Monday, May 10, 2021

Evening Note for Monday, May 10

Thought for the Evening: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The phrase "liberty, equality, fraternity" has had a rocky history. It is usually associated with the French Revolution, in part because Robespierre used it, but it was simply one of many slogans and mottos in that slogan-obsessed period. It became more closely associated with the Revolution after the Revolution than during. Nonetheless, it has had an enduring appeal that many of the other slogans and mottoes of the day failed to have.

Chesterton in discussing Dickens's Hard Times has an interesting passage making use of the phrase:

The English people as a body went blind, as the saying is, for interpreting democracy entirely in terms of liberty. They said in substance that if they had more and more liberty it did not matter whether they had any equality or any fraternity. But this was violating the sacred trinity of true politics; they confounded the persons and they divided the substance.

What I'd like to do is to focus on and press this idea, merely thrown out here, a little more. Let's suppose, as a hypothesis, that the formula captures at least something about "true politics", and, what is more, that it is a trinitarian triad.

Sense can be made of this. One triad often considered in trinitarian terms is 'power, wisdom, goodness'. It's a triad that is also associated historically with authority. And it's not difficult at all to think of 'liberty, equality, fraternity' as associated with it, particularly if you think of the latter triad as summing up the political authority of a citizenry. Then the liberty of a citizenry can be regarded as the power of the citizenry as such; equality qua citizens can be seen as a standard of action, and thus associated with wisdom; and fraternity can be seen as the goodness inherent in a citizenry qua citizenry.

If we take it as trinitarian then we get a standard against which various political 'heresies' can be identified, in which the politics of the citizenry go wrong. Three are particularly notable (although they can overlap).

(1) Approaches to politics that confound the members.

(2) Approaches to politics that divided the unity of the members.

(3) Approaches to politics that err as to the ordering of the members.

Examples of (1) would be cases where, in the civic life of a society, one of the members absorbs at least one other -- for instance, in a society in which liberty is treated as valuable, but equality or fraternity only to the limited extent that they can be seen purely as expressions of liberty. Chesterton in the above quotation accuses the English prior to Dickens of this. The Jacobins, and many leftists since, have often been accused of trying to absorb everything into equality. I don't know if anyone has been accused of trying to make all of politics a modality of fraternity, but no doubt they exist and as history goes on we will discover them.

Examples of (2) are cases in which at least one of the members is treated as if it could be understood wholly independently of the other two. Thus any approach to civic politics in which any of the three are understood as conflicting would be an example of this.

(3) are in some ways the most interesting, and probably the most controversial. Trinitarian triads have an ordering; although all members are equal in some way, there is an order of first, second, third in terms of the relations between them. Thus we would expect, in the true politics (on the hypothesis that the formula describes it), that liberty is the source of equality which in a way is the image and expression of it (equality as a sort of reciprocal liberty), and that fraternity arises from liberty through equality, binding them together. It's a little difficult to know how far to take this -- trinitarian triads that are not The Trinity are always limited in some way, so there can be principled ways in which the ordering can somehow fail for these lesser trinities. But you could argue that equality-first and fraternity-first approaches to civic life at least tend toward perversions: equality-first approaches are sometimes criticized for obliterating liberty, for instance, by making it depend on an insatiable standard of equality. Liberty, equality, fraternity is clearly what I have previously called a 'TRS triad', i.e., a triad in which each member builds on the previous ones and each member as it were prepares for the next; disrupt that (logical, not axiological) order, you throw each into confusion.

Human beings being imperfect in the ways they are, we would expect even the best societies to be imperfect in their expression of liberty, equality, fraternity -- to have, to borrow Dorothy Sayers's phrase from The Mind of the Maker, scalene trinities, not deliberate confusion, division, or disordering, but simply imperfection. Such is life in a fallen world.

In any case, if we think of 'liberty, equality, fraternity' in this way, we could perhaps say with Chateaubriand toward the end of his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave:

Christianity is the most philosophical and rational appreciation of God and the creation; it encapsulates the three great universal laws, the divine law, the moral law, the political law: the divine law, God united in three persons; the moral law, charity; the political law, that is to say liberty, equality and fraternity. 

 The first two principles have been discussed; the third, political law has not been furthered, because it cannot flower while intelligent belief in infinite being and universal morality are not solidly established. Now, Christianity has first to clear away the absurdities and abominations with which idolatry and slavery have encumbered the human race.


François de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d'Outre Tombe, A. S. Kline, tr., 2005.


Related Evening Notes
TRS Triads
A Jacob's Ladder of Triads

Various Links of Interest

* Christa Lundberg on Early Modern Philosophical Letters

* Brian Treanor, Gabriel Marcel, at the SEP

* Jake Neu, Trademarks and Free Speech

* Why Community Is Dangerous, a very good interview with Stanley Hauerwas

* Daniel A. Kaufman, Twenty-Five Things Everyone Used to Understand

* MrsDarwin discusses John Paul II's approach to theater in Pope St. John Paul II, Modernist (theatrically speaking)

* Sascha Settegast, Good Reasons and Natural Ends: Rosalind Hursthouse's Hermeneutical Naturalism (PDF)

* Ryan Miller, Perennial Symmetry Arguments: Aristotle's Heavenly Cosmology and Noether's Theorem (PDF), looks at the role of symmetry-based arguments in very different physical theories

* Ross Inman, Retrieving Divine Immensity and Omnipresence (PDF)

* James Chastek, On Great Books curricula

* Karen Swallow Prior, The Emergence of Remix Culture

* George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

* Julian Baggini, The Paradox of Hume. While an interesting argument, this is oddly framed. For one thing, there's no paradox about brilliant people having stupid or atrocious ideas; most of the stupid and atrocious ideas you come across are from intelligent, brilliant, or creative people, because these are the kinds of people who get carried away by ideas. And, as I've always said, being intelligent doesn't mean that you don't have stupid ideas; it means you're clever enough to come up with arguments and implementations of them. In addition, it's odd to frame this in terms of 'being conservative', because the term is being equivocated on throughout -- many of things attributed to Hume qua conservative would not have been considered particularly conservative in Hume's day, and, in any case, political conservativism, ethical conservativism, and intellectual conservativism are all 'conservative' in very different senses.

Currently Reading

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary
Richard Courant & Herbert Robbins, What is Mathematics?
Owen Barfield, Worlds Apart