Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I'm reading an amazing book, called Democracy In America written in 1835 by a Frenchman visiting the U.S., Alexis de Tocqueville. The book is his reflection on what he sees as he tours America, as he compares his French and larger European culture to what he witnesses in the U.S.

I'm only through the first two chapters, but already have found some incredibly interesting thoughts that don't square with how America is now. Obviously, a democracy is made to be pliable in the hands of its residents and is allowed to change. But sometimes, I think it's changed by people saying it has always been the way it is now, rather than admitting that the way it is now is different than how it was. It's ok for a democracy to rewrite its rules, but it seems like we should at least be aware of the way an idea was when it started so we can evaluate whether or not we are happy with what it has become.

As I read the following excerpt I realized that not only does it not square with how we (or at least I) perceive freedom now, I think it is different than the way most of us assume the creators of a society based on liberty saw liberty.
Make no mistake about what we ought to understand by our independence. There is in fact a corrupt sort of liberty, the use of which is common to animals and men, and which consists in doing whatever they like. This liberty is the enemy of all authority; it is impatient of all rules. With it, we become inferior to ourselves. It is the enemy of truth and peace, and God believed it his duty to rise against it! But there is a civil and moral liberty that finds its strength in union, and which it is the mission of power itself to proect: this is the liberty to do what is just and good without fear. This sacred liberty we must defend in all circumstances and if necessary risk our life for it.

De Tocqueville is quoting John Winthrop, a then deputy-governor of Massachusetts. How does the concept that liberty is not the freedom to do whatever you like hit you?

If asked for a definition of freedom, I would have given something nearly that: freedom is the ability to do as you please within the confines of the law (aka as far as your freedom doesn't impinge on mine).

So do you see a difference between Winthrop's definition of liberty and your working definition? I sure do. If there is a difference, then it means that somewhere along the way there's been a change. Is that what we want? Today, should we be operating on Winthrop's definition or the one we're using?

(I'm not trying to be sarcastic, what do you think?)