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February 2019, Week 2

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 		 [This book, writes reviewer Tebble, "not only gives an account of
the different meanings that have been ascribed to liberalism and
evoked in its uses." It also "recovers some of those meanings that
have been eclipsed, distorted and eroded."] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 THE LOST HISTORY OF LIBERALISM: FROM ANCIENT ROME TO THE TWENTY-FIRST
CENTURY  
[https://portside.org/2019-02-13/lost-history-liberalism-ancient-rome-twenty-first-century]


 

 Alex Tebble 
 January 4, 2019
LSE Review of Books
[https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2019/01/04/book-review-the-lost-history-of-liberalism-from-ancient-rome-to-the-twenty-first-century-by-helena-rosenblatt/]


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 _ This book, writes reviewer Tebble, "not only gives an account of
the different meanings that have been ascribed to liberalism and
evoked in its uses." It also "recovers some of those meanings that
have been eclipsed, distorted and eroded." _ 

 , 

 

The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First
Century 

Princeton University Press

Helena Rosenblatt

ISBN: 9780691170701

What we assume liberalism to mean can often obscure more than it
clarifies. From the crudest individualism to the most intrusive
collectivism, many ‘true’ liberalisms are distinguished from some
ill-fated perversion or façade. It is an omnipresent term used not
only to describe a variety of incompatible and incommensurable
meanings, but also to both revere and revile those meanings with equal
ferocity: ‘it’s morally lax and hedonistic, if not racist, sexist,
and imperialist’, and yet responsible for a great deal that is
politically valuable within ‘our ideas of fairness, social justice,
freedom, and equality’ (1).

_The Lost History of Liberalism_ aims to illuminate what the word
meant to those who originally used the term and gives an account of
how those meanings have evolved through a ‘world history’ of its
uses from ancient Rome to the twenty-first century—an ambitious
scope for a relatively short book. Helena Rosenblatt suggests ‘we
are muddled by what we mean by liberalism’, and that we frequently
‘talk past each other, precluding any possibility of reasonable
debate’. To provide some clarity and grounding, Rosenblatt aims to
neither attack nor defend liberalism, ‘but to ascertain its meaning
and trace its transformation over time’ (1-2).

Rosenblatt begins with what it meant to _be _liberal. Demonstrating
‘the virtues of a citizen, showing devotion to the common good, and
respecting the importance of mutual connectedness’ were indicative
of the term. Both duty and self-discipline were necessary requirements
for the moral fortitude of a liberal character (8-9). From the
aristocratic ethos of Cicero and Seneca, we are taken on a swift tour
of the Christianisation, democratisation and politicisation of liberal
virtue. From St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, to the Spanish and
Italian renaissance humanists to Machiavelli, Montaigne, John Donne,
the Earl of Shaftesbury, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Ferguson and Adam
Smith, we find an overview of the evolution of what it meant to be a
liberal citizen in terms of virtue, education and civility. The
familiar liberal hero John Locke is briefly mentioned, but only in
relation to the meaning of a liberal education,­ rather than the
innate right of individuals to pursue their life and liberty as they
see fit with which his name came to be associated. As a pre-history of
liberalism, ‘by the mid-seventeenth century Europeans had been
calling liberality a necessary virtue for more than two thousand
years. If ever there was a liberal tradition this was it’ (19).

_The Lost History_ not only gives an account of the different meanings
that have been ascribed to liberalism and evoked in its uses, but
recovers some of those meanings that have been eclipsed, distorted and
eroded. Rosenblatt intends to steer clear of historical anachronism,
the common pitfall made by those who ‘stipulate a personal
definition’ and shape the past through the lens of the present by
‘construct[ing] a history that supports it’ (2-3). Rather than the
Anglo-American tradition that has come to be indicative of the term,
Rosenblatt turns our attention away from this twentieth-century
construction primarily toward the Franco-Prussian origins of
liberalism: in nineteenth-century French and German reflections on the
American and French Revolutions. Here we find a liberalism of a
different hue. Rather than an atomistic individualism concerned with
the rights and interests of those individuals, we find liberals
concerned with social justice, civic values and the moral development
of communities. Where rights were spoken of, they went hand in hand
with duties—often as a prerequisite for rights. These liberals were
not free-market fundamentalists, but self-avowed moralists.

The bulk of the book explores how liberal ideals came to be
distinguished from—but not wholly separate to—a tradition of
liberal virtue. Rosenblatt emphasises the key roles played by Marquis
de Lafayette, Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant in setting out
influential articulations of liberal ideas, sentiments and
constitutions. Liberalism, on this account, was ‘forged in an effort
to safeguard the achievements of the French Revolution and to protect
them from the forces of extremism’—against accusations of
illiberalism from Edmund Burke—by prioritising the rule of law,
personal freedoms and public morality (52, 66). These were fundamental
to liberal_ism_ as a wider political and moral doctrine.

As Rosenblatt has previously explored, Constant’s liberalism held a
close relationship to religion and an ambivalent one to democracy—a
reversal of the relationships we might have come to expect. Early
liberals were keen to avoid too close ties to a volatile force that
threatened to undermine public morality and the political institutions
necessary for upholding the personal freedom required for such moral
development. The book then follows liberalism’s continental
contortions as liberals tried to restate and distinguish their views
following the 1848 revolutions and the rise of socialism. Liberals
often committed to more collectivist and interventionist ideals
—never wholly nor uniformly committing to laissez-faire—in an
effort to cultivate the moral character of the majority. This,
however, partly led to the darker sides of liberalism in the elitist,
imperialist and eugenic territory which some of its key figures tread.

In an interesting and informative read, the book covers an impressive
scope of material. Whilst at times due to its relative shortness the
book cannot always fully illuminate why liberalism held a particular
meaning at one moment for an orator—to see things their way, to
borrow Quentin Skinner’s phrase—or the tensions and ambiguities
within these, it nonetheless maps a clear range of meanings that
liberalism historically held, showing the gaps between what these
proto-liberals might have meant and what we assume liberalism to mean.

Rosenblatt then briefly turns to how this history was lost. Whilst the
meaning of liberalism continued to be hotly contested, its grounding
became no longer associated with its French and German heritage.
Between two World Wars, Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt, John Dewey,
Isaiah Berlin and Friedrich Hayek contributed towards purging
liberalism of connotations of duty, patriotism and
self-sacrifice—gladly, for some liberals, in the context of the
totalitarian threat. This shifted liberalism toward a more
individualistic and rights-orientated framework with a British
heritage, in contradistinction to a now supposed French and German
illiberalism. But out with the bathwater went generosity, virtue, the
common good, the state as a promoter of that common good and a
communal ethical life. Rosenblatt ends by suggesting our task is one
of reconnecting with and finding conviction in the resources of this
lost liberal tradition.

Across the twentieth century, many liberals articulated a distinct set
of meanings, values, practices and prescriptions under the moniker of
liberalism, claiming to be the true heirs of a liberal heritage with
an accompanying list of genealogical heroes and villains, prophets and
charlatans. The strength of the book is in challenging some of the
presuppositions regarding where to look when embarking on this
endeavour and revealing some of the historical depths of why we have
become muddled with these assumptions. Which liberalism has greater
claims to rule the present is often unclear, premised on what is
perceived to be threatened and receding from view. The problem is that
some histories are irretrievably lost and some are more complex than
the stories we tell as we try to piece a tradition from fragments,
given the shifting and incompatible definitions and accounts of
liberalism’s history. Liberalism has perhaps always been an elusive
tradition.

 

Alex Tebble is a PhD student in Politics at the University of York.
The title of his research is ‘On the Genealogy of Liberalism’.

_Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position
of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of
Economics. _

 

 

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