Monday, October 15, 2018

A warning unheeded

George Essex Evans was one of Australia's Federation poets. He was described by Alfred Deakin, Prime Minister in the early 1900s, as Australia's "national poet whose patriotic songs stirred her people profoundly."

He wrote a poem "Australia" (published 1906) which is notable for its prophetic warning about a false understanding of liberty - one which unfortunately went unheeded.

Liberalism pushes towards an expansion of the realm of individual autonomy. That means, logically, that liberalism pushes against traditional restraints on what I as an individual might choose to do or be.

Evan's poem doesn't look at freedom this way. He wants Australians to be free, not as atomised individuals, but as a people. And freedom does not mean throwing off traditional restraints, but being "proved" as a people in them.

The first two stanzas run as follows:
Earth's mightiest isle. She stands alone.
The wide seas wash around Her throne.
Crowned by the red sun as his own.

The world's grey page lies bare today -
The rise of nations - the decay.
Will She, too, rise - and fall as they?

There is already a challenge here to liberal orthodoxy. Evans is acutely aware that history is not a story of linear progress toward a liberal utopia, but that civilisations rise and fall. He suggests that the old world is already experiencing decay.

He continues:
The trust is ours - to us alone.
We are the strong foundation-stone,
The seed from which the flower is grown.

Again, this focus on intergenerational trust is out of line with modern liberalism, which encourages the view that every generation must live for itself.

Evans then writes:
What shall it profit Her if we
Make gold our God, and strength our plea,
And call wild licence Liberty?

This is, first, a plea against materialism. Evans would not have been pleased to hear Liberal Party Prime Ministers talk about Australia as if we were just an economy, a kind of factory writ large, with political decisions being based mostly on economic considerations.

It is, second, a criticism of freedom being defined as "licence" - which means behaving however we wish, without restraint.
If, in our scorn of creed and king,
All reverence to the winds we fling,
And fall before a baser thing?

Evans identifies here two of the traditional restraints on the realm of individual choice. The first is reverence. A free people does not fling all reverence "to the winds". If it does so, it is likely to adopt something more base. And it is this rejection of the base that is a second traditional restraint on the realm of individual choice. A people is free when it is liberated from what is base, rather than when the distinction between what is base and what is honourable is no longer made.
What though her sword unconquered be,
Her armoured navies sweep the sea,
If still Her people are not free?

To be a people proved and strong -
True freemen of the Poet's song
For whom the world has waited long.

Evans wanted Australians to be "proved and strong" in terms of national character, and it was this that defined being "true freemen" rather than a freedom to be base.

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