Res­cu­ing lib­er­al­ism

Travel back in time to un­der­stand doc­trine’s ev­er­green value

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Alexan­dre Le­feb­vre is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment and phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.

The Lost His­tory of Lib­er­al­ism: From An­cient Rome to the Twenty-First Cen­tury

By He­lena Rosen­blatt Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press 360pp, £27.00

ISBN 9780691170701 Pub­lished 23 Oc­to­ber 2018

The epi­graph to He­lena Rosen­blatt’s new book is taken from the French his­to­rian Lu­cien Fe­b­vre: “It is never a waste of time to study the his­tory of a word.” She cer­tainly makes good on the maxim. Her book is learned, pur­pose­ful, highly read­able and I would even say in­spir­ing. It not only gives a fuller pic­ture of what lib­er­al­ism his­tor­i­cally con­sisted of than any ri­val ac­count, but it is bound to leave read­ers – as it did me – with an ur­gent sense of why we need to do our best to save it here and now.

“Lib­er­al­ism” is, of course, a fraught term in our heated times, most of­ten bran­dished as a cud­gel or a shield depend­ing on po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ence. Still, a cool-headed ob­server might step back from the scene to ob­serve that, polemics aside, lib­er­al­ism does in­deed have a set­tled mean­ing. It is a doc­trine whose core prin­ci­ple con­sists of the pro­tec­tion of the in­di­vid­ual and, specif­i­cally, his or her rights and choices. Rosen­blatt’s book takes aim at this re­ceived un­der­stand­ing. Her ob­jec­tion is not that it is in­cor­rect per se, but that it is very re­cent, An­glo­cen­tric and, what’s worse, blocks out al­ter­na­tive and po­ten­tially richer con­cep­tions of lib­er­al­ism that pre­ceded it.

This is where the “lost his­tory” comes in. As a po­lit­i­cal doc­trine and set of in­sti­tu­tions, lib­er­al­ism didn’t come into ex­is­tence un­til the 19th cen­tury. But the Latin terms liber, mean­ing “free and gen­er­ous”, and lib­er­alis, “be­fit­ting a free-born per­son”, have for two thou­sand years been at the heart of dis­courses about ethics, re­li­gion and cit­i­zen­ship. And so Rosen­blatt be­gins her story with Cicero and Seneca, for whom lib­er­al­i­tas re­ferred to the ideal qual­i­ties of Ro­man cit­i­zen­ship, in­clud­ing an ethic of free­dom, gen­eros­ity and civic-mind­ed­ness. From there she charts how this lib­eral at­ti­tude was adapted in me­dieval Chris­tian­ity, the Re­nais­sance and Protes­tantism. I can­not here track all the twists and turns, but Rosen­blatt’s mes­sage is that there is a cen­turies-long tra­di­tion in the West ex­hort­ing in­di­vid­u­als and cit­i­zens to be lib­eral. Be­ing lib­eral, and con­duct­ing one­self in a lib­eral man­ner, was seen as in­te­gral to per­sonal felic­ity, spir­i­tual full­ness, civic pros­per­ity and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity.

The sub­ti­tle of Rosen­blatt’s book, “From An­cient Rome to the Twenty-First Cen­tury”, is a lit­tle mis­lead­ing. Chap­ter 1, “What it means to be a Lib­eral from Cicero to Lafayette”, packs in 1700 years. Chap­ter 8 deals with the 20th cen­tury, and only a hand­ful of pages in the Epi­logue ad­dress the 21st cen­tury. That leaves six chap­ters in the mid­dle, all of which are about the 19th cen­tury and fo­cus mainly, though not ex­clu­sively, on French au­thors and tra­di­tions. This, says Rosen­blatt, is where and when lib­er­al­ism was born. Thus, in­stead of the stan­dard view of lib­er­al­ism as a prin­ci­pally Bri­tish and Amer­i­can in­ven­tion, and in lieu of the fa­mil­iar pa­rade of John Locke (pic­tured in­set), Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Stu­art Mill and John Rawls, Rosen­blatt presents an al­ter­na­tive ge­neal­ogy. The cast changes, with Ben­jamin Con­stant, Ger­maine de Staël, François Guizot and Alexis de Toc­queville mov­ing cen­tre stage. Most im­por­tant, the mo­ti­va­tions driv­ing the de­vel­op­ment of lib­er­al­ism shift away from a nar­row con­cern with in­di­vid­ual rights. The big ques­tion Rosen­blatt and her se­lected au­thors wres­tle with is the fol­low­ing: how is it pos­si­ble for peo­ple liv­ing un­der mod­ern con­di­tions, be­sieged by so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and spir­i­tual pres­sures, to en­joy a whole and in­te­grated life? How, in other words, can lib­er­al­ity and a lib­eral char­ac­ter be cul­ti­vated in the mod­ern world?

The Lost His­tory of Lib­er­al­ism is a mas­ter­ful work of in­tel­lec­tual his­tory. But that should not be taken to mean that it is niche, as if its main con­tri­bu­tion con­sisted in re­plac­ing an An­glo­cen­tric nar­ra­tive about lib­er­al­ism with a French (and Franco-Ger­man) one. In ad­di­tion to his­to­ri­ans and po­lit­i­cal the­o­rists, this book should be of in­ter­est to two broad au­di­ences.

The first is every­one in­ter­ested in the past, present and fu­ture of lib­er­al­ism – and Rosen­blatt writes so clearly and en­gag­ingly that this in­cludes gen­eral read­ers as well as aca­demics. At the out­set of her study, she writes, “It would be good to know what we are speak­ing about when we speak about

lib­er­al­ism.” Good for the sake of clar­ity, cer­tainly; but good, I be­lieve, also for the sake of hope. To my mind, the real achieve­ment of The Lost His­tory of Lib­er­al­ism is to re­vi­talise lib­er­al­ism and to show how, at root, it is not a nar­rowly le­gal or po­lit­i­cal doc­trine but a world­view. As it de­vel­oped piece­meal in re­sponse to the new and fright­en­ing dan­gers of the mod­ern world, Rosen­blatt shows how lib­er­al­ism his­tor­i­cally un­der­stood it­self as a way of liv­ing, both in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively, cen­tred on a set of core val­ues: gen­eros­ity, tol­er­ance, free­dom and en­gage­ment.

Thus, when to­day we find lib­er­al­ism spurned on both na­tional and in­ter­na­tional stages, the insight and ur­gency of this book are twofold. Thanks to the lu­cid­ity of Rosen­blatt’s his­tory, we are made vividly aware of what would be lost should lib­er­al­ism be dis­placed. At the same time, how­ever, her pre­sen­ta­tion of the depth and hu­man­ity of lib­er­al­ism has the po­ten­tial to re­new its at­trac­tive­ness. That makes it an ul­ti­mately hope­ful book. Not ex­plic­itly so, as it is silent as to the fu­ture vi­a­bil­ity of lib­er­al­ism. But prac­ti­cally speak­ing, The Lost His­tory of Lib­er­al­ism should and will be­come an in­dis­pens­able re­source for lib­eral thinkers, politi­cians and cit­i­zens to cul­ti­vate the best ver­sion of their creed and of them­selves.

So­cial sci­en­tists may also take an in­ter­est in this book. This may take a word of ex­pla­na­tion, if only be­cause The Lost His­tory of Lib­er­al­ism is, in method, style and sub­stance, a work in the hu­man­i­ties. Un­der­stand­ably, in the past few years there has been mas­sive in­ter­est, in so­ci­ol­ogy, an­thro­pol­ogy, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and re­lated lit­er­a­tures, in the phe­nom­e­non of pop­ulism. A key re­search ques­tion in this field – per­haps the key ques­tion – is what hap­pens to democ­racy when it is no longer lib­eral. Are il­lib­eral democ­ra­cies gen­uinely pos­si­ble?

Rosen­blatt does not tackle this par­tic­u­lar ques­tion, but she does of­fer a sus­tained anal­y­sis of the op­po­site phe­nom­e­non: what liber- al­ism looks like when it is not, and avowedly not, demo­cratic. For, as she points out time and again, the ma­jor lib­er­als of the 19th cen­tury did not sup­port uni­ver­sal suf­frage and po­si­tioned lib­er­al­ism as much against ex­cesses from be­low as from above. In­deed, there is some­thing aris­to­cratic about lib­er­al­ism. That can be good when it takes the form of mer­i­toc­racy and the cul­ti­va­tion of ex­cel­lence. But it can also in­cline to­wards con­tempt and dis­trust of the many, and pref­er­ence for rule by the elite few.

Thus, when pop­ulists to­day rail against lib­eral democ­racy, per­haps there is some­thing ac­cu­rate and es­sen­tial in their in­dict­ment. Read­ing Rosen­blatt can help us to ac­cess the thrust of this crit­i­cism, for as she aptly shows, it is not a new one. What it may come down to (and was cer­tainly how the mat­ter ap­peared to Rosen­blatt’s 19th-cen­tury lib­er­als) is whether we want lib­er­al­ism or democ­racy.

Be­ing lib­eral, and con­duct­ing one­self in a lib­eral man­ner, was seen as in­te­gral to per­sonal felic­ity, spir­i­tual full­ness, civic pros­per­ity and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity

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