By Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., Crisis Magazine, May 25, 2017 – “Contemporary liberalism is less a political philosophy than a façade for undermining extant social and legal mores.” ∼ John Safranek, The Myth of Liberalism, 2015.
When I first looked into this insightful book of John Safranek titled The Myth of Liberalism, I was struck by the introductory sentence that he cited from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. It is indeed one of those short, pithy statements that tell us, in a few words, what the book is about. In reflecting back over these lines, we realize that what is laid down for our consideration is the basis for the truth of what is proposed. It does explain what our contemporaries are systematically determined to impose on our private and public lives. The book explains how, in their own minds at least, contemporary scholars and jurists justify what they relentlessly promote. Yet, what they present and argue—this is the book’s value—cannot really be valid. The book goes into great detail to explain why no settled proof of liberal propositions is ever found.
This book essentially maintains that the many sequential “justifications” of contemporary liberalism, on careful examination, are simply incoherent. Their basic “self-evident” propositions always require corrections. These recurrent flaws make the justifications less than evident, self or otherwise. They cannot sustain themselves before reason, whatever rationale that they offer for their on-going claim that they do make sense, at least to themselves. Indeed—and this is what the book is about—the ever new “reasons,” designed to replace or supplement the previous inadequate ones, are also continually rejected as inconsistent with reason. Each last “reason given” could not itself be substantiated.
The irreplaceable and abiding value of a published book, one held in our very hands, is that, unlike things preserved on the Internet, it stands outside the din and confusion of modern technology, culture, and academia. This value is particularly true if the work comes from a source, such as the Catholic University of America Press, that has managed to retain its own philosophical and literary integrity. A book is the one place where an argument about the serious deficiencies of modern liberalism can be presented in its wholeness. An unread book is not as yet a book intelligible to a mind. But, once published, it remains the one avenue to minds that cannot be controlled short of burning it. This latter practice is always a possibility in a society ruled more by desire than reason, the relationship of which is the subject matter of this book.
The initial passage from Hegel reads as follows: “The right of the subject’s particularity, his right to be satisfied, or, in other words, the right of subjective freedom, is the pivot and center of the difference between antiquity and modern times.” What does this sentence tell us? First, we are each subjects. We are each “particular,” not generic, beings. So far, Aquinas would have no problem with Hegel’s formulation. The word “right” means that our particularity belongs solely to us; no one, not even God, can interfere with it. We can only give it to ourselves. It is not a gift. It is a “right.” What constitutes the essence or foundation of this “right”?
“…A “right” is a claim against others, what they “owe” us because of what we say that we are. We thus have a general “right” to be “satisfied.” If we are not “satisfied,” someone is violating our dignity, our “right” to our unique particularity. The “right” to be satisfied is but another way of saying that we have a “right” to our “subjective freedom….” A “right” is a claim against others, what they “owe” us because of what we say that we are. We thus have a general “right” to be “satisfied.” If we are not “satisfied,” someone is violating our dignity, our “right” to our unique particularity. The “right” to be satisfied is but another way of saying that we have a “right” to our “subjective freedom.” That is, no one else, nothing else, can interfere with what we freely desire. It is the sole “absolute” in a world of no absolutes. Every moral, political, and social issue comes back to this principle. Desire is what constitutes our “particular” being and grounds our freedom. If we freely “desire” it, we have a “right” to it.
Finally, we are told that this “subjective freedom” constitutes the difference between classic/medieval and modern times. Classic/medieval freedom was based on reason, logos, not desire, on what is, not on will. Freedom is based on reason, not desire. To understand what is being said here, two more points need to be recalled. The first is that, according to Plato, desire, by itself, is unlimited. This un-limitedness is a good thing in itself for that is what desire, as such, is. The second point is that, according to Aristotle, the purpose of virtue is to rule our desires and so achieve our end, not just our desires. Desires allow no “end,” only more desires. In themselves, desires are good things but they are to be ruled by reason. The difference between modern and classic/medieval thought, then, has to do with where we locate the center of our being: in desire which is unlimited or in reason which limits or rules desire because it knows the end which desires serve.
The first brief citation from the Safranek book, cited above, means the following: Modern liberalism seeks, at every essential element of what-it-means-to-be-a-human-being, to substitute desire for reason to explain what a person is. A more extensive version of the same point is as follows: “[Liberalism] is a myth successfully propagated by social and political authorities to conceal their imposition of a distinct set of goods that undermine the traditional Western ethos. Liberalism is not a coherent philosophy but a collection of causes advanced under the rubric of personal liberty (Hegel’s subjective freedom) by powerful social and political interests.” The oft-repeated witticism, “scratch a liberal and you will find a totalitarian,” is rooted in the intellectual failure of liberalism to be able to justify its own premises of a desire-based explanation of human action. In the end, it always must resort to an authority itself based on arbitrary desire, not reason.
To establish the validity of this argument, the book works its way carefully through the leading modern philosophers who provide its intellectual background—Hobbes, Bentham, and Mill, among others. It then takes up each “cause” that is used to establish the primacy of desire over reason—autonomy, dignity, freedom, rights, individualism, and equality. None of these explanations can stand by itself without revealing a flaw that requires it to employ the classic notion of justice—to render to each what is objectively due—to explain the exceptions that each principle runs into when making desire the basic principle in question. Finally, we are given a systematic comparison between the principles of classical/medieval thought in the light of modern desire based theory.
Following the classic example of Socrates in the First Book of the Republic, wherein a general thesis is shown to be untenable because it does not cover every case, Safranek examines each of the liberal premises under the light of a casuistry that reveals the weakness and impossibility of the principle being true as it is presented. Plato refuted the notion that justice is the “interest of the stronger” by asking whether we should return a sword that we had borrowed from its owner who had, in the meantime, gone mad.
In the case of equality, a similar method is followed. Clearly we are not equal in everything. But if we base our argument for equality in our desire to be equal in everything we will sooner or later end in being unjust because some inequality has to be acknowledged. We have to conclude that desire cannot alone justify equality. “The myth perpetrated by contemporary liberal scholars is that the concept of equality, which is entirely dependent on the virtue of justice, is able to justify moral and political claims in isolation from it.” The fact that I desire something does not mean that all my desires are equal. Nor are my desires superior to the opposite desires of others. Both equality and inequality must be examined by principles other than desire alone.
Safranek is both a medical doctor and a student of philosophy. In this he reminds one of the work of Leon Kass (Towards a More Human Biology; The Hungry Soul) in which the doctor’s familiarity with medicine illuminates many aspects of philosophy that many an academic might miss. In addition, both Safranek and Kass understand the centrality of the family to the aberrations of modern liberalism. In this sense, it is not surprising to see that the undermining of classical/medieval ethos has, as the book spells out, its most destructive effects in the family with all the notions of love and generosity that go with them.
It is not true that the sequence of issues beginning with divorce, on to contraception, abortion, homosexuality, single-sex “marriage,” polygamy, artificial fertilization and gestation, and euthanasia are independent of each other. They are all logically locked together in a single sequence of argument in which the first deviation from the good inevitably leads to the next aberration. Safranek sees each of these issues in the light of a persistent decline from the good of human life as found in nature. The second introductory citation from Safranek clearly sets down the relation of reason to the human happiness that is the end of our nature and, ultimately, of all our actions.
Safranek argues that the modern Supreme Court itself has been the most intellectually disordered source imposing a desire-based system on our public life. He argues, correctly, I think, that the Court is not a legislator constituted to impose its morals on the public. This concept is an abuse of the Constitution that attempts to justify lodging arbitrary power in the hands of a few unelected judges. Safranek pays a good deal of welcome attention to the aberrant thinking that justifies usurpation of power.
Once desires or pleasures are upheld as the fundamental good, morality (the self-rule of our desires) seems superfluous…. If morality is dispensable, then so are the political and legal precepts that it grounds. As the last six decades of legal political philosophy have amply revealed, the conundrum is insolvable in liberal terms. Liberals are reduced to appealing to authority, that of the Supreme Court, even though they cannot justify the Court’s power to uphold the desires of the minority vis-à-vis the majority or vice versa. Liberal jurisprudence devolves into positivism and authoritarianism (221).
The desire-based polity, that is, the polity whose philosophical and legal norms are said to reside in the primacy of individual desires, must in its own logic, we again see in its practice, be based on a voluntarist concept of law that has no other justification but what those in power choose. Aristotle had long ago explained that democracies based on “liberty” for its own sake and not for a purpose must end in tyranny.
For some time, Muslim theorists have pointed out that, in one or two decades, many cities and countries in Europe and America will have large Muslim populations with minority and probably majority political and demographic status. This growth is seen against the decline of births in the West. There is little reason to doubt these calculations. In this light, Safranek presents a very lucid and strong argument for the restoration of the primacy of the family in public life. He presents his case in terms of the well-being of families as seen in the classic/medieval tradition, but with a nuance concerning aristocracy that is not enough understood.
The new aristocracy is intact families. In contrast to historical aristocracies, this one is not based on property or material well-being. It is based on virtuous family relationships, first and foremost between the parents. It is not hereditary but congenial because these children will be advantaged from birth in nearly all the constituents of happiness by their parents’ example of charity and self-restraint…. The intact human family irreplaceably fulfills the most primordial human need for unconditional love while installing the virtues necessary for human well-being (250).
This approach requires a rejection of desire-based ethics and politics in which the issues of reason, virtue, and sacrifice are absent.
This book contains a very clearly written, thorough, yet concise argument about the adequacy of the essential principles of modern liberalism. It is also a re-presentation of how classical/medieval understanding of family and virtue really is a superior understanding of the human good. The book is also encouraging in what seems like an otherwise bleak future for the family. “One does not need to be wealthy, powerful, or famous to maintain a happy family, enjoy friendships, appreciate beauty, exercise self-control, or attain knowledge.” In fact, on finishing this remarkable book, we can conclude with Aristotle that being wealthy, famous, or powerful probably will not make us happy. We need to see these goods, to return to the initial citation, in the light of the natural end to which they themselves are ordered. “Human beings are governed by—rather than choose—happiness as their end.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a portrait of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel from 1819.