No man or woman is an island, and no one should aspire to be one, either. That, at the core, is the claim of illiberalism, post-liberalism, or any of the other names given to the movement that pushes back against individualism as an ideal. The liberalism of Locke, deeply woven into American culture and political philosophy, takes the individual as the basic unit of society, while an illiberal view looks to traditions, family, and other institutions whose demands define who we are.
It always confuses me that illiberalism is taken as a belligerent ideology – both by its detractors and some of its proponents – as though it were rooted in strength and prepared to wield that power against others. It is contemporary liberalism that begins from an anthropology of independence, and presumes a strength and self-ownership we do not in fact possess.
The best corrective the growing illiberal enthusiasm can offer is not a rival strength – no fist clenched around a flagpole of any standard. Instead it must offer a re-appreciation of weakness – the kind I see in the chubby, fumbling fingers of my daughter, reaching out to her parents.
The liberal theory of the independent individual as the basic unit of society is full of exceptions. When my own baby was awaiting birth, paddling away at my insides to strengthen her lungs and her bones, she was decidedly non-autonomous. She is swept out of moral consideration with the claim that she is not a person until she can survive without my involvement.
Of course, after birth, she gained some abilities, but far fewer than she would need to feed herself (much less navigate the free market). But here, the liberal order is a little more generous. Her infancy, her toddlerhood, her childhood is a rounding error – just a brief, aberrant state before she is enumerated among the radically free.
Old age is dismissed similarly. When the aged reach a certain point of weakness and inability, some doctors and ethicists are as ready to deny personhood at the end of life as they were at the beginning. And the end of life is, once again, graciously excused as an exceptional time – there was a lot of autonomy in the middle, so the end can’t be held against the individual, or the theory.
All of this is nonsense. It would be fairer to say that dependence is our default state, and self-sufficiency the aberration. Our lives begin and (frequently) end in states of near total dependence, and much of the middle is marked by periods of need.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the Christian. Even when we are most distant from our dependence on other created beings, we are still dependent on God, who conserves us in being from moment to moment. In a sermon titled “Remembrance of Past Mercies” from Saint John Henry Newman’s collection of “Parochial and Plain Sermons,” he points out that we are triply dependent on God:
We cannot be our own masters. We are God’s property by creation, by redemption, by regeneration. He has a triple claim upon us. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness, or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous.… But as time goes on, they, as all men, will find that independence was not made for man – that it is an unnatural state – [that] may do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end. No, we are creatures; and, as being such, we have two duties, to be resigned and to be thankful.
A world that holds up independence as the ideal offers us two rival duties: to obscure our dependence and to be resentful of it. No woman can lightly assent to the illusion of autonomy. Because a baby is alien to the world of self-ownership, every woman’s citizenship in that imaginary republic is tenuous. A world of autonomous individuals can’t acknowledge both woman and child simultaneously. The sheer amount of work it takes to stifle fertility, put eggs on ice, or pump milk for a baby not welcome outside the home makes it clear that there is something untruthful and sharp-clawed at loose in the world.
Fear and hatred of weakness and dependence wound the dependent most obviously, but are poison to all, even the people who are strong at present. Without repeated reminders that the broken are beloved, how can we remember who God is?
Our physical weakness is a training ground for our struggles with moral weakness. There is no physical infirmity we can endure that is more humiliating than our susceptibility to sin. The elderly woman with tremors that leave her unable to lift her cup to her lip is not, in the final sense, weaker than any vigorous young man who finds he must echo Paul and admit, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19).
It would be fairer to say that dependence is our default state, and self-sufficiency the aberration.
There is a blessing in the inescapability of physical weakness that breaks our pride. Sister Teresa de Cartagena, a fifteenth-century Cistercian nun from Spain, wrote; Arboleda de los enfermos (Grove of the Infirm) as a spiritual reflection on her own deafness. Sister Teresa writes: “Divine generosity invites all to this blessed feast, but suffering grabs the infirm by their cloak and makes them enter by force.”
She interprets Christ’s parable of the great banquet, in which, she says, “the infirm are brought by force to the magnificent feast of eternal health, because their suffering grabs them by the cloak and makes them enter through the door of good works; for if we do not enter through that door, we will not be able to reach the greatest heights of honor, which is to be seated at the table of divine generosity. O blessed convent of the infirm!”
So long as we are not currently weak in body, we are tempted to view ourselves as whole. In the absence of visible blemish, we blunt our longing to become whole. And, lest we be tempted to consider the truth, we need only look at how far from us we have pushed those who are weak. We imagine that we can’t possibly be discardable, like they are, and therefore our souls must be unspotted.
A society that cannot imagine placing the weak at its center, that forgets that society exists for the weak, will be drawn towards the Manichaean modes of cancel culture. We see sin but not grace – we try to find and throw out the bad apples, whom (we think) no one can restore to righteousness. Or we see ourselves mirrored in the most notorious sinners, and work to deny sin, since we don’t want to be cast out with them.
We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person who never has and never will exist.
Paul points us towards the proper expression of our vulnerability in his second letter to the Corinthians. He struggles with his own thorn, and asks the Lord to spare him. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:8–9).
To give an honest accounting of ourselves, we must begin with our weakness and fragility. We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person who never has and never will exist. Repeating that lie will leave us bereft: first, of sympathy from our friends when our physical weakness breaks the implicit promise that no one can keep, and second, of hope, when our moral weakness should lead us, like the prodigal, to rush back into the arms of the Father who remains faithful. Our present politics can only be challenged by an illiberalism that cherishes the weak and centers its policies on their needs and dignity.