A liberal reply to Throne and Altar

We reactionaries are always complaining that the liberals just insult us and never address our arguments.  It therefore behooves us to note when a liberal does give us a fair hearing.  I am quite impressed by the work of Reggie Perrin a Left-leaning Englishman with an academic interest in counter-revolutionary thought.  Reggie may not agree with us, but he has decided that we’re worth a careful and respectful hearing.  He has recently posted a review of this weblog, and I recommend it to anyone as a model of constructive engagement with ideological opponents.  Reggie seems to have carefully read a large amount of my material, and his summary of my beliefs is incisive and fair–I doubt I could have done a better job myself.  His characterization of this blog’s tone is generous (and makes me wish I had lived up to my own ideal of cordiality more often).

Of course, Reggie is not convinced by my arguments.  (He wouldn’t be a liberal if he were.)  His criticisms are quite excellent, in that they nearly always point to real omissions on this blog.  Reggie appreciates the irony that I the reactionary am now the one arguing from abstraction against the (in my opinion sinful) lived practice of my community.  It is true that I argue at a fairly theoretical level, and have provided little analysis on how traditional societies have actually functioned in the past.  I rarely address the personal experiences of those living in traditional and modern societies to explore who is happier under what arrangement.  This is a deliberate choice, because I think that it’s ultimate principles that really divide reactionaries from liberals.  I doubt that there is any empirical fact that could cause any of us to switch sides.  For example, if someone could definitely prove to me that people are happier and healthier under a system of “free love” than marital monogamy, I would just think “This just proves that people’s desires are wicked.  Even more reason for coercion!”  On the other hand, our side really does need to address the historical and personal issues Reggie raises.  (I would point out that some other blogs do do this, emphasizing the personal costs of divorce and promiscuity, the practical dangers of democracy, etc.  I don’t think this is decisive though, because obviously the other side has its own “sob stories”, and I know of no argument why ours should carry more weight.)

Although Reggie disclaims any expertise in philosophy, he does put his finger on the core theoretical omission on this blog:  the lack of an explicit moral epistemology.  In its absence, my labeling one gender difference fact “essential” and another merely “empirical” is bound to seem ad hoc.  That we must deal with non-empirical realities has been obvious at least since Kant pointed out that many of our most basic ideas–space, time, substance, causality, personal identity–are non-empirical.  Kant would, however, not accept my claim to be able to read off an objective essence of femininity or anything else, as opposed to arbitrarily defining it.  I claim, but have never tried on this blog to prove, that I have formal and teleological knowledge of human nature.  More audaciously, I claim (but haven’t proved) to be able to read off ethical norms from this knowledge.  How can I justify this?  The answer is the Aristotelean natural law theory, which deserves an essay in itself.  Reggie is right to be skeptical as long as I leave so many steps unargued.

Given how busy I am, it may well be a long time before I address all the points raised in Reggie’s Reviews, but Throne and Altar certainly benefits from this sort of thoughtful criticism.

13 Responses

  1. Pascal had pointed out, a century before Kant, that all reasoning depends on first principles that cannot themselves be demonstrated by reason.

    In fact, he ascribes them to a faculty of intuition that he calls “the heart,” [le cœur]. In fact, he uses it in the Latin sense of “cordatus” = “Sensible,” “having common sense.”

    “We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them….

    For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways.” (Pascal was, himself, a pretty good geometer)

    This, by the by, casts a new light on his famous dictum that “The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which knows God, and not the reason. This, then, is absolute faith: God felt in the heart.”

    It is the old quarrel between the Aristotelian and the Platonist. The issue hangs on the question whether the Divine Fact is something given, or something to be inferred. The Platonist is satisfied that he has formed his notion of God without the aid of syllogisms or analogies.

    Bl John Henry Newman, another thorough-going Platonist, gives the best defence of this position, in his “Grammar of Assent,” a most unjustly neglected work.

  2. Thanks again, Monseigneur. It’s very interesting to read your thoughts on the points that I raised.

    I should say that I’m not a hardcore empiricist, and I do recognise that liberal society has its own observable problems (family breakdown, as you indicate, being one of them). But I do think that any worldview that touches on political and social life has to be grounded in observable facts because observable facts are the brute material that God or nature has presented us with. They must to a large extent be the measure of whether our metaphysics has gone awry.

    Having said this, I’m acutely aware that there is a lack of philosophical sophistication in my approach, and I’m sure that you will have some challenging arguments to present in this regard from an Aristotelian perspective.


  3. Someday I will get around to reading “The Grammar of Assent”. Pascal’s “Pensees” is one of my most-reread books.

  4. Seems that Mr. Perrin’s criticisms of Bonald’s arguments are not valid because of several reasons:

    – Perrin said that Bonald’s claims about family and parenthood are based on abstract ideology, not on empirical facts. However he also assume (as self evident) concept of “subjective personal happiness” which is also abstract philosophical and teleological premise. Not to mention self-contradiction of “subjective personal happiness” which also aim to be objective rule of morality. Lets not forget that liberalism is also abstract philosophical doctrine.
    Interesting is almost total (almost religious) dedication of liberals towards utilitarian morality.

    – Perrin assumes that Fascism and Nazism are products of counter-enlightenment, and at the same time mention French revolution with all its atrocities and dictatorship as liberal solution to real problem. While Fascism and Nazism were indeed opposed to liberalism, they were opposed to reactionaries as well. Mussolini is his “Doctrine of Fascism” clearly mentioned and condemned De Maistre and reactionary school. As a matter of fact he stated “History does not travel backwards.” He actually sounds like real liberal. Connecting Hitler and Mussolini with reactionary-clerical school of thinking is plain wrong, and as a matter of fact liberalism could be connected with fascism just as well.

    – Perrin wants to see empirical evidence how pre-revolutionary France or Salazar’s Portugal were “better governed, more more virtuous or happier societies than modern Britain or America “. I’m not quite sure how is possible to empirically prove such irrational or subjective categories like “virtuous” or “happier”. In order to make this kind of judgment we must already appeal to some sort of value system, which can be liberal, fascist or conservative. What is the point of valuing something from conservative to liberal, when these two have opposite value systems?

    – Seems that Perrin assume that liberal societies are developed and advanced societies. Is this is due to liberalism, or is liberalism consequence of development, when people simply want to enjoy their wealth and engage in hedonism?
    Because most of developed modern western liberal societies were highly conservative and religious not so long ago.

    Women didn’t have right to vote in Great Britain up until 1920-es. But in 19 century Great Britain was most developed and powerful nation in the world. Ultra-reactionary German empire was technologically and scientifically most advanced country in continental Europe. Golden era of United States were late 40-es and 50-es which were also era of ultra-conservatism and censorship.

    – Since France was mentioned, under Louis XIV absolutist kingdom of France was most populous, most advanced and most powerful state in Europe. Another peak France had during dictatorship of Napoleon I. Hardly a liberal regimes. After “liberalization” and republicanism France declined behind reactionary German empire and conservative Victorian Britain.

    – Not to mention economic development of Spain under Franco, economic development of Russia after rejection of liberal reforms of Yeltsin, radical development of South Korea under right wing military dictatorship in 60-es, and last but not least example of conservative Imperial Japan and its fantastic development.

    – So we don’t have many examples of countries that became prosperous and “happy” due to liberalism. On contrary, most countries accumulated wealth during the time of rule of traditional value systems, and later turned liberal in order to morally justify spending of that wealth.

    – Perrin also assumed that people in liberal countries are happier. Why must we assume that?

  5. Hi, Wrangel. I read your post with interest. You make some interesting points, which I’ll have a stab at addressing as briefly as I can:

    – While liberalism can indeed be framed as a philosophical doctrine, I’m coming from the school of British liberalism, which is more empirically oriented. I’m a simple man, and a historian rather than a philosopher. It appears to me that liberalism generally (though by no means always) produces better-functioning, more responsibly governed and more economically successful societies, and this indicates that it goes with the grain of nature or God better than reactionary conservatism. That was the point of my rather cheap shot about Bonald not living in Riyadh – people in theocratic patriarchal monarchies are trying to follow our lead rather than vice versa, and that speaks volumes to me.

    – I wouldn’t accept that liberals and conservatives can’t have some common metrics with which to assess societies. One obvious one would be the overall level of violence in a society. That should be fairly uncontroversial. Another would be its propensity to attack its neighbours and wage wars of conquest (this is perhaps where your friend Louis XIV falls down). Others would be e.g. the level and distribution of economic wealth, the level of official corruption, judicial impartiality, etc.

    – Nor would I exclude subjective personal happiness – there are problems with this as a metric, but the correlation between happiness and political freedom which researchers have discovered (you don’t have to take my word for it) is suggestive. It probably reflects the fact that liberalism makes space for the full range and variety of human behaviour and psychology given to us by God or nature. Reactionary conservatism seems rather Procrustean by comparison.

    – You are right to point to the Terror that followed the French Revolution (which lasted 11 months), but I’d respectfully suggest that the violence perpetrated by the various antiliberal regimes in place since 1789 do not compare favourably to the record of liberal demoracies. When liberal democracies do go to war, it tends to be under right-wing leadership (as Mr Bush and Mr Cheney have most recently confirmed).

    – You are absolutely right to draw a distinction between reactionary conservatism and fascism (incidentally, I’ll shortly be posting a review on my blog of that Mussolini essay). The two ideologies are related, however – I think the missing links are C19/20 French ultranationalism, á la Boulanger and Maurras, and what was going on in Austria with Karl Lueger and the Christian Social Party. There is a reason why their followers co-operated in places like Franquist Spain and Vichy France. I have no truck, btw, with Goldberg’s frivolous attempt to link fascism with liberalism.

    – As to the link between economic development and liberalism, Britain, the US and France (to take 3 examples) all initially embraced liberal ideas when they were still largely agrarian, pre-industrial societies.

    – Finally, and in a more nerdy vein, I would respectfully disagree with most of your examples of conservative societies. The conservatism of the US in the 40s and 50s was still in the context of a liberal, democratic, secular constitution with free elections, a free press, and more liberal sexual mores and divorce laws than much of Europe. Likewise, Victorian Britain was ruled mostly by the Liberal Party, and saw a steady liberalisation of the constitution, a decline in the power of the Queen and the aristocracy, and (after c.1870) the start of the long-term decline of the Anglican Church. Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” took place under MacArthur’s liberal democratic constitution. Even Napoleonic France preserved the social gains of the Revolution, at the price of suppressing political pluralism. Franquist Spain saw its greatest economic gains under the relatively liberal technocrats of the 60s (Lopez Rodo, Lopez Garcia and the Opus Dei boys), by which time Franco had mostly retired to the golf course and Vatican II was happening, not during the more hardline 50s.

    Those would be the point that I would make. I appreciate you taking the time to read my piece and respond to it.

    All the best


  6. Thank you very much for your responses Mr.Perrin.
    Let’s just say we disagree on this issue.

    – I actually had British liberalism on my mind, when I wrote that. British liberalism is a abstract philosophical doctrine, including it’s empiricism. Empiricism as such is in itself not empirical. Appeal of Anglo-Saxon liberalism towards concrete and empirical is in itself abstract. When we already talk about Britain, interesting thing is that father of conservatism Edmund Burke was also a liberal.

    I’m not sure how liberalism produces better working or more responsibly governed societies.
    German empire or empire of Japan (pre-ww2) were clearly working and were responsibly governed. Even Saudi Arabia (not exactly my role model) work just fine, and have high living standard of it’s population, higher then in some liberal countries. Reactionary school does not support tyranny or blind voluntarism, but rule of the law (which include traditional morality).

    – I agree that conservatives and liberals can find a common ground on several issues, but in a sense you contradict yourself in the term of violence. French revolution (that you mentioned as liberal”solution”) was fine example of violence, while may enlightenment thinkers had highly authoritarian opinions and violent outbursts, with open intolerance towards opposite opinion. Louis XIV didn’t wage wars in the name of conservative ideology, monarchy or Christianity.

    While Louis XIV indeed waged wars of conquest and attacked it’s neighbors, the same was done by revolutionary France (pre-Napoleon). Revolutionary France expanded far more than monarchist France, and waged war of aggression to spread revolutionary ideals. United States (that you mentioned as liberal model) waged several wars and expanded on behalf of its neighbors (like Mexico). And lets not forget US military interventions in 20 and 21 century, including increasing of US military bases after cold war throughout the world. Most of these violent acts were done using liberal ideology as excuse.

    – When you appeal to “happiness” you already appeal towards utilitarian morality, that I mentioned.
    You must realized by now, that reactionary and conservative morality is deontological in its basis, and it put emphasis on duty rather than rights.
    But then again, we can say that there is correlation between happiness and stability of order. You assume that Anglo-Saxon liberalism is universal solution to all humanity. This may perhaps imply totalitarian nature of liberalism, which cannot allow any other form of political thinking. Liberalism has protestant roots (see Locke), and I doubt it can be understood or applied in real manner outside protestant countries.
    And about “freedoms of expression”, enlightenment thinkers, their books and their ideas flourished in the era of absolutism which somehow contradicts claims about “intolerance” of that era. Scientific revolution started in 17 century, which was also zenith of absolutist era.

    – Case of Maurras is complicated one, since he was condemned by Catholic church, and was agnostic. He used De Maistre’s ideas, Church and monarchism to boost national cohesion of French people, not because he really believed in all of this.

    – While we can connect liberalism with industrial development of US and Britain, we cannot say the same with France. France had industrial peak with authoritarian Napoleon III, and was second most developed state in world (besides Britain). This development was mostly slowed after deposing of monarchy. On other hand Germany had fantastic development after unification, and under the ultra-reactionary rule of Prussian elite and anti-liberal nationalist economic policy (Friedrich List). Same we can see in the case of Imperial Japan.

    – US in 40-es and 50-es had censorship, was deeply religious and also (unfortunately) practiced racial discrimination and medical experiments on feeble minded and criminals. This hardly sounds like liberal society in practice, while it was indeed liberal on paper. Great Britain was almost up until 1930-es mostly aristocratic and elitist society, that discriminated Catholics and had large colonial empire. Great Britain, even today, is not a secular society, but have a state religion.
    And while you mentioned Great Britain as fine example of liberal state, then why there was American revolution? Liberalism sounds great on paper, but practice is something else.

    About Japan, it’s industrial development and becoming a great power, I meant Meiji Japan, not post WW 2. Even in post WW2 Japan own it’s development thanks to organization and corporations inherited from Imperial era. Modern Japan corporations are highly authoritarian and traditionalist organizations.

    Thank you again Mr. Perrin for your time and patience.


    My apologies to Bonald for this lengthy discussion with Mr. Perrin.

  7. No need to apologize, Wrangel! I’m always pleased when my readers write material for me. Both you and Reggie make your cases well, but I think all this goes to show is the futility of expecting an answer to the “which is better” debate from history. We simply don’t have what it would take for a good experiment: two societies, one pure liberal and one pure reactionary but otherwise identical. America, England, France, Germany, Japan, and Spain were, during the time periods discussed, a mixture of liberalism and conservatism. Even today, there is no purely liberal state–one without gender roles, religion, particularist loyalties, etc. Many of my interlocutors in the past have suggested that such a thing can never exist. Although there have been societies with no explicitly voiced liberal ideology, liberals can always say that the decent ones had qualities that *really* belong to liberalism.

    Because the historical examples all involved “mixture” societies, it seems that any good or bad thing can be put on either side of the ledger, as desired by the writer. I note that Reggie has done a little of this: America is liberal when we’re talking about the prosperity of the 50’s but right-wing when we’re talking about invading Iraq (despite Bush being more ideologically liberal than any Opus Dei technocrat).

    It could be that the truth would please none of us. Perhaps societies are most prosperous and happy when they’re in the process of transitioning from conservatism to liberalism. The new freedoms are novel and exciting, and they haven’t yet destroyed the things that gave the old life its meaning and charm. Victorian Britain had both capitalism and patriarchy. These may be ultimately incompatible, but they can coexist for a time, and the combination of economic dynamism and family stability is enviable.

  8. “Perhaps societies are most prosperous and happy when they’re in the process of transitioning from conservatism to liberalism.”

    Societies are also the happiest when the decline is nearly complete, the fall is happening or has happened and then renewal starts to occur little by little (an example would be the situation in the modern Western world). Basically when they are transitioning from liberalism to conservatism.

    “These may be ultimately incompatible, but they can coexist for a time,”

    Yes but it’s just for a while because the nightmare then begins.

  9. Thanks for the discussion, chaps. Some good points have been made from the conservative side, and no doubt there is material there for debate in the future.

    I won’t trespass on your time by writing a full-length response, but one point that I’d like to make about my philosophical approach (rough-and-ready as it is) is that I don’t subscribe to the utilitarian credo at its full strength (at least if utility is construed purely in terms of material pleasure, without any higher or spiritual content). The claim that I am making here is a weaker one: it is that where a social-political system produces unsatisfactory results (broadly defined) in practice, one might reasonably conclude that one’s metaphysics have gone astray somewhere. This is not so much replacing deontology with consequentialism as using a limited dose of consequentialism as a kind of reality check.

    But maybe I’m trying to have my cake and eat it!

    I also wanted to say that I will gladly make space on my blog(s) if any of my writings catch your eye and you think that they’re crying out for a rebuttal.

    All the best


  10. It’s important in discussions like the one here to distinguish between two senses of the word “liberalism.” Liberalism as a moderating tendency has frequently existed throughout human history. But liberalism in the contemporary sense is entirely different.

    Contemporary liberalism is a system whose basic moral and social premises are the wickedness of discrimination and the necessity of including everyone into the system, regardless of how alien, threatening or bizarre they may be. Liberalism in this sense never existed anywhere before roughly the 1980’s. We may call this absolute liberalism.

    So if you point to societies past as examples of liberalism, you are pointing to societies whose foundations were non-liberal, but which had various moderating tendencies of a liberal flavor. We may call this relative liberalism. Relative liberalism consists of such elements as constitutional (i.e, limited) government, increased civil rights (in the proper sense of the term—not the government favoring nonwhites), scientific inquiry, increased freedom of artistic expression, and so on. All of these can be good, but only if they exist within an order whose foundation is not the absolute liberalism defined above.

    Relative liberalism, then, has sometimes benefited mankind. But absolute liberalism, the kind of liberalism that is predominant in the West and is spreading its poison around the globe, is sui generis.

  11. “Relative liberalism, then, has sometimes benefited mankind. But absolute liberalism, the kind of liberalism that is predominant in the West and is spreading its poison around the globe, is sui generis.”

    Absolute liberalism grew out of relative liberalism. In my opinion conservatism should be the main focus and a non-liberal worldview should regulate liberal moderating influences.

    ” But liberalism in the contemporary sense is entirely different.”

    What do you believe will be the effect of the economic crisis on liberalism worldwide? Aren’t Western governments such as USA, UK and others bankrupt or insolvent and nearing default?

  12. Since absolute liberalism is false, any society based upon it will eventually be forced to repudiate it (or else will pass out of existence, having been defeated/absorbed by other, nonliberal peoples.) When and how this will occur cannot be predicted, but it appears that a catastrophic failure of Western liberal society may be relatively near.

    When Western liberal society appeared to be working, there was no incentive to reject liberalism. Now the system is obviously beginning to malfunction, more people will reject liberalism.

  13. […] they have included a discussion about what traditionalist bloggers are ultimately aiming to do and another centered around liberal Reggie Perrin’s critique of the blog. […]

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