Friday, June 24, 2022

Yokes - Ordered Liberty

Listening to the Great Books podcast about Schiller's "William Tell,*" I thought the interesting part I was going to bring here was his development of what is permissible to do to oppose tyranny and what is not. It is interesting as it is a central theme of Schiller's, exploring many possibilities from both practical and theoretical frameworks. Those of you interested in those questions will likely find it profitable to read up on Schiller or listen to the 30 minute podcast from National Review over the next two months, after which it will disappear from the front page. 

Yet another bit caught me up, when the discussion turned to the concept of freedom that Tell is striving to live under - or more precisely, have his people return to.  It is not the freedom to do whatever you want any time you want. The concept of Duty vs Inclination figures strongly, that is, what we should do, not just what we want to do. Johann was very big on duty as a guide to moral behavior.

Here's a fun discussion of it from The Atlantic - but don't get nervous, it's from 1905.

It reminded me of the Puritan ideal of ordered liberty, which contrasted with the other versions in colonial America, as outlined in Fischer's Albion's Seed. It surprised me, as Schiller was German, Kantian, and more than a century later. The Swiss may have been Calvinist, but it doesn't seem that Schiller is attempting this as an exercise in historical accuracy.  This idea of Ordered Liberty is clearly among the most important to his aesthetic thought quite on its own. So it is not merely a Calvinist ideal then, but was in the air in those centuries.

In the descent of that Puritan ordered liberty culture down to the present day many writers are connecting that Puritan ideal to modern busybodies from New England telling everyone else what to do, usually in contrast to the real freedom-loving Scots-Irish. Yet notice - the Scots Presbyters were also calvinist. What is happening then, among two stocks supposedly descending from the same philosophical base to very different practical notions?

First up, such simple formulations are usually self-servinbg rather than accurate.  They are often based on a real something, but don't carry the day.  Second, the various ideas of freedom kept much of the same vocabulary and did keep some central features, but they changed markedly over time.  In earlier Scotland one actually did have to come under the yoke of authority - but it was the authority of the clan, which you had at least some hope of influencing.  But after enclosure the power of the clan authority weakened, and after the move to Ireland and then on to America, where one had to carve out a space rather individually, clan authority weakened further.  It retained considerable usefulness for skirmishing and outright war. To the medieval mind, they would have looked more like "masterless men," not a good thing.

Well part of the American experiment is that maybe masterless men will do alright anyway, but it is an authority vacuum, starting not in Virginia but Gretna Green. 

In New England it was town authority, which if anything became stronger upon arrival in the Bay Colony. It looks mixed oppressive and liberated to us now, as the larger governmental authorities were distant and of little influence, but the town was a community which exerted authority over all who remained. The town could decide that an old widower must move in with a young family, as that would be better for his spiritual improvement. The town moved as a body to build schools, meeting houses, churches, improve ports and roads. The only escape was to move. So that was also a yoke that one must bear - but it changed in the colonies.  By the time NH, VT, and ME were settled there was more of people living out on the fringes, less answerable to the whole. This is still somewhat common in the rural and northern parts. The town used to be everything, but that is less true. Unfortunately, it has slowly had to give way to larger entities.

Both ideas descend from Calvinism, and from a generalised northern European idea of order, even a highly traditional order in contrast to the French Revolutionaries' method of starting everything from scratch. Yet both are still yokes, yokes that modified greatly in America but are still present in some form.

You may remember that it is my cynical view that if you believe you have no yoke or have cast it off, you likely just don't see and acknowledge the new one that replaced it. 

*Oh yeah, hanging asterisk. I read Schiller in German in college. Let not such things impress you, because I don't even remember what it was, never mind any lesson from it. It was required fourth-semester German and I passed the course.


Grim said...

Immanuel Kant -- from the same geographic area, and the Enlightenment era -- makes a very similar argument about freedom. The proof that you are free is not that you can do what you want, he says: any animal does that, and he does not believe they have free will. He thinks they are driven by instinct, so that they are sort-of biological machines: they eat when hungry if food is available, have sex in the rut, etc. Doing what your biology makes you desire to do is not freedom in Kant's view, but enslavement to the irrational biological urge.

Freedom is proven instead by your ability to not do what you want. If you can reason to what you ought to do, and do that instead of what your biology is urging you to do, you are free. Unlike the beast, your access to the order of reason allows you to determine what is moral and right, and to will to do that instead of what your body irrationally urges.

Thus, reason and morality and freedom all prove to be nearly equivalent terms on his scheme. The moral law ends up being the same for everyone because it is derived from reason, which unlike desire or emotion is itself the same for everyone. No one is forcing you to accept what is right: your own reason suffices to know for yourself.

This can seem ironic. Knowing, you must do it because it is right; and if you do the thing you must do, then you are free. If you do the thing you wanted to do, you aren't free but throwing away your freedom in favor of biological determination.

But in fact there's a lot of room for real freedom on Kant's schema. Morality only licenses maxims under his discussion of the Categorical Imperative, and maxims can be consistent with many different actions. Once I've reasoned to "A man ought to help another who is in need," I can choose from many different actions that might be ways of helping the needy man. I'm not obligated to do any particular one of them; I'm only obligated to do something that is consistent with the maxim. So I'm really quite free, just not free to do wrong.

Grim said...

Ah, I see in your _Atlantic_ article that he was an enthusiastic reader of Kant. The overlap makes perfect sense, then.