Freedom [is seen] as the right and the opportunity to do just what we wish and not to have to do anything which we do not wish to do. Said in other terms: freedom would mean that our own will is the sole norm of our action and that the will not only can desire anything but also has the chance to carry out its own desire. At this point, however, questions begin to arise: how free is the will after all? And how reasonable is it?
“Truth and Freedom,” in Communio Spring 1996, 17Reflection – Ah, the perennial question of freedom! A favorite of Ratzinger’s, a favorite on this blog. The above idea of freedom is exactly what most modern people would unhesitatingly say, if you pressed them for a definition. ‘Being able to do what I want to do!’ – it sounds so very reasonable. What else could freedom be, anyhow?
But, as Ratzinger says, ‘questions begin to arise.’ If that is the only measure of freedom, the only meaning of freedom, then how free is it? How valuable is it? How real is it?
‘I am free. I do what I want.’ But where do your desires come from? Are they just the animal drives of your passions: “Og want food now! Og want sleep! Og want pretty cave woman! Urg!’ If that’s the whole source of your desires, then you are not free in the slightest. You are the slave of your desires, being borne along irresistibly by whatever sensible object is placed before you that you like. The greyhounds chasing the rabbit around the race track may be having a good time, but one would not call them free.
Or are our desires informed by something outside us? But then the question is, by what? Society, the world we live in, places all sorts of ‘things’ in front of us as things to be desired: home ownership, a successful career, a stock portfolio, marriage, children (two or three, maximum, or else you’re irresponsible!), etc. But if we simply sign on to whatever society decrees the good life to be and go chasing after it… well, how free is that? When everything you want is simply everything society has told you from day one of your life that you’re supposed to want, you may be many things, but free is not one of them.
Maybe you’re an idealist of some sort, and your freedom consists in having decided to live by certain ideals. Well, we’re getting warmer here, but again… what ideals? Where are they from? What are their origins? Have you examined them? Are they true? Because to embrace a bunch of ideals that are not really true is just another form of slavery to desires or soical conventions.
Again, society and the larger culture (whatever that means) have a whole set of ideals they present in every age to their more idealistically inclined citizens. Right now tolerance is a prime ideal, and environmental stewardship. These are not bad things, of course, but if you uncritically accept the current slate of ideas and intellectual fads… well, again, you may be many things, but free is not among them.
Ah, freedom! It is elusive… and people, seeing the difficulty of its demands, can sometimes decide it’s just too much bother. Isn’t it easier just to chase the objects of desires, sign on to society’s norms of the good life, and console oneself with the fashionable ideologies of the day? Is freedom such a great thing, after all, since it seems to be so much bloody work?
But… we are made for freedom. And we all know that, somehow. It’s not so easy to just say, ‘well, forget about freedom – I’ll be a society drone sating myself on bread and circuses.’ Something in us resists that – we are made for freedom.
So we know it’s not slavery to passions, or to social expectation, or to fashions of thought. What is freedom, then? It is, as Ratzinger develops magnificently in this article, a response in love to the demands of truth. Freedom, once we accept its yoke, makes us into pilgrims seeking the truth, the goodness, and the beauty of all things, and demands of us a responsible attitude towards this truth, which is the embrace of love.
This pilgrimage becomes a very deep matter indeed. It is not just the truth that ‘chocolate is yummy’ – so let’s embrace it with love and enthusiasm! It is the deeper truth – what is the world for? Where is it from? What is the point of it all? If we are to be free, and remain free, these deep questions emerge inevitably. How can I live in truth, if the horizons of truth are reduced to the immediate and the obvious? If truth is smaller than me, how can it be the framework in which I live?
There is much more to be said here, and I will return to the subject on this blog, as I have many times already – but that’s enough for now. The questions insistent upon all of us, though, are ‘what is freedom? Is it real? Is it valuable? Am I free?’