In 1978, as the last round of campus insanity was settling down into generalized myopia, Norman Jacobson of the University of California at Berkeley published Pride and Solace: The Functions and Limits of Political Theory. It is not a good book. But its intellectual conceit—that all thinking people must choose between a life of pride and one consumed by the pursuit of solace—well sums up the progressive mindset of the last 150 years.
Moreover, as Thomas Spragens points out in a much better book, The Irony of Liberal Reason, convenient dichotomies like pride and solace are central to liberal thought in general, not just to its progressive mutations. Faith and reason, science and superstition, left- and right-wing politics—all these pairings of abstract terms, supposedly capturing deep tensions between intrinsically conflicting forms, are highly useful within the liberal mind. They shape massive political assumptions into seemingly objective data sets that leave interlocutors with a stark choice between Good and Evil. This may sound tendentious, given liberals’ claims to living beyond good and evil and to finding nuance in all moral choices. But the nuance and the subtlety, like the pose of objectivity, are false. In reality, as even the uberliberal John Rawls was forced to admit in justifying the Original Position from which he magically derived a political system supposedly rooted in reason, it is prejudice and presumption that rule in forming liberal dichotomies. And the dichotomizing itself is really just the result of a deeper liberal need to simplify the world, breaking down all organic wholes into mere data which can be manipulated and recombined at will.
Even those natural differences that actually are in some sense binary (one thinks, here, of male and female) now are treated as if they are mere data to be broken down and recombined. In the case of the sexes we can see the root of the problem in the determination that we see men and women as in a dichotomous “oppressor/oppressed” relationship. In this way opponents of the natural family are able to deny the very possibility that man, woman, and children make up an organic whole. They thus make sex itself into a conflicted creation of ideology and social power to be broken down and “reimagined” as dictated by personal desires.
Although the 1960s introduced mass market gender bending (e.g., David Bowie), liberalism had yet to progress quite so far toward denaturing the sexes in 1978 as it has today. At the time Jacobson wrote, he at least seems to have been more concerned with teaching us how to approach the study of politics as a part of approaching ourselves and what kind of character we should want to have. Here we can see the workings of his chosen dichotomy of pride and solace. Like most other progressive dichotomies, the immediate political connotations are ones of progress versus reaction. One may choose between a life of courage and self-mastery, in which we work to create a better world for ourselves, or a life of fear, in which we seek to retreat from the world, stem the tides of change, and demand comfort walled off from the challenges of a troubled but promising outside world. The choice is made quite stark, and the options emphatically drawn to emphasize other dichotomies such as reason and faith. Thus, Jacobson himself warns, near the end of the book, that readers should not give in to their inevitable inclination to dismiss solace out of hand as they welcome the challenge of a life of pride. Better, it seems, to pause a moment to rationally consider solace before rejecting it—and even then stay open to it for purposes of occasional spiritual holidays a la William James’s religion.
In 1978 it was no doubt gratifying for Jacobson, as he looked upon the results of the radicalism of the previous decade and a half, to tell himself what great deeds pride had wrought. The university had been torn apart through sit-ins, riots, and other forms of mob intimidation. As a result, what little opposition had existed to neo-Marxist radicalism had been silenced and a new era of tenured radicalism ushered in. Pride was indeed the rule of the day as the traditional curriculum with its emphasis on teaching the roots, logic, and achievements of Western civilization was gutted in favor of various critiques of fundamental institutions, beliefs, and practices and a generalized resentment toward all things old, especially if they failed to live up to utopian expectations and self-conceptions.
From here American intellectuals would move on to drive dissenters out of the university in the name of diversity and openness to various differences. The idea of the university as a place of learning would be left behind in pursuit of radical politics and the politicization of education itself. The multifaceted process of education, in which multisided conversations take place within an atmosphere of civility, in which the need to understand one’s tradition if one is to live in it, or even to criticize it in any serious way, increasingly gave way to ideological indoctrination and mere instrumentalism.
The crybullies of the current wave of campus radicalism belie Jacobson’s claims regarding the benefits of a prideful approach to life. The choice was not made for courage and self-control. Rather, radical pride made possible a new infantilism steeped in resentment and childish entitlement that demands coddling, affirmation, and obeisance to claims of victimhood.
The real question we must ask ourselves is what kind of character we want for ourselves and for our society. Our character is made up of virtues and vices, which are in large measure good and bad habits. The will—the much vaunted “chooser”—also is a part of that character. But it, too, is in important ways the product of good or bad habits. An attitude of pride, rooted in the conviction of self-mastery and entitlement, will produce, not a strong will oriented toward the good, but rather a selfish, even petulant character in which choices are made out of a sense of entitlement rather than the expectation that one will have to work for what one gets out of life. If we want to be perpetual adolescents, pride (also known as the sin of pride) will help us on that path. Solace, on the other hand, is not really a character trait but rather one good among many that may be sought, especially in difficult times. One might replace it with a character trait of acceptingness, according to which one strives to be thankful for the society and life into which one has been born. This character trait will foster choices rooted in thanksgiving and a prudent determination to protect one’s society and way of life.
And here the mistaken view that society is merely one’s character writ large does its greatest damage. Society is made up of a wide variety of institutions, each of which may have its own unique character. Understanding political theory, or simply society in any meaningful sense, is not merely a matter of translating individual into political character, for only a very few of our institutions are political in any proper sense. Most are something else, be it religious, familial, educational, or fraternal. And to reduce all associations to the political, as progressivism in particular determines to do, is to damage the character of each. It is to create out of life’s genuine diversity a realm of dichotomous conflict between, say, public and private. It is to impoverish our society and ourselves.
We are not faced with one great, stark choice, be it between faith and reason, public and private, or pride and solace. Even the one great, fundamental choice we must make—that between good and evil—is not so easily or clearly drawn as its mere statement implies. We must choose and develop a variety of goods through good association, choosing the right people and groups and interacting with them in the proper manner. Where politics is concerned, however, this does not mean choosing some fundamental, substantive good. For the good of politics is to protect the goods of the other, more fundamental associations in which we may live out our choices and our inheritances in a manner befitting flawed beings seeking virtue.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.