sábado, 20 de febrero de 2016

Is commerce alone sufficient to promote civic virtue?

Shakespeare’s Critique of the American Regime: A Response to John McGinnis

by Josh Craddock

Since understanding political life is essential to understanding human nature, and revealing human nature is the mark of a masterful poet, great poetry like that of Shakespeare necessarily reflects political principles.

In a recent debate (1) between Professors Robert George and John McGinnis, the latter argued that our Constitution is adequate for the governance of an irreligious people. (Public Discourse published an essay from George, making the opposite argument, based on his opening statements, which you can read here.) “Instead of relying on religion . . . to elicit the virtues needed for civic life,” McGinnis said, “the Constitution creates a commercial republic to make sure the self-interest of man helps promote virtue.”

According to this line of reasoning, a commercial society fosters self-control, honest dealing, and self-reliance among its citizens. In turn, these values promote limited government and the growth of civic associations. But is commerce alone sufficient to promote civic virtue? More importantly, can a political community survive without widely shared beliefs about what constitutes civic virtue in the first place?

Shakespeare provides an answer in The Merchant of Venice. Just as Homer was a tutor for the ancient Greeks, shaping their notions of political community, courage, and the cosmos, Shakespeare has been and continues to be an essential teacher for English-speaking peoples. Since understanding political life is essential to understanding human nature, and revealing human nature is the mark of a masterful poet, great poetry necessarily reflects political principles. Indirectly, Shakespeare informs us about the qualities of good rulers, the fate of tyrants, the obligations of citizens, and even the nature of a just regime—insofar as one can be established given human frailty.

The Commercial Spirit of Venice

Venice was once a wealthy commercial republic, a dominant Mediterranean power that built its community by sublimating the differences among men through bonds of trade. It was generally thought of as a place where men who would never have shared a common way of life could mingle and live together in civility.

“It was not thought possible to educate men to a tolerant view or to overcome the power of the established religions by refuting them,” writes Allan Bloom in “On Christian and Jew,” a chapter of Shakespeare’s Politics that analyzes the political themes of The Merchant of Venice. “The only way was to substitute for the interest and concern of men’s passions another object as powerfully attractive as religion.” In this case, that substitute was the desire for material gain. This commercial spirit created a veneer of tolerance that made life in Venice possible—but only for a time.

Though they are both religious men, Antonio the Christian and Shylock the Jew draw upon vastly different first principles, and these principles inform the nature and extent of their membership within the political community. Shylock follows the Mosaic law, refusing to eat, drink, or pray with Gentiles. For him, justice means strict adherence to the law. Antonio, inspired by the generosity of the Christian God’s mercy, showers extravagant grace upon others and expects them to do the same for him. Virtue for the one is vice to the other.

Based on the fates of Shylock and Othello—the foreign-born subject of Shakespeare’s other Venetian drama—it seems reasonable to conclude that Shakespeare was pessimistic about the ability of a commercial republic to maintain long-term civic peace. As Bloom puts it, “laws are not sufficient; they must be accompanied by good dispositions on the parts of those who live under them.” Lacking any common vision of the Good, the diverse Venetians inevitably ran aground the ship of state.

Political Community in a Postmodern Age

When citizens do not share fundamental principles, in what sense do they constitute community? For a political community to succeed, its citizens must share a common understanding of what is noble or base.

In a postmodern age, the Western world faces even greater differences. We no longer share a common concept of what it means to be human, much less what marriage is, what it means to be male or female, how one becomes a virtuous human being. We cannot even agree that such concepts exist in any meaningful or shared reality.

This divide is not merely moral, but metaphysical. Postmodern people think of humanity and the material world as infinitely malleable, subject to individuals who fashion reality according to the objects of their will. Christians and other pre-moderns believe that every thing—including mankind—possesses an essential nature by virtue of what the thing is. In other words, reality isn’t optional, it’s objective. The result of this chasm is that American citizens not only fail to reach the same conclusions from what they observe, they do not even see the same things to begin with because of their presuppositions about the nature of reality.

Materialistic commercial traders perceive no need to engage in rigorous philosophical pondering; the received philosophy of cultural oracles from Drake to Disney seems sufficient for them. But the Declaration of Independence, in asserting that “all men are created equal,” implies that the brotherhood of man exists even unto the highest part of the soul, the nous. This is a political and philosophic statement, not merely a scientific statement about our shared species. Yet without a shared philosophical ground, brotherhood can only exist at the lowest common denominator.


Read more:

(1)  Eighth Annual Rosenkranz Debate 

The Constitution is Designed for a Moral and Religious People and It's Wholly Unsuited for the Government of Any Other 

Event Audio/Video
2015 National Lawyers Convention

  • Prof. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University
  • Prof. John O. McGinnis, George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law, Northwestern University School of Law
  • Moderator: Hon. William H. Pryor Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit
  • Introduction: Mr. Eugene B. Meyer, President, The Federalsit Society

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario