by Jordan Poyner
Last week, my colleague at The New Herald, Seth Nightingale, published a piece in defense of a populist national sentiment. In it he argued that patriotism and trust in the American nation state are deteriorating, and that a coherent and shared sense of tradition and values have been compromised by lesser principles. To a certain extent, I am in agreement with these claims, but something profound is missing from Mr. Nightingale’s argument. The greatness of a nation is a product of the virtue of its citizens, and not the other way around. A sense of community and mutually-recognized essential values are indeed necessary for the well-being of the state, but the well-being of the state should be a consequence–and not the goal–of virtue in its citizens.
As Mr. Nightingale points out (appealing to Aristotle), the classical conception of the state is constituted in its citizens. Yet, as Aristotle recognized, the quality or kind of citizen determines the quality or kind of political community. The citizen of democracy is not the citizen of oligarchy, and the excellence of the citizen is “relative to the constitution of which he is a member.” It matters what sort of state we are citizens of. First, who is qualified to be a citizen varies depending on the form of government the state has embraced; in oligarchies, for example, only a select few are citizens in the fullest sense. Even the fledgling democracy of the United States limited voting rights to a privileged portion of its population. Second, history is rife with examples of fervently patriotic citizens wholly willing to act despicably to preserve their political community. While Aristotle noted that the excellence of the citizen was not synonymous with the excellence of the good individual (whose excellence is not inherently oriented towards the larger social body), “The good citizen ought to be capable of both.”
In the United States, the problem of citizenship is not that we have necessarily come to misunderstand what it means to be a good citizen, but that we cannot agree on what it means to be a good individual. Though we perceive a lack of unified national sentiment, there is a deeper disharmony on the core question of what constitutes virtue. In the classical conception, virtue is a frustratingly complex idea, representing not a uni-directional excellence, but rather qualities that, at their extreme, constitute a good for various purposes. The virtue I want to emphasize is an Augustinian one: love rightly ordered. To love is to prioritize certain ends, to exercise our free will and choose on their behalf. Clearly, we can choose to love the wrong things–abandoning the advancement of justice for the acquisition of wealth, for example. Virtue is the capacity to correctly prioritize our love.
This appears to be an impossible charge–or at least an impossibly ambiguous one–but this is what is required of rational beings endowed with free will. It is necessary that the citizens of a great nation reflect on the highest good, on what is most deserving of their love–even if philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is correct in thinking “that modern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus.” Though in modernity we often find ourselves unable to reach an accord on many significant questions of moral imperative, we are united by a mutual esteem for justice, freedom, and security. However, MacIntyre argues that individuals in society have come to understand these concepts in radically disparate ways from their compatriots. What constitutes justice for one member of society is distinct from–and even contradicts–the justice of their neighbors. This assessment seems true, but it should not signal the defeat of the democratic project.
As I have stated elsewhere in The New Herald, contradiction is a task and a process. At the heart of liberal democracy is an inherent tension between individual freedoms and rights, and social obligations. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom writes:
In the tightest communities, at least since the days of Odysseus, there is something in man that wants out and senses that his development is stunted by being just a part of a whole, rather than a whole itself. And in the the freest and most independent situations men long for unconditional attachments. The tension between freedom and attachment, and attempts to achieve the impossible union of the two, are the permanent condition of man.
The solution to an increasing social polarization does not lie in the triumphing of one extreme over the other (as Bloom claimed had occurred–in favor of freedom–in modern political regimes). Instead, the good citizen is called to be both free and obligated. Wrestling with what it means to freely choose ends for ourselves as individuals and to bear responsibilities toward other humans is the inescapable activity of the good citizen and good individual. Not present in such a philosophical dispensation is a guarantee of accord on what must be preserved in the constitution of our nation.
The response to a faltering sense of cohesive national purpose cannot simply be to affirm some generalized sense of tradition or value as Mr. Nightingale does. It may be fundamentally true that shared tradition and values are important for the revitalization of national sentiment, but the underlying problem is that it has become nearly impossible to identify and agree which traditions and values we are to embody. If we are going to reach a consensus on what it is we stand for as citizens of the United States, we have to offer serious arguments for the values we feel to be essential to our way of life–not just demand a return to them. To borrow an argument by analogy from Vincent Phillip Muñoz:
The Constitution may have legal authority because it was originally willed by the people, but its contemporary moral authority cannot rest on those grounds alone. If the Founders’ constitutionalism is worthy of respect today, it is because the rules it establishes and the rights it protects embody fundamental principles of justice, not because a powerful elite voted for the Constitution more than 200 years ago. The Founders’ ideas should govern us today only to the extent that they are persuasive.
The values we should share as a society, like the Constitution (which enumerates many of them), must be continually argued for and made rhetorically compelling. The coherence of our national agenda is under debate. The response should not be to decry such dispute, but to enter into conversation with it. Such a willingness to grapple with the question of correctly prioritized love is the hallmark of virtue.
The nation state may be a vital component of modern living, but prioritizing positive national sentiment over virtue in citizenship is fundamentally a mistake. As Aristotle wrote, “A city can be excellent only when the citizens who have a share in the government are excellent.” It makes no sense to call for a reinvigoration of patriotic sentiment without first addressing a dissipating coalescence on the necessity of virtue. Without a foundation in virtue, the patriotism or nationalism of citizens are morally-vacuous phenomena. If we want to preserve or reestablish a unified sense of national sentiment, we must attempt to do so by advocating for a shared and contradictory love of both freedom and obligation. We will have to continue to navigate the consequences of this tension individually and communally. This is the path towards a more perfect union, but we should not walk it merely for the sake of the state. While a dedication to the good of the state may be the only means by which the state can be made perfect, it isn’t immediately clear that the state’s perfection is the soul’s.
Jordan Poyner is a recent graduate of Indiana University, where he studied English literature, film theory, art, and anthropology.
- Aristotle, The Politics and the Constitution of Athens, ed. & trans. Stephen Everson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 61.
- Ibid., 65.
- Ibid., 67.
- Allan Bloom, notes to The Republic of Plato 2nd ed., trans. Allan Bloom (New York: BasicBooks, 1968), 444, note 27.
- Augustine of Hippo, The City of God XV.22.
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 253.
- The origin of this idea lies not with me, but with Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. See: Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. and ed. Reidar Thomte (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 28.
- Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 113.
- Vincent Phillip Muñoz, God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 5.
- Aristotle, The Politics, 185.