Beyond Practical Virtue: A Defense of Liberal Democracy Through Literature. Joel A. Johnson. University of Missouri Press, 2007. Pp. 179. Hardcover. $37.50. ISBN 978-0-8262-1711-0.

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The following review appeared 11 July 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Terry Oggel
Virginia Commonwealth University

"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Winston Churchill's famous quip is popular and wise, and it is instantly intelligible. Churchill was not a professional political theorist, but his clever remark catches the essence of Joel Johnson's idea, especially when Johnson uses selected Mark Twain writings in an important and unconventional way in service of a study in political theory.

Michael Sandel, a political theorist, teaches one of the most popular courses at Harvard, Moral Reasoning 22. Sandel challenges students with a variety of tough topics like marriage laws, euthanasia and the death penalty. Whatever the subject, the underlying question is always the same--What is the right thing to do? What is just? The course is nicknamed "Justice." The common theme for Sandel is that the answer must account for more than simply allowing people to be civically virtuous--obeying the law and being free to acquire as much money, property and power as they can. This would be to understand liberty as nothing more than "negative liberty"--the term used rather derisively following Thomas Hobbes to define the freedom one has up to the point of being opposed by others. The answer must go beyond this practical level of civic virtue to one that aspires to "positive liberty"--the freedom that advances "individual development," that is, individuals' full intellectual and creative potential.

Behind Sandel's work and almost everything else that political theorists have produced during the past 40 years stands John Rawls (1921-2002), Sendal's longtime colleague at Harvard and the dominant political theorist of the last half of the 20th century. His A Theory of Justice (1971) is credited with the resurgence of interest in substantive issues in political theory--civil liberties and social justice--especially shown by the work of such later scholars as Robert Nozick, Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum, in addition to Sandel and now to Johnson.

Rawls was notoriously abstract (an "elegant" theorist, Johnson calls him), whereas Sandel is more "practical," interested in the way a given form of government operates in the real world. On one essential element, Rawls and Sandel agree, and Johnson, too. They see the public sphere as essential for debate and decision-making. Johnson received his PhD at Harvard in 2002 and Sandel, Johnson's dissertation director, had the greatest influence on his thinking. Taking his cue from Sandel, Johnson poses the questions: Is liberal democracy the regime most likely to promote individual development? Would Oligarchy be better? Despotism? Monarchy? Socialism? To answer his own questions, Johnson has immersed himself in a second scholarly arena, one that has arisen during the last two decades in which scholars in one discipline, like law or economics or political science, turn to literature rather than to legal documents, data analyses or philosophical treatises for their argumentation. The work of Martha Nussbaum, Wai Chee Dimock and Richard Posner have led the way here, though none of these has grappled with the same form of hybridization that Johnson does, using novels to assess liberal democracy.

In doing this Johnson breaks new ground. His method involves serious risks, though to his credit he confronts the hazards and limits directly. For example, playing his own devil's advocate he asks: How can the truth of a theoretical argument be validated by the use of fiction? His reply, though a little too easy, is simply "plausibility": is the "novelist's depiction of character and plot reasonably true to life?" (160). That raises another matter, the question of novelistic mode: realistic novels would be eligible, but what about mythic/epic romances such as those written by James Fenimore Cooper? Johnson refers to Mark Twain's expose of Cooper's implausibility, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," but only in a footnote and he dismisses it glibly while winking at a passel of Cooper scholars who concede its truth. This matter of novelistic mode is an important aspect of aesthetics, a branch of philosophy that is central to Johnson's method. A final hazard is probably the most controversial. Novels use language figuratively. They will necessarily be reduced to "character and plot" in order to be useful for argumentation. Indeed, the only purpose for novels in an undertaking such as this is the aid they will provide for argument. Much of a novel is, therefore, overlooked. This is disquieting, but the purpose of Johnson's study is not to provide an enriched understanding of a novel, but to employ literature to illuminate political theory.

The events of September 11, 2001 made it "brutally clear" that democracy's "global ascendancy is hardly inevitable" and that we must be prepared "to offer a full justification of liberal democracy, one that not only addresses current criticisms, but [also] anticipates future objections" (1). To confront this challenge Johnson constructs a kind of clinical test using the United States as the representative democracy because it is the most "extreme case of liberal democracy" (5). He selects three primary aesthetic critics of democracy: Thomas Carlyle, Friedrich Nietzsche and T. S. Eliot, along with several secondary ones (Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill), who are all ideologically rooted in Plato. Against these major critics of democracy, Johnson pits three American writers whose novels can be read as defending democracy: James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, along with several secondary authors (Ralph W. Emerson, Henry D. Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Langston Hughes, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Martin Espada), who are all ideologically rooted in Aristotle.

In this double-triptych dialectic on democracy, the three aesthetic critics attack democracy for its incapacity to achieve the level of cultural beauty and creativity that aristocratic regimes have produced. These critics conclude that ultimately democracy will produce only dull mediocrity, conformity and narrow materialism. The three American authors--Cooper, Twain and Howells--on the other hand, are seen as defending the principles of liberal democracy, not by addressing democratic theory but by depicting the lives of ordinary people in a democracy, even if that democracy is far from perfectly realized. As a literary genre, novels are best for this purpose because they "focus on the rich detail of everyday life," showing thereby "how democratic life is actually lived" (17). Johnson chose these three novelists because they intentionally "investigate the relationships between democratic institutions and individual development," because their writings "complement each other effectively," and because as Americans, they "observed firsthand the nation in which liberal democracy has best flourished. . ." (22).

The well-known objection by the critics, the one that is of paramount importance to Johnson, is that democracy thwarts creativity and attainment of beauty. In defending against this charge, Johnson identifies what he believes are the three most powerful forces within liberal democracy that promote individual development: the enabling of people to "understand the world for themselves, without mediation"; "the radical restructuring of the relationship" between people and their community and environment; and the value of the "public sphere in expanding and refining citizens' ideas about the world" (5-6). For each of these he seeks a reality check by drawing upon the novels--six of Cooper's novels, but chiefly the Littlepage Trilogy published in 1845-1846; Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889); and Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), with brief references to A Traveler from Altruria (1894). Mark Twain's and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age (1873), the novel that named the age and one that is potentially highly valuable for Johnson, is not mentioned. Its level of sarcasm probably made it unusable for argumentation.

Mark Twain seems to be the writer Johnson turns to most often and feels to be a kindred spirit. He uses a passage from Following the Equator for the dedication of his book. As allies in defense of democracy, each Twain novel appears to be perfectly suited for Johnson's purpose--Huckleberry Finn, set in mid-19th century America with extended domination by a King and a Duke, and Connecticut Yankee, set in 6th century England with extended domination by a 19th century capitalist--and Johnson makes frequent and occasionally lengthy use of them both, often with strong effect. Two instances are good representatives, the first employing the Yankee and the second concerning Mark Twain as a democratic writer.

The first of these is a dramatic event that occurs in the larger context of Hank's effort to enlighten Camelot through scientific development and public (re)education. Johnson highlights an event in the novel that brings brilliantly into question the automatic denigration of the middle ages by the modern world and simultaneously demonstrates the open-mindedness of democracy ("understand the world for themselves, without mediation"). These are shown when Hank's self-assured remonstrations are awed into quietude. The passage takes place while Hank and Arthur are touring the kingdom disguised as peasants. But, as Johnson writes:

Arthur's disguise cannot keep his spirit from showing through. . . . After several close encounters, in which Arthur acts insufficiently subordinate, they arrive at a cottage whose inhabitants are dying of smallpox. Hank begs Arthur to leave immediately, lest he be exposed, but he insists upon helping: "Ye mean well," he tells Hank, "and ye speak not unwisely. But it were shame that a king should know fear, and shame that belted knight should withhold his hand where such as need succor." Arthur carries a dying girl down from the loft to where her ailing mother is, causing Hank to observe: "Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest and no admiring world in silks and cloth of gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king's bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great, now; sublimely great" (132).

Johnson notes that Hank himself had recoiled upon learning of smallpox, and he goes on to point out that though this sort of calculating self-interest is common to Hank and other modern democrats, it "is foreign to the knightly code" (133).

The second instance is a sharp observation when Johnson points out that of all regimes only democracy foregrounds humor used politically, including perhaps most of all, self-humor. "Having a democratic outlook," he writes, "depends on the ability to laugh at both ourselves and others." In this sense, he concludes, Mark Twain is the "consummate democrat, making fun of humanity without exempting himself from ridicule" (121).

The result of Johnson's defense is a victory, albeit qualified and tentative, for liberal democracy. Liberal democracy assures the widespread practical virtues of civic life (justice, peace, prosperity) better than any other regime does. Johnson concludes that it is capable of going beyond practical civic virtue to promote the unique development of individuals, his version of Rawls's and Sandel's justice and "the right thing to do." It remains to be seen if liberal democracy, empowering low-born, unrefined masses with political force, especially a form of it that foregrounds capitalism (an aspect that Johnson scarcely takes note of), can achieve the enduring beauty and spiritual refinement that define a great civilization. But with a wise degree of caution, Johnson concludes that liberal democracy, despite its flaws, is a "very good" model for the future (163).

Joel Johnson's defense of American liberal democracy is an ambitious undertaking employing a complex and demanding methodology that blends literature with other streams of scholarship. It brings fresh and invigorating insights to thorny theoretical problems. Managed judiciously, this method has proven to be highly effective, and Johnson employs it with subtlety and discernment.

Johnson could have enriched his examination by including Henry Adams (1838-1918) as one of his major critics of democracy. The three critics Johnson uses (Carlyle, Nietzsche and Eliot) are appropriate but Adams came to be a more articulate and passionate representative of that critical view. This was because in his early years he was a strong advocate of the potential of democracy to attain the "beyond" Johnson seeks. However, it is no exaggeration to say that in his middle and later years Adams devoted himself exclusively to expressing his disappointment in democracy. Virtually everything he wrote in his mature years is written from the perspective of a displaced intellectual in the late 19th century, and either cynically depicts the corrupt democracy of his time that proves the ever-accelerating decline of civilization or passionately details the sublime magnificence of the 12th century, when man held the highest idea of himself in a unified universe. Adams's mature writing is more comprehensive, more sensitive and deeply perceptive, and more compelling than anything that Johnson's three produced. To top it off, Adams is an American, the fourth generation of the famous Founding Family and almost an exact contemporary of both Howells and Mark Twain. Defending democracy against Adams would have required a great deal indeed, but success there would have been resounding.

At first glance, both Mark Twain novels that Johnson uses are naturals for his purpose. But what about other novels by Mark Twain that Johnson ignored? I have already mentioned The Gilded Age. Pudd'nhead Wilson? On closer examination Huckleberry Finn may be considered a dubious choice. Its conclusion is a dismal mockery of "freedom." And even the Connecticut Yankee casts a shadow on the "progress" that democracy supposedly represents. Henry Nash Smith years ago said the Connecticut Yankee showed that Twain had become convinced that his belief in human progress and perfectibility was unfounded. After all, Mark Twain, who is frequently linked with contemporary skeptics like Henry Adams in this regard, is not usually sought as a bright hope about democracy. Still, for Johnson, who implements well the choicest plot episodes from the most helpful novels in aid of his argument, Mark Twain is the knight in shining armor defending liberal democracy.