The etiology of liberalism, (briefly) reconsidered

An explanation of the origins of liberalism that I have frequently proposed is that liberalism begins with a denial of God or higher truth. This denial of truth removes all moral hierarchies above man and makes human will and desire the highest thing, with all human wills and desires now being considered (in the absence of any moral standards above man) as equal.

This view portrays liberalism as being conceived in an act of rebellion against Reality, not unlike the account of man’s rejection of God in the first chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

However, alongside this view, there is a more benign way of understanding the origins of liberalism. Liberalism began, in the 17th and 18th centuries, not by outright denying God and religion, but by declaring that convictions about God and religion should play no role in politics because they lead to deadly conflict. Instead of being ordered by religious authority, society was to be ordered according to neutral procedures based on the recognition of everyone’s equal rights. Considering the terrible Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17th centuries, culminating in the massacres of the entire populations of some German cities in the later stages of the Thirty Years’ War, the endeavor to remove from public society any notion of authoritative truth could be seen as not mischievous, but as highly rational and understandable.

However, the process of liberalization did not stop at that seemingly moderate stage. As Jim Kalb has pointed out, whatever is the highest public principle of a society tends over time to make the rest of the society conform to it. Since neutrality with respect to religious truth was now the highest ordering principle of society, men progressively adopted a stance of neutrality with respect to other substantive truths and values—natural, social, and spiritual—on which society had historically been based. At the same time, with the steady extension of state power, the liberal rule of neutrality spread to more and more areas of society where men had once been free to assert and order their lives according to traditional beliefs. For example, whereas the older liberalism merely sought to keep sectarian religious assertions out of the public square, today’s liberalism strips all religious expression from the public square; at its cutting edge today’s liberalism openly seeks to abolish religious belief itself—or rather, because of the double standard inherent in the belief in equality, it seeks to abolish the traditional religious beliefs of Western society, while welcoming, praising, and lauding the religious beliefs of the non-Westerners whom it has allowed into the the West en masse. Consider the respective status accorded Christianity and Islam in Public Television documentaries, and in the curricula of many of our public schools.

We have thus arrived at the radical liberal society of today, a society that denies the truth of everything outside of human will and desire, a society in demonic rebellion against the fundaments of its own existence.

In the first view I’ve described above, liberalism begins in demonic rebellion. In the second view, liberalism begins as a seemingly reasonable and rational response to certain social challenges, and ends in demonic rebellion.

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Simon Newman, a senior lecturer in Law at the University of Westminster in England, writes:

You’ve basically described the Rousseauean (demonic rebellion) and Lockean (seemingly reasonable and rational response to certain social challenges) strains of liberalism. You may be right that there’s a dynamic within Lockean liberalism that propels it to accept the Rousseauan version. As a Lockean myself, it’s a tough thing to accept.

In reply to Mr. Newman’s comment Jim Kalb writes:

Yes. The problem with classical Lockean liberalism is that it depends on a state of society that rests on habits and assumptions that liberalism eventually destroys, because if self-defining liberty comes first there’s nothing to support a substantive transcendent standard. Today there’s nothing for classical liberalism to attach to. It seems to me classicizing liberals today are either crazies (libertarians), ivory-tower academics, provincials (standard right-wing American patriots), or hand-wavers who’ll go along with anything and call it classical liberalism (“conservative” proponents of “gay marriage”).

I wrote to Jim Kalb:

We’ve previously discussed this question several times: Which comes first, the rebellion against God which leads to equality, or the belief in equality which leads to the rejection of God? It’s been a long time, but as I remember, the last time we discussed it I still favored the first. But in light of what I write here I’m no longer sure. Any opinions?

Jim Kalb replied:

1. It’s hard to disentangle this stuff. Liberalism is not an isolated episode but part of the general modern movement toward things that are immediately present to us (Descartes), or at least clearly demonstrable (modern science) and practically usable (Bacon, Machiavelli).

2. As such, original motives no doubt differed. Some people no doubt on some level wanted to get rid of God and make themselves God. Others were tired of grand speculations that didn’t seem to be getting anywhere and wanted to do something more useful and humble.

3. Maybe the problem on the latter point was that articulate knowledge of God had become too academic and too divorced from personal religious life, so that it came to seem a purely intellectual enterprise that one could abandon, rather than an essential part of any fully human life.

4. Once the movement had started the dual bias toward this-worldliness and toward simplicity, coherence and clear demonstration meant that serious thought and eventually the forms of social life considered legitimate slowly purged themselves of the residual presence of God. What we see around us now is an advanced form of that effort.

5. Were the Wars of Religion really wars of religion or wars of the rise of the modern state? You mention the extremely destructive later stages of the Thirty Years War. At that time the war was a struggle between the Catholic Hapsburgs on the one hand and Catholic France (under Cardinal Richelieu) and Lutheran Sweden on the other. I think the Calvinist Dutch also sided with the French and Swedes. It’s no doubt true though that to the extent liberalism supports the method of social organization currently dominant (the modern state) it promotes stability and therefore peace at least of a sort.

Mr. Newman replies:

I discuss this problem in the replies to my article on Cultural Marxism:


“Liberal Enlightenment values look beneficent to their supporters, like yourselves, but so do Cultural Marxist values to their adherents.”

I reply:

“I agree inasmuch as Liberal Enlightenment values alone are effectively a vessel without content, a honey pot without the honey. The English Enlightenment’s fundamental idea of Toleration is a way to reconcile conflicting values (initially Anglican vs Dissenter vs Catholic). On its own it doesn’t say what those values should be—its early exponents were writing in a strongly Christian tradition and for them it wasn’t a problem, but for us it clearly is. Liberal attempts to derive moral values from first principles, like Gewirth’s Principle of Generic Consistency, don’t really convince anyone.

“The pot is a good thing, but the values that go into the pot need to come from a different source. Otherwise you end up with a broken pot.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 21, 2007 03:06 PM | Send

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