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Can Liberalism Be Saved?

Maybe, say two political thinkers, but it won't be by setting out to 'save liberalism'
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There was an interesting essay published in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. Its author is Barton Swaim, who is on the editorial board there. It’s paywalled, so you aren’t going to be able to read it unless you’re a subscriber, or can find the full text elsewhere. I’ll do my best to describe it.

Swaim begins by saying that “liberalism is in trouble,” by which he means classical liberal ideals, which are under attack by both the left and the right. Swaim characterizes the situation like this:

On the left, markets generate inequality, democracy works only when it achieves the right outcomes, individual freedom is uninteresting unless it involves sexual innovation or abortion, the state is everything, and religion doesn’t deserve neutrality. On the right—or anyway the intellectual/populist right—markets destroy traditional moral conventions, democracy is mostly a sham, individual freedom encourages behavioral deviancies, state power is a force for good, and the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion was likely a bad idea.

Partisans will dispute these characterizations, but the liberal order in America (and Europe) is under attack—and not without reason. Political debates in Washington are bereft of good faith, the education system idealizes self-hatred and sexual confusion, and even corporate leaders—who until yesterday could be counted on to champion patriotism and hard work—eagerly recite the maxims of idiots.

I have read many critiques of liberalism, but none so original as “Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment” by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the book doesn’t so much criticize liberalism as explain why it’s neither the cause of our problems nor their solution.

The couple are political philosophers at Furman University. More:

At the core of their book is the reflection that educated people in modern liberal democracies are very comfortable with proximate arguments and not at all with ultimate ones—in other words, that moderns can debate means but not ends.

What do they mean by “ends”? “I teach Plato’s ‘Gorgias,’ ” Mr. Storey says. “ Socrates is arguing with Callicles about what the best way of life is. And so I will ask my students: What’s the best way of life? Just like that. The standard response is: What are you talking about? They look at me as if to say: You can’t ask that question!”

So it is, he thinks, in liberal societies generally: We’re allowed to debate all questions but ultimate ones. “We’re assuming we can’t have an answer to these questions, without even asking them.” In the classroom, he says, both he and his wife “try to shift students from a stance of dogmatic skepticism, in which they assume before the inquiry begins that you can’t ask ultimate questions, to a place of zetetic or seeking skepticism, in which you recognize that, despite all your doubts and apprehensions, you have to at least ask questions about God and the good and the nature of the universe.”

Swaim says that liberalism emerged out of Europe’s spasms of sectarian violence following the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. He asserts that it was a philosophy that enabled diverse peoples to live together in relative peace. But the problems that liberalism presents itself as a solution are not the main problems we live with today. More:

As attractive as the liberal worldview is, the Storeys think, it has ceased to satisfy. “Liberalism isn’t popular among a lot of younger people,” Mrs. Storey says, “because it was designed to solve a different anthropological problem from the ones we’re facing. We were different people when we came up with our liberal institutions to solve the strife of war and persecution.” The political institutions of liberalism, she says, were designed for people who “were already strongly committed to churches, localities, professions and families. But when private lives have broken down—families dissolved, localities less important, religious life absent—liberalism’s framework institutions no longer make sense.” Young people in particular, she says, aren’t interested in the “prosaic” Montaignian life: “It just isn’t enough for them. It has no transcendence. They’re going to go beyond it.”

Many critiques of liberalism and modernity quickly become critiques of the free market. It’s a tempting solution because the market is something you can change or rearrange by force of law. The Storeys don’t take that view. “The problems we’re facing right now are not fundamentally economic problems,” he says. “They’re fundamentally educational and philosophical problems. The way forward is a multigenerational project, and it’s going to begin in schools.”

Huh. I said something like that too in The Benedict Option. Well, not me, exactly, but Michael Hanby:

“Education has to be at the core of Christian survival—as it always was,” says Michael Hanby, a professor of religion and philosophy of science at Washington’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute.

“The point of monasticism was not simply to retreat from a corrupt world to survive, though in various iterations that might have been a dimension of it,” he continued. “But at the heart of it was a quest for God. It was that quest that mandated the preservation of classical learning and the pagan tradition by the monks, because they loved what was true and what was beautiful wherever they found it.”

As crucial as cultural survival is, Hanby warns that Christians cannot content ourselves with merely keeping our heads above water within liquid modernity. We have to search passionately for the truth, reflect rigorously on reality, and in so doing, come to terms with what it means to live as authentic Christians in the disenchanted world created by modernity. Education is the most important means for accomplishing this.

Classical Christian educators are one form taken by the new Benedictines.

Anyway, one more Swaim quote:

The task for today, in their view, isn’t to dynamite liberalism, on the one hand, or to encourage its pathologies, on the other. It is, as Mrs. Storey says, “to recover the preconditions of liberalism’s success.” To do that “is going to require returning to preliberal sources—the resources of classical thought, Christian thought and Jewish thought, and the communal practices that turn those traditions into ways of life. These ways of thinking aim to cultivate order in the soul in a way that liberal thought does not.”

Swaim concludes:

Perhaps the Storeys’ point can be put as simply as this: You can’t fix the city as long as the souls are a mess.

Again, this is one of the basic points of The Benedict Option. It’s not that politics don’t matter; they do! It’s that they don’t matter ultimately, and trying to fix our crisis without addressing the core problem. The best we can hope for from politics is that it will protect the liberty of institutions and people engaged in practices that work towards the sustenance of communal life. But if those institutions don’t do that work, and/or if people don’t really care to engage in those upbuilding practices, politics will be a waste of time.

But how are we going to do what the Storeys want? If you’ve been following me a while, you know that I am deeply skeptical that we will do this at all, collectively speaking. This is why I believe that those who want to hold on to traditional religious faith, and traditional virtues, are going to have to live in some sense like the Benedictine monks of the early medieval period. With chaos everywhere, we have to build strong communities of discipleship and formation. This is going to be very hard. But what else is there? Seriously, what else?

One of the reasons I first got interested in the writer Paul Kingsnorth (who, by the way, writes a fantastic Substack) was that he had reached the same point with regard to climate-change activism that I had reached about moral renewal through conventional means: that what we want is simply not going to happen, because it would require too great of a cultural change, so the wisest thing for us to do is to figure out how to adapt.

Paul and a friend, Dougald Hine, came up with the Dark Mountain Project. I came up with the Benedict Option. It’s just a model for what I hope is a fruitful way of thinking about our relationship to the broader post-Christian world, not a complete scheme. People keep saying to me, “You tell us what we need to be doing, but you don’t tell us how to do it.” I can’t figure it all out, y’all. I am a diagnostician. I hope my diagnosis helps you who are gifted organizers and visionary builders do so. I will tell others what you’re doing. But aside from the many examples I give in my books, I’m at a loss for what else to tell you.

One more thing, a quote from the Swaim essay:

Young people in particular, she says, aren’t interested in the “prosaic” Montaignian life: “It just isn’t enough for them. It has no transcendence. They’re going to go beyond it.”

I realized this weekend, thinking about this stuff, that I’m so satisfied with my hobbity life because I am always aware that I am connected to eternity, and a world full of meaning. (And no, the fact that I have done a lot of traveling to Europe this year does not mean my life most of the time is not hobbity and home-bound. I tend to sit at home drinking hot tea, reading books, and writing, and doing little else.) If I weren’t connected to eternity through my belief in God and in the transcendent realm, then all the traveling to Europe and the fun stuff I get to do would not satisfy me either. But I look back at my own winding path to faith in God — a path I’m still on, for conversion continues until the day we die — I see very little that I could point to and say, “Ah ha, that was what did it!” I see instead a series of forks in the road in which I was compelled to make a choice. Did that mystical moment in the Chartres Cathedral mean something, or did it not? I can’t unsee and unfeel what I just saw and felt. What do I do with it? The choice I made that day not to dismiss it, but to believe that in some real sense, I had glimpsed God, led me down paths I would not otherwise have taken. The fact was, I walked out of that cathedral, age 17, on a search.

We have to show the young that there is something out there to search for. Not something as trite as their happiness. Nothing short of the Truth. And not just a truth claim, but the Truth itself. This is how I’m going at it in the book I’m planning. As readers of my Substack know, I’m re-acquainting myself with the work of Dr. Iain McGilchrist, who wrote The Master And His Emissary. Using McGilchristian terms, liberalism detached from grounding in something pre-liberal, and greater than itself, is like the left brain thinking it understands all of reality, and leading itself to disaster.



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