April 27, 2009


Nations, Liberalism, and Science (Peter Augustine Lawler, Winter 2009, The New Atlantis)

Leading European thinkers now believe they have learned the lesson of the world wars and the Cold War: The nation should have no future. Human rights and the dignity of the person both require our gradual surrender of territorial democracy and political loyalty. There should no longer be any attachment to a particular people in a particular place. Nobody should understand himself as a dutiful citizen of a specific political entity, but we should all be cosmopolitan—that is, citizens of the world. Power should devolve from the state in the direction of larger unions—toward an amorphous and rather apolitical European Union (which, having no clear territorial identity, is potentially a global union) or to the United Nations. These larger unions might be criticized as diminishing personal significance in the direction of impersonal, meddlesome, bureaucratic despotism. The most urgent thing, however, is not to empower people to act as citizens but to save them from the destructive consequences of doing so.

Today’s sophisticated devotion is the post-national, humanitarian protection of human rights. Every human being, we still say, is unique and irreplaceable. Nobody may be sacrificed for another, or to some cause or ideal, but only because we know of nothing higher than each of our bare existences. We do what we can to protect each person from not being and nothing more, because each person is nothing more than the opposite of not being. We must stop sacrificing present persons to some imaginary future—as the Christians did with their vision of personal immortality or the Marxists did with their vision of perfect historical liberation. It would seem that the contemporary enlightened European has reconciled us to the truth that our bodily existence is all there is.

But this enlightened view is full of contradictions and paradoxes. If bodily existence is all there is, why do we privilege human beings over other sorts of bodies? Why is it that we alone among the animals have rights? Perhaps it is because we alone among the animals are aware of the limits of our natural existence, are disgusted by them, and strive to overcome them. Each human person does not really think of himself as just a part of nature, and even today he cannot help but hate the nature bound to ultimately kill him. When he dies, as nature intends for him soon enough, he’s gone; the fact that the matter that was an indispensable condition of him—but not simply him—becomes a tree or a dolphin is no consolation. He cannot lose himself in some vision of an impersonal natural process. There is little reason to devote himself to human rights if he is just one part of nature among infinitely many.

Contemporary Europeans seem to recognize that they are more than their mere bodies, although they do not seem to know who or what. The attempt—in the service of personal wholeness or self-sufficiency—not to be a part of anything at all leads to emptiness and solitary fantasies. The lack of compensation for one’s bodily limitations may also lead to an extreme hatred of that body. The contemporary European cannot be a pantheist or even a consistent naturalist; he does not really find himself at home in nature, nor can he find himself at home in his country, his church, or his family. He tends to live, instead, in a sort of postpolitical, postreligious, postfamilial fantasy. He thinks that, and acts like, he can live without the institutions that are reflections of his embodiment—institutions that human beings form as a result of having and coming to terms with their bodies.

The postpolitical fantasy is that the nation can wither away. The wars fought by nations can be replaced by humanitarian police actions aimed at deviant evildoers, often those who haven’t yet bought into modern liberalism; the need for militaries and militancy will evaporate; the draft becomes an affront against human dignity and personal freedom. The truth, of course, is that liberalism cannot altogether free human beings from their political needs. New national, despotic, and imperial challenges will inevitably arise; the world will remain dangerous; war will always be a possibility. Witness Europe’s incomprehension in the face of the illiberal challenge it is now facing from yet-national Russia.

The protection of human rights may once have seemed to require the enlightened dismissal of the nation. But the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians are serving up a reminder that the nation or some polis is a necessary defense against despotism and empire. Being part of a nation or polis has to be a part—but not the whole—of any free person with a future; rights are effectively exercised only within a political context. Even if the perfected liberation of the cosmopolitan, humanitarian world dreamed up by Marx and many theorists today were a possibility, the price for the absence of alienation would be a chilling human emptiness.

The postfamilial fantasy is reflected most strikingly in birth rates below the rate of replacement, but also in low rates of marriage and the detachment of parenthood from marriage. A free person, conscious that his death ends all, does not think beyond his personal existence; he refuses to subordinate himself to a community of family members who came before or after him, rejecting the illusion that he can live on through his children. But of course, the natural future of our species and the political future of a people depends upon replacements being born and raised. It is a perverse mark of our freedom that we are able to suppress the natural instinct meant to keep life going. People are refusing, more than ever, to be the social, species-serving animals of the evolutionary account, to take their place as part of nature. The demographic crisis caused by so many failing to think of themselves as belonging to a family may be the main reason to wonder whether Europe—or excessively consistent, lonely liberalism—could possibly have a future.

For related reasons, Europeans seem also to be living in a postreligious fantasy. Very few go to church or think of themselves as members of a church. Hostile to the various forms of repression caused by their nations’ religious past, Europeans generally see religion as little more than a source of injustice and repression, a multifaceted affront to the person and his rights. Just a few decades ago, European intellectuals prided themselves on being full of existentialist anxiety in the absence of God—but the contemporary European claims to be too enlightened to be moved, as a person, toward any kind of illusory transcendence. He refuses either to believe in God or to be haunted by His absence. But the longings that make a person more than a merely biological being remain just beneath the surface. The person remains miserably disoriented in the perceived absence of the personal God.

The preponderance of evidence we have from Europe is that the liberalism of personal liberation has become toxic—if not yet decisively fatal—for human imaginations that have room for nations or political life. The modern oscillation between expecting too much and too little of citizenship can only be brought to an end, it is now thought, by bringing citizenship to an end. Today’s modern liberalism—in the absence of the personal significance born of truly belonging to a family, country, or church—might prove so empty that it is incapable of perpetuation.

The American Nation and the American Person

The American nation, we can also see, has a more promising future. There are many reasons for the American difference. The two world wars and the Cold War were not as traumatic for us; in fact, they reinforced our national self-confidence. The human cost of the monstrous twentieth century was not exacted on our continent. In each of these wars we also rightly think of ourselves as having been a force for good, defending personal freedom and human rights against terrible evildoers.

We can also see that America has not really engaged in the effort to stabilize free, personal life in the absence of a personal God. The American view has tended neither toward the death of God nor His reconfiguration as the foundation of some American civil religion. Writers often discuss the American civil religion, but generally describe it as some variant of Biblical religion with an active God.

From the beginning, Americans have not grappled in the same way with the contradiction between intense personal longings and impersonal science or theology. Consider our Declaration of Independence. The theoretical core of the Declaration—on self-evident truths, unalienable rights, and instituting government—speaks of “Nature’s God,” a Deist creator, the source of the impersonal laws of nature. Christian members of the Continental Congress insisted that two other references to God be added to the eminently modern Jefferson and Franklin’s draft, and so the rousing conclusion, ending with “sacred Honor,” speaks of a Creator-God as the “Supreme Judge” of us all and as the source of “divine Providence.” Thanks to this legislative compromise, the Declaration offers up a “Nature’s God” Who also knows and cares about each of us. Through most of our history, such compromises between modern and Christian Americans have considerably reduced the distance between Christian and modern views of the person’s natural and theological environment.

So Americans view political life, in part, as the free construction of self-interested individuals securing their material being in a hostile natural world. But they also, in part, regard it as limited by the conscientious duties persons have to their personal Creator. Political life is both dignified and limited by the real existence of dignified creatures. The most admirable and powerful American efforts at egalitarian reform have had religious origins, but religion has also acted (as Tocqueville explained) as a limit on the American spirit of social and political reform. Americans have plenty of confidence in progress, but present persons are not to be sacrificed to some vague historical future. Because Americans don’t really believe people are radically, miserably alienated from God and nature now, they don’t think it is their job to transform existence itself to save people from their misery.

The poor Euros never got past the confusions of Descartes

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2009 6:42 AM
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