What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The two freedoms.

Many a careful and penetrating student of politics — Burke, Oakeshott and Weaver come immediately to mind — has made a distinction between freedom as enjoyment and freedom as power. The former is tethered firmly to the historical and the particular, and even to the personal. This freedom, as Weaver put it, “is something that gathers around the hearth, inheres in local associations, and endears to a man his place of habitation.” It is not about action or force, but rather appreciation. Its spring is gratitude and its provocation the threat of change or deprivation. The man aware of this liberty will be more aware of his obligations than his rights; and he will feel, deep in his bones, the honor and joy it is to fulfill obligations honorably. He will not hesitate to embrace sacrifice.

Freedom as power is ahistorical and idealized. Not enjoyment of the things that exist, but the potential of those that one day might, is what gives it life. Its mark is that it almost has no tether, but rather a balloon that carries it to and fro according to the wind. Its spring is concepts spun out of the minds of men. It is adventurous and dissatisfied with the present; it needs no external provocation, but often demonstrates a complicated lineage of influence. Though this freedom is dismissive or even contemptuous of history, it is perfectly unintelligible without it. That is to say, the observer must consent to enter the history or world of this theory of freedom in order to understand it. Its historical roots are deep, tangled and long, but we may take the French Revolution as its great exemplar and solidifier. Its parlance is “rights”; its aspiration is to rule or possess; its currency is force. It operates on human desires, downplays obligation in favor of privilege, which its construes as right, and is oriented toward the future. Men possessed by this version of freedom tend toward grandeur of theory, stridency of debate, bafflement at reluctance, and exasperation at dissent.

The first liberty — freedom of enjoyment — is resistant to conceptualization. It does not translate well into the strict rationalism of modern political philosophy. It starts in the world, and because concepts in the human mind can only ever be analogies of the world, its concepts are limited and often dissatisfying in the abstract. This does not mean it lacks the power to move; on the contrary, it possesses a singular power to move men, but only specific men, particularly situated so as to be touched by its appeals. It is universal as sentiment but not as theory. In this sense we might say there is a myriad of “liberties of enjoyment.”

Liberty of power thrives in the world of abstraction. Indeed, it cannot exist before conceptualization. It is a doctrine first, then a passion or enthusiasm. It does not arise out of human experience. It starts in the mind, is carried forth in the mind, but it does not, alas, end in the mind. For the mind is a powerful organ indeed, and there can be no doubt at all that doctrines may be made to move men to action. Dialectic is the native form, in debate and controversy, of this freedom of power: the implications of ideas, the logical interplay of mental concepts. It tries for logical demonstration, and takes leave of history and experience whenever necessary. Because modern philosophy has grown ever more complex and rarefied, this sort of freedom makes abundant use of catchphrase and slogan.

Rhetoric is the native tradition of liberty of enjoyment. It aims to persuade by appeal to the whole man, not merely by logical demonstration or slogan. It language is symbolic and poetic. Its appeals may therefore be called “emotional,” but this is only because the rhetorician is the very last person on earth to forget that emotion is a part of man. As Aristotle put it, “What makes a man a ‘sophist’ is not his faculty, but his moral purpose.”

The quintessential object of the orator of liberty of enjoyment is to make the listener feel that his home is threatened; the quintessential object of the other is to make him feel that his rights are oppressed. With the first, he is called to a duty of defense and protection; called as a citizen, a father, an inheritor of a tradition worth preserving. With the second, he is called to an adventure of progress or advancement; and called as an individual, or called as a member of a collective abstraction, i.e., the People. In a crisis the former aims at reformation, restoration, repair; the latter, revolution. (In this context, it is important, in fairness, to recognize that an important aspect of a revolution is that it ends; the Communist notion of “permanent revolution,” which has by a really astonishing irony been roped into service for the great bogeyman of Communism, namely Capitalism, is a piece of nihilism or mere anarchy, antithetical to freedom of either type.)

Let us give names, both abstract and particular, to these two theories of freedom. The first is the Patriot. The second is the Nationalist. The first wants to preserve and shelter the patria; the second to advance and expand it. That is in politics. In religion, say, the first is the Dualist; the second the Puritan. The first never loses sight of the bifurcation of man into his animal and angelic nature: that man is a creature of both matter and spirit, and by this perpetual division a limited being, is a truth never far from the first’s mind. The second is greatly impressed by man’s potential, or by his depravity; and his emphasis on one or the other issues in the Puritan’s characteristic restlessness, and carries him into the realm of abstraction where concepts may be purified. The Puritan, that is, may be “pure” in his concept of human sin or of human glory — Emerson and Thoreau were both of New England puritan stock, though hardly Calvinists.

The modern archetype of the first is Edmund Burke; the second, Abraham Lincoln. Now it is vital to see that in great men such as these, the insights and strengths of the rival principle of freedom are abundantly employed: anyone who doubts Burke’s power as a dialectician may merely consult his treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful; and anyone (be he so unutterably foolish) who doubts Lincoln’s rhetorical power, may read any of his speeches.

These two principles of freedom have formed the two great parties, in various institutional guises, in American history. They have provided the framework of debate, dissension and even war. There are, of course, ample ironies in this: The Southern secessionists, and later the theorists and politicians of the Confederacy, though defending a liberty of enjoyment, spoke the language of liberty of power. Arguably the greatest Southern general, Stonewall Jackson, was a severe Puritan in a world of Dualists. On the other hand, one of the greatest American statesmen of freedom of enjoyment, Calvin Coolidge, was a New Englander through and through. And the preeminent spokesman for the late revival of freedom of enjoyment, called by our age Conservatism, hails from Connecticut: Mr. William F. Buckley. Ironies are even heaped upon ironies: Lincoln’s party in time became Buckley’s party; and even now is reverting to a party of liberty of power.

It is doubtful whether the tension and conflict sketched out here will ever be reconciled; it is even doubtful whether such reconciliation is possible or desirable. It might issue in ruination. What is less doubtful, it seems to me, is that liberty of power has been in the saddle for quite some time, and has pushed the train of its notions and doctrines pretty durned far down the line of logic. Almost down to the last station-house where all merely logical propositions must end: absurdity. We live in an age where a man may be called nasty names, may be dismissed as a crank or bigot, for (1) opposing the unlawful transformation of his country under insipid universalist slogans like, “family values do not end at the Rio Grande”; (2) opposing as impractical in the extreme the transformation of a Arabic and Islamic nation along the lines of the French Revolution; (3) preferring his own people and fellow-citizens to foreigners; (4) resisting or lamenting the reductionism that would make men subject to abstracted economic principles. These are but four examples off the top of my head.

As a statesman, the Patriot’s desire is for self-government. The Nationalist, by contrast, is often seduced by imperialism. Perceiving great wickedness, or perceiving none, he desires to spread his doctrine to all. Eventually he will be frustrated, and it is very tempting then to attribute opposition to perversity or base interest. His charity fails because men are not as real to him as ideas.

The Patriot does not deny that a self-governing people may govern themselves poorly, may fall into wickedness, or may be carried to ruin by their own faults. But neither does he give in to that impatience with an ordered and measured relation between parts and whole that has become the hallmark of modern politics. His world is that which exists, not that which may exist — the world to come he leaves to God. He wants to be left alone with his inherited goods; and his sense of history suggests that there have been far more examples of aspired progress transforming rapidly into tyranny, than of good things achieved and preserved in the face of progressive aspirations. Thus when he believes he has a good thing, he feels deeply the duty to preserve it, and perhaps even more deeply, a loathing of its proffered transformation.

Comments (6)

The thing is, I consider Aristotle and Plato to both be part of the freedom to power faction. The sophists were the ones who said that each culture has its own laws and social norms, that truth is to some degree dependent upon the local population and context it sprang up out of. Aristotle and Plato both took a universalist approach that by the light of reason and logic there can be only one truth for all people.

The Sophists, however, advanced their critique one step further, particularly in their self-appointed roles as speakers of truth to power, arguing that all customs and social norms were, in fact, nothing more than the pale reflections of existing power relations and the contestation for power. (Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.) As regards Aristotle, whatever might be said concerning elements of moral universalism in his philosophy, it remains the case that his ideal political form was the polis, which indicates that, at most, he perceived the necessity of a local instantiation of more general - universal - principles. It is in this form that Aristotelianism has been influential in Western political thought.

The Platonic legacy is more convoluted, but the Church did succeed in incorporating much of that legacy without generating an ideological universalism; one might say that, roughly, the spirituality of the Christian faith, along with the universality of the Church and the sacraments, assumed the roles of the universals in Christendom. But this hardly excluded the particularity of the local and irreducible, as evidenced by the very political and social forms of Christendom, of the antemodern Western world; one might even state that the Christian conception of the differentiation of the parts and capacities of the Mystical Body created the theological and cultural space within which local diversity could flourish amidst a deeper spiritual unity. The real deformation of modernity begins with the confluence of one of Christianity's noblest achievements, science, with trends of late medieval philosophy (which I think may fairly be termed an auto-deconstruction, as I have said previously), and the heterodox intellectual currents of the Renaissance. When nominalism, voluntarism (which, taken together, eventually yield positivism), a vaguely pagan sense of the backwardness of Christendom, and the scientific promise of mastery over the terrestrial order combined, that notion of freedom-as-power was one of the products. In fact, one might go further than this, inasmuch as the idea of freedom-as-power is integral with the nominalist/voluntarist dyad, and at least intimately associated with the emergence of modern science, which, following Bacon, often spoke rather salaciously of compelling Nature to render up her secrets. Render them up, that is, to satisfy the desires of men for ease and luxury, and the promise of progress: futurity as freedom, even salvation.

For my part, the future is invoked primarily to authorize all kinds of humbug and mischief.

Maximos answered that objection better than I ever could have.

Was it an objection, Step2? It plays loose with rumor. Unless there are passages in Plato and Aristotle that illustrate the need for an objection . . .

FYI, here's Socrates, a master of dialogue, on oratory:

Go and tell Lysias (the orator) . . . and anyone else who composed speeches, and to Homer . . and to Solon and whoever has written political compositions which he calls laws:--if he he has composed his writings with knowledge of the truth, and is able to support them by discussion of that which he has written, and has the power to show by his own speech that the written words are of little worth, such a man ought not to derive his title from such writings, but from the serious pursuit which underlies them.


Paul, I'm easily discomfited by wonderful clarity of things in pairs. Separations between us and them, between one and the other, between type and antitype, and so on. There's rhetorical advantage in that (Plato knew it), but I recommend the trio--that has had rhetorical success as well. Dualistic conceptualization comes with a history of powerful mistakes. Power isn't by nature universal, nor is enjoyment by nature particular. Moral purpose sustains both.

Here's an extra from Strauss:

Almost throughout its whole history political philosophy was universal while politics was particular. Political philosophy was concenred with the best or just order of society which is by nature best or just everywhere or always, while politics is concerned with the being and well-being of this or that particular society (a polis, a nation, an empire) that is in being at a given place for some time. Not a few men have dreamt of rule over all human beings by themselves or others but they were dreamers or at least regarded as such by the philosophers. In our age on the other hand politics has in fact become universal. Unrest in what is loosely, not to say demagogically, called the ghetto of an American city has repercussions in Moscow, Peking, Johannesburg, Hanoi, London, and other far away places and is linked with them; whether the linkage is admitted or not makes no difference.

I think I'd like to nominate this for the greatest hits category.

That's a fine piece of analysis.

It coincides well with a discussion that I had with a professor Theodore Epstein, of Oklahoma State, the other day at a conference of conservative Anglicans in Fredericton. He was speaking about Anthony Trollope's The Warden; his thesis was that the Archdeacon Grantly, with his reactionary attachment to the glory and the rights of the Church of England, and the reformer John Bold, whose newspaper articles decried an egregious unfairness in the apportioning of monies from a medieval legacy, were each, in some fashion, correct but incomplete without the other. I replied that each was wrong, in that neither man was really interested in the ultimate welfare of the men who were supposed to be benefiting from the legacy -- that is, that both the Church party and the Reform party were sinning against the particular men, the particular platoon among whom it pleased God to place them. We did not resolve this argument.

In speaking with a couple of the conferees afterwards, I noted that Jesus never does ask us to love all mankind. He commands us to love our neighbors -- and then there arises the far from easy question, "Who is my neighbor?" -- a question that modern Christians answer, I think incorrectly, with the easy universalism of "Everybody is my neighbor." I've written about this in a Touchstone article (Where Went the Neighborhood? -- not my title; I had titled it,
"Neighbor? What Neighbor?").

Aristotle is one of my favorites not because he adopts a universalist philosophy, but because he probes into the universally valid criteria for a particularist political philosophy. And this was another point I was trying, without a whole lot of success, to make in the discussion at the conference. It is a universally binding law, a part of the natural law and also implied by the commandment to honor one's father and mother, that we should NOT love other countries more than or even the same as we love our own....

So you see I am in entire agreement with you, though I wish I could find a way to recover the reputation of Lincoln.

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