This is Part 4 in a 5-part series. Read the entire series here.
As someone who has been invested in the liberal arts for my entire adult life, the most frustrating part of Why Liberalism Failed is the chapter on liberal education and freedom. Deneen clearly cares about education on some level, and believes that good education is the backbone of good character and good culture. He also provides some useful bromides against corporate influence over higher education in America today. But ultimately, rather than providing a robust defense of the humanities and the liberal arts, Deneen just defaults, again, to nostalgia. Worse, on this front his nostalgia isn’t even very interesting. Patrick Deneen takes what is often called Western Civilization — something that is rich, and tension-ridden, and has the power even in the thick of late modernity to transform and transfigure people’s lives — and reduces it to a monolithic course in good habits and self-control. The Deneen account of liberal arts is too narrowly focused on the virtues of discipline and self-command. It is uninterested in outside or alternative voices. It is almost entirely about stable horizons and not at all about movement or change. And it dovetails with a strange and hollow understanding of liberty — one that mocks the ideas of agency, will, and consent, and fails to grapple in any serious way with the reality of oppression and domination. Ultimately, this is an astonishing feat of stagnance and closed-mindedness on the part of someone claiming to speak for authentic freedom.
“Liberalism Against Liberal Arts” is the fifth chapter of Why Liberalism Failed, and it is here that Deneen provides his fullest account of the meaning of liberal arts education and freedom, and of how liberalism has undermined both. It is useful to treat the themes of education and freedom together because, as I believe Deneen is right to insist, the two themes are intertwined: education is an essential means to human freedom, and freedom is arguably the crowning purpose of a good education. This is why an education in the humanities is often called a liberal arts education to this day. Education is supposed to be liberating.
In the course of the chapter, Deneen develops a simple schema through which we might understand these concepts as he does. He offers portraits of ‘good-traditional’ education and freedom, and juxtaposes these with their ‘bad-liberal’ analogues. It’s a strange, black-and-white, and reductive conceptualization scheme that, in obvious ways, leaves genuine freedom and education untouched. My goal here is to go through the schema to make his views clear before turning to a more wide-ranging discussion of both themes.
Deneen on education
Deneen’s discussion of liberal arts education is, to a degree, a recounting of the standard classical understanding. Above all else, according to him, a good education is an education in virtue. A good habituation or formation inculcates something good in its students, and Deneen insists on speaking about that good thing in strictly classical terms: a good education will teach us how to choose the right and virtuous course (100), it is about fostering virtue and morality (114), it’s about how to be a good human being (115), it is about moral formation and the inculcation of virtue (118), it is about human flourishing and living well (110). While this language might sound strange to contemporary ears, it is a fairly standard Aristotelian way of speaking about education, as well as about ethics (“virtue ethics”).
The more striking thing, to me, about Deneen’s account of traditional liberal arts education isn’t his willingness to appeal to moral edification, it is his insistence on closed cultural horizons, and on the discipline of virtue. The original mandate of a humanities education, Deneen insists, is “to guide students through their cultural inheritance” (121). Deneen appeals repeatedly to a bygone time when liberal education was not about freeing people from “place and the ancestral,” but rather about educating them “deeply in the tradition from which they came.” A good liberal education didn’t teach students to challenge or question, but was instead about “deepening their knowledge of the sources of their beliefs, confirming — not confronting — their faith, and seeking to return them to the communities from which they were drawn.” Education was about reinforcing a “basic teaching embedded deeply within its cultural tradition, namely an education in limits” (128). According to Deneen, a good liberal arts education teaches human beings about their traditions and helps them reify their faith. Virtue is a decidedly bounded/Spartan affair.
Indeed, given America’s diverse and contentious history, it’s worth probing a bit further and asking what precisely Deneen has in mind when he speaks like this. Whose traditions and faith are “we” talking about? Again the horizons are fixed and closed. When it comes to the substance of such an education — to the ever-explosive curricular question — Deneen focuses squarely on ancient and Christian traditions. Traditionally, Deneen claims, liberal education involved “deep engagement with the fruits of long cultural inheritance, particularly the great texts of antiquity and the long Christian tradition” (110). The aim of such an education, he explains, “is not ‘critical thinking’ but the achievement of liberty governed by the discipline of virtue.” According to Deneen, at some point in the past “Each new generation was encouraged to consult the great works of our tradition, the epics, the great tragedies and comedies, the reflections of philosophers and theologians, the revealed word of God, the countless books that sought to teach us how to use our liberty well” (115). Such a liberal arts tradition involved “an emphasis on classical and Christian texts” (112-113). Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, More, and Milton make the list. Great education involves, then, lessons in how to be good and free and virtuous, as defined by Greek, Roman, and Christian thinkers. It’s an elaborate intergenerational habituation in a very particular kind of status quo.
Deneen juxtaposes the good-traditional understanding of liberal education with what he takes to be the reality of college education today. The main thing he discovers is that universities have completely given up on their moral mandate (one piece of evidence for this claim is a “change of emphasis” in the mission statements “of nearly every university in America,” 118-119). Nowadays, Deneen laments, we don’t see “the inculcation of virtue,” but “only the emphasis upon research in the search of progress, particularly that progress that contributes to that centuries-old ambition to subject nature to human will” (118-119). Real liberal arts education is “mostly dead on most campuses” (113).
Deneen posits that it has been replaced or displaced in several different ways, but in general he emphasizes two things: the outsized role of STEM and the dangerous role of “liberatory movements” and anti-cultural critique. According to Deneen, STEM is antithetical to liberal arts and the humanities because it is inherently instrumental and servile: “An education for a free people is displaced by an education that makes liberal individuals servants to the end of untutored appetite, restlessness, and technical mastery of the natural world. Liberal education is replaced by servile education” (111). Instead of a place where young people might learn to become free, Deneen claims that universities turn people, for the most part, into joyless instruments of technological advancement.
As far as the humanities go, Deneen laments that they now consist solely of anti-cultural critique, never of wholesome appreciation. He writes of how modern “liberatory movements based on claims of identity regard the past as a repository of oppression, and hence displace the legitimacy of the humanities as a source of education” (111). As a result of this critical mode of thinking, people in the humanities only care about power: “Both left and right agree that the sole legitimate end of education is the advance of power through the displacement of the liberal arts” (111). Deneen claims that we’ve reached the point that all anyone can agree about within the modern university is the “raw assertion of power over restraints or limits, and the endless possibilities of self-creation” (122). Deneen is especially concerned about sexual power: “a special focus of the modern academy is sexual autonomy, a pursuit that reveals how closely it ultimately sides with a scientific project aimed at mastering all aspects of nature, including human reproduction” (122).
Deneen concludes the chapter by suggesting that we need to see a “reinvigoration” of the older conception of liberal education — the education in ancient and religious traditions, the education in restraints.
Deneen on liberty
Now, this is not an especially flattering picture — either of traditional liberal arts education, or of its alleged contemporary status. I will have more to say about both, but first want to discuss how Deneen connects his account of education to liberty. According to Deneen, the collapse of traditional liberal arts can be traced back to liberalism, and specifically to modern liberalism’s reconceptualization of liberty. Here’s how he puts it: “The collapse of the liberal arts in this nation follows closely upon the redefinition of liberty, away from its ancient and Christian understanding of self-rule and disciplined self-command, in favor of an understanding of liberty as the absence of restraints upon one’s desires” (116).
The basic idea here is that the ancients understood freedom to mean self-control and discipline — something a person cultivates and earns through their traditional education — whereas modern people understand liberty to mean the absence of any restrictions (or “freedom as license”). Here Deneen (sort of) echoes Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” According to that account, negative liberty is freedom from external restraint. It has little to do with our own capacities and is more about having free reign. Positive liberty requires something of us as persons and says something about us as persons: It involves self-control and presence of mind, self-mastery and self-direction.
But whereas Berlin explores the interaction and historical transformations involved in these two dimensions of freedom, Deneen takes the positive/negative liberty trope and reduces it down still further. While he does occasionally remind us that positive freedom involves “higher faculties of reason and spirit through the cultivation of virtue” (113, or “choosing the right and virtuous course,” 100), Deneen also tends to focus quite narrowly on bodily self-control. “Liberty comes through habituation, training, and education — particularly the discipline of self-command,” he tells us (113). The great books teach how to use liberty well, according to Deneen, and offer a special focus on “how to govern appetites that seemed inherently insatiable” (115). The tradition teaches “hard-won self-control through the discipline of virtue” and involves an “ethic of restraint” (114); it teaches us to be free from “the tyranny of internal appetite and desire” (115). Traditionally, according to Deneen, freedom comes through the internal mastery of desire, and that is the reigning purpose of education.
The essence of modern freedom, in stark contrast, is to let all this go. Deneen insists that the ideal of modern negative liberty is absolute and total (“liberty, as defined by the originators of modern liberalism, was the condition in which humans were completely free to pursue whatever they desired, 100). For Deneen, the modern definition of liberty “equates with the absence of external restraints,” and with the absence of limits of any kind. Liberalism was the “titanic wager that ancient norms of behavior could be lifted in the name of a new form of liberation and that conquering nature would supply the fuel to permit nearly infinite choices” (41). For Deneen, liberal democracy means an attack on all traditional cultures and institutions, because its very essence is the rejection of restraints. A society cannot have this default understanding of freedom and sustain healthy educational institutions: It simply doesn’t work.
All cave, no light
It is possible that Deneen’s account of the relationship between ancient and modern freedom and education serves a meaningful heuristic purpose — that in providing such a stark and reductive picture of these interrelated concepts he helps his reader understand some essential or enduring insights about the world. I have my doubts, which I will get to in a moment, but there are some things that I think Deneen gets right, or at least I think he raises some concerns here that are worth taking seriously. For example, Deneen reminds us about some of the traditional aims of education that tend not to be front and center today: how it can help people to appreciate the past, how it might play a serious edifying role in shaping good character, and how ideally it is concerned with intrinsic experiences and goods rather than with money-making instrumentalism. He reminds us about the many ways in which the humanities have been eclipsed by STEM in contemporary education— and how this relates to technology and capitalism — and he touches on how this impoverishes our civic life. And he provides a timely and vivid warning about how, too often, our universities become subject to visionless corporate and bureaucratic leaders who have very little sense of what quality education involves. Indeed, he also offers a timely reminder about how difficult these things can be to articulate, even for those who have dedicated their lives to education. Deneen also offers a good reminder that, especially for people with classical or conservative tastes, modern education can seem awfully deconstructive and critical. For someone like him, it’s clear that contemporary education focuses too much on disassembling history, and not enough on affirming all that is (by his lights) good, beautiful, and profound. Finally, Deneen reminds us of how, to the extent that modern freedom is understood in the negative — as “freedom from” constraint — it is a shallow and half-baked way of thinking. Such a conception leads us to forget about all the other conditions and institutions that make real thriving and engagement possible.
These are all real problems worthy of acknowledgement, and in specific contexts and milieus, each of Deneen’s insights have value as some kind of corrective. What his perspective fails to do is offer anything like a synthetic appreciation of the actual history of liberal education, let alone a meaningful path by which we might carry the liberal arts into the future. As a serious engagement with the actual state of affairs on American campuses, Deneen’s chapter leaves much to be desired. I agree with Deneen and everyone else that humanities education is in crisis in this country, but it still constitutes a massive and sincere endeavor (especially when considered in historical perspective). And though I share Deneen’s disdain for corporate language, his claims that no one on college campuses today is genuinely interested in moral or civic or intellectual edification is vastly overblown. The fact that today we speak less of “the right and virtuous course” and more about values/ethics/excellences is at least partly a reflection of having adjusted our manner of speaking to a more genuinely pluralistic era. It does not mean that we have abandoned moral and civic questions (or, for that matter, appreciation of the past: in 2017, the year before Deneen’s book was released, the new Wilson translation of Homer’s Odyssey was published by W. W. Norton; it sits higher on the Amazon charts than Deneen’s big hit).
But setting aside Deneen’s treatment of the contemporary scene, and focussing just on the substance of his account of liberal education: Not only does Deneen’s story refuse to acknowledge a role for critical thinking, evaluative judgment, or creativity, it also sidesteps a confrontation with anything like the genuine meaning of both political and personal freedom. It’s an all-cave, no-light account of the liberal arts.
Which is also to say that Deneen’s account of the traditional liberal arts is highly unorthodox. There is simply no denying that one of the traditional purposes of a liberal education is to help a person see beyond the constraints of their own idiosyncratic circumstances and historical moment, with a view, perhaps, to eventual critique and transformation. In a recent conversation with his friend Cornel West, conservative thinker Robert George put it like this:
I’ll tell you how you know whether you’re getting [a liberal education]: Are you being challenged in your fundamental beliefs, in your political and religious and moral beliefs? No matter what they are, no matter whether you’re a theist or an atheist, whether you’re a Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or Sikh, whether you are progressive or a conservative, if you are not being challenged on those fundamental issues, if you are not being made uncomfortable, if you are not being unsettled, if there are not professors and fellow students who are doing that for you, then you are not getting a liberal education.
Deneen does not so much as acknowledge the presence of minority religions in this country, let alone address George’s central claim. He does not say a thing about the discomfort that comes with real education. Instead, he writes about how, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates is very interested in finding appropriate wholesome poetry and stories for young children (68). And it’s true: The Platonic Socrates understands the importance of an education in limits, even to the point of advocating for “noble lies” that safeguard inherited traditions and practices, at some expense to the truth. What Deneen fails adequately to account for is the famous “Allegory of the Cave,” which is all about seeing through — and then escaping — the confines of one’s cultural inheritance (which Socrates speaks of as a “prison”). The allegory of the cave is such a familiar cultural reference that it’s easy to lose sight of just how radical and countercultural it is: Socrates isn’t just interested in teaching young Athenians about justice in the city and the beauties of Homeric poetry. He obviously thrills in radical cultural and religious critique — in seeing beyond the horizons of Greek culture. And eventually, of course, these practices got him killed (as Plato warns at the end of the allegory, “If they [the cave-dwellers] were able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?”). For Plato, who is the first person on Deneen’s reading list, real education is supposed to be uncomfortable and alienating. It could, furthermore, lead to dynamic cultural and political projects.
Deneen sets these radical elements aside, and domesticates liberal education into something far more limited and safe.
But of course, Deneen isn’t just doing this with Plato. He’s doing it with the entire so-called Western tradition. Deneen’s account of “liberal education — properly understood” (130) involves a parochial and anachronistic insistence on cultural homogeneity and closedness that would limit its substantive focus to a narrow, oversimplified slice of even the most canonical canon. As is so commonly done, Deneen speaks of the “classical and Christian” traditions as though they constitute something monolithic and commensurate, and as though they somehow offer some kind of universal education in moral virtue — even though, to take the most obvious difficulty, ancient Greece and Rome were pagan (and had radically different value-systems from the Christian one). Furthermore, consider all that Deneen’s classical/Christian education would exclude or erase. He seems keyed up about an education that would leave out Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, to start, and it’s not clear that he would support the study, say, of the Federalist Papers (as he puts it on page 120, “Conservative faculty largely opposed the campus left by demanding devotion to the study of the Great Books without recognizing that many of these books were the source of the very forces displacing the study of old books. Both sides allowed the liberal transformation of the academy to proceed unopposed”). What would Deneen have us do with Marx and Nietzsche, Beauvoir and Foucault, or Fanon, or Baldwin, or Lorde — or whatever other list of luminaries one could drum up from around the world?
This is not someone much interested in what outsiders have to say, and his pinched outlook makes outsiders of almost everyone. In addition to being radically anti-modern and illiberal, Deneen’s version of the liberal arts is also radically anti-intellectual.
I don’t think that, if pushed, Deneen would deny much of what I have just said. He has, after all, recently made the public case that the contemporary elite need to be punitively forced out and replaced. Instead, he would probably respond that I have exposed myself as a simple, dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Liberalism, he tells us on page 5, is its own kind of insidious cave in which “our containment remains invisible to us.” By his lights, my commitment to openness and inquiry is merely a reflection of my own peculiar historical context.
There is doubtless some truth to this view (he’s hardly the first to make such an observation about liberalism, though I doubt that anyone ever manages fully to escape their “cave”), but Deneen’s position still leaves me confused. Deneen’s ideal education is focused on protecting cultural inheritances, except when that involves the cultural inheritances proper to liberalism. His work seems aimed at helping us escape from the cave of liberalism (or, rather, from his own pathologized version of it), but all he offers in return is a rather staid set of old confines (one that does not acknowledge its own most obvious internal contradictions and complexities). It is true that I have made my peace, for the most part, with modern constitutionalism. From that perspective (which, I might note, is informed less by political theory per se and much more by my basic familiarity with 20th century political atrocities), Deneen is the one involved in unthinking cultural disassembly. His book promotes the dissolution of liberal democracy, without offering anything much — or anything clear — to sustain citizens on the other side.
Damon Linker described the political dimension of the problem well in a recent column. According to Linker (and he quotes since-deleted Tweets by Deneen), Deneen-style conservatism is involved in a kind of double paradox: They see moderate conservatives as trying to maintain something that is inherently self-destructive, while they, the “true conservatives,” end up taking on the role of revolutionaries who seek (and here Linker quotes Deneen), to “alter the current order, with the aim of making a genuine conservatism possible.” So Deneen himself admits that his vision is radical and revolutionary. As Hugo Drochon observes, Deneen never makes it clear what happens to liberal democratic cultural traditions and communities in the wake of the conservative revolution.
When it comes to modern education, my own view is pretty straightforward: Good liberal arts education involves probing appreciation for what has come before, assessment of the past and present, and, in many cases, a view to future transformations and reforms. Students should be encouraged to study what is familiar, as well as what is unfamiliar and different — so that they might learn something about the scope of their ignorance, learn what they take for granted, get inspired by the past, get inspired by the present, and learn to think for themselves. But because people do come from different backgrounds and cultures, and because people’s inclinations and cares do vary widely, good liberal arts education necessarily takes on a wide variety of shapes and hues. It should also, obviously, be open to the study of nature, as it has been in Europe and the Americas since at least the Renaissance. One comes away from Deneen’s book with the sense that STEM is only ever about instrumentalism and radical control over nature. His account implicitly denies that the pursuit of truth and understanding, the challenge of discovery, or the satisfaction of finding solutions or helping others, might — at least for some people — be intrinsically worthwhile and liberating, even when the object of study is the physical world. (Deneen’s approach to STEM is also, it seems to me, at odds with his apparent support for vocational education and a return to agrarian crafts/practices — all of which would count as “servile” according to the classical account that he elsewhere ascribes to).
Deneen’s suggestion that we need to undertake a “reinvigoration” of some older conception of liberal education has some appeal, and I can see why he would want to encourage such a curriculum, in some contexts, as a countervailing force to some of the educational trends of the day. But as a way of actually contending with the world as we encounter it, his vision falls radically short. He makes no mention of how such a project might connect with actual modern scientific and educational institutions, let alone how it would contend with the liberatory themes that are so central to the humanities today — and which clearly bring inspiration and meaning to so many. Deneen seems to have no sense of how a serious liberal arts education might be compatible with an actual dynamic, multiracial culture — how it might appeal to a plurality of people with different backgrounds, interests, and talents. In many respects, I’d say he is massively underselling the power of “the tradition” — which, when taken seriously, is necessarily dynamic, and questioning, and very much alive.
Ultimately, then, it’s not the silly denigration of all things STEM, or his abandon of all things critical and liberatory, that makes Deneen’s chapter on the liberal arts so frustrating. The problem is that the liberal arts can be something wonderful, and Deneen flubs his chance to make a good case for it (while blaming his liberal colleagues for their parallel failure). A good, modern liberal arts education — the kind that seeks out all manner of perspectives, that appreciates literature and the arts, that engages seriously with the natural and social sciences, and is eager to think about the future, too — is the sort of thing that should be easy to defend as necessary to the health of a modern democracy. Deneen refuses that project. Too often his account hobbles and thwarts, where he might have enlarged and inspired.
Deneen’s weak account of the liberal arts tradition is matched by a hollow account of human freedom. Neither his account of modern liberal “negative” freedom, nor that of traditional “positive” freedom, do much, it seems to me, to capture the actual history or phenomenon or experience. Deneen tends to avoid both the political dimensions of human freedom (i.e., the harsh realities of unfreedom), as well as some of freedom’s highest manifestations (i.e., the role it plays in phenomena such as discovery, institution-building, and artistic creativity).
Part of the problem lies in his emphasis on freedom as self-control. Far be it from me to deny the importance of habituation and self-discipline — but presumably once a person has achieved such a thing, they then ought to put their energies to some good positive use. Deneen makes gestures to virtue and moral formation, but he doesn’t elaborate much on what specifically that might involve, except to suggest that people should use their freedom well, perhaps “through such practices as agriculture, craftsmanship, worship, story, memory, and tradition” (129). These are lovely things, to be sure, but I wonder how suited they are to satisfying the desires and ambitions of many actual living people. Even the Spartans — those absolute paragons of self-control — had interesting sex lives and got to train for battle, but then again their world also apparently included eugenics and other degradations. How is Deneen’s new localism going to satisfy the strongest human longings? How is his Aristopopulism going to constrain them?
The account of freedom is also surprisingly apolitical. We hear that freedom is about learning self-control, with a view to sharing a community with others. But there is very little political content to that community involvement. A Spartan citizen learns self-control, which prepares them to govern alongside their peers — to make decisions about war and peace, to contend with neighbors and foreigners, enemies and allies. Aristotle talks about habituation as the foundation of freedom, too, but then that gets topped off with prudential power-sharing, law-making, and divine contemplation. A Roman citizen learns restraint, and then gains political experience in committees and councils. Tocqueville talks about juries and civic associations. President Obama was an organizer and a Senator. Deneen does not elaborate on the political uses of freedom. He focuses squarely on bodily self-control.
Which means that his account is also divorced from any real conception of political oppression and domination. To hear Deneen tell it, again, freedom is mostly something that one earns through good habits and discipline — it does not have much to do with “external” political circumstances, with things like laws, or the deployment of force, brutality, or restraint. By defining freedom in such a narrow and personal way, he is able to push the serious and difficult questions of the political world underground — i.e., he is able to avoid precisely those kinds of questions that negative liberal “freedom from” tries to address. The way Deneen talks about freedom, it is difficult to tell, for example, why a person would object to being enslaved, or beaten, or raped, or incarcerated. So long as a person can control their appetites, after all, they are good and free! Similarly, his account of positive liberty might serve well in educating law-abiding citizens, but it does not tell us much about what citizens should expect from one another, or from the law. Deneen criticizes those who see the past as merely a “repository of oppression,” but his work sidesteps the historical reality of oppression almost entirely. So-called “negative” freedom seeks to deliver something concrete that norms against licentiousness do not match: freedom from arbitrary domination and brutality on the part of one’s community.
One immediate way into this problem is to consider what freedom means to those who have been denied it.
I am no expert on the history of racism or slavery, in America or anywhere else. But the passage that comes to my mind as an illustration of this point comes from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The selection is a difficult and rending one (and worth considering in light of contemporary discussions of racism), and it involves the relationship between learning and freedom.
It comes from chapter seven, where Douglass describes the extraordinary effect that learning to read (and then reading) had on him, as an enslaved person of 12 years old. It helps remind us of what is really at stake when we start talking about matters of education, and so too of freedom.
I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.
I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.
Deneen’s account of freedom does nothing to capture the longings that Douglass describes here, and his discussion of education fails to recognize the perpetual (good, liberating) dangers involved in education. Deneen is right to point out that negative freedom — that is to say, freedom from oppression and arbitrary rule — is not enough to fill a human life, but far too dismissive of freedom’s natural power and value. In brief, his positive account of freedom neglects the problem of oppression, and fails to describe the richest facets of human striving. He has nothing much to say about the arts and creativity, about spontaneity, or about meaningful collective action or leadership.
Now, the worlds of philosophy, theology, literature, cultural studies, and political theory are, of course, full of accounts of human freedom that one could appeal to as a way of supplementing Deneen. I won’t pretend to offer anything like a robust picture of the alternative possibilities here — the subject is too vast, freedom means different things to different people, and it is surely experienced very differently too. Instead, let me offer another brief selection, this one from Cornel West’s 2004 book, Democracy Matters.
West has been called America’s premier public intellectual (by Robert George, in the conversation linked above). The passage to follow comes from the final pages of West’s book, in a chapter called “Putting on our democratic armor.” He is describing what he calls the “tragicomic hope” of Black Americans, something that he connects directly to the liberating and subversive power of education, and to Black Americans’ hard-earned understanding of freedom. To me, West’s book articulates something urgent and important that is absent in Deneen’s:
This black American interpretation of tragicomic hope is rooted in a love of freedom. It proceeds from a free inquisitive spirit that highlights imperial America’s weak will to racial justice. It is a sad yet sweet indictment of abusive power and blind greed run amok. It is a melancholic yet melioristic stance toward America’s denial of its terrors and horrors heaped on others. It yields a courage to hope for betterment against the odds without a sense of revenge or resentment. It revels in a dark joy of freely thinking, acting, and loving under severe constraints of unfreedom…
This kind of tragicomic hope is dangerous — and potentially subversive — because it can never be extinguished. Like laughter, dance, and music, it is a form of elemental freedom that cannot be eliminated or snuffed out by any elite power. Instead it is inexorably resilient and inescapably seductive — even contagious. It is wedded to a long and rich tradition of humanist pursuits of wisdom, justice, and freedom from Amos through Socrates to Ellison. The high modern moments in this tradition — Shakespeare, Beethoven, Chekhov, Coltrane — enact and embody a creative weaving of the Socratic, prophetic, and tragicomic elements into profound interpretations of what it means to be human. These three elements constitute the most sturdy democratic armor available to us in our fight against corrupt elite power. They represent the best of what has been bequeathed to us and what we look like when we are at our best — as deep democrats and as human beings. (216–217)
Cornel West is no simple fan of liberalism (he even blurbed Deneen’s book), but it’s clear to me that he understands something about freedom that Why Liberalism Failed does not address. And, though West’s book contains plenty of laments against liberalism, he also speaks movingly of civic responsibilities and political virtue (and, unlike Deneen, makes very little pretense of scholarly dispassion).
Again, I do not mean to make any sort of serious case here about the meaning of freedom (political or metaphysical or otherwise). My point is simply that Deneen’s depiction of freedom is lackluster and depleted. He implores his reader to use their freedom well, but what he really seems to care about most is discipline and the control of appetites. He speaks vaguely of the cultivation of virtue throughout, but has little to say about what a person might do with their drives and ambitions. It seems to me that if freedom is worth valuing, it’s because it has something to tell us about what it means to take risks, to make defining choices and commitments, to learn, to serve, and to love. For some it has something to do with creating new things, including new works of art and of science, as well as new norms and institutions. Deneen seems more interested in having people reading particular old books, so that they might glean lessons in self-control, and feel settled and at home. Those are worthwhile aims. They do not capture the human experience.