Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Liberty, Fraternity, Equality: A Philosophical, Moral and Political Study of Liberalism- Part I

By John W. Heitzenrater II
Traditional Catholics often assert that it was the French Revolution which gave us liberalism as we have it today. It would be false, however, to lay the blame solely on this event. It is true that the French Revolution popularized the idea of liberalism into an accepted philosophical idea, yet liberalism did not begin with the Revolution. Instead, it is a complex word that has changed meaning frequently over the centuries. There is a type a liberalism that defines the French Revolution- a kind which begins as political and social and becomes religious as it intensifies. There is a type which defines what we today call classical education. Still, there is a type more progressive thinkers use to define social justice; while others apply it to sin and just plain debauchery. Despite the ambiguity of the term, there is a clear distinction between liberalism prior to the Enlightenment and that which resulted thereafter.
After the Enlightenment, traditional morality and ethics were successfully separated from man and his relation to the world around him resulting in a new understanding of what man was . About one hundred years after Descartes first published Le Monde and the Meditations, the traditional understanding of man as a distinct, unique creature, created in the image and likeness of God who had authority over his actions and could know things both in the physical and metaphysical world was replaced with radical doubt and a man that was “dead matter in motion.” Man was simply extension in space, not “moved by love, but simply impelled by forces.”[1] The Aristotelian understanding of nature as the fulfillment of form through matter in potency was rejected. Matter replaced form. Final causality and teleology were rejected and God became the first Efficient Cause, instead of the ultimate Final Cause. This new man was unable to know and understand the sensible world around him. Occam’s razor sliced more and more of the categories away until substance itself was unknowable: “By substance we can understand nothing other than a thing which exists in such a way as to depend on no other thing for its existence. And there is only one substance which can be understood to depend on no other thing whatsoever, namely God. In the case of all other substances, we perceive that they can exist only with the help of God’s concurrence.”[2] Everything in the world becomes subjective. The first principles get reduced to those found in geometry and pure mathematics. “I freely acknowledge that I recognize no matter in corporeal things apart from that which the geometers call quantity, and take as the object of their demonstrations, that to which every kind of division, shape and motion is applicable.”[3] If sensible knowledge of the world is unreliable and if one cannot use the sensible, physical world around him to understand the invisible, metaphysical world, nothing at all can be known with certainty.
The Enlightenment and its effects did not happen over night. It took over a hundred years for momentum to gain strength. When things got started though, the philosophical effects where unavoidable. Some have already been mentioned or implied. Take for instance, the replacement of the traditional understanding of man and his relationship to nature with the new Cartesian understanding of man or the rejection of the ancient understanding of nature as being the fulfillment of form by matter in potency, and so on. There were other consequences, though, which helped define modern liberalism. The following list is certainly not exhaustive, but will at least give a good foundation from which to build our argument. These represent philosophies and or events which would ultimately produce the liberalism we have today. They are:
1) The failure and rejection of the “medieval synthesis” through Nominalism.[4]
2) The rise of secular humanism through a distorted “Christian” humanism of the Renaissance.
3) The Reformation and rise of Confessionalism
4) The advent of commercial culture based on usury and wool, and [5]the destruction of the Medieval guild system.
5) The rise of Capitalism
6) Nationalism as a result of 3).
7) Oppression of the masses as a result of 3), 5) and 6).
8) Rejection of the “human condition” in favor of a view of man “inherently good, corrupted only by superstition (revealed religion) and tradition (the family, and patriarchal authority), now “liberated” by reason.”[6]
9) Revolutions as a result of 2), 3), 5), and 7).
It was the advent of Nominalism in the thirteenth century which paved the way for modern liberalism today. If the Enlightenment “hatched the egg” of liberalism, Nominalism laid it. Nominalism destroyed “the three great themes of classical, patristic, and medieval life: hierarchy, participation, and mediation.”[7] This destruction led to man “isolated and having no necessary relation to God or others.”[8] This isolation reduces man to a self-seeking, self-gratifying animal who only cares about himself. When he feels oppressed, whether it be by religious authority, secular authority, marriage, children, a job or other such things, he rebels. Non Serviam is his battle cry and is echoed in the writings of Luther, Calvin, Huss, Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hegel, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Bacon, Madame de Stael, J.S. Mill, Loisy, and Freud. It has been the cry of man since the Fall.
Perhaps something here should be said about authority. The ancient and medieval notion of authority is based primarily on Scripture and Tradition. “Divine ordinance was recognized as the fundamental sanction of all valid rule and the basis of all social and civic obligations.”[9] Man “secured reverence and obedience toward the ruler or government while setting strict limits to its power and giving subjects safeguards against oppression.”[10] The Liberal notion of authority rests ultimately in man and particularly in the “rights” of man. The foundation of all legitimate authority is taken away from the ruler and God, thus resulting in unbridled power and no safeguard against tyranny. If authority comes from the people, what keeps the people in check? Likewise, if one does not recognize that all authority comes from God, authority loses all force of power.
Rebellion results in revolution, and is a natural result once man has rejected God and authority and replaced it with man. If man is not working the land to sustain his family, making sure his children are reared in the faith properly, and caring for his polis, i.e. his family and village; but, instead, is sitting around telling himself and everyone else, how great he is, how much he is oppressed and how things would be better if he were listened to, the only logical result is rebellion. “I am it, and it is me, and everything revolves around me.”
The idea of revolution is pretty recent. Although there certainly were “revolts” in ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, these were primarily revolts of one polis against another polis, one city-state against another city-state. Empires expand and incorporate peoples and cultures into their world. With this expansion, kings and serfs, generals and peasants were alike conquered and made to serve the Republic. Their rebellion, if they did rebel (because not everyone did) stemmed from a desire to preserve their culture, their kingship and their freedom. It was metaphysically different than the mentality which marked revolutions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. These revolutions were about the rejection of authority not about preservation. The “Glorious” Revolution, French Revolution, Communist Revolution, and Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s were about liberty, fraternity and equality. Liberty of the man from all authority including God. Fraternity with the universal “brotherhood of mankind,” a brotherhood of like minded self-obsessed men whose function in this world is to demand man’s “rights”. Equality, the final fruition of the rejection of hierarchy, participation and mediation begun with Occamist epistemology. Because revolutions start in rebellion, the outcome is often deadly. The rebellion becomes the motive and all principles which defined the movement are lost to the lust for power. In every case of violent revolutions, there is always bloodshed, and the regimes which promise universal happiness always end up being more oppressive than the authority that was overthrown in the first place.
[1] James Patrick, Th. D., The Chronology of Modernity.
[2] Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Part I-The Principles of Human Knowledge, Section 51, from The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Trans. by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothhoff, and Dugald Murdoch, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1985) p. 210.
[3] Ibid. 247.
[4] Ibid. James Patrick.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Edward Cahill, S.J., The Framework of a Christian State, (Roman Catholic Books, Fort Collins) p. 113.
[10] Ibid.

1 comment:

catholicfamilyvignettes said...

A well written and scholarly reflection on the historical implications of liberalism in its many forms. Keep up the good work!