Men Without a Chest

I’ve frequently been told that the problem with our political parties today is that they are not moderate enough, they are too liberal or too conservative.  In an article titled Betraying Politics: The Mystique of Public Life John Schweiker Shelton disagrees:

“Everything begins as a mystique and ends as a politique,” observes French essayist Charles Péguy. In other words, that which begins as a pure idea—mystic, even transcendent—devolves into profane politics, the slow grind of policy divorced from any sort of sanguine idealism. The politique politician is an automaton, swayed by the slightest breeze of public opinion and party leadership. Such a man considers himself to be “eminently practical.” If he is always choosing an evil, at least it is the lesser of two. He takes what he can get; he desires the possible and worries not over the good, the beautiful, the true. He scoffs at Plato, even Aristotle. His man is Hobbes—Machiavelli, if he is forthright. He esteems them not for their realism but their cynicism. Such humdrum pessimism is fit cover for this man without a chest.
The mystique politician is not the philosopher satirized in Aristophanes’ The Clouds: staring up absentmindedly into the starry night, falling into a well. He is instead the philosopher of The Federalist Papers, the man who, if he stares up into the starry night, does so not unto stumbling but because he will soon travel there upon Apollo 11. He articulates the natural rights of humanity and believes in them sufficiently to fight till liberty or death. His is a lusty romanticism that purges the will to power of Nietzschean materiality with the fires of Platonic idealism. He is a Kierkegaard and not a Foucault; a martyr and not a critic. Where is such a person today?
….In the American political tradition, two fonts of mystique and politique predominate: the liberal and the conservative—each a scion of the Western Christian tradition in its own right. The liberal mystique enunciates the eternal dignity of each individual, purposed for transformation and glorification; the conservative mystique praises the divine vocation of the church, the family, the nation, and other institutions, each tasked with preserving the moral order and transmitting knowledge of truth and human virtue.  That there are two major streams of mystique driving the American experiment, embedded in its constitution of rights and laws, is not insignificant. Were there only one, a solipsistic individualism would reign—or a fascist collectivism. That there are two streams is definitive of American politics and is necessary for its weal. This is why libertarianism is the death of politics just as much as authoritarianism. Rights must always be balanced with responsibilities; without a shared community, there can be no shared justice. And without justice, the experiment fails.

…The wisdom of the day reports that all of our problems arise because our nation is too ideological. But the wisdom of the day is no wisdom at all. Our conflicts arise, not because we are too ideological, but because we are insufficiently so.  The wisdom of the day reports that there is no reconciling those who believe abortion is murder and those who believe a woman has the right to decide this for herself. Though they may be right that the culture war between will never end, they are wrong to think this is a problem of ideology. The battle between pro-life and pro-choice lobbies is not a battle over mystique, it is a battle over politique. No doubt, these positions emerge from mystiques but they are not mystiquesthemselves. Rather, the conflict arises because politique has devoured the mystique from which it came. It is the loss of mystique in politics, not its presence, that has led to the trench warfare we have seen in Washington, DC.  Péguy proclaims, “All parties live by their mystique and die by their politique.” For some long time now, the Republicans and the Democrats have both been dying of a politique shorn of mystique. The liberals are not liberal and the conservatives are not conservative! Inside of the Beltway this is painfully obvious.


And his conclusion reaffirms my decision not to vote for Clinton or Trump:

Péguy offered an alternative to the destructive politiques of his day: to betray the Machiavellian calculations of politics. We will be called ‘traitors’ for our refusal “to enter into the derivative, parasitical, devouring politique.” And yet we must be such ‘traitors’ so that we do not become true traitors: those who sell their faith, their souls, and give their very selves up. We must not betray our faith, our ideals, or our values for a political victory. We must discern the dividing line between mystique and politique and refuse to budge over it. We can go no further, for, as Péguy warns,

Continuing, persevering, in that sense, is all that is most dangerous to justice and to intelligence itself. To take one’s ticket departure in a party, in a faction, and never to bother where the train is rolling to, and above all, what it is rolling on, is to put oneself resolutely in the very best situation for becoming a criminal.

In our desperation to win the culture war, we must not follow the path of wicked Saul, who called upon the Witch of Endor to shore up his position. We cannot afford the disastrous, Pyrrhic victory that awaits us there. We must be better conservatives. We must be better liberals.

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