A frequent, if now less common, activity in my life has been to go to Colorado, get to a trailhead before sunrise (while others slept in), begin a trek up some mountain, and enjoy the opportunity to be alone in nature and in my thoughts. Of course, as I ascended I experienced many false peaks. Another hundred yards or so of hard climbing resulted in discovering that yet more time and energy had to be expended to get to the summit. Again and again, my expectations that the summit was just ahead were dashed. But in time, I would get to my planned destination, and delight in attaining a grand view of mother earth. Though I could see even higher peaks on the distant horizon, I was content with the thought, “maybe some day, but this is enough for now.” As I descended, I noticed beautiful meadows that were either unperceived or unappreciated on the way up, but they now beckoned as opportunities to revel in the smaller treasures of our planet (perhaps little bluebells popping through the snow or a trout swimming in a stream).
Such has been and continues to be the metaphor of my life. I have always had some major aspirations that were pursued in a manner analogous to climbing a mountain. Winning some titles in high school sports. Admission to a good college and post-graduate program. Getting a great job. Attaining tenure. Leading the Department. Designing and completing particular research projects and writing articles and books on what I learned. Creating and developing various courses. Mentoring special students and seeing them graduate and begin productive careers. Running a marathon or riding my bike across Iowa. Raising my sons and watching them blossom. Reconnecting and entering into marriage with Lynn, the love of my life. To my pleasant surprise, some summits to which I aspired turned out to be “false peaks,” as – for example – Lynn and I have found ever higher ground than we aspired to when we married.
Since my basic aspirations were satisfied many years ago, I have pondered whether I should have shot higher. I have entertained the notion that I should now attack some new mountains or resume some treks that I started, even if I have lingered in the meadows at the lower elevations of these trails. At this age, I lack the ambition to reach the sort of heights symbolized by Mount Everest, Denali, or Kilimanjaro, but I might still strive to ascend the symbolic equivalents of Longs’ Peak in the Rockies, Mount Katahdin in the Appalachians, or Buffalo Lookout in the Ozarks. I could try to finish three projects that I have begun, but never completed, during the past decade.
First is my effort to develop The Hidden Pluralist Consensus. Portions of that project have already been published in my paper on “John Rawls, Barack Obama, and the Pluralist Political Consensus,” but early drafts of that paper and various unpublished papers contain a much broader account of the consensual elements of pluralist public philosophy. Proposing that there is a hidden consensus in American politics seems laughable in the current environment, but for that reason it seems an important challenge. Thus, I still hope to develop a comprehensive and engaging account of these ideas, but I have no doubt that a trek up this trail would be difficult, and I would encounter lots of obstacles.
Second is a comprehensive statement of my partisan public philosophy. I have claimed both in the classroom and in my publications that people need two public philosophies: a commitment to the consensual elements of pluralism and some more specific principles and philosophical assumptions to guide them as partisans on the concrete political issues that arise in their political communities. I suppose I have expressed some of my partisan principles before, but a comprehensive statement and defense of my partisan philosophy has only been drafted. Reworking In Praise of Progressive Pluralism as a left-of-center partisan perspective is still a large summit that awaits completion.
Third is a book with the working title of Ethics Matter: A Reformulated Pluralist Perspective on Community Politics. The essentials of this empirical treatment of how city officials act as “moral agents” – at least on some occasions and to some degree – was published six years ago and won some acclaim, but many other papers and articles that emerged from my “urban justice” and “ethics matters” projects (available on this website) could be incorporated into a much more detailed and comprehensive treatment of how (local) public policy actually gets made. In this project I could show that “Ethical Pluralism” is not just a normative theory as presented in the other two unfinished projects, but is also an empirical theory that is an important and indeed essential complement to those pluralist formulations that explain the workings of community politics by focusing on the distribution of power in the pursuit of private and personal interests. Of course, most empirical theories focus on how politicians are self-interested power brokers – and not ethical agents guided by enduring principles of democracy, the public interest, and justice. Clearly, our most prominent political leader, Donald Trump, is no ethical agent. But perhaps showing how local officials have pursued ethical concerns could help combat widespread beliefs that politics is just an ugly business. Perhaps such a book could help lift our political views to higher ground.
At this early stage of my retirement, taking up again these projects seems ambitious. And their political nature seems to just fuel my old political obsessions. David Brooks recently suggested that politics should consume no more than 10 percent of the time and energy of a person’s life. That seems about right to me. Perhaps the bulk of my life should now be devoted to smaller and less political endeavors. To approach a more well-balanced life, most of my remaining years might best be devoted to smaller and less political endeavors. Now I want to become more appreciative of literature and art. I want to become more involved in community service. I want to work on my tennis and golf games, and spend as much time as I want at the health club, in my kayak, or on my bike. I want more intimate conversations with family and friends. I want more time puttering around the home and cabin, fixing things up. And I want to travel to places far and near, where we have already been or hope to still experience. But I don’t want to make a priority of anything. I don’t want take up again any big projects with fixed deadlines. I want to learn to do what I want when I want and stop hurrying through life’s activities. The meadows beckon.