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Literature and Politics
A mature literature is one of the foundation stones of a polity of order and liberty
I try to keep this newsletter on topic. I am (primarily) an historical novelist, and this newsletter is supposed to be about history and literature, not the politics of the day. But there are times when the events of the moment seem to call for comment, even if all one can do is add a small supporting voice to an existing chorus.
Yet when I am tempted to make such comments, I hear a voice that says, why risk losing any part of your readership by commenting on things that could antagonize them? Why state your political or religious opinions when they might turn off people who might read your novels? After all, part of the charm of a novel is that by clothing your view of the world in a story you may slip it by the guard of the reader whose defenses are up for the political or religious trigger words of the day.
A counterargument is that attracting an audience these days is about personal connection and building community and that the key to that is to be yourself. True, this advice always seems to come from sunny extroverts. I’m not sure how well it applies to prickly introverts like me. Perhaps it is better for us prickly types to tread the careful path, cautious not to offend any potential reader. I am, after all, an old, white, male, heterosexual, Roman Catholic. I am the sum of all fears, the terror of the seas, the ruler of the queen’s navy. Or perhaps I am just afraid.
Whichever it may be, the comment I choose to make, though prompted by current events, is a general one, and one that is very much connected to the purpose of this newsletter, since, among other things, it is about how politics and literature are connected.
In an article in The Free Press, Konstantin Kisin cites Thomas Sowell on why we disagree about politics:
We disagree about politics, Sowell argues, because we disagree about human nature. We see the world through one of two competing visions, each of which tells a radically different story about human nature.
Those with “unconstrained vision” think that humans are malleable and can be perfected. They believe that social ills and evils can be overcome through collective action that encourages humans to behave better. … This worldview is the foundation of the progressive mindset.
By contrast, those who see the world through a “constrained vision” lens believe that human nature is a universal constant. No amount of social engineering can change the sober reality of human self-interest, or the fact that human empathy and social resources are necessarily scarce. … This approach is the bedrock of the conservative worldview.
Catholics have another name for the constrained vision. We call it “Original Sin.” It can be contrasted with the Original Innocence of Rousseau, which holds that we are born innocent and benevolent and then corrupted by our education. The theory of Original Sin holds that we are born corrupt, as a result of the original sin of Adam and Eve, and must be taught virtue by our parents and schools, and must be aided in the practice of virtue, for which we are otherwise unfit, by the freely-given grace of God. The theory of Original Innocence, holds that since we are corrupted by our education, we can be perfected by removing all corrupting influences from our upbringing — even if that means shutting parents out of all decisions regarding their children’s education.
For “Original Sin,” you may read, “evolved selfishness.” The point will be the same. For “Original Innocence,” you may read “evolved selflessness.” The point will be the same, and the contrast, and which is true, will be all the clearer.
Last year, I wrote an article for the Catholic literary journal Dappled Things entitled Four Constraints of a Catholic Novelist. In that article, I argued that it is not the responsibility of the Catholic novelist to write “clean” or uplifting or inspirational stories, nor to preach the Gospel, but to write honestly and truthfully about sinners and sin. And then I said,
By telling the stories of sinners and of sin, the Catholic novelist provides the experiences that justify the need to be saved. The novelist, in other words, is the apostle of the fall.
At the political level, we face a less dramatic but still important question: how are we to live together? The answer, as Sowell says, depends on your view of human nature. The party of Original Sin is the proponent of order and liberty. Order is required because we are all sinners and we will hurt each other if our worst appetites are not constrained. But liberty is also required because we are all sinners, and anyone we select to rule is also a sinner and will become a tyrant if they are not constrained. As C.S. Lewis remarked, the problem with slavery is not that no man is worthy to be a slave, but that no man is worthy to be a master. Our politics needs an apostle of the fall just as much as our religion.
The party of Original Innocence takes a different approach to politics. Their goal is to remove all corrupting influences, which they believe can only be done by comprehensive state power. It is why they oppose free speech, for instance, since free speech can allow corrupting influences to enter the polity. Even if they believe that the state will wither away once their work of purification is complete, they believe that only the purifying fire of state power can get society to the point where state power is not needed.
To this, the party of Original Sin replies that comprehensive state power can only be operated by fallen human beings, and, as Lord Acton said, all power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our politics needs an apostle of the fall just as much as our religion.
I am of the party of Original Sin, of the constrained vision, of evolved selfishness. I strive to be an apostle of the fall. Human nature is not perfectible, and equity is not attainable by any political or social system. However, life is far more tolerable in a society based on order and liberty than in one based on tyranny and chaos. It is the task of the apostle of the fall to remind us of these truths.
These are my politics. Beyond the individual rights and wrongs, the sins and grievances of every particular situation, I am on the side of order against chaos and of liberty against tyranny. My reasons are simple: a workable combination of order and liberty produces prosperity and peace. Chaos and tyranny produce poverty and war. Where people enjoy order and liberty, they are free to work, to innovate, and to create wealth. This gives them a vested interest in peace. Liberty begets wealth. Wealth begets order. Order begets liberty. When people live in chaos, they have no incentive to invest or plan for the future, for they have no assurance that they will be able to reap what they sow. When they live under tyranny, they cannot innovate or keep any of the fruits of their labor. They sink into poverty, and those in poverty believe they have little to lose by war.
Order and liberty sound like opposites, but they actually work together. For there to be order without tyranny, there must be a high degree of civility and self-constraint among the population. Order must be present in the hearts and minds of the citizenry, not merely in the might of their rulers. And without liberty, there is no civility or self-constraint. Without civility and self-constraint, there is no liberty. This is why it is so hard to spread order and liberty. You cannot produce it simply by deposing a tyrant and proclaiming a constitution. If it is not in the hearts and minds of the population, chaos and tyranny will rush in to fill the void left by the fall of the previous tyrant. Which is precisely why we must be so avid to defend order and liberty where it is under threat, because once lost, it is very difficult to redeem.
Tyranny and chaos also sound like opposites, but they actually work together. Chaos justifies the tyrant. The tyrant’s argument that the population is not ready for any other kind of government is often correct since order and liberty must be in the hearts and minds of the population for them to flourish. But it also means that the tyrant has no interest in inculcating civility and self-constraint since those things would undermine their authority and legitimacy. And so chaos reins in all things that the tyrant’s police cannot directly oversee, and even more so because the police themselves lack civility and self-constraint and are thus agents of corruption and chaos, not order.
The trouble in our politics, even in societies that practice order and liberty, is that tyranny and chaos always produce poverty, and poverty always elicits sympathy. And because chaos has no civility or self-constraint, it will not take responsibility for its own condition, but must blame others. And so it cries, “Oppression!” It casts any who have become rich through the practice of order and liberty as oppressors. The chaos and tyranny that are the true cause of their woes are then excused as a consequence of the oppression they claim to suffer.
This is a lie, but it elicits much sympathy among people living in societies that practice order and liberty. Indeed, this sympathy can turn people against the very idea of order and liberty itself. Often this is expressed as saints (the poor) against sinners (the rich). But in a fallen world it is never about saints against sinners; it is always about sinners finding a better way to govern themselves in their sinfulness, and that means it is always about order vs chaos and liberty vs tyranny.
This is not to deny that societies that have practiced degrees of order and liberty, and thus enjoyed a degree of prosperity, have not oppressed weaker societies or exploited them for their resources. Order and liberty produce wealth and peace, but they don’t eliminate our innate tribalism or our preference for serving our own needs at the expense of others. They don’t turn sinners into saints.
This is another argument used by chaos and tyranny against order and liberty, though it is a false argument since chaos and tyranny make us more sinful, not less. In the party of Original Sin, we recognize that societies based on order and liberty are still sinful and will still commit sins, and sometimes grave sins. We also recognize that such societies will usually be more successful in their sinful activities, because of their wealth and discipline. But they will also be constrained by the consciences of their own citizens. Societies based on tyranny and chaos will not always be as successful, but they will always be more vicious and unconstrained.
For the most part, though, societies of order and liberty have learned that it is more profitable to trade with other societies rather than to attempt to own and run them, and while this does not make those societies into saints, it does mean that they have a strong incentive to favor and support societies that try to move from chaos and tyranny to order and liberty. Such societies make much better trading partners and are far less likely to start wars.
Rich societies are sometimes naive and over-enthusiastic in their attempts to facilitate such changes, sometimes doing more harm than good, but if a society does manage to make the change for itself, if it truly changes the hearts and minds of its people, it will find itself welcomed into the community of societies of order and liberty.
And that is why we should stand, unabashedly, for order and liberty against chaos and tyranny everywhere they are in conflict, both domestically and internationally. That this can come at a cost to those living under chaos and tyranny is a sad truth, and one that those who practice tyranny will ruthlessly exploit and exacerbate for their own ends. But true relief for those living in chaos and tyranny can come only from the replacement of chaos and tyranny with order and liberty. And thus we must side with order and liberty always, for it is the only real hope for those living under chaos and tyranny, even if they hate us and cheer wildly for their tyrants, having known or been taught by no other.
There is no idea that is easier to convince people of than the idea that they have been badly done to. There is no hatred that is easier to inculcate in people than the hatred of those they believe have done them wrong. There is no easier route to making yourself a tyrant than to make people feel that they have been oppressed and to give them an oppressor to hate.
Liberty and order depend on people turning a deaf ear to this siren song. Liberty and order are not a panacea. They will not dry all tears and heal all wounds. They will not make everyone equally healthy or wealthy or wise. They don’t make saints; they simply make life with our fellow sinners more tolerable. Our human nature is not saintly, and those given liberty will surely sin. But there is no form of tyranny that does not make us worse, that does not produce more tears and more wounds and more poverty, more death, and more folly.
And so again, we must stand for order and liberty against chaos and tyranny, hardening our hearts at times if we must, without resorting to barbarism. Because any retreat from order and liberty is a collapse into chaos and tyranny.
And that is my politics. Applying these principles clearly and confidently to the issues of the day is sometimes easy, and sometimes difficult. I don’t think I have anything to say on the particular issues of this moment that others have not already said very well. If I am asked, I will say what I think on these issues. But I think I have more to contribute on what we might call the deep ground of order and liberty, its roots, its threats, and its virtues. And particularly on the role that literature plays in the life of order and liberty.
It is worth noting that literature is itself a product of order and liberty, and this is particularly true of the novel. The novel is the longest and most time-consuming form of art. It requires wealth and leisure both for its composition and its consumption. Poetry, fable, and song can pass in secret between people living in chaos and tyranny. They can keep such forms from the ear of the tyrant and the censor. But the novel is too prominent and public a form to escape the censor. The novel thrives in a society of order and liberty.
But the novel also supports and fosters a society of order and liberty. The deep ground of order and liberty is a dedication to truth. Order is incompatible with lies. Because order is essentially voluntary, it decays rapidly when authorities are caught in a lie. Lies erode civility and self-discipline. Living in liberty with your neighbors requires trust. If you cease to trust them, you begin to want a tyrant to control them. And lies are the greatest corrosive of trust. No government and no citizen is entirely innocent of lies, but a fundamental societal respect for truth is the bedrock of order and liberty. Thus lies are the first and best tool of tyrants.
But there is a way to make truth less vulnerable to the lies of would-be tyrants. It lies in the difference between what we might call heard truth, the truth of propositions, and felt truth, the truth of experience. Felt truths are the truths we know in our bones, even if we can’t quite express them as propositions. It is felt truth that prepares us for and convinces us of heard truths. A proposition heard but not felt does not move us, does not inspire us to fealty or action. Felt truth confirms us and strengthens us in the rightness of heard truth. But felt truths cannot be adequately communicated as propositions. They can only be communicated as stories. It is to communicate felt truths that we tell stories in the first place.
The fundamental connection between literature and politics is that good literature creates an experience of human nature as it really is. It provides us with the felt truths of who and what we are. And since most of the sins of politics, particularly in our present moment, arise from believing lies about human nature, literature’s role in telling the felt truth about human nature should be regarded as an important one. The health of the novel is thus, in some real sense, a measure of the health of order and liberty.
Literature is not the only source of felt truth, of course. Direct everyday human experience is our primary source of felt truth. But literature can broaden our base of felt truth and bring us felt truths that we could not otherwise experience except at great expense or peril.
But the most important thing that a novel brings to a culture of order and liberty is its acknowledgment of the difficulties of living a life of order and liberty. Novels are so much lengthier than every other form of literature or art because they deal in psychological realism. Their characters are not archetypes performing symbolic actions, as in a ballad or a myth. They are real people making difficult choices.
Characters in novels are beset with practical, emotional, and moral difficulties, all of which must be worked through in the complexity of human loves, needs, fears, pains, and social expectations. All of this takes time and space and attention to detail, and it speaks to the difficulty of the self-restraint with which people must act in a society of order and liberty. The novel, if you like, is the literature of self-restraint, and of its pains and temptations. And thus it is the literature of order and liberty. Novels prepare us for citizenship, not by trying to naively inculcate civic virtues, which tends to inculcate nothing but cynicism, but by showing us the truth of the difficulties of living lives of civility and self-restraint, but also the means and the value of doing so.
It’s not that you can’t tell lies in literature. It is not that you cannot create false experiences. But it is much harder to tell a convincing lie in a story than it is to tell it in a work of political theory or propaganda. Being fallen creatures, there are always things that we want to believe because, if they were true, or if they were treated as true, it would work to our advantage. This is all ideology is: lies seeking advantage. But the lies of ideology are propositions, not experiences. Felt truth prepares us to recognize both the false proposition of a heard lie and the false experience of an untrue story.
Because literature creates experiences, not propositions, our sense of the uncanny, of the incongruous, of the untruthful, is excited by an experience we recognize as false. Even when we read something like a hollow romance or a piece of pornography that describes men or women behaving in a way we wish they would behave rather than how they actually behave, we know the illusion for an illusion even as we indulge ourselves with it. Even if we enjoy the illusion, we can never wholly convince ourselves that it is true. Similarly, ideology cannot tell a truly convincing story. It is said that the best weapon against a tyrant is laughter, and if this is true, it is because there are no funny propositions, only funny stories.
Felt truth is a powerful vaccine against propaganda and ideology. It not only inoculates us against the glamour of lies, it strengthens us for the daily struggle of living lives of order and liberty, and perhaps, at our best, even lives of virtue.
So while the novel form is not immune to corruption — nothing is — those who care about maintaining a social order founded on order and liberty should regard the mature art of the novel as an indispensable part of their program. In the rush to do battle at the flashpoints of the moment — important as it is to deal with those flashpoints as they arise — we must not fall into the error of focusing all our efforts on cleaning graffiti off the side of a building while neglecting the rot that is eroding its foundations. We must care for the foundations of order and liberty. If we don’t, fighting individual battles will avail us nothing in the long run. Preserving a robust and truthful literary tradition is an indispensable part of maintaining those foundations.
I am of the party of order and liberty, and my platform is serious popular fiction.