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Liberal Dogmatism

How a far-out idea becomes orthodox.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By EDWARD ALEXANDER
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But Mill was a man of ideas, not ideology, and could recognize the dangerous tendencies within his own school of thought. In his magisterial essays of 1838 and 1840 comparing his teacher Bentham, the great progressive (“the same division with ourselves”), and Coleridge, their formidable conservative adversary, he identified one glaring deficiency in the former. Bentham, like most progressives, ignored “the collective mind of the human race,” which develops from “common wants and common experience.” It is often forgotten that Mill decided to write “a volume on Liberty” because “almost all the projects of social reformers in these days are really liberticide.” On Liberty, to be sure, excoriated the “despotism of custom,” but with this qualification: “The despotism of custom .  .  . proscribes singularity, but it does not preclude change, provided all change together” (italics added).

Matthew Arnold, who described himself as “a liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement,” also warned of liberalism’s herd instinct, that trait which would later earn American liberals the sobriquet “herd of independent minds.” Here he is in the famous 1865 essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” satirizing doctrinaire liberalism: “Let us have a social movement, let us organize and combine a party to pursue truth and new thought, let us call it the liberal party, and let us all stick to each other, and back each other up. .  .  . If one of us speaks well, applaud him; if one of us speaks ill, applaud him too; we are all in the same movement, we are all liberals.” 

A few years later, in Culture and Anarchy (1869), Arnold singled out for relentless mockery liberalism’s obsessive campaign to change England’s marriage laws so as “to give a man leave to marry his deceased wife’s sister,” that is, to eliminate the longstanding English taboo on in-law marriage. Defenders of the taboo claimed that Leviticus forbade such marriages. Liberals said Leviticus did no such thing and therefore “man’s law, the law of liberty, .  .  . makes us free to marry our deceased wife’s sister.” But Arnold’s objection to the liberal position had nothing to do with Leviticus—“the voice of an Oriental and polygamous nation.” Rather, it expressed his sense of the sacredness of marriage and the customs that regulate it as the delicately woven fabric of civilization, a barrier against the promiscuity of primitive life, against “anarchy.” Such barriers are laborious to create, easy to unravel.

England’s 65-year battle over this taboo, viewed from the perspective of our own recent reversal of the laws (to say nothing of ancient custom) regarding marriage, reverses Marx’s famous saying about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. But there is an eerie resemblance to the present that is worth noting. Arnold mocked Victorian liberalism’s obsession with the “right” to marry one’s deceased wife’s sister as the perfect example of its Philistine “double craving” because it combined “the craving for forbidden fruit and the craving for legality.” (Joe Biden, whatever his shortcomings, grasped this combination instinctively; and it is thanks in large part to him that a future book of presidential history may well be entitled Legalizing Forbidden Fruit: The Age of Obama.)

Newman may have been wrong in calling liberalism “the anti-dogmatic principle,” but he was prescient in saying, “The liberalism which gives a colour to society .  .  . is scarcely now a party; it is the educated lay world.” Hélas.

Edward Alexander is the author of, among other books, Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill (Columbia University Press, 1965). 

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