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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 35.djvu/316

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

which rests upon it now? Shall we any of ns return into serfdom, because it is proved that our ancestors were emancipated under a delusion or a superstition?

On the other hand, it is when we turn to the present and the future that the rectification of the dogma becomes all-important. The anarchists of to-day have pushed the old dogma of natural liberty to the extremest form of abstract deduction, and they propose to make it a programme of action. They therefore make of it a principle of endless revolution. If, however, the basis on which it once rested is gone, it is impossible that we should hold and use it any more. With our present knowledge of history, we know that no men on earth ever have had liberty in the sense of unrestrainedness of action. The very conception is elusive. It is impossible to reduce it to such form that it could be verified, for the reason that it is non-human, non-earthly. It never could exist on this earth and among these men. The notion of liberty, and of the things to which it pertains, has changed from age to age even in modern history. Never in the history of the world has military service weighed on large bodies of men as it does now on the men of the European continent. It is doubtful if it would ever have been endured. Yet the present victims of it do not appear to consider it inconsistent with liberty. Sumptuary laws about dress would raise a riot in any American State; a prohibitory law would have raised a riot among people who did not directly resist sumptuary laws. A civil officer in France, before the Revolution, who had bought or inherited his office, had a degree of independence and liberty in it which the nineteenth-century official never dreams of. On the contrary, the more this nineteenth-century civil and political liberty is perfected, the more it appears that under it an official has freedom of opinion and independence of action only at the peril of his livelihood.

So far our task has been comparatively easy. It requires only industry to follow out the history of what men have thought about anything. To find out how things have actually taken place in the life of the human race is a task which can never be more than approximately performed, in spite of all our talk about history. To interpret the history is still another task, of a much more difficult character.[1]

Liberty in History and Institutions.—We are blinded by the common use of language to the fact that all social actions are attended by reactions. To take the commonest and often noticed

  1. The Emperor Paul, of Russia, showed what may be done in the interpretation of history. When he heard of the excesses of the French Revolution, he turned to his sons and said, "Now you see that it is necessary to treat men like dogs" (Masson, "Mémoires sur la Russie," 219). It is true that he was crazy, but we all have our personal limitations, which are most important when we undertake interpretation.