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Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

By James Fitzjames Stephen

"By whatever rule [men] regulate their conduct, no room is left for any rational enthusiasm for the order of ideas hinted at by the phrase 'Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity'; for, whichever rule [derived from philosophical speculation] is applied, there are a vast number of matters in respect of which men ought not to be free; they are fundamentally unequal, and they are not brothers at all, or only under qualifications which make the assertion of their fraternity unimportant." Thus James Fitzjames Stephen, Bart. (1829-1894) refutes both the continental tradition of revolutionary ferocity established by the French Revolution, and the milder (but no less philosophically wrong-minded and confused) British tradition of utilitarian liberalism most famously and thoroughly represented in Stephen's day by John Stuart Mill; the tendency of whose later works Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was written, in part, to oppose. (If "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" sounds, in the after-wake of the Second Inaugural Address, like the foremost slogan of the new Bush Administration, we have only the neoconservatives--Jacobins at heart, all of them--to thank for this fact.)

Fitzjames Stephen, second son of Sir James Stephen and brother of Sir Leslie Stephen (the biographer and literary critic), was a lawyer, judge, and journalist who served for three years as legal member of council in India, immediately succeeding in that position his close friend Sir Henry Sumner Maine: the eminent jurist and author (most notably of Popular Government) who taught as professor of jurisprudence at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and with whom Stephen had become acquainted through their shared membership in the Apostles society at Cambridge. In 1863, Stephen published A General View of the Criminal Law of England, which has been described as the first literary exposition of the principles of English law and justice since Blackstone. Only moderately successful in his legal practice, Fitzjames Stephen boiled the pot by writing articles for such magazines as the Pall Mall Gazette and the Saturday Review. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was written on the passage home from India as a series of articles published in the Gazette between November 1872 and January 1873, and reprinted in book form in March of that year-the same in which J.S. Mill died.

Fitzjames Stephen was a careful and devoted student of the works of Thomas Hobbes, Joseph de Maistre-and Jeremy Bentham. Indeed, he was to some extent, as he acknowledges candidly in his attack on utilitarianism, a utilitarian himself, but of the old variety (which he took for the basis of conservatism) rather then the new one developed by Mill. Stephen, though a stern conservative, was as well a realistic and flexible one, whose conservativism might be expressed by the injunction, Know where you stand at all times: That is to say, understand not human nature only, but your own particular society, and the times in which you find yourselves.

The son of an English evangelical, Stephen had a firm hold on metaphysical reality. On the other hand, he was convinced that legislation ought to be shaped to conform with the existing morality of the time and country for which it was written; since, "To be able to punish, a moral majority must be overwhelming. Law cannot be better than the nation in which it exists, though it may be and can protect an acknowledged moral standard, and may be gradually increased in strictness as the standard rises." As Stepehen sees it, the great danger of the tripartite slogan, "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity"-the "Democratic creed," the creed of the new secular religion--is that there is nothing true, significant, or even real, about any element of it. Liberty is a word of negation; equality merely one of relation ("a big name for a small thing"); while fraternity is an utter impossibility. As for the modern idols of progress, democracy, and modernity, though little is to be accomplished by deploring them, little is gained either by fetishizing them. Stephen's purpose in writing his book was to examine the doctrines suggested (rather, as he notes, than described) by the famous motto that supplies its title, and to assert, in respect of these, two propositions:

First, that in the present day even those who use those words most rationally-that is to say, as the names of elements of social life which, like others, have their advantages and disadvantages according to time, place, and circumstance-have a great disposition to exaggerate their advantages and to deny the existence, or at any rate to underrate the importance, of their disadvantages. Next, that whatever signification be attached to them, these words are ill-adapted to be the creed of a religion [Mill having suggested that fraternity was destined to become the new world-wide faith], that the things which they denote are not ends in themselves, and that when used collectively the words do not typify, how- ever vaguely, any state of society which a reasonable man ought to regard with enthusiasm or self-devotion.

It is not, Stephen insists, that he is the advocate of "Slavery, Caste, and Hatred," or that he denies there to be a sense in which the words Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity can be construed as good things. It is simply that they are being offered as the Trinity of a professed new religion: the Religion of Humanity.

Stephen begins by quoting from On Liberty, where Mill asserts what he describes as "one very simple principle.entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion or control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle," Mill proceeds,

is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection; that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others..[Moreover, the] only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself his independence is of right absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

To this, Stephen's cogently mischievous rejoinder is that, while Mr. Mill and his disciples would be the last people to deny that the progressive reforms introduced into the world since the sixteenth century have been generally beneficial, all of them have been effected by force!

Mill's distinction between self-protective and self-regarding acts is predicated on the assumption that certain acts concern the agent alone, while others affect other people solely. "In fact," says Stephen, "by far the most important part of our conduct regards both ourselves and others, and revolutions are the clearest proof of this." Therefore, in place of Mill's "simple" principle, he offers one of his own. "If...the object aimed at is good, if the compulsion employed such as to attain it, and if the good obtained overbalances the inconvenience of the compulsion itself I do not understand how, upon utilitarian principles, the compulsion can be bad."

Indeed, ".compulsion," Stephen asserts, in its most formidable shape and on the most extensive scale-the compulsion of war-is one of the principles which lie at the root of national existence. It determines whether nations are to be and what they are to be. It decides what men shall believe, how they shall live, in what mould their religion, law, morals, and the whole tone of their lives shall be cast. It is the ratio ultima of kings, but of human society in all its shapes. It determines precisely, for one thing, how much and how little individual liberty is to be left to exist in at any specific time or place.

From this great truth flow many consequences. They may all be summed up in this one, that power precedes liberty-that liberty, from the very nature of things, is dependent upon power; and that it is only under the protection of a powerful, well-organized, and intelligent government that any liberty can exist at all.

Even so, Stephen warns, as to this word "liberty," we ought at all times to be aware that insofar as it has a definite sense attached to it, consistent reliance upon that sense makes it nearly impossible to state any true general assertion regarding the term, and wholly impossible to view liberty as a good or a bad thing of itself. "Thus," he concludes, "the word is either a misleading appeal to passion, or else it embodies or rather hints at an exceedingly complicated assertion, the truth of which can be proved only by elaborate historical investigations."

".[B]y far the most important part of our conduct regards both ourselves and others.." It is for this very good reason that Fitzjames Stephen opposes what he calls "excessive and irrational tolerance" in the sphere of public morality, "if and so far as it. tends to produce a state of indifference and isolation, which would be the greatest of all evils if it could be produced." In the Stephen's opinion, the art of society is not a matter of avoiding struggles based upon conflicting moral, social, intellectual, and political views--let alone ignoring these--but rather of conducting them in a manner as civilized as possible, and with the least possible harm done to the combatants, "who are, after all, rather friends than enemies, and without attaching an exaggerated importance to the object of contention." Stephen significantly alters this mode of approach, however, where the object of contention can hardly be exaggerated-namely, in respect of religion.

All government, Stephen insists, requires and even predicates a moral basis, which must always be associated intimately with the religious one. It follows that neutrality toward religion on the part of a legislator is impossible. Taking this assumption as his starting point, Stephen goes on to state his case against the widely presumed efficacy of the separation between Church and State. This acclaimed constitutional arrangement is based, he asserts, upon the faulty notion of a radically unreal distinction between the "spiritual" and the "temporal" realms that is akin to a distinction between substance and form. "Formless matter or unsubstantial form are expressions which have no meaning, and in the same way things temporal and things spiritual presuppose and run into each other. Human life is one and indivisible, and is or ought to be regulated by one set of principles and not by a multitude." The conscientiously agnostic state, wholly disinterested and detached where religious belief and practice are concerned, is not only an impossible thing, it would be an undesirable one if it were possible, and certainly nothing to be aimed at or encouraged.

Our own minds have become so much sophisticated by commonplaces about liberty and toleration, and about the division between the temporal and the spiritual power, that we have almost ceased to think of the attainment of truth in religion as desirable if it were possible. It appears to me that, if it were possible, the attainment of religious truth and its recognition as such by legislation would be of all conceivable blessings the greatest. If we were all of one mind, and that upon reason- able grounds, about the nature of men and their relation to the world or worlds in which they live, we should have in our hands an important instrument for the solution of all the great moral and political questions which at present distract and divide the world, and cause much waste of strength in unfruitful though inevitable contests.

Fitzjames Stephens, however, convinced that "[g]overnment.ought to fit society as a man's clothes fit him," neither expected nor wished it to attempt the remake of society in accordance with the private visions of its legislators and executors. Mill had argued that the utilitarian standard is the greatest amount of happiness altogether-a proposition his opponent caustically restates as "the widest possible extension of the ideal of life formed by the person who sets up the standard." But while Stephen was hostile toward the notion of rule by philosopher kings, he was profoundly critical of universal suffrage as a desirable alternative. On his view, the sentiment for equality is "by far the most ignoble and mischievous of all the popular feelings of the age." The perception of equality, he insists (in an observation reminescent of Samuel Johnson's defense of prejudice), must always be inseparable from experience. Similarly, the subdivision of power-the principle of one man, one vote-fails to impress him, as a mechanical device no more conducive to equality than to liberty. ("Political power has changed its shape but not its nature. The result of cutting it up into little bits is simply that the man who can sweep the greatest number of them into one heap will govern the rest.") Even so, Stephens--believing as he did, with Tocqueville, that mass democracy was the inevitable future, whether it worked or not--maintains that he has nothing to recommend as a substitute for universal suffrage. The old ways, many of them as bad in their own time as new ones are in ours, were being swept away "like haycoocks in a flood." "The waters are out and no human force can turn them back." Only, ".I do not see see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god."

Here again, as in the instance of the Southern Agrarians in the 1920s and 30s, we see conservatism in its essential role as a means to collective self-knowledge rather than social and political reformation, understanding rather than action (though writing, as Stephens well understood, is as fully a type of action as drawing one's sword). "The cry for liberty," he writes, ".is a general condemnation of the past and an act of homage to the present in so far as it differs from the past, and to the future in so far as its character can be inferred from the character of the present."

It was for this intolerable presumption, more than anything else, perhaps, that Fitzjames Stephens abhorred to the depths of his soul the passionate call to arms that is "Liberty, equality, fraternity!"


Suicide of the West, by James Burnham >>

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