David Gore’s book is “one of the finer ethical reflections I’ve read in a while”

09.03.2019 | Guest

A guest post from John Durham Peters, the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and of Film & Media Studies at Yale University. He introduces us to David Charles Gore’s new book, The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon, available today in print and digital. 

David Charles Gore is part of a scholarly wave by critics both inside and outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who aim to give the Book of Mormon a less esoteric and hidden spot in American intellectual and literary history. The book is not written to insiders but rather in the spirit of sharing the treasures of a particular tradition with a wider public. I kept thinking of what Gershom Scholem did for Jewish mysticism or Emmanuel Levinas did for Jewish ethics as models for what Gore and others are doing for the Book of Mormon—making what was previously the unique property of a single tradition into the common scholarly patrimony.

Gore is not particularly interested in the Book’s complex origin story and historicity, but rather in what it has to say about civic engagement, political theory, and a virtuous life. Gore does mobilize the intellectual resources of his religious tradition, but it is clear that he does not offer a religiously-informed vision of politics as an easy way out. He is never preachy or Pollyannish. For him, a life of faith is one that is difficult and risky, “a terrible option” as he puts it in a Kierkegaardian moment. He offers not an escape from politics but a facing down of its real difficulties. Scholars who think religious perspectives are somehow easier or less rigorous than secular ones should read Gore’s book.

The whole book is a quiet plea for a vision of politics that is not one of shoddy power-grabbing but of decent people doing their best to work out their differences, of “energetic ownership of the public burden” (131). He is acutely aware of the enormous potentials for the abuse of both politics and rhetoric, and they pain him. This pain can give his arguments clear contemporary relevance. When he writes of “morally suspect and shoddy ways of persuading audiences, like posturing, pomposity, and pretension” (11), of the danger of “anger and vanity in politics”(18), or praises the biblical king David as a leader capable of being awakened to regret by listening to his advisors (40), it is hard not to think of certain people holding office when he was writing (he decorously never names names).

Gore is not afraid to be normative, and his book is clear in proposing better and worse ways for communities to exist. He does so in a way that I personally find convincing, in part because of the gentleness and non-dogmatic quality of the writing, but even more because of its hard-earned wisdom. He may call for high ideals but Gore, like James Madison, one of the class political thinkers he relies on, is a hard-headed realist:

“We may imagine a world without tragedy, but we do not live in one.”

Or

“What is at stake in political struggle is the kind of community in which we live.”

Such phrases would look good engraved in granite on a public building somewhere! The manuscript is a deep sounding of the meaning of democratic life. I thought his conclusion on being “awake to mournfulness” one of the finer ethical reflections I have read in a while.

Professor Gore’s method is close reading informed by a theory-building mission, a kind of rich explanatory glossing. It is indeed close, as the book focuses on three pivotal chapters. He is a steady, reasonable, and engaged writer, not a flashy one given to post-structuralist pirouettes or impenetrable aphorisms, and he keeps the story fresh by the force of his insight and vision.