This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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A problem of definition

Regarding Liberalism, the first problem that confronts us regarding Liberalism is one of definition. Depending on where we are and to whom we are speaking, we will find that people attach different meanings to the term. Unfortunately, these meanings are often not entirely coherent, and they rarely take into consideration the historical development of the Liberal philosophical tradition, which is to say that the term ‘Liberal’ is too often applied in an entirely conventional way. When used in this manner, Liberalism typically means whatever the speaker or group wants it to mean, regardless of how confused or inappropriate this may be with respect to the historical meaning.

To explain, let us quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on “Liberalism”:

In the United States, Liberalism is associated with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal program of the Democratic administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas in Europe it is more commonly associated with a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economic policies.[1]

What we see here is that the Atlantic Ocean has somehow divided the philosophy of Liberalism into two philosophies superficially opposing each other. Obviously this will not do for any precise discussion of our situation or the Liberal ideas that have formed it; and so, before we continue, we need to ask which of these understandings is correct, if either: the European or the American. To do this we need to go back to the origins of the Liberal creed.

As we have said, Liberalism as a philosophical tradition begins at the Enlightenment, and more specifically with a philosopher named John Locke (1632-1704), who has been called the father of Liberalism. The central principles of this school were, originally: individualism, democratic elections, free markets, insistence on free speech and various other civil rights, popular sovereignty, separation between church and state, and a high emphasis on equality and liberty.

In American politics, these values are presently divided out between both parties, whether ‘conservative’ or avowedly ‘Liberal’. Both parties insist on individualism, free speech, liberty, popular sovereignty, and democracy.  Each of them has a proprietary list of ‘rights’, which they believe to be owed to them by their fellows and by the government.

In this way they share Liberalism in the same way that King Solomon attempted to share the contested infant, which is to say, piecemeal. Overall, they agree on fundamentals, but they each interpret the fundamentals with their own (sometimes drastically varied) nuance. For example, the are both highly individualistic in emphasis, but the Right (the ‘conservatives’) emphasizes primarily an economic sort of individualism, and so market autonomy becomes their pet project, usually under the aegis of Capitalism. The Left (adopting the ‘Liberal’ label) emphasizes a more domestic sort of moral individualism, and so gay marriage, abortion, and secularism become their predominating values. Both parties are, at heart, thoroughgoing Liberals, but they differ on the area of application and the extent to which they are willing to remain consistent.

To return to the story of Solomon and the infant, we can say that in any case, much is lost. The Right is willing to sacrifice all values to their belief in the market, which is to say to Capitalism, since, after all, Capitalism is nothing but economic Liberalism. Yet they contradict themselves by their efforts to promote religion in the public sphere and by denying the sexual autonomy of certain individuals. In these latter cases, they betray their Liberalism and become hypocrites.

The Left, on the other hand, is willing to sacrifice all values to their belief in personal autonomy at the expense all traditional or religious norms, and here they are truly Liberal; but much like the Right, they also contradict themselves when they fight to protect the poor and the natural environment, because a coherent Liberalism has no room for such a liberty-limiting regulations. There is no common good in Lockean Liberalism.

In sum, when we speak of Liberalism in this study, we must step outside of the arbitrary usage that predominates in American speech, which is internally incoherent. From a historical standpoint, to use the term in this way is to render is completely meaningless. When we refer to Liberalism, then, we must be understood as referring to the continuous and wide-ranging tradition of Enlightenment thought, a tradition which has gone to form the political and social consensus of the modern world, for there is no developed nation that is not a child of this original Liberalism. It informs and dictates the positions and goals of both the American Right and the American Left. If the former seems by its rhetoric to despise it, we must simply remember Davila’s observation: “Today’s conservatives are nothing more than Liberals who have been ill-treated by democracy.”[2]

Odd as this all may seem, Oswald Spengler explained how this style of Liberal-conservatism comes about:

there arises the defensive figure of the Conservative party, copied from the Liberal, dominated completely by the latter’s forms, bourgeois-ized without being bourgeois, and obliged to fight with rules and methods that Liberalism has laid down. It has the choice of handling these means better than its adversary or of perishing.[3]

The Right calls itself conservative, but its conservatism is only a matter of temperament and not of philosophy. Its adherents are simply Liberals who prefer inertia.

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Liberalism,” Girvetz, Harry K.

[2] Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Scholia to an Implicit Text, aphorism 1208. [Please note that there are two versions of Davila’s aphorisms. In this instance I have cited the 2001, Spanish edition, which contains numbered aphorisms. I will also cite from a 2013 English-Spanish “bilingual” edition which has the same title but different content and does not have numbered aphorisms. For the latter edition, page numbers will be referenced.]

[3] Spengler, op. cit., p. 450.

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