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From TAC’s Bookshelf: Consolation and Philosophy

Looking back at a year of reading with the staff of The American Conservative.

Musee des Augustins, Toulouse, France
Boethius (480-524) Bidding Farewell to his Family (oil on canvas) (Photo by Art Images via Getty Images)

As we celebrate Christmas and look forward to a new year, in an homage to an old “TAC Bookshelf” series, we hope you’ll enjoy a glimpse this week of some of what we at The American Conservative were reading in 2022.

Among the more animated debates on the American right in the past few years is that regarding the future of political economy. For several decades right-leaning orthodoxy on the questions has centered around a kind of laissez-faire/free trade absolutism and market fundamentalism. Challengers have sought to reinvigorate an older tradition that might be called economic nationalism, where the federal government takes an active role in the promotion of industrial development and protects developed industries through the imposition of tariffs and the restriction of immigration.

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Into this debate Mark T. Mitchell has offered what might be considered a third position. In his Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class (2022), he diagnoses the problems of American political economy and its drift toward what he calls plutocratic socialism. While this may seem like a paradoxical term at first glance, he explains that plutocracy and socialism actually go hand-in-hand. As wealth has become more and more concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, increasingly large segments of the American population have become alienated from private property—and in particular productive property. This alienation leads to an increased sense of insecurity and dependence, leading to greater and greater reliance on the federal government for basic needs, and an increased clamor for “socialism” among younger Americans.

This, in turn, leads to a decrease in virtue amongst the citizenry, given that virtue is built, in no small part, from the responsibilities that come with household and property management. The solution, according to Mitchell, is to find ways for property to once again be broadly distributed and held privately, though with a reworked idea of what ownership entails: through the cultivation of a sense of trusteeship. Trusteeship, as opposed to ownership, limits what can be done with property because it views property as rightly belonging to posterity, not simply to whomever happens to own it at the moment.

This book adds an important and needed voice in the debates on the right over political economy and, as the subtitle intimates, the future of the middle class in America.

But even if the socio-economic problems can be solved, there remain deep divisions within the country. Culture war issues have taken center stage in recent political disputes, revealing a country that is deeply divided over basic issues of morality and justice. While we often hear it said today that we’ve never been more divided, that, of course, is not quite true: we once fought a civil war over questions of morality and justice.

To get some perspective, I have been reading James M. McPherson’s magisterial single-volume history of the Civil War Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988). While officially part of the Oxford History of the United States series, it stands alone as a brilliant and readable account of the political, social, moral, technological, and personal aspects of the war that nearly destroyed the United States of America. McPherson is especially good at setting the scene prior to the war in a chapter called “The United States at Midcentury” and then showing how, gradually but seemingly ineluctably, social and economic divisions opened into the gaping wounds of war.

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We should pray that we avoid the same fate.

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Part of the problem that we face is, no doubt, due to the politicization of everything that has been ongoing for decades. Politics has become, as political philosopher Fr. James V. Schall used to say, a “substitute metaphysics” wherein all is comprehended by the political. How can we recover a vision that right-sizes the political sphere in comparison with the whole of reality? One possibility I would suggest is to pick up a copy of The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, better known simply as Boethius. Written in approximately A.D. 524, the Consolation was among the most influential works in the Western canon for more than 1500 years. Dante, Chaucer, Aquinas, Thomas More, and Shakespeare—to name a few—read and incorporated the teachings of Boethius into their works. More recently, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were deeply influenced by the Consolation and traces can be seen throughout their writings.

The Consolation takes the form of a dialogue between an imprisoned Boethius—awaiting execution after he had fallen from grace with the emperor having served as a top advisor—and a personified Lady Philosophy who visits him in his room. Over the course of the dialogue, Philosophy directs Boethius’s mind away from his self-pity at having suffered at the hands of Fortune and toward higher things, culminating in a famous philosophical reflection on the nature of free will and divine providence.

In a moment when our politics seems to be growing ever more absurd and rancorous by the day, these three books—in very different ways—can help us to step back and consider our debates in a broader light.

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