The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Essays

Dearly Beloved

The Apostolate of Randolph Bourne

Eugene McCarraher

Illustration of Randolph Bourne by Lyle Hehn; courtesy of the artist.

Randolph Bourne: a case study in two hermeneutics of political imagination.

“Do we not want minds with a touch of the apostolic about them and a certain edge?” Randolph Bourne asked readers of The Dial early in the spring of 1918. The question was personal: Bourne had watched in anger and bewilderment as John Dewey, his former mentor, recruited liberals to become enlightened managers in the human machinery of the “war-technique.” Dewey contended that the prosecution of the conflict now known as World War I, however repressive and brutal, would provide an invaluable laboratory for progressive social reconstruction. A few months earlier, Bourne had written a series of essays rebuking the Progressive intelligentsia for their willingness to wallow in the rising and rancid “sewage of the war spirit” and enlist their intellectual talents in the service of corporate business and the military—“the least democratic forces in American life,” he pointedly reminded them.11xRandolph S. Bourne, “Traps for the Unwary,” The Dial 64 (March 28, 1918), 279; “The War and the Intellectuals,” in The Radical Will: Selected Writings 1911–1918, ed. Olaf Hansen (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977), 307, 308, first published 1917.

Bourne learned swiftly that no good deed goes unpunished; on account of his fiery insolence, editors at formerly friendly journals such as The New Republic shunned him. By the end of the year, he was dead—ostracized, reduced to penury, and eventually claimed by the influenza epidemic that would kill more than fifty million worldwide.22xBruce Clayton, Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), is a useful overview of Bourne’s life and work.

Had he lived, Bourne would have been the avenging angel of what he called “malcontentedness,” the restive critical spirit that refuses any facile affirmation of or compromise with power. His critical edge has been sharpened and wielded by subsequent generations of malcontents. In the 1960s, Noam Chomsky and other opponents of the Vietnam War revived his indictment of intellectual obeisance to the state and rediscovered his analysis of the “war-technique” and its bland administration of slaughter. More recently, alarmed by the interventionist inclinations of many contemporary liberal intellectuals, Jackson Lears has recalled the antimilitarist Bourne who lamented that the modern “war-technique” stifles dissent, entrenches imperialism, and intensifies nationalist antagonisms.33xBourne, “Twilight of Idols,” in Radical Will, 346–47, first published 1917; Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in American Power and the New Mandarins (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1969), 5–8; Jackson Lears, “Pragmatic Realism and the American Century,” in The Short American Century: A Postmortem, ed. Andrew Bacevich (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 92–96.

This is the Randolph Bourne we know best, the one with “a certain edge”: the incisive critic and indomitable iconoclast, the enemy of falsehood, acquiescence, and evasion, eschewing cant and demolishing the idol of “the State,” the subject of a treatise left unfinished at his death. But there’s also the “apostolic” Bourne, whom we don’t know, or don’t know well enough, or have difficulty fathoming: the Bourne who heralded “the Beloved Community.”

He borrowed this term from fellow pragmatist Josiah Royce, who used it to name the desire for love and justice traversing history—a community, Royce wrote, “metaphysically defensible as an expression of the life and spiritual significance of the whole universe.” As the setting for “the good life of personality,” the Beloved Community marked, for Bourne, a felicitous convergence of personal fulfillment and democratic citizenship, the consummation of the Greenwich Village left’s bohemian marriage of cultural and political radicalism.44xJosiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity: Volume I (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001; first published 1913), xxvi; Bourne, “Trans-National America,” in Radical Will, 264, first published 1916; Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1997; first published 1965), 69–103; Casey Nelson Blake, Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), see especially 117–19; Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 209–22; Dwight Macdonald, “Randolph Bourne,” politics 1 (March 1944): 35–36; Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009, first published 1952), 263.

Bourne the iconoclast and Bourne the apostle provide a case study in two hermeneutics of political imagination: the modern hermeneutic of suspicion and critique, epitomized in Marx and Nietzsche, and an ancient hermeneutic of friendship and love, exemplified by Aristotle and Augustine. Like Bourne (by way of Antonio Gramsci), we live in an age when an old order is dying and a new one is struggling to be born; unlike him (and not by way of Gramsci), we dread that it may be little more than a never-ending interregnum of morbid symptoms. Because the symptoms require diagnosis, the edgy hermeneutic of suspicion remains a powerful instrument of political pathology. Bourne’s critique of militarism remains indispensable in an era of permanent but invisible war, and we should amplify and complement his irreverence toward the State with a kindred disenchantment with the Market.

But is “malcontentedness” enough? We need a regeneration of visionary grandeur by “minds with a touch of the apostolic about them” who can conjure a political imagination. True resistance to the cretinous evils of our day requires Bourne’s capacious conception of politics as the quest for a Beloved Community. The hermeneutic of suspicion is a necessary tool, but our politics needs a hermeneutic of love. As Alan Jacobs warns us, “Suspicion elevated to a cardinal principle…is the annulment of hope.”55xAlan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 90.

Although he was more iconoclast than apostle, Bourne can point us toward a politics of love. We might use what Bourne called “poetic vision” as a point of departure for transfiguring our increasingly malignant political culture. But as Bourne himself realized, a vision can do so only if it is more than poetic; unlike most of his Progressive and bohemian friends, Bourne realized that politics was ontological, even religious, at its deepest foundation.

If Bourne failed in his poetic apostolate, his attempt is nonetheless instructive: The Beloved Community is, in the end, a political sacrament of love. If the people perish where there is no vision, iconoclasm can be complicit in their demise; smashing idols cannot tell us what is worthy of our love, and critique cannot generate desire. Can we even envision a Beloved Community where nothing is lovable, let alone sacred?

An Exquisite Aptitude for Irony

Nothing in Bourne’s early life gave him reason to believe that the world was a welcoming place. His arrival on May 30, 1886, in Bloomfield, New Jersey, was bungled: The family doctor who delivered him mishandled the forceps and permanently disfigured the left side of his face. At age four he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which left him a dwarf and a hunchback. His father was a drinker and ne’er-do-well who could never hold down a job for very long. After he left the family, when Randolph was seventeen, the boy’s uncle, a prosperous lawyer, supported them with a stingy allowance. Even though Randolph passed the entrance exams for admission to Princeton, the parsimonious uncle refused to subsidize an Ivy League education for his nephew. Forced into the marketplace with severe disabilities, Bourne struggled for six years at a variety of jobs, working as a piano teacher, a piano tuner, and a piano roll perforator.66xThis account of Bourne’s early life is derived from Van Wyck Brooks, cited in Blake, Beloved Community, 14, and Bourne, cited in Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 78.

If Bourne had died at that point, his tale would have been that of the disappointed ambitions of a talented but impoverished youth. His trials clearly marked him with a sense of alienation, hostility toward business, and an exquisite aptitude for irony—all requisite qualities for a master of suspicion. In “A Philosophy of Handicap” (1913), Bourne portrayed himself as “a ragged urchin” who had been “asked to come and look through the window at the light and warmth of the glittering party.” “I was truly in the world,” he surmised, “but not of the world”—the self-understanding of the earliest Christians, and now the perfect standpoint for what Bourne would later dub “the life of irony.” Yet in seeing through the hypocrisy of convention, Bourne perceived that his urge to overcome his disability mandated a redoubling of conformity; “A very well-behaved boy,” he nurtured “a grim determination to succeed.”77xBourne, “A Philosophy of Handicap,” in Youth and Life (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), 345, 343.

Religion provided no comfort. As a young man, Bourne encountered the gamut of late-nineteenth-century American Protestantism, from the residue of Calvinist rigor to the theological banalities of liberal rectitude. Raised in the juridical Presbyterianism of his grandfather, Bourne endured its implacable morality and its equally tremulous biblicism; the Bible, he later remembered, was “a magical book that you must not drop on the floor.” Calvinism had little appeal to someone with Bourne’s combination of misfortune and intelligence, and by late adolescence he had become a spiritual wanderer. Unitarianism attracted him for a while. The meetings were “mild and healing,” but he eventually found them “a little too static and refined.”88xBourne, “The History of a Literary Radical,” in History of a Literary Radical, ed. Van Wyck Brooks (New York, NY: B.W. Huebsch, 1920), 21; “A Philosophy of Handicap,” 354.

Salvation from Bloomfield arrived when, in 1909, Bourne won a scholarship to Columbia University, where he became an intellectual sensation by writing for the Columbia Monthly and the Atlantic Monthly. Soon after his graduation he published Youth and Life (1913), a collection of his undergraduate essays. Many of them, written under the proximate influence of Dewey and the posthumous charisma of William James, demonstrate that Bourne’s youthful radicalism was bound up with a search for spiritual rejuvenation. Impatient with “the timidity and laziness of the old, who sit in the saddle and ride mankind,” he importuned his generation to reject the bourgeois stolidity of their Victorian elders—“This Older Generation,” as he lamented in the Atlantic in September 1915, whose “religion is on the whole as pleasant and easy as could be devised…it would be more accurate to say that they do not disbelieve.” Among the elders, religious zeal had given way to an insufferable ethical mediocrity “that will not disturb the normal routine of middle-class life.”99xBourne, “This Older Generation,” Radical Will, 161. First published 1915.

Bourne urged the younger generation to renounce these comfortably insipid pieties and pursue a transformation of the structures of their personal and collective lives: sexual equality and liberation, progressive educational reform, the replacement of capitalist exploitation with some democratic form of socialism. These were more than matters of “social justice” to Bourne; their achievement would foster “delight in a healthy, free, social life…[and] an artistic longing for a society where the treasures of civilization may be open to all.”1010xBourne, “Youth,” in Youth and Life, 12, first published 1913; “This Older Generation,” 161.

“Delight” and “artistic longing” suggested that Bourne’s radicalism doubled as a modern form of spiritual regeneration. “A numbness has stolen over our religion, art, and literature,” he observed in 1912. Science and industrial technology had mastered but also disenchanted the world, while the energies liberated from Protestant repression had no new morality or direction. Although the demise of Christianity afforded an exhilarating sense of deliverance from inhibition, freedom came with the daunting specter of disillusionment, confusion, and nihilism. “Emancipation of the spirit is insufficient,” he warned, “without a new means of spiritual livelihood.”1111xBourne, “Some Thoughts on Religion,” Youth and Life, 193, first published 1912; “The Dodging of Pressures,” Youth and Life, 267, first published 1913.

The Pragmatic Dispensation

Bourne’s search for that spiritual livelihood led to his undergraduate immersion in pragmatism. When Bourne matriculated at Columbia, the three most prominent pragmatists were James, Royce, and Dewey. Pragmatism itself featured two distinct but related tendencies: a “Romantic” pragmatism represented by the James of “passionate vision,” and the “instrumentalist” variant developed by Dewey. For James, the spirit of pragmatism could embrace, as he wrote in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” (1899), “your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer”; for Dewey, it reflected the nascent professional culture of technical, managerial, and scientific experts, indifferent or hostile to traditional philosophy as prescientific pablum.1212xWilliam James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in Talks to Teachers and Students (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1900), 247. The best intellectual biography of Dewey remains Robert B. Westbrook’s sympathetic but critical John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

As the name “instrumentalism” itself implies, philosophy was for Dewey the higher problem-solving, while reason morphed into a form of intellectual technology, an ensemble of recondite tools. When problems are solved, “happiness” ensues—temporarily, it turns out, since, as Dewey would write in Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), happiness has no value in itself. It’s an instrument for getting more happiness: “Happiness is found only in success; but success means succeeding, getting forward, moving in advance. It is an active process, not a passive outcome.”1313xJohn Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1920), 179–80. No dreaming or mysticism here, and certainly no insolvent loafing—just successful cognition enlisted in the project of endless Promethean striving.

It was Dewey who introduced Bourne to the pragmatist canon—the Dewey who, as the doyen of pragmatism after James’s untimely death in 1910, set it on a more scientistic, techno-philiac path than his predecessor would have found appealing. To Bourne, Dewey was the philosopher-eminence of modern industrial civilization. As Bourne asserted in a March 1915 New Republic article, Dewey had bestowed “a whole new language of meanings” upon an age of scientific and technological progress. While he still affirmed Dewey’s conception of reason—“a practical instrument with which we solve problems,” “our minds are simply tools with which we forge out our life”—Bourne characterized him as “a prophet dressed in the clothes of a professor of logic” articulating a philosophy that was at the same time “a great sermon.” Steadfast in devotion to the instrumentalist apostolate and its augury of an industrial millennium, Bourne avowed its technological evangel: “Happiness is control.”1414xBourne, “John Dewey’s Philosophy,” in Radical Will, 334, 332. First published 1915.

This was the “pragmatic dispensation”—“almost our American religion,” the moral and spiritual revitalization that would bring “delight” back into a world disenchanted by the forces Bourne and other Progressive intellectuals championed. A need to reclaim and renovate the old enchantment was evident among prominent Progressive writers, especially Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly—editors of The New Republic and serious students of pragmatism. “Modern communion” was Lippmann’s version in Drift and Mastery (1914), a recovery of the “old sense of cosmic wonder” to which “the old religions could point as their finest flower.” Croly studded both The Promise of American Life (1909) and Progressive Democracy (1914) with prognostications of the birth of some modern, democratic form of religiosity. Americans were on a “pilgrimage,” he wrote, toward a “holy city” or “consummate community.” Because the older orthodoxies were dead or comatose, democracy required a “progressive democratic faith” already arising among the better educated. “Like that of St. Paul,” Croly wrote, this “common faith…sanctifies those who share it,” auguring “the mystical unity of the human race.”1515xBourne, “Twilight of Idols,” 342, 343; Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest (New York, NY: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914), 283; Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1911), 411, 444–46; Croly, Progressive Democracy (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1914), 353, 409–10, 414–15.  Built with the sanctified tools of social science, progressive education, and industrial technology, the Beloved Community seemed nigh. 

Left in the Lurch

Then, in April 1917, the United States entered the war in Europe. Dewey supported the intervention as a historical windfall for progressive change. His arguments combined tough-guy swagger about “realism” (“squeamishness about force is the mark not of idealistic but of moonstruck morals”), credulity about the war aims proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson and the Allied Powers in general (the Allies, he asserted, were fighting “to preserve the liberties of the world and the highest ideals of civilization”), and an extraordinarily naive hope that the undemocratic institutional apparatus of war could be turned into a force for democracy and peace. The bureaucracies created to prosecute the war, Dewey contended, could be experimental laboratories for “democratic integrated control.” Needless to say, things didn’t turn out as he imagined. As biographer Robert Westbrook observes, Dewey’s thinking “was rooted less in pragmatic reason than in blind hope.”1616xDewey, cited in Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy, 201; Dewey, cited in Carol S. Gruber, Mars and Minerva: World War I and the Uses of the Higher Learning in America (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, 1975), 92; Dewey, “What Are We Fighting For?,” in The Middle Works, 1899–1924: Volume 11, 1918–1919, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 102. First published 1918. Westbrook’s judgment on Dewey’s arguments for the war is in John Dewey and American Democracy, 202. For a contrary but unpersuasive view of Dewey’s position, see James Livingston, “The War and the Intellectuals: Bourne, Dewey, and the Fate of Pragmatism,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2 (October 2003): 431–50.

Bourne was shocked and angered that his mentor could advance such dubious and gullible arguments, and his trilogy of anti-interventionist articles—“The War and the Intellectuals,” “A War Diary,” and “Twilight of Idols”—all published in the remarkable “little magazine” Seven Arts—remain models of polemical brio and incision. For Bourne, however, the essays constituted more than imperative political criticism; they amounted to a renunciation of religious faith. The last essay was, after all, about the decline and fall of idols. He experienced Dewey’s support for the war as a betrayal, “a sense,” in his words, “of suddenly being left in the lurch.” Stung by what he considered Dewey’s intellectual treachery, Bourne issued the most damning indictment imaginable: “A philosophy on which I had relied to carry us through no longer works.”1717xBourne, “Twilight of Idols,” 337–38.

“There was an itch,” Bourne wrote, “to be in the great experience which the rest of the world was having.” Dewey and other intellectuals, eager to be part of History, put their critical faculties on hold, dismissing skepticism about American intervention as craven or “unrealistic.” Unfamiliar with the ubiquitous and casual brutality necessitated by actual combat, Dewey and his compatriots had concocted a managerial and technocratic fantasy about warfare: that the demons it unleashed could be conscripted by the angels, that “war-technique” could be an education in peace, that terror and carnage and dispossession could be a school for mild-mannered liberal administrators. They told themselves that popular militarism betokened not the lust to kill, but “rough rude currents of health and regeneration,” and that, “trained up in the pragmatic dispensation, immensely ready for the executive ordering of events,” they—not the generals and industrialists—would actually determine the course and objectives of the war.1818xQuoted in Herbert Croly of the New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive by David W. Levy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 261.

Echoing Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” Bourne reminded progressives that “willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it.” “A good many people,” he said, targeting Dewey, “still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war.” But Bourne’s critique of Dewey went deeper—so deep, in fact, that it called into question instrumentalism itself. In “The War and the Intellectuals,” Bourne focused on “realism”—one of the most coveted pieces of artillery in any argumentative arsenal. The imperious rhetoric of “realism” with which liberals belittled critics was “so loud and sonorous,” he noted, “that one wonders whether realism is always a stern and intelligent grappling with realities.”1919xAll of the quoted passages are from Radical Will: “The War and the Intellectuals,” 313, 308; “Twilight of Idols,” 342, 345; “A War Diary,” 324.

Bourne suspected that “realism” was the ontology and epistemology of power, a weary capitulation to conditions masquerading as seriousness and maturity—“a mere surrender to the actual,” in his words, “an abdication of the ideal through a sheer fatigue from intellectual suspense.” Dewey’s advocacy of “realistic” and “responsible” support for the war was a dress rehearsal for all subsequent liberal deference to power: “If we responsibly approve,” as Bourne wrote, acidly summarizing his onetime mentor’s stance, “we then retain our power for guiding. We will be listened to as responsible thinkers.”2020xBourne, “The War and the Intellectuals,” 315–16. Thus, “realism” was not just a cognitive strategy in the ideological armory of power; it was also a play for access and influence among the new techno-managerial liberals. Either way, truth was subordinated to power.

In “Twilight of Idols,” Bourne took the criticism further, straight into the ontological void at the heart of instrumentalism. Although he never questioned Dewey’s fundamental decency or that of his liberal followers, he now thought that the instrumentalist ethos harbored a genteel but calamitous nihilism. Because Dewey’s disciples had “no clear philosophy of life except that of intelligent service, the admirable adaptation of means to ends,” they kept “sliding over this crucial question of ends.” Where do ends originate? How do we assess their worthiness or unworthiness? “There was always that unhappy ambiguity,” Bourne wrote, “as to just how values were created.” Pragmatists of the Deweyan persuasion—like most of their fellow Americans, Bourne added—“had been content with getting somewhere without asking too closely whether it was the desirable place to get.”2121xBourne, “Twilight of Idols,” 343, 345. Bowing down before an empty “practicality,” pragmatism had become a form of idolatry.

This was more than “a pragmatic critique of pragmatism,” as Lears and Westbrook have characterized it. While Bourne never explicitly repudiated pragmatism, the old flame of faith in “what was almost our American religion” had subsided considerably. Compounded by the exorbitant professional and personal prices Bourne was forced to pay for breaking ranks—many of his friends abandoned him, The New Republic assigned him fewer articles and reviews (he eventually resigned), the funding for Seven Arts dried up (partly on account of his essays), and Dewey underhandedly orchestrated his dismissal from the editorial board of The Dial—Bourne’s crisis of commitment was evident. Writing in The Dial in September 1918 (just three months before his death), he surveyed the war-wracked world and wondered if pragmatism had anything to offer it. He wasn’t at all sure. “We have a right to ask how this old unquenchable pragmatic optimism feels today,” he asserted. Proud that his philosophical preceptors had dispersed “a superfluous mysticism,” Bourne felt that “the morsels of uncritical pragmatism handed back taste a little stale and cold.”2222xLears, “Pragmatic Realism,” in Bacevich, The Short American Century, 96; Westbrook, “Bourne over Baghdad,” Raritan 27 (Summer 2007): 105; Bourne, “The Relegation of God,” The Dial 65 (September 19, 1918): 215.

“Giving Foolishness a Place ahead of Power”

Bourne ended his life an iconoclast; his unfinished but provocative essay, “The State,” is a rumination on the persistence of idols. Sounding more like Mikhail Bakunin than John Dewey, Bourne argued that the entire ideological and institutional apparatus of nationalism, bureaucracy, and representative government had become a surreptitious surrogate for the salvation once offered by the Church. The State is the “invisible grace” of which government is the sacrament, “the visible sign, the word made flesh”; it avows its own form of soteriology—“as the Church is the medium for the spiritual salvation of men, so the State is thought of as the medium for his political salvation”; and it relativizes or forbids all rival devotions—“the State is a jealous God, and will brook no rivals.” Its jealousy is so adamantine that it requires war as a ritual sacrifice; offering the individual an existential consummation through heroic death on the battlefield, war “achieved almost his apotheosis” and preserved the State’s own simulacrum of eternal life. So when Bourne declared that “war is the health of the State,” he was making a religious critique: War, as James had once written, was a “sacrament,” a material token of a spiritual reality, a Eucharistic parody in which human beings offered themselves up as the bread of life for the State.2323xBourne, “The State,” Radical Will, 358, 359, 367, 361, 360, first published 1918; William James, “Remarks at the Peace Banquet,” Atlantic Monthly 94 (December 1904): 847.

“The State” is an astute if incomplete act of intellectual apostasy from modern nationalism, and with a century’s worth of corpses since piled up on the altars of Mars, it seems prophetic rather than overwrought. But it remains nonetheless a critique—an exemplary performance of hermeneutical suspicion, a genealogy intended to expose and discredit the terrestrial origins of a spiritual fraud. “An analysis of the State,” Bourne observed at one point, “would take us back to the beginnings of society, to the complex of religious and personal and herd impulses which has found expression in so many forms.”2424xBourne, “The State,” 381. About that there can be no doubt, but the analysis would still constitute a disenchantment, the twilight of yet another idol. It remained unclear what “new means of spiritual fulfillment” would sustain the Beloved Community. 

Yet if Bourne left behind no blueprint, he gestured toward a sensibility, a way of seeing political life as embedded in a larger cosmological frame. Here, he was indebted to James—the Romantic visionary of pragmatism. Although James himself coined the unfortunate phrase “cash-value of an idea” to summarize pragmatism, he never conceived of “the new name for an old way of thinking” as crudely instrumental. “Philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic,” he wrote in A Pluralistic Universe (1909)—a lucid perceptual intensity that sees into the intangible heart of things, venturing beyond without abandoning the protocols of scientific rationality. And as he explained in “On a Certain Blindness,” our concentration on practical concerns and immediate circumstances induced a state of existential, even ontological, insensitivity. While we make a living and care for our families, “there is the old human struggle and its fruits together.” Lulled into a kind of darkness by the daily grind of our ordinary lives, “the jaded and unquickened eye,” James wrote, sees a world that is “dead and common, pure vulgarism, flatness, and disgust.” Yet there are moments when the battle and the futility abate, and we sense some “inner significance,” a “mystic sense of hidden meaning,” a “limitless significance in natural things.”2525xJames, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (London, England: Longmans, Green, 1910), 200; A Pluralistic Universe (London, England: Longmans, Green, 1920), 176; “On a Certain Blindness,” 252, 244, 243, 247.

How do we detect—and most important, commune with—this invisible and “limitless significance”? In one of the finest passages of his work, James beckoned to a greatness of soul in a way that rebuts all caricatures of pragmatism as philosophical camouflage for instrumental rationality:

It seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale. Only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation, an occupation which will change the usual standards of human value in the twinkling of an eye, giving to foolishness a place ahead of power.2626xJames, “On a Certain Blindness,” 247.

Later, in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1903), James anointed this occupation “saintliness,” a “feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests.” Saintliness, to James, was neither blissed-out piety nor an impossible state of moral innocence, but rather an ecstatic way of being in the world, dwelling in “rapture” and “ontological wonder” at the very fact of the world’s existence. James was well aware that the saint—like the mystic, the poet, the dreamer, and the loafer—was impractical and unpragmatic, “worthless as a practical being.” “You may be a prophet, at this rate,” James both exhorted and warned his readers, “but you cannot be a worldly success.”2727xJames, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (London, England: Longmans, Green, 1903), 266, 274; “On a Certain Blindness,” 247.

James’s cavalier eschewal of happiness defined as mastery of material conditions could not be more opposed in spirit to Dewey’s pedestrian instrumentalism—itself, by this measure, an especially philistine and insidious form of blindness, insensible to marvel, oblivious to joy, and enlightened only by the prospect of power through social reconstruction and technological prowess. Far more than a workplace, school, or laboratory, the world is charged with some ineffable grandeur—even if James was reluctant to say that it emanated from some divinity. Less averse than James to invoking theology, Marilynne Robinson has echoed his “ontological wonder.” “Personal holiness,” she writes, is “openness to the perception of the holy in existence itself and, above all, in one another.” If Romanticism is, among other things, a search for a modern sacramental imagination—“Reason,” as William Wordsworth exulted, “making of herself a prime Enchantress,” Robinson’s “openness to the perception of the holy”—then James was an unabashed Romantic.2828xMarilynne Robinson, “Onward Christian Liberals,” American Scholar 75 (Spring 2006): 49; William Wordsworth, “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement,” in Wordsworth’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Nicholas Halmi (New York, NY: Norton, 2014), 338, first published 1809.

The Unhappy Ambiguity

Some of Bourne’s early essays drew upon this Jamesian variety of Romanticism. In the May 1912 issue of the Columbia Monthly, Bourne vented “some thoughts on religion” (in an essay of the same name later collected in Youth and Life) that displayed a keen spiritual, even sacramental, sensibility. Echoing James, he mused that “the mystical must be resuscitated from the low estate into which it has fallen” on account of scientific knowledge and technological control. Enlightened but not fulfilled by these wonders, “this age thirsts for a revelation of the spiritual meanings of the wider world that has been opened to us.”2929xBourne, “Some Thoughts on Religion,” 196, 197.

Bourne then proceeded, like the James of “A Certain Blindness,” to defend a certain kind of traditional spirituality. People have long believed, he contended, that “outside of the qualities of concrete things, there lay a sort of infinite quality…the spirit of the universe, and they have called it God”—“that cosmic quality they feel as personality.”3030xIbid., 200, 201. While conceding that this feeling was anthropomorphic, Bourne thought it nonetheless credible, even true:

We are alive, and we have a right to interpret the world as living; we are persons, and we have a right to interpret the world in terms of personality…to those of us who sense behind our pulsing life a mystery which perplexes, sobers, and elevates us, that quality forms a permanent scenic background for our life.… As we go in the morning to work in the fields, religion is this enchanting view of the mountains, inspiring us and lifting our hearts with renewed vigor.3131xIbid., 203.

In “A Philosophy of Handicap,” Bourne expressed a similarly sacramental view; if there is a God, he surmised, He dwells “in the warm sun, in the kindly actions of the people we know and read of, in the beautiful things of art and nature, and in the closeness of friendships.”3232xBourne, “A Philosophy of Handicap,” 355.

Bourne’s sacramental apprehension of religion as “enchanting” could descend into therapeutic bromide. He called religion “a land to retreat into when we are battered and degraded by the dynamic world around us, and require rest and recuperation.”3333xBourne, “Some Thoughts on Religion,” 203. This is religion as opium of the people, tranquilizing the victims of industrial society against alienation and servitude. But by understanding religion not in terms of dogma, ritual, or morality, but as “mystery” and “enchanting view,” Bourne espoused James’s “ontological wonder,” the world unveiled through the passionate eyes of the saint, the mystic, the poet, and the dreamer.

This was the James invoked by Bourne at the beginning and conclusion of “Twilight of Idols.” “If William James were alive, would he be accepting the war-situation so easily and complacently?” While he might insist that the war be “gallantly played,” he would not, Bourne thought, vilify its opponents and relegate them to intellectual oblivion. With his “gay passion for ideas,” James became the model of Bourne’s band of “malcontents.” If, as Bourne insisted, we need in times of crisis “the creative desire more than the creative intelligence,” then we must cultivate “the vividest kind of poetic vision”—clearly an allusion to James’s “passionate vision” that overcomes the “blindness” induced by immersion in the world of our proximate, limited interests. Without this Romantic consciousness that sees some larger significance in the mundane, we remain sightlessly complicit in the given; “you never transcend anything,” as Bourne noted.3434xBourne, “Twilight of Idols,” 336, 343, 347, 344.

Yet Bourne’s invocation of James remains unsuccessful at overcoming the ontological and political impasse created by pragmatism. “Poetic vision,” Bourne appeared to believe, would complement the “malcontentedness” he upheld as the critical vocation of a new generation of Progressive intellectuals. Part iconoclast and part Progressive Siddhartha “with a taste for spiritual adventure,” the postwar intellectual would envision and forge new values to civilize the possibilities of modernity.3535xIbid., 346. Yet Bourne still could not explain how iconoclasm and epiphany could generate values without ontological warrant—an uncertainty that implicated James. Having abandoned traditional ontology, in part because of its antiexperimental and undemocratic implications, James, for all his ebullient intelligence, was as nebulous and evasive as Dewey about the origin and creation of values. But if what Bourne himself called that “unhappy ambiguity” could not be elucidated, then any “passionate vision” could never claim to be more than a vibrant personal zeal.

A Paradise of Losers

Rendered as “poetic” or “passionate” vision in the absence of traditional metaphysics, Bourne’s sacramental sensibility would indeed seem fanciful, even therapeutic. Yet return to the undergraduate Bourne—the spiritual wayfarer recently unmoored from a senescent Protestant Christianity, the pensive seeker who finds God in the beauty of the mountains and the kindness of friends and strangers. If we believed in the presence of this divinity, then the poetry and passion of the Beloved Community would be anchored in the nature of things; politics would be our collective endeavor to rely on the power of love. When Martin Luther King Jr. assured his fellow crusaders that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was not engaged in uplift or magical thinking; he was staking a claim about the essence of the cosmos: that justice is in the grain of the universe. Justice is not only a human achievement; as the subject of King’s dissertation, Paul Tillich, had written, it is “the form in which and through which love performs his work”—the love that Tillich believed, like Dante in paradise, moves the sun and the other stars. If love, to King and Tillich, was a power, not a sublime and difficult ideal, then politics could be a sacramental medium, an incursion of Beloved Community into the misenchanted realm of politics.3636xPaul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1954), 71. Two books that argue for love as a political virtue are Charles Mathewes, A Theology of Public Life (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), and Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), esp. 241–384.

The last great apostle of Beloved Community, King refuses the disenchantment of Max Weber, who advises those who sought the salvation of their souls to steer clear of political life.3737xMax Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (London, England: Routledge, 1948), 126. First published 1921. Weber’s rueful wisdom has its appeal, to be sure. “Love” is certainly absent from the political vocabulary of our venal and acrimonious time, dismissed as “utopian” or “unrealistic,” lacking in the worldly aptitudes sought by Serious and Responsible People. One doesn’t run a decent imperial plutocracy in the vulnerable vernacular of love; one doesn’t get rich, or upgrade technology, or climb the Jacob’s ladder of professional success by declaiming about agape and eros. By the pecuniary and technocratic standards of avarice, “progress,” and meritocracy, the Beloved Community would be a paradise of losers, unconcerned with the implacable and unforgiving metrics of accumulation, efficiency, and merit—the graceless trinity of instrumental reason that beguiles not only the powers and principalities of our age, but also so many of the desperate subaltern.

These are the regnant idols of the world, and if we desire to be righteous in their sight, then it’s foolish to ignore or blaspheme them. But if we desire, as James put it, to “change the usual standards of human value”—to restore ontological wonder in a world given over to blindness—we will need not only hammers to decimate idols, but also Bourne’s “enchanting view” of the universe. It’s a faithful realism echoed in the magnificent conclusion of C.S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory”:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.… It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.3838xC.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 46. First published 1949.

It’s hard to imagine two writers more politically incongruous than Lewis and Bourne, but the spirit of that passage—mystical, reverent, and democratic all at once—is a fearsome rebuke to every idol and injustice that desecrates this beloved world. It has a touch of the apostolic, and a little edge.