Post-Liberals and the Quest to Not LARP

I once attended an office cocktail party at a conservative Washington, DC-based organization where someone lamentingly remarked “America is headed for a new feudal age!” “Yeah,” another quickly replied, “and not in a good way!” to silence followed by awkward laughter. 

The irony of this exchange epitomizes the complex, even paradoxical relationship American conservatives have with the Middle Ages – a relationship which today has reemerged as a fascinating cleavage on the American right. Not that the intricacies of Medieval history are hotly contested; rather, the place of the Middle Ages in our historical, moral and political imagination is constantly debated because of its relation to our idea of modernity. Though seemingly obscure, impressions of post-Classical but pre-Enlightenment Europe are worth considering as reflections of other essential beliefs that underpin a worldview. 

As with many questions of political philosophy, late 18th-century British parliamentarian Edmund Burke is a good place to start. His most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, contains articulations of many bedrock conservative principles like subsidiarity, family, religion, society as infinitely complicated and political evolution as preferable to revolution. But one section that particularly stands out is his vindication of “ancient chivalry,” a passage studied more by English majors for its masterful prose than theorists for political insights. It is worth quoting at length: 

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles… little did I dream that I would live to see such disasters fallen on her in a nation of gallant men, a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. The age of logical tricksters, economists, and calculators has taken over, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never more shall we see that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart… the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone!… It was [chivalry] that turned kings into companions and raised private men to be fellows with kings…  it subdued the fierceness of pride and power… But now all is to be changed.  

The inclusion of this passage in Burke’s thought raises many questions: Why is there a soaring defense of chivalric honour in such a magnum opus of modern political thought? How do we interpret this stirring appeal to a mythologized yet literally feudal past in a text essential to the Anglo-American tradition? Is chivalric Burkeanism a dangerous reactionary ideology? Or is Burke correctly arguing that the medievals deserves to be respected and studied like the Greeks and Romans of antiquity?  

The perseverance of Burke’s medieval legacy exposes a rift in American political thought: part of our history emphasizes a radical break with a feudal past, but another stresses continuity with and appreciation for the age of “ancient chivalry.” Though never mainstream, this line of thought persisted past Burke to include intellectuals like scion Henry Adams. Contrasting the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, the image of technological modernity, with the spiritual and aesthetic depth of France’s gothic heritage, Adams reflected: “All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” 

After WWII, a broad reappraisal of the Middle Ages became evident with intellectuals like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver as foremost promoters. But, just as Burke argued with Thomas Paine, so too were the mid-20th century medievalists critiqued by stalwart modernists. In 1955 famed liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the resurgence of Burkean traditionalism, propagated by Russell Kirk, was merely “the ethical afterglow of feudalism.” Cornell historian Herbert Muller described Richard Weaver as at best a “hopelessly quixotic” devotee “to the feudal society of the Middle Ages” and at worst a man whose writing was “a violent attack on democracy.” 

Historian George Nash described the pro-medieval movement as “of a decidedly Catholic, even Medieval cast,” with a “heavily Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, or critical of Protestant Christianity” leadership when America remained primarily Protestant. Frederick Wilhelmsen, of the University of Dallas, had some of the group’s sharpest rhetoric. Writing in Commonweal in the 1950s, he argued for a turn to medieval Christendom, decrying the modern world as “incapable of incarnating the Gospel” in contrast to “medieval man” who “sacramentalized the whole of being.” John Courtnay Murray, a well-known Jesuit, also asserted the essential continuity of America with “ancient ideas, deeply implanted in the British tradition in Medieval times.” 

Into the latter 20th century the medieval flavor of American conservatism was mostly absorbed into fusionism, its rhetoric tempered and repackaged into Reagan-flavored neoconservatism. Perhaps philosopher Michael Novak best embodied this synthesis in 1990 with his seminal essay “Thomas Aquinas, the First Whig,” an oft-referenced work of the neoconservative canon. But now, over seven years since Donald Trump descended his golden escalator, fascination with and appreciation for the medieval has unmistakably resurfaced on the Anglo-American right.  

It would be a mistake to presume a positive view of the Middle Ages necessitates a certain political ideology. Still, to affirm the civilization modernity emerged from is deeply revealing of several fundamental questions of worldview. Is history a tale of perpetually fleeing from an oppressive past to a liberated future? Can we take societies bereft of democracy or equality ethically seriously? Are ideals like chivalry at best unintelligible and at worst facades for oppression? Answers vary, yet a discernible constellation of writers has emerged whose thinking strongly cuts against the grain of the liberal-conservative dichotomy most take for granted.  

Like the postwar period, these contemporary writers are mostly Roman Catholic and Anglican with the numerically superior Roman Catholics tending to frame the conversation. As a result, “integralism,” the Roman Catholic political philosophy associated with Medieval affirmation, has become a catch-all. The essential point is eschewing the pretense of religious neutrality and instead integrating the church, preferably the Roman Catholic Church, with the state. “Post-liberal” is a broader label embraced by protestants with many of the same connotations without specific reference to Catholicism.  

For example, Plough editor and Anglican Susannah Black has written that postliberalism should be “a retrieval of pre-liberal Christian political philosophy, but without LARPing and nostalgia.” In Britain John Milbank, another post-liberal Anglican, is known for “happy borrowing of Coleridgean high-toryism and late 19th Century socialism” – combining a politics centered around Christian monarchy with a modern welfare state. Lastly, Brad Littlejohn of the Davenant Institute has articulated a vision of a pre-modern but distinctly Protestant political philosophy: magisterial Protestantism. Littlejohn has even written on lessons from feudal and early-modern economic arrangements that can be applied to contemporary capitalism. 

Edmund Waldstein, a Cistercian monk, is perhaps the best contemporary expositor of integralist philosophy. In his essay “Against the New Nationalism,” Waldstein aspirationally describes the Austrian Empire, ruled by Romanist Habsburgs from 1804 to WWI, as the modern state which resembled closest the Medieval ideal of Christendom – a world where Christian identity superseded all and the moral legitimacy of political rulers rested on the church.  

Waldstein is clear about the civil consequences of integralism. At recent panel at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a question was asked about the validity of “an assumption of reasonable pluralism” where “people can reasonably disagree about the temporal and religious good.” Waldstein immediately rejected the premise, arguing “there can be no reasonable disagreement about last ends: you’re either right or wrong.” Waldstein’s “maximalist integralism” provides a useful foil for other Roman Catholics critical of modernity yet less far-reaching in their conclusions. 

For example, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has encouraged interest in Medieval thought with his aggressive defense of the Aristotelian-Thomistic (Medieval) paradigm against classical liberalism. Yet, as the New York Times journalist Ezra Klein who interviewed Deneen remarked, despite “very strident populism” his ultimate conclusions tend towards “almost generic center-left policy ideas” and “slashing social critiques that end in a shrug about what is to be done.” Deneen also chafed at accusations from Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, that he wishes “to revive some form of medieval Christendom.” 

If Waldstein represents the far edge of affinity for Medieval thinking, Deneen is in a less absolute but more common position. He’s critical of modern political thought and laudatory of the Christian society which preceded the Enlightenment. Yet, it’s never clear what the full ramifications of this position should be besides “generic center-left policy.” In Why Liberalism Failed Deneen describes all liberalism as ultimately aspiring to “individual liberation from the limitations of place, tradition, culture, and any unchosen relationship.” This might be, but it’s unclear exactly which unchosen limitations we should be beholden to. 

When modern society is negated and the pre-Christian Classical world is ultimately too foreign, only the “Middle” Ages are left as a legitimate wellspring of imagination; this is the inevitable result of a certain philosophy of history many sympathize with. Black’s calls to avoid “LARPing and nostalgia” reference the inherent difficulty of elevating the premodern, preliberal world without quixotically trying to recreate something ultimately lost forever. Perhaps integralist Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule most succinctly captures the position of post-liberal thought in his essay on the “Poverty of Political Imagination.” 

It is a paradox that the massively multigenerational projects of the Middle Ages, the cathedrals and castles, were undertaken by men whose life spans were on average shorter than our own. A paradox, but perhaps no accident; after all they inhabited a richer imaginative world. 

The full philosophical consequences of embracing the Medieval may be unknown in our lifetime, but they aren’t unknowable. With lifetimes of work, what’s today literally unimaginable may yet come to pass.