[NOTE: This is an extension of my post on the pursuit of happiness. If you have not already read The Pursuit of Happiness Under Natural Law I strongly suggest that you do so before reading this post, as this post is meant to help explain the former in greater detail. I would also offer this note of warning: this is a lengthy post with a lot of historic and philosophical content, but it is essential reading to those seeking to understand the purpose and principles of liberty.]
To what purpose, Liberty? The ancient philosophers believed that liberty had a purpose: they believed it was the pursuit of wisdom so as to live a virtuous life. Our founders believed the same thing. In fact, that is what Jefferson actually meant by the phrase “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” You see, for the ancients and our founders, happiness was not found in being free to do whatever you want, but in being free to pursue a virtuous or moral life. In fact, Jefferson’s phrase was derived from a legal principle of his time: that of Natural Law and man’s duty to live within it. The following is a short history lesson that will demonstrate that this was the understanding of our founders:
The Blackstone Institute honors Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780). Blackstone was the great Eighteenth Century English legal scholar whose philosophy and writings were infused with Judeo-Christian principles. The Ten Commandments are at the heart of Blackstone’s philosophy. Blackstone taught that man is created by God and granted fundamental rights by God. Man’s law must be based on God’s law. Our Founding Fathers referred to Blackstone more than to any other English or American authority. Blackstone’s great work, Commentaries on the Laws of England, was basic to the U. S. Constitution. This work has sold more copies in America than in England and was a basic textbook of America’s early lawyers. It was only in the mid-Twentieth Century that American law, being re-written by the U. S. Supreme Court, repudiated Blackstone. An attack on Blackstone is an attack on the U. S. Constitution and our nation’s Judeo-Christian foundations. The Blackstone Institute is committed to reviving the Constitution and its Blackstonian foundations.
From Blackstone’s Commentaries:
When the Supreme Being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter… When he put that matter into motion, he established certain laws of motion… If we farther advance to vegetable and animal life, we shall find them still governed by laws;… [The operations of inanimate and organic processes] are not left to chance, or the will of the creature itself, but are performed in a wondrous involuntary manner, and guide by unerring rules laid down by the Creator… Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is an entirely dependent being… And consequently as man depends absolutely upon his maker for every thing, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his maker’s will. This will of his maker is called the law of nature.
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765)
The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures… These precepts…are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature,… As then the moral precepts of this law are indeed of the same original with those of the law of nature…the revealed law…is the law of nature expressly declared to be so by God himself;… Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws…the law of nature and the law of God…
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765)
[NOTE: for an excellent exposition of the historic development of this and related concepts, please see Chapter 2 of Gary T. Amos’s book, “Defending the Declaration.”]
This was the understanding of Natural Law and the pursuit of happiness that Jefferson held when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and the understanding to which our founders appealed when they signed that same document. And, inherent in this declaration of understanding is the assertion that liberty has a proper purpose, and that this purpose carries with it a duty to others and to society. Today, we have forgotten this. Today, we think that liberty means being able to do whatever we wish. The difference between our founders’ understanding and our own is the same as that between a wise adult and a petulant child – we being the petulant child.
Now, how does this apply to our modern world? Well, I suppose that is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself, but I would like to share some relevant observations with you. I say share because this is just what I have been considering in my own, personal search to find and understand the world as it really is and not as I wish it to be. You’ll have to read and consider my thoughts for yourself. Feel free to accept them reject them or work them into your own world view as they are just this: my understanding of the world as I see it now.
So, in considering the issue of Natural Law and the purpose of Liberty, I discovered that the modern sense of Liberty is as destructive to society as the notion of the Collective. You see, both destroy our traditions, our culture and our language. On one side, the Collective demands 100% surrender of individual will to that of the collective. From this, a 100% duty to the needs and will of the collective is forced on every individual and liberty is destroyed. On the other end, total liberty is 100% dominated by the desire of the individual. From this, a duty to the “rights and liberty” of one individual is thrust on every other individual and, thus, destroys the individual again. You see, if I must conform my behavior so as not to trample what another person sees as their rights, my will is confined. Either way, the will of the individual is restrained and the individual disappears.
Both extremes destroy society by demanding a change to society’s traditions, culture and even its language. This removes any sense of certainty and predictability from society: both of which are necessary to a feeling of individual well being and security. Once this ability to predict the outcome of certain events or behaviors is removed, the result is a loss of security, which then leads to a sense of general unease, dread and agitation. At that point, the door is opened to tyranny as people will embrace the first person who promises to restore that sense of certainty and security. This destruction of society and slide into tyranny can come in many forms, but today, our society is battling two primary forms: Statism (the many forms of collectivism) and Anarchy (the extreme form of individualism).
Let me use the issue of homosexual marriage to demonstrate how both extremes result in the same ends. On the one extreme, the collective, it is decided that everyone must be equal and that all people must accept each other as equal. Thus, the definition of marriage is changed by legislation and people are forced by law to recognize and accept this change in their language, customs and traditions. On the other end, the individualist claims that we all have the right to do what we want – just as long as we don’t hurt anyone else. So the individualist demands that we alter the definition of marriage and that everyone else recognize their “right” to live as they want (so long as they don’t hurt anyone else). The result is the same: the language has been changed; culture and tradition have been altered. But where in all of this are the rights of other individuals and of society? Where is the democratic factor so heralded by both the collectivist and the individualist? Nowhere to be found…
You see, Liberty carries with it a duty to others and to society. But this understanding lies in the realm of wisdom, and the pursuit of wisdom is part of the pursuit of virtue, of true happiness. But we have devolved in our understanding of these things so, today, we reject the wisdom of old and embrace our own, selfish demands. We reject our duty to others and to society and invent infinite rationalizations to justify our arrogance and narcissism. And this is where and we part from Natural law, and this is why our society is in decay and so many of us are more miserable than man has ever been before.