.

[4] Mallock’s other seminal work of political analysis is his A Critical Examination of Socialism (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1907); reprint, Transaction Books, 1989).


[5] See Gartner, Ibid., pp. 70-71.


[6] Memoirs, Ibid., 251-251.
[7] W. H. Mallock, The Limits of Pure Democracy (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2007), p. 1 [hereafter cited as Limits].


[8] Limits, Ibid., pp. 10-11.


[9] Limits, Ibid., p. 7.


[10] Limits, Ibid., p. 10.


[11] Limits, Ibid., p. 59.


[12] Limits, Ibid., p. 72.


[13] Limits, Ibid, p. 108.


[14] Limits, Ibid., p. 286-287.

[15] For a thoughtful example of the recent reawakening of interest in the debates between Mallock and those he criticized, with special attention to Henry George, see Roy Douglas, “Mallock and the ‘Most Elaborate Answer,’” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Volume 62, Number 5 (November 2003), pp. 117-136. Mallock was also interpreted on occasion as complementing social and political causes that may not have been in accord with his own views. The efforts of Alan Ian Percy, the eighth Duke of Northumberland, in republishing an abridged version of The Limits of Democracy after Mallock’s death (Democracy [Chapman and Hall, 1924]), should be viewed in this light.


[16] See Brown, Ibid., and J. N. Peters, “Anti-Socialism in British Politics, 1900-1922 (D.Phil. dissertation, University of Oxford, 2002). In terms of Mallock’s more sustained criticism of plebiscitarian democracy, see Claes G. Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life: A Philosophy of Politics and Community, Second Edition, Expanded (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990); Ryn, The New Jacobinism: Can Democracy Survive? (Washington, D.C.: National Humanities Institute, 1991); Ryn, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003); and H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Calhoun and Popular Rule (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2001 and 2004).


[17] Limits, Ibid., p. 179.