Harper’s Notes (2/26)

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: fortitude, flourishing, free speech, and more.

The editors

February 26, 2024

Strength and sorrow: This season’s epistolary debate for The Harper Review wraps up with two touching meditations on memory and its meaning, within and beyond reason. Surya Gowda, the Review’s cofounder and coeditor in chief, reflects upon the moment she decided to temporarily drop out of college to take care of a painful chronic illness. Though it might seem desirable to erase distressing episodes from our minds, Gowda rallies her readers to remember the strength those moments inspire. Frequent contributor Benjamin Samuels, for his part, tells the story of Simcha, a drayman who simultaneously despairs over his dead horses and the Second Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed long ago. Simcha does not remember the Temple—in fact, he never knew it. But, Samuels suggests, if not indicting memory itself, Simcha’s distress might hint at something close to it.

The crucible of speech: In his latest essay for The New Criterion, Hillsdale College history professor Wilfred M. McClay identifies a flaw in the discourse on freedom of speech. Often “freedom of expression” and “freedom of speech” are used interchangeably—notably in the Chicago Principles of the University of Chicago. This erroneous amalgamation, however, overlooks an important distinction: speech, on the one hand, contributes “to collective deliberation about truth.” Expression, on the other hand, is all about passion and one’s own personal narrative. One can argue against another’s thesis, but one can’t argue against someone else’s act of self-expression. McClay argues that public speech—debate and opinions we might not agree with—is a crucible in which we can refine our own incomplete beliefs. At a time when all eyes are on universities, it is crucial that professors and students maintain their commitment to freedom of speech, rather than expression.

Against human flourishing: The concept of “human flourishing” permeates contemporary discourse. But in a thought-provoking piece for The Lamp, writer and theologian Paul J. Griffiths argues that this concept does more damage than good. Proponents of human flourishing prompt us to consider not only individual happiness but also the broader societal conditions that nurture or hinder our well-being as a species. Policies that hinder our collective well-being, they argue, inflict “damage,” while those that promote it bring “repair.” Griffiths argues that this “damage”–“repair” binary obscures the nuanced realities of human existence. His essay challenges the assumption that flourishing is synonymous with the absence of suffering or adversity. Even events traditionally considered detrimental, such as death or illness, Griffiths argues, can contribute to the richness of human life.

More equal than others: Many people agree that equality is eminently desirable. Why, then, is it so elusive? Why, in the midst of near-universal economic growth, do gaps in income, net worth, and educational opportunity only continue to expand? Is parity possible or merely a delusion we’d best give up? In Equality: The History of an Elusive Idea, Darrin McMahon, history professor at Dartmouth College, takes up these questions, tracing equality’s evolution from prehistory to the present. Rigorously researched and written in dazzling prose, McMahon’s new book cuts across ideological lines and examines the limits of equality while offering practical steps we can take towards a more—if not perfectly—equal future.