Teaching the Communal Act: The Relationship Between Liberal Education and a Free Society

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Perhaps the definition for freedom most commonly held in the West is some variation of the liberal ideal: “the ability to do what you want, so long as you do not encroach upon what belongs to another.”  This definition, however, leaves us with a difficulty: what about those circumstances when two conflicting interests clash?  Is it always possible to judge “what belongs to another?”  Some cases are easier than others, of course; I cannot graze my livestock on my neighbor’s fields without permission, however much I may want to.  But what if he wished to seed his field with crops to which I am allergic?  Under this definition, could both of us really be free?

Mere desire, then, or “wanting,” is a poor foundation for freedom; it inevitably puts two individual men’s “freedom” at odds.  In contrast, the definition which I propose in this essay moves us towards a solution to the problem of overlapping “rights,” for it considers freedom not principally as an individual act, but a communal one.  Freedom is the ability to do the right thing, to be an ordered, harmonious member of a community, to fulfill your part among your fellow men.  The ability to choose evil or harmful things (contra-factual ability) necessarily comes along with freedom – as the author of “On Social Freedom” notes, “it is certain that by freedom, if we mean anything at all, we must mean freedom to act” – but this second ability is not freedom’s principal end.[1]  On the contrary, to choose wrongly, to damage the community, whether by harming yourself or another member, is not an act of using freedom at all, but of abusing it.  Men in a free community are free together, free to act as they ought for the common good – a communal act for a communal end.

This concept of communal freedom may be found in the Declaration of Independence, when it became necessary “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”[2]  Note that both the dissolution as well as the assumption of powers are acts done as one people.  It can be no accident that the U.S. Constitution begins with “We the People of the United States” instead of “we people” or “these people”; there is a communal action intended, not many individual actions.  So too, amidst all the shared goods listed in the Constitution, the “Blessings of Liberty” are to be secured “to ourselves and our posterity”; they are commonly possessed by a people which is not only unified at a particular time, but even through time, generation after generation.  Sometimes, of course, the expression of these rights will involve individual persons, such as in the Fifth Amendment: “Nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…”[3]  However, such protections are hardly opposed to the concept of liberty as a possession of the community; it is as important that society treats each individual man justly as it is for him to fulfill his part as a citizen, and both events are requisites for freedom.

It is in such a community, such a daring and self-less act shared among men, that the foundation and security of those “Blessings of Liberty” are sought by America’s founding fathers.  Without a community bound together by a common good, southern essayist Wendell Berry writes, there can be little freedom:

“To define freedom only as a public privilege of private citizens is finally inadequate to the job of protecting freedom. … It fails to provide a circumstance for those private satisfactions and responsibilities without which freedom is both pointless and fragile.”[4]

In other words, there exist human goods and freedoms for which neither private ambition nor public license alone can provide; a healthy family-life, for instance, or the perfect enjoyment of a festival meal.  Wendell Berry continues:

“A community confers on its members the freedoms implicit in familiarity, mutual respect, mutual affection, and mutual help; it gives freedom its proper aims; and it prescribes or shows the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free, or free for very long.”[5]

Freedom comes, we see, with certain responsibilities and duties for those who wish to possess it, since as a communal act it requires community “actors.”

To be properly free, it is necessary to perceive one’s self as an integral part of a community, and to learn how to act in accords with the other members of that community, even how to act as community.  Few activities teach these skills of freedom as much as the study of the liberal arts – the classical trivium and quadrivium as well as sciences such as theology and philosophy.  Indeed, even the name, “liberal,” indicates that these are pursuits belonging to “free” men, those who are not slaves to their individual, separate occupations.  With freedom established as a communal act, it is the aim of this essay to show, first, how the liberal arts demonstrate the necessity and function of community in general, and second, how they are valuable in educating men for the specific exercise of political freedom.

Communal dependence is intrinsic to all of the liberal arts.  Take, for example, philosophy: no philosopher can become “great” without relying on the work of centuries of men before him.  Even the skeptics, as much as they might wish to, cannot possibly achieve intellectual autonomy.  We are social beings, and the formation of our intellects is accomplished within a community.  As Donne wrote in that oft-quoted line, “no man is an island, / entire of itself, / every man is a piece of the continent.”[6]  Socrates, as original a thinker as he was, yet remained dependent upon his interlocuters, upon Homer, upon the very culture of Athens.  Each discovery comes about with the aid of a community of thinkers, a community in which many intellects, over many years, wrestle with the same questions, each adding their own part of the answer.

To pursue the liberal arts well involves immersing yourself in the ideas of many of these previous thinkers, and into the conversations of which they were a part.  There exists no “one book” through which students might learn all of philosophy, no “up-to-date comprehensive doctrine”; the idea is absurd.  Nor is it sufficient to merely read those works written in the last two or three centuries.  No, every student of philosophy (to continue to use it as an example) must wade through the dialogues of Plato and agonize over the writings of Aristotle.  There is no substitute.  He must read Cicero and Augustine as well as Aquinas and Erasmus.  He must see their influence on men such as Descartes, and their influence in turn on men of the era of Kant and Hegel.  This much would barely prepare our student to engage the minds of the nineteenth century.  The very act of studying the liberal arts ingrains into its students the reality of our connectedness, our dependence upon others in the community of the intellectual life.  There is no truly free thinker who has not first slaved at the feet of his forefathers, and while he may range further and further on his own over time, he would cease to become free precisely at that moment when he broke the fetters to his tradition entirely.

In addition to demonstrating positively, by their very exercise, that inter-reliance and community action are necessary for men to reason freely, the liberal arts contain many arguments for community based in man’s own identity, arguments which often take the form of a reduxio.  The opposite of community is loneliness, and the literature studied by the student of the liberal arts relates again and again that complaint of Milton’s Adam in the garden: “In solitude / what happiness?  Who can enjoy alone, / Or, all enjoying, what contentment find?”[7]

It is when one is alone, we learn, that he is least free.  Without community, without “relations,” we are lost.  Raskolnikov, perhaps one of the characters most profoundly alone in all of literature, is haunted by that false freedom of loneliness throughout much of Crime and Punishment.  None stand in his way – he is a murderer who kills with impunity, who thinks “himself a man to whom more was permissible than to others” – and yet he is without choice.  Even in that murder committed for the sake of murder, that very act of Napoleonic defiance, of breaking free of society, Raskolnikov acts as if destined, driven by some force outside himself: “He pulled the axe quite out, swung it with both arms, scarcely conscious of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the blunt side down on her head. He seemed not to use his own strength in this.”[8]  It is precisely in seeking to “free” himself of responsibility, to elevate himself above other men, precisely in that moment intended to be his “liberation,” that Raskolnikov is made “mechanical”, “scarcely conscious of himself,” acting without his own strength.  When he abandons himself to love at the end of the story, however, he finally becomes happy and free, even in a concentration camp.  In his choice to admit to his crime against his fellow man, Raskolnikov begins to put himself right with his community, such that, in the end, he refers to that prison as “freedom,” and is able to rejoice because there remain of his sentence “seven years, only seven years!”[9]

Study of the liberal arts, then, teaches men the need and value of community, and that not only freedom but also humanity is impossible without that community.  In addition, such academic study prepares men to actively defend liberty by awakening in them questions such as “Who is man and what is he worth?” and “What is virtue in a society and how is it established?”  Thinking about these questions forms men who recognize the value of government as well as its dangers, men who can be active participants in ruling themselves and each other.  I would remind you of that passage where Alexis de Tocqueville praises the virtues of the institution of the jury, not, as one would expect, for its ability to dispense impartial justice, but for its role in educating the common citizen concerning the workings of his not-so common freedom:

The jury, and above all the civil jury, serves to give to the minds of all citizens a part of the habits of mind of the judge; and these habits are precisely those that best prepare the people to be free.  It spreads to all classes respect for the thing judged and the idea of right.  Remove these two things, and love of independence will be no more than a destructive passion. … The jury teaches each man not to recoil before responsibility for his own acts – a virile disposition without which there is no political virtue.  It vests each citizen with a sort of magistracy; it makes all feel that they have duties toward society to fulfill and that they enter into its government.  … One ought to consider it as a school, free of charge and always open, where each juror comes to be instructed in his rights.[10]

For each citizen to be free, then, or rather, for each citizen to be able to participate in a free community, there are “habits of mind” which he must learn: the idea of right, a sense of responsibility, the practice of self-governance, and concern for the law, among others.  It is the role of each man’s education to teach him the exercise of these virtues.  An education in the liberal arts, it seems clear, is well fitted to do exactly this.  There is much overlap between the topics with which the classical authors are concerned – justice, knowledge, and man’s God-given value – and those praised by de Tocqueville as foundational for good citizenship.  In both the jury and the classroom of the liberal arts, after all, man is principally taught how to judge rightly, together with eleven fellow jury members or a group of his fellow scholars, and what is freedom but the ability to judge rightly and then act upon that judgement in community?

To be fully a citizen, to be completely free, man must be educated.  He must learn the universal need for community and the terrible dangers of loneliness.  He must realize how much he is indebted to those great thinkers and leaders who have come before him, as well as to every member of his own contemporary community, and grow in the desire to freely contribute to that community, to lead it towards good and away from evil.  Each man must do this, not slavishly, but as an upright and careful thinker, as a judge well formed by the liberal arts.  Only then may all act together to achieve freedom, the freedom of men – not one man alone – who are willing, for the cause of freedom, to “mutually pledge to each other” their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.



[1] John Stuart Mill, “On Social Freedom” in The Oxford and Cambridge Review, No. 1 (June 1907), 60.  Likely this text was falsely attributed to Mill.

[2] The Declaration of Independence, National Archives.  https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration. Accessed 16 December 2017.

[3] The Bill of Rights, National Archives.  https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights.  Accessed 16 December 2017.

[4] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 147.

[5] Ibid., 150.

[6] John Donne, Donne’s Devotions (Cambridge University Press, 1923), Meditation XVII.

[7] John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Gordon Teskey (New York: W.W. Noton & Company, 2005), VIII.364-66.

[8] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, 1917), I.7.

[9] Ibid., Epilogue, 2.

[10] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (University of Chicago Press, 2012), 262.

Jacob Terneus

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Jacob Terneus is currently pursuing a master’s in Classics at the University of Kentucky. His interests include Milton’s Paradise Lost, the sublime, and the numinous, and the nature of political philosophy.