Monday, October 6, 2008

The Rise of Liberalism as a Return to Pre-Christian Paganism in the West

I have been reading Pierre Manent, in his An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton U. Press, 1995) with my Christianity and Culture class. Manent's book provides a fascinating and lucid discussion of evolution of European political thought from the Enlightenment to the 19th century and it clarifies how politics has become religion in modernity.

First, Manent argues that the origin of political liberalism in Europe was in an attempted solution to a "theologico-political" problem. What is this problem? Since the Church is concerned with an other-worldly good (salvation), its interest in not in this world. But, on the other hand, the Church's mission is to bring all people to salvation and so it cannot help but be concerned with everything that places salvation in peril. Since everything in human society could be considered as affecting salvation, including politics, the Church was led to claim supreme power in society - even over rulers. Manent writes:

"The remarkable contradiction embedded in the Catholic Church's doctrine can be summarized in this way: although the Church leaves men free to organize themselves within the temporal sphere as they see fit, it simultaneously tends to impose a theocracy on them. It brings a religious constraint of a previously unheard of scope, and at the same time offers the emancipation of secular life. Unlike Judaism and Islam, the Church does not provide a law that is supposed to govern concretely all of men's actions in the earthly city." (p. 5)

The rise of liberal states from the 17th century on was an attempt to push the influence of the Church back and create secular space by using the power of the State.

Second, he notes that the growing power of the state in the name of a negative concept of freedom tends toward individualism. He writes:

"Freedom is less doing what I want than being able not to do what you want me to do. It is doing what I want so long as I do not constrain you." (p. 62)

But this individual freedom is achieved through representation and the idea of representation leads to the strengthening of the state at the expense of civil society (including the family and the church).

"All legitimate power is concentrated at the summit, in the political institution, in the state which alone represents members of society. The modern idea of representation leads naturally to a continuous increase of the state's power over society, because it continuously erodes the intrasocial powers that ensure the independence and solidarity of this society. This is the paradox of representation: reprentative power tends necessarily to dominate the civil society that it claims to represent. In the sense, those who deplore society's growing dependence on the state are right." (p. 63)

Once unleashed, the growing power of the state in the name of "individual freedom" is difficult to restrain and the tendency is toward a "soft totalitarianism."

Third, he notes the seminal influence of Thomas Hobbes and J. J. Rousseau on this process of the gradual monopolization of power by the "benevolent state."

"I have pointed out that Rousseau's principal modern interlocutor was Hobbes. . . They have one fundamental point in common: all the political misfortunes of European peoples come from Christianity, more precisely from the constitution of a Christian religious power distinct from and in rivalry with the political power: 'This double power,' says Rousseau, 'has resulted in a perpetual conflict of jurisdiction that has made any good polity impossible in Christian states.' He continues: 'Of all Christian authors, the philosopher Hobbes is the only one who correctly saw the evil and the remedy, who dared to propose the reunification of the two heads of the eagle, and the complete return to political unity, without which no state or government will ever be well constituted." (p. 68)

Fourth, he notes that the influence of the French Revolution on the evolution of European liberalism was to make liberalism itself into a secular religion:

"the first part of the nineteenth century was in fact extraordinarily 'religious.' I do not mean to say that the French docilely reintegrated the Church into society, which did not happen; nevertheless, they began to interpret political and social events in religious terms, such that their political considerations became inseparable from the religious ones. . . since what is at stake here is not the soul's salvation but the understanding of society, these authors religion to fit the century, and made Christianity a 'secular religion.'" (82)

The entire drift of political thought from Hobbes to the rise of Marxism is toward ending the uniquely Western doctrine of the Two Swords, i. e. the doctrine that the political ruler and the ecclesial ruler both have a legitimate claim to obedience in Western Christendom. Prior to the Fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Western Europe, every society was unitary with the political, military and religious concentrated in the Emperor. Even the Byzantine empire united the religious and political authorities in the person of the Emperor. But in the West, the concept of the secular emerged for the first time in human history. There can be no denying that that it was not neat and tidy; many battles raged back and forth between the Church and political leaders. But in the tug and pull emerged little patches of the secular - space for dissent and the possibility of religious liberty.

The tendency of modern political thought is away from the dual power toward the unification of all political and religious power in the State. The religious power of the State is there in Hobbes at the very beginning of the tradition, but it took time for the privatization of religion (read Christianity) to work. Only after the French Revolution did the State begin to take on a religious hue and tone and this intensifies in the modern, technological and beaurocratic State in the 20th century. Christianity must make way for Leviathan - the great idol, which claims soveriegnty in the name of the "people" in such a way that even God must stand back and be dazzled by its power and might!

The Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians and Romans would have understood modern liberal political theory: its stress on the unity of political, military and religious power in one set of hands would be perfectly comprehensible. Why? Because they were pagan and so is modern liberalism.

No comments: