Briefly Reviewed: April 1984
Statecraft as Soulcraft
By George F. Will
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Review Author: Carl Horn III
In this commendable book, George F. Will debunks the sterile modernist assumption that “you can’t legislate morality” (and he did so in the hallowed halls of Harvard University, where the lectures comprising this book were first given). He unveils the “myth of values neutrality,” and it is Will’s view that “the defective philosophic premises of our nation” have logically led to the contemporary “values crisis” represented by permissive abortion, infanticide, libertine sex ethics, and a host of other social pathologies. As Will sees it, the American political tradition erred in raising the pursuit of self-interest to a level of dignity. Thus, at the behest of philosophers of a utilitarian stripe (chiefly, Machiavelli and Hobbes), a richer and wiser tradition (“from Aristotle to Burke”) was discarded. This acceptance of self-interest, writes Will, is leading us through “a slow-motion barbarization from within.”
Will’s subject could hardly be more timely or important. At the root of many contemporary legal, social, and political issues reside these fundamental questions: In what do we as a people fundamentally believe? What basic affirmations, or philosophical presuppositions, will inform, guide — and limit — our law and public policy in the 1980s and beyond? If not from the Judeo-Christian ethic, whence cometh our societal values? Unfortunately, however, one does not find in Statecraft as Soulcraft the kind of thoughtful and tightly reasoned analysis of these crucial questions that readers of Will’s columns would think he is capable of providing.
Although this is a book worth reading, there are at least two reasons why it will not make a lasting contribution to the public discussion of issues surrounding “the legislation of morality.” First, the organization of the book — or rather, the absence of logical organization — makes the intended message difficult to absorb. One has the impression that Will could have gone on almost indefinitely in the same vein and that the beginning, middle, and end of the book were almost accidentally located. Taken with extensive quotation, much of which is only tangential (one reviewer quipped that Will’s conservatism seems to be “the conservatism of Bartlett’s”), Will’s fully developed argument is substantially less impressive than are his brief essays.
A second reason this book will only make a minor contribution is its inadequate definition of “virtue.” Perhaps this was intentional. However, Will purports to explain what he means by this central term, but then, this is all he says, “By virtue….. I mean good citizenship, whose principle components are moderation, social sympathy and willingness to sacrifice private desires for public ends.” True, Will has made his views plain in his columns and as a commentator on various broadcasts, but those views were hardly mentioned at Harvard or in the resulting book. This insufficient tying of the abstract to the particular undermines this book’s usefulness in the situations where clear thinking is most needed.
The above criticisms notwithstanding, Will has provided an important service in highlighting the centrality of virtue and discipline for the success of any nation. Will is right: statecraft is soulcraft. He is right in condemning “the dangerous logic of the modern undertaking, the attempt to make government dependent on something…less exacting…than the nurtured virtue of citizenry. A nation — a civilization — so constituted cannot long endure.” It remains, however, for others to draw from the classical and Christian intellectual traditions and lead our troubled nation out of its current impasse.
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