Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, March 22, 2002
More good stuff from the latest First Things. (Can you people believe I read that magazine? Am I outing myself as a loony right-winger? Or worse yet, a crypto-Catholic? Don't worry, Mom; keep reading, and you'll be reassured.) This article by George Weigel (Pope John Paul II's biographer) lays out the case for Aquinas' notion of freedom, as against William of Ockham (who, incidentally, Weigel blames for September 11. Interesting . . .). Since I'm sure you all know exactly what I'm talking about, I won't bother to summarize.

Oh, all right. Aquinas argued that freedom is both a means to and a result of virtue. We must learn how to be free, and the purpose of our freedom is to do good. All this sounds very Aristotelian, as it should, and Aquinas updates Aristotle mostly in his understanding of the good, which is Christian, not pagan. Ockham, meanwhile, argues that freedom is purely the exercise of the will, and doing good is allowing God's will to dominate over one's own, selfish will. With the death of God, Ockham's understanding of freedom becomes either Bentham's, which ultimately deteriorates into either Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World; or Nietzsche's, which ultimately deteriorates into the likes of Hitler and Osama bin Laden - so says Weigel. So, we need to revive Aquinas (big shock, First Things coming out for Thomism) if we are to avoid either dystopian end-game.

Don't stop with my summary; the article is very much worth reading. Two dissents, one Jewish, one American.

First, the Jewish dissent. We're heading into Passover, the season of our liberation, so it's timely to talk about what freedom means in a Jewish context. The place to start is in God's demand of Pharaoh, and his refusal to grant it even in the face of plagues. The text is in parshat Bo, and I will have to digress for a while to discuss the text before I can return to Aquinas.

The opening lines of Parshat Bo are, on their face, paradoxical. “And the Lord said to Moshe: go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him; and that thou mayst tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them, that you may know I am the Lord.” Why do I say this is paradoxical? Apparently, the Almighty is declaring to Moses: go and ask Pharaoh to let me people go because I have hardened his heart – in other words, because he will say no. And why has the Almighty hardened Pharaoh’s heart? So that he can perform miracles for Moses and Israel’s to speak of to their children.

One would think that, as with the plague of frogs, the text would say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart; after all, it seems unfair to punish Pharaoh and Egypt if the Almighty Himself is on some level forcing them to behave as they do. This is an adolescent objection, and hence a commonplace of Sunday-school philosophizing. In adolescence, freedom is understood as the removal of restraint – primarily parental restraint - on one's own will. Behavior that outrages conformity is prized precisely because it seems to be the index of freedom. It doesn’t occur to a teenager – at least, it rarely occurred to me – that acting out or defying authority were no more “free” responses than obeying. After all, in each case it is authority that sets the terms of what I will do. The Torah texts suggests that, indeed, freedom is necessarily bound up with submission to authority, that these are not simply concepts in opposition. After all, the Israelites are to be set free not to do as they will, but to serve the Lord in the desert. To say that the Almighty hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then, can be understood to mean that, having set his heart in opposition to the will of God, the mere expression of that will was sufficient for Pharaoh’s heart to become hard. Before this, Pharaoh opposed the Almighty to protect his own interests. Now, he opposes for the sake of opposition.

God's purpose in sending the plagues is also revealing. Again, an adolescent would assume that God's purpose is to punish Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. But that is not the articulated purpose; rather, the purpose is to establish an oral tradition among the people of Israel that would tie God's intervention in history to their experience of freedom. In part, this is an articulation of Aristotle's recognition that freedom must be learned; if we are not taught how to be free, and what is its purpose, we will not be so. This teaches us that tradition, too, is not the enemy of freedom. But it also clarifies the nature of our freedom before the divine. For God's purpose is not to subvert our wills (through hardening our hearts) or crush them (by punishing us with plagues) but for us to marry our wills to His, as we might well do in gratitude for the wonders that He performed for us in setting us free from Pharaoh.

So, if we are necessarily subject to authority, what is freedom? Robert Frost once identified freedom as “moving easily in harness.” This sounds like a very Christian definition of freedom – freedom as an inner state of peace or grace. By this reckoning, a slave may be “set free” through faith even though he or she remains in chains. But this idea of freedom, while compelling, is not the idea of freedom that this parshah seems to endorse. Moshe asks that the Israelites be set free to worship the Lord in the desert. Pharaoh initially refuses outright, but relents on this matter well before the last plague. Pharaoh originally offers to allow the Israelites to make sacrifices in Egypt. This would seem to be enough if freedom consists of an inner state independent of external conditions, but it is not sufficient. Later, Pharaoh offers that the Israelite men may go and worship, but not take their children with them. But this is not sufficient. After Egypt is afflicted with the plagues of locusts and darkness, Pharaoh relents further, allowing that the children may go but not the cattle. This would seem even more clearly sufficient, but Moshe’s answer is that this is not sufficient, as they will need all their cattle for sacrifices, saying, “we know not with what we must serve the Lord, until we come there.”

From this sequence, I deduce that freedom has a purpose, and it has predicates. Pharaoh, once he understands that he is up against the will of God, is free only to decide whether to obey God's command or to set himself in rebellion against God. He realizes, then, that he is not truly free in the things that matter. There is a moral law, and that law defines the terms of action. All he can do is be loyal or rebellious; he cannot be free in the sense of being independent of the operation of that law. Once he realizes this, he attempts to limit the scope of the law. He will confine the freedom of the Israelites to their inner selves; he will confine it to one generation; he will confine it to their whole selves but deny them their property. But none of these are sufficient. The prior commitment to God's moral law cannot be interfered with by Pharaoh. In the words of the Shema, we must serve God with all our hearts, all our souls and all our means. Even if Pharaoh let the Israelites go without all their property, in effect Pharaoh would be dictating to the Almighty what was Pharaoh’s portion before the Almighty had taken His.

Here, then, is my Jewish dissent from Aquinas and Aristotle (and Weigel). They would correctly identify freedom as moral self-mastery, and Aquinas specifically would connect this with God and His revelation. This is the substantive content and purpose of freedom. But we cannot achieve this freedom without the experience of freedom. Contra the Christian view that we are called to God's service, I believe God intends for us to choose to serve him. That there is one right choice does not mean that it is not a choice but a compulsion. That our choice is defined by God, and therefore whatever we do is merely an expression of our relation to God's authority, still does not remove the element of choice.

And this, too is not the complete story, because this kind of freedom - Moses' as well as Aquinas' - is predicated on Isaiah Berlin's negative freedom. Without freedom from constraint, in one's person, one's family, and one's property, one is in no position to serve the Lord. We do need freedom from constraint, negative freedom - not because that leaves us free to follow our own wills but because it leaves us free to discern God's will. And we may indeed need Berlin's positive freedom - freedom from want, for instance - for the same reason.

And this leads directly to my American dissent. America is the land par excellence of negative freedom, and it is criticized for this in spite of the wonders of our civilization because it seems . . . well . . . negative. The pursuit of happiness sounds like the pursuit of pleasure, and pleasure is a very low pursuit. A nation should be dedicated to a nobler proposition. But I believe that the great genius of America is that we have separated the quest for the purpose of freedom from the state, with its monopoly of force that preserves that freedom. We do not lack for the liberty of the ancients, but we do not exercise it through government; we exercise it primarily through religion and the family, and through other organic forms that lack the monopoly of force. It is here that we try to understand the nature of the good, and pass this understanding on to our successors. And this quest both contains and is contained by the American institutions that are the guardians of that freedom - and, by association with that quest, become invested with a kind of content that they would otherwise lack.

So no, to answer Weigel's question, it is not happy hedonism for which we are prepared to make the sacrifices that will be required of us in our current war. Hedonism is the by-product of freedom, not its purpose, and no doubt First Things will continue, from a Catholic perspective, to struggle to contain that bi-product, as others will from other religious and even non-religious perspectives. And it is the right to engage in this struggle, the right to achieve self-mastery in the context of a communal quest for the good and true, that we will be defending, and for which we will make said sacrifices. This is not America as endless conversation, nor yet America as control-free experiment. But it is America as the canvas upon which meanings may contest to paint, and give content to the negative freedom that defines our liberal institutions.