Essay: Violence: For God or Liberty the Social

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Violence: For God or Liberty

The social and political ideals of the modern Western world are founded on a notion of liberty, expressed dissimilarly (and with varying degrees of approbation) in the writings of Rousseau, Mill, Burke, Tocqueville and others. As the discrepant views of these various authors, scholars, and philosophers illustrate, liberty is problematic. The French Revolutionaries promoted liberty, yet the streets ran with blood. Tocqueville saw the effects of liberty in America, yet admitted they could easily lead to tyranny. Rousseau advocated a naturalistic liberty -- an overthrow of the Old World religious doctrine -- yet he himself used an aggressive language to make his point. In the modern world of Romantic/Enlightenment ideology, liberty and violence are linked; and their relationship is not so wholly removed from the Old World (or Medieval, or Catholic) perspective that viewed life as having some purpose, namely of being lived according to a Divine Will, expressed in a Divine list of Commandments. In other words, up until the separation of Church and State, the Western world (at least theoretically) lived for God. With the Peace of Westphalia (established without the Church's approval), the Western world officially began living for the State. The tension between Church and State was evident. Liberty of the former meant something quite different from the liberty of the latter. As the Thirty Years' War indicated, the clash tends towards violence. This paper will show how such a violent clash is at the heart of the problem of liberty in the modern Western world, by analyzing selected works of Rousseau, Mill, Burke, and Tocqueville.

Rousseau claimed in the Social Contract that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains" (156). It was 1762 -- nearly a hundred years before Mill's on Liberty, but only thirty years before the grim Reign of Terror in Paris, during which Liberty, Fraternity and Equality would be worshiped by those operating the guillotine. Rousseau's concept of the "nature of man" is grounded in a sense of independence, of natural liberty, of natural dignity. It does not admit of a "fallen" human nature (as identified in the Old World doctrine). On the contrary, Rousseau's natural man is shackled by a notion of Old World sin. In order to free himself, he must fight this notion, embodied (in vain) by the Church. To Rousseau, Christianity is fundamentally flawed: faced with a threat to its freedom (the foundation of Rousseau's philosophy), "the pious Christians will be beaten, crushed, and destroyed before they realized where they are" (250). A Christian is one who lives for God (for a life after death); a Spartan or a Roman (examples Rousseau uses) live for Sparta and Rome, respectively. As Liberty began to be enshrined (or, as the State began to separate itself from the Church), Rousseau asserted, "Whoever dares to say, 'Outside the church there is no salvation,' ought to be expelled from the state, unless the state is the church and the prince the pontiff" (251). Here, one can see clearly the violent struggle at the heart of the problem of liberty. For the Christian West, liberty from sin (through Christ) was the ultimate good. For the Modern West, liberty from Church doctrine was the ultimate good -- for, as Rousseau states, "Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence," (250) and neither is good for one dedicated to a naturalistic liberty.

By eschewing the notion of violence against self (in order to conform one's will to God's), Rousseau helped to erect a new society that would use violence to eradicate this Old World concept of "violence against self." The Reign of Terror was Rousseau's philosophy taken to its bloody extreme. At least, Burke saw it as such -- and he suggested that the problem of violence in Paris at the time was the problem of war of ideology. The Revolutionaries sought to blacken the ancien regime (the Old Guard and whatever semblance of Old World values it still espoused); and those who refused to conform to the Revolutionary principles, or who saw the same abuses of power in the new Revolutionary regime as existed in the ancien regime, were labeled dissenters and taken straight to chopping block: "When they [the Revolutionaries] have rendered that deposed power [the Christian monarchy] sufficiently black, they then proceed in argument, as if all those who disapprove of their new abuses, must of course be partisans of the old; that those who reprobate their crude and violent schemes of liberty ought to be treated as advocates for servitude" (Burke 124). Again, the notion that those who oppose the modern, naturalistic liberty of Rousseau's philosophy must, ipso facto, be proponents of slavery and servitude, is identified as one of the problems of the modern world. Its tension derives from this conflicted notion of liberty. Which is preferred by society? -- the naturalistic liberty, in which man's nature is not fallen but hampered by a doctrine of Christian self-restraint? -- or a the Christian liberty, in which man's nature is fallen and needs not a political/social freedom but rather a spiritual freedom from the chains of sin (such as only Christ through the Church can provide)?

These two questions frame the violent wars in the Western world from the Protestant Reformation onward. As Tocqueville acknowledges, "In France I had seen the spirit of religion moving in the opposite direction to that of the spirit of freedom" (345). The violent wars of Europe were the result of these two tensions. What astounded Tocqueville upon visiting America was that this tension seemed to be resolved. In America, the Church appeared to have accepted the separation of Church and State rather happily and peacefully. What it accepted in reality was a kind of religious liberty, in which the Church's Old World right to assert its religion as the one, true religion would be given up for the sake of social peace. In America, the Church was resigned to taking a back seat. The Church was not so violently oppressed as it was in Paris during the Revolution. It was instead supported but given a marginal role. Tocqueville explains it this way: "Tyranny may be able to do without faith but freedom cannot" (344). The tyranny of the faithless Revolutionaries in France had resulted in the bloodshed of those who opposed their new philosophy of naturalism. Tocqueville suggests that Liberty requires the consent of the faithful. In other words, to avoid an outbreak of violence in the streets, one could take a lesson from the Americas: oppose no religion and promote no religion -- or, in laymen's terms, the State should stay out of religion and let its people worship as they saw fit, so long as their worship did not infringe on the worship of any other group.

In America, the separation of Church and State appeared to be working well. In Europe, the separation had been the cause of bloodshed. The reason is that in Europe, the separation was promoted by an irreligious spirit -- a naturalistic philosophy that refused to make itself "subject to God" (Tocqueville 344). The Revolutionaries' attempt to "tighten" "moral ties" was founded on the use of force (the guillotine). When violence against self (ala Christian doctrine) was thrown out, violence against society was brought in (for something had to keep order). In either case, violence was necessary. One could argue that the need for violence in both worldviews pointed to the fact that human nature was "fallen" in some sense.

Yet, why did the separation seem to Tocqueville to work so well and blood-free in America? The reason was that the Old World religion had not been thrown out (as it had been in Paris); it had only been set aside -- and the religionists in America seemed content to at least be left alone. Instead of the Rights of God that the Church insisted upon in Europe, they insisted upon the Rights of Man and the Rights of God. The Founding Fathers were Deists. They were not of the Church, but neither were they of the same mettle as those who ushered in the Reign of Terror. They were like a compromise between the philosophy of Rousseau and the Old World view. It appeared to Tocqueville to be a success.

But was it? Tocqueville himself saw the religion and liberty moving in opposite directions in France. If in America they seemed, at least for the time being, to be moving in the same direction, one could wonder how long this union could last. If taken to its logical extreme, either the authority of God or the authority of the State would have to win out in the end -- unless the State submitted itself to the authority of God. What, then, is the God of America? Was it the same God as of the Church in Europe? Or was it something else? If Tocqueville failed to see who the real God of America was, Adam Smith did not. He knew that the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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