The Magazine

Talking Freely

When the subject is liberty, what are we thinking?

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By BARTON SWAIM
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The Inner Vision

Liberty and Literature

Edited by Edward B. McLean

ISI, 200 pp., $17

One measure of the success or failure of a president is whether and to what extent he gets Americans to talk about important ideas.

By this measure, George H.W. Bush failed and Bill Clinton, who had four additional years to try, likewise failed, though not as miserably. The former held office when the Soviet Union collapsed, and so might have been expected to bring some memorable idea to the public's attention. He didn't. Clinton brimmed with ideas, but their historical significance didn't survive his administration.

The case is very much otherwise with the current president. Whatever else may be said about George W. Bush, he has gotten the nation to think and talk about freedom. For my own part, I don't know whether that most intellectually bracing proposition of the Bush Doctrine--that only by extending political freedom in the form of representative democracy can the United States provide for itself a durable security--will be proved valid, but it's a giant idea any way you look at it. It is one of this decade's subtle ironies that, while Bush seems to embody everything most intellectuals abhor, he has given them, tax-free, the greatest subject of intellectual dispute since the Truman Doctrine.

As the Cold War did a half-century ago, the present conflict with militant Islam has reinvigorated the study of political liberty. And the vigor with which it has been studied and written about since late 2001 is, quite simply, spectacular. The complaint with which Edward B. McLean begins The Inner Vision is, however, correct:

Theologians, philosophers, and artists have tried to capture the essence of freedom. Economists and statesmen have tried to guarantee it to mankind. All these schools have brought great advances in the understanding of freedom and its implications, not least among them that men yearn to be free--and need only an inspiring vision of freedom to move heaven and earth in search of it. One art, however, has often been neglected in our search for freedom.

That one art is literature, which at its best can elucidate the nature of lived experience better than any other form of expression. "We can easily know abstract principles, equations, or institutional structures," McLean goes on to say. "But how can we know what a free life is really like? . . . A vital link is missing in any study of liberty that has no way to examine both the philosophical absolutes of freedom and their permutation in actual lives."

He's right. Often what an educated person knows about the great cultural and social problems of his age depends as much on the imaginative literature he's read as on books and essays full of propositional arguments. This has partly to do with literature's capacity to convey otherwise unattainable experiences: Westerners had never apprehended the reality of Soviet gulags until Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's work began appearing in the 1960s; white Americans discovered a little of what it means to be black when they read Invisible Man.

But there's more to it than that. Literature raises and frames questions in ways that straightforward arguments cannot: fiction, by capturing the unpredictability and moral messiness of life, poetry by expressing truth in new and astonishing language. I understand religious doubt, or think I do, not because I've read David Hume but because I've read Philip Larkin.

McLean has collected seven essays by literary and political scholars of widely different interests and styles. All, without exception, are well written and full of insight. Three of the seven treat the tension existing between liberty and responsibility, the first a more philosophical treatment of Paradise Lost, the second on Shakespeare's evolving thought on this tension in his Roman plays, the third on the more prosaic territory of American politics via Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

The southern writer Marion Montgomery has written a profound (and characteristically grave) essay on "Dostoevsky as a 'Southern' Writer," in which Montgomery discusses the difficulty faced by artists who have had to choose between conformity to what they thought was the triumphant ideology and fidelity to what they knew to be their own culture.

Martine Watson Brownley discusses the humane and earthbound literary criticism of Samuel Johnson. Johnson's critical attitude was famously dictatorial, but he knew what too many modern academic critics do not: The ultimate authority in questions of aesthetic worth and meaning is not the literary critic but (to use Johnson's phrase) "the common reader"--the reader of good sense and sound education.

Brownley's is an important essay, not only because she illustrates the folly of ceding peremptory cultural authority to the modern academy, but also because Johnson's approach to judging literature exemplifies the attitude a free people should cultivate towards their own society--that is, towards themselves. Over the long run, and despite mistakes along the way, a free and educated people will tend to make good decisions.

Catherine Zuckert's "Tom Sawyer: Potential President" is, in my view, easily worth the modest price of the book. Zuckert's interpretation of Mark Twain's great novel is penetrating as a work of criticism. But she also goes a long way toward answering an old and complex question: How can democracy succeed so brilliantly as a form of government when democracies themselves are so often led by ambitious, self-aggrandizing, and otherwise morally flawed men?

Elected statesmen will rarely or, perhaps, never be the morally conscientious men we would like them to be. As Tocqueville pointed out (Zuckert finds Henry Adams saying more or less the same thing), a truly good man wouldn't put himself forward for his peers to vote for him, for to do so would necessarily involve self-regard and guile. Thus Twain's subtle joke midway through the novel: After Tom saves the life of Muff Potter, "There were some that believed he would be President, yet, if he escaped hanging."

Those who have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer--or, at any rate, those who have read it as adults--will likely have been troubled by a sense that Tom is, in a word, unscrupulous. He is not cruel or knavish; but he exhibits less honesty and humility than we might prefer to see in our own children. Tom deceives. He manipulates (remember the famous whitewashing-the-fence scene). He is inconsiderate of the interests and feelings of others, even his own family. He takes what doesn't belong to him (though, as he sees it, he stops short of outright theft). And above all he pursues his own glory with relentless energy.

Yet, as Zuckert explains, he possesses certain traits that make him an ideal popular leader. He is bold, imaginative, capable of enduring pain and risking his life. Indeed, it's precisely his single-minded interest in his own renown that drives him to perform his most noble deeds.

Zuckert quotes Twain's remark that Theodore Roosevelt was Tom Sawyer grown up, "always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off." So will our statesmen always be, whatever we may tell ourselves about ages gone by.

Edward McLean deserves great credit for bringing these essays together. And so does the present occupant of the White House for making the idea of freedom so prominent a part of our discourse.

Barton Swaim is writing a book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.