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Recovering Humility

Recovering Humility

The Limits of Politics: Making the Case for Literature in Political Analysis. Kyle Scott. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016.


The interrelationship between the social sciences and the humanities constitute an enduring and rich academic dialogue, although many scholars fear the ongoing and multifaceted emphasis on science and technology in American higher education and among key philanthropic entities may over time undermine or devalue these humane disciplines and their frequently shared contributions to scholarly knowledge.  While such concerns possess much merit and generally constitute valid critiques of an emerging or potential void in future scholarly exploration and debate, there is antipodal evidence that a counterrevolution continues to offer an alternative.  For example, the consistent stream of academic publications, especially dedicated book series and journals, academic groups or organized sections of national academic associations, and reports of ongoing research, suggest the interrelationship between the social sciences and the humanities remains vibrant, especially studies in the integration of political and literary insights.

A significant achievement in advancing the interconnectivity of the political and the literary can be found in Kyle Scott’s recent book, The Limits of Politics: Making the Case for Literature in Political Analysis.[1]  Scott, who argues for the recovery of the political and the literary, believes political science will be the beneficiary of such a pursuit: “The segmentation of academia, and the rift between the social sciences and fine arts in particular, has caused political science to lose the insights offered by literature and the arts.”[2]  To a significant degree, Scott articulates a theory of politics that requires the inclusion of an appreciation of the human condition and “the rational and the emotional aspects of human nature.”[3]  In making this argument, Scott’s work affirms and extends the scholarship of earlier scholars as diverse as Russell Kirk and Catherine Zuckert, among many others.[4]

At the heart of the insights Scott draws from the interconnectivity between politics and literature is a plea for humility in all aspects of social and political life.  Each chapter of his book possesses a common and interwoven thread in this regard: humility, regardless of the particular form one inherits or envisions, helps guard against potential excesses within any political order.  In assuming this approach, Scott is reaffirming a central tenet of the Western intellectual tradition, namely, an acknowledgement of our own ignorance and our limited comprehension of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Scott is also explicitly mirroring St. Thomas on the centrality of humility to the moral life, featuring how a discussion of “keeping oneself within one’s own bounds” can transform the manner in which the citizen relates to the state, as well as providing a clearer view of the intrinsic limitations of state action itself.[5]

Scott begins his study with an examination of Twain’s “The War Prayer” and “Alcibiades II,” often ascribed to Plato in antiquity, urging an examination of “what is truly good and what only appears good.”[6]  With the “The War Prayer,” Twain suggests “humility in our foresight,” or an informed humility that acknowledges that a majority or consensual opinion may still produce an immoral or misguided action.  In this regard, Scott’s humility is a highly engaged and active response to a crisis or pressing situation a community or polity must face.  Humility is never passive for Scott; instead, humility demands moral action when challenges are faced.[7]  Twain’s and Plato’s respective approaches to social and political problems, Scott argues, are complementary to the degree both theorists affirm that “we not act on our initial impulses but instead open them up to examination and act only when we have no other choice or but to act, or when we have arrived at something true.”[8]

Accordingly, when analyzing the most pressing of human actions, especially war, both pacifism as traditionally understood, and theories of just war are inadequate to provide for the appropriate moral decision-making or actions in a crisis.  The standard measures of defending just war theory, including right intent and proportionality cannot provide the level of insight or the precision of thought necessary for the settlement of conflict.  When the imprecision is combined with Scott’s secondary contention that most accepted philosophical assumptions about the just war as a concept are inaccurate, namely the omnipotence of sovereigns and the possibility of objective decision-making, this makes a defense of the just war “untenable.”[9]  While placing himself on a self-defined continuum of just war thinking, Scott has more in common with some contemporary pacifist theorists in some critical regards than he does with eminent traditional sources of just war thought, including St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and Paul Ramsey.  Scott’s concept of humility delimits any attachment to power for the sake of political, ecclesial, or social dominance, although Scott maintains a connectivity to the larger tradition of just war thought and does not disregard the need for defense.  Scott acknowledges the complexity of modern statecraft and his defense of humility, grounded in classical and Christian precepts, or a more general sense of political humility, inspired by prudence, cannot be reconciled with other thinkers whose primary desire is to abolish war as a contingency.  Hence, from Scott’s prudentialist perspective, war is most often immoral, yet inevitable, and evaluations of just war theories may take place “within the realism-pacifism dichotomy” if any level of understanding can be achieved.  At the end of the day, after all, “humility forces us to acknowledge how limited we are in our abilities and our knowledge.”[10]

The tradition of humane letters also allows for politics to incorporate the limits of human action and civil government into a coherent political theory, and Scott turns to the challenges of democracy and free speech in chapters two and three of the work to analyze the necessity of humility.  Literature, more than any other source, “creates a common sense of purpose, history, and heritage” for uniting a democratic political order, while also providing a stronger theoretical ground than simply a defense of rights or a mechanic defense of voting and political participation as the basis for popular rule.[11]  In this pursuit, Scott utilizes Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and the scholarship of the French anthropologist, Rene Girard, to suggest the limits of democratic potentialities.  For Scott, both Stendhal and Girard, affirm his contention that “the democratic soul lacks humility.”[12]  Humankind’s primary obligation lies in his or her community.  Self-discipline and love of neighbor begin with the individual, and spread to the community, and then to society as a whole, promoting an ethos of humility that demonstrates the limits of politics in perpetuating the social and political order.  In other words, humility serves to define the limitations of society and politics for Scott on one hand, while on the other it presupposes and defends the necessity of a properly constituted community for securing the moral and ethical results concomitant to society’s perpetuation.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the important role humility assumes in the practice of politics, with a special emphasis on the contribution of Johannes Althusius and John C. Calhoun, as both thinkers considered politics a “necessity,” but only truly possible within a framework of self-restraint.[13]  With Althusius, the contribution of intermediary institutions served to promote a spirit of humility in the nature and the sharing of political power.  In Althusius’ covenantal theology, Scott locates the genius of consociation (consociatio) politics, namely, how the diversity of elements in a political system could promote stability, and if properly constituted and nurtured, liberty.  In helping rediscover the importance of humility to Althusius’s political thought, Scott joins the rank of leading contemporary scholars like the late Daniel Elazar and Donald Livingston, who have sought to recover Althusius’s teachings for contemporary politics during the last half century.

Finally, Scott turns to Calhoun’s theory of the concurrent majority as a model of how humility can inform statecraft.  The antithesis of humility in political practice, the unchecked concentration of power in the general government, always devalues the obligatory interconnection between authority and liberty. For Calhoun, Scott argues, it is the federative character of the regime that serves as a prescription and model for the sharing of authority.  Instead of presuming that the centralization of authority always promotes efficiency and a coupling of mission in regards to protection, the concurrent majority provides for mutual cooperation between authority and liberty by giving each its appropriate sphere of leverage and responsibility with a diffused framework.[14]  The critical precondition for this sharing of authority and liberty.

In this engaging and thoughtful book, Kyle Scott makes a significant contribution to recovering the importance of “humility as a political virtue,” especially in the intersection of the arts and political science, that may be “a more effective form of persuasion than rational discourse” in some instances, and especially in an increasingly ideological age where the citizen is often overwhelmed with information and purposeful distractions.[15]  We owe a debt to Professor Scott for this elegant attempt to recover humility.



[1] (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books,2016).

[2] Scott, Ibid., xi.

[3] Scott, Ibid., xiii.

[4] For example, see Russell Kirk’s enduring Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1969; reprint, Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media, 2016 [with introduction by Benjamin C. Lockerd]); and, Catherine Zuckert, Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form (Savage, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1990).

[5] Joseph Ricksby, S.J., Of God and His Creatures: An Annotated Translation of the Summa Contra Gentiles (London: Burns and Oates, 1905), p. 378 [Book IV, Chapter 55, Section 17].

[6] Scott, Ibid., p. 9.

[7] Scott, Ibid.

[8] Scott, Ibid., p. 11.

[9] Scott, Ibid., 24.

[10] Scott, Ibid., p. 25.

[11] Scott, Ibid., p. 34.

[12] Scott, Ibid., p. 46.

[13] Scott, Ibid., p. 114.

[14] As Scott appreciates, Calhoun extended his explanation to suggest that when authority and liberty occupy their appropriate spheres, guided by the self-restraint intrinsic to the concurrent majority, the forces of partisanship and control associated with numerical majoritarianism were also reduced.

[15] Scott, Ibid., p. 130.


An excerpt of the book is available here.

Lee CheekLee Cheek

Lee Cheek

Lee Cheek is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Dean of the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science and History at East Georgia State College and a Senior Fellow of Alexander Hamilton Institute. His books include Calhoun and Popular Rule (University of Missouri Press, 2004) and Confronting Modernity (Wesley Studies Society, 2011), among others.

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