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The American political reformer Herbert Croly wrote, "For better or worse, democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility." Democratic Faith is at once a trenchant analysis and a powerful critique of this underlying assumption that informs democratic theory. Patrick Deneen argues that among democracy's most ardent supporters there is an oft-expressed belief in the need to "transform" human beings in order to reconcile the sometimes disappointing reality of human self-interest with...
The American political reformer Herbert Croly wrote, "For better or worse, democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility." Democratic Faith is at once a trenchant analysis and a powerful critique of this underlying assumption that informs democratic theory. Patrick Deneen argues that among democracy's most ardent supporters there is an oft-expressed belief in the need to "transform" human beings in order to reconcile the sometimes disappointing reality of human self-interest with the democratic ideal of selfless commitment. This "transformative impulse" is frequently couched in religious language, such as the need for political "redemption." This is all the more striking given the frequent accompanying condemnation of traditional religious belief that informs the "democratic faith."
At the same time, because so often this democratic ideal fails to materialize, democratic faith is often subject to a particularly intense form of disappointment. A mutually reinforcing cycle of faith and disillusionment is frequently exhibited by those who profess a democratic faith--in effect imperiling democratic commitments due to the cynicism of its most fervent erstwhile supporters.
Deneen argues that democracy is ill-served by such faith. Instead, he proposes a form of "democratic realism" that recognizes democracy not as a regime with aspirations to perfection, but that justifies democracy as the regime most appropriate for imperfect humans. If democratic faith aspires to transformation, democratic realism insists on the central importance of humility, hope, and charity.
"Following in the footsteps of Christopher Lasch, [Patrick Deneen] is concerned to expose what he perceives as the ill-placed object of the democratic faithful — a trust in human capacities for self-government and progress so perfectionist that it entails the transformation of humans into the divine creatures they can never be.… Unlike so much Christian commentary on democracy, Deneen pursues his critique not as prolegomena for the advocacy of an alternative faith but as a way of proposing a 'chastened' democratic faith, one that might count him among the faithful."—J. Ronald Engel, Journal of Religion
"Whether they be 'deliberative liberals,' whose confidence in rationality, science, and technique inspires their democratic quest, or 'agonistic democrats,' those animated by a foundational belief in the citizenship-forming capacity of conflict, these true believers insist on the possibility of profound social transformation with a hope that leans far more on faith than on empirical evidence. Deneen's probing of the origins of this faith is brilliant—an exacting, at times exciting venture into pivotal texts.... What we all need, Deneen implies, is not the absence of faith but a better faith, one that clarifies vision, forges better ties, forces a different reading of our past, and takes us down, down, into the depths of who we, as Americans, as Westerners, and as human beings are."—Eric Miller, Books & Culture
For better or worse, democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.-Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life
DEMOCRACY IS REGNANT in practice and triumphant in theory. While many thinkers object to suppositions that we have reached philosophically the "end of history," nevertheless in Western political thought there is no formidable or even noticeably significant challenge to the near-universal embrace of democracy as the sole legitimate form of government. Particulars differ radically-sometimes it appears that various camps fight to assume the label "democratic" in order to assert their unimpeachable legitimacy and dismiss the claims of philosophical opponents, just as the term "antidemo-cratic" constitutes opprobrium of the highest order-yet, at base, an underlying embrace of certain democratic tenets centered around a belief in universal human suffrage, political equality, economic and personal liberty, and inherent human dignity constitute shared features of various schools of democratic thought. In political theory-a "field" invented some twenty-five hundred years ago in order to discern the relative virtues and deficiencies of different regime types, and oftenidentifying democracy as inferior to monarchy and aristocracy-it is no longer necessary, by and large, for its contemporary practitioners to demonstrate the grounds for democracy's superiority.
Yet, at the risk of contrariness, if not outright overstatement, democratic theory is in a state of quiet crisis, reflecting (if inadequately) the more serious crisis of democracy itself. The quiescent assumption that democracy's superiority can and ought to be taken as a matter of unchallenged belief rests on a set of largely unexamined presuppositions that point to a quiet desperation underlying much of contemporary democratic theory-a desperation, indeed, that has always been present in democratic theory from its earliest articulations in antiquity. That desperation has been more evident in ages with high degrees of democratic suspicion, and has taken the form of forcefully articulated statements of democratic faith. In the absence of such widespread opposition in the contemporary era, such strong statements of democratic faith have become less evident within mainstream analyses of democracy, but even their pale counterparts evince no less anxiety-albeit less self-awareness of that anxiety-than their more explicit earlier counterparts. This desperation takes the form of an inherent fear that "faith" is not sufficient-that belief in democracy will not be repaid in reality-and thus that either democracy must give way to the reality of human shortcomings or human shortcomings must be overcome to realize democracy. While claiming to take "men as they are," democratic theory from its inception, even to its dominant contemporary expressions, exhibits anything but satisfaction for the civic capacities of ordinary humans, and seeks, sometimes to a major extent, to alter that condition for democratic ends.
In the first line of Rousseau's Social Contract, Rousseau declares his intention to "take men as they are" and the laws as they might be. A less utopian yet more idealistic formulation perhaps cannot be found in the history of political thought. Men, Rousseau suggests, are sufficiently capable as they are to create good laws-laws that could serve as the basis of an excellent regime, but which yet elude them. Such law might be realized if the inherent decency of humans could itself be either recovered or actualized for the first time. "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains": our freedom is inherent in our deepest origins but has been shackled by institutions and practices that deceive or divert men from their true condition. Rousseau formulates the modest yet radical premise of democracy: democracy is based upon a belief in human decency, even potential for individual and collective goodness, and needs only to achieve the realization of this inherent decency to bring about democracy in its most fully manifested, even ideal form. Democracy, in this succinct formulation, seems the most appropriate, even most natural regime for human beings. While reviled in past ages as according too great faith in human goodness-trusting otherwise selfish and self-involved humans to extend as much respect and consideration to the views, interests, and property of others as those that underlie one's own motivations-previous philosophers ranging from antiquity to the middle ages and even into modernity have held democracy to be an idealistic but finally unworkable form of utopian fantasy. Contemporary devotion to democratic forms reflects a worldwide embrace of the belief that ordinary humans are capable of, at the very least, minimal decencies and, at best, deep devotion both to those dreams and interests they hold dearest and to those same dreams and interests held by their fellow citizens. Democracy assumes that extraordinary virtue becomes ordinary, that ordinary humans are capable of extraordinary virtue. As stated by George Santayana,
If a noble and civilized democracy is to subsist, the common citizen must be something of a saint and something of a hero. We see, therefore, how justly flattering and profound, and at the same time how ominous, was Montequieu's saying that the principle of democracy is virtue.
It is easy, given modern assumptions, to view those ancient, medieval, and even modern thinkers who regarded democracy with suspicion, misgivings, and even outright hostility as overly dour and even pessimistic. We resist any rejection of democracy as informed by an ideology or even faith that has since been superseded. We can perhaps fruitfully mine other parts of such philosophies for interesting and provocative observations, but at the point in which all regimes-including democracy-are considered, weighed, and almost inevitably found wanting, we balk and point to anachronistic, recidivist, and even reactionary assumptions.
Yet, do we overly flatter ourselves, as Santayana suggests, in quickly brushing off those misgivings and even outright expressions of "antidemoc-racy"? Perhaps we think not, because, more often than not in contemporary philosophy and theory, we believe that we theorize implicitly and oftentimes explicitly under Rousseau's dictum, "taking men as they are." We are not utopian-indeed, we do not even wish to dwell on considerations of "virtue"-because we do not seek to alter human beings to "become" democratic creatures, to "make" men worthy of democracy. Our ambitions are altogether modest: we seek to advance democracy at home and in the world to provide all humans with the requisite freedom from oppression and arbitrary rule, and freedom to become what their capacities allow, and not to make humans other than they already are. We seek, as Rousseau suggests, to align "men as they are" with "laws as they might be." Yet, if this simple dictum of Rousseau, if only implicitly, underlies apparently modest democratic endorsement that most largely share-if, further, it renders us unwilling, perhaps even incapable of considering, much less accepting, the "antidemocratic" proclivities of most of the philosophers in the history of political thought-then how are we to understand Rousseau's argument, several brief chapters after his opening sentence, that citizens in a just society with democratic underpinnings need to undergo a fundamental transformation? Because of the limitations of human beings to see past their own interests, to take into account the good of the whole, which they cannot easily perceive much less achieve a willingness to embrace even were it perceptible-indeed, arguably because human beings are so riven by difference as to be incapable of becoming a "whole"-Rousseau invokes a lex ex machina, the "Legislator," who takes human beings as they are and undertakes to "change their nature, so to speak." A regime in which the good of the whole is considered and embraced, in which laws are conceived and promulgated in light of that whole-in which individual preferences cease, in some way, to become foremost in people's minds, thereby rendering automatic a "view of the whole"-one can expect that all subsequent public considerations will be undertaken in a similar spirit and vein. Such an idealized regime would be capable of molding generations of such citizens, able to rely on its own "social spirit" to continuously cultivate this devotion to the whole. But Rousseau realizes that in order for such a regime to come into existence the "effect must become the cause," that such civic excellence must first come into existence without the benefit of an existing regime to form those excellences. Hence the recourse to the Legislator: "For a nascent people to be capable of appreciating sound maxims of politics and of following the fundamental rules of reason of State, the effect would have to become the cause, the social spirit which is to be the work of the institution would have to preside over the institution itself, and men would have to be prior to laws what they ought to become by means of them." If there is a distance between the "reality" of men as they are and the laws as they might be-between those manifest limitations of human beings and the ideal of a democracy in which universal justice might be achieved-then we must either attribute this fact to one of two main causes: either men "as they are" do not currently exhibit the kinds of imagination, sympathy, or rationality that needs to inform the willingness to cede some individual desires and satisfactions for the good of the whole; or, democracy is too good for the people, and people cannot be changed to become worthy of the ideal. In a democratic age the latter option-once the prevailing view of most political philosophers for most of human history-is unthinkable. Thus, with the recognition that there is some distance between "men as they are" and democracy as it might be, an attempt to bring the two together leads to an implicit dissatisfaction with "men as they are," and perhaps even an inclination to seek their transformation to "democratic men as they might be. If "men as they are doin fact possess the requisite features that could lead to a realization of democracy, then something external to them is preventing its manifestation. This assumption underlay the revolutionary ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which the assumption that a combination of institutions and various ideologies that gave rise to "false consciousness" prevented human beings from realizing the utopian universal regime in which all alienation was overcome. However, if in our more modest age we are less inclined to such revolutionary inclinations-more inclined to claim to be content with "men as they are"-even modern democrats remain uncomfortably aware that men are not quite what we might wish them to be, and that they are not yet wholly commensurate with "democracy as it might be." If humans are capable of becoming ideal democratic citizens-ones that are simultaneously fully realized autonomous individuals yet also willingly seek to understand and embrace more general human concerns-then we must attribute this gap to insufficient realization of what humans are or could be. Embedded in this seemingly modest claim to contentment with basic human motivations is a subtle but undeniable transformational impetus. If less obvious and even objectionable than the tack adopted by Rousseau, this tendency to make humans into what they really are-or what they really might be-may indeed require some kind of intervention by those who have adequately realized such grounds, if only in theory and not yet in fact.
In order not to abandon a belief in democracy, nor to embolden those who would find democratic discontent as a sign of democracy's peril, assertions of "democratic faith" insist upon the possibility of democratic transformation. In particular, by advancing a conception of human beings as both infi-nitely malleable and ameliorable, along with an accompanying belief in the compatibility or malleability of nature and the universe to such perfectionist inclinations, the impulse to "perfectibility" becomes an integral component of democratic faith. Alexis de Tocqueville observed this belief in widespread human "perfectibility" as an evident and overwhelming feature of modern democracy during his visit to America in the nineteenth century. Even if a final vision of fully "realized" democratic humanity cannot be advanced-indeed, such accounts typically resist a full statement of democratic apotheosis in favor of depictions of infinite change (change that invariably takes the form of "improvement" and progress) but, according to Richard Rorty, "carries us beyond argument, because [it is] beyond presently used language"-"democratic perfectionism" serves as the implicit, and often explicit, object of democratic faith. Because of this belief in amelioration without limit, of mutability without telos, of progress without boundary, and of faith without grounding, one finds especially strong expressions of "democratic faith" in "antifoundational" and pragmatic theories. 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. Democratic faith tends to reject tragedy.
For this reason, antifoundational believers in democracy are concomitantly hostile to forms of philosophy and "faith"-particularly ancient philosophy and traditional religious faith-that seek to chasten such human visions of perfectibility with warnings against hubris, invocations of human nature and human teleology, and reminders of inescapable human shortcomings. "Traditional" teachings-especially religious and in particular the Judeo-Christian belief of fundamental human depravity-do not appear to accord with "democratic faith." Indeed, according to the "democratic faithful"-whose faith is premised to a lesser or greater extent upon the prospects of transforming individuals into citizens fitting for democracy-then "traditional" views of ineradicable human imperfection are, on their face, anti-democratic. Ironically such opposing positions are rejected as being motivated by so much faith-now bad faith-even while its critics invoke "democratic faith" as a superior form of belief. In this choice between two faiths, it is simply a matter of having the "will to believe" in democratic faith.
If the distance between "men as they are" and "democracy as it might be" suggests the necessity of changing humans or viewing them as malleable and subject to alterations of the social conditions in which they are embedded, then any assumptions of human depravity or even strong statements of human limitation must be rejected a priori. If this is the case, one would expect to see among such "democratic faithful" thinkers an aggressive rejection of religious belief that asserts the existence of certain unalterable human conditions, including those of sinfulness, pride, self-aggrandizement, a propensity to irrationality, and a fundamental condition of alienation. At the same time, however, the "faith claims" of transformative democratic theory can often go unnoticed-submerged beneath aggressive and dismissive attacks upon traditional religious faith, and thus taking on the semblance of a school of "skeptical" theory-thereby leaving democratic "faith" assumptions unacknowledged and unexamined. Arguably, accompanying the ascendancy of democracy in the present age is an increasing inability to recognize, much less examine, presuppositions that undergird democratic faith precisely because it is rarely recognized as a form of faith, even one with theological underpinnings that draw from Gnostic, Pelagian, Montanist, and antinomian traditions, all forms of millenarian belief that humans can bring about their own salvation in some form. Satisfied with its apparent skeptical secularism, "democratic faith" neglects its theological assumptions about human anthropology, even as it excoriates the faith claims of "religious" believers.
Excerpted from Democratic Faith by Patrick Deneen Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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PREFACE:WORSHIPING DEMOCRACY:THE PANTÉON AND THE GODDESS OF DEMOCRACY xiii
INTRODUCTION Dynamics of Democratic Faith 1
PART I: DEMOCRATIC FAITH AND ITS DISCONTENTS
CHAPTER 1: Faith in Man 15
CHAPTER 2: Democratic Transformation 50
CHAPTER 3: Democracy as Trial: Toward a Critique of Democratic Faith 84
PART II: VOICES OF THE DEMOCRATIC FAITHFUL
CHAPTER 4: Protagoras Unbound: The Democratic Mythology of Protagoras's "Great Speech" 119
CHAPTER 5: Civil Religion and the Democratic Faith of Rousseau 140
CHAPTER 6: American Faith: The Translation of Religious Faith to Democratic Faith 166
PART III: FRIENDLY CRITICS OF DEMOCRATIC FAITH
CHAPTER 7: "A Pattern Laid Up in Heaven": Plato's Democratic Ideal 191
CHAPTER 8: The Only Permanent State: Tocqueville on Religion and Democracy 214
CHAPTER 9: Hope in America: The Chastened Faith of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christopher Lasch 239
CONCLUSION: A Model of Democratic Charity 270