Moral Imagination

May 14, 2014

David Bromwich draws upon thinkers such as Burke, Lincoln, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to show that it is moral imagination which allows us to judge the right and wrong of actions apart from ourselves, to see the needs of strangers as clearly as the needs of friends. Thus it is essential to governing and to the well-being of the state.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us this morning.

Our speaker is David Bromwich. He is the Sterling Professor of English at Yale and is widely recognized as one of our most penetrating cultural critics. Professor Bromwich has written many books on politics and culture, and has contributed to such publications as The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Review of Books, all of which indicate the depth and breadth of his work, as a reading of his bio will indicate. You all should have received a copy of his bio, which was attached to the guest list.

His book Moral Imagination is a compendium of his very eloquent essays in which he discusses the importance of imagination and sympathy. He focuses on issues such as cultural identity, individual freedom, patriotism, and the erosion of privacy in America under the influence of social media to demonstrate how these faculties may illuminate the motives of human action and the reality of justice.

The 18th-century political philosopher Edmund Burke was the first writer to use the phrase "moral imagination." He thought of this as the ability to imaginatively discern various possibilities for acting in a given situation and to envision the potential help or harm that would likely result from that action. Burke wrote that letters and learning are hollow if deprived of moral imagination.

Professor Bromwich creatively broadens the scope of this philosophical thought. In doing so, he draws upon such critical thinkers as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Lincoln, to demonstrate that it is moral imagination which allows us to judge the right and wrong of actions apart from ourselves, to see the needs of strangers as clearly as the needs of friends. Tying together wisdom and moral virtue, moral imagination can be viewed as essential to governing, politics, and the well-being of the state.

As the Carnegie Council celebrates its Centennial, it seems appropriate to be having a discussion of this sort, as many of the essays in Professor Bromwich's book touch upon themes we have been and will continue to address this year, including citizenship and differences, and democracy and its challenges. Having Professor Bromwich lead us as we go gaze into the past to inspire and inform our present is one more stop along our journey, which can provide fertile grounds for an ethical inquiry in showing that ethics do matter in a connected world.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today. Professor Bromwich, thank you for joining us.


DAVID BROMWICH: Thank you. It's very good to be here. I have not been here before, but it's an honor to be invited in your centennial year. Nineteen-fourteen—the numbers are practically an admonition in itself.

I'm going to review, in a sort of rapid outline fashion, the contents of the book, which are miscellaneous, as is usually the case with a book of essays, but, I think, more coherent than at first appears—certainly more coherent than the contents of my first two books of essays.

I should say a little more about myself, just to introduce an irony or peculiarity of the situation of my being a commentator on American culture and society and, over the last few years, also on American politics, with a particular emphasis on civil liberties and America's wars. I find it very strange to say that in the plural, as we now do. But there we are, and we have been for 10 years-plus.

I wrote, starting in 2007, fairly regular—they call them posts; I call them columns—for The Huffington Post, and out of that started writing more on politics for other papers, the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books among them. But in the old Huffington format, there used to be tons of comments that you could easily get access to. Since they listed me as a professor of literature, there's a very standard ploy used by a certain kind of commenter, who would say, "Professor of English—where does he get off discussing international politics? What does he know? Give me an expert." The comment below that would often say something like, "Did you even read what he wrote? Just check it out," things like that.

So part of my qualification is giving up any pretense of expertise, but trying to put in the place of it whatever knowledge, information, and civic understanding I can collect from reading and thinking.

The columns I was writing, some of which are in this book, are a sort of political diary of recent years. I am one of those people who think that something changed in this country's imagining of itself after the year 2001, which we have to talk about, because it's not completely the effect of a cause that happened in 2001.

To go over the contents, the opening essay, as Joanne Myers told you, is called "Moral Imagination." The phrase comes from Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. I associate it with an experience or an exertion of individual sympathy, the sympathy of one person for another, and often over a distance. To sympathize with someone like myself isn't a very interesting instance of the use of moral imagination, but to be able to feel—and act on the feeling—for someone quite unlike me does count as a most interesting case of it.

The best short description of the process I'm talking about doesn't come from Burke, but from a Romantic who might not be paired with Burke by many commentators—that is, Shelley, who, in his "A Defence of Poetry," speaks of love, and I should say, by love, he means charity, caritas. It's the idea of love preached by Jesus—love, or a going out of our own nature and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful that exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.

I should say, Shelley, being not only a radical Christian in a certain sense, but also a Platonist, just as he means by "love" something more like sympathy or even charity, by "beauty" and "the beautiful," he means, as Plato would have meant also, "the good"—identification of ourselves with the beautiful, or with the good. But that last part is the most important, I think: "which exists in thought, person, or action, not our own." Not our own, and not like us.

He thinks it really does exist. It's a most interesting exercise of the mind to try to work out why he says "thought, person, or action." We think of sympathy as only being with a person. But sympathy with an action, sympathy with a thought that's not our own.

There are tendencies in human nature that aren't reducible to person. And in much of this book I'm arguing that there are tendencies that, above all—good tendencies, and wicked, in human nature—that shouldn't be reduced to the nation, the tribe, or the significant group.

The second essay is a sort of antiphonal answer to the first. It's called "A Dissent on Cultural Identity." I do think one of the most intellectually and ethically regressive pressures in our politics in this country—but it's elsewhere, too—is the doctrine, which has practical implications and has institutions that enforce it, the doctrine that we are not just shaped by, but we are constituted by our identity, our identity as woman, black, Jew. This seems to me so much more reductive entrapping and potentially blinding to judgment than mere, let's say, political party identification that it is in itself almost a reminder of the good of politics in its place.

This cultural politics has been something very different. It has come in from both sides politically. I suppose you could say on the left, it's what the Democratic Party started dissolving into in 1970, 1971, 1972. From the right, cultural identity means religious identity and special privilege for religious groups and the communities embodied by those groups being somehow separate from one's civic responsibilities.

The third essay is called "The Meaning of Patriotism in 1789." It discusses in particular the belief attributed to Burke and safely identified with him in one phase of his thought that to love the little platoon we belong to in society, to be attached to the subdivision is the germ of all subsequent public affections, all love and commitment toward larger human and social entities—to love the little platoon we belong to, to be attached to the little platoon.

That essay partly has the aim of showing that this was not the beginning and end of all Burke's thinking on the subject, that he is, in fact, much less of a nationalist, much less of a, so to speak, communitarian and conservative of the little neighborhood than that phrase, taken out of context, can be made to seem. But it also sets Burke over against his opponent in the debate on the French Revolution, Richard Price, a radical republican. Most of you probably know that in the year 1790 the words "republican" and "democrat" are synonyms—small "r," small "d."

Burke was not a democrat. Price was and wrote a great pamphlet in support of the American Revolution as the new home of civil liberties for the world. But Price had a cosmopolitan view of what the duties of man entailed and was preaching the good of identification with the opposite of a little platoon. The farther out you go, the farther you extend your idea of "who is my neighbor," the truer your ethical commitment, in Christian and, Price would also have said, in enlightened and philosophical terms.

Price, in my analysis of it, ends up being more realistic about how those sympathies are worked up. They do start at home. They do start in a locality, with family, with neighborhood. Burke is a little more idealistic than is usually reckoned.

The second set of three essays is on Whitman and Lincoln as representative Americans, then on Lincoln alone, what I call his belief in constitutional necessity. "Necessity" is a word Lincoln uses again and again, in a rather physicalist but seemingly materialist and deterministic sense. He's not speaking of necessity as the plea of tyrants, but necessity as something in the nature of things that impels our moral commitments, as well as our actions.

I believe Lincoln hangs so much on his use of the word because he had such a vivid idea of what a political and moral commitment was. Once you decide that you are your actions along a certain trajectory, you have no choice but to continue them. Let's say those actions include the belief that American democracy, under the terms first suggested in the Declaration of Independence and made possible practically by the Constitution—that American democracy is a progressive tendency within human nature and that it leads to the lightening of the load on all shoulders—I am mangling in a paraphrase what Lincoln says; lightening the burden on everyone, but he means slavery too—and that that implies at some point commitment to the abolition of slavery. Then, in any given moment of choice, the choice is more a necessity than it appears, if you want to remain what you are, if you are committed to your own personal, individual, and conscientious identity.

The last essay in that second section is on ambition as played out in some of Shakespeare's tragedies and Lincoln's response to those tragedies, as I partly infer it from a short and suggestive letter he wrote and partly interpret it from my understanding of who Lincoln was and what Shakespeare meant.

But I think to both Shakespeare, in plays like Macbeth and Julius Caesar and to Lincoln, ambition meant a kind of misguided, crooked, energetic but thoughtless going out of yourself, a breaking out of yourself, no longer being contained in yourself. Conscience prevents that, but ambition is so strong a force within human nature that it has the power to abrogate or abort the work of conscience.

Following come three essays on, I suppose you would say, the psychology of Americans. One going back to the Puritans and forward as far as Flannery O'Connor is called "The American Psychosis," but using that word "psychosis" in a rather ancient sense from psychology of the 1890s, where it just means a very compacted, compressed, and inextricable state of mind, a way of thought.

I'm referring in particular to the radical individualism, the extreme tendency towards self-isolation that you find in the most powerful of Puritan minds, including Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, on into Emerson in "Self-Reliance" and many later Americans as I try to trace that thought and feeling.

Then there's an essay called "How Publicity Makes People Real." "Publicity" is used here in a wholly pejorative sense. I wrote that in the year 2000. I had no idea what was coming in social media. I actually think this is the state of mind of people the ages of our children and in some cases around here, perhaps grandchildren, too. They feel they are made real by publicity. They're not real until they check their Facebook: "Mirror, mirror on the Facebook."

That essay is about the destruction of privacy, which I think is the great collective project of our time and which is abetted by forces both in government and corporate life and in psychological tendencies within the culture that are really hard to get a handle on.

The third of those essays in that third of four groups is called "The Self-Deceptions of Empire." It's an appreciation of the political and moral writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, the most important of whose ideas is about the attraction of nationalism. This is by a profound Protestant Christian theologian who sees that one of the most noble possibilities of human nature is the willing commitment to self-sacrifice and that the appeal and the sell, the bad allure, of nationalism is that it draws on this human yearning to give ourselves to something higher than ourselves, even at the sacrifice of selfish interests. It transfers that to the larger group. It transfers that to the fiction that is a tribe, a nation, or whatever. Nationalism always does that, whether the nation is relatively less malignant or more malignant.

That's in Niebuhr's early work of the 1930s, Moral Man and Immoral Society, but it seems to me the essence of his thought. A lot of people who water him down say, "Oh, Reinhold Niebuhr's about, there's evil in the world and we've got to take that into account, so when we do evil, let's not forgive ourselves too easily." If that was what he thought, what need of it?

The last three essays are closer to current matters. There's a consideration of Niall Ferguson's conception of the West in his book Civilization, where I am skeptical of the idea of civilization as a term that automatically assigns value, which I think it almost always is in contemporary usage.

There's an essay called "Holy Terror and Civilized Terror," the title of which maybe suggests the argument. Then there are five miscellaneous comments drawn from those columns and diaries on our wars.

Maybe the essential one of them is entitled "What 9/11 Makes Us Forget." I have made it a personal resolution not ever to use the term "9/11," because it's shorthand that cuts off thought. Talk about the bombings of September 2001. That's a little longer, but you think about it.

But I have been much struck by how references back to that day and the events of that day are used to not only end arguments quickly, but to stop thought, as if history began on that day—oddly enough, a Jacobin, a French Revolutionary premise. As some of you know, they redated their calendar and started at the year zero in 1793-94. I suggest we don't do that.

Let me go back to the central argument on the essay called "Moral Imagination" to suggest what I think is most interesting and searching about the idea as it's worked out, not by me, but by Burke, who uses the phrase, by Shelley, by Wordsworth, by Blake, as I read them, also by Ruskin and Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

A friend of mine who invited the lecture that turned into that essay, when he re-read it to write a blurb for the book, told me, "David, when people see how you link Edmund Burke and Martin Luther King, you are going to catch such a drubbing from both sides. They won't know what you mean and they won't like it anyway." Good.

Burke in the Reflections on the Revolution in France uses the phrase "moral imagination" to support his idea that the understanding we have of right and wrong action isn't born with us. It's not the germ of some sort of quite particular and separate consciousness of ethics that's rooted in us and in nothing else. It's rooted in our larger connections with society, in a broad range of experience that every person has, and in ideas of right and wrong that have so much penetrated our behavior by the time we are grown-ups that they become second nature.

This includes the idea that our country, our neighborhood, the people we are close to are worth something, are valuable. In one of his very characteristic turns of phrase in that book on the French Revolution, Burke says for us to love our country, "our country ought to be lovely." That's the circularity of moral imagination on that understanding of it.

He is arguing against the radical Enlightenment idea, which he identifies with the Jacobins in the French Revolution, that all previous culture, previous to the Enlightenment, dominated by Christianity—that the culture of earlier ages, the culture of Christian Europe, is irreparably corrupt because it's built on superstition and prejudice. Burke in the Reflections on the Revolution in France incorporates a very interesting and dialectical and complex defense of prejudice, not as bigotry, but as early judgment, as judgment that precedes action, but doesn't require conscious thought.

He says, against the revolutionists of the Enlightenment, of "truth is born with me because we have recognized it now that superstition is gone"—"All the super-added ideas furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination"—that's the total figure of speech, "the wardrobe of a moral imagination"—all those ideas "which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies" on this new system of the Revolution, says Burke, "are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, antiquated fashion." Very interesting, these metaphors about clothing—"fashion" and "the wardrobe."

So Burke is quite careful not to naturalize, to treat as part of God's nature our ideas of good and bad, right and wrong. And yet he wants us to be attached to them as pleasing illusions, as artifices, as beliefs in the loveliness of the things we have found lovely which we don't have to question. That's what moral imagination means as he uses it in that great anti-revolutionary tract—and I should say, anti-democratic, too.

But Burke in his earlier writings—and it's not very well known even now that Burke spent more of his energy, more of his time, and filled up more of the volumes of his works in his campaign to reform the corruptions of the East India Company than he spent in opposing the revolution. That was his project of the 1780s, once the empire in the West, as he called it, was lost, once this country [America] was lost to Britain: Make it that it won't be lost in India, too; do that by making our system of rule there more just. He thought that the commercial power, which was also government power, entrusted to the East India Company was a gross misjudgment, out of convenience and then habit, by Parliament and by the king of England, and that the East India Company should be put under the control of Parliament itself.

In this effort of reform, almost all even of his allies eventually deserted him, for reasons of the improbability of victory, because there was so much East India money from the sudden fortunes, as Adam Smith called them, earned in that country or extracted from that country by the commercial empire—a state in the disguise of a merchant, Burke called it. A state in the disguise of a merchant.

But Burke kept on with his campaign. Another example of the phenomenon I'm talking about: He says in a letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds's niece, Mary Palmer, who wondered why he was pursuing this cause so strongly, and wondered if he didn't have personal animosity toward the governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings—Burke answered her, "I have no party in this India business, my dear Miss Palmer, except among a set of people who have none of your lilies and roses in their cheeks, but who are images of the great pattern as much as you or I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not."

That was one of my links to Martin Luther King, because when King made his speech against the Vietnam War, for which he was denounced by every party in the American establishment and by the Civil Rights Movement, King was leaving his post for a lonelier one and saying that the injustice of America at home couldn't be separated from the violence and injustice of it abroad.

Burke talks about that version of moral imagination in his speech on Fox's East India Bill. He talks about the anomalous character of a commitment to justice that doesn't involve just our own, just people who are like us. "If you succeed," Burke says in that speech, "you save those who cannot so much as give you thanks."

He is surrounded by the men who got their fortunes in East India, and there 6,000 miles away are the people you're trying to help. It's hard for you even to know how to pronounce their names.

"If you succeed, you save those who cannot so much as give you thanks. It is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers."

That's one of my touchstone sentences: "It is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers."

That, I think, is an idea worked out into an aphorism of moral imagination, but it seems a very different notion of moral imagination than what we get from this talk about the wardrobe and using the fashions we are used to and not the newfangled ones. It has to do, I think, in the deeper sense of the phrase that interests me, with justice to strangers, and not just justice to, so to speak, familiars.

This is what's wrong with the idea of cultural identity. It's about primary loyalty being owed to familiars, people who we already know are like us, and that we are constituted by that. So, after all, what more should be asked? I am not selfish if I'm an American Jew with an enormous loyalty, commitment, and devotion of time to people even outside my family in the American Jewish community, or in the black civil rights cause or in the feminist cause or whatever.

So far from being political—and that sort of commitment seems to me to work against everything good and civic in politics—it is also moral on a much lower scale of the understanding of morality than the work of conscience. I think cultural identity is a sort of substitute for conscience. It's a terrible invention. And the academic defenders of it, in my view, have more to answer for than they have been made to answer for. It is partly a modern American academic invention—the idea that we are constituted by our identities.

Lincoln comes into this argument, and Whitman does too, from a clear tonality of their expressions of concern, interest, sympathy, outgoingness in them toward others unlike themselves. Whitman says, "What I assume you shall assume," which sounds like we're already always familiars. But he also says in the same poem, "Song of Myself," "whoever degrades another degrades me." "Whoever degrades another degrades me." And there he means any other.

Lincoln says in a letter of late summer 1863, writing to apparent allies who want him to end the war early and who are, he surmises, most angry deep down about the Emancipation Proclamation—he writes in this open letter—and Lincoln was a master of that form. These were knitted together, his letters of 1863, and turned into a sort of campaign pamphlet.

Look at the idea of the concern for something other in these sentences, in his characteristic rather taciturn, dry manner. It's a pity we know Lincoln mainly from the Gettysburg Address and the last two paragraphs of the second inaugural address, because he's more often like this: "You say you will not fight to free the Negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union."

There are a couple of implicit arguments there, as well as a rebuke, that "Union" and "emancipation" are not so far apart as lots of conventional historians have led us to assume. But I love it for the compression, the implication, the force of that "some of them seem willing to fight for you; but no matter." "You say you will not fight to free them"—I think the suggestion is that by fighting for them, you will free yourself. We must disenthrall ourselves. If you live in a society dependent on slavery, there's some part of you that's slavish.

Lincoln says this even more overtly in a notebook entry, which I don't claim to be the first to have admired. Lord Charnwood, in his great biography of Lincoln, uses it. The quotation makes his last sentence. Lincoln writes in this entry of 1863-64, just to himself, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."

As Lord Charnwood ended his biography with that, I think I'll almost end with that quotation, with just this word of expounding it. Think of what's involved in the conscientious resolution then carried into practice not to be a master. That's a moral exertion, too, not to dominate, and maybe rather harder than the sort of energetic use of fantasy backed by action that is required to assist another power whose interests you favor by force and be willing to sacrifice yourself in the process, but not master your own ambition, not master the limits of your own actions to the extent of saying, "I must do this because I am acting within human nature, for the benefit of human nature, as I understand it."

Nations are very imperfect vehicles for that sort of commitment. That's why, as I read them, all the more subtle and accurate imaginers of moral imagination have been to some extent skeptical of nationalism or anti-nationalists, often without saying so, often saying it between the lines, or often putting it like this: "We love our nation for what our nation can be, which is to say to the extent our nation can embody the highest human ideals."

King said it like that. Gandhi said it a little like that and was also a very qualified nationalist, if he was a nationalist at all. Burke's idea of a world community that should be disinterested and not care whether the people it defended had lilies or roses in their cheeks or not—Burke's name for that world community was the British Empire. I think, for various American reasons, we can be ready to give up that fantasy.

I'll stop there.


QUESTION: Robert James. I'm a businessman here.

You started out by saying something about moral commitment. I'm not exactly sure what that is, so I'm going to ask a specific question. Abortion or pro-life: Give me a theory of how you would approach this. Then, being a businessman, I want to know more specifically how you would approach it, which would be how you would legislate it.

DAVID BROMWICH: I'm not going to give you that last part. I'm not a politician, and it's not from wanting to get your vote or anything.

I think that is a—what should we call it? It's a contest more than just a debate within this country, where there is moral commitment on both sides. I wouldn't reduce it to anything smaller on either side. There is an overwhelming belief in the humanness, the dignity, the rights of the unborn infant by people who are believers in that as something sacred.

I always admire such people even more when they're against capital punishment and skeptical of wars. But it's an understandable specialization of moral concern to say the baby is the most innocent thing in the world, more innocent than, etc., etc.

But on the other side, it is, I think, a moral commitment to the right of the woman, as an independent person in charge of herself whom no government should muck around with, to decide on matters most intimate to herself, which is to say, her body. We are inheritors, in that sense, of the moral philosophy of both Kantian individualism and utilitarianism. It's Jeremy Bentham who says, everybody for one, nobody for more than one. According to the moral commitment on the side of the mother who wants it to be her decision, anybody who interferes with that decision is legislating for more than one, and it's not their right to do so.

I think, for those on either side, it's on a par with the strong feelings that abolitionism stood for in the 1840s and 1850s. I think the people who want to save the unborn from abortion think that they are doing something as high, noble, human as the abolitionists did in wanting to abolish slavery at whatever cost. I think, so too those on the other side.

Not to dodge it at all, I'm a believer in avoiding abortion wherever possible and holding that life as sacred as possible, making that as taxing on the person who makes the decision and the doctor who recommends it—making it as difficult as possible to arrive at the decision. But I'm not for impeding it, because in our rather watered-down moral commitment in politics, there are limits to how much you can moralize politics.

Now I'm getting towards a politician's answer anyway, which would have just lost me all the votes, I think.

JOANNE MYERS: I just want to remind you, these are the views of our speaker, and this is a forum for discussion of all different ideas.

QUESTION: John Richardson.

My question is directed to the moral issues in helping the poor and the homeless and the social programs we have. But I'll start off by saying Colin Powell once remarked that in the Army everybody's equal and if you need some help to be equal, you will get it. But he's talking about an organization in which, however imperfect, every far corner of it has somebody in command, somebody responsible for that area.

When you turn to the social policies of helping the less fortunate in the real world, if we are to keep that within tolerable bounds of expense—because the Western world is just basically living on entitlements that are making it go bankrupt—how do you square the moral force that's important with the fact that you really need to have some discipline and responsibility when you spend money to help the homeless, to give people low-cost housing, to give people medical care when they can't afford it?

In the Army it's all done because it's all organized.

DAVID BROMWICH: Yes, the Army is socialized.

QUESTIONER: Maybe we should be more socialized, but it requires—

DAVID BROMWICH: Socialized and regimented. Yes, I agree.

QUESTIONER: I wonder if you have a comment on that.

DAVID BROMWICH: If a society like ours could have the esprit de corps [team spirit] of the Army and the egalitarian presumption of everybody in their place making a living, and have that without the degree of enforced regimentation and command that is incompatible with political democracy that you need in an army, that would be a very good society. I'm for working towards that.

For the rest of your concern, I don't know that anyone can solve it easily. You're saying that responsibility, including responsibility for oneself, is necessary for the decent functioning and operation of a society and that it's hard to keep laying new foundations for those who seem unable to act responsibly on their own, if that's the inference.

I don't know. I suppose I'm Christian and just socialist enough to think there should be a bottom level below which we, in our pride as a society, will not allow people to sink, period.

Perhaps the belief—it has never been tested in modern mass society—that if government did nothing for the poorest, charitable organizations and churches would take care of it—perhaps that's true. But my commitment to the secular work of politics is such that I would think government ought to give social insurance to allow for the difference where, in fact, those organizations don't take care of it.

But I'm quite with you on the issue of responsibility and speaking of responsibility and not being shy of taking it seriously, but responsibility directed as a charge and a conscientious check against those who are irresponsible from top to bottom—not just the very poor who spend too much on a TV, but the very rich who misspend other people's pensions. I think it has to work at all levels if that doctrine being preached is going to be taken seriously. And we're a society right now that makes it work very poorly at all levels.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

There's an event very much in the news that fits nicely into the structure of your discussion, and that is the plight of the Nigerian girls. We have the United States, we have Nigeria, we have the global community. How might you articulate a response that is appropriate? There certainly seems to be plenty of empathy. There's no question about that. But how would you articulate a response with respect to each of these?

DAVID BROMWICH: I'm no kind of tactician or strategist of international intervention. This is a case where you would hope that powerful nations outside the realm of Nigeria and its terrorist sects would be able to find a way in to either rescue them or make it so hard on the kidnappers that they would want to give up their hostages. But as for doing that without causing 50 deaths or 500 deaths to rescue the 200, I have no answer. And I don't know that there is anybody with the kind of expertise that is qualified to give that answer, unless that person is God or some miracle worker on a helicopter mission.

But I distrust my willingness to extend the answer as far as I already have.

QUESTION: David Musher.

I'll go back to the theoretical. In the 18th century, we talked about virtue. The virtues included loyalty and patriotism and faith and responsibility. As a result of those, we could talk about a constitutional necessity. What happens in a society where we don't have those virtues or those virtues are not practiced or those virtues are not accepted or those virtues are not appreciated?

DAVID BROMWICH: I do think they're appreciated, but I agree that they are too rare. One area of American culture and society where you see very open, professed, and, I think, non-hypocritical admiration for such virtues is sports. Bad sportsmanship, the failure of the loyalty of a member of a team—and I could name members of the Yankees who have been dragged through public disgrace for their complete absence of feeling about their own team—don't think it's trivial. I think people respond to it very deeply. The difficulty is to get that sort of feeling absorbed into areas of life that are not recreational.

I don't think sports are merely recreational either. In good and bad ways, it's the model for military banding together and loyalty. It's a necessary fact about military esprit de corps, as I understand it, that the feeling for the team be very exalted and very consistent. But it's a terrible mistake of us spectators to think that wars are a team sport and our team is winning or our team is losing.

I don't think those virtues you spoke of would be the main ones I would want to cite in any reflections on civic morale and what has become of it. Other virtues would include courage, temperance, prudence, and justice—I think justice most of all, if we're talking about the civilian and the secular part of a society like ours. I think that the failures of visible equity to mete out justice to those who have caused suffering and are evidently criminal, whether they have been charged or not—the failure of that on various fronts, by more than one attorney general in the last decade and more, is a great source of dismay and demoralization among us in this country.

I'm not particularly vengeful about people spending time in jail or this and that. But the idea that they're not even prosecuted I think deranges our moral feelings as much as any single thing.

I do think virtue is appreciated. It's one reason why, for example, people—I don't know how many in this room—admire Jimmy Carter very much as an ex-president. The things he has done since he retired from the presidency strike people as interesting, worthwhile, self-sacrificing, and the rest.

It's one reason why—here I'll just step into the political realm—in very different ways, our last two presidents, younger Bush and Obama, as moral actors, have been found so disappointing—one of them speaking rashly and acting quickly behind that speech, and not considering fully what the consequences are for many, and the other loving to speak eloquently and committedly, and not backing his eloquence by actions. These are faults in the demonstration of virtue, which has some bearing—virtue has to do with words and actions and the coordination of them. And they should be intelligent words and defensible actions.

I think people are looking for that, but finding it too scarce.

QUESTION: Reed Bonadonna. I work at the Merchant Marine Academy.

First of all, let me throw out a quotation which is sort of relevant to some of the conversation going on. The British soldier Charles Carrington, I think, said that discipline without esprit de corps is an abomination that no civilized person would tolerate, but discipline plus esprit de corps had been the engine of every worthwhile human accomplishment.

DAVID BROMWICH: Of a corps, I would say. Not every worthwhile human accomplishment is of a corps.

QUESTIONER: Maybe throw in the word "group" accomplishment.

As someone who works with undergraduates, I wonder if you could maybe give a couple of examples or an illustration of how to instill your idea of moral imagination. Let me just throw in that personally I'm involved in the training of officers, some from the Merchant Marines, some from the armed forces. I feel that this activity is particularly important for them, as a matter of fact. Any ideas that I could bring to the classroom or back to the academy?

DAVID BROMWICH: I'm guessing that the kind of teaching you do in the academy is a little different from what I do in the classroom at a university, just because you're training people not only to think and to be aware of the importance of feelings that go with thoughts, but to act in corps.

I'm not doing that so much. I feel as a teacher a kind of—I don't know, there's no Socratic oath that teachers take that matches the Hippocratic Oath of doctors—but students know where I stand. I don't think they're in any doubt, after they take a class with me, what sort of mind I am on some issues that go outside the curriculum.

But I don't drop my opinions in class the way I have to this group, talking about a book that's full of such opinions. I try to stick to a curriculum, and so far from overtly instilling a certain feeling in students, try to make the thoughts they have that could lead to a deepening of their judgments—to make that seem to arise from discussion and from engagement with the works they read.

One great part—and it's also a privilege—of the sort of work I do, teaching literature, including the great literature of politics—writers like Burke and Lincoln and Martin Luther King—is just show them these writings and then explain to them the intricacy and the depth of some of the arguments that are there and some of the arguments that are implicit there. By doing that alone, I feel I've done part of the best work I can do.

I feel this is a great advantage of a professor of literature or philosophy or classics, an advantage we have over, say, political scientists, sociologists, and so on, because the works themselves that you're showing the students have that value waiting to be coaxed out.

But I suppose I think the most valuable moments in classes that I've experienced, both as a student years ago and as a teacher, sort of arise spontaneously, when someone is seeing something unexpected and another person responds to it in the class, and the discussion takes a totally unpredicted direction. You feel that rare phenomenon of a group of people thinking. They're not all thinking the same thought, by definition, but they're thinking along a certain train of thought.

It's patience and luck and something about the chemistry of a group, too, that makes that possible. I had once years ago, 15 years ago, a group of just seven, a very small group, one of the best. I knew from the third meeting of the group that there would never be a thoughtless moment. It was the way they all worked together. I've had groups that were larger, initially more promising, where there were brilliant performers, but you had to worry about somebody dominating, you had to worry about somebody being silent and treating the class as if it was a television show, and so on.

But in my walk of things, there's a certain reticence that I have to treat as a self-imposed obligation, not that I don't say too much—I probably talk way too much in class—but that I don't indicate exactly the final thing that I would want to say. The more they are able to do that themselves, I think, the more they are towards thinking and likely to return to these great writings that have a reward in themselves.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for engaging us in the literature of thought this morning. It was a really interesting discussion. Thank you so much.

DAVID BROMWICH: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

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