The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, by Helena Rosenblatt

Book of the week: Alexandre Lefebvre asks whether it is possible to cultivate a liberal character in the modern world

December 20, 2018
Liberty Leading the People
Source: Getty

The epigraph to Helena Rosenblatt’s new book is taken from the French historian Lucien Febvre: “It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word.” She certainly makes good on the maxim. Her book is learned, purposeful, highly readable and I would even say inspiring. It not only gives a fuller picture of what liberalism historically consisted of than any rival account, but it is bound to leave readers – as it did me – with an urgent sense of why we need to do our best to save it here and now.

“Liberalism” is, of course, a fraught term in our heated times, most often brandished as a cudgel or a shield depending on political preference. Still, a cool-headed observer might step back from the scene to observe that, polemics aside, liberalism does indeed have a settled meaning. It is a doctrine whose core principle consists of the protection of the individual and, specifically, his or her rights and choices. Rosenblatt’s book takes aim at this received understanding. Her objection is not that it is incorrect per se, but that it is very recent, Anglocentric and, what’s worse, blocks out alternative and potentially richer conceptions of liberalism that preceded it.

This is where the “lost history” comes in. As a political doctrine and set of institutions, liberalism didn’t come into existence until the 19th century. But the Latin terms liber, meaning “free and generous”, and liberalis, “befitting a free-born person”, have for two thousand years been at the heart of discourses about ethics, religion and citizenship. And so Rosenblatt begins her story with Cicero and Seneca, for whom liberalitas referred to the ideal qualities of Roman citizenship, including an ethic of freedom, generosity and civic-mindedness. From there she charts how this liberal attitude was adapted in medieval Christianity, the Renaissance and Protestantism. I cannot here track all the twists and turns, but Rosenblatt’s message is that there is a centuries-long tradition in the West exhorting individuals and citizens to be liberal. Being liberal, and conducting oneself in a liberal manner, was seen as integral to personal felicity, spiritual fullness, civic prosperity and political stability.

The subtitle of Rosenblatt’s book, “From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century”, is a little misleading. Chapter 1, “What it means to be a Liberal from Cicero to Lafayette”, packs in 1700 years. Chapter 8 deals with the 20th century, and only a handful of pages in the Epilogue address the 21st century. That leaves six chapters in the middle, all of which are about the 19th century and focus mainly, though not exclusively, on French authors and traditions. This, says Rosenblatt, is where and when liberalism was born. Thus, instead of the standard view of liberalism as a principally British and American invention, and in lieu of the familiar parade of John Locke (pictured inset), Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, Rosenblatt presents an alternative genealogy. The cast changes, with Benjamin Constant, Germaine de Staël, François Guizot and Alexis de Tocqueville moving centre stage. Most important, the motivations driving the development of liberalism shift away from a narrow concern with individual rights. The big question Rosenblatt and her selected authors wrestle with is the following: how is it possible for people living under modern conditions, besieged by social, political, economic and spiritual pressures, to enjoy a whole and integrated life? How, in other words, can liberality and a liberal character be cultivated in the modern world?

The Lost History of Liberalism is a masterful work of intellectual history. But that should not be taken to mean that it is niche, as if its main contribution consisted in replacing an Anglocentric narrative about liberalism with a French (and Franco-German) one. In addition to historians and political theorists, this book should be of interest to two broad audiences.

The first is everyone interested in the past, present and future of liberalism – and Rosenblatt writes so clearly and engagingly that this includes general readers as well as academics. At the outset of her study, she writes, “It would be good to know what we are speaking about when we speak about liberalism.” Good for the sake of clarity, certainly; but good, I believe, also for the sake of hope. To my mind, the real achievement of The Lost History of Liberalism is to revitalise liberalism and to show how, at root, it is not a narrowly legal or political doctrine but a worldview. As it developed piecemeal in response to the new and frightening dangers of the modern world, Rosenblatt shows how liberalism historically understood itself as a way of living, both individually and collectively, centred on a set of core values: generosity, tolerance, freedom and engagement.

Thus, when today we find liberalism spurned on both national and international stages, the insight and urgency of this book are twofold. Thanks to the lucidity of Rosenblatt’s history, we are made vividly aware of what would be lost should liberalism be displaced. At the same time, however, her presentation of the depth and humanity of liberalism has the potential to renew its attractiveness. That makes it an ultimately hopeful book. Not explicitly so, as it is silent as to the future viability of liberalism. But practically speaking, The Lost History of Liberalism should and will become an indispensable resource for liberal thinkers, politicians and citizens to cultivate the best version of their creed and of themselves.

Social scientists may also take an interest in this book. This may take a word of explanation, if only because The Lost History of Liberalism is, in method, style and substance, a work in the humanities. Understandably, in the past few years there has been massive interest, in sociology, anthropology, political science and related literatures, in the phenomenon of populism. A key research question in this field – perhaps the key question – is what happens to democracy when it is no longer liberal. Are illiberal democracies genuinely possible?

Rosenblatt does not tackle this particular question, but she does offer a sustained analysis of the opposite phenomenon: what liberalism looks like when it is not, and avowedly not, democratic. For, as she points out time and again, the major liberals of the 19th century did not support universal suffrage and positioned liberalism as much against excesses from below as from above. Indeed, there is something aristocratic about liberalism. That can be good when it takes the form of meritocracy and the cultivation of excellence. But it can also incline towards contempt and distrust of the many, and preference for rule by the elite few.

Thus, when populists today rail against liberal democracy, perhaps there is something accurate and essential in their indictment. Reading Rosenblatt can help us to access the thrust of this criticism, for as she aptly shows, it is not a new one. What it may come down to (and was certainly how the matter appeared to Rosenblatt’s 19th-century liberals) is whether we want liberalism or democracy.

Alexandre Lefebvre is associate professor of government and philosophy at the University of Sydney.

The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century
By Helena Rosenblatt
Princeton University Press
360pp, £27.00
ISBN 9780691170701
Published 23 October 2018

The author

Helena Rosenblatt, professor of history and French at the City University of New York, was born in Stockholm. Since her father was in the Swedish foreign service, she recalls, “we lived in many places while I was growing up: Moscow, Stockholm, Beirut and Beijing. We moved to Washington DC when I was 12 years old, and then on to New York City, where I eventually attended Barnard College for my BA and Columbia University for my PhD.”

It was while at Barnard that Rosenblatt found herself “drawn to intellectual history because of a wonderful professor named Laurence Dickey. I took every course he offered as an undergraduate and graduate student and decided to write my dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau because of his encouragement.” Such an immersion in French thinkers has led her to challenge the notion of liberalism as “an unbroken Anglo-Saxon tradition whose origins lie in English history…My book debunks this as a myth. I show that liberalism owes its origins to the French Revolution and that it was later transformed by German thinkers. Ignoring the French and German contributions to the history of liberalism, and overestimating those of Britain and America, not only distorts our understanding of what ‘liberalism’ really is and what it has been throughout history, but can result in a sense of Anglo-American self-satisfaction and complacency, which is dangerous in these troubled times.”

On today’s crucial questions about the relationship of liberalism to democracy, populism and socialism, Rosenblatt believes that a historical approach can add useful perspective: “Liberalism has always been a contested, debated and evolving creed. It has faced formidable enemies, from both the left and right, including ‘populist’ insurgencies and demagogues willing to exploit the gullibility of the public. History can tell us about the challenges people before us have faced, the options they had and the choices they made.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: A full and integrated life

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