Thursday, July 5, 2012

Freedom as autonomy or freedom for a purpose?

On this Fourth of July in which we as Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence, it would serve us well to contemplate what we mean by freedom. This is especially true for Americans who are Catholic at the conclusion to the "Fortnight for Freedom," a fourteen day effort by the body of Catholic Bishops in the United States, together with men and women of goodwill.

Freedom is as American as apple pie. It is part of our culture, by culture I mean we think it of the utmost importance, it is also a fundamental premise for how we Americans look at any situation or problem and ultimately how we shape our desires. But what is freedom?

You may not know it but there are multiple meanings of freedom. But if you think about American English that probably doesn't surprise you, does it? There is a modern definition of freedom and a Christian/classical definition of freedom.

By modernity, I mean not a time period but an intellectual movement. Modernity has been (and continues to be?) the primary way Western Civilization thinks and operates over the last 200+ years. It is a world view that seeks to define its own terms: who am I, where am I, and why am I here are all answers that man alone can determine. Modernity is thought to be a fruit of and bring about the triumph of human achievement. Look what we can do! Modernity is thought to be a coming of age out of "dark superstitions" of the past millennia. Perhaps you've seen those videos from the 1950s worlds fairs? That'd be it. It is the supposed triumph of man's craft and technology over nature.

In modern world, freedom is personal autonomy- having no thing and no one who influences your freedom. Which is nice, in theory. In reality, none of us achieves such freedom, of if we do it isn't for long. The nature of our humanity is such that we are influenced, consciously and unconsciously, all the time. So to prize and pursue such freedom is extremely difficult and is even against our nature.

The classical and Catholic vision of freedom, the freedom of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and more (& More!) says that we are free when we are able to live according to life's meaning and nature. We can first think about this in terms of bodily health. Autonomy in eating isn't health or even happiness. Eating according to my body's nature and reality leads to greater happiness- something that extends beyond the pleasure of a meal.

The boldness of the Catholic claim is that we can know happiness for the soul and mind just as we can know it for the body's health. This means that, in any area of human life, that we are free not simply because we can choose but when we have chosen well, and that the "good" choice can be truly known.

This understanding of freedom is also an understanding of reality. A reality that is real and accessible in truth to all men and women of reason. The modern notion of freedom, freedom as personal autonomy, usually denies that reality can be known with truth. 


But what of American freedom? Is American freedom and independence simple autonomy or is it freedom for excellence? Let's look at the text of the Declaration of Independence, which you should read, this week of all weeks.


The most famous line concerning freedom, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." reveal the truth. American freedom, in the eyes of its founders, is one based upon a knowable truth. It is not simple autonomy but freedom for excellence. The pursuit of happiness is important in this regard. 


Also important is the conclusion, "That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States;" this right to be free is based in something BEYOND humanity and beyond human laws. But this right is still knowable and accessible by humanity.

In a government "of the people, by the people and for the people," the people must be educated on what their country and her independence mean, otherwise we SHALL perish from this earth. 

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