Navigating Interstitial Spaces
“[T]he law permits the Americans to do what they please.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
The protection of virtue, I submit, requires an understanding of interstitial spaces—spaces where formalist adherence to rules and laws does not suffice to adequately promote virtue. Recognition of these spaces spawned agent morality and Aristotle’s practical wisdom. Fascination with these spaces fueled Alexis de Tocqueville’s inquiry into American religious, familial and political mores in Democracy in America. Though America’s formal, codified laws of the 1830s granted “dangerous freedom” to the individual, Americans managed to navigate interstitial spaces with assiduous virtue. This discussion will briefly connect threads from Aristotle’s Ethics, Plato’s Republic, and Pericles’ funeral oration to preface a more extensive examination of Tocqueville’s careful study of the institutions which reinforced virtue within America’s interstitial spaces. The conclusion will examine and evaluate the doctrine of “self-interest rightly understood” as the sole guarantor of virtue in the United States.
Aristotle, one of the forefathers of agent morality, understood that universal and formalist rules alone could not sustain virtue. Practical wisdom, “a truth-attaining intellectual quality concerned with doing and with the things that are good for human beings” allows the moral agent to operate virtuously in a context-specific way. “[I]t is not possible,” Aristotle writes, “without practical wisdom to be really good morally.” Obedience to fixed rules cannot govern action “to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, for the right reason, and in the right way.” In order to cultivate citizens of practical wisdom capable of operating in interstitial spaces, Aristotle advocated a rigorous education program, the cultivation of the proper desires, and the creation of good habits.
Given the arguments in my second seminar paper on Socratic citizenship, the comparison between Plato’s Guardians and Aristotle’s men of practical wisdom seems to be a reasonable one. Both Guardians and men of practical wisdom operate relatively freely in a moral system of substantive justice, with little reference to fixed principles. Plato’s discussion of democracy in the Republic and of obedience in the Crito, however, makes clear that he did not believe regular individuals could operate virtuously in interstitial spaces between fixed rules and principles. Plato feared a democratic expansion of liberty which would allow each citizen to “pursue a way of life to suit himself,” as this would unleash a torrent of subjectivism and a bastardization of virtue. As such, his ideal Republic employed absolute rule of the Guardians, noble lies and temperance (read “disinterest in political participation”) to close the interstitial spaces which would allow the clumsy subjectivism of the lower classes to operate. Emancipated from...