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How the idea of liberty became Liberalism

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 23 July 2020

The idea of human liberty stems from the creation stories in the Hebrew Scriptures that tell us that human beings were created in the image of God. Hence any trespass on the person is a trespass on God. While these stories are entirely mythological, they point to truths that are willingly affirmed in the modern age, as the language of human rights has demonstrated. It must be granted, therefore that these ancient texts were the distant seeds from which grew the great upheaval in the West in the name of freedom, sparked by the French Philosophes and brought into action during the American War of Independence and spread on the continent in the age of revolution.

The idea of liberty has been at the centre of the creation of the modern world and we still decry those countries that are intent on closely controlling their populations. However, liberty became Liberalism, a more slippery animal. It did so with the help of three influences and in the process lost its connections with the Christian understanding of grace and charity.

The germ of this transformation lay in the early English scientists; Boyle, Hook and Newton who all fancied themselves as theologians and understood that when they defined the laws of nature, they were looking on the work of God. Thus, God intended the relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas (Boyle), the relations between the force needed to compress or expand a spring (Hooke) or that in physical objects, force is equal to the mass times acceleration (Newton). Much of the excitement of the time was that humanity could now state the intention of God in mathematics. The book of Scripture now had a rival. God could also be revealed in the book of nature.


This realization laid the ground for other phenomena to be understood as the will of God. In the eighteenth century the Darwin's theory of evolution, Malthus' observations concerning the waxing and waning of populations and the mechanisms of the free market were thought to be woven into the fabric of reality ie were part of God's plan for the universe.

Darwin's theory was subverted by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who coined the phrase "the survival of the fittest" and laid the foundation for social Darwinism. If it was the will of God that only the fittest should survive, then any attempt at ameliorating the plight of the poor would count as an act of subversion of that will. Likewise, if the rise and fall of populations was a natural phenomenon, also willed by God, then the thousands of starving Irishmen during the potato famine could be ignored even while food was being exported to England. Besides, any such help would disrupt the iron-clad laws of the market and bring all things into ruin.

The scientific and economic revolution thus spawned a disastrous connection between nature and the will of God in which the medieval ideal of Christian community, in which all had their place, and all were cared for, was demolished. Loving community was replaced by a Hobbesian war of all against all. Of course, nobody would want to return to medieval times of barons and serfs. However, particularly before the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, this was a society in which the poor were cared for according to the ethos of Christ. The enclosures of common land, in the name of improvement and the displacement of cottage industry by large scale factories destroyed a social fabric and alienated the producers from their product and its worth, as Marx noted. This alienation set the stage for a new kind of poverty in which men and women could not rely on their own labour for subsistence because they relied on employment by others.

This situation was worsened by evangelical morality that blamed the poor for being poor. Spencer regarded unemployment and poverty as "the normal result of misconduct." To be poor was now to be morally reprehensible and punishment was taken out against them in the dreaded workhouses from which few escaped. Government felt that it could not interfere with the for-ordained natural mechanisms of evolution, population and the market, and social degradation threatened to destroy the fabric of society as Dickens aptly illustrated in his novels. Victorian England, despite its heroes, was a place of desperation for the lower classes.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote "In God's Grandeur":

"And all is seared with trade; bleared, and smeared with toil;


And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell:"

Enlightenment thought celebrated the self-reliance of human beings; their ability to choose hard work and self-improvement. Emmerson's "Essay on Self Reliance" is an example of the promotion of humanity as the self-created individual; "It is only as a man puts off from himself all external support and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail." There is a new anthropology here that celebrates individualism over community. It also closes the chasm between God and His creature with the result that the creature is deified. God's do not fall on hard times.

This synthesis became what we know today as Liberalism. Evangelical moralising, the pseudo-scientific use of both Darwin and Malthus and the perceived inviolability of the market, condemned whole populations to starvation and the poor house. The dire plight of the English working class was demonstrated during conscription at the start of the WWI when forty percent of men were found unfit due to the diseases of poverty.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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