Pondering the endless glut of books on the virtues of nationalism and the failures of political liberalism, I sat up late the other night, reading around (yet again) in Augustine’s City of God before dozing off in my chair. Waking suddenly—or, at least, half-awake—my mind was a jumble of names like Deneen, Reno, and Hazony. I rushed to get down on paper those late-night musings. They did not add up to a theory but were more like a series of reflections about the point and limits of politics and the destiny of nations. Aware though I was that no editor was likely to look kindly upon these musings, I still could not resist jotting them down before nodding off again.
There was a period in my life when I read widely, and with considerable profit, in the writings of the political theorist Michael Oakeshott. Whatever one thinks of his thought in general—and there are aspects of it that I would not endorse—he is often instructive and thought-provoking. Especially so in a passage I have often quoted, which sprang irresistibly to my half-awake mind. “Politics,” Oakeshott wrote, “is a second-rate form of activity . . . at once corrupting to the soul and fatiguing to the mind, the activity either of those who cannot live without the illusion of affairs or those so fearful of being ruled by others that they will pay away their lives to prevent it.” That has always seemed right to me. What we want from politics is freedom for private life: freedom to read, to play with children, to watch ball games, to walk in the morning or the early evening with one we love, to work in the yard, to pray or to sing. None of this, although it is private rather than public, is necessarily self-serving or individualistic. And that sort of freedom is what a liberal politics, at least at its best, offers. It does not ask for our devotion, as if the nation or our participation in public affairs could be a worthy object of anything one might call devotion. It offers not a home but a place in which real homes can be secure and satisfying. It never asks of us what is often (though mistakenly) called “the ultimate sacrifice.” The most it may ask, or even demand, is a “penultimate sacrifice.”
Oakeshott’s assertion came to mind because one of the names disturbing my slumber that evening was Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed. It’s a good book, well-written and clearly argued. Even more, it is grounded in a sophisticated political theory that, for want of a better name, we may call communitarian. One of the things that makes it good is that this theory is by no means Deneen’s creation. He stands in a long line of thinkers that extends back to Aristotle and includes Deneen’s own teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, whose wide-ranging and remarkably engaging book, The Idea of Fraternity in America, is another book I read years ago—a kind of counterweight to Oakeshott. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Deneen argues that “a degraded form of citizenship arises from liberalism’s relentless emphasis upon private over public things.” It places far too much emphasis on individual rights, missing thereby the kind of moral transformation that comes from focusing not on our own interests but on the common good.
Hence, what we need according to Deneen is not some new and better theory but “better practices,” practices that will move us toward fruitful possibilities for our culture and society. (Another late-night musing: Can we write about anything today without appeal to the language of “practices”? Does Alasdair MacIntyre not have a good bit to answer for here?) Deneen believes we will not learn these better ways of living together from a liberal approach to political life; for it tends to isolate individuals, encouraging them to think of themselves as autonomous, free to pursue their private interests (which are always assumed to be self-interested and individualistic).
What we need, instead, Deneen suggests, are communities in which we can actively participate in decisions about our common life, communities that emphatically do not just leave us to our private concerns but train us to be self-governing. What we really need, it seems, is to live in something like a Greek city-state: a notion sufficiently detached from the circumstances of our lives that we might wonder about its usefulness.
More important than the question of usefulness, however, is the character of such a political community. Deneen argues—rightly, it seems to me—that liberalism is built upon a “false anthropology,” picturing individuals as isolated from the start, rather like Hobbes’s image of mushrooms springing up without any attachment to one another. But, false though this may be, I am not sure it is more troubling than Aristotle’s belief that the political community is “prior in the order of nature to the family and the individual.” Good ethics does not necessarily make for good politics, and while I would rather learn ethics from Deneen than from Locke, I might prefer to learn politics from Locke. The truth that we are connected to one another from the start, a truth to which the umbilical cord witnesses, does not necessarily mean that good politics will not treat us as independent individuals in some respects. Leaving us free, liberalism does miss some truths about our nature. But a communitarian polity, a city-state writ large, easily swallows up much of our private and individual commitments and concerns. When we hear references to the city-state, we should train ourselves to think not of Athens but of Sparta. And given the number of would-be little despots running around in our society today, I cannot imagine that a vision of life for which the political community is prior in the order of nature to the family and the individual would be very good for Christians. Trying to protect ourselves against that would consume too many hours of the day; it would require constant organizing and countless meetings. It would, to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, take too many evenings.
Peter Brown once observed that the way Augustine begins book 19 of City of God—by outlining the 288 theories of the good life enumerated by Marcus Varro and rejecting them all—marked “the end of classical thought.” The classical vision of political community as the place where we set aside our private interests for the sake of a shared life; undergo a moral transformation; and are perfected in virtue should not claim the allegiance of Christians. If we believe that Augustine was correct, reclaiming that classical vision can hardly be the way to overcome the failures of liberalism.
For Deneen, our politics made a wrong turn at the start, with Founding Fathers who took their political bearings more from Locke than from Aristotle. The failure of liberalism was present at the creation. For others, such as R. R. Reno (and, to a considerable extent, Yoram Hazony), the failure of political liberalism has a more proximate cause. After World War II, a consensus emerged that any society not open to diverse visions of the good life—that is to say, any society whose politics was not liberal—was a dangerous society. For it had been nationalistic loyalty, in particular German commitment to the gods of blood and soil, that had brought about two world wars and the Holocaust. In order to draw back from still further catastrophe it was necessary to set our faces against such nationalistic loyalties, against a commitment to strong national identities.
The result, alas, has left many of our fellow citizens adrift, lacking any strong sense of belonging. A public life whose chief aim is to remain “open” to diverse moral visions, to be relentlessly “global,” turns out to be rather different than one might have supposed. Instead of providing a home for all of us, whatever our commitments, it seems to provide a home for none of us. Left adrift as isolated individuals, lacking any sense of a shared civic bond, almost inevitably we pursue our private economic interests and individualistic identities.
That Reno has rightly diagnosed some of our discontents I do not doubt. Nevertheless, he seems all too eager to attach words like “transcendent” or “sacred” to our civic bonds. Thus, we need, “to restore a sense of transcendent purpose to public (and private) life.” Or, in order for a society to uphold its distinctive character, it must draw upon “the power of the sacred.” Indeed, “the sacralizing impulse in public life is fundamental. Our social consensus always reaches for transcendent legitimacy.” Having just been reading Augustine, I found it hard not to be uneasy with such language.
In an old essay about the City of God, written over half a century ago, Edward R. Hardy Jr. invites his readers to consider what Augustine would have assumed had he happened to hear a group of contemporary Americans singing:
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.
Hardy suggests that Augustine could only have supposed that the Americans were singing of “our true fatherland, the heavenly city which can be reached only after the sin and sorrow of this earthly pilgrimage are ended.” But it is far more likely that those contemporary Americans would have seen in these words from the book of Revelation only a reference to “America the Beautiful.”
Now, to be sure, the nation that nurtures and protects us may rightly invite from us loyalty and praise, but what it offers can never measure up to our desires and hopes. When in City of God Augustine responds to pagan objections to Christianity, he does so precisely by demythologizing or desacralizing the claims of political communities, draining from them any hint of ultimacy. And there he makes clear that, much as he himself admires the glory that was Rome at its best, even the best of Roman historians praised Rome too highly. But how could they not, he says with more than a hint of pathos, since they had no other and better city to praise.
It is surprising, then, to find Reno drawing Augustine into his project of providing transcendent legitimacy for a social consensus. He writes, “Augustine observed that the ancient Romans were united in a twofold love—the love of freedom and the love of honor. The freedom Romans loved was not individual freedom but the freedom of the city.” And this, Reno suggests, is one of the “resources in our tradition” that we can draw on as we seek to learn loyalty to “strong gods worthy of love’s devotion and sacrifice.” This misses almost entirely the powerful critical edge in Augustine’s devastating critique of Rome even at its best. Reno is right to see that we desire and need a civic “home,” but he is in danger of praising too highly the homes we can fashion. In better moments, he knows this: Thus, he grants that “We easily imagine the nation as more than our civic home; it is our savior. To combat this idolatry, we need to nurture two primeval sources of solidarity that limit the claims of the civic ‘we’; the domestic society of marriage and the supernatural community of the church, synagogue, and other communities of transcendence.” What such other communities of transcendence may be I am not certain, but, if this is true, then we praise our civic home too highly—as though we had no other city to praise—if we regard it as sacred or transcendent.
In desacralizing political community Augustine was only learning from the Bible: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising,” the prophet says of Zion. Oliver O’Donovan notes that “the parallel in that text is complementary, not synonymous. . . . For while the nations gather to the rising light of Zion . . . their kings come only to be led in triumphal procession.” Communities are drawn into the promised kingdom; “rulers merely resign their pretensions.” Those rulers serve a purpose, but it is a limited one, and what they provide is something less than a home or a sacred space. They leave us free—or so we hope—to devote our efforts toward reshaping the life of the communities in which we live. But the only society that can be Christianized is the society we call the church. All of which means that Yoram Hazony, in his otherwise instructive book, The Virtue of Nationalism, too readily concludes that Christians aspired to universal empire. He is not mistaken in believing that such an aspiration did characterize the medieval church for a time, but we are free to argue that this was a mistaken turn that missed the most striking fact about the death of Jesus.
Almost from the start, Christians noted that Jesus was put to death by the political powers of his day, acting to some degree in concert with the religious powers. That simple fact forced Christians to rethink—even to demythologize—their understanding of political communities. It shattered what Martin Hengel called the “naive unity” of religion and politics. No longer could the good person and the good citizen be identical; no longer could good ethics and good politics coincide. No longer could rulers claim transcendent legitimacy. This does not mean, as is sometimes argued, that a liberal polity must be entirely neutral with respect to competing visions of the good life (as if such neutrality were even possible). It does mean, however, that political neutrality about the ultimate meaning of life is actually good for Christians, who do not suppose their faith can be transmitted by means of political power.
Liberal political theory does mistakenly picture individuals as purely isolated and autonomous, without any kind of natural connections. But individualism, rightly understood, is worthy of our support and our praise. In one of his most often quoted passages, C. S. Lewis affirmed precisely that point. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University.