The worship of the human will is liberalism

Responding to my earlier post on Richard Cohen’s changing views on gun control, reader Jim Carver asks: “If liberal rightness is defined purely by the whims and feelings of the liberals themselves, then how come these people never disagree on matters of substance? They have endless interlocking isms and convictions.”

I didn’t mean to say that liberalism is nothing but the aggregation of individual liberals’ whims. Rather, liberalism is an expression of human will with no truth outside it, and this fact describes liberalism on the individual level as well as on the collective level.

An indication of this is liberalism’s disconcerting capacity to keep changing its positions or the object of its obsessions without changing its basic character and direction. Whatever the particular mania may be at any moment—support for Stalin’s Russia; support for Castro; support for the Sandinistas; the belief in economic equality; the belief in cultural equality; commitment to the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination; opposition to the deployment of intermediate range missiles in Europe; belief in the “peace process”; the belief in open borders; the belief in the total moral liberation of the individual; demonization of the Boy Scouts for excluding homosexual Scout Masters; demonization of the Catholic Church for not excluding homosexual priests—whenever one of these positions is discredited by reality or becomes politically untenable, liberals simply shift to a different vehicle for advancing the liberal project. The essence of liberalism is that it continually changes the particular object it is aimed at, while keeping the same underlying form and the same tropism toward dismantling whatever remains of the traditional civilization of the West. In each of these ever-shifting guises, the liberals remain equally self-righteous and convinced that they are in a crusade to overthrow all darkness and hatred.

What is true of liberalism as a movement is true of liberals as individuals. Whatever position they take, they remain liberals, and, because they are liberals, they are identified with goodness itself. Therefore whatever a liberal is saying at any moment is by definition the “right” thing to say. If a liberal suddenly shifts and seems to support some non-liberal position, or even if he’s exposed as a total hypocrite (like anti-gun advocate Carl Rowen when he used a gun to defend himself from an intruder, or like the feminists, who after trying to destroy Clarence Thomas for his alleged verbal behavior to a woman, defended Clinton against serious charges of physically abusing women), it doesn’t matter. The liberal is protected by the fact that he’s a liberal.

Because liberalism began as a movement denying transcendent truth and making man the ultimate authority and all men equal, it only makes sense that liberals as individuals would make their own whims the ultimate authority. And yet, despite all their mutual differences, they all band together as liberals in this single, great, global tribe.

The explanation for this paradox is similar to the explanation of the apparent contradiction in the philosophy of Rousseau. How could a man who advocated that each person live according to his own desires as far from civilization as possible, also have advocated a totalitarian polity organized around the General Will? The answer is that the two apparently contradictory ideas proceed from a common principle: the elevation of the human will above all else, the sanctification of the human will as its own god.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 05, 2002 06:13 PM | Send


Certainly there is something to the notion that the will to power is core to liberalism, and that liberalism therefore goes back at least to Ockham’s nominalism. But even the Nazis felt the need to justify the elevation of the will to power on the basis of democracy’s failure to actualize equality. The German people were still oppressed and suffering under the thumb of international Jewish controlled capitalism despite all the promises of equal rights. (I don’t imply agreement — I find the very notion horrifying — I’m just summarizing their expressed view or a critical aspect of it).

So I don’t object to characterizing liberalism as the elevation of will above all else but I don’t think the characterization can claim to be liberalism without also creating the oppressor-oppressed relation and insisting upon equality as its alternative. To the Nazis at least this meant eradicating the oppressor; I think it means that to all liberalisms although methods and procedures may differ.

As always it is difficult to accurately characterize something that is incoherent at a basic level, but I am not sure (either way, really) that the elevation of will in itself constitutes an explanation of liberalism — though clearly it is an important aspect. The characterization does open itself to an argument-from-equality; that is, your friendly liberal will claim that it is a certain structure of will, the will of the oppressed, that must be actualized.

Posted by: Matt on June 6, 2002 12:28 AM

It becomes impossible to describe liberalism or any complex phenomenon if each (necessarily short) description is taken, in painfully literal fashion, to be exclusive of all other descriptions. After repeatedly talking in my previous posts about equality as being the central concept of liberalism, in this post I emphasized the aspect of human will in liberalism. They are closely related of course.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on June 6, 2002 2:02 AM

Sorry, I wasn’t trying to annoy you or to be painfully literal. I was just trying to take your headline with its italicized “IS” seriously as an attempt to show an identity relation or strong modality, as opposed to just identifying some characteristic among many (as in e.g. that shoe _IS_ black). Maybe I’m the only one who thinks there is anything significant in such things though.

I’m not so sure that liberalism is all that complicated, actually, at an appropriate level of abstraction. In fact I think it strives for a sort of comprehensive simplicity (Luther thought anyone over age seven should be able to independently interpret the Bible for himself, after all); at least until it is confronted with itself. So understood on its own terms (as opposed to classical or traditionalist terms) it can be expressed fairly simply. But again maybe that is just me.

Posted by: Matt on June 6, 2002 4:23 AM

The way to avoid an over-literal response to things is to try to see them in context. The post was written not as a general essay on liberalism but as a response to a particular question: Was I saying that liberalism is nothing but the sum of liberals’ whims? That led me to try to show the deeper aspect of liberalism—human will without truth—that such whims were really the expression of, so I placed particular emphasis on that aspect. The post was not an attempt to come up with a single exhaustive definition of liberalism. Furthermore, since you had read my previous posts which dealt over and over with equality, you might have understood that I was not reducing liberalism to just the idea of will and nothing else. Such understandings would be part of a more comprehensive, non-literal understanding of what a person is saying at any given moment.

As for your claim that the basic principle of liberalism can be expressed fairly simply, I would be delighted to see you express anything fairly simply.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on June 6, 2002 9:50 AM

Categorically, then, if you don’t like simplicity (“categorical” being in no way the same thing as comprehensive). Once you’ve given away the store to nominalism you’ve lost everything already and you might as well stay home, no matter what the context of the other things you’ve said. That one person saw a flirtation with nominalism in your post could be of interest to you, or you may want to consider the source and not worry about it.

Posted by: Matt on June 6, 2002 12:20 PM

To Matt - your last comment was really opaque, at least for me. These issues are quite abstract so we need all the clarity we can get if we are to discuss them.

The first sentence isn’t a sentence and it’s not clear where it’s going. Mr. Auster says he *does* like simplicity, at least of expression, and the point of the categorical/comprehensive business is quite unclear.

The second and third sentences are clear enough, and the second even seems true to me, but I’m not sure what the application is. In his post Mr. Auster was looking for a common principle to explain the apparent contradictions of liberalism. Such a quest doesn’t seem an instance of nominalism.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on June 6, 2002 4:30 PM

Sure. I love the blog in general and Mr. Auster’s articles in particular, and it wasn’t my intent to stir up a hive or to be obscure.

The first non-sentence was merely meant to replace “simple” with “categorical” in my previous comment, since it better represents my claim. Mr. Auster didn’t seem to find my claim that liberalism can be characterized “simply” (or perhaps the notion that I could personally express much of anything simply) credible. I didn’t find that particularly objectionable, so I replaced “simply” with “categorically”. I agree that the average daytime talk show participant is not likely to get it, and that there are unquestionably people who can say it with less obscurity than me.

My *original* comment immediately following the article was based on the presumption that placing an italicized IS in the headline, along with the article content itself, implied an identity claim. This seemed marginally inconsistent with earlier posts and the facts, and in any event gave me an opportunity to shoot off my keyboard a bit.

When I was chided for taking the article too literally I attempted to make it clear that I was worried about identities, modalities, categories, and attributes. The modern way of thinking, with its heavy commitments to nominalism, often accuses any attempt at making or seeing categorical claims as “taking it too literally”. To a nominalist a categorical claim *is* too literal, because after all categories are just arbitrary conveniences in a complicated world. So my knee-jerk reaction when I try to take what someone says seriously and get told I am being too literal is to suspect them of having nominalist commitments. It is just a suspician and is as likely as not to be wrong, but it is far from uncommon.

I think for example it would be a mistake to think of the exhaltation of the will as just another attribute of liberalism (not that anyone has made the claim — I still don’t know precisely what claims are being made). I do think it is more fundamental than that, and is one of a very few such basic principles of liberalism on liberalism’s own terms. That is, liberalism is categorically about exhaltation of the will. In the context of that sort of talk saying that liberalism IS exhaltation of the human will looks like setting up an identity, and as a quibble it struck me as either inconsistent with earlier posts or as a bone thrown to nominalism. I could hear an army of a thousand liberals claiming that that is not what liberalism IS.

If complex things like liberalism can’t be talked about categorically then it is no wonder that it is such a changeling. I still can’t tell if Mr. Auster’s claim about the relation between liberalism and will is one of identity, modality, categoricity, or just an attribute; and the answer has consequences. It was its apparent treatment as just an attribute (after my original comment) that struck me as characteristic of nominalism, or at least as typical of what a nominalist will say — i.e. “you are taking me too literally” — when you treat one of his claims as categorical.

Of course those consequences may not warrant all the words that have been spent on it at this point, but I’ll take responsibility for that.

Posted by: Matt on June 6, 2002 5:46 PM
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