Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Garry Wills on History and Liberalism

Upon re-reading this classic work about American politics and political thought, I came across these quotes about history and liberalism. Do not, in this context, confuse "liberalism" with "progressive" thought or the Left; in fact, Wills argues in his work that liberalism in its many guises is the guiding ideology of  American politics and culture. To what extent this is still true is an interesting point to ponder, but the main point I find in these quotes addresses our relationship to our history as a nation. Ponder this in light of today's events. What Wills wrote in the early 1970s in the context of Nixon and the turbulence of that era certainly applies today; we must find not only a way to rid ourselves of the plague of demagoguery and potential for tyranny, but we must find a way forward.  

History has made us, we cannot remake ourselves. To say this is to say that we are not the heirs, merely, but prisoners of our past thoughts, that we cannot break through them and be free, even when we recognize their delusive aspects. If this is so, then we must perish, feeding on recognized falsehood, our fate the fate of our exposed, exploded theories. But it is not so. Even in the past a great deal of our national life was left out of the accepted theories, and this becomes increasingly true as liberalism fails to enlist the energy and hopes of the young. At any rate, history never rests, never leaves alone the thing it makes; and there are signs that history, having made ours a great nation, may now be in the process of unmaking us—unless we can tap some energies for our own renewal. 

The historical achievement of liberalism is a great one, and even its severest critics would not systematically raze all its monuments. That these great deeds were accomplished by men acting, often, out of self-delusion means only that we are looking at the history of men—the same could be said of any school of thought that led to large actions in the world. One cannot even indulge in “hypothetical history” by saying a different course would have been a better one. 
This is our history, its good and bad intermixed; we cannot choose another. But one thing we can do—we can make history by refusing to rest in liberalism’s self-deceptions, once exposed. 

Wills, Garry. Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (Kindle Locations 9261-9266). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

What Wills writes about liberalism in the context of his book can be said of many things: once we've found the rot, we continue to use any tool or thought at our continuing peril. We have to recognize the rot and repair and even improve the tool. 

Compare these thoughts about history offered by Wills with the perspective of R.G. Collingwood. 

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