|Hawley with his wife and two sons being sworn in|
Early in his address, Senator Hawley spoke of a failure in America's public philosophy which he urged the graduates to rectify:
"Your work is only just beginning. For the wider world now beckons you and it is a world in need. And so this morning I remind you of the words of the Apostle Paul, "Fan into a flame the gift that God has given you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, and of love and of discipline" - and you will need all three to meet the challenges of our present age.
For we stand at one of the great turning points of our national history. When the failure of our public philosophy and the crisis of our public life can no longer be ignored, and what we do about these needs will define the era that is to come.
For decades now our politics and our culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition. Of escape from God and community. A philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice. It is a philosophy that has defined our age."
This is the philosophy of individual autonomy that is most commonly associated with political liberalism. But Senator Hawley does not name liberalism as the problem. Instead, he believes that we are living in an age of Pelagius, a British theologian who was condemned as a heretic in 418 AD.
Which raises the question of why Senator Hawley connects political liberalism with the theology of a heretical British monk. At first glance, the connection seems tenuous. Pelagius would not have endorsed a modern liberal morality. He belonged to the ascetic wing of the early church. He believed that through our free will we could achieve moral perfection and therefore salvation. His theology was morally demanding. He would have been aghast at the liberal idea that the highest good is a freedom to choose in any direction.
Nonetheless, Pelagius is looked on warmly by some liberals. Why? It seems that when it comes to the critical debate in the early church between Pelagius and Augustine some liberals instinctively prefer the Pelagian view.
The Pelagian view of salvation gives a greater role to individual self-determination. The stress is more on what we achieve through our own will, rather than through unmerited grace or through the sacraments of the church. It is claimed that Pelagius regarded Augustine's theology as giving man too supine a role in relation to God (which made me think of the liberal humanist intellectuals of the late 1800s and early 1900s who wanted man to be co-active with God in steering humanity to its ultimate destination).
The Pelagian view also gives greater emphasis to human perfectibility. The Augustine view was that man inherited sin via the fall and therefore all men, even the saints, were blemished and in need of grace. The Pelagians are said to have rejected this doctrine of original sin. This view would certainly have appealed to some of the early utopian liberals, such as the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He and his circle bristled at the idea that man's nature was tainted. They believed that we could live in this world as in the Garden of Eden, in an idyllic and perfect state of freedom and equality, doing whatever we had a mind to do, and that this was only prevented by the existence of power structures in society.
Charlotte Allen, writing in First Things, explains the appeal of Pelagius to liberal progressives as follows:
Augustine is at odds with our prevailing climate of opinion, which regards obedience to the will of God as servility, the idea of eternal damnation as unspeakably cruel, and mankind as essentially a race of good people held back only by reactionary political attitudes and unjust social structures. Such views have turned Pelagius into a modern hero, a progressive before his time. As Michael Axworthy wrote in the New Statesman last December, those living in the “liberal, humanist culture of western Europe today . . . believe in free will, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the ability of people to make the right choices, do good, and to make things better.” We are, in a word, Pelagians.
Regardless of how much blame we apportion to Pelagian theology, Senator Hawley does a great job in identifying troubling aspects of "our public philosophy". For instance, in commenting on a significant Supreme Court decision, Hawley observes:
It is the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but also from society: from family, from tradition. The Pelagian view says the individual is most free when he or she is most alone, able to choose his or her own way without interference. Family and tradition, neighbourhood and church, these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice.
Senator Hawley makes a further important point. This view of freedom most suits the elite, who are in a better position to imagine themselves having significant choices in life:
The truth is the people at the top of our society have built a culture and an economy that work mainly for themselves. Our cultural elites look down on the plain virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice, things like humility and faithfulness. They celebrate self-promotion, self-discovery, self-aggrandisement...The elites assume that their interests are vital, while everyone else's can be done without, they assume that their value preferences should prevail, while denigrating the loves and loyalties of the great middle of America...Our Pelagian public philosophy says liberty is all about choosing your own ends - that turns out to be a philosophy for the privileged and for the few. For everybody else, for those who cannot build an identity based around what they buy, for those whose life is anchored in family and home and nation...today's Pelagianism robs them of the liberty that is rightfully theirs.
I'd like to draw this point out further. It is concerning to see the anxiety epidemic that is growing among young people. I think the following explanation for this epidemic is perceptive:
I’ve observed in myself and others a deep seated anxiety (which can manifest itself in depression, arrogance, self-loathing, or an affect of neurotic superiority, among other things) which seems to follow from the idea that our worth is ours to either prove or create. Under this idea, even if our worth is unconditional we must live a certain way to make sure that others know this — and if the value of our existence is in our own hands, then we need to make sure we live a certain way in order to justify our existence in this world.
There has been a significant change in how individuals derive self-worth even during the course of my own lifetime. Of course individual ambition and a desire for personal achievement existed when I was younger. But this was not the only source of people's sense of worth. There used to be a much stronger connection to larger social entities that individuals identified with, took pride in and derived a sense of meaning from.
Individual achievement was supplemented by membership of communities with a common fund of achievement that everyone could draw on. These communities were richly overlaid. I remember the civic pride in local suburbs, parochial attachments to city and to state, a sense of national family, as well as participation in a larger Anglo and then Western culture and civilisation. Most of all, there was a positive sense of belonging to a tradition of Australian manhood.
Senator Hawley is right to express concern at the logic of the reigning public philosophy. If it is all about my own self-determined achievement, measured in terms of status, money and social power, then there will be a severe hierarchy of winners and losers (and many of those who "win" will work themselves to the bone to do so).
I believe one of the reasons the philosophy will ultimately fail is because it does denigrate and undermine the loves and loyalties of the common man, expecting him instead to join a contest for elite status, with all the demands and sacrifices of this aim, but with little prospect of success.