BOOK REVIEW — For Common Things

In 1999, Jedediah Purdy published a 207-page cultural and political commentary titled For Common Things. In 2013, Aaron Sorkin wrote two references to that book into a season finale of The Newsroom. And this year, I read and watched both works. In keeping with my tradition of belated book reviews, here are a few thoughts.  

For Common Things is an introspection on our national consciousness — a commentary not so much on society as on the collective, unseen attitudes that comprise it. Purdy casts the modern American as an “ironist” — a jaded individualist who refuses to hope; a dogged unbeliever in any promise, save the vague, unwieldy idea of human evolutionary progress toward nothing in particular.  

Purdy describes a profound lack of earnestness, or rather a mistrust of earnestness. Not quite cynicism but an unwillingness to engage hope.  

It is difficult to speak earnestly of personal matters, to speak earnestly about public issues seems perverse; not only naive, but wrongly or confusedly motivated.

The heroes of Purdy’s book are his parents who, in 1974, moved from white collar urbanity to the hills of West Virginia in order to, as Purdy’s father described, “pick out a small corner of the world and make it as sane as possible.” Against the backdrop of pervasive cultural irony, Purdy praises his parents’ simplicity, humility, civility, and commitment to place as a way toward valuing public spaces and common things. 

The book amounts to a defense of, at best, common law and, at worst, legislated morality, though Purdy’s moral appeals find their basis in preserving aesthetics more than upholding virtue. Things that sing are to be valued — conservation, cooperation, harmony, dignity. In a long jeremiad about a particularly troublesome form of strip-mining called mountaintop removal, Purdy sounds a prophetic note, but not a helpful one. His arguments are compelling if not quite air tight. He’s a hippie with an impressive vocabulary.  

But for all its dense theory and open loops, For Common Things offers real value in its insight into the modern collective psyche. Purdy’s descriptions of public life and thought are remarkably accurate 17 years after he penned them.  

In our most important moments, we inhabit a cultural echo chamber. The combined effect of ubiquitous television personalities, sanctimonious political pronouncements, and popular spiritualism has been to render cliche nearly anything that anyone would feel it important to say.
These are the conflicting moods of the time. We are skeptical, ironic, and inclined to an impoverished self-reliance. At the same time, we want to give up the ironist’s jaded independence and believe that we are not alone, that we can find moral communities, clear obligations, and even miracles. We doubt the possibility of being at home in the world, yet we desire that home above all else. We are certain only of ourselves — if in a somewhat precarious way — and we work toward the certainty of something larger. We are fragmentary, even masters of fragmentation, and we hunger for wholeness.

For Common Things is a treatise on the importance of shared values and shared work. And it’s a warning against those philosophies that would devalue either.  

Americans who came of age after 1974 have never seen the government undertake a large-scale project other than highway maintenance and small wars, and relatively few are inspired by the idea that it should. 
We are engaged in a gamble that turning away from public things will not jeopardize our private goods, that we are neither morally obliged nor practically beholden to common things.  
In the wake of an era when it has been common to hope for too much from politics, the greater and more dangerous temptation is now to hope for too little from public life. 

Purdy places our public pessimism in context of the political movements of history. After one description of modern American politics, he asserts: 

These, though, are very different from the questions of the past century. They ask, given existing institutions and political arrangements, “How shall we get there?” This is a technical question, however interesting and important. There is nothing here of the questions “Where shall we go? What shall we become?” which long made politics the site of the most basic moral question writ large.

I enjoyed For Common Things. Purdy, a Harvard grad and Duke professor, is clearly a deep intellect with important things to say. There are valuable lessons for the Christian here about stability, neighboring, community, and the importance of place. And the book is chock-full of pithy wisdom.  

In the end, there is nothing good that we can have alone. 
Understanding our dependencies is a key to understanding our obligations. 
The freedom to distinguish between good and bad poetry, regardless of politics, can sometimes be as compelling a recommendation as any for liberal democracy.  

I recommend For Common Things to readers with an interest in politics or philosophy.