Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Thoughts on freedom

If you were to ask a liberal what freedom is the simplest answer you might get is that it means doing what you want to do. And, it's true, there is a sense in which this is a particular type of freedom.

But taking this as a first principle of society leads to some unusual outcomes. The highest circulation newspaper in the UK ran a story recently with the headline "Trans woman, 41, pretended to be a boy to groom a girl." Accompanying the story was a photo of the "trans woman":

If freedom means doing what you want, then logically this would include a man identifying as a woman, if this is what he wanted to do.

But there is another, and I believe more significant, way to define freedom. In one of Chesterton's books, a character is asked to define freedom and he answers "First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself".

If this is true, then freedom cannot mean being able to choose anything. To be free, we must necessarily limit the choices we make, so that they fit with, and help to develop, our personhood. The better we "self-limit" in this sense, the more freedom we have to be powerfully and admirably what we were created to be.

And this is what most people instinctively aim at. We ask what it means to live excellently, in a fully natured way, to best fulfil our created natures.

And this necessarily means that we are oriented to ordering our lives. We think of ourselves as living within a moral universe and we try to adhere to the natural law that we discover through reason, conscience and experience, so that we maintain the moral integrity that is important to our sense of ourselves, and so that we perfect, as best we can as fallible creatures, our moral nature.

We seek as men to fully develop our masculine qualities. We wish for ourselves a muscular frame and physical strength and athleticism; we attempt to fulfil, to a high degree, the roles and duties associated with being a husband and father; we cultivate the harder virtues of courage, endurance, self-discipline and resilience; and we seek to work effectively with other men to uphold the existence of our communities and traditions.

We wish also to live through our spiritual natures. We value experiences of transcendence or communion. We seek to remain open to deeper experiences of love and connectedness. We appreciate the higher experiences available to us through the arts, through an appreciation of female beauty and through a love of nature.

A mind that can govern itself to be oriented to this line of development is a mind that experiences itself as free. It is a mind that is able to self-consciously guide the person along the path that best fulfils our created nature. But our right minds are not always in charge. Sometimes fierce passions (e.g. anger) clouds our reason, or sometimes bad habits (sloth) prove too strong. Perhaps there is an addiction or a temptation that proves stronger than our right minds.

And so part of life is the effort to cultivate habits of virtue, so that we maintain the freedom to self-consciously and successfully pursue our better purposes - so that we, rather than bad habits or addictions or temptations - are in charge and we can develop freely toward our ultimate ends .

There is a lifelong effort to order ourselves; it stands alongside the effort to accumulate wisdom and self-knowledge.


  1. It's a pity more Christians weren't persecuted so that that the Aristotleian Stoicism you speak of had more opportunity to flourish. Though Christianity was always going to win out - it offered an afterlife, an imminent Kingdom of God, greater fellowship and was attuned to the resentment of masses of slaves in ancient Rome. On the contrary Stoicism offered tranquility, but only through personal effort, self-responsibilty and discipline. Stoics had no one to blame for their problems but themselves. Not attractive to the resentful liberal, now more than ever.

    1. Anon, interesting. I agree that the outlook I attempted to outline reaches back to the classical world, but I don't think it was jettisoned by Christianity. There was a quote I read recently, from the then Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, from 1997, which criticises "gender theory" from a perspective similar to the one I set out in the post.

  2. I don't know much about Catholicism, but Wiki tells me about influence of Aristotle, e.g. St Augustine, so I have to agree.

    However, I don't see much influence of Aristotle on Protestantism generally. When Nietzsche was railing against Christianity he was pointing to Aristotle's virtue ethics as a distinct moral alternative. He never praised Aristotle by name, because of his association with the Catholic Church (Nietzsche was raised Lutheran), and his general bias against Socratic and post-Socratic philosophy.

    Nietzsche on the Stoics is not particularly informative as he says little but the strawman and stereotype which was common to his day (glum, humourless, un-fun). Had he read the Stoics more closely he would see that they demonstrate many of the positive affirmations of life, love of fate/absence of resentment, and self-overcoming that a more humble Nietzsche would have affirmed.