Tyranny’s Freedoms

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Feb 9, 2019 · 6 min read

American freedom, as most people experience it, could be experienced just as well under tyranny. In fact, because our freedom to do as we please is no less threatened than it was a few years ago, we might complete our slide into tyranny and say with perfect justice to anyone we find in that darkened state, “It’s a free country.”

We would say it as a retort, of course, as we always have, as we would in a democracy or a republic, to anyone who challenged the appropriateness or wisdom of any of our choices. It is my will, after all, that sets me apart, that makes me an individual, Augustine said, even more than my temperament.[1] As long as I have free will and can discover myself in it, I live in a free country.

The American notion of the rugged individualist seems central to our collective self-understanding — an ironic notion of the collective that befits our old Wild West less than it befits today’s suburbia, where few communities exist. This version of self-understanding, which Lewis Thomas amplifies as “the marvelous old free-willed, free-enterprising, autonomous, independent, isolated island of a self,” he also calls a myth. But this self-understanding is, Hannah Arendt assures us, a kind of freedom.[2]

I can take this freedom anywhere, as I would a compact mirror, and conjure myself to myself anytime. I can acknowledge that my liberty may be another man’s license; I can listen to the preacher who reminds me to “use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” But if I cause my brother to stumble, or if I stumble myself, at least I’m not breaking any law. It’s a free country.

The freedom we celebrate in the norms we break or the predilections we indulge is a popular form of what Montesquieu calls “philosophic liberty”: “Philosophic liberty consists in the free exercise of the will; or at least, if we must speak agreeably to all systems, in an opinion that we have the free exercise of our will.”[3] Here Montesquieu makes allowances for “all systems,” that is, for different philosophical views on whether free will exists or is really only a mirage. The will is a relative latecomer to philosophy; Hannah Arendt points out that Paul is the first to examine it as a separate function of the human mind.[4] And Paul’s “system” doesn’t flatter the will: “what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.”[5] The will, at least for Paul, is not our magic mirror to proper self-understanding.

Montesquieu’s “Philosophic liberty” has nothing to do with politics, which is probably why it travels well. In fact, Montesquieu contrasts this “philosophic liberty” with “political liberty,” and the latter he defines as “a tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has of his safety.”[6] But with “safety” our rugged individualist mindset immediately reverts us to mere “philosophic liberty”; after all, we understand safety as necessary for us as we pursue our private lives “so excited, so full of wishes and work,” as Tocqueville characterizes them.[7] (Jesus similarly characterizes our private lives: the “cares and riches and pleasures of life.”[8]) And Thomas Hobbes is with us: he recommends an absolute monarch precisely to secure our safety within our private spheres. But Montesquieu speaks of our safety in a different place — our public sphere.

The cost of Hobbes’s safety, of course, is something that we have almost finished paying — our public lives. Hobbes’s Leviathan excludes everyone from the public domain but himself. Leviathan, though, lets me exercise my “philosophic liberty” — my will — to my heart’s content precisely because “philosophic liberty” has nothing to do with politics.

“Philosophic liberty” — this freedom from politics, as opposed to a freedom in politics — may have started with Plato. Plato sought a rarefied world for philosophers above the noise of the Athenian polis. We’ve expanded Plato’s notion: every approving reference to a “silent majority” is a politician’s attempt to clear not only philosophers but also the public itself out of the noisy public sphere. You are too busy for politics, Nixon assures us. I will protect your purely private interests — your effort to maintain a private morality (whatever that is) and your private wishes and your private work — from the public mob. Hobbes and Nixon sing us a lullaby, hoping to keep our public lives asleep.

Montesquieu’s “safety” is not Nixon’s or Hobbes’s, though. It is safety not from our fellow subjects or citizens, as it is for Hobbes, but from a government that wishes to monopolize the public realm. In both instances in The Spirit of the Laws where Montesquieu defines “political liberty” as “safety,” he discusses ways to limit the government’s dominance in public life, first through criminal procedure and second through balancing and separating governmental powers. “Political liberty” is the public safety needed to develop a mature public life.

A cursory reading of our Bill of Rights suggests the length and breadth and height of “political liberty” and the safety we require to exercise it: requiring a warrant from a separate branch of government before being subjected to a search or a seizure, insisting on juries when accused by the government of a crime, exercising a religion frowned on by a majority of our countrymen, speaking in public against government policy, publishing newspapers critical of the government, assembling in peaceful protest, and petitioning the government with grievances. Although these freedoms protect us all, they are designed for those who act, for those who insist on a public realm. “Political liberty” is for the public, a part of ourselves we’ve almost entirely lost.

For the Periclean Greeks, unlike for us, all freedom is “political liberty.” Freedom for them is the ability, not to will, but to act. All action requires community, and in the public realm only “tyrants or criminals” can act alone.[9] But everyone wills alone. In our private domains, our wills sit enthroned, apathetic to a public sphere that requires the care and demands the advance of a kingdom greater than ourselves. But the will of each is a divided kingdom. Nothing is as enervating as the will, Paul suggests, because the will always runs up against an internal “nil.”

Let’s say Trump leaves office. He might, after all: Tocqueville in a Democracy in America footnote says of oppressive executors, “the causes which enable them to succeed easily, prevent them from succeeding long: they rise because nothing opposes them, and they sink because nothing supports them.” This “nothing” that gives rise to a tyrant’s rise and fall, Tocqueville explains, is “general apathy, which is the consequence of what I have termed Individualism.”[10] And of what, for my part, I have termed our rugged individualism and the childish, pusillanimous freedoms that placate it — an individualism that is as happy with tyranny as with any other form of egalitarian government.[11]

Our enemy, Tocqueville concludes in his footnote, is not despotism: “The proper object therefore of our most strenuous resistance, is far less either anarchy or despotism, than that apathy which may almost indifferently beget either the one or the other.”[12] Trump, who like Nixon attacks the press, calls peaceful protests “mobs,” and seeks to make the justice system his own, should go. But what eventually will take his place? Swept and clean and empty again of a public life, our last state may become worse than our first. Hobbes’s Leviathan or Lincoln’s “man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch”[13] could make the public realm his own, shred our Bill of Rights, and teach us morality,[14] that is, teach us how to play nice with our diverting little freedoms.

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[1] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing, at 109.

[2] Newsweek, June 24, 1974, at 89.

[3] The Spirit of the Laws, Book 12, Chap. 2.

[4] Arendt, supra, at 64.

[5] Romans 7:15.

[6] Spirit, supra, Book 11, Chap. 6.

[7] Democracy in America, Norton Critical Edition, at 583.

[8] Luke 8:13.

[9] Arendt, supra, at 201.

[10] Democracy, supra, at 604.

[11] Tyranny is an egalitarian form of government. As Arendt points out, “the tyrant is the ruler who rules as one against all, and the ‘all’ he oppresses are all equal, namely equally powerless.” Between Past and Future at 99. The difference between tyranny and democracy is not equality. The difference between tyranny and democracy lies in the ability in a democracy to exercise equality in a public realm.

[12] Democracy, supra.

[13] Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858, at 34–35.

[14] For Simone de Beauvoir in Occupied Paris, “One necessary adjustment was learning to put up with the idiotic and moralistic homilies emanating every day from the collaborationist government — reminders to respect God, to honor the principle of the family, to follow traditional virtues.” Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café, at 140.

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