It has become nauseatingly common to hear condemnations of “living in alternate realities.” Of course, part of the irony of this charge is that it comes from our establishment elite who are, perfectly well, situated in the philosophical tradition called liberalism. The problem is that liberalism itself is responsible for alternate realities with its insistence of epistemological relativism and skepticism while simultaneously building its quasi-transcendental reality to shelter itself from the horrors of the world and human nature.
Liberalism, as I’ve written before, is not becoming something other than itself. There is no such thing as “illiberal liberalism.” The much derided “illiberal liberalism” is, in fact, just the logical consummation of classical liberal beliefs and principles.
Thomas Hobbes, who is universally regarded as one of the progenitors of liberalism, took a battering ram to classical philosophy in his denial of the summum bonum and the symbiotic relationship between the ultimate good and the virtuous life, something that was developed in pre-Christian times by thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, and then inherited and developed forward with theological intermingling with post-Constantinian Christianity. Hobbes, in destroying the summum bonum, returned us to a new form of Epicureanism in separating the good life from the virtuous life.
In the Leviathan, Hobbes’ seminal text, he argued that “reason” was not about finding Truth but about understanding consequences and acting in a manner that would limit consequences. For Hobbes, the use of reason was tied to the “good life” of physical pleasure and lack of pain or harm (the bases and lowest form of life according to the classical philosophers). Because for Hobbes, as is the case with all the so-called classical liberals, the good life is a life free from harm. Whatever is harmful or deemed harmful must be eliminated. That is the logical consequence of starting a philosophy with its ultimate goal being a life free from harm.
As Hobbes says, “For Reason, in this sense, is nothing but Reckoning of the consequences of general names agreed upon, for the marking and signifying of our thoughts; I say marking them, when we reckon by our selves; and signifying, when we demonstrate, or approve our reckonings to other men…The use and end of Reason, is not the finding of the sum, and truth of one, or a few consequences, remote from the first definitions, and settled significations of names; but to begin at these; and proceed from one consequence to another.” Proceeding further into the Leviathan, one sees how Hobbes ties his philosophy of reason to the good life. Hobbes associates power and freedom with the “present means, to obtain some future apparent good.” The good is always on the horizon, in the future, and never in the present. Reason, then, is the mechanism by which we move toward that “future apparent good” while minimizing harm and maximizing pleasure.
However, as Hobbes also says, there is no transcendental morality—no moral order. Terms like “good” and “bad” he says, are entirely relative to bodily experience. Those experiences we find pleasing we call good. Those experiences we find unpleasant we call bad.
But, as Hobbes equally acknowledges, we do so only on the condition of feelings. The entire construction of good/bad, moral order, and our use of “Reason” is tethered to feelings and not any natural order in the world. Thus it is unsurprising that later liberals like Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith pioneered the philosophy of moral sentimentality which reached a certain fruition in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And it is equally unsurprising that today’s liberals continue the same tradition of “my feelings are hurt” and seek to eliminate whatever they deem the cause of their hurt feelings.
By denying a Transcendental Order of Nature, or, perhaps, just Nature more generally, Hobbes established the principle of sentimentality which all later liberals from Locke and Smith to Mill and Rawls, built from. This constituted the most remarkable achievement in liberalism’s weltanschauung: the creation of a utopian internal world where I myself am free and at ease from which I project onto the external world the utopian world I have constructed for myself. The battles between the various schools in liberalism are nothing more than conflicts between different means to the same end: The universal end of a world freed from harm and united in peace and prosperity which are the preconditions for true justice and harmony.
In this internalization of the ideal the human being retreats into a psychological safe space, so to speak, where the individual is free from the harm of the state of nature, Nature itself, and the conflicts wrought from politics and religion and vainglory, etc. Let us return to Hobbes and his understanding of Reason. If we reason that differing political systems, differing religious creeds, and self-seeking personal or national glory cause conflict, and all conflict is bad, we must reasonably conclude these differences to be harmful and seek to minimize them as much as possible. Hence the need for the all-powerful state to reduce the possibility of conflict. Logically, this entails the consummation of a universal state to erode all differences that cause conflict. Is this not the very goal of “globalization” and “universalism” in the liberal enforcement of global democratic commercialism?
While a nice theory, other students of philosophy and critical theory are skeptical of the liberal vision. If there is a hard nature in humans liberalism runs into a problem. Hence the dream of the “abolition of man” and the complete transformation of human nature. If there is a God and a Moral Order, liberalism runs into a problem. Hence the dream of a world without God, without religion, without moral demands. If group feeling outweighs individual hedonistic pleasure, liberalism runs into a problem. Hence the dream of atomistic individualism and the “freeing” of humans from all the bonds of community, tribality, and religious identity.
Liberalism’s own self-conception and relation with the world is one of internal retreat and reconstruction from within before energetic enforcement on the outside. Liberalism shelters itself in its own empire of the mind where it constructs its own vision and understanding of the world and the good life then projects it out onto the world to make it reality. Here, of course, it follows the path laid out by Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. The only way to make the liberal world a reality is to build it by force so that the “empire of man” can be consummated and we will no longer fear harm and pain.
If liberalism’s understanding of the good life and the world is in err, which it can never allow as an axiomatic principle, then its entire worldview is in err. Liberalism, therefore, has constructed an alternate reality for itself and remains militantly steadfast in its self-constructed utopia which must become the utopia of tomorrow—that “future apparent good” which we strive to achieve. Of course, irony is lost on liberals because for liberals, it is always their way or the highway.
Liberalism, despite all its talk of diversity and pluralism and difference, cannot live with diversity, pluralism, or difference because it threatens to produce conflict and conflict is bad. Therefore liberalism inevitably wields force to maintain the modus vivendi of a universally accepted consensus to prevent the realities of the world from roaring up in ecstasy. Liberals always find a target of blame for the ills of the present but never look at their own worldview as possibly faulty. And this, too, we see with liberals of all stripes opining the loss of the universal consensus and becoming apoplectic that there might be alternatives to their worldview.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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