When reflecting on the political options available to us in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I often say to myself with a certain resignation, “Liberalism—it’s all we’ve got.” What I mean, of course, is that for anyone in the modern world who wants a sane and decent political order, the only realistic choice is liberalism in the classic sense—a regime dedicated to individual liberty based on democratic institutions (liberal democracy, in other words), with a social order shaped by mass culture and an economy driven by industrial and technological progress. Those who reject this order entirely—utopian dreamers, nostalgic reactionaries, anarchists—may get credit for defiant courage, but they usually wind up doing more harm than good. We are left with little choice but to live with liberalism and to make it as noble and as just as we can.

Although this conclusion sounds reasonable, it is not always easy to accept. Looking back on the last century, we should remember that many were confused when faced with the choice of defending Western liberal democracy or siding with totalitarian regimes like communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Some were attracted to utopian ideologies and others were tempted by appeasement. Eventually, heroic statesmen like Winston Churchill emerged, and the vast majority of citizens, and even most intellectuals, realized they had no choice but to defend liberalism against the truly awful alternatives.

Now we are locked in a battle with radical Islam. The Western liberal democracies are faced with a new test of resolve, yet many people have been beguiled by multiculturalism. Appeasement-minded Frenchmen and decadent Germans and Dutchmen must be pushed to defend their own countries and their allies, so that Islamic theocracy does not overtake Europe, along with the Middle East and Indonesia, in the next generation. Once again, liberalism needs to be defended as the only hope for a sane and decent future. How do we explain this persistent pattern, and what can we do about it?

One suggestion is to listen to the wise advice of Daniel J. Mahoney, professor of political science at Assumption College and the author of several books that wrestle with the moral perplexities of living with Liberalism and, by extension, of coming to grips with modernity. Mahoney argues for something called “conservative liberalism,” which he finds in the political thought of such seemingly disparate figures as Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Charles de Gaulle, Raymond Aron, Aurel Kolnai, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Pierre Manent, and now Bertrand de Jouvenel. Mahoney’s thesis is that these figures are genuine lovers of liberty, but they are not “liberals” in the sense of embracing the philosophical liberalism of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, J. S. Mill, John Dewey, Isaiah Berlin, or John Rawls. Conservative liberals reject philosophical Liberalism because it fosters the “illusions of modernity”—a notion of autonomy which admits no higher authority than the human will (“the self-sovereignty of man”) as well as blind worship of progress that destabilizes society, undermines virtue, and tempts modern man with utopian ideologies that lead to totalitarian systems of government.

Instead of following progressive liberalism, conservative liberals draw upon pre-modern sources, such as classical philosophy (with its ideas of virtue, the common good, and natural right), Christianity (with its ideas of natural law, the social nature of man, and original sin), and ancient institutions (such as common law, corporate bodies, and social hierarchies). This gives their liberalism a conservative foundation. It means following Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Edmund Burke rather than Locke or Kant; it usually includes a deep sympathy for the politics of the Greek polis, the Roman Republic, and Christian monarchies. But, as realists, conservative liberals acknowledge that classical and medieval politics cannot be restored in the modern world. And, as moralists, they see that the modern experiment in liberty and self-government has the positive effect of enhancing human dignity as well as providing an opening (even in the midst of mass culture) for transcendent longings for eternity. At its practical best, conservative liberalism promotes ordered liberty under God and establishes constitutional safeguards against tyranny. It shows that a regime of liberty based on traditional morality and classical-Christian culture is an achievement we can be proud of, rather than merely defensive about, as trustees of Western civilization.

Using this framework, Mahoney makes the case that the French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903–1987) was a “conservative liberal in the tradition of Tocquevillle,” worthy of renewed interest.[1] The book is organized around introductory and concluding chapters that give us an overview of de Jouvenel’s thought and life with central chapters that treat his major political works—On Power (1948), The Ethics of Redistribution (1952), Sovereignty (1957), The Pure Theory of Politics (1963), and Marx and Engels (1983). The advantage of this format is that it gives a sense of the pathos of de Jouvenel’s personal life—which Mahoney repeatedly criticizes for displaying “weakness of character”—combined with interpretations of de Jouvenel’s impressive political treatises. The most fascinating aspect of the book is the contrast between Mahoney’s genuine admiration for de Jouvenel’s work and his embarrassment at de Jouvenel’s vices, which were so French in character. By the end of the book, one sees a deeper lesson: the need for moral courage and prudence as well as theoretical clarity to sustain conservative liberalism.

As Mahoney rightly claims, if we merely read de Jouvenel’s books, we would be impressed by his lucid and elegant defenses of human liberty and his warnings against the dangers posed by modern state power and man’s autonomy from God. De Jouvenel deserves great credit for tracing the relentless concentration of power that has occurred over the last several centuries, with the rise of the modern state—from the relatively free and decentralized structures of feudalism, to royal absolutism, to the centralized state in the democratic age following the French Revolution, and finally to modern totalitarianism.

In analyzing these developments, de Jouvenel composed striking statements that make him an eminently quotable hero for many kinds of conservatives. Libertarian and free market conservatives will enjoy his aphorisms: “A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves” and the redistribution of wealth is “far less a re- distribution of free income from the richer to the poorer [classes] … than a redistribution of power from the individual to the state.”

Social conservatives will take heart in his warnings that “the extremes of individualism and socialism meet” as men stand alone in “equal abasement before the power of their absolute master, the state,” or that “the diversity of interests in society” must be balanced with a concern for the common good and “moral harmony in the city.” For cultural conservatives, de Jouvenel offers the chilling prediction that “we live in majority societies where beautiful things will be wiped out unless the majority appreciates them.”

Religious conservatives surely will applaud de Jouvenel’s caveat about secular humanism and moral relativism: “For once man is declared the measure of all things, there is no longer a true, a good, or a just, but only opinions of equal validity whose clash can be settled only by political or military force.” Further: “The denial of divine lawgiving and the establishment of human lawgiving are the most prodigious strides which a society can take towards a truly absolute Power.” De Jouvenel also offers words of piety that sound like Biblical proverbs: “The wise man knows himself a debtor” and “appreciating what is given to us, is an homage to God.” Taken together, these statements strongly support Mahoney’s case for de Jouvenel as an eloquent spokesman for conservative liberalism who combines classical, Christian, and liberal themes in writings that are worthy of Tocqueville and Solzhenitsyn.

On the personal level, however, de Jouvenel displays moral weaknesses that are truly embarrassing, in contrast to Tocqueville’s passionate integrity and Solzhenitsyn’s heroic courage. Bertrand de Jouvenel was born into an aristocratic French family with progressive-liberal views and influential connections in political, journalistic, and artistic circles. A major scandal occurred when Bertrand’s father, after divorcing his mother, remarried the young novelist and sex kitten Colette, who seduced the sixteen-year-old Bertrand and eventually separated from his father. Later in life, Bertrand said that he was “horrified to see myself or believe myself the cause of this drama,” but he continued the love affair with Colette for two years and then felt more or less guilty for the rest of his life. As a journalist, he conducted an interview with Adolf Hitler in 1936 in which he uncritically accepted the dictator’s self-image as a statesman intent on preserving European peace and promoting the renewal of Germany—another scandal that de Jouvenel never lived down. As Mahoney notes, de Jouvenel’s political judgment was often “unreliable”—a negative assessment that is not fully explained until the last chapter of the book, which traces the many changes in de Jouvenel’s political allegiances.

The implication is that de Jouvenel was not a conservative-liberal most of his life: In the 1920s, he was a socialist and pacifist; in the 1930s, he flirted with fascism (partly explaining his kid-glove treatment of Hitler); by 1942, he had joined the French resistance, just in time to avoid the accusation of collaboration. Only in the 1950s and 1960s was he a genuine conservative-liberal, in the form of an anti-Gaullist republican. By the 1970s and 1980s, he was drifting back to the Left, flattering the student rebels, joining the ecology movement, and writing a book on Marxism that was both critical and admiring. As Mahoney admits, de Jouvenel’s real weakness was his craven desire to be accepted in fashionable intellectual circles, which usually meant those on the political Left. In an honest assessment of the man and this work, Mahoney concludes:

The sympathetic student of de Jouvenel is torn between profound admiration for the wise and humane political philosopher and unavoidable discomfort with the poor practical judgment that he displayed in the opening and closing periods of his intellectual career. … [T]here is something tragic about the weakness of character that led to such political misjudgments and desperate reinventions.

Mahoney captures very well de Jouvenel’s valuable wisdom as well as his tragicomic character, but he might have gone further in drawing lessons about French intellectuals and the illusions of modernity. In the present mood of exasperation with France, one is tempted to dismiss de Jouvenel as another case of that special French combination of brilliance and vice, but that would be unfair, since French intellectuals, like French wines, come in good and bad varieties. Rousseau and de Jouvenel are remarkable French thinkers with shameful personal lives and poor political judgment, but their writings are still worth reading. Tocqueville, Jacques Maritain, Raymond Aron, and Pierre Manent are French intellectuals with sound judgment and character, and also worth reading. What explains the differences? I don’t know, since I don’t understand the French—but I wish Mahoney helped us sort out the intellectual heritage of this remarkable and exasperating people.

On a more philosophical level, Mahoney might have speculated about the difficulties of maintaining conservative liberalism amidst the tempting illusions of modernity. Evidently, it requires something more than the “discreet Catholic sensibility” that Mahoney attributes to de Jouvenel. It requires a deeply reasoned conviction that the wisdom of the ancients is superior to that of the moderns—an insight that can be found, for example, in Leo Strauss’s Platonism or in traditional Christianity (meaning, real Augustinianism, Thomism, or Calvinism). This insight is the best safeguard against modern illusions because ancient wisdom accepts the permanent condition of men as citizens of two worlds, the eternal city of God and the temporal city of man. In the eternal city, perfection is possible, but only when individuals channel their longings into the intangible realms of philosophical contemplation, mystical prayer, and artistic beauty.

In the political arena of the temporal city, perfection is never possible, which takes moral courage to admit and prudence to manage wisely. If modern men were better at accepting the enduring tensions of the two cities, they would see that conservative liberalism is the best one can hope for in the present age and, all things considered in heaven and on earth, that is not so bad.

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  1. Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity, by Daniel J. Mahoney; ISI Books, 216 pages, $15. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 4, on page 83
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