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An essay by James Runciman


Title:     Liberty
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

"What things are done in thy name!" The lady who spoke thus of Liberty had lived a high and pure life; all good souls were attracted to her; and it seems strange that so sweet and pure and beautiful a creature could have grown up in the vile France of the days before the Revolution. She kept up the traditions of gentle and seemly courtesy even at times when Sardanapalus Danton was perforce admitted to her _salon_; and in an age of suspicion and vile scandal she kept a stainless name, for even the most degraded pamphleteer in Paris dared do no more than hint a fault and hesitate dislike. But this lady went to the scaffold with many and many of the young, the beautiful, the brave; and her sombre satire, "What things are done in thy name!" was remembered long afterwards when the despots and the invading alien had in turn placed their feet on the neck of devoted France. "What things are done in thy name!" Yes; and we, in this modern world, might vary the saying a little and exclaim, "What things are said in thy name!"--for we have indeed arrived at the era of liberty, and the gospel of Rousseau is being preached with fantastic variations by people who think that any speech which apes the forms of logic is reasonable and that any desire which is expressed in a sufficiently loud howl should be at once gratified. We pride ourselves on our knowledge and our reasoning power; but to judicious observers it often seems that those who talk loudest have a very thin vein of knowledge, and no reasoning faculty that is not imitative.

By all means let us have "freedom," but let us also consider our terms, and fix the meaning of the things that we say. Perhaps I should write "the things that we think we say," because so many of those who make themselves heard do not weigh words at all, and they imagine themselves to be uttering cogent truths when they are really giving us the babble of Bedlam. If ladies and gentlemen who rant about freedom would try to emancipate themselves from the dominion of meaningless words, we should all fare better; but we find a large number of public personages using perfectly grammatical series of phrases without dreaming for a moment that their grave sentences are pure gibberish. A few simple questions addressed in the Socratic manner to certain lights of thought might do much good. For instance, we might say, "Do you ever speak of being free from good health, or free from a good character, or free from prosperity?" I fancy not; and yet copiously talkative individuals employ terms quite as hazy and silly as those which I have indicated.

We have gone very far in the direction of scientific discovery, and we have a large number of facts at our disposal; but some of us have quite forgotten that true liberty comes only from submitting to wise guidance. Old Sandy Mackay, in Alton Locke, declared that he would never bow down to a bit of brains: and this highly-independent attitude is copied by persons who fail to see that bowing to the bit of brains is the only mode of securing genuine freedom. If our daring logicians would grant that every man should have liberty to lead his life as he chooses, so long as he hurts neither himself nor any other individual nor the State, then one might follow their argument; but a plain homespun proposal like that of mine is not enough for your advanced thinker. In England he says, "Let us have deliverance from all restrictions;" in Russia he says, "Anarchy is the only cure for existing evils." For centuries past the earth has been deluged with blood and the children of men have been scourged by miseries unspeakable, merely because powerful men and powerful bodies of men have not chosen to learn the meaning of the word "liberty." "How miserable you make the world for one another, O feeble race of men!" So said our own melancholy English cynic; and he had singularly good reason for his plaint. Rapid generalization is nearly always mischievous; unless we learn to form correct and swift judgments on every faculty of life as it comes before us, we merely stumble from error to error. No cut-and-dried maxim ever yet was fit to guide men through their mysterious existence; the formalist always ends by becoming a bungler, and the most highly-developed man, if he is content to be no more than a thinking-machine, is harmful to himself and harmful to the community which has the ill-luck to harbour him. If we take cases from history, we ought to find it easy enough to distinguish between the men who sought liberty wisely and those who were restive and turbulent. A wise man or a wise nation knows the kind of restraint which is good; the fool, with his feather-brained theories, never knows what is good for him--he mistakes eternal justice for tyranny, he rebels against facts that are too solid for him--and we know what kind of an end he meets. Some peculiarly daring personages carry their spirit of resistance beyond the bounds of our poor little earth. Only lately many of us read with a shock of surprise the passionate asseveration of a gifted woman who declared that it was a monstrous wrong and wickedness that ever she had been born. Job said much the same thing in his delirium; but our great novelist put forth her complaint as the net outcome of all her thought and culture. We only need to open an ordinary newspaper to find that the famous writer's folly is shared by many weaker souls; and the effect on the mind of a shrewd and contented man is so startling that it resembles the emotion roused by grotesque wit. The whole story of the ages tells us dismally what happens when unwise people choose to claim the measure of liberty which they think good; but somehow, though knowledge has come, wisdom lingers, and the grim old follies rear themselves rankly among us in the age of reason.

When we remember the Swiss mountaineers who took their deaths joyously in defence of their homes, when we read of the devoted brave one who received the sheaf of spears in his breast and broke the oppressor's array, none of us can think of mere vulgar rebellion. The Swiss were fighting to free themselves from wrongs untold; and we should hold them less than men if they had tamely submitted to be caged like poultry. Again, we feel a thrill when we read the epitaph which says, "Gladly we would have rested had we won freedom. We have lost, and very gladly rest." The very air of bravery, of steady self-abnegation seems to exhale from the sombre, triumphant words. Russia is the chosen home of tyranny now, but her day of brightness will come again. It is safe to prophesy so much, for I remember what happened at one time of supreme peril. Prussia and Austria and Italy lay crushed and bleeding under the awful power of Napoleon, and it seemed as though Russia must be wiped out from the list of nations when the great army of invaders poured in relentless multitudes over the stricken land. The conqueror appeared to have the very forces of nature in his favour, and his hosts moved on without a check and without a failure of organization. So perfectly had he planned the minutest details that, although his stations were scattered from the Beresina to the Seine, not so much as a letter was lost during the onward movement. How could the doomed country resist? So thought all Europe. But the splendid old Russian, the immortal Koutousoff, had felt the pulse of his nation, and he was confident, while all the other chiefs felt as though the earth were rocking under them. The time for the extinction of Russia had not come; a throb of fierce emotion passed over the country; the people rose like one man, and the despot found himself held in check by rude masses of men for whom death had scant terrors. Koutousoff had a mighty people to support him, and he would have swept back the horde of spoilers, even if the winter had not come to his aid. Russia was but a dark country then, as now, but the conduct of the myriads who dared to die gave a bright presage for the future. Who can blame the multitudes of Muscovites who sealed their wild protest with their blood? The common soldiers were but slaves, yet they would have suffered a degradation worse than slavery had they succumbed, while, as to the immense body of people--that nation within a nation--which answered to our upper and middle classes, they would have tasted the same woes which at length drove Germany to frenzy and made simple burghers prefer bitter death to the tyranny of the French. The rulers of Russia have stained her records foully since the days of 1812, but their worst sins cannot blot out the memory of the national uprising. Years are but trivial; seventy-six of them seem a long time; but those who study history broadly know that the dawn of a better future for Russia showed its first gleam when the aroused and indignant race rose and went forward to die before the French cannon. When next Russia rises, it will be against a tyranny only second to Napoleon's in virulence--it will be against the terror that rules her now from within; and her success will be applauded by the world.

The Italians, who first waited and plotted, and then fought desperately under Garibaldi, had every reason to cry out for freedom. If they had remained merely whimpering under the Bourbon and Austrian whips, they would have deserved to be spurned by all who bear the hearts of men. They were denied the meanest privileges of humanity; they lived in a fashion which was rather like the violent, oppressed, hideous existence which men imagine in evil dreams, and at length they struck, and declared for liberty or annihilation. Perhaps they did not gain much in the way of immediate material good, but that only makes their splendid movement the more admirable. They fought for a magnificent idea, and even now, though the populace have to bear a taxation three times as great as any known before in their history, the ordinary Italian will say, "Yes, signor--the taxes are very heavy; we toil very hard and pay much money; but who counts money? We are a nation now--a real nation; Italy is united and free." That is the gist of the matter. The people were bitterly ground down, and they are content to suffer privation in the present so long as they can ensure freedom from alien rule in the future. Nothing that the most hardly-entreated Briton suffers in any circumstances could equal the agonies of degradation borne by the people of the Peninsula, and their emancipation was hailed as if it had been a personal benefaction by all that was wisest and best in European society. The millions who turned out to welcome Garibaldi as if he had been an adored sovereign all had a true appreciation of real liberty; the masses were right in their instinct, and it was left for hysterical "thinkers" to shriek their deluded ideas in these later days.

"But surely the Irish rose for freedom in 1641?" I can almost imagine some clever correspondent asking me that question with a view to taking me in a neat trap. It is true enough that the Irish rose; but here again we must learn to discriminate between cases. How did the wild folk rise? Did they go out like the Thousand of Marsala and pit themselves against odds of five and six to one? Did they show any chivalry? Alas for the wicked story! The rebels behaved like cruel wild beasts; they were worse than polecats in an aviary, and they met with about the same resistance as the polecats would meet. They stripped the Ulster farmers and their families naked, and sent them out in the bitter weather; they hung on the skirts of the agonized crowd; the men cut down the refugees wholesale, and even the little boys of the insurgent party were taught to torture and kill the unhappy children of the flying farmers. Poor little infants fell in the rear of the doomed host, but no mother was allowed to succour her dying offspring, and the innocents expired in unimaginable suffering. The stripped fugitives crowded into Dublin, and there the plague carried them off wholesale. The rebels had gained liberty with a vengeance, and they had their way for ten years and more. Their liberty was degraded by savagery; they ruled Ireland at their own sweet will; they dwelt in anarchy until the burden of their iniquity grew too grievous for the earth to bear. Then their villainous freedom was suddenly ended by no less a person than Oliver Cromwell, and the curses, the murders, the unspeakable vileness of ten bad years all were atoned for in wild wrath and ruin. Now is it not marvellous that, while the murderers were free, they were poverty-stricken and most wretched? As soon as Cromwell's voice had ceased to pronounce the doom on the unworthy, the great man began his work of regeneration; and under his iron hand the country which had been miserable in freedom became prosperous, happy, and contented. There is no mistaking the facts, for men of all parties swore that the six years which followed the storm of Drogheda were the best in all Ireland's history. Had Cromwell only lived longer, or had there been a man fit to follow him, then England and Ireland would be happier this day.

In our social life the same conditions hold for the individual as hold for nations in the assembly of the world's peoples. Freedom--true freedom--means liberty to live a beneficent and innocent life. As soon as an individual chooses to set up as a law to himself, then we have a right--nay, it is our bounden duty--to examine his pretensions. If the sense of the wisest in our community declares him unfit to issue dicta for the guidance of men, then we must promptly suppress him; if we do not, our misfortunes are on our own heads. The "independent" man may cry out about liberty and the rest as much as he likes, but we cannot afford to heed him. We simply say, "You foolish person, liberty, as you are pleased to call it, would be poison to you. The best medicines for your uneasy mind are reproof and restraint; if those fail to act on you, then we must try what the lash will do for you."

Let us have liberty for the wise and the good--we know them well enough when we see them; and no sophist dare in his heart declare that any charlatan ever mastered men permanently. Liberty for the wise and good--yes, and wholesome discipline for the foolish and froward--sagacious guidance for all. Of course, if a man or a community is unable to choose a guide of the right sort, then that man or community is doomed, and we need say no more of either. I keep warily out of the muddy conflict of politics; but I will say that the cries of certain apostles of liberty seem woful and foolish. Unhappy shriekers, whither do they fancy they are bound? Is it to some Land of Beulah, where they may gambol unrestrained on pleasant hills? The shriekers are all wrong, and the best friend of theirs, the best friend of humanity, is he who will teach them--sternly if need be--that liberty and license are two widely different things.

August, 1888.

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Liberty