It went to press just before Brexit or our own “45”, and as one reviewer concluded:

This marvelous book appears at the worst possible time. It is erudite at a moment when erudition is ridiculed; nuanced at a moment when simplistic idiocies win elections; motivated by a devotion to human flourishing at a moment when “human flourishing” is calibrated in disposable income. But Levin deals in verities, and verities have a long shelf life.

In the spirit of enduring verities, then, a few paragraphs from the book’s concluding pages:

The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desires. This is hardly a  novel insight of course: Socrates helped his students grasp it twenty-five centuries ago, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are rooted in it. But it is a truth our high self-esteem sometimes makes us forget.

This older idea of liberty requires not only that people be free to choose, but also that they be able to choose well.  Such liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so that the moral law, the civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment, and choice and obligation point in the same direction To be capable of freedom, and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a sort of moral formation.

To achieve that formation in a free society–where we do not want  the state to direct or compel it–requires that we commit ourselves to more than our own will and whim. It requires a commitment precisely to the formative social and cultural institutions that we have seen pulled apart from above and below in our age of fracture. They are where human beings become free men and women ready to govern themselves.

The family is the first and most crucial institution of moral formation. […]

Work is another crucial means of shaping us for liberty…work also buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability. … To see only its material utility is to imagine that work, like family, could be replaced.

And on nearly the penultimate page of the book:

The most perceptive observers of our society have also long been worried about what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the tendency of democratic individualism to “place men beside one another without a common bond to hold them.” The danger inherent [here] is that of flattening down the layers of our social life so that only loose individuals and a national state would remain.  Both Madison and Tocqueville, like many other keen students of American democracy, proposed empowering the middle layers of society [family, schools, work, civic  organizations, and most importantly, churches] in an effort to combat these tendencies.

Being a partner–an associate, a business professional, a staff member, a receptionist or a messenger or a copy clerk–in a law firm embodies a social contract.  And with it run bilateral responsibilities, privileges, and duties.  No one of us is the captain of his ship, the master of his fate.

Happy New Year.



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