Does Liberalism Strangle the Virtue it Requires?

Daniel Griffith wrote for The New Lyceum last week. In his piece, he reflected on a fundamental part of the American experiment: how the Framers of the Constitution dealt with ambition:

Our Founders argued that mankind’s inherent desire for ambition could itself be the cure to the entropic germ that plagued previous regimes. By using ambition to “counteract ambition,” they hoped to secure a permanence never before seen in civil society. By pinning energy upon energy, they would, in effect, check the “interests of the man” by the “constitutional rights of the place.” In other words, the American Constitution channels the historically negative energy of ambition into an entirely positive corrective and sustainably balanced force.

Ambition is an exercise of self-serving calculation. Its ultimate expression is political power, but as Griffith notes, it comes in other forms in a commercial society. An unhinged ambition for wealth, he worries, could easily supplant many foundational institutions of civic virtue in our private lives.

Like the Founders, Griffith prescribes a return to the private cultivation of virtue to bring about a broader renaissance of civic virtue. Doubling down on the civic attitudes of the Founding Fathers—namely supporting private institutions which would cultivate virtue—will once again make citizens capable of freedom. Ambition will once again have its “counteracting” force.

It is on this point that Griffith and I diverge.

The American republic is hailed as the purest experiment in classical liberalism to have ever existed. The principles of limited government, natural rights, and rugged individualism were present in America’s founding documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence. A second revolution also came in America’s Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln advanced the cause of liberalism even further, making America a propositional state. America is now wedded to a form of political liberalism, its philosophical assumptions, and the never-ending pursuit of its abstract ideals.

Yet democratic liberalism, for all its prosperous fruits, is beginning to show underlying pathologies that cannot be fixed using its own premises. To suggest we return to the earlier liberalism of the Founders, wherein the cultivation of virtue was left to private institutions widely considered necessary, suggests the presence of a self-correcting mechanism in liberalism that has not been found, or at least has not developed a lasting consensus.

The two tenets of political liberalism reject both the classical and medieval view of the world and of the individual. Liberalism's view of nature consists largely of Francis Bacon’s desire to master it, “relieving our estate.” Liberalism's view of human nature, espoused by thinkers like John Dewey (and John Locke, in his own way), would have individuals overcome shackles that inhibit pure expressions of autonomy—be it marriage, the family, the church, or other restrictive institutions.

Much of Griffith’s fears about untethered commercialism derive from the liberalism’s central ambition to conquer nature through science. His concern that parents will forgo raising children to pursue and enhance their careers (increasing GDP) derives from our unhealthy commitment to individual choice—at the expense of the institutions which would limit that choice. His concerns could multiply to every institution liberalism has come to influence.

Many argue, and I would agree, that this is because we no longer have the pre-liberal inheritance of the American Founders. The luxury to consider self-government and virtue cultivation a private matter has vanished. The American Founders espoused an understanding of natural law and human nature largely derived from the classical and medieval traditions that, in their time, formed the public consensus.

The Federalist Papers, for instance, espoused a view of human nature alongside a medieval view of the cosmos, of man, and of God. “Ambition counteracting ambition,” and “men are not angels,” came from students who read their Milton and Augustine, thinkers now foreign to the doctrines of modern liberalism and its defenders.

All the Founders received some form of a classical Christian Education, reading Latin, studying Augustine, Cicero and Aquinas, and the classical Greeks. These works taught students to discern the limits of human nature and rule themselves with moderation and prudence. Their education fostered a recognition that certain knowledge and actions were inappropriate for human beings to take, even when offered. This carried over to a view of nature generally, where man saw himself has a part of what Edmund Burke called the “predisposed order of things.”

The fact that alternatives like classical Christian education are on the rise shows that we are sensing the need for liberalism to recede and be replaced. There may be a way forward. But for it to be successful, a new public consensus must be formed. New wine needs a new wineskin.

The private cultivation of virtue, although essential, can no longer be strictly private.