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Briefly Reviewed: April 1984

Statecraft as Soulcraft

By George F. Will

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Pages: 186

Price: $13.95

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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