Yale Bulletin and Calendar

January 26, 2001Volume 29, Number 16

Law School Dean Anthony Kronman addressed an audience of students, faculty and members of the general public at Battell Chapel.

Talks trace the evolution of the 'democratic soul'

To Socrates, democracy was the "next to worst" form of government, better only than tyranny, noted Law School Dean Anthony Kronman in his lecture inaugurating the Tercentennial DeVane Lecture series.

The Greek philosopher's appraisal of the system of government Americans hold in the highest regard is one of many perspectives on democracy Yale faculty members will discuss during the course of the 15-week interdisciplinary DeVane Lectures, titled "Democratic Vistas." The free, public lectures -- which also form the core of an undergraduate for-credit course -- will continue through May 1.

Students and faculty from Yale and area colleges and high schools, as well as members of the general public, packed Battell Chapel for Kronman's Jan. 9 lecture on "The Democratic Soul" and the second DeVane Lecture, "Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman as Representative Americans," presented Jan. 16 by David Bromwich, the Bird White Housum Professor of English.

The following is a summary of their talks.

'The Democratic Soul'

In his lecture, Kronman compared the political philosophies of the ancient Greeks, such as Socrates and Plato, with modern thought on democracy.

The audience laughed as Kronman read Socrates' description of the democratic citizen, as found in Plato's "Republic": "He lives along day by day, gratifying the desires that occur to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything, and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he ever admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it's money-makers, in that one."

That caricature, Kronman admitted, is not unlike the citizens of modern democracies, who share a "passionate" commitment to individuality, freedom and equality.

"Are we not devoted to the idea that each of us must be free to choose the life that seems to him or her the best?" Kronman asked the audience. "... Are the lives we live not strikingly like the one that Socrates caricatures as the democratic norm: full of restless energy, and insatiable curiosity, devoted to a multitude of heterogeneous pursuits -- to music and drinking and dieting and exercise and politics and study -- that form no overall pattern?"

"In his account of democracy, Socrates shows us how we live today," Kronman continued. "He holds a mirror up to our lives. His contempt for democracy is a contempt for us, and if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit the truth of what he says. Our democratic culture is shallow, inconstant and vulgar, driven by fashion and fad, shameless in its refusal to acknowledge the distinction of better and worse and the authority that flows from it. ... We accept the pathologies of democracy as the necessary if sometimes unappealing consequence of our commitment to the ideal of individuality -- the ideal of being or becoming an individual. For us, this goal is supremely important, and we love our democracy with all of its flaws, because it honors this goal and makes it its central value."

This ideal of individuality was entirely "unthinkable" to Socrates, said Kronman, because it contradicted the philosopher's metaphysical assumption that only eternal things are real and of value, while transient things are unreal, and thus have no essential worth. Hence, Socrates believed the "transient" feelings, beliefs and pursuits of human beings -- the characteristics that make them individuals -- have no significant value, explained the dean.

The Judeo-Christian religious tradition -- which is based on the belief that God created the world from nothing and stressed the uniqueness and value of each human being -- has since the time of the ancient Greeks reinforced democratic ideals by "preparing the way for our modern understanding of individuality, and with that, our belief in the moral and spiritual value of democracy," Kronman told his audience.

The religious traditions which gave rise to these current beliefs "faded into the background of our democratic civilization" as it has progressed to a secular form of government, noted Kronman. But the emphasis of modern democratic society on diversity among its members -- and the celebration of that diversity -- is a byproduct of these religious traditions, he said. Such an appreciation of diversity would have struck early Greek philosophers "as completely absurd," Kronman said.

Kronman concluded his talk noting that not all of Socrates' criticisms of democracy should be dismissed. In fact, the Law School dean said, the philosopher raised a question relevant to today's democratic citizens when he attacked democracy for "its failure to discriminate between two sorts of [human] desires, the necessary and the unnecessary."

"[I]t might seem that our commitment to individuality requires that we reject the very idea of a standard of right living, as Socrates understood it," he told his audience. "Must we -- can we -- forsake the use of such standards when it comes to the comprehensive activity of living? Of two lives, each unique and self-directed, can we never say that one comes closer to the goal of human fulfillment, that it has more of worth in it, and is worthier on that account?"

Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman

In his discussion of the values and principles that shaped modern democracy, Bromwich turned to the mid-1800s when two contemporaries, politician Abraham Lincoln and poet Walt Whitman, gave further expression to the democratic ideals of freedom, equality and individuality.

Slavery was the divisive issue that defined the America of the 1850s, when Lincoln emerged as a national figure and Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" was published, noted Bromwich. National argument at that time was focused on the 1854 legislation that opened up free territories in the Midwest to the owners of slaves and on the Fugitive Slave Law, which required citizens of the "free states" to return escaped slaves to their masters, the English professor noted.

The latter law, Bromwich told his audience, "raised a question for the accomplice as well as the slave and master. Am I free in a country that uses the power of the state to compel me to assist in the capture of a human being who has risked his life for freedom? These things were sifted deeply in those years, and not by Lincoln and Whitman alone. There has not been another time when so searching an inquest drew so many ingenuous minds to discuss the basis in law and morality of the life we share."

Lincoln and Whitman, who Bromwich described as "soft-spoken writers," gave voice to this issue and others of their day, often writing as "moral psychologists" to communicate to their audiences their ideals of equality and individuality, according to Bromwich. While Lincoln's goal was to persuade American citizens of the political and moral wrong of slavery and Whitman's writing explored the process of self-discovery and the idea of "oneself," both national figures "were part of a radical current of opinion that started out in dissent," he said.

Quoting Whitman's declaration "Whoever degrades another degrades me" and Lincoln's statement "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master," Bromwich noted that in these words, both men expressed a belief that slavery "was a concomitant of American democracy, and its degradation and betrayal."

Whitman, Bromwich told his audience, praised above all "the experience of a single person dwelling unseen among others." Through his linking of individuality and anonymity, the poet "traces a new democratic self-respect to 'an image of completeness in separatism.'" The English professor went on to quote Whitman's definition of personal dignity: "a single person, either male or female, characterized in the main, not from extrinsic acquirements or position, but in the pride of himself or herself alone ..."

The dignity of individuals and the idea of "common humanity" were also themes for Lincoln, said Bromwich, noting that the American president "could see the highest idealism of American democracy articulated in the words 'all men are created equal.'" Bromwich pointed out that in one speech, Lincoln appealed to the humanity of white American citizens by speaking from the point of view of the slave, saying, "All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have left him in his prison-house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places."

Both Lincoln and Whitman, Bromwich concluded, are "heroes ... as admirable as any we are likely to get." Noting a current fashion that dismisses "the very idea of heroes," Bromwich said he believed that this trend is "fundamentally mistaken."

"The unmasking of great men and women, true as a tactic, is false as discipline," he told his audience. "By proving you contingently superior to the most admirable examples from the past, it deprives you of a weapon of criticism and a wellspring of hope. It fosters not the love of perfection but moral snobbery and self-satisfaction, and only adds to the growing excess of arrogance of realism. Can we express the morality of true democracy better than Whitman and Lincoln did?"

Upcoming DeVane Lectures

The Tercentennial DeVane Lectures take place on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. in Battell Chapel; each lecture is followed by a discussion with the speaker on the following Thursday at the same time and in the same location.

The lectures are posted several days after they are delivered in video, audio and text format at the lecture series' website: www.yale.edu/democracy. A complete schedule of lectures also appears at this site.

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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