Robert P. George

This article is an excerpt of the author’s commencement address to the Hillsdale College Class of 2003. It provides a much needed comparison between true freedom and license, the latter being very much confused with the former in our times. The author is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and the Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.


True freedom consists in the liberation of the human person from the shackles of ignorance, oppression and vice. Thus it was that one hundred and fifty years ago this July 4, Edmund B. Fairfield, president of Hillsdale, speaking at a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of a new college building, declared that education, by lifting a man out of ignorance, “disqualifies him from being a slave.” What overcomes ignorance is knowledge, and the object of knowledge is truth– empirical, moral, spiritual. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”


True freedom, the freedom that liberates, is grounded in truth and ordered to truth and, therefore, to virtue. A free person is enslaved neither to the sheer will of another nor to his own appetites and passions. A free person lives uprightly fulfilling his obligations to family, community, nation and God. By contrast, a person given over to his appetites and passions, a person who scoffs at truth and chooses to live, whether openly or secretly, in defiance of the moral law is not free. He is simply a different kind of slave.


The counterfeit of freedom consists in the idea of personal and communal liberation from morality, responsibility and truth. It is what our nation’s founders expressly distinguished from liberty and condemned as “license.” The so-called freedom celebrated today by so many of our opinion-shaping elites in education, entertainment and the media is simply the license to do whatever one pleases. This false conception of freedom – false because disordered, disordered because detached from moral truth and civic responsibility – shackles those in its grip no less powerfully than did the chattel slavery of old. Enslavement to ones own appetites and passions is no less brutal a bondage for being a slavery of the soul. It is no less tragic; indeed, it is in certain respects immeasurably more tragic, for being self-imposed. It is ironic, is it not, that people who celebrate slavery to appetite and passion call this bondage “freedom”?


Counterfeit freedom is worse than fraudulent. It is the mortal enemy of the real thing. Counterfeit freedom can provide no rational account or defense of its own normative claims. It speaks the language of rights, but in abandoning the ground of moral duty it provides no rational basis for anyone to respect the right of others or to demand of others respect of one’s own rights. Rights without duties are meaningless. Where moral truth as the ground of duty is thrown overboard, the language of rights is so much idle chatter fit only for Hollywood cocktail parties and faculty lounges.


Hadley Arkes, a great contemporary theorist of natural rights, has observed in relation to the movement for unfettered abortion that those who demand liberation from moral law have talked among themselves out of the moral premises of their own rights and liberty. If freedom is to be honored and respected, it must be because human freedom is what is required by the laws of nature and nature’s God; it cannot be because there are no laws of nature and there is no God.


The Danger of License


But counterfeit freedom poses greater dangers still. As our founders warned, a people given over to license will be incapable of sustaining republican government by the people- requires a people who are prepared to take responsibility for the common good, including the preservation of the conditions of liberty.

Listen again to President Fairfield, speaking words at that ceremony on July 4, 1853, that are, if anything, still more urgent today:


Unrestrained freedom is anarchy. Restrained only by force or arms, is despotism; self-restrained is Republicanism. Wherever there is wanted the intelligence and virtue requisite for [self-restraint], Republicanism expires.


Slaves to appetite and passion, wanting in the understanding and virtue requisite for self-government, will surely lose it. They will look not to themselves but to government to provide for their satisfaction of desires. Where counterfeit freedom prevails, the republican principle of limited government is inevitably sacrificed as people surrender personal and, ultimately, political liberty to whatever power promises to protect them from predation and supply the appeasement of their appetites. People are reduced from citizens to subjects to slaves. They trade their birthright of freedom for a mess of pottage. Yet, so long as the big-government-provided pottage functions as a suitable narcotic, they imagine themselves free.


At the same time, the want of virtue creates a counterfeit idea of equality that parallels the counterfeit conception of freedom. True equality- equality under the law, equality of opportunity- is displaced by demand for equality of results, as envy, like every other passion, commands requital. Distinctions, grounded in such intrinsically retributive ideas as personal merit, are cast aside.


Ultimately, the counterfeit of freedom is a counterfeit because its view of nature, dignity and destiny of man is a false view. Men and women are not mere bundles of appetites. Our destiny is not to be, as David Hume supposed, slaves of our passions- “rational” only in the purely instrumental sense of being capable of employing our intellectual powers to, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, “range abroad and find the things the way to things desired.” On the contrary: Men and women, made in the very image and likeness of the Divine Ruler of the Universe, are possessors of an intelligence more profound, and correspondingly, a freedom more God- like, than that.


We are, to be sure, creatures, and fallen creatures to boot; dust of the earth; sinners every one. Yet the Divine image- the icon of God himself- is not destroyed. And commensurate with the dignity of creatures fashioned in God’s image, we are indeed, as the Declaration of Independence says, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Freedom- true freedom- is, as President Bush recently had the occasion to remind us, God’s gift to mankind. The self-government that is the right of free men and women is truly a sacred trust.



Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College,

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