The Great Conversation:
Liberty—Part II

By Gabriel Blanchard

The liberties of speech and person we take for granted are part of a larger philosophic framework—one with a more controversial history than we always realize.

Go here for Part I.

Both the First Amendment and the Inquisition came up in our previous post. The two obviously represent radically different attitudes toward liberty of conscience as a social value; but how do attitudes as different as these arise in the first place? Isn’t it just obvious that liberty of thought and speech is a good thing? In truth, whether an idea is obvious is not usually a conversation worth having: to those who answer “yes,” presumably no further discussion is necessary, while those who answer “no” may perhaps be persuaded that the idea is true, in which case its obviousness is not particularly important.

There are things that make the claim “freedom of expression is good” far from obvious: insults and verbal abuse spring to mind, as on a more public level do things like propaganda, false advertising, and slander. It is from this point of view that we can understand how a person might accept all kinds of censorship, even without authoritarian ambitions of their own. Ideas, as the late Richard Weaver remarked, have consequences; and those consequences can be harm. The Marxist college student protesting against a right-wing pundit being allowed to speak on his campus and the Baptist mom protesting against a pornographic film being screened at her local theater are both putting this same principle into practice: what differs is what they understand to be communication so harmful it merits censorship. All occasions of mass hysteria are plausible examples—no one would have been executed for witchcraft at Salem if no one had circulated the lethal suspicion. Is believing in witchcraft, then, worthy of legal suppression? Presumably not, partly because lots of people have believed in witchcraft and gone their whole lives executing hardly anybody. There is a difference between the theoretical harm that can come from believing in witchcraft, and the “clear and present danger” posed by the person shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. But where exactly does the liberty of thought and speech draw an appropriate line, relative to a person shouting “witch” in a crowded theater?

This was one of the major problems that confronted the political theorists of the Enlightenment, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century with figures like John Locke and continuing through Charles Montesquieu, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft. The result of two centuries spent inventing and refining their political philosophy was the concept of the liberal society,* or a state organized in such a way as to maximize the personal autonomy of all individuals in it. This stood in contrast with the Medieval conception of the state, which was taken for granted to be directing its people toward the good, under the auspices of the Church; but after well over a century and a half of religious wars, it is small wonder that Europe in general had grown sick of any talk of the state “directing its people toward the good” under any auspices, let alone those of people who claimed to be spokesmen for the Prince of Peace. The mere human desire not to be constantly fighting may well have driven this fresh appetite for liberty as much as anything else did.

J. S. Mill, coming near the end of the period of formulations of Liberalism, captured the idea neatly: the liberty of all, circumscribed by the liberty of each; or, put in other words, everyone ought to be free to do anything which does not interfere with the freedom of others. His actual words, in the apt essay On Liberty, were that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over a member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, whether physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” 

Wherever we want to go, we go. That's what a ship is, you know. It's not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that's what a ship needs; but what a ship is ... is freedom.

This concept of freedom set forth by Liberalism, while obviously quite distinct from the politics of the Middle Ages that (ostensibly at least) aimed at the common good, did also differ from two other ideas of societal freedom. One of these was another of the “obvious” meanings of freedom, commonly called license or libertinism. Liberty as set forth by Liberals would certainly make a great deal of legal room for licentiousness, but this was not the purpose of liberty in their theories, only a use to which it could admittedly be put. In itself, it hardly invalidated Liberalism as a theory, any more than the existence of hypocritical and self-serving clergy in itself was held to invalidate religion; moreover, many Liberal theorists insisted that the political models they advocated were suited only to an educated, virtuous, and religious populace. It may be no coincidence that throughout the eighteenth century, the latitudinarian outlook was common in the Church of England. This was a school of thought that considered rigor and uniformity in matters of ritual, doctrine, and ethics to be unnecessary and imposition of such uniformity an unjustified intrusion, since every believer had both human reason and the illuminating power of the Holy Ghost.

But let us take up the other idea of liberty that Liberalism’s idea was a little different from: egalitarianism. This can mean different things in different contexts, but the pertinent meaning here has to do with what we might call practical equality. Its essential distinction from the “standard-issue” liberties of classical Liberal theory are suggested by an icy remark made by novelist Anatole France in his 1894 book The Red Lily: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, beg in the street, or steal their bread.” In short, the legal liberty to make his own choices does not do a man much good, if he lacks the material upon which to make meaningful choices, or at the least some credible opportunity to obtain such material. Even without the dominion of a monarch or a priesthood, the ordinary person—still more the destitute—was for all truly practical purposes without liberty, both in himself and especially when compared with the Vanderbilts, Hearsts, and Rockefellers of the world. It was accordingly necessary that some system of redistributing resources be set up, presumably by means of taxation and therefore through the government.

This concept was by no means irreconcilable with Liberalism in the eyes of all or even most Liberals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Several American Founding Fathers argued that our own system of government would come to pieces without, at minimum, making education available to all citizens (and at the time, “education” meant nothing less than a classical education, complete with Latin and Greek as well as logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and fine art). However, the rich, who already had considerable clout in society by being rich, would tend toward more conservative interpretations of any political theory, especially before the abolition of slavery—a rock which the United States nearly wrecked upon during her maiden voyage, from the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence to the contentious “three-fifths compromise” of 1787. To them, equality with one’s fellow man was all very well when it was pulling the King of England off their heads, but not so well at all when it was pulling slaves out from under their feet; and after slavery was abolished, socialist agitation for the rights of workers (to which we owe concepts like the weekend, overtime pay, and child labor laws) was much the same stone in their shoe. They accordingly seized upon slogans—and even, now and then, actual arguments—to the effect that running their businesses however they pleased, even at the hazard of their employees’ health and well-being, was their own right as a form of economic liberty, and that any and all regulation was an inherent infringement thereof.

We need waste little time deciding whether they were sincere—as C. S. Lewis dryly points out in The Great Divorce, a man at the mental breaking point thanks to obsessive jealousy or addiction to alcohol may come to “sincerely” believe that his best friend is a liar or that another drink will do him no harm, but sincerity of that kind … well! However, what we cannot excuse ourselves from is deciding whether, and to what extent, they were correct that such interference was an unjust infringement of their liberties. The answer we give to that does depend partly on what we think justice consists in, of course; and any answer to that question is bound to take us off the topic of liberty. One of the vexing (and delicious) qualities of the Great Conversation is that every topic carries us, by a route quick and direct or gradual and labyrinthine, to every other topic.

But even so mentioning this tangent does raise a different and more liberty-pertinent question. Is every definition of justice, or of liberty, or of any idea, equally good? And as this is not quite the same as the First Amendment issues we have discussed already, we will need a third installment to tackle this turn, and some of the more esoteric reaches of the idea of liberty which it represents.

Part III to come!

Suggested reading:
Dante Alighieri, Monarchy
John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
Thomas Browne, Religio Medici
Charles Montesquieu, The Spirit of Law**
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
George Orwell, 1984

*Liberal here means what it does in the phrase “classical liberal,” and has little to no connection with “liberal politics” in the sense that has been current in the US for about the last forty years; nearly all American political parties throughout our history have accepted the basic premises of classical liberalism, so that specifying any one of them as “the” liberal party is nearly useless.
**Note that this title is variously translated: The Spirit of Law, The Spirit of Laws, The Spirit of the Law, and The Spirit of the Laws are all possible English renderings of the French, thanks to certain linguistic niceties we need not go into here.


Gabriel Blanchard controls the laws, liberties, and ideas of no countries, and (partly though not solely for this reason) is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, and is the proud uncle of seven nephews.

Thank you for reading the Journal! If you’re enjoying this miniseries in our ongoing overview of the great ideas, you might also like our profiles of the Author Bank, covering minds like Procopius, Marie de France, Thomas Hobbes, the Brothers Grimm, and Frederick Douglass. Be sure to check out our other media, upcoming test dates, and other resources via our main site, and have a great day.

Published on 17th January, 2023.

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