Making the Case for the Good Life

Published May 23, 2016

Commentary Magazine

In a bleak political year, there comes a shaft of light in the form of an extraordinary new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.

The book is authored by my former White House and current Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin. Yuval, editor of the quarterly magazine National Affairs, is among America’s most important and humane conservative thinkers.

The Fractured Republic has received glowing reviews from many different quarters, including Time magazine’s Joe Klein, David Brooks of the New York Times, the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson and a review in COMMENTARY by David Bahr. John Podhoretz calls The Fractured Republic “staggeringly brilliant,” while Brooks uses the adjective “fantastic.” All of which means you would be wise to read it.

The Fractured Republic argues that the politics of nostalgia is failing 21st-century Americans; that we have more choices in every realm of life but less security, stability, and national unity; and that our aim needs to be revitalizing what Levin calls the “middle layers of society” – families and communities, schools and churches, charities and associations, local governments, and markets.

It covers these matters with great insight, but I want to focus on just one aspect of the book, found in the chapter titled, “Subculture Wars.” In analyzing the deep cultural changes we have experienced, and their damaging effects, he writes:

Prophesying total meltdown is not the way to draw people’s attention to this failure to flourish. The problem we face is not the risk of cataclysm, but the acceptance of widespread despair and disorder in the lives of millions of our fellow citizens. We risk getting used to living in a society that denies a great many of its most vulnerable people the opportunity to thrive. Making the case against such acquiescence in the torpor and misery of so many would mean calling people’s attention to just what it is these Americans are being denied – to the possibility of flourishing, and to its appeal.

Levin goes on to say this:

Social conservatives must therefore make a positive case, not just a negative one. Rather than decrying the collapse of moral order, we must draw people’s eyes and hearts to the alternative: to the vast and beautiful “yes” for the sake of which an occasional narrow but insistent “no” is required.

This is a deep and important point. For reasons that are understandable but that were in many respects ultimately counterproductive, social conservatives heavily emphasized the “no” rather than the “yes.”

I say “understandable” because during the last half-century we have seen the transgression of all sorts of cultural boundaries and norms – in sexual ethics and attitudes toward marriage and family, in drug use, in what is accepted and celebrated in our popular culture, et cetera – that required people to say “no” in the name of maintaining moral order. “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you,” Flannery O’Connor said in one of her letters, and the modern/post-modern age has pushed hard in lots of ways. Pushing back sometimes requires responsible adults saying “no” and “stop.”

At the same time, there has been an undeniable disposition among some social and Christian conservatives – not all by any means, but some; and some high-profile ones — to curse the darkness rather than to light a candle; to speak in condemnatory and censorious ways; to show a lack of empathy and to embody un-grace.

These individuals seemed to take great pride in their self-assigned role as prophets of doom, of pronouncing judgment on evil across the land. As a result, there was a hardness and harshness to the message and to the messengers, a lack of kindness, a loss of joy. These people were drawn to and dwelt on the darkness rather than the light. But in the end, people are drawn not to darkness but to light. It’s little wonder that so many people refused the invitation to join the effort and even turned against it.

The greatest failure here may have been the failure to see the world not just as fallen but also as a place of inexhaustible beauty and delight; to see others not simply as sinners (as we all are) but also of inestimable worth, made in the image of God; and to engage the moral imagination of people.

In his book The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, Alan Jacobs writes, “Lewis’s mind was above all characterized by a willingness to be enchanted and… it was this openness to enchantment that held together the various strands of his life–his delight in laughter, his willingness to accept a world made by a good and loving God, and (in some ways above all) his willingness to submit to the charms of a wonderful story.”

This “openness to enchantment” is a disposition, a way of approaching the world and others. Far too many of us lack it. We haven’t found a way to tell our story, our narrative, in ways that capture the heart of the hearer. This was one of the remarkable gifts of Lewis, who had the ability to articulate the positive, uplifting and winsome case for a morally ordered life. Lewis believed that there are certain givens in human nature and that true fulfillment means living in accord with rather than at war with moral truths. The good life, defined by Aristotle as the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, is the path to true happiness. How best to say that and show that in 21st century America is where the real challenge lies.

Yuval Levin’s brilliant new book offers social conservatives a more effective approach to social engagement not only because it’s more positive but because it’s more true, because it appeals to people on a deeper level, because offering people a healing grace and hope is what is likely to be especially attractive and powerful in this time of disorientation, distemper, and confusion. To paraphrase Wordsworth, what we have loved others will love, but we must show them what is worthy of our love.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

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