Sunday, 18 April 2010

Goodness Gracious!

The Three Graces, by Antonio Canova - image by Uk-Kamelot@Wikimedia Commons - released under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 licence.Last month I brought a handsome new King James Bible, something I've lacked for more than a decade. I'm not, in several important ways, a Christian, but this has long struck me as a somewhat illiterate gap for the shelves of an English writer. Also, in every phase of my religious life - from inconsistent, fear-born evangelical crankery as a child, through to full-blooded antitheism in my teens, and beyond - I have always been pretty weak on those parts of the New Testament between the Gospels and the bit where the seas turn to absinthe.

So I've been dipping into Peter and Paul over the weekend, and my thoughts turned as they so often do to matters of law and liberty. Pete the Rock is standing square on the first, and Paul the Navigator is wrestling with the shifting courses of the other - or so it seems to me, from the outside. They're clearly working the same country, but what a difference in purpose and perspective!

This morning I set to thinking. When we speak of laws - social or (especially) moral - it's easy to think of words for both good and bad ways of living by them. An uncivil abuser of laws, who lives by their letter and sees no right or wrong beyond that, is amongst many harder names a legalist. A regular law-abiding character will most likely be described as honest. But when somebody acts according to the spirit and promise of the law-codes we value, then we call them just, and condemn the law itself when it condemns them.

It is harder to speak of liberty in the same way, and be understood, because lawfulness is much more universally accepted as an unambiguous virtue than tricky, contingent freedom. Even amongst libertarians who are clear that political liberty is part of the moral law, the corresponding idea of moral freedom can be perfectly opaque - as anyone ever ear-bashed by a stern Objectivist sermon will readily understand. This is not because libertarian ideologues are dumb: they seldom are. It's because moral freedom is as hard to catch hold of as living quicksilver. I see its shiny skittering, but can't claim to grasp it either.

As witness my difficulty this morning, trying to find a term that is to freedom all that justice is to law.

It's easy to find a word for its abuse - the dreaded 'licence' is plainly the flipside of legalism. The safe and satisfactory mean corresponding to honesty was a harder nut to crack. 'Independence' is the best I can manage for the moment. But what shall we call that justice-like virtue that embodies the best living not of a general maxim, but of each free spirit, each occasion, each deed that is all its own tale and none of any other?

Maybe it's because I'm a secularist, and it is too easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It took me a remarkable long time to realize that the word I was missing here was 'grace'.

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