The Magazine

How Freedom Rings

Ten ways of looking at man’s greatest gift.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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The two most interesting essays, however, are at least two steps removed from the political realm, dealing instead with feminism and academic freedom. And yet they provide the deepest insights into politics. Christina Hoff Sommers argues that radical feminists have distorted the feminist movement’s history, producing an unappealing, monolithic, meager view of women’s liberty. Vagina Monologues feminism is a kind of “women’s liberation” that has “little to do with liberty” since “it aims not to free women to pursue their own interests and inclinations, but rather to re-educate them to attitudes often profoundly contrary to their natures.” Sommers considers, instead, Mary Wollstonecraft’s egalitarian feminism promoting legal equality and an ideal of women “as independent agents rather than wives and mothers.” And she examines conservative feminism like that of the now-overlooked Hannah More, Frances Willard, and Clare Boothe Luce, who sought to embrace women’s “established roles as homemakers, caregivers, and providers of domestic tranquility” but to promote women’s rights “by redefining, strengthening, and expanding those roles.” Society would be a better place when distinctively feminine virtues were championed.

In another sense, academic freedom is meant not to liberate us from our humanity but to allow us to appropriate the truths of our humanity that make meaningful freedom possible. That is the argument of Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and director of its James Madison Program in American
Ideals and Institutions. Despite having collaborated with George for years, I had not come across this essay and was struck by its depth and clarity. Citing egregious examples of campus political correctness, George shows how much contemporary higher education is aimed at “liberation from traditional social constraints and norms of morality” that taught earlier generations to act “for the sake of personal virtue and the common good.” Because academics view these norms as outdated and irrational strictures, they seek to emancipate students to become “authentic individuals” by embracing their “true self” where “people are defined by their desires.”

Yet the classical understanding of a liberal education is “not to liberate us to act on our desires, but rather, and precisely, to liberate us from slavery to them. Personal authenticity .  .  . consists in self-mastery​—​placing reason in control of desire.” The reason to study Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Dante and Shakespeare, Rousseau and Kant, is to free our minds from the tyranny of present opinion, to free our wills from slavery to our passions, and to free ourselves to come to know, love, and choose what is beautiful and good. Of course, this presupposes that there are objective truths, and that they are best appropriated when freely pursued. Not merely knowing what is the case, but understanding the how and why, allows us to incorporate the string of reasons into one’s own deliberations and choices. This liberation from self, from popular opinion, and from radical skepticism, makes true liberty​—​freedom for excellence​—​possible.

Of liberal education, as well as our legal regimes and prepolitical institutions, we might ask what has made it all possible. The French philosopher Rémi Brague argues here that the Judeo-Christian tradition provided the crucial metaphysical foundation for personal liberty, and thereby for political, economic, and academic freedoms. The Hebrew Bible reveals man as a free being created with “the necessary outfit that enables a creature to reach its own good,” by a God who “respects the nature of the things He has created.” This is seen in the Sabbath rest, Israel’s liberation, and the Ten Commandments as a “code of honor of free people” that “connect the gift of freedom with the responsibilities that naturally flow from it.” Brague concludes that “free institutions hardly ever developed in places that were not influenced by Jewish and Christian ideas.”

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