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Gray on the Two Faces of Liberalism

August 18th, 2022 | 3 min read

By Jake Meador

So I first heard mention of John Gray on a recent episode of Rebuilders. Then I mentioned it in our writers’ Slack and found out that a few folks in there were already big fans of Gray’s work while another had just picked one of his books up the other day. So hopefully we’re going to start having some more discussion of Gray’s work around here. We’ll see. Here’s the passage, which comes very early in The Two Faces of Liberalism that I think is so vital for understanding where we are right now:

The ideal of toleration we have inherited embodies two incompatible philosophies. Viewed from one side, liberal toleration is the ideal of a rational consensus on the best way of life. From the other, it is the belief that human beings can flourish in many ways of life.

If liberalism has a future, it is in giving up the search for a rational consensus on the best way of life. As a consequence of mass migration, new technologies of communication and continued cultural experimentation, nearly all societies today contain several ways of life, with many people belonging to more than one. The liberal idea of toleration which looks to a rational consensus on the best way of life was born in societies divided on the claims of a single way of life. It cannot show us how to live together in societies that harbour many ways of life. …

Liberalism has always had two faces. From one side, toleration is the pursuit of an ideal form of life. From the other, it is the search for terms of peace among different ways of life. In the former view, liberal institutions are seen as applications of universal principles. In the latter, they are a means to peaceful coexistence. In the first, liberalism is a prescription for a universal regime. In the second, it is a project of coexistence that can be pursued in many regimes.

The philosophies of John Locke and Immanuel Kant exemplify the liberal project of a universal regime, while those of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume express the liberalism of peaceful coexistence. In more recent times, John Rawls and F. A. Hayek have defended the first liberal philosophy, while Isaiah Berlin and Michael Oakeshott are exemplars of the second.

I’m only a few pages into the book, so I need to keep reading. But I found that “two faces” framing to be enormously clarifying. I think you could map that basic schema onto our current context quite easily, which is striking given that Gray wrote this book in the early 2000s.

So if we say there is a Liberalism 1, which is about using our political freedoms and procedures to help us better pursue a single way of life together, well, we currently have a Right Liberalism 1 and a Left Liberalism 1. Right Liberalism 1 is what you’re finding at places like First Things and The American Conservative as well as something like the National Conservatism movement. Left Liberalism 1 is, basically, the successor ideology.

What unites all of these different factions is that they want to use a species of liberalism to advance and secure one best way of life—whether that’s via Vermeule’s “integration from within” or the kind of elite institutional capture you see on the left, either amounts to the same basic project, just from different sides of the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, we also have a Liberalism 2, which is what you’re going to get from The DispatchUnherdCommon Sense, as well as the anti-woke gay conservative crowd made up of folks like Andrew Sullivan, Rick Rubin, Douglas Murray, and so on. For this group, there simply isn’t one best way to live and so just political order is intended to simply preserve a space in which various groups can each pursue their own idea of the good while remaining at peace with their neighbors.

What’s interesting about this is that I think you can make a good Christian argument for a few different approaches here. You can even do it from the same source: St Augustine. On the one hand, Augustine is at great pains, particularly in Book 19 of the City of God, to make the point that this temporal domain can never be our greatest, final good.

For that reason, you can make the case that the Liberalism 2 proponents are correct, for their method is the one that is going to best recognize the inherent limitations of what can be achieved politically, which is good in itself and is a tacit rebuke of those who would make an idol of politics.

On the other hand, Augustine says that justice is giving to one what they are due and God is due worship so any society that does not worship God is, by definition, unjust. Therefore, there is one best way of life and the purpose of politics is to help us pursue that way of life together. Given the fact of pluralism, we should do that slowly and cautiously and avail ourselves of liberal resources as we attempt that work. But for Liberalism 1 proponents, the application of liberal norms to a society is a prudential judgment, not an absolute one.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).

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