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Four Horsemen against the Illiberal Apocalypse
Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887

Four Horsemen against the Illiberal Apocalypse

The “practical liberalism” that Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, and Reinhold Niebuhr practiced in the 20th century can stave off democratic decline in the 21st.

Daniel Stid
Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century
by Joshua L. Cherniss (Princeton University Press, 328 pp., $35)

Those of us who call ourselves liberals—in the classical and capacious meaning of the term—face a grave predicament. We have opponents on the right and left, at home and abroad, who reject the values, institutions, and form of government we seek to uphold. Whether they reside at Mar-a-Lago or hotbeds of the successor ideology, in Budapest or Beijing, our antagonists show no signs of retreating. They refuse to countenance the pluralism, legitimacy of political opposition, and limited politics that are the hallmarks of liberal democracy. If we attempt to fight fire with fire, we risk sullying what we stand for. But if we withdraw from the fray, the forces of illiberalism win out.

Ours is not the first generation to grapple with this “liberal predicament.” Isaiah Berlin coined the term more than fifty years ago. With several other political thinkers and commentators, Berlin took it head-on in the middle of the 20th century. If our times seem full of lengthening shadows, theirs—marked by Hitler and the Holocaust, Stalinism, and the threat of nuclear annihilation—were darker still. In Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century, Joshua L. Cherniss of Georgetown University shows how they kept the lamps of liberalism lit amid such darkness. As Cherniss explores the thought, character, and ethos of these exemplary liberals, he invites us to emulate them. His book is a stellar and timely contribution.

At the heart of Liberalism in Dark Times are in-depth profiles of the political thought and engagement of four men: Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Isaiah Berlin. Cherniss traces how each developed and sought to live out a practical liberalism that was responsive to the myriad dilemmas that their times and circumstances thrust upon them. Each profile stands on its own as a vivid contribution. Cherniss helpfully juxtaposes Camus's rebellious idealism, and his conviction that simply refusing to betray humane values was itself heroic, with Aron's cooler detachment and reasoning meant to inform statesmen. Niebuhr's theological seriousness and view of human nature as fundamentally broken, albeit redeemable, are leavened by his sense of humor in Cherniss’s account, not least concerning his own foibles. The assessment of Berlin, whose political thought Cherniss fathomed in a previous book, is especially resonant. It draws not only on Berlin's famous political theory essays but also on his intellectual histories—particularly of Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev—to bring his value pluralism to life.

For all the different emphases, styles, and contexts that distinguished these four luminaries, Cherniss highlights the strand that united them in a common endeavor. They were all theorists and practitioners of what he calls “tempered liberalism.” Cherniss defines it as follows:

It is a liberalism tempered—that is, at once chastened, and ultimately reaffirmed and strengthened—by the crucible of criticism, struggle, and tribulation; a liberalism that is informed by and seeks to maintain a poise of balance between (and maintain its balance against) extremes; and a liberalism that centers on personal temperament, seeking not to advance a general theory or program of institutional design or a set of general principles, but to cultivate a particular way of thinking about and engaging in political life.

The men whom Cherniss commends to our attention neither theorized nor practiced this variant of liberalism in a vacuum or from a philosophized original position. They did so in the heyday of fascists, communists, and militarists who rejected the idea of limited politics and who attacked those who adhered to it. What could be done—what had to be done—for liberal values to survive in the face of real monstrosities and those who perpetuated them? The tempered liberals that Cherniss profiles sought to respond to the challenge, and to rally fellow citizens who were at risk of wavering, retreating, or looking away when confronted by ruthless opponents.

Camus, Aron, Niebuhr, and Berlin wrote, spoke out, and took stances on the pressing issues facing their societies, and the liberal democratic West writ large. But just as crucial as the substance of their views was how they went about developing and expressing them. Cherniss proposes that, ultimately, his exemplars manifested their liberalism in a common ethos, a way of being in the world. He defines ethos as a composite of the disposition, sensibility, conduct, self-understanding, values, and ideas these men brought to their political lives. Though the components of this ethos varied somewhat in their individual cases, they all exhibited a compelling blend of realism, candor, probity, moderation, self-awareness, humanity, and—not least—hope for the future. If, as Judge Learned Hand contended, “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,” that spirit infused the ethos of each of these men. So did the determination to persist in their defense of liberal values despite this doubt.

The most intriguing part of Liberalism in Dark Times is Cherniss's account of the patterns of influence that flowed from the ethos of the tempered liberals. He notes how, in exemplifying a tough-minded but humane liberalism, they presented an appealing model of thought and behavior for their contemporaries—and subsequent generations—to emulate. They understood that “antidote to ruthlessness, and the horrors it motivates and sanctifies, is to be found in the cultivation of a particular ethos…. That would enable us to recognize suffering and its evil, and resist the tendency to excuse or extol it.” Today, we are used to respecting these men for the impact of their ideas. Cherniss draws our attention to how that influence rested on the power of their personal examples and comportment.

The fate of liberalism once again hangs in the balance as we confront determined enemies with a demonstrated capacity for ruthlessness. What would a liberalism suitably tempered for the challenges of our times consist of? Cherniss argues persuasively that the ideas and approach of his four exemplars are a good starting point. He also reminds us of the importance of ethical moderation, invoking Aurelian Craiutu’s concept of “‘trimming’: constant self-correction in response to changing circumstances and resistance to passions that may throw one off balance.”

In the United States, as in other liberal democracies, the past several years have been marked by outrageous actions that naturally have invited outraged responses. Given the shrill, nonstop urgency of social media and the hyper-polarization of our politics, outrage is everywhere—a constant barrage of vituperation. But when everything is an outrage, sooner or later, nothing really is. To pull back from the brink, we would do well to disentangle our partisan passions from our diagnoses of and prescriptions for the ailments of the body politic. At a minimum, we ought to become more aware of how the former spurs the latter. And we must continually bear in mind the liberal precept that no party has a monopoly on truth and virtue (especially if and when our opponents appear to lack them altogether).

We should also reconsider the increasing, corrosive centrality of politics in our lives. We might ask ourselves: Are we sufficiently anchored in institutions, professions, creative work, and relationships that are not primarily political? Camus, Aron, Niebuhr, and Berlin made names for themselves in different fields of endeavor, writing novels, newspaper columns, works of philosophy, intellectual history, and theology. It is striking how the wisdom and humaneness that distinguished their political engagement were grounded in and animated by their richly lived lives outside of politics. The solid footing they established for themselves beyond the political fight gave them ethical insight into how best to conduct themselves within it. In Liberalism in Dark Times, Cherniss has done us a great service by pointing us toward the examples they set in their times. In our own times, as we continue to wrestle with the liberal predicament, we would do well to follow their lead.

Daniel Stid is director of the U.S. Democracy Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The foundation is a financial supporter of American Purpose.

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