Liberty Constrained

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                         Wednesday, January 1

Previously, I wrote about the individualist, secular notion of freedom as solely negative. “freedom” means being freed from something. That something depends entirely on the individual and is thus purely preferential and can be anything. “freedom” means being constrained by nothing: not by religion, not by the state, not by families, not by friends, not by corporations, not by morals, ethics, law or even our own psychology. The modernist march has even tried to “free” us from the very laws of physical reality by rationalizing them away as illusions. The proper word for this kind of freedom is “liberty”. But a world without constraints is not a world of total freedom but one of absolute tyranny. Only the prisoner of conscience is free.

As I illustrated previously, there is another concept of freedom. Freedom can also be positive: the freedom to do good. Freedom is not merely a privation of power of others over us. Such “negative” freedom can be good when it shields us from unjust coercion but it only exists as a reflection of the positive freedom founded on the Good. It is the good that orients our freedom, both negative and positive, and, without which, our freedom is unintelligible. If there is no supreme good to which our freedom is subordinate to then not only does our freedom become meaningless, there is no longer any reason beyond our own selfishness to ever respect any one else’s freedom. Liberty, or negative freedom, is smaller than, and contingent upon, our right to positive freedom because without an objective, universal good, and the right to pursue that good freely, liberty makes no sense.

Not only is constraint not contrary to freedom, it is necessary to it. A purely negative view of freedom where freedom is merely freedom from constraint does little to allow us to live in a truly human way but only provides the most basic groundwork for human action upon which we do great good, horrible evil, or, if we choose, even nothing at all. Negative freedom or liberty as the beginning and end of our social framework promises nothing except anarchy. Liberty must be constrained so that its destructive properties are inhibited and its creative potential expanded. This requires that we possess not only a negative sense of freedom from coercion but, additionally, a positive sense of freedom in which freedom is for something, namely something good.

Mere negative freedom is freedom dominated by the will. Everyone may do whatever they please, good or bad, healthy or disordered, pleasurable or painful. The will is supreme and things like virtue, human dignity, and human flourishing are subordinate to it. The will of the individual is expanded, without borders, and yet no two wills may ever touch for in doing so they will meet resistance and liberty is constrained. Society itself must be abolished and replaced with an aggregate of liberty. When freedom is merely from something but for nothing then the world becomes quite lonely.

Freedom from coercion must exist beside freedom for virtue. Put another way, if negative freedom or liberty means being able to say “no” to the wills of others over us then positive freedom consists in being able to say “yes” to God’s will. It is not enough that our wills be free, they must be directed towards something good. True freedom involves living well, it also means living within the constraints of natural and divine law. When we live according to our nature and temper our wills then new horizons reveal themselves. The ideal of freedom should not be merely autonomous man but virtuous man. Independence Is nice but divorced from some positive end it remains a mere means with no purpose. We could say that the negative freedom of the will to free of coercion is a means and freedom for virtue is the end we should hope to achieve: to temper ourselves so that virtue becomes easy and doing what is good is second nature.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the vitality of a “freedom for excellence.” George Weigel, in his article A Better Concept of Freedom, sums up Aquinas’ concept of freedom:

Aquinas’ subtle and complex thinking about freedom is best captured in the phrase, freedom for excellence. Freedom, for St. Thomas, is a means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfillment of human destiny. Freedom is the capacity to choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit—or, to use the old–fashioned term, as an outgrowth of virtue. Freedom is the means by which, exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human beings.

The constraint of our positive freedom that orients us towards what is good and forbids what is evil expands our liberty by giving it a legitimacy and a purpose beyond ourselves. Otherwise, liberty is made small: based only on the caprice of the individual. Freedom from injustice and freedom for excellence, to pursue goodness, these two senses of freedom together represent the fullness of freedom. So naturally we need both to be fully free. It is in the grand combination of liberty and virtue together that our shackles are broken and we are no longer slaves, not to each other, not to ourselves, and not to sin.

Christian Ohnimus is a husband and registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He hopes to raise a holy family with the help of his better and more beautiful other half.

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