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What is Classical Liberal History?

"Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates," by Marcello Bacciarelli (1776-77) (public domain)

What is Classical Liberal History? Edited by Michael J. Douma and Phillip W. Magness,Lexington Books, 2018, 268 pages.

Ever since choosing history as a profession, I’ve been as fascinated with the actual philosophy of history (if one should exist) as I have been with the actual history of a thing, person, or event itself. After a quarter of a century of wrestling with the role of human agency, I have come to the conclusion that Friedrich Hayek was right all along in his own understanding of the “knowledge problem” and “methodological individualism”—that each person is simply too complex, in and of himself, to be studied at any meaningful level.

Free will renders so much null and void. Amen. That is, as the brilliant philosopher and economist James Otteson has noted repeatedly, if you believe in human liberty, you have to accept that you simply cannot predict with any meaningfulness the events of tomorrow. Yes, there are trends, to be sure, but free will means that almost anything—from the good to the ill—is possible.

Yet, the trajectory of academia has gone the other way since, roughly the 1890s, toward determinism.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of having coffee with a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. In fact, the prize had been announced just a few hours earlier on the day of our coffee date. When we began talking about human agency and history, she declared–thoughtfully but firmly—that no such thing as free will could or ever would exist. Instead, every aspect of our nature was predetermined in some way or another by material factors. And, it must be noted, this is a very creative person. Raised on “race, class, and gender,” to be sure, but no academic automaton. She is, to be sure, very much her own person. Yet, even she was negating her own by free will and creativity by declaring such things as mere mechanisms. Given the most important and distinguished thought of the 19th century—especially from Darwin, Marx, and Freud—it is no surprise that the 20th and, thus far, the 21st centuries have been dominated by materialist thought. It explains much about the current and shabby state of civilization—from the loss of liberal education to the triumph of power. One need only give a cursory examination to the media, to the average classroom, or to Facebook to see that the outrage culture has been fueled by the failure to understand individual dignity and creativity. There seem to be no free agents anymore, only those that haven’t quite caught up with “the program.”

For better or worse, my response as a professional historian to this was to turn to thinkers I did trust: to Cicero; to Augustine; to Burke; to Smith; and to Hayek. Each of these greats had noted time and again that no system could exist to explain all. To varying degrees, each believed in an eternal order and ordering, but each recognized that, in the here and now, no system could be known or understood or propagated by any one person, one group of persons, or humanity as a whole. Each person is simply incapable of knowing everything. Thus, as I saw it, this inability to understand history and humanity effectively—that is, to reject quantification (and, consequently, the reduction and dismissal) of the human person, to be an anti-ideologist, and to reject the idea of a system—has been to become a biographer, to study the most fundamental aspect of existence, the individual human person. As such, I have, for the most part, seen race, class, and gender as mere parts of human existence, not as the whole or even determining parts of order and society. As such, each person is unique, born in a certain time and a certain place, but never of his own choosing. Yet, when coming of age, he or she chooses almost every moment of everyday. Some of these choices are limited by things such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, neighborhood norms, education, etc., but none of these things need, necessarily, be determinants. As the grand J.R.R. Tolkien explained in a letter to W.H. Auden, each person is an allegory of a universal principle, robed in the garments of time and place.

While I certainly do not believe that biography is the only form of legitimate history, I am more than a little partial to it. With biography, the biographer gets to “know” the subject, intimately. Never will the biographer be totally objective, unless he or she is a mere antiquarian. Instead, the truly good biographer uses his own soul, experience, and reason to understand the choices of his subject. Thus, the best biography is always one in which the biographer is as apparent as the subject. Thus, when we read Arnn on Churchill, McCulloch on Adams, or Pearce on Tolkien, we are learning as much about Arnn, McCulloch, and Pearce as we are about Churchill, McCulloch, and Adams.

In an extraordinarily thoughtful and well-edited and conceived book, What is Classical Liberal History? (Lexington Books, 2018), editors Michael J. Douma and Phillip W. Magness bring together 13 scholars (including themselves) to answer the most important questions about the historian’s craft. Not surprisingly, Hayek is frequently invoked in the book.

Some of our finest historical thinkers—from Sarah Skwire and Jonathan Bean to David Beito and Han Eicholz—ask vital questions about the role of liberalism, properly understood, in human society. Penetratingly, these authors look at industrialism, feminism, scientism, civil liberties, historicism, progressivism. What is most appealing about this wonderful collection is that each author takes seriously the radical tendencies of modern and post-modern academics, finding the good within the questions asked and raised in mainstream academia, even if believing the answers provided by most academics, as insufficient.

In the perceptive and rather fetching introduction, Douma notes that his goal is to counter the tendencies of conservatism and progressivism in historical thought, each of which improperly consider the past as a way to understand morality, often focusing on colossal entities, such as nations or great men. In other words, by Douma’s definition, classical liberals would not be too thrilled with the biographers mentioned above. Yet, Douma insists, unlike all other historical schools, “classical liberal historiography is based upon the principle of methodological individualism central to the classical liberal tradition.” Further, he notes, classical liberal historiography is the “study of individual action in the past.” As much as I appreciate what Douma is doing—and he is an excellent writer, thinker, and scholar with a great future ahead of him—I remain unconvinced that any of these things are specific to classical liberalism. I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise.

If one takes What is Classical Liberal History as a negative statement on what exists in the world of mainstream thought and academia, this book is brilliant. Indeed, the writings of Skwire, Eicholz, Beito, Magness, and Bean are so good as to be a bit intimidating. These are each scholars at the height of their abilities, and their abilities would make any scholar—of whatever political and cultural persuasion—blush.

If one sees it as a fundamental and comprehensive take on history, though, it will become as ideological as those it complains about. My criticism is minor, but I think it is just. For example, the editors (and, admittedly, this is just the nature of editing) might be perceived as forming a clique. Frequently, the scholars chosen cite only a few common authorities and sources and, then, usually refer to each other. No where in the book do some of our most important historians and thinkers of our day–such as Mark David Hall, Rob McDonald, Richard Gamble, Mark Kalthoff, Paul Rahe, Richard Samuelson, Adam Schwartz, Greg Schneider, Gerald Russello, Patrick Deneen, or Bruce Frohnen—even make an appearance. Others, such as Kevin Gutzman and Otteson, get only the briefest mention. Even Burt Folsom, arguably the best-selling libertarian historian alive today, only merits a single mention. Indeed, only Paul Moreno of the Hillsdale College department of history even gets a mention. Given that this department is, by far, the single largest collection of conservative and libertarian historians anywhere in the world, this seems a huge omission. Similar comments might be made about Ashland, Grove City, University of Dallas, and the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).

As much as I enjoyed reading What is Classical Liberal History? I can only hope it is meant as a beginning, not an end. Further I hope that readers take it as an invitation, not as an exclusion.

If the radical plainness and sameness of current academia and the conformity of collectivist and consumerist culture is to be combatted and the dignity of the human person to be understood, it will do no good merely for the classical liberals and the conservatives to form sides and distinguish themselves from one another. Douma notes in the introduction that “classical liberal history begins with the recognition of the inherent worth of the individual.” I have no doubt that this is a central feature of classical liberal historiography. But Russell Kirk—the father of all post-war conservatism—would have said (and did) exactly the same thing. And, Pope John Paul II noted in his 1996 address on Christian humanism that the beginning of all goodness resides in recognizing the human person as an unrepeatable center of dignity and will. Perhaps one could charitably state that Kirk and John Paul were bound to get at least something correct, but, again, I remain unconvinced that classical liberal historiography is the best way to promote human liberty and dignity. The question of human dignity is as old as philosophy itself, beginning with Heraclitus and Socrates.

From my own perspective, the best history is still biography, and, for what it’s worth, biography seems to me the best Hayekian (and Ciceronian and Augustinian and Burkean and Smithian and Ottesonian) manner in which to approach history, a way to recognize the universal and the particular, a way to understand how free will allows the individual human person to navigate through difficulties and challenges—material and otherwise—in his whirligig of existence. To quote one of my favorite thinkers of the post-modern world, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”  If this is classical liberal, so be it. If this is conservative, so be it. If this is progressive, so. . . well, no, even I can’t go there. I have never considered myself a classical liberal, but I have always considered myself libertarian. In the end, though, I hope that what we write as historians is just good history and scholarship, whatever label is given it. “I will choose a path that’s clear. I will choose free will.”

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

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