Cover image for Letters to Power: Public Advocacy Without Public Intellectuals By Samuel McCormick

Letters to Power

Public Advocacy Without Public Intellectuals

Samuel McCormick


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Rhetoric and Democratic Deliberation

Letters to Power

Public Advocacy Without Public Intellectuals

Samuel McCormick

“The category of the public intellectual is fraught with contradictions: politics and culture, theory and practice, philosophy and rhetoric. If only there were a genre to mediate these tensions to good effect. Letters to Power reminds us that there was, and is: the ‘minor rhetoric’ of the public letter. Samuel McCormick’s skillful readings provide numerous insights regarding the predicaments and strategies shaping learned advocacy. By focusing on things small and sly, he shows how public culture can be improved by careful thinkers doing humble work.”


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Letters to Power is the winner of the 2014 Franklyn S. Haiman Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Freedom of Expression and the 2012 James A. Winans - Herbert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address from the National Communication Association. Letters to Power is also the winner of the 2012 Everett Lee Hunt Award presented by the Eastern Communication Association.

Although the scarcity of public intellectuals among today’s academic professionals is certainly a cause for concern, it also serves as a challenge to explore alternative, more subtle forms of political intelligence. Letters to Power accepts this challenge, guiding readers through ancient, medieval, and modern traditions of learned advocacy in search of persuasive techniques, resistant practices, and ethical sensibilities for use in contemporary democratic public culture. At the center of this book are the political epistles of four renowned scholars: the Roman Stoic Seneca the Younger, the late-medieval feminist Christine de Pizan, the key Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, and the Christian anti-philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Anticipating much of today’s online advocacy, their letter-writing helps would-be intellectuals understand the economy of personal and public address at work in contemporary relations of power, suggesting that the art of lettered protest, like letter-writing itself, involves appealing to diverse, and often strictly virtual, audiences. In this sense, Letters to Power is not only a nuanced historical study but also a book in search of a usable past.
“The category of the public intellectual is fraught with contradictions: politics and culture, theory and practice, philosophy and rhetoric. If only there were a genre to mediate these tensions to good effect. Letters to Power reminds us that there was, and is: the ‘minor rhetoric’ of the public letter. Samuel McCormick’s skillful readings provide numerous insights regarding the predicaments and strategies shaping learned advocacy. By focusing on things small and sly, he shows how public culture can be improved by careful thinkers doing humble work.”

Samuel McCormick is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University



1 Minor Political Rhetorics, Major Western Thinkers

2 Remaining Concealed: Lettered Protest Between Stoicism and the State

3 Mirrors for the Queen: Exemplary Figures on the Eve of Civil War

4 Performative Publicity: The Critique of Private Reason

5 Distinction Turned Around: The Rhetoric of Unrecognizability

6 Oppositional Politics in the Age of Academia




Minor Political Rhetorics, Major Western Thinkers

It seems to me that we are now at a point where the function of the specific intellectual needs to be reconsidered. Reconsidered but not abandoned, despite the nostalgia of some for the great “universal” intellectuals.

—Michel Foucault

The Usable Past

When did “intellectual” become a noun? Isolated instances of the term date from 1652, but it did not enter into popular usage until the 1890s. The catalyst seems to have been the Dreyfus Affair—a decadelong political scandal surrounding the wrongful conviction of a Jewish artillery captain, Alfred Dreyfus. Among its defining moments was the 13 January 1898 publication of Émile Zola’s open letter to the president of France, in which the renowned novelist accused military officials of anti-Semitism and obstruction of justice. Support for Zola’s letter arrived a day later in a “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” signed by 1,200 artists, writers, and academics, all of whom, in an act of solidarity, now identified themselves as “intellectuals.” It was the radical political rhetoric of these educated elites—more than their artistic, literary, and scholarly achievements—that crystallized the social category of “the intellectual.”

Much has been written about the subsequent history of intellectuals in conflict with public authorities. But the history of these conflicts before the Dreyfus Affair has not been sufficiently traced. This book attempts to provide such a tracing. It is at once a genealogy of learned advocates prior to Zola and the Dreyfusards; an inventory of the persuasive techniques, resistant practices, and ethical sensibilities on which they relied; and, to this extent, a recovery of their status as rhetorically skilled and morally inclined political agents. My aim is neither to exhaust nor even to delimit the political tradition in which these educated elites participate. Instead, I attempt to bring several of this tradition’s key moments into alignment with one another, and in so doing to arrive at a constellation of situations and strategies in which to reenvision the political potential of today’s learned men and women. At issue in the following chapters, then, is not a comprehensive historical survey, but a version of the past that is useful to learned advocates in the present.

The utility of this past is nowhere more apparent than in today’s colleges and universities. From Russell Jacoby’s classic lament for The Last Intellectuals to Richard Posner’s more recent eulogy for Public Intellectuals, scholars have accused late-modern academics of relinquishing much of their former authority, especially in the realm of public affairs.1 So much authority, in fact, that many now doubt the ability of American academic culture to sustain anything like “the intellectual”—a political identity that continues to derive its meaning from open and often radical confrontations with the state. Although certainly a cause for concern, the scarcity of intellectuals among today’s academics is also a challenge to explore alternate, more elusive forms of political intelligence. And many of these forms, as we shall see, await discovery in ancient, medieval, and modern traditions of learned advocacy. Only by venturing beyond the historical and conceptual limits of “the intellectual,” I argue, can we begin to address the political predicament of late-modern academics.

In service to this argument, the following chapters focus on the political and theoretical writings of four renowned scholars: the Roman Stoic Seneca the Younger, the late-medieval feminist Christine de Pizan, the key Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, and the Christian anti-philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. What separates these educated elites from other figures in the history of ideas is also what connects them to late-modern academics: their use of epistolary rhetoric as a semipublic form of address in which to contest, without directly challenging, established figures of authority. Anticipating much of today’s online advocacy, in which educated elites have only begun to participate, their letters help us understand the economy of personal and public address at work in existing relations of power, suggesting that the art of lettered protest—like letter-writing itself—involves appealing to diverse, and often strictly virtual, audiences. As the public sphere continues to dissolve into the blogosphere, few modes of political contention could be more relevant to American academics.

Seneca perfected this subtle form of dissent in a rhetoric of withdrawal. Written at the height of Nero’s tyranny, his Letters to Lucilius (64–65 CE) are lessons in the art of abandoning abusive authorities without arousing their suspicion. Christine framed her protest in a rhetoric of exemplarity. Arriving on the eve of civil war, her letter to the queen of France (1405) is a masterpiece in the art of prodding without offending unpopular public officials. Kant’s correspondence with the Friedrich Wilhelm II (1794)—the occasion for which was a dramatic increase in state censorship—figures his opposition in a rhetoric of obedience. His letter suggests that rather than abandoning or provoking the authorities, the art of resistance consists in balking their commands without failing to obey them. And Kierkegaard’s missive to literate Denmark (1848)—which appeared amid a dramatic transfer of public authority from the monarch to the masses—is coded as a rhetoric of identification, the artistry of which involves aligning oneself with certain relations of power while simultaneously alienating others.

If indeed these persuasive techniques are relevant to learned advocates in the academic era, it is not because they comport with the political intelligence and ethical sensibilities of today’s educated elites. In fact, the rhetorical maneuvers and resistant practices of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard look nothing like those characteristic of our era’s politicized professors. And this is precisely why they are worthy of recuperation. Each is an antidote to one of four basic dilemmas of learned advocacy in late modernity. As we shall see, Seneca’s rhetoric of withdrawal counteracts the politics of desertion implicit in the specialized, disciplinary language of contemporary academics; Christine’s rhetoric of exemplarity challenges their tendency to rely on linear, abstract, and hyperrational forms of argument; Kant’s rhetoric of obedience offsets their Dreyfusard inheritance of overt dissent and radical opposition; and Kierkegaard’s rhetoric of identification short-circuits the Marxist standards of vanguard leadership to which many of them aspire.

In addition disrupting several norms of learned political culture, the epistolary rhetorics of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard also supplement their major theoretical writings, at once augmenting and intervening in many of their canonical works. Seneca’s letters amend his earlier discussions of political withdrawal in On the Shortness of Life (49–55 CE), On Retirement (61 CE), and On Tranquility of Mind (62 CE). Christine’s missive to the queen of France strategically excises certain passages from her well-known Book of the City of Ladies (1405). Kant’s correspondence with the king of Prussia poses a counterargument to his Lectures on Ethics (1775–80), his famous “Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’” (1784), and the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). And Kierkegaard’s address to the Danish reading public crosshatches the religious and political theories outlined in Two Ages (1846), Works of Love (1847), and Practice in Christianity (1850). To this extent, analyzing these figures’ letters to power allows us to recuperate forms of political intelligence other than those of “the intellectual.” Moreover, it gives us new access to a range of canonical arguments and characteristic attitudes in the history of Stoic, feminist, rationalist, and Christian moral philosophy. That many of these arguments and attitudes continue to inform the ethical sensibilities of today’s educated elites makes their reassessment all the more important.

In addition to these political and theoretical objectives, this book has a methodological agenda. By reconsidering the moral and political thought of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard in light of their letters to power (and vice versa), I hope to avoid traditional approaches to intellectual history, as well as two of their most formidable critiques: Marxism and deconstruction. In place of twentieth-century quarrels over the rhetorical and political unconscious of Western thought, I attempt to provide a line of inquiry into the overt political rhetoric of its key figures. In so doing, I hope to advance the cultural history of ideas and the broader, multidisciplinary tradition known as “the new cultural history.” Building on the work of microhistorians, new historicists, and rhetorical scholars—especially work that walks the line between intellectual and cultural history—the following chapters aim to return us to the great men and women of learned culture without the traditional, Rankean emphasis on their great ideas.

The Prolonged Letter: Addressing Power, Anticipating Publics

From lead tablets to Listservs, letters have often troubled the boundaries between intimate and impersonal forms of address. It is here, in these troubled boundaries, that Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard honed their skills as learned political agents. In publishing his apparently intimate Epistulae morales, Seneca was able to expand his audience from a single addressee—Lucilius Junior—to all of literate Rome. As chapter 2 demonstrates, he was especially keen to address two readers, both of whom he also aimed to resist: the Roman senator Thrasea Paetus, who had recently stormed out of the curia in protest against imperial corruption, insisting that his Stoic ethics obliged him to do so; and the emperor Nero, who, now jeopardized by Thrasea’s abstention, was compelled to deny other Stoics’ requests to retire from public life, including those of Seneca. Thanks to Thrasea, Stoicism had become the face of resistance, and in 62 CE—the same year in which Seneca attempted to retire from Nero’s court—adherence to the school’s doctrines became a criminal offense. Not even Seneca’s theoretical writings in support of public service and peaceful withdrawal could vindicate his request to retire. It was in response to these political circumstances that Seneca penned Letters to Lucilius. In addition to redeeming Stoicism as a compliant moral philosophy and discouraging other Romans from joining Thrasea, Seneca used his letters to begin a slow, piecemeal retreat from court life, at once revising his philosophy of public service and contesting Nero’s authority as emperor.

Christine’s 1405 letter to Queen Isabeau also insinuates public discourse in personal correspondence. Although addressed to “the Excellent, Revered and Powerful Princess, My Lady Isabella, Queen of France,” her letter was probably delivered by John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, a task that, in keeping with medieval epistolary conventions, would have required him to transmit its content orally. And John was not the only witness to Christine’s appeal. Another was his sworn enemy, the duke of Orléans, with whom the queen had recently fled Paris and, at the time of John’s arrival, was still abroad. The likely addition of these rival dukes to Christine’s audience is especially significant given the purpose of her letter: to legitimate and effect the queen’s intervention in their political quarrel. How Christine does this without offending the queen is the topic of chapter 3. Among her rhetorical devices was the exemplary figure. In reciting tales of admirable and infamous women—all of whom either successfully managed or failed to control unruly male figures—Christine suggests that, depending on how Isabeau exercises her authority as queen, the virtues or vices of these predecessors will recur, thereby writing her into the annals of history as an example of judicious or immoderate leadership. In this sense, the public audience of her personal letter was not only the dukes of Orléans and Burgundy, but also exemplary women throughout history, all of whom Christine positioned as judging witnesses to the queen’s conduct.

Kant also widened his audience for political effect. What began as a correspondence with the king of Prussia, the readership of which was limited to court officials, ended up in the preface to his Conflict of the Faculties, along with several explanatory footnotes in which he strategically reinterprets this exchange of letters for the general reading public. Four years earlier, Kant explains, he had received a royal dispatch ordering him to remain silent on religious topics, to which he responded with a promise to obey, this being his duty as “Your Majesty’s loyal subject.” Because his letter was addressed to the king himself, however, and because this regal addressee had recently died, he was now free to resume his discussion of religious topics. Thus, Kant used his preface to the Conflict as a public forum in which to reinscribe his correspondence with the king as an intimate exchange of letters, thereby justifying and concluding a lengthy period of silence in his philosophical theology. Chapter 4 explores the intellectual and cultural conditions, as well as the political consequences, of this maneuver. Of particular use to Kant, I argue, was the modern expectation that letters be personal, informal, and private. When coupled with late eighteenth-century challenges to “the king’s two bodies,” these epistolary conventions allowed him to sidestep Enlightenment norms of civic duty—many of which, interestingly enough, he had helped to establish with his philosophical writings.2

Unlike Seneca, Christine, and Kant, all of whom expanded their readerships by infusing personal correspondence with public discourse, Kierkegaard contracted the audience of his 1848 missive to literate Denmark by encrypting it with moments of private address. In addition to readers of the newspaper in which it appeared, his “Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress” had two specific addressees: the celebrated stage actress Johanne Luise Heiberg, with whom he hoped to align himself; and her widely reviled, elitist husband, Johan Ludvig Heiberg, against whom he hoped to oppose himself. In praising Fru Heiberg and critiquing her husband, Kierkegaard aimed to renew public interest in his own work, especially among middle- and lower-middle-class readers, many of whom esteemed the Royal Danish Theater almost as much as they enjoyed newspaper screeds against intellectual and cultural elitism. Despite its clarity of purpose, the execution of this promotional stunt was remarkably complex. Interestingly, Kierkegaard mentions neither of the Heibergs by name; nor does he identify himself as the article’s author, attributing it instead to the pseudonym “Inter et Inter,” meaning “between and between.” Only later, in a series of private letters to the Heibergs, did he reveal “The Crisis” for what it was: a missive to Fru Heiberg and, by extension, her husband. As we shall see in chapter 5, however, they were not its primary addressees. More than an open, albeit ciphered, letter to the Heibergs, the article was a calculated appeal to the emerging sovereign of democratic Denmark: public opinion. Thus, as a letter to power, its addressee was neither a crowned prince nor the cultured elite, but instead a mass society.

By troubling the boundaries between personal and public address, Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard all multiplied their audiences. In addition to individual recipients, their letters were written for wider publics. And among these wider publics were three distinct groups: auditors, witnesses, and eavesdroppers. Unlike addressees, who are known, ratified, and engaged directly (e.g., Lucilius, Isabeau, Friedrich Wilhelm, literate Denmark), auditors are known and ratified, but not engaged directly (e.g., Nero and Thrasea, the dukes of Orléans and Burgundy, Prussian court officials, Johanne Luise Heiberg). Witnesses are those who are known but neither ratified nor addressed (e.g., literate Romans, other members of the queen’s entourage, the Prussian reading public, Johan Ludvig Heiberg). At the furthest reach of this wider public are eavesdroppers, who are neither known nor ratified nor addressed, their identities being strictly potential (e.g., readers of this book, all of whom, from the vantage points of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard, were still to come).3 Here, as the intentionality of the writer gives way to an indefinite range of readers, the structural vocation of letter-writing becomes apparent: letters are always addressed and essentially nomadic. In keeping with the theme of this book, they represent a decisive interface between occasioned discourse (political rhetoric) and transhistorical exchange (learned culture).

Taken together, these four audiences—addressees, auditors, witnesses, and eavesdroppers—make up the participation framework of the letters discussed in this book. Interestingly, Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard all prefigured these audiences in their letters to power, actively anticipating the likely interpretations of each group. More than other major Western thinkers, many of whom also found themselves in correspondence with power, these letter-writers capitalized on the public dimensions of epistolary discourse, allowing the absent presence of wider audiences to inform and strengthen their arguments. The relevance of this persuasive technique to late-modern academics cannot be overstated, especially given their emerging role in online advocacy, where auditors, witnesses, and eavesdroppers often determine the significance of their discourse. “The idea of an imagined community has suddenly acquired a very literal, if virtual, dimension,” writes Edward Said of today’s new media environment. “All of us should therefore operate today with some notion of very probably reaching much larger audiences than we could have conceived of even a decade ago.”4 Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard were among the first learned political agents to master this rhetorical skill, and letter-writing was the medium of communication in which they did so.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the “absent presence” of their wider publics was merely spatial, as though the epistulae discussed in this book, like early Christian apostoloi, were simply “sent forth” or “sent out” into the world as substitutes for the proximal presence of their authors. Of more concern to Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard were the temporal aspects of letter-writing, notably the irreducible meantime between their letters’ composition, delivery, interpretation, and response. Although the spatial dimensions of epistolography may vary (a note on the kitchen counter being as likely to find its addressee as one mailed across town), these writers shrewdly realized that its relation to time never changes. Like all letters, theirs were addressed to the future. Because the public and personal affairs that were present to them as learned political actors would soon be past, they wrote in anticipation of moments still to come. For each, letter-writing involved imagining a not-yet-present from the standpoint of a will-have-been. Future anteriority, as we shall see, was the tense in which they contested, without directly challenging, established figures of authority.

If Christianity highlights the spatial attributes of epistolary culture, admonishing its followers to be “in but not of the world,” Stoicism accents its future anteriority, the oracle’s advice to Zeno being to “take on the complexion of the dead.”5 Seneca inherited this advice from Zeno and bequeathed it to posterity in his Epistulae morales, encouraging his readers to live each day as though it were their last, ever glancing back on their lives in advance of their deaths. Christine counseled the queen of France similarly, encouraging her to consider her emerging legacy before deciding whether to intervene in the Orléans-Burgundy conflict. Kant accepted this advice for himself, insisting that he prefigured the death of Friedrich Wilhelm—and thus a return to religious debates—in his promise to the king. And Kierkegaard even went so far as to consider “From the Papers of One Dead” as the subtitle of his address to literate Denmark—a prognostic throwback to his first publication, From the Papers of One Still Living, which he hoped would contribute to the restoration of his earlier fame as an aesthetic writer.6

The ethical and political implications of this tense are profound. “By considering oneself as at the point of death,” Michel Foucault observes, “one can judge the proper value of every action one is performing.”7 As both practical embodiments of this consideration and strategic pronouncements of the judgment with which it comes, the letters of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard warrant our attention—maybe even our imitation as well. For each, letter-writing was a uniquely foresighted medium of dispute, well suited to the tasks of conceiving, coordinating, and capitalizing on several personal and public relationships at once. With ample time for deliberation and design, these major Western thinkers were able to disrupt even the most exacting relationships—namely, those with established figures of authority, in which expressions of dissent were ever in need of careful adjustment to expectations of deference. That they staged these adjustments for a variety of auditors, witnesses, and eavesdroppers only added to their efficacy as political actors. Indeed, as the final chapter of this book indicates, their letters brilliantly illuminate the economy of personal and public address at work in contemporary relations of power, suggesting that the art of lettered protest in the age of academia, like the art of letter-writing itself, consists in synchronizing diverse, and often strictly virtual, audiences.

Rhetoric, Politics, and Philosophy Redressed

It is easy to locate Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard in the history of ideas. Their letters to power, however, are more difficult to place. This is not because they lack theoretical complexity, but because traditional approaches to intellectual history rarely venture beyond their authors’ canonical tracts and treatises. The history of this limitation is worth noting, for it provides a condition of possibility for the critical-historical method of this book.

Like Dante, who famously observed the “philosophic family” walking and talking its way through Limbo, intellectual historians have often seen themselves as eavesdroppers on this timeless discussion—as though the history of Western thought were, as Richard Rorty once quipped, “a family romance involving, e.g., Father Parmenides, honest old Uncle Kant, and bad brother Derrida.”8 What enabled this romance to continue, and thus to occasion scholarly comment, was the clarity, coherence, and continuity with which its participants transcribed their thoughts, bequeathing to posterity an immortal corpus of philosophical texts. In explicating these texts, so the argument went, intellectual historians could engage their authors in further discussion and debate. “We shall understand them best,” Karl Jaspers explained, “by questioning them, side by side, without regard for history and their place in it.”9

The twentieth century saw two great critiques of this attitude toward the “philosophic family.” The first was Marxist and leveled against efforts to subtract philosophical texts from their sociopolitical contexts. For critical theorists such as Lukács and Adorno, the distinguishing feature of philosophy was neither its timelessness nor its universality, but its function as a highly refined political practice, the structure of which was not ideational but ideological. In addition to acknowledging the likeness between ruling ideas and the ideas of rulers, philosophical inquiry needed to refute this historical trend, at once abandoning the torpors of bourgeois thought and reinstating itself as an agent of radical social change. For too long, they argued, philosophy and its practitioners—as well as many of its historians—had been allowed to sit back and interpret the world. Their task was now to change it.

The second great assault on the history of ideas was deconstruction. Unlike their Marxist predecessors, who attended to the historicity of philosophical texts, notably their sociopolitical conditions, deconstructive critics focused on the rhetoricity of these works, paying special attention to the figurative language, oppositional hierarchies, and counter-patterns of meaning at work in the texts themselves. Recalling Nietzsche’s famous critique of metaphysics, scholars such as Derrida and de Man sought to destabilize the idealist subordination of textuality to thought and, more broadly, language to consciousness. Inscribed in the discourse of philosophy they found an economy of metaphors, the unruliness of which, they claimed, was what inspired Plato and his heirs to consider their discipline external to its own language. More than proprietors of ideas, philosophers were to be disclosed rhetoricians in denial. And more than vehicles for conscious ideality, their writings were to be revealed as elaborate efforts to control the disfiguring influence of figuration itself.

Revelations of this sort did not come cheap. In the wake of Marxist and deconstructive critiques, members of the “philosophic family” could be treated as political actors only so long as they remained circumscribed by texts bearing the recognizable marks of “philosophy.” Only insofar as they could be shown to struggle for clarity, coherence, and continuity in arguments addressed to a timeless readership was it possible to disclose the rhetorical and political agency of which these thinkers were unaware. As the history of Western thought came to resemble a mechanism of false consciousness, so also did the study of its key figures come to function as a lifeless, surgical procedure. “Cut open the patient with the critical scalpel and operate under impeccably sterile conditions,” Peter Sloterdijk complained in the early 1980s. “The opponent is cut open in front of everyone, until the mechanism of his error is laid bare. The outer skin of delusion and the nerve endings of ‘actual’ motives are hygienically separated and prepared.”10

In maintaining the sterility and ensuring the success of their procedures, Marxist and deconstructive treatments of philosophy encouraged scholars to minimize, and at times to preclude, the possibility that many “philosophers” were well aware of the rhetorical and political functions of their theoretical works. According to Leo Strauss—one of the most striking, and sometimes strident, scholars to consider this issue—philosophers have “always and everywhere” written with an awareness of their political circumstances. They have often relied on a persuasive technique known as “philosophic politics,” the purpose of which is to convince the public that “philosophers are not atheists, that they do not desecrate everything sacred to the city, that they reverence what the city reverences, that they are not subversives, in short, that they are not irresponsible adventurers but good citizens and even the best of citizens.”11

In order to fulfill this task without abandoning their discipline, Strauss went on to argue, philosophers also have a tendency to engage in “a peculiar technique of writing, and therewith to a particular type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines.”12 Thus, more than sites of unwitting rhetoric in need of deconstruction or moments of political contradiction in need of Marxist critique, canonical works of philosophy were strategically polysemous texts in which to analyze and admire the persuasive artistry of major Western thinkers, notably the skill with which they conveyed unorthodox views to potential sympathizers while simultaneously concealing these views from established figures of authority.13

Despite their many disagreements, Straussians, Marxists, deconstructionists, and early intellectual historians shared a common interest in canonized works of philosophy. From the dialogues of Plato to the commentaries of Aquinas to the meditations of Descartes to the arithmetics of Frege—the pantheon of “classic texts” to be commemorated by historians of ideas, profaned by their Marxist and deconstructive critics, and memorialized anew by Straussian scholars was extensive. But it was also exclusive. As revisionist historians like J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner pointed out, it was a mistake to limit the history of thought to the discourse of theory. The proper object of study, they argued, was nothing less than all the linguistic practices characteristic of any given political culture. Their unlikely ally, Michel Foucault, took this argument a step further, abandoning the history of ideas in search of the rules of formation according to which it—and a variety of other statements (énoncés)—could be shown to operate. To the extent that anything resembling the discourse of philosophy remained, it was to be studied alongside other, more ordinary discursive practices and institutions.

Among the “non-philosophy” that Pocock, Skinner, and Foucault have enabled us to study, but which we have yet to explore, is the overt political rhetoric of philosophers themselves. Public speeches, personal correspondence, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, political activism, and the like—for too long, intellectual historians and their critics have either ignored these noncanonical works or relegated them to biographical anecdotes, not realizing that although all were addressed to situated lay audiences, many of these works were also crafted alongside, in terms of, and frequently in tension with their authors’ canonical writings.

Much has been lost along the way. In disavowing the overt political rhetoric of philosophers, we have forgone numerous opportunities to document the political speech and action of those who have made thinking their profession—not only iconic members of the “philosophic family” but also contemporary members of academic culture. And by confining this discourse to biographical accounts, we have forfeited an array of resources for studying the complex, and occasionally explosive, relationship between educated elites and their political cultures. The following chapters are an attempt to recover some of these opportunities and resources. By mediating the philosophical texts and historical contexts of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard through their letters to power, I hope to shed new light on the theoretical programs out of which these letters emerged, as well as the public controversies in which they intervened—all along the way illuminating modes of political intelligence and persuasive artistry available to late-modern academics.

Casuistic Stretching

Methodologically, this line of inquiry takes its start from Walter Benjamin, who premised his attitude toward history on a simple axiom: “Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” For Benjamin, historiography was an exercise in the recovery of an “oppressed past,” the success of which depended on an ability “to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history,” and frequently involved the more exacting task of “blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework.” When properly sparked, Benjamin claimed, detonations of the later sort would result in an intertextual Aufhebung: “The lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled.”14

It is here, in the use of forgotten speech and action to sublate an author’s famous lifeworks, that the critical-historical method of this book becomes legible. But make no mistake: In foregrounding the letters of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard, my aim is neither to canonize these “minor” works nor to attenuate, and thereby to devalue, the “major” lifeworks of their authors. Rather, I attempt to destabilize the hierarchy in which “major” and “minor” texts derive their significance. Instead of allowing the traditional philosophical opposition between thought and action, principle and politics, to determine the meaning of their epistles, I read them as persuasive appeals that, while still anchored in this venerable opposition, are no longer simply subordinate to it.15

Taken together, these appeals constitute a “minor literature,” the function of which is to deterritorialize, without in turn abandoning, the learned traditions in which their authors participate. More specifically, they constitute a “minor rhetoric.”16 What qualifies the epistolography of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard as a rhetoric is its supply of persuasive techniques, resistant practices, and ethical sensibilities available to other educated elites, be they philosophers or fiction writers, scientists or spiritual leaders, contingent instructors or coffee-house intellectuals. What defines it as a minor rhetoric is not the marginalization of these various practitioners, all of whom, after all, are distinguished by the linguistic and cultural capital of “learnedness.” Rather, it is their investment of this capital in political speech and action, a leveraging of sorts that stretches tensors through the discourses of science, religion, philosophy, aesthetics, and the like, effectively “minoritizing” the major languages from which they derive their authority to speak and act.

Consider Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard. In addressing letters to power, they neither exposed philosophy as a mode of politics (Marxism) nor unmasked its initiates as rhetoricians in disguise (deconstruction). Instead, they displaced themselves and their letters—and by extension their addressees, auditors, witnesses, and eavesdroppers—from the history of ideas to its rhetorical and political outer limits, where the protocols of this tradition could be set in variation, yielding subsystems or outsystems of public discourse. For each, letter-writing was not a rejection of their major language but rather its minor political practice—a becoming-minor-and-political of the Stoic, Feminist, Enlightenment, and Christian philosophies for which they were already well-known.17 In recuperating this minor political practice, I hope to make it available to learned advocates in the age of academia, at once enabling and encouraging them to translate the discursive formations from which they derive linguistic and cultural authority into opportunity structures for political speech and action. If indeed, as Foucault insists, “the function of the specific intellectual needs to be reconsidered,” we must begin by mapping and traversing fields of possible conduct between today’s learned and political cultures.18

From what, then, do I propose to recover the minor political rhetoric of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard? “Not only, and not in the main, from the discredit and neglect into which they have fallen,” Benjamin knowingly replies, “but from the catastrophe represented very often by a certain strain in their dissemination, their ‘enshrinement as heritage.’”19 Interestingly, what protects their letters to power from oblivion is also what guards them against canonization: their undecidable allegiance to both the bios politikos and the bios theōrētikos. Seneca’s letters to Lucilius, Christine’s epistle to the queen of France, Kant’s correspondence with Friedrich Wilhelm II, Kierkegaard’s newspaper address to literate Denmark—all are productively split between the exigencies of specific historical events and the prescripts of broader moral theories, public controversies in which their authors were compelled to intervene and ethical sensibilities for which they were already famous.

The result is a kind of “casuistic stretching,” whereby their letters introduce and instantiate new principles of conduct while simultaneously attempting to maintain earlier ethico-political agendas.20 Seneca’s rhetoric of withdrawal develops a new concept of retirement (otium) atop his earlier Stoic philosophy; Christine’s rhetoric of exemplarity provides an alternate take on her own feminist critique of patriarchy; Kant’s rhetoric of obedience exploits a loophole in his categorical rebuke of lying; and Kierkegaard’s rhetoric of identification adds political intelligence to his theory of indirect communication. In each instance, we see a cagey, and at times fractious, articulation of moral theory and political practice, in terms of which each causes the other to stammer, insinuating in their historically separate places “a regulated, continuous, immanent process of variation.”21 To recover the minor political works of these major Western thinkers is thus to recover lines of conduct in which right living and realist politicking are no longer mutually exclusive.

But we were discussing Benjamin. Between his critical-historical method and that of this book are two intermediate lines of inquiry—microhistory and new historicism—both of which inform the following chapters. Like microhistory, my reading strategy focuses on circumscribed events, individual lives, and minute political actions, especially as they intersect with and within broader social structures and latent economies of signification. And like new historicism, my reading strategy attempts to generate unusually intense, nuanced, and sustained interest in these minute political actions in hopes of redirecting scholarly attention from canonized works to a broader and less familiar range of texts. Unlike either of these methodological predecessors, however—both of which tend to feature the remarkable achievements of marginalized and often untaught political subjects—the critical-historical method of this book centers on the great men and women of learned culture and yet in such a way that avoids the traditional emphasis on their great ideas. It is their minor political activities more than their major philosophical agendas that interest me.

In this sense, there is more at stake in the methodology of this book than a line of escape from the history of ideas and its Marxist and deconstructive critiques. With this escape comes an opportunity to advance the new cultural history—the broader, multidisciplinary tradition of inquiry in which microhistory and new historicism participate. More important, the methodology of this book allows critical inquiry to transgress one of the remaining frontiers between intellectual and cultural history—namely, the ill-defined relationship between major works of Western thought and the minor political engagements of their authors. By defining this relationship, I hope to strengthen and substantiate hybrid methods such as the cultural history of ideas. In particular, I hope to supplement these methods with reading strategies characteristic of rhetorical scholars. Building on the work of Ernest Wrage, a seminal critic and theorist of public address, I read the minor political rhetoric of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard as a kind of “fugitive literature,” the significance of which has long been obscured by our “exclusive devotion to monumental works,” notably “major works in systematized thought.”22 By explicating literature of this sort, Wrage claimed, rhetorical scholars could bridge the gaps between intellectual and cultural historiography. Evidencing this claim is among the primary tasks of this book.

The Order of Things

By focusing on the political correspondence of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard, I do not mean to suggest that they are the only major Western thinkers to have written letters to power worthy of analysis. Isocrates’s missives to Philip of Macedon, Laura Cereta’s dispatch to Bibulus Sempronius, Francis Bacon’s exchange of letters with the earl of Essex, Descartes’s correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia—all could have found their way into this book. Nor do I mean to suggest that the study of minor political works by major Western thinkers ought to stop at the analysis of their letters. Theocritus’s poetry, Aquinas’s sermons, Fichte’s speeches, Kafka’s office writings, Benjamin’s radio broadcasts—all lend themselves to the critical-historical method of this book. In each case, we see a network of political intelligence, persuasive artistry, and moral thought that is at once subtracted from the tradition of “the intellectual” and relevant to contemporary men and women of letters.

I also should note that, even though the following studies proceed chronologically, I do not mean to suggest a philosophical progression from Seneca to Christine to Kant to Kierkegaard. Rather, I have organized these learned political agents according to their rhetorical maneuvers. The result is a loosely dialectical sequence of chapters. Seneca’s rhetoric of withdrawal offers advice on how to extricate oneself from hazardous political disputes. Christine’s rhetoric of exemplarity provides an incentive to intervene in them, as well as a linguistic device for encouraging others to do the same. Kant sublates both of these techniques in his rhetoric of obedience, preparing readers then and now for the difficult task of withdrawing from hazardous political disputes in order to return to them later. And Kierkegaard perfects this reentry maneuver in his rhetoric of identification, effectively reinstating Kant’s mediation of Seneca and Christine as the immediate basis for a new dialectic, the animating force of which is not a classical Stoic longing for philosophical leisure but a modern, democratic urge for public discussion and debate—the same urge that Zola and his intellectual heirs would later harness for purposes of moral protest.

In this sense, Kierkegaard’s rhetoric of identification is at once the final moment in the dialectic of this book and the first moment in a new dialectic, the vitality of which would not become apparent until the Dreyfus Affair. It is a synthesis-turned-thesis in which the political detachment prized by Seneca and endured by many of today’s academics has given way to an unwavering demand for its opposite. At issue in the following chapters, then, is not a systematic return to yesterday’s intellectuals but several preliminary strides toward new forms learned advocacy. Between today’s academics and tomorrow’s intellectuals, I suggest, are four specific modes of political intelligence, each of which, although anchored in circumstances prior to the Dreyfus Affair, is replete with persuasive techniques and ethical sensibilities for use in the interim between contemporary academic life and intellectual cultures still to come—a time when learned advocacy continues to suffer from jargon-clotted vocabularies, hyperrational forms of argument, nostalgia for radical dissent, and ideologies of vanguard leadership.

In addition to conceptualizing the rhetorics of withdrawal, exemplarity, obedience, and identification, I hope to heighten our awareness of the situations in which to deploy them. To be sure, imperial Rome, feudal France, Enlightenment Prussia, and Golden Age Denmark look nothing like contemporary democratic public culture. But the specific rhetorical situations in which Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard intervened bear a striking resemblance to those in which late-modern academics now find themselves. As systems of tenure continue to devolve into economies of contingent labor, and traditions of shared governance continue to buckle under the weight of corporate managerial styles, the ivied walls of the modern university have begun to crumble, exposing contingent instructors and tenured professors alike to administrative, industrial, governmental, and populist abuses of power.23 It is here, in this complex system of authority, that the rhetorical situations discussed in this book find their late-modern analogues. The disempowerment of the Roman Senate and the concentration of executive power during Nero’s reign parallel the increasing circumvention of elected faculty governance by centralized college administrations.24 The ducal attempt to privatize and profit from the king’s public authority in late-medieval France resembles the privatization and exploitation of the university’s traditionally public services (knowledge production and dissemination) by powerful corporate sponsors.25 The acceleration of state censorship in conservative Prussia during the French Revolution accords with post-9/11 attempts by the national security state to monitor and regulate outspoken scholars at home and abroad.26 And the outburst of populist reason and anti-intellectual sentiment in nineteenth-century Denmark mirrors the ongoing effort of right-wing advocacy groups to incite public opinion against “tenured radicals.”27

Many of today’s academics have learned to live with these abuses of power, resigning themselves to “the necessity for constant, disabling wariness and for intellectual choices shaped by estimates of personal and political vulnerability.”28 But this does not mean they are incapable of dissent. It just means that their persuasive techniques and resistant practices are likely to be more subtle and indirect than those of the public intellectual. Even as early as 1902, in an essay on “Academic Freedom,” John Dewey realized the importance of subtlety and indirection to politically engaged academics. Consider, for instance, ongoing efforts to counteract the commercialization of knowledge. Instead of allowing our critiques “to rasp the feelings of everyone exercising the capitalist function,” Dewey explains, we might phrase them so as “not to excite the prejudices or inflame the passions even of those who thoroughly disagreed.”29 Not since the McCarthy era has this subtle form of political contention—“the technique of protective coloration,” as one of Dewey’s commentators famously described it—been more crucial to the public and professional lives of American academics.30 In an age of willful college administrators, avid corporate sponsors, paranoid government officials, and overzealous advocacy groups, Dewey’s words continue to echo through the halls of academe: “Watch what you say.”31

What this means for learned political action in late modernity is the subject of my final chapter. In service to recent depictions of American academics as “legitimists in some areas of political discourse and action, and contesters in others,” I suggest that one of the defining features of their resistance is its undecidability, specifically its habit of toggling indeterminately between rhetorics of deference and dissent, resulting in ambiguous and at times inconsistent articulations of personal, professional, and public interests.32 To illustrate this curious form of political contention, I consider the “thinking man” in Bertolt Brecht’s Stories of Mr. Keuner, notably the relationship between Mr. Keuner, his students, and his superiors. At stake in this relationship, I argue, is a mode of resistance by which today’s academics can position themselves in and against existing systems of authority, tactfully yet effectively mobilizing certain power relationships in order to oppose others. In theorizing this oppositional technique, I hope to provide a summative, albeit still incomplete, answer to the question that led me to the letters of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard: How can learned men and women in the age of academia, when the tradition of “the intellectual” has been reduced to ruins, pose a meaningful challenge to abusive figures of authority?