‘Like a precious family heirloom, freedom is not just ours to enjoy, but to treasure, protect, and pass on to future generations,” says Os Guinness in an interview with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. Guinness, great grandson of that famous Dublin brewer, has recently written a book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. Here, the social critic helps remind us of what’s special about the United States.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What concerns you about freedom in the United States as you watch us right before a presidential election?
OS GUINNESS: I am a longtime admirer of the U.S. and its enormous significance for the world. But as your presidential elections have become more and more of grand popularity contest, dominated by money to an obscene degree, they have less and less to say about the real “state of the Union.” One of the recent conventions, for example, was well described as “more Pat Boone than Winston Churchill.” The present condition of American freedom is only one of many themes that are conspicuous by their absence in this election.
LOPEZ: “Suicide,” in the title of your new book, is a bit strong, isn’t it?
GUINNESS: The title comes from Abraham Lincoln: “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” On the one hand, he was referring to the open-ended challenge of what George Washington earlier called “the great experiment” — and experiments are always open-ended. On the other hand, he was echoing a point made by many historians: Strong free peoples bring themselves down. It won’t be the Nazis, the Soviets, or Islamic extremists who bring America down, but Americans and American ideas.
LOPEZ: From an outsider’s perspective, are you saying, “Who do you Americans think you are”? Do you think we overestimate our importance in the world?
GUINNESS: I would caution against the tone of hubris that is so common in American rhetoric, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 — hubris being not only overweening pride but also the illusion of invulnerability. References to “American exceptionalism,” the “second American century,” and the like roll off the tongue easily and send patriotic shivers down the spines of American audiences. But when they are used as a litmus test of patriotism, they inoculate Americans against thinking seriously about the real health of the Republic and America’s true standing in the world in the global era.
LOPEZ: “Freedom must be guarded vigilantly against internal as well as external dangers,” you say. How can we do this?
GUINNESS: Awareness of domestic dangers was a characteristic emphasis of the Founders, and they learned it from their reading of classical writers, such as the Greek historian Polybius and the great Roman orator Cicero. Curiously, the Founders actually downplayed the danger of external enemies and emphasized the menace of internal enemies, such as Polybius’s notion of “the corruption of customs.” The present generation of Americans, on the other hand, has done the opposite, and so concentrated on external menaces (Homeland Security, and so on) that it has almost completely ignored internal dangers. In the long run, the internal dangers will prove the more important.
LOPEZ: How is freedom the greatest enemy of freedom?
GUINNESS: The rewards of freedom are always sweet, but its demands are stern, for at its heart is the paradox that the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom. There are several reasons for this, but the deepest concerns a simple moral fact: True freedom requires ordering, and the only ordering appropriate to freedom is self-restraint, yet self-restraint is precisely what freedom invariably undermines when it flourishes. So the most common way to lose freedom is to allow it to slide down into permissiveness and then license.
LOPEZ: What do mean when you say that freedom could prove to be “America’s idol”?
GUINNESS: By “idol,” I mean the Jewish and Christian understanding of the term as something of great human importance and value that is elevated into being a supreme ground of trust and then an object of devotion, when it should not be asked to bear that weight and it will always disappoint its devotees. Freedom is often idolized like that in the U.S., as if it were supreme, self-evident, and self-sustaining. I refuse to take part, for example, when Americans sing the hymn about freedom’s “holy light.” I have lived under totalitarian Communism, so I prize freedom as much as anyone and have long fought for freedom of conscience and speech. But freedom must be understood and guarded with great realism, and we must never forget its limits and its duties.
LOPEZ: What is “sustainable freedom”? It sounds as if it might have something to do with green jobs.
GUINNESS: “Sustainability” is a vogue term today. People talk about sustainable pretty well everything — sustainable development, sustainable capitalism, sustainable environments — but curiously no one talks about sustainable freedom. The American Founders, in contrast, knew that they faced three tasks in establishing this great Republic: winning freedom (the Revolution), ordering freedom (the Constitution), and sustaining freedom (or “perpetuating our institutions,” as they put it). Needless to say, the third task is ours today, but I have only ever heard one American (John Gardner), and not a single national American leader, address the need to renew freedom in every generation. That is amazing because the Founders’ view of how to sustain freedom is probably the most brilliant and audacious proposal the world has known, but at the very moment they most need it, modern Americans ignore it.
LOPEZ: What do you mean by the “golden triangle of freedom?”
GUINNESS: “The golden triangle of freedom” is my term for the means by which the Founders believed they could create a free society that could stay free forever — which, if you think about it, was and is an extraordinarily daring idea. Alexis de Tocqueville called it “the habits of the heart,” but the Founders themselves never gave it a name. It runs like this: Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith of some sort, and faith of any sort requires freedom — which in turn requires virtue, and so on ad infinitum. From orthodox and conservative Christians such as George Mason right across to deists and freethinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, there was virtual unanimity over this emphasis. But it nearly goes without saying that all three legs of the triangle are either contested or openly dismissed today. But if the Founders’ system is abandoned, what will go in its place? I have never heard anyone give a moment’s thought to that question.