Liberty is critical to America’s political history and culture, but it is also greatly misunderstood. More often than not, we use it as the watchword of causes and ideals, sometimes without any regard to reality. Political parties, social movements, philosophers, and our fellow American people all contest or take for granted what liberty means and what it should entail. With so many conflicting and contradictory accounts, liberty often seems to be a slave to rhetoric and meaningless jargon. In reality, however, it possesses a very real and objective meaning that bears strong implications for American political life.
Most would agree that liberty means having power over your own actions—the ability to determine for yourself what you will do. This is a safe definition, since you usually provoke controversy when you attempt to specify the bounds and ends of liberty’s ‘power.’
From this basic definition, though, other premises follow out of necessity. The ability to choose your actions presupposes a rational faculty, since every choice requires deliberation and interior decision. It is this quality of reason that enables human liberty. While man experiences stimulation and repulsion from the phenomena around him, he is not entirely ruled by his environment. He is a creature unlike any other because he chooses how to act and react. This is human liberty, and it is what sets man aside from other animals.
Because rationality is the natural prerequisite for liberty, whenever a man lets himself be ruled by passion or whims rather than by reason, he surrenders self-governance and chains himself to the waxing and waning of his desires. He cannot allow his appetites to take the place of reason and still expect to retain mastery over his life and actions. Liberty does not persist where there is action without discernment; it must be accompanied by responsibility for your actions. It follows from the self-determination rationality allows, and this ability is incompatible with a life governed by the irrational. True liberty requires us to take an active role in being responsible for what we do.
Liberty is a term we can easily misunderstand, but it is also one over which we cannot afford confusion. Ours is a nation that claims to be seeking “the blessings of liberty.” If that endeavor is to be kept from ever devolving into France’s revolutionary nightmare—which also claimed to be pursuing Liberté—liberty must always be considered in light of responsibility, lest it be divested of all its true worth and power.
Michael Gonzalez is currently a third-year undergraduate student at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Influenced by the writings of Frank S. Meyer and Russell Kirk, Michael seeks to connect the vision and depth of the Western philosophical and literary tradition with the political life in the America Patria. He enjoys reading and discussing a wide variety of works—especially Homer's epics and Willa Cather's novels—and hopes in the future to pursue graduate studies in legal and political philosophy.