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T oday much of the world is affected by Liberalism. The question must be asked: Where did a philosophy of life which has done so much to undermine the message of the Christian Gospel originally come from?
Liberalism had its origins in the 18th century 'enlightenment' with that movement's determination to immerse men and women in a new materialistic form of knowledge with its roots entirely in what one might term 'human knowledge and understanding.' Yet initially, much of this new direction in the acquirement of knowledge had certain Christian sympathies and influences, but it soon became axiomatic that the 'new knowledge' should have no recourse to the divine or supernatural, nor to any concept of 'revelation.' This anti-supernaturalist tendency would become foundational to Liberalism especially as the new philosophy of life increasingly drew upon the thoughts of such devout non-believers as Voltaire and David Hume (Voltaire was actually a 'Deist,' believing in a Creator God who had no further interest in his creation, but he strongly opposed Christianity. Hume never entirely gave up on Christianity and was not an atheist, but he opposed many central tenets of Christianity).
The Freedom of the Individual
In the 17th century, 'civil society' was a term which started to be used by philosophers such as John Locke as a way of distinguishing political order from the state of nature. Often thought of as the real 'founding father' of liberalism, Locke bequeathed to the liberal tradition the important distinction between the state and society. He felt that to make such a distinction was vital and he was concerned with the place of the individual.
Locke exercised a profound influence on subsequent philosophy and politics. He was also a strong influence on Voltaire, while his arguments concerning liberty and the social contract later influenced the written works of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the other Founding Fathers of the United States.
The original strain of liberalism was not entirely evil and was concerned to protect and to grant rights to ordinary men, women and children in an often harsh and cruel age. This original strain is now usually referred to as Classical Liberalism. Classical liberalism is a political philosophy which supports individual rights as pre-existing the state, a government that exists to protect those moral rights, ensured by a constitution that protects individual autonomy from other individuals and governmental power and private property. Since many aspects of this ideology developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, it is often seen as being the natural philosophy/ ideology of the industrial revolution and its subsequent capitalist system, yet some would debate this. The early liberal figures that modern libertarians now describe as their fellow "classical liberals" rejected many foundational assumptions which dominated most earlier theories of government, such as the divine right of kings, hereditary status, and established religion, and these new influences strongly focused on individual freedom, reason, justice and tolerance. Such thinkers and their ideas helped to inspire the American Revolution and certainly influenced the French Revolution.
Classical Liberalism did not believe that government created individual rights (in a moral sense), but rather that moral rights existed entirely independent of government. Thomas Jefferson called these "inalienable rights" and indicative of the classical liberal belief that rights do not come from law but that law serves to protect natural individual rights. He said,
"...Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual."
Interestingly, for classical liberals, "human rights" were of a negative nature - that is, rights that require that other individuals (and governments) refrain from interfering with individual liberty. This is in stark contrast to Modern Liberalism which holds that individuals have a right to be provided with certain benefits or services by others. Unlike modern social liberals, classical liberals were also almost universally hostile to any concept of a 'welfare state.' So we see that not all of the influences which made up the original form of liberalism were bad and many were entirely caring, indeed, many such influences (as we have already noted), were strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards, although this is frequently denied today.
But in the anti-supernaturalist and strictly materialistic approach to knowledge of the 'enlightenment' it was inevitable that many more extreme and libertarian influences would also climb on board, and French writer, essayist and philosopher Voltaire who lived 1694-1778, (his real name was actually Francois-Marie Arouet) was one such influence.
Voltaire is known for his sharp and acidic wit, his philosophical writings, and a strong defense of civil liberties, including the freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws in France and harsh penalties for those who broke them. He frequently made use of his works to criticize Church dogma and the French institutions of his day and was to become one of the most powerful influences on the developing concept of liberalism.
The young Voltaire was especially impressed by England's constitutional monarchy, as well as the country's support of the freedoms of speech and religion. In his younger years, he saw English playwright William Shakespeare as an example French writers should look to, though he later revealed his emerging arrogance when stating that he himself was a superior writer to Shakespeare! After three years in English exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his ideas in a fictional document about the English government entitled the Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais ('Philosophical letters on the English'). Due to the fact that he regarded England's constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, these letters met great controversy in France, to the point where copies of the document started to be banned and were even burned; this eventually forced Voltaire to leave Paris.
David Hume, who, in his scepticism, laid the philosophical foundation for the rise of evolutionary dogma a century later.
Voltaire opposed Christian beliefs quite fiercely. He claimed that the Gospels were figments of the imagination and that Jesus did not exist - in his view the 'Gospels' were produced by those who wanted to create God in their own image and were full of errors and discrepancies. His largest philosophical work (the Dictionnaire philosophique), comprised articles contributed by him to the great Encyclopedie. While he attacked French political institutions and also his personal enemies, his work mostly targeted the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church. So Voltaire strongly contributed to the anti-Christian as well as to the sexually libertarian (he was opposed to the censorship of outrageous writers), elements which went into Classical Liberalism.
Yet during and after Voltaire's time, other influences continued to contribute to Liberalism, for the new philosophy of life was not yet a finished product.
Nobody who contributed to the emerging liberalism was as commited to its anti-religious agenda as David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher. Hume believed and stressed that all human knowledge comes to us through our senses. Our perceptions, as he called them, can be divided into two categories: ideas and impressions. He defined these terms thus in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
"By the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will. And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious, when we reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned." He further specifies his ideas, saying, "It seems a proposition, which will not admit of much dispute, that all our ideas are nothing but copies of our impressions, or, in other words, that it is impossible for us to think of anything, which we have not antecedently felt, either by our external or internal senses."
This forms an important aspect of Hume's skepticism, for he says that we cannot be certain of anything, and certainly should reject concepts such as God, angels, a soul, or even a self, unless we can point out and actually tie down the impression from which the idea of the thing is derived. Hume had been influenced by Locke and he himself would later strongly influence Immanuel Kant, James Madison, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and A.J. Ayer.
Nobody more than Hume gave such philosophical foundation and credibility to those who would attack God (for Voltaire, on his own, was seen as somewhat unsubstantial in his anti-God rhetoric). Hume scoffed at miracles and angels and placed all supernaturalist teachings on the level of fairy tales. His philosophical influence on liberalism was to drive out any last vestiges of Christian authority. He outlawed God, the supernatural and Christian morality, and provided a foundation and structure upon which Darwinian evolutionism could be constructed a century later. Yet from the viewpoint of postmodernism, it is quite obvious that Hume only really chased biblical religion 'out of town' in order to replace it with a new religion: the deification and glorification of the naturalistic learning of Mankind. Worship would indeed continue - but now only the "knowledge" and achievements of the human race would be intellectually respectable subjects for worship!
However, there is contradiction in David Hume, occasionally he allowed for the possibility of a God (see my 2011 Addendum at the foot of this page).
The Enlightenment certainly led to the rise of Liberalism - but what exactly was the "enlightenment"?
Encyclopedia.com states the following:
The Enlightenment is a term applied to the mainstream of thought of 18th-century Europe and America.
Background and Basic Tenets
The scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th cent.—the discoveries of Isaac Newton , the rationalism of Réné Descartes , the skepticism of Pierre Bayle , the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza , and the empiricism of Francis Bacon and John Locke —fostered the belief in natural law and universal order and the confidence in human reason that spread to influence all of 18th-century society. Currents of thought were many and varied, but certain ideas may be characterized as pervading and dominant. A rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility.
The major champions of these concepts were the philosophes, who popularized and promulgated the new ideas for the general reading public. These proponents of the Enlightenment shared certain basic attitudes. With supreme faith in rationality, they sought to discover and to act upon universally valid principles governing humanity, nature, and society. They variously attacked spiritual and scientific authority, dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and economic and social restraints. They considered the state the proper and rational instrument of progress. The extreme rationalism and skepticism of the age led naturally to deism; the same qualities played a part in bringing the later reaction of romanticism. The Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot epitomized the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, as it is also called.
An International System of Thought
Centered in Paris, the movement gained international character at cosmopolitan salons. Masonic lodges played an important role in disseminating the new ideas throughout Europe. Foremost in France among proponents of the Enlightenment were baron de Montesquieu , Voltaire , and comte de Buffon ; Baron Turgot and other physiocrats ; and Jean Jacques Rousseau , who greatly influenced romanticism. Many opposed the extreme materialism of Julien de La Mettrie , baron d' Holbach , and Claude Helvétius.
In England the coffeehouses and the newly flourishing press stimulated social and political criticism, such as the urbane commentary of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele . Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope were influential Tory satirists. Lockean theories of learning by sense perception were further developed by David Hume . The philosophical view of human rationality as being in harmony with the universe created a hospitable climate for the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith and for the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham . Historical writing gained secular detachment in the work of Edward Gibbon.
In Germany the universities became centers of the Enlightenment (Ger. Aufklärung ). Moses Mendelssohn set forth a doctrine of rational progress; G. E. Lessing advanced a natural religion of morality; Johann Herder developed a philosophy of cultural nationalism. The supreme importance of the individual formed the basis of the ethics of Immanuel Kant . Italian representatives of the age included Cesare Beccaria and Giambattista Vico . From America, Thomas Paine , Thomas Jefferson , and Benjamin Franklin exerted vast international influence.
Some philosophers at first proposed that their theories be implemented by "enlightened despots" —rulers who would impose reform by authoritarian means. Czar Peter I of Russia anticipated the trend, and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was the prototype of the enlightened despot; others were Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, and Charles III of Spain. The proponents of the Enlightenment have often been held responsible for the French Revolution. Certainly the Age of Enlightenment can be seen as a major demarcation in the emergence of the modern world.
Liberalism's 'Illegitimate Child' of Totalitarianism
In the 19th century, the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel inherited the liberal distinction between the state and society, which he referred to as civil society. Yet Hegel complained that liberalism regarded the state as an association of mutual advantage and, in so doing, failed to distinguish it from civil society. The latter is the domain of the family, the Church, professional associations, corporations, clubs and other associations of mutual interest and advantage. Civil society is particular, pluralistic, and diverse. In contrast, the state has its foundation in universal principles to which all owe allegiance regardless of their particular interests, religion, or station.
For Hegel, the state is not built on selfishness and mutual advantage, but on selfless devotion to principles and a willingness to lay down one's life for these ideals. He therefore surmised that the state is superior to civil society. In contrast to the state, civil society seemed to him like a selfish affair. This was a new turn in the continually emerging doctrine. Yet despite his deprecation of civil society in comparison to the state, Hegel upheld the liberal idea that the state should leave society alone and not interfere in its affairs.
But Hegel had now opened a very dangerous door. His romanticization of the state opened the way to the totalitarian state that regards itself as sovereign, the state that subordinates everything in civil society to itself, the state that turns civil society into a means for its own ends, the state that interferes in every aspect of life; the state that totally strangles civil society and its spontaneous order. The totalitarian state was the enemy of the market, the churches, and the synagogues; it controlled education, communication, the media and all cultural activities.
The totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, and Stalin subverted the liberal spirit of Hegel's philosophy and focused only on his praise and eulogy to the state. They used the state's alleged superiority to interfere in every aspect of civil society. It was the great misfortune of the still-developing liberalism that evil and mischievous men took just one aspect of Hegel's writing and abused it.
Karl Marx was critical of Hegel's distinction between the state and civil society and rejected his liberal view of civil society as a domain of freedom that must remain independent of state interference. But, without doubt, the totalitarian governments of Nazism and Communism were offshoots (illegitimate children, if you will), of the forces that developed liberalism - nobody can deny this. Neither can it be denied that the first avowed European liberal government of all - post-revolution France - slaughtered many thousands of its own people - most of them without trial.
Other Late Contributors to Liberalism
So there can be no question that several leading philosophical figures of the 19th century also made a strong contribution to the modern Liberalism which we now observe all around us. We have already noted Hegel, and referred to Marx, but now we need to say a little more.
Interestingly, many of these figures were decidedly illiberal people and their theories and philosophical leanings were hardly liberal in general terms, yet quotes from such individuals often now almost routinely fall from the lips of modern liberals. These figures include Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. The unquestioned influence of Nietzsche and Marx are especially interesting since these men are also so strongly associated with political totalitarianism, but we have already noted with interest that such totalitarianism is indeed what one might term the 'illegitimate child' of liberal theory. Modern liberals now attempt to perform major contortions in order to avoid what might seem to some of them as a smear, but there can be no real doubt that the first "liberal" European government, that is, the post-revolution French Republic presided over terrible abuses of power and a 'rule of the guillotine' which saw many thousands of men and women executed without trial - often for the flimsiest of reasons. Moreover, Freud's avowedly anti-religious analytical theory of the mind and his view of sexual freedom, Nietzsche's atheism and concern for individual freedom (including, paradoxically, the 'freedom' to choose to enslave weaker people and nations), and Marx's social and economic theory have made very major contributions to modern Liberalism. Indeed, liberals have been at the forefront of the movement which has sought to reclaim Marxist social theory from the hideous stain of the track record of world-wide communism.
For sure, liberalism cuts bad human conduct and behaviour loose from any sense of Christian responsibility or morality.
Nicholas Capaldi has made the following insightful comment,
"The liberal paradigm makes the following assumptions: first, human beings are born with impulses that are basically good (the denial of the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin); secondly, all anti-social behaviour is the result of external environmental influence (eg, lack of information or resources, presence of hostile attitudes and the absence of approving attitudes); and thirdly, in order to make people whole again, it is necessary to engage in social engineering or the reconstruction of institutions so as to provide information and resources, eliminate hostile attitudes, and promote approving attitudes." ('Faking It, the Sentimentalisation of Modern Society,' 1998, p 48).
One is bound to draw the conclusion that the lineage of modern Liberalism is often flawed, frequently contradictory and sometimes smeared with the blood of the innocent. Today, 'liberal values' offer a form of 'abundant life' - the freedom to sin and to set one's own standards in every area of life. But we reap what we sow and our modern western societies are now reaping the rewards of this flawed "freedom" in unparalleled abortions, skyrocketing divorce rates, numerous teenage pregnancies, frightening rates of drug abuse, and a suicide rate which stuns those who come from the very poorest nations. The big lie of liberalism is that the "freedom" which it claims to offer is truly not freedom at all but actually an enslavement - an enslavement to a morally-destitute path which leads down to the very bottomless pit of despair.
But a man came to this world almost 2,000 years ago who also offered an 'abundant life.' The people who have chosen this path have found true contentment, joy and happiness even though they may have little money and few possessions. These people are able to enjoy a clear conscience right now and look forward to an eternity of being at their Master's side! Indeed, they have embarked upon a path which leads to the true abundance and REAL freedom of life eternal!
'...I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.' (John 10:10b, NKJV)
'"Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.' (Luke 12:32, NKJV).
Do YOU - the reader of this article - hunger and thirst for TRUE FREEDOM? The good news is that such a freedom truly exists and is available, but it is not within the power of political/social Liberalism to give it - it comes from Jesus of Nazareth alone.
Robin A. Brace, 2006.
ADDENDUM ON DAVID HUME, 2011.
In common with many philosophical writers, David Hume wrote a great deal on the subject of religion. A visitor to this web page has insisted that I have misunderstood Hume on religion and that he was only opposed to 'natural religion' (what may be understood about God purely from the natural world). The problem however, it seems to me, lies in the fact that, in his voluminous writings, Hume occasionally contradicted himself.
The question of what were Hume's personal views on religion is actually a very difficult question to answer but, without doubt, he was generally highly negative. I am informed that The Church of Scotland once seriously considered bringing charges of infidelity against him. (Mossner, E. C. 2001. The life of David Hume. Oxford University Press. p. 206). While Hume never seems to have declared himself to be an atheist, he was continually hostile to religion, especially its supernatural element.
There are certainly a few places in his works where Hume specifically seems to support the standard religious views of his time and place. This still meant that he could be very critical of the Roman Church, yet he was capable of writing in the introduction to his The Natural History of Religion, "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author." In spite of that, he writes at the end of the essay: "Examine the religious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are anything but sick men's dreams."
My correspondent brings the following to my attention:
Here is one passage from the "Introduction" Hume's Treatise of Human Nature that might interest you:
"Tis impossible to tell what changes and improvements we might make in [the] sciences were we thoroughly acquainted with the extent and force of human understanding, and could explain the nature of the ideas we employ, and of the operations we perform in our reasonings. And these improvements are the more to be hoped for in natural religion..."
And here is another [passage], also from the Treatise, Book I, Part IV, Sect. 5:
"There is only one occasion, when philosophy will think it necessary and even honourable to justify herself, and that is, when religion may seem to be in the least offended; whose rights are as dear to her as her own, and are indeed the same. If any one, therefore, should imagine that the foregoing arguments are any ways dangerous to religion, I hope the following apology will remove his apprehensions.
There is no foundation for any conclusion a priori, either concerning the operations or duration of any object, of which 'tis possible for the human mind to form a conception. Any object may be imagined to become entirely inactive, or to be annihilated in a moment; and 'tis an evident principle, that whatever we can imagine, is possible. Now this is no more true of matter, than of spirit; of an extended compounded substance, than of a simple and unextended. In both cases the metaphysical arguments for the immortality of the soul are equally inconclusive: and in both cases the moral arguments and those derived from the analogy of nature are equally strong and convincing. If my philosophy, therefore, makes no addition to the arguments for religion, I have at least the satisfaction to think it takes nothing from them, but that every thing remains precisely as before.
And here is yet another, from a footnote to Book I, Part III, Sect. 14 -- which would seem conclusive:
"The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind; that is, a mind whose will is constantly attended with the obedience of every creature and being."
There are a number of similar passages, but the theme is always the same: Hume worries whether religion can be proved by reason, but he accepts the possibility of revelation - and even the reality of miracles. (See for example Book III, Part I, Sect. 2: "every event, which has ever happened in the world [is natural] excepting those miracles, on which our religion is founded". That is Hume's own emphasis, by the way.)
I am grateful to my correspondent for pointing these things out, however, there is no question that (while he may have left a door open for the possibility of God), Hume's scepticism was a major reason that an emerging liberal philosophy would largely reject God, or any possibility of the supernatural world.
END OF ADDENDUM
You may also wish to read:
WHY HIGHER EDUCATION DOES NOT TRULY SERVE THE NATION
Regarding the widespread mess which the liberal social experiment has now caused, we also strongly advise the reading of
WHITHER GOEST THOU?
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