A Commonplace Enlightenment

We share a common desire to find our roots in the past. This is true for tracing our physical heritage as well as that of our intellect. We feel a deep comfort in seeing ourselves as part of a larger fabric of being. 

I have read essays lately tracing our Western desire for liberty back, in one instance, to “Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, Milton, Dryden, Bacon, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Pascal, Locke, Rousseau, Paine, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, Burke and Adam Smith.”

I have read Cervantes, not in the original Spanish, but in two highly regarded translations, and though I greatly appreciate his sense and sensibility, he has no larger love of liberty in the way that we think of it today, than say, Jane Austen. 

This is not to disagree with the idea that touchstones of liberty are to be found in much of world history and in world literature, but context is the key. There are reasons that Spain succumbed so completely to despotism and spread that evil to much of the New World. This essay is not meant to expound on the reasons for Spain’s greater inclination toward coercion as a means of social control, so well exemplified by the Inquisition. Certainly, there was an abundance of witch burning and Puritanical absolutism among English-speaking peoples. But clearly there were reasons why individual liberty flourished among the colonies of Britain as much as Britain itself. 

In this age of self-consciousness it may be difficult to accept the facts about our ancestors. Even with the recent increased influx of Latin peoples into the United States, the largest ethnic source of our population, as it has been for over 100 years, is still Germany. And remember, because of immigration patterns, many people of Spanish heritage also have German roots. Yet, in the 20th century, German history certainly exemplified much of the opposite of what we think of as our American birthright—Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven’s “Ode: to Joy” aside. 

There are many fine and scholarly approaches to this subject, from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed to Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. For a narrower but nonetheless wise rendition, there is Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. Countless attempts have been made by hundreds—perhaps thousands—of scholars to link our particular success as a relatively open society to one special source or another. All to the good, given the need to understand the depths of human depravity as well as the wonderment of human kindness. 

But the facts remain, we did burn witches. We slaughtered the indigenous people of the continent. We did condone slavery for the first 75 years of our independence. We corrupted education with public schools dedicated to conformity of thought, essentially nationalized our economy during the depression, created wage slaves through the income tax, mandated a fiat currency through a national bank, and have created and maintained the dependence of a large segment of the population on the largess of government through a welfare state. Not surprisingly, much of this is in keeping with German models. 

The freest states in the Union have always been colonized by the least free. European emigrants flocked to the Western territories in search of new lives. The new state governments they established often incorporated laws restricting individual liberty, despite the image of the rough and ready cowboy, and naturally at the expense of the peoples who were there before. Today we have refugees from New York flooding the purple plains of Florida. It won’t be long before the laws in the Sunshine State are bent to secure the favor of the newcomers looking for the same social services that corrupted and bankrupted the Empire State. 

The New Hampshire motto, “Live Free or Die” is not long for this world as refugees from Massachusetts look for lower taxes or cleaner air. There is little thought given by these emigrants as to why New Hampshire might be better off. Simply, then, it ought to be recognized by now that any semblance of liberty we feel is in our heads—a figment of our imagination, as much as the few scraps of liberty we are allowed. With every election we seem to further confirm our ties to authoritarian government. 

Many of our highfalutinest ideas about liberty were born in ancient Greece, a slave society that failed itself, before they were in turn enslaved, but not before some of their genetic material (both figuratively and literally) was passed on to Rome which managed to conquer the known world before it fell on its own sword. This process has repeated itself over and over again. To our great benefit, ideas about liberty were passed forward like some sort of mitochondrial DNA. Why so many aberrant ideas about freedom survived is a story in itself, and has been told, at least in part. 

As England conquered the world around with seapower, it spread a few of its own ideas—about “common law,” for instance. But the real surge toward individual liberty did not arise from Shakespeare. That odd realization came out of the Scottish enlightenment and was inadvertently spread by the will of English overlords looking to graze their sheep. Unintended consequences can be a bitch. If only the English habit of taking the land of others had been thwarted earlier, we might today benefit from the spirit of Crazy Horse. But still, the idea of legal theft by public domain persists. 

One disturbing aspect to all of this is the need to blame. But it is pertinent that the same person who wants forgiveness of their student loans (no matter the consequent increase in public debt and taxes for everyone), might also appreciate Shakespeare. Too many of those who most prize their individual liberty have no clue where their ideas came from—nor the patience to ask. Business entrepreneurs, the largest source of tax revenue through direct payment as well as payroll, often never find the time to read Shakespeare. But their sons and daughters do. 

One under-appreciated aspect to the “pay it forward” culture we seem to value so much is culture itself. The sons and daughters of entrepreneurs may not appreciate the source of their wealth, but they often find the time for music, as well as for the Grateful Dead. A sense of the personal independence necessary to create music easily transfers as well to the liberty to write and the need for freedom of expression. Pretty soon then you are fighting for freedom of speech, and the press. 

Shakespeare may be a poor source of quotes about individual liberty, but he is a fount of creativity of expression and a master of characterizing the individual. It’s hard to accept the cookie cutter of modern life when you have read Hamlet. It is suggested then, that just as Shakespeare transcended Sophocles in his appreciation of love and hate and wonderment, there might be something of our salvation to be found in novels, and movies, and even in music (what’s left of it).  The mitochondrial DNA of our future is not to be found in mere politics, but in Don Quixote.

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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