THE PRINCIPLES OF 1789
It has been well said that in the religion of the Enlightenment, liberty, equality and fraternity take the place that faith, hope and charity occupy in Christianity. Without them there is no "salvation." We will start by putting liberty under the microscope, not only because it comes first in the triad, but because in the West it has always had pride of place. The French revolutionaries planted "trees of liberty." We do not hear of anyone yet having planted trees in honour of equality or fraternity.
Liberty and liberties
Liberty is a mystery of our innermost being, which we understandably value as one of our most precious possessions. Coupled with the faculty of thought, it is what makes us human. The two things are inseparable. A will without a mind to direct it would be like a rag flapping in the wind — in this case the winds of impulse; and a mind without the power to decide what to think about would not be a mind but a machine moved by forces springing from something other than itself — the biochemical rhythms of the brain. The master would be the slave of the servant. Still more do we value being able to give outward expression to this inner liberty and rationality.
So liberty has two meanings: the power of choice (which is only truly choice when it is rational); and the absence of restrictions, internal and external, which prevent us from carrying out our choices.
Western man is almost exclusively concerned with the absence of external restrictions. About the power of choice he mostly says contradictory things. While loudly asserting his right to choose as he pleases, he will only too often be subscribing to deterministic and behaviourist explanations of human conduct which make a nonsense of liberty. He wishes to be free to do what he wants; but unfree, it seems, when the question of moral responsibility arises.
The Church, in contrast, resolutely upholds the power of free choice and the importance of its not being impeded by illegitimate restrictions. But she puts the accent on right choice, and gives first place to removing the internal restrictions on its exercise — disordered impulses, passions and habits of sin.19
However, the best way to understand how widely these two views of liberty are separated, I think, is to glance at the history of the Western cult of liberty.
Leaving aside Luther's call for each man to be allowed to interpret the Bible in his own way, we can take as its starting point the struggle of the 17th century English land-owning class with the monarchy. Its origins, in other words, were aristocratic. The aristocrat, qua aristocrat (that is before he is touched by grace), wants to do as he pleases with his property and dependants and not be interfered with in the enjoyment of his amusements and pleasures. Liberty therefore means being a miniature absolute monarch within the boundary of his estates.
The cry for liberty was next taken up by the merchant classes. For the merchant and industrialist as such, liberty means above all freedom to make money in the most profitable way. Then liberty became the rallying cry for writers and artists, with unrestricted self-expression more and more regarded as the necessary condition for great art and literature.
Adam Smith is a symbol of the mercantile concept of liberty; Lord Byron simultaneously of the aristocratic and artistic ideals. Later, literary and philosophic liberals would, inconsistently, forbid the liberal merchant to make money as he pleases, while insisting on their own right to express anywhere and at any time whatever opinions they pleased. (The demand for liberty was rarely first on the agenda of workers' movements. Decent pay and living conditions, and security of some kind, were felt as more urgent.)
Finally, as I mentioned in the last chapter, with some of liberty's devotees in Germany, the cult of liberty turned into a Promethean revolt against the idea of limitations of any kind, including those of nature itself, or the condition of being a creature. The cry for liberty became a cry for god-like autonomy and power, which in the more frenzied writings of Nietzsche reaches a high point of strident defiance.
Although all these calls for liberty, with the exception of the last, often contained reasonable and just demands, among others that were not, a single idea can be seen gradually taking shape and finally prevailing Liberty is a beatific state to be enjoyed for its own sake, an idea which Rousseau helped to make look respectable by providing it with philosophical foundations.
The young Rousseau was a natural vagrant. Bliss for him was wandering at will about Europe without settled occupation. (We can see today's world-wandering students as the young Rousseau multiplied by the million.) Life in society must therefore be shown as a fall from this primitive state of innocence. The playboy millionaire, with all the time and money he wants to satisfy his whims and fancies, consequently becomes the truly fortunate man. (Anarchism is an attempt to extend this individualistic view of liberty to society as a whole.)
The result was a head-on clash with the principle of equality, since equality can only be established by limiting the free play of liberty (Turning partial goods into absolutes inevitably breeds conflicts of this kind.) This is why, right from the start, Western liberalism has always spoken with two voices, subsequently embodied in opposing political systems: "Do as you please" and "Do as I tell you"; or why, though strongly individualistic to begin with, so much of Western liberalism has turned out collectivist and authoritarian. But both kinds of "liberals," libertarian and authoritarian, remain in principle hostile to law and authority, even if law and authority have to be tolerated and even intensified until the application of correct social and political procedures have made everyone virtuous.
For the Church, in contrast, liberty is not a beatific state to be enjoyed for its own sake. The power of choice, and the freedom to carry out our choices, exist so that we can serve God as men, not as machines. Restraints on freedom, internal or external, are bad in so far as they prevent us from doing what God has willed for us as our calling. Freedom is a means and not an end, a precondition for carrying out a work — which, I quickly add, does not exclude relaxation and recreation. We need liberty for the same reason that a lumberjack needs to throw off his jacket before swinging his axe.
We all know this from personal experience. One of the mysteries of liberty is that, as soon as we use our power of choice, our liberty seems diminished. If I want to be a good pianist, I must stick to my instrument, even though at the same time I may feel the urge to do other things. If I am invited to visit India, I cannot simultaneously go to Spain. Yet everyone knows that the impression of having lost some of one's liberty is false; that I wouldn't increase my freedom by abandoning the keyboard or having second thoughts about my air ticket; that in making a choice and sticking to it, far from having lost my liberty, only then have I found its meaning and am able to feel truly free. In contrast it is when we are unable to make up our minds that we feel least free. We say we are "prisoners of indecision?' just as the playboy millionaire is frequently the prisoner of boredom. The unemployed have liberty; the misery of unemployment is lacking the means to make use of it.
When liberty is looked at in this way — as the necessary condition for carrying out a work — law and authority appear as the allies and friends of liberty rather than its enemies. Neither liberty, law, nor authority exists for its own sake. All three together are there for the sake of a higher good, the service of truth and right. 20 But in order to do right, which we know through having discovered the truth, we need the internal authority of self-discipline, in itself an act of free choice. Self-discipline enables us to listen to the voice of reason rather than to less desirable voices. Meanwhile, a just external authority and a system of laws prevents others from interfering with our liberty to carry out our right decisions, or keep us from interfering with theirs. They surround us with the necessary "room for action."
They also help to support us in our right decisions. If we are endangering ourselves by abusing our liberty, it is a blessing to have it curtailed. As ingredients of happiness, the friendship of God and a good conscience, at least for believers in God, are infinitely above physical liberty.
To have a truly balanced understanding of what is at stake, it is perhaps better to think of liberty in the plural rather than the singular. Liberty prospers when men aim for a limited number of recognised "liberties?' In this situation, fewer laws from on high are needed. Authority can be devolved. When liberty in the abstract becomes the cry, authority eventually has to bear down harder and multiply laws to counteract the abstraction's disintegrating social consequences.
Yet liberty, law and authority are linked at a still deeper level. Creatures, just because they are creatures, can only fulfil themselves and be happy by following the laws of their being, which the laws of the state should ideally reflect. Going against the laws of their being may be an exercise of free will, but it is not an exercise in self-fulfilment. It is an act of self-frustration. It demonstrates the existence of freedom only in the way that illness demonstrates the existence of health. For instance, if we eat to excess, we shall be confined to bed.
These "laws of our being" are not a strait jacket surrounding us from without. They are the cause and source of our freedom. Like our bone structure, they uphold it from within. They are what makes any activity, free or otherwise, possible.
From all this it will be seen that, by her teaching on the nature of the human soul and its likeness to God, the Church is today philosophically the principal and often the only champion of the very possibility of free choice and action. Meanwhile, the doctrinal confusion in the Church, the departures from the priesthood, the disintegration of religious orders and the frequent paralysis of authority when dissenting theologians cry "liberty in danger," show how deeply the anarchic Western non-Christian concept of liberty has entered into Catholic minds.
Equality and equalities
Equality and fraternity are easier to understand than liberty, because, unlike liberty, they are not a mystery of our inner being. They have to do with our relations with other people.
When we look at men in general what we see is not equality so much as equalities. We are obviously equal in having a common nature and certain common physical and spiritual powers and needs. Then, with the awakening of the moral conscience, we realise that we have certain common rights and obligations, a state of affairs marking us off from our furred, feathered and fishy friends and foes.
These are the equalities we know by observation and reflection. Knowledge of our other essential equalities we owe to God. All of us, from the most physically or mentally perfect to the most deformed, He has told us, are made in His image. All of us He loves with an immeasurable love. All of us He wishes to save. He gave His Son to die for the sins of each and all. In that Son's Body, the Church, baptism gives all a fundamental equality, regardless of office. Thus far, there is neither "Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female." These, one would have thought were equalities enough to satisfy any reasonable being. After that come the inequalities.
Even the most dedicated egalitarian realises that we are unequal in intelligence, artistic gifts, strength of will, psychological and emotional balance, powers of leadership, and physical strength — how could he not, seeing that his whole life is dedicated to frustrating the natural consequences of these inequalities. He will also probably acknowledge, at least in secret, that we are unequal in virtue, since in caring about equality more than his neighbours, he must at least on this point see himself as better.
In the next world inequalities loom even larger. In heaven there are higher and lower orders of angels, greater and lesser rewards, the last shall be first, and although God loves us all beyond anything we can imagine, He loves some more than others. Equality is not something, one could say, in which God seems all that interested. Fairness, harmony, mutual service, yes; but not, it would seem, equality as such.
When we turn to the modern world, we find it as much at loggerheads with itself about equality as it is about liberty. Its Christian ancestry has left it with a passionate attachment to the notion of equality, yet its favourite philosophical and scientific fancies leave room for only the barest minimum of it. If we are not descended from a single human pair created by God, there could well be races mentally as well as physically "superior" or "inferior," depending on one's standards of judgement.
Probably the chief contribution to intellectual confusion has been identifying equality with sameness, and sameness with justice. If people are in some deep sense equal, it is felt, they ought not to be different. At least they ought not have differing amounts of the goods of this world and the next.
This view of equality seems to have persuaded many Catholics that inequality is something intrinsically displeasing to God, and, as Christians, they are bound to root it out wherever they find it, whether it is a matter of pushing women towards the priesthood, or the laity in large numbers into the sanctuary. It also seems to have infected them with a deep-seated prejudice against the very notion of hierarchy (higher and lower functions and degrees of authority).
Certainly, as designed by God, hierarchy in human affairs is not meant to be like an Indian caste system — something fixed forever by birth. Its purpose is the harmonious functioning of a varied whole, whether Church, society, or universe, for the glory of God and the benefit of all, with love, mutual service and mutual respect as the hallmarks. The Christian notion of hierarchy also sees the basic equalities as more fundamental than the inequalities. The ideal Christian delights in being little, whether he is at the top, middle or bottom of the pile. Nevertheless, hierarchy is so much a part of the way God has designed the worlds visible and invisible, including the Church, that its place in the divine scheme can hardly be ignored without serious damage to happiness as well as faith and common sense.
Fraternity, Natural and Supernatural
Fraternity or brotherhood is the nearest that any of the "principles of 1789" gets to being an absolute good, even if most recent attempts to establish universal brotherhood make one think of the disillusioned French revolutionary who went around saying mockingly "Be my brother or I'll kill you," until he was arrested and guillotined. Unless we act in a sufficiently brotherly way in this life we are likely to lose our entrance ticket to the eternal brotherhood in the next.
There are two questions to be considered. Are men brothers in fact? And if so, how can they be brought to behave in a more brotherly fashion?
The Church, following divine revelation, says that they are indeed brothers: descended from a single human pair, they are members of the same family. On top of this they have the capacity for a higher kind of brotherhood: brotherhood in Christ. Christ is the link between these two kinds of brotherhood, natural and supernatural. In taking on human nature, Vatican II tells us, Christ "in a certain sense" united himself with every man. Because of this, all men are brothers of Christ and as such are damaged reflections of Him. When we see Christ in the poor, for instance, we do not first ask whether they are Christians or Hindus. But men only become brothers in Christ when, on entering the Church, they become members of His Mystical Body.
Yet brothers though they may be in these two ways, men cannot be brought to act in a brotherly fashion by natural means alone. They have a natural tendency to love their kith and kin, and in normal circumstances will entertain a certain fellow-feeling for their kind outside the family; but neither instinct will be strong enough by itself to resist strong impulses and passions of an opposing kind. For that they need grace.
Initially, the thinking of the fathers of the Enlightenment and the Revolution about brotherhood had some points in common with the Church's own. They believed in a real brotherhood of men based on our common human nature, and, if they were deists, on the fatherhood of God as well. But grounds for this belief were, in different ways, rapidly undermined first by Rousseau, then by Darwin.
Rousseau atomised humanity. We think of brothers as belonging to a family; but for Rousseau, men and women come into the world as isolated individuals. The family counts for nothing. In keeping with these principles he placed his four illegitimate children in an orphanage as soon as they were born. The only relationship that mattered for Rousseau was a legal one (the "social contract"). Men agree to give up some of their liberty for the advantage of communal living. Darwin further undermined human brotherhood by abolishing our first parents and making the behaviour of Cain towards Abel the model for human advancement.
Nevertheless, making men behave like brothers continues to be proclaimed as a duty and a possibility. This, it is thought, can be done by ordering them to think of each other as brothers, and training them in the right rules of conduct. In addition there is now the tool of psychological conditioning. Modern doctrines of human brotherhood are really forms of Pelagianism, and they seem to have turned most Western or Westernised Catholics into Pelagians or semi-Pelagians too without their knowing it. 21
For these de-supernaturalised Christians, natural brotherhood is ranked above brotherhood in Christ, while getting people to be sociable and friendly is equated with making them holy. Reliance is placed on natural means, like group dynamics and similar psychological techniques, rather than supernatural means such as teaching people their faith, or encouraging them to pray, fast and confess their sins. Man, it is thought, can perfect himself by his own efforts alone. Believers and unbelievers are equally capable of "transforming the world."
Left to themselves, as we can see from the history of the last two hundred years, the principles of 1789 are like wild bulls on the rampage. Only the Church can tame them. But can she recapture them, we may wonder, before they smash up the Western "china shop"?
Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018
Family Publications has now ceased trading. The copyright has reverted to the author Philip Trower who has given permission for the book to be placed on this website.