In democracy, freedom reigns and citizens pursue the desires of their hearts without fear. Everything that you want, you may pursue. Although you might fall short, pursue you still may. This freedom is not, however, complete. Pursuits of citizens must at some basic level be compatible with each other. Pursuits are not as acceptable that foreclose the possibility of others pursuing theirs. You may not demolish your neighbor’s house because you want the space for a new swimming pool. You may not quit your job and become a stay at home artist if you are the legal guardian of children dependent on your weekly paycheck. Pursuits should avoid harming anyone in their person or property, neighbors or children. Sometimes pursuits must be chosen mindful of future responsibilities still on the horizon. The undergraduate may be pressured to choose a marketable major field of study, in order to quickly begin a career upon graduation. The necessities of social coordination, of inter-generational family and estate maintenance, constrict the free range of the democratic citizen’s endeavors. Setting broad legal boundaries is not enough for freedom to truly reign.
As was true in John Locke’s state of nature, so to in civil society, our freedoms are limited by the judgments of others. The ultimate aspiration of the social compact was not to fully escape the judgment of others under nature’s open sky, but rather to establish a higher authority that would judge impartially, specifically on matters where judgment was to be backed with physical force. All judgment that refrains from a resort to such force remains in place, inside or outside of the social compact. So your neighbor’s house is protected, both by the judgment of this neighbor and all in society who believe in property rights, and the civil authorities. You are deterred with the threat of state punishment, the taking away of your liberty or property, and with shame, which carries the threat of wounded social status and loss of love and friendship.
There are many freedoms that the state recognizes, but for each of these, the judgment of others remains. The desires in the hearts of democratic citizens must expressly conform to the standards of acceptability developed and enforced by other citizens. Some of these standards have little to do with practical concerns such as providing for one’s family. New and faddish things, diets, clothing fashion, music, all operate through, over, and around standards prejudicial to them in favor of the status quo. These matters are secondary to the protection of persons and property, and are enforced differently, lighter and with more thought and creativity. Many pursuits are cut down due to playful teasing, and the anticipation thereof.
Then there is another category of desires which do not quite fit in with matters of either property or fashion. These are the desires for power, superiority, and privilege. Here we find the disruptors, the challengers to the throne, the potential oppressors. Their wish is not for people to get out of the way or to leave them alone, but specifically for others to submit to them, or to be influenced by them. Here are not only would-be kings, but prophets and philosophers, priests and prelates, martyrs and madmen. It may be more prudent to jokingly drive a bulldozer onto your neighbor’s driveway than to call him to obey some god from your own. The judgment by society may be less harsh, its sentencing less severe. Though the former is theatrical and threatening, property disputes are socially normal. Society will relate to you, even seek ways to forgive you the offense. The neighbor might be expected to have a sense of humor, to take a joke. Resolve the matter over a beer. The call to obey the divine, on the other hand, is no threat at all, but a desire to help, to save. Yet this must be done much more carefully before society will determine to relate and forgive. Are you joking? Who do you think you are? Which god do you serve? How do you know? Is this a cult? Where do you work? Do you have a family? Where do you come from? Are you healthy? Are you crazy? When will you stop?
Given the differences in intensity of society’s response and the relative weakness of the average democratic citizen to stand up to it, it is not surprising that we see much more economic competition and experimentation with music and dress than innovations in religious and political forms. Revolutionaries are persecuted. One wonders where the desire comes from to become one – compared to power, superiority, and prestige, there are much safer objects for the heart to pursue. Yet at a certain level, the desire for these things is necessary. Political and religious forms often are—or are on their way to becoming—corrupt, necessitating revolution for the survival of political and moral freedom. But the desire for freedom itself is perhaps not quite enough to inspire the desire to take power from the powers that be. Something more consequential has to be at stake. Existence itself has to be at stake, without which no other desire is possible to serve.
Fear of death thus can be expected to motivate revolutionaries to emerge—risking their lives but only in order to save them. However, leaving freedom in the dark short of existential threats would be to give up freedom altogether. The project of political liberalism from the time of Socrates has been to fight for freedom at all times and under all conditions. The threat of death needed to be understood more broadly present, it needed to be attached to inaction itself. Complicity with injustice needed to more sternly vex one’s hopes for the future. Imperiling action in the name of freedom needed to carry with it safeguards against death by virtue of said action. The possibility of living on, either as a national legend or as a divinely saved immortal soul, needed to be established. Revolutionaries needed the desire for immortality. The fight for political and religious freedom needed the desire for immortality. Political liberalism, the prevailing political philosophy of the West, needed the desire for immortality.
Yet, the desire for immortality remains among scholars a questionable component of Western political philosophy. Arguing for it leaves one facing the questions asked of the prophesier – what god do you serve? Are you crazy? The chilling of revolutionary theorizing remains in effect both inside and outside of the social compact. We shy away from our own revolutionary heritage, what animated it, both in theory and in practice.