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April 19th 2010 print

Merv Bendle

Great Books of Liberty

Any book that champions the ideal of liberty and emphasizes the role that it has played in Western Civilization is a valuable asset. Unfortunately, there are problems with this worthy project.

[What are the Great Books of Liberty? Join the discussion here…]

Any book that champions the ideal of liberty and emphasizes the role that it has played in Western Civilization is a valuable asset, especially as the ideal comes under ever-increasing pressure from many directions. Consequently, the appearance of 100 Great Books of Liberty: The Essential Introduction to the Greatest Idea of Western Civilisation, edited by Chris Berg and John Roskam, with Andrew Kemp (Connor Court Publishing, 2010) is to be welcomed. The book seeks to offer a “comprehensive and accessible guide to the books which made liberty the most important idea of Western Civilization.” These include The Republic, Two Treatises on Government, The Wealth of Nations, The Western Canon, Reflections on the Revolution in France, The Rights of Man, On Liberty, Leaves of Grass, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Democracy in America, The Federalist Papers, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Animal Farm, Witness, Capitalism and Freedom, The Tyranny of Distance, The End of History, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Darkness at Noon, The Fountainhead, and some eighty other works – all in 330 pages, or about 3.3 pages per masterpiece.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this worthy project, as the great diversity of the above list illustrates. While there can be no doubt that such works have contributed to the development of Western Civilization, this does not mean that they are all primarily about liberty or liberalism, or that they have especially promoted the growth of such ideals. For example, let us take the very first book listed above. It is not about liberty. Indeed, as John Gray remarks in Liberalism (1986, p.3), in the work of Plato “we find, not the further development of the liberal outlook … but instead a reaction against it – an emasculation of Greek liberalism, or a counter-revolution against the open society … In The Republic, Plato advances what is, in effect, an anti-liberal Utopia [elaborating] one of the most systematic and powerful attacks on the idea of human freedom to be found in intellectual history”. While Roskam acknowledges such issues, and while Plato is undeniably central to the subsequent development of Western Civilization, his selection in 100 Great Books of Liberty reflects an inclusiveness that both dissipates the impact of the book and obscures the extent to which liberty had to won in spite of the immense power wielded over the millennia by Platonic and related metaphysical systems of thought.    

Similar concerns arise with Edmund Burke’s seminal Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is properly seen, not as a paean to liberty, but as the preeminent text within the conservative tradition. In this tour de force, Burke argues against the idea of liberty, certainly if it is conceived as the primary value to which all others (e.g., order, stability, safety, custom, and tradition) must be subordinated. He had an unexcelled vision of what sort of being a society or a civilization actually is, and believed that liberty, for all its enormous value, could only ever be a component part of a vast organic whole. The French were, of course, heirs to such a civilization, but according to Burke, they had allowed their revolutionary enthusiasm to blind them to the inescapable fact that liberty had to be seen as only one of a set of values that are all required to operate in a harmonious fashion if orderly government and the civilization it underwrites are to be achieved and preserved. Burke was terrified at what an unconstrained populace could do if it were energized by notions of absolute liberty and popular sovereignty. So unyielding was Burke’s reaction that Thomas Paine made him the focus of his violent attack in his republican pamphlet, The Rights of Man, which is also listed. The inclusion of both these books vividly illustrates the tensions that exist within a selection that seeks to include so many worthy but often disparate works, as if they were all champions of liberty.

Such tensions also exist with Jacob Burckhardt’s luminous extended essay on The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. There is no doubt that it belongs on any list of works that have both elevated and illuminated Western Civilization, describing vividly the rise of Humanism and the ‘discovery’ of the modern notion of the individual. However, it also stresses the vital role played in this by the revival of antiquity, and it gives expression at every level to Burkhardt’s own conservatism and dislike of the modern world. Far from being a champion of liberty, he shared with his friend Friedrich Nietzsche an elitist disgust with ‘the common herd’ of people, and he denounced the American and French Revolutions, universal suffrage, democracy, mass culture, capitalism, industrialization, and the other forces of modernization that were transforming the world.

Turning to the twentieth century, one finds a number of questionable inclusions. For example, The End of History is surely one of the great prophetic misfires of all time (even excelling Daniel Bell’s celebration of The End of Ideology just as the curtain rose on the cultural revolution of the Sixties). It complacently assumed that liberal democracy had triumphed globally and with finality just as the forces of anti-modern fundamentalism and theocratic reaction burst out across the world, ushering in a period where Western Civilization is under sustained attack from within and without, while ubiquitous security concerns have radically reduced human liberty in the most basic and mundane areas of life. And while Geoffry Blainey’s exposition of The Tyranny of Distance is a great classic of Australian history it is difficult to see why it should be included in this collection ahead of Keith Windschuttle’s exposure of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, which attempted specifically to liberate Australians from the intellectual and moral manacles that have been wantonly imposed by ideologically committed intellectuals and political activists.

One can quibble about the works of fiction included, but one requires special attention. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is a libertarian tour de force but it is fatally compromised by its fascination with an eroticized version of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, its ideological absolutism, and the intervention at strategic points of a deus ex machina in the form of fate with, e.g., Dominique Francon happening upon a spectacularly virile Howard Roark as he labours in a quarry, surrendering herself to him, saving him from his own willfulness, and delivering him to the next episode in the saga of his ultimate triumph. Moreover, Rand’s own fearsome will-to-power, egocentrism, and obsession with intellectual purity found expression as the very antithesis of intellectual liberty, and undermined the role that both this book and her second masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged, could have had on mainstream political thought and activism, producing instead a brow-beaten, marginalized, and cult-like following, well described by Jennifer Burns in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009). Contrary to The Fountainhead’s denouement, liberty involves more than just the ‘right’ to blow up a public housing project.

Therefore, for all the value this collection might have, the challenge still exists to specify the essential foundational works on liberty and liberalism (some of which are, of course, included in 100 Great Books of Liberty), those works that establish their conceptual and ideological core, as opposed to books (however worthy) that only give expression to these ideals. And once this challenge is accepted it becomes clear that the key period was not the twentieth century, which is so well represented in this collection, but the two centuries after 1650. Therefore, such a list should begin with Leviathan (1651), in which Thomas Hobbes makes the unconditional and inalienable right of individual self-preservation fundamental to his political theory, only after that proceeding to develop a theory of government. Next would be Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), because it affirmed 340 years ago the core principle of liberalism: that it is not the purpose of government “to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security … the true aim of government is liberty”.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government (c.1681) and A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), John Locke refutes the theory of Divine Right, makes the case for freedom of belief and expression, and establishes that the free consent of the governed is the sole legitimate basis of government. Central to his argument is another core liberal conception: that human beings have Natural Rights – ontologically grounded in the very essence of things – to life, liberty, and property. Locke subsequently influenced Montesquieu, whose The Spirit of the Laws (1748) stressed the importance for the promotion and preservation of liberty of a constitutional system based on the separation of powers and containing a system of checks and balances that prevents one sector of society rising to dominance over the others.

Adam Smith’s two seminal books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) gave expression to a truly profound conception of liberty and made him one the central figures in the liberal tradition. Smith emphasized that humanity’s economic, political and social activities take place within a set of spontaneous orders – exemplified by the market -which flow naturally from the almost infinite complexities of human interaction embedded in history and tradition, and that large-scale state intervention is therefore not only inimical to liberty but destructive of the social fabric. Above all else, Smith stressed that human beings have an inalienable right to labour and to the products of that labour.  As D. J. Manning says in Liberalism (1976, p.73), “if any one liberal writer deserves the title of Newton of the social sciences it is surely Smith.”

In America, the core text is The Federalist; A Collection of Essays (1788) written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, with John Jay. This drew upon the above ideas to support and elaborate upon the logic underpinning the Constitution of the United States, showing how it was designed to both maximize liberty and limit the oppressive potential of the state. Particularly relevant at the moment for Australia was its opposition to a Bill of Rights, which Hamilton feared would be interpreted as specifying the only rights that people had.

At the close of liberalism’s Golden Age appeared John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), This drew together many of the ideas already mentioned while also stressing the absolute need for the protection of individual liberties from the dual tyrannies of the state and the popular majority, advancing against a range of areas from liberty of thought and conscience to the freedom of association and speech. Although liberalism reigned as the dynamic ideological force in the first half of the nineteenth century, by the time Mill was writing it was coming under ever-increasing pressure as various statist and collectivist ideologies and rationales for state interventionism rose to ascendancy. Consequently, works like Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Ethics (1879) and The Man versus the State (1884) have been forgotten, although Spencer provided “the most complete and systematic application of the classical liberal Principle of Equal Freedom to the various domains of law and legislation” (Gray, Liberalism, p.31).

What emerged a century ago was a revisionist, but fundamentally compromised, form of liberalism, influenced by English Hegelianism and popular ameliorative concerns in a move away from the ‘negative’ conception of liberty as freedom from interference, and towards the ‘positive’ conception of liberty associated with T. H. Green, as something that the state can confer and enhance through various programs of social intervention. The revisionist doctrines expounded in Liberalism (1910) by L. T. Hobhouse, have “come in England altogether to dominate progressive opinion where it was not avowedly socialist” (Gray, Liberalism, p.32). To a large extent this was due to the Great War, after which, as A. J. P. Taylor observed, “the state established a hold over its citizens [that] was never to be removed … The history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time” (English History 1914-1945, 1970, p.26). This unholy union has never been broken but has intensified in its effects, as we see in Britain at present.

Consequently, over the past century, the struggles for liberty and the integrity of the liberal tradition have taken place within an increasingly antagonistic ideological context. Rigorous statements of classical liberalism like Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) and The Constitution of Liberty (1960); Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945); and Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty (1969), are routinely denounced as reactionary, while young people have their minds shaped by academics and teachers in thrall to various crypto-totalitarians. These include Herbert Marcuse, with his explicitly anti-liberal polemics, One Dimensional Man (1960), Repressive Tolerance (1965), and An Essay on Liberation (1969); and Michel Foucault in his wildly unhistorical tomes on The History of Madness (1961), Discipline and Punishment (1975), and The History of Sexuality (1976).

As a result of this anti-liberal hegemony, one constantly meets people who insist on absolutist conceptions of ‘freedom’, while blithely assuming that these can only be given concrete form through the largesse of the state, which is assumed to be a gigantic maternal figure over which we must all struggle for control and influence, and not seen correctly as a necessary constitutional creation of free people that demands constant vigilance if it is not to destroy the very liberty is was meant to protect. Most alarming of all is the assumption – very common amongst students – that any rights a person has are provided to them by the state!

Ultimately, while 100 Great Books of Liberty will be a valuable resource at an introductory level, its diffuseness limits its value. The central task in the contemporary struggle for liberty is to engage in unrelenting ideological battle with its opponents, across a broad front, applying and expounding at a sufficient level of intellectual depth and sophistication the fundamental unity of liberal thought as it was achieved through centuries of struggle.

What are the Great Books of Liberty? Join the discussion here…