The Great Conversation:
Liberty—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

Liberty is among the most complex and controversial topics in the Great Conversation—which is saying a lot!

One of the most important questions when trying to learn about any idea is finding the best place to start. In the Syntopicon,* Mortimer Adler begins from the political sense of the term liberty, and specifically from the French motto liberté, égalité, fraternité, or “freedom, equality, brotherhood.” Given the enormous importance of the French Revolution of 1789 and its philosophical element in world history, this is logical enough. However, the history of the idea obviously goes far further back, and coming at the topic from a fresh angle may be useful.

One way of approaching any idea is to ask what other idea or ideas it is opposed to or contrasted with. In the case of liberty, its immediate contrasts are with slavery or captivity. These two words naturally evoke the history of the Jews, whose identity as a people is defined by two liberations, one from enslavement in Egypt and the other from exile in Babylonia; deliverance from oppression, both material and spiritual, is arguably one of the Bible’s principal themes.

Of course, classical pagans would hardly have thought of themselves as “pro-oppression,” and slavery provoked controversy even back then—controversy which the most infamous passage in Aristotle aimed to resolve. This passage, from Book I of the Politics, states that slavery can be unjust, but only if the person in question does not deserve to be a slave. It may be worth noting briefly that the ancient-and-medieval system of slavery was in many respects unlike the slavery we are familiar with from American history: above all, the rationale for enslaving people or buying slaves had nothing to do with race in the ancient world. Additionally, over the centuries, under the influence of Christianity—especially the doctrine that “man is the image of God”—manumission seems to have gradually gone from “a nice thing to do if you can manage it conveniently” to a normative societal rule, once a slave had served a certain term of years.

The modern slave system (relatively modern, anyway) was constructed in reaction to the growing success of abolitionism. The modern slave system relied on both Aristotle’s Politics and the even more dubious, newly-minted idea that race was not merely a convenient shorthand for certain visible traits, but an intrinsic aspect of mankind. There was also a complete ranking from best to worst, and you’ll never guess which two races the white owners of black slaves said were the highest and lowest tiers. Nevertheless, largely thanks to Christian abolitionists’ insistence on that same doctrine of the divine image (and in the face of fellow Christians who bitterly opposed them and were often involved in the slave trade themselves), liberty did become the law of the land in 1865. This happy fact does come with an important caveat, one expressed frankly in the text of the Thirteenth Amendment: enslavement as a punishment for crime has not been abolished. The prison system would seem to be nothing else.

Speaking of American history, perhaps our most famous and favorite liberty, or rather collection of liberties, is the list of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. These are often summarized, a little sloppily, as “free speech.” The text of the amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“Liberty of conscience” might be a reasonably good summary of the religious, philosophic, and political rights summarized here. And the concept of liberty of conscience is a fascinating paradox. Conscience has a kind of double meaning, or double function: it can indicate our judgment that this act or idea is right, or it can indicate our sense of duty to perform or accept whatever acts or ideas fall in the category of right things. It can also indicate both at once, or be ambiguous (naturally enough, since the judgment “X is right” and our sense of duty to do or believe X inevitably operate together).

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Now, this would pose us no difficulties, if everyone in time and space were perfectly informed about everything, or at least agreed about everything. However, the present author has found by experiment that error, uncertainty, and disagreement all abound in the world. The question this prompts is: given the limits and flaws of the human mind, what are we supposed to do when people have made the wrong call about whether X is in fact right? What liberty—if any—must be allowed to the confused or corrupted conscience? Every society has to answer this question simply in order to function, no matter what its size, structure, or aim. Answers generally fall on a spectrum between allowing liberty of conscience to override all other rights in all circumstances, and demanding total conscientious conformity in all circumstances.

Of course, no one really falls at either extreme. People will lightly refer to themselves as “free speech absolutists,” and then argue in the next breath that such-and-such an expression is slander and should be liable to state prosecution; nor do most people take kindly to being lied to on grounds that this too is “free speech,” even if they do not think state power should be marshaled against liars. The classic expression of a typical limit which even free speech enthusiasts will accept on this liberty comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who served as a Justice of the Supreme Court from 1930 to 1932:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic … The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

In liberal societies (a term we shall have to unpack in a subsequent installment!), the general idea is that while the force of law should not punish erring consciences except in cases of “clear and present danger,” standards of propriety may and sometimes should carry out that function; put more simply, you shouldn’t be put in prison for arguing that the sun revolves around the earth, but you should be considered and treated as a fool by your peers. This highlights how speaking about “liberty” or “rights” too simplistically can be misleading. Like most things, liberty and rights are partly defined by their context. A murderer who takes your life has violated your right to keep it (and thus deprived you of all liberty that involves “being alive” as its context), but when the process of human aging does the same thing, it has not.

But of course not all societies are liberal. Many pride themselves on order or harmony rather than, even at the expense of, individual liberty. (Moreover, if we get really granular, many societies are small enough and have sufficiently narrow aims that even a robustly authoritarian structure will do little to interfere with the general liberty of its members—chess clubs, for instance, are not at all democratic about “what the equipment and rules for a game of chess are,” but since the non-chess-related aspects of life are not their concern, their severity is little complained of in the wider world.) In many cases, this is due to the political structure of the society in question. No society can be realistically expected to accept its own demise, even if it ought to, so sedition is universally illegal; societies may extend outward from sedition into less harmful but still banned behaviors like lèse-majesté, especially monarchies.

In Western societies, the Catholic Church in especial has, for centuries and from many perspectives, been considered an enemy of liberty. Whether this reputation is merited is a hard question to answer simply. On one level, it is obviously true: nothing is less free than a definition, and the dogmas and anathemas of the Holy See, while the stuff of legend, are also plain historical fact. This is of the nature of the Catholic Church: all forms of Christianity, claiming descent from Christ as founder and teacher, are thus in some sense defined by teaching; ergo, what does and does not qualify as Catholic teaching is a very pertinent question! This by itself may not mean that the full authoritative hierarchy of Catholicism is necessary; Judaism, for instance, has handled its largely-shared heritage quite differently. But this arguably authoritarian approach is certainly one effective way to define a community by what it teaches.

On the other hand, if we consider the powers the Catholic Church has to actually interfere with people’s liberty, we are on far shakier ground. For what are those powers? Principally rebuke, disqualification from holding office in or representing the Catholic Church, and denial of the sacraments: in other words, the only things the Church can effectively take away from people are participation in herself, and it is up to the individual whether they value that. And this fact about her disciplinary powers, although long obscured, is also of the nature of the Church; much the same was true in the early centuries of Christianity before Constantine, before the Church acquired access to the halls of power. (It would be monstrous to deny that there have been times, such as when the Inquisition worked hand-in-hand with the state, there would have been some sense in calling the Church tyrannical. But today, that word can only be a dramatic metaphor.)

Part II to come!

Suggested reading:
Tacitus, The Annals
St. Gregory of Nyssa, Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes
John Milton, Areopagitica
Voltaire, Candide
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men

*The Syntopicon, an accompanying work to the Great Books of the Western World set, is a semi-encyclopedic index to Adler’s list of the great ideas (which list, with modifications, formed the inspiration and basis for our own Great Conversation series here at the Journal). Numbering slightly more than a hundred, the entry for each idea includes several pages of philosophical and historical introduction, followed by a larger proportion of pages listing where to find discussions of the idea among the volumes of the GBWW.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, don’t miss our podcast, Anchored. Hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate, Anchored features guests from all corners of the academic and policy-making worlds, discussing the great books, education, and culture.

Published on 12th January, 2022. Page image of Eugène Delacroix’s painting La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (“Liberty Leading the People”), produced in 1830. Contrary to widespread belief, this does not commemorate the French Revolution of 1789; it celebrates the “July Revolution” of 1830, which deposed the king (the monarchy having been restored after Napoleon’s fall) and replaced him with one from a different branch of the family, who was more sympathetic to liberal reforms and constitutionalism.

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