You Can’t Have Representation Without First Having a People to Represent

In the senior section of our Humanities curriculum at Magdalen College, we are now reading Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics. That is a fine coincidence, because this week is the New Hampshire primary, and we fight on the field of a great war for the hearts and minds of all Americans, who will go to the polls in November to determine which of two directions the nation will take.

Will it turn toward a massive welfare state which gives a little more than residual respect to the family, the church, private business, and local schools? Or will it go further toward a massive welfare state that offers less than residual respect to those things, and perhaps treats them with suspicion or contempt?

Please forgive me for my trace of irony. I do not mean to suggest that the latter choice would be anything but a disaster. It would surely prove calamitous for many a school like Magdalen College. In nearby Massachusetts, that state wherein Puritanism hardened into secular intolerance once it shed its Christianity, a new outpost of Thomas Aquinas College was permitted (permitted!) to open its doors as a Catholic school respecting a Thomistic and therefore rational view of sexual being and sexual relations, only on the severe condition that they enroll and hire no one who is not Catholic. That is to concede freedom of speech, so long as you stay in your straitjacket. Or maybe it is the other way around. You can move about so long as you keep your mouth taped shut.

So I am grateful that the Trump Administration is not getting out the straitjackets and the duct tape. I will vote accordingly in November.

But I have something else in mind here. It’s our misplaced trust in the machinery of democratic representation. Think of the purple-inked fingers that new voters happily raised up during the early days of what was supposed to have been a democratic Iraq. “Our own foreign policy,” says Voegelin, thinking of Woodrow Wilson and his casus belli, to make the world safe for democracy, “was a factor in aggravating international disorder through its sincere but naïve endeavor of curing the evils of the world by spreading representative institutions in the elemental sense to areas where the existential conditions for their functioning were not given.” (Emphasis mine.)

That is, you can have the structure of representation without the thing itself—without the being-represented. And you can have the latter only when the social conditions allow it.

Voegelin does not mean that elected representatives often fail. He means that representation “is by far not an appurtenance of the nature of man.” It does not exist outside of certain historical and cultural traditions. There must be a people to represent, a people animated and ordered by ideas and values; not just a gathering of rival clans, or, what we have now, a great mass of men and women who are one in not much more than the television commercials they watch.

Our problem is not just muddy thinking. It is also clear thinking from wrong premises.

Suppose you define science not as a body of knowledge about a subject, but as a certain method of investigation, such as the method of value-free empirical analysis imported by Auguste Comte from physics and applied to sociology. That, says Voegelin, “perverts the meaning of science on principle,” because the method you use must be determined by the character of the thing you are studying and not the other way around.

“Even Aristotle,” he says, “had to remind certain pests of his time that an ‘educated man’ will not expect exactness of the mathematical type in a treatise on politics.” We may say something similar about democratic processes or electoral methods of representation. The process, the method, is not the thing itself. As “different objects require different methods,” so different cultures, or different occurrences of a culture over time, will admit of different kinds of “representation,” if they admit of any at all. There is no magic in either the method or the machinery.

Allow me to illustrate. The soul of Western democratic man, it seems to me, is implied in the Odyssey, when Homer describes the ways of the Cyclops and his fellows. The barbarity of the one-eyed monster is revealed not simply by his bad table manners and his anthropophagic diet, but by what is missing from his existence. The Cyclopes have no large-scale agriculture or viticulture; they have no trade; they do not meet in assemblies to promote the common good.

The men of Ithaca during Odysseus’ long absence have slid back into barbarism in this sense. When the boy Telemachus calls them to assembly to beg their assistance, because their sons have descended upon his father’s estate to court his mother and devour his substance, we learn that it is the first time the Ithacans have met since Odysseus was dragooned into embarking for Troy, 20 years before. Homer takes for granted that it is one of the proper activities of man to hold such a meeting, where people are given leave to speak by turns, to reach some agreement about what to do. Here, the presence of the king had brought people together in what is essentially a democratic action, while his absence has allowed the people to keep apart, each man minding his own business and caring little for anything or anyone else. The king, far from being an impediment to democracy, was the symbolic representation of authority in Ithaca, which gave to those who happened to dwell in that area the sense that they were Ithacans, a people; and as a people they might come together.

Americans may not need a king, but they do need something, lest the term “American” come to imply no more than an area of longitudes and latitudes. If every man and woman in America went to the polls, but if ordinary people were not assumed to be capable to unite in their natural and local groups to pursue the ordinary common goods of human life, then of what use would an election be?

It is a confidence scheme. And if we share no sense of what a good human life looks like, then how can we be represented, either as to ends or as to the means to secure them?

To be more specific still: if we have no sense of this land, this history, this language, these songs, these heroes, and no love for them, what “America” is there at all? And perhaps that is the progressive aim, at last; that there should be no America.

Whether it is their aim or not, they and we are well on our way to attaining it.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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