Flannery O’Connor and the Perils of Governing by Tenderness. Jerome C. Foss. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.
Flannery O’Connor is perhaps best known to most people as a southern writer whose characters live in relative ignorance of a lurking yet inevitable violence. Through this introduction of the extraordinary and macabre, her characters find the opportunity for transformation, and in many cases, redemption. O’Connor’s Catholic faith has always been at the forefront of her fiction, and much has been said of her analysis of the American South as a land that is “Christ-haunted.” Nonetheless, in a new work by Jerome Foss, we are given the opportunity to step away from Jerusalem and consider O’Connor’s concurrent debt to Athens through her acquaintance with the classic philosophic tradition. In Flannery O’Connor and the Perils of Governing by Tenderness, Foss argues that O’Connor’s writings present a nuanced account of modern philosophy’s deficits and the need to return to a more ancient paradigm of human nature and moral development. His account is forceful and refreshingly engaging, if slightly overreaching at times. By confronting O’Connor as a serious philosophic thinker, rather than merely a poet of unusual piety, Foss is able to take steps in demystifying what others often abandon to the ineffability of religious experience.
One of the cardinal virtues of Foss’s work is the attention he pays to O’Connor’s correspondence, papers, and personal library which have been meticulously preserved in Milledgeville, Georgia. Foss clearly spent a great number of hours going through these documents with detail, scrutinizing annotations, highlights, and marginalia to offer readers a sense of precisely what sources O’Connor was familiar with during the course of her life. Both her library and her private reflections display a strikingly philosophic tenor.[i] “A frequent theme of her underlined passages,” Foss tells us, “deals with the challenge of modernity.”[ii] As a careful observer of the American soul, O’Connor traces the fundamental principle of action within the regime to the early modern philosophy of the Enlightenment.
That American thought is dominated by a modern (and especially Cartesian) element is an observation famously espoused by Alexis de Tocqueville. O’Connor, whose copy of Democracy in America is heavily annotated, seems to appreciate this Tocquevillian assessment. The modern age is overwhelmingly and often uncritically affirming of the empirical over the metaphysical, science over faith, and progress over conservation. However, these elements are of their nature impersonal forces that require a teleological tether to prevent accidental harm.[iii]
As articulated by Thomas Hobbes, modern philosophy rejects any sense of a summum bonum or finis ultimus, instead building upon the overlapping consensus that we should simply strive to avoid the summum malum of violent death.[iv] This sweeping disposition to minimize human suffering appears under the guise of “tenderness,” which O’Connor identifies as the motivating force of both American law and mores.[v] Foss’s core claim is that O’Connor hopes to substitute an ancient (or at least medieval by way of Aquinas) vision of virtue for our modern paradigm of “tenderness” as the guiding political principle.
While “tenderness” may seem consistent with the transcendent Christian dictum to “love thy neighbor,” it has no vision of the complete human person (that is, Christ) that would orient a proper expression of love. O’Connor writes, “In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.”[vi] To see this slippage, one need look no further than the overwhelming oppression of Plato’s kallipolis in the name of pure, unadulterated justice, or Machiavelli’s account of “cruelty well-used” in The Prince.[vii] “Tenderness” alone lacks a sufficient teleological bounding to prevent its slide into cruelty.
Foss argues that O’Connor highlights three distinct phases of modern thought:[viii]
- Those who elevate humanity to the level of God
- Those who cannot fathom a tangible, personal God
- Those who do not believe in divinity and yet cannot help but search for higher meaning
As Foss notes, this demarcation roughly mirrors Strauss’s similar division in “The Three Waves of Modernity,” echoed by Eric Voegelin, with whom O’Connor was more familiar.[ix] He then systematically highlights how the characters of O’Connor’s stories ultimately discover the shortcomings of whatever version of modernity colors their vision. His evidence is compelling and does provide a new lens through which to approach O’Connor’s work. While one might take issue with his characterization of one or two stories (it is unclear to me, why he equates Sheppard from “The Lame Shall Enter First” as a second-modern man, but Calhoun from “The Partridge Festival” as a third-modern man[x]), these quibbles do not at all detract from the virtues of the general argument. Reading O’Connor in light of these three phases has proven greatly rewarding, offering a philosophic vocabulary to articulate dispositions and deficiencies that were previously only felt, but not understood.
One structural criticism I would raise is that the book does not seem to end with its natural conclusion. Chapter Seven, “Returning to the Source of Tenderness”, seems to bring together the deficiencies of the modern traditions, while offering a trajectory for the American soul. Chapter Eight, “Concluding Reflection” presents an analysis of O’Connor’s criticisms in light of the more recent political philosophy of John Rawls. While Foss is uniquely equipped to offer such an analysis (see Foss, Constitutional Democracy and Judicial Supremacy: John Rawls and the Transformation of American Politics[xi]), one wonders why the author chose to end with a digression, rather than what one might see as its more appropriately teleological end.
In all, Flannery O’Connor and the Perils of Governing by Tenderness should be considered by any lover of O’Connor and the philosophic tradition, or more broadly, any friendly critic of American democracy and its liberal order. Its prose is accessible to the intelligent and patient reader, and Foss does a good job summarizing the stories he leverages so that one need not be an O’Connor expert to appreciate his points. He whets the appetite for O’Connor’s storytelling, rather than filling it, sending readers back to the source so that they can rediscover her anew. In this regard, Flannery O’Connor and the Perils of Governing by Tenderness seems to carry forward O’Connor’s intent of helping the disquieted modern American reader better understand himself and the political community in which he lives.
[i] Jerome Foss, Flannery O’Connor and the Perils of Governing by Tenderness (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2019), 6-7.
[ii] Ibid., 7.
[iii] Ibid., 32.
[iv] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, pt. I, chap. xi, §1.
[v] Foss, Perils of Governing by Tenderness, 30.
[vii] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), chap. xvii.
[viii] Foss draws these categories from O’Connor’s essay “Novelist and Believer” (Foss, Perils of Governing by Tenderness, 80).
[ix] Foss, Perils of Governing by Tenderness, 4-5. See also Strauss’ “The Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 81-98 and Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).
[x] Foss, Perils of Governing by Tenderness, 116 and 128, respectively.
[xi] Jerome Foss, Constitutional Democracy and Judicial Supremacy: John Rawls and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Cambria Press, 2016).
An excerpt of the book is available here.