The Statue of Liberty used to be the face America projected to the world. A gift from the people of France in 1886 and an emblem of how Americans saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen by the world. Liberte eclairant le monde is the name given the statue—”Liberty enlightening the world.” The female face adorning the Statue of Liberty expresses an otherworldly classical beauty and the vigilance necessary lest liberty succumb to licentiousness. Her uplifted torch symbolizes purification through illumination. Every year Hollywood has a newer face America projects to the world, a symbol of material success in a media culture worshiping the autonomous self devoid of any reference to a community or to God.
Though Hollywood beauties cannot be denied, in our age such beauties are not so much to be envied as to be pitied. For who today truly appreciates the higher aspects of such beauty? Perhaps some lone poet or solitary painter truly inspired by a heavenly muse who knows that the hazy light surrounding a beautiful woman’s face is a divine sign of God’s love.
Greek and Roman civilization knew beauty’s ethereal quality. Beauty and truth were once understood to have a divine origin beyond the realm of time and were worshipped accordingly. Our democratic age has lost a perception of higher beauty. We debase the splendor of things having lost our sense of mystery and reverence.
Warning long ago about the reductive temptations inherent in a democratic society, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America noted the preoccupation Americans had for material goods and comforts that “crowd out more precious concerns that make the glory and greatness of the human species.” He thought it the responsibility of democratic legislatures to “apply themselves relentlessly to raising up souls and turning them heavenward fostering a taste for the infinite and a love of immaterial pleasures.”
Tocqueville affirmed man as a creature who has a soul, and an eternal destiny. Our age denies the soul of man and denigrates him into a creature concerned solely with the temporal. Jefferson’s ill chosen phrase from the Declaration of Independence has been interpreted as applying to the pursuit of happiness on a worldly plane. Today not only America, but the whole Americanized world seems haunted by this “pursuit of happiness.”
A vast worldwide telecommunications network, like the seven points of the crown on The Statue of Liberty, representing seven seas and seven continents is continually broadcasting the temporal pursuit of happiness mantra. We are encouraged to believe that we are our own god ruling over every aspect of human existence. “Empower yourself,” say the slogans. “Take charge of your cancer,” a radio ad urges. Anthony Kennedy in a Supreme Court ruling holds “that the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” Self Help sections in bookstores abound presenting titles as if we were self-made selves instead of created creatures. But we did not set our own hearts to beat and are not in charge as to when they will expire.
The so-called self-acquired on the bookstore shelf is synthetically manufactured—a group self, the very antithesis of a genuine personality. For a person is a being with an immortal soul while the books in this section are uniformly in denial of the divine ground of man’s being. Walker Percy referred to this phenomenon of distorted reality permeating all of western civilization as the “New Holy Office of the Secular Inquisition.” Underlying this belief lies a faith that all the mystery of the world will be solved by human intelligence and fall before an infallible science.
Tocqueville prophetically wrote of a despotism democratic nations had to fear which is now fearfully upon us. This despotism is different from the tyranny of old: “It would be more extensive and more mild: it would degrade men without tormenting them. The same principle of equality which facilitates despotism tempers its rigor.” He describes the features of such a society, “above it stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. What remains but to spare people all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.”
As we celebrate our independence it is worth contemplating Toqueville’s warning. He knew that liberty required vigilance. And that human greatness requires that men and women rise above themselves serving community and God. He urged that we, look forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes men keep watch and ward for freedom like that lady with the upheld light who keeps watch over New York harbor.