Acton Commentary

Law, Liberty, and Life Together


Exiled on Saint Helena Delaroche

There’s something about the Christian understanding of creation and fall that provides a unique point of departure for understanding the nature of human social life. As created in God’s image, male and female, we are fundamentally social in nature. Now this basic insight doesn’t require special illumination; after all, Aristotle defined the human person as a “political” or “social” being (zoon politikon), and this formula has been appropriated by generations of Christians reflecting on the nature of humanity. Even so, the idea that human beings were created in relationship, not only to one another but also to their divine Creator as well as to the rest of creation, is a fundamental insight of the Christian tradition. From the perspective of creation there are already relational limits that give shape to human liberty: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 NIV).

The Christian vision of the human person also includes the reality of the fall, when Adam and Eve transgress this original limit. As many commentators have observed, the fall affects all three of the basic relationships: between God and human beings, between individual human beings themselves, and between people and the created order. At this point the reality of law comes to the fore. Where limit had been embedded in the natural order before the fall, some institutions of preservation and restraint become necessary given the sinful nature of post-lapsarian humanity.

We see how the sinful nature of human beings comes to social expression right away. Cain’s envy over his brother Abel’s acceptance by God breaks out into murderous rage. Cain’s measure of retributive preservation is declared by God: “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over” (Gen. 4:15 NIV). But soon this measure is corrupted by Lamech into a boast of epic proportions: “I have killed a man for wounding me, / a young man for injuring me. / If Cain is avenged seven times, / then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen. 4:23-24 NIV). There is something about fallen humanity, a principle of evil, that drives us to ever more despicable expressions of sin and rebellion against God and each other. By the time of Noah, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5 NIV). 

This degenerative pattern is seen in individual cases as well as society more broadly. In the case of David and Bathsheba, for instance, we see David move from lust, to deception, to murder. In the case of Ahab and Naboth, we see covetousness develop into slander, theft, and murder. In the case of Israel over generations we see how, even in the midst of periodic revivals and renewals, the general trend is toward moral and spiritual decline. As the apostle Paul puts it, sinful human beings “invent ways of doing evil” (Rom. 1:30 NIV).

Sin is fundamentally anti-social. In these various ways sin destroys the natural bonds of love and society that human beings were created to nurture and enjoy. Our sinful natures, particularly as we express our desires in word and deed, drive us apart. Sin tears asunder what God had originally joined together.

A particularly vivid image of sin’s anti-sociality is found in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce. Its depiction of Hell is a series of individuals given the ability to manifest their greatest internal desire, to define reality for themselves and to have absolute sovereignty within their own realms. As Lewis writes, “every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell.” One of the more striking illustrations is the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, in “a huge house all in the Empire style,” marching around insistently “muttering to himself all the time. ‘It was Soult’s fault. It was Ney’s fault. It was Josephine’s fault….’” Everyone in Hell has their own house, and move farther and farther apart as time passes: “You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another.”

When sin is understood in its anti-social aspects we can better understand the positive use of law and political order. As James Madison puts it in Federalist #51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Without sin, the coercive and punitive aspects of legal order would be superfluous. But since we live in a world marred by sin and evil, political order takes on an aspect of force, attempting to restrain the most destructive anti-social expressions of sin. Since we do not always govern ourselves as we ought to, in accord with the moral order, there must be some external checks and limits on our behavior.

As Lord Acton said, “Liberty is the harmony between the will and the law.” In this sense, then, law and legal constraint protect true liberty, and prevent our earthly existence from degenerating into a hellish existence, a libertinism in which our anti-social desires are given full rein. Law thus allows the space for life together, even if in a limited and provisional way, which only hints at the community of peace, love, and joy that “no eye has seen” and “no ear has heard” (1 Cor. 2:9 NIV).