A Thousand Small Sanities

The Moral Adventure of Liberalism


By Adam Gopnik

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A stirring defense of liberalism against the dogmatisms of our time from an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author.

Not since the early twentieth century has liberalism, and liberals, been under such relentless attack, from both right and left. The crisis of democracy in our era has produced a crisis of faith in liberal institutions and, even worse, in liberal thought.

A Thousand Small Sanities is a manifesto rooted in the lives of people who invented and extended the liberal tradition. Taking us from Montaigne to Mill, and from Middlemarch to the civil rights movement, Adam Gopnik argues that liberalism is not a form of centrism, nor simply another word for free markets, nor merely a term denoting a set of rights. It is something far more ambitious: the search for radical change by humane measures. Gopnik shows us why liberalism is one of the great moral adventures in human history — and why, in an age of autocracy, our lives may depend on its continuation.


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ON THE night of the November 2016 election, my seventeen-year-old daughter Olivia, politically aware and intelligently skeptical of all progressive pieties, particularly her father’s, was so shocked and troubled by the result that I put my arm around her and together we went for a long walk in the early morning hours around our New York neighborhood. I tried to give her a hopeful attitude in a startling moment. I explained to her why the liberal and humanist values that she had been brought up with were not just some family legacy of attitudes, and attitudinizing, but ideals that were made reliable by experience and proven true by history. I reassured her that democracy flowed from the ground up, and as long as the space of common action was available, no one bad leader could affect it. I showed her how to connect the remote and dry and sterile-seeming ideas that she was learning in history class with the crisis we were now in and how some of those ideas might even show us the way out. She came back home with her spine stiffened and her hopes a little higher.

Well, obviously not. Like every parent on every such occasion, I stumbled and sought for words and didn’t find them and found instead my arm around her shoulder and hers around mine. (I am a short man, and she is already my height.) My actual words were, of course, much less confident, or clear, or ambitious—even a middle-aged essayist with a taste for epigrams couldn’t claim any kind of aphoristic subtlety, not on a night of such discordance. She needed—we needed—simply to connect. (I noted that she felt better when she turned back, inevitably, to her cell phone and its firecracker explosions of distraught emotion from her ever-encircling—and endlessly texting—friends).

She wasn’t shocked because of the rise to power of an opposition party—or if she had been I wouldn’t have been particularly sympathetic, the oscillation of parties in power in a democracy being as natural as rain. No, she was shocked by the sudden appearance in her life of the specter of an oafish (and, not incidentally, predatory) authoritarianism, suddenly threatening to annihilate the system of values that she had been brought up to respect. It wasn’t that her team lost. It was that for the first time in her life—in my life, too—the rules of the democratic game seemed under assault.

In the years since, as she has gone on to graduate from high school, things have only become more frightening, and the liberal tradition in still greater danger. It isn’t just an issue of the survival of “democracy”—after all Iran and Russia are both ostensibly democratic. It is the practice of liberal democracy, that magical marriage of free individuals and fair laws—of the pursuit of happiness, each to her own joy, with the practice of disinterested justice, everyone treated the same.

Everywhere we look, throughout Europe as much as in America, patriotism is being replaced with nationalism, pluralism by tribalism, impersonal justice by the tyrannical whim of autocrats who think only to punish their enemies and reward their hitmen. Many of these have gained power by democratic means, but they have kept power by illiberal ones. The death of liberal democracy is announced now with the same certainty that its triumph was proclaimed a mere twenty years before. If in America the authoritarian nightmare has so far turned out to be more like Goodfellas than 1984—well, as the fine film The Death of Stalin showed us, Goodfellas in power was exactly what the evilest kind of authoritarianism could look like.

Yet where could one find for her a real and unapologetic contemporary defense of liberalism? What is liberalism, even? In America it means, vaguely, the politics of the center of the Democratic Party. For nostalgics, it means Barack Obama. For nostalgic depressives, it can mean Michael Dukakis. (For despairing nostalgic depressives, it can mean Michael Dukakis in a tank.) Though in Canada liberals unafraid to be called so are often in power, in Britain, the liberal temperament has been largely hived off to the right wing of Labour and the left wing of the Conservative Party. In France what’s called liberalism is actually more like what we call libertarianism, while the same tradition that produces our liberalism is more often called republicanism (which, of course, has nothing to do with what we call Republicanism).

Well, words change meaning all the time, over time, and in different places. But whatever liberalism is, no one likes it. In right-wing polemics, liberals are conflated with true left-wing radicals (who, in fact, hate liberals every bit as much as the right wing does, even if the right often misses this). And so, a nonexistent imaginary monster, the left-liberal, is invented. (It’s pretty much guaranteed that any time you see that creature, the left-liberal, all serious argument will vanish in its wake.) Among the actual left, the liberal becomes still another imaginary monster, the dreaded neoliberal. If, to borrow a conception from Lewis Carroll’s great poem “The Hunting of the Snark” (where there are two monsters, one bad, the other worse, being pursued by a strange Carrollian hunting party), the left-liberal of right-wing polemics is a Snark, a hideous creature, then the neoliberal of left-wing imagination is actually a Boojum—a creature so horrible that it can hardly be glimpsed or identified.

Historically and still today, both the far left and the far right hate liberals more even than they hate their opposite extreme, with whom they share—even if they don’t recognize it—a common ground of absolutism. Dogmatic Catholics can speak more readily to dogmatic Communists than to lifelong compromisers. Competing absolutisms respect each other more than either respects those who are allergic to absolutes as an absolute principle.

Liberals are, in the insistent imagination of their enemies, not merely wrong but craven, spineless. They seek centrist solutions to problems that demand radical measures, defend an indefensible status quo—whether that status quo is imagined as one of statist interference or of free-market folly—have no fixed axioms to argue from, and generally collapse, wringing their hands in impotent worry, when trouble starts. There are no atheists in foxholes, and no liberals in bar fights, and what we have today, the insistent sneering insists, is a long permanent bar fight, where you can’t trust a liberal to throw a bourbon bottle at the bad guys, whichever bad guys you happen to be aiming bourbon bottles at. Liberals are out-of-touch elitists, at once moralists and hedonists. In the middle of the bar fight, the liberal is writing a blog post about biodegradable bottles or, more likely, trying to start a tasting of artisanal bourbons.

Even if you pick up a standard political history, you’ll get a more complicated but, in its way, equally uninspiring view of the liberal tradition. It will tend to emphasize the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European political philosophers Montesquieu and Locke and, sometimes, Hobbes. It will tend to make a great deal about liberal ideas that are contractual and procedural and utilitarian and offer specific social rules, like the rules on a board game box—or else try to calculate how maximal pleasure can be offered to maximum numbers of people. It will offer a vision of liberalism that, in a certain way, is atomized and tends to honor individuals above communities and societies. You’ll read about how much liberalism depends on a particular modern and materialist and indeed capitalist idea of individual enterprise, of a spiritually isolated individual who’s largely set apart from community and tradition. Robinson Crusoe is sometimes thought of as the original liberal man. Alone on an island, keeping his accounts, planning his future—and, maybe not at all accidentally, depending on a native bearer and manservant for his well-being.

Now, none of this is entirely false. But I don’t think it gives us a complete or remotely contemporary picture of the liberal tradition, or of what liberalism means to us, or of what liberalism can become. A distinct idea of a liberal tradition exists and is one we can use and understand. It’s really very much in line with the way we use the term in our ordinary speech—to reference people and parties with an equal commitment to reform and to liberty, who want both greater equality among men and women and an ever-greater tolerance for difference among them too.

As an essayist, I have written innumerable—some would say interminable—essays on liberal thinkers and makers and have lived imaginatively among liberal philosophers and politicians and activists and even saints, rather than narrowly with only liberal ideas. My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.

A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can. It’s a myth, as a new generation of scholars has shown, that liberalism is obsessed with individualism, a myth that liberalism doesn’t have a rich imagination of common fates and shared values. Adam Smith, though today he’s been appropriated to right-wing think tanks and even right-wing neckties—Milton Friedman always wore one—thought in terms of cities and of how they share sentiments before he thought of individuals and how they price goods.

The great eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire, the sage of the Enlightenment, whose tight, complacent smile is a symbol of reason, is a very problematic example of an advocate of liberal democracy in our sense—but he remains an apostle of a kind for having risked his life and welfare for a series of humane reforms, particularly protesting the regal habit of stripping men naked and tearing them apart limb from limb, or breaking their bones in public one at a time with a sledgehammer. Wherever there is a movement for humane reform there is always a liberal around somewhere. Many of the great movements for humane reform—the antislavery crusade, for instance—have also nestled in the bosom of the churches. But in every case, there have been other pious people arguing just as strongly for the opposite view. It enraged the great Frederick Douglass, a sincere Christian, that far more Christian ministers were arguing for slavery than against it. The difference was that, on Douglass’s side, the right side, there was usually a secular, political liberal or two lurking. (The admixture of Christian piety and liberal principle can, historically, be an extremely potent one, as neither group should forget, though both do.)

Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.

They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it—opinions vary; they had been to Paris together—and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)

Throughout his life, Mill said, emphatically and clearly and unambiguously, that Taylor was the smartest person he had ever met and the greatest influence on his work he had ever known. He praised her in terms so superlative they sounded to later readers a little fishy: “Alike in the highest regions of speculation and in the smaller practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle.” And so, after his life, generations of commentators—including Friedrich Hayek, who unfortunately edited their letters—aggressively Yoko-ed her, insisting that poor Mill, wildly intelligent in all but this, was so blinded and besotted by love that he vastly exaggerated the woman’s role, which obviously couldn’t have been as significant as his own. Fortunately, newer generations of scholars, less blinded by prejudice, have begun to “recover” Harriet Taylor for us, and her role in the making of modern liberalism seems just as large and her mind as fine as her husband always asserted that it was.

Theirs was a complicated lobster quadrille of love. When they met, at a dinner party in Finsbury in 1830, Mill, for all the dry and unsmiling Victorian surface we see in his photographs, was primed for passion. As a boy, Mill had been raised by his father, the great Utilitarian philosopher James Mill, to think of life in something like accounting book terms, with efforts going out and utilities, or pleasures, coming in. But after a horrific nervous breakdown as a young man, Mill turned decisively toward the liberal arts for all his meanings. Mozart knew things that his dad did not. He borrowed the term self-development from the German Romantic philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt and came to consider that, rather than utilitarian pleasure, to be the goal of life.

Taylor, a year younger than Mill, was married to a slow-witted, well-meaning pharmacist named John Taylor; they had two children. She was smart and pretty—“a small head, a swan-like throat, and a complexion like a pearl,” the daughter of someone present at the momentous dinner wrote later—and already oppressed by her very unequal marriage. She and Mill fell for each other quickly and began working together. Within a year of their first meeting, someone asked her, concerning a review of Byron, “Did you or Mill do it?” The couple was soon seen everywhere—one reason, again, they sought out the rhino’s cage. Thomas Carlyle’s wife, Jane, gossiped that “Mrs. Taylor, tho’ encumbered with a husband and children, has ogled John Mill so successfully that he was desperately in love.” After years of intrigue, the Taylors finally decided on a separation. That was when Harriet went to Paris and, to test Mill’s love, invited him to spend six weeks with her there. The interlude was splendid—but then Harriet, with a rather sweet imperiousness, allowed her husband to come to Paris for his own audition. Harriet ultimately decided—with mingled propriety, uncertainty, and something like flirtatiousness—that they could share her, on an alternating schedule, at the Taylor house, her husband entertaining guests with her on some days, and Mill on others. Taylor paid the bills, while Mill stocked the wine cellar. (Though in his memoir Mill denied that they had had sex before they were married, there are purring letters that suggest the contrary. “While you can love me as you so sweetly & beautifully shewed in that hour yesterday, I have all I care for or desire,” he wrote in one letter. “The influence of that dear little hour has kept me in spirits ever since.”)

Harriet’s own writing of the 1830s and ’40s on the oppression of marriage has the urgency of immediate experience. A smart woman who had been obliged to be someone’s idea of a wife, she had sat at too many dinner tables and watched women dealing with the dumb little dictators: “The most insignificant of men, the man who can obtain influence or consideration nowhere else, finds one place where he is chief and head. There is one person, often greatly his superior in understanding, who is obliged to consult him, and whom he is not obliged to consult. He is judge, magistrate, ruler, over their joint concerns.” Mill and Taylor, in their later collaborations, most famously in that 1869 “The Subjection of Women,” published after her death but with her imprint all over it, weren’t content to show that women would be happier if freer; they went right to the ground and asked what reason we have for thinking that any restraint on women’s freedom is just. Mill and Taylor together make the point again and again that no one can possibly know what women are or are not “naturally” good at, since their opportunities have been so vanishingly small compared with the length of their oppression. Arguing against the notion that women have no talent for the fine arts, Mill makes the shrewd point that in the one liberal art where women are encouraged as much as men, acting on the stage, everyone admits that they’re just as good or better. On a list of modern words that changed the most lives, those which Mill and Taylor wrought together in “The Subjection of Women” must rank high. Before it, women were for all intents and purposes chattel; afterward, they would sooner or later have to be made citizens. You could argue against it, try to unmake it, but you couldn’t ignore it. The beach was taken, and the cautious odd couple by the rhino’s cage had taken it.

John and Harriet’s intellectual idyll was long-lived in shadow, short-lived in sunlight. Mr. Taylor died in 1849, and in 1851 John and Harriet were married. But after only seven and a half years, Harriet died of one of those sad, unnamed wasting diseases that blighted the period. Mill had a monument—made of the same Carrara marble as Michelangelo’s David—constructed for her in Avignon, with an inscription that included the lines “Were there but a few hearts and intellects like hers / this earth would already become the hoped-for heaven.”

At the time of her death, the ideas that John and Harriet began to evolve on that bench by the rhino’s cage—on absolute equality for women, on absolute freedom even for the most blasphemous speech—were regarded as not much more than a crazy fantasy. People who try to turn Mill into a cautious centrist disfigure his legacy, and Taylor’s, which was entirely radical. Taylor and Mill believed in complete equality of the sexes before anyone else did, just as he believed in the absolute moral evil of slavery while others in Britain were still temporizing. (He did as much as anyone to make the American Civil War won by the right side by enlisting the mill workers of Britain to reject processing cotton from the Confederacy, at some cost to their own immediate interests.)

No, the last thing in the world that this couple by the rhino’s cage were was centrists. What they were was realists—radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.

They had no illusions about their own perfection—they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have. Harriet loved John Mill, but stayed with her well-meaning, helpless husband and nursed him through a horrific terminal cancer, in a time before even the horrible treatments we have now. Only after he died did John and Harriet marry, lovingly but all too briefly.

Theirs is one of the most lyrical love stories ever told, for being so tenderly irresolute. Recognizing that intimate life is an accommodation of contradictions, they understood that political and social life must be an accommodation of contradictions too. The accommodation was their romance. That meant that social accommodation could be romantic, too. Love, like liberty, tugs us in different directions as much as it leads us in one. Love, like liberty, asks us to be only ourselves, and it also asks us to find our self in others’ eyes. Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies. Harriet Taylor’s love for John Mill was bounded by John Taylor’s pathos and by his love for her. And, since no two moral consciences can go just alike, they have to only be imperfectly synchronized. Close enough is good enough—for now.

In the very month of Harriet’s death in 1858, Mill sent off to the publisher the finished manuscript of “On Liberty,” dedicating it to the memory of “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.” The romance in Mill’s life helped turn him from a thinking machine into a feeling mensch; the know-it-all became an anything-for-love. The great relationship of his life would be proof of his confidence that true liberty meant love—relationship and connection, not isolation and self-seeking. What we want liberty for is the power to connect with others as we choose. Liberalism is our common practice of connection turned into a principle of pluralism, teenage texting raised to the power of law.

It dawned on me while I brooded on the long-dead rhino in his long-gone cage that the rhinoceros was the perfect symbol of liberalism. All living things, Darwin taught us, are compromises of a kind, the best that can be done for that moment between the demands of the environment and the genetic inheritance it has to work with. No living thing is ideal. A rhinoceros is just a big pig with a horn on it.

The ideal of the unicorn is derived from the fact of the rhinoceros—the dream image of the rhinoceros, the single horned animal reported on and then idealized by the medieval imagination. People idealize unicorns and imagine unicorns and make icons out of unicorns and write fables about unicorns. We hunt them. They’re perfect. The only trouble with them is that they do not exist. They never have. The rhino is ungainly and ugly and short-legged and imperfect and squat. But the rhinoceros is real. It exists. And it is formidable.

Most political visions are unicorns, perfect imaginary creatures we chase and will never find. Liberalism is a rhinoceros. It’s hard to love. It’s funny to look at. It isn’t pretty but it’s a completely successful animal. A rhino can overturn an SUV and—go to YouTube!—run it right over, horn out.

So, the critical liberal words are not liberty and democracy alone—vital though they are—but also humanity and reform, tolerance and pluralism, self-realization and autonomy, the vocabulary of passionate connection and self-chosen community. These are hardly uncontroversial or simple concepts, either. But they point to a range of specific public ambitions and policies—the humane reform of prisons, of punishments, of making luncheonettes open to all and leaving decisions about how many children to have to the woman who has to have them—that all have as their end eliminating cruelty and sadism and needless suffering from the world.

Liberalism ends in the center not because that’s where liberals always think the sanity is, but because they recognize that there are so many selves in a society that must be accommodated that you can’t expect them to congregate in a single neighborhood at one end or another of the city. The meeting place, the piazza, in an Italian village, is placed in the center of the town because everyone can get there. The ancient Greeks thought of this meeting place as the “agora,” which meant the market but meant more broadly the place where citizens met for unplanned meetings. Tyrants of all kinds, Persian and Spartan, feared the agora in the most literal way, and tried to eliminate it from their cities.

We can follow the standard, orthodox histories of liberalism in dating it back to the seventeenth century, and we can certainly see its outlines in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. But it’s in the 1860s, precisely in John and Harriet’s wake, that recognizably modern liberalism, as a practice and fulfilled temperament, is established. It happens in a stunningly short time frame, from 1859 to 1872: through the American Civil War to just past the establishment of the Third Republic in Paris. In that period, there appeared the two foundational documents of modern liberal humanism, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Mill’s On Liberty. Darwin’s was a new articulation of the history of life and humanity’s place within it, implicit but obvious, and Mill’s was the articulation of a new understanding about the nature of authority and the individual’s claims against it.

On the political front, the long decade of modern liberalism’s birth witnessed the enfranchisement of most of the British working classes, the formal founding of the British Liberal Party (headquartered in the London Reform Club, no less), the absolute victory of the antislavery (and single-nation) side in the American Civil War, and the founding, after the disaster of the French commune, of the French Republic in the form in which, with the interruption of the German occupation, it has essentially persisted since. (And let us not forget, in 1867, the establishment of the Canadian confederation and of a still unprecedented, in its survival and tensile strength, bilingual and binational nation.) All these events are linked: it was the victory of the Union that helped prod the democratization of Britain, and the vindication of republicanism in the United States and Britain that played a large role in re-moralizing the French republicans. (It was the same period that saw, as well, the emergence of liberalism’s great opponents: authoritarian nationalism, with Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871, and radical socialism, with the first meeting of the Workingmen’s Association, under the influence of Karl Marx, in London in 1864.)


  • A Foreign Affairs Book of the Year, 2019
  • "Witty, humane, learned...An elegant discussion."—New York Times
  • "A stirring defense of liberalism's philosophical tradition and continued relevance against its critics on both left and right."—Jonathan Chait
  • "Written with Adam Gopnik's signature wit and charm, A Thousand Small Sanities is also a clarion call at a moment of great danger. This fierce, capacious, and startlingly intelligent defense of a whole political, social, and moral order is essential reading for our time."—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
  • "Adam Gopnik is one of the greatest thinkers and wordsmiths of our age, and this book may be his most masterful, meaningful, and enjoyable yet. He turns his sweeping intellectual imagination into a conversation with a cross-partisan American longing for a renewal of common life that scarcely knows how to name itself. In an age in which we've connected ourselves with scale but without quality, and fractured communal cohesion in part by forgetting our shared liberal inheritance, this book is essential, redemptive reading."—Krista Tippett, host, "On Being"
  • "It's a great book about liberalism. You'll read it in a day. Highly recommended."—Chris Hayes
  • "An elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced..."—Brainpickings
  • "The longtime New Yorker staff writer and prolific cultural critic once again shows his astute awareness of the public's political consciousness in this new work championing 'liberalism.' ... Gopnik's learned, lofty...study ultimately reasserts the belief in the 'infinity of small effect.'"—Kirkus Reviews
  • "A smart, exhilarating defense of the liberal tradition."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

On Sale
Jul 14, 2020
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Adam Gopnik

About the Author

Adam Gopnik is a staff writer at The New Yorker; he has written for the magazine since 1986. Gopnik has three National Magazine awards, for essays and for criticism, and also a George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. In March of 2013, Gopnik was awarded the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. The author of numerous bestselling books, including Paris to the Moon, he lives in New York City.

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