by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
One gets the sense from contemporary pedagogy that freedom and rights are the most precious things that a culture can bestow on its people. Young people know all about MLK and Rosa Parks and seem to think that western civilization is mainly a long history of oppression that is only slowly being altered by progressive, secular ideology. “Free at last, free at last” and they never think that their notion of freedom might be deeply inadequate.
Yes, you most likely.
Only there is something rather misty about all this freedom, if pressed just the slightest bit. Where is this freedom going? What is it for? If there is anything that is an unquestioned truism of modern education, it is that knowledge is power. The dimmest of bulbs will brighten up with the recitation of the fundamental axiom of the novum organum. (In the flyleaf of William Blake’s copy of Bacon’s propaganda, the poet wrote “good advice for Satan’s kingdom.”) For the invocation of “knowledge is power” is already the kernel of Nietzsche’s will to power, and both are based on a forgetting—a forgetting of the meaning and praxis of contemplation, of prayer, and of the notion that the most important knowledge is not power.
But this last bit is almost an unthinkable thought for modern people. Buddhism can approach it, a letting be that is not simple passivity, but even then, it lacks an affirmative, elemental celebration that is only possible with the thought of creation. In phenomenology that takes a religious turn or in the powerfully creative thought of Christos Yannaras, for example, one finds a repudiation of the linkage between the person and nature, though this is a mechanized nature, doomed to death, indifferent to the suffering of the transient beloved. Shestov righteously raises his fist against this cold nature. So did Dostoevsky, so should you. But perhaps this is not all there is to nature. Pascal was tempted to terror and despair before the vast void of Galilean space. Perhaps “these void spaces poignantly named by Pascal are already a degraded creation. God’s creation is not a void infinity of empty space. We do not have to think of either God or nature in terms of such vacant infinity” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, 188.)
There is an older sense in which nature is consonant with the aspirations of the person. William Desmond draws a distinction between the conatus essendi (the striving, struggle for living) and the passio essendi (the pure giftedness of our being which is the prior foundation upon which the latter derives). Modernity is largely blind to the passio essendi and it would not see it as freedom. Instead, it identifies freedom with something that is derivative, secondary, and not really a metaphysically coherent concept of liberty. True freedom as the perfected flourishing of one’s being is an eschatological fruition that can be anticipated insofar as one’s actions bring one closer to the unique gift of one’s being/vocation granted by the creator God. David Bentley Hart highpoints the difference:
It has become something of a commonplace among scholars to note that—from at least the time of Plato through the high Middle Ages—the Western understanding of human freedom was inseparable from an understanding of human nature: to be free was to be able to flourish as the kind of being one was, so as to attain the ontological good towards which one’s nature was oriented (i.e., human excellence, charity, the contemplation of God, and so on). For this reason, the movement of the will was always regarded as posterior to the object of its intentions, as something wakened and moved by desire for rational life’s proper telos, and as something truly free only insofar as it achieved that end towards which it was called. To choose awry, then—through ignorance or malfeasance or corrupt longing—was not considered a manifestation of freedom, but of slavery to the imperfect, the deficient, the privative, the (literally) subhuman. Liberty of choice was only the possibility of freedom, not it’s realization. (In the Aftermath, p. 89)
One might conceivably see passio essendi as being lacking will, but I think it is better to see it as a compact, elemental gift from which all other powers derive. It is not so much a lack of freedom as a richness that includes a joyous reception of being that grounds reason and will.
Modern, voluntarist notions of freedom are akin to the way scientism approaches the existence of reality. Scientism never really asks the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It can’t understand that an infinite series of finite causes still can’t address origins—or even feel the need for such, apparently. Similarly, voluntarism is fixated on finite, concrete situations and never sees that the source of freedom is prior and other. Concomitant with voluntarism is the notion of the individual. For an autonomous self with clear boundaries, all associations must be purely elective; all relations necessarily extrinsic, for any other kind of relation would impinge upon freedom and put in question the clear and distinct identity of the self. The self is like one of those hard, billiard ball atoms of the nineteenth century. It has not yet heard of the discoveries of the quantum world, of entanglement, of inexplicable, strange alliances in being.
Voluntarism is the conception of freedom as a will utterly unbound from the dictates of the given. Eric Voegelin warned against the latent Gnosticism in modernity. Anything outside the bounded confines of the buffered cogito is an alien other, the enemy that must be overcome by the superior gnosis—increasingly identified with our technological mastery of nature. This separation of choice from the heteronomous teleology of nature is precisely what a modern thinks freedom is. Why do you think there is such rejoicing and admiration amongst the media and elite cognoscenti when an aging decathlete moves on from a failed nose job to a gender modification? It is the triumph of the will, with apologies to Leni Riefenstahl. The minority that controls propaganda and instructs children so that the rising generation will suffer no ethical confusion as to what is good and right honors the courage of an individual whose actions confirm their own prejudices. Likewise, the redefinition of marriage to include homosexual alliances is celebrated as a securing of rights against bigoted and hateful irrationality. Defenders of ancient custom find themselves cast in the role of oppressors, disdained as carriers of foul spiritual smells, easily lumped in with neo-nazis and the likes of Westboro Baptist church. (So funny, how modern liberals are blind to their own fascism.)
Meanwhile, traditionalists gesture towards a natural law that strike most as arcane and dubious or point in vain ineptitude towards sacred texts many reject and others interpret differently. They are typically unable to articulate how the new innovation is actually a refusal of the giftedness of being, for the giftedness includes natural harmonies and beautiful differences that are given prior to elective affinity. The modern self is ineluctably a post-Christian mode of understanding. In the wake of creatio ex nihilo, it can “think” nothingness to some degree. One has to note the location of the “nothing points.” Now it is the self that creates itself from nothing—so the idea that freedom might have a teleological directive that excludes certain choices as inimical to the fruition of being is treated as an impious imposition, for the self has assumed the place of deity.
Here, I detect a repeating pattern. The isolated self that would triumph over nature is also the terrified individual doomed by a callous nature that perpetuates a mechanism of generation at the expense of the uniquely unrepeatable. The desire for voluntarist freedom is subtly linked to the grasp at eternal life. This is perhaps the temptation of Adam and Eve. I like to imagine it was not a simple stupidity, a mere pride to arrogate to themselves equality with God. That has always seemed to me an unrealistic myth. More likely, the Satan implied a well-meaning, but weak God. There are plenty of theologians of that ilk among us. God wishes you to be well, but He is unable to guarantee your safety. Do you not know that knowledge is power? Ingest this, grow in power, and you will discover eternal life within you. Indeed, the God secretly wishes you to defy His petty prohibition. He is testing you, to see if you will grow up beyond childish fears. Take this, and fear not. Autonomous freedom casts out fear.
One would actually have to follow certain developments in late medieval theology and philosophy to discover the genealogy of your modern nihilist who hides from the despair of meaningless existence by watching Game of Thrones, texting, instagramming, whatever the au courant flavor of social media happens to be. This industrious avoidance is often combined with the voracious seeking of wealth in order to consume the many products offered by modern capitalism. Freedom of choice can easily slide into banality, to an enslaved distraction, desperate to evade the hastily covered over abyss.