The Decline of the Liberal Imagination
The two dominant systems of thought in our time are conservatism and liberalism. Of course, there are many variants of the two, but with the demise of Marxism, they remain the principal political movements vying for ascendancy over the minds of men. In the previous issue of the Bookman we considered recent books on conservatism. It seemed logical, then, to devote much of the succeeding issue to current books on liberalism.
Liberalism from the outset, as the French political thinker Pierre Manent has reminded us, was a body of thought set against the Christian church. While it was ostensibly conceived as a means to weaken the political influence of the church and thus avoid armed religious conflict, its relegation of moral concerns to the private sphere has effectively emptied the public square of any meaning, any collective aspiration, or any substantive vision of the good—with the single exception of a radical commitment to equality and liberty in all spheres of life. Ironically, as contemporary liberalism confronts the troubling political and cultural manifestations of its own contradictory inner logic, it seeks to impose its own “morality” or substantive vision, frequently utilizing governmental bodies to impose a debased and humanitarian form of the Christianity it originally sought to exclude from public life.
The books featured in the following special section of the Bookman consider the nature of contemporary liberalism, and the new ways in which its statist character is now manifested. Michael Federici, Kenneth Craycraft, and Peter Lawler consider recent books on the development of, and prospects for, liberal theory; while Gleaves Whitney, Barry Shain, and Jason Bertsch examine the anti-individual egalitarian dimensions of contemporary liberalism as revealed in liberal movements such as communitarianism and multiculturalism. Bruce Frohnen ponders a new book that seeks a post-liberal alternative in the thought of two European émigrés, Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. The section concludes with a Russell Kirk essay on the origins and weakness of liberalism.
Richard Weaver once observed that liberalism, “with its non-committal attitude toward all the positive issues of life, cannot rise to the dignity of a philosophy which might unify an epoch and provide ground for constructive creations.” Today our culture continues to fray; and liberalism is dissolving before us, as Dr. Kirk notes, “for lack of the higher imagination.”
Posted: July 1, 1997 in Editor’s Notes.