The conservatives who want to undo the Enlightenment


Conservative thought in America is becoming more radical. Which means that it’s reverting to the form it often took in other times — in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution, in reaction to the liberalism of the Enlightenment.

Unlike the tamer conservatism of the postwar decades, today’s conservative critics don’t locate the source of their discontent within the liberal tradition — with the Progressive movement or the New Deal, for example, or the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Instead, the most influential and cogent conservatives of the present — among them Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame, Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School, and Sohrab Ahmari of The New York Post — take aim at the liberal tradition itself and suggest that our problems stem from errors that have marked it from the beginning.

The indictment runs like this: The original liberal theorists — including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the American constitutional framers — aimed to inspire the creation of individualistic societies in which people actively cut themselves loose from tradition and other moral constraints in pursuit of a life of ever-purer liberation. Many if not all of our challenges and difficulties — from moral decay to capitalist decadence to widespread anxiety and depression — flow from this original liberal goal, which has largely been achieved. The only effective way to respond to these challenges and difficulties is therefore to reject liberalism from top to bottom and look for another basis on which to found political and social life.

It’s a powerful critique. But what would it mean to see it through — to truly break free from liberalism, to create a fully post-liberal society? How would our lives change? What would our fellow citizens believe? How would they think and live?

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The answer, I fear, is that they would think and live an awful lot like that portion of the American population today that sees the ongoing pandemic largely as an act of God that we should just accept without doing much by way of control or mitigation. A reporter at a recent Trump rally spoke to attendees who expressed this outlook. One is quoted as saying “I’m not afraid to die. The Good Lord takes care of me. If I die, I die.”

That is the pre-liberal outlook that would be more fully revived and encouraged if today’s radical right-wing critics of liberalism get their way.

The early modern proto-liberals who helped to inspire the Enlightenment had several aims, but a key one was the promulgation of an account of human origins that could serve as an alternative to the biblical narrative. The Bible describes the original human beings as created by God and placed in paradise. With their first sin — disobeying the command to refrain from eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil — Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden to make their way in the world. But they are not abandoned by God, who continues …read more

Source:: The Week – Politics


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