David Moats: Middlebury thinker ponders the state of democracy

Victor Nuovo, professor emeritus of philosophy at Middlebury College, has written a series of essays about the important philosophers of the Western tradition and the thinkers who have helped define America over the centuries. Courtesy photo

Follow the science — it’s what we hear from officials imploring the public to heed crucial findings on life-or-death crises that include the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and other health and environmental threats.

One person who knows what it means to follow the science is Victor Nuovo, professor emeritus of philosophy at Middlebury College, who is a leading scholar of the work of John Locke. 

Locke was a pioneer of empiricism and one of the Enlightenment era philosophers who laid the groundwork for the scientific method. It could be said that empirical methods and the advance of science — observing, testing, marshaling all the powers of the mind to advance our understanding of nature and the universe — have produced what we think of as the modern world.

In addition, Locke’s political philosophy and his thoughts on government were essential in the thinking of Jefferson, Madison and the other Founders. The separation of powers was central to Locke’s thinking, as was the proposition that all people are created equal. 

Nuovo is the author of a book on John Locke, published by Oxford University Press in 2017, exploring Locke’s theology. In Locke he found a man of science and a man of faith and a profoundly important theorist of democracy. 

Nuevo is also the author of a series of essays, appearing originally in the Addison Independent in Middlebury, and published in two small volumes by Onion River Press of Burlington. These essays are a lucid and elegant exploration of the important philosophers of the Western tradition and also of the thinkers who have helped define America over the centuries.

For Nuovo, the anti-democratic, anti-science movements gaining currency in the world today have been the cause of something close to despair. He is at a loss to explain the ignorance and willful blindness that have allowed the rise of Donald Trump. “His passion for himself is so blinding. And I think you could say the same for Adolf Hitler,” he said.

The rejection of science is only part of what is going on, but it is an important part. Of course, defenders of the status quo have sought to reject the findings of science all the way back to Galileo’s clashes with the Roman Catholic Church. Centuries later, Charles Darwin and the science of evolution provoked a fundamentalist backlash that is still with us.

And yet the modern world would not exist without the discoveries of science. Without electricity or modern medicine, to name two gains that we tend to take for granted, a new dark age would be upon us. As for evolution — it is our understanding of the evolution of viruses that has allowed scientists to create vaccines that have protected hundreds of millions of people from illness and death.

Education in the humanities and sciences may seem to be a timid response to the tweets and propaganda, the fear and lies and the atmosphere of violence that surround us at the present moment. But for decades, academia and the humanities were Nuovo’s realm at Middlebury College, where he taught the history of philosophy. 

Philosophy asks “what is the difference between right and wrong?” Nuovo says. “And why does it matter?” These are essential, perennial moral questions that are all the more important today.

If the coexistence of faith and reason, and their tension, characterized the thinking of John Locke, they have also shaped Victor Nuovo’s life. He studied the philosophy of religion at Columbia University and at Union Theological Seminary, but before that he had received a divinity degree. 

Following his graduate work, he served for two years as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, though about his time as a minister, he observed with wry modesty, “I could have succeeded if I was a different person.” 

Nuovo was born in Queens, New York, in 1931, the same year his father lost his job at the bank where he worked. The Depression was tightening its grip. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt became president, and Nuovo’s father obtained employment through the Works Progress Administration, one of the New Deal programs that helped put people back to work. 

The elder Nuovo became a building contractor, and young Victor learned a lesson about the positive role government could play in helping people gain employment. The triumph over fascism in World War II and the contribution that government made through the GI Bill, allowing millions of ex-GIs to attend college, left Nuovo with a positive view of the possibilities of an active government.

Nuovo, the philosopher, has not been disengaged from the world beyond academia. He served 12 years on the Middlebury Selectboard, helping guide the town toward many of the significant public works improvements that have reshaped it in recent years. His wife, Betty Nuovo, a lawyer in Middlebury, served for many years as a member of the Vermont House. And Victor has continued to work, both as a scholar of Locke and as an essayist producing work for  his local community.

One of his two essay collections, “A Small History of Political Philosophy,” examines the political thought of philosophers over the centuries — Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke and others, up to and including James Madison and other Founding Fathers. 

The other, “Discovering America,” explores American history and the important thinkers who have shaped the nation’s experiment in democracy

In a foreword to “A Small History,” Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury College, and Shalom Goldman, professor of religion at Middlebury, commend Nuovo’s effort to bring philosophical inquiry into the public sphere. 

“As in the time of Plato,” they write, “we are in a life-and-death struggle for democracy. And if we are not careful, we may lose democracy altogether.” They say that Nuovo’s subjects “imply that if we do not engage in public philosophy, then the very roots of our democracy are in peril.”

In his introduction, Nuovo echoes that concern. “Politics is an art, shaped by a knowledge and understanding of its traditions. Where such understanding is lacking, our path becomes dysfunctional and dangerous.” He concludes his introduction: “Now, some say we are witnessing the death throes of American democracy, and that our nation is doomed to suffer the fate of Athens: a perversion of popular democracy into tyranny.” 

He acknowledges that these are trying times, but he said that Madison and the other framers of the Constitution “anticipated them, and devised a system of political order well-suited to our mixed nature, of good and evil.” 

As much as Donald Trump and the mobocracy and kleptocracy that he has fostered are a cause of despair for him, Nuovo says this: “It is my hope, then, that these essays may be read and reflected upon and that the wisdom of the eminent thinkers presented in them will serve to guide us and keep us on a steady course.” 

Nuovo is 90 years old, and he says he has had a lot of time as a philosopher to think about the ultimate questions of human existence. “Did there have to be an intelligent cause of existence? If there was, did this intelligent cause know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil?”

The longer he has lived, he said, the more “puzzling” these questions have become. But he remains convinced that asking these questions is as essential as ever.

In their foreword, Patton and Goldman agree. “In writing about philosophy and the public sphere in this way, Victor Nuovo has provided hope for the continuity of democracy itself.”

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David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: [email protected]

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