Freedom and morality, far from being incompatible, need one another to endure. Morality without freedom becomes craven servility or hypocrisy. Freedom without morality becomes selfishness. Our system of government, our constitutional rights and protections, would not last a day without a standard of behavior shared by the entire community.
Only virtue engenders freedom. I have recently dealt with this proposition in general terms, and am now inclined to wax specific. This, then, is the first of what will be, of necessity, an intermittent series of posts, each focusing on a distinct virtue required to maintain our freedom.
I start with self-rule. I have posted on this virtue before. But the subject is important, and bears examination from many perspectives.
What do I mean by self-rule? Nothing more than command over immediate desires.
As a species, we evolved in an environment quite limited in stimulation. As social animals, we have multiplied and heightened the temptations available around us. As modern consumers, we get bombarded with things delightful to the senses, which we are told we crave and must possess. Because of the poverty of our ancestral environment, we are powerfully driven to yield to such delights.
Who rules: the man or the thing? The question is as old as morality itself, but posing it is also the starting-place of human freedom.
Action depends on desire. We can’t escape biology: our senses, the nervous system, the inner storm of emotions and sensations that attach us to objects and move us to act. But we desire many things, some of which are immediate, some of which are only achievable if we refuse to yield to passing temptation.
If I desire a college degree, I must sacrifice four years of my independence. If I desire to advance in my work, I must refrain from embezzling the funds placed in my care. If I desire a happy lifelong marriage, I can’t enjoy all those women around me. If I desire to remain a citizen in a free republic, I will vote out of office the politician who panders to my selfish interests.
Self-rule means an intelligent organization, not a renunciation, of desire. The self-ruled man knows that desires can be noble or base, and turns one kind of desire, lever-like, against the other. Self-knowledge — knowledge of our weaknesses rather than narcissism — is, therefore, a requirement of self-rule.
The self-ruled man seeks to impose a theme on the muddle of sensations, on the random dislocated moments that add up to a life. Success in this endeavor is at best partial, but the attempt is what separates us from the animals. If I want to be a good worker but am sometimes slack, that is a venial failing. If I refuse to work but meander into theft, or preying on others, or subsisting on whatever scraps come my way, that makes me worse than a beast. Worse, because I could have chosen — and chosen differently.
The self-ruled man makes government by the people possible. He can pursue the long view, the general interest. Conversely, the rule of immediate desire leads by short steps to tyranny. We will sell our freedom to whomever fills our bellies: a bargain that can be enacted just once.
I have noted elsewhere a tension in the American economic system, what we often call, with some justice, free enterprise. It is indeed free in that it generates an abundance of choices. Yet to succumb indiscriminately to those choices — to exist in order to consume — would destroy freedom at every level, from the personal to the political.
Self-rule, in a sense, is the art of yielding discriminately to temptation. Americans, happy in their long “Jeffersonian moment,” have perfected this art, but we should take care not to grow too fat, too complacent. Take a look around: the world is a hard place. A people unable to master their passions will be enslaved by hard men, and will live out their days beyond the reach of either freedom or virtue.