A Dialogue on Liberty

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The STRANGER, having disembarked from his ship, enters the city. There, he happens upon the CITIZEN, who is leaving the market.

C: Hello, stranger. I see you’re coming from the docks.

S: Indeed, citizen. I’m just arrived from another country.

C: Can I help you acquire something? What do you seek?

S: Only directions to the temple of the god of this city, whom I wish to propitiate.

C: A noble but vain intention.

S: I don’t follow.

C: Our city has no god, but each household worships as it pleases. Some wit might even say that, within these walls, every man is, after a fashion, his own god.

S: No god to gaze together upon—remarkable! Forgive me if I seem bewildered.

C: Bewilderment gives no offense.

S: Very good. Anyway, I don’t mean to detain you.

C: It’s all right. The morning business is complete, though I must return to the market shortly, and there exhaust the day in trading.

S: Your people have great zeal for commerce. Even now I can scarcely hear you over the roar of the mongers in the square! Let us go away a little from the clamor. Much better!

C: Yes, our genius lies in things: making things, buying things, selling things. That market yonder contains all the heart’s desires, I guess.

S: You must be a blessed race! Is that why you said before, “Within these walls, every man is, after a fashion, his own god”?

C: That I said because here everybody rules himself as far as possible, not unlike a god. For liberty is what we value most. Every person is allowed to shape for himself a pleasing pattern of existence, finding fulfillment in the exercise of freedom. Except he is not allowed to harm his neighbor.

S: What do you mean by harm?

C: To take that which rightfully belongs to another: to steal his life or curtail his liberty or plunder his estate. It was to preserve such goods that our city was founded, for together we are better able to deter malefactors who would kill, rob, or enslave us. Convenient to this end is a government that safeguards freedom by making laws to which all are equally bound and obliged. But this legislative power is strictly defined: a law is legitimate only insofar as it honors the liberty that we originally compacted to preserve. And this, at last, is our motto: let every person chase felicity as best he reckons, taking care only to abstain from injuring another.

S: Now I see why you said, “Our city has no god.” For when a city attaches itself to a god, it submits to its rule of justice. But, unless I’m mistaken, you’ve no common concern for justice.

C: If by justice you mean the impartial administration of law, then certainly it’s our common concern. But if by justice you mean moral rectitude, then I grant it’s not our common concern, in any direct sense. The job of the city is to safeguard the liberty and property interests of its citizens by maintaining domestic order and thwarting foreign designs. Whereas it’s the job of the sects to help men order their souls, that they might attain spiritual happiness. For the city can touch the body, but the soul—the reasoning and determining part—it cannot touch. Nor should it, for what profane power would dare intrude upon that hidden sanctum, where man is most himself?

S: But tell me, citizen, whether you are one or two things?

C: One, I suppose.

S: A body and soul together, correct. Tell me, does your body abandon your soul when it enters the market or theater or assembly?

C: I could sooner leave behind my head than my soul.

S: Then I’m confused. The soul, being exposed to public things, is surely stained thereby, even as a piece of white cloth is stained by exposure to purple dye. How then do you say, “The city cannot touch the soul”? For the city configures the common space in which you daily move, so that when its legislators encourage evil—either by commanding some vice or failing to forbid it—a snare is laid for your foot, poor citizen.

C: My justice is not so precarious as to be toppled by the indecency of my neighbor, nor by the idiocy of my governors. The fire that burns my neighbor’s house can be communicated to my dwelling, but the corruption that festers in his breast can’t be communicated to my soul.

S: Is the foot immune to the hand’s disease? No, but cancer spreads from appendage to appendage. Likewise, vice and virtue are contagious, and their spread is either hindered or helped by the law that regulates common body. Therefore, the city can’t be relieved of responsibility for the moral order.

C: Even if I concede that the city has a duty to cultivate public morals, doesn’t most wickedness transpire within the confines of the home?

S: Maybe.

C: Surely, the law is powerless over the kitchen and nursery and bedroom, where private decisions are made!

S: A private decision hasn’t public consequences. Now show me such a decision! I’ve yet to find a crime that harms the perpetrator but spares the people of which he is a part. But let’s put a pin in this thought. Right now, I only wish to show that justice is an appropriate—indeed, necessary—concern of the city.

C: Pardon, but you speak as one beginning afresh. History must guide our discussion, else it’s mere fantasy. Perhaps you don’t know, stranger, that once this land was torn asunder by factions, each convinced it owned justice, each wielding the law to punish dissenters, persecuting and being persecuted in turn. To escape this tumult, some lovers of peace and freedom established this city, where everybody can grasp after happiness as he sees fit, confident that his liberty is held in trust.

S: Freedom! Liberty! You bandy about such terms, though their significance I don’t clearly understand.

C: I mean simply the capacity to author and direct one’s life; to exist as an independent being; to speak and believe and associate as conscience dictates; to build an estate through industriousness.

S: But does this capacity, which you call liberty or freedom, frequently lead citizens to learn mean habits contrary to their ultimate well-being?

C: Sadly so.

S: Then I scarcely see how, for the great mass of men, such freedom differs from bondage. You can’t deny the weakness of will and dimness of intellect that afflicts our species. Given this wretched state, what is rule of the self but slavery to the self?

C: Forgive my laughter, but if a man can’t govern himself, how can he govern his neighbor? Will one who can’t swim rescue the drowning? No, but the rescuer will merely prolong the misery of the object of his misplaced solicitude, and both finally will perish.

S: Look here. You know that one man is inadequate to satisfy all of his bodily needs? For no man is himself a carpenter and farmer and doctor and so on. Thus, he dwells in society, that his deficiencies might be remedied by the proficiencies of his fellows. Similarly, no man is himself equipped with every virtue, but his neighbors supply the perfections he lacks, as he supplies from his own store of virtue the perfections they lack. As we secure material happiness together, so we secure spiritual happiness together.

C: No doubt this process of mutual enrichment and common advancement in virtue can occur within private and voluntary societies.

S: It can and it must. But the city alone makes law. Now men are impressed by the dignity and authority of the law. That’s why the law sometimes succeeds in mitigating vice and nourishing virtue where bare admonition has failed. This applies especially to those men whose wickedness is deeply ingrained. Indeed, such unfortunates often pray that the strong medicine of the law should save them from themselves. But this salvation you would withhold in the name of liberty, though the only freedom the compulsively evil enjoy is the freedom to sin. For if you tell them to do good, this they can’t do, but they persist in evil, though they despise it.

C: You believe that such weaklings would do good if only the law commanded as much?

S: How many men, if the law said not, “Thou shall not steal,” would steal?

C: Some number. But how many men, if the law said, “Thou shall not lust,” would not lust?

S: Very few, I wager. But imagine if the law said: “Thou shall not permit lewd images to proliferate in public.” Wouldn’t this law tend to tame the ferocity of lust, which stirs up such violence and betrayal, and tears families and friends apart? Thus, we find that the object of the city’s concern can’t be material peace and happiness alone, but spiritual peace and happiness, too. For whatever the city does or doesn’t do implicates the citizen’s whole person.

C: What? Should the city regiment every word, every deed, and so become a surveilling and disciplining monster?

S: Whoa! Though you’re rash in the cause of liberty, I’m prudent in the cause of justice. Law’s limits are plain enough, and it’s obvious that much wickedness needs be tolerated in the present twilight. Yet it remains in principle the duty of the legislative organ—which, standing for the people, guards the good of the people—to secure liberty by chastening the passions that make for slavery. This being so, the city should prohibit heinous violations of nature and censor flagrant enticements to evil, so long as such actions don’t produce more evils than they eliminate.

C: And you’d have what is and isn’t odious decided by majority?

S: What’s odious is always decided by majority, one way or another, as far as I can tell.

C: Why so sure that your own estimation of justice would win the day? Wouldn’t you eventually find yourself subject to some law that weighs upon your conscience, until it burns with indignation?

S: In such a situation, one of two things might be true. The law might be just but my conscience too ill-formed to apprehend its essential justice, in which case the law will chasten and reform my base instincts, so that I benefit. Alternatively, my conscience might be sound and the law essentially unjust, in which case the law will corrupt me or else I will suffer for my endurance in justice. As for the first possibility, what’s fearsome isn’t that the law corrupts me, but simply that I be corrupted. Yet my corruption is no less likely in your city, where opinions multiply like flies, and I can entertain my passions with relative impunity. As for the second possibility, what’s fearsome isn’t that I suffer because I refuse to be corrupted by unjust law, but merely that I suffer because I’m just. Yet such a risk hangs always over the heads of the righteous, for every society has a common sensibility, as strict a rule as the promulgated law. Therefore, the wicked often oppress the just, whether by written law or unwritten prejudice. The only difference is that the written law can be straightforwardly amended!

C: Your abstractions conceal the stakes of this debate. Don’t you know that anything is justifiable in the effort to make sinners saints? Yes, even bloodletting seems reasonable. Yet where some men dominate others for their ostensible good, no one is made any better, but everyone the worse, for persecution, breeding enmity, puts to death mutual charity.

S: Such zealots, who are in fact enemies of justice, I disown. A constitution that nurtures virtue requires gentleness and humility, not to mention some measure of tolerance.

C: Ah, but every fiber of my being warns against making transcendent values a direct concern of the political sphere! I cringe at the prospect of legislators—too often knaves and fools—framing the moral order. Let me shape my own soul. Let me give it to the care of ministers and teachers whom I respect. But let not this worldly city trespass upon sacred ground.

S: Haven’t we already found that the city can’t help but sculpt the inner man? The public square is informed by that which law permits and prohibits. So, whenever you go outdoors, your very heart is hewn by the law’s judgment. In any event, it seems you’ve performed a sleight of hand. For you suggest that this city of yours—this incubator of liberty—endorses no moral order but entrusts every man with the task of identifying and pursuing the good. However, this allocation of moral decision-making is itself a moral order, undergirded by certain philosophical presuppositions: primarily, the priority of freedom over justice. For you’d confirm the sinner’s liberty to sin even if it cost one hundred men their moral innocence. Oh, your highest good, your god, is clear enough! What’s more, by adopting a posture of neutrality, the city transmits the implicit message that no creed is better than any other, which breeds contempt for truth. Thus, the citizen develops a devouring skepticism and an insatiable thirst for novelty, leading to the perpetual revolution of manners.

C: Should the rule of one age bind another?

S: I ask you the same. For you have a rule: namely, the dissolution of all rules except, “Make for me no rule.” As if such a thing were possible!

C: If I have a rule, I rather phrase it thus: cherish liberty, despise tyranny. Yes, liberty has a rule, but one sweet and spontaneous, at once everybody’s and nobody’s.

S: I also despise tyranny, which is why I dread liberty, perceiving therein the germ of despotism. For your whole doctrine is built upon the freedom of man to determine the mystery of existence (as I once heard some reputed jurist put it). Eventually, such license yields among citizens radically divergent perceptions of reality, making common ground altogether impossible, with men unable to agree as to what constitutes human life and nature. Now, liberty can’t persist amidst such confusion. Let me prophesy a prophecy. I tell you that a certain faction will arise in this city. It will excite and excuse the perversity of the masses and thereby dominate the legislature. Then it will destroy one liberty to vindicate another liberty. The partisans of this faction will cry: “The freedom of some is the oppression of others!” Thus, liberty will become the midwife of tyranny, which I take to be the anarchy of vice, in contradistinction to the dominion of virtue, which is true freedom and order.

C: You misjudge this city. For here, at least, men don’t wish to impose themselves upon others, but all are content to go about their own business. Nor are we ignorant that this right sometimes conflicts with that right, requiring resolution through the judicious balancing of interests. But never would anyone be so mad as to think that his freedom can’t be somehow squared with the freedom of another.

S: Listen, the so-called liberty you presently enjoy hangs on bare consensus regarding things unspoken, the piety of your ancestors being not altogether discarded. You may think that you differ from your neighbor on this or that point, but really such matters are trivialities. One day, when the city can’t even declare in unison, “This is a human and this not,” or when some equally enormous discrepancy of opinion arises—then you’ll know that I prophesied truly.

C: I admit that the demands of liberty grow ever more comprehensive and perplexing. Freedom is an open-ended project, an experiment. It calls for constant criticism and revision. That said, I gather from your tirade that we’ve left the realm of politics and entered the realm of paranoia. What’s more, I fear that I catch in your words the old hunger for control, which always wears the cloak of good intentions. Anyway, I’ve a simple fix when one dislikes another’s mode: avert the eyes!

S: Is that your solution? Universal blindness? Shouldn’t we correct the one who strays, rather than letting him wallow in error?

C: I would correct the errant man, rather than have the law do my moral duty.

S: Isn’t the voice of the law your very voice? Don’t you speak through it insofar as it speaks for you? Yet you’re weak, while it’s strong.

C: Strong to help, strong to hurt.

S: This I grant, against myself.

C: Well, this chat must draw to a close. I suspect we move in circles. And see? The sun climbs higher. Business calls. A man can’t waste the day philosophizing. While you sojourn here, I urge you not to begrudge us our liberty, but rather to share in our abundant happiness, which takes many delightful and surprising forms.

S: A kind invitation, which I’ll consider, asking only that you figure the price of this happiness—and whether it be happiness, really.

C: Take care of yourself, and don’t be a slave to anyone.

S: Nor you to anything!

C: Goodbye.

S: Be well.

They part company, for a time.


Painting: Alcibiade recevant les leçons de Socrate by François-André Vincent, 1776.

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