The Indifferent Gods of Liberalism
The formation of a postliberal order demands that we set our terms straight.
We speak often of the failure of liberalism to provide a coherent moral system. We speak of its failure in our courts and in our Congress to deliver true justice and true clarity — to make true statements about how to act in our society. We even speak of its failure to provide us with the common goods of a democratic society in which the voice of the simple man matters. But the ultimate failure of liberalism is that it has spectacularly failed to deliver what it promised: Freedom. And this is precisely because the freedom which it espouses does not exist — neither in extant existence nor in theory.
The ascendant gods of liberalism do not exist precisely because the premise for their existence is a negation. The theology of liberalism is necessarily and entirely apophatic: nothing can be said of these gods besides what they are not. The kind of freedom which fills their mythical cornucopias is only the embodiment of the Luciferian motto: Non serviam, “I will not serve.”
The great tragedy of the liberal project is that it started out by having its terms confused. No philosophy with incorrect terms can last long — and if it does, it has no business being a system of governance. The term in question is that very term from which liberalism takes its name: Freedom, free will, liberum arbitrium. There are two contesting conceptions of the freedom of choice; Servais Pinckaers, O.P. illustrates them in the contrasting viewpoints of Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham:
St. Thomas had argued that free choice proceeds from both reason and will. It was thus a power to choose derived from our two spiritual faculties and quickened by the inclination to truth, goodness, and happiness that animate these faculties.
And, against St. Thomas:
Ockham squarely reverses the relationship: Free choice does not proceed from reason and will; instead, it precedes them on the level of action, for we can choose to think or not to think, to will or not to will. Hence, free choice is the first faculty of the human person, whose act does not originally depend on anything but his or her own choice.
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Ockham’s revolutionary view alienates nature from its inclination to happiness: Instead of following nature to the source of freedom, freedom is a domination, a subversion of nature — it is utterly divorced from any kind of inclination to truth and goodness intrinsic to the human person. The little human being becomes an automaton, wholly indifferent to the inner movements of the soul to good.
In Ockham’s formulation, which Pinckaers calls “freedom of indifference,” we find ourselves in a moral universe in which “two freedoms confront each other: the freedom of the human person and the freedom of God. No natural bond connects them, for nature is now subordinated to freedom.” The freedom of indifference is the apophatic theology of the gods of liberalism — that which gave it substance, the human inclination to good, is gone; the skeletal remains of human nature cry out “Freedom is absolute liberation from the good! You must not tell me what to do!” In short, when the good of human nature is taken out of the formula of freedom, the only thing that remains is the radical openness that signifies nothing.
Paradoxically, however, a system of governance that divorces itself from the natural law of human goodness finds itself relying on law even more heavily. Since virtue is no longer an “aspect of freedom … the personal ability … to act with perfection,” it becomes solely a habit of submission to law — only not the laws of human nature. In the more perfect formulation, law has an “educational role in the growth of freedom. It is a work of wisdom and corresponds to one’s most intimate longings.” In freedom of indifference, however, “law is external to freedom, which it limits through obligation. It is the work of the pure will of the legislator.”
In a society that has lost a real concept of law as it pertains to the expansion of human freedom by responding to our innate desire for good, it is little wonder that we have lost faith in the law. How many good Christian men do you know who, despairing of the law, turn to radical libertarianism? This is a most natural response to a society with a concept of liberty divorced from the good.
What conclusions can be drawn from this? How can we retrieve a lost conception of freedom? I think that, in the United States, all is not wholly lost, our traditions and structures not wholly vain. But the first and most important step is not to tolerate abnormality and atrocity in the name of some cheap kind of freedom. The salvation of this order formed by liberalism — the formation of a postliberal order — demands that we set our terms straight from the beginning. The Luciferian freedom of Ockham has no place in our vocabulary.
Writing in 1909 for The Daily News, G.K. Chesterton observed the following about the concept of liberty in late-Imperial England:
Political liberty … means the power of saying the sort of things that a decent but discontented citizen wants to say. He does not want to spit on the Bible, or to run about without clothes, or to read the worst pages of Zola from the pulpit of St Paul’s...That is the almost cloying humour of the present situation. I can say abnormal things in modern magazines. It is the normal things that I am not allowed to say. I can write in some solemn quarterly an elaborate article explaining that God is the devil; I can write in some cultured weekly an aesthetic fancy describing how I should like to eat boiled baby. The thing I must not write is rational criticism of the men and institutions of my country.”
Chesterton’s faithful and patriotic image of his fellow citizens was that the vast majority of them had no interest in killing babies or mutilating children. We today can strive for the same trust: that the great masses of normal people do not desire the strange paganism of the woke agenda. They do not lust after the mutilation of children, the acceptance of mass infanticide, the collapse of standards in the name of diversity. However, our countrymen are caught in a horrible melee in which both sides bear the same standard: “Freedom!”
Perhaps this is the great gift which postliberalism can give to today’s failed liberal order: clarity of terms. In the news today you will see candidates claiming to save democracy from autocracy. In the pulpits you will find men proclaiming charity from both extremes of the evangelical spectrum. In the classrooms you will find teachers denouncing racism by the radical exclusion of “privileged” children by their race. Our society teeters on the abyssal brink of hopeless ambiguity and is pushed toward the depths by a stolid refusal to be clear with our terms.
Where there is nothing but negation, where morality and governance becomes a bland series of proscriptions simply for the sake of constraining the wild freedom to kill babies, we can be sure that no gods of substance can be found. The indifferent gods of liberalism are specters, bodiless wraiths which whisper “all is permissible.” This is not the inheritance of the West, it is not the light yoke of the New Gospel, and it is not, the freedom in the minds of our Founders. By the grace of God, substanceless-ness is just that: fleeting and fading, not to rule long on earth without a body. True freedom will be found again.
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