An Epitome of Liberalism
(The American Conservative) -- by Daniel McCarthy --
I’ve lately been reading Pierre Manent’s Intellectual History of Liberalism, a brief but dazzling book that I highly recommend — it’s the clearest and most persuasive account of the “Straussian” interpretation of liberalism that I’ve come across, with Manent’s Thomistic Catholicism compensating for the more dubious elements of Strauss. A 125-page book that covers Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Constant, Guizot, and Tocqueville might seem like a cursory treatment, but Manent says a great deal in those pages.
He begins with the attempt, apparent in Machiavelli and carried through by Hobbes, to separate politics from the Church. With Locke, liberalism turns away from pessimism and creates a benign view of man’s nature; man now acts not out of fear of death, but desire for gain and convenience. As an antidote to the danger that Lockean majoritarianism poses to the very rights Locke wanted to protect, Montesquieu (borrowing from Bolingbroke) suggests that the representation of popular sovereignty be divided between two institutions, the legislature and the executive. At this point, civil society and the individual have been separated from politics; they are free to pursue whatever they wish. Rousseau finds that this, however, only reveals an unbearable new problem, a schism within the individual psyche. The individual thinks only of himself in his relations with others, but incessantly compares himself to others in reflecting on his own worth. Society, meanwhile, has become an unguided mass of resentments and jealousies and weighs heavily on the individual.
To overcome this misery, Rousseau proposes the integration of the individual, the state, and society through the General Will; this will bring about a total transformation, a revolution, in human nature and in every institution. Rousseau doesn’t specify much of the content of the General Will or show what this revolutionary transformation will look like, but two points I should underscore are that a.) it’s not necessarily left-wing communitarianism that best exemplifies what Rousseau was trying to achieve, and b.) Rousseau has in practice not emancipated the fictitious General Will but will in general: every alienated individual can now believe that the solution to his personal problems lies in political and cultural revolution along the lines of whatever ideology he believes in.
Rousseau was no liberal but he prepared the way for new kinds of liberalism that would adopt his emphasis on equality and his method of remaking human nature through socio-political revolution. Manent explains that liberalism after Rousseau has reversed Hobbes: the author of Leviathan began with a state of nature in which man could only be delivered from the bloody condition of equality — every man being equally liable to be killed by his fellows — through the creation of the state. But over time, advanced liberals came to dream of the state leading us to a blissful condition of equality, in which the state itself would whither away. For Hobbes, brutal human nature requires the construction of Leviathan; for the liberal after Rousseau, a gentle but all-pervasive state is necessary to refashion human nature. That’s what progress means.
Manent is very good at explaining how the liberal state that emerges after the French Revolution is simultaneously weaker than and stronger than society — weaker in that society is now the ultimate medium of human satisfaction and public opinion (and its manipulation) becomes increasingly influential over the state; stronger in that the state becomes more pervasive and interferes in areas of life never before subject to power. Having first divided religion from state and state from society, liberalism ends up reuniting them on new terms. Public opinion — in suitably interpreted form, of course — becomes the new religion and holds the sword of state...MORE...LINK