Thursday, December 27, 2018

Metternich the Seer

It is remarkable that the Austrian statesman Metternich was able to foresee as long ago as 1820 that liberalism would turn against nationalism, and would do so out of a belief in individual autonomy. This is from a letter he wrote to Tsar Alexander:
"Is it necessary to give a proof of this last fact? We think we have furnished it in remarking that one of the sentiments most natural to man, that of nationality, is erased from the Liberal catechism, and that where the word is still employed, it is used by the heads of the party as a pretext to enchain Governments, or as a lever to bring about destruction. The real aim of the idealists of the party is religious and political fusion, and this being analysed is nothing else but creating in favour of each individual an existence entirely independent of all authority, or of any other will than his own, an idea absurd and contrary to the nature of man, and incompatible with the needs of human society."

For Metternich nationality is "one of the sentiments most natural to man" but liberals wish to erase it so that the existence of each individual is "entirely independent of all authority, or of any other will than his own".

This is liberal autonomy theory articulated in 1820. Liberals see individual autonomy, i.e. a freedom to self-determine or self-define, as the highest good. Therefore, whatever is predetermined, and beyond the control of the individual will, has to be made not to matter. This includes whatever we are born to (our nationality, our biological sex etc.) as well as unchosen or inherited forms of authority.

Interestingly, it was in 1820 that the play Prometheus Unbound, by the Englishman Percy Bysshe Shelley was published. His wife, Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein) penned a note to the play in which she explained:
The prominent feature of Shelley's theory of the destiny of the human species was that evil is not inherent in the system of the creation, but an accident that might be expelled...

Shelley believed that mankind had only to will that there should be no evil, and there would be none. It is not my part in these Notes to notice the arguments that have been urged against this opinion, but to mention the fact that he entertained it, and was indeed attached to it with fervent enthusiasm. That man could be so perfectionized as to be able to expel evil from his own nature, and from the greater part of the creation, was the cardinal point of his system.

...He now took a more idealized image of the same subject. He followed certain classical authorities in figuring Saturn as the good principle, Jupiter the usurping evil one, and Prometheus as the regenerator, who, unable to bring mankind back to primitive innocence, used knowledge as a weapon to defeat evil, by leading mankind, beyond the state wherein they are sinless through ignorance, to that in which they are virtuous through wisdom.

So what does Shelley's vision of regenerated, virtuous man look like in the play Prometheus Unbound? Well, much like the very thing Metternich was critical of:
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains/ Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man/ Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,/ Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king/ Over himself

Remember, Metternich accused the liberals of his age of rejecting the natural sentiment of nationality because they wanted an individual existence in which they were subject to no will but their own. And here is Shelley, in the same year, claiming that human perfection would mean that man would be "king over himself" and therefore "nationless" (and church-less and king-less and class-less and generally "uncircumscribed"). According to Shelley, this would leave man both free and equal.

It is John Lennon's Imagine given voice in a much earlier era. Metternich thought the vision "absurd and contrary to the nature of man, and incompatible with the needs of human society." Metternich was right, but it is the liberal view which, to our detriment, has so far prevailed.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.


  1. This is why I tend towards extreme eye rolling when the usual suspects start blaming nefarious Jewish conspiracies or the Frankfurt school for the problems of modernity.

    The poisonous intellectual and philosophical brew has been cooking since well before Adorno was a twinkle in his father's eye.

    1. Exactly. There's more in my next post when I look at the views of Shelley and his circle on biological sex. The intellectual and philosophical brew you speak of was already sufficiently in place in 1820 for Shelley to be very "woke" in his attitudes to this.

    2. Well Shelley type Liberalism does not include the self loathing or auto-genocidal element. That seems to be a somewhat unforeseen outgrowth of Critical Theory.

  2. Shelley makes Liberalism sounds as idealistic and Utopian as any religion. I even see some parallels with the Sermon on the Mount.

    One question I have after reading this: what is the relation between 'equality' and the 'individual'. (I don't think we are equal and my reification of the 'individual' has become weaker lately).

    Must one have a strong view of equality to have a strong view of the individual and their 'rights'? I think so, although those regimes pushing equality the strongest - the Communists - have ended up being the most hierarchical and totalitarian of all, with the State on top and the plebs below. Equality ends ups sacrificing individual 'rights' for the sake of whatever new set of individual 'rights' are trendy at the time. e.g. we need to pretend that homosexual relationships are equal to heterosexual ones therefore our 'free speech' right is sacrificed so as to protect the new 'freedom from hurt feelings' right of another.

    New individual rights are only found under a greater regime of equality. Our existing rights assume a level of equality which is often overlooked and mostly artificial.

    Our state is becoming increasing totalitarian even as our society can be said to be more equal, Liberal and 'Progressive', with more and more 'individual rights'.

    Classical Liberalism seems like a pipedream where most of the social contract must necessarily be informal/cultural/traditionalist to avoid the Big State as we increasingly have now. But the value of these informal contracts are not fully appreciated by Classical Liberals. Only under a state where people culturally recogniss some level of natural inequality/hierarchy/cultural normativity can you have those essential 'individual rights' that Classical Liberals so desire. The existence of these rights precludes other newfound rights under the greater Liberal/Egalitarian state we have today.

    1. Shelley makes Liberalism sounds as idealistic and Utopian as any religion.

      Yes, his political views read like some sort of utopian progressive idealism. You are right, as well, that equality was pushed by Shelley as if it were an absolute moral end. More on this later.

  3. It is John Lennon's Imagine given voice in a much earlier era.

    It's amusing to note that Shelley was a member of the aristocracy while John Lennon was a member of the new aristocracy of wealth (he had a net worth of $400 million at the time of his death) and celebrity. So both men were very much part of the elite class.

    1. This kind of thing did not go unnoticed at the time. Lord Byron was part of Shelley's circle and the radical Hazlitt thought his claim to be "liberal" preposterous given his membership of the aristocracy.

  4. Mr. Richardson

    Excellent work!

    I'm very interested in the use of the word "Liberal" in 1820, and it's use by such high personages. Obviously they now what the word means even at this early date. Good find!

    Mark Moncrieff
    Upon Hope Blog

    1. Thank you Mr Moncrieff. Shelley, Byron and Hunt actually set up a periodical in 1822 called the "Liberal" (it collapsed on Shelley's death). The term "liberal" in its modern political sense has been tracked back to 1769. It was used in its classical liberal sense to refer to a commercial culture in which individuals were unrestrained in pursuit of their economic self-interest (this is how justice, equality and freedom were defined). Shelley and Byron are interesting as they applied these concepts more broadly into the non-economic sphere. The aim now was for man to be "uncircumscribed" (unrestrained) whether by political authority or social convention or nation or biological sex. Critics saw this as impious and wilful and as undermining the nation's "manners" by which they seemed to have meant cultural standards. But Shelley and Byron didn't initiate things - it was the shift in the understanding of "natural liberty" as an absence of restraint (and its connection to justice and equality) by the classical liberals which paved the way. (The term "liberalism" appeared in the 1820s).