Growing Out of the Politics of Self

Anne Snyder
Anne Snyder is the editor-in-chief of Comment magazine, a publication of Cardus, and the creator and host of Breaking Ground. From 2016 to 2019 she directed The Philanthropy Roundtable‘s Character Initiative, a program seeking to help foundations and business leaders re-envision the nature and shape of formative institutions needed for social and moral renewal in the United States. Her path-breaking guidebook, The Fabric of Character, was published in 2019. Anne is also a 2020 Emerson Fellow, a Trinity Forum Senior Fellow, and a Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a Houston-based think tank that explores how cities can drive opportunity for the bulk of their citizens. She has published widely, and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

Dhananjay Jagannathan wrote a gorgeous essay this week on the sociability of courage. Volunteering as a patient-intake registrar at a large vaccination site in Manhattan, he soon found his habituated fears of other bodies displaced by the symphony of service.

What I discovered was a deep well of solidarity, springing up here in my own community to nourish me. I did not know I had been in the desert. The eagerness of our mostly elderly patients, the compassion of the medical and support staff, and the dedication of my fellow volunteers—all these blend into an atmosphere of hope and the renewal of life.

The truth of our need for one another has been well-trod here at Breaking Ground. But Jagannathan takes it a step further to explore the social logic of virtue itself. “Now especially, we need one another to be brave.”

Quoting Plato, he writes that for someone to have genuine courage they need wisdom, a discerning eye for “what is worth fearing and what is worth daring.” He writes, “It will turn out the courageous person has a discerning eye for what is precious in human life and the times when even this must be given up.”

What will this discernment demand from our politics as the light dawns beyond pandemic times? What will it demand from us?

There have been undulating debates about the sustainability of liberalism these last few years: Can our institutions stand up to increasingly illiberal populations? Can scaffolding without a soul contain the growing homelessness of human longing? Does a philosophy based purely on procedure have what it takes to keep us if it lacks a robust conception of the good?

Jagannathan has his doubts. From the libertarian selfishness we see on the new right to the liberal complacency of the cosmopolitan we see in the center, any notion of the common good is thin at best, nonexistent more likely. He doesn’t say this, but the lack of consensus presents an invitation for people of faith as liberalism’s hand-wringers gaze down into a vacuous moral abyss.

“Neither the libertarian position, that courage is preservative of the self, nor the liberal position, that only some people in our society need courage, can make sense of the qualities of character the present crisis demands. As the ancient philosophers continually emphasize, the virtues only get their meaning from their social use. . . . What we need is collective and individual wisdom, the imagination to see ourselves as creatures who are vulnerable and called on to act in the face of this shared vulnerability.”