It is possible to envision a stoical and realist liberalism that would accept that freedom and toleration must survive in a hostile or indifferent world. Liberalism would be recognised to be a particular form of life, like the others that humans have fashioned and then destroyed, but still worth defending as a civilised way in which humans can live together.
In practice a stance of this kind is hardly possible. Liberals cannot do without the faith that they form the vanguard of an advancing way of life. The appeal of John Stuart Mill is that he allows them to preserve this self-image, while the liberal world continues to evaporate around them.
— John Gray, “Deluded Liberals Can’t Keep Clinging to a Dead Idea”
No wise liberal has ever thought that liberalism is all of wisdom. The reason liberals like laws is because they give us more time for everything in life that isn’t law-like. When we aren’t fighting every minute for minimal rights, or reasserting our territory, or worrying about the next clan’s claims, we can look at the stars and taste new cheeses and make love, sometimes with the wrong person. The special virtue of freedom is not that it makes you richer and more powerful but that it gives you more time to understand what it means to be alive.
…If there is any comfort in its possible extinction, it’s that the practice of telling false likenesses from true ones, good coin from bad—frequently in the company of people we can’t stand—is fundamental to living in the real world at any moment. Empathy and argument are foundational to existence. That’s why the prehistory of liberalism is mostly the history of commonplace civilization, of bazaars and agoras and trading ports—all those enforced and opportunistic acts of empathy, where you had to make bargains and share selling space and find workable commonalities with people fundamentally unlike yourself in order to live at all. That’s the work of liberalism, and even if the worst happens, as it may, it is work that won’t stop, can’t stop, because it is also the real work of being human.
— Adam Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
October 22, 2019 @ 2:13 pm
I can’t make out what is the antecedent to the first “its” in Mr. Gopnik’s second paragraph. Freedom or liberalism? — they aren’t one and the same. And how does either one’s going extinct eventuate in what he calls comfort?
And by calling “the history of commonplace civilization, of bazaars and agoras and trading ports” the “prehistory” of liberalism, is he saying that, once established, liberalism superceded “all those enforced and opportunistic acts of empathy”? Whether he’s aware of it or not, his description of “commonplace civilization . . . where you had to make bargains and share selling space and find workable commonalities with people fundamentally unlike yourself in order to live at all” is a fair definition of commerce, which in my vocabulary is the king-synonym of peace.
Mere absence of conflict can belong to an isolato, but peace exists only between and among numbers of people — not as a state or condition of being but as an act, necessarily renewed again and again; and that act is called commerce. Liberalism ought to be an habitual preference for more rather than less liberty belonging to all those who take part in the commerce. Not without risk — whether, as Mr. Gray says, it’s “hardly possible . . . in a hostile or indifferent world” –, it’s no political philosophy for the faint-hearted.
October 22, 2019 @ 3:01 pm
He’s referring to liberalism’s possible extinction there. I took his meaning to be that whether liberalism is truly threatened, or merely unfashionable for the time being, there’s a perennial hardiness to it that he takes comfort in. Mainly, I just liked the contrast between his optimism and Gray’s pessimism.
October 22, 2019 @ 4:18 pm
The pessimism of Mr. Gray’s conclusion seems to be based wholly on his assessment of the public figures who stand for liberalism today, and of such consensus as can be gathered from their cultural productions. They wouldn’t, in his judgment, stick with — and fight for — liberal principles if they came to believe that liberalism stood no chance of sweeping the field. If I agree with Mr. Gray about them, it’s without prejudice to liberalism itself, which may find better — other — defenders. But unless and until a new defense of liberalism is mounted, it has the status of a miracle that hasn’t happened yet, which one can hope for knowing it may never happen. I think there’s a pattern – “stoical and realist” — for principled perseverance through an activity that has all the outward signs of loneliness. I think I discern it in the scholar-poets of the Orient making a select company through correspondence (I don’t really know them well enough), and in the still nearer Classical notion (see: Garlands of Repose: The Literary Celebration of Civic and Retired Leisure, by Michael O’Loughlin, Chicago, 1978) which keeps coming back – e.g., Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, maybe The Benedict Option which I haven’t read.