Thursday, July 22, 2010

How liberal conservatives can be

The LD has written a book that we hope to see soon published, The soul of a nation, where he investigates the political philosophical meaning of the American experience: meaning, what in the shaping of the American body politic can be of universal philosophical significance.

Now, it seems that there are two principles in America being played one against the other, both going back to some of the key words of the Declaration of Independence: equality and liberty or freedom.

The stress on the first or on the second seems to define the opposing parties of the creeping civil war I speak about as, in common parlance, progressives or liberals and conservatives – with the first relying on the state to assure equality, while the second look at the individual with his natural place in civil society to preserve freedom.

While certainly not friend of the state, I feel a certain embarrassment when I see how some conservatives defend their case as one of liberty versus tyranny. Also because, in the reconstruction they make of the casus belli, there would be nothing particularly interesting in the American experiment that the LD examines. The culture war today in America between liberals and conservatives would be the same that had been going on for centuries, through European history, all the way back to the supposed origins of Western civilization in Greek philosophical reflection on politics.

Already then, Karl Popper suggests, the opposition of principles took shape following Plato's envisioning a city (non a state) ruled by a philosopher king, to which, we are told, Aristotle opposed a vision of a city of free citizens.

Strange pairing of thinkers follow in such a reconstruction of political philosophical history: that of Plato with the anti-Platonist Thomas Hobbes, on one side, and of Aristotle with John Locke, who can't be certainly classified as an Aristotelian, on the other.

Actually Plato and Aristotle, for all their differences, go together in their emphasis on the virtues required of men for a good ordering of the city.

Equally together go Hobbes and Locke, to the point that the second can be seen as having done nothing more than gilding the Hobbesian pill. While Hobbes is brutal in his expressions, requiring a sovereign – it doesn't matter whether "single or assembly" –, Locke appears much more suave, when he definitely grants sovereignty to an assembly.

The trouble is that in any case the sovereign has the power of making laws, thus bringing order to an otherwise disordered world.

What embarrasses me is how "liberal" is this whole historical reconstruction, although in a sense of the word closer to the Nineteenth Century usage than to that of the century just passed.

The whole progressives versus conservatives opposition is no older than two centuries or two centuries and a half.

The much older question about which America represents a novel experiment is another: that of the relation of politics and religion.

Here America has parted from Europe. For liberal European states, to keep religion out of politics means to make it publicly irrelevant, preserving for themselves the education of the citizenry. In America, instead, it is politics that has to be left out, so to speak, of religion. Save for a Europeanizing cultural elite, that wants to affirm the subordination to the state of civil society with all its cultural-religious manifestations.

Essential then to the American experiment is, as the LD reminds us, that tradition of virtue which from Greek philosophy passed into Christian theology. Which is, we could claim, universal, thus making possible to keep Church and State separate, without destroying society.


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