21 March 2010
The short answer to that question, when I have asked various acquaintances of what I would call a “mildly liberal,” or middle-of-the-road disposition, is: “Yes, but …”
This “but” may correspond to any of many suggested qualifications, and that is the first instructive thing. At best it is freedom versus order, or freedom versus equality, or freedom versus social security. Seldom has the position been thought through. Nor is the need for thought acknowledged.
Under cross-examination, most appear to be seeking some kind of balance between freedom and the tyranny of the state. On the moral level, a balance between good and evil; on the esthetic, between beauty and ugliness; on the philosophical, between truth and the socially and legally enforced big lies of political correctness.
“Yes, freedom is important, but it has its place,” said one of the more thoughtful victims of my inquisition, which has been going on for some years now. (For I like to play at Socrates sometimes, the greatest of all Inquisitors, and try to establish what people really believe.)
Or to put it the other way round: “Yes, we should be herded like sheep, but within the limits of common sense.” Granted, this quote is a parody, and inversion; no one would ever say that. Yet it is the corollary of what is often said.
When the victims of my inquisition are in my clutches, I find that they hedge. Under cross-examination, there is hedging within hedging. They are soon on to my game: that I am trying to trap them in a Yes or a No, when they would feel more comfortable with Maybe.
Notice that the original question was not, “Is freedom an absolute value to which all other values must be subordinated?” It was instead more modestly: “Does freedom matter?”
I can think of two possible answers to that question, and neither of them is, “Yes, but …”
Consider for a moment the phrase, “oriental despotism.” It was one that seems to have come easily to the lips of our ancestors, who, whether or not they had traveled, were under the impression that, beyond the frontiers of their civilization, freedom indeed did not matter. More deeply, perhaps, some grasped that the idea of an “individual moral agent” — of the incomparable value of the unique human soul — was tied into our civilizational identity. Lose that, and we are no longer “Western,” or “Judeo-Christian,” or whatever.
The remarkable achievements of our civilization likewise depended on what we were. They were the products of human enterprise. This is true through all centuries: the Catholic idea of saints and martyrs has nothing to do with public policy. Each is, in his or her own nature, the exact opposite of the Pyramids of Egypt — perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the statist mind.
Each man and woman among the saints is held up as an individual example, different in kind from each of the others. Each has, from a unique point of departure — the peculiar, given circumstances of a life — consciously, and in freedom, bought into the wild notion of personal sanctity. Their faith, and not their compulsion, moved our mountains.
But likewise, in all other areas of human enterprise: in the great achievements of business, of literature and music and art, of sciences and education, there was some understanding that we had nothing without manifestations of the individual human will.
The cathedrals were not built by ants; but by individual architects and masons. Nor could any have been built, had individual patrons not stepped forward. They were local, voluntary acts, writ large. St. Patrick##s Basilica here in Ottawa was built by Irish navvies, employed on works like the Rideau Canal, volunteering their time.
All the great eleemosynary and charitable institutions of this town began as individual efforts, and were staffed from the beginning by volunteers. In every case, some decision was made to rise above the condition of wage slavery.
Freedom can most certainly be abused, but it is the necessary condition for the humane.
“Humanism” — in the word##s original meaning, and not in its appropriated meaning as a euphemism for an atheist cult — is squarely founded on this notion of the humane, involving free acts of will. It further involves moral restraints, chosen not imposed, and therefore often far more exacting than what could be imposed. The ideals of humanism are the very opposite of that kind of compulsion our ancestors attributed to “oriental despotism.”
Which is not to say that parallel freedoms have not existed in other cultures and civilizations, or have not been transmitted to them by western example. There was never anywhere an “absolute freedom,” for even at the extremes of anarchy, nature restrains our possibilities.
Yet what goes on “there” has never really mattered “here,” except insofar as our freedom is threatened.
It is for others to free themselves, if they are not free. For us the challenge, once again, is to free ourselves from the tyranny of, “Yes, but …”
The Ottawa Citizen