The University Bookman


Winter 2018

What Popper Saw in Churchill

book cover imageThe Anglo-American Tradition of Liberty: A View from Europe
by João Carlos Espada.
Routledge, 2016.
Hardcover, 212 pages, $149.95.

Daniel J. Mahoney

The Portuguese political theorist João Espada has written a most thoughtful and instructive book on the political and intellectual resources that inform the Anglo-American tradition of liberty. His is a “continental” perspective marked by great admiration for the sobriety and liberty that animate the political practice of the English-speaking peoples. His guides are a wide-ranging group of theorists and statesmen who illuminate the “law-abiding and moral-abiding ways of life” that to date have prevented the collapse of Anglo-American liberty into full-fledged epistemological and moral relativism, the bane of continental rationalism (and irrationalism) for two centuries.

To begin with, Espada aims to unravel the “British mystery,” how Lockean rationalism in Great Britain avoided giving rise to an “adversarial project” that deduced “political schemes from rival first principles” and that ceaselessly worked to upend “existing ways of life … because they had not been designed by ‘Reason.’” Espada’s book is an eloquent defense of practical reason against a rationalism that paradoxically gives way to limitless relativism. He does not reject Locke’s ideas about natural rights or even the resort to the first principles of liberty. But he refuses efforts to reinterpret them “as a radical project for the entire redesign of society—politically, socially, and morally.” In this regard, he takes his bearing from the great Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke. Burke refused to see the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as a radical innovation and interpreted it primarily as a recovery of old liberties under threat from monarchical absolutism. Modern liberty, in Burke’s view, builds on moral and political traditions that antedate the Enlightenment. Burke’s great insight was to see that nothing decent and humane could be built on the thin and self-destructive reed of the human will. An ethos of duty and obligation must inform even the freest way of life.

As Irving Kristol, another major influence on Espada has argued, liberty thrives only when it avoids confronting and eroding the moral capital and moral contents that predated modern liberty and from which it gradually emerged. Liberty understood as radical autonomy or pure will inevitably gives rise to tyranny or nihilism or both. One might say that the Burkean appropriation and modification of Lockean liberty allowed it to avoid the rise to extremes. Tradition and liberty reinforced each other and thus worked against the illusion that a free society could arise from a tabula rasa, from a revolutionary “year zero” that aimed to destroy the moral capital and humane inheritance of the Christian West. As the historians Elie Halévy and Gertrude Himmelfarb have both argued, England created a remarkably dynamic and innovative society while avoiding the “Revolution” that would wreak such havoc on France and much of continental Europe. Locke was imbibed on an empty stomach in continental Europe, as the philosopher Anthony Quinton has argued, while the English appropriated him soberly for their own conserving and reforming purposes. They tamed Locke and made him a servant of a broad tradition of Western liberty.

Two of the heroes of this book are Winston Churchill and Karl Popper. They might appear to make a strange pairing. The Austrian-born Popper may have been wrong to see intimations of totalitarianism in Plato (he should have paid more attention to Book VIII of the Republic) but his sober and reasonable commitment to British-style liberty cannot be doubted. As Espada relates, Popper introduced Espada to the human greatness of Winston Churchill, the man who quite simply saved Western civilization. The magnanimous statesman saw through the lies and deceptions to the murderous ideological tyrant that Hitler was (at their first meeting, Espada was surprised to see how many books by and about Churchill could be found in the Anglo-Austrian philosopher’s library).

For Espada, Churchill came to embody the best of the Anglo-American tradition (remember he was American on his mother’s side). He despised Bolshevism and had none of the illiberal Right’s illusions about the National Socialist regime. He aimed to correct the defects of the market economy while opposing the socialist confiscation of human freedom. He believed in political civility and the peaceful transfer of power between government and opposition. A man of questionable religious faith, he freely acknowledged the contribution that Christianity had made to liberal civilization. One could find no sturdier defender of “Christian ethics” against modern nihilism and totalitarianism. Following Popper, Espada concludes that Churchill was “quite simply, a great man.” His combat against Nazism and Communism was inseparably conservative and liberal.

As Espada convincingly argues, Churchill revolted against the efforts of Left and Right totalitarians “to reorganize social life from above, imposing on existing ways of life a deductive plan based on a total ideology, a scheme of perfection.” In Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin, he saw “the coarse fanaticism of those who wanted to demolish all barriers to the unfettered exercise of their will.” In his writings and actions, Churchill ably defended these barriers, including Constitutional government, Judeo-Christian religion, gentlemanship, and civil, political, and economic liberty. He was also a great if amateur historian (and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) who ably recorded his own noble deeds against the totalitarian Behemoths and who passed on to posterity elegant written accounts of the Anglo-American tradition of liberty. Like Burke, he was an adamant opponent of the politics of will, a defender of a humane tradition of liberty. Espada’s reflections on Churchillian greatness are one of the highlights of the book.

One comes away from this book with a much fuller and deeper appreciation of Karl Popper as a thinker and human being. His admiration for Churchill, of course, counts for much. Espada shows that Popper saw through “dogmatic rationalism” with its inordinate desire for certainty in human affairs. Dogmatic rationalism fails to see the value of tradition and inherited standards. It paradoxically undermines both moral decency and scientific progress (which, after all, is impossible without building on the work—and assumptions—of our forebears). The dogmatic rationalist soon is certain about only one thing—“there are no moral standards.” Popper brilliantly establishes “how dogmatic rationalism leads to unqualified relativism,” undercutting the very goods and barriers that a great statesman such as Churchill did so much to defend. In his final years, Popper denounced the corruption of the “open society” he had done so much to defend. Openness had nothing to do with facile nihilism or a reprehensible contempt for the decencies of ordinary citizens unenlightened by “the sophisticated philosophy of relativism.” Like Espada himself, Popper came to emphasize the inescapable conservative foundations of our liberal tradition.

Espada rightly admires Madison, Burke, and Tocqueville, all those great thinkers and statesmen who stood for the dispersal of social and political power. Drawing on the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet, he argues that true liberty entails neither the release of the individual from social authority nor some vague participation in a unitary “General Will.” Rather, liberty, rightly understood, opposes every form of collectivization and supports “the diversification and the decentralization of power in society.” Like every conservative-minded liberal, Espada talks up Burke’s “little platoons” and Tocqueville’s associations, those intermediate institutions between the state and the individual. And like most European conservatives and classical liberals, he exaggerates the affinities between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Robespierre. Rousseau was not an advocate of terror nor did he think liberty could thrive in a large, heterogenous representative nation-state. In my view, he would have been appalled by the course of the French Revolution and of the things done in his name. This is not to doubt that Rousseau has some responsibility for the ways in which his thought could be so easily vulgarized.

This reader is left with one nagging question. What does one do when the moral capital of our great tradition begins, as it undoubtedly has, to erode, and to erode rather quickly? How does one confront what Walter Lippmann already called in 1929 “the acids of modernity”? Today, tradition needs to be supported by all the resources of reason and that means a conservative liberal political philosophy worthy of the name. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has argued, “reason does not necessary degenerate into rationalism, nor ideas into ideologies.” Practical reason must be defended on its own terms and not merely as the residue of a noble tradition. So the necessary critique of rationalism must culminate in a recovery of authentic reason, beginning with practical reason. Espada’s book, an act of intellectual recovery of a high order, helpfully points in the right direction.  

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College in Worcester, MA. Most recently, he is the author of The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order (2011), The Other Solzhenitsyn (2014), and The Humanitarian Subversion of Christianity (forthcoming, Encounter Books, 2018).

Posted: February 18, 2018

Did you see this one?

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James V. Schall, S.J.
Volume 46, Number 2 (Summer 2008)

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