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Is Freedom Good Only if You Use it Well?
The "worthiness" of an idea, a goal, a hope is an inherently subjective matter.
In his introduction to James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, the American novelist Reynolds Price notes that “winning a freedom and then proceeding to employ it worthily are two decidedly different matters.”
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I was struck when I came across this sentence. I am reading A Sport and a Pastime for the first time (after having declared, perhaps in overwrought fashion, that Salter’s Light Years was the greatest novel of the 20th century). The overarching question that both haunts and animates my book on “the problem of democracy” is a version of Price’s distinction between having something and then using it well.
What does it mean to employ freedom—or, for that matter, democracy—worthily? The word “worthily” makes me a bit nervous. One definition is “having adequate or great merit, character, or value.” Who decides whether something is of merit or value? And once we figure out who decides, then it raises the question of how. How does one go about casting judgment on an inherently subjective matter?
I wrote recently on Twitter the following (and was ratio-ed):
The same can be said for using something—anything—worthily. There are two ways to make such a judgment. The first is for it to be a personal verdict. I can decide whether something I do, or something someone else does, is worthy. The second is for someone else to render judgment on what I do, but presumably their judgment has no binding authority or effect on me.
In divided societies, where we no longer agree on foundational questions, this creates something of a tricky dilemma. If we no longer agree on foundational questions—did we ever?—any attempt at rendering judgment or determining what is “worthy” is immediately suspect.