Google+
Close

Postmodern Conservatism

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

The Future (and Past) of Liberty Is Confusing



Text  



So there’s a lot more I could say about the ISI Conference. But because I have to give some wrap-up comments on the future of the tradition of liberty tomorrow, I’m going to limit myself to some stuff I learned (or remembered) about liberty over the week.

1. The singular (classic) Greek contribution to liberty is freedom of the mind. That means, more or less, the freedom of Socrates.

2. Well, there’s also the freedom of the citizen. The freedom to participate in ruling and so be more than a merely material or economic or tribal or familial being.

3. There’s also the freedom connected with moral virtue. That’s a proud and rational freedom from necessity that’s more particular than being philosophic (which requires completely getting over or dying to yourself) and merely being a citizen. This freedom is elevated by the Stoics, and it’s displayed by the virtues of courage, generosity, and magnanimity. This virtue found its place in America in Southern Stoicism, in George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and (the fictional) Atticus Finch. But it was also displayed by Lincoln.

4.  The Greek view of liberty, from our view, was never personal enough. The tendency of the Greeks is to see particular persons as merely parts, as parts of nature or parts of the city.

5. Christian liberty is found in the being made in the image of the free, loving, and relational logos of the personal Creator. The creature retains his personal identity even in his loving relationship with God; he neither dies to himself (as does the philosopher) nor discovers he is merely part of some divine or natural cosmos. It’s from the Christians that we learn that all men and women are equal under God, and that each person has a unique and irreplaceable dignity. It’s owing to the Christians that government becomes limited because we are all more than citizens. And this religious freedom is “relational freedom,” and so it’s displayed in the organized body of thought and action called the church. The Christians criticize the natural and civil theologies of the Greeks and Romans for understanding us as less than who each of us is as a free person. It’s also from the Christians that we get the idea of the irreducible personal inwardness called freedom of conscience.

6. Modern liberty — as found, for example, in John Locke — retains the personal insight of the Christians. We are all free individuals, and so free from nature and the city.  Nature can be transformed creatively by free persons to be more useful to our personal needs.  The nature we’re given is no respecter of persons, and so we deploy technology to remake it in our personal images.  Modern freedom is personal but not relational, and that’s why its theology is culminates in the impersonal God of nature of the Deists. That God is unrelational or no respecter of persons and left us with freedom to secure ourselves on our own.  Locke limits government through his spin on the Christian insight into irreducible personal identity; I am, deep down, not a citizen (or a philosopher or creature lovingly open to the truth about the unbought  gift of being), and so government is to be limited to a contract to serve my individual rights.

7. The Declaration of Independence was a compromise between Lockean Deism and Calvinist Christianity.  The more Christian members of Congress amended Jefferson’s Lockean draft to transform the God of nature into also a providential and judgmental (or living and giving) God. So despite the fact that most of our leading Founders and Framers did not think of themselves as believing Christians, our Founding might be regarded as more Christian than not.  Our Declaration might also be regarded as a form of accidental Thomism. Certainly the limitation on government for the free exercise of religion depends on Christian premises; insofar as religious freedom is much more definitely relational than mere freedom of conscience, we can say that limitation is for freedom of the church.

8. Our progressive movement did harbor the inclinations to reduce the person to part of History — or to History fodder, or even to part of nature — insofar as it was infected by Darwinism. It also was an attempt to reestablish citizenship as a national community aiming at social justice. But it wasn’t the collectivism of communism.

9.  The idea that the flourishing of personal liberty depended on bigger and better government peaked in America with the idealism of the Great Society.

10. The natalism, civic spirit, and imperialism of, say, Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism is pretty much dead today. President Obama may make a gesture in that direction from time to time, and our educators talked about “civic engagement.” But the dominant view is that the freedom and security of particular persons is the bottom line these days. That view is sometimes called “non-foundational.” What that means is that we don’t attempt to explain why persons are the bottom line. In large measure, our belief in “human rights” is detached from any understanding of persons as citizens or free by nature or creatures. Human rights just are, which is why the listing of them seems pretty arbitrary and indefinitely expansive.

11. Progressivism today is increasingly about personal identity or the right to freely construct one’s own identity independently of any definite relational context or responsibilities.  That isn’t the same thing at all as civic progressivism. It is the indefinite expansion of the realm of one’s own freedom. Progressivism so understood really is about new personal rights emerging over time through thinking through the personal insight or “liberty” of our Framers. Our Court used that word liberty to discover (or uncover) the right to relational autonomy and (soon) the right to same-sex marriage.

12. The emptiness of autonomy means it can’t effectively trump the imperatives of productivity or the 21st-century competitive global marketplace.  So these days we tend to understand individuals as producers and consumers.  It’s the more definite and relational understandings of personal freedom flowing from nature (the family), being a creature, and being a citizen that would be more effective breaks on the reductionistic economization or technologization of all of life.

13. The utopianism of our time is most centered on biotechnology and the “transhumanist” transcendence of nature in the service of personal freedom. Technology is the route to perfecting the Marxian vision of a non-obsessive, non-alienated, and deeply unrelational future — a world without love, work, and death. The existentialist criticism of Marx is that alienation persists as long as persons remain self-conscious mortals, or open to the ”Socratic truth” about contingent and ephemeral personal being. The final solution is the overcoming of the distinction between the free person and the machine through the Singularity that makes us, in a way, conscious machines or detaches us from nature (biology) altogether.

I typed these in an hour, and so there may be a flaw or two.


Tags: Intercollegiate Studies Institute


Text  


Subscribe to National Review