Forum Final Response
With Responses From
Feb 6, 2017
8 Min read time
The stage can bring us closer to real democracy.
I am grateful to these three fine responses, and I have learned from all of them. Because they raise such different issues, I will respond to them separately.
First, I could not agree more with Marta Jimenez that the choice I have in mind is the choice not only, or even primarily, of leaders. It is, as she eloquently says, the choice of every person thinking of how, on a daily basis and often in inconspicuous ways, his or her life can make a difference. I meant this emphasis, but I can see that I did not make it clear enough, so it’s good to have a chance to do so.
The Choice of Hercules is a choice made, in the myth, by Hercules, a hero. But the choice is put before every young person, and it is a perfectly general choice that does not require them to be heroic. Indeed, as I suggested, the myth’s focus on Hercules seems mistaken, because his heroism is muscular and not really moral. In consequence, he is not a good role model for the young. But in any case, the core idea is that each person, responding to a mythic model, must adapt that model to his or her life. In a similar way, Plato, in Republic II, III, and X, depicts Homer and the tragic poets as presenting models for the admiring identification of young people—and then, of course, he argues that all the existing models are very bad ones, and that only Socrates serves as an adequate model. Socrates was a hero too, but the idea is that all young people can figure out how to lead the examined life, with courage and moral discipline, in their own ways.
As teachers of philosophy we show students the virtues of the examined life and ask them to participate in it.
I believe that as teachers of philosophy to undergraduates, we do much the same: we show the virtues of the examined life, ask students to participate in it for a while, and then hope that they will take those virtues into their own lives, in whatever pursuits they choose. The figure of Socrates is important because it arrests people’s attention and makes them care more about the choice at stake. But the idea is not to be Socrates; it is to lead the life he shows us. Indeed this is why I love the liberal arts model: the Socratic virtues are important, not just for people who are likely to take a lifelong interest in philosophy, but for every person who aspires to live a good life as a person and a citizen, in whatever way.
I see the figure of Alexander Hamilton as functioning in a similar way. He is, of course, a leader. But in the musical he becomes an object of loving and admiring identification for a very diverse audience—despite his many flaws, which in a way make him closer to us all. I think this was Miranda’s intention, and I think he has brilliantly succeeded—in part through the casting, which tells members of the audience that to emulate Hamilton one needn’t be elite, white, or even male (since he strives to show women as intelligent and courageous political actors). I know people as young as ten to twelve who know every word of the libretto and who identify strongly with the characters, Hamilton in particular. (I note that ambitious young women tend, rightly, to identify more with the male characters than with the women, although they do like Angelica pretty well; and there is much discussion, in school plans to perform the play, of whether cross-gender casting will be permitted. Miranda has explicitly endorsed multi-racial casting for school productions, including white actors, but to my knowledge he has not commented on the gender question.) What these young people want is not necessarily to be leaders: it is to exemplify the political virtues of hard work, dedication, idealism, and courage, in whatever walk of life they will eventually choose. So I conclude that Miranda has admirably succeeded in making the characters available as challenges for everyone, perhaps a little bit ahead of where twelve-year-olds are now, but not impossibly remote. The reaction to such leaders is—as it should be in a democracy—not deference but bold creativity.
Kenneth Warren has written a brilliant essay on the aesthetics of Hamilton: I have learned a great deal from it and am grateful for the instruction. I did neglect the aesthetics of the work. I would just add that the musical, though in some ways a hiphop musical, as he says, is actually “mongrel” musically as well as formally, with its hilarious use of the Beatles for George III, cool jazz for the elite Jefferson, and the upstart protest-oriented hiphop for Hamilton and the revolutionaries. For me, the least successful musical aspects of the work were the more sentimental songs, particularly most of Eliza’s numbers, which reference big-money Broadway scores such as Les Misérables and the execrable, cliché-ridden output of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I always felt a letdown when things turned musically in that direction, as if love and longing could not be spoken in a more gutsy idiom. Why not, indeed, the blues?
Unlike Invisible Man, Hamilton suggests that there are paths we may follow to fulfill the unfulfilled promises of democracy.
Warren’s discussion of Ralph Ellison is instructive: I believe Miranda’s musical is much more optimistic than Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison shows his hero beginning with Hamiltonian optimism but being frustrated at every turn by false stereotypes of African American life. He is indeed “invisible,” even to the Marxist revolutionaries of the novel’s second half, and if he is ever seen at all, it is only by the reader. Ellison’s nonfiction writings sound a note of optimism about the possibility that through works such as his novel, a new understanding may eventually take root. In his later introduction to the novel, he says that a novel such as his may function as a “raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which our democracy may “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. The image of the raft references Huckleberry Finn, where the raft literally does function as a vehicle of interracial perception and hope for Huck and Jim, of entertainment and at least incipient perception and hope for the reader. Nonetheless, the hope remains a large question mark in Invisible Man itself, which is unrelievedly dark.
Hamilton, by contrast, is “scrappy and hungry” in a more hopeful way, joyful in its defiance, suggesting to its audience that there are paths they may follow to fulfill the unfulfilled promises of democracy. The casting itself is optimistic: all races may now be leaders. And even in the encounter with slavery, the musical focuses on the courageous resistance of Laurens and Hamilton, reminding its audience of a struggle that the casting shows to have been a success. Maybe it is too optimistic, but that was a conscious choice of Miranda’s, I believe, to nourish hope for the struggle ahead, rather than despair and passivity.
So I agree with Warren’s conclusion: the musical holds out hope that the stage can bring us all closer to real democracy. If only people could see it without being excluded by the monstrous ticket prices, a problem Miranda must energetically struggle to change.
It matters dramatically and emotionally that we believe we are seeing African American, Latino, and Asian American actors playing “our” founding fathers.
William Hogeland’s essay says some provocative things about historiography and about Alexander Hamilton, but I really do not see what they have to do with my essay. I am clearly treating the musical as a work of art that has its own ideas, albeit inspired by history, and I am treating it as a kind of parable of different political lives. Its historical rootedness matters for the identifications Miranda seeks to set up in the audience. It matters dramatically and emotionally that we believe we are seeing African American, Latino, and Asian American actors playing “our” founding fathers. But beyond that, literal veracity matters rather little, no more than it matters to a just appreciation of Shakespeare’s political ideas that he may have based too much on Plutarch and not studied a wider range of historical sources for ancient Rome. There are flaws in Shakespeare’s political understanding of monarchy and its relationship to the populace, and sometimes these do show up in a one-sided use of his source materials, particularly in Julius Caesar, where he gives Cicero and the republicans short shrift. But one could have seen those flaws had the play been a total fiction, since his disturbing ideas about the inevitable venality of the people are evident from the play alone. So I think Hogeland has mistaken the spirit of my essay, which has little or nothing to do with disputes about history. If I criticize Miranda for not including Hamilton’s pre-duel letter, it is simply because it would have powerfully reinforced his dramatic and philosophical point.
As it happens, however, and this is unconnected to my essay, I do have views about some of the current disputes among historians of the founding. In particular, I do believe that taking the philosophical ideas of the founders, and their close reading of both British and Continental philosophical sources, seriously is essential to good historiography of the period, although of course other sources are also important. It is surely wrong to think that such historiography must inevitably be conservative, since the founders typically used their sources in revolutionary ways. In The Ideological Origins of American Federalism (2010), the impressive young scholar Alison L. LaCroix has shown how understanding philosophical ideas of divided sovereignty that were known to the founders helps us understand at least three new ideas: the founders’ revolutionary demands for political independence from Britain; their conceptions of federalism; and their gradual formulation of the American version of the separation of powers. LaCroix’s use of philosophical materials was challenged by Gordon Wood on grounds similar to those Hogeland adduces here. But any rational reader who reads the exchange between Wood and LaCroix in the University of Chicago Law Review would have to agree that his attack was unsuccessful. And I note that LaCroix has written an eloquent and historically informed appreciation of Hamilton in The New Rambler Review. I warmly recommend it to readers.
February 06, 2017
8 Min read time