by Brad Birzer,
Part II: The Fulfillment of Liberalism
In the end, Dawson believed, liberalism destroyed far more than it created. By the end of the eighteenth century, he feared, little of traditional western culture—beyond the Protestant Americans and the Lutheran and Catholic peasants of Europe—remained religious. The dominant political philosophy of that century, liberalism, “retained the inherited moral standards and values of a Christian civilization,” Dawson wrote. However, “as Liberalism did not create these moral ideals, so, too, it cannot preserve them.”
Further, economic liberalism “laid the foundations of the technological order in the new industrial society of the nineteenth century.”
By 1935, Dawson claimed that all of England and western civilization was “bourgeois from top to bottom,” and its philosophy was spreading quickly beyond western civilization to all parts of the world.
While the Middle Ages had kept the profit-motive in its proper perspective, liberalism had allowed it to dominate all aspects of society and remake even nature itself. “The devastated areas of industrial England and the cancerous growth of the suburbs” has destroyed the “aesthetic sense” of the English as well destroying “almost everything that made life worth living.” Most important, Dawson thought, was liberalism’s destruction of the agrarian way of life, a foundation of English culture. “It involves the divorce of man from nature and the from the life of the earth,” and “the very face of nature is changed,” as the beauty of the Created Order is marred by man’s order.
With free competition, England witnessed the destruction of community norms, church moral standards, and the family. Liberalism led directly to the rise of what Dawson and many of his fellow twentieth-century Augustinians called “the machine.” The end result: “the individual has become a cog in the vast machinery of modern industrial life,” Dawson wrote in 1930. “He is the servant of the machine and his whole life tends to become mechanized.”
The human person becomes nothing more than a tool. As England became the “workshop of the world,” he argued, “society was brought into a state of dependence on material and non-moral factors such as had not existed since the days of the slave dealers and publicans of the later Roman Empire.”
While the capitalists chanted slogans about freedom, they promoted “conquest and exploitation” of the laborers and of the world.
Equally important, while the liberals and Classical Economists claimed to have found an order within nature, they have actually just subordinated western civilization to a quantitative way of thinking, enslaving them to the importance and movement of money.
But, Christianity, “is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction.” The modern liberal capitalist descends from the Pharisee, who becomes a mere “hoarder of merits.” Importantly, Dawson claimed, St. Augustine had understood the divide that the liberals would create in the City of God. The liberals—possessors of “the bourgeois soul”—focused on the material, rather than the spirit. The Metaxy—man, as the possessor of a spirit within the physical—grew lop-sided under liberalism, with the soul neglected. Ultimately, while the Catholic should not reject capitalism as a vital part of a free society, he should reject the liberal capitalist order as society’s prime mover. “For the soul that is closed to love is closed to grace,” Dawson concluded.
Dawson put the Catholic understanding of the Protestant “work ethic” in historical comparison. “The bourgeois culture had the mechanical rhythm of a clock,” he wrote in 1935, “the Baroque the musical rhythm of a fugue or a sonata.”
Unlike northern European Protestant culture, “the baroque spirit lives in and for the triumphant moment of creative ecstasy.”
Within Catholic cultures, peasants often vehemently defended the Baroque spirit, challenging liberalism at the political, religious, and cultural levels. The peasant uprisings, “fought with desperate resolution and heroism in defense of the old Catholic order,” of the French in 1793, the Tyrolers under Andreas Hofer in 1809, and the Basques throughout the nineteenth century especially impressed Dawson.
They had been preceded by the famous 1536 defense against Protestantism in northern England, “under the banners of St. Cuthbert and the Five Wounds.” Dawson found great inspiration from this earlier defense, noting proudly that it had come from his father’s ancestral home.
Ultimately, Dawson claimed, liberalism created nothing. It merely tore down the old, the venerable, and the traditional. But just as every culture and people long for and need a religion, so did the liberals of the Enlightenment. They found their new religion in democracy and unrestrained nature. Dawson claimed the exemplar of the new religion of democracy and its natural man to be the French/Swiss educational theorist and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who found “that all the ills of man and the evils of society were due not to man’s own sin or ignorance but to social injustice and the corruptions of an artificial civilization.”
In the thought of Rousseau, Dawson claimed, the liberals, the democrats, the revolutionaries, and the anarchists each found solace.
The liberals also embraced the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. At base, utilitarianism argued for “the greatest good for the greatest number,” words that even Edmund Burke had used. The difference between Burke and Bentham, though, came in their differing uses of “great.” For Burke, “great” meant society ordered according to God and tradition, embracing the virtues and piety.
For Bentham, great meant that each man pursues his own “pleasure principle,” what the modern or neo-classical economists call “utility.” His pleasure principle, though, far from the morally and religiously-infused “pursuit of happiness” of the Declaration of Independence—meaning to do what is right in the sight of God—embraced only materialism. Bentham despised the old virtues as mere platitudes and the idea of sin as the result of mere ignorance. Instead, he believed in blanket uniformity in politics and education, especially. Uniformity for Bentham meant liberty, equality, abstract rights, and efficiency. But, Dawson cautioned in his Harvard lectures, the “elimination of all supernatural motives and all metaphysical truths,” inherent in Bentham’s utilitarianism, leads “not to liberty, but to slavery, since there was no appeal from the tribunal of social utility and majority opinion.”
Bentham’s philosophy, in Dawson’s words, is nothing more than a “bleak rationalism.”
Speaking through Newman, Dawson argued that “the colorless neutral phraseology of social utility and efficiency” of Bentham and others served merely as a “screen behind which mighty inhuman powers were marshalling their forces for the conquest of humanity.” These are the powers St. Paul warned were the true rulers of the world. “These spiritual powers are the real actors behind the veil of events,” Dawson continued. “They are invisible and apparently non-existent to the politician and the economist.” They “decide the fate of nations.”
The Americans also experienced the influence of the Enlightenment. Dawson labeled Benjamin Franklin, “the greatest representative of this American Enlightenment,” but he claimed Thomas Jefferson as the greatest Liberal.
Dawson argued that radical forms of Protestantism—especially the rhetoric of the Anabaptists—had inspired many of the more radical elements of both the American and French Revolutions.
In America, such traditions of thought continued through men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and movements such as Unitarianism, which attempted to fuse “the two traditions of the rationalist-Enlightenment and of Protestant Christianity.”
If nothing else, the American Revolution provided for European liberals a model of the possibilities of success. America, as embodied by the Franklin, Jefferson, and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, represented the future, according to Dawson. Buoyed by these successes in North America, liberalism in Europe took on a political cast.
And yet, the liberals of Europe focused only on the traditions of Revolutionary America. Almost immediately, more conservative elements took over in America during the Patriot movement of the 1770s and 1780s. Indeed, with Jefferson absent, the American Founders rooted the American constitution in the principles of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Livy, and Montesquieu. Much of the intense religiosity and inherent conservatism of the American founders such as George Washington, John Adams, John Dickinson, and Alexander Hamilton also tempered the more radical elements of the American revolutionary generation, and America became as strongly traditional as it was liberal. By 1959, Dawson came to recognize that “the American Revolution does not coincide with the French and cannot be taken as equivalent.”
Only a temporal accident links the two revolutions.
Additionally, no matter how secular or liberal America proved itself to be, it also plowed the soil in which a thriving Catholicism would grow from 1848 to the present. In America, Catholics of every ethnic variety came together, united not only by their faith but also by the larger culture’s hostility to them. “The creation of this great American Church out of nothing in the midst of a society that seemed as remote from Catholicism as any society in Christendom was not the result of human planning or design,” Dawson wrote. “It is God’s work, not man’s.”
America served as the refuge of Catholics from the secular, liberal, and atheist places of the world, Dawson believed. If its men and women embrace the graces given specifically to America, Dawson argued, it will “play an increasing part in the life of Christendom.”
It was the French Revolution in which liberalism revealed its darkest side, Dawson wrote. “The French Revolution marked the triumph of the movement towards secularization of Western culture which had been advancing” for the entirety of the eighteenth century.
Once accomplished, the French Revolution unleashed inhumane and uncontrollable forces. Indeed, the forces that would imprison much of the world’s population from 1917 to 1991 (and continues, to be sure, through this present writing), have their origins with the French disciples of Jean Jacques Rousseau and their assault on a Parisian prison in the summer of 1789. Dawson explained its significance in the context of the very short nineteenth century:
The history of the nineteenth century developed under the shadow of the French Revolution and the national liberal revolutions that followed it. A century of political, economic and social revolution, a century of world discovery, world conquest and world exploitation, it was also the great age of capitalism; and yet saw too the rise of socialism and communism and their attack upon the foundation of capitalist society. . . . When the century began, Jefferson was president of the United States, and George III was still King of England. When it ended Lenin already was planning the Russian Revolution.
More than any other event in world history to that point, the leaders of the French Revolution murdered the past. Burke called the introduction of the French revolutionary spirit the “most astonishing [thing] that has hitherto happened in the world.”
The French Revolutionaries introduced the concept of ideology into the world, a concept that has yet to be contained. “Out of the tomb of the murdered Monarchy in France, has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet overpowered the imagination and subdued the fortitude of man,” one of Dawson’s heroes, Edmund Burke, concluded in the last year of his life.
Rejecting the laws of nature, the French Revolution instigated much havoc: “Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom; every thing human and divine sacrificed to the idol of the public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence.”
The French Revolutionaries attempted to overturn and remake all of society in their image (or images, more accurately). Inspired by the vision of Rousseau, the revolutionaries attempted to abolish all institutions of subsidiarity, institutions such as family, school, and church that make life worth living. As early as the fall of 1789, the revolutionaries emphasized this in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Article Three states: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”
Brutality and terror, Dawson wrote, were the logical conclusions to Rousseau’s argument regarding the General Will. As the Revolution progressed, or regressed as the case was, “it gradually revealed the naked reality that had been veiled by the antiquated trappings of royalty and tradition.” And, the revolution revealed the General Will for what it really was, the raw, naked will to power, destructive of any opposition.
Their most vehement attacks on institutions of subsidiarity were against the Roman Catholic Church, then seen as an ally to the hated French monarchy and aristocracy. Priests and other religious were beaten, tortured, raped, and exiled or executed. Church property was confiscated, and a prostitute was put on the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral and declared a goddess. One apostate abbot desired to distribute the bodily remains of “reactionaries” as a “Republican Eucharist.”
Those who opposed the new revolutionary regimes (for they came and went based on who momentarily had the most might to rule) paid with their lives. True to Burke’s prediction, at least twenty-five thousand forfeited their lives to the insatiable hunger of the guillotine between 1791 and 1794. Indeed, the revolutionaries were so blood thirsty, they tended to turn on each other. The worst modern case of this would be in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1978, which almost collapsed due to so much internal bloodletting. Tellingly, many of the Khmer Rouge leadership, known as Ankor (The Organization), had studied under the French Communist existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.