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(Of Thomas Aquinas) According to one of his most eminent interpreters today, the Belgian Dominican Servais Pinckaers, Aquinas’s 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. Freedom is something that grows in us, and the habit of living freedom wisely must be developed through education, which among many other things involves the experience of emulating others who live wisely and well. On St. Thomas’s view, freedom is in fact the great organizing principle of the moral life—and since the very possibility of a moral life (the capacity to think and choose) is what distinguishes the human person from the rest of the natural world, freedom is the great organizing principle of a life lived in a truly human way. That is, freedom is the human capacity that unifies all our other capacities into an orderly whole, and directs our actions toward the pursuit of happiness and goodness understood in the noblest sense: the union of the human person with the absolute good, who is God.
Thus virtue and the virtues are crucial elements of freedom rightly understood, and the journey of a life lived in freedom is a journey of growth in virtue—growth in the ability to choose wisely and well the things that truly make for our happiness and for the common good. It’s a bit like learning to play a musical instrument. Anyone can bang away on a piano; but that is to make noise, not music, and it’s a barbaric, not humanistic, expression of freedom. At first, learning to play the piano is a matter of some drudgery as we toil over exercises that seem like a constraint, a burden. But as our mastery grows, we discover a new, richer dimension of freedom: we can play the music we like, we can even create music on our own. Freedom, in other words, is a matter of gradually acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with perfection.
Thus law has a lot to do with freedom. Law can educate us in freedom. Law is not a work of heteronomous (external) imposition but a work of wisdom, and good law facilitates our achievement of the human goods we instinctively seek because of who we are and what we are meant to be as human beings.......
(Of William of Ockham) With Ockham, we meet what Pinckaers has called the freedom of indifference. Here, freedom is simply a neutral faculty of choice, and choice is everything, for choice is a matter of self-assertion, of power. Will is the defining human attribute. Indeed, will is the defining attribute of all of reality. For God, too, is supremely willful, and the moral life as read through Ockhamite lenses is a contest of wills, a contest between my will and God’s imposition of his will through the moral law.....
Freedom, for Ockham, has little or no spiritual character. The reality is autonomous man, not virtuous man, for freedom has nothing to do with goodness, happiness, or truth. Freedom is simply willfulness. (And if, at this juncture, you hear Frank Sinatra singing “I did it my way” in the back of your mind, you are not mistaken.) Freedom can attach itself to any object, so long as it does not run into a superior will, human or divine. Later in the history of ideas, when God drops out of the equation, freedom comes to be understood in purely instrumental or utilitarian terms. And if the road on which Ockham set out eventually leads to Nietzsche, it also leads, through even more twists and turns, to Princeton’s Peter Singer (author of the major article on “Ethics” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica), and his claim that parents ought to have a few weeks to decide whether their newborn child should be allowed to live. Ideas, indeed, have consequences.
From the Greeks down to Aquinas, every moral philosopher of note had assumed that the pursuit of happiness is the primary moral question. With William of Ockham, the profound linkages among freedom, virtue, and the pursuit of happiness are sundered: morality is mere obligation, freedom is mere willfulness. When Western thought took a decisively subjectivist turn in the seventeenth century, and when that subjectivism eventually gave birth to a principled skepticism about the human capacity to know anything with confidence, the result, which is much with us today, was the emergence of an intellectual culture of radical moral relativism lacking any thick notion of the common good. By positing a profound tension between freedom and reason (or, in his construction, will and reason), Ockham created a situation in which there are only two options: determinisms of a biological, racial, or ideological sort, or the radical relativism that, married to irrationalism, eventually yields nihilism. In either case, freedom self-destructs......
In addition to illuminating a crucial episode in the history of ideas, this tale of two monks also sheds light on grave public issues today. And in doing so, it reminds us that a “clash of civilizations” is being played out within our own society, as well as between ourselves and hostile forces bent on our Tyranny thrives in a world in which means always trump ends. The freedom of indifference cannot sustain a truly free society.
The national debate over cloning and embryonic stem cell research over the past year ought to have given us pause, and precisely on this point. With rare exceptions, the first great public debate of the biotech era was conducted in almost exclusively utilitarian terms (when it was not reduced to appeals to compassion that did not constitute anything resembling a serious argument). What can be done to put this urgent and unavoidable debate onto more secure moral-philosophical ground? I suggest that doing so will require a rigorous reckoning with the degree to which the freedom of indifference has become the operative notion of freedom in much of our high culture, in the media, among many political leaders, in considerable parts of the mainline Protestant religious community, in the sciences, and in the biotech industry. Challenging the freedom of indifference with freedom for excellence is essential if we are to deploy our new genetic knowledge in ways that lead to human flourishing rather than to the soul-less dystopia of the brave new world.....
For in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, there was a remarkable resurgence of simple, indeed robust, moral clarity in a country that had long been told, by everyone from Alan Wolfe to Jerry Falwell, that it was awash in moral relativism. That moral clarity and the resolve that accompanies it seem to have retained their vigor among the vast majority of our people. Among certain parts of the intellectual class, however, they lasted, by my count, approximately ninety-six hours.
This seems to be the statute of limitations in the commentariat on radical moral relativism and its “real world” political offspring—appeasement strategies, moral equivalence theories, “root cause” analyses of terrorism, nonsense about “violence begetting violence” (as if a justly conducted war were the same thing as turning a 767 into a weapon of mass destruction), self-loathing anti-Americanism of the most vulgar sort. Thus far, these intellectual and moral aberrations have been reasonably well confined to the farther fringes of the chattering classes in the United States. But they are well advanced among intellectuals and commentators in western Europe, where I spent five weeks in October and early November. And this fact has everything to do, I suggest, with four things we have pondered this evening: the deterioration of the idea of freedom into willfulness, the detachment of freedom from moral truth, an obsession with “choice,” and the consequent inability to draw the most elementary moral conclusions about the imperative to resist evil—or to recognize evil as such, rather than to deny its reality by an appeal to psychiatric or quasi-Marxist political categories.
The response to September 11 has demonstrated the essential moral common sense of the American people. At the same time, the national recommitment to civil tolerance and the basic human decencies in a religiously diverse society has demonstrated the enduring power of the Judeo-Christian tradition to ground those commitments, which are not being sustained today by ACLU-style theories of liberty or by alternative religious traditions. So let us gratefully take note of the fact that, at a moment of national emergency unprecedented in two generations, the American people are acquitting themselves with the dignity, decency, and determination that come from deeply rooted moral convictions.
What, however, will sustain us over the long haul? There has been a remarkable resurgence of uncomplicated, unapologetic patriotism over the past three months: flags, not yellow ribbons, are the icons of the day. But can this welcome recovery of patriotism be sustained unless it becomes, once again, the expression of a nobler concept of freedom than mere willfulness? Is happy hedonism that for which we are prepared to make the sacrifices that will be required of us? Or is it more likely that the acids of the relativism that accompany a merely negative concept of freedom as “noninterference” will eventually erode today’s resurgent patriotism, too—to the point where appeasement will once again become a respectable word in the national political vocabulary?
A society without “oughts” tethered to truths cannot defend itself against aggressors motivated by distorted “oughts.” That is the truth of which we should have been reminded when reading those chilling letters from the hijackers the week after September 11. The answer to a distorted concept of the good cannot be a radical relativism about the good. It must be a nobler concept of the good.
And that brings us back, at the end of the day, to our tale of two monks.
Freedom for excellence is the freedom that will satisfy the deepest yearnings of the human heart to be free. It is more than that, though. The idea of freedom for excellence and the disciplines of self-command it implies are essential for democracy and for the defense of freedom.
I do not pretend to understand everything that George Weigel is saying. I have a great deal of difficulty comprehending and understanding the implications of the "freedom for excellence" that he is talking about. However there are two other things that I would like to quote, one a random line written by me a little while ago. The other an extract from the Christian Reformed marriage service.
This is one of those examples of the necessity of self-control. If people used their cell phones responsibly and respectably we wouldn't have to talk about banning cell phones while driving or posting no cell phones signs. However because people abuse their cells everyone suffers a decrease of freedom. We will either govern ourselves or we will be governed by others. I know which one I'd rather choose.
The Lord ordained that in marriage the husband should be the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church, and that he should protect her and provide for her in love. This love, if exercised in the spirit and example of Christ, will be conducive to mutual happiness. God also ordained that the wife should be subject to the husband in all things that are according to his Word, showing him deference even as the church shows deference to Christ. Thus the liberty of both husband and wife is glorified by mutual loyalty to law, and the home begun in the name of the Lord and regulated by his commandments becomes the very foundation of a Christian society and provides a foretaste of the eternal home.Aren't liturgies and traditional services amazing?
I am not sure where to go with this but I am sure that Weigel has identified perhaps the most important question of our time. What is the ontology of freedom. What does the word mean? This is where we have lost the battle. This is where we will continue to loose the battle unless we can reclaim the definition of freedom. This is why pro-lifers are loosing to pro-choicers. After all everyone knows "Give me freedom or give me death". Choice trumps life, duh. There is a saying that "He who defines wins". I would go further and say that at this moment in time he who defines freedom wins.