Freedom is tricky thing to understand, for there are many different kinds. Here’s a short list:
1. Freedom from external restraint. For example, I am free in the sense that I am not imprisoned by steel bars, shackles, nor bound by rope. Those guys at Guantanamo Bay? Not so much.
2. Freedom from internal necessity—our choices are not determined by any internal necessity.
3. Freedom from moral bind. For example, if married, I am not morally free to sleep with another woman. If I were later widowed and remarried, then I could, but not now. I am not morally free in this respect. I have many other moral freedoms, but just not this.
4. Freedom from positive law, rules and regulations. For example, if positive law, rule or regulation does not prohibit some action, then, relative to those laws, rules and regulations, I am free to do that action.
These freedoms are all freedoms from some particular law, restraint or bind, though there is a fifth kind:
5. Freedom for excellence. There are certain traits, skills, habits and virtues that free a person for excellence. For example, an undisciplined and untrained person on a guitar makes noise. But a disciplined and trained person on that same guitar makes beautiful music. So those who are undisciplined and untrained are not free for that musical excellence—they are bound by ignorance. What is true for music excellence is also true for moral excellence: If we are untrained and undisciplined, subject and given to ignorance and human vice, say, greed, lust, jealously, anger, and so forth, then we are bound by ignorance, vice or sin. We are unfree in this respect.
The first four freedoms are freedoms from certain binds, laws and restraints, though the fifth freedom is freedom for a particular end. What’s interesting about the fifth freedom is that it requires certain binds, laws and restraints, particularly over our vices and undisciplined will. Without those binds, there is no such freedom for excellence—there is no self-realization. Hence, binds or laws, if they are good, will always curtail some freedoms, but only for a greater freedom for excellence.
People nowadays don’t recognize and properly value freedom for excellence. We see liberty as sheer licence, which is really problematic (please read Shain’s article Liberty and License in the American and Western tradition, and click here and here). Moreover, our freedom to choose is seen as a good in and of itself, as if it were an end for itself, turning freedom of choice into a kind of god, but this is all wrong. Liberty is not licence and our freedom to choose is not a good in and of itself. Instead, liberty is the self-mastery or self-realization (as Socrates held). In fact, our freedom to choose is a good only so that we are able to choose to pursue our excellence; hence, the freedom of choice divorced from the pursuit of excellence is not good and choices known to be the contrary of excellence are, in fact, misuses of our freedom (Gal 5:13-26 and 1 Peter 2:16).
Deep down inside, I think most of us know that what I am saying is true, but many people have just lost touch with it, for we live in a really shitty world. To better see my point, consider two heroes of the West: Socrates and Jesus Christ.
Socrates pursued wisdom, unconcerned with wealth and prestige. He refused to stop this pursuit, even if it cost him his life. And when convicted of a crime and sentenced to death (unjustly, I might add), he chose to face his execution rather than to commit an injustice by escaping (see here). Thence, Socrates chose death over injustice. Now, do you think that Socrates was unfree because he didn’t have much wealth, was imprisoned and sentenced to death? Certainly not in the sense that matters most. In that sense, he was freer than most people today, for the lower inclinations and vices common to man, say, the inclination to preserve one’s own life over justice, wrath, and so forth, were controlled and conquered. He was thus not enslaved by fears, vice and wordly desire, but freely committed to justice without compromise (See: Apology, Crito and Phaedo)
Take another example: Jesus. He was a poor carpenter who was promised all the riches, power and prestige of the world if he chose to worship Satan. In response, Jesus denied himself these worldly goods and rebuked Satan, aligning himself toward the good and God’s will, choosing to remain in poverty and toward certain death. Now, do you think that Jesus was unfree, shackled by the moral tyranny or heteronomy of God? Not a chance. Jesus chose to pursue the good and God even to the contempt of himself, just as he later did on the cross. His choices were thus exemplars of liberty, not denials of it.
That sense of awe we feel when learning about these men is not felt because they were rich, powerful and socially prestigious, for they weren’t. Instead, we admire them because they chose the good despite every lower human inclination and vice pulling them toward the contrary. What we’re admiring is their self-discipline, strength and genuine liberty, much of what we lost sense of in these crazy times.
What else can I say about freedom? Well, we seem to really value the freedom of access in the material world—the possession, control or power over resources. Because of this value, we idolize money, wealth and social prestige. We are slaves to it, even to the contempt of the good. In some ways, our devotion is understandable, because we need resources to live. But modern liberals are so captivated by the freedom of access that they often see the poor as characteristically unfree and without happiness or excellence, shackled and victimized by their poverty. In fact, for modern liberals, just about any inequality pertaining to class, race and sex is explained in terms of some injustice regarding freedom of access, usually at the hands of those with more access. Hence, liberal solutions are often demands to redistribute the freedom of access: Other people are told that they must surrender money, power and wealth. The happiness, excellence and liberty of the poor are thus treated as if they were stolen by elitists but made available by means of government handouts.
So what’s a problem with this? Well, because the problem (lack of freedom of access) and solutions for liberals are fixated on social dynamics, their solution precludes the need for self-examination and self-realization, for one does not need to consider his own character, choices and responsibility if his problem is just that he’s being wrongly “held down” by rich, white men, or whomever else. What develops, then, is an culture of grievance, entitlement and discontentment rather than a culture of happiness, excellence and liberty. As Justice Clarence Thomas said, “Sadly, today it seems as though grievances rather than personal conduct are the means of elevation” Does that sound familiar to anyone? I suspect so. I present Exhibt A.
But let me make something clear: You won’t find your excellence, liberty and happiness in my wallet. You could plunder it dry, but you won’t find it there. And when you fail to find it there, the modern liberals, not knowing any other solution, will simply manufacture a new line of social oppression that has “held you down”. And on and on we will go, just like the liberals are now doing with women, black Amercians and other people of colour. It’s a wild goose chase.
My proposal? It’s simple and anti-climactic: Quit blaming other people and quit trying to find your excellence in debt and grievance–turn your glare inward. Seek solitude, or prayer, but certainly seek the good. Change yourself. Elevate yourself. It’s hard work, but so is anything worthwhile.
P.S., Reading from the Bible, Plato and Aristotle wouldn’t hurt either–just saying.
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