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