What is Freedom?

In the modern world, we tend to think of freedom in terms of satisfying desires. To be sure, even many who live for that false sort of freedom seem to realize that we then become no more than our desires or, more horribly, the thwarting of those desires — a terrible and humiliating state in either case. Hannibal the Cannibal is the most free of all modern men because he has become his desires and he has gained the power to satisfy them. Hannibal the Cannibal is the role-model for our politicians and our lawyers, our investment bankers and our corporate executives, our athletes and our entertainers. He may even be a role-model for many clergymen.

Let me move in a different direction with a quote from a modern philosopher:

[W]e are free when our acts spring from our whole personality, when they express it, when they have that indefinable resemblance to it which one sometimes finds between the artist and his work.” (page 172, Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson, Dover Publications, 2001 reprint)

Let me provide another quote, this one from a prominent brain-scientist:

An intent is the directing of an action toward some future goal that is defined and chosen by the actor. (page 8, How Brains Make Up Their Minds, Walter J. Freeman)

In Thomistic moral philosophy, ‘intent’ defines human morality and freedom. We don’t freely will to be a good man or a good woman, we choose to struggle towards that state of goodness. We don’t freely will to cut down on our drinking or stop smoking, we choose to move towards a state where we don’t continue our bad habits or bad thoughts because our brains and our bodies and our relationships to others and to our environments have all changed. We should realize that the very process of forming intents can be a bit vague if only because we don’t see the goal clearly until we’re well along the path. I’ve certainly deluded myself often about the goal of becoming a Christ-like man and I’ve also deluded myself about the nature of the path I have to travel. The forming of our moral intentions is an ongoing process and not an action taken once and for all time.

The modern concept of free-will is useful to entrepreneurs, political or commercial, as they go about their task of destroying local community life to draw us all into the gigantic marketplaces of a land where natural cultural and physical boundaries have been dismantled. That concept of free-will leaves most human beings stripped of their defenses against those entrepreneurs and other predators and parasites of a cosmopolitanism and imperialism rendered all the more damaging to human beings by the pretense, in the U.S. and other countries, that we remain dedicated to traditional human values.

[W]e are free when our acts spring from our whole personality…

So said Bergson but I’m not sure if he realized the full meaning of his own words. He was caught in the modern, liberal understanding of the human animal as being naturally a person, even a person from conception — a trivialization of the concept of ‘person’ and a useless term alongside that of ‘human being’ or ‘human animal’. We’re not born persons and there is good reason for a sensitive observer to fear that that most of us remain human animals to the grave and never become persons. Mark Twain, a better observer than thinker, noted that many Americans claim they want to go to Heaven and live with God for time without end but few willingly engage in activities that would prepare them for life in any Heaven conceivable under Christian beliefs. My belief is that we can become human persons by preparing ourselves to live in Heaven. Even then, we’re persons by sharing in Christ’s own Being rather than being freestanding persons.

There are only Three Who are truly persons, Who are truly unified and coherent and complete in their single Being — to use criteria for person-hood I’ve proposed elsewhere. There are virtuous pagans who show strong signs of person-hood, Cato the Younger and Geronimo to name but two, but the greatest of human animals is still constrained by his circumstances and his inborn characteristics. We’re seemingly stuck if my instinct is true that freedom and person-hood are tied together. Our very being and the choices offered us by our environments are tightly constrained. How can we be free? How can we become true persons, or at least truer persons?

How could even Jesus of Nazareth have been truly free? After all, He was a true man. Doesn’t mean that He was also constrained in the ways in which even the best of us are constrained? Yes, but there’s one major difference that makes all the difference:

The Son of God freely chose to become Jesus of Nazareth, to be born a helpless baby in the care of Mary and Joseph, to live as the adopted son of a carpenter, to become a carpenter Himself. He freely chose to be born a son of David and of Abraham. He freely chose to be Jewish, to follow the law of Moses and to worship His own Father each Sabbath. He freely chose to preach a mission of salvation, to save some and to cure some of their bodily ailments. He freely chose to suffer, to be crucified, to die, to be resurrected.

Jesus of Nazareth was the only truly free man in history. His freedom was one with His perfect sinlessness. His freedom was one with the union of man with God. His sinlessness would not have been perfect if Jesus Christ had been less than the Creator of His own world and His own human body, if He hadn’t freely chosen to live that humble life. His divine personality would have been somehow cramped.

What about the rest of us? We can choose the false freedom of a Hannibal the Cannibal by seeking to satisfy our desires rather than setting intentions to move towards moral goals. Or we can intend to reach the noble though constrained freedom of virtuous pagans. Or we can intend to reach the perfect freedom of a Christ-like person. This is the difference between the path to virtuous paganism and the path to a Christ-like virtue:

The pagan disciplines himself to become a truly good man while the Christian disciplines himself to learn how to stay out of God’s way while the good Lord does His work.

When we stay out of God’s way, He’ll pick us up and put us on His shoulder. After we ride for a while, we’ll learn the rhythms and direction of God’s movement. He’ll set us down and we’ll find ourselves moving with God as if part of Him. But we’ll be us. We’ll be free because we’ll be moving along with Him in His perfect freedom. We’ll be thinking along with Him in His perfect freedom. We’ll be speaking along with Him in His perfect freedom. We’ll be acting along with Him in His perfect freedom.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Christian spirituality, Christianity, Modern culture, Moral Formation, Moral issues, Peace of Christ, philosophy, politics, Rules of Life

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