Monday, April 28, 2008

On Liberalism

I've created confusion in some quarters by choosing the title "This Liberal Blog" for this space. Some of my more conservative friends have accused me of obfuscation and refuse to link my blog. If they're that uptight about it, I don't want a link to their blog anyway, but that is a topic for another post.

This post is entitled "On Liberalism", and as such is about liberalism. Let's break it down etymologically, shall we? "On" meaning "about" or "concerned with". That's the easy part.

"Liberalism" is from the Latin word "liber", meaning "free". As such, the term "liberal" concerns itself with freedom. In this analysis, I will mostly concern myself with English usage. Even that is slightly beyond the limits of my expertise, but I press on.

At one time, before the modern era, "liberal" was primarily associated with largess, or freedom of action. Another common sense of use was in the sense of the "liberal arts". This was a "free" education, meant to equip the student to respond to challenges from trains of thought outside of purely Christian development. It was contrasted with scholastic modes of education that were more rigid and admitted less wandering.

I have it from no less authority than Winston Churchill when I say that the term "liberal" was first used in a political sense during the Spanish Civil War of the 1820-23. It was associated with Enlightenment trains of thought that agitated against government by monarchy in 19th-century Europe. In varying degrees, since that time, the term "liberal" has been applied to those who desire to peel back traditional and cultural norms with the stated goal of "progress". As opposed to this definition, a "conservative" was one who wished in some way to preserve these same institutions for the good of nations in particular and societies in general.

"So why call your blog 'This Liberal Blog'?". Good question. Liberalism isn't a defining life ethic, or at least not one of very much value. But it is an inclination, or a general leaning, with which I identify. I believe that "liberality" in thought and education, meaning freedom, allow us to fully take ownership of our cultural legacy. I believe it is necessary to distinguish between liberality and license.

Many of the forces that have appropriated the term "liberal" are in fact proponents of license. License demands freedom for its own sake, to do what it wants. In contrast, liberality only asks for the freedom to determine what is right and to do it.

And for that, I am a liberal.


Bob said...

I don't mind identifying as a classical liberal, and I would deny that claim to libertarians who believe they are the rightful heirs to that tradition. Pah! They won't recognize a tradition if it hit them between the eyes.

But I mostly identify as a conservative because it is the larger thing -- I could preserve the liberal tradition as an American conservative (a European conservative would mean a different thing).

Conservatism is the negation of ideology. Ideology is the dirty side of liberalism. Freedom or liberty are not the most important thing in men's lives although for a well lived life it is important to express it.

This age is more illiberal than that of the founding father's time, though even then, they were imperfect. We live under the dictatorship of relativism. Freedom is having the right to do what we ought (re: Lord Acton) and there's less of that sort of freedom as the tyranny of relativism grows.

This Liberal said...

Well put, Bob.

But aren't we Christian idealists? I would understand an idealist to be one who would base action and thought upon an "ideal". For Christians, our ideal is supposed to be love.

I don't think abandonment to ideals is a bad thing, and I wouldn't want to "negate" idealism. A long string of ever-improving ideals led me to Christ.

I can understand using ideology as a pivot point to define conservatism and liberalism. But I fear the negation of idealism more than I fear its promotion. Maybe that's why I identify as a liberal.