A Brief History Of Liberty for the OWS Crowd

We chose as our point of departure the global protest movement that takes the freedom to forcefully occupy places, including as in London’s landmark St Paul’s Cathedral the freedom to use a place of worship for relieving their bodily urges - on their lips the demand for fairness. Yet looking at this from a different angle, what does this display of impotence by venerated British institutions tell us about the ever lower hanging fruits of liberal societies? The liberties taken by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement are probably not even covered by the four freedoms that in his 1941 address US President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended that people "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want and Freedom from fear. So let’s shortly delve deeper in the genius loci of St Paul’s that touches on the history of Western freedom in a particular way.

A chronicler would perhaps start with the clay document from the Sumerian city-state Lagash, believed to be written in 2300 B.C., not too far apart in time and location from Abraham heading for Medina and Jerusalem from Mesopotamia in order to lift agrarian polytheism to Judaism by dropping the sacrifice of any life and for that matter creating monotheism at large. We may surmise that back then some idea of freedom was in the air indicated by the calligraphy with the Sumerian word ‘amagi’ meaning freedom. (“Selected writings of Lord Acton”, edited by R. Fears, Liberty Fund 1988). Yet the first documented meaning of liberty distinguished a free man from a slave. In this sense the idea of liberty is addressed in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Exodus referring to the redemption from Egypt. In the words of the Soncino/Hertz-edition (Exodus 20: 1-5), God led his people to freedom “out of the house of bondage”. And with reference to the OWS globalists it is anticipated here “that the God adored by Judaism is not an impersonal Force, an It, whether spoken of as ‘Nature’ or ‘World-Reason’. The God of Israel is the Source not only of power and life, but of consciousness, personality, moral purpose and ethical action (M. Joel).” This clarification is useful for it renders the idea of freedom as intrinsic to Jewish ‘personalism’ (all men being created equal in the image of God) – revealed by a great historical deed of God and by that earning the divine being a moral claim of obedience from his people. Freedom is no free lunch. It has to be earned in the first place.

Lord Acton, with his reputation of being the most erudite and multilingual Englishmen of the 19th century was a devout and equally liberal Catholic to boot. He cherished a lifelong project to write a history of liberty. However he only succeeded in putting together occasional notes and a famous collection of historical primary sources, which I did not have the privilege to see myself. Unfortunately he lost his vigor and gave up on his pet project – perhaps a result of his exhausting struggle with the Vatican around the 1870ies on the infallibility doctrine that he abhorred.

Yet, if we accept the Jewish God as our bedrock of freedom that in turn burdens us with personal responsibility to do the right thing. Only then for Jews and gentiles committed to the Noahide code “history becomes one continuous Divine revelation of the gradual growth of freedom and justice on earth.” For Passover, celebrated each year as the festival of freedom, confirms that the successful Jewish spiritual and physical liberation from Egypt bears significance beyond Judaism for the Western world at large: ”And the men of Europe, the men of America, the men of Australia might join with us Jews in celebrating that feast of the Passover” (C.G. Montefiore). Different form other oriental peoples or Greece with its 158 quarreling small city-states collapsing finally through it’s never overcome factiousness, it was the two Jewish kingdoms that created the template for limited monarchy and freedom under the law. As T.H. Huxley has put it: “Down to modern times, no State had a constitution in which the interests of the people are so largely taken into account, in which the duties so much more than the privileges of the rulers are insisted upon, as that drawn up for Israel in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.” The notion of freedom of the Israelites is buttressed by their institution of individual property which, in contrast to all other Oriental nations including Greece and Rome, does not overrule humanitarian concern; OWS take notice, but was otherwise protected against the disposal of the sovereign being under divine law just as everybody else.

The Jewish liberty rested on divine guidance in the postponement of pleasure, most of all sexual. Most Christian denominations still use a common prayer in which anthropomorphic Jesus gets no mention. In its Latin version of “Pater noster” the very line reminding us on Exodus and addressing liberty reads: “ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libero nos a malo” (don’t tempt us but deliver us from evil). This refers of course to the pre-enlightenment Hebrew truth that man is prone to sin and needs guidance to avoid the temptations of life affording him pleasure and freedom of the soul. George Santayana, Harvard philosopher with Catholic inclinations at the turn of the 19th century, has occupied himself exhaustingly with the idea of liberation from animal instinct. He was a materialist or naturalist, self-described non-academic thinker informed by Greek philosophy, Lucretius and Spinoza.

Yet he was clearly focusing on the pre-enlightenment version of liberty in the sense of sublimation via the postponement of pleasure, distinguishing it from what he liked to call animal faith. He discovered that it is not, as previous thinkers assumed, distraction of the spirit to nature or life that is in the way of spiritual liberation. He maintained instead that spiritual distraction originates in the ignorance of the true nature and activity of the spirit, when properly attracted by the spheres of truth and essence, away from animal attachment within ourselves: “Liberation occurs not through rejecting or forgetting the realm of matter and animal life, but rather through transcending attachment to the objects of animal concern. Santayana considered three examples of liberated spirits in the persons of Socrates, Jesus Christ and St John of the Cross.” He generously assumes that common life is having moments of spiritual freedom but assured us that it is bodily perfection rather than the absence of it that frees up the spirit. Nor does liberation of the spirit depend on being removed from the world. Liberation is by contrast even problematic for the hermit: “It will not ensue if the hermit or poet still takes thought for what he shall eat or drink, what people will think of him, or how he may persuade them to reform their ways. As the flesh is the necessary organ of spirit, so the world is its inevitable environment and its appointed theme when spirit is intelligent. (The Essential Santayana – Selected Writings; Indiana University Press: 2009, pp.357).

This kind of inner liberty, so remote to the OWS crowd, used to be the wellspring of human enchantment and even happiness before the 18th century enlightenment struck, an “enlightenment” that has simply turned the meaning of human liberty upside down: freedom from bodily temptation would become freedom from religion and moral restraint, later in postmodern times entailing the exhortation to indulge in utter expression of the self. In this way sexual libertinage has been unleashed by the French Revolution resulting in the undoing of the eluded Rousseauan project to free up the best in men. This mentality is still at work today for instance with the French ban on headscarfs, the wearing thereof amounting to nothing less than a decent move of women who feel threatened by the ubiquitous sexualization of post-modern life. For the same reason, observing Muslim in big cities like London nowadays are keen to settle next to Jewish Orthodox neighborhoods in order to protect their children against the gang, sex and drugs culture that has taken hold in so many London boroughs.

In rejecting the gift of freedom and religious morality Western man is left with the freedom to do as he or she sees fit, thereby eventually corrupting his soul. The philosophical premise for this was of course that Rousseau had simply reversed the Calvinist dogma of the original sin by stating that all men are good by nature and it was only society that made them evil. This ‚enlightened’ liberal prejudice entailed that it was not enough to tacitly do the right thing by keeping clear of sin with its all too visible consequences. It was now necessary to show off that you are good, which left us until today with all these postmodern hypocrites occupying the moral high ground just like OWS chastising bankers, while in fact it was the 99% of Americans and Britons, among others, that lived beyond their means, the bankers merely providing those. This applies similarly to the pseudo-morals of environmentalists. For people who are busy around the clock worried about their carbon foot print bother less for true human morality.

In other words, the Judeo-Christian personal unity of value and deed or fact was torn apart and collectivized in the incompatible collective terms of liberty, equality, fraternity that ushered in the guillotine. And it was only thanks to the Whig liberals that Western freedom under capitalism succeeded. It was them who found a way to turn vices into virtues, by the words of its founder, as I have shown in a previous blog. Nevertheless, we are still under the spell of the deluded rationalism of the enlightenment that left us with our post-modern obsessions: relativism, diversity, multiculturalism and erotocracy. Sexism and Gender issues are without doubt occupying the top ranks of power politics today. For instance just think of the tribulations of Strauss-Kahn engulfed by unstoppable rumors that he ascended to the IMF post only because he was unelectable as French president. And he was unelectable, the gossip has it, because he, as it were, refused stopping to attend swing parties (i.e. mass sex orgies), another derivative of the French Revolution. By contrast it is worth remembering that the Hebrew language is called The Holy Tongue because, as Maimonides pointed out, it genuinely lacked any vocabulary for the sexual organs. It is for this reason that in the history of the West sex and religion always remained opposite ends.

From a different angle the still virulent French anti-religious bias looms, being also a derivate of the French Revolution. It keeps prodding French philosophes into making preposterous claims. Such as on liberty with Andre Glucksman (“The Original Birth of Freedom”, City Journal) who seriously tried to convince his readers that Western liberty emerged from Greek culture, not from the Israelites. For all their accomplishments the Greek city states still separated free men from slaves and can for this reason not qualify for institutionalizing liberty. Here Lord Acton’s statement remains valuable: “Classical (Greek, FH) literature will always teach men the form and method of things – not the substance”. Therefore, according to Acton, we must turn to the middle Ages for substance, facts and history. These include of course the Judeo-Islamic Enlightenment. Glucksman’s outlandish theory reminds us of the Sokal affair of 1996 that poked fun out of the scientific improbabilities of a set of Parisian philosophes. Yet in fairness whatever the limitations of freedom in Greek antiquity it does not take anything away from the importance of Athens as one of the three pillars of the West, the others being Rome and Jerusalem.

In late 19th century Lord Acton provided us with a collection of notes of a rather sober outlook. (Selected Writings of Lord Acton – essays in religion, politics and Morality, Liberty Fund 1988, p. 500), under the title

“Threats to liberty: 1) Desire of Power; 2) Equality; 3) Communism; 4) Irreligion. Liberty has not only enemies which it conquers, but perfidious friends, who rob the fruits of its victories: Absolute democracy, socialism. Political atheism – End justifies the means. This is still the most widespread of all the opinions inimical to liberty. Utilitarians not the most dangerous, because they especially their greatest writer Mill, were sincerely attached to freedom. Many new enemies of Liberty: Schopenhauer, Hegel, Comte, Fourier, Carey, Prussia, Darwin, Fichte. Opposing Liberty: Spencer, Buckle. Nationality…Doctrine of race (Gobineau) one of the many schemes to deny free will, responsibility, and guilt, and to supplant morals by physical forces. They insist on the influence of race – In diminution and denial of freedom. How much of modern history is a protest against Liberty – Buckle, Taine, Mommsen. We, to whom it means the reign of conscience, the doctrine of evolution has added new perils [to the progress of liberty] besides nationality, clan, party, sect, interest, school. It adds the subtle inheritance of prejudice. End with the Kingdom of God which is Liberty. How far from the end! Africa not begun – Asia how little. But America and Australia [and] South Africa governed by the ideas of our revolution.”

Acton rightly cast gloom on the prospect of liberty at his time and sensed the coming eclipse of it by socialist Marxism. In the end that dark period of Western enlightenment lasted roughly from 1890 to the 1940ies. “The collapse of liberalism in Germany coincided with that of rationalism after Hegel’s system demonstrated its principal limitations. Thus was decided at least in theory the perennial battle between reason and revelation, or belief and unbelief in favor of revelation”, says Leo Strauss who countered the liberal mockery of religion as ‘unreasoned belief’ with disrespect towards ‘unreasoned unbelief’, observing that the attitude of intellectual honesty had replaced the love of truth. (Leo Strauss: Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Basic Books, New York, 1968). Yet Strauss assures us, that the dogmatic exclusion of religious awareness spoils any long term predictions in societies. This was the fate of the reformer Franz Rosenzweig, pre-eminent Jewish philosopher of Weimar Germany, who died shortly before the Nazi ascendency. He had performed a conscious and radical historization of the Torah under the premise of the primacy of the individual in modern society. He opposed Jewish orthodoxy in “their inclination to understand the Law in terms of prohibition, denial, refusal, and rejection, rather than in terms of command, liberation, granting, and transformation, the opposite inclination.”

Now after the breakdown of totalitarianism classical liberalism was recovered but without new foundations, just the old low hanging fruits of free market liberalism. It was for this reason that it became possible for the new Liberals, dominating the post-War II United States, to shift its core from classical English economics to society by that creating social liberalism which is the equivalent of a liberty without conscience. And that new liberalism tends to stifle individual freedom in favor of equality. Today most of the political culture is authoritarian PC liberalism, led by establishment intellectuals, and framed by “liberal versus conservative” (F. Hayek:”Why I am not a Conservative”, FH) – a situation that indicates the breakdown of liberal understanding. In order to get through the restrictions of PC mainstream culture, one must bargain to an extent that permits little of the inspirational quality that Milton Friedman could bring across. Yet the emergence of neo-conservatives in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s in the Unites States by Trotskyite heretics masked the collapse of the liberal elites, which only recently became fully exposed by their mute reaction to the financial crisis.

Leo Strauss pointed out that the modern term of responsibility, isolated from its Judeo-Christian and Hellenistic context is a neologism and has substituted words such as duty, conscience and virtue, expanding on Acton’s concept. For he also asserts that the connection between liberality and being virtuous has been lost and “the modern paradox is therefore that the true liberal is the conservative” Strauss also observed how liberals are regarding authority as derivative solely from society, and following from the free market philosophy, society is spontaneous or automatic rather than established by man. This entails the denial of the existence of any longstanding and fixed rules. To modern liberals those rules are merely address needs and change with those needs. As a result humans are not guilt ridden but radical, egalitarian and democratic.

Anthony Giddens used to speak of the unavoidable feedback loop in social science which tends to bias all data. One example is political freedom versus oppression, present in all regimes. Both are then measured by the new science in percentages leaving merely a difference of degree between liberal democracy and Communism with regard to freedom and repression. By reducing political to sociological terms, supposed to make things more realistic is merely a spurious formality of the kind that Acton reminded us to. Now Strauss argues that for quite some time conservatives have stood for what previously liberalism stood for. This is why the original credentials of liberty need to be reappraised.

We don’t need to look any further than the fact that the principle of democracy is not virtue but freedom as a “human right” of every citizen to live as he likes, properly epitomized in the post-modern slogans of ‘anything goes’. The Jews traditionally rendered the unbeliever as Epicurean or hedonist, driven by the desire to throw of the yoke of duties and the postponement of pleasure. Well this encapsulates still pretty good the impression we get from the OWS crowds that Obama and his democrats have endorsed. In Jewish morality the reward for fulfilling the commandment is the commandment. Yet enlightened Spinoza’s egoistic morality demands rewards for the fulfillment of the commandments degrading them to means to an end. Hawing instigated the protest movement Obama is facing the dilemma that lies in the contradiction between liberating the individual from below and taming it with enlightenment from above. This was immortalized by Locke in the line, that one may kill a king but only with reverence for that king.

Leo Strauss assumes an inevitable race between becoming enlightened from above and making use of freedom from below which has in the past triggered revolts against enlightened despotism. Europe, being way more secular than the United States is already becoming visibly less democratic and more authoritarian and that’s the statist way of thinking we get from the OWS. The still unresolved issue with enlightenment freedom is this: the less religious people and morality you can rely on in a society the more unruly it gets and the more authoritarian a state you need. It was for this reason that T.S. Elliot warned against “dreaming of systems so perfect that nobody will need to be good”. Religion, rightly understood and managed, can deliver the best form of subsidiarity in terms of self-rule down to the last citizen requiring the least coercion and police to establish order and right conduct in communities. Yet if we are to abandon the capacity to self-rule and self-reliance inherent in religious communities this inevitable conjures up the need for authoritarian government and even a police state. This could be watched like in a life stream over the last 60 years in Britain (Eamonn Butler, The Rotten State of Britain, 2009). The rapid post WW II secularization undermined British institutions to a degree never seen before (Peter Mullen, The Secular Terrorist- How Britain Conspires in its own Destruction, 2009).

This is where the smelly OWS protesters of St Paul’s come in again, scared only by their invisible carbon foot print. These protesters are probably expressing an unwelcome truth about the society we are living in including their use of dangerous drugs. Jewish orthodoxy based its claim to superiority on its superior rationality (Deut. 4:6). Contrary to that the ‘will to power’ of the OWS atheists is one of the superiority of force of the strong over the weak, including some anti-Semitic undertones that are notoriously tossed at Bankers. We can conclude: What the classical liberals still left to tradition and conscience, the libertarians, following Freud and Hayek, reduced to spontaneous evolution, drugs and the unconscious. From there originates the claim for liberating drug use which is the nearest thing to spirituality most atheist can come up with. It is certainly the most radical rejection of sublimation and postponement of pleasure, the rationalization being that it gives otherwise unavailable access to the unconscious. Yet this is driven by the last enlightened myth, that we can get progress only if we turn to and liberate the noble savage in man as Rousseau has taught us. And it is probably for this enlightened prejudice that Freud and Hayek both used dangerous drugs in ways short only of manifest addiction. This ‘atheism with good conscience’ is what the former share with the OWS people. But as a philosophy of for mass circulation it could dangerously outcrop traditional decent and moral behavior and utterly destroy the fountain of liberty altogether.