Magazine March 7, 2011, Issue

Accepting Limits

The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order: Defending Democracy against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends, by Daniel J. Mahoney (ISI, 240 pp., $26.95)

My favorite graffito is on the road from Alès to Nîmes, an hour from my house in France. It is inscribed on a gray metal panel of uncertain function by the side of the road, has been there for some years, and consists of a single word: Non.

This seems to me perfectly to capture one of the greatest prejudices of our age, at least among intellectuals: that to oppose and undermine or subvert is, in itself, always more intellectually demanding, rigorous, and generous than to support and sustain. It is as if they believed that the recognition that they had inherited anything worthwhile from the past diminished their own importance in the scheme of things, and thus left them without the providential role they so earnestly seek and that gives meaning to their lives.

The utopian impulse, which fills the metaphysical vacuum left by the death of God and the abandonment of religion, is the greatest enemy of a free and liberal order. In this book of essays, Daniel Mahoney, author of an excellent work on Solzhenitsyn, explores the relationship between religion, freedom, and democracy. He draws inspiration particularly from Tocqueville and Raymond Aron, the great French social philosopher who, much against the current of his time and place, resisted the totalitarian temptation and never departed from an undogmatic liberalism.

Contemporary militant atheists treat religion as if it consisted solely of the Spanish Inquisition and the stoning of adulterers. That its history has included things that are inimical to a liberal order is undeniable; but to treat them as the whole of its contribution is like treating the history of medicine as nothing but amputation without anesthetic and the employment of Perkins’s metallic tractors.

Mahoney points out that one of the advantages of a religious sensibility for the liberal order is the acceptance of limitation that it confers. A religious sensibility accepts not only existential limits to human life that are not of man’s making (a great advantage in facing death), but ethical ones as well, because the moral law is laid down by a will external to mankind’s own. This precludes the radical egotism that insists that every question should be judged by the light of every individual’s own unaided reason: which all too often, of course, accords with, and gives its blessings to, the secret desires of the heart, as well as leading to conflict with others whose unaided reason tells them something quite different.

#page#Promethean atheism refuses to acknowledge any limits to man’s possibilities or his moral right to pursue his ends, whatever they might be. In so far as there are any limits, they are only those of his imagination. A good example of this self-deification of man is to be found in the writings of that great friend of human freedom, Kim Jong Il, Dear Leader of North Korea (or perhaps I should say in the writings officially ascribed to him, not that they are anything to be proud of). Here he explains the Juche idea propounded by his father, the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung:

The Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything. . . . That man is the master of everything means that he is the master of the world and of his own destiny; that man decides everything means that he plays the decisive role in transforming the world and in shaping his destiny.

As if to provide an instance of Shigalev’s famous deduction in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, quoted by Mahoney, that “starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at absolute despotism,” the Dear Leader continues:

The Great Leader [i.e. Papa] put forward the idea of revolutionizing, working-classizing and intellectualizing all members of society and thus transforming them into communist men of the Juche type, as a major revolutionary task in modeling the whole society on the Juche idea. . . . Thoughts define men’s worth and quality and, accordingly, ideological remodeling is of the utmost importance in the transformation of man.

In other words, you seek perfection and you get North Korea. It is worth noting, incidentally, that it is not the capacity for thought that, in the Dear Leader’s view, gives man an intrinsic worth (an unpleasant enough formulation in itself), but the actual content of his thought that does so. In other words, those who have the wrong thoughts cease to have value. No despotism was ever more absolute than this.

I think Mahoney proves his case that a sense of limitation is necessary if the democratic ideal is not itself to become despotic in its pursuit of perfection. So far, so good. But what he does not do is explain how such a sense is to be encouraged in a population whose elite is either not religious, or religious only pro forma, and which is already much influenced, not to say rotted, by Promethean Yes-we-can-ism.

The acceptance of limitation is a habit of the heart as much as a doctrine of the mind. Clearly it is possible to develop that habit without being religious, but it is more difficult, for it requires not only a certain temperament but also an intellectual sophistication by no means common or easily acquired. Raymond Aron was an atheist, but also a man of immense culture, personal experience, and reflective power. He therefore was, or became, what might be called an imperfectionist (he briefly flirted with socialism as a youth): He did not conclude from the non-divinity of a Christ whose kingdom was not of this world that it was for man to build the kingdom of God in the here and now. But a moral and intellectual trajectory such as Aron’s is not to be reproduced on a mass scale. (Incidentally, one of the things that Mahoney does not remark upon with regard to Aron, but I think very important, especially in Aron’s particular cultural context, is the brilliant clarity of his prose, which gave the lie to the idea that in order to be profound it was necessary to be obscure.)

#page#I do not think there is much prospect in the Western world of a religious revival, nor does Mahoney suggest that there is. While people might be willing to believe in the healing power of crystals or the chakras of the earth, at least until they get really sick, they are unlikely to submit to the disciplines of a genuine religion that makes moral and temporal demands upon them. This would be so even were they not already so susceptible to the arguments of their local village atheists. The likelihood, then, is that people will continue to seek not only the meaning of their lives, but their salvation, in a variety of secular causes promoted by narrow ideologies that serve as lenses through which everything in the world can be seen and interpreted.

I confess that, after the end of the Cold War, I looked forward to a world of politics shorn of ideology. I did not take sufficiently into account the role of ideology as a substitute religion, the means by which people in a post-religious world would achieve their transcendence. I had understood well enough that Marxism was a kind of religion, complete with its trinity and promise of ultimate salvation after its Day of Judgment; but it did not occur to me that, with the death of belief in Marxism’s teleological end, its monotheism would (if I may be allowed to mix metaphors slightly) Balkanize into polytheism. Some henceforth would demand the absolute equality of women with the male elite, some of homosexuals, some of blacks, some of transsexuals, etc., not only in income and living conditions but in unmeasurable regard or esteem: a goal cherished not despite its unattainability but because of it, there being no possible end in sight despite its apparent earth-boundedness. A perfect goal for someone in search of a transcendent cause who does not care for religion, or believe in any religious tenets, is one that appears secular but in reality is not.

Cultural diagnosis is always easier than prognosis, let alone treatment. Nevertheless, Mahoney has some useful prescriptions, or at any rate warnings, where foreign policy is concerned. If it is true that political freedom is as much a habit of the heart and of civilization as of formal political arrangement, it is in vain that we demand of others that they should be free in our sense. Indeed, we should be better employed in looking to ourselves, for certainly a case can be made that we have in part turned our back on our own traditions by our demand for something more than mere freedom can offer us. Accustomed to the argument that freedom brings prosperity, we are perilously close to valuing freedom because it brings prosperity. When it fails to do so — at least that increasing prosperity that we now regard as our birthright — we shall be only too ready to ditch it for something else. Where the whole purpose of life is a constantly rising level of consumption, freedom will not always find its defenders.

– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.

Anthony Daniels — Mr. Daniels, a retired doctor who worked in several parts of the world, is the author of Mass Listeria, a book about health scares.

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