The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (9 page)

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Lippmann did not share
such radical skepticism, but by the mid-1930s he was wondering about the ability of modern liberal culture and modern science to find an adequate basis
for building a moral community. The darkening clouds of totalitarianism as well as the deep economic depression made
it a real question as to whether democracies could survive. Lippmann at first supported the New Deal, but he then
became
dubious of the government's ability to solve societal problems through pragmatic and increasingly collectivist action. It was around this time, in the later 1930s, that he began to take up the project that would eventually become
Essays in the Public Philosophy
. Lippmann had begun to question the conclusion of his liberal contemporaries that modern natural science dictated a rejection of eighteenth-century views of natural law, especially of a higher moral law, as irrecoverable mythology. Lippmann had begun to think, rather, that twentieth-century mainstream Western thought had taken a serious wrong turn into a dead end. Pragmatism by itself could not get them out. Therefore, it was time to see if somehow a higher moral law might be recovered as a basis for a shared social morality.
10

Lippmann's proposal was complicated by the fact that, by the 1950s, natural-law philosophy was chiefly associated with Roman Catholicism. Anti-Catholicism was still strong in much of American life. Since the 1930s, many liberals, including both mainstream Protestant and secular liberals, had associated Catholicism with fascism. After World War II, it had been commonplace to ask whether Catholicism was compatible with democracy. When in 1949 journalist Paul Blanshard argued in
American Freedom and Catholic Power
that true freedom and true Catholicism were incompatible, his book reached the best-seller lists. In 1951, William F. Buckley, a Roman Catholic and a recent Yale grad, created a furor in his
God and Man at Yale
by alleging that education at Yale was relativistic and atheistic. The anti-Christian stance of many of the faculty, he said, was of a piece with their being on the wrong side of the battle between individualism and collectivism. In
1955 Buckley founded
The National Review
, a crucial step in launching a new conservatism. At the time, however, the fact that Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom Buckley supported, was a Roman Catholic heightened liberal fears that Catholicism might be associated with repression.
11

So when Lippmann's
Essays in the Public Philosophy
appeared in 1955, his call for a return to natural law was weighted with so much cultural baggage that it easily triggered alarms disproportionate to what he had actually said. Even though he attempted to address the issues in the light of the long sweep of Western history, in 1955 the horizons of most liberal Americans were dominated by very recent memories of McCarthyism that were still smolderingly hot. Lippmann had opposed McCarthy, and he always thought of himself as a political liberal and a champion of free society, but to his great chagrin, a number of his mainstream contemporaries saw his ideas as a step toward authoritarianism. It did not help that he advocated, as a counter to enthusiasms of the masses, not only a rational search for natural law, but also a stronger executive.
The New Republic
characterized his book as the work of a “badly frightened man.”
The Saturday Review
called it “eloquent but unconvincing.” Reinhold Niebuhr acknowledged Lippmann's “profundity” but did not have much else good to say. Not all the reviews were negative, but the gist of most of them was, as
The
Nation
put it, that it was “not the great book of distilled wisdom on the ultimate problems of political organization and human destiny for which we have been waiting.”
12

The most scathing attack came from Archibald MacLeish. The poet, who also had been Librarian of Congress during the
FDR administration, had come under some fire himself from McCarthy because of some minor left-wing associations. In a long review, he took Lippmann to task for not sufficiently countering McCarthyite threats to basic freedoms. Lippmann, said MacLeish, was motivated by “the conviction that the idea of full individual freedom and the idea of effective community are irreconcilable ideas and that there is therefore an ineluctable choice between them; that in that choice community must be preferred.” According to MacLeish, Lippmann had mistaken the direction of history. “The flow of human life is not backward toward closer and closer association but forward toward greater individuality.” MacLeish believed that artists were on the cutting edge that pointed to the direction in which civilization was headed. “In all the modern arts of words, in modern painting, in modern music, a common impulse is at work,” he wrote, “an impulse, almost a compulsion, to penetrate the undiscovered country of the individual human consciousness, the human self.” Lippmann, by contrast, by stepping away from the priority of freedom and looking toward the past, was playing into the hands of McCarthyites and other authoritarians.
13

Lippmann offered a rejoinder in which he could barely contain his anger that MacLeish had accused him of somehow abetting McCarthyism. MacLeish had opened with a lengthy exposition of the implications of the McCarthyite menace, and only when he was well into his polemic did he get around to mentioning that Lippmann had a long record as an editorialist of speaking out forcefully against McCarthyism. Lippmann retorted that he would have to have a personality as split as that of Jekyll and Hyde to truly have advocated such opposites. He was just as much a genuine liberal and a champion of the free society as he had ever been. MacLeish, he continued, had confused categories regarding human freedom. MacLeish had declared that since the eighteenth century, Americans had been committed to “the boundless liberty of the
individual human spirit
.” But then MacLeish had equated that with “the modern democratic belief in the greatest
possible
individual freedom.” Lippmann could affirm the ideal of “the boundless liberty of the
individual human spirit
” as an ideal truly for the individual. But in the
public
sphere it was not “possible” that freedom could be boundless for everyone. The best we could do would be to work for the greatest freedom possible
within the bounds necessary for community
. Freedom in the public domain, said
Lippmann, must necessarily be limited (even while it should be maximized). MacLeish had defined “the basic philosophy of liberalism” as “the belief in the liberation of the individual human spirit to find its own way to enlightenment and truth.” With this Lippmann could agree. But that ideal for inward individual self-fulfillment was hardly a complete standard for a
public
philosophy that would adjudicate the hard questions that arise when individual interests conflict.
14

Alan Dunn, June 17, 1950,
The New Yorker

In
Walter Lippmann and His Times
, a tribute from a dozen of the leading thinkers of the day published in 1959 for Lipp­mann's seventieth birthday, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. offered a piercing analysis of what, from a liberal perspective, was Lipp­mann's fall not only from pragmatism, but also from pluralism. In his books of the 1920s, said Schlesinger, Lippmann had addressed the irreducible pluralism of modern societies with a procedural solution of “the maintenance of a regime of rule, contract, and custom.” But since then, and especially in
Essays in the Public Philosophy
, these practical rules had somehow taken on a sort of cosmic essence for Lippmann. Due process had grown into “a universal order on which all reasonable men were agreed.” These rules were to be objectively discovered and had to be obeyed. Rather than seeing pluralism as a reason to back away from absolute claims, Lippmann had declared that “in this pluralized and fragmenting society a public philosophy with common and binding principles was more necessary than it had ever been.” Moreover, Lippmann had insisted that the truths of such a philosophy would have to be such that they could be “proved to the modern skeptic” so that “only the willfully irrational can deny” them. Schlesinger
did not think himself irrational, “yet for those brought up in the tradition of James, Lippmann's conception of natural law, for all its nobility, cannot help seem an artificial construct.” Schlesinger even asked, with a mix of hope and condescension, whether, in some of Lippmann's very recent statements, there were “perhaps signs that he is swinging back to a more vivid appreciation of the reality of pluralism?”
15

Schlesinger represented the antidogmatic liberal consensus of the era as well as anyone. He had, in fact, been one of the first to define it in his 1949 book,
The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom
. Liberals of his generation (he was born in 1917), he explained, had not grown up with the romanticism of utopian Marxism that had captured the hearts of so many progressives, but rather, with the ugly realities of the Soviet Union and the hopeful experimental politics of FDR's New Deal. Influenced by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (Schlesinger became a prime example of “atheists for Niebuhr”), he affirmed that radical reformers had naïvely optimistic views of human nature and hence of its reformability. Democracy supported a healthy balance between individual fulfillment and community responsibility and was “a process, not a conclusion.” It needed to be characterized by “empiricism and gradualism.” Such centrist liberal views, built around “the spirit of human decency,” said Schlesinger, could in fact be characterized as a “new radicalism” opposing the extremes of tyranny. It “dedicates itself to problems as they come, attacking them in terms which best advance the human and libertarian values, which best secure the freedom and fulfillment of the individual.”
16

Sociologist Daniel Bell encapsulated much the same outlook in the much-noted title to his 1960 book of essays,
The End of Ideology
. Marxism was no longer an option for intellectuals, but that was only a symptom of a larger phenomenon, that all ideologies were exhausted. Analysts needed to give up searching for global schemes and recognize that reality was too complicated for that, and so needed to be studied one problem at a time. What was needed, Bell counseled, was the scholar rather than the intellectual. “The scholar has a bounded field of knowledge, a tradition, and seeks to find his place in it, adding to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past, as a mosaic.” The scholar's work was much more down to earth and empirical than the intellectual's. And the practical, down-to-earth challenge for Western society was the same as it had had been for “the last two hundred years: how, within the framework of freedom, to increase the living standards of the majority of people and at the same time maintain or raise cultural levels.”
17

Scholarly public intellectuals such as Schlesinger and Bell were not rebels without a cause, but moderate reformers with many causes. They articulated the widely held view that the strength of the American democratic system lay in the very feature that worried Lippmann, its relativism and lack of dogmatism. Dogmatic ideologies had been the bane of the twentieth century. Forward-minded American thinkers could look to the New Deal as providing a refreshing contrast that they saw as capturing the genius of the American way. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who bridged the two eras by being both the preeminent historian of the New Deal and a special adviser to
President Kennedy, described the ideal. “The whole point of the New Deal,” he wrote, “lay in its belief in activism, its faith in gradualness, its rejection of catastrophism, its indifference to ideology, its conviction that a managed and modified capitalist order achieved by piecemeal experiment could combine personal freedom and economic growth.” Daniel Bell, in an introduction to a 1955 volume analyzing McCarthyism and the new American right, found similar traits throughout American history. Americans, he observed, long had been given to extremism in morality, but they had seldom extended such moral dogmatism to politics, where instead they displayed “an extraordinary talent for compromise.” That talent for “bargaining and consensus” grew out of “the historical contribution of liberalism,” which was “to separate law from morality.”
18

Yet the fact was that, despite such disclaimers, the champions of a pragmatically based consensus were themselves moralists. They were passionately committed to principles such as individual freedom, free speech, human decency, justice, civil rights, community responsibilities, equality before the law, due process, balance of powers, economic opportunity, and so forth. And they were morally indignant at those who might subvert those principles. Yet their justification for these principles was not that they were
f
ixed in a higher law or derived from an ideology. Rather, it was that these principles had evolved historically in the give and take of human experience in free societies and had proven themselves as contributing to human fulfillment. Mainstream liberal thinkers could thus, on the one hand, be consistent believers in a purely naturalistic universe that did not furnish any absolute first principles, yet
on the other hand have a dedicated faith in the shared principles of the current American consensus. They were, as one commentator characterized them, “believing skeptics.”
19

BOOK: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
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