American politics today is characterized by deep and rancorous disagreements. The parties are more polarized than they have been in decades. Liberals and conservatives dislike and distrust each other. Both sides try to rally their supporters by saying, “we are going to take our country back!” The common use of this expression implies that both sides see their political rivals as an alien force animated by an unacceptable and illegitimate vision of the country and its future.

This unsightly spectacle frequently provokes calls for moderation. Certainly more moderation would help to repair the spirit of civic friendship between parties that the country needs to flourish. At the same time, however, we can easily see that many calls for moderation are unhelpful because they are superficial and self-serving. Praise for political moderation frequently is a vehicle for merely denouncing those with whom we disagree for their supposed extremism. Such discourse proceeds from the opposite of a spirit of moderation, since a truly moderate person would try to understand those with whom he differs and find, if possible, areas of agreement and potential cooperation.

We don’t need more such partisan calls for moderation—extremists condemning other extremists for their immoderate politics. What we really need is something more demanding but also more fruitful: a quest for political moderation that transcends the partisan and ideological conflicts of the moment and seeks a loftier perspective. We can never achieve moderation as long as our minds are dominated by the political hopes and fears of the moment. Such moderation can emerge only from serious reflection on the nature of our regime and its permanent needs, which requires us to ascend to the level of the statesman and the political philosopher.

Moderation as a Form of Wisdom

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This much needed enterprise—serious thought in the service of true moderation—is advanced by Paul Carrese’s excellent study, Democracy in Moderation: Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Sustainable Liberalism. This book is, in the first place, an impressive work of scholarship. It explores a neglected question: what is the role of philosophic and political moderation in building modern democracy? It seeks insight into this question by considering not only the great modern philosophic proponents of moderation, Montesquieu and Tocqueville, but also an exemplary statesman, George Washington. It asks what a wise moderation would look like not only in domestic politics but also in foreign policy. Finally, it carries on, in its footnotes, a wide-ranging engagement with the scholarship on these great figures. The careful reader will come away from the book understanding not only Carrese’s arguments, but alternative interpretations as well.

Much more important, however, is the book’s defense of moderation as necessary to preserving the free and democratic regime we have inherited. Here is where Carrese’s work should be of interest not only to scholars but also to thoughtful citizens and responsible statesmen. By linking moderation to a proper respect for the complexity of our regime, and to the hope of making it sustainable, he shows us that moderation is a high form of wisdom.

Moderation in its most obvious sense—the sense famously explicated by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics—regulates our use of bodily pleasures. Taken in this ordinary sense, moderation might at first appear to be a rather pedestrian and unimpressive virtue. It is the virtue of the person who doesn’t eat too much.

On reflection, however, we can see that even this commonplace form of moderation relies on and puts into practice a certain wisdom about the nature of the good. The moderate man knows that food is good—or that the sensations of pleasure experienced in eating are good. He also knows, however, that there is some other good, or other goods, that must limit his pursuit of these pleasures. Moderation, then, even in its ordinary sense, depends on an appreciation of the multifaceted nature of the good.

Carrese shows us that this is true of political moderation as well. Just as ordinary moderation depends on our realization that a good life involves a variety of good activities and pleasures that must be kept in balance, so political moderation depends on our realization that a good society depends on a variety of institutions, mores, and beliefs that must be kept in balance. The political moderation that we so badly need, Carrese teaches, requires a proper appreciation of the complexity of our free, democratic society. It cannot be reduced to a single principle. Those who try to do so, thinking they are perfecting it, are in fact laboring to destroy it.

Secularism as Extremism

Today, one powerful and dangerous form of single-minded extremism—or extreme single-mindedness—is a kind of thoroughgoing secularism. According to this view, the good, modern society will completely privatize the claims of religion. Religious belief will of course be permitted, but it must be entirely irrelevant to the political order. This, it is thought, is inseparable from the promise of modern freedom.

This radical view has intellectually impressive forebears, including Hobbes and Spinoza. Carrese shows, however, that a more truly moderate approach—one that recognizes not only the political dangers of religion but also its positive political contributions—can be found in thinkers like Montesquieu and Tocqueville. Theirs is a moderate approach because it concedes, on the one hand, that religion should not try to regain for itself the commanding social and political position that it held in the Middle Ages, while, on the other hand, insisting that religion has something positive—indeed, something essential—to contribute to modernity.

Modern man’s freedom to pursue commerce and technological mastery has led to many good things. Most obviously, it has ameliorated the human condition by generating great and widely shared prosperity. That very prosperity, however, and the freedom to pursue and enjoy it, can degrade human beings by fostering materialism and hedonism, stunting the soul by pampering the body. Religion provides a salutary check on these dangerous tendencies by giving the soul something nobler to which to aspire. For this reason, the wise philosopher and the prudent statesman will seek to preserve religion’s influence in our democracy and will not cooperate in any project aiming at its total subordination.

Religion and Realism

This is not only a more moderate approach; it is also a more realistic approach. Again, it is commonplace for the partisans of secularism to claim that the free society was established on the basis of resistance to the political power of religion. There is truth in this claim. Nevertheless, as Carrese reminds us, it is equally true that religion to some extent aided the development of the free society. Modern, democratic freedom cannot honestly be presented as having been established in opposition to religion, because it could not have been established without the help of religion.

This, at least, is the testimony of the great figures to whom Carrese would have us turn for instruction. Montesquieu observed that modern Europe was less cruel and brutal than the Roman Empire because of the influence of Christianity. According to Tocqueville, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to come to earth to make it understood that all men are fundamentally equal. And George Washington attributed the modern emergence of freedom and rights not only to the “cultivation of letters” and the “extension of commerce,” but also and “above all” to the “pure and benign light of Revelation.”

They have a point. The radical proponents of the rights doctrine on which modern free societies are based think that that doctrine is evident to human reason. But if it is, why are there not more free societies? Why did this doctrine gain acceptance, and the kind of society for which it calls emerge, only in a few places and at a certain point in human history? Washington was sober and realistic when he attributed the rise of freedom and enlightenment to the influence of revelation. The people of modern Europe were open to a decent teaching about the natural rights of all individuals in part because their culture had been immersed in Christianity and its moral teaching for over a thousand years.

Carrese also links his theme of moderation and respect for complexity with a concern for sustainability. If our society was made possible by the joining together of diverse elements, then its preservation would likewise depend on continued cultivation of those various elements. If modern democracy was made possible not only by the progress of secular reason but also by respect for religious morality, then both secular reason and religious morality need to flourish if modern democracy is to be preserved.

Those on the left, often the most ardent proponents of secular reason, tend to see the connection between complexity and sustainability quite clearly when it is a question of the natural environment. They remind us that there is no such thing as a simple, clean gain from human modification of, say, a natural ecosystem. Such a system is so complex, so delicately balanced, that any intrusion will have unforeseen and possibly unwelcome consequences.

Those who see this would do well to hearken to Carrese’s account, which would show them that the same thing is true of the moral, political, and spiritual environment that has nurtured modern democracy. Contrary to what some on the left seem to believe today, there can be no such thing as a simple, clean gain for freedom and equality from beating down traditional religion, demoralizing its adherents, and driving it from the public square. The free society cannot be perfected on the basis of such “enlightened” social engineering because such social engineering did not create it in the first place. Rather, it grew over time on the basis of a philosophic, moral, and religious inheritance. That complex cultural inheritance is, as far as we can know, the only basis upon which the free society can be preserved.

As Montesquieu teaches, and as Paul Carrese reminds us, the most common form of government is not democracy but despotism. Democratic freedom did not arise automatically and will not be preserved automatically. Being a rare and delicate growth, its preservation calls for prudence—a prudence informed by the moderation that wisely acknowledges the complex conditions upon which freedom depends. For those who will listen, Carrese’s book is an excellent first step in the recovery of such prudence.

Carson Holloway, a political scientist, chairs the Council of Academic Advisers of the Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics and is the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.