Je pense, donc je suis.
—Renė Descartes, Discours de la Méthode Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, 1637
I am I because my little dog knows me.
—Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America, or the Relation of Human Nature To the Human Mind, 1936.
Gertrude Stein’s little dog may confirm her sense of self, but in doing so it also defines her in terms of a moral obligation which she cannot betray without sacrificing her identify. Our identities as human beings are constructed of many such relationships, many such obligations. We see ourselves reflected in them, and know who we are.
Or do we? René Descartes‘ assertion doesn’t actually deny that we are a part of the society which has created us, or that as a consequence, we have obligations to that society. He would not, I think, disagree with John Donne that no man is an island, entire of itself. Implicit in his assertion nevertheless is the supposition that individual human beings have moral and political agency, that they have the right to assist society in defining what it is, and therefore who they are.
The consequences of Descartes’ assertion, whether or not he was as conscious of them as we are today, are clear enough. If, by virtue of being a rational creature, the individual human being has the right to agency on their own behalf, then there can be no divine right of Popes, Mullahs, Kings, Führers, or General Secretaries to arbitrarily define the collective will of a society, or to censor the behavior of the individuals who comprise it merely because they lack the power as individuals to defend themselves. This is the founding principle of the Enlightenment and of secular humanism in general, that no one owes obligations to a society which refuses them the right to contribute to its governance.
In a civilized society, you shouldn’t have to pray, genuflect, make pilgrimages to Mecca, recite the shahada, or go to confession. You shouldn’t have to salute the flag, say the Pledge Of Allegiance, or sing the national anthem. You shouldn’t have to publicly admire the thought of Xi Jinping, avoid expressing certain opinions, or sit still for the burning of books, heretics, or so-called enemies of the state. The relationship between individual and collective in a civilized society is reciprocal. There’s a feedback loop between the two, one governed by mutual respect. The political manifestation of this feedback loop has traditionally been called democracy.
Democracy, though, is fragile. It has many enemies, even in so-called democratic societies. More often than not, what outs these enemies is their ritual acts of public piety. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Whatever he may have intended, Kennedy’s appeal to a grandiose selflessness was in fact a radical attack on the very idea of a personal right to self-determination. You don’t have to doubt that we have both a moral and political obligation to contribute to the society which gave birth to us to find formulations like Kennedy’s of benefit principally to tyrants and sycophants.
Authoritarians love to tell us that freedom isn’t free, as though we didn’t already know that all too well. What this bumpersticker-on-the-back-of-a-pickup actually means is something more like this: When they tell you you’ve got to go somewhere and shoot people, you have to do it. Otherwise we get to spit on you.
This is the kind of freedom that a genuinely free person instinctively rejects. The real price of freedom is very different. The real price of freedom is one that no patriot, no acolyte, no devotee will ever realize that they owe, let alone be capable of paying. That their little dog knows them is good enough for them, although I doubt it’s ever been all that good for the little dog.