Democratic theory is particularly inclined toward conceptions of human growth and improvement that reject foundations, appeals to ‘nature’ or invocations of necessary limits and cautions.
~Dr. Patrick Deneen
During our last Mars Hill dinner, we listened to an interview of Patrick Deneen as he discussed his recent book Democratic Faith and his ideas about how democracy and society have become increasingly specialized and divorced from a greater end: human flourishing.
Audio Lecture Summary
Deneen described democracy and culture as being in a post-Aristotelian state. Whereas for Aristotle everything in nature had a natural purpose and end, modern individuals have lost sight of any end for which nature—or they themselves—were fashioned. For Aristotelian thought, all living things in nature have a natural end. Humans are distinguished from the natural world because we require the most cultivation in the form of education, instruction, and discipline to reach our fulfillment.
Deneen emphasized how modern society has increasingly stopped looking to nature for a model as Western philosophy departed from Aristotle in favor of Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke. Unable to agree on an end to society, our increasingly pluralistic culture has divorced democracy from its religious and moral foundations and has viewed democracy as a means for achieving our individual desires.
Deneen then turned to contemporary author Wendell Berry by introducing the concept of detachment. Basically, modern people have become obsessed with their own part of life and have ceased to think of how they make up society as whole. In essence, we have become increasingly detached in all spheres of life, even from knowing the source of the food that constitutes our diet or how our individual lives contribute to the good of our community. Drawing on Wendell Berry, Deneen questioned this specialized vision by claiming that we should seek to understand the whole of society instead of only our particular part.
In essence, we have become increasingly detached in all spheres of life, even from knowing the source of the food that constitutes our diet or how our individual lives contribute to the good of our community.
Using the example of sex within the context of a family, Deneen pointed out that we even tend to think of procreation as being solely the role of a particular family. Challenging us to view the whole, Deneen argued that the family should be viewed within the context of the community and its role in providing continuity for future generations.
Many of us had just heard Patrick Deneen speak the Friday before, when he visited MacLaurinCSF and the U of M to give his Holmer Lecture, “After Liberalism.” So much of our discussion centered on contextualizing his interview with his broader train of thought. Particularly, we discussed how his focus on viewing things holistically applied to the university. Today, at institutions like the U of M, students are ushered from one specialized professor to the next in an array of broadly associated courses meeting core requirements—with little thought about how each course connects to the others. With professors fashioning only a single aspect of each student, there is little attempt made to provide an integrated liberal arts curriculum that seeks to tie all of the courses together into a holistic education for the individual. Instead of universities having attentive advisors who guide undergraduate students toward the end of being a virtuous, contributing member of society, universities have become quintessential factory assembly lines, with students being educated piecemeal by expert individuals who never see the final product.
Today, at institutions like the U of M, students are ushered from one specialized professor to the next in an array of broadly associated courses meeting core requirements—with little thought about how each course connects to the others.
Applying Deneen’s talk to our daily life, we discussed how we easy it is for us to become detached from many aspects of life in our globalized and increasingly specialized economy. Instead of understanding the time and labor-intensive process of growing food, we see most our sustenance of life coming from a trip to the supermarket. This detachment can cause us to lose our sense of appreciation for other’s efforts and to make ourselves dependent upon means of production far removed from our realm of understanding, much less our own physical effort.
A significant portion of the discussion was also centered on clarifying the meaning behind Aristotle’s use of the term “nature” and how it related to society. Instead of referring to nature as simply a positivistic view of how the natural world operates, Aristotle considers the essence of nature as working toward fulfillment of a specific end. A flower’s seed is not meant to forever remain a seed, but should be planted, nurtured, sprout, and eventually grow into a beautiful flower. Such flowers must then fulfill their end of spreading their own seed and thereby provide continuity. Humans should learn from this view of nature: we need to consider ourselves as having an end that requires our own cultivation through education to prepare us to be part of our community and, ultimately, part of God’s kingdom.
Yet Deneen’s view of the ends of society raises potential dilemmas when applied to a nation of diverse beliefs. After all, the compromise reached in our present pluralistic society was specifically designed to allow for each of us to pursue our own conception of the good as informed by our own beliefs. This is the foundation of freedom of religious expression. In the absence of such flexibility, is there any room for disagreement about what the end of society should be? Or does Aristotle’s nature-based view of the world imply that all people must fall into accordance with one particular end? Is there a potential danger in viewing democracy in light of everyone pursuing the same goal?
Is there any room for disagreement about what the end of society should be?
Or does Aristotle’s nature-based view of the world imply that all people must fall into accordance with one particular end?
Is there a potential danger in viewing democracy in light of everyone pursuing the same goal?
Overall, Deneen provided an intriguing talk that stretched beyond democratic theory to how individuals are supposed to relate with society. By connecting the words of Aristotle and Wendell Berry to our lives, Deneen truly demonstrated how political philosophy informs how we should think about daily life.
~Adam Saxton, Colin MacLaurin Fellow and international relations major
If you’re interested in what you’ve read, check out Patrick Deneen’s book recommendations on Christianity and politics. Audio and video from Patrick Deneen’s Holmer Lecture is forthcoming!
The interview with Patrick Deneen that Adam mentions in this post can be found on volume 91 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.