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Freedom For More Than Choice
Steven Meyer, S.T.D. | 25 March 2021
If you could act in any way you desired and no one could detect your actions, why not act in a way that gives you the advantage of money, power, and pleasure? Why be good and do silent virtuous actions when, in the end, the masses of society repay you with nothing? This is the classic conundrum put to Socrates by Glaucon in Plato's famous masterpiece, the Republic. Glaucon recounts the power of the Ring of Gyges. The ancestor of Gyges accidentally found a ring that could make him invisible. I will say undetectable. He uses the ring to murder the king, seduce the queen, and become king himself. Even if a ring of undetectability were given to a just person, let’s say a young aspiring politician interested in changing unjust laws, would not the power of acting without public detection eventually lead them to do personally advantageous actions before the virtuous but not personally advantageous actions? Socrates' response is that the person who uses a ring like this to perform unjust and unvirtuous actions is not free but a slave to their passions and appetites.[i]
Both Plato and Aristotle will argue for acting in the truth which can be known. This is real freedom. Even if they do not pay much or offer riches, growing in virtuous actions would be leading the happy or the good life. This message is modified as found in Christianity. It is modified from God's revelation: we are designed for happiness and heaven is defined as happiness forever with God. Heaven would be reaching perfection and in perfection, we would truly be free. Hell would be the ultimate lack of freedom, and thus Dante, in his work The Divine Comedy, depicts humans and Satan in hell as being stuck or trapped in various ways of unfreedom. The Catechism makes the teaching on freedom succinct and clear: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act…to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life…The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is true and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the “slavery of sin” (cf. Rom. 6:17).”[ii]
As articulated by the late Dominican Servais Pinckaers, Christian ethics has distinguished between two types of freedom: freedom of indifference and freedom for excellence.[iii] Freedom of indifference, rooted in William of Ockham (d. 1347), holds that moral actions are done out of obligation to God and the law. God and the law are extrinsic to personal autonomy. Ockham rejects the idea that humans are inclined toward happiness as their ultimate end. The most important element in this model is human autonomy or freedom of choice. Freedom of indifference is the deliberate choice between perceived good things and is indifferent to whether or not they be good or bad according to God and the law. This value-free concept of freedom, having choice itself as the ultimate freedom, is the normal perception of freedom in today's society.
The second concept of freedom, aligned with what St. John Paul II teaches in his moral encyclical The Splendor of Truth and applied to life issues in The Gospel of Life, is what Pinckaers calls freedom for excellence. This is rooted in that, “every person possesses basic moral inclinations and a primal moral sense that no corruption due to sin can completely destroy…”[iv] While freedom is fallible and fallen, the Christian tradition tells us we have within us seeds of virtue. These seeds need to be nurtured in order to grow. The process of growth in morality is similar to how one grows in lifting weights or playing the cello. An inclination must exist. Then disciplined practice with the guidance of instructors will, over time, allow for the lifting of weights or the playing of the cello to become easier and more delightful. What starts as vague and difficult becomes, over time, with direction, easy and proficient. Unlike physical or musical training, moral education is an inclination for everyone. Through her teachings, ministers, educators, and the personal example of family, friends, and leaders, Christianity can illustrate the value of and encourage the growth in the moral virtues. While everyone begins as a beginner, the freedom for excellence needs to become a habit in personal lives. The Sermon on the Mount illustrates how one moves from legalism to higher levels of justice based upon the heart and acts of charity. One slowly becomes free when one can have self-mastery in the moral life. It is a practice that takes a lifetime of growth.
Published on March 25, 1995, St. John Paul II in The Gospel of Life reminds us that all attacks against innocent human life in the name of freedom are rooted in a false understanding of freedom and the divorce of society from God. He elaborates the errors of freedom of indifference at a societal level in EV articles 16-20. These errors result in attacks against life justified in the name of having a choice for: contraception, sterilization, abortion, and assisted suicide. These issues and opportunities to choose are given massive funding for educational campaigns to be marketed as goods. The result of this freedom of indifference results in our entire society being threatened through the diminution of true freedom itself in the name of mistaken altruism. Where God and inherent natural moral laws are divorced from the human capacity for choice, choice itself becomes relativized. A major theme developed in his work on The Splendor of Truth and applied to the defense of human life in The Gospel of Life, John Paul’s concept of freedom can be summed up thusly: “For freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. Hence the words of our Lord, which speak so clearly to everyone: ‘The truth will make you free’ (Jn 8:32). There is no freedom without truth.”[v]
[i] For the full story, see Plato, Republic Book II pp. 605-630 in Plato: The Collected Dialogues edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns fifteenth printing (Princeton University Press, 1994).
[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1731 and 1733.
[iii] These are treated by Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P., (Catholic University of America Press, 1995), pp. 327-78.
[iv] Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics p. 357.
[v] Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, intervention of September 25, 1964, in Acta synodalia Concilii Vaticani II, Iperiod III Ivol. 2, pp. 530-32, at 531; Quoted by Avery Cardinal Dulles, “The Truth About Freedom: A Theme from John Paul II,” p. 129 in The Splendor of the Truth: Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology edited by J.A. NiNoia, O.P., and Romanus Cessario, O.P. (Scepter, Our Sunday Visitor, Midwest Theological Forum, 1994).
Steven Meyer, STD
Assistant Professor of Theology-University of St. Thomas (Houston)
2021 Academic Fellow for the Society of St. Sebastian