August 25th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Current policies leave farmers high and dry in drought

CANBERRA OBSERVED Captain and Lieutenant's $444 million munificence

MEDICAL ETHICS Changes to AHPRA's code of conduct would gag doctors

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump delivers for U.S. economy and workers

CHILDREN AND SOCIETY Treating depressed children: How will history judge us?

PRIVACY Big Brother is marketing you

THE FAMILY Humanae Vitae: a prophetic document at 50

SOCIETY AND MORES Novel features of child sexual abuse in our time

EUTHANASIA International expert emphasises palliative care

BIOGRAPHY The trouble with Harry (Freame) is that we've forgotten him

OPINION Just asking ... sauce for the goose ...?

HISTORY Christianity has died. Agreed, and yet ...

MILITARY HISTORY The volunteering spirit proves best in the test


MUSIC Chilly exposure: The sound and the fury

CINEMA Mission Impossible: Fallout: Ethan Hunt, knight errant

BOOK REVIEW A good diagnosis enables the cure

BOOK REVIEW End of the American empire?



OPINION The Victorian ALP observed from up close

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A good diagnosis enables the cure

News Weekly, August 25, 2018

FREEDOM FROM REALITY: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty

by D.C. Schindler

University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana
Hardcover: 496 pages
Price: AUD$123.99

Reviewed by Brian Coman

A friend who had persuaded Dr Johnston to accompany him to a musical concert noted that the great man was somewhat inattentive. “This is a very difficult piece”, said his friend. “I wish it had been impossible,” replied Johnston.

This new book by D.C. Schindler is, likewise, a very difficult read but, unlike Johnston, I wish it were not so. I say this because of the importance of the subject matter, not just as an academic exercise, but as a much-needed analysis of the disastrous path of modern liberalism. Moreover, not only does it offer an in-depth critique but it suggests a way out of the mess we are in.

Schindler’s account of modern liberalism goes back to basic metaphysical principles and this is why the book will be a difficult read for the average layperson (as a retired rabbit poisoner, I am most assuredly in this category!). For it is the case that traditional metaphysics has been almost totally abandoned by philosophers since the time of Locke and Hume.

Just because metaphysics (the science or study of being) deals largely with abstract entities, it is a grave mistake to suppose that such entities are therefore “unreal” or unimportant. On the contrary, they go to the very heart of our understanding of the world around us and especially to our understanding of human social and political organisation.

When the early Greek philosophers began to muse upon the nature of the cosmos, they formed various theories as to the constitution of the world around them. Some thought everything could be reduced to fire, others to water.

It was Parmenides of Elea (circa 500 BC), however, who came up with the right answer. What everything had in common, he realised, was being. From this basic concept – that being is the absolute starting point of all philosophy – the ancients went on to derive a series of logical conclusions. For instance, being must be absolutely complete in itself since anything that could be added to it would still be being.

For being thus conceived in the abstract, as it were, Plato and Aristotle (in their different ways) quickly realised that the being of material things in our everyday world was anything but eternal and immutable, and so on. Such things participated in being to the degree possible by their particular natures. There was, in other words, a hierarchy of being.

Furthermore each thing “strove”, as it were, to attain the fullness of being available to it. A small seedling tree, for instance, became a sapling and then a mature tree, able to reproduce itself, and this represented its proper “end”, or goal. And this “end”, in fact, was an appropriate definition of “the good” available to it.

Please don't immanentise the eschaton.

Applied to human beings, Aristotle proposed that the “end” was happiness and that such an end could only be achieved by the practice of the virtues.

Importantly, a certain sort of freedom was required in order to reach the goal. That freedom was the freedom to rise above our baser instincts and pleasures so as to achieve our goal. Only under such a conception of freedom could the virtues be practised and a human life lived to the full.

This ridiculously inadequate account of traditional metaphysics will, I hope, nonetheless set the scene for Schindler’s arguments in his new book. For readers requiring a more substantial but easily readable account, I recommend Daniel J. Sullivan’s An Introduction to Philosophy (Tan Books, Illinois, 1992).

Schindler begins at the other end of the history of philosophy by showing us just how modern philosophy has completely reversed the traditional concept of freedom. To do this, he chooses the philosophy of John Locke (1632–1704), one of the “giants” of early modern philosophy. He chooses Locke for two reasons. First, Locke is generally regarded as “the father of liberalism”. Second, Locke’s philosophy was immensely important in shaping the thinking of the American Founding Fathers, and Schindler is an American, writing primarily for an American audience.

What Locke does, perhaps with the best of intentions, is to reject this earlier conception of freedom, unhitching it from any notion of “the good” and attaching it instead to a notion of individual power. In other words, liberty implies an “empowering” of the individual over and against traditional restraints (which themselves, offered a different sort of empowerment.).

Locke was very likely influenced in making this move because of the disastrous history of religious wars in Europe. This more secular account of individual liberty, so he thought, would prevent such things happening again. Alas, what it has done instead is to bring us to where we are today, with a rampant individualism now challenging all forms of traditional authority.

And this brings us to the rather startling subtitle of Schindler’s book: “The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty”. It is important here to understand exactly what Schindler means by “diabolical”. He is using this word as the exact opposite of “symbolical”.

The etymological derivation of “symbol” comes from the Greek verb sym-ballō – to join together. In the pre-modern era, symbols were tokens of the good “that stands at the origin as first cause, and so have a certain aptness for a fundamentally generous and generative unity”.

By contrast, dia-ballō means to divide or to set at odds. Schindler characterises the diabolical as being essentially negative (and I take this to mean that my “liberty” is at the expense of someone else’s), and as being a mere image substituting for reality. As a corollary, it tends to render appearance more decisive than reality. It is also “soulless” in the sense of lacking an animating principle of unity. Finally, it is self-destructive.

Many decades ago, Malcolm Muggeridge published a perceptive essay entitled “The Great Liberal Death Wish”. It has all come to pass.

The perceptive reader will note that many of the terms used by Schindler have a theological as well as a philosophical aspect. The “Good” for instance is surely another word for God. But Schindler has been very careful so as to avoid the obvious criticism that he is using philosophy as a Trojan horse for his Catholicism. Without doubt, many critics will bring to this book a particular logical fallacy that C.S. Lewis called “Bulverism”: one accuses an argument of being wrong on the basis of the arguer’s identity or motive. But these are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the argument’s validity or truth.

To bring this whole business back to the everyday experience that we are accustomed to, rather than the dense language of the scholar, we need think no further than some of the slogans about us today: “my body, my choice”, for instance; or “marriage equality”; or “freedom to choose my gender”. These are, all of them, an attack on the view of human nature that prevailed in the West from at least 400 years before the time of Christ up until our own era.

And so, what can be done? Here, I’m afraid, Schindler gives some pointers but no real road map, as it were. It was one of the favourite sayings of B.A. Santamaria that “we are engaged in a battle of ideas”. Just as the modern view of morality and human nature can be traced back to certain philosophical ideas, so too must the remedy come from that quarter.

And this is why Schindler’s book is so important. He has here laid out the argument. Others must now take it up. It may seem an impossible task, but there are precedents. Many decades ago, Scottish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published After Virtue, a spirited defence of traditional virtue-based ethics. It was an enormously important book and has had a major influence in the area of modern moral philosophy. Schindler’s book is, in my view, of similar significance.

The difficulty for Schindler lies in the fact that most modern scholars have a dearth of knowledge in this area and are so thoroughly immersed in “the spirit of the age” that they will make no serious attempt to understand the book or counter its arguments. They will simply cry “medievalism”.

“I have found you and an argument,” said Dr Johnston to one of his opponents, “but I cannot find you an understanding.”

Truth, though, has a way of prevailing in the end and I conclude with a little quote from Raffaello Carboni in his account of the Eureka Stockade (his original was in Latin):

“The lie, like the whirlwind, clears itself a royal road, either in town or country, through the whole face of the earth. The fool in his heart says, ‘There is no God.’ The truth, however slow, step by step, like a little child, someday, at last, finds a footpath to light. Then the righteous flourish like a palm tree.”

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