Two public intellectuals, despite their differences, share a remarkable friendship that has much to teach America.
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s politics becomes a battleground where clashing worldviews, frustrations, and experiences collide, the notion of “civility” finds itself attached to a slew of contradictory connotations. For some, civility is the convenient mask of cowards, a noble veil behind which enablers hide their turpitude. For others, civility remains a foundational virtue, a precondition for discourse, a pillar of democracy now disgraced by performative radicals in search of influence. While bombastic rhetoric and ominous imagery permeate our screen-infused world, appeals to decency and shared memories sound increasingly quaint, if not outright credulous. Galvanized mobs abound, partisanship thrives, and media outlets cash in on the methodical dismemberment of America’s national body.
This generalized cultural malaise is by no means particular to our time. For millennia, in fact, ideological fissures of this magnitude would have been settled with swords, bayonets, and grenades. Violence is humanity’s most universal language. Dante was not exaggerating when he sent the two factions of the Florentine civil war, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, to the deepest circles of hell. Nor was Shakespeare when he portrayed the atrocities committed by the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. The course of human events has been punctuated by a myriad of carnages; cities were born out of fear, nations out of blood. As the Polish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “literature is the memory of humanity.” And to those who delude themselves into thinking that the past was somehow more “civil” than our dire present, literature responds with a procession of bloodbaths described without euphemism, from Homer’s Iliad to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
But let us turn to another novel by Tolstoy, Hadji Murat. Set during the Caucasian War, Hadji Murat is a story about the limitations of language, the tale of an unbridgeable gap between two cultures turned enemies. Russians and Chechens simply do not understand each other; instead, they exchange smiles and menacing gazes, feeling — and feeding — their shared trauma. Throughout the novel, the only place where Chechens and Russians come to grasp their commonality is on the battlefield, that is, when they unleash their hatred against an enemy about which they know very little. After participating in a murderous raid on Chechen rebels, one Russian soldier exclaims, “They may not be that different from us, after all.” Gone is the polished practice of deal-making and rational agreement. Enters a diplomacy of blood, scars, and wounds; the only messages that transcend deep-rooted differences, Tolstoy argues, are those written in blood.
Why would a resolute pacifist like Tolstoy aestheticize the universality of war? Perhaps because he wants to issue a warning: If left unchaperoned, human instincts will unleash our domesticated vices.
Generations of thinkers have provided answers to the question of disorder. For the Roman historian Livy, conflict and opposition are necessary features of democracy. Day after day, the polis strikes a balance between the interests of the few and those of the many; for this equilibrium to hold, each side has to fight the other with determination and tact. In his account of the Roman republic, Livy depicts the permanent back-and-forth between plebeians and patricians, exalting the fiery dialogues that oppose populist tribunes to obdurate senators. He writes:
So difficult it is to steer a moderate course in safeguarding freedom. Each man pretends to want equality but strives to better himself at the expense of his fellows; and in taking steps to prevent themselves feeling fear they make themselves feared, and, as if it were necessary either to inflict or to suffer wrong, the injuries we escape we visit upon others.
Oscillating between mob rule and oligarchy, Rome went so far as to ban the first rhetoricians who came to the city in order to teach their craft in the second century b.c. Republicans then understood what we have long forgotten now: Politics is not a bourgeois dinner where respectable gentlemen and ladies engage in calm and measured discourse. We do not live in a “marketplace of ideas” where the good is bound to triumph over the ugly; ideas, no matter how noble they may be, do not win over anybody if they cannot make themselves heard. At heart, we live in a world filled with indignation and uproar, a universe of shouting, growling, and protesting — as Thomas Hobbes famously put it, the natural life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Roman institutions proved incapable of sustaining Livy’s balancing act; in 31 b.c., Augustus recaptured the throne by defeating his archrival, Mark Antony. The crowned autocrat shattered the republic, and the empire struck back after decades of relative harmony. Thereafter, epochs and civilizations embarked on a quest to find better solutions to the haunting question of civil order. Philosophers wondered how, to borrow from the French historian Ernest Renan, a large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, create the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation.
For medieval scholastics, the answer was God. For Aristotle, it was the lifelong cultivation of virtue. For Burke, it was custom. For al-Farabi, it was a combination of all three. But these antidotes seem so far removed from the pathologies of modernity. Caught up and spat out by the great churn of industrialization, millions of Westerners have been torn from their faith, traditions, and values. A hundred and fifty years ago, the philosopher Auguste Comte wrote, “The dead govern the living.” He might have been right then, but he certainly is not now.
A better historical parallel could lead us back to late-19th-century France. The country was torn apart by two political forces demanding absolute loyalty. On one side, conservatives and dishevelled aristocrats holding on to a disappearing order. On the other, anticlerical progressives who believed that Marxism was the panacea to life’s most puzzling complexities. Sounds familiar? Perhaps because it is. In many ways, the polarized politics of culture-war America reenact the ideological conflicts that permeated fin-de-siècle France. In both cases, a country stripped of its spiritual grounding witnesses the rise of two radical camps that propose grand theories to answer popular fears. In both cases, the political elite fail to produce statesmen of the necessary stature to rein in the mutation of democracy into mobocracy.
French public intellectuals stepped in to fill the vacuum of leadership that impotent politicians had created. Among them, Gustave Le Bon, a polymath who captured the anxieties of his time with an elegant turn of phrase: “We now live in the age of the crowd.” Devoid of faith, education, leaders, customs, and values, the people had descended to the streets to externalize their individual problems, to express indignation at the world for seeming so meaningless. Le Bon writes:
The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim. An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will. . . . By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct.
To escape from this dreadful state of affairs, Le Bon exhorted his compatriots to re-learn how to be human. An avid admirer of the Renaissance, he praised what the Dutch scholar Erasmus called humanitas, this ancient virtue grounded in the study of the classics. By embracing the liberal-arts tradition, universities would resuscitate a sense of belonging that the populace had long forgotten. People would find inspiration in literature, grace in music, and power in public oratory. More important still, they would plunge themselves into the lives of giants. As the Roman historian Tacitus writes in his Agricola, “outstanding personalities can still triumph over that blind antipathy to virtue which is a defect of all states, small and great alike.” There is a reason why the ancients called those disciplines humaniores literae, i.e. humane literature. By forging collective bonds under the welcoming tent of education, all would realize that mobs have little to offer and much to destroy.
In 2020, a handful of public intellectuals embody this relentless pursuit of humanitas. Among them, Robert P. George and Cornel West. The former is a leading conservative intellectual, a celebrated professor of jurisprudence, and a recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal. The latter is a pioneering social critic, a self-described “revolutionary Christian,” and an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. Despite their monumental differences, the two towering academics teach classes together, write op-eds together, and wander around the U.S. to talk about the value of the liberal arts together. Following Aristotle, they do not let partisanship get in the way of a palpable friendship forged over the years. From the unwavering strengths of their convictions to the mutual respect that defines their relationship, George and West personify the possibility of American renewal, the aspiration to honor the past without cherishing its vices, and the ability for all to think beyond culture wars. Last week, they published an open letter urging their “fellow citizens” to defend
We need the honesty and courage to speak the truth — including painful truths that unsettle not only our foes but also our friends and, most especially, ourselves.
We need the honesty and courage to honor the contributions of the great men and women who have come before us — those who articulated and defended true principles of justice and the common good, built or helped to preserve worthy institutions, and modeled important virtues.
We need the honesty and courage to express dissent — to say, “No, I will not go along” — when conscience tells us that our own ideological or political tribe has gone astray or gone too far or become fanatical and blind to integrity and the dignity of all.
Whether their hopeful call will resonate or fade away is an unanswerable question. But to those in search of spiritual leadership, the engagement of George and West represents an apt reminder that in times of disinformation and post-truth, audacious public intellectuals become the guardians of civil order.