The Vexing Question of Liberty


By DR. HAROLD W. DODDS, President of Princeton University

Delivered at the Baccalaureate Service in the Princeton University Chapel, June 9, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 555-558.

IN the year 1775, believing a war with England inevitable, a man who had failed twice in business and once as a farmer before he turned to the successful practice of the law and became a leader in propaganda for the independence of the Colonies, made a speech in the second revolutionary convention of Virginia which concluded with these words: "I know not what course others may take, but as forme, give me liberty or give me death," By his famous peroration Patrick Henry won immortality in the school history books and struck a responsive chord in the hearts of Americans which has not yet ceased to vibrate.

This morning I propose to discuss, in less eloquent language, this vexing question of liberty as it concerns each one of us in our own personal needs, leaving to the philosophers, much more competent than I, consideration of the baffling problems which emerge when one delves below the relatively simple issues thrown up by daily living. Fortunately the practical phases are relatively simple.

To our colonial forefathers the chief threat to liberty was government. Liberty, as they viewed it, was the absence of arbitrary civil restraints upon the full self-realization of the individual. Destroy unnatural hindrances to the free play of natural reason imposed by arbitrary authority and vested privilege and all would be well.

We now know that this expectation was not realized. Moreover, hindsight being better than foresight, we are now able to realize that governmental tyranny is not the sole threat to our liberties. But let us not forget that underlying all other freedoms is civil freedom and that our ancestors were correct in the importance they attached to it. Those who press for social revolution will do well to consider more seriously the loss of political liberty which they so lightly esteem. As one looks about the world, he can as an American be thankful to those heroic figures of past times who through the centuries struggled to establish the Great Liberties which we casually accept today as if they had existed forever.

A certain radical school of writers intent upon debunking many traditional values, less influential at the moment than a few months ago before the Russian-German pact, asserts that historically the demand for political liberty has been nothing more than the rationalization of a desire for a greater share of the property or privileges possessed by the few but withheld from the many. Thus the historic contests for freedom of government, of opinion, of speech, of assembly, of religious worship, are said to have been merely deceptive cloaks concealing the acquisitive urge to make money.

I submit that this is too low an appraisal of human nature. Our own war of independence had its economic aspects, of course, but of greater significance was its ideology which ran to the natural rights of individuals as human beings. No, man's quest for freedom cannot be explained in economic terms. When the Scottish Parliament in the time of Robert Bruce issued their manifesto against submission to English rule, it was not a regard for economic interest that moved them to declare: "It is liberty alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life." In our more enlightened age some might call this warmongering, but millions are at this very moment matching it with their lives.

Our forefathers believe that love of liberty was a dominant native constituent of all human beings. Of late, however, we have seen that the sentiment for freedom can be bought off; that other sentiments may displace it; that mankind can be led into a willing surrender of his liberties. We cannot, therefore, be as sure as were earlier generations of the commanding position which the urge to liberty instinctively holds in the hearts of men; and this leads us to a consideration of a different theory of freedom diametrically opposed to America's tradition but productive of sweeping and horrible consequences abroad. To the German philosophers of the Nineteenth Century obsessed with the idea of order, the theories of freedom which underlay our War of Independence seemed to spell anarchy and disorder. Their temperamental fear of disunion made them hostile to liberty as understood in England and the United States, and led them to stress order imposed from above as the basic element necessary to cement society together.

Now it is true that order is required to sustain liberty. This is often difficult for young people to understand, as any college dean will testify. But the definition of freedom coinedby the German philosophers is so extreme, so opposed to our own tradition that it is difficult for us to comprehend it. According to their doctrines, the highest freedom is found in the ordered life dictated by the rulers of the state. The individual is free to the extent that his life is dissolved in the state. True freedom is submission, surely a distorted use of a good word. According to this concept, the ants and bees would appear to be freest of living things. I do not ask you to understand this doctrine which has for several generations characterized German thought. And yet we cannot deny its fearful power once it has become the ideal of a nation.

I have set forth two antithetical doctrines of liberty, the one which stresses the individual's right to a life of his own and the other the individual's subjection to the state, for a very specific purpose, viz., to point out one characteristic which they have in common. Although poles apart in other respects, each has a common element without which any theory of freedom would be nonsense. It is recognition of the truth that liberty for each individual implies a harmonious relationship to a force or power outside and above himself to which he is, in the last analysis, accountable. In other words, no philosophy of liberty can escape the grim fact of responsibility.

Thus, the most extreme doctrines of individual liberty ever current in America insisted upon man's duty to obey reason. No man or nation which declined this responsibility could be free. To the sorrow of our rationalistic forefathers the goddess of reason failed to establish dominion over the minds of men, as it was expected she would, but this did not alter the principle that liberty, in the old phrase, is not license to act capriciously. All free action is integrated action.

For example, we speak of a free golf swing or a free-sailing ship. But a golf swing is free or a ship sails free only when it is under control, when it is in tune with, i. e., is fulfilling its responsibility to, the forces upon which it depends. Similarly a free person is one in tune with his own being and with the powers to which he is accountable. No person who is not free in this sense is able to express himself to the full.

Assuming as I do that the fullest freedom is desirable, what is that ultimate force or power with which we must be in tune in order that we may be free, in order that we may live satisfying and purposeful lives? To what shall we render accountability?

As the thoughtful person looks about today he discovers that the answers to this eternal question group themselves into two chief contending schools of thought. One school invokes the infallibility of an all-embracing science as the power which should command our exclusive allegiance. Entrust our harried lives to science and it will set us free; it is our only hope.

On the other hand, the second school denies such totalitarian absolutism to science and declares that man's most controlling responsibilities and possibilities are revealed only in the age-old religious aspirations of the human heart.

Let us consider first the case for science. Our imagination is unable to chart the future promise which science holds for human happiness. Advancing knowledge supplied by science has swept away (and will continue to sweep away) many beliefs regarding man which cramped and enslaved his spirit in the past. No longer is an epidemic or tornado viewed as an act of divine punishment. We owe an immeasurable debt to Hippocrates for the scientific principle that disease is nature and not spirits. An equal debt is due Galileo for insisting that truth about the natural world could be gained more readily by observation of phenomena than by echoing Aristotle. Bacon has written that "knowledge and human power are synonymous" and we may confidently assume that theforward march of science will aid, not only by adding to our power to realize human ends but also by elevating and refining such ends. This I believe to be so despite the common observation that as yet science has done more to place new and more efficient tools at the disposition of our lower instincts than of our higher. If this be true, of course, human depravity and not science has been to blame.

But we may acclaim the findings and methods of science and still deny that it carries with it a totalitarian mandate. Those who urge science as a substitute for the Deity talk in mysteries as obscure as any religionist ever employed. To them, science is the new religion, so our decision really boils down to what religion shall we accept?

Furthermore those who would replace the Christian religion by the imperial claims of science often exhibit one characteristic which is commonly overlooked. This is a tendency towards a distrust of democracy and an intellectual aloofness from the needs and aspirations of the common man. For the democratically chosen leader, many of this group would substitute the scientific expert who is to become literally the messiah of a new age.

It is when they describe the all-powerful part to be played by the expert in a world worshipping at the feet of science that they let the cat out of the bag. We are told that modern life has become so intricate and unintelligible to the common man that he cannot longer be expected to possess a helpful opinion regarding his own welfare or the means of bringing it about. Society must, therefore, submit to the skill and disinterestedness of the scientist employed in the service of the state rather than trust in democratically formed public opinion. When society agrees to rely on the expert, it is said, it will have begun to develop a brain. Now democracy needs experts, and ours can be criticized for the slight use it has made of them, but the common man's unwillingness to accept the tyranny of the scientist is natural and correct. Life controlled in the name of science by a few experts to whom the common man is to entrust his destiny runs counter not only to the best social science, but to democratic fundamentals as well. Who will choose the experts? What will happen if they cannot agree among themselves or if they develop strange ideas about basic human needs? What will happen to the liberty and dignity of the common man when he is persuaded that it is better that he permit the expert to define his needs and fix his ends for him? No, scientific absolutism is to be rejected if only for the reason that it would set up a new priesthood whose rule would be in fact the rule of the vested interests and the vested ideas of a class of co-opted scientists.

Let us turn now to the other school of thought regarding the source of power to set men free, to which I referred a moment ago. It is that to which this Chapel is dedicated and about which all the associations of the service this morning are clustered. Christianity insists that "personality is the great central fact of the universe." It acknowledges man's capacity and craving for fellowship with a supernatural and eternal personality, and that only in such fellowship will our spirits find a final explanation of and satisfaction for our highest desires. God cannot be proved by the methods of science any more than the existence of truth and beauty can be proved. But in the words of one eminent scientist "the hypothesis of God gives a more reasonable interpretation of the world than any other." Any man, I may add, can be proud to make this interpretation his own. All history proves, said Professor Shorey, the truth of Homer's statement that all men have need of God. Lord Tweedsmuir in his posthumous autobiography tells us that he wanted no philosophy to rationalize the fundamentals of the Christian religion, for they seemed to him so completely rational.

The message of Jesus, as has been so often stated from this pulpit, is something added to life which life would not otherwise have possessed and to which our natures respond as being valid. It is not a man-made therapeutic device, as were Plato's myths, and it did not evolve from experience. It envisaged freedom "in religious terms long before democracy assumed a political terminology." To St. Paul's assurance that "where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" we may all respond in the words of a hymn so frequently sung in this Chapel, "Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!"

Gentlemen of the Class of 1940

The aim of Princeton can be expressed in one phrase, by a liberal education to equip men to be free. The right to freedom must be earned anew every day, and it is by meeting our responsibilities that we attain unto it. Many dread liberty, says Bernard Shaw, because it means responsibility. Freedom is made of stern stuff and not a few break down in their effort to qualify for it. If we refuse the rigors of self-discipline we are doomed to fall into slavery.

For a decade or more the world, in which you as young men have grown into an awareness of cosmic forces, has lived in bondage to fear. Why have the peoples been afraid? It is not in large measure because of a wide-spread renunciation of responsibilities? We have seen nations, statesmen and individuals deny most solemn obligations even when established in binding contractual form, and in so doing they have wounded liberty. But it has not been destroyed in the hearts of men and it will be restored to its place of power when the world is again willing to accept its conditions.

The period of your coming of age has thus been an abnormal one. As a consequence you have been faced with problems far more disturbing than my generation had to contend with. The experience has bruised you but it has matured you also. The illusions of ease that tempted my generation have been pierced and you have been strengthened thereby.

The older generation is often blamed for not presenting to youth the magic formula for human perfectibility, the unconscious humor being in the assumption that if old age had the formula it would not long ago have used it itself. All history reveals that there is no magic quality to youth which by some mystical process relieves it of the burden of finding and following the difficult but slow paths to happiness and peace in the end.

I believe that you of the Class of 1940 are aware of this, and I know that you are not soliciting favors or immunities which were denied your ancestors. The real frontier of a nation is defined by the degree of freedom of movement, of social mobility, of a chance to make good, which it enjoys. One way to help keep our frontier open, to keep your liberties bright and shining, is to participate unselfishly in the common life of the democracy about you. Politics is only one method and not the most important on the whole. If democracy fails in America it will not be so much because of weaknesses in the functioning of our political institutions as because of our failure to keep alive the voluntary, non-political citizen activities for the common good which are necessary to sustain the political.

As you go out from us, we lay upon your shoulders a joint trusteeship over the future of the American dream. Those who have gone before you have now and then glimpsed a dream of what a free America might become. This dream has never been realized; sometimes it has been perverted, but it has never been discredited or abandoned. In these days

we must recapture all its strength and inspiration. The nation must rely upon its young people to keep faith with this dream by work and vision which alone will bring it to pass. "When young men have vision," it has been said, "the dreams of old men come true."

You go from this University with our affection and our high hopes. In years to come you will find that it has woven itself into the fabric of your hearts. May we who remain behind prove worthy of an enduring place in your memory

and may the substance of your lives bring honor and joy to Princeton, for the lustre and strength which you add to her name will be transmitted with added increment to those who will follow after you. As you return for brief visits in the years to come you will always be welcome. I do not wish for you ease or comfort which spell stagnation and decline. Rather do I hope that your daily lives may prove to be at once a champion and a symbol of liberty as I have defined it this morning.