“Liberty” is merely a word which fails to uphold empty promises to those who do not understand its true meaning.
History is often solely viewed through the lens of the upper classes, considering that those who tend to write history are the ones who succeed in society.
However, when history is viewed from the perspective of the peasant, even the most basic concepts of political change are interpreted in a radically different fashion.
These concepts struck me strongly after reading and discussing Giovanni Verga’s Liberty, a piece of historical fiction which treats the Italian peasantry in the 19th century. In Liberty, Verga graphically portrays a merciless peasant uprising in a small Italian village, and the subsequent barbaric slaughter of the landed gentry in the region. Ironically, these violent outbursts ran rampant throughout the Italian peninsula during a time named the “Unification” process.
After reading Liberty, it would appear that quite contrary to the name given to the period, Italian society was upturned by violence and chaos, especially in the South. This area of history especially interests me because of my heritage, as three-quarters of my ancestry originated in Southern Italy. Living within the comfortable conditions we do today, I feel that it can be quite easy to forget the incredibly turbulent times some of our ancestors once lived through. And Italy in the 19th century was definitely a turbulent time.
It would appear that in Liberty, Verga is attempting to illustrate his beliefs that some form of social classes are needed in society, especially during a time of turbulent change and revolution. To Verga, the separation of social classes helped maintain order, as the customarily better educated upper class helped alleviate the potential chaos (as portrayed in the peasant uprising) that would ensue should less-educated lower classes have more power.
I found Verga’s perspective on social classes to be interesting to ponder, especially from the perspective of a modern day American. While social classes clearly still exist within the United States, they have become much less defined in comparison to even 19th century Italy. However, from the perspective of a traditional liberal, it’s difficult to agree with Verga and argue that social classes actually serve a distinct purpose to maintaining order in society. This tends to be an illiberal notion, going so far as to suggest that individuals should not be granted equal opportunities in life, so as to maintain Verga’s social classes and thus maintain order.
“Liberty” was a rallying cry for many Italians during the time of Italian Unification when Garibaldi and his ‘The Thousand’ of revolutionary soldiers conquered nearly all of Italy in the 1860s. Yet, as Liberty portrays, “justice” and “liberty”, are merely just words without true meanings or deeper understandings, indeed like any other similar heavily-weighed word that is repeatedly used in modern day society. I also drew a comparison between Verga’s Liberty with modern Iraq, and the ongoing rebuilding and stabilization of the newly democratic nation.
I once heard an Iraqi Member of Parliament equate the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s rule by portraying Iraq as a bird in a cage. This MP claimed that America opened the cage, and the bird tried to fly out, but it did not know how to fly, having lived in a cage for it’s entire life (in other words, under the rule of Saddam Hussein). Thus, the bird fell to the ground. Like the Iraqi MP portrayed with his anecdote about the Iraqi people, so too can the same argument be made for the Italian peasantry in Liberty.
For, if one cannot understand what “liberty” or “justice” truly means, then they are simply empty words.