Law, Liberty, and License
With the recent passing of Sean Connery, I reflected on some of the roles he played throughout his acting career. Please keep in mind that I grew up as a big Connery fan, enjoying movies such as The Hunt for Red October, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Highlander. Yet one movie he starred in that is perhaps a little less well-known is First Knight.
First Knight is a 1995 film based on the story of King Arthur, with Sean Connery playing the role of Arthur himself. While the plot is centered on the romance between Lady Guinevere and the newest knight of the round table, Sir Lancelot, another key element is the struggle between the forces of good, led by King Arthur, against the forces of evil, led by Prince Malagant.
So, how does the story of First Knight relate at all to the title of this article — law, liberty, and license? Well, there are several key pieces of dialogue throughout the film that contrast the worldview of King Arthur with that of Prince Malagant. Arthur is a man who champions both law and liberty. He recognizes that not all laws are created equal but that “there are laws that enslave men, and laws that set them free.” For Arthur, an ordered liberty that is based on good, moral laws is the ideal environment for human flourishing. In the story, the city of Camelot is presented as that ideal city-state where genuine freedom, built upon the foundation of good law, thrives.
On the other hand, Prince Malagant envies the wealth, beauty, and glory of Camelot. He also envies the authority that King Arthur has, seeking constantly to find a way to seize the throne for himself.
In one of the final scenes, Malagant and his men infiltrate the city and hold it hostage, demanding that Arthur surrender his crown or else watch his city burn. Interestingly, Malagant makes an appeal to the citizens of Camelot in an attempt to turn them against Arthur. He does this by suggesting that Arthur is really a tyrant and that he, Malagant, has come to set them free:
“What I offer you is freedom; freedom from Arthur’s tyrannical dream; freedom from Arthur’s tyrannical law; freedom from Arthur’s tyrannical God!”
There are two aspects of Malagant’s statement that are particularly interesting. First, Malagant typifies the behavior and character of Satan. For it is Satan who, in his hatred of God, calls God a tyrant and succeeds in tempting humanity to agree with him. We see this clearly in Genesis 3, where Satan tells Eve that the reason for the prohibition against eating the forbidden fruit was not that God was concerned for Eve’s well-being but that he was holding her back from becoming god-like. Satan was presenting himself as having Eve’s best interests in mind. He portrayed God as the tyrant and himself as the liberator.
Second, Malagant’s statement demonstrates the organic relationship between each of the items he deemed as “tyrannical.” In other words, what does he attack first? Arthur’s dream, or vision, of human society. Malagant believes such a society to be tyrannical. Yet why would that dream be tyrannical? Because of its laws. Arthur’s dream society can only exist because it is built upon laws that “set men free.” Malagant believes those laws themselves to be tyrannical.
But what about God? Why does Malagant even mention him? Religion does not play much of a significant role in the film, although it is assumed that the society is Christian. So why would Malagant bring it up at all? Well, it is because all laws have a law-giver and every society and system has a god of that system. Arthur’s laws, the laws of Camelot, were based upon God and His word. That is why it was full of beauty, glory, and justice. Arthur’s dream of Camelot had become a reality because the city was built upon God’s law. Malagant recognized this and therefore declared that the dream was tyrannical because the laws were tyrannical. And the laws were tyrannical because God, the law-giver, was tyrannical.
As humans, we are naturally rebellious against God our creator. Following after the footsteps of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, we believe God to be a tyrant and his laws to be tyrannical. We think that our lives would be better — and that we would experience true freedom — if we rejected his laws.
Yet there is always a law and there is always a law-giver. And if we are going to reject God’s law, we are going to replace it with some other law. Perhaps it will be our own law, with ourselves as our own god. Or perhaps it will be some other law given to us from some other god. Either way, it is not a matter of whether we will have a law but which one we will have.
This fact is something that Prince Malagant himself could not avoid. While he was calling Arthur’s law tyrannical, he ironically commanded all the citizens of Camelot to submit to his tyranny:
“I am the law now! You obeyed Arthur, and now you will obey me!”
Ultimately, the freedom that Malagant offered was nothing less than true tyranny. It was a lie, through and through. And this same lie is told to us time and again. Sin tempts us, offering us freedom. Yet in reality it gives us nothing but slavery. As Jesus himself tells us in John 8, “he who sins is a slave to sin.”
So, when we reject God’s law, we are ironically rejecting the very thing that leads to human flourishing. At the same time, when we proclaim our so-called freedom to engage in sin we are really proclaiming slavery. Slavery to our desires and passions.
Historically, even the ancient Greek pagans recognized the difference between virtue and vice, liberty and license. The ancient philosopher Aristotle described the happy life as a life of virtue. To pursue happiness was to pursue the virtuous life. And it is this very concept of happiness that we see mentioned in our own Declaration of Independence. The pursuit of happiness is neither the pursuit of passions nor the pursuit of pleasures. It is the pursuit of virtue.
Similarly, the ancient Greeks and Romans never saw liberty as the freedom to do whatever you like. Liberty was the freedom, or ability, to pursue a life of virtue. It was the freedom from vice and the freedom to virtuousness. To do whatever your passions desired was not liberty, but license (from where we derive the word licentiousness).
When we look to God’s word, we see that true freedom finds its ultimate meaning in freedom from sin. Just as Moses led the people of Israel out of physical slavery in Egypt, so too does Jesus lead his people out of spiritual slavery to sin. Biblical freedom is the freedom FROM sin (vice) and the freedom TO pursue righteousness (virtue). As Jesus himself declares, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
So, as you reflect on the current state of our society, consider the difference between liberty and license. Those who declare that they can be whatever gender they wish and can sleep with whoever they wish are not proclaiming freedom but are proclaiming slavery — slavery to sin and vice. Those who proclaim the right to murder their unborn children do not proclaim liberty but are proclaiming death to any who stand in the way of their passions. And those who advance the cause of socialism and economic justice are not defending justice at all but rather a law based on envy.
Our society has wholeheartedly adopted the mindset of Prince Malagant. We desire glory, beauty, and justice but want those things without God. We want to set ourselves up as god and to be our own law-giver. We look at Christ and His Kingdom and declare it to be tyrannical. Yet, ironically, the system we put in place tyrannizes and destroys. What we have done, therefore, is to buy into the lie of Satan. Satan has offered us freedom from a tyrannical dream, tyrannical law, and tyrannical God. We accepted his offer, wanting freedom but receiving slavery. Our only hope now is to accept Christ’s offer. He offers us true freedom but requires us to die to our sins. But if we die in Christ, we get life, true life. And if we become servants of Christ, we get liberty, true liberty.