The question—is liberalism a self-defeating enterprise?—has gained traction over the last couple of years. Even as far back as 1921, the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana dedicated time to this topic in the form of an essay he titled “The Irony of Liberalism.” In this brief work, Santayana explored prevalent themes that emerged throughout liberalism’s early intellectual development and introduced contrasting worldviews that challenged liberalism. These themes eventually reformed liberalism into what Santayana called “modern” liberalism, and modern liberalism became even more alien to our human nature. To explain his point, Santayana embarks on a history of liberalism to reveal its several ironies.

Santayana opens his essay by revisiting the ancients to inquire what it is that men ultimately seek: liberty, or prosperity? He argues that, for the ancients, liberty and prosperity are not compatible goals. Prosperity brings power, and power was the enemy of liberalism (properly understood). The problem, nonetheless, is that modern liberalism wants them together. Santayana writes that “liberals believe that free inquiry, free invention, free association, and free trade are sure to produce prosperity.” This goal of prosperity became the driving force of the 19th century, liberalism’s golden age where the standard quality of living drastically increased. But lasting prosperity requires what Santayana called “inequalities of function” and creates what he called “inequalities of fortune.” Combined, the outcomes of these two functions are “too much work and too much wealth,” which “kill liberty in the individual.”

The problem of function and fortune is that it heightens our subjection to things. Prosperity, both for individuals and states, is synonymous with possessions, Santayana wrote, and these possessions could become burdens and harnesses by making slaves of us and our minds. There is a delicate balance to strike between possessions as facilities and possessions as impediments. It seemed to Santayana that modern liberalism had lost this balance, dipping towards the latter. “The telephone, for instance,” he wrote, “is a facility if you wish to be in many places at once and to attend to anything that may turn up; it is an impediment if you are happy where you are and in what you are doing.” Being able to judge and maintain the necessary restrictions towards possessions so that they may not manipulate us is a complicated task that requires a strong moral character—this moral character requires objective conviction, which liberalism opposes beyond vapid “liberty.”

Santayana noted, moreover, that the ancients rejected materialistic subjection because it went against what they called freedom. “Private possessions are an encumbrance,” he wrote; yet, by private, Santayana was particularly warning against those possessions that we ourselves do not make or earn. He was not arguing in favor of collective possessions such as the type we’d find in socialist or communist political orders. Instead, Santayana disliked the form of private ownership that was inherited, because it turned men idle. His sentiment can be explained: Although Santayana lived most of his life in the United States—New England, specifically—he was European at heart. Things like cars, for example, were an impediment that prevented men from experiencing the true riches of society. He argued, “I prize civilization, being bred in towns and liking to hear and to see what new things people are up to. I like to walk about amidst the beautiful things that adorn the world; but private wealth I should decline, or any sort of personal possessions, because they would take away my liberty.” This dichotomy that seems to exist between liberalism’s philosophical principles and material prosperity led Santayana to believe that prosperity was a false goal of modern liberalism, for the two will always clash.

And what about progress—that loaded word that liberal thinkers often preach? Santayana writes that what modern liberalism truly aspires to marry is not prosperity, but progress. He then asks, what is the supposed direction that leads towards progress? A “pure” liberal, he argues, would reply that the direction of liberty leads towards progress. But the direction of liberty is vague and hardly directional: Liberty is an ideal which upholds that every man should move in whatever direction he likes without obstructing another man’s freedom. Now, how is it feasible to move towards progress, which is towards liberty, if this act entails letting people alone and letting them roam free?

Santayana concluded that classic liberty in this form of doing whatever one pleases was synonymous with happiness. But modern liberalism was more political than mere happiness. He agreed that liberalism was initially motivated by a chief sense of benevolence—of wanting to improve the conditions of others, upon feeling pity for them, so that they may be happy. Perhaps early liberals felt sympathy towards their less-fortunate peers, perhaps they felt a sense of obligation, but Santayana was certain that early liberals did not devise their ideas from true empathy towards them; that is, from personal experience of their condition. For this reason, Santayana concluded that liberalism has a contradicting set of morals: Personally, he is morally driven by kindness and benevolence, but politically, he is driven by something more, which Santayana described the following way:

Being a reformer and a philanthropist, [the liberal] exerts himself to turn all men into the sort of men he likes, so as to be able to like them. It would be selfish, he thinks, to let people alone. They must be helped, and not merely helped to what they desire—that might really be very bad for them—but helped onwards, upwards, in the right direction.

A form of progress that would please the modern liberal needs to continue in the direction that the 19th century—that golden age—professed: “towards vast numbers, material complexity, moral uniformity and economic interdependence.” The free, moral life is something that the liberal cannot permit, for it entails the pursuit of liberty and happiness “of all sorts by all sort of different creatures.” In contrast, what the liberal seeks is “the development of a single spirit in all life through a series of necessary phases, each higher than the preceding one.” If Santayana’s characterization is accurate, we must now ask ourselves, is this true liberty? Here is where Santayana begins the strongest part of his analysis.

True freedom cannot guarantee accuracy or precision; quite the opposite, it is almost a guarantee for initial failure. Liberation comes with numerous pitfalls, mistakes, and disappointments to which many of us will fall prey. Atheism, disregard for authority, self-aggrandizement, arrogance, mediocrity, laziness—all of these are typical consequences of the initial tastes of liberty, when we feel released from tradition. But Santayana argues that true freedom comes from self-correction. Eventually, he believes, man should learn “to find happiness in virtue,” for our vices will at some point become monotonous, soul-sucking, and we will seek something greater.

But here lies one of the starkest ironies: The remedy to the vices of liberalism is the rejection of liberalism. To rediscover virtue, Santayana writes, would plainly be “to abandon liberalism, and to preach the classical doctrine that the good is not liberty but wisdom.” And what is wisdom but the gradual acknowledgement of authority (i.e. tradition), that age-old enemy of liberalism? Santayana believed that liberalism was a protest against authority, which itself was a consequence of a wider cultural movement that began to snowball in Europe after the Enlightenment. He was referring, of course, to Idealismus: German idealism. Santayana’s historical account of liberalism and its development led him to conclude that liberal philosophy reached a point where it ceased to be “empirical and British,” becoming instead, “German and transcendental.”

German transcendentalism demonstrated the culmination of the general European conviction of the 18th and 19th centuries that “tradition corrupts experience.” Here, Santayana quotes Goethe’s Faust I; “Weh dir, dass du ein Enkel bist!” Woe unto thee, that thou’rt a grandson born! Mephistopheles is speaking to a student, remarking how unfortunate it must be to be the product of inherited norms and to have ancestors to remind us of authority. “Blessed are the orphans,” Santayana writes sarcastically, for they are truly freed from the oppressive grips of authority.

But now comes another irony: The way that Idealist thinkers interpreted experience was heavily influenced by Romantic notions of nature (Romanticism had a heavy influence on German Idealism) and these ideas of nature grew in the opposite direction of what liberalism wanted. Liberalism emerged in a time when empiricism became the default form of knowledge; empirical accounts of the world had labelled nature, therefore, as a mechanical entity that we could decipher through mathematical and physical laws. German idealist philosophers like Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling responded to this worldview with their own, called Naturphilosophie, that aimed to study nature as a whole rather than as components.

Conceiving of nature in its totality would help man understand his freedom within it. German idealists argued that if we are just a component of nature, which is mechanical (per Newton’s account) and deterministic, then it cannot account for a man who is truly free (i.e. possesses free-will) and is able to transcend our deterministic world. If we are to argue in favor of free will, it is necessary to reconcile nature with freedom in order to understand from where our notions of freedom came. German idealist literature engaged with this thought of radical freedom where man is enlivened by nature and could thus obtain inspiration from it and seek communion with it. In his work, Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature), Schelling called nature “the visible spirit” and spirit “invisible nature.”

It was not the intention of liberals to return to nature, however; far from it, they wanted to evolve from nature. The chief elements that inspired liberalism were, in Santayana’s words, “the love of peace, safety, comfort, and general information; [liberalism] aimed at stable wealth, it insisted on education, it venerated culture.” In other words, liberalism only seemed to agree on the Idealist premise that authority was restrictive, even bad, but as it pertained to its treatment of nature, German Idealism dangerously opposed liberalism. Santayana wrote that liberalism “was wholly out of sympathy with the wilder instincts of man, with the love of foraging, of hunting, of fighting, of plotting, of carousing, or of doing penance.” These wilder instincts are the epitome of German Idealism and Transcendentalism: There is beauty in destruction, the sublime is wild, nature is unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Santayana concluded that true liberalism was an ideal confined to an elite worldview that Romanticism and Idealism eclipsed. He wrote,

I am afraid liberalism was hopelessly pre-Nietzschean; it was Victorian; it was tame. In inviting every man to be free and autonomous it assumed that, once free, he would wish to be rich, to be educated, and to be demure. How could he possible fail to covet a way of life which, in the eyes of liberals, was so obviously the best?

Liberalism’s intellectual overshadowing by Idealism signaled to Santayana that, in the end, the liberal order would come under pressure. All it takes for a political order to fall is for its intellectual and philosophical principles to be dismissed or, even worse, rejected. Santayana deduced that the only outlooks that could challenge and even defeat liberalism were German Idealism, Roman Catholicism, and communism. These three worldviews oppose each other, but Santayana believed they were equally “illiberal.” He does not have a preference, or at least, he does not write in favor of one over the other two in this essay, although his other works signal a predilection for Catholicism despite being an atheist his whole life. Santayana concludes his essay with a final sentence on the greatest irony of liberalism, which is the almost-unconscious ability of its defenders to undermine their own philosophy: “They save liberal principles by saying that they applaud it only provisionally as a necessary means of freeing the people. But of freeing the people from what? From the consequences of freedom.”

It may be that liberalism’s trajectory is indicative of our tendency to overreach in most matters that pertain to our social (that is, collective) order. One must ask if the irony of liberalism does not extend to a general irony of life: That which we create to supposedly help us turns out to work contrary to our best interests. But this conclusion, bleak as it may depict our human nature, is not tragic for the stoic observer, like Santayana, who does not take human enterprise too seriously. Our efforts are noble, surely, but when they don’t turn out as expected it is hardly cause for distress. Quite the contrary, it is a moment for humility and self-discovery of our limitations.

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Santayana, George, “The Irony of Liberalism” (1921) from Soliloquies in England, published in 1922.

The featured image is a portrait of George Santayana and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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