Thesis of Theses (re Samuel Goldman on The Religious Origins of Liberalism)


h/t This Isn’t Happiness

Responding to a post by Matt Lewis on tensions within American conservatism and problems for social conservatives, Samuel Goldman turns to one of our favorite topics, “The Religious Origins of Liberalism.”

Writing in relation to the statements of a more or less conventional if thoughtful, politically engaged conservative like Lewis pre-configures Goldman’s argument, shapes it or his orientation toward it before he can get to stating it. Goldman refers to philosophical and theological questions while keeping them somewhat at a distance, and is thus able to produce an admirably economical framing of a thesis that is simple to state – i.e., that modern secular liberalism has a theological basis and ineradicably religious character – but whose defense is, strictly speaking, too complex for strict speaking, since that defense in the highest sense corresponds to the entirety of modernity or modern secular liberalism as a mass cultural project gone global. The thesis is, put simply, the thesis of theses for our time, also for the notion that there might be and is such a thing as “our time,” a time resting on a thesis, not or not merely on a belief or a revealed truth: a propositional time. For related reasons, the implications of the premise, taken seriously, will be necessarily disruptive to settled opinions and related conventional modes of political discussion, as reflected, for example, in the penultimate sentence of Goldman’s post, which quietly marks the common and for the larger discussion quite typical problem with definitions of “liberalism,” while raising questions about what, after all, American conservatives and their critics, especially American Conservative conservatives, can possibly think they mean when they call themselves “conservative.” ((See also the recent post on the subject by American Conservative editor Daniel McCarthy, which may succeed more in confusing than in clarifying an issue which one might have expected the American Conservative editor to have defined satisfactorily long ago.))

We may be inclined to grant blogger’s license to Goldman on over-simplifications on such a matter, especially this matter of matters ((…etc.)), but too much intellectual generosity is sooner or later intellectually impoverishing. Goldman’s claim, for instance, that a “neo-Roman argument” was (emphasis added) “the inspiration for the secularizing politics that emerged from the French Revolution” seems obviously too restrictive. The at this blog frequently observed ((most recently here and here)) Hegelian comprehension of the French Revolution – “Heaven comes down to Earth” – and of secular modernity broadly as the realization of political forms at last adequate to a Christian anthropology, if eventually destructive to then dominant forms of Christian theology, links Hegel to those whom Goldman identifies with this neo-Romanism, Rousseau and Machiavelli, but also to the British Protestant Locke and other foundational thinkers of the philosophical-historical modern. It links to or philosophically co-observes a new or newly realized unifying principle as a self-universalizing political reality: a linkage of everyone to everyone or to “all men.” It also happens to re-link the American and the French Revolutionaries indissolubly, restoring a relationship or kinship that was somewhat a matter of the obvious for many contemporaries as well as to historians and philosophers of diverse persuasions, yet united in this one, as I think it ought to be for us: Once manifold differences between the two settings have been taken into account, the divergences between the two revolutions, and also their subsequent very progressive re-convergence, seem quite explicable, though that subject, as the blogger says, is a topic for some other time. ((…or, following Kojève’s reading, for all time.))

These connections are also indicative for similarly confused uses of the word “virtue” in both Lewis’s and Goldman’s posts, if in Lewis’s perhaps more forgivably, because more naively. Lewis and most of us including perhaps Goldman seem to assume or operate from an initial premise that virtue can stand both for Christian faith or “guidance” as well as for a “neo-Roman” or “secular” republicanism. The contradiction should be irresolvable, or we could say alternatively that its resolution has proved just difficult enough to provide for millennia of work for billions of workers, and for the moments Hegel associated with the “world-historical,” from crucifixion, to official Christianization of the Roman Empire, to the Tennis Court Oath, in which relation an American conservative, unless an American Conservative conservative afraid of being called “exceptionalist,” might profitably also consider the events of 1776-1787. Regarding the American argument specifically, it seems to me that, contrary to Goldman’s assertion, either it is the argument of a “necessary connection… between secularism and theories of limited government,” and as well of a simultaneously Christian and secular, or idealized universal, “virtue” of accepting this necessity and responding to its demands, or there is no true American argument at all, or, to say the same thing in context of a moral-political American self-justification, only an arbitrary American argument, or an amoral and atheistic argument, or perhaps that narrower “neo-Roman” argument that was supposed to be a matter for those other “continentals” exclusively. We like to believe we are Lockean, but we suspect we are Machiavellian or on our better days Ciceronian, and we are ever-insecurely deluded about having evaded Hegel and Rousseau.

12 comments on “Thesis of Theses (re Samuel Goldman on The Religious Origins of Liberalism)

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  1. Evolution of an individualist concept initially found by way of a certain religious belief to a point where it doesn’t require that belief makes sense, really. Otherwise it’d have just remained the religious equivalent of talk of “the rights of Englishmen” from back then — including an implication that non-Christians are void, or somehow less deserving of liberty.

    Their view of Christianity was their path. It’s not the only one.

    Conservatism, as far as it even appears to be a coherent philosophy (generally there’s correlation between extent to which it’s associated with everyday politics and extent to which the term is more a grunt than an actual description), appears to me to turn this on its head. Their claim is that order — in their conception, a very specifically defined order that happens to match their own preferences, more like enforced conformity — is required for the liberty that classical liberalism seeks (or sought, you could say). It’s an inherent contradiction though, as if you can’t be other than what most are or challenge tradition then where exactly does the freedom part come in? It’s like saying someone has a right to wear a hat, only to respond to them taking that hat off in public with contempt, if not outright violence. That’s not a “right”, that’s a command.

    BTW: would I be wrong to interpret something about the AmCon types largely rejecting exceptionalism kind of grinding your gears a bit?

    • Will respond in detail later if I get the chance. For now, the image that I’ve attached to the post, that your comment reminded me of, will have to stand as my answer on the main part.

      As for the BTW: The mode of AmCon rejection of exceptionalism goes to the heart of my differences with the AmCons, or what I think is dysfunctional in their approach. It grinds my gears because, by enemy of my enemy thinking, that would make the Jennifer Rubin-style neoconicals my “friends” instead. Since I like having my gears ground in this way, however, it’s a good kind of problem as far as blogging goes, a challenge to delineate differences that are more interesting philosophically than “whose side are you on?”

      • I never liked the whole “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing. I will admit though that when it comes to conservatives the AmCon crew strikes me as more reasonable, if only because they seem willing to question the larger contradictions in political conservatism for the sake of the philosophical/cultural form.

        Jennifer Rubin? Sorry dude, I’d call her an extremist nutjob and hack. I still think it instructive that on WaPo’s right-wing beat they effectively picked her to replace Dave Weigel (who appears to have been excommunicated from a movement he never actually was part of — he wrote for Reason, ffs!).

  2. No, he was part of the Journolist, we think that Rubin is a little naive on the implications of domestic policy, maybe because she was a labor lawyer, in an earlier life,

    • Being “on Journolist” was bad enough, but, from the perspective of covering cons for the WaPo, he had, IIRC, said a few things taken as prejudicially hostile or dismissive by activists already prejudicially hostile or dismissive of media members for their presumed prejudicially hostile or dismissive attitides, as typified by the latter’s presumption that conservative activists were prejudicially hostile or dismissive of them… etc.

  3. Is there any institution you are willing to leave intact:

    “A middle ground might be to fight for same sex marriage and its benefits, and then, once granted, redefine the institution completely, to demand the right to marry not as a way of adhering to society’s moral codes but rather to debunk a myth and radically alter an archaic institution.” — Michelangelo Signorile, “Bridal Wave,” OUT Magazine, December/January 1994, p.161

  4. Well taking the notion, serious for a moment, he is suggesting the social gospel is the wellspring of progressivism, which effectively becomes a substitute for faith, the reaction to the ‘.4 percent GDP is indicative of this, or put another way, those wonderful extra grams of chocolate ration,

    • Little confused who is suggesting what you say is being suggested. Don’t know anything about Signorile, but as a matter of history, the “social gospel” was very much a wellspring of Progressivism, not, in the minds of the Progressives anyway, as a substitute for faith, but as a calling of faith. The notion of “progress” typifies the modern and preceded the Progressives, but the modern or progressive insight would be an articulation of a pre-existing universal.

  5. DeTocqueville, understood more then most the creeping despotism we face now, it’s more Huxleyan then
    Orwellian, where people ignore their real circumstances, California is if not a redoubt of that notion,

  6. I guess a hunk of this comes down to what to do/what happens when expediency and articulated political philosophy and moralisms collide.

    It does tend to get a bit messy.

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  1. […] Despite defects and some redundancy, the comment (at this precise moment still in “moderation”) may help to clarify the larger problem with American Conservative conservatism that our friend B Psycho has noted seems to “grind my gears”: […]

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