Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The First Libertarian

On a recent evening, I found myself digging around online for some baseline data on the term "libertarian."  It was probably because of a bit of sermon research that had involved Ron Swanson, America's Favorite Libertarian (tm).  As is often the case with sermon prep, I found myself swirling down a wild rabbit hole of concepts and ideas.

My interest, entirely unrelated to anything resembling the sermon that needed to be written: finding the root of the term libertarian.  Where had it come from?  What was its original meaning?  Given my preference not to wander far from theology in my preaching, I needed to do that on my own nickel.

Like most net-denizens, that meant starting out hitting wikipedia, where I learned that our conflation of "libertarian" with what amounts to a peculiar anarcho-capitalism is a more recent phenomenon.

The term first entered into broad usage to describe a particular flavor of communist.  The word "libertarian" in the late 19th century was primarily used to describe continental anarcho-syndicalism.  Or, if that term isn't exactly ringing a bell, it means the folks who trusted neither state nor big business, and who felt that a blend of radical personal freedom and voluntary association was the only way for a society to go.  

Still and all, it's a bit funny to know that the American conservatism of today not only uses a term that was a vital part of primal Marxism, but uses it in pretty much the same way the early Marxists used it.  This wasn't surprising.  If you've ever read any Trotsky...particularly where he talks about the curse of bureaucracy, or the need for every citizen to have access to guns...you know that there are some weird resonances between the very very far left and the very very far right.

But the first use of the term, as deep back as our wiki-brain could find it, was in a collection of essays by obscure British Enlightenment-era philosopher William Belsham.  Here, a big thank you to Google books.  Lord, but this one would have been hard to find twenty years ago.  But there it was, scanned and ready and part of our collective subconscious.    So of course, to that essay I went, looking to stand in encounter with the very first libertarian.

Which, after a few minutes of reading Belsham, I realized I wasn't.  It took a little bit, because the structure of Belsham's essay wasn't exactly immediately accessible.  To be fuceffful in furveying philofophical effays of that era requires getting past a different way of thinking and using language...and writing the letter "S."  I still can't read original texts of that era without imagining they faid ftuff like thif back in the Fixteenth and Feventeeth Fentury, which actually makes it a little more fun.

What became clear, though, was that the term was coined as an insult.  Belsham, very much a creature of his day, was using the essay to snipe at those who stood in opposition to the hard determinism of the Enlightenment era.  Divine providence and design were the nature of things, as established by the Necessitarians.  Necessitarians,  Belsham argued, understood that Divine Providence was immutable and as set as Manifest Destiny.

In the face of the insight of the greatest philosophers of the day, there were fools who suggested that the Deity was not in charge of every last instant.  Their insistence that we were free beings, able to make meaningful choices that did not hew to a single preordained order of being?  Absurd, and an insult to both reason and the clear design that could be found in the unchanging deterministic will of God and God's Providence.

To those fools, whose arguments against determinism were so absurd that they barely merited a response, Belsham gave a name.


So in what I thought were my wanderings away from theology, I found myself right back in the thick of it.

Funny, how often that happens.