[Capello St. Angelo and view of Bellagio, Como, Lake of, Italy]

Alexandria, VA This past weekend, about 20 Georgetown students and a few Front Porchers enjoyed magnificent weather, food, conversation, and good cheer in a beautiful setting in western Virginia for the second annual Tocqueville Forum student retreat. We were especially fortunate to be treated to two fine lectures by Mark Mitchell (on Wendell Berry) and Jason Peters (on beached fish, making out, Augustine and the virtues of dirt), as well as the opportunity to read, talk, dine, fish, bike, hike, throw horseshoes, and spend long evenings together over pool, cards, and a game of Trivial Pursuit for the ages.

I opened the proceedings on Friday evening with a lecture that I entitled “In Defense of Culture,” which was broadly the theme of our weekend’s discussions (among other things, we read selections from Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and Romano Guardini’s wonderful little book, Letters from Lake Como). The text of my lecture follows:


In Defense of Culture
Second Annual Tocqueville Forum Student Retreat
Warrenton, VA

Today, in and beyond the academy, we tend to use the word “culture” promiscuously and without any real understanding of the deeper meaning of the word. At institutions such as Georgetown, and most other modern institutions of higher learning, we speak frequently of the fact and virtues of multiculturalism; while beyond the gates of academe, the word “culture” is most often combined with the adjective “popular,” indicating most often varied offerings on different forms of electronic media. Yet, while the word “culture” rolls easily from our tongues, it is not often that reflect on its meaning – and further, whether “culture” continues to exist in today’s world in any real sense. It is on the idea and meaning of the word and concept “culture” that we will devote our attention during this short but vital weekend.

I want to begin this day and a half of sustained reflection with a fairly straightforward conclusion: the modern world is unfriendly toward culture, and in particular, its dominant political philosophies have combined to displace culture from its ancient place of pride, to eviscerate culture in any meaningful sense and to leave behind a disordered set of fragments that we now call “multiculturalism.” In the next few minutes, I want to lay out a case that modernity is actually an anti-culture, a way of life that seeks wherever possible the elimination of culture and its replacement by a globalized anti-cultural monoculture, a homogenous way of life that exists in profound contradiction to the basic elements of culture that were once the assumed way of life.

The political philosophy as a whole that has effected this destruction of culture is the dominant school of thought – and life – of the modern period, namely liberalism. Liberalism, in its many forms – whether classical or progressive, whether purportedly on the Right or the Left – shares one basic feature in common, namely a hostility to cultural forms that are a pre-modern inheritance. Whether in the form of classical liberalism that forefronts individualism, or in the form of progressive liberalism that aspires to collectivism, both forms of liberalism seek to effect their ends by the same means – namely, the displacement of culture. Indeed, I would go farther to argue that the two have combined in a pincer movement, alternating in their claims toward the common end of detaching people from traditional forms and ways of life in favor of various visions of liberation.

So, what do I mean by culture? Here I turn for help from the author whom we will be discussing tomorrow, Romano Guardini. In his little masterpiece, Letters From Lake Como, Guardini gently seeks to describe an understanding of the human creature as that creature that is at once of, but not completely defined by, nature. Unlike all the other creatures of the planet, humans survive not primarily by instinct, but by artifice, endowed with none of the “natural” tools of the other creatures, but relying almost entirely on tools created through artifice, reflection, experimentation and choice. That is, we might rightly call humanity “homo techne” – “technological man” – the creature that survives through the tools he creates, one that allow him to carve out a space for survival and even flourishing from the natural world that would otherwise be so hostile and unforgiving. This understanding of humanity lie behind the Greek myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire and the arts from the Gods allowed otherwise naked and powerless humanity to survive, and gave to humanity some part of the divine gift that so angered the gods to place Prometheus under a painful and endless punishment.

Yet, as Guardini strives to explain, the human freedom to exert some measure of control over nature is nevertheless ultimately governed by nature. The variety of human cultures arose in great part because of the various ways in which nature manifests itself. Human techne developed alongside nature, seeking to conform itself to nature’s offerings, its rhythms, its cadences, and in cognizance of its place of majesty and governance. Human practices and traditions arose in concert with the variety of natural diversity; thus, while every culture has tended to share certain basic features – the celebration of birth, the ceremonial acknowledgement of adulthood, the sanctification of marriage, honor paid to the elderly, and the memorialization of the dead – these practices have varied in accordance with the accumulation of experience and interaction with the world.

The accumulation of these practices and traditions as a way of life is what we call culture. Culture is among the paramount forms of human technology, perhaps in its purest form the lived collection of memory. Again, Greek myth is instructive: the Muses, who embody the different arts and sciences that we have come to call “culture,” were the daughters of Mnemnosyne, the goddess of Memory. Culture is thus unique to humans, for it is the way that we make the continuous flow of time present to us in spite of its fleeting nature. Culture is the repository of memory of time past, just as it is the promise to the future, an inheritance that is passed on to future generations. Culture assumes that, in order for future generations to survive, the accumulated knowledge of the past must be passed on, and thus, that the conditions of life of the future will be continuous and similar to the conditions of life of the past. Culture innovates, but slowly, carefully, cautiously, with awareness that novelty can endanger as much as it can liberate. Culture, in fact, tends to mistrust the new, the strange, the unique, as temptations that can offer shortcuts or easy solutions that experience shows more often than not to be a Siren’s song.

Culture, then, cultivates: it is the medium and the context in which each new generation is raised, part of a long narrative that stretches back countless generations and assumes the existence of countless new generations. Culture is not only knowledge, but also a set of dispositions – in particular, gratitude to the past for what has been achieved and passed on, and a sense of obligation to the future for what is owed as an inheritor of something one did not create, but rather, which created and fostered you. Culture inherently teaches us that we are part of a web or a fabric of intertwining strands, each part necessarily in combination and relationship as part of a larger whole. It was such an understanding of culture that led the great author G.K. Chesterton to describe us as all part of that “democracy of the dead,” as equals because of our shared presence in a long narrative in which we are part, and which we can expect to remain part of after our deaths and the death of all of our kin.

Now consider the modern philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism begins with the political philosophy of Hobbes, with refinement by John Locke, with the idea that humans by nature are naturally free and equal. These thinkers sought to describe the natural human condition to be one of autonomous and whole individuals who have no past, no culture, no history, no relationships, no memory. They are like Athena, sprung from the head of Zeus – and, for that reason, its theorists were described by the political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel as “childless men who have forgotten their childhood.” Even as we are prompted to leave the State of Nature for reasons of its inconvenience, this vision of natural human liberty remains the standard and even ideal. We enter society better to enjoy liberty, but society itself ideally will work toward creating conditions in which we can enjoy the kind of autonomous liberty that was only insecurely our natural condition in our pre-political state.

That standard is introduced into a world of actual cultures, attachments, histories, obligations and gratitude. That ideal – the autonomous individual – eventually comes into conflict with that reality, and liberal theory eventually becomes liberal practice, weakening and then outright destroying those bonds. Culture is experienced as a constraint upon the freedom of the individual, and for that standard to be realized, the limitations represented by culture must be overcome. The autonomous individual at the heart of liberal theory cannot in fact come into being in reality without first liberating him or her from the inheritances of cult and culture. Liberal theory thus redefines all human relations in its wake – rather than culture in a sense defining the individual, rather the individual becomes the judge of culture, and places all relations and bonds under the logic of choice and voluntarism. Whether one’s religion, one’s community, one’s nation, even one’s family, all human relations are redefined by liberalism’s logic. Inheritance becomes a lifestyle; culture becomes “multi-culturalism,” a set of fashion or styles that one can try on for size, entering and exiting at will.

Liberalism begins by claiming to be neutral among personal ends and choices, indifferent to the ultimate purposes of individuals so long as those purposes do not come into violent conflict. However, one can quickly see that this indifference must eventually become outright hostility toward those choices that involve ultimate purposes, particularly inasmuch as they involve not individually defined ends, but ends that require community and culture for their fruition. So long as such communities and cultures are open and make no authoritative claim on the individuals who belong to them – so long as there are strong opportunities and rights of exit – then such communities can be tolerated by the liberal state. But, this very logic proves destructive of the fundamental status of culture, which requires a kind of preliminary devotion and loyalty in advance of choice.

One sees, then, how a diversity of cultures becomes the liberal form of multiculturalism. Cultural diversity in the truest sense results from internal standards and practices within cultures, and cultures collectively and cohesively provide definition of their beliefs, their practices, their customs, their ways of life. Cultures patrol their borders, defining what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and involves distinctions between members and outsiders. “Multiculturalism,” or – to use the updated language – “diversity” – reduces beliefs and ways of life to the level of the individual, demanding then in advance of any belief that every individual first assent and commit to a willingness to tolerate any other belief or way of life, so long as there is no threat of physical harm. What becomes intolerable are people who will not give that preliminary assent, who insist that certain standards or beliefs ought to govern in a particular context or setting. Such people need correction, restriction, or ostracism for their intolerance.

The result is the elimination of actual diversity in the form of groups, institutions, associations, in favor of a kind of uniform monoculture of individualistic diversity. A good example of this is to be found in universities today: universities everywhere constantly invoke the language of “diversity” – by which of course is meant the “diversity” of lifestyle choices based upon individual choice – and seek to eliminate any remnant of actual cultural diversity by which colleges and universities were once differentiated (e.g., different religious, regional, historical traditions….). What remains is a monoculture of completely identical individualists: no matter their individual “lifestyle” choices, they first must maintain a preliminary allegiance to the ideal of multiculturalism – that is, the indifferent toleration based in the logic of individual choice. This is the anti-culture of liberalism.

There are profound consequences of this transformation. Culture is and was the conduit of memory, the carrier of obligations and the necessary condition for gratitude. Culture binds the generations through a fostered understanding of generational continuity. By destroying the basis of culture, liberalism induces a strong form of temporal myopia. In such a setting, humans understand themselves to live for themselves, shorn of their gratitude to the past and their obligations to the future. They tend to irresponsibly draw down on the cultural inheritance of the past even as they fail to replenish its stores. And, they tend as well to borrow against the future, unmindful of the children they are increasingly unlikely to bear. Culture is seen as an obstacle to the achievement of this temporal condition. Technology, rather than being culture itself, seeks to replace culture. We create instruments that liberate us from past practices and which we are certain will be displaced in the future. Our technology now liberates us from the need to know what previous generations once had to know. In such a situation, can there be any wonder that education becomes obessed with the up-to-date, and sees it as a central role to liberate its students from obligations to know deeply about the past?

Along with the destruction of the basis of culture, liberalism also seeks liberation from nature. As much as culture, nature is a limit upon thorough human freedom, a set of external constraints upon the possibility of satisfying an expanding set of human choices. Where culture was the generational effort to live alongside nature, conforming a range of human activities to its rhythms and ways in the expectation that future generations would be able to live well by the same set of practices, liberalism views nature as a foe, as an enemy that needs to be mastered so as to achieve ever greater expanses of human freedom. Technology now no longer conforms at some level to nature (think of Guardini’s example of the sailboat), but rather transforms nature, subjecting it wherever possible to uniformity and standardization. The destruction of culture and the conquest of nature go hand in hand, just as culture and nature at a certain level were bound together. Where culture attempted to understand the limits of human freedom in relation to the natural world and human nature itself, the modern project rejects the idea of such limits, actively transforming the world – and increasingly, seeking the transformation of humanity – as best to accord with the liberal ideal of the autonomous individual.

This place, then, is a perfect setting for us to reflect on the meaning and possibility of culture in today’s world. It would seem that culture is everywhere under duress if not outright retreat – in all but its most superficial, which is to say, eviscerated forms – but a serious question lingers over your generation today whether this wager could be won. Let me quote some lines from Wendell Berry – the Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist and novelist, whom we’ll be hearing more about tomorrow. If we are indeed at war with nature – to use the phrase that comes right from the writings of Francis Bacon and has been echoed over the years by such acolytes as America’s philosopher, John Dewey – then, Berry urges us, we need a frank assessment of how the war is going. And so he writes,

“This war, like most wars, has turned out to be a trickier business than we expected. We must now face two shocking surprises. The first surprise is that if we say and believe that we are at war with nature, then we are in the fullest sense at war: that is, we are both opposing and being opposed, and the costs to both sides are extremely high.

“The second surprise is that we are not winning. On the evidence now available, we have to conclude that we are losing – and moreover, that there was never a chance that we could win. Despite the immense power and violence that we have deployed against her, nature is handing us one defeat after another.”

We would need to further assess the costs of the destruction of culture – not only the liberties that it may have gained individuals, but the extreme burdens in particular it has placed upon future and increasingly the present generation. We could expect, after all, that along with the liberties that would accompany liberation from gratitude to the past and obligations to the future, would also come discernible forms of irresponsibility, in the form of both moral and natural depletions of past inheritance and burdens and debts (rather than inheritances) being bestowed upon future generations. A civilization geared toward extreme presentism – a preeminent feature of modern anti-culture – would be the expected result.

Perhaps the worst burden of all would be the sure knowledge that one’s death would mean one’s elimination from the memory of humankind. The destruction of culture involves the elimination of temporal continuity in the form of remembrance and memoralization, those stories that are told about the souls of those still present in our own practices and ways. If the past ceases to be a guide or in any way relevant to the actions of the future, then the faster forgotten, the better. We speak today of a “health care crisis” in terms that only treats us as bodies, and for such radically individuated bodies, the cessation of our life is the worst imaginable possibility – the summum malum of Hobbes. Living in culture of memory and expectation, one’s death – while always hard – is not the worst imaginable possibility, since one’s death is not tantamount to a condition as if one had never existed. Although we live longer than ever, we live amidst a “health care crisis” that we can’t see is a crisis of culture, and the sickness lies in the unhealth of family, community, and cult. Membership in these – not more health club memberships – is what is needed.

We can remember only in times of leisure. As Josef Pieper argues, leisure is the basis of culture, because it is especially in our feasts, festivals and in reflection – all, in skole – that we recollect and anticipate, that we weave the past and future into our present. Over the course of these several days and two nights, let us feast and be festive and reflect – let us have that true experience of skole, of leisure. Let us taste what a cultured life would be.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles November 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm

I’ve been trying to coin the term “neikophilia” to describe multiculturalism’s hostility to culture, the way it breaks the bonds that unite people in a culture and make possible the existence of cultures and cultural diversity. Details here: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/09/cultural-homeostasis-and-multicultural.html

avatar dave November 17, 2010 at 6:54 pm

I think I’m going to have to dispute the idea that Warrenton in in western Virginia. You have to cross over into the Great Valley to get west, away from the English and into the hands of the the Scotch-Irish and German descendants.

Reminds me a bit of – sorry, can’t – oh, Reiff. And then I don’t know if I’m on board – “Culture is and was the conduit of memory, the carrier of obligations and the necessary condition for gratitude.” Two things, one, culture is an act of will. That is, we constantly create our ‘culture’. It is not entirely something outside of us. Not entirely.

Second, I’ve always been fond of Burke, and I don’t know if the customary obligations could have been overcome without the inventions of Hume and Locke. And Jefferson, and so on. I’m not an educated person, so there are gaping holes in my understanding, which means I can’t explain Cromwell and death of Charles I, but I tend to hold that the disruption was necessary. That it has become a festering wound rather than a scar may be due to some lack on the part of those of us who came behind.

avatar G. Koefoed November 17, 2010 at 8:45 pm

“Although we live longer than ever, we live amidst a “health care crisis” that we can’t see is a crisis of culture, and the sickness lies in the unhealth of family, community, and cult.”

I couldn’t agree more. Because there is no frame of reference for the healthcare debate, what could have been an extremely necessary moral discussion has degenerated into another inane bunch of platitudes and entitlements.

avatar MAR2 November 18, 2010 at 5:03 am

Culture, as we understand it, is largely a creation of the 19th century:


avatar Patrick S. O'Donnell November 18, 2010 at 8:47 am

The characterization of “liberalism” here is a complete caricature and well-worn strawman (much like that found in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre) and utterly unrecognizable to anyone who has deeply immersed themselves in its literature. It is Liberalism which is (and has historically proven to be) a prerequisite to individual flourishing and the equal freedom to flourish within and through cultures. “Ways of life” require political preconditions of toleration and mutual forbearance, and a legal system that sets the conditions for the equal recognition of rights and liberties, duties and obligations, the very sort of legal system legitimated and justified by works in the Liberal tradition of political philosophy, a tradition that draws upon ideas from Aristotle and the Stoics through Republican thought and even, in some measure, Christianity (especially the Natural Law tradition). Many of its foremost theorists and exponents were Christians (including Hobbes).
Because of its commitment to moral autonomy in the loosely Kantian sense, Liberals are not shy about reflecting upon those aspects of “culture” that may infringe upon or violate our equal liberties, our conceptions of human dignity, and our various cognitive, affective and practical capabilities, hence, culture is not immune or exempt from “critique,” in other words, it is a conditional and not absolute good and subject to individual and collective rational appraisal and moral assessment. Indeed, were that not the case, women would not have the right to vote, slavery and segregation would still be with us, and workers would be mere instruments of capital and labor instead of flesh and blood human beings worthy of dignity and respect as minimally enshrined in the law.

The anxiety about “a globalized anti-cultural monoculture, a homogenous way of life that exists in profound contradiction to the basic elements of culture that were once the assumed way of life” should focus on the economic system that is the principal vehicle of globalization, namely, capitalism, be it turbo-capitalism, finance capitalism, post-Fordist capitalism, what have you, as well as the technological dynamic that is its very marrow. To be sure, “capitalist democracy” in some measure has the blessings of Liberalism yet Rawls, among others, has shown how democracy is importantly distinguishable from capitalism as an economic system and there are more than a few conceptual resources in the Liberal tradition that encourage us to imagine alternatives to the current socio-economic system, one that, after all, has veto power over the democratic poltiical system (via private investment decisions, the exercise of capital strikes, etc.). It is Liberalism that prompts us to be individually and collectively reflective about such matters.

Of course much more can be said, and so I hope to reply in more detail in the near future at either (or both) the Ratio Juris or (and) ReligiousLeftLaw blogs.

avatar Kevin_L_Hall November 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm


avatar Kevin_L_Hall November 18, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I am not sure that you are disagreeing with Dr. Deneen’s thoughts, but if you are, I think you can agree with both the article you link to, and the thoughts of Deneen. As stated in the takimag article, we are forced to talk about “culture” in the abstract because the existence of a concrete culture in the meaningful way that it is being discussed in Deneen’s lecture is not a reality for modern liberal man.

avatar Empedocles November 18, 2010 at 2:17 pm

The article you like to states that “Any proponent of culture must first prove its ontological status.” Check out this link for your answer: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/09/cultural-homeostasis-and-multicultural.html

avatar MAR2 November 18, 2010 at 3:54 pm

I’m the author of the above article, which suggests the superiority of pre-culture civilizations:

“Pre-culture civilizations spoke on concrete terms, not in abstractions such as “culture.” These societies were rooted blood and soil, kith and kin, kin networks, and blood ties. Both Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism were predicated upon tribal systems, and classical political terms (e.g. nation) often imply link by blood. Aeneas was to found the gens Romana (Roman race), not invent or spread “Roman culture.”

Whereas modern morality seems to presuppose abstractions such as culture to transform, ancient morality was rooted in the ancestral. Even classical natural law, although equated with the mind of God, still manifests itself, as Cicero noted, in the mos maiorum, the tradition of one’s ancestors. Ancient morality, in other words, involved not simply a set of ideas, but the acting in accordance with the customary, time-tested ways of one’s forbearers. Unlike the modern phenomenon of choosing one’s culture, one was born into a set of ancestral traditions to which he was expected to conform.

Elements of the ancestral sill survive today, and what one means when he speaks of culture often overlaps with a classical understanding of the ancestral. When one speaks of assimilation and immigration, he inevitably he speaks of culture, but something deeper lingers. Patruck J. Buchanan once stated, “If we had to take a million immigrants in, say Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them up in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?” Such inquiries demonstrate the shallowness of culture and the naïve belief that one can simply assimilate people into a culture, as one would record data onto a CD.

People possess ancestral loyalties, which persist regardless of attempted cultural assimilation. Third-generation, well “assimilated” Americans desire to learn their roots. Quite often, Asian Americans want to learn of Asia; African Americans, of Africa; and European Americans, of Europe. They want to learn about their ancestral traditions. Is this wrong? No. It demonstrates the call of the ancestral.

But regardless of the power of the ancestral, culture’s luster will continue to dazzle and deracinate. Only when Westerners put aside such ideological pretensions and again take seriously the ancestral will any hope of recovery seem possible.”

avatar Thaddeus Kozinski November 19, 2010 at 1:43 am

MacIntyre’s depiction of liberalism is neither a strawman nor a caricature. In fact, it’s quite accurate.

avatar Patrick S. O'Donnell November 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm

It’s clear you’ve not read Stephen Holmes’s The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1993), which argues soundly and persuasively otherwise.

avatar Patrick S. O'Donnell November 19, 2010 at 1:16 pm

In addition to Holmes, cogent critiques of MacIntryre’s philosophical and historical characterization of Liberalism are also made by Stephen Macedo and William Galston.

Incidentally, or not, MacIntyre rightly argues against moral relativism and for the possibility of the rational evaluation of traditions (at least in his later writings), while at the same time passionately claiming that moral reasoning can take place only within traditions. Perhaps the only way one might make coherent or consistent sense of the three arguments in toto is to appreciate the fact that it is philosophers within the Liberal tradition who provide us with the moral and conceptual resources against (moral) relativism and for the rational assessment (critique) of particular traditions.

avatar Rob G November 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm

~~The anxiety about “a globalized anti-cultural monoculture, a homogenous way of life that exists in profound contradiction to the basic elements of culture that were once the assumed way of life” should focus on the economic system that is the principal vehicle of globalization, namely, capitalism~~

No one here would disagree that capitalism plays a large role in the spread of the monoculture. However, the Left tends to ignore the fact that with global capitalism its own contributions to the mess travel along, namely multiculturalism and so-called sexual liberation (never mind the necessary statism). One cannot lay the blame for our cultural woes on the curb at Wall St. without also indicting Madison Ave., Hollywood Blvd. and K Street. See Gottfried’s “Liberalism” trilogy on this.

avatar Nschlueter November 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Very nice piece, Patrick, and very serendipitous, as I plan to address the Honors students here this evening on the subject of culture. (I credit the size of my after-lunch apple for giving me the additional time to read it. Trying as I do to resist the corrosive hegemony of “electronic culture” – is that an oxymoron? – I don’t often check this fine site.)

I find it necessary to make this subject concrete and practical. How precisely do we resist modern anti-culture? I find even among some of my very best friends an utter complacency about culture in their practical lives, in their homes, and among their children and friends. The result is an effeminate and uncritical surrender to consumerism, which not only dictates their tastes, but provides their food, entertainment, language, music, and whatever else money can buy. What’s left? Read a meal described in Homer’s Odyssey, and then visit McDonald’s. And so it goes. I say with Andrew Lytle, “throw away your radio, and take the fiddle off the wall!”

In short, we need to be reminded of and to embrace those practical forms which make us fully human, through which we speak, eat, sleep, love, and pray.

Keep up the good fight.

Nathan S.

avatar Robb November 20, 2010 at 8:43 pm


Fair enough that you’re not convinced by MacIntrye (would Sheldon Wolin be more convincing?), but you’ll have to clarify what you mean by saying, “it is philosophers within the Liberal tradition who provide us with the moral and conceptual resources against (moral) relativism and for the rational assessment (critique) of particular traditions.”

I ask b/c I think this might represent Deneen’s larger argument – the only way liberal orders can make sense of religious allegiance, as one example, is to privatize it and simultaneous homogenize ‘belief’ under the category “Religion,” a term which didn’t exist till the late modern period. Deneen states, “Liberalism begins by claiming to be neutral among personal ends and choices, indifferent to the ultimate purposes of individuals so long as those purposes do not come into violent conflict. However, one can quickly see that this indifference must eventually become outright hostility toward those choices that involve ultimate purposes, particularly inasmuch as they involve not individually defined ends, but ends that require community and culture for their fruition.”

You probably don’t buy into Deneen here, but I just don’t see how liberal philosophers can [peacefully] attend to “particular traditions,” as they claim to do, since the only way they regard particular traditions in the first place is to redefine, or subsume, religious allegiance under some general rubric of “Religion” (as one example)?

avatar Patrick S. O'Donnell November 20, 2010 at 10:36 pm


While it is no doubt true that some forms of Liberalism, and perhaps most egregiously in its French incarnation (for peculiar historical reasons) are often seen as “privatizing” religious expression and identity, I don’t think this is an accurate description of what canonical Liberals from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls were up to. With regard to “neutrality” I would agree that its pretensions are often unavailing and its meaning too ambiguous to be helpful (in the case perhaps of both Dworkin and Nagel?) but at the same time I think precisely what this has meant in legal terms is not the same as its ambitious philosophical rendering. In any case, not all Liberals are committed to “neutrality,” as we see for instance in the case of Mill, who wrote in Considerations of Representative Government that “The first element of good government being the virtue and intelligence of the human beings composing the community, the most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves” (for a pellucid discussion of Mill on this score see Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity, 2005) The currents of “perfectionism” in the Liberal tradition (on which see Thomas Hurka’s book) while not always explicit, are certainly adverse to “neutralism,” and we see vigorous defenses of a “non-neutralist” account of Liberalism in the works of avowed Liberals like William Galston and George Sher. And I think Peter Berkowitz ‘s Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism (1999) is sufficient evidence, by implication at least, that the more philosophically ambitious “neutralist” theories identified with Liberalism lack historical warrant.

Other issues you raise will have to wait another day, as I said above.

avatar Robb November 21, 2010 at 3:11 am

Thanks, Patrick. Looking forward to your next post.

After reading your response, it reminded of the MacIntyre’s argument from _Whose Justice…_ when he states that “the starting points of liberal theorizing are never neutral as between conceptions of the human good; they are always liberal starting points…Like other traditions, liberalism expresses itself socially through a particular kind of hierarchy” (“Liberalism Transformed into a Tradition”). So yes, point taken; liberalism is not neutral (though, this probably isn’t what you were getting at).

Very interesting point you make about liberalism as defined by legal terms and certain “ambitious philosophical renderings. ”

Thanks again.

avatar Dwight A. Lindley III November 21, 2010 at 6:41 pm

This much I can agree to, Patrick: many important liberal theorists have been very concerned with solving the problem of the leveling, homogenizing effect which liberal individualism has always had. Understandably. In the same way, concerned liberals since Rousseau have tried to solve the problem of alienation, also typical of lib. individualism–usually by manufacturing some kind of top-down, enforced “community.” This too is understandable.

Nevertheless, despite many a noble effort, neither movement has gotten anywhere–at least not anywhere many folks really want to be. As hard as the Rawlsians and others have tried, it appears you kant have your (individual) cake and eat it too.



avatar Alex Wilgus December 10, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Wonderful, wonderful read. These are the questions we must be asking. Mindless dogma and oppressive ritual may be dangerous, but it is nothing compared to the anti-culture phantom zone of liberal though.

But a challenge to your theory: isn’t culture after more than domination of environment and flourishing? By your definition, culture is animal ends got through clever means. True culture, though it does tend to approach nature with the best possible blend of submission/antagonism, is not primarily responding to nature but to a placement of self in a world of symbols. Culture is not itself technological. What is useful about dressing up like a bear? Culture is the game we play to satisfy some ghostly need within ourselves, not in nature. Nobody understands culture because it is an entirely different operation than our modernist patterns of evolution. It is in a sense, beyond nature (though our bodies are not). Culture lies on a different plane, that of the symbolic. You will find its rules here:

Read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Message_in_the_Bottle

I agree heartily with your conclusions, but I believe that they can be arrived at much quicker with a semiotic idea of man.

avatar Peter Paul Fuchs December 12, 2010 at 5:45 pm

I liked much of the reasoning of this piece, and particularly want to highlight for emphasis these words:

“Culture is the repository of memory of time past, just as it is the promise to the future, an inheritance that is passed on to future generations. Culture assumes that, in order for future generations to survive, the accumulated knowledge of the past must be passed on, and thus, that the conditions of life of the future will be continuous and similar to the conditions of life of the past. Culture innovates, but slowly, carefully, cautiously, with awareness that novelty can endanger as much as it can liberate. Culture, in fact, tends to mistrust the new, the strange, the unique, as temptations that can offer shortcuts or easy solutions that experience shows more often than not to be a Siren’s song.

Culture, then, cultivates….”

I concur strongly with your characterization of culture as careful cultivation and preservation of what works. I wish somebody would send this memo to so-called conservatives like George Weigel, who in his recent book about the former Pope presents a brave-new-world definition of culture, by way of arch-anachronism, as “cult” per se. Thus trying to link the preservation and cultivation of culture solely with a particular religious point of view. I think a fair reading of history allows us to see that this tendency, when ascendent, has only lead to destruction of cultures, and war. And it is worth noting that Mr. Weigel seems to be a proponent of many wars. But he is only important as a representative of a type of quasi-conservative whose views do real harm to the effort to preserve things which are worth preserving.

Lastly, as much I like part of the reasoning here, on one issue I must identify a little node of intellectual naivete. You identify Hobbes as a progenitor of the liberal point of view. No doubt a case can be made. But you are missing the crucial fact that the Hobbesian viewpoint, which is characterized by political reasoning grounded in fear, particularly of disorder per se, has been one of the chief backgrounds for most forms of conservatism in the modern world. this accounts, in my view for their great difficulties as well. As well as for why they have actually resulted in so little simple preservation of good things in culture. Thus there is a type of liberalism that is not fearful and yet reverential of the past that in the end might truly be a form of conservatism. Conservatism based on Hobbesian fear in unworkable, but many conservatives don’t realize that their more limited and modest and local desires are based in this English philosopher’s distant assumptions.

avatar ws December 21, 2010 at 6:05 am

“Living in culture of memory and expectation, one’s death – while always hard – is not the worst imaginable possibility, since one’s death is not tantamount to a condition as if one had never existed…”

A fair observation, but given as though from outside. As though such culture were not, or could not be, our own.

In my view a culture of memory and expectation is still viable, even in Darwin’s nature. Even in the face of death. Memory can remain, if only impersonally; expectation can remain, if only subjectively. That’s less than we would like, but it’s still a culture of memory and expectation — and we have the right to it.

In my view.


“Despite the immense power and violence that we have deployed against her, nature is handing us one defeat after another.”

Maybe we should do something about that.

“Figure 20.1 illustrates the ascendance of the Olympians over Gaia. The Tholos Rotunda at Delphi is a temple of Athena, one which the Greeks built atop a more ancient temple of Gaia. Not near it; not adjoining it; but right on top of it. This was intentional. The religious architecture asserts Olympian dominance over Gaia and the Titans. The rotunda marble is an overt reification of the Greek usurpation of nature.
That usurpation was a historic achievement in the rise of civilization, but the most unnatural elements of the usurpation could not last. Repressed nature does reassert its authority, eventually. Whether by peaceful means or violent, eternal nature was sure to impress itself again upon the minds of philosophical men. This essay has presented one such reassertion, accomplished fortunately by peaceful means. In the essay dedication of Chapter 19 Gaia reclaims Athena, jumping the social fictions of the intervening Olympian generations by right of Her great-grandmotherly relation to Athena. The uncreated Gaia reasserts ancestral rights over created Athena. The essay’s novel imagery of an Athena Gegenetes — Athena, Earth-born — Mind at peace with Nature — comes across I hope as representing a “peaceful transition of power.” Nature has reasserted authority in our metaphysical thoughts, but in the transition to this new regime we retain all the technical and civilizing advancements of our Athenian heritage. The transition robs us of nothing. Gaia’s reclamation of Athena is therefore just — in a spirit of justice that the ancient Greeks would associate unhesitatingly with Athena Herself.
If readers see this maneuver as a healthy and necessary application of mythic psychology, I’ll be glad for it…”

avatar Joseph Harder April 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm

To Patrick O’Donnell:
Professor Holmes’ hatchet job on Alasdair Macintyre is , like Karl Popper’s attacks on Plato and Hegel, an example of what could be called the “public enemies” approach to intellectual history. One hunts trhrough history finding all the naughty, naughty anti-liberals. In Holmes case, one constructs an elaborate (and utterly spurious ) genealogy linking them all to Joseph DeMaistre.
Incidentally, Professor Jerry Muller (who is no Macintyrean) has writtten a pretty convincing demolition of Holmes”scholarship.)

avatar Christina March 14, 2013 at 12:43 am

Having only within a week found this site, I have been browsing around and reading at will, when I have free time, the various posts that catch my eye. The is such a one. First, I would just like to thank the author of this piece, and also ask his/her permission to read some of it to my little class I teach on Saturdays in my home (giving the author full credit of course, and refering some of my older kids to this site) Second, I want to address the one calling themselves MAR2, and say, you are absolutely correct in your statement that European Americans, African Americans ect, no matter how long removed from their ancestral homelands, desire to know about their forefathers. I myself am a German American (both sides of the family). The fact that our family origins began in Germany never came up, however, looking back now, it was oh so obvious. We lived in a small, rural area in Kentucky. My dad and all his brothers (he comes from a very large family) all had their own businesses and worked together in construction, with some doing painting, some building…you get the idea. Even the girls had their own businesses, though their pursuits were decidedly more feminine. In short, we are a sturdy, self-reliant family, and it’s served us well. At around the age of 14 or 15, I became curious, and asked my father one day while out helping him to stack hay in our barn, “Dad, where do we come from?” to which he answered, “From Missouri, you know that, and your Mom’s from Ohio.” This, of course, was not what I had hoped for, so I pressed on. “No, I mean, before Missouri…where did our family acutally move to America from. You know, before America, where did our family live.” He wiped the sweat from his brow with his hanky and sat on a bale of hay, patted it in a signal for me to sit down, and thus replied: “Well, it was from Germany, we all came from. Your mother, too. But I don’t right know where. Our name’s a German name, too, but it’s spelt different, now. They changed it when we came over. Your Aunt Shirley did some research on it a while back. Don’t you remember?” I did not. “Yeah, yeah. She made us all a little book with what information she found. Spent hours down at the courthouse down in Missouri. We all got a copy.” I asked if I could see it, and he said I could. So, without much pomp or circumstance I was lead to my Dad’s coveted and always locked, closet, where he produced the geneology book which my aunt had given him. I poured over this book for days on end, packing it everywhere with me. I wanted to know as much as I possibly could, and to be honest, I’m still not satisfied. And that is my point. Being an American, I sometimes envy my Welsh husband. He comes from a place that has a people and a culture. I’m not quite sure what it was like in America before, but to me, all I remember is about 1989 to the present. America doesn’t have much of a culture that I have ever seen. I don’t mean this as a slight to anyone, I can only speak by observation, and what I have come to undesrtand is, that African American children look to their roots because, that is who they feel tied to, and the same could be said for the kids who are Asian Americans. European American children, however, are hidden from their cultural roots. It was never mentioned to me that our family was ethnically German until I asked. It might never have been told to me otherwise. All of my friends in school (and it was a small school so I knew most of the kids) were pretty much the same. My friends never knew from which country their family had come from, save only one, a girl named Katie who was half European and half Vietnamese. I went through all of this personal information to say only this: now that I am older, I actually teach a little class. It’s nothing big, it’s only a little collection of children of various ages who live near me. We meet, and talk, and discuss Western history, culture, and politics. It’s a weighty subject, of course, but I try to make it fun for the kids. We listen to Mozart, watch Ken Brannagh films to introduce them to Shakespeare. We organise little plays that they put on, and twice, I’ve saved my book buying money for a couple of months and taken the older kids on little field trips. We don’t have any place to go to, so we just meet in my house, or the garden (weather permitting….and the weather is very unpredictable in Wales!) I just wanted to put this forth, because I think that, with the cultural onslaught that we are facing today, I believe that little, indepedent classes like these for our children can do a world of good. Maybe someone can organise something with their parish, or with their boys and girls clubs. I’m not sure. But if ever anyone has a desire to do such a thing, and wants some advice or whatever, I will totally give you my input. Mind you, I’m not a certified teacher, just someone who wants to help and has what her husband considers, a unnecessarily large library. Also, as a final note, I encourage anyone and everyone who possibly can to build a Little Free Library. My husband bulit me one and the neighbours love it! All you do is put books in and people can take them and bring them back or keep them, and they can also put books in there for you, too. It’s a great way for people, espeically in rural places, to share and foster literacy. I’ll put the link to the plans here. http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/

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