“When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness”—Some Reflections on Capitalism and “the Free Society”

"'When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness’—Some Reflections on Capitalism and 'the Free Society'," The Public Interest, Fall 1970.


I use the word “conservative” advisedly. Though the discontents of our civilization express themselves in the rhetoric of “liberation” and “equality,” one can detect beneath the surface an acute yearning for order and stability—but a legitimate order, of course, and a legitimized stability. In this connection, I find the increasing skepticism as to the benefits of economic growth and technological innovation most suggestive. Such skepticism has been characteristic of conservative critics of liberal capitalism since the beginning of the nineteenth century. One finds it in Coleridge, Carlyle, and Newman—in all those who found it impossible to acquiesce in a “progressive” notion of human history or social evolution. Our dissidents today may think they are exceedingly progressive; but no one who puts greater emphasis on “the quality of life” than on “mere” material enrichment can properly be placed in that category. For the idea of progress in the modem era has always signified that the quality of life would inevitably be improved by material enrichment. To doubt this is to doubt the political metaphysics of modernity and to start the long trek back to pre-modern political philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Hooker, Calvin, etc. It seems to me that this trip is quite necessary. Perhaps there we shall discover some of those elements that are most desperately needed by the spiritually impoverished civilization that we have constructed on what once seemed to be sturdy bourgeois foundations

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