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Invitation to a Seminar—Liberalism and Conservatism

Studying six forms of belief that go to the heart of our contemporary political understanding.
NPG 655,Edmund Burke,studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds
studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds,painting,(1767-1769)

Greetings, TAC readers, from the frozen tundra of South Bend, Ind.

During this semester on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, I am excited to be offering a class to a group of bright undergraduates entitled “Liberalism and Conservatism.” As I explained to them last week during our first class meeting , most of them, like most of their fellow Americans, describe themselves by one of these two labels without knowing much about the intellectual traditions of either, much less the different and contesting lines of thought within each of those traditions. I’m offering the course out of “conservative” grounds: we would all be better served as citizens and thinking individuals if we knew something of the history of these—and even our own—respective beliefs. I’m offering the course on “liberal” grounds: only by “thinking critically” about traditions can we better understand them, and potentially liberate ourselves from unthinking adherence to flawed traditions.

In lieu of a weekly column that I have been writing (on and off) for TAC for the past year, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to invite readers to “take” the course along with my students at Notre Dame. I will post the syllabus here today, and beginning next week I’ll post compressed summaries of my three hours of weekly lectures on the material. I’ll also occasionally post some of the more interesting responses of my students (anonymously, of course), to give you a sense of how the “millennial” generation at the nation’s leading Catholic university thinks about and responds to these topics.

Over the course of the semester, we will be reading about and discussing six varieties of political belief: three liberal, and three conservative. They are:

LIBERAL                                    CONSERVATIVE

1. Classical Liberalism             4. Natural Rights Conservatism

2. Progressive Liberalism       5. Traditional Conservatism

3. Libertarianism                      6. Radical Catholicism

We will devote two weeks to each segment: in general, during the first week we will read from “sources” of each political belief, and the second week we will read more contemporary authors. We will be at least as interested in the relationships between each of these political beliefs as with their respective contents. None of these political beliefs exist in a vacuum, but influence each other—historically and philosophically—in fascinating ways.

As a teaser, let me point out some of the more interesting relationships not only between liberals and conservatives, but internal to each tradition as well. Classical liberalism—with sources especially in the thought of John Locke—provoked a strong initial reaction not from “conservatives” necessarily, but instead generated a reaction by figures that gave inspiration to “progressive liberalism.” Thus, among Locke’s most vocal critics were “historicist” progressive thinkers like Rousseau and Marx. Similarly, in the United States, among the most vociferous critics of Lockean philosophy of the Founders were the American progressives, John Dewey and Herbert Croly. Thus, in modern times, one of the most visceral debates has been contestation within the tradition of liberalism itself. In a development rich with irony, the rise of progressive liberalism led to a reaction by a distinctively liberal form of conservatism: “Natural Rights Conservatism.” With the ascent of progressive liberalism in the mid- and latter-part of the 20th-century, the defense of the “classical liberal” tradition came be articulated most robustly by “natural rights conservatives” (influenced by the German emigre, Leo Strauss). Thus, what was originally “liberal” became “conservative.”

Looking at each row of my “schematic,” we can see interesting dynamics between the liberal and conservative positions. If the “classical liberal” (#1) and “natural rights conservatives” (#4) are deeply similar and substantially sympathetic to one another, we see a more complicated dynamic between “progressive liberals” (#2) and “traditional conservatives” (#5) They are, on the one hand, deep and eternal antagonists, with the progressives rejecting out of hand the claims of “custom” and “tradition,” while the traditionalists harbor deep suspicion toward a progressive belief in a future that is always better and brighter. Yet, they are at the same time deeply similar in their “historicism”: both hold the basic belief that humans are historically constituted creatures whose ontological horizons are shaped by the passage of time. Of course, progressives believe that the key to human happiness lies in the future, while traditionalists point to the wisdom imparted from the past. But their basic “historicism” proves to be deeply objectionable to the a-historicist principled liberalism of both the classical liberals and the natural rights conservatives. Thus (for example), not only do Natural Rights Conservatives disagree with Progressive Liberals (a la Glenn Beck, or his academic sources, Straussian critics of progressivism such as the recently-departed Harry Jaffa and his cadre of students associated with the Claremont school, such as Charles Kesler), but they harbor deep suspicions toward Traditional Conservatives. This helps to make sense of why Leo Strauss devoted a chapter on the “Crisis of Modern Natural Rights” of his landmark book Natural Right and History criticizing not only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Edmund Burke as well. This also helps to explain why the Straussians and Kirkeans don’t get along all too well, even while they both strenuously believe that Progressive Liberalism is a mutual nemesis.

Or, consider the relationship between Libertarianism (#3) and “Radical Catholicism” (#6) as I have dubbed it. They are profound, deep, and eternal antagonists. However, interestingly, they straddle both liberalism and conservatism (albeit in opposite ways). Libertarianism has affinities with “Natural Rights Conservatism” (itself as a species of liberalism), while Radical Catholicism shares some overlapping consensus with concerns of Progressivism (thus, Alasdair MacIntyre’s continued interest in Marxism, particularly the Marxist critique of liberalism). Both tend to be deeply discontent with the current configuration of contemporary political parties, and would prefer a re-alignment that would either draw together or expel libertarian elements of the respective Parties. Because they have been distinct minorities in American politics, however, they have had to be content with alliances with various other positions—holding their noses the entire time. That could be changing, however, as libertarians seem to be waxing in appeal while “Radical Catholics” contemplate a “Benedict Option.”

Much more can, and will, be said about these relationships. Suffice to say, they are at least as interesting as the individual beliefs themselves, and we will give those relationships due attention as we proceed through the “semester.”

All readers are invited to be as involved as they wish in this “course”—from reading the “assignments” and commenting on my “lectures,” to simply reading my weekly lecture summaries and mulling over them in the privacy of your own mind. I will post the summary of the week’s readings each Wednesday, beginning next week.

My syllabus in full is posted below. For next week’s assignment, please read the selection from John Locke, and if you are able to procure a copy, the selected pages of Yuval Levin’s masterful book, The Great Debate. We’ll “discuss” these next week.

Just don’t ask me what will be on the test…

POLITICAL SCIENCE 306: Liberalism and Conservatism

Spring 2015: Wednesdays

Instructor: Prof. Patrick J. Deneen, The University of Notre Dame

Course Description: In this course we will examine the intellectual origins and basic features of the dominant political beliefs in contemporary American politics, Liberalism and Conservatism. The course aims to provide deeper insight into the respective beliefs, and the relationships between the different schools of thought.

We will focus on six main forms of political belief:

1. Classical Liberalism

2. Progressive Liberalism

3. Libertarianism

4. Natural Rights Conservatism

5. Traditional Conservatism

6. Radical Catholicism


Berkowitz, Peter: Constitutional Conservatism

Burke, Edmund: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Dewey, John: Individualism, Old and New

Hayek, Friedrich: The Constitution of Liberty

Levin, Yuval: The Great Debate

Mill, J.S: On Liberty

Nisbet, Robert: The Quest for Community

Starr, Paul: Freedom’s Power


January 28: Classical Liberalism—Sources and Themes

John Locke, Two Treatises on Government: II §4-8; III §19, 21; VI §73-74; V §26-28; IX (entire); XIX §221-22 https://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Locke/second/second-frame.html

Yuval Levin: The Great Debate: pp. 44-52, 92-97, 116-125, 150-168, 178-185, 207-214

February 4: Classical Liberalism—Contemporary Voices

Paul Starr, Freedom’s Power, pp. 15-27, 53-82

Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History” https://www.kropfpolisci.com/exceptionalism.fukuyama.pdf

Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/53577/fareed-zakaria/the-rise-of-illiberal-democracy

February 11: Progressive Liberalism – Sources

John Dewey, Individualism, Old and New, chs. 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 Walter Rauschenbusch, The Social Gospel, selection TBA

February 18: Progressive Liberalism – Contemporary Voices

Paul Starr, Freedom’s Power – pp. 85-116

Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country, ch. 1 https://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/courses_readings/rorty/rorty_achieving_country_ch1.pdf

February 25: Libertarianism – Sources and Themes

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty – (Entire)

March 4: Libertarianism – Revisiting Hayek

Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, chs. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Postscript

Nick Bostrom, “Tranhumanist Values”: https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/transhumanist-values.pdf Summary


March 25 : Natural Rights Conservatism – The Case of Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss: “What is Political Philosophy?”; “The Three Waves of Modernity”; “Natural Right and the Historical Approach”

April 1: Natural Rights Conservatism – Contemporary

Charles Kesler, “What’s Wrong with Conservatism” https://www.aei.org/publication/whats-wrong-with-conservatism/ (except first and last sections)

Peter Berkowitz, Constitutional Conservatism, ch. 4

April 8: Traditional Conservatism – Sources Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France (Hackett Edition), 3-35, 43-55, 59-70, 73-85, 96-99, 148-152, 195-199, 216-218

Yuval Levin, The Great Debate, pp. 52-68, 71-82, 97-116, 128-150, 185-198, 219-222

April 15: Traditional Conservatism – Contemporary

Russell Kirk, “Burke and the Politics of Prescription” (in The Conservative Mind)

Russell Kirk, “Who Are the Conservatives?” (in A Program for Conservatives)

Roger Scruton, How to Be A Conservative, chs. 2, 10.

April 22: Communitarian Traditional Conservatism:

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II.ii.2, “Of Individualism” II.iv.6, “Of What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear” https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/DETOC/toc_indx.html

Nisbet, The Quest for Community: chs. 3-5, 6, 8, 10, 11

April 29: Radical Catholicism – Sources

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Selection TBA)

L. Brent Bozell, (“Letter to Yourselves,” pts. 1&2, from Triumph)

William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Telephone Company”

May 6: Radical Catholicism—Contemporary

Michael Hanby, Christianity’s Civic Project, with responses from Rod Dreher, George Weigel (First Things, February 2015) https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/02/the-civic-project-of-american-christianity

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.



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