Dispatch from 14,000 Feet

[Braver Angels Member Newsletter, Aug. 15th 2021; Read for KTAH Jan. 13th, 2022]

A few weeks ago I was climbing mountains out west. My Braver Angels Debates colleague Clif Swiggett had invited me to climb Tahoma—Mount Rainier—with his sons and their friends, and so I tagged along, following the benevolence, grit, and expertise of these far more experienced mountaineers up one of the most beautiful and prominent mountains in the United States of America.

My trail reading that trek, which I finished while strapping on crampons for our glacier ascent under the glowing northwest summer moon, included German sociologist Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation,” a hundred-year-old lecture that hasn’t aged a day. 

Included in its closing lines is an admonition that those with a calling for public life “must arm themselves with that staunchness of heart that refuses to be daunted by the collapse of all their hopes. And, if they’re serious about the business, be “certain that [their] spirit will not be broken if the world… proves too stupid or base to accept what [they wish] to offer it.”

I took this punk-rock-ish advice– to love life, to be undaunted by failure, and to do work for work’s sake– up Tahoma with me. On we crawled through the darkness on ice and the thinning air, up those majestic crags and across the jagged frost-fields and wobbling scree, the lights of Seattle glowing on our right and the full moon beaming from our left, as we traversed steadily up the strange vertical world that greets those who climb great heights. We reached Columbia Crest around 5:30 a.m., as sunlight returned to illuminate the world.

We were greeted not by the narrow, windswept, sawtooth-pointed promontory one is conditioned to expect atop a great western mountain, but by a vast flat volcanic summit whose chief view was itself. There was no single peak. There was nowhere—amid the multiple high points nestled around the top—to spin around and behold a panoramic view of Puget Sound and the Cascades. The very size and prominence of Tahoma that draws so many thousands up its slopes—“Why are you climbing it?” “Because it’s there!”—make the view from the top far less grand than what I’d imagined it might be.

On the slushy slog down in the morning’s melting snow, as we belayed across widening crevasses, it occurred to me that Weber might be analogically helpful here. 

Bluntly, Tahoma has a disappointing summit, the most disappointing of any I’ve ever climbed, especially when compared with the thrill of the ascent. Sometimes (and I’m very guilty of this) we inhabitants of the modern world go to the mountains looking for something and expect we’ll be hit with profound insight or meaning or whatever at the top. 

And so the dry reality that outdoor insight doesn’t just happen by some primal magic logic of nature can be disillusioning. All the more so, when a mountain you’ve longed to conquer for the better part of your adult life turns out to have been better as a journey than as a destination—when at its peak, you don’t even know what you came to find.

That’s not just life or just mountaineering. That dry disappointment in victory, says Weber, is politics as well. It is all of public life, including the public life of those of us who, in good faith, strive day by day to elevate the public discourse and demonstrate for our fellow Americans a better way to live in our democratic republic, to find new heights in our common life.

It’s not just that you’ll face defeat every once in a while. It’s that victory itself is never total; achievement is never final; progress is never complete, and simply cannot be, for all human things come to an end. The only true victory is to be, by your own conduct, a beacon of honest hope in a torn gray world, come whatever may, in victory or defeat.

Those with a vocation for politics, as Weber might have it, or a passion to change the world or serve our country, as we might have it, must always be prepared to know that they may lose, and fight on anyway. Holding oneself responsibly—as a steward of virtues our fellow Americans sometimes forget, but of which they must always be reminded—demands nothing less. And in the uphill fight of spirit we’re all pushing forward as Braver Angels, that fidelity is everything.

I’m back east now, back to work. See you on an America’s Public Forum or Debate soon. And may the ascents and summits of your life reveal their meanings to you in time.

— Luke Nathan Phillips, Braver Angels Publius Fellow for Public Discourse

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