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Why Obama Should Read Trilling

Inertia is its own moral choice, the great critic argued, a point to remember when facing the crisis in Syria

Yoav Fromer
July 05, 2012
Members of the Free Syrian Army training in Qusayr, nine miles) from Homs, on May 10, 2012.(AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Free Syrian Army training in Qusayr, nine miles) from Homs, on May 10, 2012.(AFP/Getty Images)

Ever since the violence in Syria first erupted 15 months ago, bringing the country to the brink of civil war with a death toll recently estimated at 10,000 (and rising), it has been difficult to classify the Obama Administration’s policy toward the unfolding crisis. Judging by the president’s forceful rhetoric that conveyed an unrelenting devotion to defending human rights, it had initially appeared that the United States was unwilling to allow Syrian President Bashar Assad to continue waging what Arab League observers have already labeled “genocide” against a helpless population. Speaking at the National Holocaust Museum in April, Obama reiterated this commitment to human rights and declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

And yet, as Leon Wieseltier has aptly observed, there remains a distressing discrepancy between the moral vocabulary the administration has been invoking and its willingness to uphold it through concrete actions. “In Washington now almost everybody wants Bashar Assad to fall,” Wieseltier recently opined, “and almost nobody wants Barack Obama to bring him down.”

Rather than surrender to growing pessimism, however, that the United States has abandoned its moral responsibilities, it might serve us well to recognize that the subjective appeal of morality retains various shapes and forms, especially in foreign affairs. And although it is not always easy to distinguish between the various types of morality and amorality that inform international relations, a helpful formula for doing so can be found in the most unlikely of places—a lesser-known essay by the late Jewish literary critic Lionel Trilling. In “The Morality of Inertia,” which originally appeared in a collection of essays titled A Gathering of Fugitives, published in 1956, Trilling attempted to evaluate the moral legitimacy behind the actions of Ethan Frome, the chief protagonist in Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, who, unable to actualize his forbidden love for his wife’s housemaid, Mattie, bowed to the societal conventions of his time and did that which was “expected” of him. Rather than consummate his feelings for her, he chooses instead to extinguish both their lives through a suicide pact (spoiler alert: It doesn’t work out the way he and Mattie planned).

What makes this forgotten piece of Trilling’s literary criticism from over 50 years ago relevant today is the fact that in his critical exploration of Ethan Frome’s behavior, Trilling was able to precisely articulate the problematic moral vision that remains at the heart of America’s foreign policy today. Applying Trilling’s act of moral imagination to the Syrian crisis also shows us how Trilling’s bygone style of criticism continues to speak to both our largest and most intimate needs for language in order to make sense of the world.


Better known for his prolific writings on literature, Trilling, who was the first Jewish professor to be tenured in Columbia University’s English Department and arguably the most influential literary critic of the immediate postwar era, rarely addressed foreign policy in his writings. But his seminal ideas about the powerful interaction between literature and politics remain a fecund source for insight and wisdom.

Behind his conception of “The Morality of Inertia” lay what Trilling feared to be a fatalistic lassitude. His critique of the hopeless determinism embraced by Wharton’s protagonist—a common theme often found in the literary genre of Naturalism with which her fiction is associated—was based on what he perceived to be an absence of independent agency, free will, or creative action. The morality of inertia, argued Trilling, is actually rooted in a commitment to “not making moral decisions.” By submitting to prevailing conventions and performing predetermined social roles, the morality of inertia espouses a moral outlook that is fundamentally unable—and unwilling—to conjure any alternative to the present, Trilling argues. Bred from habit and familiarity, it is inherently “simple, unquestioning, passive, even masochistic” and is the result of “neither courage nor choice, but necessity: it cannot do otherwise. Yet it acts as if by courage and choice.”

In other words, the morality of inertia merely conveys the appearance of a bold and independent moral consciousness while in essence reproducing the same moral dictates of the environment within which it operates. Although the morality of inertia may function under the guise of an autonomous moral decision, it is firmly rooted in a conscious act of indecision.

The morality of inertia is exactly what has been driving the tepid American response to the escalating violence in Syria. As in any performance, the Obama Administration has indeed gone through the motions, honorably discharged its diplomatic duties, and meticulously followed the script with which it has been provided: It has said all that was expected of it to say, it went through all the prescribed channels for diplomacy (Security Council, Arab League, Russia, China, and the European Union), and it has even gone as far as implementing all the cosmetic punitive measures that don’t actually require of it too much sacrifice or risk (such as diplomatic pressures, economic sanctions, and the expulsion of Syrian diplomats). But in doing so, American foreign policy has at no point actually exhibited sound moral convictions; on the contrary, as Trilling had warned, it has consistently operated out of sheer necessity: that is, the necessity to placate everyone it actually cares about and needs, a group that doesn’t appear to include the tortured people of Syria.

By embracing the morality of inertia, the United States has been able to essentially abstain, even escape, from making moral decisions. Instead, it has comfortably resolved itself to fulfilling expectations and operating within a self-contained diplomatic paradigm that has built-in mechanisms for curtailing any possibilities for alternative action. One cannot finally help but wonder whether this obdurate American dedication to diplomacy is more committed to sustaining the international status quo that facilitated the outbreak of violence in the first place. (Assad, after all, a calculating Machiavellian, has been slaughtering his citizens only because he knows the international community will let him get away with it.)

Unlike China and Russia who have taken amoral, and arguably immoral, positions, the Obama Administration clearly wants to do the right thing. But the distance from a morality of inertia to an immorality of inertia, as Trilling warned, is deceptively short. And since bold choices are what distinguish moral determination from a morality of inertia, the United States must begin making some promptly lest it start to slide from moral passivity toward immoral complicity.

Most foreign-policy experts would probably scoff at the suggestion of engaging literary critics to resolve what has become one of the most tragic and deadly international dilemmas of our time. But well over a year into this crisis the realist handbook doesn’t seem to have been able to produce favorable results. Does an “energized” morality then mean that a military solution is called for? Not necessarily, especially since several creative alternatives have already been proposed (among them: establishing no-fly zones, safe havens, and arming the rebels). What it would demand of the president, however, is to take an unequivocal moral stance that firmly rejects the prevailing international expectation that the United States do everything in its power to address the slaughter of the innocents in Syria with the exception of actually stopping the slaughter.

As for Trilling, he would probably find any attempt to construct an actual foreign policy out of his writings asinine and futile. For him, the potency of literature lay in its unique abilities to expose us to the complexities, variations, nuances, and unexpected surprises of real life. The redeeming power of literature, Trilling ultimately believed, lay not in its abilities to resolve political problems, but rather to enrich our understanding and stimulate our imaginations. Still, our highly literate president, who prides himself on the depth and breadth of his literary acquaintance, might find some unexpected benefit and guidance by reading the late critic.


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Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.

Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.