Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s recent book presents a bold way forward
The evidence, as I understand it, suggests that we ought to be as deeply pessimistic as is compatible with a belief in Divine Providence.”
Alasdair MacIntyre delivered these words at the conclusion of his 1989 lecture, “The Privatization of the Good.” In its context, this quotation bemoans the difficulties created by liberalism’s removal of the question of the human good from the public sphere. Regarding this question, MacIntyre argues that liberalism’s attempt to formulate moral rules for society without reference to a shared conception of the good has made the existence of shared moral rules impossible. And it has poisoned the chance for any public pursuit of this shared conception of the good.
Obviously, such an argument lends itself to quite a bit of pessimism. A necessary condition for the flourishing of society is missing. Furthermore, there are very significant structural obstacles to rediscovering and restoring this common conception of the good. Despite this bleak picture, MacIntyre qualifies his assertion by stating that we only ought to be “as deeply pessimistic as is consistent with a belief in Divine Providence [emphasis added].”
Though neither MacIntyre nor this statement are mentioned in the work, this qualification animates Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s recently published book Regime Change.
Deneen’s previous book, Why Liberalism Failed, offered limited solutions for the deep problems of our liberal political order. Regime Change seeks a path forward amid discouraging circumstances by applying timeless concepts of political thought to the present situation. In doing so, Deneen displays the practical socio-political consequences of belief in Divine Providence as alluded to by MacIntyre.
Even if evidence may call for pessimism, belief in Divine Providence compels him to pursue optimal solutions according to both timeless standards and present circumstances. In Regime Change, Deneen remains committed to his philosophical resolutions about the role of government and the proper environment that allows for a flourishing human life. At the same time, however, he acknowledges the dire present state of things and the immense difficulties facing any effort to change the status quo.
Central to the project of Regime Change is an attempt to identify those elements of modern circumstance that might serve as ‘seeds’ for a revived, postliberal political order. Indeed, we cannot know the designs of Providence. But Deneen’s line of argumentation indicates that our belief in its existence nevertheless guarantees that, if we choose the correct course, it is possible to attain our ends, including the common good.
Understood in the light of this belief, Deneen is neither a dejected detractor in his harsh critiques of the existing order, nor a naïve optimist in his proposal of the path to a postliberal future. Rather, he is a thinker rooted both in reality and in the Catholic understanding of Divine Providence.
Suffice it to say that this praise of Deneen’s balanced approach, both wary of the challenges posed by the current state of the liberal regime and hopeful in the light of Divine Providence and timeless truths of political thought, was not the typical reaction of reviewers of Regime Change, whether right or left.
It would seem that many reviewers did not even follow Deneen past the first sentence of the work. Deneen opens the book stating, “No sensible reader of the news could look to America and think it is flourishing.” But many readers were not willing to admit this much, pillorying the book for spreading a message of doom regarding contemporary America. If this fundamental premise of Deneen’s argument is rejected, there remains little room to engage with the remainder of the work. If things are going well, regime change can be nothing other than a threat. Reviews which object to Deneen’s argument from its outset will be unsatisfying to those who do find his launching point compelling.
Others were willing to see the deep problems within the liberal regime but regarded his condemnation of liberalism per se as unwarranted.
These two categories of reviewers were quick to declaim Deneen’s proposal for a society predicated on limits and order as both unnecessary and dangerous. But these reviews, in their fundamentally different reading of present circumstances and the effects of liberalism, share too little common ground with Deneen’s argument to truly engage with it in its full depth, thus serving more as polemics against the thesis of Deneen’s first book than true reviews of his second.
Still, a few others concurred with Deneen both in his diagnosis of our society’s ills and in identifying liberalism as the cause of these issues. Yet even these did not admit that liberalism’s crisis requires a move beyond classical liberalism, the ideology of the American founding, even questioning if such a move is possible.
This type of review, exemplified in Michael Anton’s article in the Claremont Review of Books, serves as an interesting reflection on whether Deneen’s argument truly constitutes a move beyond liberalism in all its forms and whether that development might be possible or desirable.
In his review, subtitled “No one knows the way out of our present morass,” Anton echoes Deneen’s deep criticism of the modern liberal regime and its disastrous effects on the common good. But he questions whether the current state of the liberal regime is the result of an inevitable slide necessitated by the classical liberal character of the American founding. He instead suggests that these deleterious effects result from a corruption of the American founding which must be healed rather than abandoned. In support of this argument, Anton cites the political philosophy of Leo Strauss, which he says points out a deep conflict between the ancients and moderns both in terms of philosophy and conditions for political life.
Anton puts forward that Strauss’s thought holds that “ancient philosophy is fundamentally sound” and that “modern philosophy … is fundamentally flawed.” But in terms of politics, the rise of the Roman Empire, the eclipse of paganism, and the dawn of Christianity necessarily led to different political forms than the city-states in which ancient philosophy had developed. Because of this, the further development of political thought required that “the Machiavellian Project” come along “to lower the goal of human life.” politically speaking and otherwise.
Developing these two ideas, Anton adopts an interpretation of the ancient-modern divide that holds that the original American political order, as framed by America’s Founding Fathers, represents a best-possible compromise that applies as many of the lessons from ancient philosophy as possible while still respecting the fundamentally different conditions of modern politics. Therefore, according to Anton, the possibility of a political community ordered towards a unified conception of the good and bounded by unchosen obligations is not possible under the conditions of modernity.
But even as he agrees with Deneen on the dire present state of things and can even identify many of the same causes of our present discontents, Anton cannot go so far as to believe in the possibility of regime change, let alone endorse it. In his view, the best that can be done is to return to the precarious—but altogether much better—state of things that existed at the time of the American founding. For Anton, modernity has actually changed the aim of political life, and therefore Deneen errs by aiming too high at an end that was eclipsed by modernity. Even if classical liberalism does contain the source of our present ailments, Anton says that we cannot seek a future beyond its framework. Rather, we must try to maintain liberalism’s delicate balance for as long as possible. Now that we have lost it, there is no way back. With our interests severed and disconnected, there is no way to reintegrate them or prompt all to aim at the common good. It would seem Anton’s final assessment is far more pessimistic than that of Regime Change.
But in answering this objection, I propose that Deneen might appeal to the notion of Divine Providence—that I earlier posited animated much of his work in Regime Change. If the ends of political life are rationally and therefore universally determined, how could they be subject to change by the rise of modernity, a mere change in historical circumstance? Anton says that they are. But if we are to be as pessimistic as is compatible with a belief in Divine Providence, then we cannot be so pessimistic as to assert that the ancient ideals of the ends of government (if they are true) could possibly be changed by the turns of history.
A belief in Divine Providence entails a trust in the idea that human events have been so governed as to always allow us an opportunity to reach our true ends if we act according to the proper virtue in whatever circumstance we encounter. Rather than accepting that historical or present circumstances can alter the timeless standards by which we measure our political life, a confidence in Divine Providence demands that we apply these same timeless standards to our present circumstances. That is precisely what Deneen does in Regime Change.
In forging this way forward, though it is not an easy or perfectly developed path, Deneen accomplishes something truly impressive (or at least admirable). He has proposed a rediscovery of the possibility of widespread virtuous citizenship, something that many believe is impossible to attain in modernity and others reject outright.
The conditions for virtuous citizenship, in which citizens govern themselves and serve some active role in the government of society towards the common good, have been continually depleted in a liberal regime. Those with power are incentivized to pursue unfettered progress (the apparent interests of the elite class), and those who do have interests in maintaining the social bounds necessary for liberty and widespread virtuous citizenship have little voice in the regime.
Virtuous citizenship may be practiced, but only against the grain of the regime’s dominant principle and thus only by very few and never with much success. But in Regime Change, a path emerges by which virtuous leaders might surpass the constraints of the current liberal regime, opening the door for widespread virtuous citizenship for the many and the few alike in the future.
Luke Thompson is a senior from Flagstaff, Arizona majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. As a former politics editor (currently in exile in the campus section), he could only be kept away for so long. To discuss the need for regime change in the realm of college football, reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Regime Change; Sentinel
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