I heard Jonah Goldberg talk about his ambitious new book, “Suicide of the West,” last week when he came through Austin and spoke to a sold-out crowd about how we’re in danger of throwing away the best thing that has ever happened to us: liberal democratic capitalism. The forces of tribalism, populism, and nationalism, he says, now threaten to undermine a liberal order that has brought unprecedented prosperity to the world.
Goldberg’s book and its underlying thesis have been getting a lot of attention lately, especially among conservatives. It’s certainly a timely argument. The liberal order is clearly under threat these days from Left and Right alike, so it’s little wonder that Goldberg’s message is resonating with a large audience. Among conservatives, “Suicide of the West” has been almost universally praised. (Yuval Levin, waxing hyperbolic in National Review, declared, “More than any book published so far in this century, it deserves to be called a conservative classic.”)
But is his argument fundamentally conservative? I’m not sure it is. Goldberg calls the emergence of the liberal order “the Miracle,” because we can’t exactly account for why it emerged about 300 years ago. Given the sweep of evolutionary history, he says, the material progress of the past three centuries is not natural: “The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death.”
But something happened to disrupt the natural state of mankind. “Around the year 1700, in a corner of the Eurasian landmass, humanity stumbled into a new way of organizing society and thinking about the world,” writes Goldberg. “It was as if the great parade of humanity had started walking through a portal to a different world.”
The problem now, he argues, is that we’ve lost perspective on how good things are, on how uniquely prosperous the liberal era has been in the long slog of human history. What’s more, the Miracle is fragile. It didn’t spring unbidden from human nature—it was chosen, and it can be unchosen. To preserve it, we must reject the rising tide of tribalism, populism, and nationalism, and rediscover a sense of gratitude for what we have. More than that, we have to pass the Miracle along to each successive generation, or it will vanish. Goldberg invokes Hannah Arendt’s aphorism that in every generation Western civilization is invaded by barbarians: “We call them children.”
No doubt Goldberg certainly wants to conserve many good things like capitalism, private property, free speech, and democracy. But he fails to offer a full account of why the liberal order is at risk in the first place and why so many Americans are not as grateful for it as they should be. Despite all this prosperity, despite things being better than they’ve ever been, it doesn’t feel like it. Why?
Perhaps it has something to do with the liberal order itself, and not just tribalism or nationalism gone awry. Perhaps the Miracle, wondrous as it is, needs more than just our gratitude to sustain it. Perhaps the only thing that can sustain it is an older order, one that predates liberal democratic capitalism and gave it its vitality in the first place. Maybe the only way forward is to go back and rediscover the things we left behind at the dawn of the Enlightenment.
Goldberg is not very interested in all of that. He does not ask whether there might be some contradictions at the heart of the liberal order, whether it might contain within it the seeds of its undoing. Instead, Goldberg makes his stand on rather narrow grounds. He posits that the Enlightenment Miracle can be defended in purely secular, utilitarian terms, which he supposes are the only terms skeptics of liberal democratic capitalism will accept.
That forces him to treat the various illiberal ideologies that came out of Enlightenment thought (like communism) as nothing more than a kind of tribalism rather than a natural consequence of the hyper-rational scientism embedded in the liberal order itself. As Richard M. Reinsch II noted last week in an excellent review of Goldberg’s book over at Law and Liberty, “If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal.”
The Problem With Man’s Conquest Of Nature
That is to say, we mustn’t kid ourselves about the Miracle. We have to be honest, not just about its benefits but also its costs. In “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis does this by making a startling case for the unity of applied science and magic—a unity almost no one today would admit. Yet Lewis understood that science and magic are unified not only in their aims but also in their departure from the wisdom of earlier ages.
“For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue,” he writes. “For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”
As for the aims of science and magic, Lewis argues that Sir Francis Bacon, the “chief trumpeter” of the new era of applied science, was as little interested in knowledge for the sake of truth as Marlowe’s Faustus, who struck his bargain with the devil not for truth but power. For Bacon, “The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.”
Lewis’s larger argument in “The Abolition of Man” is that man’s conquest of nature is chimerical; it ends with nature’s conquest of man. Having debunked all tradition and morality through the wonders of applied science, having succeeded in reducing all of human life to mere biological functions that can be precisely manipulated, mankind will “be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.”
But therein lies the problem, says Lewis. Without any standards by which to judge what man ought to be, this new species of mankind will be reduced to following the mere whims of pleasure and instinct: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” In an entirely conditioned society, even those who do the conditioning will be slaves—ruled by nature, not reason.
In the unleashing of our animal desires and irrational impulses, nature will have its final victory over man at the very moment of our supposed triumph. “All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals,” writes Lewis. “We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever.”
It’s easy to anticipate the objections to this argument. Indeed, we hear them constantly. What about science and medical progress? What about the eradication of disease? What about technological advances? Isn’t man’s conquest of nature a good thing? Hasn’t the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution and the invention of liberal democratic capitalism done more to alleviate poverty and create wealth than anything in human history? Shouldn’t we preserve this liberal order and pass it on to future generations? Shouldn’t we inculcate in our children a profound sense of gratitude for all this abundance and prosperity?
This is precisely Goldberg’s argument. Yes, he says, man’s conquest of nature is a good thing. It’s the same species of argument raised earlier this year in reaction to Patrick Deneen’s book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” which calls into question the entire philosophical system that gave us the Miracle.
Reviewers, many right-of-center, dismissed Deneen’s critique by noting all the good things that have come from the Enlightenment, like women’s suffrage and the eradication of slavery. Does Deneen think those things were a mistake? Does he want to take it all back? Even Deneen’s modest proposal for a remedy—that like-minded families should form tight-knit communities where they can rediscover and practice older forms of virtue and morality—comes in for mild scorn. Where will such communities be founded? one reviewer wanted to know. In liberal societies, that’s where.
But such critiques of Deneen’s thesis, like those of Lewis’s, are too narrow, and they fail precisely because Deneen’s claims about liberalism are so capacious. He is not chiefly interested in the problems of the modern progressive era or the contemporary political Left. He isn’t alarmed merely by political tribalism and the fraying of the social order. Those things are symptoms, not the cause, of the illness he’s diagnosing. Even the social order at its liberal best—the Miracle itself—is part of the illness.
Deneen’s argument reaches back to the foundations of the liberal order in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—prior to the appearance of the Miracle, in Goldberg’s telling—when a series of thinkers embarked on a fundamentally revisionist project “whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms in the pursuit of civil peace that might in turn foster stability and prosperity, and eventually individual liberty of conscience and action.”
The project worked, as Goldberg has chronicled at length, but only up to a point. Today, says Deneen, liberalism is a 500-year-old experiment that has run its course and now “generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-Aids and veils to cover them.”
Taking the long view of history, Deneen’s book could be understood as an extension of Lewis’s argument in “The Abolition of Man.” The replacement of moral philosophy and religion with liberalism and applied science has begun, in our lifetimes, to manifest the dangers that Lewis warned about. Deneen, writing more than a half-century after Lewis, declares that the entire liberal project manifestly has failed.
Liberalism Gives Us Freedom, But Can’t Tell Us What To Do With It
This brings us back to Goldberg. The fundamental problem with his argument is that it rests on an incomplete account of the Enlightenment and the liberal order. Yes, the Miracle gave us capitalism and democracy, but it also gave us hyper-individualism, scientism, and communism. It gave us liberty and universal suffrage, but it also gave us abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism. The abolition of man was written into the Enlightenment, in other words, and the suicide of the West that Goldberg warns us about isn’t really a suicide at all, because it isn’t really a choice: we aren’t committing suicide, we’re dying of natural causes.
Goldberg is correct that we have lost our sense of gratitude, that we don’t really feel like things are as good as all that. But a large part of the reason is that the liberal order itself has robbed us of our ability to articulate what constitutes human happiness. We have freedom, we have immense wealth, but we have nothing to tell us what we should do with it, nothing to tell us what is good.
In “The Closing of the American Mind,” Alan Bloom writes about the listlessness of an “open-ended future and the lack of a binding past” that marks our liberal age. Young people especially, writes Bloom,
are in a condition like that of the first men in the state of nature—spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone. They can be anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be anything in particular. Not only are they free to decide their place, but they are also free to decide whether they will believe in God or be atheists, or leave their options open by being agnostic; whether they will be straight or gay, or, again, keep their options open; whether they will marry and whether they will stay married; whether they will have children—and so on endlessly. There is no necessity, no morality, no social pressure, no sacrifice to be made that militates going in or turning away from any of these directions, and there are desires pointing toward each, with mutually contradictory arguments to buttress them.
He goes on to compare young people to Plato’s description of young people in democracies. The youth lives “day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy.”
Plato might not have realized he was describing the future behavior of everyone in a liberal democracy, but Bloom did. Later on, Bloom writes that Americans,
have generally believed that the modern democratic project is being fulfilled in their country, can be fulfilled elsewhere, and that that project is good. They do not naturally apply the term ‘bourgeois’ to themselves, or to anyone else for that matter. They do like to call themselves middle class, but that does not carry with it any determinate spiritual content. It is rather a good thing to be. If there is a failure here, it is that there are poor people. The term ‘middle class’ does not have any of the many opposites that bourgeois has, such as aristocrat, saint, hero, or artist—all good—except perhaps for proletarian or socialist. The spirit is at home, if not entirely satisfied, in America.
If Goldberg wants to preserve the Miracle, he’s going to have to do a better job of explaining how it happened. To do that, he’s going to have to look back further than 300 years and rediscover the old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to. Western civilization depends on sturdier stuff than material wealth, or individualism, or even democracy.
Ultimately, that’s the real reason it doesn’t feel like the Miracle is all that miraculous. The liberal order has given us much, but it has come at a great cost, and we are just now beginning to see that something is terribly wrong.