T.S. Eliot on “Local Loyalty”

“It is important that a man should feel himself to be, not merely a citizen of a particular nation, but a citizen of a particular part of his country, with local loyalties. These, like loyalty to class, arise out of loyalty to the family. Certainly, an individual may develop the warmest devotion to a place in which he was not born, and to a community with which he has no ancestral ties. But I think we should agree that there would be something artificial, something a little too conscious, about a community of people with strong local feeling, all of whom had come from somewhere else. I think we should say that we must wait for a generation or two for a loyalty which the inhabitants had inherited, and which was not the result of a conscious choice. On the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born. Family, class and local loyalty all support each other; and if one of these decays, the others will suffer also.”

From “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” in Christianity and Culture, pg. 125.

The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 3)

Part 1 and Part 2

Person, Place, and State

In the course of my discussion, I have described each regime in terms of the appearance of equality or inequality and the actual equality or inequality. The question I want to raise, which to my knowledge is not something Aristotle raises, is whether there can be a legitimate show of virtue without the same underlying virtue. In other words, can there be a legitimate regime inbrownMansion which the show of superiority exceeds the actual superiority in virtue? Can a monarch present himself with dignity above his actual dignity and still rightfully be called a king? I ask this because it might seem that this is impossible, given my discussion above. Of course, a crafty monarch might be a good deceiver, but the question is, can a political theorist interested in political legitimacy justify the appearance of virtue when the substance is lacking?

I suggest that we can find legitimacy in the show itself. We cannot view the pageantry of the rule-by-one and the rule-by-few as merely isolated acts in history separated from a history, constitution and political tradition. The expression of power that the world saw in the great monarchs of the past and those we see in the present represent an intergenerational power that transcends the here-and-now. Philosopher Roger Scruton insightfully writes,

For the legitimacy of monarchical rule arises ‘transcendentally,’ in the manner of the duties and obligations of family life. The monarch is not chose for her personal attributes, nor does she have obligations and expectations which are the subject-matters of any ‘social contract’. She is simply the representations of sovereignty, and its ceremonial presence. Her will as monarch is not her individual will, but the will of the state. The monarch forms part of that surface of concepts and symbols whereby citizens can perceive their social identity, and perceive society not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. Attachment to the monarch is therefore patriotism in a pure form, a form that could not be translated into a policy or choice of mean.[1]

The British monarchy, for Scruton, serves as the symbolic identity-marker for social solidarity. Its display of dignity, power and sovereignty is a “surface” concept and visual rallying point for the people. And by its very nature the affections associated with this “decent drapery of life,” as Burke called it, connects the living with the dead and unborn in a transcendent bond. The ground of the legitimacy of the regal pageantry, ceremonies, customs and traditions say less about the virtue of the current reigning monarchy than about the virtues of the monarchy itself throughout all time immemorial. As Scruton writes,

If the monarch has a voice at all, it is understood precisely in the cross-generational way that is required by the political process. Monarchs are, in a very real sense, the voice of history, and the very accidental way in which they gain office emphasizes the grounds of their legitimacy, in the history of a people, a place and a culture. This is not to say that monarchs cannot be mad, irrational, self-interested or unwise. It is to say, rather, that they owe their authority and their influence precisely to the fact that they speak for something other than the present desires of present voters, something vital to the continuity and community which the act of voting assumes.[2]

Following Scruton and Burke and in development of Aristotle, it is appropriate to justify the “drapery of life” when viewing the regime cross-generationally. To force liberal conceptions here would be question begging. The present king need not have the degree of private dignity as his public show of dignity. For the public dignity is less about him than it is about the state and the cross-generational social identification that comes with it. It serves more than the securing of authority here-and-now, but also securing the social relations conducive to mutual trust and solidarity, and to a commitment to the dead and yet to be born.

The places of power in monarchy and aristocracy do not suddenly become ostentatious because the present occupant fails to live up to the standard handed to him at birth. If we were to demand some type of authenticity from these occupants and, when failed, demand that he tear down what become ostentatious, it would undermine all sort of functions, some of which Scruton identifies, but also the type of public display that reflects back from the people to the ruler. If one is being raised to rule in these regimes, he ought to be raised in a place that demands the highest of him.[3] The gaze of the people looking up, though being one of submission, has a demand just as phenomenologically penetrating as his look down. The insistent on “authenticity” and, hence, tearing down this drapery, renders inert the upward gaze of the people.

How Useful is this Framework?

As I mentioned in the introduction, my intent in this brief discussion on the places of power in the various political regimes found in the work of Aristotle is to construct a framework to understand ideal cases. When thinking through the landscape of United States, one might find landscapes quite different from what one would expect given my discussion. Problems then arise, which leads us to ask: Do we determine the de facto regime-type of the United States first, using other indicators, and then see if our framework on places of power are consistent with it? Or do we start with the framework and use it to determine the regime type? I cannot answer these questions here with any satisfaction. But I think that there is good reason, following Aristotle and my development of his thought, to think that the regime-type makes an imprint upon the landscape. There certainly are other factors in the development of a landscape and the selection, function, and adornment of places of power, but we cannot neglect the regime’s imprint. And if we agree on a general principle that regimes make an imprint on the landscape, then we can infer back from the landscape the actual regime. Put differently, we can use the landscape to determine the actual, de facto political regime-type.

Indeed, it would be strange that the regime-types, each of which Aristotle identifies as determining or symbiotic with different sets of ethics, would not have a unique effect on the landscape. Why ethics but not landscapes? People relate to one another differently in terms of affection and in terms of equality and inequality depending on the regime. Why would that not be reflected in the landscape? To argue that it has no effect is to radically separate human relations from how, where, and why humans cultivate and develop a landscape. There seems to be no prima facie reason to reject such an effect, and there are good reasons to affirm it.


The Aristotelian framework in this paper serves to understand the relationship of the regime-type to the landscape, especially to the place(s), functionality, and adornment of places of power. It has the potential to assist in explaining why man has developed his landscape in various ways in history and it can provide an additional or competing means of determining the true regime-type of a state. It is likely that there is a regime/landscape relationship similar to the regime/ethics relationship.


[1] Roger Scruton The Meaning of Conservatism 3rd Ed. (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), 29-30.

[2] Ibid 48-49.

[3] Similarly, this is why many want schools, libraries, courthouses, and other such buildings to have an architecture that calls those entering to strive for their best. Even if the good, true, and beautiful are not one, it is certainly false to completely disconnect them from each other. An ugly courthouse does not provide one much confidence that justice is served there.

A Review of Scruton’s The Soul of the World

In The Soul of the World, Roger Scruton argues for a type of cognitive dualism that accounts for both the natural world—that is, the objective world of the neuroscientist and Darwinian evolutionist—and the Lebenswelt, 3150scrutonbook_00000002390the life-world that “emerges” from the natural world that is yet irreducible to it. Scruton is clearly influenced by the big names of continental philosophy: Kant, Husserl, Sartre and others, and he often cites Searle for his speech-act theory. What Scruton provides, with rare clarity for an author influenced by such difficult thinkers, is a fascinating description and defense of our attachment to the sacred.

The book is primarily a defense of lived experience in phenomenological tradition. The author contributes to this tradition by arguing that our live experience in the Lebenswelt (a term borrowed from Husserl) is an “overreaching intentionality,” that is, a response to a “subjectivity that lies beyond the world of objects” (175). In a world of objects, somehow the subjective emerges. When we glance at another’s face, we see more than flesh; we see one’s subjectivity. “The face,” he writes, “although it appears in the world of objects, belongs essentially to the subject” (96). This encounter with the other is the “I-you” relationship that cannot be explained or reduced to neuroscience. When we encounter the face of another we see past it, at its “horizon,” to encounter the other’s subjectivity, and this demands that we give more than explanations for our actions (through the examination of causal connections in brain states or “adaptability” in Darwinian evolution), but also reasons and understanding. This is part of the cognitive dualism: explanation on the one hand, understanding and reasons on the other. When we dwell only on explanation, the person vanishes as with our responsibility toward the person. When the person vanishes our action is governed by nothing but the presence of an object.

For Scruton, this encounter with the other not only occurs with the face of another, but with the world as well. He describes this best with a fascinating phenomenology of music. Music has a “movement” that emerges from the experience of sounds, but when analyzed as sounds one cannot find movement. This property of music as experienced is irreducible to the sounds, yet we hear it. No matter how much we analyze sound waves or even our experience with each sound or tone in a musical movement, we cannot explain why or what it is that we hear. We simply hear the music move. As with the face, in hearing this movement we are experiencing our capacity for “overreaching intentionality.” This experience with the world is like encountering a subject that isn’t there: “Music addresses us as others address us….it address us from beyond the borders of the natural world” (175).

In a few places Scruton addresses political theory taking a stance against reductionistic social science and Rawlsian and contractual theory. On his account, these all involve “clearing away from the Lebenswelt all the threads of pious observance that cannot be replaced by free choice and self-made obligations….[forming a world] in which we humans are not truly at home” (94-95). Instead of trying to reduce the life-world to explanation (which, again, he thinks is impossible), it should be embraced as fundamental to human and social happiness: “Through the transcendent bonds of piety we enter the realm of the sacred things, of obligations that cannot be accounted for in terms of any deal that we made, and which speak of an eternal and otherworldly order” (176). Scruton is known for his indebtedness to the thought of Edmund Burke, and it shows here. Grounding our attachment to people, places, and things is one way of justifying Burke’s theory of the “little platoons” of human relations. According to Scruton, our encounter with the other by means of the face and the Other in the world provides the basis for intersubjectivity in the form of shared meaning and solidarity in an age of alienation.

Scruton addresses other topics including Hegel’s political theory, religion, creation myths, the existence of God, and architecture. Much of the content is a summary of his previous works in aesthetics. Overall, the book is less than persuasive not due to any fault in the arguments (though I question a few), but because the scope of the book is so wide that it inspires the reader to read on rather than settle. Scruton beautifully touches the surface of so many issues that while a reader might not be fully convinced of all his points, he demonstrates the potential for a coherent and comprehensive worldview with an exciting and legitimate life-world.

Modernity and Wendell Berry’s “Making it Home” – Part 2

Rolling over tradition, custom, heritage, manners, and cultivation—that which gave people meaning, purpose, direction, and hope—is the spirit of modeVBTigerrnity, and this spirit of destruction took centuries to develop. I will give a short and rough sketch of this development using some major figures in Western history.

The world did not become meaningless overnight. It is tempting to say that it all started with Socrates, or at least the spirit of Socrates indwelling Hegel. It was Hegel who famously said that Socrates was, as the inventor of morality, the first modern. He wrote,

And it was in Socrates…the principle of subjectivity—of the absolute inherent independence of thought—attained free expression. He taught that man has to discover and recognize in himself what is the right and good, and that this right and good is in its nature universal. Socrates is celebrated as a teacher of morality, but we should rather call him the inventor of morality. The Greeks had a customary morality; but Socrates undertook to teach them what moral virtues, duties, etc. were. They moral man is not he who merely wills and does that which is right, not the merely innocent man, but he who has the consciousness of what he is doing.[1]

Hegel separates tradition and indwelled habits from conscious moral acts. It is not good enough for a person to act from habit or custom; one must know what is right and good and know that and when he is doing it. To use a modern term, an authentic moral act is one performed in accordance with some universal principle (without any admixture of custom), has been individually discovered and recognized, and is performed being fully conscious of its rightness and goodness. Put simply and negatively, the everyday morality that was instilled from birth and community is not true morality. Following one’s dispositions toward right action qualifies as moral only accidentally, and, in Kantian terminology, the act deserves no recognition of moral worth.

The “principle of subjectivity” is the key Hegelian phrase. The rise of the self—as the center of importance and worth, as the arbiter of all meaning, as the source of all moral determinations, and as the buffer by which everything on the outside of one’s self is controlled and mastered—is fundamentally the rise of modernity. Augustine seems like an important source of the rise of the self. In his quest to prove the existence of God in On the Free Choice of the Will, he moves from the outer world to the inner world of the mind and soul. It is a journey from the “lower” to the “higher.” In the mind, “we see [numbers] by an inner light of which the bodily sense know nothing.”[2] Finding God is a deepening of one’s reflexivity. As Charles Taylor comments, the “vantage point of the ‘I think’ [has become] outside the world of things we experience.”[3] This “inaugurate[d] at new line of development in our understanding of moral sources, one which has been formative for our entire Western culture.”[4] Ironically, it is the turn inward toward the divine that made the modern turn possible.

There is much more to Augustine that the turn inward, and he certainly was not a “modern.” Taylor is likely correct, however, in making Augustine a crucial source for the thought of Descartes and, perhaps, Kant. But it important to recognize that the inward/outward distinction for Augustine, when interpreted in light of his other writings, is actually anti-modern to a certain extent. The “inward” was one way to encounter the divine, but the outward order still provided peace, security and meaning.

This heavenly then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.[5]

The outward order for Augustine is not as robust with meaning as Rowanberry finds in his Port William, but it is for Augustine a place to which one must conform for one’s good. The crucial and important difference between Augustine earthly city and Port Williams, is that the former ought not, nor must it, shape the soul. The redeemed soul, for Augustine, exists in heaven. The inner/outer distinction made innerness primary, yet it does not dismiss the outer. The outer is a place of practical affairs, a place to construct peace and security.

Much later, Hegel makes a similar, though significantly different duality:

Personality implies that as this person: (i) I am completely determined on every side (in my inner caprice, impulse, and desire, as well as by immediate external facts) and so finite, yet (ii) none the less I am simply and solely self-relation, and therefore in finitude I know myself as something infinite, universal, and free.[6]

This non-theological account of the person is a more radical inner/outer distinction than found in Augustine. Hegel is following Kant who made a similar distinction between the phenomena and noumena realms. As part of the former, each person is subject to desires and inclinations, and seeking the fulfillment of these can never rise above skill and technique. Morality is possible only if a person can somehow rise above and beyond desire and inclinations to a world of reason and free will. This is the noumena realm or the kingdom of ends. The person participates in both realms, and yet one’s dignity is solely based in one’s participation in the noumena. One’s external existence is contingent and arbitrary. With this, Kant set in motion an old idea with a twist, namely, that the external order is not the source of moral truth and dignity; both come from within and rest on the capacity of the will. As Augustine said, “those who cleave to the eternal law by their good will have no need of the temporal law.”[7] One only needs to find the truth within; the external order is a world of lower practical affairs.

There is clearly a risk in this type of quasi-solipsistic individualism: Is it left up to each person to discover and apply the truths of practical reason? What is the place of public judgment and custom? This risk is exacerbated by Kant’s commitment to the Enlightenment. He was severely critical of prejudice. It held down the masses from thought and reason, and was implanted by the “self-appointed guardians of the multitude.”[8] Prejudice makes people incapable of acting in freedom. That is, it makes individuals incapable. It is one’s civil duty, then, to clear the prejudice from society so that each person can “become more and more capable of acting in freedom.”

People are so individualized under Kant’s account that they enter society in a state of war and competition—a “mutual opposition.”[9] One cannot tolerate others yet cannot withdraw from them. It is through conflict that a people go from barbarism to culture.  Kant uses an analogy of trees in a forest to explain his view of individuals in society and progress.

It is just the same with trees in a forest: each needs the others, since each in seeking to take the air and sunlight from others must strive upward, and thereby each realizes a beautiful, straight stature, while those that live in isolated freedom put out branches at random and grow stunted, crooked, and twisted.[10]

Individuals in conflict makes humanity straight. Without society, individuals would not develop. There must be conflict in competition. But if becoming “straight” requires competition, then it is only fair that each person is equally capable of competing. People must be on equal terms and have equal opportunity when entering society. The political implications of this are tremendous, and justify massive redistributions in wealth to public education, public health, public daycare and many other programs. No one is to be left behind.

Kant’s thought began in the West (though it was rooted in Rousseau) a spirit of destruction. I use the word ‘destruction’ according to its Latin roots: destruere, meaning literally “down build” or “un-build.” The Kantian project is one of tearing down the “prejudice” that prevent people from thinking for themselves and discovering the truth concealed by custom and tradition. Later Feuerbach would call belief in prejudice and superstition “projection.” Such belief transferred human potential to the divine. According to Kant, it is the responsibility of the “vocation of free thought”—the few free thinkers of any age—to destroy in order to “create room to let that free spirit expand to the limits of its capacity.”[11] The public intellectual is a destroyer. He or she is tasked to un-build or de-construct that which keeps the masses from achieving their potential. And since this is a cosmopolitan point of view, the objects of destruction are particulars. It is the attachment to place and tradition that prejudicially justifies certain hierarchies, cultural superiority, oppression and subjection, and a localist conception of morality and rights. All this needs to be cleared to permit universality, rationality, and democratization. Kant had a prophetic voice: make ready the way of freedom. Though Kant hoped that the need for spending on education and equality would preclude costly wars and thereby bring about a perpetual peace, his individualism called for perpetual war in civil society. It is no surprise that the conservatism first arose in the early 19th century.

There is another implication to Kant’s radical individualism. It is something that Nietzsche recognized, though surely Kant would have disagreed. Nietzsche rejected the Enlightenment understanding of morality because, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, “if there is nothing to morality but expression of will, my morality can only be what my will creates.”[12] The solution to this Enlightenment nonsense is, according to Nietzsche, “to become who we are—human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves!”[13] Nietzsche recognized that the end of Kantian (indeed, all Enlightenment morality) must be a morality that my will creates. We have, then, a radical individualism that treats morality as self-created; and not simply self-created, but self-determined and unique to that individual. And, we should keep in mind, individuals in society are still in competition. From here comes the will to power. But let us assume (probably wrongly) that the will to power is effectively suppressed in a liberal democracy. Since liberalism tries to create peace by reconciling various voices and factions within the society through law, the public space must become a place for individual expression and self-creating morality. What is required in liberalism, then, is the suppression of voices that call for some moral collective end or telos that is greater than simply the mutual recognition of each person’s right to self-create morality.

Despite what many liberals claim today, liberalism in the West is not Lockean; it is post-Kantian. Lockean liberalism died with the death of natural law. For Locke, there still is a sense of place and time. The social compact is not, for Locke, a cosmopolitan compact, but one for localized or regionalized political communities. He writes, “For when any number of Men have, by the consent of every individual, made a Community, they have thereby make that Community one body.”[14] Kant leaves little room for particularism and localism. Its aesthetic expression is best seen in Le Corbusier’s city planning and architecture—rational, symmetrical, and universal. Yet the Nietzschean move made each individual the arbiter of all truth and meaning. The mess that this created is left to the managerial class to manage. Their job is to ensure that people do not interfere with each other in their highly individualized pursuit of the good life. The collective end is the rational maximization of non-interference.

The result of this progression of ideas is the meaninglessness of the world. It is what Weber called “disenchantment.” The cosmos has become the “universe” and a space of instrumentalization. Everything has been reduced to use-value. All desires are meant to be satisfied. There is no meaning in things apart from our projection. And, most important, everything ‘out there’ is nothing but particles and bits of matter. As the post-modern Richard Rorty said, “Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind.”[15] Rorty, of course, finds meaning to be universally a social construct, so meaning is communal. But he also thinks that it is the prerogative of the few (the “ironists”) to redefine language and terms to move society forward. The post-moderns are just as individualistic as their modern predecessors.

We can now return to Berry’s Rowanberry and see how his enlistment in an army of progress and destruction is not about war, but about modernity itself. His destruction was more than a trampling drive toward some goal in the future but a perspective on the world. The world became meaninglessness. It was “empty.” It was in his following orders to destroy that he realized that meaninglessness is possible. It had never occurred to him in his life on the farm that his world on the farm could be nothing but a site on some geographer’s map and something subject to destruction to achieve some world-historical goal.

Rowanberry’s fighting “was not work that made much of anything” (86). Is Kantian destruction anything other than a critique? Hannah Arendt says no. “System-making” would be for Kant another “dogmatism.”[16] This is why, she reports, Mendelssohn called Kant the Alles-Zermalmer—the All-Destroyer.[17] In the mind of soldiers, says Rowanberry, “You had a thing on your mind that you wanted, or wanted to get to, and anything at all that stood in your way, you had the right to destroy” (86). A futural world-historical goal combined with a meaningless universe makes the destruction of “things that people had made well and care for a long time” completely justified. This was the cold reality of Rowanberry’s new world.

Berry’s short story is about war, but not merely conventional war. It is the war that is modernity itself. Its motivator is an eschatological vision of future that dismisses the imprint of the past on the present. The future is all that matters; and it is not merely some future present that we are after, as if the future is attainable. The future goal is always futural. The war never stops. Prejudice is never fully eradicated. Rowanberry got a respite from it all, but he had changed; and the sounds of artillery fire will always be in his mind—the creeping anxiety that his old world is meaningless or, at best, a bygone age targeted for destruction. This anxiety must be actively suppressed in order to conserve, or better put, instaurate the old world.

Part 1

[1] G.W.F. Hegel Philosophy of History, Trans. T.M. Knox (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 280.

[2] Ibid, 46.

[3] Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 131.

[4] Ibid, 132.

[5] Augustine The Political Writings of St. Augustine (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1962), 153.

[6] Philosophy of Right, 37.

[7] Augustine On Free Choice of the Will Trans. by Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1993), 25.

[8] “What is Enlightenment?”

[9] “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”

[10] Ibid, 5th Thesis

[11] “What is Enlightenment?”

[12] Alasdair MacIntrye After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981),113-114.

[13] The Gay Science, Section 335.

[14] 2nd Treatise, 96.1-3.

[15] Richard Rorty Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 5.

[16] Hannah Arendt Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 32.

[17] Ibid, 34.

Modernity and Wendell Berry’s “Making it Home” – Part 1

Just below the surface of Wendell Berry’s story “Making it Home,” a short story in his collection titled Fidelity,[1] is a critique of modern warfare and its unreserved and thoughtless destruction of people and propert51vIZtb1D+L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_y. The story is about a man, Art Rowanberry, who survived World War II, though wounded, and experienced all the war’s death and destruction. The war shaped him. During those three years of training and warfare, his sense of the permanence of things was shattered, and all things, places and people, became nothing more than mere obstacles to his army’s goal; everything was subject to destruction for simply being in the way. All things and people were particle-ized, not only by bombs, but in the minds of Rowanberry and his fellow soldiers. During those years, Rowanberry’s world lost its meaning.

Berry’s story is more than an anti-war story and it is more than Hemmingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” reimagined, as some have argued. It is, in its depths, a subtle and yet profound critique of modernity. The story juxtaposes the meaninglessness and the inevitable destructive tendency of modernity’s radical nominalist and disenchanted world with a world of enchantment through attachment and affection, rooted in a people’s history, way of life, and their cultural imprint on the landscape and their connection with the soil. In an enchanted world, the intimacy of people and land has made a place in space. Life is not merely the occupation of a site or geographic coordinate. Nor is one’s property merely an asset and government-determined residential lot. Life in places has a fundamental temporal connection between people and between people and things. Modernity, on the other hand, is a utopia (lit. no-place) of competition and progress with no thought of or respect for permanence, historical and temporal meaning, and the interconnectedness of people and their things and places. Modernity, in both its ideal progressive forms and its goals of market-driven consumption, view the current world and its connection with the past as in the way.

Rowanberry is walking home to the place that made him both a farmer and a man. He is still in uniform as he walks, though it is now loose and ready to be closeted. As he walks, he recalls some of his experiences in war. He thinks to himself, “Everything was only pieces put together that were ready to fly apart, and nothing was whole” and “there was nothing you could look at that was whole—man or beast or house or tree—that had the right to stay whole very long” (88). And why would such things have a right to stay whole? After all, a soldier’s purpose was to champion over his opposition. Anything that stood in the way of the goal was fit for destruction: “Farms, houses, whole towns—things that people had made well and cared for a long time—you make nothing of” (86). As Rowanberry walked (not marched) home, as his uniform is almost shedding off, he finds himself caught between the world of meaninglessness and the world of meaning. He recognizes the farms and its farmers, the same type of farms and farmers around which he grew up and became a man. Yet now, after being totalized and homogenized for destructive action by the military, there is the lingering possibility in his mind that all things are meaningless, that everything is merely a collection of bits of matter. His world was once this place. Now it is one among many or, rather, one big world resting in a void. Indeed, he now thought of himself as “walking on the whole round world. He felt the great, empty distance that the world was turning in, far away from the sun and the moon and the stars” (85). All that provided him meaning and purpose is called into question. Being itself is called in question.

Rowanberry is caught between two worlds—a world reducible to bits and a world irreducibly complex, the latter being a world of relations or, put differently, an organic reality. War made this former reductionism possible; it was presented to him as a possibility of existence. But the story is not simply about war and its effects on those who participated in it. It is about how the reduction of the world to bits of matters forming one world in a void destroys attachment to particulars, and with it, meaning. It is about a man enlisted in a project, one that gave him the “right to destroy” that which was in the way of his assigned goals. Berry’s point in the story is that the modern march to the future has made the past and present subject to destruction, and with this destruction goes any hope for the future. Modernity presses upon us that eerie possibility that it is all meaningless, a possibility hidden in past ages. And after rejecting the likelihood of the possibility, it still lingers as if trying to master you and your view of the world. Even after Rowanberry is united with his family, he has to shake his head to suppress the call to meaninglessness, for he thought that “somewhere off in the distance, [he heard] the heavy footsteps of artillery rounds striding toward them” (103). He is a changed man. The possibility for meaninglessness will never leave him. War disclosed it to him, and now he must learn again to dwell on his land with his people.

Part 2


[1]  I cite the text parenthetically.

The Politics of Home and Hilltops

Houses say more about our world and cultural milieu than you might think. They speak of what we think of each other—as equals, superiors, or inferiors, or with indifference. And the same house that communicates authentic authority in one political regime speaks arrogance in another. The meaning of a house is embedded in the regime type. There is a politics of the house and it deserves to be uncovered and brought to light. In this post, I discuss houses and their regime-determined messages.

There was a time when the grandest of houses, visible by all from afar, was a reminder of authority, deserved wealth, high grace and manners, political responsibility, and peace through strength. It was the castle on the hill. The people looked up, literally and figuratively, to that place, submitting to it and its inhabitants as part of their duty to the order of things. They looked up with a love intimately connected with hope, a hope to survive and thrive by the care, wisdom and prudence of their somountain_top_castle-wallpaper-1152x720vereign. It was not a place of arbitrary authority. The lofty dwelling was not a vain show of wealth. It was not merely a site for a nameless observer disconnected from those below. Indeed, the king looked down upon his people as father to his child—a look, in serious and the best of moments, of profound joy and awful fear of his responsibility for their security and happiness. That terrifying divine magistracy, thrust upon the king typically by birth, justifies his high station and living quarters. With responsibility comes privilege—the type of privilege that constantly reminds one of his responsibility.

The best tactical place for a castle or stronghold is, of course, on some type of hill or elevated terrain. But the high ground represented something about the natural hierarchy of human society: some are born with profound political responsibility, others not; and the social order in each society is an expression of this natural hierarchical power relation (at least so it was thought). Thomas Aquinas, for example, claimed that even in the state of innocence (prior to the fall of Adam) social hierarchy is natural: “Equality is the cause of equality in mutual love. Yet between those who are unequal there can be a greater love than between equals…. The cause of inequality could be on the part of God; not indeed that He would punish some and reward others, but that He would exalt some above others; so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men” (Summa I-I.96.3). So, according to this understanding of reality, the elevated dwelling of persons of authority is entirely justified, at least as a just custom conducive to the recognition of natural authority. The elevation of the sovereign’s home was symbolic of the divine ordinance of hierarchy.

Now, the recognition of the power of houses in the communication of authority was not merely present in the age of castles. Aristotle called upon the powerful to “furnish his home in a way fitting to his wealth (since this, too, is a certain ornament)” (Nicomachean Ethics, 4.2; 1123a). There is no requirement of elevated terrain, but Aristotle does recognize something important about how the home communicates a certain social distinction to observers. Its look, size, and furnishing serves as effective means of expressing social distinction.

But Aristotle’s point assumes a deeper principle. The home’s structure and yard seem to be something more than private property or something of monetary value, as we often think today. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, the public face of its inhabitants. This explains why we put so much time into its appearance: it says something about its inhabitants. All homes, not only those of aristocrats or oligarchs, can have a positive, community-affirming, public face. And for many homeowners today, especially in the old neighborhoods, the effort put into the appearance is not for one’s consumption to become conspicuous, but about showing yourself and your commitment to the proper order and appearance of your community. The cared-for home communicates that you cherish society, that you acknowledge collective dwelling in a particular place. You join the collective witness of those around you saying that this place is one worth loving and preserving. The American landscape historian, John Brinkerhoff Jackson said it this way:

The family itself, to say nothing of the public, judges the house as it relates to its surroundings, natural as well as social. We see the house as a sign not only of membership in the community, but of its interaction with the community. So I am now inclined to believe that…the house is the extension of the hand. It is the hand we raise to indicate our presence; it is the hand that protects and holds what is its own; the house or hand creates its own small world; it is the visible expression of our identity and our intentions. It is the hand which reaches out to establish and confirm relationships. Without it, we are never complete social beings. (from A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time)

The public side of homemaking, then, is not exclusively for the wealthy or for the age of aristocracy and castles. It is for anyone with such responsibility of being a part of the community. The care we put into it confirms our degree of commitment to the community, our sense of shared responsibility for its lovability. For, to modify Edmund Burke’s famous line, to make us love our neighborhood, our neighborhood ought to be lovely. In Baton Rouge, where I live, there are pleasant little neighborhoods, full of those mess-making deciduous oak trees whose roots make the sidewalk uneven. It is clear when looking at the houses that people have care and concern, not for any risk of being fined by a Home Owners Association (HOA), but because they “bought” into a sphere of concern and thereby committed themselves to its loveliness. They know that any object of love and cherishing is an object that calls for one’s concern. The truly valuable things in life are the things you worry about.

Lately, however, the cookie-cutter track housing—with its eradication of any semblance of the unartificial and its rigid set of HOA policies—has undermined this sense of responsibility. The look of such a neighborhood is not one developed over time through care and concern, but one that has been commodified by the developer. One buys into a pre-fabricated look, and the buyer can be confident that this look, so tied up with the house’s monetary value, will endure through impersonal HOA enforcement. Neither risk, nor active cherishing is required.

I speak of our modern places of collective dwelling—the suburbs. There is much to criticize in such community planning, but there are suburban neighborhoods that inspire a certain pride of place and sometimes they harmoniously integrate mixed-incomes families. Pricey and pleasant custom houses coexist with smaller, less expensive houses. The value differences, both monetary and architectural, are obvious, but the integration does not communicate a certain natural hierarchical inequality. The pricier houses do not look down upon the inexpensive houses. One can infer income and wealth inequality between these occupants, but equality is still present—one that assumes our democratic age. There is a respect and mutual dwelling among economic unequals. Fortunes might be different, but we still occupy the same place. We all have a common concern.

See, the home can communicate an affirmation of equality, despite differences in home monetary value. It is not like Aristotle’s natural aristocracy or Aquinas’s higher love between superiors and inferiors. It is mutual and equal love between equals despite differences in wealth. I emphasize that this is possible; it is not always, and typically not, the case. Most suburban developments market themselves as an escape from the poor.

Homes can also display arrogance, especially in our age. But what constitutes arrogance is different based on the regime type, as Aristotle would say. In an aristocracy or kingship, the large house on a beautiful hill is entirely justified, given the role of the aristocracy in authority, responsibility and honor. It communicates authentic authority and responsibility. But what would the house communicate in a democracy: arbitrary wealth, arrogance, the ruining of a views, etc. It all depends on the regime. In our democratic age, hilltop houses are not symbols of authentic power, mutual love between unequals, peace, security, political responsibility or mutual devotion. Hilltop houses provide nothing but a view for their occupants while often spoiling the view for those below. They occupy a site symbolic of power, but have no (or ought not have) more power than those below. They occupy high terrain, yet possess no high status in the community. Those who look down upon us are nameless and the house often stands unoccupied until the summer. What was once a view of natural beauty, wonder, or simply some typical yet pleasant hill, is now occupied by seemingly arbitrary money, uncertain power, and an exploitation of the chaos of modernity. They take from all of us below-dwellers the view and give nothing back: no peace, security, mutual love, political authority, nothing.[1]

Our modern democratic principles have affected more than the communication of hilltop houses. Common concern for neighborhoods has become less and less possible, since liberal political theory has become consumed with the maximization of each individual’s ability to conceive and practice his or her own view of the good life. This is reflected in Justice Kennedy’s remark in his majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It is difficult to form and sustain a common concern for one’s collective dwelling when people cannot agree on anything excepting agreeing to disagree. The right to and the celebration of one’s own private morality undermines any substantial commitment to a place like a neighborhood. Celebrating diversity is the celebration not of a set of particular habits, customs, traditions, expressions of beauty, but of an abstract idea of tolerance. Community is built on shared practices, not the tolerance of contradictory ones.

Without any substantial common and substantial culture and set of shared practices you get the necessity of HOAs and the commodified, care-free community of the typical track-housing. The rigidity of the new subdivision community is a direct result of liberalism’s destruction of a shared conception of the good life. Concern has shifted to the self and the protection of its expression from judgment. With the authority of enforcing neighborhood norms externalized to the HOA, which makes any sentiment for place unnecessary, each person can continue to devote their capital of concern to themselves or, at least, something other than the neighborhood. So concern has been externalized and people are further atomized. Though there is no sentiment of concern that calls for effort on one’s part, there still is an enforced look to the neighborhood, one that the residents ‘take in’ and enjoy with mutual and potentially equal satisfaction. They have given nothing, or very little, to create it, yet they all can take from it. This allows for a sort of harmony between residents: no one gives anything to its looks (for it was created by the developer and enforced by the HOA), but they all have potentially equal satisfaction from it. It is highly impersonal, yet its fits a democratic age devoted to maximizing liberty and equality. It is one those ironies of our ages: we are each free ‘to be me,’ yet only after being mastered by the most impersonal of forces.

This explains why we tolerate arrogant houses on hills. Everything, all land and every view, is already a commodity to us. They just happened to get their first. As free and equal individuals, we do not have a claim on anything because there is no we. Each is free from the other. Furthermore, the only way to deaden ourselves to the natural inclination to view elevated structures as communicative of power is to demystify everything, to make all meaning a construct and, therefore, dismissible and suppressible. So we are free, equal, and meaningless, and everything is a commodity to do with as one likes.


Just as the type of regime changes individuals’ political relationship to one another, so too do the message and meaning of their houses change. Houses that once enjoyed an exalted position (either due to elevated terrain, the location in the city, or its height) can communicate authority in a kingship and an aristocracy, but not in a democracy. Such houses in a democracy can be received in two ways: either as arrogance (the takers of a view while giving nothing in return) or with indifference. For the latter, this occurs when the people think of everything as up for grabs and shared values are destroyed by the abstract principle of tolerance. All care for the neighborhood is handed over to an impersonal and rigid entity, the HOA; and the labor is transferred to the immigrant gardener.

Democracy, at least in name, is not going away, and so it seems that we need to open our eyes, or just look up and ask why. Why is that landscape littered with arrogance—from nameless takers who provide nothing in return? If we are all equal in some sense, then no one has a right to take the landscape from us. They erect their visible expression of identity at a distance from us, as if set apart and above us. Are they or ought they be set apart? Not according to democracy (though if natural aristocracy is a real thing, then they should be). They represent nothing but the principle of taking. They can have a large, glorious house, but it must be down here with the rest us, next door to us. We must restore liberty, equality and fraternity. Only then can be we equal. Yet hilltop houses should be the least of our worries. Our diversity started a culture war and ended with exhaustion, resulting in the impersonalization of the neighborhood through the creation of HOAs. We must seek a particular, robust, and substantial particular way of life that is considered morally obligatory within a certain place. Only then have we form communities with fellow-feeling, and personal care and concern.


[1] Some people might not have seen such houses. I have in mind the houses that keep popping up on the hills and mountains of Napa Valley, where I grew up. The valley is so beautiful, yet more and more houses name and claim the land and our view of it. They take and give nothing, because we are all equal.