Friday, March 02, 2007



The definition of liberty was well accepted, I think by Tories and Whigs, on the continent as well, and we find, perhaps our best definition today, in terms of the harmonizing sentiments of Jefferson today, in Cato’s Letters. These were a series of newspaper articles, written in the first part of the eighteenth century, ( published between 1720 and 1723), by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon and they became one of the foundations, the staples of the literature of liberty, when one of the early firebrands of the revolution, Josiah Quincy died, he left his letters of Cato, as they were called, to his son with the admonition, “May the spirit of liberty be upon you”. And these letters, Cato’s letters, as they are called, named after the great Roman patriot, who defied Caesar, defined liberty as the right to live as you choose, as long, as you harm no one else. It is freedom to live your life to enjoy the fruits of your property, to do what you know to be right and without being obliged to do something you know to be wrong. So upon this concept of freedom, I think we would be generally agreed of life and liberty, and freedom to live as you choose. But Cato’s letter and I think Jefferson, as well, go on to add to this. For Cato’s Letters, it is a fundamental denial of freedom to be restricted in your actions, when you do something that harms no one else.

So we wonder how an eighteenth century Whig, the authors of Cato’s Letters or Jefferson himself, might respond to laws about second hand smoking, or the demand that we wear seatbelts. Are we really harming others? In fact, in an effort to reduce the idea of government intervention to an absurdity, Cato’s Letters say, “What if we went to the extreme of having every person looked after by a national college of physicians, now that would be true lunacy. The idea that it’s the government’s Prerogative and need to take care of people’s health, surely that must be the individuals decision.”2

But we have moved very far from those notions, very far from Jefferson’s concept of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When we looked at the Declaration of Independence, we saw how the concept, pursuit of happiness was chosen pacifically by Jefferson, not property, but the pursuit of happiness. The mandate that we finalize, that are a benefit to ourselves and the community. Natural law is also founded on an ideal of universal truths and absolutes, absolute right and wrong, absolute justice.

These are concepts we no longer accept as society . As a society, we believe that actions and values and what is right and wrong is determined by the circumstances, that there are no absolutes. So it challenges the very concepts of natural law, in fact, it denies the essence of natural law. To speak of the law itself, for the great jurist Blackstone, "natural law was expressed through the common law, no law could become a true law if it violated reason, justice or common sense". But, to us as a society, the law is not a set of absolutes, but a set of tricks. And yet, it was in the diverse, multicultural empire of Rome, with many sects of religion, philosophies and ideas, that natural law based on absolute truths, that provided the binding nexus, and that set of shared values essential to the survival of a free nation. And natural law offers that same challenge today, if we have the courage to grasp it.