This essay is part of a series on Liberalism. See the full collection here.
I am deeply appreciative of Public Discourse for devoting nearly a week’s content to a discussion of my recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, and allowing me the opportunity to respond to three thoughtful and thought-provoking essays. A narrow window between the conclusion of a semester and impending travel abroad allows me to offer a too brief and unsatisfying response to three commentators and friends—Micah Watson, Sam Gregg, and Anthony Esolen—whose reflections each deserve and invite a lengthier response. I hope for another occasion allowing just that, preferably in person and with requisite refreshments.
Micah Watson generously praises my “lightning bolt of a book.” But, like so many of my more conservative critics, he seeks to tug me back into a sufficient appreciation of Locke, the Founders, and their handiwork, suggesting that the philosophical grounds of the Founding might be reconstituted. Yet we read in Sam Gregg’s response an implicit acknowledgement that Locke represents a longstanding tradition that stretches back at least to Scotus and Ockham (and, arguably, further back to Epicurus, if not the serpent). Gregg, it seems to me, has the stronger case. Locke does make occasional statements urging the discipline to master passing passions, but he does so mainly with a view to advancing an individual notion of happiness—what he understands to be “power” to act or not to act—which he equates with accumulation of pleasures, however defined. As any undergraduate at a top university knows, one has to exercise self-control in order to access a wealth of pleasures. This observation does not make Locke into Aquinas, nor our students into good Aristotelians.
If the Second Treatise is the text that especially informed the thinking behind the Declaration of Independence, it is Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding to which one must turn to understand the radicalness of his utilitarianism, relativism, and voluntarism. As Gregg rightly suggests by linking Locke to the nominalist tradition, we find in that work an unequivocal echo of Hobbes’s denunciation of the Aristotelian and Thomist tradition that sought to delineate the objective nature of happiness and the attendant virtues, and we encounter an endorsement of a view that happiness is relative to the individual and its “attainment” is always comparative. Because happiness is defined in relation to others—and not an unchanging standard—Locke recognizes that we are inescapably “uneasy” and thus always engaged in a “pursuit of happiness.” He writes:
Hence it was, I think, that the philosophers of old did in vain inquire, whether summum bonum consisted in riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation: and they might have as reasonably disputed, whether the best relish were to be found in apples, plums, or nuts, and have divided themselves into sects upon it. For, as pleasant tastes depend not on the things themselves, but on their agreeableness to this or that particular palate, wherein there is great variety; so the greatest happiness consists in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasure, and in the absence of those which cause any disturbance, any pain.
Watson seeks to rest his case for restoring the Founding on several passages that instruct a young person how, ultimately, to be successful in a materialist, relativist, and voluntarist world. As with the writings of Wendell Berry, if we understand the grain of the argument, we can agree or disagree with specifics, but we can’t finally deny its most fundamental teachings.
That said, Watson is entirely right in recognizing that at the time of the founding there was a deep reservoir of belief in the compatibility of liberal philosophy and those who valued “virtue and freedom, rightly understood.” A world thick with Christian practices and belief would have generally left the average person undisturbed by any thoughts of long-term threats posed by that philosophy to those beliefs and practices. But those with a longer-term view saw this threat clearly, throwing into doubt the philosophic “compatibility” of two contrary understandings of liberty, a deeper incompatibility that was discerned by keen contemporaries.
I would point to the sermons “Two Discourses on Liberty” delivered by Nathaniel Niles on the eve of the Revolution, in which he articulated the contradiction between Christian liberty and the Lockean liberty advanced by the more secular elite such as Jefferson. I would point to the prescient and prophetic concerns of the so-called “Anti-Federalists,” who discerned in the Constitution a threat to local liberty and a tendency toward “consolidation” that would ultimately pit the government (including the judiciary) against the people and lead to the undermining of civic virtue. And, of course, we can point to the remarkable analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville, who perceived the threats of “individualism” and statism arising from modern notions of “equal liberty” that echo the form of liberty articulated by Locke. If there was once a time that one could assume a degree of “compatibility” between Christian and Lockean liberty, that time is well behind us: the compatibility that now exists lies between our philosophy and ourselves.
In light of this challenge, Gregg asks whether I might endorse the idea that the Constitution might be “re-premised on non-voluntarism and non-utilitarian foundations.” This is indeed an attractive possibility, but one that requires a fairly revolutionary re-conceptualization of the nature of the Constitution. It was Madison who stated that “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on” to curtail the origins of faction, since—agreeing with Locke—there is no objective truth that can be called upon to adjudicate between contesting ideas of the good. Thus, to “re-found” the Constitution along lines compatible with the natural law would effectively attempt to achieve what was effected by Progressives in their philosophical (and ultimately judicial) reinterpretation of the Constitution.
Of course, it was far more likely for this “reinterpretation” to take place because (as I argue in my book), Progressivism is a logical outworking of Lockean liberalism in practice and over time. To read the Constitution against the grain is a possibility, but it would require a very different people that would itself require a different constitution. We run into the ancient Aristotelian conundrum: how does one solve the ethico-political puzzle in which a virtuous people needs to be fostered by a virtuous regime, while a virtuous regime can only come into being through a virtuous people? Because of the magnitude of the challenge of realistically bringing about such an outcome in a sprawling and internally incoherent corrupt imperial nation like America today, I more modestly suggest that, for most of us, our efforts are best expended fostering “counter-anti-cultural cultures” where we can, while also working toward conceiving a very different political order through new departures in political theory.
Anthony Esolen is the kind of reader any author wishes for: not only understanding the crux of my argument, but extending and deepening it through a sustained effort to show how my analysis is confirmed and demonstrated by elucidating the threat posed to liberalism by the apparently weak, yet immensely powerful, Little Sisters of the Poor. Their witness contradicts the most fundamental assumptions of liberalism, and it is such exemplars that must ultimately be brought to heel by a totalizing regime. But most revealing to me in reading his inimitable prose is the fact that Esolen is among the first readers to focus on parts of the book that have been almost entirely ignored in the dozens of reviews and essays about it: the “triumph” of liberalism through its fostering of an “anti-culture” and evidenced through its evisceration of liberal education.
The fact that almost every review has focused on liberalism as a narrowly political project, and sees the stakes lying in my interpretation of the Founding or Locke, suggests just how thoroughly our vision is narrowed and cramped by liberalism: if only we could light on the right political fix, we could solve all of the attendant and incidental problems of liberalism. I care deeply about politics—it is the discipline I have spent my adult life studying—but I also agree with Percy Bysshe Shelley (or Plato, for that matter), who wrote that it is the poets who are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
If we want a different politics, ultimately we must offer a different moral imagination for ourselves, our children, and theirs. I hope more professors of literature, music, theater, and teachers and parents of children will read my book, and help in turn to tutor the political theorists. But for any appreciative reader an author is rightly grateful, and for the generous and challenging comments of Micah Watson, Sam Gregg, and Anthony Esolen I am especially grateful.