Freedom: A Vexed Question

Freedom: A Vexed Question December 4, 2017
The Crucifixion of St. Julia (c.1497) by Hieronymus Bosch. Public Domain. When commanded to sacrifice to pagan gods, she replied: "My liberty is the service of Christ."
The Crucifixion of St. Julia (c.1497) by Hieronymus Bosch. Public Domain.
When commanded to sacrifice to pagan gods, she replied: “My liberty is the service of Christ.”

“To coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom—freedom from what? Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, the meaning of this term is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.” – Isaiah Berlin

Being American, I can’t help but hear the words “freedom” and “liberty” a lot. Every sporting event, never mind every communal gathering, finds its beginning in our national anthem:

And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

And those are just the lines we sing. Some version of the final couplet is repeated in every verse, building until:

Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand,
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Power that has made and preserved us as a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

From the Christian perspective, a lot of ink has been spilled trying to knit this liberal conception of freedom into a more ancient one (some might say that this is a hefty portion of the Straussian project). Others have devoted their time and effort to its refutation, to a re-grounding of older conceptions rooted in an ultimate incommensurability between the ancient and the modern, the faithful and the liberal. Patrick Deneen is a noted proponent of the second position. He summarizes the issue well:

[L]et me first contrast two competing understandings of liberty, one largely developed in the ancient and Christian world, and the other centrally developed in the early-modern period by, among others, the philosopher John Locke. Both claim the “language of liberty,” but if one is true, the other is false, but, importantly too, it is only from the perspective of ancient liberty that one can see more clearly the close relationship between the individualism of classical liberalism and the collectivism of progressive liberalism.

Modern liberalism begins not – as might be believed if we were to follow the narrative of contemporary discourse – not in opposition to Statism or Progressivism, but rather in explicit and intense rejection of ancient political thought and especially its basic anthropological assumptions. Hobbes, among others, is frequently explicit in his criticisms of both Aristotle and “the Scholastics” – that Catholic philosophy particularly influenced by Aquinas, who was of course particularly influenced by Aristotle. Modern liberal theory thus began with an explicit rejection of Aristotelian/Thomist anthropology.

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