Liberty versus Anarchy
Liberty Versus Anarchy
by Alvin Boyd Kuhn
* Typed and edited by Juan Schoch for educational research purposes. This notice is not to be removed.
The antonym of liberty is generally considered to be slavery, but in another direction the antonym can be anarchy. It surely needs no elaborate dissertation to demonstrate that liberty without regulation of what use is made of it can run amuck into license, into anarchy.
When Plato and Socrates in the Athenian Academy undertook to determine by the profoundest dialectic how man might learn to know and to do the thing that was good, their every effort brought them in the end to the necessity of asking the question: good – for what? They found that the good of a thing or act was in every instance only determinable by knowing the good purpose it was to subserve. One must know specifically what anything is good for.
It is much the same with so broad and general a thing as liberty. In the present critical junction of world affairs, when the issue between two most powerful parties is ostensibly freedom of bondage, it seems highly necessary that the great and momentous principle so loosely termed liberty should be dialectically scrutinized with a view to bringing it to a sounder basis of specific determination. As a preliminary observation it might be said perhaps that more important than liberty itself in the final issue is the question of what use is made of it.
It is of course a commonplace item of knowledge that with liberty goes obligation; that freedoms and exemptions from tyranny are not completely gratuitous, but demand some measure of obligation, restriction or performance to make them possible in the first place. It is a venerable axiom in law that a state can not guarantee liberty to its citizens unless they surrender at least a fringe – and it may need to be a wide fringe – of their complete or absolute freedom. For in the simplest terms a state can not be a state unless its citizenry delegates to its executive government the power to bridle, restrict and regulate certain actions of its individuals. No state can grant to its people the complete liberty to do as they please. This would yield the anomalous situation of a people organizing a government which would abrogate all governing. Each individual of a state must empower the central authority to exercise certain forms of control over his own actions so that a uniform control can be established. No government can exist until the whole community agrees upon certain concepts or principles of uniform behavior by the enforcement of which they aim to obviate anarchy and establish a settled order, and then delegate the right to enforce these codes upon the whole group. In effect it can be stated that the citizen in a democracy voluntarily surrenders a portion of his liberty to the state in order that he and all others may be secured in the exercise of a large measure of individual freedom.
The constant and vital question, then, is at what point to draw the line between the margin of liberty delegated and the portion reserved. In a democratic nation this eventuates in the prescription of what things the individual member may do and what he may not do. With the power delegated to it by the citizenry the central governing body determines what rules shall be put in force in the community and these enactments become “laws.”
All this is elementary, but we step from rudiments to most abstruse complexity the moment we consider what laws are best for the welfare of all and then face the final question of fixing the standards or codes of values by which the good of any and all laws is to be gauged. The point developed here is crucial not only for establishing a well-ordered society, but for regulating our lives in general. In the margin of power we delegate to central government we must all act alike; but in the portion reserved we may act differently from our fellows. So liberty is to be considered under its two aspects, liberty in society and individual liberty.
In both phases the ever-insistent and always ultimate question is: liberty to do what? It is a sad matter of fact that in the majority of the people in democracies the ideas associated with the term “liberty” are so vague and undefined as to be largely fatuous. To most minds the term simply connotes a general notion of absence of interference, a massive sense of license to do whatever one might wish to do. And the most fatuous form of its general conception is unhappily found in the form of persuasion that liberty gives the right to do nothing at all, or at any rate to do as little as one must to keep going. Most generally with liberty goes the idea that one may get by with the minimum of activity necessary. People resent the idea of the government stepping in to compel them to do something, entirely oblivious of the preciousness of the government’s guaranteeing them the freedom to do the things they like best to do. The point in the discussion here may seem to be a bit overdrawn, but it is made to accentuate the idea that all too universally the popular conception of liberty is negative with little or no realization of the supreme ultimate importance of knowing what to do with it positively. What we do when we have liberty determines our life and destiny. What to do with liberty is the eternal question confronting the individual and society.
There must be much truth in the observation that what one does with leisure time provides a most telling key to one’s character, quality and status of being. The common phrase, “to kill time,” is ominous in our current society. That free time is not everywhere regarded as a thing in itself, pregnant with opportunity, eagerly to be grasped and utilized for the thing one’s life is most keenly devoted to accomplishing, is an evidence of the aimlessness and meaninglessness of our world consciousness today. The psychologist Jung has declared that, even before the First World War “Europe is a madhouse,” and assigned as the reason, the total want of philosophical purposefulness in the European family. For if all action under law is determined by some standard of evaluation of what is best, we come to the recognition at last that philosophy, the science that would give us these standards and norms of value, is the science of ultimate human importance.
It is and must be so, because in the end it is the science that determines what use we shall make of all other sciences. It fully deserves the eminent rank which the ancients accorded to it in designating it as the Kingly Science, or the King of Sciences. Humans can not live without philosophy. Millions naively assume that philosophy plays no material part in their lives. They are mistaken. It may be an “Irish” way of stating it, but the truth is that if one asserts that he has no philosophy, he has a very bad one. Action can hardly be without motive or reason, and the motive, whatever it be, constitutes the rudiment of a philosophy. And the portentous fact of the matter is that if it is not in some way the element of a right philosophy, evil consequences flow from it. The “noble eightfold path” designed to implement the four truths of Buddhism includes always right knowledge, right motive, right action. The difference between one’s philosophy being a right one and an erroneous one generates the difference between happiness and tragedy.
It is the general conception that democracy provides the citizenry with the minimum margin of restriction and compulsion, and the largest area of freedom. As long as freedom in this major portion of the citizen’s life is denied, liberty is the prime issue in the nation’s life. But from the moment this generous amount of freedom is guaranteed, the issue of liberty ceases to be important. The crucial issue then becomes the question of what the individuals in the nation shall do with their liberty. The concern then shifts from the possession of liberty to the use to be made of it. The possession of freedom is hardly a positive thing in itself; it only provides the basic opportunity to live. How to live and what to live for then loom as the crucial concerns in our mortal life.
The discussion of the theme takes on major significance in view of the fact that certain religio-philosophical cult movements today are emphasizing liberty as in itself the heart and nub of their teachings and preachings. The word is made a shibboleth embodying the essence of a complete living philosophy all by itself. The liberty indicated is of course not in the political area but in the religious, philosophical and intellectual domain. The devotees of such cults are urged to cut themselves loose from any and all traditional systems proffering codes of moral, spiritual and philosophical truth.
The keynote of the preachment is that the soul of man can not burgeon out into the full glory and ecstasy of its innate potentiality as long as it binds itself mentally under the influence of any set of traditional forms of belief. The individual is exhorted to stand free in his divine liberty, released from the evil inhibitions of all forms of mental imposition, even of his own making. This indoctrination goes so far as to declare that all the endeavors of the human spirit to seek the true, the beautiful and the good – for these are the ultimate aims of religion and philosophy, art and culture – have been so much wasted effort, so much inconsequential rubbish. The gospel is simply the quest of freedom. No obligation is recognized by cult leaders to instruct their following in what
use to make of their freedom. In fact it is preached that one should not seek to learn what should be done with the minds thus emptied of all content of specific knowledge. The claim on which all this is based is that when the mind has been entirely cleared of all the rubbish of worldly culture, divine transports of transcendental felicity and seraphic bliss will quickly fill up the vacant area of consciousness. As long as a mind is cluttered up with debris of religion, philosophy, psychology and even science, the absolute ecstasy can not supervene.
One, however, is prompted to ask if this is not legitimately comparable and analogous to the folly of giving a primary schoolboy a slate, on which he could learn the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic and the wisdom they can yield, but told he dare not write anything on it. The cult persuasion and teaching is that the free spirit of man should not be bound by such things as the laws of thought, the canons of reason, literary modes of communicating ideas or the science of number and the relations of the data confronting us in life.
It has been a canon of truth widely accepted in the most intelligent circles that there is no liberty save under law. To announce liberty without codes of right and standards of truth to be obeyed in the exercise of it is to proclaim anarchy through the land to all the inhabitants thereof. It needs to be said with some vigor, in view of the appeal of such cult “philosophies” to uncritical thousands in our democracy, that liberty, divorced from sound philosophy, liberty that flouts the principles of universal law and the canons of truth, liberty that scorns organic knowledge and would destroy the work of the intellect, is only a substanceless will-o’the-wisp, a mirage, a phantom of a dream. It is indeed a fatal fire to lure deluded visionaries on to loss of life’s true good. Such liberty is moral, intellectual and philosophical anarchy, because it recognizes no law except to obey its inner urge to consummate a promised delirium of bliss.
As there is always the possibility that philosophical anarchy can clash with the due obedience to a state’s political statutes, it has at times become necessary for governments to restrict the exercise of such intellectual freedoms. It seems not to be generally known that the early Christians were persecuted by the Roman Emperors, not because of their religion, as Rome tolerated many diverse forms of cult religion at that time, but because of their disregard of certain of the political statutes, particularly the one forbidding meetings at night. Since then religious bodies themselves have found it perilous to permit unbounded “anarchy of the free spirit” to run riot in their communions. Such freedom can at times overthrow long-established institutions and governments, so that in the end society stands or falls by the sort of philosophy its larger units develop. Only by a right philosophy will we be safeguarded from letting our liberty slip into anarchy.
Nietzsche, it was, who said that he who would be a superman must live dangerously. But all live dangerously, for life itself is dangerous. The possibility of calamity hovers near at all times. And in this sense, liberty is one of the most dangerous things that can be given to mortals, so dangerous that it never can be given on absolute terms. This is self-evident for the simple reason that it gives carte blanche to do the wrong thing as well as the right. A government can only try to imitate the laws of life, which, in granting liberty to its children, affixes penalties to violations of what it establishes as right. Any philosophical system which preaches liberty without defining some basic principles by which conduct is to be regulated and order and security maintained is simply basking in idealistic moonshine. Life must grant its children liberty, and so must governments, and if a philosophical system aims to do the same, it must prescribe the laws of thought and of truth in harmony with which life may be lived in beatitude.