Freedom Well Understood

Laurence D. Cooper

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Leo Tolstoy's arresting observation about domestic life — "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" — is also instructive for students of politics, for it sheds light on the important but easily forgotten differences between families and political communities.

As with familial dysfunction, political dysfunction can manifest in an endless variety of ills. Yet the overall affect it produces — the actual unhappiness — tends to be of a kind. Frustration, disappointment, demoralization — these are blunt and blunting, above all because their sources seem so impersonal. Our current national discontent is no exception. There is something tedious about it, something that came to seem all too familiar all too quickly.

Perhaps that's why so many Americans appear intent on erasing the distinction between the personal and the political, whether by personalizing their political distress and gorging on the purported malevolence of their opponents, or by politicizing the personal and seeing even the most private behavior through a partisan political lens. Better to belong to an unhappy family than an unhappy polity, or so the logic seems to go. At least the fusion of the political and the personal invests one's discontent with meaning.

But a polity is not a family, and wanting it to be one cannot but stifle civic life.


Political philosophers have long recognized the temptation to overlook the distinction between family and polity. Plato famously "solved" the problem of civic strife and disregard for the common good by conjuring a society in which members of the ruling class would be deprived of private property and attachments, supposing that they would therefore regard one another as family.

Plato's student Aristotle criticized his teacher's scheme precisely for this supposition. A political community in which everything is held in common, Aristotle argued, would be less than a political community, not more. A healthy society flourishes on differences and distinctions; it is enriched by a diversity of dispositions and interests. It is a whole, yes, but a variegated, heterogeneous whole. And it allows varied dispositions and interests to express themselves through political deliberation and contests — that is, deliberation and contests to determine who will govern and which policies will prevail.

The society that regards itself as or wishes to be a family is a society that would deprive its citizens of an important dimension of life — a natural dimension, if Aristotle is to be believed. But if holding everything in common would deprive citizens of the opportunity to live a full life, so would holding too little in common. Mutual non-aggression is not enough to constitute a viable society, let alone a flourishing one; it represents the beginning of a social compact, nothing more. What is needed is widespread dedication to a common good that is substantive and expansive, but that citizens don't deem terminally at odds with their private goods and personal interests. Where such a condition is approximated, concord or civic friendship can prevail, and factions needn't regard one another as enemies. And the greatest good for society is not oneness, says Aristotle, but philia — friendship or affection, beginning with concord.

But how to get to that saner and friendlier place? What good can be common to parties such as ours who regard one another as seeking to ruin the country?

An adequate answer would have to be worked out politically over time by the parties themselves, and there's no knowing precisely what it might look like. Thankfully, however, the pathway to an adequate answer — the basic elements, or the principles and presuppositions that need to be recognized and heeded — is in some part knowable now.

The first of these elements is to accept the distinctiveness of the political community vis-à-vis the family on the one hand and mere alliance (the mutual non-aggression pact) on the other. Aristotle begins the Politics by making precisely this point. Prior to his famous and lofty account of the political community's naturalness and of man as a naturally political animal, he corrects those who suppose that "cities," or political communities (poleis), differ from households only in degree.

The second element is to recognize that every political community has, or rather is, a particular kind of regime, and that the regime necessarily forms and structures the lives of the community's citizens in profound and pervasive ways.

The third element concerns democracy. Aristotle is no democrat — in the Politics, he introduces democracy as the defective form of rule by the many (defective because the ruling party, though the majority, does not seek the common good) — but he isn't quite anti-democratic, either. Indeed, the mixed regime he lauds as the best practicable regime, and perhaps the best regime as such, turns out to be a mix of democracy and oligarchy, on the apparent premise that the respective flaws of these avowedly defective regimes might cancel each other out. He also has much to say about what makes for less defective and more defective — or, let us say, better and worse — democracies.

The most important of these observations concerns how democracies understand freedom, for the fundamental principle of democracy — of all democracies, to the extent they are democracies — is that all free men merit citizenship and thus a share in ruling. Or, as Aristotle puts it, "the presupposition of the democratic sort of regime is freedom." Indeed, in America, freedom is also the end, or justifying purpose, of government. This view is stated plainly in the Declaration of Independence, according to which governments are instituted among men for the sake of preserving freedom ("to secure these rights [to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness]"). And it has continued to prevail in America even as the size and scope of government have multiplied: The proliferation of the language of rights shows that the expansion of government reflects not an expansion of government's concerns beyond freedom, but an expansion of what is regarded as rightful freedom.

Aristotle's focus on how democratic peoples understand freedom — both how they tend to understand it and how they might better understand it — points to how our own troubled polity might find its way to greater health. Those who bristle at the prospect of learning such a lesson from Aristotle should take reassurance from the fact that it also finds support in more recent figures whose democratic bona fides are or ought to be beyond reproach. These include, especially, Alexis de Tocqueville and Irving Kristol, whose insights are as penetrating as they are because each of them practiced, in his own way, a kind of neo-Aristotelian political science.


If the partisan strife of our time has become ever more bitter, that is probably because such strife has become ever more fundamental. It seems to have become — to many of the most engaged contestants it has become — a contest between contending regime types. What kind of a country and people should we be? What kind of a country and people are we?

Any regime necessarily impresses upon its citizens characteristic ways of thinking and living, along with the beliefs and mores that support those ways of thinking and living. Some may dissent, but none are unaffected. This is in the nature of what it means to be a regime; and that, in turn, is in the nature of what it means to be a human being. As social, moral, and political beings, we cannot help but be formed by the regimes in which we are reared, and while some may attain a considerable degree of independence, they will do so only by persistently confronting the ways in which they have been formed, which is not easy and hardly a popular taste. The insuperable importance of the question of regime stands at the center of classical political thought.

Many would like to claim that America is exceptional in this regard. Ours, they effectively say, is a liberal regime, and liberal regimes maintain, or at least should maintain, neutrality toward "the good." Indeed, the genius and the glory of liberalism is that it allows us to conceive of the good individually, and to pursue happiness as we see fit. Not even the strictest or most procedural liberalism can dispense with certain widely held substantive commitments, of course, but the state may not demand fealty concerning the highest matters: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Surely neutrality about God is neutrality about the good. On this highest and holiest matter, and on everything else beyond the minimal requirements of order and civility, citizens of liberal regimes are, or are meant to be, radically autonomous.

And yet Alexis de Tocqueville, who praises the American separation of church and state, observes in the same book that religion, though it "never mixes directly in the government of society," should nevertheless be considered "the first of [Americans'] political institutions." Tocqueville's great genius is to show how virtually every aspect of life in America is profoundly shaped, if not produced, by democracy, understanding "democracy" not primarily as a form of government, but rather as a broadly prevailing social condition characterized by distinctive attitudes, beliefs, mores, pastimes, tastes, and more. Tocqueville does not explicitly refer to democracy in America or anywhere else as a "regime"; rather, he calls it a "social state." In fact, the word "regime" barely appears in Democracy in America, and never in the sense we've been discussing. To use the word that way might have suggested a greater degree of choice than Tocqueville wanted to concede to his contemporaries. It might also have opened the door to a kind of doctrinal orientation — and therewith doctrinal dispute — that he eschewed.

But what Tocqueville means by "social state" is a fair paraphrase of Aristotle's teaching about regime:

The social state is ordinarily the product of a fact, sometimes of laws, most often of these two causes united; but once it exists, one can consider it as the first cause of most of the laws, customs, and ideas that regulate the conduct of nations; what it does not produce, it modifies.

And in Tocqueville's view, there is nothing ambiguous about what kind of social state prevailed in America, at least in the free states. "One could make several important remarks about the social state of the Anglo-Americans," he observes, "but there is one that dominates all others. The social state of the Americans is eminently democratic. It has had this character since the birth of the colonies; it has it even more in our day."

Nor is democracy any less determinative a social state or regime than any other. It may even be more determinative, for if the state in democratic America intrudes less into the lives of individuals than do non-democratic states, society, or what Tocqueville calls "the social power," intrudes much more. One will look in vain for an aspect of American life in which Tocqueville does not discern the formative power of democracy; it has shaped or reshaped everything — not only our politics and the structures of civil society, but also religion, family life, tastes and manners, and work and leisure, right down to what Americans think, and even or especially how they think. Where the state does not legislate, society does — not formally, but no less effectively. Political power may be limited and enumerated; "social power" is not. And so American liberalism was and is most emphatically a regime in the classical sense, irrespective of constitutional and extra-constitutional constraints on government.

But if American liberalism is a regime in the full sense, is it the same regime now that it has always been? Has there not been a succession of American regimes, a succession of American democratic republics, as American life has been repeatedly transformed — by westward expansion, by the Civil War and emancipation, by immigration and industrialization, by science and technology, by the assumption of world leadership, and, perhaps most of all, by new cultural and spiritual currents?

In a certain sense the question is arbitrary and semantic: Where precisely is the point at which a regime ceases to be the same regime and becomes another? But the question could hardly be more important, for it can help us understand our vexed moment and whether and how we can transcend it.

To passionate partisans, we are far past semantics. For them, the stakes are not only momentous, but stark, even Manichaean. The very nature and character of the country is at risk, and there is no gray area, let alone a broader spectrum of colors, between the good and the bad. Add to this the widespread, urgent sense among fierce partisans that the point of no return is nigh upon us, and it becomes difficult to see how we might return to a less dysfunctional politics and a less tortured body politic short of one side being routed (unlikely in the foreseeable future) or both sides coming to feel threatened by a common enemy (a blessing perhaps, but also a curse). What then to do?

We would do well to begin by taking the partisans and their arguments seriously, for this will allow us to uncover the ground on which the conflict might ultimately be resolved, even if this uncovering is apt to heighten the conflict in the short term. The ground I'm speaking of is the ground on which the meaning of freedom is contested. For however great their differences and their antagonism, both left and right in the United States today claim to stand for democracy and to defend it against the other side. If Aristotle is right about freedom being the presupposition of democracy, left and right are battling at bottom over the meaning of freedom.

But is Aristotle right in this case? To judge from our political debates, one might think that what our partisans are chiefly contesting is less the meaning of freedom than the meaning of equality. That debate, or at least its contours, are quite familiar. One side argues for equality before the law and equality of opportunity, the other for equality of outcome, or "equity," as its proponents have taken to calling it. It's only natural that self-proclaimed democrats would argue about equality and strive to establish themselves as its true advocates.

And yet it is not only democrats who claim to stand for equality. All parties, including non-democratic ones, have always laid claim to equality in an important sense. For all parties lay claim to justice, and, as Aristotle shows, there is no conception of justice that doesn't invoke the principle of equality. Self-avowed oligarchs and aristocrats object to democracy precisely on the grounds of equality: To give equal authority to all, regardless of their respective merits and contributions, is to violate justice understood as the equal application of a single standard to inevitably unequal people. Equal outcomes for unequal persons implies either unequal standards of arbitration or the unequal application of a single standard.

We could easily cast the bitter partisan strife of our time as a struggle over the true or best meaning of equality. Indeed, we normally do interpret the conflict in these terms. But while interpreting our moment this way might do a certain justice to the various parties as they understand themselves, it doesn't illuminate a way forward. It is well and good to understand that we face a contest over how to understand equality, but we still need a basis on which to adjudicate the dispute. Among those who claim the mantle of democracy — which is to say, among virtually all of our political actors and advocates — that basis can be found in the question concerning the meaning of freedom: what freedom is, what it requires, and why it is to be desired. Freedom is prior to the question of equality, for it is precisely their freedom that makes citizens of a democracy equal to one another and that constitutes their claim to an equal share in rule.

Now democracy, or "the democratic sort of regime," is in fact many sorts of regime: There is enormous variety among democracies. Some are more democratic than others. Some are more stable than others. Some are better than others. In the sixth book of the Politics, Aristotle parses these differences. The breadth of his treatment of the variety of democratic institutions, practices, and beliefs is remarkable; but it is the order of his treatment that tells us what we most need to know, for his extensive treatment of democracy begins with the statement about freedom being the presupposition of democratic regimes. Laws and institutions matter, as do economic and social phenomena; indeed, these structural factors surely exercise a certain influence on what people believe. But the beliefs, once in place, tend to predominate over all the rest with respect to a society's character.

The signal importance of a people's beliefs concerning the greatest matters has been a recurrent theme among the great political thinkers of the Western tradition — including "realists" like Thucydides and Machiavelli. Tocqueville explicates the matter most clearly and, for us, most usefully. In a chapter of Democracy in America titled "On the Principal Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States," Tocqueville accords considerable significance to "accidental or providential causes" like geography and demography, and even more significance to laws, but he accords the greatest, indeed decisive importance, to mores (moeurs), which he understands "in the sense the ancients attached to the word mores," meaning "the whole moral and intellectual state of a people." These begin with a people's beliefs and ideas — especially their religious beliefs and ideas — and most especially their beliefs and ideas regarding freedom and obligation, which are a subset of their religious beliefs.

Tocqueville does not explicitly define this freedom. But his praise of Americans for cultivating "the art of being free"; his elaboration of the activities and venues in which this art is learned and practiced; his crediting religion — beginning with that of the Puritans — with teaching Americans this art: All this (and more) suffices to show that he would have us understand and prize freedom conceived in a certain way, a challenging and ennobling way — a republican way. With this, Tocqueville points us back to Aristotle, who expounds the meaning of freedom and the consequences of understanding it well or badly.


So how should we conceive of freedom? Let's follow Aristotle and begin as he does with how we should not conceive of it.

There seems to be a natural tendency among democrats to hew to a conception of freedom that is not simply mistaken, but dangerously partial. As Aristotle observes, "in those democracies which are held to be most particularly democratic, what has become established is the opposite of what is advantageous. The cause of this is that they define freedom badly." What these democrats mean by "freedom" is doing whatever one wants. In fact, though, this is less than, and perhaps even the opposite of, true freedom, and it conduces all too well to political subjugation. Aristotle puts it this way:

For there are two things by which democracy is held to be defined: the majority having authority, and freedom. Justice is held to be something equal; equality requires that whatever the multitude resolves is authoritative, and freedom and equality involve doing whatever one wants. So in democracies of this sort everyone lives as he wants and "toward whatever [end he happens] to crave," as Euripides says. But this is a poor thing. To live with a view to the regime should not be supposed to be slavery, but preservation.

It is not for no reason that democrats tend to conceive of freedom in this way. Aristotle later presents the implicit logic behind it, and in the process takes a gentler view: To "live as one, they assert, the work of freedom, since not living as one wants is characteristic of a person who is enslaved." To be sure, the "they" who make this assertion are partisans of extreme or undiluted democracy. But do they not have a point? Surely freedom does mean, at minimum, not being enslaved.

The partisans of democracy disserve their own cause, for to conceive of freedom as doing whatever one wants will suffice neither to understand freedom nor sustain it. Doing whatever one wants can be a mark of freedom, but it can also be just the opposite: It depends on what one wants — or, rather, on what element of the soul has determined what is wanted. To desire and pursue ends that conduce to one's well-being — ends that one has chosen because they conduce to one's well-being — is to live freely. To be captive to addiction is not. Nor is thoughtlessly yielding to any and every desire or impulse, particularly when they are discordant with one another or with a thoughtful and fulfilling life. The more reliable mark of freedom — indeed the primary principle of freedom, according to Aristotle — is not doing whatever one wants, but rather "being ruled and ruling in turn." This is what democrats need to understand and hew to, in their political and personal lives alike.

By beginning and thus anchoring his treatment of freedom with this republican definition, Aristotle shows himself attuned to what many liberals and much liberal theory effectively deny: the inescapability of rule in any organism or community, whether individual or collective. To do whatever one wants is not to escape being ruled; it is to be ruled by something within oneself. The question is only what that something is and how and on behalf of what it operates.

One who is led by fleeting desire — or worse, one who is in thrall to desire that is consuming and unwanted — is not free. We acknowledge this when we recognize that an addict is a slave to his addiction. One who is animated by reflective desire, by contrast, enjoys real freedom, and is recognized by most of us as doing so. The issue is political, which may sound strange but is in fact quite sensible once one appreciates that the soul is a kind of polity unto itself.

In any polity, there is either anarchy or order, or some admixture of both. When there is order, there is an ordering principle and power. When that power rules benignly, when it takes account of the needs and well-being of all the particular elements of the community while knowledgably and prudently seeking the well-being of the whole — in short, when it rules rationally — that is good governance. It is also freedom.

It is good governance because it provides for the flourishing of the polity. It is freedom because it is rule by reason, by the mind, which is the seat of all freedom and, for that reason, as Aristotle suggests in the 10th book of the Nicomachean Ethics, the true self. Freedom is not and cannot be a condition without rule. Freedom is self-rule — rule by the best and most authoritative element, by the most rational or mindful element, of the self, whether the self at issue be an individual human being or a political community.

Aristotle's preferred conception of freedom may seem at variance not only with the more libertarian ethos of our time, but even with the American founding. The inalienable rights upheld by the Declaration of Independence are negative freedoms; the phrase "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" makes no direct reference to self-government. Yet while these articulations of freedom may be negative, and while this negativity may have made Americans all the more susceptible to today's more libertarian or "securitarian" (in Peter Augustine Lawler's felicitous coinage) ethos, they are not opposed to the more positive republican conception advocated by Aristotle — not quite. For they are not simply or wholly negative.

The founders took the truths of the Declaration to be self evident to people with a certain understanding and sense of themselves — people capable of governing themselves both personally and collectively, and who know what self-government entails. To put it another way, the negative or liberal expression of freedom that drove the American founding was accompanied by what we might call a "republican anthropology."

The United States was founded as a liberal regime, yes, but a liberal and democratic republic. Americans said "Don't Tread on Me" not because we are ungovernable, but because we know who and what we are and can govern ourselves. At the time of the founding, Americans had a robust tradition of republicanism, and this tradition would be sustained and extended in the decades following independence. Even today, it informs the political thought and action of millions of Americans. Thus to persuade people to understand freedom as self-rule rather than no rule would be a matter of restoration or reawakening rather than an attempt to graft something new and alien onto the American body politic.

The republican anthropology implicit in the American founding finds support in another of Aristotle's teachings in the Politics. Exploring the ins and outs of the best regime late in the work, Aristotle asks "what quality of persons they should be in their nature." He is not asking what education they should be given or what kind of people they might ultimately become — these subjects he has already treated. Rather, he is asking what kind of inborn capacities and dispositions one would want in citizens of the best regime. His answer is twofold: One would want citizens endowed with both intelligence and spiritedness — intelligence so that they might know what course to chart, spiritedness so that they'd have the courage and heart needed to insist on self-rule and to make difficult decisions. Intelligence and spiritedness are not always found together, and neither will suffice on its own.

The Declaration and the revolution for which it spoke were surely expressions of spiritedness. Were they expressions of intelligent spiritedness? They were — and are. The founders presupposed a citizenry adequately prepared for self-government, both moral and political. If their language concerning freedom was predominantly negative, that may be because the primary thrust of their political project was — and needed to be — negative: Before they could establish self-government, they needed to overthrow government by another. And while it is certainly possible that the founders were mistaken for supposing that republican and other virtues could be sustained without public religious sanction (an argument made perhaps most powerfully by Irving Kristol), that in no way suggests that the founders regarded virtue or religion as dispensable, or that they supposed that a citizenry could maintain its freedom with an impoverished conception of what that freedom is.

Nor need we conclude that the founders' failure in this regard, if in fact it was a failure, prevents us today from revivifying and buttressing republican citizenship, beginning with a republican conception of freedom. Those who would undertake this project could call on several of the most illustrious founders themselves to support this work. And most of all, they could appeal to a spiritedness that, though often careless and ill considered in its (inevitably populist) expression, could be enlisted on behalf of a stirring but sober liberal republicanism.

Spiritedness is necessary to virtue, whereas complacent selfishness is indifferent and therefore fatal to it. Most Americans today are neither sanguinary and cruel nor complacently selfish. Not that they would likely respond either to calls for renewed virtue or to instruction regarding how to conceive of freedom: The former would surely strike most people's ears as archaic, the latter as tedious and remote. Societies are neither Sunday schools nor seminars, and they don't want to be. What's needed is an effective republican rhetoric, and that requires a reservoir of sentiment to tap. Such rhetoric has not been lacking in American political history, at least not in times of utmost need, and the reservoir of sentiment that it tapped is not yet dry.

Doesn't this amount to a futile effort to turn back the clock? It would be an effort to turn back the clock, yes, but that does not make it futile. As Kristol noted, "human history, read in a certain way, can be seen as full of critical moments when human beings deliberately turned the clock back"; it is only our thrall to a "romantic-rationalist" conception of history that makes us think otherwise. To be sure, the clock can never simply be turned back, as Kristol also noted. His two chief examples of turning back the clock, namely the Protestant Reformation and the codification of the Talmud, are instructive on both points. Each was indeed a kind of return, but neither restored exactly what once had been.

So we mustn't expect a renewal of republicanism among Americans to look quite like anything we've seen before. Nor should we want it to. Restoration cuts against the grain of a country that has always been future oriented; an America that yearned simply to return to the past wouldn't altogether be America. And there is much in the American past that we are indeed well rid of. But with the latter point, we come to a final matter of concern.


What accounts for the eclipse of republican understandings of freedom by more purely liberal ones in recent decades? The plausible answers are legion. The advance of secularism has deprived republicanism of some of its firmest sustaining ground. Rationalism has encouraged narrowly instrumental thinking, which, particularly in a commercial republic, inevitably means economic thinking. The logic of democracy, according to Tocqueville, promotes tendencies toward secularism and rationalism. It also leads, again per Tocqueville, to a narrowing of the individual's horizons both spatially and temporally. The citizen has given way not to the subject, at least not knowingly, but to the consumer. And that's to say nothing about the deconstructive intellectual currents that have flourished in the academy for decades (and are in fact no longer confined to the academy).

These tendencies and others persist, and it is far from clear how they might be reversed. Yet it is also far from clear that they need to be reversed if republicanism and a republican conception of freedom are to make a resurgence. Republicanism and its understanding of freedom speak to something natural, or at any rate persistent, in human beings. That something is evident even now, if only negatively or by default, in the almost palpable sense of desiccation and disappointment that prevails among so many of our fellow citizens. The "loneliness epidemic," deaths of despair, widespread disaffection and cynicism — all of these suggest a hunger for meaning and connection.

Historically, such a hunger probably found its greatest and most reliable satisfaction in religion, and perhaps that is where our greatest hope must ultimately lie. Kristol again: "All people, everywhere, at all times, are 'theotropic' beings, who cannot long abide the absence of a transcendental dimension to their lives." But Kristol was a nuanced enough observer to know that "theotropism" might seek and even find its end — its theos — in a civic or political direction. It may be that for many today, the civic or political is the most promising and perhaps the only available direction, for even an adamant skeptic might accept the reality of the political community and of the possibilities it offers for meaning and connection.

Yet if the prospect of a republican resurgence seems plausible, it also faces a peculiar difficulty — a difficulty not unlike that which has contributed to the enfeeblement of religion in contemporary Europe. European churches have yet to recover from the damage they suffered for their long-time alliance with despised and discredited political establishments. Similarly, American republicanism has suffered for its association with now despised and discredited institutions and practices of the American past, particularly concerning the treatment of blacks and Native Americans.

To be sure, one could argue that liberal republicanism (along with Christian abolitionism) ultimately ended the country's gravest injustices. Liberalism called for equality before the law, and republicanism provided the energy and devotion required for the American people to answer that call through a bloody and protracted Civil War. One will search in vain for two truer exemplars of American liberal republicanism than Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for America to make good on its promissory note to its black citizens was, as a call to justice rather than (or more than) self-interest, a republican appeal. Yet those who make this case are arguing uphill against a deep-seated determination among many Americans — particularly intellectuals and educators — to locate the country's true character in its sins rather than in its liberal-republican principles and accomplishments.

Just what portion of Americans hold this dim view of their country with zealous conviction is unclear. But a great many who don't nevertheless yield to those who do. The logic and mechanisms whereby a passionate and vocal minority has succeeded in cowing large numbers of more moderately minded Americans have been illuminated by the Hoover Institution's Shelby Steele, who tells the story of how Americans' admission of their country's sins has undermined the moral authority of even those who had nothing to do with those sins and who repudiate them and wish to overcome their legacy. As Steele observes, "after America admitted what was worst about itself [not only racism but also 'sexism, imperialism, materialism, conformity, environmental indifference, educational inequality, superficiality, greed, and so on'], there was not enough authority left to support what was best." This lack of authority, it needs to be stressed, manifests first and foremost in a lack of moral self-confidence — that is, a lack of authority in one's own eyes.

Why should those who have not perpetrated the wrongs at issue be so vulnerable to self-undermining guilt? Steele illuminates many of the relevant factors, as do writers like Pascal Bruckner and Wilfred McClay. McClay in particular sheds light on contemporary humanity's peculiar givenness to guilt, the difficulty of paying for or discharging this guilt in a post-religious world, and the ways in which many people contrive to free themselves of this burden. Regarding the latter, he writes: "One workable way to be at peace with oneself and feel innocent and 'right with the world' is to identify oneself as a certifiable victim — or, nearly as good, by identifying oneself with victims or with the cause of victims."

For many, only victimhood can absolve one of moral responsibility, in part by displacing moral responsibility onto others, which has additional attractions all its own. Here we are deep in territory explored by Friedrich Nietzsche, who both foresaw the growing problem of guilt in a post-Christian world and understood the powerful impulse to accuse and convict. "Post-Christian" is indeed the key term here: As McClay argues, modern secularists have retained the "Judeo-Christian moral reflexes" that produce verdicts and feelings of guilt even as they have lost access to the absolution offered by the Church. What Kristol called "the Christian attitude about the presumed special quality of poor people" also persists, making it all the more difficult to rebut even baseless allegations when these allegations have been leveled by or on behalf of the poor or the oppressed.

None of this means that reviving American liberal republicanism is a lost cause; there remains among millions of Americans a sincere patriotism that doesn't require blindness to the country's sins. Indeed, I venture to suggest that there remains among many more millions an openness and predisposition to such patriotism, and not only among those who have no hope of establishing themselves as victims in the public eye. One wants to feel good about one's community, and if one is an American who locates the country's true character in its liberal-republican principles, then one should feel good about it. What's needed is an end to defensiveness in favor of an affirmative embrace of the country's liberal-republican ethos, history, principles, and prospective future.

An end to defensiveness does not, and indeed must not, mean denial or forgetting. It means doing as a community what we recognize as the healthy course in the private life of an ordinary, decent individual: acknowledging one's failings and misdeeds, making amends where possible, resolving to live up to one's principles and ideals, acting on those principles and ideals, and permitting oneself to feel pleasure and pride in doing so.

This brings us back to classical political philosophy's emphasis on the differences between a political community and a family. The disproportion between the two is reflected by ordinary language. When we inquire about a political community, we ask about its regime or form of government. We do not apply those words to a family. Yet as political philosophy's most famous work reminds us, we might — and indeed ought to — speak about the regime that governs the life and soul of an individual person.

Plato's Republic — whose title in the original Greek is Politeia, or, in English, Regime — inquires into justice and the best regime in both city and soul. And while the correspondence between city and soul is exaggerated over the course of the dialogue so that careful readers might be instructed regarding the limits of the correspondence and the limits of politics, there remains an undeniable commonality. Each is somehow sovereign in ways that the family is not. Each is a kind of polity comprised of contending factions that nevertheless can admit of rational and beneficent governance — rational and beneficent self-governance.

Toward the end of the dialogue, when a young companion concludes that the city he and the others have constructed in speech is of no account owing to the insurmountable obstacles to founding it, Socrates replies that a city constructed in speech can serve as a pattern for the individual's self-governance. If an imagined society can serve as a pattern for the individual, perhaps the individual can serve as a pattern for society, especially when the social ill we're trying to address is moral-psychological. What's healthful for the individual may be just as healthful, and just as plausible, for the American republic. Seeing that this is so may be the first step in making it so.

Laurence D. Cooper is a professor of political science at Carleton College.


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