Look Ma, No Anthropology

Maybe it was Rod Dreher, but orthodox anthropology is supposed to be key to understanding the West’s contemporary ills. If you do a search for Dreher and anthropology (a word invoked often in recent reading material) you come to this:

Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is. In general, the mainstream model is geared toward equipping students to succeed in the workforce, to provide a pleasant, secure life for themselves and their future families, and ideally, to fulfill their personal goals—whatever those goals might be. The standard Christian educational model today takes this model and adds religion classes and prayer services.

But from a traditional Christian perspective, the model is based on a flawed anthropology. In traditional Christianity, the ultimate goal is to love and serve God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, to achieve unity with Him in eternity. To prepare for eternal life, we must join ourselves to Christ and strive to live in harmony with the divine will.

I’m not sure I see the fall in that description of Christian anthropology.

Patrick Deneen’s new book, Why Liberalism Failed, is also based on the idea that liberty in the West stems from a flawed anthropology:

First-wave liberals are today represented by “conservatives,” who stress the need for scientific and economic mastery of nature but stop short of extending this project to human nature. They support nearly any utilitarian use of the world for economic ends but oppose most forms of biotechnological “enhancement.” Second-wave liberals increasingly approve nearly any technical means of liberating humans from the biological nature of our own bodies. Today’s political debates occur largely and almost exclusively between these two varietes of liberals. Neither side confronts the fundamentally alternative understanding of human nature and the human relationship to nature defended by the preliberal tradition.

Liberalism is thus not merely, as is often portrayed, a narrowly political project of constitutional government and juridical defense of rights. Rather, it seeks to transform all of human life and the world. (36-37)

Deneen assumes that the ancients (pagan) and Christians were on the same page, anthropologically speaking, and that Locke and Hobbes broke with that older view of human nature. But that seems like a debating technique where you hope your opponent doesn’t look too closely at Aristotle and Paul.

For that reason, Damon Linker’s recent post on the deficiencies of liberalism came as a breath of fresh air. No anthropology, just politics:

Classical liberalism is the cluster of ideas devised by a series of political philosophers who wrote between the 17th and 19th centuries: John Locke, Adam Smith, James Madison, and John Stuart Mill, among others. Against defenders of absolute monarchy and the mercantilist economic order of the early modern period, these writers advocated a minimal, nightwatchman state founded on the consent of the governed and an economy of free trade based on private contracts freely entered into by equal individuals. This political and economic arrangement would valorize and protect individual freedom, foster a burgeoning and peaceful civil society, produce massive increases in wealth, and encourage revolutionary scientific and technological advances.

That was the theory.

In the reality of U.S. history, classical liberalism had two moments of special prominence: the era in which the federal Constitution was adopted and the subsequent early national period, and then in the decades following the Civil War. The latter period was especially significant, because it was a time of economic “takeoff” in which lightly regulated industries grew enormously, contributing to a significant leap in economic growth along with a surge in wages for many.

Linker goes on to argue that classical liberalism isn’t sufficient to address the inequalities (he calls them tyrannies) that free markets produce:

If you’re standing against a tyrannical and unjust government, classical liberalism can be a fabulously potent force for fighting it. But when confronting the myriad tyrannies and injustices promulgated by private power, it counsels only complacency and resignation. “That’s life; suck it up” — in previous, far more inegalitarian centuries, such a lesson might have been acceptable. In the modern world, it simply isn’t.

I get it. I don’t like Microsoft for all the updates forced on me and robbing me of Classic Hearts. I’m not wild about the challenges of Comcast’s customer service. But are these really tyrannies or nuisances?

Having to use a men’s bathroom is another matter.

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