The Magazine

Melancholy Liberalism

The virtues of democracy that knows its limitations.

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By MARK BLITZ
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The problem is that this says nothing of rational claims to universality. But without these, is not faith's "argument" willful? Anderson, perhaps, takes for granted the rationality, or at least the compatibility with reason, of the precepts of the faiths he admires. It is otherwise difficult to account for his confidence in faith's reasonable relaxation of its universal demands.

A related problem is that moral precepts do not guide sufficiently our choice of ways of human flourishing. The virtues discussed earlier provide some guidance, and restrict the range of reasonable choice without being irrationally absolute. Even they, however, cannot fully govern how we should rank and use our powers, or the justice and effectiveness of our practices and institutions. Does this openness, then, force education and choice to be grounded in the accidents of tradition, irrationality of absolutism, or arbitrariness of pluralism?

Anderson closes by calling for a "renewed commitment to classical education." The classics are, indeed, a good place to search for answers to our questions. Aristotle's flexibility in recommending political institutions in the light of a rational account of human happiness, or Plato's rational account of the good, just, and noble that permits reasonable subtlety in following the imperfect images of these ideas, are models of a rational guidance that shapes gently, not with absolutism's icy hand. How to secure this understanding within liberalism's reasonable virtues and rights, and how to invigorate it within the accidents of our situation, are difficult questions, of course.

As Anderson tells us in this prudent yet lively work, politics is imperfect. We will help to protect ourselves from a threatening winter of discontent if we linger in the autumnal liberalism that Anderson favors, and reflect on the problems it raises.

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.