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The Illiberal Arts

For thousands of years, the liberal arts were not liberal, and that is why they are increasingly unwelcome in our time. An honest study of the past is unsettling in a liberal age, because a person who learns to venerate earlier cultural traditions, from Homer to the baroque, may come to venerate the values to which those traditions are devoted. And those values are a direct rebuke to the substance of liberalism.

“Liberalism” here does not refer to the modern American distinction between liberals and conservatives, both of whom are liberals in every important respect. Liberalism is a governing idea dedicated to the priority of the autonomous, rights-bearing individual—an individual defined against, rather than constituted by, a community and its inherited traditions. In the early centuries of liberalism, the commitment to this idea of the individual appeared to release enormous creativity and achieve real benefits. But few can fail to notice that liberal societies are at the end of their vitality and creative energy.  It has now become apparent to many that liberalism does not work—that it has degraded our spiritual freedom, impoverished the world of meaning, and dehumanized us before the power of money. But liberalism also prevents us from finding our way out of the mess that it has created. Liberalism is only a few centuries old, yet this recent governing order is now being treated as an eternal condition of humanity from which there can be no dissent or alternative. When we attempt to diagnose our disorder, we can only do so through a prejudicial history that falsifies the past, and therefore prevents any true understanding of the present. In such a context, the destruction of an authentic liberal arts tradition is not hard to understand.

Many will say that our cultural decline is not the result of liberalism itself, but the latest and most decadent phase of it, which can be called “neoliberalism.” That claim is partly right. At the high point of liberalism, monuments, theaters, gardens, train stations, and opera houses appeared in rich profusion. The philosophy of Hegel and the music of Beethoven offered a new mission to the individual and the state. Even in the United States in aftermath of the New Deal, liberalism promoted art and public works on an enormous scale. But ever since the 1970s, liberalism has entered its plutocratic, finance-driven stage. In an age of finance and plutocracy, liberalism is more committed to defunding than to building; to deconstruction than to culture; to the censorious attack on creativity rather than its promotion or celebration.

We would be mistaken, however, to see our finance-dominated neoliberalism as some perversion of the liberal order, and to assume that we can simply go back to liberalism’s creative days. Plutocratic neoliberalism is not a perversion of liberalism, but the decadent stage of a liberal order that no longer acknowledges any rivals. Francis Fukayama’s claim that liberalism had triumphed and brought us to the “end of history” was a signal that the liberal order no longer had to legitimize its power. Only at such a stage, when the nature of liberalism is not obscured by its conflict with past visions, and the liberal order no longer needs to justify itself against alternatives, does the aimless and dehumanizing nature of liberalism fully reveal itself.

Liberalism without Adversaries

Liberalism appears to have creative aims only when it must strive for legitimacy. In the beginning, its new monuments signaled the rejection of the ideal of the baroque, which had given an aristocratic and ecclesiastical unity to culture. Liberalism’s new public works had to establish the validity of a new order based on a different conception of life. Autonomous architecture and art, no longer subject to religious or courtly ends, had to become ends in themselves. Even in the age of the Cold War, western bourgeois culture had to assert itself against the Soviet alternative.

But when liberalism feels that its position is secure, the age of public works, and even of culture, comes to an end. The “autonomy” of the arts degrades into an empty technocratic specialization, and the liberal age does not have to strive for legitimacy through the building of public monuments. Instead neoliberalism defunds infrastructure and culture, while its intellectuals “critique” the very idea of order. Most importantly, the task of defunding and critique requires suppressing or attacking alternative visions from the past.

The “end of history” does not mean the end of ideology, but rather the triumph of liberal ideology. In order to create the fantasy that willing the destruction of all higher aims is actually an eternal condition of humanity, it is necessary to maintain an active historical oblivion. In our age, liberalism must not only falsify everything from the past that it considers “illiberal,” it must even falsify its own liberal past, in which it had to strive for legitimacy against competing visions of order.

Liberalism now largely allows only two approaches to the past. In the “Whig” approach, which began with such geniuses as Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay—but now mostly survives in the degraded form of writers such as Steven Pinker—history is affirmed as the unfolding of our inevitable march toward liberalism and rationality. In late-liberal or “postmodern” critique, by contrast, the status quo is supported indirectly through attacks on the past—even the liberal past—in a manner that only benefits the elites of the existing order.

Whig liberalism tells a simple story: once upon a time humanity lived in an age of credulity, superstition, and servility. The mind was enslaved to the Church and to the aristocracy. But one day, because of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or what you will, we liberated ourselves from our immaturity, and set ourselves on the path to becoming the rational, enlightened, liberal society we are today.

Meanwhile, postmodern liberal critique centers on “deconstruction.” It presupposes that the traditions of the past are largely ideologies in the service of power. The goal of education for postmodern liberal critique is to unmask those ideologies. Like all liberal strategies, this critique promises liberation but delivers coercion,1 in this case by denying any alternatives to liberalism, even when it rejects liberalism.

Liberal histories dominate the universities, because our universities are the handmaidens of plutocracy. Is it possible to doubt this any longer, when students in the United States graduate as debt slaves from institutions funded by oligarchs? Yet the supremacy of plutocrats is no less powerful in the ostensibly “anti-capitalist” or left-wing enclaves of the humanities departments, which unwittingly become agents of the very thing they claim to fight and despise. Michel Foucault’s attacks on state institutions as regimes of “policing” and “surveillance” ultimately conform with the elite dismantling of the public sector, and criticisms of Fordist capitalism, such as those of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, are fundamentally in accord with the destruction of the New Deal legacy by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, and the rest.

Neoliberal financial elites and “radical” humanities professors are not opposed to one another but manifest the same spirit of the age. Whether intentionally or not, both advance the aims of the plutocracy. Plutocrats oppose any hierarchy that threatens their own supremacy. The postmodern attack on the hierarchies and traditions of the past is therefore no more “anti-capitalist” than supply-side economics. On the contrary, it is instrumental in stamping out the real alternatives to neoliberalism.

The reduction of historical memory to Whig history, on the one hand, and postmodern critique, on the other, prevents a serious and honest appreciation of the past. History is now either affirmed as the unfolding of the inevitable triumph of liberalism, or attacked for the benefit of the current liberal order. Under few circumstances, however, can the past be affirmed for anything that challenges liberal assumptions.

By refusing honesty about its past, liberalism reveals itself to be a governing idea without content: it is now free, but only to affirm itself. Once liberalism defeats other orders and attempts to establish its own higher aims, it finds that it has no higher aims to promote. The only thing that liberalism unfailingly advances is the destructive force of power. Liberalism claims to center on autonomous individuals defined by rights, particularly the right to the satisfaction of desires that only the individual can determine.2 But this principle of autonomy and rights necessarily means the refusal of ends: ends that are not of the individual’s choosing and demand the renunciation of desire.3 Power must therefore destroy all hierarchies devoted to ends. This is nothing less than an inversion of the values that for millennia produced the legacy of the liberal arts.

The reduction of every hierarchy of ends to power as a basis for rights is central to a foundational work of liberalism: Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.  Whereas Aristotle’s Politics takes seriously competing claims to organize a society around higher ends or purposes, Hobbes claims to expose all of these pretensions to purposes and ends as mere pretexts for the exercise of power. It is the war of all against all arising from the desire for power that gives birth to the idea of individual rights. Each individual in a state of nature governed only by a desire for power has an unlimited right, which threatens the unlimited rights of everyone else.

The idea that all hierarchies are rooted in power alone is implicit in any cultural or historical investigation in our age. Not only monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church, but also art, beauty, and all higher ideals are put under the lens by liberals and scrutinized for their relation to power. In schools and universities, to unmask the element of power in the traditions of the past is considered a requirement of education, and a necessary element of “critical thinking.” Yet, the reduction of hierarchy to power already imposes a liberal metaphysics upon our investigation. To study non-liberal hierarchy from the perspective of power tendentiously presupposes as its starting point the first principle of liberalism.

The Limits of Power

An honest study of the past would not impose the liberal framework upon the non-liberal hierarchies that it proposes to investigate. An honest study of the past would acknowledge a distinction that had been central to western humanity for thousands of years before liberalism: the distinction between power and authority. The fifth century Pope Gelasius wrote: “that which governs the world is twofold, the sacred authority (auctoritas) of the pontiffs, and the royal power.” There, in the remark of Gelasius, is a mysterious dispensation whose gloss manifests one of the most important divisions of our civilization.

The idea of authority comes from classical Rome, which declared that while power belonged to the people, the Senate had authority. When Augustus became Roman Emperor, he played down the assertion of power, and reserved to himself the highest auctoritas: “I excelled all in auctoritas,” says Augustus in his Res Gestae, “although I possessed no more official power than others who were colleagues in the several magistracies.”

What is this “authority” whose demands are scarcely intelligible to us? Paul Zanker, the great historian of Augustus’s legacy in the arts, explains that authority is a form of leadership in which public works, moral revival, and respect for tradition are enfolded in a hierarchical idea. Hannah Arendt, one of the few recent thinkers to recognize the importance of the concept of authority, writes: “Authority is the source of voluntary obedience.”4

Authority is repugnant to liberalism because the antithesis of an autonomous, rights-bearing individual is one who uses his liberty to renounce it for the sake of a nobler value than either power or the achievement of rights. By acknowledging authority, the individual allows something higher than himself to intrude upon and order his life. Unlike power, authority cannot be entirely controlled or willed into being by a human ego. Powerful interests may attempt to manipulate authority, but tradition and the commitment to a sacred and transcendent realm set limits to that manipulation. Yet once human subjects have entirely discarded the reverence for authority in exchange for the desire for power, their susceptibility to manipulation by the powerful is nearly limitless.

Augustus’s claim that he had renounced power in favor of authority was not entirely true, of course. His claims to authority often masked the use of brute force, coercion, and violence of the bloodiest kind. He boasts in the Res Gestae about how many children of defeated kings were paraded in the triumphs. Not without justice has Edward Gibbon called him “that subtle tyrant.” As long as we are bound to this earthly life, we will never find a pure authority free from the alloy of power. But although Augustus’s claims to authority contain lies mixed with truth, it is our task not only to unmask the lies, but to find the element of truth in them.

Augustus claimed authority rather than power for himself in order to reestablish the connection between public works and spiritual renewal, between tradition and civic mission. The neglect of public infrastructure was noticeable during the last days of the oligarchical Roman Republic. “Ever since the first great internal crisis of the Gracchan period,” says Zanker, “the needed repairs of temples and public buildings and especially the development of a reasonable infrastructure and city plan were completely neglected.” The neglect of the public sector and the privatization of the public sphere plagued the late Roman Republic as it does America (and much of the West) today. The building impulse during the Roman Republic was devoted primarily to villas and other expressions of private luxury rather than to public glory.

In the Roman Empire, authority linked public rule with a continual obligation to renew, rebuild, and reorder the public space. Such an idea is a direct moral threat to our age of neoliberal austerity. Our plutocratic neoliberalism is devoted, as we have said, not to public works, but to the defunding of the public realm. It should not surprise us, therefore, that in our age the Augustan sense of authority is stigmatized as “illiberal.” The most venerated historian of Augustus’s realm in the postwar period, Ronald Syme, portrayed Augustus as a proto-fascist along the lines of Mussolini or Hitler.5 In departments of literature, Virgil’s great imperial epic, The Aeneid, is now often preposterously taught as a “subversive” work designed to undermine the project of empire.

Spiritual Authority and the Development of Personality

In the declaration of Pope Gelasius, a spiritual dimension to authority emerges that far exceeds even the auctoritas of Augustus. This spiritual dimension of authority is not original to Gelasius but is rooted in the Christian Gospels. At the heart of Christianity is the mystery of what is called “the incarnation”: the fact that God becomes a man who willingly submits to grave suffering rather than exercise power and coercion to conquer the evil of the world and accomplish the will of God. Christ’s incarnation reflects the truth, not that God is powerless to conquer evil, but that evil cannot be conquered by power.

The idea that the spiritual life of Christendom derived its authority from a historical human person established human personality as an indispensable element of European civilization. Central to this spiritual idea of personality is the experience of vocation. “Vocation is by definition a call,” says Denis de Rougemont, “and requires another to call you.” The liberal project is centered on the secular idea of freedom as autonomy, but autonomy destroys vocation. We cannot call ourselves, and thus our autonomy annihilates the possibility of individual destiny and, with it, an authentic sense of personality.

Who can honestly affirm that liberalism’s promise of individual autonomy has promoted the full development of personality? Dismantling hierarchy and authority should have set individuality free, but instead has unleashed a regime of standardization and bureaucracy. Before the triumph of liberalism, the denial of human personality was seen as a calamity worse than death in European history and literature. Romeo and Juliet, Saint Francis, Joan of Arc, or Tristan and Iseult did not fear death: they feared the loss of the unique creative vocation that was personally and irreplaceably their own. Meanwhile, in our time, the corporation, an impersonal entity, has been given the rights of a person while personality is everywhere devalued by our bland, managerial culture.

The Importance of Place

The destruction of personality in our age is also the result of the unfettered supremacy of finance, which subordinates personal vocation to the impersonal power of money. Friedrich Nietzsche says that the great division in European culture is that between aristocrats and priests.  But an equally decisive conflict in our history has been between landed and moneyed elites. Liberalism from its earliest days has been secured by the power of money and has defined itself against the aristocracy, hereditary monarchical rule, and the Catholic Church.

The liberal argument against landed elitism is that it leads to declining initiative and innovation. Liberals argue that landed elites are so secure in their position that they quickly lose the energy and desire for creativity. In its sluggishness and inertia, landed aristocracy prevents the possibility of social mobility. All of these moneyed criticisms of the landed order are correct.

The argument made on behalf of landed elites, however, is that the connection to land roots a ruling class in a particular place and culture. Land creates a sense of obligation, not only to oneself, but also to future generations. A concrete connection between the living and the dead, created by the idea of landed inheritance, is a check upon the unbridled speculation of money, which need not be rooted either in a particular place or tradition. These defenses of landed elitism are also right.

The elitism of money and the elitism of land have both been essential to the development of civilization. Most of the greatest achievements in European history—from Gothic architecture to the Renaissance and beyond—would not have been possible without the development of commercial life and the growth of cities from the tenth century onward. There is no doubt that the achievements of European culture seemed to have been greatest where commercial life was strongest—whether in Venice, Pisa, Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, Florence, or Milan. Yet these commercial cities derived many of their values from the Church and feudal aristocracy. The growth of commerce in the Middle Ages also saw the rise of mendicant orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, and the urban Renaissance prince sought in many ways to imitate the feudal knight.

The productive discord between a landed and moneyed elitism even persisted in the bourgeois society that preceded our managerial age. Both bourgeois and managers derived their power from money; but because the old bourgeois were owners and not just managers, they were conscious of an intergenerational bond, as Thomas Mann makes clear in his novel Buddenbrooks. The connection between money and tradition also characterized the early capitalists of the Renaissance. “The great Medici, when they subordinated the power of the state to themselves,” says Jacob Burckhardt, “knew that in doing so they assumed a public obligation to build.” The Renaissance capitalists subordinated finance to human development and rooted their public obligation in humanist traditions. Having lost its connection to ownership, however, a managerial age has also lost its rootedness either in a particular place or a meaningful tradition.

A fertile tension in the past between landed and moneyed elitism ensured a precarious balance between tradition and innovation. The ideological destruction of all aristocratic ideas from the past only ruins that balance, and accelerates a plutocratic anarchy in the guise of liberation.6 Nevertheless, in articulating this account, I am not arguing for a revival of landed aristocracy. I am rather arguing for an honest appreciation of our history. The loss of an elitism rooted in a concrete place and its traditions, and its replacement by a global elite that sees no distinction between money and ownership, has come with a social cost. Estimating that cost is our duty in an age of cultural vacuity and plutocratic domination.

The Illiberal Arts

As long as we refuse to appraise these costs, we will continue to find ourselves baffled by the world we inhabit. Many are surprised that in an age of liberal decadence, the rights of the individual have been given to corporations, while liberal autonomy has yielded to the rule of faceless capital. But where is the surprise? We ought to have realized by now that the autonomous, rights-bearing individual of liberalism does not exist. It is not a concrete personality, anchored in place and tradition and oriented to a unique destiny, but rather a rootless, impersonal abstraction, secured by the reduction of every human reality to power. Is it any wonder that the impersonal powers of our day should fill such an empty placeholder?

With such an unreal abstraction at the center of a governing order, profound misgivings about the viability of liberalism in the long term are inescapable. In its most productive period, liberalism derived its Promethean energy from a revolt against previous hierarchies. But liberalism could not live forever on the borrowed spiritual energies from which it claimed liberation.

When liberalism must actually accept the consequences of establishing itself on its own principles, it finds itself unable to deliver on its promises.  Liberalism promises autonomy, but delivers subordination to power. It promises individuality, but delivers the degradation of personality. It promises freedom, but leads to a quest for private accumulation that undermines public legitimacy and great public works.

A more truthful study of the liberal arts is therefore indispensable. Millennia of history and culture offering alternatives to the liberal project can help us to appraise the human cost of our own societies. But in order for such a study to be possible, we must listen to the voices of the past when they affirm their own values. We must not stigmatize as “illiberal” every hierarchy and authority that challenges our own ideas. The goal of study is not to congratulate ourselves, but to recognize the limits of our assumptions.

An honest study of the past will not be easy, because the powers of the age are against it. The liberal arts have not collapsed simply because of philistinism. They have collapsed because an age of liberal decadence demands the active destruction of historical memory. A recovery of the traditions I describe would therefore be more than just a nuisance to the liberal: it would be an act of defiance against the present disorder.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published February 20, 2019.

1 The idea that, in liberalism, the liberty of the individual is secured by the coercion of the state is an important central insight of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018). Deneen also argues that liberalism’s jargon of liberty destroys the liberal arts through a project of what he calls “anti-culture.”

2 Immanuel Kant defines autonomy as the capacity to give ends to oneself, yet he distinguishes between these ends and what we would call passions or desires. His philosophy ultimately leaves the reader baffled as to how the human subject is able to renounce its desires and passions for the sake of higher ends that it somehow gives to itself. In actual practice, what liberal societies defend under the pretext of autonomy and rights are not ends at all but individual desires.

3 The difference between rights and ends plays an important part in Pierre Manent’s studies of liberalism.  A study of the difference between Hobbes, who reduces ends to power, and Aristotle, whose Politics takes those ends seriously, has a central place in Manent’s City of Man.

4 Arendt makes the matter clear: “authority precludes the external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed.” On the difference between authority and power, Augusto Del Noce’s essay, “Authority Versus Power,” is also indispensible.

5 Syme’s book stigmatized Augustus for understandable reasons. Syme was writing at a time when fascists such as Benito Mussolini actually were co-opting Augustus’s legacy. But ideas such as Syme’s in the neoliberal age serve very different purposes.

6 “Plutocratic anarchy” is a nice phrase coined by the poet Geoffrey Hill.

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