Can One Reconcile Hamiltonian National Greatness and Augustinian Humility of Self?

Patrick Deneen, the Georgetown politics professor and one of the head honchos over at The Front Porch Republic, poses a provocative question to New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Earlier this week, Brooks gave a lecture at Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy (which Deneen directs) entitled “The Era of Self-Expansion.” In that lecture, according to Deneen, Brooks spoke of “the transformation of the American understanding of ‘self’ from one of humility and self-restraint, to a contemporary ‘expansive’ notion of self-assertion, self-realization, and self-esteem.”

During the Q&A following the lecture, a student asked Brooks whether too many people today were attending college.  Brooks responded by praising “widespread university-education in the service of the Hamiltonian (as in Alexander Hamilton) ideal of social mobility.”

Deneen was bothered by Brooks’s answer to this question, suggesting that his answer “seemed to contradict…everything that he had been arguing in the course of the whole evening.”  Since Deneen did not get to ask Brooks a question that night, he decided to include the question he would have asked in a recent post at The Front Porch Republic.  Here is the question:

Can you reconcile your call to Hamiltonian national greatness and your call to Augustinian humility of self? Can you reconcile your defense of social mobility with your defense of familial, cultural and social institutions that cultivate a strong sense of obligation and gratitude? Will not the project of national greatness, and the gigantism in our politics and economics that it encourages, eventually and inevitably undermine the stability and authority of those local institutions that you laud as formative in the cultivation of a more humble self? Doesn’t the ideal of “national greatness” in fact directly contradict the theology of Augustine (and even Niebuhr, though he’s a bit uneven on this point), who urged a self-understanding in which we were to be pilgrims upon this earth, not wholly understanding ourselves to be citizens of this world, and that our humility was derived from the primacy of our devotion to God and not to our investment in the nation? Nations, to Augustine, were essentially large “robber bands”; if he could find anything to praise in political life, it was the classical ideal of the republic – small, limited, modest, devoted to the inculcation of virtue, but certainly not the modern (Machiavellian, and Hamiltonian) project that redefined “republicanism” effectively as indistinguishable from the project of empire.

At the heart of your argument I find a contradiction that seems evident in the heart of America itself. We harbor the ideal of the classical republic – populated by some version of Winthrop’s model of Christian (and Augustinian) charity, the virtuous yeoman farmer of Jefferson and the self-governing ideal urged by the Anti-federalists, among others – and, at the same time, the world-conquering, Hamiltonian expansionist, American exceptionalist, Wilsonian and Bush II ambition to rid the world of evil as a political project. While in your lecture you suggested that we can trace the rise of the “era of self expansion” to the baleful influence of the psychologist Carl Rogers, might not a deeper and more pervasive source be the modern rejection of the Augustinian theology more broadly, a rejection that was substantially realized in the political realm by the work and arguments of (among others) Alexander Hamilton and his vision of making us at home in the world?

How would you answer this?

6 thoughts on “Can One Reconcile Hamiltonian National Greatness and Augustinian Humility of Self?

  1. This tension, this American desire of local communities, and yet to have a grip on the world stage reminds me of a certain book written by a certain author which also happens to be the name of a certain blog 🙂


  2. Who cares what David Brooks thinks? Both left and right laugh at him for the quisling he is.

    As to the substance:

    at the same time, the world-conquering, Hamiltonian expansionist, American exceptionalist, Wilsonian and Bush II ambition to rid the world of evil as a political project.

    This is a misrepresentation, I think. Leaving Wilson aside, the neo-conservative proposition is that all men yearn to breathe free, and that free societies make saner choices than other kinds. [Tyrannies, theocracies, ideologies like communism].

    This fundamental assumption about the End of History is not yet self-evident. The world waits with bated breath as the Arab Spring turns to winter.

    I would note here that the charge of American imperialism, although sometimes true in our history, is not our ideal.

    We can call Colin Powell a liar or a fool here, but this is how we see ourselves:

    “There is nothing in American experience or in American political life or in our culture that suggests we want to use hard power. But what we have found over the decades is that unless you do have hard power — and here I think you're referring to military power — then sometimes you are faced with situations that you can't deal with.
    I mean, it was not soft power that freed Europe. It was hard power. And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in the Marshall Plan. Soft power came with American GIs who put their weapons down once the war was over and helped all those nations rebuild. We did the same thing in Japan.

    So our record of living our values and letting our values be an inspiration to others I think is clear. And I don't think I have anything to be ashamed of or apologize for with respect to what America has done for the world. [Applause.]

    We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we've done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to seek our own, you know, to seek our own lives in peace, to live our own lives in peace. But there comes a time when soft power or talking with evil will not work where, unfortunately, hard power is the only thing that works.”


  3. Deneen strikes again with some real insight. The political scientist David Bobb wrote a strong dissertation on the political value of humility. He apparently has a book coming out on the topic but it's not listed on amazon yet.


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