We live in an increasingly hysterical, media-manipulated world in which almost nothing is sacred anymore except—the words must be italicized to emphasize their gravity—except popularity, or, to be more precise, what is popular.

This was one of the first thoughts that occurred to me when, shortly before 8:00 A.M. (French time) on Sunday, August 31, I heard a BBC voice say that Princess Diana had died during the night in a ear crash in—of all places—Paris. This was merely the first in a series of surprises.

One of the pleasures offered to someone who lives in Western Europe is the ability to switch on the radio and listen to the BBC’s “World Service,” which, unlike London’s loathsome gutter press, has on the whole remained a model of intelligent, internationally minded objectivity. On Sunday mornings, in particular, one is normally offered three excellent programs in succession. The first, “On Your Farm,” records a breakfast conversation conducted by Oliver Woolston (I can’t vouch for the spelling) with some farmer (and usually his wife) not only in some British county but in places as distant as Bavaria, Finland, Kenya, or Uganda. The second is a fascinating program devoted to contemporary religious problems all over the globe. The third is another smoothly articulated “Letter from America,” by Alistair Cooke, who (now well into his 80’s) must be the doyen of all radio commentators in the English-speaking world.

Well, on Sunday, August 31, all three programs vanished, washed out of sight (or more exactly, sound) by an avalanche of news about the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales; an avalanche that continued to roar and rumble down the journalistic slopes not only for all of that Sunday but for the rest of the ensuing week. Indeed, it was not until the following Sunday, September 7, after the incredible Saturday apotheosis at Westminster Abbey, that the BBC began to recover its customary rhythm and composure.

That Princess Diana, the self-crowned “Queen of Hearts,” should have been killed in Paris was, like John Kennedy’s death in Dallas, one of those geographical accidents that even the most “infallible” fortune-teller has difficulty predicting with any degree of accuracy. I am old enough to have a vivid recollection of the tragic death in 1936 of Queen Astrid of Belgium, a “beauty” even more dazzling than Diana and a product of the country (Sweden) that gave us Greta Garbo. And if I mention this earlier automobile accident, it is because in that case, too, the ear in which the unfortunate victim was traveling was not being driven by the regular chauffeur; he had been relegated by royal order to the back seat by King Leopold III, who had taken control of the steering wheel. The accident had traumatic consequences for the guilt-stricken Belgian monarch who, when his country was being overrun by Wehrmacht forces in June 1940, refused to follow Queen Wilhelmina of Holland’s resolute example by moving to London, afraid that if he did so, it would be interpreted by his subjects as an easy “escape” by a man who was unwilling to share the grim misfortunes of his countrymen. (Marshal Petain, I might add, had exactly the same feeling about his kinship with his own people—which is why, incredible as it may sound, he was adulated by a majority of French men and women right up until the relatively late moment of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.)

What was not accidental about Princess Diana’s tragic death was the appalling fact that she was hounded to death by the tabloid press, more precisely by a mosquito-like species of snapshot-takers now known as paparazzi. The word derives, according to one story, from paparazzo, originally the Italian word for the kind of “wolfish” young man who stalks the sidewalks paying outlandish compliments to any attractive signorina who happens to come along, in the hope of being able to “pick her up.” Another report says Federico Fellini invented the word for La dolce Vita. In any event, the French have a word that even more graphically describes this kind of gallant activity: it is drageur—literally to “dredge,” much as a minesweeper does when it tries to pick up mines, or a fisherman when he uses a dragnet to collect shellfish from the ocean floor. In Paris, as in Rome, where the charms of life have not yet been totally blighted by aggressive feminism, it is still regarded as quite normal for an enterprising young man to be a dragueur and to honor the passage of a lovely demoiselle with a shower of flattering compliments.

The attentions lavished by photographic paparazzi on their chosen victim are obviously of quite a different order. They are a radically new and offensive species generated by what Daniel Boorstin, anticipating Marshall McLuhan, called the “graphic revolution”—the amplification, not to say the replacement, of the printed word by the printed image.

It was, if ever there was one, the triumph of the smutty image over the smutty word, one more shameless indulgence in vicarious sin, in fin-de-siecle voyeurisme, for which the popular appetite today seems to be unlimited. As Albert Camus noted decades ago in his last novel, La Chute, a modern parable based on Dante’s Inferno, the two dominant types of contemporary “sinners” are the “fornicators and newspaper-readers.” There was indeed a cruel irony in the title conferred by semi-literate newsmen and newswomen on Princess Diana immediately after her death. She had ceased to be merely human; she had been raised to the level of myth; she had quite simply become an “icon” (more correctly spelled “ikon”)—the Greek word for “image.”

It has been glaringly apparent for some time that if any semblance of decency is to be preserved in the West, something will have to be done to curb the invasive excesses of the “Fourth Estate.” Some 20 years ago, English critic George Steiner wrote a brilliant article in Encounter in which he declared that the protection of individual privacy against the increasingly arrogant invasions of the press was going to be one of the major problems of the final years of this century. He was right, but his prophetic admonition seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

This stubborn deafness—or perhaps, in this age of imagery and mass idolatry, one should call it blindness—is by no means limited to journalists and newspaper editors who find it quite normal to pander shamelessly to the sick curiosity of the public. For the intellectual rot has spread so far that in the United States today it has thoroughly corrupted members of the “Third Power”—that of the judiciary—who now openly confess that they can no longer define the nature of “obscenity” and who can regard a crucifix in a pool of urine as a “work of art” and a perfectly valid expression of the “freedom of speech” guaranteed by the First Amendment.

All of the great minds who over the centuries formulated the basic principles upon which our civic (but now increasingly uncivic) life depends understood one thing instinctively, simply because they had been brought up on a study of the Greek and Roman classics: an excess of liberty (potentially a virtue) leads inexorably to license (unquestionably a vice). So it was with John Milton, the first great defender of freedom of expression; with John Locke, the first to propound the heretical notion (contradicting the divine right of kings to rule) of majority rule—one radically different, I might add, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s totalitarian notion of la souverainete du peuple; with Montesquieu, the farsighted advocate of the principle of the separation of powers, on which the United States Constitution is based; with Alexis de Tocqueville, with his prophetic warnings against the tyranny of public opinion in American democracy; and with John Stuart Mill, whose brilliant essay On Liberty is something that every politician in every modern democracy should be required to read, and to reread once a year. Because all these men were familiar with the history of ancient Greece and Rome, they knew that democracy secretes a deadly toxin the ancient Greeks called “demagogy,” and that liberty, if allowed to run wild, degenerates into anarchy and license, and from there just as naturally into tyranny.

Last August, Claude Imbert, the editor of the weekly Le Point, had the luminous idea of devoting part of a midsummer holiday issue to the distinctly uncontemporary figure of Plato, hailed on the cover as the “inventor of philosophy.” It is typical of the eye-catching “necessities” of our mass-circulation age that such a well-inspired initiative should have been marred by such an inaccurate affirmation. Plato, far from being the “inventor” of philosophy, was a relative latecomer to the intellectual scene who had been preceded by a number of genuine pioneers—Thales, Anaxagoras, Xenophanes, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, etc.—who wanted to recreate some kind of rational order from the collapsing debris of Olympian mythology. But what most surprised me about this otherwise admirable attempt to educate the reading public was that none of the highly competent contributors to Le Point stressed the fact that it is to Plato that we owe the very notion of “value” and “values.”

It is highly significant that Plato, who spent most of his life trying to distinguish what is valuable and imperishable from what is transient and deceptive, should have devoted his various dialogues to things like beauty, goodness, friendship, justice, wisdom, love, God, the nature of the afterlife, etc., but that it never occurred to him to devote an entire dialogue to liberty. The reason was simply that, whereas wisdom, beauty, goodness, or justice can be regarded as absolute values or ideals, liberty is only a relative value or ideal. Liberty is not something that has any substantial existence; it is simply a possibility. It is freedom to do this or that, freedom to be this or that: generous or miserly, courageous or cowardly, honest or dishonest, kindhearted or cruel, selfish or unselfish, hardworking or lazy, responsible or irresponsible, truthful or mendacious, polite or rude, discreet or indiscreet.

Ultimately, it is not the mere fact of being free that matters; what matters is what one chooses to do with freedom. It is one of the great merits of 20th-century philosophy, whether “resistantialist” (like Ortega y Gasset’s) or “existentialist” (like Jean-Paul Sartre’s), to have recognized that the constricting nature of freedom —which is always a freedom of choice—is the very basis of the human condition. As Sartre put it: man, whether he likes it or not, is condemned to be free.

This is a truth, however, that our contemporary world seems bent on ignoring. Like the French revolutionaries, who raised “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to the level of absolute ideals (not realizing that they were inherently contradictory, not to say incompatible), the contemporary Western world has made freedom an end in itself, an absolute, sacrosanct value to which everything else—dignity, decency, privacy—must be subordinated. Both “freedom of expression” and a new, cynically exploited absolute—the “right to be informed”—are now being invoked to justify every outrage, no matter how despicable and pernicious. They are inviolable “principles” that cannot be tampered with; they have become a “law” unto itself, and one that thus takes precedence over all others.

Diana’s last interview was given, significantly enough, on June 13 to a woman journalist, Anick Cojean, who works for Le Monde, one of the few newspapers in the world that has steadfastly refused to publish photographs (though it does employ cartoonists) and which has sought to maintain the undisputed supremacy of the printed word. In this interview Diana complained bitterly of the pursued and hunted life she was now forced to lead by a swarm of journalistic stalkers who had become so omnipresent and expert at high-speed espionage that extraordinary ruses and decoys—with several chauffeur-driven cars driving off in different directions—now had to be employed in an attempt to “throw them off the scent.”

During her last afternoon in Paris, Diana left the Ritz Hotel where she had been staying with her lover, wishing to do some discreet shopping in various fashionable stores near the Champs-Elysees. The swarm of inquisitive photographers and journalists who dogged her every step finally became so obnoxious that she was forced to return, dismayed and frustrated, to her future father-in-law’s hotel, where she must have felt like a trapped animal.

The supreme irony of her fate is that, in the final analysis, it was not altogether accidental. Had she had the foresight of a Winston Churchill or an Eisenhower, who during World War II had “doubles” driven around in cars in order to deceive Nazi killer-squads, Princess Diana might have saved her life by finding a suitable double to deceive her pursuers. But in peacetime, such extreme measures are inconceivable.

And so she died, victim of the very forces she had so thoughtlessly encouraged. For, unlike Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who detested having a photograph taken of her, Diana had no objection to being filmed while accomplishing well publicized acts of charity—in favor of the downtrodden and oppressed, of African lepers, of victims of AIDS, of footless cripples mutilated by mines laid in Bosnia, etc. She who had not hesitated to give an unprecedented television interview in order to make her personal sufferings as a wife and mother known to the entire world thus became a consummate actress.

Religions, even in an age of mass idolatry like ours, tend to be morally demanding, as an editorialist in the Gazette de Lausanne aptly pointed out. Diana, however, made no such demands on her devotees. This was the secret of her extraordinary success. She became Diana, Goddess of the Spectacle, not to say the Goddess of Illusion—and the intellectual emptiness of her personality was precisely what made it so easy for her “fans” to project their own fantasies upon her.

There are roles one assumes in life which then become part of one’s character, and this seems to have been the case with Princess Diana. To avenge herself for the humiliations she had suffered at the hands of the British Royal Family, she chose to play the part of a modern mater dolorosa, expressing her maternal grief over the “loss” of two sons she had not been allowed to “educate” according to her personal wishes and in a truly “modern” style. Like so many of her contemporaries, who lived and live simultaneously in two worlds—the world of harsh, everyday reality and the dream world of television “irreality”—she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, gaily kicking up her heels in nightclubs while remaining Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales. It was a dangerous game, but the public loved it because it was so unconventional, so unstuffy, so “exciting.” But in so doing she aroused the gargantuan appetite of the scandalmongers and tabloid gossipers who pursued her like Furies to the ends of the earth. And so she died, as she had lived for the last few months of her existence, pursued and finally mauled by the monster she had too frequently caressed.