Pericles was proud of Athenian freedom and insisted it was worth dying for. Our ancestors shared that pride and that insistence. But they and he were proud, not of the absence of discipline or authority, but of the fact that in a society of free citizens discipline and authority are self-imposed.

The other day an interesting and curious gift arrived at St. John’s College. It was a design in the form of a circular seal, and it was the work of a Harvard man who admires the educational program which this College has undertaken and who chose to express his admiration by designing this symbolic seal. In the center of the seal is a pair of scales, or balances. Around it in a circle are placed seven open books, representing the seven liberal arts. And around the open volumes is lettered the motto, FACIO LIBEROS EX LIBERIS LIBRIS LIBRAQUE. I suppose the motto may be fairly translated: “I make free men out of boys by means of books and balances.” The punning on the stem of the Latin word for free is a serviceable pun now that liberal education is confronted with a world-wide decline of liberalism.

Like most liberals today, I am disturbed by the rise in many parts of the world of government by violence as a substitute for government by reason and consent. But unlike most liberals I know, I am much less disturbed by the overthrow of free government in states that were once democratic than I am by the confusion of the liberal mind in states like ours which are still technically free. You may argue that confusion in the liberal mind disturbs me because I know that such confusion is normally followed by the overthrow of free government. I agree that this is what normally happens; but even if you could assure me that “it can’t happen here,” I should still be disturbed by the present state of liberalism. Because I agree with those who founded our Republic that what they and we have called free institutions cannot alone and of themselves make men truly free. Free institutions are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The end is the freedom of individual men and women.

The real meaning of liberalism lies in the fact that man possesses free will, and that he is really and fully human only when that will is freely exercised. Because he possesses free will, he has the power to choose, to decide. You can prevent my exercising of my free will, so far as politics is concerned, by a number of methods. You can seize the government and close the polls. Or you can keep the polls ostentatiously open, and post armed men at them to see that I vote Ja in any plebiscite you hold. Or you can tell me to vote as I like but that I will lose my job if the wrong man wins. Or you can refrain from threatening my livelihood but see that I am kept misinformed through a censored press, so that I will “freely” choose the things you want me to choose. Or you can let me have all the information I want but see to it that my education is so defective that I lack the intellectual capacity to interpret the information when I get it. The last method would be the subtlest. For I can lose the freedom of my will just as surely through ignorance as through being sent to a concentration camp, and I shall have the added disadvantage of not knowing I have lost it.

Don’t misunderstand me: Concentration camps are not merely disagreeable; they are a genuine check on the freedom of the will; they genuinely close out certain choices. All I am saying is that keeping out of concentration camps is not necessarily achieving freedom. Neither is having access to an uncensored press. Neither is having the rights of free speech and free assembly. These things merely widen the choices a free will may make if that will has learned to use and follow reason. It is because of these distinctions that the founding fathers of this republic insisted on the necessity of liberal education.

The daily papers suggest that Hitler and Mussolini {ed., This lecture was delivered in 1938.} are doing most of the choosing, most of the deciding, most of the willing these days. The day’s news suggests that liberal democracies are paralyzed. If they are, it is because we twentieth-century liberals have missed the point of our own faith. We have slithered into the belief that liberty meant being left alone, and nothing else. We have come to no longer distinguish between authority and tyranny. We have forgotten that the mind that denies the authority of reason falls under the tyranny of caprice. We have forgotten that he who will not answer to the rudder must answer to the rock. We have therefore allowed totalitarian dictators to take out a copyright on words like authority and discipline, although their tyranny is a caricature of authority and their terrorism is a caricature of discipline.

It is high time that those Americans who value liberalism should restate their faith in it, not negatively as we so often do these days, but positively; that we freely and gladly assume the responsibilities of liberty as well as its privileges. For though most liberals today are soft, there is nothing soft about liberalism. I spoke in one of these radio talks of the famous funeral oration which Pericles made over the Athenian dead. At a crucial point in that oration, Pericles boasts of the relationship between the free Athenian and the laws he made and lived by. Last month I asked a New Program student {ed., In 1937 a seminar centered, great books based, required “New Program” curriculum was introduced at St. John’s College.} to reduce this paragraph to a single sentence, and this is what I got: “We reverence the laws and the laws respect us.” I think he did a good job. Pericles was proud of Athenian freedom and insisted it was worth dying for. Our ancestors shared that pride and that insistence. But they and he were proud, not of the absence of discipline or authority, but of the fact that in a society of free citizens discipline and authority are self-imposed. I too should insist they were worth dying for. But I should not want to die for an external discipline imposed on me by tyranny; nor should I want to die for the right to be without any discipline at all.

We liberals have erred, I suspect, through asking too little. We have asked for what animals and small children want, but not what free men and women require. We have shouted hysterically for freedom of speech, a free press, and free assembly, while one by one these freedoms have disappeared in one modern state after another. And we have asked ourselves fearfully whether we too would lose these freedoms. But we have not demanded, as our ancestors did, both for themselves and their children, a mind free from ignorance, an awakened imagination, and a disciplined reason, without which we cannot effectually use our other freedoms or even preserve them. We have demanded, quite properly, the right to make our own mistakes, but we have not demanded the capacities that would enable us to understand our mistakes when we have made them.

I think this Harvard friend of ours, who has tried to express his conception of what St. John’s College stands for today, has stated something essential for you and me to understand, not merely because you and I belong to the College which this seal of his celebrates, but because you and I, like him, are free American citizens. I am sorry my translation of the motto he has furnished is so dull: “I make free men out of boys by means of books and balances.” I have lost the magnificent Latin punning: FACIO LIBEROS EX LIBERIS LIBRIS LIBRAQUE. These strong Latin words remind us of words the Latins gave us. For we liberals cannot exercise our liberties without knowing how to deliberate. Without that power, we are children. Fortunately, there are books that record for us the deliberations of men who outgrew childhood, who knew how to weigh, to balance choices, to decide. These books are models of analysis, in which issues are clarified, so that real choices, deliberate choices, can be made. They propound and propose alternative solutions to problems that are still with us under different guise. And the different books state alternative issues against each other.

And there are not books alone to help us. There are balances. Balances and other laboratory instruments which teach us to measure, to compare, to discriminate, to combine, to understand. The liberal arts, the intellectual arts that liberate the mind, operating through these same books and these same balances, liberalized and humanized our fathers, and their fathers before them. They can liberate our children too. They can make free men out of our children, teach them to live in a liberal democracy, and to make real choices, after due deliberation. Then our children would understand liberalism, where our own sloth and incomprehension have left it languid, vulnerable, irrational, and therefore hysterical.

This essay was originally a lecture given in June 1938 and was published in St. John’s College’s The Gadfly, Vol. II, Issue 20 (March, 1981).

For a fine related essay please see Eva Brann, The Seal with Seven Books.

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