While I’ve been critical of Mark Lilla in the past, his article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, “The President and the Passions,” hits the nail on the head. In a way reminiscent of Charles Taylor’s critique of “intellectualist” philosophies of action, Lilla notes that Obama’s failures might stem from his over-estimation of the role of ideas and information. Commenting on Obama’s diagnosis of the landslide defeat in November, which Obama chalked up to the inability of the populace to get their facts straight, Lilla suggests:
If this is the way the president and his party think about human psychology, it’s little wonder they’ve taken such a beating. Their assumption seems to be that we are basically rational creatures who, left to our own devices, have little trouble discerning what our interests are and how to serve them. It’s only when our passions get the better of us, when we are angry or fearful or exuberant, that we make bad decisions. That’s really what’s the matter with Kansas, and with the Tea Party activists. So the administration has to work harder to “get the message out” and “sell” its program; to calm people it needs to give them clearer, more complete and more attractively packaged information about how it is working in their interests. Bring in the pie charts, by all means, but print them on glossier paper.
Thus Lilla takes Obama to task for a misguided psychology or what we might call a mistaken philosophical anthropology. As Lilla continues,
The wisdom of [Obama’s] approach depends on whether the underlying assumption about human nature is right. But is it? Not, at least, according to virtually every Western philosopher and theologian from antiquity to the 18th-century. From Plato to St. Augustine to Thomas Hobbes, the shared assumption was that human beings are fundamentally passionate creatures and that reason alone is too weak to contain our drives.
The proper response to this is not to lapse into the rationalist whine about people being governed by their passions and keep hoping they’ll be be “rational” like us (we’re not). Rather, the point is to harness, direct, and channel the passions. Indeed, if you just paint the passions as “irrational,” you’ve already lost. Thus Lilla concludes: “The lesson to be drawn is that the art of politics must be the art of engaging the passions, first by exciting them, then by moderating and directing them to a worthy end, one that reason may reveal but cannot achieve.”
Might the art of worship or the art of discipleship be the same?
Lilla closes with an elliptical little story:
George Plimpton used to tell the story of Muhammad Ali going to Harvard one year to give an address. At the end of his speech, someone called out to him, “Give us a poem!” He paused, stretched out his arms to the audience and delivered what Plimpton said was the shortest poem in the English language:
The students would have followed him anywhere.