Myodicy, Issue 25, January 2006

Existential Philosophy
of History:
The Case of Bill Clinton

by Theodore Plantinga

When you take a university course in introduction to philosophy, you usually encounter Socrates, who is presented as a hero of sorts. Various inspiring and amusing sayings are attributed to him, one of which is that the unexamined life is not worth living. Comedians sometimes respond by observing that the examined life is not exactly a bed of roses either.

While some philosophers approach the students in their introductory classes in a dry and analytic manner, many try to make philosophy live and breathe. They may use heady words like "existential" and "existentialism" in an effort to make the point that for many of the greatest thinkers of all time, the enterprise we call philosophy was not a mere academic pursuit or some arcane branch of science but was the key to right living. And so the kind of person your philosophy professor would like you to become is one who reflects deeply on life, keeping track of what is happening on the personal level, discerning larger patterns, and weighing it all within some sort of moral -- and perhaps even spiritual -- framework. It all sounds so grand!

If there is one discipline within philosophy that encourages us to idealize the life of reflection, it would be philosophy of history, which is my field of academic specialization. Yet the phrase "existential philosophy of history" will sound strange to many people who are schooled in philosophy. The reason, I suspect, is that many of us have it in our heads that only Thomas Carlyle's "Great Men" are entitled to think of themselves as participating in History (note the capital H). The rest of us lead lives of relative insignificance and can rest assured that we will be forgotten not long after we have passed on.

I have always opposed this attitude in my philosophy of history classes. I maintain that the dynamics underlying genuine historical consciousness are present in the lives of each one of us, however unimportant we may seem to our neighbors. And so I present my own work in this field -- or some of it, at least -- as an example of existential philosophy of history. Indeed, my book How Memory Shapes Narratives [NOTE 1] can be described as a prime example of existential philosophy of history. It takes seriously the possibility of living in anticipation of one's own pastness and tries to work out some of the thought patterns and modes of reflection that such an existential posture would entail. Moreover, the book is existential in that it suggests that we not only reflect to the point of seeing new patterns and possible redescriptions of our own lives and actions but even take action in the present with an eye to how the reporting of the action we now take will make possible an interesting narrative redescription of actions in our past. Existential philosophy of history is by no means a mere academic exercise and is not limited to thought.

Of course there are dangers connected with such reflective activity. Everything we do is stained by sin. Hence, as we ponder our own lives as small historical dramas, of which we are the privileged narrators, we cannot help but fall into self-justification. I believe that a degree of self-justification is perfectly normal and even healthy, but I acknowledge that it can easily get out of hand and turn to deception and outright lying. Therefore, when we undertake to put existential philosophy of history into practice, we find ourselves needing to reflect on the criteria to which we would appeal in trying to ascertain whether a given historical mini-narrative can lay claim to being true.

I would love to proclaim my existential philosophy of history to be nothing more or less than the truth about the historical dimension of human existence, but I am painfully aware that since philosophical theories are born out of personal experience, they tell us a great deal about their authors but do not necessarily transfer well to the lives of other human beings. And so it is possible that the existential philosophy of history outlined in my book How Memory Shapes Narratives basically presents us with Theo writ large. It might not be a good portrait of another fella, for example, someone named Bill.

Before I get around to saying more about Bill, I should draw your attention to an intellectual phenomenon which many philosophers bemoan as the great enemy of historical consciousness. I am speaking of postmodernism. This philosophy -- strictly speaking, it is much more than a philosophy -- seems to do away with narratizing and moralizing and historicizing. When I say that it is more than a philosophy, I mean to say that it is a reflection of how people do live and operate nowadays. (Whether it is wise and appropriate for them to do so is another matter.)

Therefore it does not suffice to say that postmodernism is yet another "ism" that we can neatly copy into our notebooks while the professor in our Christian college is describing it and then file it away in our minds as one more humanistic philosophy in which we as Christians do not believe. I maintain that postmodernism is to some degree a reflection of our culture. It is how we live nowadays -- but not all of us to the same degree.

On the philosophical front, postmodernism may be best known for its frontal assault on the concept of the self. How can a person make sense of his own life without postulating some core of unity and identity along the lines of that mysterious something-or-other to which we have traditionally referred by speaking of "the self"? However long I ponder this question, the answer eludes me. Yet Walter Truett Anderson assures us: "Psychologists are converging from several directions on the idea of the unitary self as a model of mental health, and saying instead that the healthy person is more a posse than a Lone Ranger." [NOTE 2]

Anderson's intriguing observation is not to be dismissed lightly, for there are people who seem to manage it successfully. Nowadays, in the chat rooms that the internet makes possible, one and the same person (yes, I know, old-fashioned terminology!) may pop up in various different guises, enjoying multiple identities, and deceiving people through the use of those identities. Some of us are shocked and outraged at such conduct, thinking that men should be men and women women (gender is a matter of choice in such situations), whereas others regard it as normal. Times have changed.

Call me old-fashioned, if you like, but for me the whole business brings to mind some chilling words from the Bible: "My name is legion, for we are many." In case you don't recall the context in which these words appear, let me remind you. The chapter is Mark 5, where Jesus encounters "a man with an unclean spirit." We are told: "Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones." Jesus sends the "unclean spirit" out of him and asks him his name. The haunting answer is: "My name is legion, for we are many."

My gut-level uneasiness with postmodernism and its embrace of "legion" as a mode of being-in-the-world is also reflected in the way I respond to certain movies of the last decade or two. Because my students know I love movies, I often get movie recommendations from them. Sometimes I'm disappointed in what they get me to watch: I tell myself it's another one of those confusing postmodern movies that no one could possibly follow. A movie should tell a story, and its plot details should be thought out carefully and worked through precisely. The kind of director who insists on exercising very strict control over what appears on the screen should be in full charge of a movie -- someone like Alfred Hitchcock. And so I mutter to myself, or perhaps to my wife: "They don't make good movies anymore."

But my students and other members of the younger set may dismiss such grumbling as a reflection of the fact that I have grown up in a different era, before postmodernism ruled the roost. Nowadays the story that is told in a movie is a bit more like a collage. The little details and the connections between them don't seem to matter much: it's the overall impression that counts. Narrative coherence and logical plot development are not required. Characters pop up who have no discernible connection to the story, but one is not supposed to ask where they came from or -- more pointedly -- why the director allowed them onto the screen. Life is a whirl, and you're not supposed to understand everything. The determination to understand is a hangover from rationalism, which was part of the "modern" era that we have now transcended with the dawn of postmodernism.

Of course many college professors, especially in old-fashioned conservative and Christian colleges, deplore all such talk. They point to the devastating effects of such thinking on higher education and urge students, who pay considerably more tuition nowadays than we did back in the 1960s, not to attend any college or university that reeks of postmodernism, however historic its name might be, for in such an institution they are sure to be fed a diet of popular culture in the place of classic works of literature. Don't short-change yourself. After all, if you come out "educated" in such a fashion, what will you be prepared for in terms of a significant job and a set of challenging responsibilities in society? Do you want to be a surfer all your life, surfing the internet when it's too cold to surf the waves on the beach?

The general drift of such a rant, then, is that you won't get anywhere as a postmodernist -- indeed, you won't fit in. You'll be like those Generation X-ers who seem to be forever waiting for the Baby Boomers to move on to their retirement villas so that they (the Gen-Xers) can finally start their life and place their hands on some levers of power.

But such talk forgets that there are also postmodernists among the Baby Boomers. And some of those older postmodernists have already climbed the hill to the citadel of power -- which brings me back to the subject of Bill. "Bill Who?" you ask. The Bill I mentioned before -- Bill Clinton, of course!

Dick Morris worked very closely with Bill Clinton over a great many years, going back to his career in state politics in Arkansas. He has also written about Clinton at length -- most recently in a book called Because He Could. [NOTE 3] Part of his fascinating thesis about Clinton is that he must be understood as our first postmodern president. The disdain for linearity, order, logic, and planning that the opponents of postmodernism point to as evidence of its intellectual bankruptcy are precisely the hallmarks of Clinton's way of running the White House, according to Morris. Indeed, he even goes so far as to link Clinton's curious way of operating with what some theorists call "chaos theory." Morris writes:

... the Clinton administration often suggested a kind of living embodiment of chaos theory, unleashed within the walls of the White House. Chaos theory postulates that what seem to be random, unconnected, chaotic events actually connect into an organizing principle, impossible to perceive as they unfold, but visible (with effort) in retrospect. Like the postmodern X and Y Generations, the Clinton administration took as its working paradigm that there was no paradigm. Each day was entirely new. There were no absolutes -- certainly not when it came to truth -- and no constants. [NOTE 4]

This is a startling assessment indeed. A defender of Clinton would quickly ask: "So what's your evidence for such a conclusion?" Well, the evidence falls into two categories. First of all, we are invited to consider how Clinton actually conducted his presidency, and secondly, our attention is directed to the way he wrote about it after the fact. After I deal with the second of these strands of evidence, I'll get back to the title of this piece and the observations I made at the beginning.

Morris writes:

Throughout his presidency, I often wondered if Clinton's thinking could really be as episodic, as devoted to the events of the day, as it seemed. Like many who worked for him, though, I hoped that some guiding philosophy was steering his hand -- a context overshadowed, perhaps, by the press of daily business, but still a silent influence on his thinking. In the arena of the White House, the crucible of conflict, I assumed he didn't have time to explain the historical or economic context for his actions. But surely, I felt, this supremely intelligent man was aware of how his ideas fit together, and acutely conscious of their place in history. He just couldn't squander his day letting me in on his thinking. [NOTE 5]

In short, Morris suspected that Clinton knew just what he was doing -- or perhaps he hoped this was the case. And so he looked forward to reading his former boss's memoirs, which came out in due course and happened to be entitled My Life. But when he had them in hand, Morris was greatly disappointed. He reports:

My Life reflects nothing more than a catalog of his proposals, a list of his achievements. For the days he spent in Washington, the book reads like a desk diary; for those he spent elsewhere, it reads like a travelogue. There is so little conceptual order in his memoirs that he does not even designate his chapters by names or subjects, just numbers. Clinton's My Life, like his political life, has no organizational motif beyond simple chronology: It is, simply, one darn thing after another. [NOTE 6]

It appears that Clinton the historical narrator is cut from the same cloth as Clinton the organizer and executive. In other words, Morris joins together what I have called the two "strands" in the evidence that Clinton is a genuine example of postmodernism. He laments:

This editorial failure reflects the chaos of his presidency, the disorganization of his tenure. Without context and often lacking strategy, his presidency was a succession of developments that followed hard on one another, each always receiving just enough attention to prevent an eruption that day. [NOTE 7]

Morris returns to the "chaos theory" motif and suggests:

Clinton lived in chaos; on his best days, he seemed to thrive on it. He was always at the center of a swirl of activity that had no pattern. Interruption was the norm. Meetings would reel from one topic to the next with no conclusion. Order seemed anathema. The events of the day shaped Clinton's presidency; only in passing, and on the fly, was he able to shape them. [NOTE 8]

But this thriving on chaos did not mean that Clinton wanted to deal quickly and decisively with issues and challenges. Often his impulse was to sweep concerns off his desk and agenda so that he could go on to something else. But he would sometimes pause and recognize that the issue he was temporarily banishing from sight was likely to pop up again. In other words, he realized that one could not dodge the issue forever. Morris tells us:

Clinton even had a name for this process of delay and procrastination, as his limited attention span carried him along giddily from one topic to the next. He called it "kicking the can down the road." In moments of self-awareness, he would cry, "We can't just keep kicking the can down the road on this issue. Where are we going with it? Where are we headed?" [NOTE 9]

The first part of Morris's book is in effect a review of Clinton's account of his own presidency in My Life. . Apparently Morris had lived in the hope that the Clinton who appeared to be racing through his responsibilities in the White House like a postmodernist raised on sound bites and the attention span encouraged by Sesame Street was, in the back of his mind, a highly reflective fellow who knew just what he was doing and how everything fit together. One day he would put it all in context. But the memoirs were a bitter disappointment for Morris, who does not hide his feelings and his ultimate conclusion about Clinton. For the sake of completeness, I should mention that Morris does deal in passing with the breakup of his friendship with Clinton. [NOTE 10] To say that Morris has mixed feelings about Clinton would be to put it mildly. [NOTE 11]

His review of Clinton's book basically comes down to this:

... My Life graphically demonstrates Bill Clinton's characteristic inability to rise above the level of the mundane detail or to perceive the broad patterns of his own presidency. Events flow through its pages in a torrent of minutiae -- an executive order here, a policy pronouncement there, and a new program elsewhere, with nary a moment wasted on context or theme. Pearls in search of a necklace, they glitter attractively as unrelated accomplishments, no more connected in the pages of My Life than they are in the folds of Bill Clinton's mind. [NOTE 12]

Did Clinton, whom he acknowledges to be a brilliant man, have so little understanding of the subtle historical dynamics underlying the larger patterns that historians investigate? Did Clinton ever ponder Winston Churchill's quip that history would be kind to him because he intended to write it? (Churchill was true to his word: his own account of what happened in the second world war had quite an impact on how historians have understood the war.) It's hard to say. In any event, Morris leaves us with the impression that Clinton was genuinely postmodern in the sense explained above; that is to say, existential philosophy of history was foreign to the thought and action of the Bill Clinton about whom Morris writes. I say "impression" because Morris appears unable to make up his mind definitely on this question. And so he asks:

Was Clinton just mechanically shuffling through his appointment book as he generated chapter after chapter, rushing to finish the manuscript before his publisher's deadline? Or did he really fail to understand the significance of his presidency? [NOTE 13]

By now it will be obvious to you, the reader, that I appreciate Morris's book. Yet I do feel the need to take issue with its title -- if only on a speculative level, since I have no first-hand knowledge of these things. The title (Because He Could) is an allusion to the one event -- or series of events -- in Clinton's presidency that many people remember him for, namely, his sexual involvement with Monica Lewinsky and all the political trouble it led to. Morris quotes an interview which Clinton gave to Dan Rather around the time that his memoirs were coming out, an interview in which he was asked the inevitable question why he had engaged in his famous misconduct with Ms. Lewinsky. Clinton came up with a startling answer which Morris takes at face value:

"I think that I did something for the worst possible reason," he said: "Just because I could." ... He continued: "I think that's about the most morally indefensible reason anybody could have for doing anything .... When you do something just because you could." [NOTE 14]

When I read these words, I thought immediately of the famous bank robber Willy Sutton, who is alleged to have given a very simple answer to the question that must have been put to him many times, namely, "Why do you rob banks?" Sutton's response: "Because that's where the money is." In short, Ms. Lewinsky, like the money in the bank, was there for the taking. If you could, why wouldn't you? Just help yourself! But then Clinton proceeds to castigate himself.

Upon reading Clinton's words and reflecting on them, my thoughts turned to Clinton's successor, President George W. Bush. I mused: maybe that's what history will say about President Bush and his decision to go to war in Iraq. Why did he do it? His stated reason (to remove those weapons of mass destruction) seems to have fallen away. Will he admit one day that he did it simply because he could? Because he had the political will and energy and the armed forces standing ready? Is he also a postmodern president? Is he another Clinton, or a Willy Sutton?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we have gone from a postmodern president back to an old-fashioned president. Whatever one might say for or against the current President Bush, it does appear that his determination in relation to Iraq is something deeply rooted and of long standing. Indeed, I am of the opinion that the inclination to "do something" about Iraq was in his mind before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And so it was no mere impulse to attack Iraq. He did not dash into a meeting and authorize military action against Iraq.

When Morris includes Clinton's "Because I could" admission and makes it the title of his book, he winds up obscuring his main thesis to some degree. It's a nifty title and will certainly help with the sale of his book, but the impression I get from his book (and also from knowledge of President Clinton that I have gained from other sources, including my own reading of his account of his White House years) is that the Monica Lewinsky episode is part and parcel of his postmodern personality and approach to life in general. Running through life as he did, grabbing a McDonald's hamburger along the way, dealing with quite a number of issues in the course of a day, "kicking the can down the road" yet again -- it all seems to fit in with a quick and furtive sexual encounter with an available young woman as "no big deal."

I'm sure President Clinton worried from time to time about how his conduct might affect his wife and his relationship with her, but as long as Mrs. Clinton didn't find out, there would be no harm done. [NOTE 15] In short, the portrait of President Clinton drawn by Dick Morris in his book would seem to suggest that the relationship with Ms. Lewinsky was no big deal -- just part of a busy schedule. It only became a big deal when word of it leaked out through circumstances I need not rehash in this essay.

So what's the upshot? Clearly, the examined life to which Socrates calls us is not everyone's cup of tea. Many will consider Socrates' appeal for reflection as a rationalistic ideal stemming from a philosophical tradition that is essentially alien to Christianity. They may be inclined to point to Paul's warning regarding philosophy in Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ." But I'm inclined to see a considerable degree of overlap, if not actual agreement, between philosophy and Christianity when it comes to the value of living "the examined life."

In many branches of Christianity, the notion that we should engage in self-examination (perhaps before coming to the Lord's table) is a major emphasis. While such self-examination does not require us to engage in the reflective exercise that I have characterized as existential philosophy of history, it certainly does lead us to reflect on the ramifications and consequences of our misdeeds. And so the examined life would also have us exploring such exploitive relationships as may exist in our own lives that are comparable to the one that existed between President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky.

If such a thing exists in your life or mine, engaging in self-examination should lead to a guilty conscience. And pangs of conscience may in turn pave the way for spiritual release if we act properly on the desire to be absolved from our sense of having done wrong. All of this is much to be commended.

President Clinton claims to be a Christian man and a Baptist. [NOTE 16] Morris does not say much about the religious dimension of Clinton's life, and he shows little evidence of Christian orientation himself. And so there is room for a Christian reassessment of President Clinton in biographical terms, a study that could build on Morris's insider picture of how Clinton operated. This is certainly not a job for the likes of me, but if and when such a book appears, I will certainly read it with interest. END


Published by Edwin Mellen Press of Lewiston, N.Y., in 1992.

The Future of the Self: Inventing the Postmodern Person (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997), p. xiv.

Published by Regan Books of New York in 2004.

Because He Could, p. 10.

Because He Could, p. 28.

Because He Could, p. 29.

Because He Could, p. 29.

Because He Could, p. 29.

Because He Could, p. 29.

Because He Could, see pp. 87ff.

The reader cannot help but wonder how Clinton, in turn, felt about Morris. The answer is that Clinton wasn't saying -- at least, not in his book. There are only three passages that are worth studying in this regard in that they mention Morris: pages 213-14, 256, and 340. And it is only in the third of these passages that Clinton touches on Morris's own time of troubles and humiliation. These page references are from the paperback edition of My Life, , Vol. 2, which is subtitled The Presidential Years, (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).

Because He Could, p. 9.

NOTE 13 Because He Could, p. 41.

Because He Could, p 12. It turns out that Clinton was not the only one to think along such lines. Clinton informs us that "Because we can" was also the answer given by Newt Gingrich when he was asked pointedly why he and the Republicans were proceeding with their effort to have the president impeached, as opposed to merely censured. See pages 476 and 491 of Clinton's account.

Clinton does admit that his misconduct resulted in a spell in the doghouse; more specifically, he wound up sleeping on the couch for quite some time. See pages 459, 505.

On Clinton's personal religious commitment, see especially pages 121-124 of his book.

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