The conservatives who want to undo the Enlightenment

Conservative thought in America is becoming more radical. Which means that it’s reverting to the form it often took in other times — in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution, in reaction to the liberalism of the Enlightenment.

Unlike the tamer conservatism of the postwar decades, today’s conservative critics don’t locate the source of their discontent within the liberal tradition — with the Progressive movement or the New Deal, for example, or the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Instead, the most influential and cogent conservatives of the present — among them Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame, Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School, and Sohrab Ahmari of The New York Post — take aim at the liberal tradition itself and suggest that our problems stem from errors that have marked it from the beginning.

The indictment runs like this: The original liberal theorists — including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the American constitutional framers — aimed to inspire the creation of individualistic societies in which people actively cut themselves loose from tradition and other moral constraints in pursuit of a life of ever-purer liberation. Many if not all of our challenges and difficulties — from moral decay to capitalist decadence to widespread anxiety and depression — flow from this original liberal goal, which has largely been achieved. The only effective way to respond to these challenges and difficulties is therefore to reject liberalism from top to bottom and look for another basis on which to found political and social life.

It’s a powerful critique. But what would it mean to see it through — to truly break free from liberalism, to create a fully post-liberal society? How would our lives change? What would our fellow citizens believe? How would they think and live?

The answer, I fear, is that they would think and live an awful lot like that portion of the American population today that sees the ongoing pandemic largely as an act of God that we should just accept without doing much by way of control or mitigation. A reporter at a recent Trump rally spoke to attendees who expressed this outlook. One is quoted as saying “I’m not afraid to die. The Good Lord takes care of me. If I die, I die.”

That is the pre-liberal outlook that would be more fully revived and encouraged if today’s radical right-wing critics of liberalism get their way.

The early modern proto-liberals who helped to inspire the Enlightenment had several aims, but a key one was the promulgation of an account of human origins that could serve as an alternative to the biblical narrative. The Bible describes the original human beings as created by God and placed in paradise. With their first sin — disobeying the command to refrain from eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil — Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden to make their way in the world. But they are not abandoned by God, who continues to take a keen interest in his creation.

The remainder of the Hebrew Bible tells the story of one specially favored group of human beings as they oscillate between pious obedience and a mixture of disobedience and indifference toward the divine. At no point is God’s providence and overarching concern withdrawn. The Christian New Testament expands on this story, adding the promise of redemption from sin at the hands of humanity’s savior and the gratuitous gift of eternal life after death.

The first liberal thinkers were convinced that the biblical outlook had landed Europe in a mess. With most people certain their fate was in the hands of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and transcendentally good God, the norm was passivity before nature, priests, and princes. As a result, European life was marked by poverty, ignorance, violence, and tyranny. To change this, people needed to be persuaded that it was unwise to put their faith in divine providence. They needed to recognize an imperative to take matters into their own hands — to devote themselves to a kind of humanistic self-help program.

“God will provide,” said the pious. To which the proto-liberals responded, “No, he will not.”

These writers helped to effect this change of view by proposing an alternative to the biblical account of human origins in a Garden of Eden. In this “state of nature,” men and women are alone, struggling to survive and prosper without a divine overseer, needing to protect ourselves in a harsh and indifferent universe. It was up to us to devise a foundation for government that would secure minimal social goods — life, liberty, property, and (in the most fortunate of circumstances) the “commodious living” made possible by the division of labor and commercial activity.

The early liberal promise was this: If you stop passively expecting God to provide for you, it will become possible to create a world far more hospitable to human flourishing — with good (or at least less predatory) government, tolerance for freedom of worship, an economy that over time produces increasing prosperity for all, education that allows for scientific, technical, and medical advances to make life longer, easier, less painful, and more pleasurable. All of this and more is within our reach. But no one will provide it for us. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and act to achieve it.

This vision of a self-reliant human future helped to inspire the Enlightenment and ultimately transformed the world, creating societies shaped by leaps in scientific knowledge, wealth, travel, communications, and health care. It made a world in which a new virus could arise and spread across the globe in a matter of weeks — but also a world in which most of us knew it was coming, could try to prepare for it by changing our behavior, and begin working to devise therapeutic treatments and a vaccine to hold down the death toll.

But of course all of that depends on people maintaining the early liberal’s disenchanted outlook on the human situation. If large numbers of people begin to reassert a biblical view in which the proper existential stance is one of obedience to higher powers that are presumed to reward and punish us — if we start once again to treat such misfortunes as viruses, hurricanes, and wild fires as providential acts of God we must passively accept — we will lose our edge in the battle to defend and expand the boundaries of a world made more habitable by human effort and ingenuity.

A post-liberal world would be an awful lot like the pre-liberal world. Remember that the next time you read an author making the case for a more radical, even revolutionary, form of conservatism — or hear an unmasked person at a public rally say, “The Good Lord takes care of me. If I die, I die.”

That’s the sound of the post-liberal world being born.

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