Ancient and Modern Liberty

Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism tells an interesting story and tells it well. The prose is lucid and vigorous, and the reader is led to comprehend the heart and soul of the liberal enterprise. A renowned expert on French liberal thought who teaches at the City University of New York, Rosenblatt provides fine treatments of important, if unjustly underestimated, thinkers such as Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, models of moderation amidst the ideological storms of the French Revolution and Napoleonic despotism. Rosenblatt sets out to vindicate liberalism’s moral honor—and largely succeeds.

For these reasons I happily recommend her book. Unfortunately, it contains a flaw that marks it from beginning to end. Rosenblatt is convinced liberalism began in France around the time of the 1789 French Revolution, when the word in its modern sense came into wide usage. Most curiously, she thinks it was only imported into the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, where it either became rights-obsessed and radically individualistic, or it turned to the state to ameliorate poverty and even the human condition. And oddly, Germany—surely not a liberal political culture for most of modernity—plays a greater role in her book than America. What accounts for these curiosities, this tale that seemingly begins in media res?

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To be sure, Rosenblatt recognizes that liberalism has an important pre-history. She has intelligent things to say about liberalitas, the “noble and generous way of thinking and acting toward one’s fellow citizens” that defined liberality for Cicero and the most thoughtful Romans. And she is not wrong that this understanding of liberality has an aristocratic tinge but is nevertheless necessary for civilized life, even in modern times. Yet her rather arbitrary starting point ignores the crucial roles of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in liberalism’s development. Like many intellectual historians, she fails to see how Hobbes designed the architecture of the liberal order: the state and civil society, the primacy of individual rights, an account of appetite and desire central to modern political economy, a marked suspicion of revealed religion, and, of course, the foundational “state of nature” he invented to radically account for human origins and obligations. If Rosenblatt read Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, or Bertrand de Jouvenel with care, she would see how Hobbes’s thought points toward liberalism and not authoritarianism or totalitarianism. (Whether it provides an adequate moral foundation for a liberal order is another question. I have my doubts.)

As for Locke, Rosenblatt reads him as Hobbes’s opposite. She links him to Ciceronian or classical liberality—a stretch—and writes he was convinced “[m]en in a state of nature were capable of knowing and following a moral law.” This is a far too conventional rendering of Locke’s truly audacious moral and political reflection. To begin, there is no moral law for Locke—morality is the product of “mixed modes,” constructed by human beings. Even the notion of “murder” is a linguistic construction rather than a prohibition rooted in divine or natural law. And because he jettisons the classical Christian notion of “substance,” it is very difficult to know who precisely is this being with rights (and, Locke acknowledges reluctantly, some accompanying obligations and duties).

The tension between the exoteric and the esoteric Locke is constitutive of the tensions at the heart of modern liberty. Locke oscillates in his Second Treatise on Government between affirming human beings as “the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker” and telling us nature is extremely improvident—999/1,000ths of what we have and are come from human labor, industry, and initiative. Liberalism has always been torn between a residual affirmation of God’s sovereignty and an ever-more insistent claim of human self-sovereignty. This tension eventually gave over, as Rosenblatt writes, to the “religion of humanity,” proclaimed by Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. Dating liberalism to the conflagrations surrounding the French Revolution makes it harder for Rosenblatt to account for liberalism’s movement toward a dangerous and immoderate “emancipation of the will”—an emancipation from natural and divine limits already present in proto-liberals such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Hobbes.

Curiously, Rosenblatt says little about “the celebrated Montesquieu,” as the authors of The Federalist called him. But what political philosopher did more to give an account of the “statics and dynamics” of modern liberty? Montesquieu taught there could be no political liberty or security for citizens without active efforts to organize political and social arrangements, making power check power. Eighteenth-century England showed him political liberty at work “as in a mirror.” In his accounts of English liberty in The Spirit of the Laws, he outlines the separation of powers in a modern constitutional order: the superiority of representation to pure democracy, the connection between the jury and self-government, the place of competitive parties in a regime of liberty, and the role of free commerce and religious toleration in a free state. Yet Montesquieu is never doctrinaire. He cautions the French about slavishly imitating England’s “extreme liberty.” A more moderate liberty, balancing traditional estates with growing political and intellectual freedom, might better fit France’s long and distinctive historical experience.

As Pierre Manent has written, Montesquieu was liberal both in doctrine and in his prudential openness to balancing political principles with historical particularity. With Montesquieu, we are far from revolutionary fanaticism and the idea that one—and only one—model of liberty is available to humankind. He even foreshadows Alexis de Tocqueville, warning against the “spirit of extreme liberty,” when a salutary and necessary form of civic equality morphs into equality in every sphere—between fathers and children, magistrates and criminals, teachers and students. Montesquieu’s very modern liberalism was still touched by classical measure and the old-fashioned notion of liberalitas. Giving an adequate account of the “lost history of liberalism” surely demands a serious and substantial engagement with him. His moderation precedes, and to some extent informs, the moderation of the later French liberals Rosenblatt so admires. And he was deeper by far.

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