Frontpaged at My Left Wing.

I’m relaunching a series I started at Dkos and at MyDD back in February. It will explore the historical roots of modern liberalism, using the Dictionary of the History of Ideas entry on Liberalism as our guide, adding my commentary along the way. I do this from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider, a radical with more patience and respect for liberalism than most other radicals.

At Mydd after the election last November, Chris Bowers did post-election analysis (links below the fold) which reached the conclusion that Democrats must grow and defend liberalism in order to win national elections, while attacking conservatism. This does not mean that all Democrats must become more liberal-though that would certainly be good, so far as I’m concerned–but it does mean that they must be willing to defend liberals and liberalism from conservative attacks, rather than joining those attacks, as the DLCers so often do.

One of the main things standing in our way is ignorance. Even many liberals are far more familiar with conservative attacks on liberalism than they are with liberalism itself. Hence, the reason for this series.  A deep understanding of where liberalism has come from gives a much firmer footing for discussions about where it should go, and why.
Conservatives, of course, would have you believe that liberalism today has nothing to do with liberalism as discussed below. But if you read the entry in its entirety, you will clearly see that this is not the case. Liberalism has always evolved to meet changing circumstances, and address new issues, yet there is powerful continuity as well.  (And radicals like me have often been needed to prod it along–whether we even get mentioned or not.)

In Post-Election Strategy Memo, Part One Chris observed, “Had the numbers of liberals and conservatives been equal, then John Kerry would have won with 54%+ of the national vote.” In Conservatism Is Our Enemy he noted that 84% of conservatives voted for Bush, while 85% of liberals voted for Kerry. In Where Is Liberalism? his state-by-state breakdown showed that liberals outnumbered conservatives in just 7 states and DC among 2004 voters.

From Conservatism Is Our Enemy:

We have long since left the era when the two parties could accurately be considered regional and ethnic coalitions rather than ideological coalitions. There are no longer any more conservative Democrats than there are liberal Republicans. A few of each kind manage to hang on, but the ideological vote in this election was clear:

________    Bush  Kerry  Margin
Conservative  84    15     69
Liberal       13    85     72

For that matter, the ideological vote was also clear in 2000:

________    Bush   Gore   Margin
Conservative  81     17      64
Liberal       13     80      67

These figures should leave no doubt about the necessity of defending liberalism against constant attacks, and hence, the need to understand it.  Thus, this series.

All quoted text is from the Dicionary of the History of Ideas, specifically, it’s entry on Liberalism. This diary includes the entire introductory section, interspersed with commentary.


The liberal is concerned with aspects of freedom that have come to be important only in the modern age that begins with the Renaissance and the Reformation. Not that his idea of freedom is unrelated to older ones, for its emergence in the West was no sharp break with the past. The causes of the emergence are as much cultural and intellectual as they are social and economic. An idea-or, as in this case, a family of ideas- has its ideological ancestry as well as social circumstances propitious to its birth.

Okay, so four big things here:

First big thing: Liberalism is a creature of Western civilization. Yes, kiddies, that’s right!  The very thing that conservatives accuse of being the enemy of Western civilization is in fact a product of that very same civilization. A defining product, as we shall see.

Second big thing: Liberalism’s connection with the Renaissance and the Reformation.  These are watershed events in the history of Western Civilization.  This refines and specifies the point just made. Liberalism is not some terrible doppleganger of the true “spirit of the west.” It comes out of the very social transformations that have defined the West as distinctively different from other civilizations that lack such fundamental breaks with their past, which are also ways of reconnecting.  

This is absolutely crucial to an understanding of liberalism. Conservatives are very aware that liberalism has broken with the past. What they fail to appreciate is that liberalism frees us from slavish obedience to inherited forms, and in the process frees us to gain a fresh appreciation for the underlying origins and purposes behind those forms. Both the Renaissance-with its focus on Greek and Roman origins-and the Reformation-with its focus on early Christian origins-sloughed off a great deal of external tradition, but found fresh, invigorating ways of connecting more directly with an inspiring past.

Third big thing: Liberalism is an evolving ideology.  As in “aspects of freedom that have come to be important…”   We will see a lot more of this as we go along.

Fourth big thing: Liberalism is concerned with aspects of freedom. Not freedom per se. Individual freedom in an unfree society is not what liberalism is about-although it was, for some, in earlier stages of liberalism. But the passage we’re examining today ends with this clarifying distinction:

The hero is free, or freer at least than the ordinary run of men; and the cult of the hero is common to many societies in which freedom, as the liberal thinks of it, means nothing.

This is where the real difference between liberalism and libertarianism comes into sharp focus. Libertarians are basic asocial at best, anti-social at worst. The freedom of the hero is precisely what they want. They are all heros in their own minds.  Atlas Shrugged and all that. Oh, the terrible torment of being a thirteen-year old boy and carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders!  Having to clean up your room!

Meanwhile, back at the Dictionary:

The liberal idea (or ideas) of freedom emerged in a part of the world deeply affected by Greek philosophy, by Roman conceptions of law, and by a religion affirming the closeness of man’s relations with God. How far there were, outside the West, philosophies of the Greek type (concerned to dissect and define man’s ideas about himself, his mental processes, his moral ideals and social practices), or conceptions of law like the Roman ones, or religions as intimately personal as Christianity, we do not know; but that these things-to speak for the moment only of things ideological-have had a deep influence on how we think about freedom in the West cannot be denied. These ways of thinking are common to us all, and they are- as we shall try to show later-essentially liberal, even though there are now many people who think in these ways and refuse to call themselves liberals. Liberal ideas of freedom are far more widespread than the readiness to admit that one’s ideas of freedom are liberal; which does not mean, of course, that the repudiator of liberalism does not also hold ideas inconsistent with his ideas of freedom.

Fifth big thing: Liberalism derives from the coming together of the three main tributaries of Westren Culture: Judeo-Christian religion, Greek philosophy (which cannot be divorced from Greek culture more generally) and Roman law (also deeply entwined with Roman culture). Once again, this underscores how deeply rooted liberalism is in the Western Tradition.

The liberal idea of freedom, though it emerged in a society deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christianity, is not to be found in ancient Greece or Rome, or in Christian countries before the Reformation. No doubt, the consistent liberal (the man who understands the implications of his liberal faith) sets great store by much that the Greeks or Romans or early and medieval Christians valued highly, as, for example, by self-knowledge and self-discipline, or the impartial administration of law and the integrity of officials, or sincerity of belief. He sets store by them because they are closely connected with the freedom precious to him. But, though indispensable to that freedom, they are distinct from it.

Sixth big thing: Modern Liberalism has deep roots in pre-liberal ideas. It is not wholly foreign to them. It is not a monstrosity divorced from earlier roots. [Indeed, there is a persuasive argument that an earlier form of Greek thought-largely obscured by Plato and Arisotle, and the fragmentary nature of surviving texts-deserves the name of “liberalism” as well, although not in the fully modern sense.]

The modern or liberal idea of freedom emerges with the attribution of rights of the mere individual against those in authority over him. By the mere individual we mean the individual considered apart from any specific social role. The rights of the priest against the civil magistrate, rights often asserted in the Middle Ages, are his by virtue of his office. So, too, are the rights of inferiors against their superiors in a hierarchy, unless the rights are claimed for them merely on the ground that they are men, without reference to any service or duty expected of them. But the rights whose exercise constitutes freedom, as the liberal conceives of it, are held to be universal and important. To have them, it is enough to be a man-or to have specifically human capacities. This is the essence of the liberal claim for man; though the claim, as soon as it is made, is qualified in a variety of ways. It is admitted that these rights are not to be exercised to the injury of others, or that in practice not everyone can exercise them, or that their universal exercise is a gradual achievement. These and other qualifications we shall consider later, both in the context of the times they were made and more generally.

Seventh big thing: The shift from role-specific to universal individual rights is the defining distinction that marks the emergence of liberalism.

Political philosophers have differed considerably in their explanations of these rights, and also about the limits to be placed on them. Yet they all have, in some measure, the liberal idea of freedom if they claim for man, by reason of his humanity, the right, within limits strictly or loosely defined, to order his life as seems good to him. This is not to say that whoever makes this claim must be called a liberal or aspires to the name. For he may make the claim and then qualify it in such a way that, in practice, it comes to very little. There are differences of opinion as to whether, say, Hegel was a liberal. But, even if we refuse to call him one, we cannot deny that he made for the human being, on the mere ground of his capacity to reason and to form purposes, claims of a kind that Aristotle, Aquinas, and Machiavelli never made. The modern or liberal idea of freedom is prominent in his political philosophy, no matter how well founded the complaint that that philosophy is dangerous to freedom. Indeed, he makes much more of the idea than, for example, does Montesquieu, though Montesquieu has the better claim to be reckoned a liberal.

Eighth big thing: Liberalism creates a penumbra in the modern world. It sets a tone that guides modern thought, even that which challenges it.  The example of Hegel is a crucial one, and more is said about him later on.  More commonly, conservatives today routinely take liberal notions, like free speech, for granted, and even try to paint liberals as the ones opposed to liberal values.  That’s one of the reasons for this tutorial-to flesh out the logic and historical development that establishes these as liberal values that are now accepted by virtually everyone.

It is not always the more liberal thinker who contributes most to explain or justify or refine upon the liberal conception of freedom. Locke, Kant, and Mill had much to say about freedom, and their right to be called liberal thinkers is seldom contested; and yet, in what they say about freedom and its conditions, psychological and social, they are no more perceptive and original than is Rousseau, whom it would be odd and misleading to call a liberal. A writer with moving, and even profound, things to say about freedom may speak with two voices, one liberal and the other not.

Ninth big thing: Liberalism grows through dialogue, including dialogue with those who are not always liberals.  Liberalism is not a top-down, historically fixed philosophy, but rather the product of endless ongoing debate. Dialogue, discussion and debate are central to liberalism, both as values and as the source of its evolving content. This reflects the deep kinship between liberalism and science. The capacity to absorb ideas from thinkers outside the liberal tradition is a sign of its strength, not weakness.  

Individualism, in the sense of concern for the quality of the individual’s life, is much older than liberalism. Plato had an elaborate conception of a good life to be lived by those capable of it, and he valued that life for itself and not only as a means to political stability and social harmony. So too did Aristotle. Though it is quite often said of a political thinker that he “sacrifices” the individual to the state or to society, not even Plato or Rousseau cared primarily for the character of the social or political order and only secondarily for the quality of the individual’s life.

The Christian political thinker is often more of an individualist in this sense than either Plato or Aristotle, without being noticeably liberal. He cares little or nothing for the social or political order except as it affects the individual, and is concerned above all for his relations with God. If to be an individualist is to attach supreme importance to how the individual lives, to his feelings, intentions, and capacities, and to his welfare, and almost no importance to the social and political order, except as it affects him, then some of the most passionate individualists are not liberals. A liberal, no doubt, is always, in this sense, an individualist, but not necessarily more so than the man who rejects his idea of freedom or has not heard of it.

In the Renaissance many writers, among them Machiavelli, admired the self-assertive man who knows what he wants and acts resolutely and intelligently in the endeavor to get it. They admired him even when he did not allow conventional morality and fear of public opinion to deter him from the pursuit of his aims. They admired self-reliance and independence of mind as much as John Stuart Mill did, though they expressed their admiration differently and with a greater desire to shock. The man who, in the pursuit of what he wants, especially when what he wants is to prove his “worth” to himself and to others, is not deterred by ordinary scruples, and who dares do what most men dare not, has been admired in societies far more remote culturally from ours than was Renaissance Italy. He has been admired when successful, or when close to success in some spectacular or moving way, as a hero. The hero is free, or freer at least than the ordinary run of men; and the cult of the hero is common to many societies in which freedom, as the liberal thinks of it, means nothing.

This last passage recapitulates and further fleshes out the first three big points:

  • First big thing: Liberalism is a creature of Western civilization.
  • Second big thing: Liberalism’s connection with the Renaissance and the Reformation.
  • Third big thing: Liberalism is an evolving ideology.

And reminds us in part of the fifth big point:

  • Fifth big thing: Liberalism derives from the coming together of the three main tributaries of Westren Culture: Judeo-Christian religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law.

This overview introduction of liberalism shows that the modern Western world we take for granted would be utterly unrecognizable without the liberal tradition. Without liberalism, we would, quite literally, still be living in a feudal, medieval world.  It should not be surprising that that is precisely the sort of world that conservatives would like to return us to.  A world quite similar to the one that bin Laden also wants to create.

0 0 votes
Article Rating