Modern Liberty

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I LIBERTY: THE VERY IDEA

“[A]s a great popular leader [Mussolini] has said to an applauding multitude, ‘We will trample upon the decomposing body of the Goddess of Liberty.” W.B. Yeats, Irish Independent, Aug. 4, 1924, quoted in R. F. FOSTER, 2 W. B. YEATS, A LIFE 265 (2003).

:“[H]e [l’abbé de Mably] hated individual liberty as one hates a personal enemy.” Benjamin Constant, De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes.


For Benjamin Constant—sometimes called the inventor of liberalism, my kind of liberalism—“individual liberty is the first need of modern man.” He and his friend Madame de Staël had survived the communitarian utopia of Robespierre's republic of terror only to be sent into exile by Napoleon's empire of the grandiose. “By liberty I mean the triumph—not just independence, the triumph—of individuality, as much over authority which would govern by despotism, as over the masses that would subordinate the minority to the majority.” When he returned to serve the monarchy of Louis- Philippe and that king in gratitude and admiration paid off his many debts, Constant warned that this would not in the least prevent him from criticizing. It was said of him that he sold himself many times, but never delivered. It is from Constant that Isaiah Berlin, in his celebrated Two Concepts of Liberty, took the contrast between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns. Constant did not think them at all equivalent. The liberty of the ancients, the liberty of a people to govern their own state subject to no other ruler, was often the best that men could hope for in a time when wealth was tied to land and the only escape was to exile, loneliness and misery (think of Socrates choosing the hemlock over exile from Athens), but Constant saw that this “liberty” often goes along with the total, the Spartan annihilation of the individual. “It makes the individual a slave so that the people might be free.” In modern times a man can flee across borders with money in his wallet (or an "Inverted Jenny" postage stamp worth a fortune or an account number and a password) to build a new life elsewhere. The liberty Constant valued was the liberty of a man to live his own life as he thought best. Then as now America—to which Constant as a young man thought of emigrating —is the closest thing to that ideal. That is what I grew up to believe. My family and I were chased from Prague—that most prosperous, most commercial, most comfortable, bourgeois and civilized of cities—by a homicidal maniac who like Robespierre and Napoleon had a vision of the glory of a nation and a people but cared nothing at all about persons. Then with Hitler gone and my father on the point of taking us back to Czechoslovakia, that country was put in the pocket of another mass murderer with an even more lethal—because more plausible—nightmare vision, that of a universal equality, in which every man would belong to everyone and all men belong to the state. It is of the liberty of persons not peoples, it is of the liberty of the moderns that (to borrow from the opening of the Aeneid) I sing.

The greatest enemy of liberty has always been some vision of the good. It might be the good of community engaged for the glory of a city, nation, race, or party. This is best captured in the image of tens of thousands of slaves broken by the labor of building the great Pyramids of Egypt, with a result that must have amazed, still amazes. True, as much as a reach for glory, these tombs may have been one of the more sensationally desperate attempts to overcome the fact of death—as sealed away with the preserved body of the Pharaoh were the rich accoutrements of his life. But then glory has always been an avenue on the quest for immortality. The Pharaohs may have built for their own glory and immortality, but always and everywhere many religions have been ready to sacrifice the liberty of those whose lives they touched—whether as adherents or not—to what they took to be the greater glory of their gods. Power, magnificence and beauty are among the glories on which men have freely spent their own energies and the unwilling energies of others. But a way of life—whether of great simplicity or of complex ritual observance—has also seemed a good so surpassing that others must be bent to its pursuit. Think of the rural idyll-nightmare which Pol Pot sought to impose on Cambodia, but also of the complex observances of the mediaeval Japanese court.

Those who impose on others are convinced that the good they are after is a good as much for their victims as for themselves and so they claim that there are no victims at all. But just as often there is no thought of the good of the oppressed: Hitler thought of the good and glory of the German race—supermen ruled by a superman—a vision to which the elimination or subjugation of inferior races was integral, a vision in which those races obviously were not asked to share. And indeed the question whose good is it—cui bono—in many instances misses the point of this way of thinking, for it is the good in the abstract that is the goal, not any particular person’s good. The religious manifestation is the clearest—the service of the gods is not the service of any man. But running through this history of subjection and enslavement is the claim of some to coerce the service of others, whether for a common good, the good of the oppressor, or some good that is an abstract from both and applicable to all. In this catalogue of oppression the idea of equality plays a prominent, yet ambiguous, part. Liberty is so important that everyone should have as much of it as possible. But there is another way of taking equality. Equality is so important that liberty, and not only liberty but every other good thing, should be enjoyed only to the extent that it may be enjoyed equally. In this second way, equality is more like the other goods I have mentioned—national glory or the service of the gods: it is a good that overrides the good of particular persons in so far as the well-being of some are sacrificed to it, and even if the well-being of others is not enhanced. This demands leveling down—deliberately hurting some people, without helping others—if that is the only way to come closer to equality. This was Pol Pot’s project as he emptied the cities and killed or drove into the fields the educated and most prosperous townspeople: Equality as a Great Pyramid. The Great Pyramid view of equality subordinates the goods—the well-being of individuals—to that one great abstraction.

We may know what counts as the power of a nation: its wealth or its successful conquests. Those who seek the glory of their gods seem to know what makes for that glory. But what is liberty? Here is a first, very general idea.

Liberty Is Individuality Made Normative