Liberalism isn’t doing well these days. Besieged on many fronts, it stands in need of a defense that will conjugate the modern case for liberal democracy with the full heritage of Western metaphysical thinking about liberty, human nature, and justice. Liberal political theory needs something else to sustain it, as Daniel J. Mahoney argues in The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order (2010), lest it become an unreflective dogma of liberty and equality.
Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West introduces us to a (mostly) soulless rhetoric of liberty. Goldberg doesn’t provide what we need, but his defects are instructive for that very reason. We are told by the senior editor of National Review in the book’s opening paragraph:
There is no God in this book.
The humans in this story are animals who evolved from other animals who in turn evolved from ever more embarrassing animals and before that from a humiliating sea of ooze, slime, meats, and vegetables in the primordial stew.
We pulled ourselves out of the muck, not some Garden of Eden. Indeed, if the Garden of Eden ever existed, it was a slum. We created the Miracle of modernity all on our own, and if we lose it, that will be our fault too.
Problems abound straight away for Mr. Goldberg’s defense of the Miracle of the Enlightenment. I come not to reject evolution, being as happy as John Henry Newman was to “go the whole hog with Darwin.” But Goldberg assumes too much when he argues that a purely naturalistic account of humans as just clever animals, gifted with speech—a miracle in its own right—can actually account for the Miracle of the Enlightenment, what with its rights, autonomy, reason, and science.
Homeless in Modernity
A clue to the strangeness of our times is that our principal categories of Modern science and the unassailable assertions of our autonomy are the god terms we must all come and pay homage to. Left unnoticed is that those who tell us that we are nothing but highly intelligent chimps, usually stated with passing contempt for religious Americans, then breathlessly assert their autonomous individualism, usually stated with passing contempt for the communal, familial, and patriotic traditions of America. Emancipated chimps all the way down. How’s that?
This indicates why we need to account for why it is that man is born to trouble, and why man—amidst the incredible pleasing delights in the modern world, a world we have labored so hard to make for ourselves—is so prone to anxiety, misery, and despair. What is the ground of freedom? Or, as the late Peter Lawler would ask, “Why are there no dolphin scientists?” These are immaterial, I almost said spiritual, qualities and clues that point to man as a being born to wander and wonder.
But capitalism… Right, I understand. Goldberg has set himself the worthy and needed task of defending the Miracle of capitalism, America, modern political rights and liberties, et al. “The startling truth is that nearly all of human progress has taken place in the last three hundred years,” he writes. Why is that? That’s because “Around the year 1700, in a corner of the Eurasian landmass, humanity stumbled into a new way of organizing society and thinking about the world… it was as if the great parade of humanity had started walking through a portal to a different world.” The famous hockey-stick economic growth that Goldberg describes is incredible, and no one thing accounts for it. This explosion of wealth isn’t reducible to just increased trade, science, technology, reason, but to a change in thinking that Goldberg calls the “Lockean Revolution.” This revolution was a story we told ourselves and believed about individual sovereignty, rights, equality under law of every person regardless of faith or class. You know the story.
The state became more than a criminal enterprise, Goldberg observes, for the very first time in history. Really. Think about that for a minute. Contrary examples should fly out of your mind. Periclean Athens? The public orientation of power in the Roman Republic? Just one of the English monarchs? The French kingdom that Tocqueville defends in the Old Regime and the Revolution for actually providing better representation to human scaled communities and their liberties than the Kingdom of Louis XVIth.
The book’s analysis of this phenomenon almost forgets that no political and economic order can emerge ex nihilo. It is built on the givens of civilizational accomplishments that shape what statesmen are able to achieve. After all, as Goldberg notes with respect to Locke, the argument of the Second Treatise of Government (1690) is actually something of a post hoc rationalization of the constitutional settlement of 1689. Is Locke’s thinking sui generis? We are speaking about the Anglo Saxon constitutional tradition of John Selden, Edward Coke, Thomas Hooker, and John Fortescue, who preceded Locke and laid down tremendous protections for English constitutional liberties.
English judge Sir John Fortescue around 1470 composed the three treatises on government and law which became a legal fixture of the judges and lawyers who managed the constitutional settlements of 1610, the 1640s and 1660s, and 1689. John Finnis argues in his essay “On the Nature of a Free Society,” that Fortescue’s treatises relied heavily on Thomas Aquinas for thinking about the differences between political (legal) rule and regal (despotic) rule. And a Thomist shall lead them. Perhaps the real political revolution that was needed was James Madison’s case for the separation of powers, learned from the celebrated Montesquieu who reflected on the practice of separations he observed in the English government, one that emerged through centuries of practice rather than being the product of design.
Gratitude for the Gift of Liberty
Talk of a Lockean Revolution and a Miracle that we created presents further challenges that a (mostly) soulless case for liberty has to confront, but it may not have the resources to negotiate them. The part I appreciated the most about Goldberg’s book is his nod to gratitude for what we’ve been given as Americans and the need to sustain our precious freedoms. We don’t have enough of that anymore, at least a good portion of our converged elites find it difficult to be unself-consciously patriotic and to have a lowercase piety for our nation’s Founding. The sinners and the sins of that period are rejected root and branch. In its place, we get the grievances industry, America as a nearly demonic tale told by Howard Zinn, and the infinite profusion of racial and sexual identities as the summation of who each of us really is.
Goldberg notes well how the deck is stacked against gratitude for the achievements made by America’s constitutional order. Our inability to appreciate what we’ve been given leaves us blind to the threats that would deform our country.
Lack of gratitude is a human perennial, perhaps never more so, though, in an age which believes that it has made itself into what it is. Locke believed nature was essentially worthless, 99 percent of it, anyway. Such value as it might possess must be put there by human ingenuity and labor, transforming nature and shaping it in our image. I don’t think this is merely Locke’s errant labor-theory-of-value teaching, but is a profound principle of Enlightenment and modern thought. Human reason and will using the gains it achieves in science and technology have the power to make nature what it is. Goldberg alludes, I think, to this Lockean teaching when he states that “Locke represents the idea that we can conquer not just nature but human nature.” Goldberg immediately contradicts Locke by stating that human nature doesn’t change, which is true, but our ideational capacity to believe in images, symbols, and representations can change how we understand who we are and what we are about.
Couple Locke’s nature-is-worthless-until-we-transform-it teaching with his political teaching that a constitution is consented to by self-interested individuals to secure their universal natural rights, and you have a sense of how precarious the social order of the Enlightenment really is. Or, as the 19th century American thinker Orestes Brownson stated of social contract theory: “The state is held to be a voluntary association of individuals. Individuals create civil society, and may uncreate it when they judge advisable.” Government is built on individual will, and it struggles to incorporate the relational virtues of citizens, beginning with the needed virtue of loyalty. And I would add gratitude as another virtue that mostly goes by the board. If everything becomes the creation of human contract and consent, then gratitude may be the last of the virtues you call on. Pride snuffs it out.
Goldberg rightly takes Jean-Jacques Rousseau to task for his ethic of immoral grandstanding justified by Rousseau’s belief in a discredited society, a theme that becomes part and parcel of Western intellectual practice. Rousseau, though, may have understood better than anyone the political problems introduced by the Enlightenment Miracle. Rousseau sensed that the society of rationalist liberty and secularism and of sovereign individuals under a popular government, something virtually unknown before, would invite an authoritarian politics to hold it all together. That is, Rousseau’s political thought may be nothing more than the working out of the invitations that modern political thinking extends to both absolute individualism and to collectivism. Rousseau thought the way to make it work is the surrender of everyone’s will to a higher power and the constant, ongoing need to form the General Will.
This is not to affirm Rousseau’s political project, but it is to say that you have to take the rough with the smooth. If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal. If man’s mind constitutes reality, then truly how far are you from arriving at Marx’s famous admonition that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Later thinkers would build on Rousseau’s romantic passions for humanity that Goldberg rightly notes, but would do so with the authority, they believed, of the science of progress. Marxism, rather than an attempt to recover our tribal identity which is Goldberg’s view, found its authority as a scientific sociology justifying violence against society in the name of humanity for the construction of a new world in accord with the historical process.
On this basis, criticism of socialism came to be characterized as a reactionary attack. Indeed, with communist intellectuals and governments, we witnessed a love of humanity so profound that it could only mean the destruction of the presently existing society in order to build a perfectly constructed one. Goldberg notes the murderous capacities of ideologies but links it back to tribalism and reaction against Enlightenment progress. This is hard to take in, ignoring as it does the inverted morality that was made immanent by scientistic communist thinking. Can such thinking, ultimately, be entirely cleaved from the modern Enlightenment project? No.
My home sweet home!
But that is only to bring us back to a fundamental question: Does the Enlightenment Miracle provide the best understanding of America? And if it doesn’t—if in fact there are better tributaries that nourished the American Founding—does that mean that Goldberg’s diagnosis of what ails America will be similarly off-target?
He states flatly that the cure for what ails us is dogma. And we “re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment.” I’ll let you sort that out. Universal ideas must be aggressively vindicated by a Western tribe. Or something. Your tribe bad, my tribe good. I couldn’t help but think this explains the rather dogmatic dismissal by Goldberg of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, and even of the conservatives who came around begrudgingly to support him. Writes Goldberg: “the existential challenge Trump and Trumpism posed to the conservative movement seemed a microcosm of the challenges Western Civilization faces.” Trump inflames the bad tribes.
I didn’t support Trump’s candidacy, and I found myself both cringing and in wonder at this man since he emerged in the 2016 Republican primaries. But the better part of wisdom, which I should have arrived at sooner, would be for me to me to ask what had I missed about my country and about the voters of my political party. Trump is tough to accept, but he also recalled something to conservatives that they never should have forgotten: the priority of politics and the priority of the nation. The conservative movement was awash in its own abstractions and Trump made very political moves that galvanized his party’s voters and then extended those gains into states Republicans had not been victorious in at the presidential level in decades.
Trump’s victory, along with the victory of the Brexiteers in June of 2016, led me to the following conclusion: when something like 90 percent of the smart, rich, pretty people throw it all at you and you still win, then a reassessment of politics in your democracy is surely called for. I’m a conservative after all, there are no formulas or templates. For those, I look to the libertarians.
In thinking about the truth of America, I don’t completely disagree with Goldberg’s talking up the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence as the best part of our country. He quotes from Calvin Coolidge’s wonderful 150th address commemorating the Declaration and also notes how Abraham Lincoln reformulated the Founding on the Declaration through statesmanship and rhetoric. Similarly, I agree (in part) when he says, “The Founders argued the Constitution out of the ether and they believed it could work so long as people of good character fended off the inevitable entropy of human nature.”
But the Constitution wasn’t created out of the ether, and neither was the Declaration. Moreover, the second paragraph of the Declaration finds no mention in the Constitution; rather it’s the airing of common law grievances in its middle section, the part of greatest significance, that finds actual remedies in the written Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution was built on preexisting colonies whose interests, affections, and loyalties could help to forge “a more perfect Union.” As the English writer Roger Scruton remarks on our charter document, the Constitution begins with the words “We, the people.” Who? “Why, us. We who already belong, whose historic tie is now to be transcribed into law.” Political membership is the essence of both territorial jurisdiction and loyalty that creates a shared political identity.
This observation finds support in Publius’s observation in Federalist No. 2: “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people . . . attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts . . . have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence.”
Such counsel does not deny the constitutional founding of a country, but underscores the web of ties that make one possible. We are more than mere principles, or as Lincoln remarked, “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living human heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union.”