Courage as an Intellectual Virtue and the Puzzle of President Trump

American academics have much to lament about President Trump: his break with civility, his vilification of Mexicans and Muslims, his indifference to truth and to conflicts of interest, his hostility to science, his devaluation of diplomacy. Directly on campuses we recognize the vulnerability of undocumented students and dwindling numbers of international students. As a result, many faculty members and administrators have responded harshly to his presidency.

Yet President Trump retains the enthusiastic support of his base. This support stems to some degree from his courage, which contrasts so prominently with normal party politicians. Trump is a fighter who speaks his mind without constraint, mocking political correctness, challenging the Washington establishment, threatening North Korea, and pulling no punches even against allies. Trump himself has elevated this virtue. His campaign posters announced: “It’s easy to stand with the crowd; it takes courage to stand alone!”

But Trump is the opposite of courageous if one has any meaningful concept of this intellectual virtue.

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On the Liturgical Critique of Modernity

Catherine Pickstock’s “Liturgy and Modernity,” from Telos 113 (Fall 1998), is an effort to find an alternative to liberal individualism and social fragmentation in modernity. Pickstock finds this alternative in liturgy: a liturgical critique of modernity where “liturgy” functions as a thoroughly political category. Liturgy is specially equipped to confront modernity due to its nature as ritual behavior (and therefore universal among humans). Yet the liturgical is to be favored over “ritual” for two reasons. First, ritual has already been relegated to its own “delimited sphere” in modernity, where it is viewed as a private superstructural category. Furthermore, ritual in the modern mind is regarded merely as “mechanical repetitions divorced from any informing narrative.” Liturgy, on the other hand, responds to the former challenge by its nature as “a pattern of social action” (not a delimited sphere) and responds to the latter by its foundation in a “privileged transcendent signifier.”

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On Plato and Political Injustice

James V. Schall’s “A Catholic Reading of the Gorgias of Plato” appears in Telos 157 (Winter 2011). Read the full version online at the TELOS Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.

The Gorgias of Plato is of particular interest to political philosophy. Not only is there a detailed discussion of punishment and oratory, but also of practical political ways of action and their foundation. This dialogue is of particular worth for the Roman Catholic notion of the relation of reason and revelation. Political life leaves us with the notion that not all crimes are punished, nor are all good deeds rewarded. This fact leaves the Platonic concern of whether the world is created in injustice. The myth at the end of the Gorgias suggests that politicians are the ones most likely to cause extensive damage and evil in the world. It also argues that unless such deeds are suffered for, thus righting the principle, they will be punished. This consideration naturally leads to the issue of resurrection, an issue about which even Marxist-oriented philosophers like Adorno and Horkheimer saw the logic.

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Telos 157 (Winter 2011): Plato, Schmitt, Agamben

Telos 157 (Winter 2011) is now available for purchase here.

The political disorder grows ever thicker. As of this writing, the European financial crisis seems as far away from resolution as ever, although the same complaint might have pertained three months ago nor is the diagnosis likely to lose its validity three months hence. The eurozone insists on tumbling toward an economic catastrophe that may drag the rest of the world down as well. Meanwhile prospects for a liberalizing democracy in the former Communist empire have largely vanished from living (or incarcerated) memory, and the trajectory of the Arab Spring poses more questions than answers. To be sure, things may still take a turn for the good, and the ignominious ends of some of the dictators merit celebration. Yet deserving candidates for violent overthrow and execution remain in power, in Damascus and Tehran, terrorizing their populations, amidst a larger civil war throughout the Middle East. Much of this disorder has profound local roots, stemming from competition among alternative religious traditions, political models, and economic agenda. But some of the instability results as well from the loss of ballast in the wake of the American retreat, itself a symptom of the chaos of American politics. The pre-primary period optimizes neither political virtue nor sober leadership, but even with that qualification, this lead-up to the 2012 electoral season stands out for its chilling hopelessness. It is hard to imagine a happy end to the story. The power of the state continues to expand, which undermines the integrity of individuals, but its capacity to influence the economy nonetheless diminishes. Disorder surrounds us, and the center gives way. Is there room for civic virtue?

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