Thursday, June 23, 2016

Gordon S. Wood on "Revolutionary Character" (and the rise of Donald Trump)

I'm reading a book by revolutionary war scholar Gordon S. Wood (Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different). It is a collection of essays (some previously published and expanded upon) on the lives of our founding fathers, and an attempt to explain in part why for all of our celebration of them, we'll likely never see the likes of their calibre again. It also touches, at least in my mind, on the rise of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.

According to Wood, there was a time in American history where qualities of the ideal man were vigorously pursued -- "politeness, taste, sociability, learning, compassion, benevolence" were marks of civilization, just as "virtue, disinterestedness, an aversion to corruption and courtierlike behavior" were marks of good political leadership. The pursuit of being a "gentleman" (displayed by classical conceptions of virtue and self-sacrifice) was given a moral meaning. One's public reputation actually mattered, and they took great lengths to preserve that honor by what they said and did.

"Disinterestednesss" at that time was understood to be "superior to regard of private advantage; not to be interested by private profit", especially in the conduct of public service. (Of course, wealth was a factor in cultivating such in that its advantages diminished the motivation for personal advancement; men of leisure were naturally expected to participate in governance because they could afford to -- public office was considered an obligation). Unfortunately, this meaning of the ancient ideal of "disinterestedness" has changed over millennia and has come to acquire negative connotations, now being characterized as "ambivalence".

However, being a gentlemen was not necessary rooted to bloodline or heredity -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Paine -- the first generations were all considered "self-made men". Of those who signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, only eight are known to have fathers who attended college. And yet despite being "sons of reputable mechanics or farmers" (Benjamin Rush, 1790), it was thought possible that men of low birth could attend college, acquire a liberal arts education and through self-cultivation could become true gentleman as well.

The aristocracy of virtuous public character, such as it was being pursued by the founding fathers, is what distinguished themselves from later generations -- and as the years progressed, Woods contends that what we now value most in American society, democracy and egalitarianism, has proven to be the recipe for our undoing. "The founding fathers had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people, indeed they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves." America continues to celebrate the ideal of being a "self-made man" -- but the original understanding of such as the classical cultivation of moral character has faded into obscurity. Now we have Kanye West and the Kardashians,

(Drawing from Woods' line of thought) Trump, you might say, is the thoroughly contemporary American -- the cultivation of moral virtue, honor and "reputation" in the highest sense of the term, has no concern and seems utterly lost on him. He displays no sense of moral character, exemplified in part by his behavior and conduct towards women and vulgarity of speech. He is of course concerned about his own "reputation" -- but this extends only as far as the material advancement of his ego, especially as it consists in turning himself into a commodity to be foisted on the masses for personal gain. In other words, he is the furthest thing from the 1700's ideal of a "gentleman", but Woods might argue that he is the President we deserve.

2 comments:

  1. I think you may have missed his point on some of these essays. I think if you read the essay on Aaron Burr you might see the parallel to Trump. They are almost the same person.

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