What is Freedom?

Categories: Features

In some ways, the question seems to have such an obvious answer that it may seem strange to even ask. What more is there to say except that freedom is the ability to choose between opposing or contrary decisions? Yet it is freedom which has such monumental weight in the moral life. It is the cornerstone, if you will, of that mighty edifice which encompasses the human ability to love or to hate, to follow God or to turn away. And yet, this stock picture of freedom lacks something essential: it lacks the proper orientation of humankind to good.

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the capacity to sin is only incidental to our freedom: it is a deviation from what freedom is meant to be. This might seem surprising, but the truth of this teaching is radiant. No one chooses to do evil viewed as evil. Instead, evil acts are always justified in some way so that they can be presented as good. Sometimes, these justifications can be quite clever and subtle. Other times, they can be shallow and flimsy. Either way, the evil must appear as a good. A simple example: a boy goes into a store and spots a candy bar. This candy bar, he thinks, is good for him, but he has no money. He determines that taking the candy bar is so important to him–his desire to satisfy his sweet tooth completely overrides other considerations–that he determines that stealing the candy is an acceptable means to obtain it. What I want to focus on here is the fact that the theft was justified, at least as far as the boy is concerned, because of the acquisition of the good that follows from it.

However, assenting to sinful tendencies has the almost paradoxical effect of stealing away that very freedom which it pretends to champion. The life of true freedom is instead essentially connected to the building up of virtue. Let me give an example. When a man is courageous, he can behave bravely when he is tempted by fear to not do what ought to be done, whatever that might be. While anyone is capable of imagining acting bravely and inventing mental heroics, the execution of these thoughts when the need arises is impossible if that person is not brave. Fear will rise like a tide and wash the person without bravery away; only the courageous can withstand it. If someone is not courageous, then that someone is not free to act courageously. Virtues all proceed in this way. They bestow on us a wonderful capacity to do things that were once impossible to do; they liberate us from the ineptitude of vices.

It is like the development of a woman who likes to paint into an artist. At first, her paintings are crude and ungainly, but with perseverance, practice, repetition, guidance, and whatever else is necessary, she grows into the fullness of her art. Once she could only make rude approximations of what she had seen and imagined, but now she expresses herself with ease and grace. Without this mastery of the art of painting, as is the case with the virtuous life, there is a radical impoverishment of what one can do. Sin may present itself as offering a multitude of choices, but these are false choices that lead to a kind of paralysis. Look instead to the development and fostering of virtue to find the fullness of human expression in all its creativity and beauty and goodness.

Br. Thaddeus Frost, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE