Infusing goodness, beauty, and truth into our public discourse
Issue No. 7
Merry Christmas! I hope you had a wonderful holiday with loved ones. Among the many things I am grateful for this Advent season is people like you—curious and committed to moral and intellectual renewal in America today. Such renewal is the end and purpose of this monthly missive. To that end, thank you for being a part of this newsletter! As always, I promise to do my utmost to make it worth your while, sharing with you the latest of my work, as well as other simulating stories and features from around the world and web.
In the news:
Essay in TIME Magazine on what our manners reveal about our values
Sunday, October 27th was the one-hundred-forty-seventh anniversary of the birth of Emily Post, America’s most famous manners expert. And in my first essay for TIME, I explore what manners show about American cultural values—a faith in social equality and meritocracy. For a member of the social elite, Post was very egalitarian: As she wrote in her seminal 1922 book, “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it take to exclude those who are not of exulted birth; but it is an association of gentle folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognize it’s chosen members.” According to Post, kindness and good breeding are open to anyone who takes the time to study and practice their ways. Her lesson is timeless, and still very much relevant today. Read the essay here.
Essay in Spectator USA on the relationship between manners and morals
Across time and place, philosophers, moralists, and self-help gurus have teased out about the relationship between manners and morality. Among the people who recognize the deeper moral significance of norms include Petrarch, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Edmund Burke, Jane Austen, and Emily Post; all claimed that the foundation of true civility is ethics, a word derived from the Greek ethos, or character. Conduct formed character, the concluded, with Edmund Burke famously concluding that ‘Manners are of more importance than laws.’ Burke explained that ‘Upon them in a great measure, the Laws depend. The Law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.’ Continuing reading here.
Essay in The American Conservative comparing the life and thought of J.S Mill and Emily Post
In order to make completely sure that I cornered the Emily Post market for October, I published an essay for The American Conservative comparing the thought of J.S. Mill—the ultimate non-conformist, with Emily Post—the ultimate conformist. Strange bedfellows, I know! But it made for an interesting essay to write and—I hope an intriguing one to read! Mill famously condemned the social expectations of the Victorian era in which he lived: “[Society’s] ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.” Whereas Post encouraged her readers to “Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others” and to “follow the customs of the locality in which they live. In other words to do exactly as your neighbors do is the only sensible rule.” Can we learn from them both? Read more of the piece here and find out!
Read this before claiming social media is bad for democracy
It was great to speak with a journalist from PBS’s Rewire to discuss how social media skews our perception of the level of incivility in our current moment. It’s easy to look at the good parts of the past through rose colored glasses—for example, the statesmanship and gentility of Ancient Rome or the American founding era— and compare them with the worst elements of our own, such as toxic discourse on social media, which neither Ancient Rome nor the Founding Fathers could have ever imagined. The good news, though, is that what we hear and read on social media isn’t reflective of our how divided our body politic really is. I’m very grateful for the chance to discuss this—as well as how to bring back civility to our current public discourse, which you can learn about here—with Rewire in November.
Lecture on Civil Discourse Across Political Divides
What a pleasure it was to travel to St. Lawrence University in beautiful (and snowy!) Canton, NY to spend a day with students and faculty talking about civility. I spent the morning with students in a senior seminar class who had spent the semester studying Jane Austen’s works. I spoke about civility in Austen, her works, and the Victorian era. Among the ideas I discussed was the difference between civility and politeness, civility as a tool of social division versus as a tool of unity, and civility as a means of using people as ends versus respecting people as ends in themselves. In the evening, it was an honor to deliver the inaugural lecture in a series called Civil Discourse Across Political Divides. I spoke about the importance of civility to American democracy specifically, and human flourishing generally. Grateful that St. Lawrence is leading such an important and timely conversation, which you can learn more about here.
I received an unexpected request earlier this December: would I like to appear on RT (formerly Russia Today) and talk about the importance of capitalism? I’ve had few more peculiar Thursdays! It ended up being a great opportunity to talk about a few of my favorite things to an audience in over one hundred countries around the world: the social and cultural dispositions of trust and civic virtue necessary to sustain democratic and free market institutions, Adam Smith and personal morality, and the conditions of human flourishing. See part of the clip here.
I had the great honor of meeting Steve Forbes this past September at the awards ceremony for the Novak Fellowship. It was wonderful to lunch with him a few months later, this past November, and to learn the story of how his grandfather started a nascent publication from scratch in the early 1900s, and saw it through worldwide crisis and economic depression with hard work and self-sacrifice. During the Great Depression, for example, he asked his workers to take a salary cut—but he didn’t take a salary at all for a number of years! Thankful for gentlemen such as Mr. Forbes who care about the importance of good theory and ideas informing our political discourse today.
Things I’m reading:
The New York Times ran an interesting article on partisanship in America that argued that partisanship—at least at the individual level—is not as bad as many might think. The reality is that most people are not as ideologically rigid or extreme as either our political leaders or social media and television personalities. In fact, for most people, politics is not the be all end all. This is hopeful reminder for the future of our nation. Find the full article here.
The surprising roots of modern social justice concepts
This fascinating essay published by Heterodox Academy explains how many of the progressive social justice concepts we associate with college campuses today—including “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and more—have their roots in a good and important cultural shift during the post-Vietnam War era, when experts began to take seriously post-traumatic stress disorders. These concepts were studied and introduced as a means of taking the psychological trauma of war seriously. Well worth the read!
The Forgotten Virtue
In this article, Dr. James Hankins, a professor of Renaissance and intellectual history at Harvard University, revives insights from the Renaissance value of humanitas—love of humanity—that a liberal arts education was intended to cultivate. Renaissance humanists understood humanitas roughly in the way we think of civility; it was intended to counteract our natural predisposition to immanitas, our innate human impulse to dominate and be cruel to our fellow man. Dr. Hankins’ insights have caused me to think more about the nature of true civility—as something more that merely an aesthetic penchant or conversational virtue, but as something truly moral and foundational to human community. Read the essay and let me know what you think!
Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy
This just-released book by Dr. James Hankins, whose work I first discovered last year via the article discussed above, offers many insights into how to bring about intellectual and moral reform in our own moment. Stay tuned for my interview with him on his new book for Quillette’s podcast this coming month. For a chance to win this important new book, forward this newsletter to a friend and let me know, or share it on social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.—and tag me (so I see it!). I’ll enter all names, and draw one Jan 1st. Good luck! The link to share this newsletter can be found here. I will draw a winner January 1st, 2020!