But what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,
And by thir vices brought to servitude,
Then to love Bondage more then Liberty,
Bondage with ease then strenuous liberty;
And to despise, or envy, or suspect
Whom God hath of his special Favour rais’d
As thir Deliverer; if he aught begin,
How frequent to desert him, and at last
To heap ingratitude on worthiest deeds?
-Milton, Samson Agonistes, ll 269-276
Samson Agonistes is Milton’s presentation of the final day of Samson as a tragedy (i.e. the day when he pulled the temple of Dagon down on the Philistines in the style of a tragedy by Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides). Among the themes explored in this tragedy are liberty, self-control, and obedience to God. They are contrasted with human weakness for the sensual and its concomitant slavery, as well as the folly of disobedience to the revealed will of God.
Liberty has been an important theme this year. The appointment of Justice Kavanaugh was about restoring the liberty enshrined in the constitution and declaring that the pretended liberty of abortion is a sham. No one has the right to kill another human being for personal reasons. In the midterms, Americans contended for two different visions of America: on the one hand, the diminution of the state as espoused by conservatives and libertarians; on the other, the increasing encroachment of the state upon our personal freedoms and privacy. In the United Kingdom, we saw continued tensions over the implementation of Brexit, and the question of the UK’s freedom from EU control thereafter.
Liberty, at its core, is an arena in which rationalists and transcendentalists contend against empiricists. The empiricists who believe liberty should be preserved are at war with themselves, whether they realise it or not. Liberty as a universal value that should bind humanity (if one will pardon the apparent paradox) cannot be derived from experience. If, which is neither admitted nor denied, experience tells man that he has liberty, it does not tell him that he should maintain liberty for himself and his neighbour.
This is the paradox of liberty as espoused by God-fearers. Liberty as a gift from God to mankind carries a restriction, an obligation. Unlike the hurly burly of a godless universe, in which one man, to maximise his liberty, restrains that of his neighbour, the God-fearing account of liberty tells each man to restrain himself in order to allow his neighbour to exercise the freedom that is his own particular gift.
This virtuous self-restraint makes an appearance in the question of abortion, which seems an appropriate topic following the Feast of the Holy Innocents. In destroying a child in the womb, one is depriving it of its freedom to live and, in living, to exercise all the other freedoms accorded to a human being as it experiences what the world has to offer. While it is admitted that humans do lawfully constrain the freedom of other humans through imprisonment, financial penalties, and death in war and execution, these are justified on the basis of justice and protection. These justifications are not available in the case of abortion: the child is too young to have incurred moral blame for any threat, real or imagined, that it purportedly poses to its mother and her wider circle of family and acquaintances.
Liberty, being a necessary condition of moral action, therefore attracts praise and blame when moral actions are performed. A person who freely chooses to destroy the life of an unborn child has transgressed. The court to which such a case pertains is not the court of experience: whether one feels good or bad about the matter is not the point. It is God, in and beyond our physical world, who sees and judges such an act.
As we head into 2019, mindful of the challenges it brings, contending for our ancient liberties, we can remember that our liberties bring us into moral choices on a daily basis. Being free in law is not the whole story. Our lives are open to God, who knows the thoughts of our hearts. If doing the right thing is illegal, that will not provide us with an excuse when, on Judgment Day, Christ asks us if we denied or confessed Him. Correlatively, should the wrong thing prove lawful according to man’s laws, that will not exonerate our acts deemed wrongful by Heaven’s court. The abortionists have been warned.