Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In Defense of Liberty

Liberty gets a bad rap these days, especially political and religious liberty.  There are those on the progressive side of things, who pay lip-service to liberty but when pressed admit that they can only give it value to the extent that it comes under the double-headed banner of fairness and non-offensiveness.  There are those on the reactionary side of things, who openly deny that liberty is worthy of its former to-die-for dignity.

Liberty is emphatically not worth living for.  One cannot live for love of liberty; one might as well live for the love of everything, which is the love of nothing.  One lives for the love of this thing, this person, this virtue, this goal, this God.  But the same liberty that is not worth living for is very well worth dying for.

He who has nothing to live for but liberty has nothing to live for at all: he has no reason to live.  But he who has no liberty by which to live for the things he really loves, must suffer a great deal.  The will cannot be compelled, but it can be tortured.  No one can force you to give up your faith or to stop loving your family, but they can make it difficult or impossible for you to act on your love.  They can make you suffer terribly for your love.  Liberty is the prevention of that suffering.  Liberty is the freedom to act on love.

Liberty is not a master but a servant—a sometimes untrusty servant, a servant that is randy and self-absorbed and a little too prone to think himself a king when his masters are not around.  He is all the stage side-kicks you can think of, Papageno and Sancho Panza and Cosmo Brown.  He is a fool; he guides like the Clown in Twelfth Night and misguides like Touchstone in As You Like It.  He is like gunpowder: a volatile and dangerous indispensable.

But he is indispensable.  This is where I part company with some of my more traditional friends; this is where I become a little bit of the libertarian.  I don't consider myself a bad conservative for holding out for a measure of religious and political tolerance.  I've no interest in being more ultramontane than St. Thomas, or more Catholic than the popes.  To condemn relativism is not to insist on a confessional state—but that is a distinction too rarely made by those who are strongest in defense of the faith.  It is a distinction that must be made, and the difficulty in making it—the difficulty in teasing out its details, at least—ought not to stop us from attempting to work out its practical implications.  There is a temptation, because the road is encouragingly narrow, to go down that intellectual pass whence the only two exits are total license on the one hand (libertarianism) and total law on the other (puritanism).  We must not give in to that temptation.  The virtue in this as in so many cases lies in the mean.

Once in recent months I spoke or wrote something along these lines to an acquaintance, and received this jarring response (I paraphrase; I've heard this sort of thing many-a-time): "I know you mean well, and you'll probably deny this, but you sound like a relativist when you talk like that.  That stuff about the 'middle'—that's so liberal."

Well excuse Mrs. Paroo and me for living!  I like black and white as much as the next person.  But the world isn't black and white.  It's color, and attempts to sketch its outlines in black and white tend to end in caricatures on the right or shades of grey on the left.  My temperament inclines me to prefer the former, but my intellect and conscience don't allow me subscription to either.  Not everything is simply good or bad.  Earthly life is too complex for that; it demands living with a lot of untame lions—volatile and dangerous indispensables, including that least-of-the-brethren "value" which we call Liberty.

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