Michael Novak on the Hunger for Liberty (Part 1)

On the Need for Morality to Safeguard Freedom

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 11, 2005 (Zenit.org).- A regulative ideal of truth is necessary to ensure ground rules for a healthy dialogue in the public arena, says a leading political scientist.

Michael Novak explores his premise in his book, “The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable” (Basic Books).

He holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is director of social and political studies.

In the first segment of a three-part interview, Novak shared with ZENIT the meaning of liberty, and how democracy affects political and economic liberty and the search for truth.

Q: What do you mean by “liberty”?

Novak: The Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France in 1886, shows a serious woman as the symbol of liberty. In one of Lady Liberty’s upraised hands she bears the torch of reason against the mists of passion and the darkness of ignorance, and in her other hand the Book of the Law. An old American hymn sings: “Confirm thy soul in self-control/ Thy liberty in law.”

The theological background to this statue, at least as it is understood in America, is as follows. The reason the Creator created the universe is so that somewhere in it there would be at least one creature capable of receiving the Creator’s offer of friendship –- receiving it freely, to accept or to reject.

If the gift was friendship, that gift had to be rendered in freedom. Freedom is the necessary condition for friendship between God and man, man and God. That is the theological background of the term.

But in America there is also a historical and political background. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania — my own native state — belonged to the Society of Friends, or Quakers, who wanted to build his new colony on the ideal of God’s friendship extended to humans and reciprocated by humans; therefore they named its capital Philadelphia, City of the Love of Brothers.

Penn made the first article of the Pennsylvania Charter the principle of liberty. If friendship, then liberty.

Finally, there is the philosophical background. As Lord Acton put it, liberty is not the right to do whatever we please, but the right to do what we ought to do. The other animals do what they please –- whatever their instincts direct.

But humans have an opportunity to follow their own higher insight, understanding and judgment. Humans sense within themselves a call to use their heads to become masters of their own instincts; they are self-governors.

This is the liberty for which, when it is in its own season at last awakened, there is a universal call among human beings: The hunger to become masters of their own choices and provident over their own destiny. In this we are made in the image of our Creator. And in this, as Aristotle put it, we are made political animals, as we reason together about our common life.

Q: What is the link between freedom and truth?

Novak: The links are many. More than one chapter in “The Universal Hunger for Liberty” is devoted to spelling them out. In particular, as I explain in Chapter 2, a vision of “Caritapolis,” or a planet of worldwide friendship, is based upon a non-relativistic conception of truth, suitable for a conversation among several truly contrary civilizations.

The first step in coming to such a vision is to approach by a kind of “via negativa.” Suppose there is no regulative ideal of truth that imposes itself upon all of us. In that case, if anyone who is oppressed by thugs complains of his oppression, the thugs can legitimately reply: “But that is only your opinion. In our opinion, this is what you deserve.”

The old saying “The truth shall make you free” makes a very rich point and deserves much reflection, also in practical political terms.

How do we institutionalize a conversation in which all participants are bound by a regulative ideal of truth, such that each must present evidence that may be judged by others as closer or farther from the truth, and in such a manner that all together can move forward, learning from each other, in the direction of a fuller grasp of the truth?

To participate in such a conversation means to be willing to impose the disciplines of evidence and reason upon oneself, and to remain open to the light of criticism from others and criticism also by oneself, in the light of the truth which we all are pursuing together.

If we wish to become free from our illusions, and free from false and superficial apprehensions, we need to keep making strides forward toward the light of truth. None of us wholly possesses truth; on the contrary, each of us is under judgment in the light of truth, which is greater than any of us.

Yet a love for the truth greater than our present selves may grip us and impel us forward, ever more deeply. To achieve a greater penetration of the truth about ourselves and our destiny, we need to be freed from our own self-love and illusions. In this sense, truth and freedom grow together.

Q: How does liberty in the moral-cultural sphere affect political and economic liberty?

Novak: It is the soul that animates the other two. When the virtues proper to moral liberty weaken, so does the vitality of economic and political liberty. The cardinal virtues of honesty, courage, practical realism and self-control — temperance — are indispensable in democracy and a dynamic, creative economy.

By moral liberty I mean the right to do what one ought to do, not what one pleases. The other animals can only obey their instincts. Humans have a right and a duty to discern among their instincts the way of reason, the law of God, and to exercise self-government in following that law down the pathways of liberty.

Q: You say that liberty and democracy require an objective moral order, but doesn’t democracy undermine objective truths?

Novak: My approach to this question is dialectical, rooted in the horrific experiences of our time. Without hesitation or cavil, the Holocaust of the Hitler period is recognized as evil, and not just in somebody or other’s opinion.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands as a record, as it were, of some acts that ought never to be committed or countenanced by the civilized world. These prohibitions have been reached by a kind of “via negativa,” by living through certain specific evils and coming to abhor them beyond endurance, beyond tolerance.

Agreements on such matters were able to be achieved in possibly the most remarkable act of public philosophy the world has ever come to. Jews and Christians played a leading role in thinking this through. Thankfully, Mary Ann Glendon at Harvard has written a splendid study of this achievement in “A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Another line of reflection runs as follows. How can a people that cannot govern its passions in their private lives govern their passions in their public life together? There is an intimate relation between self-government in private life — strong moral habits among individuals — and self-government in political life.

This is the link that is corrupted by the welfare state, on the one hand, and by the cultivation of hedonism and moral fecklessness by the media, on the other hand. This moral corruption of democracy from within, in turn, corrupts intellectual life, and makes a sound public philosophy — a moral philosophy –unsustainable.

Fortunately, moral awakenings do occur in history. The free world is much in need of one these days. As Charles Peguy used to remind himself by a sign posted at his doorway, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”

It is not democracy that undermines the search for truth, but the moral corruption of democracy from within. The fact that democracy depends on moral agency makes democracy fragile and weak. It is in need of endless vigilance and moral reawakening.

[Thursday: The clash of civilizations?]

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