The book of Proverbs says, “Scornful men bring a city into a snare: but wise men turn away wrath” and warns, “Do not be wise in thine own eyes.”
There is a danger in free speech, the danger that speech will become cheap and nothing worth saying will be said. There is the danger that beautiful and sacred things will be attacked and destroyed by the sneering voices of those who recognize nothing greater than themselves. There is the danger that, amongst the cacophony of speech, wisdom will be mistaken for knowledge and knowledge for information. There is a danger in free speech that men will become wise in their own eyes and will forget to love their neighbor. As the book of Proverbs says, “Scornful men bring a city into a snare: but wise men turn away wrath” and warns, “Do not be wise in thine own eyes.”
These dangers cannot be solved by governments limiting speech or by terrorists inducing silence through fear. These solutions have been tried and found wanting. Another failed solution will be the enforcement of societal orthodoxies, orthodoxies that change with the year, the month, and the day. The solution to the dangers of free speech cannot come from an external human authority; it must come from within each person.
T.S. Eliot wrote, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Through the wisdom of humility, man is taught to temper his free speech with charity, to edify and respect. Humility teaches that the mere possession of a voice does not give a person something worth saying. Humility helps a person understand that one does not have to correct or enlighten others merely because one can. Through humility one understands that one’s own ideas are not sacred and that others’ “sacred” ideas do not need always to be torn down. The humble man knows, as Pascal knew, that “The heart has reasons that reason does not know.” Humility shows man his limitations.
St. Augustine wrote, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” If a society is to be animated by love rather than greed, pride, or fear, its people must learn humility. Humility turns man away from himself and directs him toward the common good. This will be as true of his words as his actions. Without humility, the society falls into a snare. This might be the snare of terrorist outrage as seen recently in Paris or the snare of broken communities and associations that threaten the very existence of free societies.
Having been raised in a free society, one is often encouraged to think of oneself as an individual whose actions, unless directly abridging someone else’s rights, have no public impact. One is taught to believe that his right to free speech gives him the right to offend those he believes wrong or deluded, and that no consequences should follow from his speech. Should consequences follow from those he has offended, he can seek redress from civil authorities.
Such reasoning, however, misses the complex nature of human affairs. People do not merely relate to each other as members of the state, common ties are not merely political. People all share a common humanity; this alone is enough to make every man my neighbor. Shared culture, shared space, and shared blood only increase ones moral duties. As John Donne reminds,
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
Is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
Well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
Own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
The bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The pride of scornful men prevents them from properly understanding themselves. They believe themselves to be courageously crusading against ignorance, tradition, or fundamentalism, but do not take responsibility for the effect their speech and actions have on oppressed minorities around the world. When Christians have their churches and homes burned, when their wives and daughters are sold into slavery, when they are killed because they are connected to the decadence of the West, who courageously takes responsibility for their suffering? No action can be done in a vacuum.
Scornful men also fail to see that their ridicule itself depends upon those who have deep moral and religious beliefs and who courageously maintain those beliefs in love against a growing tide of secular nihilism. A society of scorners would have nobody to ridicule but themselves. As Roger Scruton wrote, “The work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.” Scornful men take for granted the existence of the builders of society, morality, and order and remain content to lob bombs at the ideas and institutions which do not please them.
It is perhaps natural, when faced with terrorism, to gather around the victims in a show of support and of solidarity against evil. But as millions tweet #JeSuisCharlie, it would perhaps be beneficial to consider a society full of scornful people. Such a society would quickly become a descent into an intolerable barbarism. The way of humility is different. Humility is endless.