Prof. Deneen has a nice summary at Front Porch of the state of play in our Great American Renegade Right Throwdown. Any critique of that summary is far above my pay grade! So, Pomocon being a dogma-free zone, I’m inspired simply to throw out my own take on the issues and what’s at stake.
1. Front Porchers are rightly concerned about the obsessive and destructive tendencies implicit in Locke’s every-genius-for-himself approach to man’s stewardship of the natural world. But they are also worried about those of us who aren’t geniuses — the great all-too-washed of Hobbes’ big fat commodious regime. In Strauss’ idiom, Front Porchers seem to dread in the ‘first wave’ of liberals something really dreadful — a state in which the ‘best’ men manipulate nature ever-more-comprehensively courtesy of endless technological progress, while the rest of us grow complacently fat off the violently, irresponsibly, and unsustainably liposuctioned fat of the land.
2. But wait — is it liberalism or modernity that’s the problem? Front Porchers seem inclined to treat liberalism as the false consciousness inculcated to justify modernity, or some such, while Pomocons, I think, are inclined to recognize that liberalism is not simply a symptom of modernity — or, in Alan Wolfe’s language, the only way that a person atomized and disoriented by modernity can flourish (or, as Lasch would say, eke out his survival). The presupposition here is that modernity is prior to liberalism, and in Strauss’ treatment, that means that liberalism is the consequence or application of the wickedly nature-manipulating Machiavelli’s view of the world. It’s almost as if Machiavelli wouldn’t have had all those horrible ideas about cutting your enemies in half and showing them off in the public square if he hadn’t thought first of nature as a woman meant to be slapped around! Cruelty to nature, in short, destines us to be cruel to one another.
3. There’s another interpretation, though — in which liberalism is not the inevitable, and inevitably tainted, consequence of ‘modernity’ (which turns out to be shorthand for ‘an understanding of the relation between reason and nature that decisively and willfully breaks with that of the ancients’). This interpretation — which I share — views the advent of the individual as the thing that’s seminal to liberalism. And it holds that the advent of the individual is not a mere consquence or logical outworking of the ‘modern’ attitude about man’s manipulation of nature. There’s little doubt that, nowadays, there are plenty of ways in which our fascination with manipulating our own natures (think birth control designed to stop pesky periods altogether) bespeaks the kind of super-instrumentalist analogical thinking that upsets the Front Porchers. But I’d say there’s even less doubt that the kind of manipulation that rules our regime actually isn’t man-on-nature, or even man-on-himself, but us-on-one-another. Indeed, the manipulative turn away from the natural world, and toward the artificial world that we as mass amateur actors and performers create, suggests strongly that something is afoot which we can’t pin on modernity as man’s manhandling of nature. However often they cross paths in our complicated world, the intellectual history of the individual and of individuality is a different one from the histories often told about modernity.
4. So it’s to be expected that individuality comes in for great scorn among Front Porchers and sympathetic parties. But this is just the beginning of the story I want to tell. The individual is a thing incarnate — a noun, an irreducible being, a person; individuality is a disembodied superstition — an adjective, an abstraction, a fantasy with all the pelagian proteanism of the pantheistic All. To make a long story short, we can find evidence of two types of liberals — one thinking individuality to be descriptive shorthand for individuals, and one thinking ‘individual’ to be honorific shorthand for people fully experiencing individuality. Pomocons, I wager, tend to be staunch defenders of the first kind of liberals — and quite sharp critics of the second. I am, anyway! For pomocons, the last sentence of Natural Right and History is very telling — Strauss shows all this talk of modernity to mask or dramatize a wholly different ‘cosmic struggle’ or ‘eternal politics’: that between Virtue and the Individual. Strauss’ critique, importantly, is not of ‘individuality’ ; the individual himself, who set liberalism in motion, is bad enough as he is! It’s almost as if Strauss is hinting that the advent of the individual turns out to be to blame for, say, Machiavelli’s cruelly instrumental vision of man’s relationship with nature! That’s quite an inversion.
5. And is there any escaping the judgment that the advent of the individual — as we know it and as Strauss meant — was the consequence of Christianity?