The Liberal Tradition I: Introducing a Few Basic Concepts

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By:Thomas Fleming | July 30, 2011

 

I am going to use the word "liberal" in a very broad sense to refer to the modern movement in ethics and politics that begins in the Renaissance, develops in the Enlightenment,  and culminates in the classical liberalism of the 19th century.   Socialism--and the other isms that have plagued European man for the past two centuries—is a byproduct of the liberal tradition.  Though it may seem paradoxical to say it, Marx and Mises, though they have opposing views on the state and the market,  share important common assumptions about human nature and the ends of human life, and it is to explore those assumptions that I have undertaken this series of comments.

 

To anticipate some of my conclusions, I shall put my cards on the table by listing  some of the hallmarks of the liberal tradition—a tradition, I hasten to add, to which most conservatives have belonged.    In The Morality of Everyday Life,  I took up—and, I believe, successfully rebutted—three important and interrelated liberal assumptions, which can be summarized as rationality, objectivity, and universality.

Rationality

In liberal ethical and political theories,  it is assumed though rarely stated that rationality can be applied to human questions much as it is applied to mathematics or physics.  Although Descartes was far from being the first to act on this assumption—the fallacy goes back at least to Socrates and Plato—his relentless insistence on rationality makes him one of the most important founders of the liberal tradition.    By necessity, liberals must be either religious skeptics or at least suspicious of any revelation or tradition that might take precedence over reason,

Objectivity

Liberals also assume that mere relationships have little or no bearing on questions of moral or political responsibility.  We are supposed to view our own position from the third person, as it were, as if we were a distant observer or an extraterrestrial being or an impartial spectator.  Such an assumption means, to take an example from Kant, that a mother's love for her children is not moral, because it is neither rational nor objective.

Universality

All rational and objective moral and political decisions must be applied universally, either uniformly to all human individuals (as in all humans have a right to life and property) or to all persons in similar circumstances.  A mother's love, thus,  must also be non-moral because it cannot be applied to the entire human race or to all children.  Following this reasoning, some Catholic women—not the most balanced, certainly—have offered to "adopt" discarded embryos which they would have implanted in their own wombs.

Moral and Political Actors:  The Individual and the State

While pre-liberal thinkers conceived of what has been called the corporate nature of man, liberals tend to reduce all forms of community and association to individuals.  If they are anarchists, liberals are content with individualism, but if they concede the need for some corporate existence, they tend to invest the State and only the state with authority.  Villages, parishes, provinces, traditional corporations—all, though their existence may be tolerated—must bow to the state, because it is the state that protects the rights and/or satisfies the needs of the Individual.

Sentimental Anti-Christianity

But there are other significant tendencies in the liberal tradition.  It is not only the elevation of rationality that makes them generally hostile or at least indifferent to Christianity.  The godfathers of liberalism—the Renaissance humanists and neo-Platonists—were generally opposed to the Christian traditions that developed in the Medieval period, which they characterized—whether or not they used the term Dark Ages—as an age of superstition and barbarism.  They were nostalgic in elevating classical antiquity—which they misunderstood as an age of religious skepticism—to the heights of human achievement but also progressive in expecting to equal or surpass the ancients.  The famous quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns can be seen, then, as a family feud among liberals.

Yet, while rejecting (overtly or not) Christianity, they naively accepted many Christian ideals—particularly brotherhood and philanthropy. One would have thought they would have quickly understood that questions of social justice could be as easily dispensed with as Confession or the Mass, but few were as bold as Hobbes or Nietzsche in regarding power as an ultimate principle or even summum bonum.

Human Dignity

Whether individualistic or statist, many liberals (until the rise of environmentalism) have liked to speak of the dignity of man, who is elevated to something like a god.  This tendency is exemplified by Pico della Mirandola in his famous oration.  What is often overlooked or deliberately omitted is Pico's contempt for Christianity and his pursuit of the dangerous magic of demons that live beyond the planetary spheres.  If Pico and the alchemists are read carefully, one begins to understand the modern obsession with space exploration, cloning, and the creation of life.  If man is truly to become a god, he must display the power and attributes of the Christian God, while refuting, at the same time, the claim that God was unique in creating life on earth.

The Human Blank Slate

Finally, although this list could certainly go on for many pages, the tendencies toward rationality and away from tradition encouraged many liberals to simplify human nature and to by sympathetic to Locke's theory that the human mind, far from being conditioned by either biology or Aristotelian categories, is really a blank slate on which the progressive reformer is free to write anything he likes, whether the message is communism or free love.  Naturally, when the blank slate gets in the way of some strange hypothesis—Freud's libidinism or the homosexualist argument that they cannot help being born the way they are—they cheerfully ignore it.

It took several centuries for liberalism to reach its culmination in people like Godwin and Mill and Mises, and along the way many liberals were contaminated by such illiberal concerns as Christian faith (Acton), the supreme cultural value of  the classics (JS Mill),  an appreciation of tradition (Sir Henry Sumner Maine) or national community (Lecky and T.H. Green), or a sense of horror at the immoral conclusions to which the movement was tending (Fitzjames Stephen), and while I shall note some of these wholesome aberrations and speak in defense of their sanity, I do not wish to lose sight of the objective, which is to describe and categorize the beast we can call Homo liberalis.

To avoid turning this into an exercise in intellectual history--a more tedious exercise I cannot imagine--let us turn immediately to Bernard Mandeville, a bold and original mind who put squarely on the table the "virtue of selfishness" centuries before that dreadful female created her cult of delusional Untermenschen.

 

 

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