James Burnham was an American philosopher and political theorist. In his book, Suicide of the West (1964), he catalogs 19 ideas/beliefs/values that typify the liberal (or leftist) mentality. For contrast, Burnham presents for each liberal conception a corresponding nonliberal conception. Here is Burnham’s third pairing:
Elements comprising the doctrinal dimension of the liberal syndrome:
L3) The obstacles to progress and the achievement of the good society are ignorance and faulty social institutions.
One possible set of contrasting nonliberal elements:
X3) Besides ignorance and faulty social institutions there are many other obstacles to progress and the achievement of the good society: some rooted in the biological, psychological, moral and spiritual nature of man; some, in the difficulties of the terrestrial environment; others, in the intransigence of nature; still others, derived from man’s loneliness in the material universe.
This pairing interests me in a particular, if eccentric, way. I was recently in a conversation with a young man, a devout and studied Catholic, about the nature of God and religious experience. He had taken the position — in so many words — that God and religion can only be revealed through adherence to the rules and procedures of the one true faith, which had been perfected over centuries. My counteroffer was to suggest that God is all around us all the time and anyone can prove that to himself just by taking the trouble to pay attention.
I did not criticize Catholicism or attempt to challenge its practicality. Rather, I only wanted to emphasize the immediacy of God and God’s reality, as I consider this specific awareness to be a common one throughout the ages. It is, I wanted to say, the reason mankind developed sciences — which to my mind are attempts to account for this one ineffable yet persisting observation.
In this context I see Burnham’s X3 as unduly political. That is, the perfection of society is not the only purpose of life. Liberals, as depicted in Burnham’s L3, may be obsessed with the perfection of society, but the nonliberal mentality need not be.
To put the matter another way, I’d suggest that the many “obstacles to progress and the achievement of the good society” are not really obstacles at all. Better to understand them as musical chords. When you strike a bad note, that’s just the music telling you you made a mistake so that you can know what needs fixing in your technique.