Transcendentalist and Romantic Henry David Thoreau begins his paean to the spirit of John Brown, a “freedom fighter” who freely justified himself in killing innocent women and children, and moreover who felt that he had a right to take the lives of other men, even if they were slaveholders.
Personally, I believe that John Brown was a domestic terrorist, one who arrogantly decided that he had the right and duty to take the lives of men whom he believed had forfeited their right to live because they enslaved their fellow man. Slavery is wrong, but taking other people's lives, prosecuting for peace like a warlike, bloodthirsty vigilante, is never justifiable or justified. John Brown was no freedom fighter, but a hater of mankind who undermined the cause of freedom by taking the lives of others, in one instance cruelly and systematically slaughtering slaveholders in front of their own wives and children.
A free society does not necessarily mean a justice society, as Natan Sharansky wrote eloquently in The Case for Democracy, for in a free society citizens are allowed to make mistakes, to be wrong, to sin, to do things which an intellect, or intellectual, would deem wrong, inhumane, or even unethical. In a free society, human beings do not have the right to impose their views on anyone. They do, however, have the right to persuade without violating another person's rights. As Friedrich Hayek explained in The Fatal Conceit, a free market (of ideas) cannot be just because the outcomes that different people favor vary too widely for one imposed set of outcomes to accommodate all of them.
I do wish to emphasize certain points. Slavery is wrong; slave holding is contemptible, completely out of concert with the denizens of a free society. But to overthrow the established order, to ignore the classical liberal means of persuasion to effect change: that is also wrong. John Brown transgressed that boundary, and Thoreau seems unwilling to acknowledge that fact, or at least tries as much as he can to ignore it. He wants to champion the violent outrage of John Brown without legitimizing the violence, but in the case of John Brown, the two are inseparable.
Here Foucault’s analysis of Truth and Power coincide, if one understands truth as a mere byproduct of power, that might does make right. Yet in a free society, might may not define right, even though this ethical negative in a way serves as a definition in itself. Liberty is both a means and an end. Hot it is achieved is just as important as how it is defined.
Because Thoreau fails to distinguish them, he compromises the true definition of liberty, despising the correct means of its achievement and promotion, all the while misusing, misinterpreting, and misapplying historical precedent to his skewed understanding of liberty and a free society. Moreover, this misunderstanding of the true nature of liberty and its proper nurture is just one more example in a long chain of abuses by intellectuals like Thoreau who see how the world should operate, yearning (inadvertently, as Hayek posits in Conceit)for a primitive system which denies the need and wants of the individual at the behest of collectivist fantastical, fanatical (fanatical because having no ground or evidence in reality) hopes.
In the midst of this discussion, I am compelled to add that I am a staunch opponent of the death penalty precisely for the reasons that I despise John Brown for his murderous, blood-lustful killing mission to liberate: human beings are not the best arbiters of right and wrong. They make mistakes, especially in deeming guilt or innocence. The finality of the death penalty is too great for one man, or any community, to impose. Moreover, on a spiritual note, the Great Redeemer of the world, Jesus Christ, died on the Cross for all sinners, and for all sin committed by us sinners. His death is the death that every sinner, that every lawbreaker, no matter how depraved and demeaning, should have died. To insist on the death penalty is a mockery of the power of the Cross. Whatever human means we think that we can enact, the Cross has covered it; and God ultimately is a better judge than any human mind or intellect could ever be.
Following on this religious note, it is an outrage that anyone would dare compare John Brown to Jesus Christ. Thoreau begins his lengthy offensive comparison of John Brown to Jesus Christ by calling him a redeemer. (271) John Brown cannot, could not, never will redeem anyone. He was a human being in need of redemption, just like everyone else. No human being can offer himself as a propitiation for anyone else. No man can make another free. Freedom must be chosen, as even the much-maligned former President Bush declared in his Second Inaugural Address.
Adding to Thoreau’s outrageous analogy, John Brown claimed that he was attempting to purge the sin of slavery from the United States by shedding the blood of other men. Jesus Christ shed his own blood. He laid himself down as a sacrifice to save many. John Brown accomplished nothing noble in butchering other people in the name of Freedom.
Regarding questions of his state of mind, one should easily conclude that John Brown was not insane. On the contrary, he was too much in his mind, relying on an abstract order to justify imposing an ideal on man's frail flesh in an attempt to transform man's febrile mind. He was insane only to the degree that he allowed reason to determine the morality he would follow. The Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume asserted at least half a century before that “the sum of our morals are not the product of our reason”. Reason must defer to custom and tradition if societies are to survive, evolve, and thrive! John Brown was not crazy, he was evil, because he made himself God by taking upon himself the right (which he called a “responsibility”) to rid the world of slavery, and execute summary judgment, like some East Coast white Che Guevara, against all who disagreed with him.
Now that I have laid the groundwork for my opinion of this terrible man, let's evaluate Thoreau's fulsome praise of this evil renegade.
Thoreau admits up front in his plea that he has no interest in imposing his thoughts on his listeners, which is both true and admirable, since his listeners do not have to listen to him, and Thoreau has no other power but rhetoric, persuasion. In stark contrast, John Brown forced his views on others in the most violent way, by force, and worst of all, by taking their lives. Thoreau relies on an acceptable means of persuasion to justify the most heinous and unacceptable forms of persuasion, something that is the antithesis of persuasion because it ignores the dignity of the human will. His method justifies the violence which would have annulled his method in the first place.
A little further into his speech, Thoreau claims that it costs us nothing to be just, a term whose meaning he fails to define. Plato had acquiesced to define “just” as meaning that every person does what he or she is best suited to do, which no other person is really able to do, except an all-knowing entity, a status which no person can ever claim to hold. In addition to this length concern, being just should not cost other people their lives. Justice, ultimately, is about restoring rapport and respect among individuals. (See The Grammar of Justice) Death, mayhem, and murder are the most hierarchical and discriminatory of acts, because at the end of the exchange, one person is alive while the other is dead. Based on this analysis, John Brown was not a just man. He killed people, innocent or guilty, regardless of how they were labeled in their time or by our standards.
Frequently in his esteem of Brown, Thoreau also praises Oliver Cromwell, another rebel who brought down a king by execution. Let's explore the irony of this extended allusion.
First of all, Oliver Cromwell imposed morality on the English population after the Civil War. British citizens were not even allowed to go to the theater during the Republic. He dismissed parliament as summarily as King Charles the First had done nearly nine years before. Rather than expanding the franchise of the citizens, he made everyone equally enslaved. Unelected, ignoring the needs and will of the majority, Cromwell ended up being far more reactionary than even the Plantagenets and the Stuarts. How unfortunate, dismal, and ultimately disgusting that the forces for ending royal tyranny would end up setting up a far worse tyranny, one that would pressure a populace to welcome the Restoration of the Royal Line and lead to a more Glorious, read bloodless, Revolution a half-century later. Royal tyranny giving way to Totalitarian tyranny is a recurrent them in the 20th century (See “Dictatorships and Double Standards).
Another thing about Oliver Cromwell: he had King Charles the First beheaded, executed. He did not spare the life of a man, no matter how unpopular he may have been. Yet Thoreau speaks on behalf of John in order to spare his life from execution! In effect, he cites the life and means of an executioner to protect another executioner from being executed!
Following from the wrongdoing of executing the king, the execution of Charles the First incited more widespread disorder throughout the British Commonwealth. Rather than enhancing human liberty, the death of King Charles led to the further enslavement of the people, because in the worst instance the State that rose from the ashes of the toppled monarchy gave birth to self-righteous intellectualism, which put to death an individual, King Charles, and the individual through the ultimately invasion and marginalization of human liberty in the name of restoring order. It is fascinating to me that in the lengthy studies that current political philosophers make regarding the death penalty and its justification on moral grounds, that they do not consider its consequences following its practice on royal figures, no matter how demeaning, demanding, or demurred they may have been in their time. The political upheaval that resulted in European communities following the execution of their respective monarchs should perhaps give mankind pause. (Consider Balzac “An event during the Terror”. Also The Wrong Side of Paris, especially the comments proffered by Godefroid regarding the Guillotine)
Let's put it plainly: Cromwell was not a friend, but an enemy of liberty, and at that the worst kind of enemy, proclaiming the right to impose the good, to impose thoughts on others, even to the point of killing opposition or imprisoning them. It’s always the “do-gooders” who end up causing the most harm, this comment in respect to a quote by C. S. Lewis, because they are convinced of the righteousness of their cause, so that there is no stopping them.
Besides the intellectually bereft allusions to Oliver Cromwell in the face of one tyranny bringing forth one far worse, Thoreau engages in another widespread allusion by praising the Ancient City State of Sparta (264). Like Cromwell and his military rule, Thoreau praises Spartan habits, also contradictory to the major tenets of individual liberty. The Spartans, far from encouraging liberty, forced every boy into a fighting-machine condition, subsisting in a socialistic
(tribalistic, even atavistic) society in which every individual (predominantly males since despised females were abandoned in caves to die or be eaten) was merely a cog in the wheel of the State's power and advancement. They encouraged a primitive society, devoid of arts and inspiration, and certainly lacking in Freedom of expression. Once again, this atavistic-socialist longing for the micro-order described by Hayek undercuts the power of the individual, yet Thoreau seeks out this yearning nonetheless, a yearning which conflicts with his right and ability to praise at length the domestic terrorism of John Brown. Once again, the very order he praises and longs for, a step backwards into tyranny and slavery, whether under a Cromwell or a Spartan government, undercuts the society which he is addressing, a civilization which protects his very freedom to speak out. If his argument on behalf of John Brown were to prevail, he would not be able to support or continue in the freedom he so seemingly cherishes.
Further into his text, Thoreau despises free markets, money, and trade (267). Every Austrian economist, and every classical liberal worth his salt has testified and demonstrated repeatedly that commerce creates the sweet customs (moeurs douces de Montesquieu) which allow individual liberty, most importantly freedom of conscience, to endure. In sharp contrast to the Spartans, Pericles and the Athenian nation conquered the Hellenic world through commerce, not through war (See Durant, THE Age of Greece). A free market allows free trade. Free exchange of goods and ideas coexist. For just as a merchant must persuade a prospective client to purchase his product, a speaker must persuade his listener to espouse his views. No one forces me to buy or sell anything. In the realm of ideas and discussion, the realm in which Thoreau operates when delivering this “apology” for John Brown, no one can force another to believe anything. Even if we despairingly acknowledge that a hostile man with a radically different opinion may take my life, he cannot touch deter, or undermine my conscience
(See Socrates in Plato’s “Apologia”), the choice to do as one pleases, even if it is wrong, whether in his own eyes, the opinion of the community, or in violation of the dictates of natural law as laid down by God Almighty.
As an avid reader, attentive to the true nature and definition of liberty will attest, Thoreau's conception of liberty does not match will with John Brown's prosecution (read persecution) of that liberty. This schism of thought and deed becomes more pronounced when Thoreau declares that “John Brown was a peerless man.” In a free society, no one is above another, and certainly because he holds different ideas, or a more accurate notion of liberty. Furthermore, knowing more, having a higher sentiment of this liberty and wanting to force this right to others is not acceptable, either. By calling Brown “peerless,” he deifies Brown, a complete, unjustified, and utterly worthless fraud. There can be no liberty or victory between equals, as the Athenians stressed over and over when trying to put behind them the war and horror of the civil war in 403 B.C. that nearly tore the City State of Athens apart (See Remembering Defeat).
And therein lies a fundamental problem frustrating to all, intellect or otherwise. Freedom must be chosen (Refer back to Bush II’s Second Inaugural). It cannot be forced. It must be offered. (Refer also to Frederick Douglass’s Slave Narrative) Not at the barrel of a gun, but through the pulpit, through the written word, through the appeal to the human spirit does one find freedom, for freedom will find those who love it. (also from Bush's Second Inaugural.) John Brown was forced to confront this truth when he failed to organize slaves in the South into insurrection. They refused to join with him. (Consider this in light of the Allegory of the Cave) This highlights the source of the dilemma for many intellectuals. They have embraced a free society, yet they cannot understand, nor seem willing to recall, that this freedom must be chosen, that every person must start over again. That while society may advance technologically, every person must choose freedom individually, that faith the extended, spontaneous order must be fought, grasped, and accepted in a process of philosophical anthropology. Freedom is brought about by traditions, but not without the concerted choice of each individual. Each individual must choose to enter into those traditions for himself. Unfortunately, this choice cannot be forced or coerced. Young minds must be persuaded, a hard task when the benefits of order and tradition are immanent, though not necessarily imminent.
(At last, I have tied together Kierkegaard, the blessings of the bourgeois mentality, the free market, and the cause of liberty, and why reason and speculation have become enemies to such developments. The need for each individual to choose the traditions irrespective of rational, mindful, and intellectual development underscores why capitalism and democracy end up ultimately breeding anti-capitalist and anti-democratic cultures. Each generation has to be taught that their way of life, their freedom, is based on, defined on sacrifice, self-limitations. The fall of many civilizations seems to result when the people with those communities want to effects but are not willing to work for them. It requires faith to adopt traditions that do not make sense to the human mind, because Reason is obsessed with what it can sense or deduce. Faith uses imagination. No wonder Abraham was great, and no one can “go further” than” faith. Kierkegaard, inadvertently perhaps, acknowledges the limits of reason that Hayek discusses at length in Conceit. The problem for Hayek is that he refuses to acknowledge the Creator of the Universe, although his text frequently refers to ambivalence about his theological views.
Without a doubt, the Knight of Faith is a bourgeois, a capitalist, because he makes a living speculating, engaging in activities that require risk. No wonder he is despised by intellectuals. )
Returning to the indefensible defense of John Brown, let us take note that Thoreau in the long runs tries to sanitize (saint, beatify, make sane) his seeming justification for a terrorist by claiming to plead for Brown's character, not his actions. Cannot be done. His actions define his character, reveal his character: a self-imposed, self-righteous vigilante who ran rough-shod over the rights of others, who undermined human liberty in the name of liberty.
(Here once could inject another Foucauldian analysis. Just as in the earlier part of the nineteenth century courts spent more time trying to understand and reform the criminal as opposed to respond to the criminal act, Thoreau is trying to justify the criminal as opposed to explain away the crime.
Human exuberance does not compensate for truth, another fallacy of these Romanticized intellectuals.
Now, near the end of his plea for John Brown, not his character as he claims in the text, he refers to John Brown as an “angel of light”. In this seemingly innocent metaphor is encapsulated everything wrong, illogical, unethical, heinous and evil about Thoreau's contentions and John Brown's actions. This seemingly innocuous metaphor betrays the uneasy ambivalence of David Thoreau wanting to champion violent outrage while ignoring the violence.
An angel of light? In Isaiah 14, Lucifer, an archangel in the panoply of holy messengers in the heavens, was an angel of light—a star of the morning, but ultimately a deceiver and an adversary, one who thought he could run the world better, one who wanted to make himself God and run the universe according to his own limited dictates. Satan is an angel of light, a tempter, albeit Thoreau apparently intended the phrase to capture John Brown as a messenger of good to the world. John Brown either deceived Thoreau as well as Lucifer deceived one third of the angels—and then Adam and Eve, or worse Thoreau is complicit in a barbaric fraud. Then again, one could claim the metaphor is accurate when considered in connection with the Adversary.
This metaphor, “angel of light”, also applies itself very well to Thoreau and all his intellectual ilk. Like Lucifer, later Satan, they see the operations of the world and are dissatisfied. They want to change the order and nature of things to suit their own tastes, or their own thinking. This hubris on the part of Lucifer and many intellectuals is based on the false premise that one mind can understand the functions of the extender order, an arrogance which Hayek dubbed “the fatal conceit”, certainly fatal in the case of John Brown, who felt righteously compelled to force his righteous views on others, at the barrel of a gun when he saw fit.
John Brown was an angel of light, attract and enticing, yet his actions betray the dark and evil turn of his thought and actions, that a man made himself God and in the name of good perpetrate evil. The “do-gooders” and busybodies of the world do far more damage than the openly hostile and hateful.
Love means letting people be wrong and respecting their integrity to be free, even while they are limiting the freedom of others. It does not mean we should stand idly by and watch the encroachment of liberties. We must resist the proud, arrogant, egomaniacal, monomaniacal notion that one person has the right and responsibility to impose right on others.
In short, Thoreau wants to lionize, canonize Brown, yet cannot legitimize his putrid actions. This inner conflict is exposed in his telling metaphor comparing John Brown to “an angel of light.” (This connects with Willaim Empson’s 7th Type of Ambiguity).
Might can never make right, no matter how mighty one's sense of right may be. Foucault is wrong to assume otherwise, for truth as a matter of force can never be truth to begin with.
The highest law, then is not (individual) conscience, but commitment, to a person. Attachment to principles without attachment to the Person of Christ makes every man a tyrant, a hellish, hell-bent bully.
And now we can extemporize the wrong of Progressivism, a movement which believed that government wanted, and needed to, make society better.
Government uses coercion, not persuasion. Free people cannot nor should not be coerced into doing right. Therefore, government has not place in the progress of humanity. Human beings guided by the divine spark of life can do a better job, if permitted to. President Lincoln wanted to take steps to end slavery. He did not want to encroach upon the “peculiar institution” where it lay, but stop its spread to other territories. Despite the liberal basis of the Republican party, Lincoln wanted to follow a wisely conservative program to end slavery.
The role of government is not to make sure that each person does the right thing, but that each person does not encroach upon the rights of others to do the right thing.
Returning to Thoreau's plea, why did he and so many other intellectuals succumb to this temptation to make the world right by compulsion instead of persuasion?
They saw the growing industrialization of the world, and all the problems associated with it. They wrongly assumed that industrialization caused these problems, when rather state control, whether vested in a king, a congress, or a president made it more difficult for centralized cities to adapt to this growth. Reformers wanted to fix these problems, which is good. Yet they saw government as the means to do it. Private reformers using private means is the way to go!
Thomas Jefferson was a victim of this problem, too. He believed that government should be as neutral and as limited as possible in the affairs of men, yet at the same time he envisioned and idolized an agrarian economy of small, humble gentlemen farmers (of which he was NOT one, incidentally). Industry promotes freedom because it frees up people's time, getting them away from investing so much of their time in ensuring that there will be enough food on the shelves and in the pantry come winter. Even though farmers had to work sixteen hour days, they had a better life in a factory than in the sporadic, changing, and easily drastic life of a farmer, where one famine could wipe out a family and killing many of his offspring. In fact, the contiguity of family life was probably enhanced by the industrial revolution because instead of spending every waking hour having kids, working them to death, then losing more than half of them to famine and disease, families would be able to nurture and promote them, thus not having to have so many. Even if Mom and Dad went to work, at the end of the day they would come and have “family time.”
Thomas Jefferson wanted a free society, yet did not want a society free to pursue technological progress. He wanted people to choose his ideal development of the country, yet could not reconcile himself to the fact that maybe the country would not choose it.
Also, technological advances promoted the indirect free market, typified by Adam Smith in the Invisible Hand of commerce. Intellectuals were afraid, perhaps, that the industrial revolution on its own would not correct the problems exacerbated by the growth of populations seeking a more stable life.
Technological improvements gave some the impetus that they could improvise, and impose societal improvements as well. Yet the systems that define society are ultimately far too complex for any one person to understand.
And so we return to the dismayed assertion of Milton Friedman, that “people are afraid of freedom.” They are impatient for change, not understanding that the multitude of forces at work in the world are caught up in the hands of a Creator who does a better of job of correcting the ill in this world and promoting the good.
Jesus Christ died on the Cross, giving his life as a ransom for many. He did not impose his will on anyone. In fact, every step he took, every action he made was in concert with the will of his Father in Heaven, the ultimate and right judge of the world.
The British people reestablished this order when they rejected the “Christian” tyranny of Cromwell and the Commonwealth. The French people never recovered after they beheaded their behaved but hapless king.
No, we do not have the power to reinvent the world. Nor do we have to. The world as conceived by any person is too limited and false to be acted upon, and ultimately tramples on the liberty of every human being.
Once again, the technological advances inadvertently promoted the flawed notion that human beings could also reform society collectively. Intellectuals, ignoring the source of their reason in the trade and traditions of commerce, began to despise those very things that elemented their liberty because they did make sense to their limited intellect. Why? Because one man’s intellect is blind to the long, evolved process which elemented their reasoned liberty. The morals and values of a free market, honesty, integrity, obedience to religious dictates, do not submit themselves easily to rational or scientific scrutiny, yet they are true nonetheless.
Thus we return to the fundamental problems and contradictions in David Thoreau's pleas for John Brown. His intellect decries the mistreatment of other people as slaves, but hearkens back to atavistic means, the rampant bloodshed of other men, to perpetrate, to impose this freedom. This uneasy tense contradiction is bound up in Thoreau's styling Brown to be “an angel of light”
Refering back to the sudden insights:
Societies can promote liberty, but they cannot make it happen. Only an individual can do that, for freedom must be chosen, and only an individual can choose freedom. Society cannot do that for you, no one else can, not even family or friends, or other ideas.
Hence the frustration of intellects, who want everyone to hurry up and choose freedom (A fundamental trait of Progressives: Hurry up Progress), when it cannot be hurried. Freedom cannot be bureaucratized. The human spirit cannot respond to dictatorship, but the human body which frames the human spirit will suffer under dictatorship.
Hence the folly of radicals like Thoma Paine who assumed that we have the power to remake the world, or Karl Marx to change the world. The betterment of this world lies in the choice of each person to choose freedom, as Frederick Douglass did so many years ago as a harassed slave in Maryland. The world does not need to be remade, is passing away. Every person must be renewed, and renewed from within. Or as Hegel himself posited, “You cannot have a Revolution until you have a Reformation.” His mistake was assuming that tehh Reformation of the State would suffice, when such a matter is impossible.
And now I can frame the problem of the spirit of modernity, which foolishly charged that the human spirit could “go further” just like technology and commerce. Kierkegaard refuted that nonsense aimiably in Fear and Trembling. You cannot go further than faith! The “State” does not exist. Its Reformation, therefore, is an impossibility, and any results from such a nonsensical process would have no effect on an individual.
Society does not exist! Liberty cannot be imposed through an abstract that does not exist.
Persuasion person to person is the only path to true freedom, to unfettered liberty.
Rousseau was wrong. Man IS born in chains, yet in Christ he can find true freedom, for he whom the son has set free is free indeed. Man is born in chains, but he must allow traditions to fashion them away. A lack of restraint becomes another chain when unchecked. He must choose boundaries of some kind. The entire metaphor of chains is all wrong.
Faith cannot be passed down like any other tradition, yet the tradition of having faith and walk in it is the most worthy calling of every human being, which each person must find on his own.
This explains the major problem which this country began facing with the onslaught of the Baby Boomers, the hippies, the warped “civil rights” movement, and the (Not So) Great Society. The Greatest Generation wanted to pass on the wealth and prosperity that they had struggled to maintain and defend through two world wars without their children having to endure the hardship. The result: the next generation became dissatisfied and disaffected, not nurtured by the suffering and the struggle that leads to the faith in a cosmic order led by God. The Greatest Generation wanted to impart the prosperity without the anxiety, which no one can do.
The tradition of freedom, based resolutely and infinitely on the tradition of faith, must be relearned by every generation, persuaded into men, not forced or coerced. And it certainly cannot be transmitted passively, as the Greatest Generation had hoped.
The baby boomers despised the traditions passed down to them because they did not appreciate, nor certainly endure the hardship necessary to make them possible. They took the traditions for granted, then despised them outright thinking that they could do better, which the Greatest Generation had already learned could not be done.
Amen, and amen!