January 14, 2019

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the world is divided between three warring superstates: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Each is governed by a totalitarian ideology: ‘IngSoc’ (English Socialism) in the case of Oceania and ‘Neo-Bolshevism’ in the case of Eurasia. Orwell tells us that the third ideology, that of Eastasia, is “called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-worship, but perhaps better rendered as ‘Obliteration of the Self’”.

Those chilling words, the obliteration of the self, have stayed with me ever since I first read them as a teenager. They also came to mind when I read an essay by Graham Tomlin for Prospect magazine. Tomlin is an Anglican theologian and bishop. Not one to duck a challenge, he presents an argument against John Stuart Mill – specifically the Victorian philosopher’s influence on “our contemporary ideas of freedom”.

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This is how Tomlin sums up those ideas:

“It is never justifiable to interfere with another person’s freedom to ensure their happiness, wisdom or well-being because that is to determine what that person’s well-being is. Freedom is defined as liberty of conscience, thought, feeling and opinion, as ‘liberty of tastes and pursuits … doing as we like … without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them’.”

Liberals of Left and Right may differ among themselves as to how big a role the state should play in facilitating our freedom, but that’s a disagreement about means not ends.

Tomlin reminds us of “another, older view of freedom”:

“Found in classical literature, this version sees liberty not as freedom from the limitations and social expectations that stop us following our self-chosen desires, but freedom from the ‘passions’.”

Drawing upon both the classical and the Christian traditions, Tomlin’s definition of freedom is in sharp contrast to Mill’s:

“True liberty is, therefore, freedom from internal urges such as greed, laziness or pride that turn us in upon ourselves rather than outwards towards God and each other… It is not so much freedom for ourselves, but freedom from ourselves: freedom from self-centred desires, or the crippling self-absorption that makes us think only of our own interests. It is freedom to create the kind of society where we are more concerned with our neighbours’ well-being than our own.”

In the Gospels, Jesus is asked “who is my neighbour?” Tomlin argues that Mill’s philosophy implies the following answer: “[my neighbour is] at best a limitation; at worst a threat to my freedom.” In Tomlin’s view of freedom, however, “my neighbour becomes… a gift – someone without whom I cannot become someone capable of the primary virtue of love.”

The Bishop presents a powerful challenge, not just to Mill, but also to the way we live our lives today. On the whole I agree with it – and yet Orwell’s words continue to nag away at me.

Some years ago I had a conversation with a Baptist minister, who politely challenged my conservative politics (which were rather more ‘big C’ in those days than they are now). In his view, conservatism was pretty much the same thing as individualism, and therefore clearly a bad thing. 

And yet, if one believes in God, and that He made us, then the fundamental unit of that creation isn’t some collective entity, but the individual. Only the person has a soul – not nations, or classes, or communities, or even families – only the self. That doesn’t mean that selfishness is good or that we should live in isolation from others; but selfhood must be good (though sadly corruptible) because that is how God made us – and in His own image too! It follows that any concept of the obliteration of the self must be evil, because it seeks to destroy the pinnacle of God’s creation.

I’m not at all suggesting that Graham Tomlin seeks such a goal, but at some points the language he uses – “not so much freedom for ourselves, but freedom from ourselves” – strays too close to obliterationism.

I also worry about the political implications of defining true freedom as the “freedom to create the kind of society where we are more concerned with our neighbours’ well-being than our own”. The historical precedents for societies of this kind are not encouraging.

Tomlin makes it clear that the kind of society he has is mind in one of mutual aid, not a ‘human hive’ in which individuals count for nothing and can be sacrificed in the interests of the all-important collective. However, that still leaves the problem of the extent to which mutual aid ought to be enforced.

Contemporary western society, for all its individualism, is highly cooperative. Never in human history has so much wealth been transferred from the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick, the lucky to the unlucky. Furthermore, most of this is compulsory (try not paying your taxes and see what happens to you). Tomlin’s account of freedom can be used as a justification for such compulsion, but it does not tell us why it shouldn’t go much, much further. Why, for instance, should we not raise tax rates to 100% or insist that everyone is paid the same or ban people from buying things that they want but don’t need?

All the good reasons are to be found in the Christian tradition (from which liberalism is ultimately derived): we are created not only as individuals, but as free-willed individuals – whose dignity depends in part on being able to exercise that free-will.

Graham Tomlin is absolutely right in seeking a clear distinction between an authentic Christian worldview and liberal individualism, but at a time when the political extremes are mobilising, drawing a line against illiberal collectivism is even more important.