In a lecture
urging us to use discrimination in the type of Great Books we elevate, Patrick J. Deneen contrasts two competing visions of liberty that have been given in the literature of the Western tradition. There is first what he calls the ‘older conception’ of liberty, which focused around self-government and the limitation of boundless desire. This is contrasted with a newer understanding which asserts that liberty gives us the right to pursue our desires ceaselessly. Deneen comments,
The older conception of liberty held that liberty was ultimately a form of self-government; in a constrained world, the human propensity to desire without limit and end inclined people toward a condition of slavery, understood to be enslavement to the base desires. This older conception of liberty as self-government was displaced by our regnant conception of liberty, the liberty to pursue our desires ceaselessly with growing prospects of ongoing fulfillment through the conquest of nature, accompanied by the constant generation of new desires that demand ever greater expansion of the human project of mastery.
Mr. Deneen’s insights (which can be read in context here
) address the question of liberty as it relates to individuals, although the same distinctions apply when it comes to the state. Should the liberty of a nation be measured by its ability to constrain unbounded desire and therefore to pursue responsible self-government, or is a nation’s liberty predicated on government’s ability to grant fulfillment to an ever-expanding corpus of new desires – desire which are then converted into, so called, ‘rights’?
Questions such as these are important because they lie behind many of the issues our nation is currently having to face.