Maintenance of True Liberty
by Gilbert Meilaender
Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics,
(Adapted from a lecture titled
"Morality and the Maintenance of Liberty"
delivered at Hillsdale College)
A free person is not a slave to his own appetites and passions. A free person lives uprightly, in harmony with truth and virtue. Moreover, a free person believes there are such values.
The idea of being free from moral responsibility is the popular counterfeit of freedom. This is what our nation's founders expressly distinguished from real liberty, and condemned as "license."
The counterfeit freedom celebrated today by so many of our opinion-shaping elites in education, entertainment and the media is simply a pseudo-philosophy of license to do whatever they please.
Counterfeit freedom can provide no rational defense of its own claims. It demands an endless list of inherent rights, but in abandoning moral duty it provides no rational basis for anyone to respect the rights of others or to demand that others respect one's own rights. That's why counterfeit freedom, or rights without duties, is worse than just a bad idea.
But counterfeit freedom poses greater dangers still. As our founding founders warned, a people given over to license will be incapable of sustaining a republican government, for government by the people requires a people who are able to preserve the conditions of liberty.
Slaves to their appetites and passions, who thus lack the understanding and virtues needed for self-government, will surely lose it.
They will look, not to themselves, but to government to provide for the care and satisfaction of their desires.
Where counterfeit freedom prevails, the republican principle of limited government is inevitably sacrificed as people surrender personal and, ultimately, political liberty to whatever power promises to protect them from predators and supply the appeasement of their appetites.
That can happen only if they pave the way to their destruction by trading their birthright of genuine freedom for a mess of pottage. Yet, ironically, so long as the big-government-provided mess of pottage works as a suitable narcotic, they imagine themselves free.
At the same time, counterfeit freedom brings a parallel counterfeit of social equality. True equality - equality under the law, equality of opportunity to work and earn one's place - is displaced by the demand for an irrational equality of results alone. Thus, distinctions grounded in such intrinsically compensatory ideas as personal merit, are cast aside.
Ultimately, the counterfeit of freedom is a counterfeit precisely because its views of the nature, dignity and destiny of man are false.
Men and women are not mere bundles of appetites. Our destiny is not to be slaves to our passions. On the contrary: men and women, made in the very image and likeness of the Divine Ruler of the Universe, have an intelligence more profound, and a freedom more God-like, than that.
We are, to be sure, fallen creatures; dust of the earth; sinners every one. Yet the divine image - the icon of God Himself - is not destroyed.
And commensurate with the dignity of creatures fashioned in God's image, we are indeed, as the Declaration of Independence says, "endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights."
Freedom - true freedom - is God's gift to mankind. The self-government which is the right of free men and women is truly a sacred trust.
(heavily edited by David Van Alstyne)
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