Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Individuality cannot be dissociated from the pursuit of a disinterested object

The Promise of American Lives - Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly
Kevin C. Murphy,
Columbia University (Copyright 2003-2009, All Rights Reserved) Crolian Means: Artisanal Fulfillment and Heroic Exemplars

Still, the question remains – if the nation is not the gardener but instead the fertile soil, what then brings on this flowering of diverse democratic individuality? Croly’s answer: aspiration itself. “The truth is that individuality cannot be dissociated from the pursuit of a disinterested object,” he writes. “It is a moral and intellectual quality, and it must be realized by moral and intellectual means. A man achieves individual distinction, not by the enterprise and vigor with which he accumulates money, but by the zeal and the skill with which he pursues an exclusive interest – an interest usually, but not necessarily connected with his means of livelihood.”20 Thus, concludes Croly, a person cultivates her own individuality by freely engaging in an aesthetic or occupational pursuit of her choosing, and the best form of government is one that offers a diversity of pursuits for such citizens to engage in.

In defining individuality thus, Croly acknowledges his intellectual debt to the writings of nineteenth century British cultural critics John Ruskin and William Morris, both of whom extolled “the insistence on the worker’s right to joyful and useful labor” as the “moral core” of their public philosophies. As historian T.J. Jackson Lears argues in his seminal work No Place of Grace, both Ruskin’s medievalist-centered appraisal of modern life and Morris’s socialist-leaning update of Ruskin’s thesis emphasize the critical importance of artisanal creation to the happiness of the individual. Similarly, both lament the “degradation of work” as the primary flaw in the organization of modern economic life. According to Lears, these antimodern arguments of Ruskin and Morris influenced a generation of American intellectuals and progressives, who in “yearning to reintegrate selfhood by resurrecting the authentic experience of manual labor…looked hopefully toward the figure of the premodern artisan.”21

Yet, Lears argues, the national predisposition toward progress caused American heirs of Ruskin and Morris, ranging from the wide-ranging thinkers of the Arts and Crafts Movement to the progressive founders of the Settlement Houses, to jettison the antimodernist component of their critiques and instead make peace with the emerging bureaucratic-industrial order. As American reformers “began unwittingly to accommodate themselves to the corporate system of organized capitalism,” remarks Lears, “their focus began to shift from social justice to personal fulfillment.” […]

Despite the much-heralded emphasis on nationalism throughout Promise of American Life, the central argument of Croly’s tome – the motive force that spurs his progressive vision of the ideal polity -- rests primarily in the hands of exemplary individuals.26 Indeed, the only way that the “noble and civilized democracy” which Croly has spent the entire book articulating can come to pass is if America’s citizens aspire and strive toward a heroic or saintly ideal.

In placing so much rhetorical weight upon the idea of heroism, Croly’s Promise enters into a dialogue with a number of intriguing canons, and none so obvious as that of his early progressive contemporaries. Historians as diverse as James HighamT.J. Jackson Lears, George Cotkin, and Gail Bederman have all noted the cultural veneration of the heroic ideal at the turn of the twentieth century. As Cotkin puts it in his study of William James’ own embrace of this heroic ideal, the “discourse of heroism…enthused American culture after 1880” and had “transformed itself into a full-fledged revitalization movement” soon thereafter. Be it in Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur, the dime novel adventures of Deadwood Dick, the sculling paintings of Thomas Eakins, the Muscular Christianity of Dwight Moody, the virile public image of Theodore Roosevelt, or the “capacity of the strenuous mood” idealized by William James, the discourse of heroism was omnipresent among the thinkers of Herbert Croly’s generation, and as such Promise falls clearly within the cultural mainstream of its time.27

Yet Croly’s use of heroic exemplars also speaks to longer-standing traditions in the American mind. For one, although it may at first seem counterintuitive given both Croly’s contempt for Jeffersonian provincialism and his arguments in favor of political centralization, the emphasis on democratic improvement through heroic emulation place Promise squarely in the civic republican tradition. In the words of political scientist Michael Sandel, “the republican conception of freedom…requires a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires.” And this type of formative politics is clearly at the center of Croly’s tome. As Sandel notes, “repeatedly and explicitly, Croly wrote of the ‘formative purpose’ of democratic life. More than a scheme for majority rule or individual liberty or equal rights, [Croly’s] democracy has as its highest purpose the moral and civic improvements of the people…the point of democracy [for Croly] was not to cater to people’s desires but to elevate their character, broaden their sympathies, and enlarge their civic spirit.”28 

No comments:

Post a Comment