An artist’s odyssey

Liberty’s Turn

“It was good for me to be afflicted, in order to learn your laws.” (Ps 119:71)


I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. On a street surrounded by hills and creeks, supportive parents and open space fed my imagination. Whether dashing down creek-beds or balancing across tree-limbs, I learned by way of pleasure and pain.

Revealingly, I remember evaluating the footing at the edge of a ravine and considering the consequences of a missed landing. I then ran as fast as I could, leapt, and found myself a step stronger than planned. And oh, the joy! as small successes culminated in a sense of wonder.

But alas, the demands of school and the draw of friends pulled me from this grove. Yet book-learning was odious; sitting still, torment. The sum of this education conspired against my fiery breast.

Admonitions that I restrain my passions seemed a bill of goods. Talk of virtue sounded like a hoax. Intuition pushed against proffered dogmas. The need for forgiveness was foreign. And a joyless education testified against the call to labor.

Intent on remedying this resistance, my old man sought to win my wayward mind. For years, our discussions rang with “no, that’s wrong” until I mastered the art of inquisitor-appeasement.

Such artifice recast my world. Value claims became variable; so I maintained appearances and hid away my passions. Yet what was hidden emerged later as an aggrandizing-instinct. If not for a timely book, I may have remained blithely hedonistic.

Gratefully, seekers find; I found Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov sounded the depths of my heart: “Why can’t I be great? What wouldn’t I pay?” When the axe fell, mutual guilt exposed my lust for power.

A new necessity emerged. I had to discover how Dostoyevsky turned my soul. Powerless against this attraction, I immersed myself in literature. In the realm of ideas, I ranged once again. Though the deeper I plunged, the more obvious became my limits. Writing in response to the masters revealed so much mediocrity. Nevertheless, I had to hazard this path.

Poring through pages, scribbling questions and stumbling upon veiled divinations, I was reaching for something that I couldn’t define. As such, limiting conventions had to be sacrificed for the sake of unvarnished reality.

With but a tentative hold on artistry, I couldn’t suffer high school to college and job. So as my friends went off to college, I set out after ‘the voice’.


The Wilds

The cost of living quickly constrained my striving. I got a job believing that “at least I’ll have my spare time for art”. Though the beginning felt blissful, stifling monotony ensued. My beautiful yearning soon became a longing for release. And, as pent-up energies surged, each of my voices declared itself equal in the conduct of my affairs.

Once the dogma became “away with these restraints,” my passions declared their undying allegiance. Joyous calls for consistency flooded in from soul-constituents. Henceforth no action was bad before all had voted accordingly. Now he who wielded the sharpest words was the smartest critic while she who was least limited became best-liked.

I raised my argument-in-waiting and railed against the prevailing order. “Why should we care about their fate?” I exclaimed with an air of innocence, asserting a bold future if the oligarchs were defanged. “We live in a democracy, don’t we?”

Yet, as my self-image swelled, so crumbled my foundation. The world duly contracted and passions pushed through the cracks. I tried to write my way free repeatedly. But all that came about were damning incantations against the man and his boss, our loss and their hypocrisy. Manically, I would declare “down with the fences!” as I tore and swore with macabre satisfaction. After the fit passed, I drove again to my dead-end job feeling hollow and fallow.

What was once a rousing possibility had become a curse on the course of my life. With anguished cries, I vowed to rebuild on higher ground. But after the last echo faded, my skin crawled and the tension became unbearable. Nothing but one more blaze would suffice. “I’m totally a tyrant.” Suffocating under an impossible weight, I wondered “what’s this appetite worth if it leaves me bitter, broke, and alone”? Nothing but endless power could satisfy; wasn’t nature-conquering prowess the promise of modernity?

Ultimately, the collapse of my soul-structure compelled a reckoning. I could avoid moral-causality for only so long. The more I tried, the more my heart felt unstrung. For all my literary efforts—pages upon pages of furious voice—disconnected pieces overwhelmed, and dissatisfaction reared its hydra-heads.

In time reason revolted. Without grandiose declarations, the will-to-move dissipated. Real limits beset my heaving chest. “What’s more important, the possibility of excellence or the supposed equality of goods?” Gratefully, my sorrows revealed the preserving mean amid chaotic extremes.

Through my suffering, I found a way to artistry and began separating specious from reasonable ideas. Surely divided houses fall and yes, adventurers must become navigators to reach their real port. “How do I learn true principles of science?” This much was clear: I could strive to know or die of self-loathing.

So I set off for a fixed point and, in turn, found my teacher.

Becoming a political animal

We’re at an impasse. Not that between right and left, but a more fundamental impasse between the orientation of certain social creeds and the demands of our Declaration’s political faith. On the one hand, we have a great freedom of self-determination—each of us can think and generally speak howsoever we wish—and, on the other, we have the ideals of our first principles that must impose positive obligations upon citizens in order to be effective. We are left with the difficult task of determining when to heed the narrow dictates of self-interest and when the demands of our first principles should hold sway. And, as much as we all might wish that self-interest and the public good were one and the same thing, the state of our political realm betrays such a hope.

Particularly salient here is the all-too-human tendency to ignore this tension between our private interests and public affairs. Entire disciplines (i.e. political economy) have arisen to try and demonstrate that an increase in the sum of goods and services in the marketplace constitutes the common good of the political whole. Simultaneously, modernity’s propagandists have unleashed a litany of reasonings that would have us believe that there is some sort of direct relationship between the unlimited individual and the well-being of our liberal democracy. The irony here is that so long as the religiously-inculcated habits of human decency continued to operate in our public spheres, such reasonings seemed plausible on the surface.

Yet the world looked very different in the 1780s and 1800s when these ideas took flight. At that time the private lives of citizens were still immediately connected with the moral and intellectual workings of the public realm. Individuals still came to understand themselves within the debate of ideas where they actually lived. Compare this with the outcomes of some of our technological advances that have left people isolated in domains of our own making (or consumption). In turn, we have tended to become increasingly isolated from the strivings and sorrows of those outside our immediate social spheres. And, as our private and social circles become ever more technologically insulated, we are left without sufficient means for developing the prudence needed to guide our Republic.

So far as I can see, there are two basic approaches for remedying the impasse between our social and political creeds. We can look for yet another technological solution to our problems or pursue a kind of comprehensive education that cultivates the conditions for both prosperity and justice. While we have first-hand experience with the sort of technological solutions that are increasingly being deployed, the kind of education that might remedy our deeper woes is less well understood.

From the perspective of our first principles, the strength of our education should not be measured merely by our purchasing power, but by the viability of our experiment at self-rule; and in order for self-rule to work, the political capacity of the people must be exercised (i.e. nurtured). The state of our political speech betrays the fact that we are not currently pursuing an education oriented to self-rule. Take for instance the central position of opinion polls in public policy discussions today. The idea that we can express opinions and expect others to use them to manage our affairs from afar is foreign for those educated to self-rule; speech that costs us so little and which fails to connect us with the struggles, hopes, and sorrows of others is not the sort of speech that could renew the democratic practices of the American Republic.

So, what sets apart an education that prepares people for self-rule? It seems to me that such an education must build upon the bases of experience common to all individual development. Taking a bird’s eye view, we see man beginning as an appetitive animal, who learns by imitation, while slowly developing the use of speech, and then/simultaneously reason, by navigating the tensions between one’s self-interest and the demands of the larger world. From here, our human potential is further developed as each weak individual recognizes the social aspect of our nature through our due dependence on others.

From this locus of social engagement, another developmental stage can then unfold as we become aware of what we might call the justice-problematic. The challenge here is that our ability to meaningfully engage with the problematic nature of justice is threatened by our rational powers of abstraction; i.e. to the degree that we come to view ourselves as autonomous individuals, we become correspondingly isolated from the internal demands of liberty’s apprenticeship. Stated another way, once the subjectively understood identity of each individual becomes sacrosanct, we tend to set aside the normative task of shaping human character according to transcendent ideals. So long as we worship all things immediate and automatic, the odyssey of becoming political animals is left unendeavored.

Yet, as moderns love to remind us, man is moldable. Hence there is no necessary reason why we cannot relearn how personal goods might be brought into dynamic tension with the demands of shared justice. The hegemony of materialism is not yet so complete that we cannot upbuild communities that could help us make sense of the immensity of our liabilities and possibilities as appetitive, imitative, rational, social, and potentially political animals. A great reservoir of untapped common-sense still exists that we might draw upon to meet liberty’s enduring burdens.

In sum, this idea of becoming political animals describes a transformative undertaking that repurposes elements of both our personal and cultural pasts according to the demands of our overarching ideals. Rather than negating the appetitive and self-interested experiences of our past, one who purposefully embraces this becoming redirects these natural forces into the pursuit of both private and common goods—without mistaking one for the other. In practical terms, the political animal framework calls individuals to connect the sentiments of our lives with the tenets of our Declaration’s political faith rooted in our created origin and our comprehensive destiny as a free people.

My political frame

I guess I’m a political radical. There’s no avoiding it, so I may as well come right out and say it: I believe that there is something fundamentally natural about political life; that there is a condition internal to our human nature whose potential is developed only through the purposeful organization (and the ongoing reorientation) of political communities. In other words, I think that the realm of politics is not simply the outcome of a given social contract—rather, I am arguing that the will of any given majority must be limited by transcendent principles such as justice, liberty, and equality if we are to live well as self-ruling people. Further, I think that it’s possible for flawed and incompletely developed reason to recognize the demands of right-reason and thereby draw our seeming interests toward their true fulfillment.

There you have it; banish me if you must from your rolodex forever henceforth, but I side with the constructive cultural project of the West and resolutely declare with the likes of Lincoln that a free people must pursue the ends of civil and religious liberty so as not to be destroyed on the shoals of unlimited self-interest.