Tuesday, December 31, 2019

"The paradox of liberalism"

Gertrude Himmelfarb died yesterday, Dec. 30, 2019. A few paragraphs from Yuval Levin's much longer appreciation at National Review:
.... She was among the most important American historians of the last century. Her path-breaking work illuminating the intellectual life of 19th-century Britain not only helped transform our understanding of what the Victorians were up to but also provided a rich vocabulary for describing the place of the moral in the social and political lives of liberal societies. And in the process, she helped several generations of politically minded intellectuals in her own day understand themselves, their roles, and their goals more profoundly.

Himmelfarb’s approach to the contemporary relevance of historical inquiry was more or less a mirror image of the attitude that came increasingly to prevail in her profession over her decades of scholarship. As she put it in the introduction to the final collection of her essays, in 2017, many academic historians now fall into “interpreting the past in terms of the present, imposing the values of an enlightened progressive present upon a benighted, retrograde past.” Her own temptation, she wrote, was almost the opposite: to learn from the past what the present has forgotten. ....

She found the Victorians particularly instructive regarding two sets of questions she thought were essential to her own time and place. The first was what she would later (in a biography of John Stuart Mill) call “the paradox of liberalism” — namely that in prioritizing individual liberty above all other political goods, modern liberalism threatened to undermine the moral foundations of individual liberty, and therefore of its own strength. The second involved the significance of intellectuals in the public lives of free societies. ....

Acton offered her much fodder on both fronts. .... Himmelfarb characterized his view concisely:
The only liberty recognized by the Protestants was the liberty of the individual; the only authority the authority of the state. Thus the individual acquired the right to worship in whatever religion he wished, but his church was deprived of the right to administer its own laws. By this means, the emancipation of the individual became a refined technique for ensuring his utter subjection and the limited power previously exercised by the church was replaced by the absolute power of the state.
The elimination of mediating, moderating layers of both authority and liberty endangered them both. This would become a defining insight of a certain kind of communitarian critique of liberalism over time. But Himmelfarb, drawing on Acton, saw it early and clearly.

Acton’s answer to this problem was not to abandon liberalism, but to insist that it be tethered to traditional religion. The attachment would serve both partners, though it was destined always to be rocky and perturbed. “The liberals wanted political freedom at the expense of the church,” Himmelfarb wrote, “and the traditional Catholics wanted the church at the expense of political freedom. Acton knew that in a non-Catholic state the church’s freedom could only be guaranteed by a free society so that people who wanted religious freedom needed to be friends of genuine liberal freedom.” But he also knew that they needed to insist that religious freedom was a communal, not just an individual freedom, and that the moralism that grew out of serious religious conviction needed to have a place in the public life of a liberal society.

The relevance of this insight for our own time hardly needs to be stressed. ....

And from the 1950s through the 1970s, Himmelfarb devoted herself to exploring and articulating the lessons of that [Victorian] era, and to illuminating its most appealing and instructive figures.

Much of this work took the form of essays written over two decades and collected in Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition, published in 1968 and selected as a finalist for a National Book Award. In these essays, Himmelfarb proved to be a masterful observer of the sociology of intellectual transformation — how ideas percolate, rise, are debated and considered, accepted or rejected.

This is, as she described it, an elite process of opinion formation, but it happens at the core of elite intellectual life, not at its highest reaches. “The philosopher need address himself only to the best minds of an age—perhaps only to the best minds of all time,” she wrote in the introduction to Victorian Minds. But “the historian of ideas must also consider the representative minds of an age, which may well be the ‘second best’ minds.” She quickly added, however, that “for Victorian England, fortunately, this is no great affliction, the second-best then being better than the best of many other times and places.” ....

...[T]wo essays on Edmund Burke (whom she dubs a “proto-Victorian”) offer the extraordinary spectacle of a historian changing her mind: The first is a highly critical overview of Burke’s political project and the second, written more than a decade later, is essentially a scathing review of the first, in which Himmelfarb openly critiques what she had come to consider her own narrow-mindedness and offers a very different reading of Burke. She notes in the introduction that she could have just hidden the first away, but wanted the reader to see her rethinking in public and judge if she was right to do so. ....

From the Contents of Victorian Minds
.... “Liberals have learned, at fearful cost, the lesson that absolute power corrupts absolutely,” she wrote. “They have yet to learn that absolute liberty may also corrupt absolutely.”

This led Himmelfarb to the most powerful formulation of the worry that hangs like an ominous shadow over her seven decades of scholarship:
Having made an absolute of liberty and having established the individual as sovereign, the liberal has no integrated view of the individual in society which can moderate either his passion for liberty or his desire for regulation and control. When liberty proves inadequate, government rushes in. And since the only function assigned to government by the principle of liberty is the negative one of protection against injury, when government is obliged to assume a positive role, neither its proper powers nor its proper limits have been defined. The paradox is inevitable: government tends to become unlimited when liberty itself is thought to be unlimited. The paradox brings others in its wake. While contemporary liberalism has enormously enhanced the roles of society, government, and the state, it has provided them with no principles of legitimacy.
The result is a recipe for social breakdown and political disillusionment — for what she termed “de-moralization.” It is a recipe that Himmelfarb worried our society had set out to follow. .... (much more)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. I will gladly approve any comment that responds directly and politely to what has been posted.