Liberty and Civilization
The Western Heritage
edited by Roger Scruton
Encounter, 160 pp., $23.95
Between the extremes of religious fanaticism and secularism, or of libertarian libertinism and moralizing statism, we would do well to seek what Aristotelians call the virtuous mean: that metaphysical and religious worldview which promotes a healthy conception of man and his place in the cosmos, and a political philosophy that supports such a conception.
The Western tradition does just that. Its core understanding is that man was created for freedom, and that this freedom is neither a freedom of indifference nor a freedom from constraint, but a freedom for excellence. In Liberty and Civilization, Roger Scruton has brought together 10 of its leading contemporary intellectuals to discuss various aspects of man’s freedom and its political ramifications. Originally appearing in the American Spectator through John Templeton Foundation funding, these essays provide sophisticated yet accessible discussions of central, longstanding debates in their modern formulations. Perfect for prompting discussions in undergraduate seminars, or for the professional on the go, the essays here deserve a broad audience.
The easiest way into these topics is by considering political rule directly. Two eminent legal scholars, Robert Bork and Jeremy Rabkin, discuss the ways in which the nation-state protects individual liberty. Bork focuses on how the American Constitution, originally meant to protect freedom, was hijacked for advancing lifestyle-liberalism in a way that has undermined the values of a free society. Rabkin explores recent calls for world government and international law to show how, in practice, these institutions undermine the political liberty that only the nation-state has proven able to protect.
Descending from such lofty heights, the editor of City Journal, Brian Anderson, emphasizes the importance of cities for freedom. In a learned essay tracing sources from Athens and Jerusalem down to present-day New York, he suggests that most of the ordinances affecting people’s daily lives are municipal and, more important, that the city was crucial to Western development: “Without the city, no democracy, no Christianity, no capitalism, no West.”
But political entities are sustained—and their power constrained—by prepolitical institutions, as essays by two leading social historians underscore. Paul Johnson shows how the rise of private property, beginning in the Middle Ages, limited regal power by granting small pockets of it to a sufficient number of citizens. Conversely, Johnson argues, private property is only protected under the rule of law, in a regime that respects property rights. As Johnson notes, “In Zimbabwe, where every adult theoretically has the right to vote, but where real power and property belong to the dictator and the leading members of his party, voting can change nothing.”
Anne Applebaum draws lessons from the post-Communist world about how cultural differences can drive the vast political differences between places like Russia and Poland. While the Poles never lost their desire for freedom and private enterprise, or developed unquestioning obeisance to the state, Soviet leaders were more successful in quashing resistance and promoting hostility to private initiative and firm state loyalty. The reason, for Applebaum, is that the Poles were able to keep alive the organs of civil society, even under communism, in underground theaters, presses, and galleries, especially thanks to a Roman Catholic Church that resisted co-opting by the Communists.
The role of religion in limiting government is underdeveloped in Seamus Hasson’s essay on religious freedom in America, but it should be stressed that, in marking off what we ought to render to God, we limit what Caesar can legitimately claim. Protecting religious liberty, besides being important in itself, is an important hedge against state overreach. Hasson, the founding president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, discusses the American experiment’s checkered history regarding religious pluralism and offers an anthropological argument for protecting religious liberty: to wit, it is man’s nature to seek out and adhere to whatever religious truth he might find. He urges us to be less concerned with the establishment clause and more concerned with the free exercise clause, as the former is at the service of the latter.
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.”
Scruton brings the collection to a close by discussing the previous nine essays with an eye to the limits of liberty. Borrowing from Locke, he distinguishes liberty from license: Liberty is the ability to direct oneself toward individual and communal fulfillment without trampling on others’ well-being, but too much of what passes for liberty today is actually license—self-assertion at others’ expense. As he notes, “freedom that can be enjoyed by one generation only by condemning the next to dependency surely deserves the name of license.” But it is hard to specify when liberty turns into license without a robust account of human well-being. Just as gender equality should be used to draw out what is best in each gender, and just as academic freedom should be used to discover and appropriate what is noblest in human life, so too political liberty should be used for human excellence, and not as an excuse or a defense for moral corruption.
The Western metaphysical and political tradition points the way between the excesses of religious extremism and secularism, between libertinism and statism. At the heart lies liberty, not license.
Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute.