Monday, March 28, 2011

Libya and Life

There is a shooting war in Libya, and the United States is somehow involved in the whole thing.

This is about all I know. I know that Qaddafi is not a "good guy," but I know absolutely nothing about the people who oppose him, and what complicated set of motives drives them. The President tells us that the "Libyan people" (who, I have heard, are a collection of mutually hostile tribes) want "freedom." Description lags terribly behind reality in the 21st century, I fear. What does "freedom" mean? We have not answered that question yet, in the last two hundred or so years that Western Civilization has been playing around with it. We have seen it manipulated by forces hostile to human dignity, so that the last two centuries of "freedom" have been the bloodiest in the history of the human race.

Now new forces are rising in the world, or, rather, old forces in new forms. What is it that they want?

In January and February, the secular West enjoyed the thrill of watching peaceful people take to the streets and demand freedom. They brought down a thirty year dictatorship in Egypt. And the genuine desire for freedom was palpable in those first days. But freedom is more than a dizzying experience of possibility; it is the capacity to adhere to something--to a proposal for life. Does the secular West have a proposal for life? As far as I can tell, it consists largely in material prosperity, ubiquitous entertainment, sexual licence, and the accumulation of information as a kind of distraction for the human mind.

This proposal does not engender the kind of vigorous personalities that can persevere in the long task of building a new national identity. So its not surprising that when preliminary elections were held in Egypt a couple of weeks ago, 70% of the people voted according to another kind of proposal--the one promoted with the strong backing of the Muslim Brotherhood--to set an election schedule that would favor the interests of Islamic organizations.

What is Islam? I am trying to find out, and that will be the subject of future blogs, no doubt. But I can say this much: it is a serious proposal. It engages the deep dynamics of man. It is not frivolity.

The drama in Libya moves in this same realm. And we have entered into the shooting, to protect innocent lives and (more importantly?) "our own interests," in a way that effectively supports one group against another in a war whose real motivations we know nothing about. I am sure of this much: Libya is part of the rise of Islam in the 21st century, and Islam is setting itself up as a serious rival to the secular Western proposal.

Do we have something better to offer? Of course we do. The West has lost contact with its foundation. But we must do more than remember it, allude to it, or try to piece back together elements of its ethical and cultural tradition. We have to discover it anew, at its source.


Matthew Bowman said...

I would take issue with the idea that the concept of freedom has only been played around with for the last two hundred years. It's been around much longer than that. The same is true for self-expression and even the idea that power comes from the governed (though this phrase is much younger).

What has been present for the last two hundred years (more accurately, the last two hundred twenty-two years) has been an idea of freedom for freedom's sake; an idea that freedom is its own good, and can be worshiped as such in secular ideology. It is not a means to an end in this view, nor can it be burdened by self-responsibility and duty.

This philosophy states that man desires freedom as his natural state, yet this is patently not the case. The Lord of the Flies is not a reflection of man; he is at core a civilized and sociable animal who sees himself as part of a whole. Selfishness can then take hold, but what is desired as a result is not freedom, but safety. The safety and stability of a life free of uncertainty. In his "natural state," man does not desire freedom of choice, but freedom FROM choice. Freedom from responsibility.

The Western view -- the traditional Western view, descended from the Greeks and predating, yet fulfilled by, Christianity -- is that as man desires that safety, he will come to understand that it is his own responsibility to ensure and protect it. A man who does not come to this realization is a slave, whether or not his chains can be seen. This traditional view then holds that he must place his trust in legitimate authority, which is then charged with his safety in exchange for loyalty and duty.

Without the freedom of choice, this is impossible. This idea, stemming from the Greeks yet echoed in the Old Testament, holds that no man has legitimate authority over another man without that other man giving it freely. To demand it without cause -- to be a dictator -- is to abridge free will no matter the means employed.

(cont. below)

Matthew Bowman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Bowman said...

(cont. from above)

The concepts of free will and the dignity of the individual, which the Greeks lacked but the Jews and Christians provided, were what remained to cement this view. The Greeks had come to some of this through reason, but without a true and complete concept of free will no further progress could be made, and the Greek concept of "freedom" lacked focus. After the Catholic Church was forced to define what a "person" was (in order to describe the dual nature of Christ), suddenly the floodgates opened and man had a language to truly describe the concept of "freedom."

Yet this also means that if one ignores the Christian underpinnings of freedom, all that remains is the pagan view that freedom is subject to "fate" -- however that is described, usually biologically but frequently adding Nietzschean undertones, in the modern secular world. Without that Christian concept of self-responsibility with a goal of bettering one's self, the concept of "freedom" becomes seen as man's natural resting state.

And thus we have the current situation, a philosophy shared by the leaders in both major parties, where if we just let people have a taste of the democratic process they will hunger for more. It is their natural state. It doesn't matter that we don't speak of Christianity. It isn't necessary to instruct a radically different culture in concepts that have so thoroughly permeated our culture that we can't see the trees for the forest.

The last US President who understood this was Ronald Reagan; he knew that freedom doesn't require democracy, even if modern republican governments are almost certainly the best form of government. (Or, as has been said, the worst form except all the others that have been tried.) It might be the best available, but it isn't natural. Dictatorships are natural. Topple one without educating the populous, and another dictatorship will rise to take its place. Reagan knew it was better to deal with those dictators willing to be allies (such as Mubarak in Egypt) rather than force regime change on a population that has only a dictionary understanding of freedom and free will.

"Freedom," Reagan said, "is only one generation away from extinction. It is not passed onto our children through the bloodstream. It is fought for, defended, and given to them to do the same."

It is not the natural state of man. It is an enlightened state of man, understood only through education and self-awareness. Freedom is a privilege earned only by those willing to fight for it.

Right now, there is very little fighting for freedom in these Arabic-speaking countries. Islam doesn't have a concept of free will; they are as bound to fate (in the form of the concept of insha'allah) as the Greeks were. We cannot simply expect them to catch up to us if we don't show them the way.

And, of course, it would help if our leaders understood this concept as well; but of our last four presidents, the only one who figured it out did so after already committed to instilling democracy in the Middle East -- an task that would have caused even Hercules to hesitate.

John Janaro said...

I think that an intuition about something more profound about the nature of "freedom" than simply "free choice" has been stirring about since the Enlightenment, but in a distorted form and cut off from man's relationship with God. It is the freedom that characterizes man's capacity not only to choose the good, but to possess it as "his own" and in turn his capacity to "possess himself" and to "give himself away" in love. It is ultimately the Pauline notion of freedom, i.e. the Christian understanding, which is freedom as participation in relationship of mutual self-giving, as love. I think this is what is ultimately behind the spark of attractiveness that "freedom" has in its specifically modern political and social context. It is the desire to belong to one's self and to give one's self. But if I do not radically belong to another Person, God, then I inevitably define myself in terms of an ideology and then enslave myself to those who have the power to manipulate that ideology. All of this needs a lot of unpacking, and--for that matter--thinking through. Better not to try to hash it out here. I'll blog on freedom at some point.

Matthew Bowman said...

Yet don't forget that "duty" and "responsibility" are not separate from "love" -- they are, in fact, inseparable. Just as sacrifice is not possible without love, the concept of duty and the acceptance of responsibility requires the giving over of self that is such a large part of love.

Duty is often thought of as something required, but it in fact is not something forced. I refer here to the concept of honor, which brings us back to responsibility. Responsibility is a voluntary action, because it requires acceptance; one only accepts a limitation through love. It can (as often is in the British and French senses of honor) be an improper love, and may even be self-love, but it is a love that gives one the courage to accept hardship for something greater.

The Christian sense of honor is part of what you refer to here as the Pauline sense of freedom, which is showcased in Corinthians and Ephesians. It is picked up by Chesterton centuries later when he sums up freedom and free will as the choice to give it over in love, to limit one's self in the love of country, or of spouse and children and other family, or -- and especially -- God.

I highly recommend, especially since you're studying Islam, that you read the book Honor: A History by James Bowman (no relation). He has the attitude that Christianity destroyed the honor code, but he can't seem to connect the same concept of honor to Christian freedom, which is there in Paul's epistles. Allowing for that conceit, you will find a lot of fascinating discussion in there.