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Stout and individual XIII

April 21, 2016

At its root, the problem remains that of knowing the person’s character, in response to which Stout highlights the importance of determining those different communities, practices and institutions in which the person trades. Just as important prove the ways in which these intertwine with the person’s life history and, through their interaction, provide the person with a horizon of reasons for thought, speech and deed. Strikingly, if the person demonstrates ability to tease these horizons out, this ability stands in its own right as a key virtue in considerations of character. Of the three virtues of character highlighted by Stout in the work’s first chapter, piety differs from generosity, present-looking, and hope, future-looking, in that it requires the person to make an inventory of the different moral and social sources responsible for the shape of her life at a given moment in time (see DT, p. 9).

In this way, piety takes on a doubled appearance. Piety qua means allows us to account for character, virtues and vices; among these virtues must we, however, class piety qua end. So does Stout’s account end at a self-sustaining notion of piety, which proves both case and rule to the responsibility of bringing a critical eye to both traditions and broader social and political arrangements. For, in this notion, Stout has brought just such a critical eye to a traditional category of character and virtue all the while adapting it for use in democratic social and political settings.

The author himself calls attention to this critical rehabilitation:

Piety, in this context, is not to be understood primarily as a feeling, expressed in acts of devotion, but rather as a virtue, a morally excellent aspect of character. It consists in just or appropriate response to the sources of one’s existence and progress through life (DT, p. 20).

Elsewhere, he further specifies the context as “democratic” and the sub-context as “Emersonian”:

[F]rom a democratic point of view, the only piety worth praising as a virtue is that which concerns itself with just or fitting acknowledgment of the sources of our existence and progress through life […] Imagining or conceiving of those sources and choosing ethically and aesthetically apt expressive means of acknowledging dependence on them are both things for which an Emersonian poet or essayist expects to be held responsible discursively (DT, p. 30).

If this does not make of piety the first and foremost of the virtues, it does lend credibility to a reading on which democratic piety, in the form of critical inventory, adaptation and refitting, provides a keystone for both understanding Democracy and Tradition‘s methodology and critically extending Stout’s project in new directions. Such a reading gains still further plausibility when the reader finds the author engaging in just such critical inventory, adaptation and refitting. On no fewer than four occasions does Stout give himself over to the practice of piety by describing those moral and social sources on which he himself depends:

I came of age ethically, politically, and spiritually in the Civil Rights movement, where I acquired my democratic commitments from prophetic ministers. In college, when I moved rapidly down the path that leads from Schleiermacher to Feuerbach, Emerson, and beyond, I found myself collaborating mainly with dissenting Protestants, secular Jews, and members of the radical Catholic underground in the struggle against U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War. I have known since that it is possible to build democratic coalitions including people who differ religiously and to explore those differences deeply and respectfully without losing one’s integrity as a critical intellect. This book is offered in the hope that similarly diverse coalitions and equally full expression of differences remain possible in democratic culture today […] (DT, p. 91).

If the passage above seems to treat those sources in relatively laudatory, uncritical terms, such observations do not bear out in those passages where Stout takes care to push back on those same sources. His relation to those sources become decidedly less one-sided when he notes:

In the days of my adolescent sublime, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the hero of my humanitarian cause, and Jesus was one of three personifications of my loving divinity. Nowadays things have become more complicated, because I have come to know more about these figures of virtue than their hagiographers and publicists wanted me to know […] Love and justice remain virtues […] but now the relation between the persons and the virtues is more complicated. It requires a different, less doctrinal, more improvisational kind of explication. To the extent that King and Jesus exemplify virtues in my imaginative life, they now do so imperfectly and defeasibly. I therefore need an open-ended way to think the relation through, as it were, from both sides at once. Neither doctrine, nor principle, nor system, nor overarching plot, knowable in advance, constrains the course of thinking […] We all have our examples, after all, and we all make something of them sooner of [sic] later. We do not, however, make the same thing of them. Neither do they make the same thing of us (DT, p. 173).

In the latter, we can better see how Stout takes inventory in “critical” fashion: recognizing sources as such; refusing one-sided tendencies to nostalgia, wishful thinking or idealization; introducing between person and sources two-sidedness via reflection, research and questioning. By means of an open-ended relation, in which neither places nor roles are set once and for all, does the author propose to bring nearer tradition and democracy, seemingly opposed in every way.

Yet he will go further. Indeed, it is not enough to posit a proximity between tradition and democracy. For democracy is a tradition unto itself, and recognizing such will aid in bringing out democracy’s processual character and preparing those processes for critical adaptation.

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