February 23, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Freedom’s Core, Part III
WE HAVE SPOKEN to one half of our mystery—namely, why the word “liberty” was once used almost to the exclusion of “freedom,” only a few short centuries ago. But we have not resolved the complementary half of this riddle: namely, why it should have fallen from favor with us, and came gradually to be replaced by another, etymologically very diverse, word.
I would offer my theory on this; but be it know that this theory is grounded in a certain hermeneutical principle which I do not expect will find much favor in our present intellectual atmosphere. I christen this the etymological principle, and hold to it quite regardless of whither my contemporaries might tend. I have in another essay summed this principle up thus: the etymology of a word is its destiny.
To introduce this principle, I begin with a question—wherein lies the meaning of a word? When a doubt as to the definition of a word is raised, we are wont, in a kind of reflexive habit, to refer at once to our dictionaries. For daily purposes, no one can fault that strategy. Yet when it becomes our instinctual reaction in the face of weightier and as it were more philosophical queries, this habit is decidedly less wholesome. I will not be alone in having found this method employed with any number of concepts, and with such regularity that it has acquired a kind of formulaic normalcy. “What is concept X?” goes the line. “Well, the dictionary definition is—” Indeed, the wakeful reader will note that I myself have not neglected this practice, in this very essay.
Now, the dictionary definition exposes modern usage, and this can be most ripe for a subsequent deepening of the analysis; for, as Strauss teaches, nothing indicates the depths like the surface. But the same practice becomes a vice when the dictionary definition becomes, not the commencement of an inquiry, but its very close. Modern usage gives nothing but the most cosmetic presentation of the conclusions of modern thought, with no reference to the more problematic aspects of the same. The modern usage of a word is the symptomatic usage of the word, the way a word is superficially understood, the way a word is produced through the intersecting influences of countless subterranean, and therefore invisible, principles and axioms.
We are all of us accustomed to thinking of language as malleable with time, and its concepts as being fluid rather than once and for all definite. Our idea of “love,” for instance, is not identical to the idea of “love” three-hundred years ago, to say nothing of the idea of love three-thousand years ago. Then it is already evident that the dictionary definition will tell us what the present idea of “love” is, while presupposing and thus interring the elder ideas of love, from which the present idea has grown; and it therefore buries also the relation between the two ideas. The mere dictionary definition of a word, to put the matter most concisely, conceals the genealogy of the word. That means it conceals far more than it reveals.
Very well—but a step now the further. All influences on a word, be they consciously imposed or organically emergent, be they extensions of the term, restrictions of it, or alterations of it, are ever necessarily responses to the original meaning of the word. No philosophical builder, no matter how revolutionary or innovative, can graft upon the rootstock of a given word a branch fundamentally alien to it; such a graft would quick be rejected by the host. No evolutionary “mutation” will break the growth from the stock. No amount of Orwellian authoritarianism can make liberty mean slavery, at least not without the intervention of many yoked or heeled generations, and the total suppression of human memory for long centuries. The subtlest and most excellent “lexical manipulators” of the ages have ever selected their host grafts with care, and have injected their meanings as near to the origin as possible.
It will be seen what follows from this: in all words, no matter how distantly they appear to stand from their origins, no matter how diverse their acceptations have become from their original spirit and substance, the original meaning yet in some more or less ghost-like manner dwells and has its life; it lies as the concealed principle guiding all the subsequent history, all the successive destiny of the word. It can therefore be resurrected; it is ever and always latent within the word. Our concepts may change, but never so radically as to supplant themselves. Or at the very least, we may not discount the possibility of a perpetual influence of a word’s first origins, save as we perform clear genealogical investigation of the word in question to demonstrate that a radical break has somewhere or other been effected.
This I call the etymological principle. It seems to me in itself sufficient justification for rooting about in a word’s long history, as was once commonplace in the study of philology, a study nowadays generally neglected. It also provides, I think, real vindication of the oft-maligned neologism, and suggests, for the same reason, a unique virtue in our English tongue.
Now, I would like to evoke this principle in our present investigation to comprehend with greater clarity why we have adopted the word “freedom” in the place of the word “liberty.” I may set my thesis thus, in its simplest terms: the etymological roots of freedom are more accepting of our modern understanding than were those of the concept of liberty, so that the Enlightenment use of the word liberty, which was nothing but an inheritance from a declining Roman and Roman-Catholic tradition, was destined to be gradually replaced with a word issuing from an extraneous font, which seemed to accord more precisely with distinctly modern vision.
The founders of our modern constitutional states, we have said, embraced the modern conception of “liberty,” but did not altogether abandon the virtue-tradition which was attached to it. It would be well for us to understand more intimately the shift that this represents.
We cannot do better for such investigations than to turn to the archetypes of the modern political Founders—those men in whom an advanced degree of modern political doctrine first wed itself with the qualities and conditions of statesmen. These were the Founders of the American political tradition, the practical forerunners of the subsequent tectonic shift in political practice throughout all the Occident, of which we are the immediate heirs.
Now, the political world in which the Founders lived, the political world they revolutionized, was decidedly monarchic-aristocratic. The republican principle, which the Founders introduced into politics, is described by Publius in The Federalist Papers, in the justly famous Federalist No. 10, as follows:
Theoretic politicians, who have patronized [the democratic] species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.
To effect such a radical change from the previous form of government which ruled throughout the Occident, it was necessary to dismantle the prior classes and ranks that formed the natural part of aristocratic governance. These classes and ranks as such presupposed a degree of political inequality, such that certain individuals were accorded a greater share of power based on their social status alone, and the excellence which supposedly attached to that status. This is clearly incompatible with representational rule, or “indirect democracy,” for the simple reason that there is no necessary correspondence between the will of the upper classes and the will of the people. We are all too familiar with the arguments against the old monarchies and aristocracies to much dwell on them here. Nor is this the place to defend their less often recognized merits.
In order to supplant this aristocratic class principle with the republican representational principle, it was necessary to redefine the relation between the people and the government; it was necessary to transpose it from the kind of paternalistic and patronizing over-rule which was the norm before the Revolution, to the participatory and representative shared-rule which gradually gained apotheosis throughout the West. The name for the new principle was equality under the law; ideally, this means that any given single individual within such a regime owns a relation to the laws of the state which is precisely the same as that of any other given individual, regardless of wealth or poverty, gender or race.
No one will deny that this principle was from the start imperfectly executed; but neither can anyone deny that the subsequent birth of all modern occidental states follows hard upon its adoption, so much so that the history of the Occident appears to hindsight as the almost unbroken expansion and perfection of that principle.
What is this “equality before the law,” and what is its relation to liberty as it was classically, and freedom as it is presently, understood?
We have already seen how the classical ideal of liberty was wed to the principle of virtue, and therefore also to the principle of merit; the political embodiment of classical liberty resulted therefore in precisely the opposite of equality before the law. It resulted, that is to say, in institutionalized strata of society, each stratum characterized by a peculiar relation to the laws of the land, based on the qualities or limitations which were seen to pertain to it. Liberty, as a guiding principle to the social order, is basically elitist. This forms a pretty problem for modern political theory, because modern political theory had need of a principle of “political liberty” which did not culminate in the aristocratic class principle. It was part of the genius of the modern political philosophers, to see their way to a solution of this problem.
The Roman idea of liberty, as Hobbes’ clever wit perceived, was a hybrid notion: it contained at least two distinct and therefore distinguishable elements. The first and best known to us presently is the elimination of external constraint; the second is the rigorous consummation, known as virtue, of an internal constraint, known as human nature. In the classical understanding, the first came after the second: one was given one’s external liberty because one was such a man as could well use it, because one was a virtuous man. The principle of justice, put otherwise, was the outward recognition of a natural hierarchy of human beings, in the composition of the state and the allotment of offices, powers, honors, duties, and privileges. The modern philosophers, and particularly the philosophers of the English liberal tradition, turned this on its head: liberty, by their discernment, was understood as the outward elimination of restraints, so as to permit the acquisition of virtue—something much more akin to our contemporary notion of “meritocracy” or “equality of opportunity.” In the classical conception, liberty follows merit or is the expression of merit; in the modern conception, liberty precedes merit.
Thanks to this analysis of liberty (and note it well: modern philosophy is essentially analytic philosophy), and its consequent delimitation of the concept of liberty, the modern state became possible. In the principle of equality before the law, equality and liberty, principles hitherto taken to be enemies, are wed for the first time in history. And if one wishes to know the outcome of this matrimony, and whether it has been a happy match, or has proved in the end to have been a hasty and ill-considered coupling of convenience, the answer is simply: it has come out as happily as any marriage, in which one party becomes utterly protagonist over the other, and is permitted to exert his will tyrannically. And to perceive the protagonist, the ruling principle of modern political philosophy, one must look, not indeed to liberty, but to equality.
Indeed, so far as the old idea of liberty goes, the germ of its dissolution was contained in this compromise. One had unshackled virtue from liberty, in hopes that they both might continue their lives, separate now and independent; the result was the death of both. The masses do not understand virtue, save as it is embedded into a religious morality; once one liberates them from the bonds of the Church and the old estates, the very idea of virtue withers and dies. It is no accident that our language has gradually ceased to include the words virtue, honor, nobility; it is no accident we no longer speak, as once we spoke, of good and evil, right and wrong, high and low. The creeping relativism of modernity, in its practical character, owes its being in great part to this utter disregard, on the part of the majority of human beings, for human excellence. This could well have been anticipated by anyone not blinded by the charm of liberation: the masses touch human excellence at no point; how then, by their own lights alone, could they ever come to seek or to praise it?
To our present purpose, the result for liberty of the death of virtue has been this: liberty has been hollowed of half its meaning, and that half which was, moreover, the greater and more fundamental part of it. It is like a nut, the meat of which has rotted out, leaving only the shell and sheath. It, like virtue, is a word that no longer signifies; it is a word we no longer have use for, a word we no longer comprehend, a word we slowly slough off our speeches, and bury more profoundly in our dictionaries. For note this well: it is not merely that these old concepts of value and worth do not intimate anything to us any more: it is that they intimate too much, and of things we find vaguely disgraceful, obsolete, or disagreeable. They conjure up a past which reproaches us, and which we in turn most virulently reproach. There is a repulsion in our ignorance of these words, an active and most storied evasion and avoidance.
But a problem emerges in our relation to “liberty” which never arose in our relation to “virtue,” a most telling problem—aye, one of those problems that quite embarrassingly denude an epoch. Our society, our state, our pitiful substitute for a culture, get by just fine without the concept of virtue, nor do they for a moment feel the lack. But the concept of liberty, as any review of our politician’s speeches makes abundantly clear, is integral and indispensable to us. We find ourselves pulling away from a word that gives us yet its light and heat, like a planet trying to rid itself of one of its twin stars; what then to be done?
But our instincts, which but seldom lead us astray in such matters, have certainly not failed us here: liberty, to be abandoned, had to be substituted.
We come thus upon the greatest term which has almost single-handedly, together with only a single other, shaken and remolded the political systems of all the past, and put the modern world sure to its course: namely, freedom. And we ask—what is this freedom which we today take as our political mandate, our justification and our guidance, our way forward and our spyglass for the way back? Or, to enter this question from the work we have already done: what is it about the etymology, the heritage, of this word freedom, that made it the easy substitute for liberty?
The word freedom in the first place is of Anglo-Saxon derivation. This already distances it from the Roman tradition, if it does not counterpose it to that tradition. There is no historical, no genealogical connection between freedom and virtus: already then it is more accessible to our contemporary political definition, and more palatable to our egalitarianism.
Now, the word freedom is a compound term, the consequence of a primordial unification of Old English concepts: it comes down to us from the binding of the Anglo-Saxon word freo and the Anglo-Saxon suffix -dom.
Freo is a most intriguing concept, and one most difficult to import into any modern conception. Its approximate meaning would appear to be “not in bondage,” but it has connotations also of will, of being able to exert one’s will, of an internal power. This internal sense is strengthened the more by the connections of the word with the concept of love, suggesting the most curious emergence of the idea of freedom from the idea of being able to love. This is love, however, in an elder, a deeper sense: this is the power of forming and formulating the beloved; this is love as choosing a thing out, granting unto a thing its quality and worth, making a thing lovable through choice, decision, magnanimity, fiat. Unsurprisingly, this was connected also with nobility, the state of being noble, which originally had intimate attachment as well to birth and heritage. And, in a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon twist, this concept of nobility in its turn is bound up with joy, mirth—the overflowing life and wellspring within the heart that grants value unto things from its own great affluence.
To be free—that means, to be of good birth, to be unbeholden and unchained, to be great of heart, vital, most profoundly alive. To be free—that means, to be high and full and unburdened of heart. Free in this sense was ever and always a term of distinction, one of the finest terms of distinction ever conceived: only such and such a man of such and such a mettle could ever be deemed free; this was not such a quality as could be conferred, nor such a property as could be guaranteed, but was the preserve of the few, the select high few, who were born to it.
The -dom suffix, on the other hand, is connected with judgement, with wisdom, with the ability to determine, to discern, to decide, to choose fate—the very sense preserved in an older use of its most obvious scion in our language, the word doom. Doom, one of the few words of our tongue which has not shed its weight in all the millennia of its life, originally owed its greatness and its gravity to this: that it indicated the binding judgement of a high and noble mind, if not of a god. We, who view no distance between man and man, simply cannot conceive of the power once conferred to the judgement of a king—which word, incidentally, most probably also derives from the idea of “noble birth.” We simply do not conceive the weight which the injunction of a ruler once bore, or a man who held the power of life or death over his subjects. Yet our word “wisdom” (meaning etymologically the judgement and ability to discern form, manner, character) gives us some insight in that direction, as well as our word “sage”; the wise man, the sage man, has a power of judgement which is not granted to us all; his judgement thus has a weight which the judgement of a normal human being does not carry. Freedom is given to that man who is at once wise and great of heart: freedom is given to a man by a radical inner merit; not even deeds, which are but the expression of a great nature, can grant one freedom, if one does not already have it. For by the antique understanding, merit does not follow deeds; but deeds follow merit.
It is difficult to earn a legitimate sense of these meanings, so far down are they buried in time and in the heart—especially in our very debased times, which force a man to fly back centuries to find even traces of a nobler speech. But we may put the core meaning of freedom into contemporary flesh as follows: freedom is the judgement of the true heart; freedom is the judgement of love.
It is clear that such an idea of freedom is radically inadequate without the external absence of obstacles: the judgement of the heart, if it remains locked within the heart, is but frustrated desire, so much smothered flame. And thus, not only is the idea of freedom compatible with our modern conception, but it would seem to take that modern conception as its prerequisite.
But more. It is evident that not every human being is or may be “virtuous” in the Roman sense of the word: virtue is the term of distinction to a Roman mind. But if not every human being may be virtuous, then it is clear that not every human being may possess liberty, which the Roman mind predicated upon merit. Yet—is it not true that every human being possesses a heart? that every human being loves? Is it not true that all human hearts, all human loves, are equal, one to the next? Then—may not freedom, as opposed to liberty, be granted to any human being, by merely granting him the conditions to choose the way to his love?
These are but footprints in the dust of time; these are but the rare and fading traces of that peculiar modern logic which has led us slowly, imperceptibly, inevitably, over the long course of two centuries, to the abandonment of the Roman tradition, and the embrace of another, as of yet unconsummated, modern tradition. Liberty is departing; freedom is come. The change was concomitant to the birth of equality in our day, and the consequent denial of all rank ordering; and its birth, which is not to say its destiny, depends decisively on the belief in this equality, in the interchangeability of any human being with any other. Freedom is among us still the handmaiden of equality, and equality is still the chain fettering us to our social order. The very arc of our political growth to date, from the dawn of modern liberalism to the present day, has been nothing but the drama of the new ideal of equality, expressed through many theaters and through a variety of tales; an idea which comes ever more to rule us, until it brings us, in these latter days, to our contemporary notion and sense of morality and politics, our present-day goals and our very sense of the world, and above all to the crisis which these things have precipitated in our societies and in our souls.
We live of language and in language, we human beings, we “social animals.” Had I to define the human being, I might dare christen him a creature of the tongue. All of us, before we may live in the world, first must live in words, in the sphere and the special sense of things that language imposes upon our awareness. It is not too much to say that human beings exist by the substance of their speech. But the etymological principle reveals to us that the substance of our words flow from a distant and finally unreachable past, the which would seem, if we be but hunters of the logos, to doom us to slavery under invisible influences—influences which godlike weave their wiles about us, subtile and immortal. We in the West, in particular, are always chasing the shadows of that philosophy which is our greatest and most precious heritage; we are ever running after the Greeks.
Supposing we in the West have arrived at a moment of unparalleled crisis, and supposing we owe this crisis to nothing but that same great and precious heritage; supposing we have come to the end of the long voyage, begun when Thales stumbled into his well, or better yet when Socrates turned his mind from the sky and the earth, and settled it onto the human soul; supposing, at last, that the soul and its language are bound up together and are as indivisible as wine in water: supposing all this, it would seem that the only way of escaping our present dilemma is by finding a new tongue. We would appear to be in dire need of a new language.
No lesser insight than this compelled Heidegger to recommend our attention to the East, to a radically different sense of Being as expressed in a fundamentally foreign set of concepts.
The Occident was born in Athens and in Jerusalem. That half of our history which we owe to the Greeks has ever tended in but two directions: inward, and eastward. When it has failed to delve more deeply into itself, it has sought greater profundity in Oriental founts, in the great religions and sciences of the East. There has ever been something frightening in that movement, something which suggests an inadequacy in the Occident, something which seems to indicate a great and terrifying void at the center of our Western experience. And in modern days it is difficult to avoid the impression that we have exhausted the heritage of Greece to such an extent that now nothing remains for us but a final flight Eastward. It is perceived that we are come to the end of our tether, that the great expedition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle has at last come to its close with the palpable failure of the modern experiment.
Of course, one might fly back to the ancients, and seek to resurrect them from their graves, and to discover the way in which modernity is simply but the corruption of nobler antecedents. In one’s heart especially one might do so. But insofar as we are children of our age, we cannot help but give mind as well to the troubles of our age. And it is indubitable that the modern tradition, howsoever it might differ from the ancient, was yet born of the ancient, was made possible by the ancient, was carried in the womb of the ancient as seed and scion. Even to flee to the ancients, will not suffice to cure our troubles: for tracing well that path, we will but find ourselves come full circle.
Then what shall it be? To the East with us, and the Orient? Not yet. Friends—not yet!
The excellent good fortune of the present growing sense of a unified and singular occidental civilization, is in its gathering together of many divers origins. We cannot too keenly praise the growth of “European identity.” Too long has there been a tension in Europe between the Romance countries, which in late centuries have culminated in egalitarian excesses, and the Germanic nations, which, as has been noted by competent observers, have long resisted such changes. Nietzsche himself took as his great adversaries Socrates and Plato; he himself contradistinguished his work and his project to that of antiquity. Yet Nietzsche, too, called himself a “good European”; for he saw beyond the conflict between Rome and Germany. In the joining of the two, a new Europe might arise, a Europe capable, for its very complexity, of greater things. As we might say in conclusion of the particular aims which have governed our work here in this essay, a unified Europe brings multiple languages to a single throat, and with them, the etymological heritage, the destiny and the doom, of a rich multiplicity of traditions.
English over all other languages is privileged and blessed on that score—English, that marvelous bastard tongue, which comes of more parents than might be decently named, and is itself kaleidoskopic and variegated and sundry. In English, the Latinate and Grecian traditions are intermingled with the Germanic; in this soil the roots of all Europe interweave and entangle, and the possibility emerges at last, not indeed to turn away from the Greeks, but to look at Anglo-Saxony from Grecian eyes, and vice-versa, without our very souls.
Nay, Europe is not spent yet. Save as we forget our heritage and chain ourselves before some modern philosophical idol, we shall not perish, nor be forced to betray ourselves with eyes turned dimly to the twilit East. But we are in wont now of a kind of adventuring spirit alit anew in our breasts, a new philosophical and artistic venture, which is willing to delve the past—for the good of the future.
Return to Freedom’s Core, Part II