Updated: Sep 20, 2020
Gregor, A. J. (1968). Pp 137-139 Contemporary radical ideologies; totalitarian thought in the twentieth century. New York: Random House.
According to Gentile indefeasible difficulties beset liberal political philosophy because the state and society are conceived as somehow antagonistic to the “self” or “true individuality” of man. Thomas Paine and Jeremy Bentham, as cases in point contended that every law was an evil and government a necessary evil because they conceived of law as a constraint on liberty and every constraint on liberty as a moral infraction. Under this interpretation “liberty” means nothing more than the absence of constraint. The definition entails a recommendation to so conceive liberty and, consequently, to assess law as a constraint on freedom. In this conception the absence of law is understood to afford the maximum formal occasions for freedom to act. According to Locke, for example, the complete absence of law would leave men in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit.”
Gentile, in criticism, pointed out that these liberal theorists go on to argue that a certain minimum of this antagonistic constraint is the sine qua non of the full development of freedom, without which human life is at best “nasty, brutish and short.” According to the contractualist thesis, when the “free individual” enters society, he is compelled to surrender some measure of his liberty to secure elementary rights. The issue, Gentile maintained, is whether there is any effective liberty without the security of elementary rights. Without freedom from violence, plundered death, without freedom from circumstances that render each the enemy of all, is it all meaningful to speak of freedom of liberty? Outside of society the putative “natural freedoms” of individuals to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit has very little real significance.
We are faced, Gentile contended, with a singular circumstance. Liberty (made significant by the acquisition of essential elementary rights) is enhanced, as it were, by subtraction, which suggests that liberty is not all of a piece like a bolt of cloth, but rather more like a plant that flourishes only with judicious pruning. If the analogy is appropriate, the pruning could hardly be conceived as destructive of liberty. Restraints that foster the increased effective freedom of the individual by insulating him from arbitrary and unpredictable violence and hindrance, by affording him certain securities, cannot seriously be deprecated as antagonistic to liberty. The paradox, Gentile suggests, arises out of the mistaken liberal conception that the claims of “other” upon the “self” are destructive of the individual’s liberty and the neglect of the alternative thesis that the recognition of mutual claims enhances rather than diminishes the effective opportunity for life, and development of individual freedom.
According to Gentile, the notion that man exists in perfect freedom anterior or exterior to society is simply a fiction. Actually, insofar as man is outside the organization of society with its system of reciprocated rules and obligations, he has no significant freedom. Outside of society man would be the subject of nature, not its master. He would be the enemy of all and friend of none. He would be threatened by persons and things alike. His would be a state of abject dependence. There would be no freedom, no security, no assurance to barter away in part upon entering society, in order to secure the remainder, is an imaginary possession, conveyed to society by an imaginary transfer.
Gentile objected that such a notion could arise only if the “individual” is conceived in a wholly abstract manner. This abstract individual is not nourished and fostered by the rule governed relations and obligations arising in society: he is ensconced in the recesses of an innermost particular self a self that must be protected from a threatening particular self, a will that must be protected from a threatening external natural and social world. The only possible outcome of this conviction was the kind of speculative and pious anarchism that characterized nineteenth century liberal thought. The egocentric recluse Henry Thoreau was taken as a model of the fully developed self-society was held to be the father of monotony and uniformity, the moral enemy of human nature.
Gentile argued that freedom from violence and depredation was one of the necessary conditions of substantial freedom and, furthermore, that the rule-governed association of men was not only a necessary condition for freedom but that freedom could be meaningfully understood only as rule-governed behavior. The human individual is not an atom Immanent in the concept of an individual is the concept of society… Man is, in an absolute sense, a political animal.” Man, as a spiritual agent is an essentially social animal who finds freedom only in a rule-governed association with other men.