The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, by Mark Lilla (New York: HarperCollins; 160 pp., $24. 99). Professor Lilla’s book, which appeared originally as an essay in the New York Review of Books, has received much attention (almost all of it bad) from liberals angered by its thesis that identity politics as it has developed over the past couple of decades is responsible for liberalism’s growing unpopularity among middle- and lower-middle-class Americans and for the declining political fortunes of the Democratic Party evidenced by Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton a year ago and the GOP’s nationwide hold on state governments and governorships. Lilla argues that identity politics based on race, ethnicity, sex, and so forth not only divides liberals but encourages them to look inward rather than outward, to concentrate on the personal rather than the genuinely political. In doing so he makes a valid distinction between the “movement” politics that are prevalent nowadays among liberals and the traditional institutional politics necessary to winning elections at every level of government—city, state, and national—and so to realizing the broad political agendas liberals expect will ensure the liberal future they envision for the country.
Lilla, who teaches “humanities” at Columbia College, is an “engaged” intellectual rather than a scholar, as this and previous others of his slight, journalistic works suggest. Despite the ire his arguments have raised on the left, he is no less measured and levelheaded a critic of present events (and past ones) than they are. Thus, he writes that “Whatever might be said about the legitimate concerns of Trump supporters, they have no excuse for voting for him.” Lilla is speaking here of 62,979,636 Americans who cast their vote for a man who was, after all, on the ballot. “Given his manifest unfitness for higher office,” Lilla continues, “a vote for Trump was a betrayal of citizenship, not an exercise of it.” He makes much of citizenship in this book, arguing that citizenship is the most important thing the citizens of a democracy have in common, while ignoring the fact that shared cultural, ethnic, and religious “identities,” not abstract political “principles,” are basic to a sense of shared citizenship, and the reality of it. Also, and unlike Burke, Mark Lilla restricts the concept of “citizenship” to those who, in Chesterton’s phrase, merely happen to be “walking around.” “I am an absolutist on abortion. It is the social issue I most care about, and I believe it should be safe and legal virtually without condition on every square inch of American soil.” He admits that “in certain cases an enormous majority” disagrees with him. Apparently, whatever liberals may think, that majority is fielding enough voters to help win in local, state, and national elections for the illiberal Republican Party.
Before Church and State: A Study of the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, by Andrew Willard Jones (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic; 510 pp., $39.95). “I contend,” Andrew Jones writes,
that the Middle Ages were neither religious nor secular because the religious and the secular are two features of a single construction: the modern, Western social architecture of “Church” and “State,” “private” and “public,” “individual” and “market,” and so on. The societies of the Middle Ages had a different architecture based on different assumptions and different concepts, ultimately on a different vision of the cosmos.
Jones explains that medieval men regarded society as having a supernatural character that embraced its secular aspect. Their world was a sacramental one in which the material and the spiritual were coexistent and ever-present. “The ‘religious’ was not accidental to this world, and the kings were not the State,” as “secular” meant “in time”—the world in which the Church militant operated directly. Thus, he argues, the modern understanding of “religious” and “secular” prevents us from understanding the Middle Ages generally, and the 13th century in particular. “Christianity,” conceived in this way, is a modern and secular phenomenon that owes its existence solely to the fact of its presence in a secular society: The Middle Ages, as viewed by contemporaries, were not “Christian” at all. Similarly,
“sovereignty” did not exist in thirteenth century France . . . because the concept of sovereignty and the attempt to build sovereign States are the products of a distinctly modern set of assumptions and institutions that was not present.
Professor Jones’s book builds on ideas that scholars in many fields have been experimenting with for some time now, ideas that his research and analysis have developed and drawn together by compelling argument to form a convincing picture. Before Church and State is an excellent, and wholly fascinating, work.
Five Proofs of the Existence of God: Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, by Edward Feser (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press; 336 pp., $19.95). As Edward Feser notes, most of the five proofs for the existence of God—the Aristotelian, the Neoplatonic, the Augustinian, the Thomistic, and the rationalist, which he considers the most powerful ever advanced and which historically have been at the forefront of natural theology—are neglected by contemporary philosophers, while being ferociously attacked by the New Atheists, among them Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. In this most recent of many books, Feser defends these arguments, though he emphasizes that “I am not presenting an interpretation of any text to be found in the writings of any of these thinkers, and I am not claiming that any [of them] said or would agree with anything I have to say.” He proceeds from here to consider God’s nature and the nature of His relationship to His own creation, and next to show that these five proofs arrive at the necessary existence of the same God and establish His unity, as well as His simplicity, immutability, immateriality, incorporeality, eternity, necessity, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, will, love, and incomprehensibility. Feser’s purpose is to defend what was for a very long time the “mainstream position in Western thought”—namely, that the Divine existence can be proved by purely philosophical argument. The real debate, therefore, is not between atheism and theism but between theists of various religious faiths that begin where natural theology ends.
Feser’s final chapter, “Common Objections to Natural Theology,” might be described as a tour de force were it not accomplished so directly. So pièce de résistance is perhaps the term for this entirely satisfying annihilation of the New Atheists, whose philosophical ignorance and incompetence, intellectual dishonesty, and ill will Feser makes irrefutably clear.