Why is it that the English-speaking peoples historically combined a deep love of liberty with a passionate devotion to their political duties? Can it last?
A year ago, Donald Devine offered readers of Law and Liberty an expert summary and a warm endorsement of the political philosopher Larry Siedentop’s latest book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Siedentop traces the modern, “secular,” and liberal ideas of moral equality and equal liberty to the Christian overturning of “the aristocratic assumption upon which all ancient thinking was based, that of natural inequality,” and he finds in this intellectual genealogy an argument for a contemporary alliance of secular liberals and Christians in affirmation of individual rights.
Devine sees in this Christian genealogy of liberalism a bulwark, not only against the totalitarian “war on individualism,” but against the positivist rejection of “fixed individual rights” in favor of “what secular courts could decide at any particular time.” For Devine as well as for Siedentop, “consent and free will” provide the only just and necessary basis for political and social authority.
“The assumption of moral equality gave rise” to “the claim of equal liberty,” Siedentop writes. “For if humans have an equal moral standing, then it follows that there must be an area in which their choices ought to be respected.”
According to the American-born British philosopher, who spent much of his academic career as a fellow of Keble College, Oxford, the believer’s submission “to the mind and will of God as revealed in Christ” is at the same time the “beginning of a ‘new creation,” the revelation of human equality and autonomy. He sees no practical tension between “Christian liberty” as, on the one hand, the liberation of the individual from all given social bonds and, on the other, the subjection of the individual to a submission to the Christ “in which charity overcomes all other motives.”
Siedentop finds the liberal liberation of the individual entirely reconcilable with Christian submission to the demands of charity—as long as charity is interpreted liberally, as implying “moral equality and reciprocity.” Thus he believes that he has dispelled the illusion of an essential tension between Christian ideals and “Godless secularism.” The liberal idea of reciprocity based on moral equality is virtually identical, in his view, with the New Testament injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself; and the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation cashes out as liberal commitment to “equal liberty”: the “moral equality of humans implies that there is a sphere in which each should be free to make his or her own decisions, a sphere of conscience and free action.”
Devine, for his part, at one point seems to notice the vulnerability of the bare “assumption of moral equality” as a basis of moral and political order. He writes that
The very idea of the individual became amorphous. Was a fetus human? Was assisted suicide acceptable? Were men and women different or precisely the same? Were human individuals the only ones with rights?
But no more than Siedentop does he suspect that the severing of morality from the idea of a meaningful natural order might be implicated in this undermining of the meaning of “the individual.”
In fact Siedentop has no qualms about taking the nominalists’ side against Thomas Aquinas on the question of will versus nature:
For Aquinas, natural law consisted of rational principles that governed God’s will as well as the human will. For Duns Scotus and Ockham, however, that position both threatened divine omnipotence and misunderstood the role of reason. They saw God’s will as limited only by his free nature. And it was God’s will, revealed in the Christian faith, that humans should be equal and free agents. Thus, freedom became the bond between God and man. God, not any “necessary” dictates of reason, created our world. Reason is a part of creation. But reason by itself is not the creator.
Human equality and freedom are purchased at the price of any substantial understanding of the human good, or indeed of the meaning of human nature. Equal freedom wholly replaces nature as a moral standard. Indeed it is in our equal freedom that we are most like the willful God whose creation is in no way bound by reason. Herein, according to Siedentop, lies the perfect convergence between secular individualism and the essence of Christianity.
From this point of view, any Catholic “rhetoric deploring the growth of ‘Godless’ secularism” is based in a gross confusion, as is the Christian “fundamentalist” reaction against secularism. These “fundamentalists,” Siedentop writes,
may now jeopardize the traditional American understanding of secularism as the embodiment of Christian moral intuitions. In the Southern and Western states especially, “born-again” [Christians] are coming to identify secularism as an enemy rather than a companion. In struggling against abortion and homosexuality, they risk losing touch with the most profound moral insights of their faith. If good and evil are contrasted too simply, in a Manichaean way, charity is the loser. The principle of “equal liberty” is put at risk.
In this case Devine seems untroubled by Siedentop’s argument for identifying secular individualism with the essence of Christianity. The culture war between secular humanists and those who appeal to a divine standard of morality is a mere illusion. To avoid the distractions of the culture war, we have only to embrace the synthesis of Divine creative will and the pure and equal rights of humanity.
A political philosopher who is not here in person to assess Larry Siedentop’s argument may yet prove illuminating. Leo Strauss (1899-1973) left us an acute criticism of and response to the argument for a Christian genealogy of modern secular humanism when he famously responded to Alexandre Kojève’s apology for rational humanistic tyranny. Kojève (1902-1968) sees the Christian origins of modern secular equality at least as clearly as does Siedentop; the main difference is that Kojève is under no illusion that the offspring can be reconciled with its parent.
Kojève agrees with Siedentop in cashing out the meaning of Christian universalism in the rather prosaic democratic morality of reciprocity. The great political, military, and religious actors who drove the march of History understood themselves as serving some god or some understanding of truth and right, but the only real and abiding motive in the historical process is, for Kojève, the desire to be recognized in one’s humanity by other human beings. And the medium or currency of this recognition can be nothing other than effective attention to the simple material needs and interests of our common, bodily humanity.
The Christian leveling of aristocratic pride released the energy of human labor for the service of common human needs; thus the effectual truth of a God who transcends social differences is an ethic of formal universality, and this can have no concrete meaning except a universal society of equal recognition.
Kojève’s advantage in realism over Siedentop lies in the former’s awareness that fulfilling the idea of a universal society of equal freedom and reciprocity will require a coercive apparatus: the universal and homogenous state. Thus, Kojève acknowledges, the final and absolute ascendancy of the plainest democratic satisfaction is the only real truth of the ecstatic religion of grace; a collective life supported by total technological mastery, the absolute victory of a final, rational tyranny, a prosaic life in which all poetic projections have been banished along with the cruelty of History—this, Kojève sees, is the final historical and thus real meaning of the transcendent Christian Event that first laid the axe to the root of all aristocratic pretensions.
Despite impressions that Leo Strauss willingly conveys, he agrees fundamentally with Kojève’s and Siedentop’s diagnosis of the Christian roots of modern liberal democracy. The important difference, of course, is that Strauss deplores this development.
Turning to Strauss’s “Restatement” to Kojève on tyranny, we see that Strauss does not really contest the Hegelian thesis of the Christian root of modernity. In fact he explicitly leaves open the question of “how far the epoch-making change that was effected by Machiavelli is due to the indirect influence of the Biblical tradition,” insisting only that “that change” must first be “fully understood in itself.”
In other words, once the effectual truth of modern rationalism is understood—that is, Machiavellian humanism—then Christians and others inclined to give the modern revolution a Christian baptism, to cover what is a this-worldly project with the veil of a vaguely Christian humanitarian “spirituality,” can judge for themselves whether they want to be responsible for this interpretation. Let us not sugarcoat modernity by evoking its “spiritual roots” before we ask the question in all sobriety: What is modernity? Thus, although Strauss emphatically prioritizes the question of the character of modernity over that of its “indirect” Biblical origins, he quite clearly does not refute or even dismiss the proposition that such religious influences were a significant factor in the rise of the modern project.
Strauss is less immediately interested in the historical question of “influences” than in the essential character of modernity. Nowhere does he make clearer than in his response to Kojève his fundamental assessment of the modern project, understood in its full implications—that is, as Kojève understands and embraces it. Strauss, for his part, makes clear that he abominates this project and considers it antithetical to any adequate understanding of genuine nobility or of plain human decency.
The identification of philosophy and rational-humanistic tyranny, the liquidation of philosophic transcendence in total devotion to the cause of an utterly unphilosophic humanity, represents for Strauss the collapse of all human meaning. Where Kojève is resigned, with more than a touch of irony, no doubt, to this inhuman or post-human culmination of secular humanism, Strauss bends every effort to resisting this culmination, even allowing himself (with a touch of his own irony, probably) to issue a militant call to resistance:
Warriors and workers of all countries, unite, while there is still time, to prevent the coming of “the realm of freedom.” Defend with might and main, if it needs to be defended, “the realm of necessity.”
Freedom as an all-too-human project necessarily degenerates, Strauss thinks, into a rational and technological tyranny; the compulsion to make mankind completely at home in this world, a world of man’s own making, has left him utterly homeless. He recommends following the ancients in a turn to a philosophic “realm of necessity” in order to recover an appreciation of the permanent contours and therefore the permanent limits of the human condition.
In this text, Strauss tips his hand more than once to reveal the human and political springs of the philosophic idea of a “realm of necessity.” But he also provides plenty of encouragement to the pride of philosophers who would not wish to be reminded of their dependence on moral and political sources of meaning. For Strauss, the possibility of satisfaction in serene impersonal contemplation grounds the moderation of philosophic wisdom. But it would be at least as true to say that a moderate practical wisdom, the noble reserve represented by, say, the characters in Jane Austen (as opposed to those of Fyodor Dostoyevsky), the aspiration to resignation concerning common human hopes, is the very human ground of contemplation of an impersonal and therefore inhuman eternity.
Strauss’s most decisive concession to Kojève is his acknowledgement that “subjective certainty” is impossible; thus all knowledge is embedded in social-political context. He does not disagree that the classical thinkers “were fully aware of the essential weakness of the mind of the individual”—but affirms the superiority of an aristocratic over a democratic-universalist context.
The Straussian philosopher takes his bearings from the admiration of the few; his orientation is determined originally and fundamentally by a concern for honor, whereas the modern philosopher is conditioned by an original motive of “love” for human beings, or concern for the “love” of human beings, irrespective of their humanly esteemed qualities. Thus it is clear that Kojève’s universal recognition is indeed for Strauss a descendent—perversely, to be sure, but still in a very significant sense a descendent—of the Christian idea of universal charity.
To retreat from the modern synthesis is, for Strauss, necessarily to distrust the Christian impulse toward a fusion of elevation and universalism and to wish to restore the original tension between the few and the many. But such a restoration is inseparable from a moderate partisanship on behalf of the few; it is bound up with that “noble reserve” that characterizes the man of classical prudence, and that implies an aristocratic metaphysics and cosmology associated with resignation to the limitations of human action and therefore the pretension to serene detachment from human concerns.
This, then, is Strauss’s lesson for Larry Siedentop: If purified of all reference to Greek virtue as well as Jewish law, obedient love as Christian charity becomes reducible in practice to Kojève’s “recognition” (or Siedentop’s “reciprocity,” the Golden Rule), and thus open to the instrumentalities of rational tyranny called for by universal technological reason. Devotion to the cause of the universal, homogeneous state is the effectual truth of Christian love purified of proud virtue and of particularist law.
The ideal of pure charity, severed from Law and from Contemplation, humbles the pride implicit in all hierarchical virtue and thus fatally opens the horizon of natural right and undermines its implicit teleology.
 Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, Corrected and Expanded Edition Including the Strauss- Kojève Correspondence, edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 185, 201.