Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Free Man

The idea of liberty has ultimately a religious root; that is why men find
it so easy to die for and so difficult to define. It refers finally to
the fact that, while the oyster and the palm tree have to save their lives
by law, man has to save his soul by choice. Ruskin rebuked Coleridge for
praising freedom, and said that no man would wish the sun to be free. It
seems enough to answer that no man would wish to be the sun. Speaking as
a Liberal, I have much more sympathy with the idea of Joshua stopping the
sun in heaven than with the idea of Ruskin trotting his daily round in
imitation of its regularity. Joshua was a Radical, and his astronomical
act was distinctly revolutionary. For all revolution is the mastering of
matter by the spirit of man, the emergence of that human authority within
us which, in the noble words of Sir Thomas Browne, "owes no homage unto
the sun."

Generally, the moral substance of liberty is this: that man is not meant
merely to receive good laws, good food or good conditions, like a tree in
a garden, but is meant to take a certain princely pleasure in selecting
and shaping like the gardener. Perhaps that is the meaning of the trade
of Adam. And the best popular words for rendering the real idea of
liberty are those which speak of man as a creator. We use the word "make"
about most of the things in which freedom is essential, as a country walk
or a friendship or a love affair. When a man "makes his way" through a
wood he has really created, he has built a road, like the Romans. When a
man "makes a friend," he makes a man. And in the third case we talk of a
man "making love," as if he were (as, indeed, he is) creating new masses
and colours of that flaming material an awful form of manufacture. In its
primary spiritual sense, liberty is the god in man, or, if you like the
word, the artist.

In its secondary political sense liberty is the living influence of the
citizen on the State in the direction of moulding or deflecting it. Men
are the only creatures that evidently possess it. On the one hand, the
eagle has no liberty; he only has loneliness. On the other hand, ants,
bees, and beavers exhibit the highest miracle of the State influencing the
citizen; but no perceptible trace of the citizen influencing the State.
You may, if you like, call the ants a democracy as you may call the bees a
despotism. But I fancy that the architectural ant who attempted to
introduce an art nouveau style of ant-hill would have a career as curt and
fruitless as the celebrated bee who wanted to swarm alone. The isolation
of this idea in humanity is akin to its religious character; but it is not
even in humanity by any means equally distributed. The idea that the
State should not only be supported by its children, like the ant-hill, but
should be constantly criticised and reconstructed by them, is an idea
stronger in Christendom than any other part of the planet; stronger in
Western than Eastern Europe. And touching the pure idea of the individual
being free to speak and act within limits, the assertion of this idea, we
may fairly say, has been the peculiar honour of our own country. For my
part I greatly prefer the Jingoism of Rule Britannia to the Imperialism of
The Recessional. I have no objection to Britannia ruling the waves. I
draw the line when she begins to rule the dry land--and such damnably dry
land too--as in Africa. And there was a real old English sincerity in the
vulgar chorus that "Britons never shall be slaves." We had no equality
and hardly any justice; but freedom we were really fond of. And I think
just now it is worth while to draw attention to the old optimistic
prophecy that "Britons never shall be slaves."

The mere love of liberty has never been at a lower ebb in England than it
has been for the last twenty years. Never before has it been so easy to
slip small Bills through Parliament for the purpose of locking people up.
Never was it so easy to silence awkward questions, or to protect
highplaced officials. Two hundred years ago we turned out the Stuarts
rather than endanger the Habeas Corpus Act. Two years ago we abolished the
Habeas Corpus Act rather than turn out the Home Secretary. We passed a
law (which is now in force) that an Englishman's punishment shall not
depend upon judge and jury, but upon the governors and jailers who have
got hold of him. But this is not the only case. The scorn of liberty is
in the air. A newspaper is seized by the police in Trafalgar Square
without a word of accusation or explanation. The Home Secretary says that
in his opinion the police are very nice people, and there is an end of the
matter. A Member of Parliament attempts to criticise a peerage. The
Speaker says he must not criticise a peerage, and there the matter drops.

Political liberty, let us repeat, consists in the power of criticising
those flexible parts of the State which constantly require reconsideration,
not the basis, but the machinery. In plainer words, it means the power
of saying the sort of things that a decent but discontented citizen wants
to say. He does not want to spit on the Bible, or to run about without
clothes, or to read the worst page in Zola from the pulpit of St. Paul's.
Therefore the forbidding of these things (whether just or not) is only
tyranny in a secondary and special sense. It restrains the abnormal, not
the normal man. But the normal man, the decent discontented citizen, does
want to protest against unfair law courts. He does want to expose
brutalities of the police. He does want to make game of a vulgar
pawnbroker who is made a Peer. He does want publicly to warn people
against unscrupulous capitalists and suspicious finance. If he is run in
for doing this (as he will be) he does want to proclaim the character or
known prejudices of the magistrate who tries him. If he is sent to prison
(as he will be) he does want to have a clear and civilised sentence,
telling him when he will come out. And these are literally and exactly
the things that he now cannot get. That is the almost cloying humour of
the present situation. I can say abnormal things in modern magazines. It
is the normal things that I am not allowed to say. I can write in some
solemn quarterly an elaborate article explaining that God is the devil; I
can write in some cultured weekly an aesthetic fancy describing how I
should like to eat boiled baby. The thing I must not write is rational
criticism of the men and institutions of my country.

The present condition of England is briefly this: That no Englishman can
say in public a twentieth part of what he says in private. One cannot say,
for instance, that--But I am afraid I must leave out that instance,
because one cannot say it. I cannot prove my case--because it is so true.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


Plays