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The Politics of Gratitude

The Politics Of Gratitude

The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place & Community in a Global Age.  Mark T. Mitchell. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012.


That important elements of the modern world – mobility, an emphasis on profits and utilitarian reasoning, impersonal and bureaucratic forms of social regulations, mass consumer culture, rapid technological change – are in tension with human flourishing is a familiar accusation. Mark Mitchell has written a book voicing this concern in the context of a 21st-century America where public discourse seems ever less deliberative and political parties that differ little nevertheless cling rigidly to ideological formulae rather than compromising to solve serious problems. As he claims in the book’s opening sentence, “American politics is broken” (xi)

In describing the political perspective from which, he hopes, that broken system can be repaired, Mitchell moves from foundational theological premises toward a worldview that is traditionalist and localist, reminiscent of agrarian conservatism. He ranges widely across the Western tradition to lay out his views, appealing to Burke and Chesterton, Tocqueville and Shakespeare. He wears his learning lightly and discusses complex philosophical ideas clearly, without oversimplifying them. Though the book’s argument is not really original (as Mitchell would understand, this is not a criticism), it emerges from a thoughtful engagement with the cultural and political heritage of the West.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Mitchell lays out four core principles of the “politics of gratitude,” all of which have been undermined by influential modern trends. The first of his guiding principles Mitchell calls “creatureliness.” This explicitly religious premise involves recognizing that human beings occupy a place within a larger moral order, and that as creatures within that order rather than its creators, they must accept certain limits on human striving inherent in their condition.

The second, closely related principle is gratitude. Because we confront the world and our own existence as gifts we have received, we ought to respond gratefully, recognizing a duty to care for and steward both the natural and human worlds. We show our gratitude toward ancestors by preserving the cultural heritage they have passed on to us, and we repay their gift by transmitting it to our own descendants.

Mitchell’s third principle, which he calls “human scale,” is a response to the “cult of the colossal” that infects our culture. (The label is borrowed from Wilhelm Röpke.) We often display a “bigger is better” attitude, wanting everything from hamburgers and soft drinks to buildings and corporations to be as large as possible. For Mitchell, this is an error. Things have their own appropriate sizes that make them best suited to serve the needs of human beings.

His fourth principle is the importance of place. As embodied creatures, humans need to be rooted in particular geographical communities in order to feel at home in the world, and they must work to sustain these communities. It is easy to see how these ideas of place, scale, gratitude, and creatureliness are related to one another, coalescing around an ethic of political humility and stewardship.

In the book’s second part, Mitchell explores the application of these four principles to five spheres of life: politics, economics, the natural world, family, and education. He does so in general terms, less policy recommendations than attempts to imagine how a world shaped by his four principles would look. The chapter on politics, which is heavily indebted to Tocqueville, emphasizes the value of federalism, decentralization, and local government. If people are to govern themselves freely, they require meaningful avenues of participation in which their civic activity can have real effect.

On the modest but comprehensible stage of local government, they can express creaturely gratitude for their particular communities. Mitchell’s discussion of economics (with a nod to the distributism of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton) emphasizes the value of widespread, small-scale ownership. Property ownership – of a home, a plot of land, a small business – not only protects against economic and political centralization.  It also lets us feel a craftsman-like concern for our labor, so that its products become themselves an expression of gratitude, while our productive activity contributes to sustaining the lives of our local communities.

In the chapters on the natural world and on family, Mitchell’s agrarian streak comes to the fore. He criticizes important features of contemporary society: our distance from the food we eat and the processes of producing it (such as slaughtering livestock); our addiction to technology and machines, which further distance us from nature; and our status as wage-earners rather than landowners. Living in closer contact with the natural world help us better steward its resources and would also bind us to our local, physical communities.

The family structure most suited to this is not the nuclear family idealized in popular culture, but rather the extended family, in which multiple generations inhabit the same location, engaging together in familial economic activity, passing on their memories and habits to the future. In similar fashion, Mitchell’s chapter on education emphasizes the importance of stewarding our cultural heritage: just as families pass on their stories to future generations, we also have a civilizational story, the grand narrative of Western culture, that we have a duty to transmit to our children. A commitment to liberal education thus proves ultimately to be an act of creaturely piety.

There is much to admire in this vision of life. Mitchell’s emphases on creatureliness and gratitude, with their concomitant duty of stewardship, seem to me particularly valuable. The vision of vibrant local communities, inhabited by families committed to their long-term flourishing, is appealing. One has the sense that Mitchell would be an ideal neighbor; that to be a member with him in the same community, pursuing common goods together, would be rewarding; that it would be a pleasure to share with him one of those family meals that he treasures, with food supplied from his own garden; and that the conversation at such a meal would be good.

Nevertheless, it is worth probing some of Mitchell’s assumptions a bit, testing whether they all hang together in quite the way he imagines. For ultimately, I think, this is a book written by someone who leads an admirable life but has mistakenly felt the need to justify it in terms of a grand theory about the good life for human beings as such.

For starters, some of the things Mitchell regards as desirable are surely matters of personal preference rather than necessary components of a good (creaturely, grateful) life. I, for one, have absolutely no desire to slaughter even a chicken, much less anything larger, in order to put supper on the table. Nor can I persuade myself that this is a moral shortcoming on my part, or that I should view with regret the economic division of labor that has permitted these activities to be taken out of my home and located elsewhere.

More significantly, one might reasonably question the value of an ideal such as home ownership. I myself hate owning a home and regard it as nothing but a source of frustration, without a single compensating reward. If my location and family situation permitted it, I would far prefer to rent an apartment. About this sort of thing, one can really only say: de gustibus. To put the point more generally, Mitchell sometimes seems prone to claim a higher status for his preferred way of life than is really justified – to underestimate, we might say, the potentially vast diversity of forms that fulfilling human lives can take.

This becomes especially apparent in his chapter on the natural world, which is problematic in several respects. It contains a critique of urban life, which distances us from multiple features of the natural world (such as dirt, darkness, silence, and “wildness”). That there is a cost involved in this distancing I would agree. But since so many people across the globe clearly prefer urban life to its alternatives, what we need here is less a defense of the agrarian against the urban, but rather an account of how to promote lives of creaturely gratitude within an urban context. (To be fair, Mitchell at times seems to sense this, as when he praises urban gardening movements.)

The chapter also sharply criticizes suburbia. The critique here is familiar: in the suburbs, zoning regulations and the consequent need for automobiles artificially divide places into single-use districts, creating something more like a non-community than a community. But there is an irony in Mitchell’s adopting this argument, since the very reason suburbs became attractive to so many Americans was that they embody a distributist ideal: everyone is a small property-owner, with a house, a plot of land, a little yard. (On the topic of irony, I cannot resist noting that “the bulk of this book was written in the upstairs office of a home we rented in the beautiful farming county outside Princeton” [ix] while away from home for a year on a fellowship.)

Underlying these criticisms of the city and of suburbia, is a deeper critique of a fundamental feature of modernity: specialization.  Modernity fragments life, breaks it up into specific roles and functions.  Politically, communities fragment into individuals; economically, the division of labor breaks up productive processes into small, meaningless tasks; educationally, knowledge of the whole is divided up among specialized disciplines.

Appealing to Wendell Berry, Mitchell refers to specialization as “a sickness that infects the industrialized world….  Specialization, which is a failure to see the world as a whole, fragments tasks, competencies, individual character, and ultimately communities” (130). But in reality human life does form a single, integrated whole. It is not broken up into tiny disconnected pieces, as if our families, economic pursuits, or political activities had no effects on each other. “We are attempting to understand the world,” Mitchell says, “and we create a false picture of reality if we fail to remember that ultimately all things are connected” (129).  Mitchell’s defense of a politics of gratitude is ultimately a plea to restore a more integrated, holistic way of life, a longing to re-unite the divided aspects of our creaturely existence.

Yet precisely this longing occasionally leads Mitchell astray, causing him to overstate or inappropriately universalize the value of the life he is defending. For specialization – the differentiation among distinct spheres of human life – is modernity’s greatest virtue. The first and most important such differentiation was that between the two swords, those of spiritual and temporal government, from which we ultimately derive our separation of church and state.

Modernity is in large measure an elaboration upon this basic insight that different aspects of human life should be governed by different principles. The principles by which we organize an economy are not those by which we should govern ourselves politically, or judge cultural achievements, or structure our families. Modernity’s achievements and the very possibility of limited government rest squarely upon rejecting the allure of a holistic society. Mitchell interprets specialization as arising from pride, a desire to exercise technological mastery over the material world. In reality, it is an expression of humility, as every set of governing ideals must recognize its limited scope and renounce its claims to govern the whole of human existence. The modern embrace of specialization and fragmentation ultimately reflects a profoundly Christian recognition that the integrated, holistic community for which we long is not a temporal one.

Understanding this may help us appreciate the real wisdom in Mitchell’s book while retaining greater openness to the diverse social and political settings in which flourishing human lives are possible. We should indeed remember our creaturelines and its obligations of gratitude. But if being made in the image of God implies a need to accept the limits of embodied creatureliness, it points also to the fact that we are ourselves creative and free, and that our dignity arises in no small measure from these qualities. This creative freedom – itself one of the characteristics for which we should be grateful – pushes against any settled vision of temporal community. Humility thus requires not merely an acceptance of limits, but also a recognition that we never know precisely where those limits may lie.

Peter C. Meilaender

Peter C. Meilaender is Professor of Political Science at Houghton College in New York. He is author of Toward a Theory of Immigration (Palgrave, 2001) and is completing a book on the political thought of Jeremias Gotthelf and a co-edited volume of essays on the Swiss scholar Peter von Matt.

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