On the nature and price of liberty

In the spirit of the holiday, I’d like to post several musings on the nature of liberty which I came across in my reading this week. The first, on the question of peaceful relations — and at what price — from Benson Bobrick’s Angel In The Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (probably the best single-volume history of the subject I’ve read):

Did ever any kingdom or state regain its liberty, when once it was invaded, without bloodshed? I cannot think of it without horror. Yet we are told that the misfortunes of Sparta were occasioned by their too great solicitude for present tranquility, and, from an excessive love of peace, they neglected the means of making it sure and lasting. They ought to have reflected, says Polybius, that, as there is nothing more desirable or advantageous than peace, when founded in justice and honors so there is nothing more shameful, ad at the same time more pernicious, when attained by bad measures and purchased at the price ofliberty.

That comes from Abigail Adams, writing to her husband John in 1774, arguing against the colonies’ excessive accomodation to the demands of Britain. Smart gal, she.

I’m always impressed by the eloquence of our Founding Fathers and Mothers; there is a style, an elegance to their writing that one just doesn’t see these days. Check out this correspondence between Mr. and Mrs. Adams, particularly the humorous exchange of barbs over the “tyranny of the male sex” and the prospective future of colonial women under the new government.
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The second from Vaclav Havel, then-president of Czechoslovakia, on the unanticipated consequences of unrestrained liberty in his country after the fall of commmunism — and which made me think of the citizens of Iraq, who (we hope) will learn the proper exercise of freedom, as the seeds of Democracy struggle to take root:

The return of freedom to a place that became morally unhinged has produced something that it clearly had to produce, and therefore something we might have expected. But it has turned out to be far more serious than anyone could have predicted: an enormous and blindingly visible explosion of every imaginable human vice. A wide range of questionable or at least ambivalent human tendencies, quietly encouraged over the years and, at the same time, quietly pressed to serve the daily operation of the totalitarian system, has suddenly been liberated, as it were, from its straitjacket and given free rein at last. The authoritarian regime immposed a certain order — if that is the right expression for it — on these vices (and in doing so “legitimized” them, in a sense). This order has now been broken down, but a new order that would limit rather than exploit these vices, an order based on a freely accepted responsibility to and for the whole of society, has not yet been built, nor could it have been, for such an order takes years to develop and cultivate.

And thus we are witnesses to a bizarre state of affairs: society has freed itself, true, but in some ways it behaves worse than when it was in chains.

This, citation, by the way, from Gertrude Himmelfarb’s “Liberty: ‘One Very Simple Principle'”, an excellent critique of the absolutist notion of freedom in John Stuart Mill’s on Liberty contained in the anthology On Looking Into The Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society.

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In “Land of the Free” (National Review, Online, July 2, 2002) Dinesh D’Souza examines the writings of Sayyid Qutbe, an Egyptian thinker and Islamicist who is widely recognized for having provided the intellectial inspiration for Bin Ladin’s jihad against Western civilization.

An employee of the Egyptian Ministry of Education, Qutbe was sent to America to study education in 1948. His experiences (living in Greeley, Colorado, to be precise) prompted him to write a book, The America That I Saw (laying out the case for the Muslim rejection of Western civilization), and to join the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood upon his return to Egypt in 1951. Qutbe experienced torture and imprisonment for 10 years under Nasser’s regime, was released in 1964, rearrested in 1965 (following an assassination attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood), and finally hanged in 1966.

D’Souza to his credit does not dismiss Qutbe but takes his criticisms seriously, “partly because they are taken seriously in the Islamic world, and partly because for all his vehemence, Qutb is raising deep and fundamental questions” — about freedom, virtue, and the ultimate goal of society. D’Souza concedes that the freedoms we enjoy in America may, indeed, will in some cases, be used badly. Nevertheless, he maintains that it is precisely because we are free that virtue is possible:

. . . if freedom brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the best. The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when the good is not the only available option. Even amid the temptations that a rich and free society offers, they have remained on the straight path. Their virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen. The free society does not guarantee virtue any more than it guarantees happiness. But it allows for the pursuit of both — a pursuit rendered all the more meaningful and profound because success is not guaranteed but has to be won through personal striving.

By contrast, the theocratic and authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue of insufficient in free societies, it is almost nonexistent in Islamic societies, because coerced virtues are not virtues at all. Consider the woman in Afghanistan or Iran who is required to wear the veil. There is no real modesty in this, because the woman is being compelled. Compulsion cannot produce virtue; it can only produce the outward semblance of virtue.

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