Are the foundations of the European Enlightenment, upon which the historical development of freedom rests, false, or at least deficient? The question ‘what is freedom? is in the end no less complicated than the question ‘what is truth?’ The dilemma of the Enlightenment, into which we have undeniably fallen, constrains us to repose these two questions as well as to renew our search for the connection between them.
“Truth and Freedom.” Communio 23 (Spring, 1996), 19
Reflection – A great deal of over-simplification surrounds the questions of freedom today. For example, ‘freedom means no one gets to tell me what to do!’ By that standard, none of us are free. The government’s regulating presence in our lives increases every year.
Or, ‘freedom means I can decide for myself what is right and wrong!’ This seems reasonable, and there is a measure of truth to it (after all, we do have to decide), but clearly the matter is not that simple. The fellow making news in
these days, the Internet cannibal killer, undoubtedly decided for himself what is right and wrong. I don’t see him becoming a poster boy for Freedom Now. Canada
Or, ‘freedom means I do what I please, as much as I can.’ OK, there’s again there’s some validity to this – a measure of personal autonomy is a necessary element of freedom. But this hardly exhausts the subject of ‘what is freedom.’ If what I please to do is go and play a real life version of Frogger on the 401 (for non-Canadians, this is one of our major highways), I will in short order be free at best to lie staring at the ceiling of my hospital room.
And here we touch on the key point. We are free, in a limited sense, to do as we please. But each free action we take either increases our real freedom or limits it. If I use my freedom to choose to drink myself into a stupor each night or snort cocaine, to lie and cheat and steal or to abuse my sexuality in various ways, or to simply be a lazy slug, then I am indeed ‘acting freely’, but at what cost?
If I do all these things, I will not be free to love. I will not be free to commit my life to another person or to some great cause. I will not be free to do anything that is deeply worth doing, because I will have dissipated my human powers in excess and sloth.
Freedom exists not simply in the immediate action, the immediate choice. Freedom relates to the whole of life, to the kind of person I am becoming as I make each free disposition of myself. Is this choice making me stronger, more generous, less selfish, more free? Or is this choice binding me in soft chains of self-indulgence or rough chains of indulged anger and violence, or tight constricting chains of fear and paralysis?
In other words, as Ratzinger says, the question ‘what is freedom’ ends up being the same as ‘what is truth’. I cannot play Frogger on the 401 because the human body is not agile enough to dodge around eight lanes of traffic moving at 120 km/h. That is truth. And any action taken that violates the truth of my humanity and how I am configured to live, the kind of being I am meant to become, eventually leads to my becoming one more road kill on the great highway of life.
In other words, the life of freedom is identical with the life of virtue. Virtue is strength, and each virtue, all tending to and ordered by the great virtue of caritas, love, strengthens me to truly free action, to a life unbound by any external or internal hindrance. If I am brave and self-disciplined, just and prudent, I am free. Otherwise my freedom is a sham, an illusion, at best a moment of self-indulgence or self-will.
Over-simplifying the question, insisting on keeping it at a superficial level of ‘I do what I want, so leave me alone, you!’ is simply a dodge (another version of Frogger, if you will). Sooner or later we splat against the reality that doing what we want does not make us happy or free. We can reject the guidance of the Church or any other source of traditional moral wisdom, but doing that does not eliminate the question.