Some Notes on Cross, Cruelty, and the Meaning of Liberalism

In the field of political theory, liberalism often stands as one of the most ambiguous of ideological umbrellas. Those who use the badge of liberalism may disagree profoundly about the role of markets and states, the application of rights and the limits of democratic deliberation or oversight. What then unites diverse ‘liberalisms’? To answer this question convincingly, we need to descend from the lofty heights of theory and slogans and consider the emotional and historical roots of liberal positions. According to this view, before there was an ideology called liberalism’, there was a cluster of sentiments and practices which rendered later liberal theorising both possible and intellectually intelligible.  What then is the emotional and historical superstructure of self-consciously liberal projects? My answer is that proto-liberal sensibilities emerge in the tender-hearted who find themselves exposed to sights of extreme cruelty. The emotions of liberalism begin when bodies are ravaged, silenced, bent, and broken. Such a starting point permits us to incorporate many within the liberal canon despite their antiquity. We must include first and foremost numerous nameless spectators, who in the privacy of their hearts rebelled against the burning of those the Church deemed ‘heretics’. In the same breath, we must include those who, despite social pressure, listened to those who offered heterodox opinions. Instead of turning such people over to the authorities, they listened, with respect and more than a little curiosity. It is thus not a foolish anachronism to find the embers of political liberalism in the fires that consumed Giordano Bruno or Marguerite Porete. Those who recoiled in revulsion before these charred bodies must be included psychologically in the history of a tradition that has always categorically rejected the right of authority to torture.

But there is another ingredient in this preference against cruelty, beyond the mere fact of moral revulsion. The same Medieval Church which permitted secular authorities to torture and kill religious subversives, placed the tortured body of Christ at the very centre of its moral and spiritual considerations. Through popular devotion to the Cross, everyday Christians were invited to empathise with their Saviour, weep with him, and feel his pain. While such ascetical practice, in the first instance, glorified suffering, rather than curtailed it, the believer’s identification with the crucified Christ doubtless had the effect of rendering these worshipers intensely aware of those who suffered. It is hard to trivialise cruelty when popular religion made the humiliations of the Passion a core preoccupation of the faithful. There is a small leap from this increased sympathy towards the brutalised, to reducing the caprice of the torturer in the name of pity. Indeed, it might be said that this excessive focus upon a sacred yet battered body, created a protest against cruelty previously unmatched in civilized life. Across the centuries, States and Empires had taken the view that limitless ruthlessness was the price for order. Millions of lives were crushed daily, through hard labour and slavery, to ensure that pyramids and palaces remained intact. Blood was the price for law. The Empire that had put Jesus’ to death even turned this dark reality into an entertaining spectacle for curious crowds. Cruelty was the norm of civilized life, not the exception. But in the bruised face of Christ the victims of callousness had possessed a voice and an advocate. The one who was crushed by violence rose again, a victor against the cruelty of the world. The primitive church’s faith in the Resurrection taught the downtrodden that cruelty was not an unbreakable power. Forces of life could triumph against the shadow of death.  

What did such a change in thought produce? According to the liberal theorist Judith Shklar, a culture so deposed began to consider cruelty the worst of moral vices. This transformation is already present in the iconography of the Medieval Passion, with the voiceless victim of civilization becoming the object of worship. But if Christ the scapegoat had moral and spiritual  worth, it was an easy matter to extend this concern to all victims. It is here that Nietzsche’s most trenchant anti-Christian polemic helps us to clearly see the deep structure of liberalism. In the Christian valorisation of the sufferer, one sees the revenge of the weak against the strong; a conspiracy of the crushed against those in power. As Nietzsche puts it:  

Christianity is called the religion of pity.—Pity stands in opposition to all the tonic passions that augment the energy of the feeling of aliveness: it is a depressant. A man loses power when he pities. Through pity that drain upon strength which suffering works is multiplied a thousandfold. Suffering is made contagious by pity; under certain circumstances it may lead to a total sacrifice of life and living energy—a loss out of all proportion to the magnitude of the cause (—the case of the death of the Nazarene).

If civilization had habitually been sustained by the sacrifice of the weak in the name of the strong, Christianity introduced for Nietzsche, a new moral conception into the minds of both ruler and ruled; that pity should always bind the logic of power; that lives once disregarded should be considered. While this moral sensibility undoubtedly took many centuries to develop, the shift was visibly present by the early modern period. When the Renaissance Humanist Michel de Montaigne considered the religious violence of sixteenth-century Europe, his disgust crystalised into a supreme principle of life, namely: you shall not be cruel. As Montaigne wearily tells his reader: in his essay,  On Cruelty:

I live in a time wherein we abound in incredible examples of this vice, through the license of our civil wars; and we see nothing in ancient histories more extreme than what we have proof of every day, but I cannot, any the more, get used to it. I could hardly persuade myself, before I saw it with my eyes, that there could be found souls so cruel and fell, who, for the sole pleasure of murder, would commit it; would hack and lop off the limbs of others; sharpen their wits to invent unusual torments and new kinds of death, without hatred, without profit, and for no other end but only to enjoy the pleasant spectacle of the gestures and motions, the lamentable groans and cries of a man dying in anguish.   

But to stand before the mutilated and the silenced and reject the inevitability of their suffering may cause another mutation of thought. When cruelty becomes the worst of vices, a corresponding tenderness grows for the human being as such. While the inquisitor seeks to trap the fragile person, and the hangman dismember her, the one filled with liberality is able to delight in all forms of human ideocracy, empathise with her pain, and at the very least feel obliged to let her live her own life. Filled with this sensation of exquisite appreciation of human difference, the English polymath Thomas Browne observed in his 1643 book Religion of a Physician:

I feel not in myself those common antipathies that I can discover in others : those national repugnances do not touch me, nor do I behold with prejudice the French, Italian, Spaniard, or Dutch: but where I find their actions in balance with my countrymen’s, I honour, love, and embrace them in the same degree. I was born in the eighth climate but seem for to be framed and constellated unto all : I am no plant that will not prosper out of a garden ; all places, all airs, make unto me one country ; I am in England, everywhere, and under any meridian ; I have been shipwrecked, yet am not enemy with the sea or winds ; I can study, play, or sleep in a tempest. In brief, I am averse from nothing: my conscience would give me the lie if I should absolutely detest or hate any essence but the devil…

Here we see the moral essence of what in our own century is called liberal cosmopolitanism. To refute the ultimate efficacy of cruelty is to reject all those ‘isms’ of class, country, and caste which seek to make brutality palatable. Instead we are invited to see our lives reflected in the lives of others. These late blooming flowers of charity were for Benjamin Constant the exquisite crop of what we could now call ‘liberalism’. To live one’s own life, said Constant, one needed to first expand one’s conception of suffering. The heretic at the stake is dispossessed of his life, but dispossession comes in many forms, each a crime against the dignity of individual persons. In an extended meditation on this topic, Constant transmutes an older conception of Christian benevolence into the sharp-edge notion of political rights. He declares: ‘No-one has the right to tear the citizen from his country , the owner away from his possessions, the merchant away from his trade, the husband from his wife, the father from his children, the writer from his studious meditations, the old man from his accustomed way of life.’ 

Constant’s message is clear. If we wish for the tender harvest of charity to prosper, States, Crowds, and Authorities must be deterred from their characteristic  form, i.e. a system for delivering limitless cruelty in the name of order. The shackles that collectives frequently place on weak and fragile persons must now be placed firmly on collectives. The forces that brutalise bodies must be forced to defend them. The hand that routinely silences must be made to advocate for those who have been silenced. Liberalism then, is a moral and philosophic protest against lives reduced to mere pieces in the schemes of others. To be liberal is to be repulsed by lives unduly curtailed, mutilated, or cut off. The liberality at the heart of liberalism is the cry of unfulfilled possibility against the vampiric forces of coercion and unjustified power. As a life-task, liberalism calls for moderation, sympathy, and the capacity to advocate for those we would rather silence or ignore. But such tenderness is not a guaranteed virtue, easily formed, and readily practiced. Keeping our disposition tolerant and our hearts tender, takes immense effort.

To seek restraint against the backdrop of historic cruelty is to engage in the unpopular task of defending difference and weakness, and ambiguity. To do so is to eschew the siren calls of those who seek to convince us that it is better that the troublemaker of the hour is pushed aside for some grand design or tidy ideal. Such resistance is likely to be unpopular since it calls the community to something higher than retribution or herd safety. In this respect, liberals are always at risk from the Leviathan and its sympathisers, those for whom power is all. If liberalism requires a degree of personal courage to operate, how might this individual virtue be translated into institutional terms? Liberal parties are those which seek to turn the logic of cruelty into the logic of tolerance.

Thomas Browne, (1605-1682)

Tolerance, as E.M. Forster once noted, is not an exciting virtue, but it is nonetheless an essential prerequisite if the rule of cruelty is ever to be broken. We must learn, sometimes through law, and sometimes through art, that it is a waste of energy to endlessly tyrannise. If we wish our world to be beautiful, our relationships to be genuine, and our souls nourished, we must give space for each person to grow and change; revise their ends and revisit their ideals. In this account, human beings are not lumps of clay to be moulded, but flowers to be watered. By promoting toleration in legal form and tolerance at the level of the heart, liberals seek to hold back brutalising power such that human lives are capable of imagining other public goods apart from order. The good that liberals do, in their talk of rights and liberties, is to incline us away from the belief that the conforming and loyal herd is the same as peace and security. Indeed, liberalism asks us to consider the invisible disorder, which is artfully hidden by authoritarian or despotic regimes, not merely in the inhumanity of the gallows and the prison house, but in the waste of creative potential which is forced upon people by coercive authority. Instead of gifting her community with love, creativity and passion, the one who lives under tyranny is reduced to an exhausted dissident seething with resentment. In the loosening, qualification or bounded-ness of power, liberals perceive the possibilities of minimally coercive or peaceful forms of order where restraint exists alongside expression. Much has changed in the world since protesters of cruelty started thinking of themselves as ‘liberals’, but the urgency of the task of reducing cruelty has not diminished. As our technological and economic power has increased new frontiers of cruelty have opened before us. Even in the relatively prosperous countries were liberalism has taken hold most self-consciously, the forces of inhumanity and neglect prowl our social experience, in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, in racism, in avoidable poverty, as well as systemic loneliness and isolation. Yet, if cruelty has changed its form, so too have our tools to deliver compassion. This is the ever-self-renewing task of liberalism, to change in order to meet new indignities and defend against old ones. Liberalism, far from being the moribund opponent of both Conservatives and Social Democrats, is constitutive of a vital political sensibility. The politics of cruelty is straightforward. It is a simple matter to make all manner of ruthlessness palatable to otherwise sympathetic people, through lies, deceit, or ignorance. In the end, cruelty is the path of least resistance for the human species. To throw one’s lot in with Liberalism however is to audaciously attempt a rebuttal to the truisms of the callous. To declare oneself a ‘liberal’ is to declare that history does not have the last word; that brutality is not inevitable. We need such defiant affirmation more than ever.                        

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