The Moral Habits of Liberty

Michael Novak resolves to be free in the new year.

To seek the true reality while everyone around you is applauding what many know to be false is to act as a grown woman or man. It is to show a mind that distinguishes reality from the prevailing prejudices of the age. In fact, a mind committed to finding reality—despite surrounding unreality—is the only free mind.

This is what Thomas Jefferson was suggesting in his classic argument for the Statute of Religious Liberty in Virginia:

Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds, that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his Supreme will that free it shall remain, by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint: That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.

The creator so made us that only one thing would oblige us to bend our knee: the evidence grasped by our own minds. This is what Jefferson (and other founders) meant by truth: what the evidence of our own minds enables us to embrace.

As Jonah Goldberg wrote right after the election, the task right now is not to save the Republican party, but to save the basic instruments of liberty: free speech, the secret ballot, etc. And, more fundamentally, as Novak writes:

Without widespread commitment to the moral habits that make liberty and truth more than words on paper, it is hard to see how a republic can long endure. Our rights are not protected by words on a paper. They are protected by habits that exhibit respect for truth and a love for self-mastery. If I may again paraphrase George Orwell: In an age of deceit, seeking truth is a liberating act.