Independence Day

 In contemplating our republic on Independence Day, I recalled (albeit vaguely) a passage in Plato’s Republic written roughly 2,400 years ago in which he voiced his idea that freedom is an existential threat to democracy:

Socrates: In such a state, the anarchy grows and finds a way into private houses…  The father gets accustomed to descend to the level of his sons … and the son to be on a level with his father, having no fear of his parents and no shame…  The master fears and flatters his scholars and the scholars despise their masters and tutors…  Nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other…  All things are just ready to burst with liberty.

Adeimantus: But what is the next step?

Soc: The excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction… The excess of liberty, whether in states or individuals, seems only to pass into slavery … and the most aggravated form of tyranny arises out of the most extreme form of liberty.

Of course, like all utopian fascists, Plato distrusted - and probably misunderstood - the concept of freedom.  He often seems unclear on the distinction between it and anarchy.  And so it’s no surprise to find him taxing free people with the depredations of the dictator who, at least in his Republic, follows.  Still, it’s easy to hear echoes of Plato in the cacophony of today’s United States. 

Freedom from state power is mostly a good thing, but have we extended the concept beyond the state to freedom from each other, from institutions, customs, mores?  Bonds between husband and wife are broken with the stroke of a pen; those between parents and children snap almost as easily.  Our connections to religious institutions are as tenuous as dust in the wind.  We walk away from employers in an instant; they push us out as easily.  What once were communities are now gated against the Other and we may not even know the names of the people across the fence.  Our culture, history, traditions, philosophy are little known and less respected.  Anything that’s not on a 2”x2” screen is deemed a waste of time; more than 240 characters are too many to read.  We’re coming unstrung, disconnected from everything that once gave us a sense of wholeness, coherence, purpose.

Somewhere Plato wears a wry smile.

Perhaps he’s right.  For more than three decades, I’ve thought that the end of the American experiment would come as some form of dictatorship.  Our 240+-year history as a country has been an almost unbroken climb to ever-greater world prominence, power and authority.  When that ends – and who alive doesn’t see a hundred harbingers of exactly that? – how will it do so?  The collapse of the currency and its cataclysmic impacts on the American economy that no president or Congress will be able to ameliorate?  The shock to our sense of ourselves as unique in the world and in history, uniquely favored, uniquely entitled, uniquely outside of the history that sweeps all others along will be followed by… what?  A military that dissolves Congress and rules by decree?

Think it can’t happen here?  It can.  It may.

And yet…

As much as things fall apart, as much as the gyre widens, apparently beyond our control, what the headlines miss is the great body of Americans who simply get on with their lives, who do the everyday work of making a country, an economy, a culture function and who do so, for the most part, with dignity, respect and even kindness.  They don’t make the news because they’re not news; they’re never news because they’re always simply there getting on with life.  They’re there when the hurricane floods your city and the tornado destroys your town.  But they’re also there when the cashier at the supermarket is especially pleasant and the stockboy leads you to where your item is located and the tall man gets something down from a high shelf for the short woman.

They aren’t the ones separating us into armed camps.  Listen to George Eliot describe one such person in the final paragraph of her masterpiece, Middlemarch:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible.  Her full nature… spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth.  But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

So many do so today.  

And what of the freedom that Plato so loathed and feared?  Right now, Mayra Flores, a first-generation American, whose parents came from Mexico and who grew up poor picking cotton at the age of 13 in the Texas panhandle, has just taken her seat in the U.S. Congress.  Every speech she makes begins with “Soy el sueño americano.”  I am the American dream.  Indeed she is the dream of many Americans and countless more not yet among us. 

Then there’s this from an immigrant to the U.S. from rural China writing at Common Sense:

Where I come from, much of your biography was already written by the time you entered the world…

It’s far from perfect, but here, more than where I was born and probably more than anywhere else, we write our own biographies. In deciding to become American, I’m getting to decide much more.  

Those of us who’ve spent our lives here often forget the extent to which we hold that most vital and most modest of freedoms - to write our own biographies, whether for good or ill.  Plato may not have anticipated the power of the magnet that draws millions of people to our shores every year and always has - that elemental desire to be free (from republics like the one he imagined) to make one’s own way.  He may not have grasped the resilience, in the face of conflict and catastrophe, that a nation of such people can bring forth.

However much the few may be intent on destroying this country and what it stands for, however much they may seek discord, the turning of neighbor against neighbor, they haven’t yet succeeded and the rest of us still anchor this country to reality and to our best traditions and selves.

 

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