American Meditations: Attitudes

Christopher Flannery

October 1, 2002

Aristotle thought of the human “intellect” as that faculty of mind that directly apprehends or grasps the indemonstrable first principles of all thought or action. At the root of all theoretical or practical reasoning, in Aristotle’s view, is an irreducibly simple or direct perception by the mind’s eye of the necessary beginning point for further reasoning or judgment.

Although irreducible simplicity may be at the very heart of intellectual activity, everybody knows that there is nothing simple about those today who style themselves “intellectuals.” Complexity—indeed, paradox, which is a kind of irreducible complexity—is the mother’s milk of the intellectual.

I am led to this reflection by the comments of a respected intellectual—Louis Menand—in the September 16 New Yorker, a magazine that is famous for luxuriating in complexity and banning simplicity in any form from its very pretty pages. It puzzles Mr. Menand, and almost pains him, that his simple-minded fellow citizens have spent so much time and effort since September 11, 2001, talking and thinking about what it means to be an American. He is at a loss to explain how such simpletons as Bill Bennett and Dinesh D’Souza, for example (whose recent books support the American cause and celebrate American principles), can fail to see as he does that “the whole meaning of American life is that there is no such thing as ’the meaning of American life.’”

When American intellectuals want to display the complexity of the world with august authority to their simple-minded countrymen, they often cite European intellectuals, who have a kind of birthright to thought that is so complex as to seem merely confused to ordinary working Americans. Following this custom, Mr. Menand quotes British historian John Gray to clarify and give weight to his own complex insight: “For every attitude that is supposed to be distinctively American,” writes the Briton Mr. Gray, “one can find an opposite stance that is no less so.”

Mr. Menand finds in these remarks a truth so “remarkably obvious” as to make it a mystery how anyone could be so simple as not to see it. How benighted must the rest of Americans be that they cannot see the “remarkably obvious” truth that for every allegedly American attitude there is an opposite attitude that is just as “distinctively American.”

A few simple recollections may be forgiven here.

In 1776, many Americans continued to have the “attitude” of monarchists and wished to continue under the British crown. The Americans who created America in the American Revolution, on the other hand, had a different attitude. They shared the attitude of Thomas Jefferson, “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” And so America became… well… America.

A few generations later—call it about four score and seven years—a large segment of American opinion had been taught to reject the attitude of Jefferson and the revolutionaries of 1776. The vice president of the southern Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, memorably expressed the new attitude: “The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error… Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

Other Americans joined Abraham Lincoln in defending the attitude of Jefferson and the American Revolution, that America is a country “dedicated to the proposition that ’all men are created equal.’” And a war came. To get elected president, Lincoln had to expose the bankruptcy of yet another attitude—the attitude of Senator Stephen Douglas, which tried to split the difference between these other attitudes. Douglas proposed that American democracy really stood for the attitude that it makes no difference whether slavery is voted up or down. This was an early version of the Louis Menand attitude. It is the attitude that Americans have an innumerable variety of attitudes and that they are all equally American. This is an attitude that is as bankrupt now as it was when Lincoln exposed its bankruptcy a hundred and fifty years ago.

Christopher Flannery is a member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center and a Professor of Political Science at Azusa Pacific University.