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Capsule Review

The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-first Century

In This Review

The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-first Century
The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-first Century
By Helena Rosenblatt
Princeton University Press, 2018, 368 pp. Purchase

Although liberalism dominates Western politics, there is little agreement over what “liberalism” means. For some, it is the Lockean idea of individual rights and limited government; for others, it is the doctrine of the modern welfare state. In this lively and penetrating book, Rosenblatt offers an intellectual history of the term, from its roots in Roman notions of civic duty and public morality down to its modern use. She shows how the idea was “Christianized, democratized, socialized, and politicized” over the centuries. She also challenges the traditional narrative of liberalism as an Anglo-American project, placing greater emphasis on nineteenth-century French and German thinkers who tried to conjure up “liberal principles” of politics—the rule of law, civic equality, constitutionalism, and freedom of the press and religion—that could answer the radical forces unleashed by the French Revolution. It was only in the twentieth century, particularly during the Cold War, that liberalism became a uniquely American creed of individualism and political rights. Rosenblatt shows that liberalism has survived thanks to its appeal as a moral ideal, a vision of political community that is based not just on interests but also on values: respect, tolerance, and justice.

 

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