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Luck and Love

The narrator in Borges's story "The Lottery in Babylon" is a man with a wildly checkered career, an odd fact true also of everyone else in that society. "Like all men in Babylon," he says, "I have been proconsul; like all, a slave. I have also known omnipotence, opprobrium, imprisonment. "What gives his life this "almost atrocious variety" is "an institution which other republics do not know or which operates in them in an imperfect and secret manner." That peculiar institution is the lottery. In Babylon, it is not only sanctified and perfected but also adopted as a total institution, distributing every burden and benefit, every misery and felicity, and including everyone in its jurisdiction. With each drawing, the fate of each citizen is shuffled one more time, sometimes drastically improved, sometimes drastically worsened, leaving everyone in a state of equal risk, equal uncertainty. But the narrator is not complaining. His society is governed, he says, by "the sinuous numbers of Chance," given form by "the Celestial Archetype of the Lottery, which the Platonists adore."[1]

Justice by Lottery

Borges does not say whether or not Babylon counts as a just society, but the lottery, as a mechanism that delivers to each recipient a particular fate and that moreover advertises its reason—or lack of reason—for doing so, must occupy the same terrain reserved for the question of justice. To be outrageous, one might even propose it as a means to the latter. This, as it happens, is the very argument put forward by Barbara Goodwin, in a seemingly wacky but actually remarkably astute and tough-minded recent work, unblushingly titled Justice by Lottery (1992).[2]

Goodwin calls for a "Total Social Lottery," one that distributes all goods and offices and that, according to her, is simpler, fairer, and less brutalizing than any distributive principle to date. The lottery abolishes all human distinctions; it treats everyone alike, giving everyone


an equal chance. Since it has no foreknowledge of its outcome, it also has no biases, no vested interests, no preconceived notions about particular ends. And so, bizarre as it might seem, the lottery actually fulfills those very conditions of procedural neutrality ordinarily taken as requisite for justice. Furthermore, since there is no attempt at justification here, no attempt to explain reward by reference to merit, what the lottery distributes is also distributed without judgment, carrying neither moral approval nor moral opprobrium. The burden would be in the tasks themselves and not in any invidious nuances we attach to them. According to Barbara Goodwin, then, allocation-by-lot might turn out to be our best bet for social justice, more egalitarian than any allocation we have thus far been able to implement and more humane than any we have thus far been able to imagine.

And indeed, dubious and outlandish as it might now seem, the lottery actually has a genealogy which might prove surprising to some of us. As James Wycliffe Headlam-Morley has shown in his pioneering (and still astonishing) study of the Athenian democracy, the lottery was its central political instrumentality. Elections in Athens were strictly "the verdict of chance," Headlam-Morley writes. "It is scarcely too much to say that the whole administration of the state was in the hands of men appointed by lot: the serious work of the law courts, of the execution of the laws, of police, of public finance, in short of every department (with the exception of actual commands in the army) was done by officials so chosen."[3] More recently, E. S. Staveley, in corroboration of this view, has described in great detail the kleroterion[*], the Athenian allotment machine, in steady use after the fifth century B.C.[4]

Even in our own time, the lottery is by no means an unheard of proposition, and some influential thinkers have been its advocates. Most of them have championed it, however, not as a first principle but as a last resort, to be used in exceptional cases when the idea of "rational choice" is rendered especially disconcerting, distasteful, or impossible. Guido Calabresi and Philip Bobbitt, describing situations which they call "a nightmare of justice,"[5] have suggested that, in these instances, the lottery—the "choice not to choose"—would be an acceptable recourse. Such nightmares of justice include, for example, choosing one hostage from among a group of children; here, the blindness of the lottery works with a "simple, sweeping conception of egalitarianism" which "allows us to choose when we can no longer


tolerate choice."[6] Bernard Williams, thinking of similar situations where choice is a burden and an unchosen choice a blessing and a respite, has also argued for the instrumental benefits of randomization, though with the important proviso that "the 'random' element in such events, as in certain events of tragedy, should be seen not so much as affording a justification . . . as being a reminder that some situations lie beyond justification."[7]

In making choices that are patently random—patently without adducible reason—the lottery openly proclaims its arbitrariness. It offers no justification for what it does and, in so doing, it also raises the question whether justification is ever possible, whether any choice can carry a rationale with the requisite moral weight. What the lottery challenges is perhaps nothing less than the idea of "rational deliberation" itself: not only its situational efficacy but also its epistemological ground, its premise that competing claims are commensurate, weighable and resolvable by the scales of reasoning. In jettisoning those scales and in resorting to the dice, the lottery thus throws into jeopardy considerably more than the outcome of some particular decision. It also throws into jeopardy something like the adjudicative power of reason, something like its claim to justice.

This deep skepticism about the adjudicative power of reason is very much a live issue for contemporary philosophers, who, confronting choices that are necessarily arbitrary and unjustified, have begun to see them not as peripheral aberrations but as central embarrassments, embarrassments that challenge our long-standing faith in the scope and efficacy of reason.[8] The work of Bernard Williams is especially illuminating here.[9] In a series of influential essays collected into Moral Luck (1981) and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), Williams seizes upon the inadequacy (or sheer absurdity)[10] of justification to critique what is arguably the central tradition in Western philosophy, a Kantian tradition, based on the morality of reason. Kant, aspiring always to a moral foundation sufficiently general and sufficiently unconditional, has tried to locate that foundation in the deliberative rationality of the moral subject: a being supposedly capable of (and held accountable for) reasoned choices, choices not only universally possible but possible in ways that make "justification," or the lack of it, ethically meaningful. Rational choice for Kant is the primary activity of the moral subject, and the entire edifice of philosophy might be said to stand or fall on the intelligibility of this concept.


It is the noncontingency of rational choice—the fact that everyone is capable of it and accountable for it—which allows morality itself to be seen as a categorical imperative: absolute, foundational, and underived.[11]

Against this Kantian ideal of noncontingent reason, Bernard Williams introduces luck as a nuisance, a complication, and an intellectual puzzle. As a web of unwilled occurrences that nonetheless interferes with any willed decision, luck makes the concept of "rational choice" shaky, unduly optimistic, perhaps even blindly fatuous. In "choosing" to attend one school rather than another, does the college-bound teenager also "choose" the particular friendships and opportunities, the particular shapings of life and work, that follow as a consequence? Luck undermines not only the extensional integrity of choice, its ability to retain its intended shape in time, but also its autonomous justifiability, its ability to be judged in its own right as intrinsically right or wrong, just or unjust. Williams, in fact, believes that justification is never self-executing, never a feature resident in any particular choice, but always retrospective, always conferred after the fact, rendered possible only by subsequent occurrences. There are no decisions that are inherently wrong, only decisions that go wrong, decisions that are proven wrong by unfolding events and conspiring circumstances—which is to say, by luck. The agency of luck, the vexing uncertainty that it introduces between choice and consequence, thus appears for Williams as an exemplary instance of a pattern of disjunction in the world: a disjunction that undermines not only the instrumental claims of deliberative reason but also the moral judgment issuing from it and reflecting upon its exercise.

For choice, according to Kant, is of course eminently judgeable . One chooses deliberately and lends oneself to the verdict of moral rightness or moral wrongness. If we were to agree with Williams, however, about the intervening agency of luck—about its ability retrospectively to prove a choice right or wrong—then the judgeability of any decision may no longer be taken for granted. Choice, in other words, is no longer so clearly located within the domain of morality: no longer strictly exercisable on its own terms, analyzable within its limits, or justifiable under its auspices. Indeed, to push Williams's argument to its logical (if extreme) conclusion, we might say that all choices, whether rational or not, whether deliberated or not, are necessarily arbitrary, necessarily without intrinsic justification, and so


are no different from the action of the lottery, or else they differ only in that the latter professes its arbitrariness rather than disguising it. In this sense, the lottery might even be said to be at the cutting edge of a new philosophical doctrine. It reminds us, as Jon Elster writes, that "some decisions are going to be arbitrary and epistemically random no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try to base them on reasons."[12]

Still, even given this philosophical appeal, probably not everyone would agree with Barbara Goodwin's sweeping (and only slightly tongue-in-cheek) proposal for a "Total Social Lottery." Fewer, no doubt, would agree with her conjectural portrait of those human beings who would make such a lottery work. For as she herself is the first to admit, her theory of justice (like every other theory of justice) is ultimately a theory about the political subject, about those human beings whose humanness, however defined and however hypothesized, must underwrite and validate her proposal for their ideal terms of association. Goodwin, of course, would like to believe that this humanness consists above all in an overriding identity , an overriding sameness among these beings, for the lottery can work only if people are more alike than they are different, so that the task randomly assigned to one can just as fitly be assigned to another, and benefits just as fitly reapportioned. Indeed, for her, "personhood" means not so much the particularity of persons as its opposite, something like the substitutability or interchangeability between persons. Only on that premise can the blind justice of the lottery not count as a handicap, for the blindness, cast among persons of overriding sameness, is hardly a liability but rather is a boon to justice.

It is this assumption of sameness—of substitutability and interchangeability—that strikes me as the fatal flaw in a "Total Social Lottery." My aim in this chapter, then, is to acknowledge the force of Goodwin's proposal but also to think through the implications of her unpersuasiveness. Like Goodwin, I want to bring "arbitrariness" into the analytic foreground as an ethical (not to say political) consideration. Unlike her, however, I want not so much to instrumentalize it, turning it into a vehicle of justice, as to emphasize its irreducible presence, its status as a conundrum (perhaps even a counterpoint) to our thinking about justice, about reason, and about the supposed coincidence or entailment between the two. What I have in mind, then, is


something like a constitutive theory of luck, one that studies its arbitrary agency not only in our actions but in our very selves, in that accidental conjunction of circumstances and attributes which make us what we are. Understood as something that constitutes us (rather than something that merely confronts us), luck fits awkwardly, or perhaps not at all, into the idea of justice—an awkwardness which helps to explain, I think, not only its limited presence within the language of Kantian philosophy but also the limited ability of that language to describe the world as we know it.

The language of justice, I want to suggest, precisely because it is a language of rational adequation, a language that refines out of existence the category of luck—the category of what is not amenable to reason—is also a language that refines out of existence much of what most compels us or frightens us, a language too porous, finally, to render intelligible the particular delights and vulnerabilities of our lives. It is with this sense of linguistic porousness—this sense that the language of justice is both thinner and coarser than our experiential sense of ourselves and of one another—that I turn to luck as an undertheorized and for a long time barely noticed concept, one that has slipped through the sievelike fabric of our political discourse. And rather than rehabilitating it in one specific domain of experience (in the domain of rational choice, as Bernard Williams has done), I want to claim for it a kind of troubling ubiquity, a ubiquity which alters the very landscape—the very scope and authority—of justice itself.

My argument, for the most part analytic, is to some extent historical as well, winding up (after an estimable detour) in a tradition more ancient and more venerable than Kant's. Christian theology, with its doctrine of grace—espoused by Augustine, revitalized by Luther, and further elaborated in the American context by Jonathan Edwards—for centuries taught what, from the human perspective, had amounted to a doctrine of luck.[13] Grace was freely, gratuitously, and incomprehensibly given by God; it had nothing to do with the desert of the recipient. Edwards would not have used the word "nonfoundational," but that was what justice was in his cognitive universe, a universe governed by what he called "mere and arbitrary grace."[14] Christian theology, wary of the discrepancy between human reason and divine action, had historically treated justice with a kind of nonabsolutist circumspection, which makes it, to my mind,


one of the most important challenges to the discourse of philosophy. In the nineteenth century, it was the "sentimental" women writers—the true heirs to Edwards, I would argue—who would keep alive this nonabsolutist circumspection, as they continued to wrestle with the problem of justice in a world of inescapable arbitrariness. The novels of these women—novels of mere and arbitrary grace, mere and arbitrary affections—not only darkened the democratic hopes of a poet like Whitman but also revised, reinvigorated, and (their authors' professions notwithstanding) recast into a secular idiom the complex thinking about justice that had animated their theological predecessors.

Luck and Desert: John Rawls

Mindful of these beckoning figures, I want nonetheless to begin my argument about luck with a contemporary text, one all the more instructive for being so unlikely. John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971), perhaps the most celebrated text in twentieth-century political philosophy, and the work of a self-acknowledged Kantian, is very much dedicated to the idea of noncontingent reason, understood as a principle of "absolute necessity," absolute enough to be the "ground of obligation" and "cleansed of everything that can only be empirical and appropriate to anthropology," as Kant had counseled in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785).[15] Justice, for Rawls as for Kant, is incompatible with circumstantial vagaries; but for both it is also imaginable outside of those vagaries. It is imaginable, that is, as a hypothetical construct, as the endpoint to an idealized exercise of reason, the endpoint to a deliberative process freed from all compromising particulars.

To his great credit, however, enamored as he is of noncontingent reason, Rawls never tries to naturalize it, never imagines it as effortlessly at home in the world, in the state of nature. Indeed, his "state of nature," the starting point for his political theory, is notable for being harshly arbitrary. For it is here, at the outset, that we are faced with the most glaring instance of distributive in justice: the random inequality of natural endowments. At the heart of Rawls's theory of justice, then, is something like a constitutive theory of luck. It is the sense that luck has always been there, from the very beginning—the sense that we are its creature, its handiwork—that pushes him to


some of his most radical conclusions, especially his argument about desert and its relation to distributive entitlement.

Desert is, of course, seen by most sensible laymen (and mainstream political philosophers) as the basis of our entitlement and therefore as the moral foundation for distributive justice.[16] Rawls disagrees. He rejects the idea that "distributive shares should be in accordance with moral worth," that reward should match a corresponding merit.[17] For him, such an idea is not only undemocratic in practice but unpersuasive in theory. He argues, instead, that what counts as our "merit" is actually something that accrues to us through the accident of birth, through "luck in the natural lottery."[18] We cannot be said to deserve it, any more than we can be said to deserve those material advantages that accrue to us through the same accident. In short, to allow "the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents" is to do no more than to submit to "the outcome of the natural lottery, and this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective."[19]

Rawls's vigorous rejection of desert is therefore the starting point for an alternative theory of justice. It is also the starting point for an alternative theory of the person. Since we do not actually deserve those attributes that happen to be lodged in us, we also cannot be said to own them. For Rawls, this thought gives rise to an exhilarating (and some would say phantasmagoric) vision of the world: here, natural talents are imagined to be showered upon the earth, like manna from heaven (the phrase is Robert Nozick's),[20] unowned, unmarked, undeserved by any particular person, and free to be used for the good of all. This notion of common usability—applied to attributes long considered private and personal—makes for a distributive domain larger than anything previously imagined. Out of this radically enlarged pool of resources, Rawls is able to argue for an equally radical mode of distribution, based not on the moral reflexivity within particular persons, not on the supposed correlation between merit and reward, but on the political will of the community, on its concerted policy decision. In other words, the benefit each person receives would not be self-evident or self-executing, would not reflect the sort of person he or she happens to be or the sort of work he or she happens to have done. It would express instead the principles of fairness of the entire society, the distributive choices that it makes regarding the individual and collective well-being of its members.


Such principles would speak not only to those lucky enough to be naturally talented but also to those so unlucky as to be without rewardable talents.

Critics of Rawls have, of course, objected to his theory of justice as an elegant but thinly disguised scheme for the redistribution of wealth, a scheme that, in refusing to reward excellence in particular persons, must end up destroying the ethical (not to say the economic) primacy of the person. This objection, forceful as it is, also seems to me somewhat beside the point. Rawls himself, indeed, is reassuringly emphatic here. "Each person," he announces on the first page of A Theory of Justice , "possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override."[21] What is especially fascinating here, then, both in the context of thinking about luck and in the more general context of thinking about the political consequences of personhood, is the way Rawls has managed to jettison the notion of personal desert without jettisoning, at the same time, either the category of the "person" or its political centrality within a theory of democratic justice. The challenge for him is thus to defend a distributive justice based on policy decision rather than on private endeavor and to demonstrate (appearances to the contrary) that this rejection of individual desert is nonetheless not a violation of individual rights, not incompatible with a respect for persons.

Differently put, we might say that Rawls's challenge is to adjudicate between—to devise a rational court of appeal for—Two conflicting sets of claims: between the communitarian claims of the welfare state on the one hand and the individualistic claims of the liberal subject on the other. His strategy is to effect a formal solution to the problem, which is to say, a solution by virtue of an idealized noncontingent procedure. His celebrated construct, the "veil of ignorance"—a hypothetical situation in which the deliberating parties, knowing nothing about their yet-to-be-assigned fortunes, are asked to work out a principle of justice fair to all concerned, fair especially to those least advantaged—is one such solution. The virtue of such a construct is that it would allow reason to work with optimal freedom, which for Rawls also means that it would allow justice to emerge as a matter of procedure, because under these idealized conditions, justice would simply be the endpoint of our deliberative rationality. It would be "the choice which rational men would make."[22] Central to Rawls's theory of justice, then, is a mechanism to purify contingent


man into rational man, a mechanism to extract the deliberating subject from all those circumstantial prejudices, all those accidental attributes, which hamper his exercise of reason.

As befits a Kantian, Rawls's is a strictly categorical conception of the person.[23] This is true not only of those hypothetical figures behind the veil of ignorance but also of his political subject, which to be a democratic subject must also be theorized into a suitable state of noncontingency. Indeed, any tangible or rewardable attributes, any marks of excellence or lack of excellence—all these particularizing features of the self—must be relegated to a domain defined both as prior to democracy and, in the end, as amendable by it. For Rawls, such redefinitions are crucial if the "person" is to remain democratically defensible, for a democratic subject must be first and foremost a universal subject, one whose political dignity is absolute, about whom one can make a categorical claim. To arrive at such a subject, actual selves would have to be stripped bare, would have to be removed from all those accidental features, all those inequities of chance, which make them unfit for such a categorical description.[24]

The upshot of this exercise is ultimately to bring about a refinement in the Rawlsian syntax of the self, a small but crucial distinction that he implicitly depends upon: namely, between what a person is and what a person has , between what is me and what is mine . It is a matter of luck that I am some particular person, that I have attributes I can call my own. But because those attributes that are "mine" are assigned to me by luck, because they just happen to have attached themselves to me, they cannot properly be said to be "me." Indeed, to give the paradox an even sharper edge, what is "mine" is, for that very reason, not "me." Rawls's theory of justice therefore operates on something like a postulate of detachability. It both assumes and requires a categorical subject apprehensible apart from all its substantive descriptions. Only such a "me," conceived in contradistinction to what is "mine," can make justice more than an apology for the accident of birth. Only such a "me" can make democratic equality not just a policy but also an epistemology.

This rigorous distinction between "me" and "mine" thus commits Rawls to what he himself acknowledges to be a "thin" theory of the person, one that bears, if not exactly an inverse relation, then at least a suspended relation to people as they ordinarily appear and as they are ordinarily perceived, people thick with particular traits, which


they innocently call "his" or "hers," "yours" or "mine." Such usages are unacceptable to Rawls, because the person, to be democratically defensible, must be defensible as a categorical idea rather than as people with actual features and attributes. This is, in a sense, the logical consequence of yet another (and perhaps analytically prior) paradox in Rawls: his simultaneous acknowledgement of and revulsion against luck, his sense not only of its abiding centrality in human life but also of its unconscionable tyranny. For if his rejection of desert is based on the insight that desert is merely luck in disguise, the ubiquity of luck is at the same time a grievous wrong for him, one that carries with it a silent directive, a demand for rectification. And so, as Rawls himself admits, his theory of justice is very much a theory to combat luck, a theory to "nullif[y] the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstance."[25] His cleansing of the political subject is an effort in that direction, an effort to free the self of the incrustations of luck, to save the essential "me" from the accidental "mine," so that the category of the person can finally be categoric, and justice can finally be noncontingent.

Syntax and Democracy: Noam Chomsky

Central, then, to Rawls's political theory is a syntactic proposition about the self—a distinction between "me" and "mine"—a syntactic distinction which is then transposed into an ontological distinction. I use the word "syntax" advisedly, knowing that the word is not neutral but heavily accented by its association with Noam Chomsky, an association which, as it happens, Rawls himself has likewise remarked upon. He calls attention, indeed, to a parallel between his theory of justice and Chomsky's theory of linguistics. Both, he says, operate at some remove from "familiar common sense precepts," and both involve "principles and theoretical constructs which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life."[26] And both aspire, we might add, to a level of noncontingency which can only be found in what Chomsky calls a "formalized general theory."[27] I want to explore further this point of contact between Chomsky and Rawls, as a way to focus more precisely on the linguistic properties of Rawls's language of justice. Chomsky is uniquely helpful here, for not only is he a formidable practitioner in both linguistics and democratic politics, but his syntactic theory, in its ambitions and limits,


also casts an admonitory light on the ambitions and limits of a syntax of political personhood.

Chomsky begins his challenge to traditional linguistics by taking issue with its self-conception as a taxonomic discipline; he urges, instead, that a proper study of language should focus not on its classifications but on its "generative" character. And for him, syntax above all is what makes a natural language "generative"—because it not only assigns structural properties to the semantic and phonological components of a sentence but also enables us to substitute words within the same structural category, and so to create an infinite number of new sentences, all equally rule observing and all syntactically equivalent. Substitutability and interchangeability, in short, are the central generative features of syntax. They make syntax the wellspring of language, its source of perpetual renewal as well as perpetual regularity. Indeed, for Chomsky, syntax represents not only the deep structure of sentences in one particular language but also (in its "transformational" capacity) the deep structure of all natural languages. It is the foundation of a "universal grammar," common to all human beings, at work in all mental processes, and indistinguishable from human cognition itself.

Chomsky's virtual equation of syntax and cognition, of course, comes at the expense of semantics, a time-honored area of linguistic (and philosophical) inquiry.[28] Chomsky, however, is openly impatient of semantic analysis, an impatience having to do, I suspect, with the way he defines the objectives of linguistics and the way he delimits its domain. While it is, "of course, impossible to prove that semantic notions are of no use in grammar," Chomsky cannot help pointing out that the "correspondences . . . between formal and semantic features in language" are so "imperfect" and "inexact" that "meaning will be relatively useless as a basis for grammatical description." For that reason, "grammar is best formulated as a self-contained study independent of semantics."[29] In short, semantics is not a fruitful object of study for Chomsky because, being always at the mercy of context, it is highly erratic, cannot sustain a grammar, does not lend itself to formalizable rules, and does not exhibit the properties of substitutability and interchangeability, whereas syntax does.[30]

Chomsky's elevation of syntax over semantics, in turn, opens outward into a set of definitional demarcations that map out the domain of linguistics as he understands it, demarcations that assign primacy,


in every instance, to terms that are universal and noncontingent. Chomsky thus distinguishes between competence and performance , arguing that linguistics can adequately study only the former, only the grammatical knowledge common to all speakers of a natural language, rather than the specific verbal behavior of some particular user.[31] He also argues that language is primarily a vehicle of thought, an activity self-sufficient unto itself, rather than a vehicle of communication, an activity dependent on an audience.[32] And since he equates syntactic knowledge with cognitive capability, he also argues, most controversially of all, that linguistic competence is innate, that it resides in a congenital faculty of language, unindebted to educational input and environmental influence. Putting himself squarely in the camp of the rationalist tradition associated with Descartes,[33] Chomsky thus turns language acquisition itself into a noncontingent phenomenon, "free from the control of detectable stimuli, either external or internal,"[34] not varying with particular environments or even with particular individuals. It is instead a guaranteed feature of human cognition, uniformly and universally present to all, "independen[t] of intelligence, motivation, and emotional state."[35]

Chomsky's peculiar insistences might be better gauged, I think, if we contrast him briefly with the later Wittgenstein, whose position on natural language, on grammar, and on grammatical rules is close enough to Chomsky's for their divergences to be instructive. Like Chomsky, Wittgenstein believes that grammatical description is constitutive of thought, that "grammar tells us what kind of object anything is."[36] Also like Chomsky, he believes that the "various transformations and consequences of the sentence" are possible only "in so far as they are embodied in a grammar," a grammar which "has the same relation to the language as the description of a game, the rules of a game, have to the game."[37] Unlike Chomsky, however, Wittgenstein has no desire to produce a foundational theory of grammar, no desire to locate a necessary basis for syntactic knowledge in human cognition. He argues, to the contrary, that "grammar is not accountable to any reality" and that the "only correlate in language to an intrinsic necessity is an arbitrary rule."[38] Language cannot be foundational for Wittgenstein because it is an artifact rather than a guarantee, a form of mediation rather than a form of emanation, and can only render back to us our customs, our communities, our shared agreements about how things are. It has its being not in the innate-


ness of cognition but in the socialness of convention; or, as Wittgenstein puts it in his famous dictum, "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life."[39]

Against Wittgenstein's emphatic rejection of the innateness of language, Chomsky's equally emphatic assertion of that innateness becomes all the more striking. He has been savagely attacked, in fact, on just this point.[40] Questioned about this in an interview with the New Left Review , Chomsky replies:

I would like to assume on the basis of fact and hope on the basis of confidence in the human species that there are innate structures of mind. If there are not, if humans are just plastic and random organisms, then they are fit subjects for the shaping of behaviour. If humans only become as they are by random changes, then why not control that randomness by the state authority or the behaviourist technologist or anything else?[41]

For Chomsky, then, "innate structures of mind" are above all a defense against the threats of "randomness," which for him mean especially political threats, threats from the state against its citizens. It is in this context, against the historical gravity of that threat, that we can best understand his foundationalist impulse, his desire to locate and to affirm linguistic "principles that are universal by biological necessity and not mere historical accident."[42] An unlearned competence, an innate grammar, a knowledge of syntax embedded in human cognition—these issues, brilliantly technical as they are, are nonetheless not strictly technical for Chomsky. They are so many bulwarks against the political vulnerabilities of human life, against the intolerable odds in favor of tyranny and oppression. And so, even though Chomsky's acknowledged intellectual debt is Cartesian rather than Kantian,[43] we might nonetheless speak of a categorical imperative in his linguistic theory, a desire to imagine an ethical domain free from contingency, free from the less than benign presence of the arbitrary, and free, for that reason, to pass judgment on the arbitrary. For him as for Rawls, the postulate of an ontological given—a guaranteed linguistic knowledge, a guaranteed deliberative rationality—is also the founding moment of political faith. And it is from this point of faith, this point of ethical inviolability, that the contingencies of politics might be adjudged, amended if necessary, resisted if necessary.[44] Chomsky's linguistic theory, then, like Rawls's political theory, is a


tribute to, a protest against, and a self-conscious battle with that all-too-elusive, all-too-ubiquitous demon of luck, whether it inheres in the "lottery" of life or whether it inheres in the "randomness" of unjust regimes. And ultimately the triumph of democracy is measured by the elimination of luck: by replacing its inequities and irregularities with something like a syntax of justice, so that the political subject can finally resemble the grammatical subject, its basic rights as uniform and as categoric as the structural properties of the latter.

The language of justice, then, for Chomsky as for Rawls, is very much a language of syntax. In Wittgensteinian terms, we might also think of this language as a descriptive "net,"[45] held out to the world to capture it and to render it intelligible, a net, in this case, made of necessarily coarse mesh, since it is meant to retrieve from the world only those features that are invariant, features that can yield a foundational principle. This is what I mean by its linguistic "porousness." The language of justice, precisely because it is a language of syntax, a language of structural guarantee , demands from the world a grammatical uniformity. It prohibits irregularities, and it also ignores miracles, occurrences so extraordinary as to exceed its grammatical description. It is thus a language of the lowest common denominator, one that, if adopted, would explain why we might have no quarrel with the world. But it would not explain why we might love the world.

For the world is indeed not lovable within the language of justice, being less like a world than like a grid. And most gridlike of all is the self conceived in its image, a self so thinly constituted and minimally featured that it too is not exactly lovable. The language of justice equips us only to act in those domains where we can think of one another as categoric persons: as possessors of equal rights, claimants of analogous liberties, recipients of similar attention. It cannot explain why we make friends with some and not others, fall in love with some and not others, talk to some and not others. Or rather, it can explain those things only by setting them aside, as matters of preference, unworthy of ethical or political consideration. In this sense, the language of justice not only aspires to transform the world into a grammar, a collection of syntactic subjects, it also enjoins us to treat actual persons as if they were syntactic ones, attending only to those features structurally assigned and formally generalizable.[46]

Within such a grammar, human attachment thus becomes some-


thing of an enigma, a conceptual puzzle. For given the thinness of the subject, it is not at all clear how that attachment is to be anchored, let alone what it is anchored to, or what inferences one might draw from its being anchored to one particular object and not to another. Rawls, oddly, remains untroubled by this problem; in a passage memorable for its equanimity, he writes:

The active sentiments of love and friendship, and even the sense of justice, arise from the manifest intention of other persons to act for our good. Because we recognize that they wish us well, we care for their well-being in return. Thus we acquire attachments to persons and institutions according to how we perceive our good to be affected by them. The basic idea is one of reciprocity, a tendency to answer in kind. . . . For surely a rational person is not indifferent to things that significantly affect his good; and supposing that he develops some attitude toward them, he acquires either a new attachment or a new aversion.[47]

The key word here is clearly "a rational person," liberally defined, for it is only under the most liberal definition that love and friendship can proceed with such commendable regularity, as an exchange of goodwill beneficial to both partners: routine, unvarying, matter-of-fact. There is nothing arbitrary about the loves of the rational person; they are strictly proportionate, strictly accountable, always "answering in kind" to the love he receives. His outgoing affection will always match the incoming goodwill. And, since it is a category of sentiment—rather than some particular individual—that he is responding to, we can assume that substitutability and interchangeability will be guaranteed features of his affective life. Without much exaggeration, then, we might call Rawls's "rational person" a grammatical subject, for his affections are happily rule observing, governed by a generative syntax that not only maintains a structural form but also endlessly renews that form by substituting any given term with an infinite number of syntactic equivalents.

If this sounds jarring, no doubt it is because we are not always so grammatical in love and friendship. A theory of formal universals, in this case, is virtually a parody of itself. Rawls, of course, is not the only philosopher to have trouble making ethical sense of affective preferences. As Gregory Vlastos has pointed out, personal affection also fares badly in Plato, for whom the highest form of love turns out to be "one furthest removed from affection for concrete human beings."[48]


Even so, there is something particularly comical, particularly threadbare, about Rawls's account of love and friendship. Michael Sandel, one of Rawls's ablest commentators, has seized upon just this point not only to highlight the unpersuasive thinness of the Rawlsian self but also to put forward a sustained critique of the language of justice, focusing especially on its inability to account for the phenomenon of friendship except as a secondary (and indeed derivative) virtue. The thinness of the Rawlsian self means that it will have no responsive chord, that its capacity for friendship will always be limited by its "restricted access to the good of others," so that "every act of friendship thus becomes parasitic on a good identifiable in advance."[49]

My own critique of the language of justice, while indebted to Sandel's, will focus less on its trivialization of love and friendship than on its tendency to locate these phenomena in a relation of externality to itself, as that which philosophy is not and cannot be concerned with. I have in mind not only Rawls's respectful dismissal of love and friendship as "higher-order sentiments,"[50] higher than the supposedly lowly domain of political philosophy, but also the obsessively repetitive pages in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals , where Kant insists, over and over again, that "the highest and unconditioned good can alone be found" in those instances when one acts "not from inclination, but from duty." Kant concedes that there might be those who actually "take delight in the contentment of others as their own work," but "an action of this kind, however right and however amiable it may be, has still no genuinely moral worth."[51] Indeed, for him, the only genuinely moral person is someone who does good not because he likes to but because he has no fondness for it, someone who is

cold in temperament and indifferent to the sufferings of others—perhaps because, being endowed with the special gift of patience and robust endurance in his own sufferings, he assumed the like in others or even demanded it. . . . It is precisely in this that the worth of character begins to show—a moral worth and beyond all comparison the highest—namely, that he does good, not from inclination, but from duty.[52]

Kant's moral agent, then, confronts a world he does not love, but which, for just that reason, he is bent on fulfilling his duty toward. To the extent that Kant remains the central figure in Western philosophy,


the language of justice is thus centrally premised on the opposition between "duty" and "inclination": the former acquiring the status of ethical sufficiency, the latter suffering the fate of ethical dismissibility. And to the extent that these principles of sufficiency and dismissibility do not coincide with what attaches most of us to the world, the language of justice must render a good part of our lives ethically meaningless. The return of the repressed, then, can appear only as a fatal contradiction, a fatal clashing of opposing claims: between democratic equality on the one hand and affective preferences on the other, between our political need for formal universals and our emotional attachment to substantive particulars. Since philosophy is unhelpful on this point, I turn now to two other genres of texts, literary and theological, to investigate within their confines the terms of this contradiction and, through their alternative traditions, to explore further some other, possibly more complex, possibly more nuanced ways of thinking about justice, in which "inclination" might have a place.

Grammatical Subjects: "Song of Myself"

I begin with Walt Whitman, a poet whose commitment to democratic justice is, not least of all, a formal commitment, whose poetry, with its endless catalogs, its endless collections of attachable, detachable parts, one as good as the other, one substitutable for the other, is perhaps as close as any poetry can come to being a generative grammar. Within the terms of our discussion, we would expect this to be a poetry governed by syntax, and that is indeed the case in "Song of Myself." Perhaps also not surprisingly, then, at the heart of the poem is a grammatical entity, the "myself" who is both the author and subject of his song. And, since this "myself" is democratically defensible only as a formal universal, it too has to be purified, extracted, turned into a categorical idea, so that it can remain structurally inviolate even as it goes through any number of substantive variations, even as it entertains any number of contingent terms. By means, then, of a series of grammatical distinctions—a series of complexly articulated and carefully differentiated uses of "me," "mine," and "myself"—Whitman too (even more than Rawls) works his way through the various syntactic modes of the subject in order to recover a truly foundational self, one whose democratic dignity is absolute, transcendent, and unconditional.


Given this categorical conception, the problematics of the subject that we have seen in Rawls—its much-discussed "thinness," its tendency to propagate a corresponding thinness in human affections, its rational practice of substitutability and interchangeability—would perhaps plague Whitman as well. In any case, as much as it is a poetry of accumulation, "Song of Myself" is also a poetry of divestment, a poetry that spins out an endless catalog of the self's many attachments only to distinguish the self from all those attachments. We see this in familiar lines such as the following, in which, beginning with things that are obviously external, Whitman moves on to things that are less obviously so, things that might even have been thought of as intrinsic to him. These he nonetheless disavows and imagines as being somehow distinct from him, distinct from the "Me myself" which is anterior to, and curiously untouched by, what he happens to be possessing or even experiencing at any given moment:

My dinner, dress, associates, looks, business, compliments, dues, The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love, The sickness of one of my folks—or of myself . . . or ill-doing . . . or loss __or lack of money . . . or depressions or exaltations, They come to me days and nights and go from me again, But they are not the Me Myself.[53]

By the time Whitman is through, quite a few things that might have been considered a part of him—things like physical well-being and emotional affliction or satisfaction—are all consigned to the realm of the fortuitous, which is also to say, the realm of the unessential. To consecrate a democratic subject, Whitman, like Rawls, is quite willing to do some ontological cleansing, rearranging the very contents of the person. In practice, this means removing the self from all its contingencies and defining these contingencies as the "not Me Myself," so that, finally detached from them, the self can also be defined against them, as a principle of absolute necessity. As Whitman spins out his catalogs, then, the domain of the "not Me Myself" thus becomes broader and broader, more and more crowded, even as the "Me Myself" is increasingly stripped bare, put through an increasingly rigorous set of refinements, until it is purified into no more than an idea, an empty form, but, for that very reason, a form of transcendent dignity. Like Rawls, Whitman is quite willing to give up what is "mine," to write it over to the world as part of its bounty as well as part of its caprice, in order to rescue "me" as an absolute concept, free


from all circumstantial encumbrances, free from the vagaries of the accidental.

In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass , Whitman writes that the poet "judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing" (9). This statement stands not only as a democratic manifesto but also, I think, as a noncontingent poetics, which, in its unfastidious, unconditional generosity, in effect eliminates luck by eliminating the invidious distinctions it fosters, so that the whole world is now taken in, wrapped in a kind of cosmic tenderness, without exception and without fail, leaving nothing to chance. The objects of Whitman's attention are admitted as strict equals, guaranteed equals, both by virtue of the minimal, universal "Me" they all have in common and by virtue of a poetic syntax which greets each of them in exactly the same way, as a grammatical unit, equivalently functioning and structurally interchangeable. To say this is perhaps to say the obvious: there is an intimate connection between Whitman's poetic language and political philosophy, a shared commitment to syntax. This grammatical disposition not only underwrites the universality of the self in "Song of Myself" but also inscribes in it a democratic hospitality to the world, a refusal to tolerate exclusions, a refusal, indeed, to register distinctions, an openness as impartial as it is impersonal.[54]

The problem in Whitman (to the extent that it is one) can be restated, then, as one version of the conflict we have been discussing: a conflict between the opposing claims of universality and particularity in the definition of personhood, and between the opposing domains of experience to which each corresponds. How can we reconcile the categoric conception of the self in democratic theory with our experiential sense of the self in human attachments, attachments that are, after all, not universal but highly particular, anchored to the self not in its commonality but in its distinctive features and substantive attributes—anchored, in short, not to what is "me" but to what is "mine"? How can we reconcile the grammatical dictates of substitutability and interchangeability with the phenomenon of memory, with our selective attachment to our past and to figures from our past, and with the sense that people never matter to us uniformly, not at any given moment, and certainly not over time? How can we, in short, imagine a "me" adequate both to the requisite impartiality of political life and to the requisite partiality of personal affections?

These questions have been raised by Whitman himself—or at least


raised by him in the form of a statement—in section 3 of "Song of Myself": "Out of the dimness opposite equals advance. . . . Always substance and increase / Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life" (27). Identity and distinction, the contrary claims of personhood and the contrary claims, I have tried to suggest, of democratic politics and affective preferences, are here conjoined by Whitman, made to appear as syntactic equivalents: in a parallel construction, with neither one subordinated to the other. But if this raises one's hopes, there is also a sense in which the hope is rigged, since the form itself of the syntax, the logical primacy it assigns to equivalence, would seem to have foreclosed the very question it is meant to address. This sense of foreclosure—of a conclusion syntactically settled ahead of time—is especially noticeable in the lines we examined earlier, Whitman's catalog of all those things that compose the "not Me Myself."

In that fateful passage, a succession of objects and events are adduced, paratactically, as analogous terms: equally contingent, equally peripheral to the self, and equally detachable from the self. Since the syntax here focuses only on the phenomenon of equivalence—only on the fact that all the items enumerated are equally "not Me Myself"—what cannot be registered is not only the appositional difference between those items but also the sequential difference generated by each, the legacy or constraint each might bring to what comes after it. In "Song of Myself" that difference hardly exists, since the fact of prior occurrence is in no way a determining condition for what follows. To mention just one example, "the real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love" is offered here as a sequel, a syntactic equivalent, to "My dinner, dress, associates, looks, business, compliments, dues," and is in turn followed by yet another syntactic equivalent, "The sickness of one of my folks—or of myself . . . or ill-doing . . . or loss or lack of money . . . or depressions or exaltations"—as if all three were comparable, separated by no emotional distance, and as if the significance of each were exhausted by its appearance, so that each departs as it arrives, leaving behind no residue, no constraints on the syntax, nothing to make it less open or less ready for more parallel additions.[55]

"Song of Myself" is thus a poetry of sequence without sedimentation, a poetry that sallies forth, its syntactic vitality unmarred by what it has been through. It is a poetry that dwells ever in the pres-


ent, not because it refuses to look back but because past events are so strangely foreshortened, so devoid of any weight of time, that they have the effect of being contemporaneous with all events subsequent to them. The operative process here is something like the transposition of seriality into simultaneity—the constitution of memory as a field of spatial latitude rather than temporal extension—a process that, I argue, makes for the perpetual openness of the poem, its boundless horizons of experience. Since I see this as a crucial feature of Whitman's democratic poetics, I want to discuss in some detail one particular stanza in "Song of Myself"—the famous encounter with the runaway slave in section 10—in which the word "remember" actually figures, and figures curiously:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,
And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at table . . . my firelock leaned in the corner.

In its scrupulousness and restraint, restraint especially from undue effusiveness or familiarity, this passage must stand as one of the most compelling moments of democratic affections in "Song of Myself." The runaway slave is not a particular slave, he is any slave, for the poet would have done as much for anyone bearing that generic identity. His goodwill is also offered generically, occasioned not by any qualities peculiar to this slave but by his membership in a collective category, and it is transferable, one would imagine, to any other member of that category. The poet is behaving "grammatically," then, as I have disparagingly used that word. But if so, what becomes clear in this passage is the tremendous need for grammar in this world, the tremendous need for structural provisions unattached to particular per-


sons and responsive to all analogous persons. Substitutability and interchangeability, from this perspective, hardly detract from human dignity. They guarantee it.

Still, it must be said as well that this dignity, while guaranteed, is also carefully shielded from that very substitutability and interchangeability which make it possible. And so, the object of the poet's attention is introduced not as a runaway slave but as the runaway slave, as if he were some previously mentioned figure, specially known to the poet, rather than the categoric person which he is. What Whitman encourages us to forget, then, is the very condition under which the slave is admitted into "Song of Myself," as one of its representative figures, one of its formal equivalents, succeeding the trapper and his Indian bride in the previous stanza and to be succeeded, in turn, by the twenty-eight young men bathing by the shore in section 11. Indeed, these other figures—the trapper and his bride, and the bathing young men—must be forgotten as well, their lack of connection to the slave being not at all a lapse but a necessity, a desired effect. This tender forgetfulness—this ceaseless transformation of "a" into "the"—thus generates a peculiar shape of time in "Song of Myself," turning it into an arena of simultaneity, an arena in which antecedence carries no particular weight because it is simply not registered as antecedence.

The transposition of seriality into simultaneity thus makes memory in "Song of Myself" democratic in a rather troubling sense, in that no particular event can claim to have a special place in it, no particular event can claim to be more cherished or more enduring.[56] The extension of time, or rather the emotional weight inhering in that extension, is something of an incomprehensible (or inadmissible) phenomenon, and it is this, I think, that accounts for that strange confusion of tenses here surrounding the word "remember." That fateful word is used not once but twice, in two consecutive sentences: "And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness, / And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles." Indeed the entire stanza, from the "swung half-door of the kitchen" to the famous "firelock leaned in the corner,"[57] might be read as a tribute to the minuteness and tenacity of memory. And yet, this tribute notwithstanding, the exact status of memory, its location and extension in time, remains more than a little puzzling. After all, the most striking feature of the stanza is surely the odd, incongruous


placement of the act of remembering—something supposedly being done in the present—among the recorded deeds of the past. Presided over by the conjunctive "and," "remember" becomes syntactically equivalent to all the verbs that precede it: "went," "led," "brought water," "filled a tub," "gave him a room." It is made analogous to, and put into the company of, verbs depicting concrete acts of definite duration and tangible result, acts begun in the past and ended in the past.

Yet what makes memory special is surely that it resembles none of the above: it is not concrete, has no definite duration or tangible result, and knows neither beginnings nor endings. It can be put in the midst of the others, can be pronounced the equivalent of the others, only through a syntactic dictate that amounts to a kind of epistemological violence. Being harnessed in this manner by the syntax, memory becomes coterminous and coextensive with the event that occasions it. It is woven into the incident that it recalls, sealed and sewn within it. This is what gives memory in Whitman its tapestry-like quality, its strange sense of being without compulsion, without mobility in time. Relieved from the weight of antecedence, past events can now become cheerful additions to the present, swelling its ranks and multiplying its opportunities. The transposition of temporal extension into spatial amplitude thus makes for a self so resilient, so able to accommodate all contingencies as to be beyond contingency. This is, of course, the fantasized ideal in "Song of Myself": a self endlessly renewed by its procedures, a self whose perennial innocence translates into a democratic largesse, a self always open to new experience but always unencumbered by that experience.

An "unencumbered self," Michael Sandel has argued, is the ideal citizen for a "procedural republic,"[58] a Kantian political utopia, observing always the imperatives of the categorical and generalizing those imperatives into the idea of a universal subject, one who might "be made the ground for all maxims of action."[59] If so, "Song of Myself" must count as one of the most compelling portraits of that utopia, an experiment to devise for the unencumbered self a credible embodiment and a credible home. From the poem, though, we might glimpse not only the political necessities for such an ideal but also some of its experiential difficulties. For more dramatically here than elsewhere, we see the extent to which the language of democratic justice is a language of syntax, a language signally porous both in


relation to the varieties of human experience and in relation to the particularities of affective life. It captures for us the openness of space but not the endurance of time, the rhythms of fresh beginnings but not the music of familiar affections, the renewability of syntax but not the sedimentation of meanings.

Semantics and Memory

In this context, it is worth returning briefly to Noam Chomsky and recalling some of his problems in elevating syntax into the primary (or perhaps even sole) object of study. From the first, Chomsky's critics have argued that the phenomenon of language is richer, more contingent, and less formalizable than a syntactic theory would allow and have called for a supplement, in the form of a semantic theory.[60] John Searle, one such critic, has objected (not surprisingly) to the inability of syntax to account for actual speech behavior, actual linguistic performances. Language, Searle argues, is not primarily an instrument of thought and only secondarily an instrument of communication (as Chomsky would have it) but is irreducibly, constitutively shaped by its communicative needs, and thus centrally organized by semantics, the production and reception of meaning.[61] Of course, Searle himself is speaking from a partisan position—that of speech-act theory, of which he and J. L. Austin are the leading exponents. That tradition, in giving pride of place to the contexts of utterance, has built its case, understandably, not on the formal universals of syntax but on the substantive contingencies of semantics. The meanings of words—their situational variations occasioned by different rules and intentions, and their etymological variations occasioned by historical change—make up the life of language as Austin and Searle understand it. Words come to us "trailing clouds of etymology," Austin writes, for "a word never—well, hardly ever—shakes off its etymology and its formation. In spite of all changes in and extensions of and additions to its meanings, and indeed rather pervading and governing these, there will still persist the old idea."[62]

Semantics, then, is that domain in which the historical life of language is honored and preserved, and in which human history itself is also silently but diligently recorded. Words have memories here, and the passing away of a usage, a manner of speaking, or a mode of association is never without residue, never without a shower of de-


posits, clouding up the orthographic clarity of words, giving them their particular texture and opacity. Unlike syntax, then, which begins as a clean slate each time it is used anew, empty of any traces of the words that previously composed it, semantics is a slate that can never be wiped clean, being written upon over and over again, accumulating meanings that settle and thicken in time. This is what Mikhail Bakhtin has in mind when he refers to semantics as a domain in which language becomes "saturated," each word pervaded by the "tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life."[63] Bakhtin is speaking of the saturation of words within the historical life of an entire society, but, on a more modest scale, we might also imagine the same process of saturation within the biographical life of a single individual, or within the textual life of a long poem such as "Song of Myself." Here, too, prior usages might have left behind memories of their passing, accumulated nuances and inflections that make it impossible for words to be quite innocent, quite neutral, quite pristine, impossible for them to begin unencumbered.

This historical memory of words is what the poetic form of "Song of Myself" is out to combat. The "subject of language interests me—interests me: I never quite get it out of my mind," Whitman writes. "I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment." It is a language experiment designed, most especially, to imagine "new words, new potentialities of speech" to match the "new world, the new times, the new peoples."[64] Such newness can come only with the primacy of syntax, and it is this that gives "Song of Myself" its peculiar resilience and regularity, its promise of substitution and guarantee of permanence. This is its great source of strength, a strength that, in Whitman as in Chomsky, comes from a necessary abstraction, an insistence on formal universals, that transforms the randomness of the world, its accidents and its vulnerabilities, into the pristine form of its syntax. "All goes onward and outward . . . and nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier," Whitman writes at the end of section 6, his famous paean to the grass which, like language, and most particularly like syntax ("so many uttering tongues!"), is ever substitutable, ever renewable, and therefore ever emblematic of our luck (30). And he immediately goes on, in section 7, to repeat that crucial last word all over again: "Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? / I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it" (30).


Luck, that bane of democracy, is here mentioned by name, three times in the space of three lines and even in the face of death, its most terrible ally. It can be mentioned because, like the self which it overshadows, it too has been formalized, neutralized, made amenable to reason through the agency of syntax. In a complex play of crescendo that might be called the rationalization of luck, the syntax here focuses on the different degrees and gradations of it—"lucky," "luckier," "just as lucky"—using them to ask some rather abstruse questions (is it luckier to live or to die, or are both just as lucky?). What is happily missing here, among the available options, is one item which ordinarily would perhaps be of greatest concern to most people: namely, the category of the "unlucky." Indeed, even in "Song of Myself," that category is not altogether unknown (in section 4, Whitman has alluded, after all, to "The sickness of one of my folks—or of myself . . . or ill-doing . . . or loss or lack of money"), and yet it is just that memory that the syntax here works to erase, as it holds out for our contemplation a logical progression beginning with luck. The Whitmanian self is thus always lucky, he can only be lucky, all memories to the contrary being forgotten in the inflectionless use of the word. That inflectionlessness also makes him as lucky as everyone else. In being so assured of that fact, in having so little room for surprise, let alone for complaint, he might also be said, paradoxically, to be beyond luck, beyond its caprice and, above all, beyond its inequities.

What does it mean for a self to be beyond luck? Martha Nussbaum has argued that an ethical life that aspires to be noncontingent is also one that is necessarily impoverished. There can be no goodness without vulnerability, she suggests.[65] "Song of Myself" affirms her insight, qualifies it, and offers perhaps an alternative political context for its interpretation. Taking the noncontingent self, then, both as a necessary foundation of democratic justice, as Whitman urges, and as a potential case of experiential impoverishment, as Nussbaum warns, I want to think further about the epistemology underwritten by such a figure, and about the shape of the world radiating outward from its particular form. Whitman, as always, has indirectly supplied an answer here. In section 7 of "Song of Myself," immediately following his declaration that "it is just as lucky to die," he goes on to invoke a world of "manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good, / The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good" (31).


These particular lines, celebratory in a way that borders on the syrupy, might perhaps lend themselves to the charge of facile optimism, but it would be unfair to read them in that light. They rather have to do, I think, with a democratic impulse (driven perhaps as much by anxiety as by hope) to so construe the world as to render the faculty of discrimination unnecessary. After all, judgment can cease, can truly cease, only in a world where there is no occasion for it. Luck of the Whitmanian sort, commissioned by a syntax so pristine as to be memory-proof, makes such a world thinkable, credible, habitable. Under its oversight, one can indeed live one's life "judg[ing] not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing," unburdened by the thought that the "helpless thing" might turn out to be a snake, a porcupine, a snapping turtle. It is this image of luck, disarmed and discharged, that enables Whitman to imagine a world that is epistemologically democratic, a world in which he can dispense with preference altogether, so that even among objects "no two alike," he can still surrender himself to a syntax that is nothing if not a chant of equivalence:" and every one good, / The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good" (31).

Good, good, good, good. That chant of equivalence brings to a head the hope as well as the frailty of a democratic poetics, as of a democratic polity. The equivalence is secured, of course, by the regularity of the syntax, which neutralizes luck by making all eventualities equally indifferent , both in the sense that none is distinguishable from the others and in the sense that none is preferred to the others. For preference is indeed hard to justify, hard even to imagine, given the blanket attribution of goodness. In a world filled with objects all generated by the same syntax and all described by the word good, how can we make sense of the fact that some particular objects, some particular persons, will appeal to us in a manner altogether disproportionate to their grammatical description? And how can we make sense of the fact that some other objects, some other persons, will not appeal to us, certifiably (because categorically) good though they are?

A self that is beyond luck is not simply beyond the contingent, it is also barred from the contingent. It is barred, that is, from that circumstantial domain, inhabited by densely featured people, some of whom are miracles and some of whom are just unhappy freaks of accident, but all of whom, whether as objects of affection or as objects of aversion, can materialize for us only through a particularizing lan-


guage. Whitman's democratic poetics, in short, can have no access to that chaotic world of special loves and hates. It is silent about those objects that, for us, are not categoric, not interchangeable or substitutable, not adequately described by grammar or fully accounted for by syntax. In that silence, "Song of Myself" is at one with the entire philosophical tradition from Immanuel Kant to Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. It is not at one with that tradition, however, in making that silence so eerie, so restless and untranquil in its willed uniformity. If nothing else, Whitman makes us long for what he does not and cannot offer: an ethics of preference, one that, in foregrounding what is not exhausted by a language of formal universals, what remains as its conceptual or emotional residue, might suggest some way of acknowledging both the democratic and the affective, some way of rethinking the very terms and limits of justice itself.

Preference Human and Divine: The Wide, Wide World

As it turns out, it is not Whitman but his contemporaries, the so-called sentimental women writers of the mid-nineteenth century,[66] who are tough enough, hard-headed enough, to give us a literary tradition organized around such an ethics. It is they who take it upon themselves to confront, to fret over, and to draw a kind of reluctant sustenance from that most arbitrary and most invidious of phenomena: the phenomenon of human preference. And, in doing so, they also gesture toward a nonreductive (and often not even moral) account of human misery and felicity, thus proving themselves heirs to the complex thinking about grace and justice in Christian theology, a tradition as old as Christianity itself. It is this extended tradition that I want to claim as a long background for the women writers, not only to construct a different genealogy for their supposed sentimentality, but also to suggest something about the historical memory of American Protestantism itself and about its claim as an important historical supplement to the discourse of philosophy.

To take one of the most notorious examples, Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), a novel so sentimental as to be continually awash in tears, is also a novel so stark as to be continually under the shadow of chance, a novel as relentlessly driven by unforeseeable randomness as Moby-Dick (1851), its contemporary and in many ways


its antithesis, is relentlessly driven by foreseeable destiny. Luck is the principal actor in The Wide, Wide World , for its heroine, Ellen Montgomery, is quite a lucky girl, helped always by the hand of providence. Unlike the lucky self in Whitman, however, for whom the category of the "unlucky" simply does not exist, Ellen's good luck is a fearful reminder of the reign of its evil sibling, because it never appears as a positive good but always as a corrective, coming in the nick of time to terminate a bad situation. The intervention of the old gentleman in the store, for example, saves Ellen, but it does not negate the petty malice of Saunders the clerk; the timely arrival of Mr. Van Brunt again saves Ellen, but it also does not negate her utter sense of helplessness as Nancy, with the sadism "that a cat shows when she has a captured mouse at the end of her paws,"[67] ransacks her trunk, looks over the contents of her workbox and her writing desk, and forces hot gruel down her clenched throat. And in the most frightening scene in the book—a scene not of rape, but comparable to it—the arrival of John certainly saves Ellen, but, just as certainly, it does not negate her terror as her horse is whipped by Saunders, whose spite, at this accidental second encounter, has gone from petty to maniacal. Ellen is the recipient not only of gratuitous kindness but also of gratuitous malice. Her random good luck alternates with her random tribulations. There is no question of desert here, no question of moral causality. Events simply befall Ellen: unwilled, unchosen, undeserved. They turn the idea of justice into an enigma, not so much the logical endpoint of reason as the beginning of a conceptual riddle.

It is in the midst of this "wide, wide world"—a world wider than the language of justice can make of it—that Ellen is revealed to be something of an unjust person herself. She is capricious in her affections, capricious most of all in her self-acknowledged inability to love those for whom her love ought to have been easy, natural, and axiomatic. Asked, for example, by the kind gentleman on the boat whether she is one of God's children, Ellen replies with the usual tears, but her answer is more unusual than one might expect:

"No, sir," said Ellen, with swimming eyes, but cast down on the ground.

"How do you know that you are not?"

"Because I do not love the Saviour."

"Do you not love him, Ellen?"

"I am afraid not, sir."


"Why are you afraid not? What makes you think so?"

"Mamma said I could not love him at all if I did not love him best; and oh, sir," said Ellen, weeping, "I do love mamma a great deal better."

"You love your mother better than you do the Saviour?"

"Oh yes, sir," said Ellen; "how can I help it?" (70)

Ellen cannot help loving her mother a great deal better than she loves her heavenly father. Earlier, she also cannot help loving her mother a great deal better than she loves her earthly father. (The scene in chapter 3, the "perfect fidget of impatience," with which Ellen awaits her father's departure so that she might be alone with her mother, must be one of the most memorable portraits of filial invidiousness in all of American literature.) Love here is a matter of arbitrary attachment, discriminatory likes and dislikes, sharp and sharply hierarchical senses of delight and solicitude. It is also a matter of involuntary compulsions, fueled by the phrase "cannot help." Ellen does not choose to love her mother, does not arrive at that decision with the help of her deliberative rationality. Her love is, on the contrary, strictly a preference , without any moral content whatsoever, innocent of volition, and therefore also innocent of justification.

The lack of moral justification is especially striking when Ellen's involuntary preference happens to take a negative turn, when it shows up as an unreasonable aversion toward someone. This is the case with Miss Fortune, Ellen's aunt, whom she describes in a letter to her mother:

I wish there was somebody here that I could love, but there is not. You will want to know what sort of a person my aunt Fortune is. I think she is very good looking, or she would be if her nose were not quite so sharp: but, mamma, I can't tell you what sort of a feeling I have about her; it seems to me as if she was sharp all over. I am sure her eyes are as sharp as two needles. And she don't walk like other people; at least sometimes. She makes queer little jerks and starts and jumps, and flies about like I don't know what. (111)

Ellen's objections to Miss Fortune are not only uncharitable, they are downright irrational. She objects to things the latter cannot help: her sharp nose, her needlelike eyes, her jerky movements. But then Ellen, in turn, cannot help herself either: she feels what she feels. This maddening realm of tautology—you are what you are, I love what I love, a


realm that, as Wittgenstein might say, can only be described, not explained—makes The Wide, Wide World a fine supporting document for Rawls's argument against the "lottery of birth." For Warner, though, the lottery would go on forever, endlessly churning out undeserved attachments as well as undeserved aversions, for in making human preference a matter of caprice on the one hand and a principle of invidiousness on the other, she has in effect created a world of cosmic arbitrariness, so that what appears small and puny here is not just Ellen Montgomery, and not just some particular human being, but the very idea of justice itself.

This sense of cosmic arbitrariness no doubt has something to do with the sharp reversal of fortune in Warner's own life.[68] But the book's religious fervor suggests as well that cosmic arbitrariness is not just a sudden insight, born of personal disaster, but also a longstanding tenet within the Christian tradition, in existence for almost two thousand years. It was Augustine, of course, who gave this cosmic arbitrariness its classic expression, in the form of the doctrine of grace.[69] Grace was God's sovereign and gratuitous love, love unoccasioned by human endeavor, undeserved by human merit. As Augustine insisted, "a gift, unless it be gratuitous, is not grace."[70] But grace gratuitously given also meant justice arbitrarily rendered, rendered, that is, to recipients unaccountably divided up, unaccountably labeled the saved and the damned. Augustine was thus a theologian of love much as Warner was; like her, he too saw love as the ground for gradations, exclusions, invidious distinctions, the ground for concepts such as "less" and "more." In the human realm, for example, a man who "lives in justice" is someone who "neither loves what should not be loved nor fails to love what should be loved; he neither loves more what should be loved less, loves equally what should be loved less or more, nor loves less or more what should be loved equally."[71] These invidious distinctions carried over into the divine realm as well, for here "grace alone separates the redeemed from the lost, all having been mingled together in one mass of perdition." Augustine insisted that human beings were basically alike, that, left to our own devices, we would all belong together. However, out of our common humanity, out of that "same mass of perdition, God maketh one vessel for honorable, another for ignoble use; the ones for honorable use through his mercy, the ones for ignoble use through his judgment."[72]


Grace, then, was God's way of showing his preferences: his inexplicable fondness for some, his inexplicable aversion to others. Augustine's doctrine of grace thus carried with it a dark underside, a fatalistic verdict for those God happened to dislike: a doctrine of predestination harsher than that of any major orthodox thinker since Paul. In the succeeding centuries, though, it was the doctrine of grace alone that was emphasized by the Catholic Church, so that, as Jaroslav Pelikan points out, "normative Augustinism" increasingly became "a position that vindicated Augustine's essential teaching on grace but muffled his views on predestination to punishment."[73] That "muffling" was undone, of course, by the Reformation, which brought predestination to the polemical foreground. It was Augustine the predestinarian, then, that Luther invoked when he shockingly proclaimed that "Augustine has to this day not been accepted by the church of Rome."[74] And it was the same predestinarian that he honored when he declared himself, "I, Martin Luther, Augustinian."[75]

The Language of Protestant Memory

But something else—a different sort of intellectual need, a different sort of emotional compulsion—also seemed to be fueling Luther's renewed emphasis on predestination. "I am saying this," he said, "in order to refute the dangerous doctrine of the sophists and the monks, who taught and believed that no one can know for a certainty whether he is in a state of grace."[76] The key word for Luther was "certainty," and it was this word that he would repeat over twenty times in his commentary on a single verse of Galatians (one that, moreover, does not itself make certainty an issue).[77] "The enemies of Christ," Luther insisted, "teach what is uncertain, because they command their consciences to be in doubt." Good Christians, therefore, must do the opposite, namely, "strive daily to move more and more from uncertainty to certainty." Noting that the "monster of uncertainty is worse than all the other monsters," Luther "thank[ed] God, therefore, that we have been delivered from this monster."[78] That deliverance separated right-thinking Christians once and for all from those doubting papists: "We, by the grace of God, are able to declare and judge with certainty, on the basis of the Word, about the will of God towards us, about all laws and doctrines, about our own lives and


those of others. On the other hand, the papists and the fanatical spirits are unable to judge with certainty about anything."[79]

The great boon of predestination was just that: it granted certainty. And for Luther, certainty could come only from what he called the "necessary foreknowledge of God," which, especially in The Bondage of the Will (1525),[80] he elevated into the central divine attribute. It is "fundamentally necessary and salutary," Luther said, "for a Christian to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that he foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will." Luther's God was sometimes wrathful, sometimes merciful, but he was always knowing, or rather, fore knowing, his infinite prescience making up for our infinite ignorance. Against Erasmus, then, who argued that it was "irreverent, inquisitive, and vain to say that God foreknows necessarily," Luther countered with due incredulity: "Do you, then, believe that he foreknows without willing or wills without knowing?" Since that was absurd, Luther concluded that it was impossible that anything "should exist or persist contingently," if by "contingent" one means "by chance and without our expecting it." In the end, then, divine foreknowledge turned out to be a transitive foreknowledge: human beings could not aspire to partake of its contents, but they could at least partake of its certitude. It was for that reason, indeed, that Luther was able to point to the "necessary foreknowledge of God" as "the one supreme consolation of Christians," one that set them apart from "the greatest minds [who] have stumbled and fallen, denying the existence of God and imagining that all things are moved at random by blind Chance or Fortune."[81]

Luther did not seem particularly concerned with the conceptual relays between divine foreknowledge and human certitude (the latter is not, after all, logically or experientially consequential upon the former, as the American Puritans could easily have told him). Like Calvin, who, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), also spent several pages arguing that there was no such thing as chance,[82] he seemed to have believed that the elimination of the contingent would itself be sufficient ground for human certitudes.[83] But what is important here is perhaps not so much the rigor of Luther's reasoning as the way he reanimated a cluster of concepts, deriving from their apparently syllogistic connection a newly authorized mode of being in the world. And so it was that faith (or, more precisely, "justification by faith") would emerge as the central tenet of the Reformation, both as


an attitude toward God and as equipment for living. "Faith in God," Luther said, was "the supreme worship, the supreme allegiance, the supreme obedience, and the supreme sacrifice."[84] More than that, it was also the "principal weapon" for Christians, an indispensable weapon, for

We are engaged in a battle, not with one prince or emperor but with the whole world. Everywhere the devil has spiritual weapons with which he attacks the ministers of the Word on the right and on the left. For this reason we now have so many adversaries—not only the fanatics but the princes, the popes, and the kings of the whole world with all their adherents. Who will overcome all these adversaries? He, says John, who is born of God. This must happen through faith in Christ, which is the victory.[85]

The images of universal belligerency (and, of course, the image of ultimate victory) were hardly incidental here; they made up the very language of faith for Luther: a language that construed the world as "the kingdom of the devil" and construed the Christian as, first and foremost, "a warrior."[86] Over and over again, then, Luther rejoiced that "through faith we kill unbelief, contempt and hatred of God," that "faith slaughters . . . and kills the beast that the whole world and all the creatures cannot kill," that "it killed and sacrificed God's bitterest and most harmful enemy."[87]

A language such as this inevitably suggested political usages. Michael Walzer, in his influential study of the political legacy of Protestantism, has argued for a direct link between the Reformation and the political discipline of the state, although he is also careful to distinguish between Luther's mystical inwardness and Calvin's institutional fanaticism, tracing the "programmatic and organizational" character of the Puritan state primarily to the latter.[88] But there is another sense in which Luther himself, mystical and inward as he so often was,[89] might nonetheless be said to be a willing party (and indeed a major contributor) to a newly emerging language of faith, faith not only spiritual but also temporal, dictating not only political discipline (Walzer's emphasis) but also political belligerency. Here, Walzer's insight should perhaps be supplemented by that of Sacvan Bercovitch, who has emphasized the intimate connection between Puritan religiosity and the geopolitical ambition of the state. It was the continuing vitality of the Puritan rhetoric, its periodic profes-


sions of doom, Bercovitch argues, that would sustain a dream of national expansion, a dream of Manifest Destiny, for over two hundred years.[90]

Especially in light of that legacy, it is worth noting that faith was singled out by Luther not only as a much-needed weapon against a world teeming with enemies but also as a much-needed corrective to a Catholic theology wallowing in love. The "dangerous and wicked opinion of the papists" was that good work must be "performed in the grace that makes a man pleasing before God, that is, in love"; they had even "attributed formal righteousness to an attitude and form inherent in the soul, namely, to love." Duns Scotus had written (and Luther quoted him with disgust) that "if a man can love a creature, a young man love a girl, or a covetous man love money—all of which are a lesser good—he can also love God, who is a greater good."[91] For Scotus, love of God was not categorically different from love of the world: the two shaded into each other, one drawing sustenance from the other. For Luther, this confusion of the divine and the naturalistic could not be more wrong. But here he seemed to have found an enemy in none other than Augustine himself, who, in his Confessions , had celebrated just such a confused love of God and of the world:

But what is it that I love in loving thee? Not physical beauty, nor the splendor of time, nor the radiance of the light—so pleasant to our eyes—nor the sweet melodies of the various kind of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey, not the limbs embraced in physical love—it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet it is true that I love a certain kind of light and sound and fragrance and food and embrace in loving my God, who is the light and sound and fragrance and food and embracement of my inner man—where that light shines into my soul which no place can contain, where time does not snatch away the lovely sound, where no breeze disperses the sweet fragrance, where no eating diminishes the food there provided, and where there is an embrace that no satiety comes to sunder. This is what I love when I love my God.[92]

For Augustine, love of God was indeed not the same as love of the world, but it was also not intelligible apart from the latter, because it was our love of the world, our capacity to enjoy it, that enabled us to love God and enjoy him . In On Christian Doctrine , Augustine wrote,


"To enjoy something is to cling to it with love for its own sake. . . . Those things which are to be enjoyed make us blessed." And though he cautioned against loving the world too much, enjoying it too much, lest we lose sight of "Him who is to be enjoyed," in the long run it was nonetheless "by means of corporal and temporal things [that] we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual."[93]

Luther did not include Augustine in the company of the dangerous and wicked papists,[94] but he might well have, when he accused those papists of believing that "faith is the body, the shell, or the color; but love is the life, the kernel, or the form."[95] Luther did not mince words here:

Such are the dreams of the scholastics. But where they speak of love, we speak of faith. And while they say that faith is the mere outline but love is its living color and completion, we say in opposition that faith takes hold of Christ and that He is the form that adorns and informs faith as color does the wall. Therefore Christian faith is not an idle quality or an empty husk in the heart, which may exist in a state of mortal sin until love comes along to make it alive.[96]

For Luther, faith was all in all unto itself; it had no need for love and indeed no room for it. "Where they speak of love, we speak of faith": that injunction mapped out a new path for Protestant theology, a new language it would henceforth speak to worship God and to dwell among men.

Still, if the discourse of love was to be officially outlawed in Reformation theology, the language of Christianity itself, with its ancient habit of piety and ecstasy, its inherited capacity for earthly and heavenly delight, might turn out to be less reformable, less observant of the narrow discipline Luther would impose upon it. He could not, in fact, completely reform even his own language, and even his belligerency was not as straightforward as one might have expected: "our hearts will be filled by the Holy Spirit with the love which makes us free, joyful, almighty workers and conquerors over all tribulations, servants of our neighbors, and yet lords of all."[97] And so, in spite of his injunction, in spite of his attempt to turn Christian theology into some austere edifice—some windowless structure, illuminated only by faith—the language of Christianity (and indeed the language of Protestantism itself) would ultimately survive in a manner different from what he would like. It would not (and could not) submit to his


reformation, because, historical language that it was, its semantic field would always be a field of accumulated usage, saturated with inherited emotions, inherited meanings, a language not reducible to any theological accent momentarily put upon it, nor exhausted by any political program momentarily sanctified in its name.

Indeed, even in the American colonies, the most obviously Protestant, and most obviously Puritan, commonwealths in the world, the language of Protestantism was sometimes such as would have made Luther turn in his grave. Edward Taylor (1642–1729), minister for fifty-eight years in the frontier town of Westfield, Massachusetts, nonetheless found the occasion, in that "howling wilderness," to write the following lines in his Preparatory Meditations :

My lovely one, I fain would love thee much
  But all my Love is none at all I see,
Oh! Let thy Beauty give a glorious tuch
  Upon my Heart, and melt to Love all mee.
  Lord melt me all up into Love for thee
  Whose Loveliness excells what love can bee.[98]

Between the love of the adoring subject and the loveliness of the adored object—the boundaries between the two theologically maintained but rhetorically melting, rhetorically melted into each other—Protestantism is not exactly what it should be, or not exactly what Luther said it should be. The animating sentiment here is not Lutheran certainty but Augustinian delight, an emotion at once older but also more fragile, less useful for military purposes. This poem (and scores of others like it)[99] forcefully reminds us that "faith" is only one possible relation between the finite and the infinite, and that other relations would not cease simply because of the Reformation. It reminds us as well that within the domain of language, Protestantism was not so much a new departure as a variation on an ancient theme. Looming behind Taylor were his beloved Metaphysical poets (especially George Herbert) and, behind them, the shadow of Augustine, with his complex and self-conscious relation to rhetoric, his theology of enjoyment, as well as the entire tradition of biblical tropes and diction, the intellectual and affective styles of Christian worship, in existence for over fifteen hundred years.[100] Not the least interesting feature of Protestantism is thus its historical memory, habits of speech and habits of emotion sedimented over time, sedimented, as David


Hall has suggested, in a "muddied, multilayered process," as "a river full of debris."[101] And, once in a while, it is overcome by that sedimentation—as Taylor is in this poem—so that the Protestant voice would sometimes come across much like a transported voice, redolent of a different place and time. "The United States itself has no medieval period," Sydney Ahlstrom has written, "but in Puritanism we confront more than faint vestiges of that era."[102]

Those vestiges are discernible, not least of all, in the enduring presence of Augustine: not necessarily Luther's Augustine, but a figure that both predated him and survived him, an Augustine less austere, less fiercely channeled, richer with liberalities and delights, an Augustine read and elaborated upon over the centuries, passed down from generation to generation. Perry Miller has written about an "Augustinian strain of piety" in American Puritanism.[103] That Augustinian strain, I want to emphasize, came not only from the Reformation but also from an older Christian tradition. Seen in that light, American Protestantism too would seem to be a more heterogenous, more "multivocal" field than it might sometimes appear.[104] Indeed, alongside what was perhaps its dominant trajectory—one that led to the belligerent nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a secular religion of faith without love—we might want to speculate about a host of incipient alternatives, some more tangential than others, some more clearly articulated than others, but all attesting in any case to the semantic richness of the Protestant rhetoric, to the complexity of its historical memory, and to its ability always to exceed, always to overflow, any of its momentary expressions, whether theological, literary, or political. The language of love, in particular, while not directly opposed to the language of nationalism, was nonetheless not encompassed by it and, in its capacity as residue , would not only look forward to a series of residual developments in American theology and American literature but would look backward as well to an affective tradition inherited from a Christianity older than Puritanism itself. In this instance, at least, American Protestantism "does not have its own beginning," as Sydney Ahlstrom has observed. "It is like a conversation being continued by people as they walk into another room."[105]

The Wide, Wide World is one such conversation. Even as it entertains a newfangled language of modern consumerism, as analyzed by Ann Douglas,[106] it also draws its sustenance from a time-honored Chris-


tian tradition, alive not only as institutional fact but above all as historical memory, as the intellectual and affective habits which lingered in time. Broadened by that memory but also chastened by it, Warner's novel reminds us, as the church had always done, that "merit" and "desert" are not necessarily self-evident concepts and that throughout much of history, human beings had been inspired and admonished in quite other terms. It reminds us as well that the phenomenon of preference, whether human or divine, is perhaps more deeply arbitrary and more darkly inscrutable than we would like, and so gives us a world tougher and harsher than Whitman's—but one that, in its very toughness and harshness, might also seem more satisfying, or at least more emotionally persuasive. If only implicitly, then, it gestures toward a world more enigmatic than the concept of justice can make of it, a world in which justice appears not only as a more tenuous virtue but also as a smaller one.

Mere and Arbitrary Grace: Jonathan Edwards

This uneasy, unceasing, and almost involuntary return to the question of justice, haphazard as it might appear, nonetheless represents, to my mind, one of the most interesting claims of Christian theology, a claim it rarely makes now but which perhaps it should: namely, as a corrective to the bloodless placidity of philosophy. Susan Warner is most interesting when seen against this claim, although, needless to say, she is hardly alone here. I want to suggest, indeed, that she is in the company of none other than Jonathan Edwards,[107] her intellectual forebear in numerous ways: not only as a theologian who has something to say to philosophers but also as one who hones his analytic skill on the phenomenon of love, on its positive manifestation and, more vexingly still, on its negative expression, on the problematic justice of dislike, disinclination, sheer aversion, both human and divine.

Going on for pages and pages in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Edwards, too, said things that would have made Luther turn in his grave. "The essence of all true religion lies in holy love," Edwards wrote, and not tepid, run-of-the-mill love either, but "earnest desires, thirstings and pantings of soul after God, delight and joy in God, a sweet and melting gratitude to God for his great


goodness."[108] Indeed, "in nothing, is vigor in the acting of our inclinations so requisite, as in religion; and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious."[109] "Inclination," far from being a wayward or brutish phenomenon, turns out to be the very "vitals, essence, and soul" of the Christian religion, and, as such, it has a special place in Edwards's lexicon. The sensations of "pleasedness or displeasedness, inclination or disinclination" are native to all of us, Edwards said, for the soul

does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers; either is inclined to 'em, or is disinclined, and averse from 'em. . . . [T]he soul does not behold things, as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting. This faculty is called by various names: it is sometimes called the inclination : and, as it has respect to the actions that are determined and governed by it, is called the will : and the mind , with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart .[110]

Stuck in a theological treatise, this passage must nonetheless stand as one of the most remarkable moments in the history of Western philosophy. Unlike Locke before him, with his complex and endlessly qualifying distinction between "preference" and "volition,"[111] and unlike Kant after him, with his relatively uncomplex and sharply categoric opposition between "will" and "inclination," Edwards here simply announced that inclination and will are one and the same thing, different names assigned to the selfsame faculty engaged in different activities. There is no ontological distinction between the two, only a nominal distinction. Indeed, not only are "will" and "inclination" here fused into the same substance, but, if anything, it is inclination that is prior to will, inclination that is determinative of will, for it is "our inclination that governs us in our actions," so that in every "act of the will, wherein the soul approves of something present, there is a degree of pleasedness; and that pleasedness, if it be in a considerable degree, is the very same with the affection of joy or delight. And if the will disapproves of what is present, the soul is in some degree displeased, and if that displeasedness be great, 'tis the very same with the affection of grief or sorrow."[112]

Edwards could not have known about the "indifferent unaffected spectator" so important to Kant and, in our own century, to John Rawls, but he seems to be refuting their arguments ahead of time, in


suggesting that such a liberty of indifference—such a principle of impartial, dispassionate rationality—is strictly an illusion, a vain and presumptuous dream, since our will does not act outside of our inclination and our reason does not deliberate prior to our affect. What follows, then, from this priority of affect, is thus a radically preferential universe, in which rational deliberations are always retroactive, always subsequent to arbitrary inclinations, so that moral judgment itself turns out to be no more than a function of our initial likes and dislikes.[113]

Unfortunately, the priority of affect over reason governs not only human judgment but divine judgment as well. Edwards's God is a God who judges always out of the "disposition of his heart."[114] He "may have a real and proper pleasure or happiness in seeing the happy state of the creature; yet this may not be different from his delight in himself; being a delight in his own infinite goodness . . . and so gratifying the inclination of his own heart."[115] That divine inclination means that there will always be invidious distinctions in the world, for there are things "God reserves only for those who are the objects of his special and peculiar love," just as there are things he "bestows on those for whom he has no love, but whom he hates."[116] And since God "best knows his own heart," and since "it would be relying too much on reason to determine the affair of God's last end,"[117] divine affect must always remain a human mystery, at once in excess of and perhaps even antithetical to human comprehension, forever unaccountable and arbitrary from our human point of view. What does it mean not to be beloved of God? What does it mean to be an object of his dislike, disregard, special aversion? Edwards's theology offers no explanation, just as it offers no consolation. If "love is the key" to his thinking, as Alan Heimert and Norman Fiering have persuasively argued,[118] that fact must be understood to carry its particular curse as well as its particular blessing, its darkness as well as its radiance. It leads not only to the ecstatic but relatively obscure sermon, "Heaven Is a World of Love," but also to the far better known "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," both logical expressions for a world permeated by divine preference.

Still, dubious blessing that it was, it was within this language of love—this cruelly arbitrary language of divine preference—that Edwards was able to articulate something like a principle of tolerable arbitrariness, an oddly earthbound, oddly nontranscendent per-


spective that, to my mind, represents the most powerful challenge of eighteenth-century theology, a challenge to political philosophy then and now. This takes the form of some remarkably compressed but also remarkably suggestive passages, in The Nature of True Virtue (1765), about the nature and limits of justice. Significantly, those passages occur in a chapter entitled "Concerning the Secondary and Inferior Kind of Beauty," because that is where justice stands in Edwards's ethical thought: among the secondary and the inferior. "This secondary kind of beauty," Edwards said, "consist[s] in uniformity and proportion,"[119] so that

there is a beauty in the virtue called justice , which consists in the agreement of different things that have relation to one another, in nature, manner, and measure: and therefore is the very same sort of beauty with that uniformity and proportion which is observable in those external and material things that are esteemed beautiful. There is a natural agreement and adaptedness of things that have relation one to another, and a harmonious corresponding of one thing to another: that he which from his will does evil to others should receive evil from the will of others . . . in proportion to the evil of his doings.[120]

Justice, as Edwards represents it in this astonishing analysis, turns out to be an aesthetic phenomenon: it has to do with our appreciation of beauty, especially the beauty of form, the beauty which comes from "uniformity and proportion." It is this formal aesthetics that underlies our language of desert,[121] our insistence on retribution and recompense, as a guaranteed relation of proportionality between crime and punishment, merit and reward. Our attraction to justice, from this perspective, is no different from our attraction to the "beauty of squares, and cubes, and regular polygons in the regularity of buildings, and the beautiful figures in a piece of embroidery." It is also no different from those other attractions in having no ultimate claim to ethical primacy, for, being no more than "a relish of uniformity and proportion," "this beauty, considered simply and by itself, has nothing of the nature of true virtue."[122]

Justice, the cornerstone of political philosophy, is considerably less than a cornerstone in Edwards's ethics, which, because it is not founded on the morality of reason or even on the aesthetics of form, must face up to its own insufficiency, its lack of an adequate justificatory ground—an inadequacy which, if not exactly reassuring, is perhaps more genuinely humane. And it is on the basis of that consti-


tutive lack of adequation that Edwards defines "true virtue" as a self-consciously asymmetrical relation of the finite to the infinite: as our "consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general."[123] Consent is not so much an alternative to justice as an intimation that justice is not all, an intimation that its language is only one way (and perhaps an unduly aesthetic way) to think about the world, that it might not fully express or exhaust what it is that we most want for ourselves, and what it is that we are sometimes capable of giving to others. Locating the limits of justice at the limits of human reason, limits that are part concession, part celebration—concession, because our reason does not always prevail, and celebration, because that failure is a tribute to what is in excess of it—Edwards gestures toward a world in which the language of justice must always contend with the unceasing, ungrammatical language of love.


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