THE LOST SOUL OF AMERICAN POLITICS: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism by John P. Diggins
Kirkus Star

THE LOST SOUL OF AMERICAN POLITICS: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Coming out with both fists flying, UCal-Irvine historian Diggins (Up from Communism ?) takes on a score of his revisionist colleagues to argue that Lockean principles of self-interest, coupled with Calvinist ideas about the benefits of work, have framed American political ideas. The chief opponents are those (Bernard Bailyn, Gordon S. Wood) who have claimed for the Founders a heritage in classical republicanism, centered on notions of virtue and corruption; or the likes of Garry Wills, who has looked instead to the influence of Scottish philosophers, with their ideas of sympathy and benevolence. The plague that bedevils both of these houses, says Diggins, is a too-generous view of the effect of ideas on history. (Diggins finds it ironic that he, an opponent of Marxist history, should come around to this position.) The truth is scruffier than that; and the Lockean framework, which earlier generations of historians had given pride of place, is actually the appropriate one. Diggins points to the wide dissemination and popularity of Locke in the colonies, and to acceptance of the view that individuality and self-interest rule the lives of men. But the attempt to wed individuality and pluralism--recognition of the individuality and interest of others--brought about conflict, nowhere sharper than in the Civil War. Melville and Lincoln wind up at the center of Diggins' story, since he finds in them the formulation of a moral universe of sin and forgiveness that, wedded to the Lockean precepts, gave Americans a way to make the best of a world plagued by ineradicable evil. A challenge to this ethos, an ethos perched precariously between God and the dollar, has arisen in the subversive ethic of riches without work, an ethic castigated by Henry Adams and Thorstein Veblen alike, and one which Diggins sees underlying the rhetoric of supply-side economics and its apostle George Gilder. Diggins takes the Calvinist doctrines seriously; and if he comes across as a fan of conservative values, they are not those of the neoconservative parvenus. A whirlwind at times, but a ride worth taking.

Pub Date: Nov. 28th, 1984
Publisher: Basic Books