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?