Saturday, January 05, 2008

Auden #14, Πολιτικά #1, America #33

As the issue between virtue first and liberty first becomes clear, so does the realization that the cost to any society that accepts the latter is extremely high, and to some may seem prohibitive. One can no longer make the task look easier than it is by pretending, as the liberals of the Enlightenment believed, that men are naturally good. No, it is just as true as it ever was that man is born in sin, that the majority are always, relatively, in the wrong, the minority sometimes, relatively, in the right (every one, of course, is free at any time to belong to either), and all, before God, absolutely in the wrong, that all of the people some of the time and some of the people most of the time will abuse their liberty and treat it as the license of the escaped slave. But if the principle is accepted, it means accepting this: it means accepting a State that, in comparison to its Roman rival, is dangerously weak (though realizing that, since people will never cease trying to interfere with the liberties of others in pursuing their own, the State can never wither away. Tyranny today, anarchy tomorrow is a Neo-Roman daydream); it means accepting a “Society,” in the collective inclusive sense, that is as neutral to values (liberty is not a value but the ground of value) as the “nature” of physics; it means accepting an educational system in which, in spite of the fact that authority is essential to the growth of the individual who is lost without it, the responsibility for recognizing authority is laid on the pupil; it means accepting the impossibility of any “official” or “public” art; and, for the individual, it means accepting the lot of the Wandering Jew, i.e. the loneliness and anxiety of having to choose himself, his faith, his vocation, his tastes. The Margin is a hard taskmaster; it says to the individual: “It’s no good your running to me and asking me to make you into someone. You must choose. I won’t try to prevent your choice, but I can’t and won’t help you make it. If you try to put your trust in me, in public opinion, you will become, not someone but no one, a neuter atom of the public.”

from his introduction to Henry James' The American Scene (1946)