Politics and the inherent dilemmas of “liberal democracy”

Instead of the primacy of the contemplative order, modernity elevates the practical order to be supreme. With this abandonment of “being,” it is action that becomes man’s fundamental earthly endeavor.

Aristotle stated in his Politics that one of the most necessary, yet dangerous, political and intellectual tasks was to say precisely what a political regime is. In other words, the health of a community and culture presupposes the capability to describe and understand what it is ultimately about. 

We can perceive, hopefully, why such a task might be dangerous, especially in a culture such as our own. Our present political regime is often characterized, or identified, as a “liberal democracy”. However, I do not think it is far-fetched to say this is not entirely accurate. While it is true that our institutional structures, and our voting and electing tendencies could be labeled as “democratic,” it seems more true that our anthropological and philosophical orientations are predominantly those of liberalism. 

I raise these initial points in light of a recent essay by Professor Francis Beckwith over at The Catholic Thing titled “Rock-Ribbed vs. Faint-Hearted Liberalism”. My aim is not to critique Dr. Beckwth’s ideas as presented in his thought-provoking essay; rather, I want look at liberalism through the lens of intellectual history and political philosophy. In order to understand liberalism, we must be able to see it in connection with modernity, or with what Leo Strauss calls “the modern project”.  I want to simply highlight what I consider to be two of the fundamental principles of modernity and liberalism, both of which have a number of wide-ranging and destructive effects. 

In his classic 1963 work, The Structure of Political Thought, Charles N. R. McCoy made the following observation about the beginning of modernity—an observation that is also essentially linked with liberalism:

The structure of political thought in the Greek-medieval tradition was built on the subordination of practical science to theoretic science and, within the sphere of practical science, on the subordination of art to prudence. The very essence of constitutional liberty was held to depend on the maintenance of these relations. The modern theory of politics begins by reversing the order between art and prudence.

McCoy’s insight has two distinct, but interrelated, features. First, what characterizes the modern period is the loss of metaphysics and theoretical science as the basis for understanding reality. Instead of the primacy of the contemplative order, modernity elevates the practical order to be supreme. With this abandonment of “being,” it is action that becomes man’s fundamental earthly endeavor and, as later became explicated in  the work of Karl Marx, this action must be towards “transforming the world”. 

McCoy’s second insight has to do with modernity reversing the order between art and prudence. The virtue of prudence, according to Aristotle and Aquinas, concerns an intellectual judgment about the right means towards achieving the proper ends that have been fixed by nature. Prudence presupposes and accepts what man is and the ends of his nature—particularly as it relates to his life as a social and political animal. Art, on the other hand, is not like this. The artist does not presuppose any order or ends other than those that he creates himself. An artist is considered good precisely because there is no ordering principle or standard beyond what he eventually produces. Thus, the creativity of art is found precisely in this fact.

Connected to this removal of metaphysics, nature, and prudence is a second fundamental principle of liberalism: the rejection of man as naturally political and social. The modern individual has become liberated from the traditional bonds of communal life and local associations that are constitutive of his flourishing and well-being. For moderns such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, we leave the “state of nature” in order to enter into a contractual agreement with others and to live under a protective authority. This arrangement, not something “by nature,” is what we call political society. The reason for entering into this social contract under the authority of the State is, according to Locke and Hobbes, not only for the protection of our liberty. More than this, the authority of the State actually increases our liberty and our mastery over nature. 

If this is true, then something monumental has shifted in our understanding of ourselves in regards to our social and political lives. According to the philosophy of liberalism, and modernity as well, what defines the human being is his “liberty” or “freedom”. And, since the State is that body of authority that not only protects our freedom, but actually declares it and increases it, then the meaning of being “human” is ultimately created by the State. Aristotle said that the reason why politics was not the highest science was because human beings were not the highest beings in the universe. However, in the logic of liberalism and its view about man’s social and political nature, this Aristotelian axiom is abandoned. Politics no longer receives man as he is in his given being, but now looks to define and make man to be what he is. Thus, the ruler (or rulers) of the political order are the “creative artists” connected to this first principle already mentioned. 

Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas argue that the inclination for community is one that makes human nature unique. Liberalism thwarts this natural inclination by saying that humans are primarily individuals—not communal beings—whose essential goal is freedom. However, the desire and orientation towards community still yearns to be realized and fulfilled. This is why collectivism and totalitarianism are the necessary conclusions that follow from the principles of liberalism and modernity. The social, spiritual, and psychic isolation that has been at the core of liberalism has, in point of fact, opened contemporary persons to being manipulated by an all-powerful State. Patrick Deneen makes this same point when he talks about the dissolution of genuine communities that are the result of liberalism:

The active dissolution of traditional human communities and institutions provokes a violent reaction in which a basic human need – “the quest for community” – is no longer being met. As naturally “political” or “social” creatures, we long for thick and rich set of constitutive bonds that necessarily shape a fully-formed human being. Shorn of the deepest ties to family (extended), place, community, region, religion, and culture – and deeply shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon our autonomy – we seek membership and belonging, and a form of extended self-definition, through the only legitimate form of organization available to liberal man – the State.

The French Catholic political philosopher Yves Simon, in Philosophy of Democratic Government (1951), argued that democracy and man’s political life have been extremely difficult to defend and articulate in the modern age. For Simon, 

this is the case since preserving principles is more difficult in democracy than in any other regime as a result of liberalism, which implies that the principles of society and what its end is are not above deliberation and must be thrown into the universal competition of opinions. This is the jeopardizing of the principles without which social life no longer has an end or form. 

This is clearly related to what I mentioned at the beginning about the intellectual task of stating what a political regime is really seeking to do. Among other things, the driving force behind liberalism and the modern project has been an explicit rejection of Aristotelian and Thomistic social and political thought. Human flourishing can only become incarnated where the truth about man and his life in this world is allowed to be heard. Liberalism has abandoned what McCoy calls “the structure of political thought”.

Might I suggest that it is time we begin rethinking our defense of liberalism and start to recover the perennial wisdom of both reason and revelation regarding the truth of man’s social and political nature? In doing so, we will discover what has been absent as the result of liberalism. This absence is nothing other than the truth of our being, the truth alone that “sets us free”.

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About Brian Jones 34 Articles
Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have appeared in The Public Discourse, Strong Towns, and The American Conservative.