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The Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

The Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

Amid a spate of volumes on liberalism’s future, our reviewer zeroes in on James Simpson’s Permanent Revolution, which reveals some surprises about those we assume fall within the rubric.

William J. Walsh

The merits and deficits—and, implicitly, the fate—of liberalism are much debated at the moment. From the right, religious figures like Catholic integralist Adrian Vermeule and Orthodox gadfly Rod Dreher argue that liberalism’s studied neutrality toward the ends, or purposes, of life has led to a collapse of even the idea of the Good, with disastrous consequences to public (and, indeed, private) life. Meanwhile, from the left, the broad assemblage of tendencies grouped under the label “woke” posits that liberal protections for speech, arms-bearing, and property are mere masks for the interests of the powerful, and that these need to be abolished in order to establish a new hierarchy aligned with their standards of justice. Given that both these tendencies are promoting absolute ends often at drastic odds with each other, there exists little room for compromise.

From a certain angle, this situation looks a lot like a conflict of faiths. Historically, there have been three solutions to conflicts of faith—intolerance (where are the Albigensians? Say goodbye to Spain and Britain, Jews!); tolerance (Venice has Jews, but they live in a ghetto; things are better, but not great, for Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire); and the outlying latecomer, liberalism. Liberalism modestly refuses to admit the superiority of any one school of metaphysics and provides mechanisms to avoid conflict and promote society-wide cooperation between all groups, whose members are treated as equal, rights-bearing individuals. Those interested in the question of whether liberalism can, or should, survive ought to take a look at the milieu in which it arose: Protestant England, at war with itself over which side was the most godly. On the “right” was the King’s church, promoting an integral view of society; and on the “left” were the Puritans, who could not abide the presence of the sinful individuals and flawed institutions inevitable in such arrangements.

James Simpson of Harvard University has written a provocative work on just this topic, Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism. Where the Whig school of history depicted liberalism as the latest positive step of progress that had begun with the English Reformation, Herbert Butterfield famously criticized this tendency in his Whig Interpretation of History (1931), arguing instead that liberalism was an entirely unintended, accidental outcome. Simpson contends that Butterfield’s argument has been insufficiently heeded, and that we remain too Whiggish in our view of liberalism’s origins—misleading us about its nature—and of the period from which liberalism emerged. Simultaneously, Simpson concedes that the Whigs had at least one important thing right.

Simpson reveals how his book originated from a seminar on John Milton, which he attended “as a late medievalist, [who] had been very kindly invited, and sat demurely on the side benches, determined not to speak.” A question arose about Milton’s conception of freedom, which—correctly in Simpson’s view—cast Milton in the role of a proto-liberal. As the seminar proceeded, Simpson struggled with a number of contingent questions: As a Calvinist Puritan, how does Milton assert free will? How can scholars view Milton as fundamentally liberal, given his scorn of the will of the people and the idea of a constitution? Finally, how is it possible for liberals who support limited, irenic, meliorist reforms to admire Milton, who worked for a violent, revolutionary military junta?

Simpson subsequently immersed himself in an extended study of the entire English Reformation, concluding that one’s judgment of the period was radically swayed by the temporal direction from which one approached it. In Simpson’s witty metaphor, most Anglo-American scholars of literature enter “Mansion Reformation” through the grand front door of 1688, at which liberalism is aborning. This allows them to admire the edifice. But medievalists and early modernists enter the period through the back door of 1517, and wade through decades of illiberalism, absolutism, anti-humanist determinism, bloodshed, and horror.

How one gets from 1517 to 1688 is Simpson’s concern. He traces the pathway across a variety of cultural vectors, which he calls Religion as Revolution; Working Modernity’s Despair; Sincerity & Hypocrisy; Breaking Idols; Theater, Magic, Sacrament; Managing Scripture; and Liberty & Liberties. Ultimately—and fairly persuasively—he discerns three periods in the English Reformation.

First came a giddy revolutionary period from roughly 1520 to 1547, when traditional Christian (soon to be cast as sectarian “Catholic”) ideas mixed with new, Lutheran propositions, and Henry VIII seized control of the church in England, begetting the Church of England. A second cultural mood of what Simpson terms “revolutionary grief” attended the Calvinist ascendancy in Anglican theology following many bishops’ exile in the Marian period, culminating in a pitiless iconoclasm upon their return (c. 1558–1625). A third moment followed (c. 1603–88) in which absolutist, purificatory, iconoclastic ideology spread to the realm of the political, with regicide, revolution, and civil war in tow. Simultaneously, strategies of escape from the intolerable dynamics of the past century began to be formulated.

Simpson’s conclusion is that this brutal, bloody, despairing period managed to birth an inherently conciliatory doctrine like liberalism because of the internal dynamics of the ideologies unleashed in the Reformation. In his perception, three cultural forces drove the evolution: evangelical Protestantism was revolutionary—and (second) permanently so, violently repudiating earlier incarnations of Protestantism. Third, this permanent revolution was, “as it always is, punishingly violent, fissiparous, and unsustainable,” and manifestly required some sort of self-stabilization.

Thus, in agreement with the Whigs, Simpson believes that liberalism did emerge from a specifically Protestant matrix. Contra the Whigs, however, and closer to Butterfield, Simpson argues that liberalism emerged specifically against the dominant religiopolitical culture, which could not stop attacking itself in successive waves of more-evangelical-than-thou criticism.


Simpson’s argument is strongly made and richly detailed with citations of many of the leading literary lights of the day. One wishes these citations would have included more political voices from that extremely voluble age, but Simpson is more concerned with culture than the specifics of politics or the details of theology, and it is hard to argue that the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and Milton weren’t some of the most perceptive observers of the culture of their day.

Readers interested in the details of Simpson’s argument are warmly commended to the work. But readers of this publication may be more interested in the implications of the dynamic. One is the distinction between liberty—or, as Simpson writes, Liberty—and liberties. As a medievalist, Simpson recognizes the latter as the older concept. Liberties, like those recognized in the Magna Carta, were specific, distinct, plural, and granted by prerogative. Common law perpetuated and generated such liberties. They are akin to the specific, negative liberties described in the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution.

Liberty in the grander, ideological, often personified, unitary sense, Simpson argues, emerges from the Reformation context more directly. Liberty becomes an absolute condition, the violation of which is its opposite: slavery. Just as we characterize the 17th century as the Age of Absolutism in its monarchies, so did its anti-monarchical opponents become absolutists in their own right. As God became more absolute (and man increasingly—and ultimately absolutely—worthless, impotent, and predestined), so did the claims of those advocating on His behalf. Hence the paradox of Milton: a great advocate of Liberty utterly contemptuous of the liberties of his fellow Englishmen, he is an “anti-absolutist absolutist.” Simpson’s description of how Paradise Lost (1667) expresses some of the tension Milton must have perceived in his own thought is one of the best in-depth readings he presents.

Simpson concludes that, while “evangelical religion aspires to one key form of modernity … Liberalism expresses the reactive, decentralizing countermovement of modernization.” Moreover, Simpson concludes that this emergence both from and against English Calvinist culture bred some persistent, probably inextricable, congenital problems within liberalism.

First, liberalism does not account for its origins, and therefore its own nature, properly. A persistent Whig bias still encodes the approved products of liberalism as “Protestant” and the disapprobated, illiberal elements as “Catholic,” when in fact the Reformation produced much of what we consider to be “medieval” or illiberal (such as witch crazes, suppression of theater, hypocrisy, among others) long after the Catholic Church was a dim memory in England.

Second, liberalism remains a relative of English Calvinism. Having emerged from the same cultural matrix, it carries within itself similar impulses. Simpson cites the continuation of trends he describes in-depth as emerging in the crucible of the 16th and 17th centuries:

[L]iberals continue automatically to distrust institutions; overwork; calibrate agency with minute attention; fear inauthenticity; enjoy visual art in aesthetic conditions that remain partially iconoclastic; remain appalled at various forms of idolatry even if the idolaters are now consumers; read to save themselves. Above all, many of us remain historical secessionists, vigilantly insisting on the legitimacy of the modern age…. We liberals remain children of our permanent revolutions, both energized and scarred by them.

This last point has acute contemporary resonances, as certain schools of modern liberalism periodically echo our illiberal forebears. As Simpson writes, “Contemporary Liberalism looks especially unpersuasive when it mimics, as it not infrequently does, the intolerant, exclusivist, identitarian politics characteristic of the non-democratic, anti-meritocratic, virtue-parading, evangelical True Church. When liberals act like the elect, they betray their tradition.”

Simpson’s final conclusion is perhaps the most important for contemporary discussions of the liberal political order. Liberalism is not a first-order political ideology, and it becomes horribly deformed when it is taken to be one. Liberalism does not provide a metaphysics or any definition of the common good. It is a second-order ideology of means, by which people who disagree on first-order questions can live together without descending into authoritarianism and war as did the English in the 17th century, when the newer forms of Protestantism could no longer abide the older, and absolutized politics.

As pundit Jonah Goldberg likes to quip, “Conservatism is a partial philosophy of life.” The liberalism that Goldberg’s formulation of conservatism has attempted to conserve is a set of norms, means, and manners by which members of even widely opposed ideologies can pursue their unique ends, if often in a dissatisfying, hedged fashion. Simpson drives the point home: “One can … be a liberal and a modified Catholic, or a liberal and a modified Socialist, where the modification points to acceptance of state mechanisms (notably constitutional democracy) for managing ideological conflict.”

Simpson warns that when liberalism “claims to be a first-order belief system” it jeopardizes itself, because its desire to reshape the world only stands on the “shallow grounds” of “abstract, universalist human rights” and on “tolerance as an absolute virtue.” In Simpson’s summation, the “only voice the liberal must strenuously resist is that of the figure who refuses to accept the wise constitutional restraints, derived from the liberal tradition, that make us freer.”

Simpson’s arguments are plausible, even if not as expansive as one might wish. The reader hoping to hear more from other voices, or hoping for a comparative narrative of how such events developed in the Protestant countries of continental Europe in order to learn how much of the English Calvinist dynamic is specifically English, is in fact wishing for a much larger book. Permanent Revolution is recommended to enthusiasts of history, literature, and political philosophy who know that, contra many of the Reformers, we cannot displace ourselves from our history, our traditions, and our messy, multifarious reality, however glittering the claims of pure, absolute righteousness may be.

William J. Walsh is a writer based in Wisconsin.

Book ReviewsPolitical PhilosophyReligion

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