What made the West modern was the progression of its philosophy into political form. With Locke’s liberalism, the privilege of pursuing the true and the good inaugurated by Plato was wrested back from the religious (and anyone else who claimed authority by divine right) and redistributed to the People to whom, apparently, it had always belonged, as a matter of ‘natural’ right.
The practical effect of this was to render the pursuit a decidedly private affair and the principal mechanism for achieving it was the development of a structural division of labor for serving human interests. Civil authority (essentially the ‘government’ and those social institutions for which government is needed to maintain ) became charged with the responsibility of ensuring the ‘public welfare,‘ – securing the community, that is to say, against external threats and internal unrest, needs few, if any, individuals could adequately secure on their own.
But the state’s role as guardian of the public good goes beyond its efficiency in securing the social-material means the people need to adequately exercise their natural right. What is required is not merely the power of the state, but its reserve: only if the government renounces any role in deciding for individuals how they are to undertake that pursuit, let alone dictating to them what they must find, can it legitimately be protected. The pursuit of the good and the true must be left to the liberty of each.
The modern divide still defines much of the Western social-political landscape even as we debate about how best to leave modernity behind. Indeed, that the divide itself now strikes many as perfectly natural is neatly illustrated by the following. Richard Rorty’s hoped-for ‘postmodern liberalism’ has Mill (whose On Liberty provided the most eloquent restatement and refinement of the modern divide) informing our stewardship of the public good while (a sufficiently neutered) Nietzsche inspires our private ‘poetic self-creation.‘ But if this vision of postmodernity is insufficiently ‘classical‘ for your taste, you might consider a contemporary mindset dubbed ‘postmodern conservatism,‘ which urges “John Stuart Mill in the public sphere and Aristotle in the private.”
Now this version of the conservative/liberal debate is actually interesting, if for no other reason than it fits nicely into Alasdair MacIntyre’s narrative that takes late modernity’s central question to be ‘Nietzsche or Aristotle?’. What I am more interested in, however, is the very plausibility of a postmodern public-private divide. Why not think it a (dated) product of its time? We certainly have reason to wonder about its cogency, as this book notice makes clear. (I agree that it isn’t but the incoherence of a philosophical view is only so much of a liability.) More troubling is the charge that the real effect of the divide has ultimately been pernicious, undermining the very well being of the community and the individual both. It’s time to consider whether the modern project of making meaningfulness the work of ‘the many’ was not itself the most profound tragedy of the commons imaginable.