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Differences Make a Difference
from Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype & Spin
by Os Guinness
PRISONER 174517 WAS THIRSTY. Seeing a fat
icicle hanging just out-side his hut in the Auschwitz extermination camp, he
reached out of the window and broke it off to quench his thirst. But before lie
could get the icicle to his mouth, a guard snatched it out of his hands and
dashed it to pieces on the filthy ground.
"Warum?" the prisoner burst out instinctively - "Why?"
"Hier ist kein warum," the guard answered with brutal finality - "Here there is no why."
That for Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish scientist and writer, was the essence of the death camps - places not only of unchallengable, arbitrary authority but of absolute evil that defied all explanation. In the face of such wickedness, explanations born of psychology, sociology, and eco-nomics were pathetic in their inadequacy One could only shoulder the weight of such an experience and hear witness to the world. "Never again" was too confident an assertion. "You never know was the needed refrain.
Yet despite the horror, Levi gave the impression that he had survived the poison of Auschwitz and had come to terms with his nightmarish experience. One of only three returning survivors of the six hundred fifty Italian Jews transported to Poland in 1944, lie eventually married, had children, wrote books, won literary prizes, and lived a full life. His core mission, however, was always to serve as a witness to the truth, a guardian of the memory.
Writing about his deportation to Poland, he stated: "Auschwitz left its mark on me, but it did not remove my desire to live. On the contrary, that experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness, so that such a thing should never occur again." While other direct or indirect victims of the Nazis committed suicide, including Walter Ben-jamin, Stefan Zweig, and Bruno Bettelheim, Levi many times argued against that act.
Thus many people were shocked and saddened when on April 11, 1987, more than forty years after his release from Auschwitz, Primo Levi plunged to his death down the stairwell of his home in Torino, Italy. Feel-ing the burden of witnessing, the guilt of surviving, the horror of revi-sionist denials of the camps, the weariness of repeating the same things, and even the anxiety of seeing his own memories fade, he joined the long sad list of the victims of the Nazi hell who took their own lives.
Levi's mounting depression in the last weeks of his life was known to his family and friends. Significantly, in his last interview he begged the questioning journalist not to consider him a prophet: "Prophets are the plague of today, and perhaps of all time, because it is impossible to tell a true prophet from a false one." In the same vein he had said earlier, "All prophets are false. I don't believe in prophets, even though I come from a heritage of prophets."
Prophets the "plague of all time"? Levi's dismissal is understandable, for he was an atheist who had been to hell on earth and back. But it is sad, for the strong line of Hebrew prophets is not only a defining feature of his people's heritage but one of the richest Jewish gifts to the history of the world. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and many others - each was a hero of the moral word whose "Thus says the Lord" shattered the status quo of his day. They each opened up perspectives on God's truth, justice, and peace that restored the world, moved it forward through a transcendent point of leverage, or simply drew a line in the sand to mark off evil.
The prophetic calling, however, was closed to Levi because in his universe he acknowledged no caller. Unlike Søren Kierkegaard with his questing "knight of faith," Levi recognized no higher majesty to dub him knight.
The Weight of Witness
It is often said that to have a fulfilling life, three essentials are required: a clear sense of personal identity, a deep sense of faith and meaning, and a strong sense of purpose and mission. Levi, it turned out, had a critical deficiency of the second and third, and in ways that poignantly illustrate our contemporary crisis of truth.
To all appearances, Primo Levi had a clear sense of identity and a passionate sense of purpose. "It is very likely," he said, "that without Auschwitz I would never have written, and would have given only little weight to my Jewish identity." But following Auschwitz, "My only thought was to survive and tell." Because of his desperate desire to tell his story to everyone he met, he would compare himself to Coleridge's ancient mariner who pestered the wedding guests.
Levi's most telling testimony can be read at Auschwitz itself. In 1980 the Polish government restructured the design of the camp and asked Levi to introduce the Italian section. Of the eight paragraphs he submit-ted, only the last one stands there today:
VISITOR, OBSERVE THE REMAINS OF THIS CAMP AND CONSIDER: WHAT-EVER COUNTRY YOU COME FROM, YOU ARE NOT A STRANGER. ACT SO THAT YOUR JOURNEY IS NOT USELESS, AND OUR DEATHS NOT USELESS. FOR YOU AND YOUR SONS, THE ASHES OF AUSCHWITZ HOLD A MESSAGE. ACT SO THAT THE FRUIT OF HATRED, WHOSE TRACES YOU HAVE SEEN HERE, BEARS NO MORE SEED, EITHER TOMORROW OR FOR EVER AFTER.
What was it that undid Levi's mission to
witness? The first and more obvious reason was philosophical. Levi lacked any
sense of faith and meaning with which to interpret and handle his harrowing
experience. An atheist when he went to Auschwitz, he could never get around the
extermination camp as the black hole of godlessness, the extreme situation of
absolute evil to which no response could ever be adequate.
For a time in 1944 he was struck by words from Dante's Inferno, "Consider what you came from... You were not born to live like mindless brutes," which hit him "like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God." Two years later, in freedom and on meeting his wife, he felt he had at last found a place in the universe where it no longer appeared "that the world was God's error."
But in the end, the dark combination of Auschwitz and atheism always closed back in on him. For instance, in 1946 Levi described his raging in silence at an old Jew who thanked God for having escaped selection to the gas chambers - "If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer." Or as he stated more bluntly in his first book, If This is a Man, "If there is an Auschwitz, then there cannot be a God." Forty years later, only months before his suicide, he wrote after those words in pencil: "I find no solution to the riddle. I seek, but I do not find it."
The second and less obvious reason for Levi's crisis was practical. He gradually realized that his mission - however noble and necessary - was impossible. As Liliane Atlan wrote in An Opera for Theresientstadt, Auschwitz is "an experience both impossible to pass on, and impossible to forget."
Most of the reasons for this difficulty are straightforward. Memories are tricky and eventually fade. Revisionists who deny history are shocking but are neither driven nor answered by facts. Besides, most people would rather not be reminded of evil of such magnitude. Then, too, generations pass and the new world of entertainment treats evil as fantasy.
Levi, for example, was amused but stunned when a ten-year-old schoolboy solemnly told him he should have cut a guards throat and switched off the power to the electric fence, and then urged him not to forget this advice should he find himself in the same situation again.
But the weight of the witness was always heavier on Levi than the sum of the problems. "We felt the weight of centuries on our shoulders," he wrote. And the heaviest burden of all was the guilt of surviving - "the best had been murdered - along with the awful knowledge that confession was impossible, and yet without genuine confession there could be no real confrontation with evil. In the words of Itzhak Schipper, one of the "murdered best" killed in Majdanek in 1943: "No one will want to believe us, because our disaster is the disaster of the entire civi-lized world."
Finally, there was the agony of realizing that the ranks of the witnesses were thinning. "We are many (but every year our numbers diminish) . . . Levi wrote. If we die in silence as our enemies desire . . . the world will not learn what man could do and what he can still do."
In a sense, Levi wrote at the end of his life, the hopelessness he was experiencing was worse than Auschwitz. For he was no longer young. The task of repeating the story was getting harder and harder. The burden of the witness was impossible. The way forward was hopeless. There was no other way out.
In the Steps of Sisyphus
Obviously no suicide ever returns to speak of his or her death, and Levi left no note, so we must pause in respect. But it is almost impossible to read Levi's last interviews and writings without thinking of Albert Camus and the myth of Sisyphus. In classical legend, Sisyphus was condemned by Zeus to push a huge stone up the hill only to have it roll down again each time - a story that Camus used to picture human fate in a world without God and without meaning.
For those who find themselves without faith in God and who conclude that the world they desire does not fit with the world they discover, life is fundamentally deaf to their aspirations. And in fact, it is literally absurd. All meaning - including for Levi, the establishment of truth - is up to them. They must live so as to be able to say, in Nietzsche's words, "Thus I have willed it." Or as Frank Sinatra put it simply, "I did it my way."
So Levi must roll his "truth" up the hill again and again. When the vast indifference of the public makes the gradient steeper, he must push harder. When he rests for a moment and the revisionists shove his stone back down, he must start again. When his companions drop out and his energy flags, he must summon his strength one more time. Numb, exhausted, aching, despairing, he must roll it and roll it until he can roil it no more. In an absurd world no success will ever crown his labors with significance. He can have only one satisfaction: the rebel's reward of rolling, rolling, rolling, without end.
But there is an alternative to the fate of Sisyphus - and Nietzsche, Camus, Sinatra, and Levi. It is that truth, like meaning as a whole, is not for to us to create but for us to discover. Each of us may be small, our lives short, and our influence puny. But if truth is there - objective, absolute, independent of minds that know it - then we may count on it and find it a source of strength.
Another victim of totalitarian evil stood on this solid ground beyond himself as he declared, "One word of truth outweighs the entire world." Solzhenitsyn with his statement had not suddenly outpowered the Soviets with some self-generated "truth." Rather, outpowered, outnumbered, and outgunned, he as one single person seized and wielded truth as a sword that could not be resisted, crying out, "Grant, O Lord, that I may not break as I strike."
Primo Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were both witnesses to the horrors they experienced. They were both spurred on by their passion not to betray the dying wish of millions to be remembered. But whereas Levi's view of truth left him a weary Sisyphus with a hopeless task, Solzhenitsyn's made him a sword in God's hand and allowed him to raise a voice to rally the world. "It is infinitely difficult to begin," he wrote in The Oak and the CaIf, "when mere words must remove a great block of inert matter. But there is no other way if none of the material strength is on your side. And a shout in the mountains has been known to start an avalanche."
What am I arguing? Let me underscore it again. I am not countering the postmodern view of truth on behalf of the modern. One is as bad as the other; the postmodern is the direct descendant of the modern and the mirror image of its deficiencies. It is the more dangerous today only because it is more current. Nor am I raising purely theoretical arguments against the postmodern view of truth, for few people outside universities follow the complexities of the higher academic debates.
Rather, I am deliberately underscoring the practical difficulties that grow out of the theoretical deficiencies of the new radical relativism. We can easily be cowed into submission by the force or fashionability of new ideas without realizing their disastrous practical consequences for ordinary life. When that happens, the full answer to the problem in question must always include the theoretical answer. But practical arguments are an important first step in confronting the crisis.
With the present crisis of truth, practical arguments are vital in addressing two particular groups of people. One is those who hold to traditional Jewish and Christian assumptions about truth but have grown careless or hesitant in defending it. The other is those who do not hold to those beliefs but who care deeply about the society in which they live and the quality of their own lives in it. For each group, there are two powerful arguments for the practical importance of objective, nonrelativist truth. As the contrast between Primo Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn shows, dif-ferences between views of truth - far from being purely theoretical and irrelevant-make an enormous difference.
For those who hold to traditional biblical assumptions of truth but are uncertain whether they are worth defending, two arguments for the importance of a high view of truth stand out, one lesser and one greater.
The lesser argument is that without truth we cannot answer the fundamental objection that faith in God is simply a form of "bad faith" or "poor faith." The wilder accusation of "bad faith" comes from outside the Jewish and Christian communities and is one of the deepest and most damaging charges against these faiths in the last two centuries. Jews and Christians believe, critics say, not because of good reasons but because they are afraid not to believe. Without faith, they would be naked to the alternatives, such as the terror of meaninglessness or the nameless dread of unspecified guilt. Faith is therefore a handy shield to ward off the fear, a comforting tune to whistle in the darkness; it is, however, fundamentally untrue, irrational, and illegitimate - and therefore "inauthentic" and "bad faith."
In modern times the charge of "bad faith" was raised by the French existentialists but is more widely associated with Marxist and Freudian attacks on religion - religion for Marx was the "opium of the people" and for Freud a "projection." Needless to say, the germ of the charge is far older and wider. "Fear made the gods," wrote Lucretius as a first-century B.C. Roman. Or as Henrik Ibsen remarked as a nineteenth-century Norwegian, "Take away the life - lie from the average man and you take away his happiness."
Whatever the historical period, the dynamic of the accusation is the same. As Aldous Huxley set it out more patiently,
Man inhabits, for his own convenience, a homemade universe within the greater alien world of external matter and his own irrationality. Out of the illimitable blackness of the world the light of his customary thinking scoops, as it were, a little illuminated cave-a tunnel of brightness, in which, from the brink of consciousness to its death, he lives, moves, and has his being... We ignore the outer darkness; or if we cannot ignore it. if it presses too insistently upon us, we disapprove of being afraid.
There are several possible responses to this
charge, such as those who wield it are rarely courageous enough to turn it on
their own beliefs, the very charge is itself the biblical critique of idols,
and so on. But at the end of the day, there is no answer without one: Those who
put their faith in God do so for all sorts of good reasons, but the ver best
reason is that they are finally, utterly, and incontrovertibly convinced that
the faith in which they put their confidence is true.
"What is truth?" someone will immediately ask. Let me answer straightforwardly. In the biblical view, truth is that which is ultimately, finally, and absolutely real, or the "way it is," and therefore is utterly trustworthy and dependable, being grounded and anchored in God's own reality and truthfulness. But this stress on the personal foundation of truth is not - as in postmodernism - at the expense of the propositional. Both accuracy and authenticity are important to truth.
If in our ordinary speech, telling the truth is "telling it like it is," we can say that a statement, an idea, or a belief is true if what it is about is as it is presented in the statement. Belief in something doesn't make it true; only truth makes a belief true. But without truth, a belief max be only speculation plus sincerity. Or perhaps, worse still, bad faith. A sardonic nineteenth-century wit once suggested that three words be carved in stone over all church doors: "Important if true." To which the Christian would reply, "Important because true."
The milder accusation, the parallel dismissal of faith as "poor faith," comes from inside the church and is less serious but more common. Whereas both the Bible and the best thinkers of Christian history invite seekers to put their faith in God because the message conveying that invitation is true, countless Christians today believe for various other reasons. For instance, they believe faith is true "because it works (pragmatism), because they "feel it is true in their experience" (subjectivism), because they sincerely believe it is "true for them" (relativism), and so on.
For some of these Christians the deficiency comes from bad teaching. For others the motive is escape. Retreating into the fortress of personal experience, they can pull up the drawbridge of faith and feel impregnable to reason. But for all of them the outcome is a sickly faith deprived of the rude vigor of truth.
Tendencies toward this schizophrenic split between faith and reason have been evident since the Enlightenment, aided by such philosophers as Spinoza who argued that "Revelation and Philosophy stand on totally different footings," each with its own separate province. Earlier still in the thirteenth century, the idea led to the disastrous medieval notion of "double truth," according to which there are two truths - one for the supernatural world and one for the natural. Each was separate and con-tradictory, but the doubleness meant that the church could be right in theology while wrong in philosophy or science. Faith, in other words, was true even if it was nonsense. Believers could believe with their theological minds while disbelieving with their scientific minds.
Biblical faith, by contrast with both medieval and modern deficiencies, has a robust view of truth. All truth is God's truth and is true everywhere, for everyone, under all conditions. Truth is true in the sense that it is objective and independent of the mind of any human knower. Being true, it cannot contradict itself.
Human beliefs and truth-claims, in contrast, may be relative because we humans are finite. Therefore all beliefs are partial and provisional. But truth - guaranteed by God - is quite different. Created by God, not us, it is partly discovered and partly disclosed. It is singular ("truth"), not plural ("truths"); certain, not doubtful; absolute and unconditional, not relative; and grounded in God's infinite knowing, not in our tiny capacity to know anything. As Jean Paul Sartre acknowledged, in words that faith is happy to reverse, "There can be no eternal truth if there is no eternal and perfect consciousness to think it."
With such a rock-like view of truth, the Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true. It is not true because we expe-rience it; we experience it - deeply and gloriously - because it is true. It is not simply "true for us"; it is true for any who seek in order to find, because truth is true even if nobody believes it and falsehood is false even if everybody believes it. That is why truth does not yield to opinion, fashion, numbers, office, or sincerity - it is simply true and that is the end of it. It is one of the Permanent Things. All that and a great deal more hangs on the issue of truth, even though this is only the lesser argument for truth.
The Final Reality
The greater argument for the importance of a high view of truth is that for both Jews and Christians, truth matters infinitely and ultimately because it is a question of the trustworthiness of God himself. In contrast, for Western secularists final reality is only matter - a product of time plus chance - and truth to them has a corresponding status on that level.
As Darwinism has underscored more and more openly, natural selection does not favor a predisposition toward truth. On the contrary, "truth-directedness" is a handicap, and a lack of it - as mentioned earlier with the fireflies - is an evolutionary advantage. This bias against truth quickly - becomes practical: How does one support, let alone explain, the importance of truth from the perspective of secularist thinking? If Darwinism is right, perhaps human truth-directedness is part of our alienation and therefore the entire project of the university and human truth-seeking is futile.
Secularists who choose to continue giving truth its higher status - as, for example, traditional journalists in opposition to the "personal reportage" of New Journalism - have bestowed that status, not discovered it. A similar problem holds for the Eastern family of faiths, including Hinduism and Buddhism. For both of these religions, the final reality is the undifferentiated impersonal. So "truth," accordingly, is part and par-cel of the world of human ignorance, bondage, and illusion ("maya") separated from that final reality, which we must transcend.
Nothing could be a greater contrast to the high status of truth in the biblical view. Final reality for Jews and Christians is neither matter nor the undifferentiated impersonal but an infinite, personal God. Infinite and yet personal, personal and yet infinite, God may be trusted because he is the True One. He is true, he acts truly, and he speaks truly - for Christians, most clearly and fully in Jesus, his effective, spoken "Word." God's truthfulness is therefore foundational for his trustworthiness. His covenant rests on his character; his truth can be counted on.
Jews and Christians are therefore immune to Darwin's "horrid doubt." In the biblical view, we humans can think freely and passionately pursue the frill range of human inquiry - from coffee-bar discussions to the strivings of the noblest art to the tireless search for the scientific secrets of the universe and knowledge in all fields. And all the while we know that our intellectual powers and our very disposition as truth-seekers are underwritten by the truthfulness of the Creator of the universe. As John Paul II writes in his encyclical on truth, this is all possible thanks to "the splendor of truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit." Truth transcends us as humans; as we follow it, it leads us on, back, and up to One who is true.
"In the beginning was the Word," John's gospel begins - which means that in the end meaning itself has meaning, guaranteed by God himself and now spoken forth as an effective, liberating Word.
In other words, for both Jews and Christians, truth is not finally a matter of philosophy but of theology. Philosophical issues are critical and - at least for philosophers - fascinating, but the theological issue is primary. For all the fragile precariousness of our human existence on our tiny earth in the vastness of space, we may throw the whole weight of our existence on God, including our truth-seeking desires, because he is wholly true.
If Might Makes Right
What of those people who do not hold to traditional or biblical assumptions of truth but who care about society and their place in it? The response here might appear harder, and even in the view of some, impossible. But in fact there are two powerful arguments for the importance of a high view of truth, even for those who do not believe in it. The first of the two is negative in nature: Without truth we are all vulnerable to manipulation.
The promise of postmodernism at first sight is a brave new world of freedom. "Truth is dead; knowledge is power," the exuberant cheerleaders tell us. We must all therefore debunk the knowledge - claims confronting us and reach for the prize - freedom from the dominations constraining us. What could be simpler and more appealing?
There is only one snag. What happens when we succeed in cutting away truth - claims to expose the web of power games only to find we have less power than the players we face? If truth is dead, right and wrong are neither, and all that remains is the will to power, then the conclusion is simple: Might makes right. Logic is only a power conspiracy. Victory goes to the strong and the weak go to the wall.
We can take the result in an individualistic direction, as Herbert Spencer did; a collective direction, as Karl Marx did; or a broad evolutionary direction, as proponents of the "selfish gene" propose. But the result is the same. When everything is reduced to the will-to-power, manipulation is the name of the game and victory goes to the strong and the ruthless. "Law!" Cornelius Vanderbilt once snorted. "What do I care about the law? H'aint I got the power?"
The power can be subtle, too. One biographer wrote of John F. Kennedy's manipulation as a master of "using candor in lieu of truth." People would walk away "thinking they've been told the truth. But, in fact, they've really been told nothing of true importance. The small and candid moments set up the big lie."
In Lenin's famous formulation, there is always power and always manipulation. The question is forever, "Who? Whom?" Duke University professor Stanley Fish makes no bones about the outcome from the postmodern perspective. In an article entitled "There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing Too," he answers several common objections: "Some form of speech is always being restricted....We have always and already slid down the slippery slope; someone is always going to be restricted next, and it is your job to make sure that that someone is not you."
Those who embrace postmodern power-playing are as suicidal as Aesop's eagle that, at the moment of its death, recognizes its own feathers on the offending arrow's shaft. To warn us of such folly, Solzhenitsyn and Havel stand as lone sentinels. Face to face with the force of a totalitarian propaganda and repression far worse than anything in the West, they took their stand on truth and could not be moved.
Fortunately for us, the test is not likely to come on such a cosmic stage. But the same principle holds true at humbler levels - the difficult may be a controlling boss, a highly manipulative professor, or an emo-tional tyrant of a family member. Without truth we are all vulnerable to manipulation.
Pablo Picasso is a cautionary example. A genius as an artist, he was often a monster in his relationships - especially with women - because of his controlling, devouring personality. "When I die," Picasso predicted years before the filming of Titanic, "It will be a shipwreck, and as when a big ship sinks, many people all around will be sucked down with it."
When Picasso died in 1973, at the age of ninety-one, his prediction came true. Three of those closest to him committed suicide (his second wife, an early mistress, and a grandson) and several others had psychiatric breakdowns. "He amazes me," said his friend, sculptor Alberta Giacometti. "He amazes me as a monster would, and I think he knows as well as we do that he's a monster." Indeed, Picasso referred to himself as "the Minotaur," the mythic Cretan monster that devoured maidens.
One mistress, Marie Thérèse, described how Picasso set about paint-ing: "He first raped the woman and then he worked." Another told him, "You've never loved anyone in your life. You don't even know how to love." Picasso himself was brutally blunt, "Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. Then maybe I'd be rid of them. They wouldn't be around now to complicate my existence."
Picasso's destructiveness was rooted in his childhood but was reinforced by his early acquaintance with Nietzsche through friends in Barcelona. "Truth cannot exist. . . truth does not exist," he used to mut-ter. "I am God, I am God."
Significantly, only one of Picasso's wives and mistresses - Francoise Giot - survived him with integrity intact. She was forty years younger but not naive. "Picasso," she later wrote in My Life with Picasso, "was like a conqueror, marching through life, accumulating power, women, wealth, glory, but none of that was very satisfying anymore." He was like Nietzsche's loveless superman who must suppress all caring: "Love is the danger of the loneliest one."
How did Gilot survive, well aware that it was foolish to be sucked into his orbit and fatal to come under his domination? The only safe-guard, she said, was truth. Every day she had to be "Joan of Arc, wearing one's armor from day till night."
The second, and positive, argument for the importance of truth pales at first in comparison with the negative, but it is no less important. It is that without truth there is no genuine freedom and fulfillment. Isaiah Berlin, the great Oxford philosopher, used to remind students repeatedly that although freedom has two parts, many young people never experience the highest freedom because they appreciate only the lower.
Freedom, Berlin stressed, is both negative and positive. Negative freedom, or "freedom from," has an obvious appeal in the modern world. Teenagers, for example, are famous for acting as if all freedom is freedom from parents, from teachers, and from supervision. Many adults make the same mistake.
Modern America has all the appearance of a nation-sized demonstration of the adolescent error writ large. Decisively parting company with the wisdom of their founders, Americans have exchanged the "moral republic" of the framers for the "procedural republic" of today. While the American framers wisely avoided the foolish opposition between author-ity and freedom of the European Enlightenment through their emphasis on tempered freedom" and "ordered liberty," the present generation has overthrown their vision altogether. Whereas the framers believed that liberty requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires liberty (which in turn requires virtue, and so on), modern Americans believe only in "due process" and the clash of competing self-interests in the neutral public square.
Many Americans equate freedom with privacy; as St. Jean de Crèvecoeur -observed, "Nobody disturbs them," or as Justice Brandeis said, "the right to be let alone." They confuse unfettered freedom of choice with freedom of conscience; as Cardinal Newman put it, "Conscience has rights because it has duties." They lower freedom of speech to freedom to offend. They stress rights without responsibilities. And they mistake the lower and easier freedom, "freedom under the rule of law," with the higher and harder freedom, freedom born of virtue that inspires "obedience to the unenforceable."
Yet negative freedom is always limited and incomplete without positive freedom. "Freedom from" requires the complement of "freedom for." That is why, long ago the Roman poet Tacitus wrote, "The more corrupt the state, the more laws." That is what Benjamin Franklin meant when he wrote, "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom." Or what historian Lord Acton taught in his magisterial writings on liberty: Freedom is "not the power of doing what we like but the right of being able to do what we ought." Yet having thrown over authority for the sake of reason, and now reason for the sake of desire, Americans find that the limitation of nega-tive freedom becomes obvious: Those who set out to do what they like usually end up not liking what they've done.
D. H. Lawrence came to the conclusion that stopping at negative freedom was a central problem of Americans - freedom was always left in declarations, the rage for rights, and the undying restlessness to "move on." He wrote in his essay, "The Spirit of Place": "Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obeying from within,. . . not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west and shout of freedom. . . . The shout is a rattling of chains. Liberty in America has meant so far breaking away from all dominion. The true liberty will only begin when Americans discover the deepest whole self of man."
No one expressed this point more often and more clearly than G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:
The moment you step into a world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel.
In other words, we are never freer than when
we become most our-selves, most human, most just, most excellent, and the like.
Yet, if this is the case, freedom has a requirement: The true, the good, and
the free have to be lined up together. To be ourselves, we need to know who we
are. To be fully human, we need to know what humanness is. To aspire after
virtue, justice, excellence, and beauty, we not only need to know the content
of these ideals but we need to practice them. After all, as the Greeks pointed
out, if abstract virtue were enough, we could be virtuous while asleep.
In short, today the crisis of truth, tomorrow the corruption of freedom. Truth without freedom is a manacle, but freedom without truth is a mirage. If freedom is not to be vacuous and stunted, it requires truth - lived truth. As Pope John Paul II declared flatly when he was still a Polish cardinal under the Soviet tyranny: "There is no freedom without truth."
Will such arguments prevail? Not just in private life but in the public square? To be sure, we need to make them boldly, with imagination and compassion as well as force. But their strength lies in their pragmatism. If truth is truth, it reaches out a strong hand to men and women caught by abusiveness of a thousand kinds. If truth is truth, it strikes a chord in hearts everywhere that are yearning for deeper freedom. Truth, in sum, is far more powerful than mere talk about truth. Human beings are truth - seekers by nature, and truth persuades by the force of its own reality.
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