Skip to main content

Louis Cardinal Billot, Liberalism, Chapter 1

Cardinal Billot


A Criticism of Its Basic Principles and Divers Forms

By His Eminence, Louis Cardinal Billot

Translated by G.B. O’Toole, Ph.D., S.T.D. (Professor of Dogmatic Theology, St. Vincent Seminary, Beatty, PA)



THESIS: That the fundamental principle of Liberalism is inherently absurd, contrary to nature and chimerical.

It is absurd I say, from the very outstart, in that it wishes the principal good of man to consist in the absence of every bond that in anywise coerces or restricts Liberty. As a matter of fact, the good of man cannot be understood otherwise than under these two aspects: to wit, either as an end in itself, or as a means to an end. Now in which of these two categories, I ask, will you place Liberty? Not in the former, I fancy. Because no matter what it pleases you to assign as an end in itself, you will surely at least concede me this, that Liberty cannot be that end.

For Liberty signifies some sort of power or faculty of acting, and every power or faculty exists, not for its own sake but for the sake of something else, at least for the sake of its operation or action; which again, in the present life, consists exclusively in the pursuit of some good, whether true or apparent. Evidently, therefore, it remains to be said that Liberty belongs to the class of goods which are means to an end. St. Augustine distinguishes such goods into the following three categories, namely; the supreme goods, the mediocre, and the minimal; and that by a very evident and obvious distinction. The supreme goods are those which no one uses ill (abuses); the mediocre and minimal goods are those which admit of both a good and a bad use, with this sole difference, that the mediocre goods are nevertheless necessary for a good life, while the minimal goods are in no wise necessary therefor. “The virtues, therefore,” he says, “by which we live aright, are the great goods; the species of corporeal things without which we can live aright are the minimal goods; the powers of the soul, without which one can not live aright are the mediocre goods.” (Augustine, de Lib. Arb., 1. 2, C. 19.) Now from this it is evident that free will can by no means be classified among the supreme goods, but rather among the mediocre goods, because although there can be nothing praiseworthy or honorable in life without free will, neither is there any kind of crime or vice or harmfulness to one’s self or one’s neighbor, into which it may not plunge head-long through bad use. Therefore Liberty is in dire need of barriers lest it fall over the precipice, and, the stronger the barriers whereby it is confined within the sphere of good for which it is ordained, so much the better is its condition. Whoever denies this by assenting to the fundamental principle of Liberalism is compelled to choose between two equally absurd alternatives: either he will impudently affirm that Liberty in the present life is indefectible (incapable of abuse); or he will be brazen enough to assert that it would be well, nay best, if erring Liberty were to be sacredly and inviolably protected so as to facilitate even its gravest abuses. And what else is this than the very climax of insanity?

But these are merely the beginnings, of this insanity. Further progress is evident in that which they add: namely, that everything else is to be subordinated to the good of individual Liberty; that, therefore, all those things which in any way limit or impede individual Liberty are inimical and contrary to human perfection; and because, as is manifest, many such fetters arise from social relationships, therefore the ideal state of man is to be found only in an un-social condition, where the law of pure and perfect individualism would reign supreme. And this, indeed, was the monstrous conception of the Revolution and its philosophers, who also, in order to give their abstract theories the semblance of justification, imagined the existence of a certain primitive condition in which man actually lived outside society, accommodating to this, their fiction, the traditions of nations concerning a Golden Age, a Saturnian Reign, a Paradise of Innocence, etc. For what, think you, was the primeval Golden Age? An age of absolute liberty, which gradually declined into an age of iron, as men came more and more to coalesce into society. Do you not see the principle of Liberalism spontaneously and of an inevi­table necessity ending in that which is contrary to nature? If there is anything evident, if there is anything mani­fest, if there is anything clearer than the noon-day sun, surely it is this that man is born into society, that man is by nature social, that the social state is for man the law of life, as even the needs of man's corporeal existence abundantly testify:

“For other animals nature has prepared food, garments of fur, means of defense, such as teeth, horns and hoofs, or at least swiftness in flight. But man is so constituted that, none of these things having been prepared for him by nature, reason is given him in their stead, reason by which through his handiwork he is en­abled to prepare all these things, for whose preparation, however, one man does not suffice. For no one man left to himself could enjoy a sufficient life. It is therefore, natural to man to live in the society of many. Moreover, in other animals there is inborn a certain natural economy respecting those things which are useful or hurtful, as the lamb by nature knows the wolf to be its enemy. Some animals also by natural instinct are aware of the medicinal properties of herbs and of other things which are necessary for life. Man, however, has a natural knowledge of those things which are necessary for life only in general, as being able to arrive at the knowledge of the particular necessities of human life, by way of deducing the same from universal principles. It is not, however, possible for one man alone to attain to the knowledge of all these things by his own in reason. Therefore it is necessary that man should live in the society of his fellows, so that one can aid an­other and that different men can engage in different occupations, specializing in the inventions of reason, for example, one in medicine, another in this, another in that profession, etc.” (S. Thom. de regim. princ. 1, c. I.)

But dreaming sophists are not deterred by considerations of this sort. For the immovable principle, which they also do not blush to derive from the law of nature, forbids this. Hence they think that they are uttering a great principle when they say: Man is born free; therefore anything that restricts this native liberty is contrary to nature. Just as if one were to say: Man is born naked, therefore it is contrary to nature that he is covered with clothes. But, though we are born naked, still we are living in clothes, and I do not fancy that the madness of their insanity would ever go so far as to say that the true perfection of nature has survived only in those tribes which in Australia and Africa live in the same attire in which they came forth from their mothers’ womb. Moreover, what, may I ask, does this mean, that man is born free, except that he is born without impediments to the expansion of his own activity? And with similar liberty nature has endowed the animals as well as plants, in such wise, however, that for them, as we have said above, from the moment they are born, nature provides garments and means of defense as well as other necessities. Hence, by an instinct of nature, from their very inception they shun what is contrary, and like what is conducive to their welfare, without any previous direction or instruction. Not so, however, the sons of men, not so. “Therefore, the Lord shows that herein the lilies of the field and the birds of the air are better off than man, referring the latter's indigence even, to that most opulent King Solomon who enjoyed such exceptional abundance. ‘Behold,’ He says, ‘the birds of the air, for they sow; not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Consider the lilies of the field, how they labor not, neither do they spin.’ Afterwards He adds: ‘I say to you, not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these;’ as if he, Solomon, stood in greater need in respect to victuals, attire and covering than the plants and animals.” (S. Thom. de regim. princ. 1. 4, c. 2.) And so it is in truth. The brute animals would be in a better condition than men, nay incomparably so, if once we were to suppose that man is not a social or political animal by an institution of nature, and that he ought not to be compensated by the benefit of society for that which nature has denied to the individual as such. For the rest, are we really serious or do we aim at being facetious? For, that the liberty wherewith men are born is nothing more nor less than the most ample liberty of passing from the womb to the tomb, is perfectly plain and manifest. Insensate sophists, who has caused you to become so demented, that while continually appealing to nature, you perpetrate so many and such great outrages against nature?

But if the fundamental principle of Liberalism begins with an absurdity, and if it thereupon proceeds to that which is contrary to the most evident intention of nature, what is to be said of those chimeras which it has laid down and defined in social matters, after the fashion of a norm or directing idea? For willy-nilly, the necessity of living in society is imperative, and whether it be fortunate or unfortunate, there is now no going back to that primitive state wherein man lived as a child of the forest. Hence it behooved the philosophers of Liberalism to be solicitous for such a social structure as would leave intact the palladium of liberty, and combine together two things, which might perhaps have, been considered incompatible, namely, individualism and the social organism. Et hic opus, hic labor! But nothing is hard for visionaries, nothing is hard for those who build in the air. And lo, Liberalism has ready at hand to show thee a society planned according to the rule of goodness and equity, and it, born of the social contract, as they call it. Because, if society is in nowise natural to men, nay if it be positively contrary to the intention of nature, according as, and to the extent that, it is opposed to the inalienable rights of liberty, then there is naught whereby it can be at all justified, except it take its origin from liberty, and is artificially constructed, premeditatedly and by express intention, for the supreme and sole purpose of preserving liberty intact. Think, therefore, of an initial pact whereby men agree freely among themselves concerning their association under a common government and a common law. Think, especially, of the conditions of the pact being such that they exactly correspond to the end in view and to the will of all the parties to the pact. Moreover, the will of those participating in the pact, is not to renounce their liberty, but merely to join together their individual liberties, so that from these joined together shall result one total liberty. Liberty is that which alone is sought, which alone is pooled in common, because all things are from liberty, by liberty, and for liberty. Of no importance, then, socially speaking, are those differences which differentiate one man from another, of no importance those natural and historical dependencies, of no importance the ties of family or those of nationality, of no importance the diversity of talents, of aptitudes, of education, of culture, of acquired rights, as they are called, or any other things of this kind. All these things are entirely extraneous to the matter of the social contract. Liberty is at stake, there is question only of liberty, and nature has endowed each individual man with equal liberty.

Hence each and every man comes into society on absolutely even terms with his fellows. Count now the individuals, and that will be the number of equal suffrages or votes: which, if they express the unanimous voice, nothing is left to be desired: if not, there remains the numerical majority (one-half plus one), which expresses the general will, and expressing the general will, it will express also the general liberty. This is the law of the community reduced to the rigorous principles of philosophy at last. And does it not seem most wonderful, most admirable?

However, not perhaps so wonderful, that amid the glare of philosophical light you may not discern the full and perfect exemplar of a chimera. Two things especially belong to the conception of a chimerical system: that it should not agree with any real beings or things: and that the very conceptual elements of which it is composed should not cohere for the purpose intended, but rather tend to its destruction and ruin. Now both of these things are easily discernible in the system of Liberalism.

In the first place the system certainly does not correspond to real men as they exist in flesh and bone. I waive the point that no one, with the exception of a dreaming philosopher, ever thought of entering human society by means of a free pact or contract. I pass over the fact that the absolute necessity of society, a necessity anteceding every possible use of liberty, will be obscure only to one who perchance has fallen down from the clouds, and whom society has not received as a baby, nor nourished as a child, nor whom, finally, during his lifetime, society has not waited upon with benefits of every kind and of absolute necessity. What of that which the very defenders of the social contract themselves testify, herein bearing witness to the truth? For how is the entrance into society free, if, by their own confession, there is now no way of returning to the state of original liberty? But overlook, if you please, all these things. Take only the social element which is adopted as the basis of the system. This, element is the individual man, stripped of all differences of place, time, race and nationality, severed from all religious, domestic, corporate and political ties whether created or acknowledged as a consequence of his natural and historical evolution down to the present day: Such a one is a man who is neither modern nor ancient, neither a Westerner nor an Oriental, neither a father nor a son; neither a youth nor an old man: in a word, a man always the same in all individuals, always equal, having neither in a greater nor lesser degree the power of reasoning and of acting freely. But such a man is a mere abstraction; such a man is a merely conceptual being; such a man has his place in the tree of Porphyry, but not in the sphere of realities. And if he, has no place in the sphere of realities, then neither has that chimerical system which has constructed him for its own special use.

“Apply the ‘social contract,’ if it seems good to you, but do not apply it to any other men than those for whom it was made. These are abstract men who do not belong to any century or country, pure entities conjured up by the wand of Metaphysics. In effect, they have been formed by expressly prescinding from or eliminating all the differences which distinguish one man from another, a Frenchman from a Papuan, a modern Englishman from a British contemporary of Caesar, and only that element is considered which is common to all. There is left nothing but an exceedingly scanty residue, an extract extremely, attenuated, of human nature, that is to say, according to the definition of the time, a being who possesses the desire of happiness, and the faculty of reasoning, nothing more and nothing less. On this pattern are cut many millions of beings absolutely alike. Next, by a simplification quite as glaring as the first, they are supposed to be all independent, all equal, without a past, without kin, without engagements, without traditions, without customs, like so many arithmetical units, all separable, all equivalent, and one has to imagine them as assembled together for the first time, and coming to terms with one another for the first time. From the nature which is supposed to be theirs, and from the situation which has been created for them, there is no difficulty whatsoever in deducing their interests, their will and their contract. But from the fact that the contract is suitable to them, it by no means follows that it would be suitable to others. On the contrary, it follows therefrom that it will be suitable to no others, and that the unsuitableness will be extreme should one attempt to impose it upon living people; because it will have for measure the immensity of distance which separates an unsubstantial abstraction, a philosophical phantom, an unreal image without substance, from a real and complete man.” (Taine, La Révolution, Tom. I, 1. 2, c. 2.)

“The constitution of 1795, just like its predecessors, is made for Man as such. But Man does not exist at all in this world. I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc., but as to Man, I, for one, protest that I have never met him in all my life; if he exists he is to me utterly unknown... But, a constitution that is made for all nations, is not made for any nation; it is a pure abstraction, a scholastic, elaboration made to exercise the mind according to an idealistic hypothesis, and which addresses itself to Man, in the imaginary regions which he inhabits.” (De Maistre, Considerations sur la France, c, 6.)

But the chimerical character of the system reveals itself still more in this, that, while constructed for the express purpose of preserving liberty intact, in reality, it tends entirely to the destruction and ruin of liberty. This appears at once and very clearly in the case of the minorities, which are suffered to fall under the tyrannical dictation of the prevailing number, without any defense, and without any possible recourse. And yet the ideal society was to be such as would gather into one the individual liberties, so that each individual in obeying the law, would obey his own sweet will, expressed in the law and represented by the law! Nay, not only as regards minorities, but also in respect to the very majorities themselves, the same thing will appear at first glance. Because the majorities, while they prevail as regards mere arithmetical quantity, do not excel as a rule in sound reason, in wisdom or in independent judgment, nor in any or all of those things which really constitute them as men in their own right. And if one is not a total stranger to human affairs, he will easily see that such multitudes, if perchance they be admitted to the making of a law, are wont to become the dupes of demagogues, agitators, and bosses, or, to use one word, of the oligarchies which, born of individualism, subjugate those majorities and thus use them as the instruments of their domination to further their own private interests and their own personal ambition. Hence, from first to last, that boasted liberty is, by virtue of this system, resolved into the privilege of a few demagogues, whilst for all others there remains either open oppression or slavery veiled beneath the lying appearance of emancipation. Such, I say, is the conclusion to which even a summary examination of the system leads. That, however, in view of the graveness of the matter, this may become more manifest and evident, and to the end that simultaneously it may become more and more plain, how pernicious, how noxious, how deadly is the fundamental principle of Liberalism, even in respect to the simple purpose of civil life, it will be well to take up its particular applications. This, indeed, is done in the chapter which follows.