Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | classical liberalism



More than a crisis

Paris Breakfast, Arc de Triomphe (Photograph by Maurice Sapiro, 1956)

Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.

A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”) had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.

Another notable old complainer is Paul Volcker. Late last year, past 90 and in very poor health, he spoke to the New York Times. Volcker saw “a hell of a mess in every direction,” including a lack of basic respect for government institutions:

“Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone. Even respect for the Federal Reserve… And it’s really bad. At least the military still has all the respect. But … how can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

Quite. There are preconditions for democracy.

Human communities and societies have always been bound together and defined by sets of implicit rules and customs and, as societies become larger and more complex, political systems develop to deal with an inevitable proliferation of beliefs and practices. The best systems try to accommodate differences rather than trying to stamp them out.

On the whole, the modern, liberal, Western tradition struck a good balance between privacy and individual freedom on the one hand and the need to maintain a broad social and moral consensus on the other. The evolution of modern forms of government in Europe was not always a smooth or peaceful process but the trend (inexorable perhaps only in retrospect) towards the creation of liberal, secular states and associated institutions coincided with a flowering of creative energies such as has rarely been seen in human history.

Given recent developments in Western countries, however – spiralling debt, failing economies, loss of confidence in government and professional elites, the intrusions of fundamentalist Islam and rise of fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Judaism, increasing social divisions and apparently increasing social conflict and violence – we seem to be in the midst, not just of a crisis period (crises pass), but of a period of epochal change.

Comparisons are often made with the 1930s but the resurgence of religious fundamentalism suggests that liberal democracy is facing a different kind of challenge from that once posed by various forms of fascism and radical socialism. Our situation is also complicated by the yet-to-be-understood impact of digital technologies. In fact, in social and cultural terms, so much has changed – and changed so radically – over the last fifty or sixty years that it is tempting simply to see the tradition of Western thought which led to the creation of modern liberal democracy as having finally played itself out.

This is not quite true, of course. It was a rich and varied tradition comprising many elements, some of which continue to find expression in current institutional arrangements. But political ideas and institutions do not develop or exist in a cultural vacuum. They are necessarily dependent on – and only work well in the context of – particular social and cultural conditions. To a large extent, the preconditions for liberal democracy no longer prevail.

What these preconditions are (or were) is impossible to specify precisely but they would, I think, include relatively stable regional and national cultures (essential as a basis for trust), a sense of continuity with the past, and an enlightened and science-friendly perspective. A science-friendly – or at least technology-hungry – perspective still prevails, but the humanizing elements which once went hand-in-hand with science are failing.

In Western societies the erosion of traditional culture is already well-advanced and is evident not only in regard to the loss of shared narratives and traditions at local, regional and national levels but also in respect of stories and traditions which transcend national boundaries (the Western classical heritage, for example).  The loss of these cultural frameworks weakens and isolates communities, cutting them adrift from the past and leaving them more vulnerable to demagoguery, dogmatism and social fragmentation.

Part of the problem, in fact, can be seen to lie with classical liberalism itself – at least in so far as it constitutes a philosophy or ideology. Its fatal flaw relates to the rationalism from which it derives and manifests itself in a tendency to see societies and individuals in abstract, timeless and universal terms and to underplay the significance of social context and history.

Though we can reason, we are not the “rational beings” philosophers once imagined us to be. A self or a person is not some kind of metaphysical entity but rather the tenuous product of a particular set of social and cultural experiences and the constellation of social connections which this history makes possible.

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The problematic concept of religion

Christmas time highlights — usually in relatively trivial ways — the tensions between traditionalists and advocates of progressive forms of secularism and multiculturalism. The underlying issues run deep, however, and go to the heart of some basic political principles and assumptions. These issues are real and intractable. They will not be resolved by linguistic or conceptual analysis. But at least they may be clarified.

Recently I tried to articulate some nagging concerns I have about the concept of religion. My basic point was that no equivalent of our modern notion existed in the ancient or medieval worlds. Nor do you find such a notion in most non-Western cultures. These facts don’t necessarily undermine the concept of religion, but they should make us question it.

Take the Latin word ‘religio’. It did not mark out a separate (“religious”) sphere of living. This compartmentalized view of life only arose in the modern era and, though it seemed to work and bring social benefits, it could be seen to be both anomalous (historically speaking) and intrinsically unstable.

A standard Christian view is that there is no separate religious sphere of life: that life is an integrated whole and not compartmentalized into religious and secular components. I would argue that such a view, not dependent on an inevitably abstract and arbitrary notion of religion, is natural and robust and can work not only for those who are committed to traditional creeds and practices but also for those (like me) who are not.

Problems arise, of course, when people committed to very different views and traditions live together, and the secularization of politics and public life could be seen as a sensible and pragmatic solution — perhaps the only viable and humane solution.

My focus here is not on policy prescriptions, however, but rather on certain fundamental ideas about religion. These ideas are important at least to the extent that they motivate and help to justify political judgments and prescriptions.

Typically, traditional liberal approaches have not been based solely on pragmatic concerns but have been motivated also by metaphysical views, often involving a generalized religious perspective deriving from Stoic and Neoplatonic sources. Human rights talk, for example, derives from the natural law tradition which in turn owes much to Stoicism. And the modern notion of religion (against which the secular is defined and upon which notions such as religious freedom depend) could be seen as deriving in large part from Renaissance Neoplatonism.

A number of key 20th-century liberal thinkers, though ostensibly agnostic, took religion very seriously indeed. The views on religion of Ludwig von Mises were not atypical.

Though lacking any specific religious affiliation, Mises was a relentless critic of behaviorism and a believer in human freedom, not just in a political but also in a metaphysical sense. In Theory and History (1958) he states that he sees an essential truth lying behind sacred scriptures and mythic narratives of the fate of the soul. These “rather crude representations” have been sublimated, he claims, by religious doctrines and by idealistic philosophy. Neither reason nor science is able “to refute cogently the refined tenets of religious creeds.”

History can explode many of the historical narrations of theological literature. But higher criticism does not affect the core of faith. Reason can neither prove nor disprove the essential religious doctrines.

Essential religious doctrines? Mises expresses a commonly-held view, but it is one which I personally cannot make sense of. What is this essential religion exactly?

One does not lightly dismiss a body of concepts and practices which has, one way or another, underpinned political thinking in the West for hundreds of years. But times change and current levels of social discord would seem to indicate that classical liberal principles have lost traction. Whether they can be reworked and applied effectively to the sorts of societies we now have is a moot point.

At the very least, however, these ideas and their motivating principles need to be subjected to critical scrutiny and reframed in terms which can be understood without recourse to the idealism and essentialism of another age.

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