Born free

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I’m a Twitter tragic, even though the Puritan in my soul deplores the frequency of bad language, and the pedant is struck by the number of mistakes in spelling and usage. But every so often I am brought up short by more serious matters. The tweet I have just read in the heat of the Greek afternoon was written by a man near wintry Melbourne who feels threatened by governmental instructions to wear face masks. He targets Premier Daniel Andrews, and declares he will neither wear a mask, nor pay a fine. He will not comply or ‘bow down’ to Dictator Dan. He was, he says ‘born free.’

Main image: Man wearing mask (Bruna Araujo/Unsplash)

During times of crisis concepts such as power and liberty are often brought into the light and re-examined, and it is a sad fact that during those same times, people in power often try to chip away at liberty, at democracy’s most basic freedoms: several current world leaders immediately spring to mind. The man who was ‘born free’ might ask himself exactly why Australia’s Parliament has been shut down. Again.

Lockdown has given us all a good chance to reflect and revaluate, perhaps even to think about what we have learned during decades, and as a result of life’s experience. Many of us have read and re-read a great deal, while still others have revisited influential people of the past. One person with whom I have renewed a slight acquaintance is the fascinating and complex Lord Acton (1834-1902), historian, writer, politician and formidable linguist.

On one level Acton was a pillar of the English establishment, a member of the British aristocracy, and a close friend and adviser of Gladstone. On another he had a very cosmopolitan background: born in Naples to a mother of ancient French-German lineage, he married a Bavarian aristocrat and eventually, because of the convolutions of his European connections, became an Italian Marquis. He was also raised a Catholic at a time when Catholic emancipation had only recently taken place, and was denied entrance to the University of Cambridge because of lingering prejudice. But in a much later and satisfying irony, Cambridge appointed him Regius Professor of Modern History.

Acton was a deeply learned man who influenced many people, and still does; he is perhaps best known for his view, expressed in a letter to the Anglican Bishop of London, that ‘Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Once again, certain world leaders spring to mind. Acton went on to suggest that ‘great men are nearly always bad men,’ and contended that the greatest names are often coupled with the greatest crimes.

History abounds with examples: one of the most significant being that of Robespierre, who fairly early in his career coined the famous phrase of the French Revolution: liberte, egalite, fraternite, but later became the architect of the Great Terror, which saw 17000 people guillotined in the space of a year, and who himself was guillotined.

 

'Acton... had serious thoughts about the nature of liberty, a much misunderstood concept. "Liberty," he said, "is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought."'

 

In fiction we have the example of American Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men. The protagonist Willie Stark is based on the long-ago Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long. Willie Stark begins his political career as an idealistic fighter against corruption, but ends it as a seriously compromised and corrupt figure: Penn Warren shows how insidious the process is.

But the corrupting nature of power was not Acton’s only concern: he also had serious thoughts about the nature of liberty, a much misunderstood concept. ‘Liberty,’ he said, ‘is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.’ The conclusion of this argument would seem to be that sometimes certain freedoms have to be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good.

Many great minds, of course, have engaged with the subject of liberty. John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that the liberty of the individual must be limited: ‘he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.’

The refusal to wear a mask in the present circumstances could be considered not only a nuisance to other people, but a positive danger to them. Perhaps the Melbourne rebel should re-read Rousseau: ‘Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.’ That’s just the way it is, especially in times of crisis.

 

 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Man wearing mask (Bruna Araujo/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, COVID-19, liberty, power, Daniel Andrews, Lord Acton

 

 

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Existing comments

As usual, a timely and realistic reflection, Gillian. The"Melbourne rebel" might also benefit from reflecting on Augustine's distinction between "libertas" - the spiritual state contingent on right choice - and the actual act of choice which is merely arbitrary if disconnected from its co-ordinates in other human values and truth.
John RD | 28 July 2020


Yes, I've often thought that many people confuse 'freedom' with 'licence' on a regular basis. As with 'Liberty', mentioned in the article, 'freedom', for me, has a sense of concern for others embedded within it. And it is 'licence' that is more aligned with 'doing when you like when you like', which, for me, carries with it a profound sense of selfishness.
Richard | 28 July 2020


Readable, interesting and not taking the high moral ground.
Steve sinn | 28 July 2020


freedom for many means 'what I want to do' and is evident on many culturally imperialistic TV shows.
Charles Rue | 28 July 2020


Thank you so much for introducing me to Lord Acton - now complete works AND Essays on Freedom in my e-Library. Your thoughts on weird claims re "Freedom" and one's Rights in these dangerous times show exactly what poor Daniel Andrews and the Medical and emergency services sector is up against in Victoria - aided and abetted it has to be said by the "Right"-wing fruitcakes of the Murdoch/NewCorp press - in the main. We await the escape of the Covid-19 virus here in NSW, too. While the Federal government politicians hide behind metaphorical lamp-posts so as not to become a target themselves - while largely responsible for the breakdowns in safe distancing occasioning the virus outbreaks - or else - as two Ministers have just done - holding hands and flying off to appear with the mad Pompeo in the US at some gathering to bash China - at some point. Unseemly. And will they spend two weeks in isolation when they get back here? Keep an eye on their existence over the coming fortnight or so. Yes, freedom and rights - and responsibility to not bring harm to others - that is indeed the nub of the point of these poor benighted souls out-of-their-minds claiming their "rights"!
Jim KABLE | 28 July 2020


I am writing from NSW. For the past 10 days in line with growing expectations and then mandated for Victorians that they wear masks when out-and-about unless huffing-and-puffing when jogging (apparently) I have been wearing masks - a large packed shopping centre - I caught my reflection in a shop window - and noted that I was the only person wearing a mask. On a walk late last week - two pelotons of local high school students rode slowly by on their bicycles/skateboards off to some school sporting activity and out of each group - one joker loudly forcing a cough as they passed by. Funny, right? The silly old chap with a mask - give him a fright? Then yesterday at a supermarket - Oh, my goodness - a woman wearing a mask! Hallelujah!
Jim KABLE | 28 July 2020


Well put, in so few short words
E. McAndrew | 28 July 2020


L'homme est né libre, et il est partout dans les foulards! ROUSSEAU for the New Age of Unreason, folks (and with kerchiefs, the Face Masks de l'Éclaircissement, instead of "FERS", a pretty good alliterative pun if I do humbly say so myself. What is the real source of l'inégalité parmi les hommes? Ultimately MOOLAH! Nth Korea calls itself Red, but it's an Absolutist Hereditary Monarchy with an unbroken line of succession by Primogeniture, and one permitted orthodoxy. It differs from the brutal dictatorship of Saudi Arabia in starving its proletariat and peasantry to death with no gender-based preferences, where the A*t*ch*ist's Acolytes prefer daily to behead or stone to death in the streets apostates and troublemaking rape victims. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon-Anarchiste, gave us "La propriété, c'est le vol." The end of his millennium gave us "La propriété, c'est le renom" renown, fame, CELEBRITY! How else would Paris Hotelchain's mean little mouth, piggy little eyes and spider monkey legs dominate the bourgeois media? Never would the overenthustically-blown hourglass form divine of Kim Megasteatopygous back her popup caboose onto our phone screens every time we order over 50 pizzas or 100 Half-Pounders-With-the-Lot.
James Marchment | 28 July 2020


The Pandemic has brought out the flaws in our society, the disconnects between "personal freedom" and the "common good". I certainly feel deeply for Kevin Andrews. The Victorian situation could so easily spread to other States and Territories if people, tired of denial of their so called freedoms, decide to reject sound medical advice and embrace the idiocy of "conspiracy theorists" doing their rounds in some sections of the media and on line. My wife has been subject to unwelcome behavior by some ignorant fools simply because of her ethnicity. Their behavior threatens my life because I am in the "at risk " category. The COVID-19 Virus is a warning shot across our bows. Do we heed the warning or ignore it at our peril?
Gavin O'Brien | 29 July 2020


Thanks Gillian another brilliant article, reminding us that it is so important that freedom must incorporate a strong concern for others, lest it morphs into its own form of tyranny.
John Whitehead | 29 July 2020


As an important step in becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath: "First,do no harm", "Primum non nocere". This should be a new slogan alongside: "We are all in this together", since philosophical freedom is not liberty to pursue desires uninhibited. Rather, freedom is the ability to pursue reason's desires as informed by the Good.
ao | 29 July 2020


As an important step in becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm", "Primum non nocere". This should be a new slogan alongside: "We are all in this together", since philosophical freedom is not liberty to pursue desires uninhibited. Rather, freedom is the ability to pursue reason's desires as informed by the Good.
ao | 29 July 2020


What an excellent analysis! I find myself constantly annoyed by those standing up for their 'FREEDOM'! who seem to have no recognition of their shared responsibility to or for the rest of humanity. In an their selfishness, 'Self' seems to have become almost a religion for such activists, who seem to lack balance in their thinking leaving them unable to understand relative priorities.
Joe B | 29 July 2020


Another well thought of article Hoping that this will not become the new ‘normality’
Stathis | 30 July 2020


Excellent thoughts on our obligations as human beings. How often definitions lead to misunderstandings and entrenched positions when we should be open to ‘the greater good’. It is a pity that we do not trust our leaders to convince us what that entails. Reflection is a very necessary skill in these difficult times. I look forward to reading Lord Acton.
Maggie | 30 July 2020


Thanks once more Gillian for a thought provoking article. It is indeed curious how often we confuse liberty with licence. After all most people accept the compulsion to drive on whichever side of the road is chosen by the government, precisely because to do otherwise would cause harm to oneself and others. A really disturbing aspect of social media is of course that the ravings of the ‘libertarians’ are greatly magnified.
Juliet | 31 July 2020


Good article, until you mentioned "the right of being able to do what we ought" can mean "freedoms have to be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good".. I always thought that this meant the more freedom you have the more responsibility you have. Government oppression has nothing to do with freedom.
Michael | 31 July 2020


5 words to replace the word 'Pandemic': "What goes around, comes around". 4 words to replace the word 'Denial': "Not wearing a mask." 6 words to replace the word 'Freedom': 'To bring order out of chaos"
ao | 03 August 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have really brought out the loons on social media, which provides them with a platform they would not otherwise have. Lord Acton, like you Gillian, was a sane and civilised person with a moral anchor. So many these days have none. It is difficult for the federal and state governments to contain this pandemic because so many people refuse to follow simple rules for their own and others protection. I know some vehement anti vaxxers who are already blathering about government control and liberty before a vaccine has been developed and released. It all makes me wonder.
Edward Fido | 03 August 2020


controversial figure. H refused to accede to a papal ruling on infallibility and was severely criticised by his own church. At the age of forty-one his career as a public figure in the church was ended. He prized his personal liberty above those in power.
Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 05 August 2020


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