Letters to Power

Public Advocacy Without Public Intellectuals

By (author) Samuel McCormick

Paperback - £16.95

Publication date:

15 May 2013

Length of book:

208 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271050744

Although the scarcity of public intellectuals among today’s academic professionals is certainly a cause for concern, it also serves as a challenge to explore alternative, more subtle forms of political intelligence. Letters to Power accepts this challenge, guiding readers through ancient, medieval, and modern traditions of learned advocacy in search of persuasive techniques, resistant practices, and ethical sensibilities for use in contemporary democratic public culture. At the center of this book are the political epistles of four renowned scholars: the Roman Stoic Seneca the Younger, the late-medieval feminist Christine de Pizan, the key Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, and the Christian anti-philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Anticipating much of today’s online advocacy, their letter-writing helps would-be intellectuals understand the economy of personal and public address at work in contemporary relations of power, suggesting that the art of lettered protest, like letter-writing itself, involves appealing to diverse, and often strictly virtual, audiences. In this sense, Letters to Power is not only a nuanced historical study but also a book in search of a usable past.

“The category of the public intellectual is fraught with contradictions: politics and culture, theory and practice, philosophy and rhetoric. If only there were a genre to mediate these tensions to good effect. Letters to Power reminds us that there was, and is: the ‘minor rhetoric’ of the public letter. Samuel McCormick’s skillful readings provide numerous insights regarding the predicaments and strategies shaping learned advocacy. By focusing on things small and sly, he shows how public culture can be improved by careful thinkers doing humble work.”

—Robert Hariman, Northwestern University, editor of Prudence: Classical Virtue, Postmodern Practice (Penn State, 2003)