Michael Novak on the Hunger for Liberty (Part 3)

On Europe’s Lost Desire for Freedom

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 13, 2005 (Zenit.org).- As many Europeans have ceased to be faithful to Judaism and Christianity, they also have lost their taste both for liberty and for the God of liberty.

So says Michael Novak, author of “The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable” (Basic Books) and holder of the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

He shared with ZENIT how Judaism and Christianity contributed the sharp taste of liberty and true human dignity to European identity.

Part 2 of this interview appeared Thursday.

Q: It can be persuasively argued that the nations of the West have lost their desire for liberty — at least the European nations have. In Europe, government expansion and new forms of cultural and social despotism are on the rise. What is the source of this trend?

Novak: One answer is the welfare state, which displaces personal responsibility from the center of the political universe and replaces it with the “caring” state — the “new soft despotism” predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America.”

A deeper answer, perhaps, is the drama of atheistic humanism. If there is no God, what human beings do with their lives does not matter in the end. Nothing eternal is at stake — nothing true or just or significant.

In a world of nihilism, or even relativism, comfort and convenience are as significant as liberty. To most people, they may be even more attractive. In Europe, it seems as if they are.

What Christianity and Judaism once contributed to European identity was a taste for the importance of how women and men use their personal liberty, either to be faithful to their God or to turn away from him. People could be unfaithful to God directly to his face, or indirectly through their betrayal of their duties to others.

At bottom, what Judaism and Christianity contributed to European identity, then, was the sharp taste of liberty — the taste of true human dignity, trembling in the delicate balance of how humans decide to use their liberty.

As Europeans ceased to be faithful to Judaism and Christianity — in the primacy of liberty, the Torah is at one with the New Testament — they have lost their taste both for liberty and for the God of liberty. They have erected other, false gods.

More than we used to think, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus seems indispensable to the Western hunger for liberty. It seems empirically evident that secularism has precipitated the death of the hunger for liberty.

That is one reason why I argue that Muslims should not be pressed to pursue the path of secularism. On the contrary, we can see by the experience of the West — and also the experience of Arab secular states — that secularism withers liberty as winter withers the formerly green forests and fields. Secularism has no resources to arrest moral decadence, or the raw will-to-power.

The God of Abraham made women and men free. The God who created us created us free at the same time. That is the root of our hunger, our thirst, to be what we are meant to be. Liberty is a hunger and a thirst in all human creatures, even in those who have sought to still it, and kill it, in their own hearts.

Political history provides many proofs of the proposition that the hunger for liberty has a persistent historical power. The history of our own time is the most vivid lesson imaginable in the truth of this proposition.

Consider first the evidence since January 30 of this year. The courageous, ink-fingered election in Iraq followed upon the “Orange revolution” in Ukraine, which was followed in turn by the dynamic election in Palestine, the brave open demonstrations in Lebanon and yet other public demands in other nations.

Then think backward to the world of the year 1905. In many ways, the history of the 20th century was an attempt to impose tyranny in various forms upon the whole human race.

And yet, from a small handful of relatively free polities in 1905, the world has grown to well over 120 today — not without world wars, not without immense struggle and not without continuing problems, but with undeniable effort, willingness to sacrifice and modest success.

Now the hunger for liberty is slowly sweeping through the Muslim world — not least in the Arab countries — as well as the Muslim nations of the “soft underbelly” of the former Soviet Union, the countries whose names end in “-stan.”

In this sense, my book, written in 2003, has already begun to be vindicated by events. Its hypothesis — and the reasons given for it — seems far more in touch with reality today than they did when they were first written down. So, at least, I invite readers to verify, or to falsify.

Where I am mistaken, perhaps others can put the truth of things more exactly. I would welcome that.

Q: Does the fostering of liberty in Muslim, and other, cultures require secularism?

Novak: On the contrary. Experience shows that secularism is not a sustainable moral ecology. Secularism has no corrective to moral decadence, corruption and decline. It is parasitical on the moral ecology that proceeded the secular era, and when that original moral impulse is exhausted, what has moral relativism got to teach or even to recommend?

Now there may be a form of secularism that is not relativistic or nihilistic. The Rome of Cicero and Seneca seemed to be of that sort, if one can call secular a culture so permeated with piety to the gods of Rome. But one reason Rome yielded to Christianity was the superior moral power of the Christian ethic, especially the Christian conception of liberty.

An analogous conception of liberty lies buried in the Islamic conception of rewards and punishments for personal actions. I would encourage and challenge Islamic thinkers to draw from their own resources a full-blown theory of liberty, both personal and political, to an extent never achieved before.

Q: How do political and economic liberties reinforce each other?

Novak: Either without the other is plainly flawed.

If all democracy brings a people is a chance to vote every so often, without any economic improvement in the conditions of the poor, the people will not love democracy. Conversely, if there is economic prosperity without protection for the civil rights of minorities, moral restlessness and even rebellion will fester.

Political liberty is restless until it ends in economic liberty, just as economic liberty soon raises demands for political liberty. In both cases, what one means by “liberty” is not license but self-government — personal initiative, and also respect for the law, civil and moral.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation