Freedom and Tyranny

Christianity and Politics VIII: Rights, Obligations, and Political Order

Note: This is Part 8 of an ongoing series. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

“The people of the United States possess in a high degree a spirit of liberty. This is a principle which is natural to the human mind.”[1. “‘The Republican’ to the People,” in The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification, Part One: September 1787 to February 1788 (Library of America, 1993), 711.] ~The Republican (1788)


Freedom is at the heart of what it means to be an American: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the Declaration of Independence states, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Enshrined into our Constitution’s Bill of Rights are fundamental freedoms: free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to bear arms, the right to a trial by jury, freedom from excessive punishment, and on and on.

Americans love freedom. But what is freedom? This might seem a silly question, but answering it is not as easy as one might think. Abraham Lincoln, in an 1864 speech, was right: “We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”[2. Montesquieu said it before him: “No word has been given more different meanings, no word has made such varied impressions upon the minds of men as that of liberty.” The Spirit of the Laws, Book 11, Chapter 2 in Selected Political Writings (Hackett, 1990, orig. 1748), 180.]

Classical Freedom

For the Greeks and the Romans, freedom was the security of the free man in the commonwealth from injustice and the tyranny of the mob. Aristotle argued that true freedom is “freedom from civil strife,” which he said, “ought to be secured by the lawgiver.”[3. Aristotle, Politics II.1273b.] The tyranny of the majority is, according to Plato’s Socrates, a perversion of true freedom:

You see it seems that excessive freedom both in our private lives and public evolves into nothing other than excessive slavery. . . . So it’s likely then that tyranny is based on no other political system than democracy; out of the highest freedom, I believe, comes the most widespread and savage slavery.[4. Plato, Republic VIII.564a.]

Cicero, paraphrasing Plato, contended that because excessive liberty (libertinism) turns inevitably into tyranny, the best form of government is one that is “well tempered and balanced” by including aspects of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.[5. Cicero, On the Republic I.XLV.] In a rightly ruled commonwealth “Liberty [is] the sweetest of all blessings.”[6. Cicero, On the Republic I.XXXI.]

This older understanding of freedom shaped many who would later significantly influence the American founding. Baron de Montesquieu, for example, argued that:

For a citizen, political liberty is that tranquility of mind which derives from his sense of security. Liberty of this kind presupposes a government so ordered that no citizen need fear another.[7. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Book 11, Chapter 6, 182.]

Russell Kirk, in his survey of the ideological influences on the American political order, describes the basic American inheritance from England’s long tradition of common law shaped by Christian influence in similar terms:

The good society is marked by a high degree of order, justice, and freedom. Among these, order has primacy: for justice cannot be enforced until a tolerable civil social order is attained, nor can freedom be anything better than violence until order gives us laws.[8. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (4th ed.; ISI Books, 2003), 6.]

In this, Kirk was echoing the sentiment expressed centuries before by the British politician Edmund Burke:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites . . . . Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.[9. Edmund Burke, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke 8:332 (a letter to young revolutionary-minded Frenchman Charles-Jean-Francois Depont), quoted in Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (Basic Books, 2014), 114.]

Freedom, or liberty, in this way of thinking, is not an absolute value. It is a means toward an end. “Liberty is not the foundation of social order,” Roger Scruton notes, “but one of its by-products.”[10. Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (St. Martin’s, 2017), 52.] The only genuine liberty, Burke argued in 1774, “is a liberty connected with order: that not only exists along with order and virtue but which cannot exist at all without them. It inheres in good and steady government, as in its substance and vital principle.”[11. Edmund Burke, Writings and Speeches 3:318 (a letter to prominent constituents in Bristol), quoted in Levin, The Great Debate, 115.] The only people who are “free” in a disordered society are criminals and lunatics. Everyone else lives slavish, fearful lives. The end, or purpose, of freedom is a well-ordered society, where the virtuous are safe and able to live virtuously, and evil is held in check. “Without virtue,” wrote founding father Benjamin Rush, “there can be no liberty.”[12.Benjamin Rush, Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, in The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush (Philosophical Library, 1947, orig. 1798), cited by Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Thomas Nelson, 2019), 31.]

Alexis de Tocqueville quotes John Winthrop approvingly on true freedom, the kind of freedom Tocqueville saw as at the heart of American life:

Make no mistake about what we ought to understand by our independence. There is in fact a corrupt sort of liberty, the use of which is common to animals and men, and which consists in doing whatever they like. This liberty is the enemy of all authority; it is impatient of all rules. With it, we become inferior to ourselves. It is the enemy of truth and peace, and God believed it his duty to rise against it! But there is a civil and moral liberty that finds its strength in union, and which it is the mission of power itself to protect: this is the liberty to do what is just and good without fear. This sacred liberty we must defend in all circumstances and if necessary risk our life for it.[13. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 48, quoting John Winthrop from Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, 2.13.]

Later, American founding father James Wilson would echo these sentiments on liberty:

[I]n entering into the social compact, though the individual parts with a portion of his natural rights, yet, it is evident that he gains more by the limitation of the liberty of others, than he loses by the limitation of his own,–so that in truth, the aggregate of liberty is more in society, than it is in a state of nature.”[14. James Wilson, “Opening Address,” Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, November 24, 1787 in The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification, Part One: September 1787 to February 1788 (Library of America, 1993), 797.]

Limiting one’s freedom to do merely whatever one desires is the necessary prerequisite of liberty in the sense urged by Wilson, the “aggregate of liberty . . . in society.”

The nineteenth-century Dutch politician and writer Groen van Prinsterer writes of how this conception of freedom was also at the heart of the Protestant Reformation:

The principle of the Reformation—its basic premise or point of departure: was it liberty? Most assuredly not. It did preach liberty, but as the Gospel does: a liberty that is grounded in submission. Liberty is the consequence, the principle is submission. Submission to God’s Word and Law. Submission, for His sake, also to men. Submission to every truth drawn from God’s Word, to every authority derived from Divine authority. Freedom to perform one’s duty. Freedom from the whim of men, to submit to the will of God.[15. Groen van Prinsterer, Unbelief and Revolution (Lexham, 2018, orig. 1847), 73.]

Prinsterer notes that this conception of true liberty is that of the Gospel, and indeed it is:

John 8:31–32: So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’

Galatians 5:13: For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

1 Peter 2:16: Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.

In short, freedom in the classical, Christian, and early American sense is freedom unto virtue and order, not freedom to do merely as one pleases. Only the former is capable of building and sustaining a just and happy political order, and therefore only the former deserves the support and protection of the state.

Enlightenment Freedom

During the Enlightenment an understanding of freedom contrary to the classical sense began to develop, largely stemming from the thought of Rene Descartes. “The greatest care,” Descartes argued “must be taken not to admit anything as true which we cannot prove to be true.”[16. Cited in Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein (2nd ed; Routledge, 2002), 30.] The solitary individual of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was all that was left at the end of the process.[17. Descartes, of course, could come up with no solid reason for not doubting his own thoughts and was forced to presuppose the existence of God as guaranteeing “those claims to knowledge which, by using his faculties to their greatest ability, Descartes will be naturally inclined to make” (Scruton, Short History, 35; see also 36, 43). That, however, is a matter for another time.]

Descartes’ philosophical speculations radically altered the intellectual landscape of Europe. Nothing was immune from the Cartesian attempt to dissolve all knowledge that could not be derived on the basis of reason, nor from the radical individualism that resulted.

The physical sciences were also affected by the new learning of the Enlightenment, in particular, through the studies of Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, and others. Thomas Hobbes, in fact, saw his political theory as flowing of necessity out of a properly scientific understanding of the “new science” of the Enlightenment:

Liberty, or FREEDOME, signifieth (properly) the absence of Opposition; (by Opposition, I mean externall Impediments of motion;) and may be applyed no lesse to Irrational, and Inanimate creatures, than to Rationall. For whatsoever is so tyed, or environed, as it cannot move, but within a certain space, which space is determined by the opposition of some externall body, we say it hath not Liberty to go further. And so of all living creatures, whilest they are imprisoned, or restrained, with walls, or chayns; and of the water whilest it is kept in by banks, or vessels, that otherwise would spread it selfe into a larger space, we use to say, they are not at Liberty, to move in such manner, as without those externall impediments they would. But when the impediment of motion, is in the constitution of the thing it selfe, we use not to say, it wants the Liberty; but the Power to move; as when a stone lyeth still, or a man is fastned to his bed by sicknesse.[18. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II,  Ch. XXI. See the comments of Richard S. Peters: “This typified Hobbes’ approach to human problems—his contempt for tradition, experience, and laborious trial and error methods. ‘The skill of making, and maintaining commonwealths,’ he said, ‘consisteth in certain rules, as doth arithmetic and geometry . . .’ Peters, “Introduction” in Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Touchstone, 1997), 12.]

When supplemented with the radical human individualism spawned by Descartes, the basis of Hobbes’ political theory was complete: “A FREE-MAN, is ‘he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to.’”[19. Hobbes, Leviathan, Book II, Ch. XXI.] Furthermore, there is “no Obligation on any man, which ariseth not from some Act of his own; for all men equally, are by Nature Free.” Only free “consent” can create obligations.[20. Scruton, Short History, 205, who notes the incongruity of this notion with Hobbes’ support for absolute monarchy.]

Such notions would come to dominate the thinking of the Enlightenment, greatly influencing the political thinking of the day. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that “there is only one innate right, Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law.”[21. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals in Collected Works (Cambridge, 1996, orig. 1797), 6:237.] Therefore, what should be sought in the political realm is “a society which has not only the greatest freedom, and therefore a continual antagonism among its members, but also the most precise specification and preservation of the limits of this freedom in order that it can co-exist with the freedom of others.”[22. Immanuel Kant, Idea of a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Purpose in Collected Works (Cambridge, 2012, orig. 1755), 8:22.] “Man,” then, “who is otherwise so enamored with unrestrained freedom, is forced to enter this [political] state of restriction by sheer necessity.”[23. Kant, Universal History, 8:22.] Put more simply: the only legitimate purpose of government is preventing people from hurting others in the exercise of their otherwise unlimited, natural freedom.

It is but a short step to John Stuart Mill’s famous “harm principle,” which he understood (like Kant) to be the only legitimate reason for the government to restrict an individual’s freedom: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”[24. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Hackett, 1978), 9.]

While there has been endless debate about the influence of John Locke on America’s founding, John Stuart Mill would appear more than anyone to be the central architect of the view of freedom most Americans hold today, freedom from all external authority, except in those cases where that freedom hurts someone else.[25. Russell Kirk (Roots of American Order, 323) describes the very selective use by the American Founders of a great variety of political theorists (like Locke) thusly: “‘Liberty!’ was a rallying cry on the eve of the American Revolution precisely because the people of the Thirteen Colonies always had known a high degree of political freedom. They were not demanding new rights, but were protesting in defense of political customs long established and sanctioned. The Patriots turned to theorists’ books only for philosophical confirmation of practices they had enjoyed in America from the beginning.” See also the helpful comments of Mark David Hall, Christian Founding, 177, n. 27: “[T]o the extent to which America’s founders utilized these thinkers, they borrowed ideas or arguments that were compatible with orthodox Christianity, and, in fact, were often developed before the Enlightenment by indisputably Christian thinkers.”] It is but a short further step to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous line in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The consequences of this understanding of freedom are everywhere evident today. If a woman gets pregnant she should be free to kill the child in her womb because it is a restriction on her freedom. A man who is unhappy with the body God gave him is free to become a woman. A husband or wife who is unhappy in a marriage relationship should be free to dissolve it without any possible hindrance simply because he or she desires to do so. This list could be endlessly expanded. In this way of thinking the state exists merely to ratify and protect one’s individual free choices.

Rights and Obligations

The classical conception of freedom referenced above has many things in its favor, chief among them that it is true. It is also the only possible basis for societal order, stability, and well-being.

Unlike many of the postliberal critics of modernity, I would not argue that we need to establish a new order that rejects the supposedly unredeemable individualism of much of America’s founding, but rather that we need a return to the classical understanding of liberty in a Christian key, a paleo-liberalism, as it were.

Such an approach can be sketched out briefly.

The chief concept that must structure a political order is that of obligations, not rights. Certain “rights” are indeed valid and necessary outworkings of obligations (to God or to other people). All are obligated by the sixth commandment not to unjustly take another human life. It follows, then, that as a matter of basic justice, all people should be free from anyone taking their lives away without just cause. A “right,” thus exists in this qualified sense, such as is enshrined in the seventh article of the American Bill of Rights, which states that no man may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

All people are born into the world with an interlocking set of obligations, especially to God, to their families, and to the governing authorities of the State. This can be contrasted with an understanding that puts nearly unlimited positive rights at the center: the right to universal health care, education, a living wage, etc.

The principle of obligation is everywhere evident in Scripture. The ancient Israelite did not see himself as free in the modern sense. He understood that at every point he lived within a nexus of obligations: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest” (Lev 19:9). Why was that the case? Because he was obligated to provide from his excess of divine blessing to those less well-off (though not those less well-off due to a sinful refusal to work). This is merely one example. The entire Old Testament law is centered on human obligations.

Every man, woman, and child born into this world is born under obligation to honor God and love neighbor. Jesus could therefore summarize the entirety of the Old Testament law accordingly (Matt 22:37–40):

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’ 

All people are also obligated to their parents: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12:), and to their spouses: “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph 5:33), and in different ways to other family members: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). We likewise have obligations to the State: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom 13:7) and “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17). Christians are under obligation to one another (Rom 13:8–10; Rom 15:27 [emphasis added]): 

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.

Freedom is absolutely to be prized by the Christian, but only freedom for virtue, excellence, self-limitation, self-control, and order. Simone Weil puts all of this well:

The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.[26.Simone Weil, The Need For Roots (Routledge, 2002, orig. 1952), 3, quoted in Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2018), 186. Cf. Scruton, Great Tradition, 24: “For the conservative, human beings come into this world burdened by obligations, and subject to institutions and traditions that contain within them a precious inheritance of wisdom, without which the exercise of freedom is as likely to destroy human rights and entitlements as to enhance them.”]

Put more simply: obligations always bind; rights are only worth the paper they’re printed on if there is no power to enforce them.

The modern conception of rights as unlimited freedom from authority cannot be found in Scripture, the Christian tradition, or at America’s founding. Freedom may be the supreme American catchword, but it hasn’t always meant what it means today. Gordon Dakota Arnold provides a striking example from the writings of Nathaniel Niles (a disciple of Jonathan Edwards writing on the scope of government in 1774) to show how different the founding idea of liberty is from the libertine pretender prevalent today:

Good government is not inconsistent with liberty. Perfect liberty and perfect government are perfectly harmonious, while tyranny and licentiousness are inconsistent with both… Remove good government, and you remove liberty. Abridge the former and you abridge the latter. Hence, the impropriety of saying of a person, that he is a friend to government, but not to liberty, and of another, that he is a friend to liberty, but not to government, appears to be very gross. Indeed one man may be a friend to tyranny and not to liberty, but then he is as truly an enemy to government. Another may be a friend to licentiousness and not to government; but then he is as truly an enemy to liberty; and both, for this plain reason, that good government in a state, and the liberty of that state, are one and the same thing.[27. Niles, “First Discourse on Liberty” (1774).]

Arnold unpacks Niles thusly:

Note the contrast with Hobbes and Kant. For them, the most natural condition of man is one without government. That is where he is most free. We create a government out of necessity, to protect our rights, but it is fundamentally unnatural and it is always in tension with the natural liberty that we bear as individuals. ‘Government,’ said Thomas Paine, ‘even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.’ ‘Society is based upon our wants, and government on our wickedness.’ Niles, following Edwards, is instead convinced that ‘spiritual liberty is the soul of civil liberty’ and that government and liberty are perfectly harmonious.[28. In personal communication.]

Government is necessary and it is good. At least it is meant to be good. It is meant to do good and to praise good (Rom 13:1–7). It is meant to provide order, stability, and protection to its law-abiding citizens. Hobbes and Kant have it exactly backward: we are most free only when we and our fellow citizens are under the protection of a just political order. “For what use is a right,” Roger Scruton asks, “without the law-abiding and law-enforcing power that upholds it?”[29. Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (3rd ed.; St. Augustine’s, 2002), 8.]


What difference does the classical and Christian understanding of freedom make to politics and governing? Freedom, rightly understood, is a good thing. It is, in fact, essential to a healthy state. Citizens should be free from the state stealing their property. They should be free from being unjustly imprisoned at the mere whim of their rulers, and they should be free from judicial trials where they can’t defend themselves. There are many things that they should be free from, all of which are basic principles of justice. Normally the state should give a wide berth of freedom to individuals to live their lives. There are always exceptions, but most people know far better than the state what they need for themselves and are capable of attaining it without interference from the governing authorities.

The modern quest for freedom arises from a very different impulse. It arises from the delusion that there are no truths apart from those that are self-chosen. It arises from the notion that government simply exists to protect one’s desires and appetites. Modern claims about human rights are limitless, built as they are on the sinking sand of pure subjectivism. Whatever one desires one can claim a right to: sexual pleasure (however derived), the right to education, housing, and income (all paid for by confiscating someone else’s property), the right to change one’s gender, the right to be respected and affirmed. Freedom, so conceived, is a devourer of worlds.

When freedom is defined as the removal of all restraint (a perverse parody of the freedom envisioned by the American founders) a radical and destructive notion of the purpose of the state inevitably comes alongside it. The state exists for no other reason than to protect and further the self-chosen realities of individuals. The supreme irony, of course, is that a state so ordered is by no means tolerant of dissent. As we see around us every day, the new regime of autonomous freedom is one of the most militantly intolerant and tyrannical regimes known to man. All of life must be made to conform to the dictates of a new technocratic and administrative totalitarianism.

This article can’t hope to provide even a small list of the ways in which such libertarian tyranny can be resisted. But the first step in resistance is simpler: coming to recognize that we’ve drifted far from the idea of freedom that animated classical and Christian thinking and that is at the heart of America’s founding and its constitutional order. This alone is a daunting task, but apart from succeeding in this, progress elsewhere is unlikely.

Image Credit: A fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919 AD) depicting Roman senator Cicero (106-43 BC) denouncing the conspirator Catiline in the Roman senate. (Palazzo Madama, Rome)