Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Varieties of Liberal Experience

William James famously wrote a book called Varieties of Religious Experience, a title Carl Sagan aped with his Varieties of Scientific Experience. I have been thinking recently how interesting it would be to read a book called Varieties of Liberal Experience, one that anatomised the different “flavours” of liberalism.
Liberalism is a fascinating subject.  It is too easy to simply decry it, or to lump all forms of liberalism together. But, of course, the term applies to very different philosophies—for instance, in America, what a European might call socialism is often called liberalism.

But what I find less interesting than abstract schools of thought are the forms liberalism takes in practice; how it is lived, the view of the world it entails in individual cases.

I thought about this when I was listening to Fintan O’Toole on the radio. I am not a fan of Mr. O’Toole, but he does seem to me one of the last “old guard” liberals in the country; someone who could easily have written for Sean O’Faoláin or Peadar O’Donnell in The Bell. That is, someone who has all the correct progressive opinions on subjects such as censorship, nationalism and religion, but who believes culture is important and retains—how to put it?—a certain gleam of the transcendent on their mental horizon. They tend to believe, for example, in the cultural significance of religion, in the importance of a national literature, and a certain tenderness towards tradition and the past. (Anthony Cronin is another example.)

When religion decays, as Matthew Arnold understood, the idea of the sacred lingers, but is invested in various substitutes for religion. First comes nationalism; next comes art and poetry and culture in general; after that, political emancipation and human rights; finally, science. The sequence may be slightly different, and the cult of different idols may overlap, but I think that is a fair description of the post-religious decline.

It seems to me that the hour of the Fintan O’Tooles is almost past and we are faced today with a much less gentlemanly, less cultured liberalism; one plunging towards scientism, where ideas such as dignity and equality and human rights will draw sniggers. And when that happens, someone might remember to write a book called The Birth and Death of Irish Liberalism.

Maolsheachlann OCeallaigh

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