Theodore Dalrymple: An Appreciation

It is impossible to know what writing from our own time will survive hundreds of years from now, to take its place among the representative artifacts by which later eras get to know us. No doubt some work of real quality survives by accident (as several books of Livy survived only in one southern Italian monastery for nine centuries), while other work never receives the fame it deserves. Still, if I were allowed to choose what writing from our time would be saved and read far into the future, shining a light for posterity upon our contemporary situation, I would have to include many essays by Theodore Dalrymple.

A former doctor at a prison and an inner-city hospital, his original claim to fame seems to have been the essays he published anonymously (“Theodore Dalrymple” is in fact a pen name; his real name is Anthony Daniels), describing the situation of those living in what he calls the ‘underclass’ of England. These give a view of the sort of life led by so many of the poorest people in English society. Dalrymple’s perspective here is unusual: his theme is the devastating impact that left-wing policies and thinking have had on the poor. The point is not that left-wing policies fail to provide the poorest people with enough to eat or with adequate shelter, but rather that the culture created by left-wing thinking has dissolved restraints upon individual whim, and that this creates a uniquely brutal and miserable world. Having spent years working in Africa (inter alia), Dalrymple is able to compare conditions in England to his experiences there: “nothing I saw – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England… the worst poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

This is one central idea that runs through a portion of his work, and I have begun with it because it brought about a shift in my thinking of a sort I have only known on one other occasion (in the course of my undergraduate education). Before reading Dalrymple, I was inclined towards the same view of the motivations behind conservatism as many on the left: it was a matter of not caring about other people, for example, by supporting right-wing economic policies as the result of greed. Such ad hominem arguments are difficult to apply to Dalrymple, since he has devoted more time and energy to the poor that most people, and as a doctor could easily have made more money in more pleasant circumstances. But more importantly, Dalrymple shows in a particularly vivid manner that there are reasons behind many conservative positions, reasons that I (like most of those on the left) had never imagined before reading his work.

For example, before reading Dalrymple, I had never seen the interest or urgency in studying the family as an institution. However, as one reads about how the family has effectively evaporated at the bottom of society, and discovers what this means for children growing up there – well, the importance of the family as an institution begins to look rather more important. Perhaps the best way to express the view is by analogy to the left, for both left and right are focused on the adverse consequences of new forms of freedom (a theme I considered in a post a couple weeks ago on a new book by Patrick Deneen). People on the left are concerned with the effects that free markets can have upon the poor; those on the right are concerned with the effects that a freedom from social norms can have upon the poor. In the nineteenth century, Engels and Mayhew brought attention to the former problem, and Dalrymple has made implicit comparisons between these two and himself: just as they drew attention to the reality of the condition of the poor – a reality of which very many were no doubt aware, but which was kept out of public discussion partly because of a reluctance to acknowledge what was going on – so too does Dalrymple do something similar.

Adequate deliberation requires that people speak frankly about even the most difficult or distasteful matters. One of the many virtues of Dalrymple’s writing – and not only on poverty – is his readiness to bring clearly into focus realities that many would prefer not to see, and not to think about, at all. This is not a man to be restrained by the pieties of our age, and as a result, one finds repeatedly that he has had his eye on important issues long before most others. Some example of his bracing frankness can be found in this piece on the homeless, or this piece on Paris, which certainly accords with some of what I saw in my months in that city, though pretty much nobody else seems to have written about it back then, or this piece on the elder Le Pen, or this piece on the Ray Honeyford affair, or these reflections on Islam – and if you want an example of Dalrymple’s ability to drive a point home, read this piece on the case of Anna Climbie.

The place to start with Dalrymple is with Life at the Bottom, a collection of essays. Three other collections are the logical next step: Our Culture, What’s Left of It, Not With a Bang But a Whimper, and Anything Goes (many – perhaps all – of the essays in these volumes are available for free online, but these books are so good, you’ll want to own them); there are many other excellent titles, including Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, a full length book whose conclusion is alone worth the price. The collections of essays do include many pieces in which Dalrymple describes the condition of the English underclass, using examples from his practice as a doctor, but they include a great deal more. I would summarise Dalrymple’s work not as a chronicle of underclass life, but rather as a defense of the life of the mind. The failures of the intellectuals, he thinks, are a crucial cause of the grim lives of his lower-class patients, and with this view goes a focus on the importance of ideas in determining the course of human life. Accordingly, when we find Dalrymple writing about literature or architecture or art, it is not as complete a departure from his other subject matter as it might at first seem to be.

A number of his essays on high culture serve as a sort of appetizer, introductions that whet the appetite for more. Before reading this essay on Doctor Johnson, I had certainly heard of the man, but had little idea of what he was about, and certainly had never felt moved to read him, as I did after reading Dalrymple. Another essay introduces the Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who in 1843 wrote a work of real insight on Russia that Dalrymple compares to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Another compares the painting of Mary Cassatt to that of Joan Miro, and in doing so, seems to me to point to the heart of what happened to the West in the 20th century. Yet another is a sort of eulogy to his friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer who was hanged by the Nigerian government.

Not all of Dalrymple’s essay are appreciative, however. Sometimes he turns a critical eye upon certain of the best-regarded intellectuals of our time, and the criticism tends to be devastating. A favourite of mine is a piece in which Dalrymple brings his experience as a prison doctor to bear on Stephen Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. We are not only given good reason to deny the truth of the book’s central theory (why doesn’t Pinker practise what he preaches in his own book?), but we are also presented with a criticism on another, perhaps deeper, level, for Dalrymple considers a likely reason for the popularity of Pinker’s theory: it provides for its adherents a feel-good solidarity with the downtrodden. This, too, Dalrymple undermines, for he shows how the consequences of Pinker in practice are regressive, keeping those at the bottom in their place – indeed, imprisoning them in the world into which they were born. (Pinker has apparently tried to answer Dalrymple, though I can’t seem to find this answer online. Anyone?) Dalrymple’s criticism of Virginia Woolf is also well worth reading, as is his piece on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a devastating essay written two years before criticising Coates suddenly became cool. Also excellent is Dalrymple’s take on the New Atheists – though not himself religious, he nevertheless writes with sympathy about religion (Sam Harris wrote a brief response to Dalrymple, though it seems to me ineffective as regards the main issue). And speaking of religion, I found this book review by Dalrymple particularly thought-provoking in its reflection on the enthusiasm of so many left-wing intellectuals for murderous dictators.

Dalrymple has also written a number of travel books. The best of these, in my opinion, impinges on politics: in The Wilder Shores of Marx, Dalrymple travels to Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result is a valuable series of pictures of, and reflections on, life under Marxism, including a number of memorable (and chilling) scenes. Dalrymple’s father was a Marxist, but it seems that the son failed to inherit from his father an enthusiasm for that most notorious philosopher of the left. From time to time, Marx pops up elsewhere in Dalrymple’s writing, as this or that aspect of Marxist dogma is shown to founder on the rocks of real life. Apart from the travel book, this essay is perhaps his most sustained reflection on Marx.

Dalrymple’s other travel books include Zanzibar to Timbuktu, in which he travels across Africa using only transport available to the locals; Coups and Cocaine, his first book, which covers travels in South America (I’m still reading this one as I write); Fool or Physician, a memoir of his early career in such places as Rhodesia, South Africa, London and the Gilbert Islands; and Monrovia, Mon Amour, about Liberia. This last book contains a scene that sticks out in my memory, when Dalrymple visits the local warlord Prince Johnson. He takes care to do so in the morning, for in the morning Johnson tends not to be so drunk as later on, and is thus less likely to kill people. (“The weekend before I visited him, I was told he had killed seven people; I met someone whose brother had been killed by him on a night when he shot sixteen others; and I heard about his biggest bag, as it were, thirty-two in a night. He was an insomniac, and prowled the darkness with his AK-47.”) All these books are well worth a read, sometimes for the insight one view one gets on some aspect of, say, Africa, or of life on remote Pacific islands, and sometimes for the simple pleasure of reading Dalrymple.

For however great may be the insight he gives on this matter or that, still he writes so well, and so often with such sparkling humour, that I often find myself returning to essays I digested long ago, simply for the pleasure of reading them again. Dalrymple is a master of that ironic wit that seems to be peculiar to England; my favourite examples come when he plays on the well-known words of others. I believe it is in The Wilder Shores of Marx that he observes that in the late 80’s, a spectre was haunting Eastern Europe – the spectre of liberty. Elsewhere, we find a piece titled “Nasty, British and Short,” and I never forgot his comments on Tony Blair’s resignation speech: “he asked his audience to believe that he had always done what he thought was right. He would have been nearer the mark had he said that he always thought that what was right was whatever he had done.”

Dalrymple’s writing can also be magnificently concise. Go read this three-paragraph blog post on Jeremy Corbyn from two-and-a-half years ago. Not a sentence is wasted – scarcely a word – and we repeatedly find thought-provoking, double-edged formulations. For example: “he is a man of grinding and unnerving integrity;” “I think that he is a man of such probity that he would let the heavens fall so long as his version of social justice was done. Unfortunately, the heavens could fall, and they would fall on all of us…;” “he does not appear to be a man of erudition, culture or literary talent. That, of course, is a point in his favour, electorally-speaking…” I find more insight into the Corbyn situation in these brief paragraphs than in most much longer editorials (and note that back then Dalrymple was already denying that Corbyn was unelectable, a position held by few others at the time, though today few would say with confidence today that Corbyn will not be the next Prime Minister).

I have linked to many excellent essays in this post, but there are so many more, and at a certain point, one simply has to stop. However, I cannot resist including a few Dalrymple quotes, some to showcase his humour, some, his insight – and a couple just because he writes so well. I have limited myself to nine:

  • “I appear on Q & A with, inter alia, Germaine Greer. She is now notorious for having said that transsexual women are not the same as women, which seems to me a fairly innocuous proposition, but in our peculiar times the self-evident is dynamite in the way that satire is prophecy. ” (In “Diary” in the Spectator)
  • “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it: For the greater political correctness’ violation of common sense, the better—at least if its goal is power over men’s minds and conduct. In this sense it is like Communist propaganda of old: The greater the disparity between the claims of that propaganda and the everyday experience of those at whom it was directed, the greater the humiliation suffered by the latter, especially when they were obliged to repeat it, thus destroying their ability to resist, even in the secret corners of their heart.” (In “Two Forms of Mass Hysteria”)
  • “I caught an early flight recently and therefore stayed overnight at the airport hotel. Catching the lift to leave in the morning, the doors opened to reveal two beached human whales within. They gave the lie to the lift’s warning notice that it could fit eight people…. Across the male whale’s T-shirt was emblazoned a single word, ENGLAND, a superfluous message if ever there were one.” (In “Beached Whales in Bermuda Shorts”)
  • “The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose.“ (In “The Specters Haunting Dresden” – as someone who has spent years in Germany, I can say what an insightful essay this is, in which Dalrymple’s eye for the telling detail or anecdote is on display)
  • “The sceptical, it turns out, are certainly not immune from the siren song of credulity. It is as if, exhausted by the mental effort of taking nothing on trust, they suddenly throw in the sponge and believe the most implausible nonsense that would not take in someone half as educated as they.” (In “Don’t Believe In Miracles”)
  • “Such is the fragility of the modern ego… of countless people brought up in our modern culture of ineffable self-importance, in which an insult is understood not as an inevitable human annoyance but as a wound that outweighs all the rest of one’s experience.” (In “The Suicide Bombers Among Us”)
  • “Nadine Gordimer had a voice whose timbre would have penetrated the best artillery-proof armor plating. On one occasion at the conference she condescendingly addressed a Ghanaian lady as ‘my sister Susan.’ ‘Actually, my name’s Gloria,’ said her sister Susan, but the great writer ignored this manifestation of pedantry and continued with what she was saying.” (In “The African Scene”)
  • “the rule of law requires a common cultural understanding, not -merely the means of repression to enforce a legal code. Once that basic cultural understanding is lost, all that remains is repression, effective or ineffective as the case may be, and experienced by many as alien and unjust. Nothing remains but conflict or surrender.” (In “Why Borders Matter”)
  • “I have talked to a lot of young Muslim critics of Western society, living in the West, and few of them were aware of the philosophical basis of Western achievement, which they believed to be merely materialist and founded on crude plunder, never having heard any other viewpoint.” (In “The Terrorists Among Us”)

Whether you’re on the left and want a better understanding of conservatism, or want better to understand the world we live in, or just want a good read, the essays of Theodore Dalrymple are indispensable – and they’re often not even 20 pages long. It is a rare writer who is willing to bring before his readers so much that others pass over in pious silence, and rarer still is the writer who can also provide the sort of original insight that we find in so many of Dalrymple’s essays. But someone who can do all this at the same time as producing writing that is a pleasure in itself to read – and often hilarious to boot – must be accounted a truly great writer. Dalrymple is certainly among the greatest essayists in the English language today, perhaps the very greatest.

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University Censorship, 16th Century Edition

In recent years I’ve found that I have ever greater cause to reflect on just how much our political culture has changed in the last decade or two. Things I read about years ago in history books – things that I assumed would stay in history books – are now to be found in the news. Here I want to present one example of this phenomenon, from one of my favourite books, Iberia by James Michener (a must-read for anyone interested in or travelling to Spain). The story he tells in the paragraphs below begins with a description of a place you can still visit at the University of Salamanca…

“…a stone-arched classroom left pretty much as it must have been on that day in December, 1578, when Fray Luis de Leon returned after an absence of some years. The rude benches without backs remain the same and the small windows in the outer walls. The lectern with its canopy is the same as the one at which the professor stood that eventful day. The room was crowded, not only because Fray Luis was the most famous of the Salamanca lecturers, a wise, gentle elderly man of sweet understanding and compassion, but because he had accomplished something that few men of his day could parallel.

In 1572, at the height of a brilliant career as Spain’s leading theologian and humanist, he was attacked by jealous persons in the university, who whispered to the Inquisition, ‘We all know that Fray Luis is half Jewish, so he’s suspect to begin with. But he has now translated King Solomon’s Song of Songs into the vernacular. He invites even the most ordinary man in Salamanca to read it. And that is heresy.’ Especially serious was the additional charge that often, after studying the original Hebrew version of the Bible, he would question the accuracy of the Latin. Fray Luis was apprehended and for several months was under interrogation, after which he was thrown into jail at Valladolid, where he heard only silence. At the end of a year he pleaded to be told what the charges against him were and who his accusers, but he heard nothing. His trial was intermittent and clandestine; all he knew was that he had committed some serious crime bordering on heresy, but its definition he never knew. Finally, after nearly five years of this, he was set free and, what was the more miraculous, allowed to return to his post in Salamanca…

This was the morning of his reappearance, and notable persons came to the university to hear his reaction to his long persecution. As he made his way from his rooms, his gown slightly askew in his usual careless manner, the university plaza was crowded with silent students. Fray Luis walked with his eyes straight forward, not daring to acknowledge the furtive glances of approbation which greeted him. As he entered the cloisters and elbowed his way through the crowd he came at last to the room in which he had taught for so many years, and when he saw its familiar outlines, with his friends perched on the narrow benches, and when he knew that among them must be those whose rumors had caused his imprisonment and who would surrender him again to the Inquisition within a few years (he was to die in disgrace at Madrigal de las Altas Torres), he must have wanted to lash out against the injustice he had suffered and would continue to suffer as a Jew and a humanist. Instead he stepped to the rostrum, took his place behind the lectern, grasped the lapels of his robe, and smiled at the crowd with the compassion that marked all he did, and said in a low, clear voice, ‘As we were saying yesterday…’ And he resumed his lecture at the precise point of its interruption five years before.”

I first read this passage in the 90’s, when it seemed to describe a past that had gone forever. In time I was able to visit the room at the University of Salamanca that Michener describes, and I thought of the story of Fray Luis with the same sense of peering into a long-disappeared world that I had felt looking at the forum in Rome or the cave paintings at Les Eyzies de Tayac. But twenty years later, the case of Fray Luis seems immediately relevant in a way I would not once have believed possible. Who today could possibly say that similar things cannot happen now? Who today could deny that they already do?

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

I found this a very exciting book. It provides nothing less than an interpretation and critique of modernity, and the account it gives commands assent in many respects. I found the book helpful because it helped me bring so much together: ideas of which I’ve had an intuition for some time, half thought-out, are set forth here, fully developed and placed in a broad historical context. In what follows, I’m not going to review the book so much as try to set out the logic of some of its main ideas in my own words, offering reflections of my own along the way (the TL;DR review: superb, thought-provoking, jargon-free and short, this is a must-read).

The title is no doubt intended to provoke, and many will assume this to be a reactionary tome, one that attacks left-wing politics, perhaps even aiming at the abolition of democracy. Though the author is clearly no left-wing radical, this is not the point: ‘liberalism’ here is understood in reference to the Latin liber – i.e., we’re focused here on a particular conception of freedom, that of liberating people from anything that might restrain them from fulfilling their desires. As Deneen shows, this conception has gradually attained a position of extraordinary dominance, such that it is generally assumed by those on both the right and the left: both sides of the political spectrum come in for criticism here. More than this, we find this conception of freedom driving modern science, as well as our economic, political and cultural life (or what’s left of them).

The notion of freedom as simply a liberation from restraint is to be distinguished from a different way of thinking about things that was decisively influential in antiquity and the middle ages. This older approach considered ethical matters in a broader context, seeking a stable basis from which the best overall life could be lived. Such an approach led naturally to a recognition of the need to discipline and direct natural desires as part of a natural order of things; it was thought that if we let our desires get out of hand, we could become enslaved to them, harming ourselves in the process. So, for example, many of us have adopted reasonably moderate habits with regard to our desire for food and drink; if we fail in this, obesity and/or ill-health are likely to result (an alcoholic is an example of someone enslaved to his appetites). Real freedom, from this older standpoint, is to be found in the attainment of character, in habits that lead of their nature to a good overall life (e.g., that will lead a person in possession of an immense wine cellar not to drink himself to death, but rather to enjoy his wine moderately in the course of a life which will no doubt be enriched by many other activities).

Deneen’s argument is that the modern conception of freedom, of liberating ourselves from external restraints, has not only become overwhelmingly dominant, but can now be said to have failed on its own terms. More specifically, he aims to show that as a consequence of the overwhelming success of this ‘liberalism,’ we not only find ourselves without much of the freedom that was promised, but we also find ourselves faced with new and imposing restraints on our freedom.

To give a better idea of what I think is at issue here, and to give an example of how this ‘liberalism’ has failed, I’m going to reflect a little on modern science and technology. A century ago, science was regarded as providing an unambiguous good: mastery over the natural world. This mastery included improved understanding, but was much more a practical matter, making life more comfortable, safer and longer. The new mastery over nature conquered distances and diseases, and even other civilisations (thus the rhyme that summed up a decisive advantage enjoyed by imperial armies: “Whatever happens/We have got/The Gatling gun/And they have not”). A century later, this unambiguous optimism has disappeared. The change began in the First World War, in which Europeans had to fight enemies who also had Gatling guns (i.e., machine guns), and the Second World War, culminating with the atom bomb, was even worse. Of course, it was precisely the new mastery over nature that made these two wars so terribly destructive. There followed the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, in which the conquest of distance meant that the enemy’s nuclear missiles could arrive very swiftly indeed from the other side of the world. As we emerged from the Cold War, environmental problems loomed ever larger, and some genuinely apocalyptic scenarios are now the subject of repeated expert warnings. In the meantime, we now read that antibiotics are proving less effective, and an antibiotic-resistant strain of some common malady – or a new superbug of some sort – is a real possibility. All these events have forced a retreat from that long-ago optimism: certainly science provides better understanding, but the mastery of the natural world that it provides has come to seem an ambiguous good indeed. Nothing could now be less surprising than an event causing death on the grand scale, and it is our mastery of nature through science that makes such an event possible. (Deneen sums the matter up succinctly: “among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress.”)

All this, I hope, gives an idea of what it means to say that liberalism has failed. The sort of mastery aimed at by science, the idea of freeing ourselves from the limits of the natural world: these ideas now seem to have the capacity to produce real harm, and there is good reason to believe that our striving for mastery will culminate in a devastating reminder of our limits, in an utter helplessness. Deneen is able to tie the problem back to the very beginning of the modern scientific project: “Francis Bacon… compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.” The image points to a brutal, forceful compulsion, a relationship in which we do not try to live in accordance with nature, and do not seek any kind of compromise, but rather in which we seek her utter subjugation to our will. The whole project was conceived in this manner from the beginning – that is, as an assault on nature. Centuries after Bacon, we have succeeded in torturing out many secrets, but we find ourselves reminded ever more forcefully that we are part of nature, and nature is part of us: we should be careful about how exactly we relate to her, for if we get this wrong, it will hurt us. Everyone who has worried about the environment already has a basic grasp of this.

But does any of this really have anything to do with an idea of freedom? After all, science just provides improved understanding; the use we make of it is another problem entirely. But it is just here that the idea of freedom as a liberation from limits on our desires becomes relevant, for what the environmental consciousness of our time brings to light is precisely that we need to put a limit on our desires: the earth has finite resources, and so as our power to exploit them increases, so too does must our consumption find a limit. If our era has decided on a liberation from limit as one of its most fundamental principles, then we have a problem: our idea of freedom has run into its consequences, and these suggest the need for a quite different conception of freedom. We shall see that something similar is at work in other domains.

To get a better idea of what is at work in this notion of freedom, let us turn to Thomas Hobbes, who looms large over Deneen’s account of ‘liberalism.’ Before reading Deneen, I had not been cognizant of the radical break with the past that Hobbes’ theoretical conception of man in a state of nature represents, nor the immense influence it would wield over subsequent thought. In this putative natural state, the individual is imagined as an isolated entity, without commitments or natural attachments like a culture, a particular place, or the family. From this initial state, people proceed to choose various forms of commitment from which they hope to derive some benefit – e.g., we choose to accept the authority of the state because it provides the security and stability within which we can pursue good beyond mere survival. This represents a break with the sort of thinking that dominated antiquity and the middle ages, according to which people’s most fundamental attachments to one another were through nature, not choice. Thus Aristotle declared man to be a political animal; the basis of the city in Plato’s Republic is that people are not by nature self-sufficient, but need one another: the focus is on human nature, not on choice. Later Christian thinkers followed the Hellenic lead.

I have to admit that I have an awful lot of sympathy for critiques of Hobbes’ view. Obviously it is false to suggest that we begin political life as isolated individuals who actively choose our commitments. On the contrary, we begin as children, and children have parents, so that we begin as part of a family. By the time we are old enough to think about political life or to make substantial choices about the way we are going to live, we have been through a prolonged period of dependence on others, in which we have been without any choice at all about a great many things – and this is true even for orphans. The result of this is that we also begin mature political life with a culture (i.e., whatever is communicated to us by those we encounter as we grow up). Accordingly, there is an immensely important role played by things that are not chosen, by things that we acquire passively and in a non-rational way. I consider Plato and Aristotle to be greater political philosophers than Hobbes partly because they begin from a recognition of realities such as these while he does not. Deneen gets to the heart of all this by quoting Bertrand de Jouvenel: social contractarianism was conceived by “childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood.”

To say all this is nothing new. What is much more interesting is how Deneen can show what a tremendous – and often malignant – influence Hobbes’ ideas have had on subsequent political life. I want to bring out the logic behind this as best I can, so let us reflect a little farther on Hobbes. I have just characterised Plato and Aristotle as more realistic than Hobbes, but Hobbes would believe that he is the truly realistic one, for he takes as a most fundamental fact the reality that while people often pay lip service to lofty ideals, in fact they are moved by the basest impulses, and are deeply self-interested creatures. Thus the Hobbesian individual chooses to accept the authority of the state, but does so out of self-interest, and never gives up on this focus on self-interest (or on the basest impulses). Laws are compared by Hobbes to hedges of the sort you can still see on the side of country roads around England, “not to stop travelers, but to keep them in the way.” That is, they are external constraints, without which human nature would drive people to behave in all sorts of chaotic and destructive ways; Hobbes’ project is not to reform that nature, but rather to provide something capable of restraining it to some degree: fear, provided by the overwhelming power of the state.

This sketch should be enough to give an idea of the logic behind some of Deneen’s central claims. Our consideration of Hobbes has left us with (1) individuals who make choices from their basest impulses in a self-interested manner, and (2) a state with overwhelming power, which is necessary to restrain those individuals from many of the choices they would otherwise tend to make. Intermediate loyalties, of the sort people often have to families, guilds, churches, a particular place, and so on – i.e., into predefined forms of life that would otherwise limit and thus reform an otherwise anarchic human nature – are of decidedly lesser importance (Deneen notes how the well-known cover of Leviathan shows only a giant (the state) made up of anonymous individuals – i.e., intermediate commitments are not represented). Deneen does not consider this view of things to be an eternal verity; rather, as it has become ever more widely accepted it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It naturally affects behaviour and corrodes the authority of all institutions other than the state. What we increasingly end up with is isolated individuals, deprived of the supports they once enjoyed through intermediate institutions like the family, and increasingly powerless in the face of the vast power of the state.

We can now begin to consider examples of the failure of ‘liberalism’ other than science & the environment. In Deneen’s view, the state of affairs brought about by this self-fulfilling Hobbesian prophecy explains the dire state of our political life today, in which individuals are liberated as never before, and yet feel alienated from their governments: “growing numbers of citizens regard the government as an entity separate from their own will and control, not their creature and creation as promised by liberal philosophy… The liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect – individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech and self-governance – are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life. Yet this expansion continues…” This expansion of government is the Leviathan; it must expand to react to the anti-social tendencies of a populace that increasingly understands itself as Hobbesian individuals, who increasingly do not have characters formed by those institutions that once played a role between individual and state, but which now wither away to an ever-increasing degree.

A similar phenomenon is to be found in our free markets, and of course it also extends to various supra-national institutions, agents and creations of globalisation. I am not going to review these in detail here, although it does seem to me that the European Union provides an excellent example: its powers have been expanded at the expense of democratic national governments on the basis of narrow referendum victories in those nations, or even (in the cases of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and France) in the face of defeats. In the Brexit referendum, the most frequent (and perhaps the strongest) arguments on the Remain side took the form of necessity – i.e., that Britain could not escape from the EU without catastrophic economic consequences (these have yet to appear, but I am hardly alone in remaining worried about them). Many believe that the EU would like to see Britain fail after it leaves, so that other member states will be too afraid to take the same path: here again is the Leviathan, restraining the impulses of its citizens through fear.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its ability to give deep explanations of various malaises of our time – that is, to present many well-known problems of our recent history in the context of, and as the logical result of, a much wider historical development, one going back at least four centuries. Thus Deneen can show how ballooning national debts are a natural product of the narrow conception of time that follows from liberalism; so too can he show how the eclipse of (genuinely) liberal education by technical and practical studies is part of this development (I’m not going to try to explain those here). There is also a deeper view of political life here, one critical of both the left and the right as we know them today, for both are influenced by – and yet (interestingly) also critical of – ‘liberalism.’ The left is critical of the adverse effects that free markets can have on the poor, while it promotes maximum liberation for individuals from restrictive social norms; the right is critical of the effects that such a liberation from social norms can have on the poor, while it promotes free markets (if you don’t think a liberation from social norms can harm the poor, may I recommend Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple? I will be blogging about him in the next week or two). What is remarkable is that both sides have enjoyed success insofar as they accord with ‘liberalism’ – i.e., with the notion of freedom as a liberation from a restraint on our desires – and both sides have failed insofar as they have sought to withstand this same ‘liberalism.’ In fact, while writing this post, I happened across a blog post on the last few decades of British politics which pointed to the respective victories of left and right: “it was as though a deal had been struck; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts.”

Deneen does not quite say as much, but it strikes me that the intractability of our environmental problems is to be seen in the same way as this mutual failure of the political left and right: what environmentalism is bringing into focus is a need to make a limit to our consumption part of our way of life, but this conflicts with the deepest commitment we have concerning how people ought to live. That is, the idea that we ought to be free to choose how to live, that there ought to be no limits to our desires aside from the laws of the state – these are the most basic commitments of ‘liberalism,’ and they have come to seem self-evident truths to most people. The state can pass coercive laws all it likes to try to force people to live in an environmentally sound manner, but quite apart from the resentment and possible backlash these might provoke if coercion is taken too far, such measures are unlikely to succeed on their own. A successful environmental movement surely requires that we make limits on consumption (and thus on our desires) part of our choices: one chooses to turn off the light in an empty room; one chooses not only to ride a bike or take public transport instead of driving a car, but also to support urban landscapes that are conducive to such things; one chooses to compost and recycle, and to try to avoid producing too much waste; one chooses to support laws necessary to a sustainable environment; etc. Environmental problems are hard to solve not because they pose an insuperable technical problem for scientists, but because the solution to them conflicts with ‘liberalism,’ and as the successes and failures of the left and the right in politics suggest, ‘liberalism’ is so deeply fixed in our understanding of how to live that it carries all before it.

One other insight into recent history is particularly worthy of mention: Deneen can link his understanding of ‘liberalism’ in a particularly compelling way to the major totalitarian movements of the 20th century. I happen to have read a fair bit on this particular matter – might I suggest my post on the great Sebastian Haffner, who writes with particular insight on Hitler and Nazism? – but still I felt I was learning something here, discovering for the first time the full significance of points I had encountered before. It should be enough to quote Deneen here: “an earlier generation of philosophers and sociologists noted the psychological condition that led increasingly dislocated and disassociated selves to derive their basic identity from the state. These analyses – in landmark works such as Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community – recognised, from various perspectives and disciplines, that a signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness. A population seeking to fill the void left by the weakening of more local memberships and associations was susceptible to a fanatical willingness to identify completely with a distant and abstract state.” This passage was a real moment of insight for me. It is, I hope, clear enough how this connects to what I said above about Hobbes and the gradual withering of institutions other than the state.

It would be wrong to fault Deneen for not stressing the positive achievements of liberalism. He is plainly aware of these, but his book is a critique, and no doubt one of the ways he was able to keep it so short was by maintaining a strict focus on his purpose. Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves of what is good in ‘liberalism,’ for it shows us just how uncomfortable the ground is to which Deneen has brought us.

It seems to me that there is no good that is characteristic of our own times that can be separated from the peculiar conception of freedom I set out at the start. We tend to look down on all previous ages because none of them could realise anything like the rights and opportunities that we can. We are not entirely wrong to do this, and yet all of these new rights and opportunities are a result of ‘liberalism.’ Consider: quite apart from the matter of material discomforts, few of us would want to live in the middle ages. Imagine being born the son of a blacksmith: the circumstances of your birth would be understood to determine your future to a considerable degree. You would probably be expected to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a blacksmith; if you proved somehow unsuited to that, you could no doubt pursue some other menial occupation, but you could never become a member of government or a diplomat, and marriage or friendship outside of your class would be quite out of the question. The idea that all people can pursue any career they wish, or that anyone can become president – these are surely consequences of conceiving of individuals in the abstract Hobbesian manner, without the natural attachments that come through accidents of birth and upbringing. Still more is this true in the case of women, who once would have had but one path open to them as a result of their situation as determined by nature, the path of marriage and motherhood (if they did not become nuns). I am inclined to think something similar is true of slavery – i.e., that ‘liberalism’ plays a significant role in explaining why our own era had successful anti-slavery movements while antiquity did not. It is clear that there were people arguing against slavery in ancient Greece, for Aristotle attempts to answer them. But note the sort of argument he uses: there are people who by nature are slaves. This sort of argument is on a shakier footing once we have accepted Hobbes’ beginning point, for his state of nature emphasises how people are fundamentally the same, moved by the same basic drives (in the case of slavery, I think Christianity is also part of the story).

Thus it seems to me that Deneen leaves us in a very difficult position: I think his criticisms of ‘liberalism’ are fundamentally sound, and yet it should be clear that we want to be very careful indeed about how we move away from it. It might not be enough simply to say that we want to maintain the new rights and opportunities, the fuller realisation of human dignity, that liberalism has brought about. After all, our behaviour is deeply influenced by our theoretical commitments – this is a lesson of the connection between Hobbes and aspects of our current situation – and it might well turn out to be the case that if we simply go back to an older view of humanity, one that does acknowledge the reality that we are partly formed by our particular natures and circumstances, that political life might “snap back,” so to speak, to an earlier state of affairs to some degree, one in which many of our current freedoms have disappeared. That is, we might find that our revised principles drive us once again towards the notion that women should stay in the home, or something similarly reactionary. This seems to me all the more possible in light of the fact that, as the problems inherent in ‘liberalism’ impose themselves on everyday life, the possibility of a reaction looms into view, and reactions often go too far.

No doubt we can already see the outlines of what we need next. I focused so much on the matter of the environment above because it seems to me that in this one case we can see the appearance, even among the most progressive people, of a widespread recognition of a need for more than mere liberation from restraint, but of a need for virtue, for a formation of character that limits the desires from within. That is, environmentalists can see clearly that we need to be less free as ‘liberalism’ conceives of freedom. If environmentalists are starting to see this, it’s not so clear to me that the immediate facts of the case will lead people to a similar understanding in other areas. But the first thing to do is to recognise we have a very deep-seated problem, and Deneen’s book certainly does that.