American Un-Exceptionalism

Is the United States just like other nations? Or is there something unique about its founding that resolves the central issue of politics, namely what is the best practical regime for most people? If I read the current president correctly, he does not think that the United States has anything exceptional about it.

Indeed, he apparently thinks that the very notion of this exceptionalism has caused havoc in the world. In a quasi-Marxist analysis, America has “exploited” the world to its benefit. The president’s mission is to set things right by reducing America to size.

We have not explained to the world, as many think we can and should, how it is that the nations can benefit themselves by embracing certain unique American ideas of freedom, responsibility, rule of law, enterprise, and limits of government.

In the president’s view, however, we need to withdraw because our ideas are harmful to the poor. Not a few conservatives hold a similar thesis. The difference is that the president seems to think that the best regimes are the European socialist-welfare configurations that put most things in the control of government, while the latter think that America is unique, decentralized, but un-exportable.

In reflecting on the nature of our polity, however, we must keep in mind the classical thinkers, particularly Plato and Aristotle. If we are Christians, we recall that the New Testament says little about politics – render to Caesar, be obedient to proper authorities, love thy neighbor. This relative indifference to politics is a theological compliment to reason, to what reason can figure out by itself.

Pace the liberationists of whatever stripe, revelation is not concerned with the political or economic structures of this world. We are given brains to deal with such things. Rather, it is concerned with eternal life and how it is achieved in any polity, good or bad. Granted that politics can obstruct and obscure the proper hierarchy of human goods, still revelation did not reveal what reason could figure out without it. Christianity does presuppose that man is a certain kind of being. He is free to reject or accept what he is. In either case, acceptance or rejection, consequences follow from free human actions. In more healthy times, we would call this natural law. We do not call it so today. Why?

Because how we choose to live requires that we reject any implication that an objectively right and wrong way of living exists, especially a right and wrong way that deals with sex, marriage, and the family. This conscious denial of an identifiable and normative human nature brings to our consciousness the classical descriptions of the relation between polity and ways of personal living.

            The Triumph of Virtue Over Vice by Paolo Veronese, 1556

In practice, we are carrying out the Greek cycle of regimes that lead from oligarchy to democracy to tyranny, all of a most genteel nature. In our concern with exceptionalism and un-exceptionalism, we failed to notice that human nature is going pretty much along the paths that were sketched out for us particularly by Aristotle and Plato.

The Platonic principle that the order of polity is but a reflection of the order of soul seems to be a perfectly accurate way to conceive the real nature of our public order. Gradually, but with increasing quickness, the public order has been declining along the lines that lead from the classic definition of the end of democracy to the classic definition of the end of tyranny. These ends were always seen to be related.

The central political issue remains that of personal virtue or its lack manifested in identifiable vice. While government may make either virtue or vice easier or more difficult through law, it cannot dictate what goes on in the souls of the citizens. The definition of oligarchy was wealth as a definition of personal happiness. Democracy placed liberty at its center.

At first sight this freedom sounds noble until we realize that it is a liberty that has no definitive content as such. It is whatever we want. Government exists to provide our wants. The political form of democracy does not oppose such “liberty” but fosters it and elevates it to the status of legal “rights.” In such a regime, the discipline needed for virtue disappears.

In a multi-chaos of conflicting desires arise men, probably relatively young and articulate, who can sway the people. The most eloquent associates himself with what he thinks the people should want. He sets himself against any remains of wealth or virtue that might resist him. He takes the side of the “poor.” He orders the polity to himself and his own ideas which have no further grounding than what he wants.

Initially, this “leader of the people” achieves his end by promising the people what they want, by putting more and more of them under direct control of government agencies. The people themselves think that they have a “right to everything.”

The new leader, however, is not their servant, but their master. His mission is the achievement of his own ideas. The people, lacking their own virtue, pass from an envious benevolence to the status of subjects, not citizens.

The circle is logically complete. It goes on whether we notice it or not. In the beginning, America might have been “exceptional,” but, on more careful analysis, it looks now pretty much as Aristotle and Plato described a regime that rejected virtue and the knowledge thereof.

Or, as I have often said, the most difficult and dangerous task in political philosophy is accurately to describe, in terms of reason, the real character of the regime in which one lives.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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