The Magazine

The Liberal Paradox

Why Lionel Trilling's 1950 classic remains essential reading in 2009.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By JAMES SEATON
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Trilling's answer is the cultivation of "the moral imagination" through the study of literature, and particularly the novel: "For our time the most effective agent of the moral imagination has been the novel of the last two hundred years." In placing such reliance on the "moral imagination," Trilling pays tribute to Edmund Burke, who famously insisted in Reflections on the Revolution in France that the radicals' "new conquering empire of light and reason" would end in tyranny and barbarism unless supplemented by "a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies."

Burke's prescient warning was ignored by fellow Whigs like Charles James Fox and Americans like Thomas Jefferson, who expected a new world of "liberty, equality, fraternity" but instead got the Reign of Terror and Napoleon.

For Trilling, the most striking instance of the failure of the liberal imagination was its refusal to imagine that any movement whose professed goal was the end of all injustice and inequality could possibly be guilty of serious moral crimes rather than mere errors or mistakes. Communists, whatever their excesses, at least had noble ideals, unlike Nazis, fascists, or for that matter, supporters of the British Empire or American capitalism.

Today, communism seems to have lost most of its power to fire the imagination, but one does not have to look hard to find movements whose moral absolutism leaves their adherents no room for the kind of "moral realism" Trilling found in James's novels. Meanwhile, a significant current in contemporary liberalism, as in Trilling's day, finds it difficult to imagine that any opponent of the United States could possibly be guilty of more than excusable errors, since it is American military and economic power that is the source of all real evil in the world.

It is not unreasonable to assume that some approximation of that last sentiment is endorsed by many (though by no means all) readers, contributors, and editors at the New York Review of Books, so the New York Review deserves special commendation for making The Liberal Imagination available in a new edition.

Yet this new edition has a complicating factor: A reader must choose whether to read the essays in the spirit encouraged by Trilling's own preface, or as instructed by Louis Menand's new introduction. Trilling hoped that his criticism would succeed "not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time."

Louis Menand assures his readers that no such reexamination is necessary. According to Menand, Trilling believed in the obsolete notion that "there are more less politically hygienic works of literature, and the function of criticism is to identify them and to explain why they tend to have good or bad political consequences." This idea is outdated because (again according to Menand) "since the 1960s . . . cultural taste has largely been liberated from politics" so that nowadays "educated people tend to be culturally promiscuous and permissive." Trilling's ideas about the "moral imagination" and "moral realism," unmentioned in Menand's introduction, have become retrograde and may be safely ignored.

What one should take away--the "more difficult lesson of the way Trilling treats literature in The Liberal Imagination"--is the awareness "that there is no stable point outside a culture from which to critique it." Although Menand calls this the "more difficult lesson," it turns out that it is not so difficult after all. It is "something that is easy to see once you look at culture in the way anthropologists do." So it is this "anthropological perspective" that is the real insight to be gleaned from Trilling's work. It is "the most valuable piece of his intellectual legacy" despite, or rather because, it makes one skeptical of "the critical program for which he became celebrated."

Menand claims to be praising Trilling, but if the truly valuable lesson to be learned from The Liberal Imagination is the "anthropological perspective," one wonders why one would go to a literary critic rather than to the anthropologists themselves. But why bother even with them? Menand's "more difficult lesson" is a mere corollary of the general proposition that "truth is relative," a notion that almost all students absorb even before they get to college, as Allan Bloom observed with some disapproval in 1987.