The Revival of Public Philosophy

(Notes on George F. Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft)

I am of (at least) two minds about George F. Will. He writes with grace. As a former professor of political philosophy, his perceptions and opinions are grounded in an informed world view. He has a keen eye for fraud. Will is the finest of the columnist, and the closest thing now going to the detached yet animated public philosopher of the Orwellian and Lippmanesque variety. But George Will also irritates. There are times in his column, but particularly on television, when he seems the quintessence not of the civility he (like any good conservative) champions, but of a priggish and supercilious intolerance and chauvinism. I tire of his random quotesmanship (more on this later) which occasionally reaches the level of self-parody. And there are moments when I reel at so intelligent a man’s capacity for simplification and reductionism. He tells us again and again in Statecraft as Soulcraft that Conservatism embraces complexity while liberalism speaks in clichés, but George Will seems to me to have a love for the rhyming truism that rivals a Sunday School instructor’s or the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale’s.

If all this seems to accentuate the negative, let me also say that I read Will, take him seriously and that I am not bothered by Will’s friendship with President Reagan. It is obvious that the friendship has not affected the professional judgment of either man. President Reagan has, so far as I can tell, taken none of Mr. Will’s ideas, either philosophical or practical, to heart. He did hire Mrs. Will for a job in the Department of Health and Human Services for which she is apparently highly qualified, and in which she will be able to help some people eminently worthy of help. Certainly no one familiar with the trends in Reagan Administration appointments could complain about that. For his part, Mr. Will has not been shy about criticizing the President, and his criticisms of Reaganism, in part because they are from a friendly source but mostly because they go to the heart of the question (the nature of government and of the idea of the welfare state), have been the most devastating ones made.

One might, however, speculate, relative to the supposed scandal of Mr. Will’s alleged sin of coaching the President for the 1980 debates, as to what extent his art (or what might have been his art) has suffered from success. George Will commits no wrong in being a Washington insider. And it is blatantly hypocritical for his fellow Washingtonian luncheoneers to attack him for what is his and their own stock in trade. But I wonder if one of these journalists might not grow in human awareness and professional acumen if he forsook Washington and the dining room at the Madison Hotel for say, Bemidji, Minnesota. It is hard to imagine Ben Bradley there. Or Meg Greenfield worrying in Columbus, Ohio. Or Hugh Sidey of Time Magazine equivocating in Muncie. I like to think that if I were plucked from the Academy and groomed for stardom by Mr. Buckley, as George Will was, that I would write my columns in Pittsburgh, emulating the late Richard Rovere who chose not to be an insider and took the slow train to Washington from New York once a month to make some calls, checking mostly facts and names. For clearly no person connected with politics in Washington, not Jody Powell or Ralph Nader, can be anything but an insider. It is the imperial city and even court jesters and knights in ill favor are the King’s men. This too has affected George Will, not to mention the quality of the national conversation he would like to see taken up again. Of the well-known national columnists only Mike Royko and Lewis Lapham write from the perspective of outsiders and can truly be said to be their own men. To be an insider as a journalist is perhaps as ill-considered as to be an outsider politician.

The conversation Will wishes to refresh is the same one Walter Lippmann revived with partial success when he wrote his book, The Public Philosophy (1955). Like Will, Lippmann had forsaken a potentially brilliant academic career for direct political work, and then gravitated toward journalism. Like Will, Lippmann wanted to make a sustained theoretical statement in a “real book,” not just a collection of essays and columns. Like Will, Lippmann produced a book that surprised and dismayed friends and admirers, and which was greeted with mixed reactions by reviewers and political theorists. As with Lippmann, George Will has produced a book which asks all the right questions for the next election and the next generation, and could begin a national dialogue of fundamental importance, but (and this is even more true of Will than it was of Lippmann) a book that is too slight, and too facile to be worthy of such a dialogue, and those who might be willing to engage themselves in it.

Will criticizes the Liberal notion of America and American pluralism as a plethora of markets and interests. He objects to Jeffersonian individualism, Friedmanesque economics, and Madisonian arrangements and assumptions. Will believes not only that Brothers Buckley and Kilpatrick are wrong about what true conservatism is, but that the founders had an inadequate vision about what it takes to make a Republic. What these men, conservative men if not true conservatives, failed to understand according to Will is that government is not properly concerned merely with the regulation and arbitration of conflict but with the creation and nourishment of virtue. The Republic will not survive a selfish citizenry. To endure we must learn the lesson of the ancients, that politics is a branch of ethics; the lesson of Burke, that a Republic depends upon virtuous citizens as well as just laws; the lesson of Franklin Roosevelt (though Will does not mention him), that the state is the instrument of society in the pursuit of social justice; and the lesson of Mr. Will that statecraft is soulcraft. Now if this continuum seems unequally distributed — if there appears a quantum leap or two — then you have begun to grasp the frustrating mixture of the wise and inane, the sensible and simplistic, in Statecraft as Soulcraft.

Mr. Will starts out reasonably enough on the second page of his treatise (numbered page 16 in a book which runs to page 165) with a quote from political scientist Walter Bums: “To get good government means to get consent to good governors, and this is the political problem.” Then comes a page of reflection about how there must be a government class, another quotation, this time from Daniel Patrick Moynihan relating that cabinet members never discuss how well the Constitution is working, and then (on page 17): “Actually, there is only one first question of government, and it is “How should we live’ . . . “Possibly,” the reader is saying to himself when Mr. Will follows with “Or (this is the same question) ‘What kind of people do you want our citizens to be.’ “Well, these are not the same questions at all, and how George Will could think so I cannot fathom. “How shall we live?” or “What kind of society do you want?” may well be said to be the Aristotelian question. However, neither Aristotle nor Burke nor John Adams thought it could be wholly answered by government, for though politics in its broadest conception may be the discipline of a certain form of questioning “What sort of people are we? How shall we live? ” that life, the vita activa, is not and has never been held to be synonymous with the questions of administration and rule. Political Science 101, a course George Will certainly taught once, explores this basic point. State, culture, and society are not, in a Democratic Republic, to be considered as one. Constitutional liberty is, in fact, based upon the preservation of this distinction, of all distinctions, perhaps the most central in Democratic thought, between studium and imperium. But George Will — and this is my central complaint against a man who has sought and been given Lippmann’s place and from whom we have a right to expect a good deal — seems to care little for distinctions. Here are some others that are blurred or obliterated in Statecraft as Soulcraft: the distinction between action and thought, that between mind and soul, and that between public and private.

There are confusions, pontifical announcements, and sniffling absurdities. Examples: “The common thread running through the careers of this century’s worst history makers is the conviction that history-making is everything because history makes everything. Nature makes no difference, because man is only what happens to him.” Say what? Or, on the same page(149), “Hitler and other villains — Mussolini and Mao, Khomeini and Nasser and Castro and others — have been wind makers, blowing the masses like dust, giving shape to societies that have become, for one reason or another, invertebrate.” What basis for comparison there is between Mao and Castro, or Khomeini and Nasser, or Mussolini and others, I am not sure, but perhaps I need to know more about the invertebrate wind and dust theory of mass leadership. Or “Political philosophy is a political act. But there are many levels to the game of politics . . .” (page 157). It is not, yes I suppose so. And finally, one of the most silly statements made: “The idea of legitimacy should not be concerned merely with the notion of legitimate power in the consent of the governed. The basic political right is to good government, not self government” (page 160). With friends like this, what Democracy needs enemies?

George Will writes at one point that: “Proper conservatism teaches that authority does not form on high, in the clouds, and clatter down, painfully, like Kansas hailstones. Rather, conservatism teaches that authority grows organically from the rich loam of social mores and structures’ (page 95). I agree. And it is here in culture, in institutions, in the religious, social and intellectual life of man that the fabric of civic cohesion rightly identified by Will as severed, shall perhaps be mended. It is not, in my view, a properly conservative position to turn great moral authority over to the state, an action which helps to further undermine the autonomy and integrity of cultural and intellectual life, but merely authoritarian.

Will, I gather, turns to the state because the loam he speaks of has been dissolved. As FDR looked at modern industrial society and the welfare need, and concluded, “Well, the state will have to do it because nobody else is able;” George Will looks at modern massified and bureaucratized man and the ethical and moral need, and says, “Well, the state shall have to do it.” His remonstrance to the contrary, this way does lie totalitarianism. Certainly one of the essential ingredients of any true conservatism, American or Continental, is a sober skepticism, not to say pessimism, about human nature, particularly when men taste power. We have so little reason (if history is our guide) to expect good things from the modern state, even (some would say especially) when intentions and motives are pure.

Why read Statecraft as Soulcraft then? Because Chapter Six is an excellent refutation of the Reagan use of government and Manchester liberal ideology to wage class warfare, and an excellent justification, based upon the instinct to preserve, of the welfare state. Because Will offers an occasional synopsis of Continental conservative thought that is literary and sublime. Because Will is a Conservative who cares for justice and because George Will is right about the need for a revival of public philosophy, i.e. natural law, as sustenance and buffer for the legalistic and economic conceptions of politics now predominantly operative in the land. Our politics is bereft of citizens. We do as a nation lack selflessness, discipline, and nobility. But our founders were not so oblivious to this as Will represents them and we need not reach across to Burke to recreate the tradition. Nor is the tradition to be refound and renewed by and of the state. The public philosophy is properly pursued in the pages of our journals and newspapers, in our schools and universities, and (here I agree with Will) in the pursuit of meaning within wholistic humble and tolerant religious belief.

George Will’s most annoying habit is his quotamania. My guess is that this 150 page book is something like 100 or 110 pages of substance minus the rambling and disconnected quotations. The habit is so persistent that one wonders what it’s all about. A presumptuous guess might be that run on quotation hides a still muddy disposition, that Mr. Will hadn’t thought things through enough yet, that only half of a real book was there. But then George F. Will is not in Bemidji; he is in Washington with all those T.V. shows to tape and three columns a week to write. Contemporary political philosophy is nearly impossible to do in so distracted an age, even for the cloistered professional. And it is only fair to note that most volumes in contemporary political theory have less meat in them than Statecraft as Soulcraft with all its faults.

There are Continental conservatives of recent years, however, who have written well and helped to clarify the democratic situation. One of the nearly forgotten ones is John Courtney Murray, S.J., whose superbly balanced, cogent, and elegant book We Hold These Truths was published in 1960. He is my recommendation for further discussion in renewal of the public philosophy — what Lippmann called the sum total of man’s attempts through history to civilize himself. Murray writes: “Part of the inner architecture of the American ideal of freedom has been the profound conviction that only a virtuous people can be free. It is not an American belief that free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral law” and ” . . . the men who framed the American Bill of Rights understood history and tradition, and they understood nature in the light of both. They too were individualists, but not to the point of ignoring the social nature of man. They did their thinking within the tradition of freedom that was their heritage from England. Its roots were not in the top of anyone’s brain but in history. Importantly, its roots were in the medieval notion of the homo liber et legalis, the man whose freedom rests on law, whose law was the age old custom in which the nature of men expressed itself, and whose lawful freedoms were possessed in association with his fellows.”

  • Keith Burris

    In 1983, Keith Burris was with Washington and Jefferson, Washington, PA

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