2022 and Aesop’s Frog

The ringing in of the New Year is a time of resolutions—and I hereby resolve to make some. It is also a season of recollections. It is with melancholy pleasure that I remember my philosopher friend Kenneth Minogue, who died nine years ago this coming June at 82. It is hard for me to believe that it has been so long, but there you are. I recall that my friend Bill Buckley died 14 years ago, in February 2008, and that seems like only yesterday. I am going to resist the temptation to rehearse reasons “why life speeds up as you get older” in order to say a few words about Ken Minogue, whose quiet but penetrating thought has striking relevance to this noisy, chattering age. 

Ken studied with the great conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, whose urbane, understated skepticism made a deep and lasting impression on Ken’s thought and, through him, on two more generations of students. The full power of Ken’s thinking was already on view in his early classic The Liberal Mind (1963), which provides one of the most thoughtful, penetrating, and ultimately devastating anatomies of the liberal mindset ever penned. And he did it all with an ebullience and lightness of touch that made the serious business of criticism a smiling affair. 

Ken’s jovial temperament—it was rare indeed to find him without a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes—was disarming. It was my impression that many of his academic colleagues tended to underestimate Ken because of that twinkle. His coruscating intelligence was too obvious to overlook, so people took refuge in the idea that his character lacked steel. Ken was clearly a conservative, but could anyone possessing his calm demeanor and emollient personality really be counted as a staunch conservative? If a body wasn’t that, how could he be a reliable ally? Such people were wrong about Ken. He was the staunchest of allies, it’s just that he didn’t like bruiting it about. 

Ken’s was a deeply interrogative temperament. The world, and the people in it, puzzled him. I remember the occasion, fairly early in our friendship, when we were lunching at the Garrick Club in London. We somehow got round to the subject of utilitarianism, whose basic axiom is that the test of moral rightness is whether a given policy affords the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. If that were true, Ken mused, then imagine if someone invented a machine that could eliminate highway fatalities, those tens of thousands of deaths per annum. The catch was that the machine needed to be fed six people at random per year in order to work. Most of us would recoil from such a solution, but why? We spent a tonic hour over the wine and the ice cream with crystallized ginger (a Minogue favorite) teasing out the answer.

But back to the liberal mind. The story of liberalism as liberals tell it, Ken thought, is a bit like the story of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of superstition, St. George, having donned the mantle of beneficent rationality, finally appears somewhere about the 16th century. He slays the monsters of kingship and religious intolerance before moving on to such social evils as prison conditions, slavery, inherited privilege, and patriarchy. “But unlike St. George,” Ken observed, the saint with the liberal mind “didn’t know when to retire.”

The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged, and the underdeveloped. As an aging warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons.

“Transphobia” anyone? How about a little “systemic racism,” i.e., the kind you have to manufacture when there is a woeful shortage of the real thing? 

The Liberal Mind was instantly recognized as a classic in the library of conservative political reflection. It hones in on one of the more melancholy features of liberalism: that so many of its effects are distinctly illiberal. Ken offered a profound reflection on this ironical phenomenon in his final book, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, a companion or completion volume to The Liberal Mind, which I was pleased and proud to publish at Encounter Books in 2010.

The Servile Mind offers an extended meditation on a curious reversal, at once moral and political: that “while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them.” The liberal mind, by a process of moral entropy, shades gradually but inevitably into the servile mind. Exactly how that happens, and with what consequences, is the story Ken tells in this book. “The evident problem with democracy today,” Ken writes, “is that the state is pre-empting—or ‘crowding out,’ as the economists say—our moral judgments.” 

Rulers are adding moral judgments to the expanding schedule of powers they exercise. Nor does the state deal merely with principles. It is actually telling its subjects to do very specific things. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by ‘freedom,’ and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?

Can it? The jury, Ken argues, is still out but the signs are not encouraging.

One of Ken’s most searching essays for The New Criterion was called “‘Christophobia’ and the West.” Published in 2003, the essay dilates on “the rising hatred of Christianity among Western peoples.” Ken’s subject was not secularism—that reliable coefficient of Enlightenment self-infatuation—but something more visceral: a species of histrionic narcissism Ken denominated “Olympianism,” the quasi-religious efflorescence that triumphs in secular societies in response to the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of traditional religion on the ebb.

Olympianism, Ken observes, is in many ways like a religion, but it is “in the interesting position of being a kind of religion which does not recognize itself as such, and indeed claims a cognitive superiority to religion in general.” Hence the hatred of religion—the “phobia” part of “Christophobia”—that follows the spread of Olympianism like a shadow. 

Olympianism is the characteristic belief system of today’s secularist, and it has itself many of the features of a religion. For one thing, the fusion of political conviction and moral superiority into a single package resembles the way in which religions (outside liberal states) constitute comprehensive ways of life supplying all that is necessary (in the eyes of believers) for salvation. Again, the religions with which we are familiar are monotheistic and refer everything to a single center. In traditional religions, this is usually God; with Olympianism, it is society, understood ultimately as including the whole of humanity. And Olympianism, like many religions, is keen to proselytize. Its characteristic mode of missionary activity is journalism and the media.

Several things follow from this novel form of proselytization. 

If Olympianism has the character of a religion, as I am suggesting, there would be no mystery about its hostility to Christianity. Real religions (by contrast with test-tube religions such as ecumenism) don’t much like each other; they are, after all, competitors. . . . But there is a deeper reason why the spread of Olympianism may be measured by the degree of Christophobia. It is that Olympianism is an imperial project which can only be hindered by the association between Christianity and the West.

There is, Ken observed, a curious political side to this development, epitomized by the multicultural imperative: the contention that all cultures are equal, but that Western culture is somehow less equal than others. You can see this at work in the phenomenon of globalization, which operates by spreading Western rationalism along with a deep suspicion of the values that made that rationalism possible. The resulting confusion is the “wonderland of abstractions” whose guiding prejudice is the belief that prejudice has been overcome and consigned to the dustbin of history (St. George rides again). “It reminds one,” Ken concluded, “of Aesop’s frog, who wanted to be as big as an ox, and blew himself up more and more, his skin becoming thinner and thinner, till he burst.”

There are many signs, I’d say, that the specimen is suffering from dangerous ascites, though what happens afterward is anyone’s guess. As far as I know, Aesop’s frog did not make a curtain call. 


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