Earlier today, Audible recommended to me through its algorithms the book Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen. I’d never heard of the book or its author before, so I did what I usually do when Audible recommends a book to me: I read the one-star reviews. Reviewers’ biggest issue with the book, it seemed, revolved around the definition of liberalism. Just from reading the one-star reviews, it is clear that Deneen’s critique of liberalism would include modern American Republicans and self-styled “conservatives,” who are of course squarely within the Lockean school of liberalism. Yet these reviewers clearly did not consider Republicans/”conservatives” as a subset within liberalism, but as somehow opposed to liberalism. The fact that these reviewers are wrong is immaterial–they are expressing the common understanding. In light of this, how does one actually go about discussing liberalism in America today? In a two party system where both parties draw their ideology from liberalism, the larger ideology of liberalism has largely become invisible. Is there a way to discuss liberalism in America today, or has it become so ingrained, so taken for granted, that it has become impossible to discuss, critique, or evaluate?
Not long ago, I read somewhere of a conversation between the author and his brother regarding monks. I’ve tried every search term I can think of to find it, but no luck so far. As I recall, the brother told the author that he admired the acetic discipline of the monks, but asked what difference all that prayer and fasting did if there was no one to see it or be inspired by it.
There seems to be an idea that virtue only “makes a difference” if it is seen. If you live a life of virtue, and it is seen by many, and causes some of them to live lives of virtue, that has value. But (in this view) if you live a life of virtue as a hermit, unseen by the world, that life of virtue has less value somehow. This idea is simply not true, as the example of St. Mary of Egypt should illustrate.
The life of St. Mary should also illustrate that God can take a life of virtue lived in complete anonymity, and not only make it public, but inspire millions with it if He so chooses.
This mistaken idea is probably particularly dangerous to those of us that have blogs or social media accounts. These mediums can provide us with a seductive possibility of “making an impact” by sounding a trumpet when we give alms or do other things that we should be doing.
Back when I had a Facebook account, there was a time when I got tired of arguing with people on every post I made. So I started posting pictures of cathedrals instead of words. People will argue with words, even when they are crafted with more skill than I posses. Yet beauty bypasses the level of argument to strike directly at the level of experiential knowledge. Unfortunately, when we seek to spread virtue by sounding trumpets before us on blogs or social media, we are detracting from the beauty inherent in virtue, and thus making virtue less attractive to those around us. On the other hand, if we can let go of the idea of “making a difference” and focus on our own repentance, on building virtue in our lives, the beauty of that virtue will shine out through us.
Writing helps me to organize my thoughts, but I know better than to see this blog as my avenue to making a difference. Any difference made through this blog will only be as a direct result of my own repentance.