The Public Interest

Four cheers for liberalism?

Jerry Z. Muller

Summer 1994

DURING A DECADE that produced more books about the inadequacies of liberalism than about its intrinsic virtues, among the finest unabashedly liberal works was Stephen Holmes’ Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism (Yale, 1984). Holmes used Constant as a historical hook upon which to hang an exercise in the retrieval of liberal theory. Holmes explored the eighteenth century arguments that would later come to be known as “liberal” and showed how Constant reformulated those principles under the impact of the French Revolution, especially the experience of government terror wielded in the name of democracy and civic republican virtue. In place of either the ancient republican ideal of a state devoted to civic virtue, the aristocratic ideal of martial virtue, or the ideal of a Christian polity, Constant championed what Holmes called “the de-dramatizing of the political sphere” and the importance of a protected, non-political private sphere as the basis of modern liberty. In contrast to the Aristotelian tradition which insisted that social order is based on unity of purpose and that political communities ought be organized with a view to realizing some highest aim, such as the flourishing of man’s political nature, Constant and other liberals insisted that under modern conditions of commercial society, strong but responsible government, and equality before the law enforced by an independent judiciary, social order could be achieved without an overarching moral purpose. In retrieving what he called “the anti-teleological core of liberal theory” Holmes elucidated a central strand of liberal political thought.

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