Os Guinness issues a call to question ourselves and what we mean by “freedom” and “liberty” in the United States in his book Last Call for Liberty. He argues that the United States must work to restore its faith in the “covenant” of the Constitution and help preserve liberty through its republican system.
Perhaps the most prominent theme throughout the book is that of 1776 vs. 1789. The dates refer to the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Guinness never really delves into defining this alleged conflict, though he does stick with the definition of “classical liberal” vs. “left/liberal.” The pervasiveness of this theme would lead readers to think that there would be some elucidation of the specifics of this distinction, but those readers are left wanting. Guinness simply refers to those dates throughout the book as though readers will just know and agree how horrible the French Revolution was for “liberty” (however defined) and how wonderful and perfect the American Revolution was for liberty. That is supposed to be obvious to anyone reading the book, apparently, because there is no point at which Guinness argues the point. In the introduction, for example, when he first introduces the theme, he writes:
Either the classical liberalism of the republic will prevail and 1776 will defeat 1789, or the Left/liberalism of 1789 will defeat 1776, and the republic will fail and become a republic in name only. (4)
Those are some dire words. Probably they should have some basis in argument, definition, and reality. But readers will never know if this distinction has a reality from the arguments presented in the book, because Guinness blithely assumes readers will go with his argument, despite never actually having made it.
The 1776/89 theme is pervasive throughout the book, and is continually used either as the point of an argument or as a way to hammer opposing views. For example, at one point Guinness states that “There can be no truce between 1776 and 1780. The clash of freedoms has to be settled in favor of one way or another, for they lead in entirely different directions” (179). Readers won’t really have a firm idea of what those directions are beyond 1776 is good and 1789 bad; but beyond that point is the absurdity of the actual statement made. “No truce” between the two can exist? How about the fact that, historically, the United States did, in fact have a truce with the Revolutionaries of 1789 and ultimately even an alliance? Sure, the relationship between the two countries soured to the point of a pseudo war, but it healed again shortly thereafter. Why? Because the United States was more favorably inclined towards a French country that had thrown off its monarchy than other countries that were dedicated to preserving theirs (eg. Britain). I admit I have simplified things historically, but even this analysis provides more historical background to the two years than Guinness does in close to 300 pages of text! Not only that, but Guinness had, at an earlier point, argued that history is the test for different systems to work, citing, of course, the worst possible examples of political systems that are different from a republic in his argument. But if history is the test for truth claims, his absurd claim that there can be no truce between 1776/1789 has been tested and is false.
Much of the rest of the book is filled with vague or explicit notions of American exceptionalism. The United States has the best system because it does, right? For example, only pages after Guinness condemns Athenian democracy for its limits on freedom because it only gave certain men the right to vote and Athens didn’t give in to reasoned arguments against slavery (77-78), he goes on to praise the United States for its own wonderful adherence to liberty. I don’t know whether to be amused by the irony or saddened by the apparent intentional ironing out of history’s wrinkles. After all, the 1776 liberty and freedom-loving republic Guinness wants us to all to hearken back to as the best example itself only allowed certain men the right to vote and endorsed and made laws for slavery. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply conflicted Guinness’s words are with his own thesis throughout the book. Whose liberty and freedom is Guinness really concerned with here? I can’t help but ask the question, because his ignoring of the wrongs of slavery and limited votes in the earliest days of the republic are set alongside nearly worshipful praise of the wisdom of the Founders demands that we ask whose power Guinness is concerned with.
Another major problem with the book is the style of writing Guinness has. At very few points was I able to draw out a thread of an argument. Rather, throughout the work, waxing eloquently is taken in the place of argument. It’s the kind of writing style that will pump up an audience already firmly in agreement with the thesis, but it doesn’t advance the argument or really even state it in any way. Alongside these vague statements that nevertheless provide good quote-mining is the notion that the United States somehow, in 1776, did something akin to making a proper covenant with God by being “under God” in the formation of the nation. I am still not sure I understand Guinness’s point here, but neither do accept fault for not understanding it. Like most other points in the book, this covenant/constitution/under God unity is never explained but merely assumed and orated upon.
Guinness apparently also felt the need to jump on the bandwagon of at least referencing the concept of calling younger people “snowflakes” and restating some of the mockery directed towards those who were upset by results of an election. For a man who literally wrote a book about how we must work to preserve freedom and liberty, it is deeply ironic to read condemnations of people feeling passionately about the results of efforts to do so. Sure, Guinness probably disagrees with how these others are voting, but for him to complain about the passion people felt about elections is asinine. How can Guinness seriously place this complaint having just written a book trying to put forward a passionate cry for liberty? Oh, and don’t forget to blame 1789 for people not conforming to Guiness’s standards of how people should react to elections, as well. Not content to stop with that self-condemning thought, Guinness also equivocates between the notion of political correctness and “newspeak” from the book 1984. It’s not a sick take down of the “Left” (or the Right, really) unless we bring up some of our favorite dystopic novels, right? This equivalency is stunning, because it seems to imply that Guinness actually believes that calls to, say, use accurate language for people groups is the same as literally changing truth to falsehood. Maybe he does believe that, in which case his own position seems much more dangerous to liberty than those he condemns.
Really, the entire book reads like someone who is having to face the fact that his position–that of an elder white male–is no longer valued simply by virtue of being an elder white male. Liberty is easily defined into power for his own position, and this definition is made almost explicit when he, as noted above, praises the United States’ republican system that excluded all non-white people, females, and non-land owners from voting in the glorious year of 1776. It’s hard to take seriously a man who can make such a heartless statement in praise of that system who then turns around and complains about others not liking his viewpoint.
Last Call for Liberty is the kind of alarmist and elitist work that Guinness purports to condemn in the book itself. By aligning himself so closely with the notion that the United States is under (or should be under) some kind of divine mandate and “covenant,” Guinness preaches to the choir of American exceptionalism. By sweeping the faults of our form of “liberty” under the rug, he engages in the very immunization against facts that he criticizes the “left/liberal” of doing. It is at times baffling to see such contradictory sentiments contained in the same book. Unfortunately, I believe that its primary audience will find it as faultless as they find our country.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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Euthyphro’s dilemma is so frequently discussed in philosophy that I don’t see a need to thoroughly present it. The horns, however, are going to be the topic of this post, so I’ll outline them below:
It seems that if God makes commands which create moral duties for humans (and others), then there may only be two options for the theist:
1) We ought to do what God commands because God commands it (and thus he could have commanded any random thing to be dutiful–i.e. torturing cute rabbits)
2) God commands us to do things because they are what we ought to do (and therefore there is some standard to which even God answers–see Richard Swinburne’s Revelation for an interesting description of a potential way around this problem)
If these are the only two options, it seems as though theists are in an uncomfortable position indeed! Normally, most theists would attack one of the horns of the dilemma or hit between the horns and find a way out. The late William Alston, however, ingeniously argues in Divine Nature and Human Language that the theist can accept both horns of the dilemma, albeit with some interpretation (DNHL 255).
The most important part of Alston’s solution is to assume that God is perfectly good essentially, that is, necessarily, God is perfectly good (257). In other words, God cannot perform a morally imperfect action. Alston makes no argument for this position, though I think that Stephen Parrish argues this rather well in God and Necessity. Regardless, I’m going to follow Alston’s assumption for the presentation of his argument, for now ignoring the potential problems with removing libertarian free will from God.
If it is the case that God is essentially perfectly good, then moral “oughtness” words such as “required”, “forbidden”, “duty”, etc. do not apply to God. This is because these terms “apply to a being only if that being has a choice between doing or failing to do what it ought to do” (257). But if God cannot fail to do good, then His own nature “prevents him from acting freely in a way that is required for moral obligation… it is metaphysically impossible that God should do anything that is less than supremely good” (257). But then this means that horn 1 of the dilemma serves as no problem–God can not order things which would be arbitrarily evil, but it also means horn 2 is no problem either–God is not restricted by any “ought” statements.
Further, implicit in the dilemma is the idea that some form of Platonism is correct, that is, there are some objective morals as ideas somewhere. But again the theist can adapt this to theism and say that instead of some morals that just exist of necessity on their own (though again see Swinburne, Revelation for a defense of this very idea of theistic morality), God Himself is the “supreme standard of goodness. God plays the role in evaluation that is… assigned… to Platonic Ideas or principles” (268). Moral obligations are what we ought to do (horn 2 of the dilemma) because they are features of God (269).
Therefore, by accepting that God is essentially perfectly good, and further supposing that God Himself is the standard for goodness, the theist can accept the horns of the dilemma while arguing that they don’t really serve as objections to theism as classically supposed. God, having no “ought” statements apply to him, cannot be the subject of 2), while his very existence as essentially perfectly good means that 1) cannot apply to him either.
Alston, William P. Divine Nature and Human Language. Cornell University Press. 1989.
Parrish, Stephen. God and Necessity. University Press of America. 2001.
Swinburne, Richard. Revelation. Oxford University Press. 2007.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.