April 11, 2020

1. Mansfield on Tocqueville

I’ve been reading essays by my former professor Harvey Mansfield. Mansfield published essays on Trump, Sanders, etc. in City Journal, and he also wrote essays for Claremont Review of Books. His observations on contemporary politics are fresh, interesting, witty. Mansfield has a deep understanding of American politics, he’s a close observer of the American scene, and his mind is still sharp at 88 years old. He says that the best books on American politics are The Federalist Papers and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and he knows these two books thoroughly.

Mansfield Essays
Bernie and the Democrats” (2020)
Democracy in Trump’s America” (2019)
The Vulgar and the Sophisticates” (2017)
Providence and Democracy: Tocqueville’s alliance of religion and liberty” (2010, 2011)
The Higher Education Scandal” (spring 2013)
Exchange of letters on above article (summer 2013)

When I was a student of Mansfield’s in the early 1980s, I had little interest in his lectures, and little interest in American politics. I was interested in philosophers like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, who rarely discussed politics, and never discussed American politics. If I had any interest in politics, I was interested in what Nietzsche called “grand politics” — the giant revolutions that rocked Germany, Russia, China, etc., the giant revolutions that Nietzsche anticipated. The central fact of modern politics, it seemed to me, was genocide, and the authors of The Federalist Papers knew nothing about genocide.1

In the early 1980s, I could see how atheism led to genocide, and this seemed more significant to me than what my professors were talking about. Now, however, Fascism and Communism are receding into the past, and American politics seems more significant than it once did. My interests are broader than they were in my “salad days,” I’m more interested in Mansfield’s writings than I once was.

Mansfield tells us that Tocqueville was probably not a believer:

He seems to have suffered a crisis early in life when, as he recounts it, he came upon the books of 18th-century materialists in his father’s library and promptly and permanently (so far as we know) lost his faith, not only in religion but in “all the truths” that supported his beliefs and his actions.

But Tocqueville felt that this materialism was harmful to society. Society needed religion. “A civilized society,” according to Tocqueville, “but above all a free society, cannot subsist without religion.” Tocqueville felt that philosophy undermines religion, philosophy leads to “doubt.” Hence Tocqueville is “suspicious of philosophy.” Tocqueville felt that philosophy doubts the spiritual, not the material.

But the Philosophy of Today doubts the material, not the spiritual.2 We’re building a new philosophy on a spiritual foundation, but we reject the old religions. We agree with Nietzsche that God is dead, and that we can’t continue propping up the monotheistic religions. We need to make a fresh start. As John Stuart Mill said, mankind’s most urgent need is for a new worldview in which intellectuals like Tocqueville and Mansfield “can really believe.” In our time, “the best lack all conviction,” as Yeats said.

Tocqueville understood the need for clarity on ultimate questions. Tocqueville said, “Men [have] an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties.” But our need for these “fixed ideas” shouldn’t prompt us to skip over the important question, “Are these ideas true?” If we rely on fixed ideas that we don’t believe ourselves, these ideas will eventually crumble, and the people will be seduced by some wild theory, some utopian scheme.

We can’t keep saying, “Society needs religion, but I’m not a believer myself.” This is a fake, hollow, useless philosophy. Surely we can ask of every philosophy that the philosopher believe it himself. And the same is true of science. What value would Darwin’s theory have if he didn’t believe it himself? How could religious leaders like Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha have left their mark on the world if they didn’t believe their own teachings?

When Christianity was in its heyday, it attracted people of all kinds, philosophers as well as farmers. Philosophers like Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, and Kierkegaard were sincere believers, not fakers. Once Christianity loses the philosophers, it’s in decline, its days are numbered, a new religion is needed.

In Tocqueville’s day, most Americans were believers, so you could argue, “Religion supports American democracy.” Now, however, many Americans (perhaps most Americans) aren’t believers, so we need to hope that Tocqueville is wrong when he says that democracy needs religion, or we need to develop a new religion.

We can’t keep asking, “Is religion beneficial or harmful?” We need to ask, “Is it true?” We need to aim at truth, base our worldview on the rock of truth, then build a superstructure of art and ritual and morality on that solid foundation.

If our views on ultimate questions are muddled and insincere, it’s difficult to resist a political leader who is sincere, who believes in his own creed, such as Lenin or Osama bin Laden. The success of such leaders is partly due to the weakness of their foes; their foes had only a hollow philosophy, their foes didn’t really believe in their own philosophy. If you’re in a battle of ideas, a battle for hearts and minds, you can’t expect to prevail if you don’t believe in your own ideas.

Tocqueville said that

philosophers “despite all their efforts... have been able to discover only a few contradictory notions.” Those who try to rely on philosophy for the fixed ideas they need in their ordinary lives, Tocqueville says, do not find them but come to grief in doubt. “Doubt takes hold of the highest portions of the intellect and half-paralyzes all the others.”

In my view, philosophy advances over time, and is reaching a high point in our time — what Nietzsche called “the great noontide.” We’re not pursued by doubt, we’re confident that certainty is attainable. Doubt is only a problem for those who try to make sense of traditional religion, and become tangled in its dogmas. If we make a fresh start, we won’t be haunted by doubt.

2. Mansfield on Trump

Mansfield argues that Trump doesn’t pervert democracy, he expresses it: “Trump’s success in gaining the presidency without experience in diplomacy or government reminds us of the essential vulgarity of democracy.”

Mansfield says that Trump “appears not to read books,” but he possesses “natural instincts.”

With his natural instincts, Trump was the only candidate, including all Republicans and conservatives who ran for the presidency in 2016, to attack the political correctness that is so oppressive in American social life and discourse.

Mansfield says that conservative intellectuals are “disgusted with the display of easy moral superiority that impels political correctness and has come to be called ‘virtue-signaling,’ one vice Trump manages to avoid.”

Trump’s “natural instincts” enable him to finesse the issue of race:

He opposes the “identity politics” of the Left, epitomized in the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Trump has been careful enough not to disagree with the statement itself, but he took advantage of the fact that, when hearing that slogan, people who are not black may well imagine whether their lives matter, too. He did not refer to the racial difference the slogan raises but let it be inferred.

Mansfield says that identity politics leads to affirmative action:

The new identity politics originated by intellectuals gives power to the weak, the supposed victims of authority. They are selected to receive special favor to compensate for their having been pushed down, kept out, or “marginalized” in the past. Trump voters are not often found among such official victims, though many of them have less education and wealth than the inventors and even the beneficiaries of affirmative action, the main policy of identity politics. Since affirmative action always excludes someone when it favors its favorites, it creates a resentful class of those excluded. At the same time, it cannot be assured of any gratitude from the victims whom it benefits, for they have been told that they deserve what they get, meaning that they do not have to thank their benefactors. The inherent weakness in affirmative action — of creating more bad will than good — has been shrewdly exploited by Trump.

Mansfield says that Trump represents a revolt of “the people” against the elite:

Trump’s election was a rebellion against democracy’s meritocratic elitism. It’s not that Trump voters are necessarily stupid, nor that higher IQ necessarily makes one wise, but rather that theirs was a rebellion against the smart folks. In this sense, it was more democratic than the democratic Establishment.2B

While his opponents represent the Establishment and the Elite, Trump represents democracy and egalitarianism:

Trump wants to democratize America’s already democratic nation because it has succumbed to the success of its democratic government and economy and rewarded the makers of its success. The trouble with success in a democratic nation is that it leaves its failures behind.... Trump’s educated opponents do not quite realize what has hit them, and they try to identify it as some force hostile to democracy — fascism or authoritarianism or just plain conservatism. In fact, their enemy comes from within their own egalitarianism, of which the vulgar Trump is a truer expression than they are, who constantly promote it but don’t practice it.

Trump also represents nationalism over globalism:

Trump is a truer democrat because he opposes globalization, the policy of economic rationality that best suits those who can calculate better, who have greater insight into opportunities — and who hold less inhibiting loyalty to their own country.

In conclusion, Mansfield says that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have admired Trump. They believed that the greatest danger to democracy was the tyranny of the majority. Trump threatens this sort of tyranny because “He is an enemy to the conventions of courtesy as well as to those of due process, whether of law or practice.” But Trump’s foes on the Left present a similar danger:

Liberal democracy can suffer corrosive democratization from the Right as well as the Left and ugly authoritarianism from the Left as well as the Right.... Trump’s “nationalism” is a response to the identity politics of the Left, and both are excesses of democracy leading to excesses of wrongful authority.

3. Mansfield on Academia

Mansfield’s essay on academia deals with Bowdoin College, but he makes it clear that Bowdoin is typical of liberal-arts colleges. He says that Bowdoin’s courses are “less and less survey courses aimed at teaching a subject-matter.” Mansfield speaks of “the idiosyncratic, parochial, even trivial subject-matter” of many Bowdoin courses. As an example, he mentions a course called “Queer Gardens,” which “examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces.”

Instead of being asked to learn a broad field, students are asked to research a narrow field. “The college is now not so much a body of teachers teaching students as a research institution that makes small-time, overpraised researchers out of its undergraduates.” (I’ve always had an aversion for the “research paper,” the “thesis,” an invention of German pedantry. I prefer broad surveys, summaries, and what the Chinese call “reading notes.” I wrote a summary of Roman history, and a sketch of Western literature.)

Mansfield says that Bowdoin has

programs called “Studies,” such as Gender and Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies (separate from the preceding), Environmental Studies, and Africana Studies, that were founded explicitly as political advocacy for their constituents. But also Asian Studies and Latin American Studies, with apparently neutral names, are now concerned mainly with repudiating Western colonialism.

Mansfield deplores “the brazen politicization of the classroom, the loss of the great books, indeed the disregard of greatness in general.”3

4. The Shakers

I recently visited a Shaker Village in Harvard, Massachusetts. The village was started around 1780, soon after Shakers came to the U.S. The Shaker community at Harvard died out in 1917, and the buildings are now owned by private individuals. In its heyday, the community had about 200 members, divided into 4 “families.” Today you can see buildings from the “South Family” and the “Church Family.”

The “Church Family” was made up of the leaders of the church, known as elders and eldresses. These leaders answered to higher leaders, based in New Lebanon, New York. In the mid-1800s, there were about 20 Shaker communities in the U.S., with a total of about 6,000 members. There are now only two or three Shakers left, at a village in Maine.

Carriage-mounting platform, Harvard Shaker Village, South Family. Like other Shaker things, it was built to last a thousand years. The building in the background was called the Sisters’ Shop, or the Apple House; it was used for making applesauce and jam, for canning peaches and cherries, etc.

A walk through the remaining buildings in Harvard is about one mile long (map here). You can return to your starting-point by walking through the woods (map here). The woods trail leads to “The Holy Hill of Zion,” a hilltop worship area. In 1842, the Shaker leaders in New Lebanon told each Shaker community to build an outdoor worship area, preferably on a hilltop. Ten years later, however, they changed their minds, and The Holy Hill of Zion was allowed to become overgrown.

During an especially dry summer, the wells of the Harvard Shakers ran dry, so they found a spring, and built an aqueduct from the spring to a reservoir in their village. You can visit the “spring house” today (map here).

Though the Harvard community was divided into “families,” these weren’t families in the usual sense of the word. The Shakers believed in sexual abstinence, didn’t marry, and didn’t have children. They could only acquire new members by adopting orphan children, or converting adults.

The Shakers were founded in England around 1750. They were an offshoot of the Quakers; they broke away from the Quakers because the Quakers were becoming more restrained in their worship, and the Shakers preferred a more emotional worship. “They worshiped by ecstatic dancing or ‘shaking,’ which resulted in them being dubbed the Shakers.”4

Several early Shaker leaders were women. Persecuted in England, the Shakers came to the U.S. in 1774. Their leader in 1774 was Ann Lee (“Mother Ann Lee”), who saw herself as the Second Coming of Christ, or at least a close confidante of Christ. Shakers spoke of “Christ Jesus and Christ Ann.”

Ann Lee was illiterate, and could only sign her name with an X. Thus, she reminds us of those uneducated preachers who appeared in England during the revolutionary decades of the 1640s and 1650s. These preachers felt, like Ann Lee, that God was within them, or at least speaking to them. One of the sects that arose in England in the mid-1600s was the Quakers, forefathers of the Shakers.

Both Quakers and Shakers felt that, since God was within them, they were free from sin, or at least they could become free from sin. The Shakers liked to quote the Bible: “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.”5

Quakers and Shakers listened to their inner voice, and ignored the voice of society and the voice of convention. The Shakers were often attacked by mobs who disapproved of their wild worship and eccentric ways. The Shakers lived apart from society, following the beat of a different drummer. As Ann Lee said, the Shakers were “the people who turn the world upside down.”

Ann Lee urged her followers to “Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.” Ann also said, “Put your hands to work, and give your hearts to God.” This is often shortened to, “Hands to work, Hearts to God.” The Shakers were renowned for their craftsmanship — furniture, houses, etc. They were also known for their ingenious inventions, their seeds, and their herbs; they grew about 200 types of medicinal herbs at Harvard, and they had a special fire-proof house — still visible — for drying their herbs.

Though the Harvard Shaker Village is now in private hands, one building is open to the public. This building was moved to Fruitlands, a museum and trail-network in Harvard; Fruitlands houses various curiosities, including Thoreau’s collection of arrowheads. Fruitlands was originally a utopian community, co-founded by Bronson Alcott. It was one of many utopian communities that sprang up in the U.S. (and Europe?) in the 1840s. In an earlier issue, I discussed another utopian community in Massachusetts, Brook Farm.6

Most of these utopian communities, including Fruitlands and Brook Farm, petered out after a short time, but the Shakers survived and thrived. The Shakers’ strange ways and prosperous communities gave them a wide reputation, and attracted many visitors. William Dean Howells published an essay on the Shaker village in Shirley, Massachusetts. Hawthorne talked to the Shakers about possibly joining their community.7

Even Tolstoy, in far-off Russia, heard about the Shakers, and corresponded with them. He admired their chastity, their pacifism, their communism, etc. In his later years, Tolstoy developed a kind of religion; he urged people to focus on their task, and strive for excellence, a teaching that reminds one of the Shakers.8

Why did the Shakers die out? Perhaps the chief reason is that their religious ardor cooled, just as the religious ardor of American society as a whole cooled. Another reason is that their handicrafts had difficulty competing with the mass-produced items that came on the market in the late 1800s.

There’s an excellent documentary on the Shakers, made by Ken Burns and available from Amazon Prime Video.

I also visited the Shaker Village in Colonie, New York, near Albany Airport. Unlike the Harvard Village, the Colonie Village isn’t privately owned, so you can tour the buildings. But several of the Colonie buildings are crumbling, so the Colonie Village isn’t as attractive as the Harvard Village. The Colonie Meetinghouse, however, is in good shape, and the herb garden is in good shape. There’s a 2-mile trail around the Colonie property. The Colonie Village is often called Watervliet since the property was once in the town of Watervliet.

Harvard is a quiet, rural town, with a well-preserved town center, built around a village green. There’s a good view of Mt. Wachusett and NewHampshire mountains from west Harvard — Prospect Hill Road or Still River Road. Fruitlands is on Prospect Hill Road; it has trails, exhibits, and historic buildings.

About eight miles north of Harvard Center is the town of Groton, which is full of historic architecture, and has an elevated situation, with views of the surrounding country. Some of the dullest architecture in Groton can be found at the famed Groton School, which is outside Groton Center and was built in the late 1800s, long after the town’s historic center, and long after Lawrence Academy, which is in Groton Center.9

When Groton was founded in 1655, it was a frontier town, and it was repeatedly attacked by Indians, who were sometimes aided by the French. Like most early towns, Groton was once much larger than it is now. Over time, sections of Groton became independent towns — Ayer, Shirley, Pepperell, etc.

Groton isn’t the oldest of the “frontier towns.” Ipswich, Newbury, Concord, Dedham, and Providence are all about twenty years older than Groton, but none suffered as much from Indian/French attacks.

© L. James Hammond 2020
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1. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “It was only toward the middle of the 20th century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.” Living in Poland, Milosz was hemmed in by the Soviets and the Nazis. Milosz perceived that both the Soviets and the Nazis embodied certain philosophical ideas, such as Nietzsche’s idea that “God is dead.” back
2. As Mansfield says, “in modern mathematical physics it turns out not to be so easy to define or grasp what matter is.” It turns out that matter is an “airy nothing,” only the spirit is a “solid something.”

Tocqueville had a certain respect for spiritualism. Tocqueville “approves of certain philosophical ideas,” Mansfield writes, “such as those advancing spiritualism, but without much discrimination. He would rather you believe your soul can migrate to the body of a pig than that you have no soul.” Clearly Mansfield doesn’t share Tocqueville’s respect for spiritualism.

Tocqueville takes a dim view of the philosophy of history, he takes a dim view of “the democratic idea that peoples ‘necessarily obey I do not know which insurmountable and unintelligent force born of previous events, the race, the soil, or the climate.’” My philosophy of history is different from materialistic theories, my philosophy doesn’t look at race, soil, climate, chance, or previous events. I emphasize life- and death-instincts, which aren’t material, which can’t be seen or touched or counted, so Tocqueville might approve of my philosophy of history.

In earlier issues, I discussed how Mansfield, Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, etc. regarded religion as valuable, even essential, but weren’t believers themselves. Now I realize that Tocqueville was also a member of this club. All over the Western world, traditional religion is losing influence, and intellectuals can’t prop it up by saying, “We need religion, but I don’t believe myself.” (Click here for a TED Talk by David Voas on the decline of religion in the West.)

Mansfield says, “Philosophical inquiry begins with doubt.” I don’t view philosophy as “inquiry,” I view it as ideas. I would say philosophical ideas begin with intuition, not with doubt. Philosophy doesn’t begin with questioning authorities, it begins with learning from authorities.

According to Tocqueville, “Philosophical thinking leads to paralysis of practical thinking.” I would say, “Those who are suited for philosophical thinking may not be suited for practical thinking.” We wouldn’t put Nietzsche in charge of a highway project. But this isn’t an argument against philosophy. Philosophy can play a positive role in society, and can help practical people as well as other people. Likewise, during the Middle Ages, people could benefit from religion without studying theology. One can benefit from philosophy without being a philosopher, without “doing philosophy,” just as one can enjoy novels without being a novelist.

“Most people,” Mansfield writes, “have recourse to the dogmas of religion for guidance because they have neither the time nor the capacity for philosophizing.” I would say that only a minority of Americans nowadays have recourse to the dogmas of religion for guidance. Furthermore, people can learn from the teachings of philosophy without studying it in depth, just as people can learn from Eastern practices like meditation and yoga without dedicating their lives to them. back

2B. Perhaps China’s Cultural Revolution was also a revolt against the establishment, the elite, the meritocracy. back
3. Bowdoin is named after a wealthy Boston merchant, James Bowdoin, who was descended from Huguenot refugees, as were Henry Thoreau, Paul Revere, etc. back
4. Wikipedia back
5. See Charles Lane’s essay, “A Day With the Shakers” (The Dial, Oct. 1843). Lane visited the Harvard Shakers to buy seeds, and discussed theology with them. back
6. Fruitlands is next to the Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge, which has a trail along the Nashua River. You can probably walk from Oxbow to Fruitlands (maps here and here). About 5 miles north of Harvard Center is the town of Ayer, and the southern end of the Nashua River Rail Trail, which extends north to Nashua, New Hampshire, a distance of about 12 miles.

The Englishman Charles Lane, who co-founded Fruitlands with Alcott, said that the Shakers “are at least entitled to deeper consideration than they yet appear to have secured.... It is, perhaps, most striking, that the only really successful extensive community of interest, spiritual and secular, in modern times, was established by A Woman. Again, we witness in this people the bringing together of the two sexes in a new relation.... This has led to results more harmonic than anyone seriously believes attainable for the human race [with conventional marriage arrangements].... The great secular success of the Shakers, their order, cleanliness, intelligence, and serenity, are so eminent, that it is worthy of inquiry how far these are attributable to an adherence to their particular doctrine [of chastity].” back

7. Howells spent six weeks with the Shirley Shakers in 1875, and was impressed: “We saw in them a sect simple, sincere, and fervently persuaded of the truth of their doctrine, striving for the realization of a heavenly ideal upon earth.”

Howells noticed that whatever the Shakers built was built to last. He describes their horse-trough as “not one of the perishable horse-troughs that our civilization, conscious of its own evanescence, scoops from a log, and leaves to soak and rot year by year, but a great, generous bowl, four feet across, and nearly as many deep, which some forgotten Shaker brother had patiently hollowed out of a mass of granite.” back

8. Perhaps the Shakers reminded Tolstoy of a Russian sect, the Doukhobors. The Doukhobors were pacifists, they thought God was within them, they opposed icons, and they opposed the church hierarchy. Like Ann Lee, some Doukhobor leaders considered themselves an embodiment of Christ.

Thoreau also urged us to focus on the task at hand: “Nature never makes haste.... The bud swells imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity.... Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were allotted for the least deed? Let him consume never so many aeons, so that he go about the meanest task well, though it be but the paring of his nails.”

Thoreau also reminds us of the Shakers in his remarks on chastity: “The generative energy, which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us un-clean, when we are continent invigorates and inspires us. Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it.”

I recently learned that Tolstoy was a big fan of Rousseau. When he listed the 50 books that had influenced him most, he described the influence of Confessions and Emile as “enormous,” and the influence of Nouvelle Heloise as “very great.” Tolstoy had a special interest in a section of Emile called “Confession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” which sets forth a natural religion, a rationalized Christianity. back

9. Just east of Groton Center is Gibbet Hill. A short, steep trail climbs Gibbet Hill from Lowell Road (trail map available from Groton Trails Network or AllTrails). At the top of Gibbet Hill is Bancroft Castle, a scenic ruin, and there’s a good view to the west — Mt. Wachusett, etc.

Bancroft Castle

You can descend the GibbetHill trail to Shattuck Street, then turn left to visit Scarlet Hill Farm. The ScarletHill trail is also short and steep; from the top of the hill, you can look to the east (are Boston skyscrapers visible to the southeast?).

Scarlet Hill
The hill trail leads to the pines (upper left)

If you go north from Groton Center on Hollis Street, it becomes Chicopee Row, and you’ll reach Williams Barn, a Farmers Market (the address of Williams Barn is 160 Chicopee Row). From Williams Barn, a trail leads east to Chestnut Hill (the trail is about 2 miles round-trip). From the top of Chestnut Hill, you can see Boston skyscrapers to the southeast.