Freedom! Liberty! Independence! This is the incessant cry of the modern self. And no concept is more central to its self-definition. As we saw in previous parts of this series, the modern self resents all external limits placed on its efforts to make itself happy, whether those limits arise from the laws of nature, the desires of other people, or God. It acts as if its essence were pure, arbitrary will structured and limited by no unchangeable forms, subject only to its momentary desires. This view of the self is implicit in what modern people demand, in the way they act and for what they strive.
Very few people actually think about the understanding of the self and freedom their rhetoric presupposes. But bringing these presuppositions out of the background and into the light is essential to understanding our contemporary situation and evaluating it from a position of Christian faith. And that is our aim in this series.
The concept of freedom is so central to the modern self that you would think that everyone knows what they mean when they demand it. But most people have only the vaguest idea of freedom. Mortimer Adler and his coauthors in a massive two-volume analysis of the concept of freedom (The Idea of Freedom, 1958), distinguish three main and two subordinate concepts of freedom in the history of Western thought. The three main concepts are (1) the circumstantial freedom of self-realization, (2) the natural freedom of self-determination, and (3) the acquired freedom of self-perfection.
In each of these views of freedom there are four factors, a self that wishes to enjoy good things, an other that blocks the self from such enjoyment, a power that exempts the self from limits imposed by the other, and a state of being exempt from the other. As you can see, freedom is primarily a negative concept. A self is exempt from the limits of the other through a power that can remove the other. Different views of freedom can be specified by discovering how they define these four factors: self, other, power and exemption.
The first view of freedom (self-realization) is the most common. According to this view we are free when we are exempt from circumstances that keep us from fulfilling our desires. It focuses on external limits. You are free when you can do what you want. The second view (self-determination) understands freedom as exemption from all internal, hidden limits that prevent self from determining for itself what it does and becomes. It focuses not on the power to act exempt from limits but on the power to decide for itself, exempt from limits. The third view (self-perfection) thinks of freedom as the power to will only the good. The self that wills evil is not free from all limits, for it is blind to its true good. If it were not blind it would have greater freedom. In each of these historic concepts of freedom a self is exempt by a power that removes a limit imposed by the other.
At last, by examining the modern self’s understanding of the four factors of freedom, we can understand in greater depth its view of freedom. (1) The modern self views the other as anything that blocks the self from realizing its immediate desires—God, other people, the structures of nature. The other is the enemy of freedom and dignity, a spiteful force that robs the self of fulfillment and happiness. The modern self rejects the idea that the other is a condition of the self—an inherent natural limit or sin and guilt—so intimate to the self that it cannot see the difference between itself and the other or get itself free by itself.
(2) The power that exempts the self from serfdom to the other is the power of will inherent in the self. The self frees itself. This powerful self exempts itself through internal determination, rhetorical assertion, protest and demands, technology, political action, or bold or transgressive individual action. (3) The essential self is pure, arbitrary will. The self is its own power, willpower. This conclusion is inevitable since the other is defined as any structure not subject to the self and the power for freedom is identical to the self. (4) The state of exemption or realized freedom is a state in which the self can inwardly determine itself and express itself externally as it pleases without limit.
Briefly, let me say a word about dignity. The modern self defines dignity in terms of freedom. Human dignity is rooted in the human power of self-determination or autonomy. Hence any limit on the self’s freedom is an insult to the self’s dignity. The modern view of dignity asserts that because human beings possess the power to determine themselves as they wish, they also have the right to exercise this power as they wish. Limiting the exercise of this power violates the essence of the self and insults its worth.
Now we can see clearly why the modern self envies God and wishes to become God. It defines freedom and dignity in such a way that only by becoming God can it achieve freedom and enjoy dignity; that is to say, only by becoming like the being it imagines (mistakenly) God must be can it perfect itself and achieve happiness.
Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 6 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Secret Ambitions of the Modern Self”)
Questions for Discussion
1. Explore the concept of the circumstantial freedom of self-realization. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?
2. Explore the concept of the natural freedom of self-determination. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?
3. Explore the concept of the acquired freedom of self-perfection. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?
4. What core concept of freedom do these three views of freedom hold in common and are these three views compatible?
5. What are the four aspects of the concept of freedom, and do they support the idea that freedom is a basically negative concept?
6. Discuss the final conclusions about the modern self’s understanding of freedom embodied in its version of the four aspects of the concept of freedom. It is it an accurate picture of the tendency of the contemporary culture?
7. In light of this post and the previous five, revisit the idea that the modern self sees God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and happiness. What evidence do you see that this tension affects the way modern people live?
8. How knowing the modern self’s view of freedom help us understand the modern crisis of morality?
Note: next week we will assess the claims and aspirations of the modern self in view of an honest and realistic picture of the human condition.