June 1993

The History Of Political Liberty

From the 17th and 18th Centuries to the Present Day


The title of my talk fails to convey the fact that I shall discuss the seventeenth and eighteenth-century history of the concept of political liberty, rather than the extent to which people have or have not been free of political servitude during the past 350 years. The latter topic would take considerably more than forty minutes; so perhaps there is something to be said for listening to an historian of political philosophy: I can at least promise to be relatively brief.

The concept of political liberty is one of a family of notions: equality, justice, democracy, and harm which political theorists describe as “essentially contested.” All of these terms involve endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users. The easiest way to see this is to imagine what I take to be a typical debate between two invented characters who I will unimaginatively name “A” and “B”.

“A”, who may own her own business or be a professional of some sort, has worked hard to reach her present position. She has saved and sacrificed in order to buy a nice house in an exclusive neighborhood, to send her children to a good public school or a private university, to pay for some special type of medical care for her aging and increasingly infirm parents, and so on. She now finds all her projects threatened by rising taxes. She regards this threat to her projects as an infringement of her basic freedom. She recognizes that she is being prevented by others from doing what she could otherwise do, and she objects to what amounts to coercion. She claims to have a right to what she has earned and that nobody else has a right to take away what she acquired legitimately and to which she has a just title. She intends to vote for candidates for political office who will defend her property, her projects, and her conception of political liberty.

“B”, who may be a member of one of the helping professions (a teacher or a social worker) or even someone with inherited wealth, is impressed by the arbitrariness of the inequalities in the distribution of wealth, income and opportunity. He is even more disturbed by the inability of the poor and the deprived to do very much about their own condition as a result of their lack of mental or physical capacity, which he understands as needlessly constraining. He believes that all inequality stands in need of justification. He draws the conclusion that in present circumstances redistributive taxation which will finance welfare and the social services, thereby enabling the poor to exercise their economic and political opportunities, is what true freedom demands. He intends to vote for candidates for political office who will defend redistributive taxation and his conception of political liberty.

I realize that these two ideal-typical characters represent simplified moral and political positions. Our actual moral and political judgments are rarely this uncomplicated. I wish only to suggest that “A” and “B” represent eligible viewpoints within our society, that they are going to disagree about policies and politicians, and that they will both appeal to the language of freedom to express their political preferences.

“A” thinks of freedom exclusively in terms of the independence of the individual from interference by others, be these governments, corporations, or private persons. For “A”, the concept of political liberty is essentially a “negative” one. Its presence is marked by the absence of something else; specifically, by the absence of coercion or constraint. “A” insists on defining liberty in this way because she thinks that an important part of being human is having the exercise of her intellectual capacities under her own, rather than someone else’s control.

“B”, on the other hand, is most unwilling to endorse the individualistic values that stand behind “A”‘s references to political liberty. From “B”‘s standpoint, to offer political rights, or safeguards against intervention by the state, to speak of opportunities made possible by freedom from constraint when the recipients of such rights and opportunities are penniless, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition. Rights and opportunities are one thing, the ability to exercise those rights and opportunities is quite another. Unless one is free to exercise his rights and opportunities, appeals to “freedom” are not only empty, but fraudulent. For this reason “B” insists that the concept of political liberty should be a “positive” one. Freedom for “B” is not freedom from coercion or constraint, it is freedom to exercise one’s rights and opportunities; and if this requires that others help in these by sharing some of their wealth through the payment of mandatory taxes, then this is the price we all pay for our freedom.

I would now like to move beyond these particular statements of political liberty to consider the more general problem of determining the permissible limits of coercion. The assertions of “A” and “B” presuppose some of the most important theoretical arguments on behalf of political liberty of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Compelling reasons for these positions have been worked out with considerable brilliance and care by three early modern political theorists: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their theories, which continue to inspire political theorists to this day, may be understood as attempts to answer the following rather abstract questions: “Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else?”; “Why should I not live as I like?”; “If I disobey, may I be coerced? By whom and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?” Although their answers to these questions vary widely, they each shared the belief that only the voluntary agreement of adult human beings can give others political authority over them. They each believed that such agreement was best expressed in the form of a social contract, whereby individuals agree to obey a sovereign, provided the sovereign abides by the terms of the contract. And they each believed that the terms of the contract should take into account the nature of humans and the human condition.


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was born in England into a relatively poor family. The date of his birth, April 5th, ominously witnessed the sighting of the Spanish Armada. Throughout his life he was fond of repeating the joke that his mother went into labor with him on hearing a rumor that the Armada was coming–“so that fear and I were born twins together.” Early on in his schooling he distinguished himself as a classical scholar and his first publication was a translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars. Hobbes derived from Thucydides the ideal of an unchanging human nature as the constant element in history which enables the historian to compare one event with another and construct a formula or pattern which is intelligible and useful. Hobbes also concluded that the ultimate source of war is to be found within human nature. As he would explain in his greatest work, Leviathan (1651), the three motives of human nature which lead humans to quarrel and to subdue one another are desire of profit, fear, and love of honor (meaning the respect of the inferior for his superior). Of these three, Hobbes believed that fear was the cause of the Peloponnesian War, and its absence–when men no longer feared human or divine punishment–was responsible for the anarchy of the time of the Plague. Both instances support the doctrine of the Leviathan that fear breeds war between nations and the lack of it breeds anarchy within nations. What Thucydides had written made an immense impression on Hobbes because of the violent political events transpiring during his own lifetime. Among these, the English Civil War was the most terrifying. It struck Hobbes as a deeply irrational event, though it was nonetheless what was to be expected given the violent and passionate nature of man.

The experience of war, both past and present, was one of two factors that shaped Hobbes’ philosophical ideas. The other was the contemporary upheaval in scientific ideas that he attributed to Galileo. Before he met Galileo, Hobbes had come to believe that geometry was the foremost method of reaching conclusions about the world. The geometrical method enabled one to demonstrate the truth of some complex and at first sight quite unlikely propositions from some very simple propositions which everyone would agree were obviously true. Here, it seemed, was a way to get certain results. How soon Hobbes made the connection between the certainty of the method of geometry and the uncertainty of current moral and political theory we cannot be sure.

Something more than his discovery of Euclidean geometry was needed before he could apply anything like a geometrical deductive method to politics. What was needed was a basic hypothesis about the nature of things, which could embrace the actions of men in society and their relations with each other. Enter Galileo’s law of inertia. In the old prevailing view, rest was the natural state of things: nothing moved until something else moved it. Galileo postulated that motion was the natural state; things moved unless something else stopped them. Hobbes would apply this to the motions of humans, would get a system which would explain their motions relative to one another, and would then deduce what kind of government they must have to enable them to maintain and maximize their motions. He planned a systematic philosophy, or science, in three parts: of Body, which would set out the first principles of motion; of Man, which would consider man as one kind of body in motion and would explain his sensations, desires, and behavior as results of his internal motion and the impact on it of external motions; and of the Citizen, which would show what these motions would necessarily lead to and how their result might be altered for the better of knowledge of these laws and by rational forethought.

In other words, Hobbes decided that he could answer the question of political liberty (“What are the permissible limits of coercion?”), if human nature and the human condition were treated according to a method comparable to that of geometry and pure mechanics. Armed with the right method, it would be possible for humans to construct a political order as timeless as a Euclidean theorem.

Let us look quickly at Hobbes’ efforts to achieve this. His essential concern was to “demonstrate” the necessary form of the state and the citizen’s obligation to it as a deduction from the known nature of humans. Contrary to the traditional picture of man as a political or a social animal, Hobbes argued that man’s “dispositions are naturally such, that except they be restrained through fear of some coercive power, every man will distrust and dread each other, and as by natural right he may, so by necessity he will be forced to make use of the strength he hath, toward the preservation of himself.” Hobbes’ first “demonstration” was “that the state of men without civil society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a mere war of all against all, in that war all men have equal right unto all things.”

His second “demonstration” was that, as the basic law of man’s nature made self-preservation his paramount aim, so “all men as soon as they arrive to understanding of this hateful condition of universal war then desire (even nature itself compelling them) to be freed from this misery.” This “demonstration” presupposes an exceedingly spare concept of liberty. Hobbes used the word liberty negatively. As he explained, “Liberty…is nothing else but an absence of lets and hindrances of motion; as water shut up in a vessel is therefore not at liberty, because the vessel hinders it from running out; which, the vessel being broken, is made free. And every man hath more or less liberty, as he hath more or less space in which he employs himself.” Recalling that motion is the natural condition of all the matter of which the universe consists, we see that Hobbes is prepared to attribute freedom and unfreedom to all bodies whatsoever. This second “demonstration” also presumes that it is possible for humans to improve their natural condition.

Such improvement would only take place when everyone makes the following covenant with all of the others (except the Sovereign) who will thereafter form the political association: “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or this assembly of men, on this condition: that thou give up the right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner.” This was Hobbes’ central “demonstration.” Although a person’s absolute self-seeking could be mediated “by compact,” it could only be adequately mediated by a compact which set up an absolute, preferably monarchical, power. For “except they do so” there will “evidently appear to be no civil government, but the rights all men have to all things, that is the rights of war, will remain.”

Given Hobbes’ assumptions respecting human nature, here was an immensely powerful and systematic political theory. In short, he argued that the best way to ensure peace (and maximize freedom) is for everyone to acknowledge a perpetual sovereign power, against which each of them would be powerless. Hobbes is in fact a theorist of the ugly proposition that might makes right. Again, this is a very spare conception of liberty. For Hobbes, civil society exists in order that people may be left in peace to pursue their individual desires. Civil society is not founded in order to realize any other purportedly common good such as equality or justice or any other conception of the good life.


Some theorists have found this to be a liberating theory, others have been frightened by its totalitarian tendencies. Among these latter was John Locke (1632-1704). Although Locke did not write in direct opposition to Hobbes, he did write against the absolute power of the king. He did so in terms that will appear very familiar to us. Locke was born in a Puritan household in Somerset, England. Both of his parents came from Puritan trading families. They weren’t rich but they were well connected, and Locke was able to take advantage of his natural intellectual talents. He trained as a doctor and in fact first gained fame through his skill as a surgeon, which allied him with one of the most powerful and politically radical men in the kingdom, the first Earl of Shaftesbury. Locke’s greatest political work, the Two Treatises of Government (1689), was by and large fully in keeping with the political principles he shared with his patron. It was a book designed to assert a right of resistance to unjust authority; a right, in the last resort, of revolution. If we focus on the second and more famous of Locke’s work, Two Treatises and the Essay Concerning Civil Government, we will find that it contains much more than a defense on the right to resist. It is also a brilliant defense of the claim that sovereignty rests on the consent of the people, who naturally and individually possess the right to life, liberty, and property.

The Two Treatises were written in opposition to the political thought of Sir Robert Filmer, whose ultra-royalist tract Patriarcha was regarded as the most forceful statement of the divine right of kings. The essence of Filmer’s view was simple: all authority among humans was essentially of the same kind, the authority of a father in his family and the authority of a monarch in his kingdom. All authority of one human being over another was given directly by God. Since no human being had a right over his own life and since all human rulers had a right to take the lives of their own subjects or of foreign enemies when these in their judgment had damaged the public good, it must follow that rulers derived this right not from their subjects but from God himself. God gave the whole earth to the first man, Adam, and all political authority and all rights of ownership were an historical and legal consequence of that gift. Every subsequent title to rule (that is, the right of the king to rule through succession) was a direct expression of God’s providence and must be recognized as representing his will. Locke’s task, and it wasn’t a small one, was to explain how individuals acquire a right to resist unjust authority and still respect the supremacy of God.

Locke addressed the problem by granting that humans belong not to themselves but to the God who made them. Therefore, any human right to take away the life of any person (oneself included) must rest directly on God’s purposes for persons in general. The idea of one person owning another by inheritance has no plausible link with God’s purposes for humankind. This made people into slaves, or at least children. For Locke, slavery was the precise opposite of legitimate political authority. What made political authority legitimate, what gave legitimate rules the right to command, was practical services which they could and did provide for their subjects. So far from being the owner of those whom they ruled, a legitimate monarch was essentially their servant. As Locke explained:

“Political Power then I take to a Right of making Laws with Penalties of Death, and consequently all less Penalties, for the Regulating and Preserving of Property, and of employing the force of the Community, in the Execution of such laws, and in the defence of the Commonwealth from Foreign Injury, and all this only for the Publick Good.”

In order to show how such a right arises, Locke explains “what State all Men are naturally in.” The State of Nature is not so much designed to show what humans are like but rather what rights and duties they have as creatures of God. Their most fundamental right and duty is to judge how the God that created them requires them to live in the world which he has also created. His requirement for all persons in the state of nature is that they live according to the law of nature. Through the exercise of his reason every person has the ability to grasp the content of this law. “Reason…reaches all mankind, who will but consult [the law of nature], that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.”

Although Locke’s purpose in appealing to humans’ natural condition was not dissimilar to that of Hobbes, he wanted to ignore prevailing political circumstances in order to be free to give his own account of what is truly essential about humans and the human condition. Locke’s account of that state of affairs was dramatically different. Unlike Hobbes’ state of war of all against all, Locke’s state of nature was a moderately peaceable and rational state of affairs. For Locke, the vast majority of humans come equipped with a conscience that tells them, at least in general terms, right from wrong. So why would anyone willingly surrender their natural liberty in favor of government? There are two principle reasons: it is often difficult to determine how the law of nature applies in specific circumstances, difficult because we all have a tendency to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt in cases of conflict; and it is inconvenient that we ourselves would have to enforce the law of nature.

Thus we find it in our interest to unite ourselves into one society, and to give over our right to interpret and execute the law of nature to the public. “And this puts Men out of a State of Nature into that of a Commonwealth, by setting up a Judge on Earth, with Authority to determine all the Controversies, and redress the Injuries, that may happen to any Member of the Commonwealth; which judge is the Legislative, or Magistrates appointed by it.”

This is, I fear, but the briefest sketch of Locke’s account of obedience and coercion. What bears noticing is that his conception of political liberty, like Hobbes’, is essentially negative. Locke was most desirous of propounding a theory of government that would enable people to resist the unjust actions of an arbitrary sovereign. For that reason he argued, again by resorting to the metaphor of the state of nature, that all humans are endowed with certain natural rights. We all have a right, Locke thought, to be protected in our lives, our liberty, our health, and our property. These are rights that we may voluntarily surrender (for good reasons), but (and this is crucial), they are also rights that ensure to all of us a measure of privacy by protecting us from the interference of others, be they the government or other entities within our society. Locke had much more confidence in the ability of ordinary persons to govern themselves than Hobbes, but he had little doubt that most people would find it in their interest to be left alone, so long as they weren’t being harmed in their life, liberty, health, or property.

I hope that it is plain that the arguments of Hobbes and Locke can be used to underwrite the claims that “A” waged on behalf of her political liberty. If we turn briefly to the political thought of Rousseau, we will see that reasons can and have been given that lend support to the decidedly more communitarian position of our friend “B.”


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712, the son of a footloose and irresponsible watchmaker. He was privately educated and, as he reached his adulthood, managed to attract the attention of a number of prominent philosophers, including Voltaire and Diderot. His breakthrough to fame came in l750, when he won an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. This was the first of his three discourses, The Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. I will focus on his second discourse, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, also written for an essay competition, which he did not win. It was in this discourse that Rousseau turned his attention to the problem of political liberty, or to the extent to which all modern societies deprive persons of their natural liberty.

The Second Discourse is mostly a profoundly destructive piece of writing. There is nothing positive in it except his prefatory “Letter to the Republic of Geneva,” to which Rousseau had dedicated his essay. In the “Letter” Rousseau extolled Geneva in terms that bore absolutely no resemblance to what that city was actually like; it is an apically nostalgic depiction of that community, but no less interesting or important as a result.

This is what he wrote:

“If I had to choose my birthplace, I would have chosen a society of a size limited by the extent of human faculties, that is to say, limited by the possibility of being well governed, and where, with each being sufficient to his task, no one would have been forced to relegate to others the functions with which he was charged; a state where, with all private individuals being known to one another, neither the obscure maneuvers of vice nor the modesty of virtue could be hidden from the notice and the judgment of the public, and where that pleasant habit of seeing and knowing one another turned love of homeland into love of the citizens rather than into love of the land.

“I would have wanted to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people could have but one and the same interests, so that all the movements of the machine always tended only to the common happiness. Since this could not have taken place unless the people and the sovereign were one and the same person, it follows that I would have wished to be born under a democratic government, wisely tempered.”

This fictional account of Geneva evokes the participatory virtues of classical Athens, where the small size of the community and the homogeneity of its citizens enabled them to govern themselves directly. Rousseau was in effect smitten by “polis envy” and could see no reason why this did not represent the quintessence of all political societies. Mind you, he never believed it possible to recreate Athens, or Geneva for that matter, elsewhere. The happy circumstances of Geneva were a stick with which he intended to beat all contemporary societies.

He did this by fabricating his own state of nature story. Unlike the stories of Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau’s state of nature did not depict one particular condition; it was more a process of degeneration. He made no bones about the fact that it was purely fictional, but he insisted that it was not untrue. “It is no light undertaking to separate what is original from what is artificial in the present nature of man,” Rousseau explained, “and to have a proper understanding of a state which no longer exists, which perhaps never existed, which probably never will exist, and yet about which it is necessary to have accurate notions in order to judge properly our own present state.” He continued: “Let us therefore begin by putting aside all the facts, for they have no bearing on the question. The investigations that may be undertaken concerning this subject should not be taken for historical truths, but only for hypothetical and conditional reasoning, better suited to shedding light on the nature of things than on pointing our their true origin, like those our physicists make everyday with regard to the formation of the world.”

The first stage of Rousseau’s state of nature, certainly the most famous, is that of innocent primitivism. It was at this stage that he described humans as “noble savages.” In this non-moral condition, humans are all strong of stature and utterly without guile. Unlike the rest of the animal world, humans possess two essential characteristics: freedom and the capacity of self-improvement. The freedom Rousseau had in mind was personal freedom: the independence of an individual who has no master, no employer, no one on whom he is an any way dependent. The capacity of self-improvement is actuated by the challenges of nature. In addition, he has one natural virtue: pity. It is the source of all the most important social virtues: kindness, generosity, mercy, humanity. (Notice that in contrast with Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau believed that humans are natural social creatures.) When persons are removed from nature, he thought, they scarcely feel the influence of pity. In the modern world, it is the least educated people, the ones in whom the power of reasoning is least developed, who exhibit toward their suffering fellow humans the most lively and sincere commiseration.

This initial state of primitivism is of crucial importance to Rousseau’s argument. He insists that the most basic motives leading humans to act are non-rational instincts. Reason, though part of the human constitution, is given no chance to act. It was only from this starting point that Rousseau could find what he took to be a truly common denominator among humans. As he put it, with the example of Locke and other natural law theorists clearly in mind, “In this way one is not obliged to make a man a philosopher before making him a man.”

Humans do not remain for long in this condition, however. Rousseau explains that certain natural occurrences, such as volcanoes or lightening, which provide humans with knowledge of fire, place them in a position to make a virtue of their reasoning powers, of their ingenuity. It is at this stage, necessarily, that the process of moral and physical degeneration begins. Man finds it necessary to make his way in the world by laying claim to scarce resources. He begins to create for himself an identity that is necessarily purchased at the expense of others.

Man becomes self-conscious, he plans for the future. The first stirrings of pride manifest themselves. The tragedy of this state of affairs, for Rousseau, is that with the development of the human mind, with the progress of what is usually called civilization, comes the progress of human inequality. Trust gives way to competition; individuals lose their independence; private property comes to be established, and with it, an ever more complex division of labor. It is by this principal means of generating wealth that man becomes alienated from his true self. For once the institution of property is introduced, the differences between individual capacities and circumstances produce even greater inequalities in individual processions, which in turn leads to the alienation of man from himself and from his fellows.

It is through the endless proliferation of needs that man himself creates that this conflict grows into a war of all against all. The remedy for this state of affairs is the institution of a system of laws through a social contract. But whereas the contracts described by Hobbes and Locke were rational and just solutions equally advantageous to all, Rousseau’s social contract is a fraudulent deal imposed on the poor by the rich. The social contract promises liberty, but enforces the status quo. Rousseau imagines the first founder of civil government as a wily rich man saying to the poor: “Let us unite…let us institute rules of justice…instead of directing our forces against each other, let us unite them in one supreme power which shall govern us according to wise laws.” The poor, who can see that in setting up a system of law they are establishing peace, agree; they do not realize that they are transforming existing possessions into permanent legal property, and so perpetuating their own poverty as well as the wealth of the rich.

The tragedy of modern man, as Rousseau sees it, is that it is no longer possible to find happiness in the only way it can be found, which is living according to nature. “Natural man” enjoys repose and freedom. “Civilized man,” on the contrary, is always active, always busy, always playing a part, sometimes bowing to greater individuals, whom he hates, or to richer ones, whom he scorns; always ready to do anything for honors, power and reputation, and yet never having enough. The lessons of Rousseau’s Second Discourse are, as I’ve suggested, entirely negative. And there’s no turning back. He recognizes that man’s noble savagery cannot be replicated, and we shouldn’t even try.

Our task is perhaps a more daunting one still. It is to teach people to recognize that the good life depends upon inculcating a set of civic virtues that will allow men to act, not on the basis of narrow self-interest, but for the common good, when that good is defined in terms of economic, social, and moral equality. This is what true political liberty entails. It’s an uncompromising ideal to be sure. It is hardly surprising that when Rousseau discussed the approximation of that ideal he began by admitting that “man must be forced to be free.” Rousseau loved to revel in such paradoxical utterances, so it is perhaps not wise to take him literally–though of course others have (Robespierre, Sainte-Juste) with violent and tragic results. What Rousseau meant, at a minimum, is that the essence of political liberty is self-government.


Self-government requires that people learn to exercise their rights and opportunities. This is no simple or easy matter; but then, in a free political society–as our friend “B” recognizes–you get what you deserve.

–Peter J. Diamond, Ph.D

American Democratic Thought

The following is from The COURSE of AMERICAN DEMOCRATIC THOUGHT, by Ralph H. Gabriel, Larned Professor of American History, Yale University. 1940, The Ronald Press Company

“The second doctrine of the democratic faith…was that of the free individual. It contained a theory of liberty and of the relation of the individual to the State which [each] ultimately governed…This philosophy affirmed that the advance of civilization is measured by the progress of [humankind] in apprehending and translating into individual and social action the eternal principles which comprise the moral law…Out of the concept that [a] civilized [individual] is the virtuous [one] and this hopeful philosophy that [all are] on the march toward a better world came the nineteenth century theory of liberty. As [people] became more nearly perfect in obedience to the fundamental moral law,…they needed less the external control of man-made laws. “Hence,” insisted Emerson following Jefferson, “the less government we have the better…The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual…To educate the wise…the State exists, and with the appearance of the wise…the State expires.”, [Emerson, Works, (Centenary ed.), III, 215-216]. Henry Thoreau, Emerson’s Concord friend, carried this reasoning to a logical conclusion. The [one] who has achieved moral maturity, he thought, should reject imperfect laws made by stupid majorities and should accept the higher law which is disclosed by [one’s] conscience as the sole guide and regulator of [one’s] life.” (pp. 19-20)

“…What is twentieth century humanism? It is not a philosophy, though it implies one. It is a point of view. It is an approach to the problem of living. It begins with the assumption, as old as Christianity, that human life is of supreme worth. From this premise follows inevitably the conclusion that [all] must be treated as an end, not as a means. Humankind does not exist to make possible any particular moral or social order. [We] do not live for the purpose of glorifying God or the State. Social institutions exist for [humankind]…But humanism implies more than the mere increase in the lives of [humankind]. It is an effort to enrich human experience. It aims at nothing less than the fullest possible life for every person born into the world. In order that this end may be approached humanism seeks to understand human experience by human inquiry. Its instrument is scientific investigation, for the humanist of the twentieth century cannot depend upon divine revelation. The humanist believes that knowledge will make possible the improvement of the condition of [all],…[and] does not wait for the blind forces of nature to act,…[and]puts…trust in creative human intelligence[,]…[but] does not ignore the determinism which science finds in nature…[and] understands that order in nature sets limits to human possibilities. But [one] does not permit such order to paralyze action. Twentieth century humanism, in essence then, is the faith that [individuals] to a limited degree [are] master[s] of [their] destiny and, being such, [have] a share in the responsibility for [their] fate. In the United States the background of this humanism is the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the nineteenth century religion of humanity.” (p. 374)

Spiritual Evolution

In the past, natural forces have shaped the environment. Now, unless a new round of volcanism erupts worldwide, or a comet courses in from outer space, or the possibility viewed by many of the “second coming,” human activities will govern the destiny of earth’s ecosystem. If humanity fails to seek an accord with nature, controls may be imposed involuntarily by the environment itself. It may soon be within human power to produce the republics of grass and insects that writer Jonathan Schell believed could be the barren legacy of nuclear War.

Is there room for optimism? Yes, but only if one can imagine the people of the year 2050 looking back at the mad spasm of consumption and thoughtless waste in the 20th century as an aberration of the history of human existence on our own earth, our own little island of consciousness somewhere in solar time.

To bring my discussion of conservation ethics a little closer to home I need to refer to a statement made at a recent Wasatch Front forum meeting that had to do with why more wasn’t done in Utah and specifically in the Salt Lake valley to preserve a better quality of environmental life. Utah House Representative Frank Pignanelli stated that “One has to remember that the majority of the Utah legislature, 93% to be exact, believes in the second coming.”

In a Time/CNN poll, over 800 Americans were asked, “Will the Second Coming of Jesus Christ occur sometime in the next 1,000 years?” 53% said Yes, and another 16% thought it highly probable.

Can one not ask the question: “At what point and time can the expectations of religious dogma become a self-destructive behavior to humanity?” Can not an occasional voice of Humanistic reflection, speaking directly, play a greater role in community interaction and individual thinking?

I would like to share with you my own Earth Day spirituality. For the sake of this presentation I wish to emphasize a highly personal, simple statement that I view as support for my own spirituality, deeply felt, that flows from my own experience as a student of the genealogy of life on planet earth. A genealogy of almost four billion years of life. Only in this context can I appreciate the millions of years of the evolution of man’s imagination that gave rise to his dogmas and superstitions. One can almost come to some form of understanding, appreciation, and occasional forgiveness.

We now have evidence in fossils of simple cells, and the mats of sediment that aggregates these cells, that life on earth arose at least 3.5 billion years ago. It has, since then, extended upward in time in unbroken continuity to the present. We can all, quite literally, trace our ancestry from moss to mayfly to walrus.

The tree is an accurate metaphor for life’s history: the origin of each current twig (we humans are one) is found going back through branches ever wider and sturdier to the common trunk of original cells nearly four billion years old. Extinction of a twig is a breach of continuity on this great scale. Of course, from a geological perspective, extinction is inevitable and necessary for maintaining a vigorous tree of life. We may also argue, both in the abstract and for life’s actual history, that an occasional catastrophic episode of mass extinction opens new evolutionary possibilities by freeing ecological space in a crowded world.

But, you may well ask if these geological scales are appropriate for contemplating our own life and its immediate meaning.

Ours is a small twig indeed, but remember that it runs back four billion years to the central trunk itself. Our origin in Africa and our subsequent spread throughout the world form a complex and compelling tale expressing our continuity with the entire history of life. If we extirpate this twig directly by destroying our own ecosystem or lose so many other twigs that our own eventually withers away, then we have canceled forever a most peculiar and different, unplanned experiment generated among the billions of branches—a twig that could discover its own history and at the same time can appreciate its continuity via consciousness. Some of us have never extricated ourselves from the chain of being, and view life’s history as a tale of linear progress leading predictably to the evolution of consciousness.

Some paleontologists and others who are knowledgeable tell us a much different story of the evolutionary life process. Stephen Jay Gould, a noted paleontologist, reaches, in his Reflections in Natural History, quite a different conclusion: “Consciousness is not a linear progression of evolution…Consciousness is a quirky evolutionary accident, a product of one particular lineage that developed most components of intelligence for other evolutionary purposes”.

Through no fault of our own and by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited for such responsibility, but here we are. If we blow it we will permanently rupture a continuity of eons that dwarfs our own puny history to geological insignificance. I cannot imagine anything more vulgar, more hateful, than the prospect that a tiny twig with one peculiar power might decimate a majestic and ancient tree, whose continuity stretches back to the dawn of earth’s time. If this twig is lost through man’s extinction, consciousness may not evolve again in any other lineage during the 5 billion years or so left to our earth before the sun explodes.

Consciousness is the one characteristic we share with our own species. Though other life forms communicate their own self-awareness, the essence of life simply cannot be reduced to a simple fairy tale of presumed supernatural origin.

My own spirituality comes from both knowledge and the gut feeling that this very moment of consciousness is the result of over four billion years of evolution of life on this planet earth. I stand in absolute humbleness of that consciousness and it is this spirituality that I wish to share.

–Ron Healey
Earth Day 1993