Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité: 225 Years of an Unchanging Left

Plus ça change, say the French, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is certainly true of revolutionary rhetoric: 225 years after the French Revolution, the demands of the Left can still be summed up in the three words of the Jacobin slogan -- liberté, égalité, fraternité. Not only do those words sum up the Left, they provide a vivid contrast between the values of a civil society based on biblical morality and the Left’s skewed views.

Liberté: Thomas Jefferson saw “liberty” as one of the fundamental, natural-law rights of man, enshrined alongside “life” and the “pursuit of happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was later designed to preserve and protect natural rights.

Yet “liberty” does not mean freedom from discipline or restraint. John Adams declared of the American Constitution that it was fit only for a “moral and religious people.”

This principle derives from the biblical morality common both to Judaism and Christianity, but it is perhaps best encapsulated in the Oral Torah, the living, beating heart of Jewish teaching and practice. The mishna teaches us: “The Torah says, ‘The Tablets were the work of G-d and the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved (haruth) upon the Tablets’; read not haruth but heruth (“freedom”), for none can be considered free except one who occupies himself with the study of Torah” (AvothVI,2). Only people who are self-disciplined and self-restrained, who recognize a higher authority than any government of men, can be considered truly free to exercise their G-d-given talents and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness.

Contrast this with the Leftist view of liberty, which is “license”: “freedom” from all moral constraints without heed for the consequences to society at large. Freedom, indeed, from all responsibilities or duties to oneself or others. The State knows best, the State will take care of all your needs, and -- by definition -- if the State does not provide it, you don’t need it.

Egalité: “All men,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “are created equal.” As every elementary school student will point out, this does not mean that all men have equal abilities, equal circumstances, or equal opportunities; I have been known to play the piano, but no one would confuse me with Arthur Rubinstein or Oscar Peterson.

Rather, what Jefferson and his fellows meant was that all people should be equal before the law, and that no one should be above the law. This too is a biblical principle, as evident from Exodus XII, 39: “There will be one Torah for the native-born citizen and for the convert who dwells amongst you” (the Hebrew word gér, used in this verse, refers to a foreign-born convert, i.e., a “naturalized” citizen; cf. Mëchilta on this verse). The kings of Israel were explicitly not supposed to be above the law (cf. Deuteronomy XVII,14-20) and were personally obligated to write their own copy of the written Torah for their own study and personal reference (ibid., and Sanhedrin 21b).

Contrast this with the view of the Left, who conceive “equality” in terms of equality of results and outcomes.