‘Liberalism” has long been a contested term in our politics, but now a deep discourse is developing that blames liberalism, classical and modern, as a fundamental culprit in our rabid politics, unbound individualism, economic inequality, environmental degradation, deprivations of key liberties, and just all-around irrationality that grips our public discourse. The gifted Patrick Deneen informs us in his new book Why Liberalism Failed, reviewed in this space by Fred Bauer, that “as liberalism has ‘become more fully itself,’ as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology.”
Liberalism’s aim was to defend pluralism, protect dignity, and expand freedom for “rights-bearing individuals.” However, the practical results, Deneen argues, have been the exact opposite: “titanic inequality,” “uniformity,” “material and spiritual degradation,” and the contraction of freedom. Deneen’s critique combines classical and modern liberalism, as both consume social, moral, and religious authorities and replenish nothing. All take and no give, that’s liberalism, one giant mooch. We are now naked and afraid, but highly autonomous, under liberalism’s flashing neon sign.
For us Americans this is particularly troubling. Deneen observes that liberal ideology, birthed some 500 years ago, albeit by the decidedly non-liberal Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, found its highest political expression in America, 250 years later. And with liberalism’s unwinding automatically comes our American downfall.
Might I suggest a slight twist in the plot?
If you want to make a sweeping claim that connects our current discontents with a deformed political pedigree, perhaps the better place, the more logical place, to start isn’t even in the realm of political thought. Politics, we frequently hear, is downstream of culture. That’s partially true. However, I’d like to offer that it’s downstream, ultimately, of what man makes of the purpose and meaning of the very thing that makes him human: reason. The liberalism of the Western tradition, one that incorporates our full religious and philosophical heritage of Jerusalem and Athens, one that conjugates republicanism with the rights of the person, isn’t the ax cutting us down to a subhuman state.
The problem fundamentally is the strict limitation the modern mind imposed on the scope of human reason, reducing reason to what it can prove empirically, or insisting that reason can only show us merely historically variable truths. From this results not only the god-like powers attributed to science and experts but also the devaluation of human longing and curiosity to a merely subjective phenomenon that distorts human freedom and action, often resulting in manic terror or a paralyzed fear. This modern deformation of reason removes from us the capacity to understand the contents of freedom and to believe that our wondering and wandering nature entails answers about man’s highest good. Moreover, once this debased conception of reason becomes the norm, the negative, downstream consequences for our politics are evident.
The theological, philosophical, and constitutional giant of the 20th century John Courtney Murray, S.J., observed that modern democracy is always a moral and spiritual enterprise. If human reason’s capacity to understand the good is eviscerated, then the deliberative aspect of a liberal constitutional order is a rapid descent into the froth of power and will. The means of government are then employed without understanding, without wisdom, as citizens clamor for their desires to be sated without end, fighting one another in tribal fashion. Does that sound somewhat familiar?
Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 wrote that “politics is the realm of reason — not of a merely technological, calculating reason, but of moral reason, since the goal of all politics, has a moral nature, namely, peace and justice.” Such thinking when elaborated sufficiently touches the third intellectual rail of Western intellectual life, which Pope Benedict discovered in his Regensburg lecture (2006). In his address, decried as an attack on Islam, he used the enormous, but perhaps not insurmountable, difficulties created by Islam’s theological voluntarism — the God of pure will who can seemingly command anything — to highlight our own Western problems that have resulted from the abandonment of reason. Moreover, the true barbarian, Pope Benedict noted, is the one already inside the gate, the “program of dehellenization” that has left us unable to describe a human freedom rooted in nobility and virtue.
We should have gratitude, respect, and piety for our liberal democratic traditions and shore these up where they are faltering rather than pine for a premodern past.
It is in this intellectual-moral-cultural space that the autonomous liberal individualism and the “naked reason,” which are what Deneen is most concerned with, is able to do its damaging work. But as Nathan Schlueter insightfully noted in an essay comparing the thought of Pope Benedict and Leo Strauss, for all of the former’s criticisms of the modern undermining of human reason, and with it our ability to access the metaphysical depth of the human condition, Pope Benedict never turned his back on liberalism or the Enlightenment tout court. There is no “putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age,” whose “positive aspects . . . are to be acknowledged unreservedly.”
Pope Benedict sought to engage liberalism with a record of Western achievement rooted in the Socratic dialogues of classical philosophy and in the analogy of being found in medieval philosophy, whose import is to show the complex but real connection between the soul of the person and the personal God of the biblical tradition. Liberalism is, ultimately, an attempt to limit power and to bind its necessary use with a promise of fidelity to a fundamental document, a set of claims, a constitution that forms and animates political life. Liberalism protects the relational human person — who has economic, familial, political, and religious dimensions to his being — from rationalist ideology or the claims of sheer bigotry.
This relational person who is open to the full truth of what it means to be a human person is the being that liberalism at its best is designed to protect and to nurture. However, liberalism is also an inheritance, one that incorporates the best achievements in the full record of Western theological, philosophical, political, and legal excellences. We must always engage liberalism with “the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur,” as Pope Benedict reminded us at Regensburg. We should have gratitude, respect, and piety for our liberal democratic traditions and shore these up where they are faltering rather than pine for a premodern past. The clock for liberalism did not begin with Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Justice Anthony Kennedy will not tell its final story. But to ensure that will be the task of those fully engaged with the Western corpus of philosophy, theology, law, politics and the living tradition that holds this together and provides for new applications.