The Vermeulean Vision
A review of "Common Good Constitutionalism" by Adrian Vermeule
Polity, 270 pages, 2022
“Some of the men of this age seem to raise themselves at moments to a hatred for Divinity, but … the neglect of, let alone scorn for, the great Being brings an irrevocable curse on the human works stained by it. Every conceivable institution either rests on a religious idea or is ephemeral. Institutions are strong and durable to the degree that they partake of the Divinity.” — Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France
American political theory has recently seen the emergence of so-called “post-liberal” thinkers, whose clout is sufficiently large to warrant both critical and fawning appraisals in high profile outlets. Mostly coming from a right-wing Catholic background, the basic philosophical argument of the post-liberal thinkers is probably best summarized in Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed. In effect, it failed because it succeeded. Liberalism was committed to a nominalistic metaphysics which conceived of reality as little more than matter in motion. Lacking any belief in intrinsic goods or beauty, liberalism held that the only reasonable political system would be one where each individual was free to do as they wished within the lightly circumscribed limitations of liberal law. Initially this led liberals to support an allegedly “small” night watchman state. But as the cultural spread of liberal values overturned older religious and communitarian rivals, there was increasing pressure on the state to do more. Rather than referee the interactions of free individuals, the liberal state was to be proactive in eradicating the socio-cultural and even natural barriers to the exercise of amoral freedom. The result was the emergence of a nihilistic world where individuals were free to do anything, and apparently believed in next to nothing.