“Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded,” writes Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen contends that though liberalism aimed to foster equity, diversity, human dignity, and, of course, liberty, “in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” Similarly, Polish political philosopher and statesman Ryszard Legutko declares in his 2016 book The Demon in Democracy: “Liberal democracy is a powerful unifying mechanism, blurring differences between people and imposing uniformity of views, behavior, and language.”
Yet about eighty years before Deneen, Legutko, and other current critics of classical liberalism, a French Dominican theologian and philosopher identified many of these same problems. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964), though primarily known for his spiritual works — such as his magnum opus The Three Ages of the Interior Life — was also an astute, and even prophetic analyst of contemporary political philosophy. Though we owe a debt of gratitude to contemporary thinkers like Deneen and Legutko for identifying the hypocrisies and contradictions of liberalism we see across Western democracies, the French Dominican perceived problems to come even before the horrors of the Second World War.
In Philosophizing in Faith: Essays on the Beginning and End of Wisdom, a series of essays recently collected and translated by Matthew K. Minerd, Garrigou-Lagrange offers his concerns with classical liberalism. He worries that liberalism fosters an “absolute indifferentism,” a denial of the necessity of every religion, even natural religion, making it an “indifferent, unnecessary, negligible affair.” Though many of liberalism’s heroes — Locke, Jefferson, Madison — understood the value and importance of religion for society, and especially a liberal society that demands a high level of participation from its citizens, Garrigou-Lagrange was pessimistic that a liberal society could actually perpetuate religion’s central, indispensable role in the public square. Indeed, if the state is essentially indifferent toward religion, the French Dominican noted, on what basis can it encourage it? In what manner is it capable of supporting it?
To put it bluntly, there is no such basis or manner. Liberalism promotes “neutrality of the State, neutrality of schooling, and a limitless freedom of conscience.” Yet, as many contemporary critics of the liberal state and liberal education are belatedly perceiving, there is no pure, objectively neutral state. The state always has interests, perspectives, and biases, informed by some underlying ideology with particular philosophical commitments — if not some religion or natural law, then some modern replacement, whether it is modernism, positivism, utilitarianism, materialism, Freudianism, or Marxism. And any philosophical commitment that is not religious will naturally tend not towards some benign acceptance of the religious beliefs it replaces. Rather, it will progressively foster a state that is not only “radically irreligious,” but hostile to forms of religious expression it deems to be subversive to its own secular objectives.
Liberalism by its very nature permits the perpetuation of grave errors on the grounds of protecting individual liberty. Says Garrigou-Lagrange: “To accord the same rights to error and truth is to deny the specific right of the latter, and one ultimately ends up foolishly according the worst errors the same rights as are accorded to the loftiest truths that are indispensable to society.” False freedom is the “source of all disorders.” And, as Legutko has more recently observed, when the state legally protects certain behaviors, it effectively normalizes them. To say something is permitted is to implicitly say it is good. Legutko explains:
Once such a law is in force, it not only implies legal admissibility, but also moral acceptance of such practices. After all, one cannot live in a society in which the law allows something that is morally reprehensible. Therefore, soon after such a law is passed, new laws are introduced to make moral opposition to this law more difficult and legally risky. People who opposed these practices on moral grounds are soon qualified as representing a type of backwardness, bigotry, and authoritarianism…
As liberalism becomes ever more untethered from grounded principles in favor of error, it increasingly resembles tyranny. The tenets of the secular regime are deemed compulsory, even for those who object on grounds of conscience. We see this in America with not only cake bakers and wedding photographers, but even on college campuses where speakers are run off campuses and the freedom to distribute religious literature is sometimes prohibited.
Moreover, the “false freedoms” condemned by Garrigou-Lagrange’s reads like a laundry list of the evils that would leave a trail of death and societal destruction in the wake of the sexual revolution. He notes: “Free love outside of marriage is displayed without any restraint, leading to frequent abortion and a notably more elevated number of infanticides and suicides.” One might add to that list the remarkable increase in divorce, accessibility to pornography, and even social acceptance of sexual behaviors once deemed degenerate. Garrigou-Lagrange also cites the denial of moral obligations, which he identifies as a natural consequence of the denial of religious obligations. As Robert Putnam noted in his twenty-year-old Bowling Alone, Americans have increasingly abandoned participation in civic society in favor of individualistic pursuits. As the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy noted in 2018, we are witnessing a concerning decline in the percentage of Americans who volunteer.
Garrigou-Lagrange identifies another problem with liberalism: it requires a high degree of virtue among its subjects in order to function. This is because all citizens are expected to participate in their own governance, both by choosing their representatives via elections, and by motivating themselves to remain actively engaged and knowledgeable of politics at local, regional, and national levels. Garrigou-Lagrange remarks:
“…If it is to last, the republican regime presupposes great virtue and great competence in the subjects who are called to participate, through elections…. In the case of a populous nation, with very complex interests, having not only an economic life but also a superior artistic and intellectual life, and who, in the midst of multiple causes of division, must safeguard its unity and the continuity of its traditions—then, the difficulty increases terribly. How are we to find in the subjects, a good number of whom are peasants to workers, the competence and virtue necessary for choosing men capable of responding to the difficult questions that are posed, ones that often baffle jurists, financiers, or diplomats of the first order? The election will most often designate upstarts, ambitious incapable men…”
In other words, the electorate has to be virtuous and intelligent enough to recognize people virtuous and intelligent enough to navigate the complexities of political and economic life — no easy task when one is talking about a diverse nation of millions of people and perhaps an economy worth billions or trillions of dollars. Even Founding Father John Adams was aware of this problem regarding virtue, observing that to expect self-denial from the common man, especially when he has the majority in his favor and the power to gratify himself, “is to disbelieve all history and universal experience.” Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke in turn expressed concerns with an insufficiently educated electorate, warning of “making a nation of gamesters… that tho’ all are forced to play, few can understand the game.”
Garrigou-Lagrange thus urges the necessity of a political paradigm that is founded on natural law theory and understands that religious obligations trump all other freedoms. He writes:
“We have a strict obligation to obey God, whose supreme rights our first duties and every moral obligation properly speaking. What we demand above all else is not freedom for its own sake, as liberalism does but, rather, the inalienable right to do our duty—or, the right of truth, above all the ultimate truth to be known and loved. We can freely renounce some of our rights but not the right of doing our duty…. The state is quite clearly subordinated to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual perfection of the human person, whose destiny immensely exceeds the end and temporal duration of political society.”
Nevertheless, even though the state is subservient to the transcendent telos of the human person, natural law demands that man be a good citizen. Patriotism is connected to the fifth (or sixth) commandment — honor thy father and thy mother — because it has to do with the nation of one’s patrias. It is also related to justice, because it is related to the debts we owe, in this case, to our nation. Garrigou-Lagranage cites Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae: “It pertains to piety to exhibit devotion for one’s parents and fatherland.” Indeed, Aquinas continues: “After God, it is to our parents and to our country that we owe the greatest debt.”
Thus one might say that in this ideal political model there is a certain kind of reciprocal relationship between the individual and the state: as an individual and as a constitutive part of the State, man is subordinate to the state; yet the state is “subordinated to the perfection of the human person.” This perfection is itself inextricably wrapped up in the transcendent, because man’s ultimate end is God Himself. The state must allow the man the freedom to find his ultimate end in the transcendent, while man, in pursuing that ultimate end, obeys just laws and pursues a life of virtue, builds a flourishing polis in the process.
Indeed, because man’s transcendent ends trump his natural ends (and responsibilities) towards the state, he is prohibited from obeying immoral laws that would in any way prohibit the worship he owes to God. As Aquinas argues in Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 21, a. 4, ad 3: “Man is not ordered to the political community according to his whole self and according to all that he is… Rather, the whole that is man, and all that he has and can do, is ordered to God.” Yet unjust laws not only reflect a divergence from divine, transcendent truth, but a corruption of society via the abandonment of “legal justice and equity” and the dignity of the human person. For example, justice demands that the State cannot craft laws that deprive citizens of their natural rights like their own subsistence, the “natural right to generation,” the education of their own children, and their right to individual property.
The reason the state is subordinated to man’s perfection is because man is not simply an individual (like a plant or animal) but because he is a person, meaning that he is someone who, by virtue of having immaterial qualities (namely, intellect and will), has a spiritual soul. If he did not, notes Garrigou-Lagrange, the materialists would be right, and man would be entirely subordinated to the state. If one wants examples of such political systems, the French Dominican points to the materialist kleptocracies of communism. Yet, he warns, even democracies that abandon these natural law principles that degenerate into “demagoguery in the service of an omnipotent plutocracy…”
Regardless of one’s partisan leanings, it’s difficult not to acknowledge that Garrigou-Lagrange’s predictions seem particularly germane to our current political climate. Ours is a society defined by rising wealth inequalities, by silicon valley elites who can control the content of political discourse, and by politicians on both Left and Right who engage in rhetoric aimed at inflaming cultural tensions and demonizing their political opponents. “Without God, society is disaggregated; it is eaten away… by a cancer that kills it.” One need not be a Catholic, nor even a Christian, to recognize the French Dominican’s cautions have proven prophetic.