Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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There is something very unusual regarding the way the history of political thought is usually written about and taught. It is presented as the accumulated thinking of some fifty individuals, give or take. The express route begins around Plato and Aristotle, moving through St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, stopping at Machiavelli and then on to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. From there it branches to Hegel, Marx, and Mill, and after that offers a series of lesser tracks into the 20th century. Occasionally there are smaller halts on the way that vary from journey to journey. We will not ignore that tradition, and is devoted to assessing some of its central liberal players. Indeed, at times strenuous efforts are made to broaden that canon, as in the Cambridge University Press blue books series, so we now have perhaps a hundred or so individuals who have to be taken into account. But think about the following for a moment: could any other branch of history get away with a narrative encompassing so few people, whether fifty or a hundred? Could social or cultural historians pull that off, for example? The reason for the strange historical sweep—or lack of it—of the study of political thought is complex. For one, it was not designed by historians but in the main by scholar-philosophers whose prime interest was in the unique, the outstanding, and the visionary. Second, it was rooted in now-disputed theories of evolution and progress that regarded political thinking as unfolding in a clear sequence. Third, it became a self-perpetuating convention, encouraged in universities, of addressing political ideas as reified and constituting the challenging heart of dignified culture, albeit with a striking Western bias.

Liberals of course colluded in that feat of human imagination, selective and elitist as it was. As suggested in , one way of approaching liberalism is to see it as a story about how individuals and societies change for the better over time. The tale liberals want to tell is about the growth of civilization and the progress of humanity. According to that optimistic narrative, human beings are increasingly driven by a love of freedom and opposition to tyranny and oppression. The cultivation of one’s individuality, and a respect for the individuality of others, are held to be the hallmarks of a decent society. Consequently liberals wish to manage the relationships between individuals, states, and societies by endowing people with sets of rights intended to protect and enhance their liberty and individuality.

Previous: Liberal institutions
Next: The prehistory of liberalism