Beyond Realism
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Beyond Realism

William Lombardo
William Lombardo

Adrian Vermeule and the Conditions of Modernity

drian Vermeule forcefully propounded a vision for what will succeed liberal modernity in a March article entitled “Beyond Originalism.” Billed as a new jurisprudence for the Right, the piece exhorts conservative judges to renounce purportedly neutral interpretation (i.e., originalism) and instead to read the Constitution with the aim of advancing certain moral principles. Vermeule terms this new approach “Common–Good Constitutionalism,” but it is clear that the judiciary is only part of a far more complete political vision.

When opportunities arise, judges will guide the law toward alignment with the Common Good, all the while aggrandizing an increasingly unbound executive and bureaucracy, which will use their power to advance the same Common Good. There is, moreover, no good reason why Vermeule’s vision of adjudication should not apply to administrators, executive officers, and (perhaps subordinately) legislators, who would likewise jettison procedural constraints to realize the Common Good. They would all coordinate in a plan to reconstitute the American regime in both form and content by co-opting its governing mechanisms from within.


The problem with modernity is that it refuses to compromise with, and thereby incorporate, the moral goods of pre-modernity, not that modernity’s goods are inferior or not goods at all.

From Vermeule’s other public output, it’s no secret that, for him, the Common Good coincides with the tradition of Catholic social teaching and includes guarding the least vulnerable, ensuring an equitable distribution of resources, and protecting the environment. The law, for its part, will serve a pedagogic function, constraining and thereby guiding individual action toward the moral vision propounded in the Church’s long tradition. I imagine also that the state would grant explicit recognition to the truth of the Christian Gospel and subordinate itself to the Magisterium—the Catholic Church’s authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition—in spiritual matters.

Vermeule comes to this ideal by reading key nineteenth-century Church encyclicals as infallible papal teaching. The most consequential of these condemn the separation of church and state and anathematize liberalism along with a whole host of its related political and metaphysical doctrines.

[2] Yet he does not think his prescription is utopian. On the contrary, it is feasible in the near future if only some are enterprising enough to adopt it. This optimism is built atop a critique of liberal modernity that is growing in conservative circles.

[3] Vermeule is not the only one developing this critique, but his piece most effectively links it to a convincing plan of political action. I am convinced that Vermeule is right that this vision of society is a normative ideal for Catholics, but I am skeptical that prudence recommends its realization so immediately—in spite of the overwhelming cogency of this critique.

Borrowing much from critical theory, the critique diagnoses those living in liberal democracies with a sort of false consciousness in which they suffer at the hands of the status quo and yet work to maintain it. Their lives are one-dimensional, palliated by the consumption of increasingly cheap yet technologically sophisticated commodities, and they experience a profound emptiness, like their spiritual development is constrained or their interior selves are simply inaccessible.

[4] The prevailing mood is described by Baudelaire’s term l’ennui: that life is unfulfilling—or at least limitedly fulfilling—boring, and purposeless. This atmosphere is then joined with a more recognizably conservative critique that liberal anthropology, political theory, and market capitalism undermine a public culture that cultivates faith, recognizes the sanctity of the family, and sustains and respects subsidiary institutions such as Catholic parishes. The result is people whose lives are unfulfilled but who are also discouraged by society from pursuing the moral goods that could offer them fulfillment, instead settling for a greater range of lifestyle choices and new widgets.

Yet in spite of this pervasive, entrenched dissatisfaction, people continually reinforce the institutions that create it, all for the sake of maintaining the good they are taught to appreciate as the most important and fundamental: freedom. Typically people point to the vast array of civil liberties they enjoy and the near-infinite number of lives their freedom enables them to lead. They may observe that they can easily pick and choose, buffet—style, from different belief systems, or, more trivially, from the vast assortment of products available for them to purchase cheaply. And those whose idea of the good life consists of faith and family have the freedom to cultivate them without overt interference. All this thanks to a noncoercive state offering a value-neutral sphere for all to choose their preferred conception of the good. Of course, they are deluded; the state is not neutral among conceptions of the good, and it is coercive.

Near-limitless choice is itself a conception of the good, one reinforced by liberal institutions in concert with market forces that, in harmony, tell individuals that they are monads and that their relationships and personal attributes are all products of their own justly unconstrained choices, all the while directing those choices through advertising, behavioral nudges, and, sometimes, outright legal coercion.

[5] From the point of view of most people, this is not obvious—hence the false consciousness. But they can at least intuit that the professed goodness of the institutions is difficult to square with the mediocrity of the outcomes they facilitate.

For Vermeule, this unarticulated unhappiness is sufficient grounds to begin hastening the end of liberal modernity. People are unable to describe society’s badness either because they cannot articulate the good at all or because they are unaware that their articulated conception of the good (i.e., unconstrained choice) is false. Vermeule will use the state to articulate an alternative conception of the good and to grant the approval of the law to distinctions between higher and lower modes of living, encouraging action in accord with the Christian ideal and discouraging that which is not. The assumption is that, given the choice between the new Common Good and the prior emptiness of liberal democracy, people will opt for what gives meaning to their lives. What Vermeule has done is create a showdown between an integral, substantive concept of the good and the good that liberal democracy denies in principle but nonetheless imposes in practice. All intermediate positions will be driven to one side or the other, but humanity’s ineliminable craving for meaning provides that the Common Good will have the better of the two cases. It is irrelevant whether people begin as Christian or not; there will be no middle ground.

The good is thus weakly Platonic: when most people see it, they will come to recognize it for what it is and love it. And for those who do not, the law will keep them in place until they do. What we will see is a kind of transvaluation of freedom. The formerly highest good, freedom, and its attendant subordinate goods (e.g., self-expression and our unique inwardness) will either become the lowest of goods or not goods at all as people find themselves embracing an antithetical conception.

What we’ve seen is, I think, an accurate diagnosis of modernity. But Vermeule’s next step is functionally to excise distinctly modern goods from the “bundle” of goods entirely. For Vermeule, contemporary liberalism elevates individual liberty as the only publicly recognized good. All functions of the state are subordinate to it and can largely be discarded if they prove to be impediments. However, Vermeule thinks, we only need to refer back to the critique discussed above to prove that the results of this arrangement have been disastrous for our well-being. Perhaps it has led to material prosperity, but at the price of allowing widespread purposelessness and irreligion. This means that the Vermeule’s subsequent society must toss out the set of goods central to the modern identity which is itself inseparable from the ideal of a “free chooser.” Along with freedom, other moral goods like self-expression, the notion that we’re beings with inner depths around which we partially constitute our identities, and the idea that life is something of a “quest” in search for meaning, are all false idols that—when people are given stable structures of meaning and are directed toward the good—must simply be relinquished.

[6] They may remain in some vestigial form as privileges or the basest among goods, to be tolerated so long as they do not impede the realization of the Common Good. Whatever their future form may take, their current primacy has been disastrous and must be replaced.

But there are very good reasons why this need not be the case. That a moral good, carried to an extreme, results in undesirable consequences does not mean that it is not, in fact, a good. The problem with modernity is that it refuses to compromise with, and thereby incorporate, the moral goods of pre-modernity, not that modernity’s goods are inferior or not goods at all. We need both sets of goods to give coherent moral direction to our lives. For Christians, it is difficult to comprehend faith and a relationship with God as anything but a deeply inward experience, something that can only be incompletely communicated to others outwardly. Likewise, as Kierkegaard, we conceive of belief as a choice, a saying “yes,” that is significant in part because we could have said no, but did not. Could we even make sense of a reawakening of belief without recourse to these concepts?

The same holds for the political. For example, it may be impossible to assign relative values to a modern good like self-expression and a pre-modern good like a community with stable roles and fixed sources of meaning. With Vermeule we might argue that the latter should always be superior. But we easily intuit that there must be moral limits on community actions that might impede an individual’s ability to self-express, such as through tyrannical, suffocating prohibitions on public speech. It is one thing to imagine overhauling current free speech jurisprudence and opting for more stringent restrictions on public speech, as Vermeule does, but it is quite another to argue that, in principle, there are no moral limits on the state’s proper authority to do so.

There is clearly some point at which these restrictions become tyrannical, and we cannot make up or down of that conclusion without identifying some other good that is being impinged upon. In this case it is some form of public self-expression, a thoroughly modern good. [7] Rather than ranking these goods, we should conclude more that they are simply incommensurable; they can only be ranked arbitrarily. Otherwise, one would be indefeasible—that is, would always trump the other good whenever there was a conflict between them.

I worry that the increasingly unequivocal mood of these critiques—that no compromise is to be made with the modern order—has the potential to create a type of politics that tries to eschew these conflicts among goods by constituting itself only around goods that are indefeasible when they come into contact with modern goods. This becomes concerning especially when people are more resistant to the new order than expected. I worry doubly that, if the new good is defined in part by its opposition to liberal modernity, as liberal modernity is defined in part in opposition to its pre-modern past, that it slides too easily into “remaking” people, not by molding their image of the good by teaching but by coercing them in the narrow sense of using physical force. Seizing on the Platonic idea of man as the city writ small, the state will try to eliminate the discrepancy between its professed ideals and those over whom it rules. An uncompromising stance leads to impatience with those lagging behind the new ideals, and impatience leads to lashing out against them.

It is impossible to uproot the conditions of modernity overnight; they are baked into our language, how we interpret others’ actions, and how we make sense of ourselves. We cannot leap backward into pre-modern conditions nor forward into post-modern ones; either would be profoundly disorienting. There is no external standpoint we can adopt to free ourselves from moral or epistemological assumptions that are at least partially—more likely substantially—tinted by liberal modernity. We are modern people and liberal modernity is part of the tradition we have inherited, for better or for worse. A new government that, despite the goodness of its purpose, simply disparages the most recent part of this tradition and all its attendant goods would be treated like one imposed by a conquering army. Rather than guiding moral progress by developing on and out of people’s inherited tradition, it would seek to impose this progress through strength. I can think of no better way to breed resentment of a vision of the good that people are supposed to grow to love.

I by no means want to insinuate that Vermeule hopes or expects for this to happen, because I believe he is committed to a decent and humane politics.[8] But we should be wary of assuming that reviving pre-modern, Christian goods means suppressing all of modernity. If liberal modernity and Christianity are not opposed, then they are at least in tension, but this does not mean there is nothing in modernity worth preserving. The way out of the malaise of modern life is likely political, like Vermeule thinks, but this means we must meet people where they are. We should not strive for a replacement of the modern order tout court but for ways of leveraging the state to resurrect the goods that liberalism suppressed so that the fullest range of human goods may flourish.


1. Adrian Vermeule, “Integration from Within,” American Affairs. ^

2. See Thomas Pink, “Conscience and Coercion,” First Things. Relevant encyclicals include Quanta Cura (1864), Immortale Dei (1885), and Libertas (1888). Pink specifically argues that Dignitatis Humanae (1965), establishing a right to freedom from religious coercion, applies only against state coercion, not Church coercion. And because the state is properly subordinate to the Church, it must allow the Church to wield coercive power in matters of belief. This subordination of “temporal” authority to “spiritual” authority is known as integralism, a theory to which Vermeule explicitly subscribes. ^

3. Its most explicit formulation is in Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed. Where Deneen is hesitant to chart a course for political action, Vermeule and other thinkers, including, recently, Pater Edmund Waldenstein, Sohrab Ahmari, and Rod Dreher take up the task—oftentimes writing in publications such as First Things, American Affairs, and The Josias. ^

4. The “mood” is similar to that described by Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, Jean Baudrillard, and others. ^

5. The clearest, most commonly cited instances of coercion are those like the ongoing litigation against the Little Sisters of the Poor for refusing on grounds of belief to provide coverage for contraception. This is admittedly extreme. Other instances include, in a different way, union busting or setting school curricula. Examples abound when we drop the unhelpful definition of “coercion” simply as “using physical force.” No doubt we should be interested in how often the state responds with violence, but it is foolish to think that one can determine the extent to which conformity is elicited only by observing instances of physical violence. ^

6. This bundle of goods is partly taken from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. The notion of life as a “quest” is taken from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. ^

7. A good that, for its part, arose from a reaction to the liberal Enlightenment and, influenced first by Rousseau, took shape in the Romantic movement. ^

8. Indeed, Vermeule’s preferred political order is a confessional state constituted around the values Pope Francis elaborates in Laudato si’, which are exceptionally humane, decent, and appreciable by non-Catholics. But the desired outcome does not obviate the moral danger inherent in aligning so unequivocally against liberal modernity. ^