As I wrap up my series on looking at the anti-liberal movements on the Right, you might be asking yourself why does this matter? Who cares what some academics have to say about liberalism and conservatism?
It matters because ideas and teachers matter. Though the phrase can be overused (and misunderstood), ideas have consequences. If you believe that all that is soulless and wrong in the world is due to our adherence to our founding principles (or the half of them that are deplorable) rather than in their neglect, then that’s going to shape how you think about the country. You’re probably going to see politics as the problem rather than the way to a solution. Hunkering down in our holes reading about the good, the true, and the beautiful is all well and good. But what good is a local community without a nation of which it is part and that can defend it from outside attacks?
And our teachers have consequences for us as well. They shape our view of the world and can change our dynamic in a fundamental way. Think I’m wrong? Ever hear of John Rawls? And alternatively, look at the impact Leo Strauss has had and where we could be without his influence (and those of his students).
One last thought: what is the way forward? How are we to understand the American tradition? Which is another way of asking, how are we to understand ourselves?
As always, Harry Jaffa provides the way:
The Founding Fathers, as one of the most exceptional generations of political men who ever lived, are not to be understood as primarily Hobbesian, Lockeans, and Aristotelians. They were rather phronimoi, morally and politically wise men, the kind of characters from whom Aristotle himself drew his portraits of the moral and political virtues.
Though it seems pretty easy, understanding someone as they understood themselves is hard work. It’s difficult not to impose false dichotomies and our modern views back on to history. Clawing out of our caves takes great effort but it’s well worth the journey.