The English philosopher and man of letters Roger Scruton long argued that French intellectual life was taken over by “imposters” in the 1960s. There is much evidence to support his claim. Jean-Paul Sartre’s political commitments were perverse and even imbecilic—this talented philosophe and littérateur defended the most vile tyrannies as long as they were left-wing. He saw authenticity and emancipation at work in Stalin’s murderous despotism, Castro’s brutal Caribbean tyranny and Mao’s terroristic assault on human freedom and the life of the mind. Most perversely of all, in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), he provided a “philosophical” defence of “fraternity terror” as a means of overcoming inauthenticity and bourgeois individualism. The radical existentialist could only find fleeting moments of hope in the bloodlust of revolutionary terror. Scruton rightly calls Sartre’s political choices and judgments “degraded”, owing as much to Robespierre as Marx.
But Sartre was a writer of talent and a keen, if one-sided, observer of the human condition when he was not deformed by ideology. The same cannot be said of phoneys like Althusser who, Scruton argues, degraded both political judgment and the very possibility of a thoughtful encounter with our humanity. “Structuralist” Marxism, à la Althusser, was not even particularly faithful to the Marxism of Marx. The Paris “nonsense machine”, as Scruton bitingly calls it, was committed to a reckless assault on common sense, moderation and decency. In addition, it displayed fierce hostility to even a residual conception of a (normative) human nature. To be sure, Michel Foucault had his moments of genius. But he shared, and radicalised, his generation’s obsession with sex and power relations, seeing domination everywhere, except in Tehran (in 1979) and in Mao’s China, where he perversely discerned avatars of liberation.
This is Part I of this Quadrant series.
Click here to subscribe
As for Deleuze, Lacan and the rest, they synthesised Marx, Freud and contemporary nihilism (“poststructuralism”) in an obscurantist mix that will always remain inaccessible to the uninitiated. In their hands, thought was transformed into an instrument of pure destruction, so-called “deconstruction”, at the service of what Scruton so memorably labelled “the culture of repudiation”. Like the Russian nihilists of old, the representatives of cultural repudiation set out to destroy the remnants of the natural moral law and all authoritative institutions necessary to free and civilised life. Today, Alain Badiou is their self-parodic heir. This French “philosopher” combines secular messianic effusions about “the Event”, an eruption of revolutionary bliss and destruction, with apologies for Stalin and Mao. In the Chinese tyrant’s violent discourses during the murderous Cultural Revolution, Badiou finds the voice of philosophy at the service of the world-transforming Event. For many in the Western intellectual world, these figures are the only intellectual France they know. Sophisticated nihilism is lauded by academics and literati throughout the world.
But there is “another aspect of French intellectual life”, as Scruton well observes. For example, the French political thinker Raymond Aron (1905–83) combined immense learning with manly sobriety and measured political judgment. He famously resisted the totalitarian temptation in all its forms. In the present cultural moment, when communism again appeals to the militants (and some of the tender-hearted) in the new generation, Aron’s The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) remains a powerful guide to intellectual and moral hygiene. In France today, many pay lip service to Aron’s anti-totalitarianism while ignoring, or at least downplaying, his equally bold and outspoken resistance to everything associated with the “thought of 1968”.
The old and distinguished Parisian publisher Calmann-Lévy recently reissued Aron’s La révolution introuvable (The Elusive Revolution) which attacked both the rather juvenile Castroism and Maoism of the soixante-huitards while diagnosing their pathological appeal to a radical individualism, a moral antinomianism, which took aim at the very idea of ordered or structured liberty. The new edition of the book is introduced by Philippe Raynaud, a thoughtful and wide-ranging political scientist, who today takes his bearings from a centrism of the Macron type. Without getting anything wrong per se, Raynaud’s new introduction to Aron’s book is a pre-eminent example of what the Hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai called “misplaced emphasis”. Raynaud spends more time emphasising Aron’s occasional criticism of de Gaulle’s government, and his calls for reform of an overly centralised French university system, than he does his bold, and truly essential, assault on the spirit of 1968 and all its works. Raynaud fails to sufficiently appreciate the prescient, even prophetic, character, of the book. Aron foresaw the culture of repudiation in all its amplitude. He was alarmed by what he eventually came to see less as a “psychodrama” (as he called it in May-June 1968) and more as a “crisis of civilisation”, as André Malraux called it at the time. As the talented young political theorist Giulio de Ligio recently told me, many “centrist” Aronians in France, Raynaud among them, prefer to ignore or downplay the Aron that emerged from the events of 1968. An indefatigable defender of the liberal university and the first great scourge of political correctness in France, Aron came to see “democratic conservatism” as essential to the preservation of civilised liberty.
Aron’s critique of the new antinomianism
This was Aron at his wisest, in command of all his powers, and hardly a cranky old man who was unwilling to accommodate what was legitimate in the “spirit of the times”. Right Aronians, such as de Ligio and the eminent political philosophers Pierre Manent and Philippe Bénéton (and myself, I might add), worry less about “populism” than the accommodation of a flaccid centre to the “depoliticisation” of Europe and the West. That accommodating centrism is all too willing to resign itself (not enthusiastically, to be sure) to the institutionalisation of the new morality and of a liberty that has little place for robust non-relativistic moral judgment.
The distinguished sociologist Dominique Schnapper, Aron’s daughter, has written several excellent books about the links between democratic citizenship and a vigorous and self-respecting nation-state. She has also renewed her father’s reflections on the corruption of democracy by what Montesquieu called “extreme equality”. That corruption is evident when democracy rejects all authoritative institutions, and even the authority of truth itself. I particularly recommend Schnapper’s The Community of Citizens and The Democratic Spirit of the Laws. In these works, one sees the best social science united to Aronian sobriety, rejecting both radical relativism and a scholarship at the service of reckless activism. But it is clear that, today, Schnapper fears the populist Right more than “the fanaticism of a centre” (the phrase is Pierre Manent’s) that has said adieu to the old Aronian and Tocquevillian synthesis of liberalism and conservatism. These are matters of judgment, of course. In any case, Schnapper is more of a “sociologist” than her father and perhaps has less confidence than he did in the enduring wellsprings of human nature. In a spirit of resignation, with no natural order of things to appeal to, she seems to believe that the democratic revolution, radicalised by late modernity, is destined to have the final word. In this view, the old goods can hardly be credibly renewed.
But nothing seems more necessary at present than the renewal of the spirit of Aron during the final fifteen years of his life, a renewal present in an austere way in Schnapper’s best books. When Aron’s model of spiritedness and sober realism is too readily dismissed, Aron becomes less threatening, more “democratic” and more tame. But he is, at the same time, effectively relegated to the past, to a twentieth-century struggle against communism and Nazism that is seen as of little relevance to the issues of our time. I beg to differ. At a time when a man of great intellectual integrity such as the French public philosopher Alain Finkielkraut is transformed into a diabolic figure by those who hate Israel and enforce the new political correctness, when Zionism is identified by influential currents with Nazism, when European democracy has turned against itself in a display of masochistic guilt (as if free, humane, and prosperous liberal Europe is the uniquely “culpable” civilisation in all of human history), it is time to reclaim the sober and spirited civic courage of Aron.
Contemporary voices on the harder Right such as Eric Zémmour denounce progressivism, Islamism and political correctness with a fiery gusto. They are not wrong to see a new totalitarianism springing from a cultural stance that sees in the West nothing but guilt and endless oppression. “Human rights universalism”, as Zémmour calls it, attacks decent societies and bans the criticism of movements, such as radicalised political Islam, that have no place for law, moderation or human rights. But Zémmour is more angry than thoughtful, and aims to condemn more than convince. What is truly needed today is a judicious coming together of spiritedness and moderation, liberalism (traditionally understood) and democratic conservatism, a respect for moral decency and high intellectual culture tied to the capacity for modest, non-masochistic self-criticism. That is the spirit necessary for civilisational renewal. Aron had those strengths and virtues in spades. In his final lecture at the Collège de France in 1978, Liberté et égalité, recently edited by and published by Pierre Manent and Giulio de Ligio, under the auspices of Dominique Schnapper, we can find a lucid précis of Aron’s humane democratic conservatism at work. Let me provide a brief overview.
In that little work, Aron lamented that the French renewal of political liberalism was more negative than positive, drawing almost exclusively on opposition to totalitarianism (inspired, it should be pointed out, in no small part by Aron and Solzhenitsyn). Liberalism had come to define itself by opposition to “absolutism”, to every monistic appeal to absolute truth. This was part of the story but only part of it. Liberalism had been vindicated by historical experience, as a humane and viable alternative to the “absolutism of ideology”. But Aron appreciated that liberalism could not be reduced to an “ideology of the rights of man”, an anti-political perspective which ignored the requirements of civic virtue and civic cohesion to a political order as such. In this essay, Aron continues his dialectical reflection on the relationship between formal liberty and the ever more insistent egalitarian claims that liberty be made more real and less formal. But Aron came to see doctrinaire egalitarianism as the enemy of liberty rightly understood: liberty as equal rights could never be reduced to some impossible dream of “equal powers and capacities”. As Aron put it, one can in principle give everyone access to the university system, as France had wisely or unwisely done. But one could not reasonably guarantee that all will have the same success in pursuing their studies. Extreme egalitarianism risked contradicting the deepest wellsprings of human nature and social life.
Writing in 1978, Aron saw that the fierce but superficial Maoism and Castroism of the soixante-huitards had given way to moral anarchism and facile antinomianism. According to the thought of 1968, vastly over-represented in the academy and Western intellectual life, free societies were nothing but vehicles of limitless domination. In liberal freedoms, formal but real, the new antinomians could see only unjust privilege and power at work. The hierarchies and systems of authority that belong to every social institution worthy of the name were now identified with despotism. The essential difference between liberal democracy and totalitarianism was erased at a stroke. Instead of renewing political philosophy’s search for the good society or the best regime, the heirs of 1968 succumbed to what Aron called the “total refusal of existing society”. If such angry moralism is not capable of a political articulation, then it is not an approach to social life that political actors, faced with concrete choices and dilemmas, can take seriously.
Aron reminded soi-disant liberals that civic-mindedness, or political responsibility, “is part of morality”. Reason, practical or political reason, should be the “star and compass”, as John Locke put it, of free and responsible men and women. Practical reason demands self-command, while the new antinomianism confuses liberty with the liberation of the desires. But a hedonistic society can see in governing institutions of all stripes—civic, religious, educational, business enterprises, and the Churches and army, of course—only prohibitions that are incompatible with liberty as untethered and untutored desire. Echoing Kant, Aristotle, Montesquieu and Tocqueville, that is to say, the best of ancient and modern wisdom, Aron eloquently defended liberty under law. He did so as a public philosopher, and not in the manner of a metaphysician or academic political theorist. Like Cicero of old he was a sturdy defender of the mix of civicism and morality that keeps decadence, vulgar relativism and Epicureanism at bay.
Aron’s instincts were thoroughly decent, and his liberalism thus never lost sight of the best conservative wisdom. He was not a religious man, but he respected transcendental religion and shared its solicitude for the human soul. And he was a Jew out of self-respect in an age of murderous anti-Semitism and the totalitarian degradation of the human spirit.
Near the end of Liberté et égalité, Aron suggests that democracies must recover a thoughtful understanding of the place of virtue in civic and moral life. Evoking Freud at his sober best, Aron defends the “reality principle” against the “pleasure principle”, the unleashing or liberation of eros or desire as ends in themselves. Emancipated from moral and civic superintendence, they corrode both responsible individuality and the common good of a free society. Authentic theories of liberalism and democracy must give serious reflection to the definition of the virtuous citizen in relation to the ideal of a free society. Arguments such as these help us understand why Pierre Manent has suggestively called Aron a “liberal classic” rather than a “classical liberal”, in his introduction to Aron’s book. Where many see the dominant influence of Max Weber’s social science and Kant’s moral vision in Aron’s political philosophy, Manent hears an Aristotelian voice where morality and civicism come together through the mediation of the high art of political prudence. Of course, Manent acknowledges the role of all these influences in the formation of Aron’s singular and still remarkably relevant conservative liberalism.
The avant garde of contemporary Western societies, from London and Paris to New York and Los Angeles, has made a fetish of (groundless) consent or choice. Here Aron departs in a significant way from the corruption of liberalism that has hijacked that name. Aron concedes that he shares the ideal that each individual should be free to choose his own path in life. Despite his early flirtation with Weber’s radical relativism, Aron came to see that choice could never be totally free or unencumbered. Liberty is always liberty under law, or it ceases to do justice to the nature of man and society. A free, decent and stable democratic order should never confuse the freedom to choose one’s way in life with a radical relativism that gives us permission to choose our “own conceptions of good and evil”. Here, Aron would and could not go. Good and evil, he argued, are available to decent men and women who see things as they come to sight in ordinary experience. Tyranny is not “monarchy misliked”, as Thomas Hobbes famously quipped in Leviathan. It always and everywhere entails an assault on the bodies and souls of human beings. In his eminently practical way, Aron affirmed and lived the cardinal virtues so dear to Aristotle and Cicero: prudence, courage, temperance and justice.
In the last years of his life, Aron gave much thought to the need to teach civics in French schools, “to speak seriously about the duties of citizens”. He realised that in the new climate of repudiation and hyper-individualism this would be very difficult. To even propose it, he observed, is to look like one who comes from a lost and distant world. In a sense that is the perfect description of Aron in the last two decades of his life. This noble liberal and principled anti-totalitarian brought a more classical wisdom to bear on the great task of preserving and sustaining a truly liberal order. In my view, if alive today he would not be complacent about a society that has rejected the “reality principle” and that confuses rights with radical, even wilful, relativism and self-assertion. And he would not be taken in by the apolitical but hopelessly moralistic fanaticism of a centre that is acquiescing in the loss or collapse of authoritative institutions throughout the Western world.
Philippe Bénéton: Beyond equality by default
My friend of many years, the French political theorist Philippe Bénéton, has taken up many of Aron’s concerns, while thoughtfully pursuing his own. His appropriation of Aron’s practical wisdom is informed by classical or Aristotelian political philosophy, traditional Catholic wisdom, and the noble effort to keep together liberty and human excellence that informs the work of the greatest conservative liberal, Alexis de Tocqueville. In lucid, classical French prose, Bénéton has taken aim at what he calls “equality by default”, and the “new morality” that aims to radically remake the self-understanding of contemporary men and women.
Another defender of liberty under law, Bénéton takes aim at the pseudo-virtues heralded by the new morality: authenticity and autonomy. Late modern man is not merely egoistic or self-absorbed, he observes. Human beings have always been so tempted. Rather, he is committed to a new categorical imperative, that of being “fully, radically, autonomous”. Late modern man’s enemy par excellence is heteronomy, any authority or “rule” outside of the mysterious wellsprings of a self beholden to nothing outside or above its groundless freedom. The Universal upheld by classical philosophy and biblical religion was tied to a coherent conception of truth and the Good Life. The new morality transforms the universal into a notion of the general that even in principle refuses to distinguish “barbarian practices and civilised mores”.
Bénéton argues persuasively that we have literally theorised ourselves out of good sense and human decency. If we open our eyes and hearts to the experiences at the foundation of natural justice, we will quickly see that “truth is preferable to the lie, courage to cowardice, honesty to dishonesty, love to cruelty”. To deny this palpable fact is to reject reality and to succumb to nihilism. Bénéton tellingly adds that this is not a question of choosing the right values. Rather, it is a question of perceiving the human world before us, since these virtues are built into the very structure of reality. On the political level, Bénéton eschews both a politics of perfection or absolutism, and “the demon of the absence of the Good”. The Good is before us but it cannot be fully embodied or instantiated in political or social institutions. But free politics depends upon a morally serious understanding of human dignity, and not an “equality by default” that can say nothing about the virtues and vices of human beings. An authentic liberal society respects pluralism while rejecting what Pope Benedict XVI famously called “the dictatorship of relativism”. Between “the demon of the Good” and the “demon of the absence of the Good” lies a politics of prudence worthy of human beings. Such are the metaphysical foundations of moderation, liberty and human dignity.
When I recently spoke to Professor Bénéton, he emphasised the self-deception of the partisans of the “new morality”. They do not see themselves as moralists. Rather, they perceive themselves as people who are committed to true liberty or emancipation, and for the first time in a Europe hitherto dominated by repressive moral constraints. In this self-understanding, nearly uncontested among European elites, everyone has his own “values”, passions, and projects. The prohibitions of the past, and the old horizon of good and evil, must be thrown into the dustbin of history. But the new morality is quickly accompanied by new and draconian prohibitions. Adherence to the old morality is identified, without thought or argument, with hatred and fear, hence the linguistic tyranny that assaults various alleged “phobias”. Racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia are vehemently denounced even as they are defined in an imprecise and menacing way. Heretics beware.
As Bénéton remarks, the new moralists laud themselves for their tolerance of difference, compassion for immigrants, opposition to the death penalty and commitment to saving the planet from ecological destruction. But they show little or no compassion for those on the wrong side of the divide between “progress” and “reaction”. It is this dichotomy that has replaced the primordial human distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. Conservatives deserve nothing but opprobrium and marginalisation, and victims of Islamist or communist persecution, most especially Christians, are of no concern to them. Some victims are clearly more meritorious than others.
As Aron had already discerned fifty years ago, the post-1968 mélange of extreme relativism and extreme moralism cannot sustain a society of free and responsible citizens. The new morality masquerades as a project of emancipation even as it makes its adherents slaves of the passions and of a new, unforgiving intellectual conformism. Without a minimum of self-respect and self-limitation, how can a free society endure? What common projects, what common good, can be sustained on premises that seem to deny the very existence of a society or polity with its own legitimate claims and rules? What is a free people without patriotic attachments that require affection, loyalty and sacrifice on the part of citizens? As Aron might say, a free society is still a society, and a polity is first and foremost a community of citizens.
Chantal Delsol and the recovery of the person
Bénéton’s striking analyses are complemented by the elegant personalism of the French political philosopher Chantal Delsol. She was a student of Julien Freund, who like Aron challenged moralistic progressive pieties and thought deeply about the nature of the political. If thinkers such as Bénéton and Pierre Manent renew the dialogue between classical political philosophy, Christian wisdom and conservative liberalism, Delsol is best understood as a personalist deeply informed by the political lessons of the twentieth century. She made clear to me that she prefers to speak of a “human condition” rather than an unchanging and perhaps excessively rigid notion of human nature. One of the principal lessons of the twentieth century is that the keystone of European culture rests on the dignity of the human person, “an entity possessing a sacred and inalienable value”. In her numerous, elegantly written essays and books, Delsol highlights the degradation of man that occurs when we lose sight of a conception of the human being, “an anthropology”, that links rights to duties, and personal freedom to moral conscience.
Delsol argues that the experience of totalitarianism in twentieth-century Europe showed that the “rational systems” of modern morality could not account for those scruples (from the Latin scrupulus, or pebble), those little pebbles lodged in the human soul “which bother the moral conscience”. Scruples cannot be seen but must be felt if we are to avoid personal and political catastrophes of the first order. For Delsol, we do not rationally establish the moral order. Instead, we participate in it. Moral scruples are those obstacles, noted by the poets and discernible in each human soul, to great, ill-advised projects to remake human beings and societies at will. It is a reality unknown to reductive scientism but at the heart of conscience rightly understood.
For his part, Pierre Manent attempts in an important recent book, Natural Law and Human Rights, to renew a conception of natural law rooted in an Aristotelian understanding of reflective choice, a Christian conception of non-arbitrary conscience, and a phenomenological analysis of the motives, from pleasure and utility to the noble and the just, that inform the free will of human beings. Delsol’s defence of conscience is less rational, more “personalistic” and clearly derived from the East-Central European experience with totalitarianism in the last half of the twentieth century. Delsol told me she finds many resources for the recovery of a true and humane anthropology from the dissidents and philosophers she came to know in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. They experienced the evils that flowed from totalitarian ideologies that insisted that some suspect race or class was responsible for the sum total of human evil.
Much of Delsol’s work has been dedicated to exposing a new ideological Manicheanism at work in the post-1968 world of “European liberty”. Late modernity, a phrase to which both Bénéton and Delsol are partial, has the same totalitarian confidence that it knows precisely who the victim is and precisely who the victimisers or oppressors are. As Delsol puts it, “In any conflict between employer and employee, woman and man, delinquent and society, colonial and colonised, personal responsibility tends to be eclipsed by collective responsibility”, or rather merciless collective guilt. Such an understanding negates personal responsibility and denies the freedom and responsibility at the heart of authentic personhood. It is profoundly illiberal. Only a recovery of the person who is neither completely “autonomous” nor completely determined by biology, history, or society, can renew and reinvigorate the moral foundations of a free society. True liberalism must reject the false claim that human beings are wholly indeterminate, with no intrinsic goods to guide the exercise of human freedom.
Together, the writings of Bénéton and Delsol expose a strange complicity between the new “catechism of the rights of man”, to evoke Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and the totalitarianism that was the plague and scourge of the European twentieth century. Boundless freedom and boundless despotism become possible when liberty is severed from truth and a “substantial” notion of human nature or the human person. Without a return to a more truthful and humane anthropology, one that links truth and liberty, freedom and the moral contents of life, liberty will perish or slowly wither. Authentic liberty is beholden to goods and limits, to scruples and rules, that human beings do not construct. They find them in a well-ordered soul and in the demands of putting “reasons and actions together” in that common life we call politics (an Aristotelian expression that is much invoked by Pierre Manent).
The best French thought, as opposed to the imposters who have claimed that title for at least two generations, has renewed an older wisdom that recognises that human beings are moral, rational and political animals. Liberalism, at its best, always presupposed that most human beings would live in accord with such a humanising understanding. This is the “moral capital” that liberalism once presupposed but now actively and aggressively undermines. The new morality, the culture of repudiation, and equality by default, all presuppose an empty liberty which can dispose of all ends and purposes outside of pure freedom itself. Such an understanding is compatible with totalitarianism and moral anarchism, but not with political or civilised liberty. To preserve the preconditions of liberty, something more is needed than a voluntarism that no longer recognises that the non-negotiable distinction between good and evil is a given of our human nature or condition, and not a convention or choice of our own making. On that premise or foundation, everything stands or falls. Such is the wisdom of liberal conservatism.
Like Bénéton and Delsol, Manent effortlessly bridges political, philosophical and theological concerns. He is France’s, and the perhaps the West’s, most astute critic of the de-politicisation and de-Christianisation of a Western world in the process of losing its sense of animating purpose. As a political thinker, he owes much to Aron’s liberal classicism. As a critic of radical modernity, he is indebted to Leo Strauss’s recovery of classical or Socratic political science. As a convert to Catholicism (he was raised in a communist family), he has also been shaped by the Christian classics from St Augustine and Pascal to Charles Péguy. He played a major role in recovering political liberalism in the France of the 1980s, showing a clear preference for Tocqueville’s admirable efforts to ally democratic justice with a more than residual concern for human greatness. In the conclusion of his 1982 Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy—a minor modern classic in my view—he summed up Tocqueville’s contribution in a wonderfully lapidary formulation: “To love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately.” Such is the fundamental insight of liberalism informed by classical and conservative wisdom.
In his wise and provocative 2015 book, Situation de la France, translated into English a year later as Beyond Radical Secularism, Manent challenges the fundamental conceit of European progressivism for a generation or more: “a life without law in a world without borders”. Democracy, too, needs a body, a political form, and that body is the nation that for several centuries or more has framed and informed the exercise of democratic self-government. Manent is convinced that massive Muslim immigration to Europe has been ill-advised, to say the least. But the problem has been exacerbated by the unwillingness of French and European elites to acknowledge “the Christian mark” of the old nations of Europe. Manent speaks precisely: not of a Christian nation or Christian state, for the secular state and religious liberty are indeed precious acquisitions that are essential to Western liberty. But the “Christian mark” of France and Europe is more real and substantial than distant “roots” that one occasionally nods to in rhetorical displays empty of practical significance. It was Christian peoples, Manent suggests, who embarked on the great adventure of self-government, learning to govern themselves in a certain relation to the Christian proposition. The European peoples are truly themselves when they do justice to courage and prudence, the great Roman virtues, and to humility before the Most High, whose grace informs our exercise of free will and conscience. Such a West, faithful to its deepest purposes, could welcome the Islamic minority on its own terms, not confusing itself with an “empty space”, an effectual wasteland without a soul or sense of common purpose.
A nation of a Christian mark can renew the civic common good, preserving fundamental liberties, while humanely navigating the ongoing tensions between liberty and law. Instead, the guardians of political and historical correctness irresponsibly confuse “the community of ‘blood and soil’ with the political nation and spiritual communion”. How, Manent asks, have we succumbed to the sophism that the old nations of Europe somehow stand for “homicidal aversion” to one’s neighbours? Such homicidal aversion, culminating in mass murder, occurred only when a new ideological paganism rejected the entire moral and philosophical heritage of liberal and Christian Europe. Nazism, or communism for that matter, is not the effectual truth of Western civilisation. To say so is to succumb to a new and terrible ideological lie.
In a recent conversation with Pierre Manent, I asked him about contemporary European self-hatred. He responded with eloquence and gusto, noting the contemporary European capacity for endless self-deception. In the culture of repudiation, nay of barely concealed self-hatred, European progressives see the victory of European values and inexorable progress “toward a united and fraternal world”. To love the old nations and the old religions (Christian and Jewish) is to be “tribal”, “indigenous”, narrow. As a result, they lack the capacity to see what is unfolding before their eyes. Limitless Muslim immigration is transformed into “openness to human diversity”, and even a welcome opportunity to flee, once and for all, what is left of the Christian heritage of the West. European progressives freely identify it with oppression, inhuman restraints on individual desire, and crimes against the always ill-defined “Other”.
In this distorted logic, a most tenuous link is established between the old nations (and the old religions) and Nazism, the deadly enemy of an authentically Christian understanding of human dignity. When the accomplishments of Western civilisation are truly recognised, when paralysing self-criticism is balanced with self-respect and with gratitude towards our civilisational patrimony, the new humanitarians can see only indulgence to the crimes of colonialism or Nazism. To refute these charges or allegations, authentic democracy must repudiate its history, and open its borders to all comers. As the old nations and Christianity, the old religion par excellence, lose their legitimacy among European elites, the antipathy to nationalism of the most moderate kind, and to Christianity in an extremely weakened form, grows in ferocity and intensity. These healthy reminders of the permanent necessity to balance tradition and innovation, freedom and self-restraint, liberty and law, must be erased from the consciousness of men.
Manent boldly suggests, and it is difficult to challenge his assertion, that the French and European political and intellectual class, in its dominant form, will be satisfied with nothing less than “an empty world without nations or religions”. Except, he adds, Islam, whose presence is welcomed by some as a sign that Europeans are truly leaving behind a recognisably Christian world. Such reasoning is surreal, but it has taken hold of many minds and souls in the contemporary West.
In a series of learned yet accessible writings in political philosophy, Manent has traced the early modern ambition to build a “neutral and agnostic state” freed from religious disputation and the threat of religious wars. But the Western nation-state was never merely the epiphenomenal expression of these liberal philosophical abstractions. For many centuries, liberal societies honoured inherited moral judgments and conceded that the citizens of the emerging secular state were for the most part Christians who took Christian morality seriously. The liberal state learned to coexist with Christianity, in its different forms, and was rescued from utopian abstractions by its coexistence with national forms that preceded secular liberalism in its most aggressive forms. Christianity and the political nation taught the citizens of the new liberal democratic dispensation that freedom and human dignity depended upon a thoughtful and principled “compromise between liberty and law”.
As Manent writes in his most recent book, Natural Law and Human Rights, human rights once gave vitality and energy to liberal societies. But under conditions of radical modernity, the new catechism of the rights of man, groundless and endless in extension, undermines political debate and deliberations (rights claims, no matter how spurious, trump all other considerations). And the “rules” that constitute authoritative institutions—the liberal university, the army, the nation itself—are subverted when one can join an institution, or immigrate to a nation, without accepting the specific rules or laws that define free and self-governing social bodies. When the unreflective will of the individual forces authoritative institutions to lose any capacity for command or self-definition, the great art of association heralded by Tocqueville begins to lose its meaning. At that precise moment, democracy has turned against itself, hollowing out the institutions whose health and well-being were once its raison d’être. In my judgment, Manent has theorised the human and political meaning of liberty without law with rare philosophic acumen and civic seriousness.
Renewing the conservative underpinnings of the liberal order
How does one respond to this new situation, where liberalism has become oppressively illiberal, appropriated by the forces of the new morality and the culture of repudiation? Pierre Manent suggests a self-conscious effort to renew the old conservative underpinnings of the liberal order. In his view, the commanding heights of the social order will continue to be dominated by the forces of moral and civic subversion for some time to come. But “experience and good sense are nonetheless on the side of the conservatives, or the conservative liberals”. Even if a statesman of Gaullist temperament arose to make good use of a healthy, conservative-minded populism, the courts and other instruments of the new antinomianism would block all roads forward. Another way must be found.
Chantal Delsol, for her part, has argued that the party of good sense must affirm the limits that accompany a decent and humane liberty, and eschew a merely defensive populism. But some kind of populism seems inescapable in the midst of Europe’s sustained civilisational crisis. As Manent puts it, it is imperative that a substantial part of society remains committed to “a minimum of good sense”, to the lessons of common sense and practical experience at the heart of civilised liberty. That portion of society, bigger than a remnant but too small and fragile to form a firm moral and civic consensus, can slowly but surely begin to renew the effort of political action at the service of the practical goods that give liberty its nobility and lustre. Philippe Bénéton also speaks about the need to refurbish a modern conservatism worthy of the name. Liberal conservatives, or conservative liberals (the difference between the two will not preoccupy us here), reject both unconditional traditionalism and radical constructivism. They honour the truth of modern equality but refuse to identify it with indeterminate or groundless freedom which is, always and everywhere, an invitation to nihilism. Liberal conservatives reject the “sovereignty of the individual” since the “unregulated will”, as Bertrand de Jouvenel called it, can never give rise to a common good. The “regulated will” is the moral stance appropriate to a regime of liberty.
The French polymath, historian of ideas, and erudite student of philosophy and religion, Rémi Brague, has also suggested a middle path between hidebound traditionalism and the Promethean project to remake men and societies at a stroke. Nonetheless, he acknowledges a truth in the piety towards the past put forward by traditionalists. All efforts to remake human beings on the model of a tabula rasa lead to disaster: What remains of socialist society, he asks? His answer stings in its directness and truthfulness: “There remains only the desert, and charnel-houses.” Brague’s suggested alternative is both sober and moderate: rejecting a nihilistic contempt for the past, promoting moderate reforms rather than wholesale cultural and political transformation, and recognising that true democracy honours tradition since it gives “the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors”, a living say in the great human adventure, as Chesterton argued in Chapter 4 of his 1908 classic Orthodoxy. There, Chesterton memorably called tradition “the democracy of the dead”, and he was no hidebound traditionalist or reactionary.
In a delightful book, Moderately Modern, just translated into English, Brague reminds us that the practical goods that are abundantly evident in modern life—political liberty, moral equality, prosperity and scientific progress—should not be confused with the more intellectually radical “Modern Project” that promotes liberty without law and that cannot give an effective answer to the question of why the human adventure ought to continue. As with all of my French interlocutors highlighted in this essay, Brague believes that liberal practice was, for a very long time at least, decisively superior to modern theory. In response to this quandary, Brague believes that we need to renew our confidence in the Providence of God, the ultimate ground for human hope since an affirmation of God’s Providential care is, at the same time, a vote of confidence in human dignity rooted in free will, conscience and the grace of God. Quoting Malraux in The Kingdom of Man, also recently available in English, Brague points out that the various modern forms of “moderate nihilism” have played themselves out. Only renewed confidence in the Primacy of the Good (something than can take more secular and more expressly theological forms) can point us towards a renewal of a hope that owes nothing to the modern fiction of inexorable “Progress”. Hope begins by rejecting the ultimate chimera that is a this-worldy utopia, whether in the form of totalitarian despotism or a liberty that rejects the “moral law” that is always inherent in the responsible exercise of human freedom.
Conclusion: What is to Come in Part II
In the second part of these conversations with French philosophers at the heart of the renewal of conservative liberal wisdom, I will draw on the writings of and my recent interviews with Manent, Bénéton, Alain Besançon, Delsol, Brague, and Giulio de Ligio to discuss Europe’s crippling failure to come to terms with the human meaning of communism (a deadly ideology that is still defended by too many in the West) and the inability of the main currents in the intellectual class of the West (including important elements in the churches) to see in Islam anything but a “religion of peace” and another rather tame Abrahamic religion. Without a clear and courageous verdict on communist totalitarianism, and genuine realism about the roots of Islamist intransigence and fanaticism, the West is likely to draw all the wrong conclusions about the challenges of the past, present and future. The inability to name the enemy with clarity and a sense of moral and civic purpose is a symptom of the Western crisis that the best French conservative liberals have attempted to address. They are nearly alone in doing so in a sober manner that avoids all comforting illusions.
Like Aron, the figures explored in this article combine impressive leaning, civic courage, as well as determined opposition to all the theoretical and practical extremes that threaten the moral equilibrium of what is left of Western civilisation. In them, the renewal of a modern democratic conservatism open to the living wisdom of the past is taking a rich form that the Anglophone world cannot afford to ignore.
With Giulio de Ligio’s help, we will explore the prospects of directing the younger generations to the path of civilisational renewal. Between “the demon of the Good” and the “demon of the absence of the Good” lies wisdom. Neither ideological fanaticism nor moral nihilism can do justice to the truth of the human soul or a freedom worthy of human beings.
Sources and Suggested Readings
I have drawn on Roger Scruton’s discussion of the best and worst currents of French political and philosophical thought in Conversations with Roger Scruton, Roger Scruton and Mark Dooley (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), especially pp. 104-107.
Raymond Aron’s La révolution introuvable (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 2018) did for the “events” of May 1968 what Tocqueville did for the revolution of 1848, namely to subject it to the withering analysis this half-revolution so richly deserved. Aron’s Liberté et égalité: Cours au Collège de France, edited and introduced by Pierre Manent, is the best short guide to Aron’s mature conservative liberalism.
For astute sociological reflections on democracy and the nation, and the “corruption” (the term is Montesquieu’s) of democracy inherent in late modernity, see Dominique Schnapper, Community of Citizens (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998) and Schnapper, The Democratic Spirit of Law, with a Preface by Mark Lilla (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2016).
This article draws on years of discussion with, and reflection on, the work of the French philosophers under consideration. I am also grateful to Giulio de Ligio, Philippe Bénéton, Chantal Delsol, Pierre Manent and Rémi Brague for thoughtfully addressing a series of questions that I posed to them in the fall of 2019.
Philippe Bénéton’s critique of “equality by default” and the “new morality” is most fully and effectively presented in Bénéton, Le déréglement moral de l’occident (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2017). An earlier and more concise version of this work appeared in English as Bénéton, Equality By Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement, translated by Ralph C. Hancock (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004).
I have learned from all of Chantal Delsol’s writings. But I am particularly indebted to Delsol, The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century: An Essay on Late Modernity, translated by Robin Dick (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), especially pp. 1, 5, 7, 54, and 178-182.
Pierre Manent’s most lucid and accessible critiques of “liberty without law and a world without borders” can be found in Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge, translated by Ralph C. Hancock (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2016) and Manent, Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason, translated by Ralph C. Hancock (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020). I have written “Forewords” to both of these volumes.
For this essay, I am indebted to Rémi Brague, Moderately Modern, translated by Paul Seaton (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2019).
For a rather uncritical account of Eric Zémmour’s speech to the Convention of the Right in Paris in the fall of 2019, see Rod Dreher, “Eric Zémmour’s Blockbuster Speech,” at The American Conservative, on-line, October 3, 2019.