“Liberty, next to religion has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed at Athens, 2,460 years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race. It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization; and scarcely a century has passed since nations, that knew the meaning of the term, resolved to be free. In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food. During long intervals it has been utterly arrested, when nations were being rescued from barbarism and from the grasp of strangers, and when the perpetual struggle for existence, depriving men of all interest and understanding in politics, has made them eager to sell their birthright for a pottage, and ignorant of the treasure they resigned. At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just ground of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty.”—English historian Lord John Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg) (1834-1902), “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” delivered to the members of the Bridgnorth Institute, Feb. 26, 1877
Lord Acton is better known for the aphorism, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but this passage, though not as pithy, is equally resonant for our age. Its warning about the fragility of freedom, issued during a 19th century still dominated by monarchs, gained additional relevance during the rise of dictators in the 20th century.
Sadly, it remains all too applicable in the 21st century, as economic unrest provides—to use Acton’s initial farming metaphor—all too fertile soil for the rise of demagogues, even in what was called (perhaps too optimistically) “the Free World” in the Cold War. First, those demagogues used covert means to secure power; now, they act openly, brazenly to retain it.
Just as they work every day to subvert freedom, they must be resisted every day to maintain it.
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