Rather than focus on what set of ideas America must revive or reject, we might focus instead on the concrete realities which define our political life.
Anyone who takes higher education seriously attends to the words of legendary teachers. They are likely to be undisciplined, witty, and unfashionable; about great books; ironic about the careerism of their colleagues, students, and administrative bosses; self-indulgent; and insistently erotic, without being creepy.
Let me appreciate just a few of the thoughts of the legendary Werner Dannhauser (1929-2014). Even as I add my own spin to them, I’m doubting that I’m saying anything that great teachers of politics—such as Dannhauser, Allan Bloom, James Schall, Michael Harrington, Harvey Mansfield, Mary Nichols, Michael Sandel, Jean Elshtain, and Carey McWilliams—didn’t know and say better than I ever could.
Dannhauser did nothing but concern himself with the more compelling concerns of our strange and wonderful species: God, politics, love, and death. In so doing, he put himself, willingly and without any regret that his students could detect, outside the domain claimed by political science today. (See his 1975 essay here.)
Political science, insofar as it thinks of itself as a science, is about power and control. As Dannhauser acknowledges, that focus does give our “positivistic” political scientists something in common with many modern political philosophers. The early liberals Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, he reminds us, wrote with the intention of maximizing human power and control in the service of personal security and freedom. Their tradition is sustained by today’s political scientists who think of themselves as methodically serving the cause of human rights.
The limits of that understanding of political science stem from the technological orientation in general. It’s not that a Machiavellian mastery of the sources of power and the mechanisms of control isn’t useful; we can see that mastery deployed, for example, in the brilliant success of our Framers (see The Federalist) in sustaining our liberty through constitutional means over the centuries. It’s just that, compared to God, love, and death, it’s relatively boring. No kind of technological success can obliterate the “existential” questions that shape the personal destiny of every particular human life.
Dannhauser gives us an empirical observation: “The current generation of students is more interested in God than in sex, possibly because they have more than they need of the second, and almost nothing of the first.” So Dannhauser, “violating all political science curricula,” assigned the proto-existential Christian Blaise Pascal to students bored by Hobbes and Aristotle. “Suddenly,” he says, students paid attention. He had, to use the trendy phrase, “engaged them where they are.”
He adds a second empirical observation: “God goes undiscussed in the study of politics these days, despite the fact that the hunger to meditate on Him is perhaps the single profoundest hunger in the human soul.” How could the hungriest part of our hungry hearts be irrelevant to any account of political behavior?
Well, it’s not true that political scientists neglect religion as a cause of political behavior. They’ll even overdo thinking of religious belief as a cause. As in, what’s wrong with those conservatives out in Kansas, letting their nutty fundamentalism stop them from considering their true economic interests? Religion, they sometimes agree with Locke or Marx, is a kind of popular delusion that needs to be exposed and purged from political life. At most it’s a fact to be reckoned with in any calculus of power and control. (The Democrats learned that lesson when they forgot to talk about God during the first day of their 2012 convention; Republicans are no less cynical when they God it up to mobilize their base.)
What Pascal tells us is that the longing for God is a real and irreducible part of who we are. It might be, as Jean-Paul Sartre and other atheistic existentialists say, an absurd longing—or it might be an indispensable clue, as Pascal claims, to not only who we are but what we are supposed to do. Either way, it is as integral as our desires for self-preservation and comfort (the desires Hobbes and Locke reckon with), and just as natural as our desire (identified by evolutionary psychologists) for instinctual identification with other members of our species for reproduction and social bonding. Our better evolutionary psychologists, of course, explain religion as an indispensable or at least very useful mechanism for that bonding. Churches, they observe, are good for families, and flourishing families are what we need if our species and our country and our prosperity are going to have a secure future.
Today’s Lockean/libertarian individualists sometimes object that we free individuals don’t really see ourselves, deep down, as parts of any whole greater than ourselves be they families, churches, countries, or solar systems. Once we acknowledge, however, the Pascalian evidence that we are both irreducibly free and relational, we can see that our longings point us beyond ourselves. They even point us beyond our families and species toward a personal God who sees each of us “just as I am.”
Seen from this highly modern or postmodern vantage point, Dannhauser provocatively suggests, even Aristotle can seem a trifle boring. Interestingly enough, Aristotle, too, had tried to come up with a political science that owes little or nothing to our hunger for God. The classical political thinkers, who didn’t make the mistake of reducing political analysis to power and control, did address the proud longings of the best of human beings to live genuine lives of virtue in light of the truth. Yet even they tended to reduce most human beings to citizens or parts of some political whole. They understood the rarely-achieved liberation from political life for the sake of the life of the mind, to be a pursuit of wisdom that held no place for a relational God. Aristotle seems not to have taken seriously enough the longings that Pascal would come along and describe.
Another legendary American teacher, the socialist Michael Harrington, understood socialism to be a kind of wager we should make—that the right kind of egalitarian political community could assuage the loneliness that modern persons experience in a mass society. If he were around today, I can’t help but think, he would concede that socialism failed to do that even as it failed to obliterate our deepest longings. We can say that both socialism and modern technology—and nobody can deny the wonderful and beneficial successes of the latter—have failed to make God “past tense.” The space in our selves for being moved by God or his absence is still there, maybe larger than ever.
Let me conclude with a couple of resources Dannhauser didn’t have for integrating Pascal into the teaching of political science. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is often taught as perhaps the most astute and comprehensive book ever written on democracy and on America. Recent scholarship establishes that Tocqueville’s singular powers of observation and explanation depend, in significant measure, on his reading of Pascal. Tocqueville’s uncanny feel for the persistence of American restlessness in the midst of prosperity owes much to what he found in Pascal: a description of the various busy distractions deployed by people who can’t bear to face up to what they think they know about God’s absence.
Tocqueville says the most truthful experience each of us has is of being caught for a moment between two abysses, and it is that experience, first described by Pascal, that issues in the great displays of individuality—and also the worst displays—that come with human liberty. It’s thought and action in response to that experience that explain why each of us is stranger, more mysterious, and more wonderful than either the stars or Carl Sagan’s cosmos.
For an updating of Tocqueville’s analysis, we can turn to the best of our friendly critics in recent decades, such as the anti-communist dissidents Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel. Solzhenitsyn, from his Vermont perch, said that he heard beneath the Americans’ happy-talk of techno-pragmatism the howl of existentialism. The uncannily deep comedian Louis C.K. said that one reason he refused to let his daughters have smart phones or spend much time in front of screens is that they too easily divert us from the loneliness that is inescapably part of us. We live in a time, to paraphrase both Pascal and the Beach Boys, when one is not expected to enjoy the experience of simply being alone in one’s room. Because we don’t really talk about God or his absence, we’re stuck with either howling or being techno-diverted. Really discussing our longing for God is necessary.
Let me emphasize that I’m not talking up teaching religious dogma here. I’m pretty sure Tocqueville did not believe in the truth of Catholic dogmas concerning the Trinity, personal salvation, or the sacraments. The key point is that he thought himself unfortunate not to be a believer; the absence of God made him anxious. Werner Dannhauser, for his part, seems to have been a fairly agnostic Jew. But by the same token he, along with Pascal, didn’t really think that “the God of the philosophers” could replace our longing for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Admittedly I seem to have gone way beyond political science toward the conclusion that a revitalization of the social sciences and humanities depends on inquiry becoming more “existential” again. So be it. What is required, to use the tired cliché, is that we break down the disciplinary barriers to focus on the whole human person. I’m not saying that the hunger for God is the whole story. But ignoring its reality is a big reason the social sciences and humanities are failing to attract the best and brightest these days.
As Dannhauser understood, such a recovery of the scholarly enterprise would place no theocratic or collectivist limitations on personal liberty. No, what I’m talking about is recurring—very much as Dannhauser did—to the perennial reflection on what our liberty from the coercive constraints of political life is for.