Liberty’s Folly, Part I

liberty ashamed

Now it must be granted that folly is a disease of the soul, and of folly there are two kinds: one is madness, the other stupidity. So when anyone suffers at all from either of these, it must be termed disease; and pleasure and pains that are excessive must be set down as the greatest of diseases of the soul. For when a human is overjoyed or suffers in a contrary way from pain, and hastens inappropriately to seize the one while fleeing the other, he can neither see nor hear anything correctly, and he goes crazy and at those times is least able to partake in reason. – Timaeus (86B-C)

This post is the continuation of the previous “What is Liberty Without Duty?” post. It begins from the conception of liberty as civil liberty, also articulated in the previous post. For sake of clarity, the definition of liberty is reasserted here, quoting John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government:

“…freedom is not, as we are told, liberty for every man to do what he lists: but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowances of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.

Liberty, then, is the ability to do what one wishes within and according to the laws established by society, and applicable to all within it. For freedom from the arbitrary will of others necessarily entails the establishment of civil society which itself entails collective subjection to the rule of law. Natural liberty – the freedom to do whatever one will – is appropriate in the lawless state of nature, what Locke also calls the state of war; in society, then, natural liberty is exchanged for civil liberty and the rule of law. Where in the former, men were subjected to a chaotic state of nature, men in the latter condition are subjected to lawful government. It is ironic in a sense that men are always subject to some necessity “higher” than himself – so be it – but man is able to choose under which he will live. Man’s nature is such that civil society is best for him.

Locke also says, “We are born free, as we are born rational;” however, this freedom is conditional – for he continues, “not that we have actually the exercise of either: age, that brings one, brings with it the other too.” Locke goes on to describe childhood and the inappropriateness of giving children the freedom that is proper to adults. He states:

The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst the brutes, and abandon him to a state as wretched and as much beneath that of man, as theirs.

Locke is in agreement with Plato. There is a necessary precondition that must be met before an individual can become free. For both philosophers, exercising reason (in the philosophical sense: Reason) is this requisite. Locke thinks that childhood (and madness) disqualifies one from properly exercising reason and freedom; Plato thinks it is folly (madness or stupidity) and excesses (of pleasure and pain).

It is easy to understand why children cannot exercise reason and, thus, cannot be considered at liberty. Madness, too, people understand – and in a court of law, those who are insane are not responsible for their actions and are dealt with accordingly. However, “excesses” are much more difficult to understand, at first.

Plato, in the quote earlier from Timaeus, states that the excesses of pleasure and pain reduce one’s ability to be reasonable; and without reason, one cannot be free. That said, is it enough to simply be able to reason that makes one free? Can not a reasonable man justify immoral actions? Can the selfsame man not make immoral laws? – laws which do not infringe upon the liberty and property of others directly, but which reduce over time (or even immediately) in a justifiable manner one or all of the assets of a civil society, as Locke describes it: “comfort, safety, peaceable living one against another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it?”

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As mentioned in the previous post, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, in his Social Contract added another element to the social contract and the civil liberties that derive from it. Namely, moral liberty. For him, the state of nature, where man is free to indulge in any action, no matter how obscene, is comparable to indulgence – doing whatever one feels, submitting to appetite and desire at the expense of restraint and virtue. He writes, “the mere impulse of appetite is slavery; while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” Again, restraint – for the common good (and in this instance the individual good) – is liberty; yes, it is a restraint, but liberty is an ironic restraint: an exchange of total freedom and chaotic-anarchy for civil liberty and legal order. So the same for moral liberty, which Rosseau, and many other prominent philosophers would argue, is the real foundation for meaningful liberty, and a liberty that ultimately protects civil liberties and social order.

Aristotle, too, talks of excess and virtue. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that virtue is, like reason and liberty: “… by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity.” For Aristotle the mean is virtue; and excess (or deficiency) is vice. So, for example, courage is a virtue – the mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness. Cowardice was a defect of courage and rashness was an excess – either extreme negates the virtue courage. He writes:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate to both produces and increases and preserves it. So too it is, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, become in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

While the excesses of pain and pleasure make one unreasonable because Reason is overwhelmed by either emotion, the excesses (or defects) of virtue, i.e. moral liberty, make one incapable of exercising that liberty because moderation, which is the means to virtue, is “destroyed.” This ethical failure, as a result, disqualifies one from moral freedom and liberty – the true foundation of a civil society.

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Part II of this post will give some examples of using reason to infringe upon liberty according to an a-ethical conception of the social contract so as to illustrate the necessity of ethics as part of the social contract and civil liberties. Further, it will give some of the problems of excess and how they negatively impact civil society, and will ask some difficult questions. Lastly, it will address potential remedies for the excesses of and deficits of Western civil society.