The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an aging warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by.

— Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind


Only the blind can fail to see the irony of the situation the human species brought on itself when it tried to master its own fate and to eliminate accident. It bent its knee to History, and History is a cruel god. Today, the commandments that fall from his lips are uttered by clever chaplains hiding in his empty interior. The eyes of the god are so constructed that they see wherever a man may go; there is no shelter from them. Lovers in bed perform their amorous rites under his mocking glance; a child plays in the sand, not knowing that his future life has been weighed and written into the general account; only the aged, who have but a few days left before they die, can justly feel that they have to a large extent escaped his rule.

— Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind

I know that the gratitude will not last, because gratitude can never be a chronic emotion. I will forget the pain within the week and take my painless toe for granted again. But still the episode illustrates the point that suffering is necessary for the full appreciation of life. Without some experience of it, we could hardly be aware that we were enjoying anything; and it is why it is so difficult to imagine heaven, where suffering does not and could not exist. We can all imagine, vividly, a thousand hells, but a single heaven is quite beyond our imagination to conceive. That is why the iconography of hell is varied and fascinating, that of heaven dull and boring.

Not only the capacity for but also some experience of suffering is necessary, then, for the enjoyment of life: suffering in general, but not any particular instance of it, which should always be relieved if possible. This is nearly, but not quite, a paradox, which in general we misunderstand, to our own detriment.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “The Pain Principle

He appears to believe that if men are all freed from restraints and put, as far as possible, on an equal footing, they will naturally treat each other as brothers, and work together harmoniously for their common good. I believe that many men are bad, a vast majority of men indifferent, and many good, and that the great mass of indifferent people sway this way or that according to circumstances, one of the most important of which circumstances is the predominance for the time being of the bad or the good. I further believe that between all classes of men there are and always will be real occasions of enmity and strife, and that even good men may be and often are compelled to treat each other as enemies either by the existence of conflicting interests which bring them into collision, or by their different ways of conceiving goodness.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

It is clear to me that people often want incompatible things. They want danger and excitement on the one hand, and safety and security on the other, and often simultaneously. Contradictory desires mean that life can never be wholly satisfying or without frustration.

I think it was Dostoyevsky who said that, even if the government were 100 per cent benevolent and arranged everything for our own good, as judged by rational criteria, we should still want to exercise our freedom by going against its dispensations.

One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one through contributing to a cultural tradition (for example), in other words who have no religious belief and no intellectual interests to stimulate them, self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness. I have noticed, for example, that women who frequent bad men – that is to say men who are obviously unreliable, drunken, drug-addicted, criminal, or violent, or all of them together, have often had experience of decent men who treat them well, with respect, and so forth: they are the ones with whom their relationships lasted the shortest time, because they were bored by decency. Without religion or culture (and here I mean high, or high-ish, culture) evil is very attractive. It is not boring.

— Theodore Dalrymple, interviewed by Jamie Glazov

We are hopelessly beset by conflicting desires. Like Charles V, we want both the pleasures of privacy and the pleasures of power, no matter how improbable or impossible their combination may be. Like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, we want both a quiet fishing-spot, and the money we cannot make there.

…The fact is that, as Hume said in The Natural History of Religion, “it is not possible for us, by our most chimerical wishes, to form the idea of a station or situation altogether desirable.” The reason is that we desire incompatible things. Even if every other cause of human misery were removed, and even if only a single person were in question, that person’s desires, being inconsistent, would still be incapable of satisfaction. Remold this sorry scheme of things exactly to your heart’s desires: then even if, by some miracle, those desires were compatible with one another, you would sooner or later be bored with the result. In other words, the universal human hankering for novelty would, at some stage, intervene and unsettle all.

— David Stove, “Living Retired“, What’s Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment

Unlike the English Whigs and the American Founders, the modern liberal regards suffering not as an unavoidable element of life but as an aberration to be corrected by up-to-date political, economic, and hygienic arrangements. Rather than acknowledge the limitations of our condition, the liberal continually contrives panaceas that will enable us to transcend it.

It is a sign of growing maturity in a people when, laying aside these beliefs, it acknowledges that suffering is an element of life that sympathetic magic cannot eradicate, and recognizes a residue of pain in existence that even the application of technical knowledge cannot assuage. Advances in knowledge may end particular kinds of suffering, but these give way to new forms of hurt—milder, perhaps (one would rather be depressed than famished), yet not without their sting. We do not draw closer to a painless world.

— Michael Knox Beran, “Obama, Shaman”, The Pathology of the Elites

So everything in human self-understanding is over bar the shouting: only the details have yet to be filled in. Before long, if there is sufficient research funding, there will be no more puzzles and no unpleasant surprises, no agonizing dilemmas in human existence; the question of the good life will have been settled once and for all, indubitably and scientifically, without the necessity of endless and unprovable metaphysical speculations. To understand all will no longer be to forgive all, for there will be nothing to forgive; everyone will behave reasonably in the first place, which is to say, in accordance with the dictates of the scientifically proven good life. History will come to an end, this time not by virtue of the triumph of liberal democracy throughout the world, but by that of the triumph of psychology and neuroscience. Man will no longer pass on misery to Man, as in Larkin’s poem; he will pass on knowledge instead, knowledge and wisdom being of course by that stage coterminous. Indeed, knowledge will secrete wisdom as the liver secretes bile.

I don’t believe it, and I’m not sure that I would want to live in such a world if it were true.

— Theodore Dalrymple, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality

The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.

― Steven Ozment, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People

The difference in depth of the two books is readily apparent from the difference in the irony that each author employs. Voltaire is heavy and obvious; Johnson, despite his stylistic orotundity, is light and subtle. Candide is expelled from his happy home, Rasselas wants to escape his: already a great difference in depth, for Candide’s misfortunes eventuate from outside himself, while Rasselas experiences Man’s existential, internally generated dissatisfaction and restlessness. Since no one could possibly imagine a place better than the happy valley, Johnson confronts us from the first with man’s inability ever to be satisfied with what he has, which, he suggests, is his glory but also his misery.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “What Makes Dr. Johnson Great?”, Not With a Bang But a Whimper