One of the funniest and most insightful scenes in the film Amadeus takes place when Emperor Joseph II puzzles over the rehearsal of a wedding scene from Mozart’s new opera, Le nozze di Figaro. In an attempt to hinder Mozart’s career, Count Orsini-Rosenberg, the Emperor’s opera director, had forced Mozart to remove the music that was to accompany the wedding dance, citing as his justification the Emperor’s proscription of ballet in royal operas. As a result of this excision, the Emperor unwittingly sits down to watch a silent and awkward spectacle, the only sounds of which are the sporadic thuds made by leaping dancers as they land on the stage floorboards. The performance self-evidently makes no sense: the scene is a dance without music, i.e., a dance that lacks that without which a dance, as a dance, cannot properly exist. With all the reticence of a man who does not believe himself to be a competent judge of aesthetic matters, and all the self-doubt of a man who does not want to appear unduly censorious, the Emperor attempts to comprehend, and perhaps even criticize, the unintelligible performance taking place before him. “I don’t understand,” he says, perplexed. “Is it modern?”

In this line, Emperor Joseph points us toward the problem of the modern conception of liberty. He intuitively equates the disordered nature of the performance, which lacks those things required by its nature as a performance of a certain kind, with a modern aesthetic conception on the basis of which what is unintelligible and incoherent may be plausibly presented as a finished work of art. Those of us who have gawked at modern art or been mystified by modern poetry well know the Emperor’s bewilderment. In such works, we notice—on the aesthetic plane—what Daniel Mahoney calls the “doctrine of liberty as liberation” in his succinct book The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order. According to Mahoney, such a doctrine, which “finds powerful support in some of the core assumptions of modern political philosophy itself,” seeks “to systematically overcome all external restraints and limitations on the exercise of human autonomy.”

Throughout his book, Mahoney argues that the West’s “conservative foundations” had traditionally provided its “liberal order” with standards of ethics and justice that were understood to exist independently of the human will and which therefore served as limitations on it. The problem of the modern liberal order lies in its tendency to continually subsume pre-modern authoritative institutions and practices within modern principles of justice. Tocqueville, whose moderate critique of democracy serves as the book’s starting point, was concerned “about the maintenance of these pre- or extraliberal traditions and habits” in a liberal democratic order precisely because, as Mahoney argues, he recognized that “the democratic notion of popular sovereignty or consent does not limit itself to the political realm.” What Tocqueville called the “democratic dogma”—on the basis of which pre-modern institutions must continually and increasingly justify themselves in terms of individualistic and democratic principles of justice—eventually “transforms family life, religion, and other inherited institutions in ever more ‘democratic’ or individualistic directions.”

Some of the contemporary results of this perpetual democratization, as Mahoney recounts, include “abortion on demand, the transformation of marriage to include all ‘consensual’ relationships, and various forms of expressive individualism.” For Mahoney, Tocqueville was thus a prescient explicator of the underlying tension within liberal democracy between modern principles of justice (such as popular sovereignty and equality of rights) and the long-inherited practices of Western tradition. Such a tension manifests itself in the contemporary West, according to Mahoney, in the conflict between the idea of popular sovereignty as a limitless abstraction under which ever “more radical interpretations and applications” of the democratic principle become progressively justifiable, on the one hand, and the idea of popular sovereignty as the practice of republican self-government under the moderating context of authoritative pre-modern institutions, on the other.

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In pointing man beyond his immediate concerns and desires, the West’s traditional institutions had also pointed man toward goals that addressed his highest longings and not merely his need for material well-being. Under the growing influence of liberal modernity, however, the commonsense distinctions between the high and the low, nobility and vulgarity, and excellence and mediocrity increasingly lose their authoritative influence in society.

In part two of his book, Mahoney lends special attention to Churchill’s essay “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” in which the statesman expresses deep concern over the pernicious effects that modern “mass processes”—such as economic mass production and media-driven public opinion—seemed to be having on the excellence of human character, i.e., on the capacity of man to defer or moderate the pursuit of comfortable self-preservation for the sake of civic self-perfection. Churchill believed that modern man’s affairs were “increasingly being settled by mass processes” and that modern Western society was, in accruing a “measureless abundance” of material wealth, also becoming increasingly subject to “enormous processes of collectivization.” The essential question for Churchill was whether the “measureless abundance” generated by the modern liberal democratic order was being purchased “at the expense of personal initiative and civic independence.” Churchill believed that in order for modern man to forestall or at least attenuate his spiritual and civic stultification, he had to, in Mahoney’s words, “find higher satisfactions than those offered in a standardized world.”

By “higher satisfactions,” Mahoney means satisfactions that address what is highest in man. What is highest in man is what man, as a rational animal, does not have in common with the brute animals, but rather what he has in common with the final cause of his rationality and of all rationality as such. Man is rational because, unlike the brute animals, he cannot simply act; he immediately grasps that different actions are always related to different ends and that the most essential distinction between ends is the moral distinction—the distinction between good and bad. However rightly or wrongly man may happen to define this distinction at any given moment, he cannot dispense with it without also dispensing with the basis of his humanity. Man, therefore, cannot help wondering about the nature of the good life, and this moral directedness is a reflection of man’s highest purpose as a rational being. Churchill’s critique of modern mass society is thus best understood as a critique of the absence in modern mass society of those things that address man’s rationality understood in contradistinction to his animality.

Churchill’s misgivings about the fate of excellence of character in the West are perhaps best validated by the cultural upheavals of 1968 and the “postmodern” legacy they left behind. In part three of his book, Mahoney explores the character of post-1968 Western liberalism, which “increasingly defines liberty in terms of the single imperative of consent” and, in so doing, continually radicalizes the liberal principle of equality so that “the relation between civic equals” that lies “at the heart of democratic political life” increasingly becomes “the unchallenged model for all human relations.” Liberty thus understood means simply the “maximization of individual autonomy and consent” in every sphere of life where it is demanded with sufficient majoritarian force. Under such a dispensation, the questionable moral status of the ends for which a given increase in individual autonomy is demanded can no longer be taken as an admissible ground for the prudential negation of the demanded increase in individual autonomy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s critique of what he called “anthropocentric humanism,” by which he meant “the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him,” can be rightly understood as a repudiation of the radical individualism and moral libertarianism championed by the soixante-huitards. For Solzhenitsyn, to whom Mahoney turns in part four of the book, the problem of modern liberty, and of the Enlightenment project itself, can be traced to its founding basis in the human will. Mahoney supplements this argument by referring to the thought of Hobbes. The Hobbesian understanding of political life, on the basis of which essentially asocial individuals coalesce into political association primarily for the sake of self-preservation, subordinates the goods of the soul to the goods of the body by transforming morality into a handmaid of self-preservation, making contract the basis of morality. In the growing absence of any authority above the human will by reference to which man may discern which ends are more choiceworthy than others, all ends, as mere objects of desire, become equally choiceworthy. If man is the measure of all things, the purposeless desire to gratify desire becomes the most legitimate justification for any contractual use for which freedom may be claimed. Solzhenitsyn’s critique of liberal modernity thus consists in the recognition that man cannot be truly free without a purpose for which to be free, and the goodness of such a purpose must exist independently and irrespectively of man’s will.

As I argued previously, man’s purpose is related to his rationality. The mere positing of the question concerning human purpose presupposes a potential answer to the question: in asking the question about how he should live, man realizes that he is a being by nature capable of asking the question about how he should live. Such a realization leads to an awareness of the question’s relation to his nature as a being of a certain kind, a being who can reason about ends and derive a fulfillment through reason that is different in kind, and in rank, from the fulfillment derived through the gratification of desires man holds in common with brute animals. In other words, by seriously asking the question about how, and for what purpose, he should live, man becomes aware of the question’s essential relation to human fulfillment in the highest sense, to human happiness as defined by the moral purposefulness of his nature. Man realizes that he is the animal that seeks not merely to live, which is to say, to preserve himself, but more fundamentally, to live well, which is to say, to perfect himself—to perfect his nature by fulfilling the purpose set by Nature for a being of his kind.

Mahoney defends the West’s conservative foundations as the set of practices and beliefs that have long reminded modern man of the purposeful being of his nature and of the natural order within which all human order is to be properly subsumed. In reminding man of the natural order, the West’s conservative foundations pointed the liberal order to those permanent standards by reference to which it was able to distinguish between freedom used to fulfill the higher purposes of man’s rational nature, and freedom used to gratify the arbitrary preferences of man’s will to power. In the absence of the ennobling influence of traditional institutions, man becomes increasingly unable or unwilling to distinguish between the purposeful and purposeless uses of his freedom and, therewith, unable to recognize the fundamental relation that the intelligibility of such a distinction bears to the viability of a humane and liberal polity.

Mahoney’s fundamental suggestion is that liberal society becomes less viable without tradition because liberal society becomes less viable without those venerable things that remind man of nature—that which limits his freedom by giving it a purpose. In the same way that a dance cannot properly be a dance without that by virtue of which the dancers dance (unless, as Emperor Joseph’s unintended joke suggests, it happens to be a “modern” dance), man cannot properly be free without that by virtue of which his freedom has meaning.