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Liberalism And The End Of Virtue

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(Editor’s Note: Paul Krause has written several articles that have appeared in The Wanderer. He is a senior contributor to The Imaginative Conservative.)

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As liberalism becomes more realized than at any other moment in time, virtue is the one quality in men and society that is chased away more and more vigorously. Instead of bringing about the end of history, liberalism has wrought the end of virtue. Indeed, anyone who promotes virtue is seen as a proto-fascist, if not an outright authoritarian intent on the destruction of “liberty” and “tolerance.”
Many people have been lied to about the nature and end of liberalism. We are told that liberalism is about tolerance, free speech, open economics, and limited government (at least in its “classical” form). You will find nothing of the like in the writings of the liberal theorists, classical or modern. Not even John Locke, perhaps the most mythologized of the liberal prophets, promoted the mythologized ideology of liberalism. The true core of liberalism is the notion “freedom from harm.”
Hobbes says it. Locke says it. Spinoza says it. Mill says it. Rawls says it. Freedom from harm is the great linchpin between liberals of yesteryear with liberals of the present.
Hobbes also asserted that there was no moral law. Good and bad, he said in Leviathan, are just terms we created to denote physical feelings. Anything that harmed the body was called “bad.” Anything that pleasured the body was called “good.” But there is an inherent contradiction in Hobbes’ moral theory. If there is no moral law, why is freedom from harm such a top priority? Why is the life of pleasure, rather than pain, to be sought? Is pleasure good and pain bad in a moral and metaphysical sense? What of the masochist who finds what most people consider painful pleasurable?
Despite this contradiction in Hobbes’ moral theory, and therefore liberal outlooks on the “good life,” Hobbes does side with the life of pleasure over pain. Pleasure, however, is not the same as leisure. Leisure is about the enjoyment of time. Pleasure, as Hobbes explains, is entirely about the body and its sensations. And pleasure is certainly not analogous to virtue in any way.
Hobbes was not the first to suggest a life of pleasure to be the highest goal of mankind. His forebears, whom he studied and drew on — the Epicureans — were also radical materialists who preferred a life of sensualism and bodily gratification over the stoic and virtue ethics of the Platonists and Stoics. Enjoyment of the world, of others, all directed to the self, was the highest good man could aspire to and, more important, attain.
Pleasure is something one does not have. Pleasure, then, is the pursuit of that which the body does not possess. Pleasure is that which pertains to the body and solely the body. Time wasted not in pursuit of pleasure is pleasure lost. Time wasted not utilizing goods for pleasure is a good not fully realized.
Thus we see how pleasure becomes a pursuit in perpetuity. One can never have enough pleasure. Pleasure satisfies in the moment but vanishes when the moment dissipates. When pleasure vanishes, one must pursue more pleasure. In short, pleasure ensures man is never content with what he has and turns him into a perpetual consumer; a consumer of pleasure who must always consume until the very instant he dies.
Virtue, by contrast, is about knowing thyself. Virtue is about relationships with other human beings and with the world. Virtue is about how to live, act, and relate in the world that we inhabit. Moreover, virtue is not something we’re born with. As Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, virtue is something we learn and cultivate through habit. Virtue takes knowledge, time, and effort. Virtue requires work. As such, virtue is the anti-pleasure philosophy. Virtue sacrifices the pursuit of pleasure for the contentment of the soul.
People who give themselves over to the disordered passions of their body, as Epictetus and St. Augustine said, become slaves of their passions. You don’t control your passions; your passions control you. Because virtue requires strenuous effort on the part of the individual, time and energy that could be spent on pleasure, the man of pleasure cares not about virtue but the endless sizzling of his illicit lusts in a pan that titillates his body.
Since liberalism sees bodily harm as bad, and virtue does bring stress to the body, virtue is inevitably seen as something harmful. Liberalism therefore destroys virtue and the possibility of virtue. Liberal man races to the abyss of the bottom rather than strenuously climbing the ladder of ascent.
Furthermore, because liberalism is self-centered, everything becomes an object of fetishizing for one’s own self-pleasuring pursuits. Man is more than just a body. Man has a soul. That soul is imbued with a dignity that is not to be abused and objectified. However, because liberalism also denies the transcendent nature of man, liberalism cannot grapple with abuse. Abuse is just seen as bodily harm done to another. It cannot comprehend the possibility that abuse includes the harm of the soul.
Here we meet another contradiction at the heart of the liberal weltanschauung. Man is just a mass of matter in motion. He has no subjectivity. (Yet liberals claim to be “rational.”) Since man is just matter, and matter can be used to enhance other matter, the liberal vision of man necessarily leads to deracination and impoverishment. Other humans are not persons to be known and loved, they are merely objects for our instrumental use. Humans become objects for our own utility.
Jean Paul Sartre, ever the liberal, said it best when he said that human to human relations degenerate into masochism or sadism. I allow myself to be utilized by others or I utilize others for my own ends. Such is the outcome of an understanding of man not made in love and for love, without a soul, and naked of grace.
This returns us to the problem of virtue as learned cultivation. Virtue is difficult. And necessarily so. A society that has been impregnated with the ideal of boundless pleasure does not take the time to learn and cultivate virtue. Thus in a single generation virtue vanishes from society. Those who are virtuous die. They need to be replaced by the next generation.
But when the virtuous die and there are no virtuous people to replace them, all the positions in society occupied by people of virtue and demanding people of virtue are given over to lustful creatures with wicked intent. Lastly, a generation in power that is unvirtuous will not instill the value of virtue to the next generation. The entire society, then, becomes a giant cesspool of pleasure-seeking philistines.
The rotten and poisonous fruits of liberalism have infected every facet of our society. Virtue is shunned. Virtue is mocked. Virtue is scorned. What does a world absent of virtue look like? Look no further than Hollywood or Jeffrey Epstein. The irony is, the very abuses our modern world decries are the very fruition of what it desires. It won’t be long until the crying ceases and the crimes of Hollywood and Epstein become normative in an increasingly liberal world.

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