I was in the rush of customers, trying to maintain my civility, when a strung out young man started to push his way to the front of the line. Firmly, I told him to wait – and his reply, almost hilarious in its paradox, made me think about that delicate balance between liberty (doing as one wants) and courtesy (doing with others in mind): “Hey man, I respect your rules, but do you have to be anal about it? Can’t I just have my toast now?”
So – eternal vigilance – Monday’s question – and Mr Stimpson’s descriptive, but non-philosophical answer:
‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,’ one of the most widely quoted of all sayings on the subject of liberty, is variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Wendell Phillips, and John Philpot Curran. It is most generally attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry, but it does not occur in any of the known speeches, letters or other writings of either of these two great lovers of liberty, and there is no evidence that either of them was the author of it.
The available evidence points to the conclusion that Curran, the Irish statesman and orator, was author of the general idea, and that Phillips, the American orator and reformer, was author of the exact phraseology. On July 10, 1790, Curran delivered a speech upon the right of election in which he said in part: ‘It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is a once the consequence of the crime and the punishment of his guilt.’
This speech, along with others by Curran, was published at Dublin in 1808, a fact that probably accounts for an oft-repeated statement that Curran said ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ in a speech at Dublin in 1808. The earliest known occurence of ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ is in an address delivered by Phillips before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society January 28, 1852. Phillips did not enclose the now famous sentiment in quotation marks, and in 1878, when the authorship was disputed, he wrote a letter in which he expressed the opinion that it was original with him.
Well, vigilance on the part of both speakers and writers, as well as Stimpson, gives us the occurrence of the phrase, but not its meaning.
Freedom is a gift, that came at great cost, and as I myself have often proved through laziness and love of convenience, is easily lost if one does not pay attention. So many things can slip away through bureaucracy, court rulings, precedent, or the fact that not enough people knew in the first place to cast a vote, make a noise, or raise a protest.
I can think of many examples of this sleepy attitude to freedom, one, being our country Canada and the current proroguing of parliament with a prime minister, who, based on the polls, thought the country was asleep, and sought to do what he pleased. Be a vigilant here.
The other is more fanciful, but equally instructive, and taken from the inimitable Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. The earth is about to be destroyed by an alien race, and as the face a tide of woeful humanity on the brink of doom, their response is this:
“There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now”
I need to pay more attention – to the little things that make me utter useless frustrations like, “If only I had known!” and to the bigger things that affect others who may not know or be able to speak for themselves about the liberties they are losing.
But back to the trivial and the next question:
Why is a gemstone called an amethyst?