The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy

"The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy," Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 12, No. 3 (March 1959).  Reprinted in Liberalism Ancient and Modern.  Review essay on E. A. Havelock: The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics.


Some readers may blame us for having devoted so much time and space to the examination of an unusually poor book. We do not believe that their judgment of the book is fair. Books like Havelock’s are becoming ever more typical. Scholarship, which is meant to be a bulwark of civilization against barbarism, is ever more frequently turned into an instrument of rebarbarization. As history suggests, scholarship is, as such, exposed to that degradation. But this time the danger is greater than ever before. For this time the danger stems from the inspiration of scholarship by what is called a philosophy. Through that philosophy the humane desire for tolerance is pushed to the extreme where tolerance becomes perverted into the abandonment of all standards and hence of all discipline, including philological discipline. But absolute tolerance is altogether impossible; the allegedly absolute tolerance turns into ferocious hatred of those who have stated most clearly and most forcefully that there are unchangeable standards founded in the nature of man and the nature of things. In other words, the humane desire for making education accessible to everyone leads to an ever-increasing neglect of the quality of education. No great harm is done, or at least there is no new reason for alarm, if this happens in disciplines of recent origin; but the situation is altogether different if the very discipline which is responsible for the transmission of the classical heritage is affected. True liberals today have no more pressing duty than to counteract the perverted liberalism which contends “that just to live, securely and happily, and protected but otherwise unregulated, is man’s simple but supreme goal” (374), and which forgets quality, excellence, or virtue.

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