Liberalism’s ascendency, so confidently proclaimed just a year ago, now seems a thing of the past. Did it ever even begin? The 2006 and 2008 elections were perhaps more Republican defeats than Democratic victories, let alone liberal victories. But whatever its fortunes, there is a sense in which liberalism is indeed riding high: a substantive sense. And all who have a stake in liberalism — or in its defeat — would do well to understand it.

Liberalism is increasingly characterized by an “elevated” perspective. It increasingly defines its mission as the overcoming of parochial concerns. For a sense of what this means and how it differs from past incarnations of liberalism, think of President Obama’s much-noted rhetorical practice of standing above specifically American interests and presenting himself almost as an impartial reconciler of the United States and its adversaries; and compare this to the nationalism that infused the rhetoric — and the actions — of his great liberal forebears. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt may have understood themselves to be advancing the interests of mankind — American victory in the World Wars was to have inaugurated a peaceful and democratic international order — but there was no thought that American interests were unduly parochial and needed to be checked or enriched by the interests of competitors. And the God whom these earlier liberals invoked in wartime, though understood to have purposes of his own, was confidently invoked for the sake of American victory. Contemporary liberalism is different. To be sure, contemporary liberalism frequently takes the side of particular factions or interests. But it does so — or so it tells itself — only as a means of overcoming the excessive power of a heretofore dominant faction or interest in pursuit of a universal good. Its particularism is justified as a means to universalism. What conservatives decry as class warfare or reverse discrimination or the erosion of national sovereignty or solicitude for Third World tyrants is understood by sincere liberals not only as the righting of wrongs but as affirmative action toward a universal good — toward the universal good: unity.1

To be sure, contemporary liberalism frequently takes the side of particular factions or interests.

Liberalism does not enjoy massive support. Liberals might suppose that this is inevitable but temporary. Heights are always scaled at first only by a small vanguard of the enlightened. Only later, after the pioneers have laid a smooth path, can the multitude make its way up. But the multitude doesn’t always follow along. More than once in the past century liberalism’s dreams have been deferred. So even the most advanced and self-confident liberals might do well to reflect on the tenuousness of their position. Why do so many resist and even recoil from liberalism? Why, even during the honeymoon of our liberal president, did so few count themselves liberals (only 21 percent in Gallup’s June 2009 poll)? Why have so few supported his policies even when offered the cover of “pragmatism”? The liberal or progressive explanation would hold that the majority of citizens, not sufficiently evolved or enlightened, continue to cling to the comforting familiarity of their lowland nooks. This explanation is consistent with a wide range of attitudes, from benign condescension to full-bore anger, depending on what one identifies as the specific source of the majority’s recalcitrance (e.g., economic disadvantage versus malignant envy).

An opposing explanation, born of a certain kind of conservatism, might claim that liberal cosmopolitanism isn’t elevated at all, not in any moral sense, anyway. According to this kind of conservatism — let’s call it traditionalism — virtue and nobility arise from defense of one’s own, and liberal cosmopolitanism expresses only moral weakness if not resentment and turpitude. But this does not seem to be the view of most who make up the recalcitrant majority. If it were, liberals would be unelectable and President Obama would not enjoy the personal goodwill he continues to enjoy. Most of the nonliberal majority take a more indulgent view of liberals, at times even admiring them, at least when they don’t feel they’re being talked down to. The majority of nonliberals are skeptical more than condemning. They are recalcitrant not out of outrage or offense but because they sense that those who are calling to them from above are unrealistic in their estimate of human beings and the possibilities of politics. The worldview that underlies the majority’s resistance to liberalism, though not traditionalist — it makes no presumption in favor of the ancestral — is sober and skeptical about human nature. This worldview too is called conservative — not entirely felicitously, but felicitously enough, if only we remain mindful of its distinctive character and its difference from traditionalism. It has affinities with classical republicanism and classical political philosophy, a feature I mention not because it is meaningful to most who subscribe to it but because it is meaningful to me, or rather, to the essay you are reading. My purpose in this essay is to offer a critical appraisal of contemporary liberalism informed by the spirit of classical political thought. My argument is that the leading edge of liberalism is indeed at a height, that it is in touch with some of the greatest truths, but that it apprehends these truths only partially and interprets and applies them in ways that are correspondingly — that is to say, greatly — misguided.

The unity of all

Liberalism’s virtues are well known. Compassion. Moral earnestness. Cosmopolitanism. Egalitarianism. Suspicion of power and the powerful. Protection of minority rights. Commitment to maximizing personal freedom. All true, even if most conservatives look askance at some of these qualities (at least as they are interpreted by liberals) and at nearly all of liberalism’s means of expressing them. In fact, though, the list testifies to the kinship between American liberalism and conservatism. Most of the list could be embraced, would be claimed, by conservatives — certainly by most conservative politicians. And even where conservatives find liberalism altogether wrongheaded they still might be thankful for the fact that liberalism arose from the same cultural sources that conservatism seeks to defend. In 1976 Irving Kristol offered a conservative’s lament over “the death of socialism” on the grounds that “with the passing of the socialist ideal there is removed from the political horizon the one alternative to capitalism that was rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the Western civilization which emerged from that tradition.” But Kristol might have overstated. Socialism may have died; liberalism has not. Nor have most liberals lost contact with these same roots, even if many have lost sight of them.

If liberalism’s virtues are evident, so are its corresponding vices. “Corresponding” is indeed the word. Most critics of contemporary liberalism, not only conservatives but also liberals of an older stripe, see in liberalism virtues that have curdled into vices: Compassion into indulgence. Moral earnestness into moral exhibitionism. Cosmopolitanism into contempt for one’s own. Commitment to equality into hesitance to recognize individual excellence. Rightful skepticism toward power into suspicion of power even wedded to right. Protection of minority rights into a culture of grievance and victimization. And the promotion of personal freedom into a liberationist agenda that undermines the habits and beliefs on which self-government depends.

Every incarnation of liberalism presupposes some basis on which to respect all human beings as equal and free.

These opposing lists seem to me to express the range of liberalism’s possibilities for good and ill, and nearly all of us would agree that liberalism is admirable to the extent that it tends toward the first version of these respective qualities rather than the second, even if we might argue over where to draw the line between compassion and indulgence, moral earnestness and moral exhibitionism, etc. But what determines whether the virtues or their corresponding vices prevail? The answer, as it always is when we seek the origins of moral phenomena, is metaphysical. What seems right to us seems so because of what we think we are, because of how we understand our nature or our standing in the Whole and even, ultimately, because of how we understand the fundamental character of the Whole in the first place.

The meaning of “liberalism” has always been contestable — in 1932 Herbert Hoover claimed the mantle in his contest with fdr — but not infinitely so. Every incarnation of liberalism presupposes some basis on which to respect all human beings as equal and free. This is true whether or not the one who presupposes it is aware of the presupposition. It is true even if the one who presupposes it denies the presupposition: Even an anti-metaphysical “liberal ironist” presupposes some such metaphysical basis, if only playfully. But what gives different varieties of liberalism their different characters are the different ways in which they conceive of this basis. For years the leading strand of American liberalism held that all human beings are equal and free by virtue of being equally created in the image of God, who wanted them to govern themselves within the broad limits he laid out. The leading lights of contemporary liberalism, however, appeal to a different basis — and not because they feel incapable of making strong metaphysical pronouncements. Rather, they appeal to what they regard as a more profound insight into reality. And it is just this insight — or rather, the way they understand this insight — that creates the not irresistible but strong and persistent tendency away from the virtues I have listed and toward the vices.

What insight? Understood in what way?

The insight to which I am referring forms the core of what is sometimes called the Perennial Philosophy. That term was given currency by Leibniz but denotes a worldview held in significant part by an extraordinary number of our civilization’s (and not only our civilization’s) most extraordinary minds. The core contention of the Perennial Philosophy is that all is One: separate entities exist, but at a “deeper” level their separateness gives way to an underlying, timeless Unity. This Unity is prior to and indeed the truth of the separate entities, just as the ocean is prior to and the truth of the individual waves that belong and return to it.

Oneness, Unity: The capital letters smack of religion, and some who have advocated the Perennial Philosophy have seen fit to refer to this Oneness as God. Aldous Huxley, who popularized Leibniz’s term, defined it as pertaining to “the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds.” Others have preferred a more arcane language, referring instead to the Absolute or to the Ground or Suchness of Being, but inevitably the impression arises that we are dealing with a religious worldview, which is not an altogether comfortable thing for today’s notably secular and (as it sees itself) rational liberalism. Fortunately, though, the idea is sufficiently ecumenical to pass muster by universalist and multicultural standards (liberals’ two great if not altogether consistent pieties), and it has even been embraced by some scientists — indeed, by that most authoritative of scientists for modern humanists. Here is Einstein famously giving voice to the core of the Perennial Philosophy (and pointing to the beginnings of a political theory as well — take note):

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Einstein even avows that in this sense, though only in this sense, he “belong[s] to the ranks of devoutly religious men.”

This sight of Unity has important practical implications — and for those who suppose that the sight is easily teachable, it has great political implications as well. If all is One, then all human beings are one. More than simply connected, all human beings share an identical essence or true Self. According to most adherents of the Perennial Philosophy, this oneness is something human beings intuit or divine, or could, though most of us intuit it inchoately in a way that renders our intuition vulnerable to distortion by the self that does not know its true nature — by the unfree I, or ego. The ego, with its insistence on separateness and its desire for self-aggrandizement, resists the truth and causes all the harm we do to one another. (The ego in its “raw” or unenlightened state, that is.) Under the ego’s influence, the intuition that we are each a moment of divinity becomes the assertion that I or my group alone is divine or favored by God. The ego, however, can be overcome — or can come to see through itself and its pretensions into its true ground. When this happens, the individual is liberated from separatism and the impulse to harm others. And were such a revolution of consciousness to take place on a wide enough scale, the world would be redeemed, would become a place of blessing — because people would recognize that it already is and always has been just that.

These tenets are propounded by many popular teachers of “Spirituality” and “Personal Growth.” (Consult any mainstream bookstore or tune into a late-afternoon television talk show.) But they can also be discerned, albeit translated into more secular and “pragmatic” terms, among contemporary liberalism’s most progressive voices. Even in their secular versions, though, these tenets seem somehow religious, even messianic, particularly when conveyed in mellifluous tones and a preacher’s cadences. “Hope,” “Change,” “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”: The words may not contain much substance, but they do point to something — to the Unity of all.

Liberal illiberalism

Most who have investigated and articulated the oneness of Being have not been political thinkers, or at least not political thinkers of the first rank. An exception is Plato, who is worth recalling not just because he shares the insight into the oneness of Being but because of where that insight does and doesn’t take him. Consider the faith that the world could be redeemed by a revolution in consciousness. Plato would regard that view as true but utopian. Humanity would be vastly better off if everyone could be brought to awareness of the One, but there is no reason to suppose that this could ever happen. Certainly it is nowhere near being true now, and it would be wrong — not just futile, but disastrous — to try to bring about such a situation through politics. Few will ever escape the cave of opinion and delusion, and even the best possible society would be a cave. The best society would not be one in which opinion had been supplanted by universal knowledge — that just isn’t possible, in Plato’s view — but one in which the prevailing opinions were noble and had a share in the truth.

Plato’s sobriety and “elitism” are grounded in an awareness of the extraordinary difficulty of philosophic liberation or enlightenment. The successful candidate needs great natural gifts — intelligence, desire, spiritedness, and more — and must be afforded an education oriented toward “sight of what is.” The gifts cannot be politically engineered, and the education would virtually require absolute governance by the wise. This is why the “mystical” and “utopian” Plato is such a profound realist. There can be no counting on the beneficence or broad-mindedness of others, particularly not those who have heretofore established themselves as one’s adversaries. This principle is particularly important to the conduct of international relations, where the imperative to pursue one’s interests in ways that conflict with the interests of others is even more pronounced than it is among individuals. The foreign policy of the noble city of Plato’s Republic is Machiavellian avant la lettre.

Now consider the contrast presented by contemporary liberalism. Liberalism’s pronounced tendency is toward a therapeutic approach to international conflict, toward an “idealism” that believes it can talk if not love aggressors out of aggression (and for the truest of the true believers love is the answer). Perhaps the most perfect expression of this therapeutic idealism — it even combines with the therapeutic spirit the other great feature of modern liberalism, namely, bureaucracy — is the proposed Department of Peace, an idea which is admittedly a bit far out even for most liberals, but not too far to garner the support of 70 members of Congress and a number of luminaries. But leave the dop aside. The therapeutic approach to international conflict (to say nothing of much domestic policy) is evident throughout today’s mainstream liberalism. In most cases the therapeutic approach is not a manifestation of weakness or fatigue. This is important to see, and something conservatives often miss.

The therapeutic approach to international conflict is evident throughout today’s mainstream liberalism.

Liberalism’s therapeutic spirit, at least in its leading and most attractive advocates, is not the world-weary spirit of 1930s appeasement but something much more vital if misguided. The therapeutic approach of today’s liberalism is positively motivated. It is grounded in and inspired by the Perennial Philosophy. Where it deviates from Plato, whose insight into the oneness of Being does not in any way compromise his sobriety about politics, is in translating the core tenets of the Perennial Philosophy into political principles, into policy principles, directly and universally. That we are one (the first tenet of the Perennial Philosophy) is taken to mean that others deserve solicitousness, indeed that to be violent with others is to be violent with ourselves. That we are all capable of intuiting or divining our oneness (the second tenet) is taken to mean that our primary political calling is to deepen our own insight and open the eyes of those who don’t yet see — the latter to be done, of course, with respect and solicitude. That the denial of oneness stems from egoical defensiveness (the third tenet) is taken to mean that we must make deniers feel safe enough to let go of that defensiveness, upon which their fear and self-aggrandizement will ease and their aggressive impulses dissolve. The answer to darkness is light.

The answer to darkness is light. But to suppose that one can bring light into the councils of one’s adversaries — to count on enlightening them — is a foolishness that only a true believer could embrace.

The consequences of such folly are not small. The most obvious and immediate danger is the emboldening of our adversaries. Even if therapeutic liberalism isn’t an expression of weakness or timidity, it is apt to be taken as such by liberal society’s fiercest enemies. And indeed, the effectual truth of therapeutic liberalism often is weakness. But a broader set of consequences comes to sight when we look into the source of liberalism’s utopian belief that the principles of the Perennial Philosophy should be translated — that they can be translated — directly and universally into politics. That source — the fundamental error of contemporary liberalism — is the partiality of its insight into Being. Although it may glimpse the oneness of Being — perhaps because it glimpses the oneness — it fails to appreciate the heterogeneity of Being. Or to put it in terms more familiar to the Perennial Philosophy, liberalism fails to appreciate the Many through which the One expresses itself, including the complex hierarchy (or “holarchy,” as it’s sometimes put) according to which the Many are ordered.

Even if therapeutic liberalism isn’t an expression of weakness or timidity, it is apt to be taken as such by liberal society’s enemies.

This failure leads to two deeply problematic tendencies. First, the liberal true believer will tend to underestimate the difficulty of overcoming separateness. This is the immediate source of liberalism’s “softness,” its belief that even the most intractable conflicts are apt to yield to therapeutic ministrations and that our determined adversaries can be mollified by sweet reason, often preceded by apologies. Yet if liberalism tends to deal softly with hard cases, it tends toward a certain harshness with a different kind of adversary. This is the second problem. The liberal true believer will be tempted to impose oneness where oneness “should” exist but doesn’t: among one’s compatriots, say. The impulse to impose oneness or to force unity is evident in liberalism’s preference for universal solutions over federalist approaches; in its desire to ensure equal outcomes rather than just equal opportunities; and in its tendency, especially in cultural and educational institutions, to insist on conformity (or political correctness) in the guise of “diversity.” This is how what is called liberalism threatens to become illiberal.

The slide into illiberalism is not inevitable. The Perennial Philosophy is compatible with — one might argue that, rightly understood, the Perennial Philosophy entails — respect for the dignity of individuals and hence the need for limited government. And even when not well understood, the Perennial Philosophy may promote a spirit of respect for all beings as they are, in all their imperfection. Nevertheless the temptation to illiberalism will be hard to resist when one believes he has it in his power to create the conditions for true dignity and freedom. For one who believed this to be the case, wouldn’t it seem foolish and even cruel not to use this power? And if the people objected, well, wouldn’t it show more respect to the governed to override their objections when these objections, after all, manifest a defensive and benighted egoism — the very egoism that inhibits social progress and that we can help them overcome?

Such is the logic of the utopian temptation at its noblest and most dangerous. To be sure, the messianic or utopian temptation is not unique to adherents of the Perennial Philosophy. It has proved powerful and terrible among many who have subscribed to a more dualistic metaphysics and who have professed to believe that all human beings have been created in the image of God. Yet perhaps the belief in imago dei provides firmer ground on which to resist the utopian temptation all the same — not perfectly, to be sure, but significantly. This for two reasons, one arising from the height, the other from the lowliness, of man as imago dei. First, everything else being equal we might be a little less inclined to impose our will on beings whom we have been taught to regard as God-like. After all, it is not only ourselves but all our fellow human beings as well who share in the divine image. Second, we might be a little less sure of our wisdom and goodness — and hence less sure of our entitlement to rule — when we remember that we are only God-like, not God. An image both is and is not the thing itself, and in this case both sides of this paradox might serve to moderate our sense of political entitlement.

Complementary ideas of natural right

If liberalism is to be saved from its folly, its metaphysical insight must be supplemented by a more political wisdom. To awareness of oneness must be added appreciation of the manifold character of Being — appreciation of the manifold beings and types of beings for what they are. Toward this end there are in principle two possible routes.

First would be to find ways to see the world less abstractly. This would mean, among other things, less indulgence in theory and more study of history; less thralldom to ideological thinking and more attention to the murky and elusive depths of human life.2 To the study of history we might also add the study of great literature, especially novels, as well as those political philosophers who don’t feed the taste for abstraction and help us to see what is before our eyes. Among such philosophers are Aristotle, Montesquieu, and especially Tocqueville, an authority blessedly accepted by both liberals and conservatives, who understood why those who live in a democratic age tend toward a troubling belief in Oneness (troubling in Tocqueville’s view because it discounts individuality and the possibility of individual greatness — see Democracy in America’s chapter on pantheism). But saying all this is another way of saying that liberalism must in some ways become more like conservatism. And while there is no reason in principle why liberalism couldn’t do so, and couldn’t benefit from doing so, it probably won’t, at least not to a very significant extent. Liberalism is by nature a more theoretically oriented thing. For better or worse, it will continue to be shaped by a metaphysical doctrine. So if it is to be reformed, the reform must be theoretical. This is the second route of reform: The partiality of liberalism’s insight into the oneness of Being must be overcome.

Natural right is a principle of justice; natural law, a formula that specifies what natural right requires or how it ought to be applied.

What this overcoming might look like must still be worked out. But lest this “prescription” seem as urgent but opaque as a Heideggerian oracle, let me at least mention that liberalism once found strength and purpose — and success — by taking its bearings from a more richly articulated conception of what is. That conception went by the name of nature, and the resulting political teaching, or foundation for liberal politics, was called natural right. Today it is conservatives who have become the most ardent champions of natural right, even if many traditional conservatives eschew it. But modern natural right is an essentially liberal idea, and liberals once understood this to be so. (By modern I mean the conception of natural right as developed by philosophers like Locke, which differs from ancient conceptions precisely by virtue of its egalitarianism.)

Natural right has been embraced by American conservatism, to the extent that it has been embraced by American conservatism, only because American conservatism is liberal conservatism. Liberalism’s great 20th-century achievements, from the fight against fascism to the struggle for civil rights, were rightly understood by their agents as achievements on behalf of natural right. As indeed they were: Modern natural right may not have been the only basis on which these victories could have been gained, but it may well have been the most compelling. For that matter, the “self-evident” truths of the American founding were principles of modern natural right. Developed by political philosophers in the 17th century as a means of tempering fanaticism and vainglory, modern natural right gave rise in the 18th century to American republicanism and helped in the 19th and 20th centuries to perfect and defend that republicanism.

Yet that perfection was never completed. And however great its contributions in the past, the doctrine of natural right is now seen as an impediment. To the postmodern liberal temper “natural right” sounds dogmatic, high-handed, overly prescriptive, even (gulp) neoconservative. And the appeal to nature seems a hopelessly naive appeal to an illusory foundation. Indeed, foundations as such are thought to be both dubious and needlessly constraining. But the issue deserves to be reopened — not only because of the historical achievements that were made possible by the doctrine of natural right, but also because natural right admits of many varieties and can allow for great flexibility and compromise. One can appeal to nature strongly but modestly, finding support for basic human rights but also for a diversity of ways of life. Indeed, the philosophic tradition teaches that the opacity and complexity of nature demands such modesty. One can endorse natural right without subscribing to natural law, as Aristotle did. Natural right is a principle of justice; natural law, a formula that specifies what natural right requires or how it ought to be applied. Aristotle was no relativist, but he saw natural right as varying according to circumstances, too much so to admit of being formulated as natural law. (Of course the memory of Martin Luther King ought to be sufficient reminder that liberalism can also embrace natural law.) One can even appeal to nature “ironically” and pragmatically, as a questionable thing but still something more substantial and thus more useful to the promotion of liberal ends than groundless will.

Natural right as conceived by liberalism would be bound to differ from the versions conceived by conservatives. Liberal approaches to natural right would emphasize the insight into oneness that accords so well with liberalism’s universalist temper and theoretical bent. Conservative approaches, by contrast, would be more manifold and particularistic, owing to the conservative temper’s tendency to see distinctiveness before unity and its readier recognition of the powerful forces, both noble and base, that inhibit unity among separate parties. We would be faced with two compelling approaches to natural right. Just as important, the two approaches would face each other. Liberalism could only benefit, as would conservatism and indeed the country, from the ensuing debate over the meaning of that powerful, classically liberal idea.

1 Is this even liberalism anymore? In my view a political theory that confidently seeks unity as a kind of perfection might more aptly be called “progressivism.” But a writer must accept conventional usage, at least he must begin there, if he wants to be understood.

2 I know, I know, liberals claimed throughout the Bush years to be the “reality-based” community — it’s the Bush administration that supposedly surrendered to the seductions of ideology in deciding to go to war in Iraq. But the charge against the Bushies, whatever its merit, does not absolve liberals of their own ideological thinking. For that matter, whatever ideological thinking did influence the decision to go to war in Iraq was liberal ideological thinking.

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