Has Liberalism “Enlightened” our Sense of Freedom?

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                         Wednesday, December 4

The Enlightenment conception of freedom is based on individualism. “Freedom” to the liberal means being allowed to do whatever one pleases as long as it does not harm others or their belongings. As a liberal nation, this idea of freedom appeals to most Americans and its appeal is reflected in our view of the state as necessarily secular. Separation of Church and State is a phenomenon that many Americans are proud of. Why? Because the state should not compel us towards any moral or civic goal. To do so would inevitably be at odds with the objectives of some Americans and would inhibit those Americans from doing whatever they wanted: it would violate their freedom. This is the view of 17th century intellectual Thomas Hobbes who sought to reduce the role of the state to man’s lowest common denominator, the one thing he thought we could all agree on: our personal survival and comfort. Hobbes’ ideas caught on and our modern conception of freedom, along with the secular state, was born.

The “Enlightened” sense of freedom has not gone unchallenged, however. The 19th century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel who we now call a “conservative” was one internal critic of liberalism and the individualist definition of freedom. That “freedom” means being allowed to do whatever one pleases was shallow to Hegel. He called this definition of freedom “arbitrariness” and, indeed, much of what we call “freedom” today seems like little more than mere arbitrariness. Hegel offered a second definition of freedom and that was the ability to engage in a common pursuit. The role of the state, Hegel argued, was to provide these common pursuits and thereby expand our freedom. This view was directly at odds with Hobbes who thought that any public pursuit beyond man’s survival and comfort could only devolve into war and anarchy.

In contrast, Hegel, while part of the liberal movement and a defendant of individualism, saw total individuality as a threat to society. How can society function if every person is completely consumed by his own self-interest, showing no interest for others or his community? The state, thought Hegel, was the realm of universal altruism in which everyone was involved for the benefit of others. To Hegel this represented a more mature view of freedom. Thus, freedom is not merely individualistic but a social endeavor as well.

I agree with Hegel that the individualist notion of freedom is shallow and that freedom properly understood is social as well as personal. However, Hegel seemed content to stop there. We should have common pursuits as well as personal ones and that is freedom – but is it? What exactly is it that we are pursuing? Does it matter for us to be free?

The Catholic Church goes further than Hegel ever went. Freedom is a social as well as a personal endeavor but what really defines freedom is the content of what we pursue. The Church speaks of men being “slaves to sin”. In choosing sin we effectively enslave ourselves: we sacrifice our freedom for some disordered desire and consequently cage ourselves. Conversely, in choosing to do good we are free. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Libertas wrote: “But man is by nature rational. When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions.” To be truly free, then, means acting from our self and according to our reason and will. It means acting according to our nature and in accordance to the ends towards which we are naturally ordained. “The truth shall set you free.1” Thus, when we act contrary to our reason and our human nature we act to enslave ourselves. Plato observed that “The first and best of victories is for a man to conquer himself ; to be conquered by himself is, of all things, the most shameful and vile.” To entertain our whimsy, then, does not make us free. It does however, as Hegel noted, make us arbitrary.

We may not always be able to agree on what man’s end is but that does not mean that we shouldn’t try to pursue some end. Instead of allowing the State’s role be determined by social whimsy or contract we should be guided by natural law – even in defiance of social forces. Only then will we be truly free. To live according to the natural law means living a virtuous life and the purpose of human law is to promote this good life and thereby promote our freedom. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “virtue is the end of law” and that “the purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue.”

In short, freedom means being allowed to act virtuously and within the constraints of natural and divine law. While the arbitrary may shout that two plus two equals five and believe they are liberated, the truth is that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.”

1John 8:32 NIV

Christian Ohnimus is a registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He is a contributor to The Porch and The Catholic Renaissance.


One thought on “Has Liberalism “Enlightened” our Sense of Freedom?

  1. Pingback: Liberty Constrained | The Porch

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