Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What is Freedom For?

Too often we take for granted that freedom is something we should want to have. Thus, we take it for granted. Further, we treat it as an end and not a means to something. Thus, we don't even understand what freedom is.

At Acton U., freedom was connected to virtue. The aim is not liberty as libertinism, as license to do whatever you want. The aim is to allow people to have liberty so that they are able to chose to do right. Virtue is not coerced. If I hold a gun to someone's head and make them do something immoral, that person is not culpable for their actions. Conversely, one is not to be praised for being forced to do what's right. Both vice and virtue must be freely chosen. Love, too, must be freely chosen to be love. In the end, the aim is to have a virtuous liberty -- but to have that, you have to have the option of choosing vice.

It was observed at Acton U. that in the Old Testament, the jews connected the obeying of the Mosaic law with liberty. This showed a deep understanding of the connection between rules and liberty. For Jews, liberty was liberation from servitude -- and this included the servitude of sins and the base appetites. If you are a slave to mental sickness, you are not truly free. The same is true of immoral behavior. Indeed, those who are slaves to immorality are more easily enslaved to people and to governments. So following good rules in fact allow you to have more freedom, not less. A child banging on a piano demonstrates only a very primitive kind of freedom. No rules are involved. However, as a child learned to play piano, that child goes through certain stages toward developing freedom. First, the child has to have discipline. This leads to rote playing. Mastery follows, which then leads to the child being able to create their own musical compositions. This helps demonstrate the connections among liberty, good, and truth. One has to learn the true way to play piano to become good, which then leads you to creative liberty. (This same approach should be taken in poetry and the other arts -- why do we not take a pianist who hasn't learned how to play the piano properly seriously, but we will take seriously artists and poets who won't learn their arts in the same way? -- people think because they can speak, they can do poetry, though they would never think they could compose music just because they can hum.)

With the advent of Christianity, though, you have the introduction of Christian freedom. Rather than merely having prohibitions, you are now free to do good. For the Christian, freedom is a call to be holy; freedom is liberty in Christ.

For St. Thomas Aquinas, reflecting the influence of Aristotle, freedom was freedom for excellence. Free choice was oriented toward human happiness and excellence and was therefore connected to virtue and reason. For Aquinas, there is a connection among happiness, love, and truth. Freedom comes about through a rational inclination to truth and happiness. Reason leads to truth, while will leads to goodness.

Humans are free and in control of our actions because of our rational inclinations to truth and happiness, not in spite of these things. Reason and virtue lead to freedom which leads to a more human life of choice and happiness.

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