Old friends continue to complain that I’m not making sense. Here’s a comment on my most recent post from a second friend (who cc’d the first friend):
“You wrote: ‘Liberalism is basically the abolition of the transcendent.’ That drastically overstates it though. If liberalism were the abolition of the transcendent then most ordinary people would be incapable of having liberal commitments. But most ordinary people do, in fact, have liberal commitments. Even saying that liberalism is the abolition of the political authority of the transcendent overstates it. Most liberals are religious, or at least nominally so. Most liberals historically have been religious. Liberalism is not atheism. Liberalism is the belief that freedom and equal rights are the test of legitimacy in politics. The transcendent can have all the influence on politics that it wants, as long as its influence is mediated by the choices of free and equal people and doesn’t violate anyone’s equal rights. ‘Liberalism is basically the abolition of the transcendent’ still strikes me as an overwrought straw man, after all this time, even though it is true in effect.”
- It’s odd he views my description of liberalism as a straw man when he admits that it’s true “in effect” now that liberalism is victorious and so has presumably attained its implicit goals. If something important is true in effect of a thing in its fully-developed state I should be able to use it in my description of what that thing is really all about. The pragmatists say that truth is that upon which inquiry converges. Someone else said “By their fruits shall ye know them.” If the liberal tradition converges on something that liberals see as the obvious and necessary fruition of their philosophy, then that’s good reason for thinking the thing is in fact the truth of liberalism.
- Since liberalism involves the view that what individuals want should prevail, it seems to me the liberalism of ordinary people who claim to be religious is either confused or quite limited. Who needs God when the real standard is what you want?
- Historical liberalism—liberalism as a system of attitudes, beliefs, institutions etc. actually existing at some particular time in the past—is of course different from liberalism as the principle that determines how conflicts within such a system shall be decided, or liberalism as the perfected system that arises when liberal principles are repeatedly applied to resolve conflicts over a period of several centuries. I was talking about the last, which is pretty much today’s advanced liberalism. I felt justified in doing that because it’s what we have, and because it seems that the essential principles of an evolving system will be best displayed when the system is most fully developed.
- To say liberalism is just a matter of politics that leaves the spirit untouched doesn’t work, since man is social and political and the advanced liberal state takes on far-reaching responsibility for human development, relations and well-being. And if you mediate the transcendent though freedom and equality—if you treat it as simply a feeling some people have that’s no more or less authoritative than any other feeling—you deprive it of transcendence. That’s the same as abolishing it.
- The question behind all this is why freedom and equality have become the ultimate political standards. They are wholly formal and content-free. Why would they be chosen as the ultimate standards unless men had already decided that substantive transcendent standards are unavailable? My friend suggests elsewhere that freedom and equality have become ultimate standards because of fear of tyranny. That makes sense if to recognize a transcendent principle as valid is to believe that one fully understands and possesses it, and can specify and enforce exactly what it requires. But then the principle woudn’t be transcendent. Totalitarianism and fear of totalitarianism are both results of the social abolition of the transcendent. The transcendent is the only thing that can possibly limit government, but if there’s no transcendent you still need a practical substitute and the obvious substitutes are either the ruler’s will or one’s own will.