Albrecht Durer's rhinoceros

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 philosoper 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 . . . .

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.

-- Adam Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (Basic Books, 2019)