2 John Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 110.
3 John Kekes, Against Liberalism (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1998). For Kekes, the defect of political liberalism is one of wrong emphasis. Liberalism fails to properly balance the virtues of autonomy and its associated values against other human needs, such as peace, order, moral education, environmental health, etc., which may often conflict with autonomy. Following Schindler, my critique differs from Kekes in that I see the problem with liberalism as tied to its misunderstanding of the meaning of freedom and the nature of the will, and its consequently inadequate anthropology.
4 David C. Hendrickson, Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 98–99.
5 If we are all fundamentally seekers of survival, and we know nothing objective about the good, then there is no intrinsic reason we should not conquer the world. Mearsheimer too quickly accepts at face value the liberal public declaration that the purpose of its wars of choice, for example in Iraq, Libya and (I would emphatically add) Syria, hinges on the expansion of liberal democracy to these spaces. From a pragmatic survival point of view, it would be equally rational to pursue the fragmentation and destruction of unitary states that are not obedient to the hegemonic power, while pragmatically declaring that the purpose was for the good of everyone concerned, the facts of the matter be damned. What is more, if we have no way of knowing objectively what is the good, in other words, of knowing in common something (though not everything) about the nature of the good, then this means that Mearsheimer’s rejection of individualism is essentially superficial. An aggregate of persons each seeking their own survival is not a society, but a pragmatic arrangement at best—in effect, it is precisely the understanding of man and society which gave rise to the liberal state in the first place: the mechanical arrangement of individuals whose assumed self-seeking natural state of autonomy—individualism—requires the Leviathan. Only an actually existing, and therefore shareable real good can create a social unity—I should say a human social unity.
6 Even though liberalism’s account of itself is that it uniquely fosters peace, the fact remains that throughout its history liberal America has fought war after war, and continues to do so today. What is more, on the domestic level the United States finds itself once again in such an extreme state of fragmentation that there is increasing talk of a new American Civil War. Of the several recent articles on this subject, of particularly interest is Michael Vlahos, “We Were Made for Civil War,” The American Conservative, October 29, 2018. For Vlahos, such a “war” need not be of the military kind, and yet “the historical consequences of a non-military American civil war would be just as severe as any struggle settled by battle and blood. For example, the map of a divided America today suggests that division into functioning state and local sovereignties—with autonomy over kinship, identity, and way of life issues—might be the result of this non-bloody war . . . [leading to] de facto national partition—without de jure secession. . . .”
7 D. C. Schindler, Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 13–127. The following passage gives only the flavor of a much more detailed argument laid out in the pages noted: “To interpret ‘justice and charity’ essentially as the preservation of a respectful distance between individuals is to presuppose that for individuals to be related is for them to enter into competition with one another, in a way that is indistinguishable from Hobbes’ total war. If nature is a state of order, freedom and peace only as an abstract potentiality, then reality is disorder. And reality is unavoidable” (87). The alternative to liberal autonomy, which it is the burden of Schindler’s entire book to set forth, is a symbolic order which paradoxically embeds autonomy within heteronomy, and thereby makes autonomy itself finally possible, because it now participates in Being instead of revolving in the empty circle of autonomous will. On the empty character of liberal autonomy, see also Pierre Manent, La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2018), 73.
8 Schindler, 177–178.
9 Money is of course the quintessential representation of possibility without actuality, the identification of freedom with pure power abstracted from anything else.
10 Schindler, 82.
11 Schindler, 84.
12 Cf. Paul Grenier, “Rescuing Diplomacy in an Age of Demagogy,” Consortium News, Dec. 9, 2014. (https://consortiumnews.com/2014/12/09/rescuing-diplomacy-in-an-age-of-demagogy/ ) This essay’s formatting and punctuation was damaged by a massive hacking attack on the entire news-site, from which attack complete recovery proved impossible.
13 Schindler, 120.
14 Schindler, 85.
15 An ironic continuation of this same theme of liberalism’s universal transformation of whatever it touches, including the family, may be found in the life trajectory of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It was while writing his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, that Tolstoy began his temporary return to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. What is more, he wrote his great novel dedicated, as he put it, to the “idea of the family,” after learning Greek and reading Plato, which likewise had an impact on his novelistic concept, both in its philosophical profundity and in its artistic form. Soon afterwards, however, Tolstoy rejected the Church and embraced Kant. The result, to my mind, was the decline of Tolstoy as an artist, as evidenced by the incomparably duller reflections to be found in his Confessions and subsequent novels and philosophy. Years later, Vladimir Solovyov, in his masterpiece Three Conversations, took to task both Kant and his spokesperson, the late Tolstoy, for their reduction of the good to the individual’s will, now viewed by them as subject to a reason that is autonomous from the source of the living good, and for their reduction of Christ to a dead letter “rule”—in effect, a moralism as opposed to a living being. I am indebted to my wife, Dr. Svetlana Grenier, for pointing out to me the influence of Plato on Tolstoy, though she bears no responsibility or blame for the further conclusions that I have drawn on the basis of this example.
16 Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–22 (London: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 2–3.
17 Mearsheimer and Walt argue for a “counter-elite” and a “countervailing set of organizations and institutions” that can challenge and replace the existing liberal interventionist consensus. See James Carden, “Why Liberal Hegemony? Three New Books Make the Case against a Failed Grand Strategy,” Nation, November 12, 2018.
18 I hope it is obvious that I by no means want to single the United States out as liberal—liberalism is today the global norm. The United States is special only in having been founded by the liberal voluntarism which increasingly is omnipresent world-wide.
19 Adrian Pabst and John Milbank make precisely this point, and indicate counter-examples from pre-modern Europe and Christendom, in their The Politics of Virtue (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), 318–27. To mention Christendom today is, of course, very shocking. Historians such as Glenn Olsen and Matthew Dal Santo have emphasized that most political orders throughout much of human history have been based on a complex interrelationship between the sacred and the profane—it is peculiar to the liberal age to have made of the sacred something purely private.
20 Kekes, 23–45.
21 Paul Grenier, “Russia-gate as Symptom: The Crisis of American Community,” TELOSscope, September 7, 2018.
22 See David Schindler, The Perfection of Freedom: Schiller, Schelling, and Hegel between the Ancients and the Moderns (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012), 49–110. Similarly, Russian political theorist Boris Mezhuev has proposed what he terms civilizational realism as a means of finding a political settlement beyond great power conflict. A civilization, for Mezhuev, is self-limiting already by simply being this particular civilizational form, and not another (Cf. Boris Mezhuev, “In Russia, It’s the Realists vs. the Ethno-Nationalists,” The American Conservative, May 10, 2017.) It is worth noting that Schiller and the German idealists have had a profound and continuing impact on Russian intellectual culture.
23 See especially Adam Webb, Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2015), which provides concrete historical examples of fruitful dialogue, and mutual acknowledgement and respect, between the deepest practitioners of differing civilizations and religions.
24 Simone Weil makes this point explicitly in her “Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression,” and then deepens it considerably in her The Need for Roots. See also Pierre Manent: “The fact is that Marx is mistaken. Profit, not religion, is the spirit of this spiritless world where one must overwork in order to live: the commercial society.” (The City of Man, 105).
25 This confusion about the good, which is inherent to liberalism, was nicely illustrated when U.S. presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) was recently interviewed by the TV personality Stephen Colbert. On the heels of a back-and-forth about US interventionist wars that have caused enormous havoc in the Middle East, Colbert asked whether or not she agreed with his statement that the United States, “however flawed” is a “force for good in the world.” Gabbard replied: “I do agree with that. My point is that, in order to be a force for good, we must actually do good. . . .” (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, CBS, March 11, 2019.) Precisely this difference, which Gabbard has, perhaps naively, brought to the surface, is what liberalism occludes.
26 Robert Kagan’s “The Strongmen Strike Back,” (Washington Post, March 14, 2019) is hardly the only illustration of this liberal need for enemies, even on the level of theory. Two years earlier, Kagan’s approach was explicitly recommended by Prof. Robert Keohane, who is often referred to as the most influential international relations scholar in U.S. academia. As I noted in my “Russia-gate as Symptom” (note 21), Keohane and his coauthor’s response to America’s internal divisions—despite explicitly pointing to the domestic origins of those divisions in economic inequality—was to identify external enemies. Keohane and Jeff D. Colgan aver that America needs to develop “a national narrative, broadly backed by elites across the ideological spectrum, about ‘who we are’—one built around opposition to authoritarianism and illiberalism.” Our present day’s disunity, the authors continue, is in part a symptom of “the fall of the Soviet Union [which] removed the main ‘other’ from the American political imagination and thereby reduced social cohesion in the United States.” (Jeff D. Colgan and Robert O. Keohane, “The Liberal Order is Rigged: Fix It Now or Watch It Wither,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2017, 40).