Prisoners in the American cave: Why Liberalism Failed

May 27, 2018 by

A brilliant and provocative account of liberal modernity.

Micah Watson –

“The one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own,’” declared Scottish poet and pastor George MacDonald in the nineteenth century. MacDonald’s quip brings to mind the famous words of Milton’s Satan, describing the silver lining of being cast into Hell:

. . . Here at least  . . .We shall be free;
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Freedom, choice, ambition . . . these are enticing ideas for modern man and woman. But what sort of freedom? The word can have two radically different meanings.

The first, voiced by Milton’s Satan, condemned by Macdonald, and put to song by Frank Sinatra, refers to the freedom to do what we want, whatever that is. The alternative meaning is a tethered freedom, a freedom to become what we ought to be, according to standards that we may choose to embrace but do not author ourselves.

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is a provocative portrayal of how this ancient tension has played out in liberal modernity, especially in the United States. Deneen’s primary thesis is not only that American society has come to be completely dominated by the devil’s version of freedom, but that it was orchestrated that way from the beginning by the founders of modernity and the United States. John Locke was the serpent in America’s garden.

Part jeremiad, part political philosophy, part cultural criticism, and part call for renewal, Deneen’s book has achieved something even rarer than philosophers becoming kings: an academic book published by an academic press that has nevertheless sold out of its first run and is taking the high- and middlebrow literati by storm. Deneen’s book has captured an anxiety about our current moment that transcends left and right, (politically) conservative and (politically) liberal, religious and secular.

One mark of the book’s success is that it has elicited so many reviews from so many different outlets and voices. It’s a nice twist of irony that Deneen’s book has done so well, and been so widely reviewed online, given his criticism of capitalism and warnings about technology.

One way to understand what Deneen is up to is to frame his book with three questions he addresses. What is our current predicament? What is the origin of our situation? What does it look like to move forward from here?

Our predicament

Deneen draws on Plato’s allegory of the cave to illustrate why we are so uneasy in modern America. We are fooled by the trinkets and gadgets that keep us mesmerized by the images, screens, and shadows in front of us. Yet, despite all the persuasive might that liberal apologists like Steven Pinker can muster, we have a nagging sense that something is rotten.

Liberalism comprises two core beliefs about human nature: first, that we are beings characterized by an “anthropological individualism” coupled with a “voluntarist conception of choice,” and second, we are separate from and opposed to nature. Deneen describes liberalism as an “anticulture,” promoting what one of its prophets referred to as the heart of liberty: “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Anything that threatens or undermines that right threatens liberty itself, and thus must be vanquished.

Liberalism teaches that we are not naturally social beings but atomistic individuals yearning to be free of external constraints: tradition, family, nature, God, and so on. We chafe against thick bonds linking us to each other, and to nature, time, and place.

continue: Prisoners in the American cave: Why Liberalism Failed

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.