Lebenskünstler

Mark T. Mitchell – The Art of Attention – Stewardship and Cosmopolitan Neglect

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/01/2013

Liberal Education, Stewardship, and the Cosmopolitan Temptation – Mark T. Mitchell

When speaking of the proper care for the natural world, the word that best describes our efforts is stewardship. Stewards are care-takers. They lovingly guide, protect, and cultivate that which is under their care. In the language of stewardship the concepts of indebtedness, gratitude, love, and responsibility all find their proper places. But it is not only in the context of the natural world that the concept of stewardship has meaning. When we examine the topic of liberal education the idea of stewardship is indispensable. For as inheritors of a civilization, we are its stewards. And because the gifts of civilization are tender plants requiring constant nourishment, our task as stewards requires perseverance, courage, and, ultimately, faith that succeeding generations will take up the mantle when we are no longer able to bear it.

It is, in the end, impossible seriously to engage the great tradition without cultivating the habit (or is it the art?) of attention. Tocqueville notes that the habit of inattention is the greatest vice of democracy. This vice is exponentially more pervasive in an age where email, text messaging, Tweets, and YouTube are only a click away. Learning to attend carefully is, perhaps, one of our culture’s greatest needs. Paying attention requires self-control. We must learn to listen before we speak and think before we act. These habits are essential for self-government.

But with all this, there is at the heart of much writing about liberal education a sort of cosmopolitan temptation that, ultimately, does a disservice to the concept of stewardship. When proponents of liberal education describe it as the attempt to grasp the whole, they are partially right, but if we do not continue with the acknowledgment that the whole is grasped via particulars and that, as human creatures, we necessarily inhabit only a small and particular part of the whole, we are missing something crucial.

If a liberal education teaches a person to love abstraction, to relish the exchange of universal ideas of justice, charity, and beauty, yet to be inattentive to the neighbor down the street or the beauty of a well-tended garden, then something has gone wrong. Such an education is suited to abstract beings who naturally belong in no particular place and have none of the senses by which particular beauty or empathy can be experienced. Such an education is, in other words, not fit for human beings.

In other words, a liberal education should teach students how to be human beings and how to live in some particular place. If a course of education cultivates a hatred for home, it has failed. If it cultivates a dissatisfaction with the local, particular, and the provincial in favor of distant, abstract places where cosmopolitanism drowns out the loveliness and uniqueness of local customs, practices, stories, and songs, then the education has failed. To be well-educated is to be educated to live well in a particular place. It is to acknowledge the creatureliness of one’s existence and thereby to recognize our many debts of gratitude and the scale proper to a human life. A successful liberal education cultivates stewards who are disposed to love their places and who are equipped to tend them well.

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Against Cosmopolitanism – Mark T. Mitchell – Rootedness vs. Restlessness – Wendell Berry

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/19/2012

The Unmaking and Making of Community – Mark T. Mitchell

Skepticism about transcendent reality tends to lead in the direction of philosophical materialism, and philosophical materialism in our age has opened the door to the more general materialism of consumerism…Home tends to become merely a launching place for economic and hedonistic endeavors, and individuals tend to lose any abiding concern for the long-term future of the local community. In such a setting, any notion of community membership, which evokes ideas of commitment and loving concern over a lifetime, is replaced by the much narrower concerns for personal affluence and individual pleasure.

…a healthy local community comprises particular people inhabiting a particular place and sharing local customs, activities, and stories. In short, they participate in a complex web of relations that are flavored by the particular history, geography, and culture of that place. When we describe a local community in those terms, it becomes clear how a massive national community is simply an impossible ideal. Even more fanciful is the notion of a world community. To be sure, because we share a common nature and many common needs and desires, we can empathize with and render aid to humans from radically different communities. But the cosmopolitan ideal that one can be a “citizen of the world” is only imaginable if we strip down the rich notion of community to mean something like “the brotherhood of man.” The idea of universal brotherhood is appealing and, as far as it goes, it is true, but abstract brotherhood is not the same as living in a local community with men and women of flesh and blood… it may be easier to love the world than to love our neighbor. Ultimately, when love for a particular place and the people inhabiting that place are lost, community is lost as well. Love itself becomes an abstraction.

But though the temptation to stay at arm’s length, to inhabit a place with ironic detachment, is alluring, the implications for a robust and healthy local community are grave. Indeed, if a critical mass of such people occupy a certain place, they are merely a collection of individuals rather than a community. They are mere residents and not stewards. In such a situation, local stories and traditions that are only kept alive in the telling and the practice are lost. But these are the very things that provide context and meaning to our social lives. They provide us with guidelines for acting together. They are the source of manners and customs that make life in a community possible. With the loss of common traditions and shared stories, we lose the cues that help us navigate a particular local world.

…[Wendell] Berry argues that a meaningful community must include the ideas of rootedness and human scale. “By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.” Berry identifies the corrosion of flourishing communities as the result of an excessive individualism that places rights ahead of responsibilities and economic gain ahead of meaningful and durable relationships—relationships with neighbors, with local customs and practices, with the land itself. As he puts it, “if the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. It must refer to a placed people….The modern industrial urban centers are ‘pluralistic’ because they are full of refugees from destroyed communities, destroyed community economies, disintegrated local cultures, and ruined local ecosystems.” Ultimately, according to Berry, “a plurality of communities would require not egalitarianism and tolerance but knowledge, an understanding of the necessity of local differences, and respect. Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.”