It would seem from a scan of recent news that the notion of ‘liberty’ is once again at the fore of the American imagination. This might be attributed to a few recent, choice words from White House Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller, concerning the very incarnation of liberty that Americans take such pride in, the great copper statue which stands planted against the ocean in New York’s harbor. Miller’s contention is that there is a distinction between the liberty which the statue promises and the offer of asylum for the poor contained in the poem upon the statue. According to Miller, this poem, written by Emma Lazarus, was added later. Miller further elaborates that he does not believe the poem in any way obliges the United States to be less than selective concerning who is allowed to come into the country—who, in other words, is to be allowed to enjoy the liberty for which the United States is so renowned across the world.
In this instance is the germ of an idea that provokes further examination, namely the idea of liberty. What, precisely, is liberty? From whence does it come? To whom is it granted, and to what extent?
It might be worthwhile to turn to the thoughts of another man on the subject. Gilbert K. Chesterton occupied a preeminent place in the intellectual life of Great Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time in which Great Britain’s place in the global order was roughly analogous to that of the United States’ in the present time; correspondingly, many of the issues which Chesterton considered at length are issues that animate and provoke us still. As Chesterton, moreover, was a thinker of some originality and keenness, his words on any subject, but certainly as important but nebulous a subject as ‘liberty,’ are worthy of consideration.
In his essay “The Free Man,” Mr. Chesterton opens by saying, “The idea of liberty has ultimately a religious root; that is why men find it so easy to die for and so difficult to define.” A short while later, he remarks that the essential defining element of liberty is the fact that, “while the oyster and the palm tree have to save their lives by law, man has to save his soul by choice.” For Chesterton, true liberty has divine origins, but man is so free that at the dawn of the species, he was free to damn himself. Therefore, to a certain extent, Chesterton regards liberty as inescapable. Man is an innate liberal in that sense.
But one might go further, and examine just what a particularly Chestertonian conception of liberty would fully entail. Later in the essay, Chesterton eventually remarks: “Generally, the moral substance of liberty is this: that man is not meant merely to receive good laws, good food or good conditions, like a tree in a garden, but is meant to take a certain princely pleasure in selecting and shaping like the gardener.” And a little further down, “In its primary spiritual sense, liberty is the god in man, or, if you like the word, the artist.”
The gardener, the artist, the god: all creators, all beings with, perhaps, unlimited liberty—the last two more so than the first, but the principle throughout is consistent. Yet, these figureheads of liberty that Chesterton brings to mind pair liberty with something else: responsibility, or, if you like the word, duty. The gardener has a duty to plant and prune his garden in a way that ensure the health and the continued growth of everything in it. The artist has a duty to craft his art in the way that ensures it is both beautiful and fully communicative of whatever message he most wishes to convey. The god has a duty to the things he creates, the universe he wills into existence, to ensure that there is at least some measure of goodness in it.
Again, I must stress that all three are absolutely free within their own domains. They all have supreme liberty, within their spheres, and no one sits in judgment over them. And yet one might say this liberty places them in judgment over themselves. To have such freedom in such a space is to, as it were, possess an obligation to use that freedom in a certain way. Not an enslaving compulsion—recall what I said before—but a spirit of generosity, of goodwill.
And this to me is the core of Chesterton’s conception of liberty, the reason he is so passionate about it for all his conservatism. For Chesterton, this old-fashioned liberty carries with it absolute freedom, but that freedom, in turn, carries with it an expectation for how it ought to be used. Not “must be,” but “ought to be.” Liberty is powerful, as we have seen. It is powerful enough that it can be dangerous if used in certain ways. So, in the Chestertonian sense, liberty should be used in ways that are not dangerous—that are, in fact, beneficial, in ways both large and small. Liberty should be used to do good. And of course this comes with the usual prudential judgment about what a good action may be at any given point in time. Indeed, to take inspiration from Plato, one might say that liberty must be married to prudence. Freedom must be used well.
One might, indeed, call this not merely and simply liberty. One might also call it feudal liberty, insofar as it is precisely the sort of liberty that undergirded such peace as there was in the medieval period. The lands and kingdoms of Europe in this time were ruled nominally by kings, with their various dukes, barons, knights, and so on under them. But, in fact, the king in practical terms did not have the means of enforcing his superiority. He did not have his own army. Instead, the various lords beneath him had their own armies, their own knights and men at arms, and if they so chose, at any given time they could band together, overthrow the king, and set one of themselves in his place.
But to do this, as Shakespeare so ably demonstrates in his Henriad, is to invite rebellion, chaos, and lamentation across the land, with much suffering and bloodshed inevitably resulting. To couch the matter in the terms we have been using, the lords had the liberty to depose the king. However, they knew better—they were prudent, because they knew the consequences such an act would bring. So by their own free choice they submitted to the king’s authority, and called him their superior. Like Christ in the garden, they could have turned their cups aside, but all too often they chose to drink those cups instead.
And in the modern age of democracy and republics, the liberty of the voting, tax-paying man is no less acute. Perhaps he is not equipped with men at arms like the feudal lord. However, he nonetheless imbues the government that rules him with power. And in our age, one might even argue that liberty is far greater than the feudal lord’s. Freed from the worries about sickness, starvation, war, and the threat of disease, modern man is more unshackled than perhaps at any point in history. The whole of the world lies before him; he can bestride it without worry or concern. A proportionally greater result, however, might be said to demand a proportionally greater response.
The modern man has vastly more liberty than the medieval man; he therefore has a vastly greater duty to use his liberty in the ways it ought to be used. He has a duty to choose prudently his leaders, his spouse, and the manner in which he spends his money. He has a duty to behave in ways that leave his family, his nation, and his planet in at least as good a condition as he found them, if not a better condition. He has a duty to understand himself, his world, and his life’s conditions; that is, he has a duty not to remain ignorant of things which concern him and others. He has a duty, as all men have had, to be prudent, to be just, and to be wise. And he cannot shirk his duties, for unlike the medieval man there is a very high likelihood that no one is in any substantial position to tell him what to do. The modern man must act of his own initiative, and must be both liberated and dutiful with no one, or very few someones, to prod him along the way.
I turn, at the closing, to the words of another man who in his own way was quite as great a thinker as Chesterton. Pope Saint John Paul the Great, in his 1995 journey to the United States, held Mass at the baseball park of the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, October 8th. In his homily that day, the saint reflected on the founding of the United States, which above all nations subsists on principle. As Chesterton once remarked, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” And of course this creed, those sacred words set down in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are above all else fixated upon liberty and freedom.
In the homily, His Holiness remarked that true freedom—true liberty—required a commitment to truth as a matter of foundation, and particularly a commitment to moral truth. He then uttered the sentence that has particularly survived from this particular homily: “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
Would that all business were so easily settled by quoting the words of the saints.