Liberty, Virtue, and Tyranny

Patrick Deneen, Georgetown Univ. political philosopher, quoting Aristotle, says, in a speech given at the Ignatianum Academy in Krakow, Poland, that to “live as one likes,” is the very definition of tyranny. “However, realizing that no one of us can achieve the condition of all-powerful tyrant, we agree instead to the second-best option of living under democratic forms. In such a condition, we outwardly exhibit the appearance of citizenship, but such [people] harbor a deeper desire to “live as one likes.” Such [people] have the souls of tyrants.”

Deneen, following Aristotle, describes two species of democracy. The sort that works is rooted in the belief that political life rooted in liberty must begin with individuals who seek self-control and virtue. The other begins, not with virtue and self-control, but rather the desire to “live as one likes.” This second, corrupted form of democracy (which is tyranny veiled as group cooperation) is what Deneen was describing above. In contrast, authentic liberty calls upon “the widespread presence of virtues that are required by self-government, including moderation, prudence, and justice.”

This gets at the heart of my ongoing critique of the Federalist Papers. The Federalists assumed this latter definition of liberty and were completely confident that the American people would not elect political leaders who were not virtuous. But in the same breath they called for a secular state which left no basis for virtue and assumed a balance of vices to keep both the citizenry and leaders in check.

What this great political experiment has shown is that you cannot have it both ways. Virtue cannot exist in a void. Liberty cannot exist without virtue. Tyranny in the guise of democracy is the only other option.

This is precisely what Deneen goes on to say:

If America was founded according to a spirit of liberty that encouraged the practice of Aristotle’s first understanding of democracy, centered especially on the practice of self-government among citizens, America also had a subsequent Founding in which the second understanding of liberty dominated. This is the Founding that drew especially upon the understanding of the social contract philosophy of John Locke, and informs the core documents of the American government such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. According to Locke, by nature human beings are born free into a State of Nature in which law and government are absent. Our natural condition is one of complete freedom and lawlessness, and only in order to escape the “inconveniences” of the State of Nature do we form a contract and abridge our natural freedom. To live under government and law is a second-best option: the first best option would be for everyone else to abide by the terms of the social contract while I would be free to transgress against those terms. But, being informed by reason as well as constrained by law, we abide by the terms of the contract in spite of our inner desire to “live as we like.”


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