Cosmopolitanism with Real Roots

By Reno, R. R. | Modern Age, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Cosmopolitanism with Real Roots


Reno, R. R., Modern Age


Adam Webb has the right enemies. He worries that elite culture is in the grips of a cosmopolitan sentiment that makes war on tradition. We are increasingly dominated by atomistic universalists (to use his telling twist on C. B. Macpherson's original term, atomistic individualism). They see particular religious and national loyalties as dangerous temptations to fanaticism. Against the fervor of faith, they endorse the cooling effects of critique. In place of the strong forces of devotion to family, clan, nation, and God, passions that have longglued men and women together into communities of common purpose, they wish to substitute impartial international institutions, the bloodless machinery of law, and the calm governance of experts. It is, as Webb sees, a post-cultural, even anti-cultural ideal: a globe governed by a deracinated elite able to manage without the baggage of commitment. The all-seeing eye of reason--or the unbridled id of desire and experience lapping up "difference"--will rule.

By and large, Webb is not concerned to expand our understanding of atomistic uni-versalism and the post-cultural personality, though he certainly catalogues its depravity and threat. Instead, his most important contribution is to point out an important weakness in conservative criticisms of liberal modernity. Defenders of tradition ignore one of the main strengths of the modern, anti-traditional project: its ability to project itself into the role of global manager and peace-keeper. To counter this unchallenged claim, Webb seeks to outline a conservative cosmopolitanism, what he calls a substantive universalism that can compete with the atomistic universalism of liberal modernity.

It is not entirely true, as Webb suggests, that those who have resisted whiggish analysis of human conflict and the conditions for peace have failed to articulate an alternative cosmopolitan ideal. Alasdair MacIntyre shows how traditional forms of Western intellectual life respect others by actually offering them arguments rather than smiling and smothering them with critique. Erich Auerbach outlined a mysticism of particularity that he imagined gains in human generosity precisely as it abandons itself to the givenness of human life. Nonetheless, it is largely true that the old, high-modernist, cosmopolitan cri-tique of liberal modernity (Webb mentions T.S. Eliot and Jose Ortega y Gasset) has "fallen mute." Who these days reads F.H. Bradley's (whom Webb should have mentioned) devastating critique of abstraction in public philosophy, Ethical Studies? For that matter, who even knows about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's On the Constitution of Church and State, which depicts a society as vigorously rooted as it is dynamic and open? So, yes, I think Webb has put his finger on a real problem. Defenders of tradition can be quite articulate about the shallowness of our new, post-cultural liberalism, but they have yet to find a compelling way to talk about how commitment can unify rather than divide the world.

Webb's own attempt to fill this void, however, leaves much to be desired. His heroes are the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Islamic philosopher al-Farabi, and the Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci. On Webb's reading, these figures "bridged differences not by bracketing them, but by translating across them." They recognized the necessity of concrete traditions for the instruction of the masses, but in their own thought they pushed upward "to the higher layer of truth that transcends civilizations." They were not disloyal to their own cultures; instead, they had the capacity to see the kernel of universal truth in the husk of cultural particularity. These heroic figures exemplify the virtues of what Webb calls "the old-style humanistic intelligentsia." That elite was both committed enough to a particular culture to reinforce its basic patterns of thought and action, but broad-minded enough to ride softly over specific doctrines and norms when it was time to discuss higher, more universal truths. …

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