A Book of Elements: Reflections on Middle-Class Days” by Michael Novak was released in 1972. It’s a fascinating book from a young liberal who’s today an elder conservative. From the original Kirkus review, these lines stick out:

Novak collaborated with his wife, artist-sculptor Karen Laub-Novak, in this series of explosive pensees concerning “the reliable elements of life.” … In impulsive prose which ranges from the quick insight to the self-indulgent sprawl, Novak explores, as a middle-class paterfamilias-suburbanite, concepts of being and self; political and social ethic; domestic living; and the awareness of God above and through humanity. He comments on the American way of life which he sees as mechanistic-bound, “not at all on the human scale.”

Far and away my favorite short chapter was 27, which opens by asking the question, “What dehydration of soul makes organization possible?” I excerpt the chapter in full here, emphasis mine:


What dehydration of soul makes organization possible? The spirit of a practical society is a bureaucratic spirit, fascinated by process, procedures, methods.

It is true, of course, that procedures affect the content of what is done. Sometimes they determine the content completely.

But it is not true that if you attend only, or even chiefly, to questions of process, procedures, and methods, you can guarantee results.

Thinking about procedures has a single goal: routine. Once we get the process down (we think), we can produce many similar contents rationally and efficiently.

At its worst, process thinking tends to imagine a world organized like a machine. It is production-line thinking.

At its best, it remains thinking from-outside-in. It views content as what is to be shaped. It concentrates on the shaping procedures. Powerful in dealing with machines, in dealing with humans it is incompetent.

For example, democracy. Many seem to imagine that democracy is a matter of machinery: who votes, when; parliamentary rules and reforms; methods for identifying interests; procedures for reconciling interests; mechanisms for handling grievances. Even radical thinkers concentrate on processes.

One can identify process thinkers early by the metaphors inseparable from their thinking: “Set it up,” “We need a mechanism,” “Operationalize that,” “Figure out the best procedures,” “Sort out the elements,” “Break it down into smaller steps,” “How to structure the committee,” “Once we get it going it will take care of itself,” “The problem is the procedure,” “Inputs,” “Outputs,” “Crank it up with,” “Safety valves…”

Process thinkers sound like auto mechanics on their day off.

It seldom occurs to process thinkers—to our elites in the intellectual and managerial classes—that democracy requires qualities of soul, in persons and in their families, and in their social groups.

If you reduce humans to atomic particles without social cohesion, without social trust, without joy in sacrifice, without social pride, democracy disintegrates.

If you reduce human atomic particles to inputs, outputs, and mechanisms of need and desire, democracy becomes an illusory dream machine and its springs snap, bolts fall off, panels rot away, organisms rust and decay…the machine ceases to function.

Democracy is not a matter of reasonable discussion merely, of intelligent consensus, of the decorum of a New England town meeting circa 1663. It includes pressure groups, interest groups, conflicts, the use of force, threats, bitter dissent.

But where persons are not proud of their own lives, independent and sturdy in their views, committed to mutual trust in their morals, larger police forces are needed. Suburban communities become, like medieval towns, walled cities. People go out seldom. No one evinces pride in work or workmanship. Each person takes what he can get, and gives a minimum. Transactions between salesgirls and customers, between agents and clients, are reduced to the most minimal mechanical forms: a grunt, a reluctant gesture of direction. Cold hostility intensifies between bus drivers and passengers, servicemen and homeowners, mechanics and auto owners. Surliness and contempt multiply. Citizens trust no government official. Officials are cynical about the people.

Where private and familial and occupational habits turn from cooperative to mistrustful, democracy dies. Not all the processes or procedures or methods in the world, even if enforced by penalties and arms, can hold a society together.

The radical disease of American life lies in a quarter no one wishes to face. Everyone wants to tinker with the system. More profound is the collapse of personal and social virtue. Humility, graciousness, warmth, trust, spontaneity, and generosity of soul are disappearing slowly but steadily from our lives. We are not humane in the small transactions of daily life. We do not, in fact, love, sympathize with, or trust most of the human beings we meet each day. We are on our guard. They, too, are on their guard.

If we become a garrison state, the sole cause will not be an industrial-military complex. Truly, if our major corporations mass-produced marshmallows instead of sophisticated weaponry, the impact of mass-production and bureaucracy would be the same: the disease of thinking from-outside-in.

A society is humane if and only if the dominant note of its private, familial, and societal transactions is reverence for what other persons are suffering: respect for thinking from-inside-out.

Each human is already lonely, trapped in the coils of his (her) own ego, unhappy, silently in pain. If you assume that this is true of each person you meet, seldom will events prove you mistaken. Why, then, would you add to the enormous weight of pain which grinds into their shoulders?

The dry bureaucratic sentiment is: Design a procedure that every one has an interest in.

The liquid democratic sentiment is: Listen to the suffering of each, and life the burdens.

The bureaucrat trusts administration. His way of making law is to fund an agency.

The democrat relies on himself and mutual trust. His way of making law is to articulate an ideal that men will agree to live under, cooperatively.

The bureaucrat worries about sanctions and administrators and investigators. He is not entirely wrong. But he tends to neglect the soul.

Dissent in order to begin a new way of life is not the same as dissent in order to spread contempt, hatred, and distrust.

Dissent which does not lead to deeper sympathy, to deeper sinking down of roots, is a sandstorm beating leaves from living trees.

The contrast, William James wrote, is between the “soft” thinkers and the “hard.” More accurate is the contrast between those in whom juices run, and those who think only where arid methodology permits.

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