April 15, 2006


TRUTH AND FREEDOM: Man is God's image precisely insofar as being "from," "with," and "for" constitute the fundamental anthropological pattern. (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger)

III. Truth and freedom

1. On the essence of human freedom

After this attempt to understand the origin of our problems and to get a clear view of their inner tendency, it is now time to search for answers. It has become evident that the critical point in the history of freedom in which we now find ourselves rests upon an unclarified and one-sided idea of freedom. On the one hand, the concept of freedom has been isolated and thereby falsified: freedom is a good, but only within a network of other goods together with which it forms an indissoluble totality. On the other hand, the notion itself has been narrowly restricted to the rights of individual liberty, and has thus been robbed of its human truth. I would like to illustrate the problem posed by this understanding of freedom with the help of a concrete example. At the same time this example can open the way to a more adequate view of freedom. I mean the question of abortion. In the radicalization of the individualistic tendency of the Enlightenment, abortion appears as a right of freedom: the woman must be able to take charge of herself. She must have the freedom to decide whether she will bring a child into the world or rid herself of it. She must have the power to make decisions about her own life, and no one else can—so we are told—impose from the outside any ultimately binding norm. What is at stake is the right to self-determination. But is it really the case that the woman who aborts is making a decision about her own life? Is she not deciding precisely about someone else—deciding that no freedom shall be granted to another, and that the space of freedom, which is life, must be taken from him, because it competes with her own freedom? The question we must therefore ask is this: exactly what sort of freedom has even the right to annul another's freedom as soon as it begins?

Now, let it not be said that the issue of abortion concerns a special case and is not suited to clarify the general problem of freedom. No, it is this very example which brings out the basic figure of human freedom and makes clear what is typically human about it. For what is at stake here? The being of another person is so closely interwoven with the being of this person, the mother, that for the present it can survive only by physically being with the mother, in a physical unity with her. Such unity, however, does not eliminate the otherness of this being or authorize us to dispute its distinct selfhood. However, to be oneself in this way is to be radically from and through another. Conversely, this being-with compels the being of the other—that is, the mother—to become a being-for, which contradicts her own desire to be an independent self and is thus experienced as the antithesis of her own freedom. We must now add that even once the child is born and the outer form of its being-from and-with changes, it remains just as dependent on, and at the mercy of, a being-for. One can, of course, send the child off to an institution and assign it to the care of another "for," but the anthropological figure is the same, since there is still a "from" which demands a "for." I must still accept the limits of my freedom, or rather, I must live my freedom not out of competition but in a spirit of mutual support. If we open our eyes, we see that this, in turn, is true not only of the child, but that the child in the mother's womb is simply a very graphic depiction of the essence of human existence in general. Even the adult can exist only with and from another, and is thus continually thrown back on that being-for which is the very thing he would like to shut out. Let us say it even more precisely: man quite spontaneously takes for granted the being-for of others in the form of today's network of service systems, yet if he had his way he would prefer not to be forced to participate in such a "from" and "for," but would like to become wholly independent, and to be able to do and not to do just what he pleases. The radical demand for freedom, which has proved itself more and more clearly to be the outcome of the historical course of the Enlightenment, especially of the line inaugurated by Rousseau, and which today largely shapes the public mentality, prefers to have neither a whence nor a whither, to be neither from nor for, but to be wholly at liberty. In other words, it regards what is actually the fundamental figure of human existence itself as an attack on freedom which assails it before any individual has a chance to live and act. The radical cry for freedom demands man's liberation from his very essence as man, so that he may become the "new man." In the new society, the dependencies which restrict the I and the necessity of self-giving would no longer have the right to exist.

"Ye shall be as gods." This promise is quite clearly behind modernity's radical demand for freedom. Although Ernst Topitsch believed he could safely say that today no reasonable man still wants to be like or equal to God, if we look more closely we must assert the exact opposite: the implicit goal of all of modernity's struggles for freedom is to be at last like a god who depends on nothing and no one, and whose own freedom is not restricted by that of another. Once we glimpse this hidden theological core of the radical will to freedom, we can also discern the fundamental error which still spreads its influence even where such radical conclusions are not directly willed or are even rejected. To be totally free, without the competing freedom of others, without a "from" and a "for"—this desire presupposes not an image of God, but an idol. The primal error of such a radicalized will to freedom lies in the idea of a divinity conceived as a pure egoism. The god thought of in this way is not a God, but an idol. Indeed, it is the image of what the Christian tradition would call the devil—the anti-God—because it harbors exactly the radical antithesis to the real God. The real God is by his very nature entirely being-for (Father), being-from (Son), and being-with (Holy Spirit). Man, for his part, is God's image precisely insofar as the "from," "with," and "for" constitute the fundamental anthropological pattern. Whenever there is an attempt to free ourselves from this pattern, we are not on our way to divinity, but to dehumanization, to the destruction of being itself through the destruction of the truth. The Jacobin variant of the idea of liberation (let us call the radicalisms of modernity by this name) is a rebellion against man's very being, a rebellion against truth, which consequently leads man—as Sartre penetratingly saw—into a self-contradictory existence which we call hell.

The foregoing has made it clear that freedom is tied to a measure, the measure of reality—to the truth. Freedom to destroy oneself or to destroy another is not freedom, but its demonic parody. Man's freedom is shared freedom, freedom in the conjoint existence of liberties which limit and thus sustain one another. Freedom must measure itself by what I am, by what we are—otherwise it annuls itself. But having said this, we are now ready to make an essential correction of the superficial image of freedom which largely dominates the present: if man's freedom can consist only in the ordered coexistence of liberties, this means that order—right8—is not the conceptual antithesis of freedom, but rather its condition, indeed, a constitutive element of freedom itself. Right is not an obstacle to freedom, but constitutes it. The absence of right is the absence of freedom.

2. Freedom and responsibility

Admittedly, this insight immediately gives rise to new questions as well: which right accords with freedom? How must right be structured so as to constitute a just order of freedom? For there doubtless exists a counterfeit right, which enslaves and is therefore not right at all but a regulated form of injustice. Our criticism must not be directed at right—self, inasmuch as right belongs to the essence of freedom; it must unmask counterfeit right for what it is and serve to bring to light the true right—that right which is in accord with the truth and consequently with freedom.

But how do we find this right order? This is the great question of the true history of freedom, posed at last in its proper form. As we have already done so far, let us refrain from setting to work with abstract philosophical considerations. Rather, let us try to approach an answer inductively starting from the realities of history as they are actually given. If we begin with a small community of manageable proportions, its possibilities and limits furnish some basis for finding out which order best serves the shared life of all the members, so that a common form of freedom emerges from their joint existence. But no such small community is self-contained; it has its place within larger orders which, along with other factors, determine its essence. In the age of the nation—states it was customary to assume that one's own nation was the standard unit—that its common good was also the right measure of its freedom as a community. Developments in our century have made it clear that this point of view is inadequate. Augustine had said on this score that a state which measures itself only by its common interests and not by justice itself, by true justice, is not structurally different from a well-organized robber band. After all, the robber band typically takes as its measure the good of the band independently of the good of others. Looking back at the colonial period and the ravages it bequeathed to the world, we see today that even well-ordered and civilized states were in some respects close to the nature of robber bands because they thought only in terms of their own good and not of the good itself. Accordingly, freedom guaranteed in this way accordingly has something of the brigand's freedom. It is not true, genuinely human freedom. In the search for the right measure, the whole of humanity must be kept in mind and again—as we see ever more clearly—the humanity not only of today, but of tomorrow as well.

The criterion of real right—right entitled to call itself true right which accords with freedom—can therefore only be the good of the whole, the good itself. On the basis of this insight, Hans Jonas has defined responsibility as the central concept of ethics. This means that in order to understand freedom properly we must always think of it in tandem with responsibility. Accordingly, the history of liberation can never occur except as a history of growth in responsibility. Increase of freedom can no longer lie simply in giving more and more latitude to individual rights—which leads to absurdity and to the destruction of those very individual freedoms themselves. Increase in freedom must be an increase in responsibility, which includes acceptance of the ever greater bonds required both by the claims of humanity's shared existence and by conformity to man's essence. If responsibility is answering to the truth of man's being, then we can say that an essential component of the history of liberation is ongoing purification for the sake of the truth. The true history of freedom consists in the purification of individuals and of institutions through this truth.

The principle of responsibility sets up a framework which needs to be filled by some content. This is the context in which we have to look at the proposal for the development of a planetary ethos, for which Hans Kung has been the preeminent and passionately committed spokesman. It is no doubt sensible, indeed, in our present situation necessary, to search for the basic elements common to the ethical traditions of the various religions and cultures. In this sense, such an endeavor is by all means important and appropriate. On the other hand, the limits of this sort of enterprise are evident; Joachim Fest, among others, has called attention to these limits in a sympathetic, but also very pessimistic analysis, whose general drift comes quite close to the skepticism of Szizypiorski. For this ethical minimum distilled from the world religions lacks first of all the bindingness, the intrinsic authority, which is a prerequisite of ethics. Despite every effort to reach a clearly understandable position, it also lacks the obviousness to reason which, in the opinion of the authors, could and should replace authority; it also lacks the concreteness without which ethics cannot come into its own.

idea, which is implicit in this experiment, seems to me correct: reason must listen to the great religious traditions if it does not wish to become deaf, dumb and blind precisely to what is essential about human existence. There is no great philosophy which does not draw life from listening to and accepting religious tradition. Wherever this relation is cut off, philosophical thought withers and becomes a mere conceptual game. The very theme of responsibility, that is, the question of anchoring freedom in the truth of the good, of man and of the world, reveals very clearly the necessity of such attentive listening. For, although the general approach of the principle of responsibility is very much to the point, it is still a question of how we are supposed to get a comprehensive view of what is good for all-good not only for today, but also for tomorrow. A twofold danger lies in wait here. On the one hand there is the risk of sliding into consequentialism, which the pope rightly criticizes in his moral encyclical (VS, nn. 71-83). Man simply overreaches himself if he believes that he can assess the whole range of consequences resulting from his action and make them the norm of his freedom. In doing so he sacrifices the present to the future, while also failing even to construct the future. On the other hand, who decides what our responsibility enjoins? When the truth is no longer seen in the context of an intelligent appropriation of the great traditions of belief, it is replaced by consensus. But once again we must ask: whose consensus? The common answer is the consensus of those capable of rational argument. Because it is impossible to ignore the elitist arrogance of such an intellectual dictatorship, it is then said that those capable of rational argument would also have to engage in "advocacy" on behalf of those who are not. This whole line of thought can hardly inspire confidence. The fragility of consensuses and the ease with which in a certain intellectual climate partisan groups can assert their claim to be the sole rightful representatives of progress and responsibility are plain for all to see. It is all too easy here to drive out the devil with Beelzebub; it is all too easy to replace the demon of bygone intellectual systems with seven new and worse ones.

3. The truth of our humanity

How we are to establish the right relationship between responsibility and freedom cannot be settled simply by means of a calculus of effects. We must return to the idea that man's freedom is a freedom in the coexistence of freedoms; only thus is it true, that is, in conformity with the authentic reality of man. It follows that it is by no means necessary to seek outside elements in order to correct the freedom of the individual. Otherwise, freedom and responsibility, freedom and truth, would be perpetual opposites, which they are not. Properly understood, the reality of the individual itself includes reference to the whole, to the other. Accordingly, our answer to the question above is that there is a common truth of a single humanity present in every man. The tradition has called this truth man's "nature." Basing ourselves on faith in creation, we can formulate this point even more clearly: there is one divine idea, "man," to which it is our task to answer. In this idea, freedom and community, order and concern for the future, are a single whole.

Responsibility would thus mean to live our being as an answer—as a response to what we are in truth. This one truth of man, in which freedom and the good of all are inextricably correlative, is centrally expressed in the biblical tradition in the Decalogue, which, by the way, coincides in many respects with the great ethical traditions of other religions. The Decalogue is at once the self-presentation and self-exhibition of God and the exposition of what man is, the luminous manifestation of his truth. This truth becomes visible in the mirror of God's essence, because man can be rightly understood only in relation to God. To live the Decalogue means to live our God-likeness, to correspond to the truth of our being and thus to do the good. Said in yet another way, to live the Decalogue means to live the divinity of man, which is the very definition of freedom: the fusion of our being with the divine being and the resulting harmony of all with all (CCC, nn. 2052-82).

In order to understand this statement aright, we must add a further remark. Every significant human word reaches into greater depths beyond what the speaker is immediately conscious of saying: in what is said there is always an excess of the unsaid, which allows the words to grow as the ages go forward. If this is true even of human speech, it must a fortiori be true of the word which comes out of the depths of God. The Decalogue is never simply understood once and for all. In the successive, changing situations where responsibility is exercised historically the Decalogue appears in ever new perspectives, and ever new dimensions of its significance are opened. Man is led into the whole of the truth, truth which could by no means be borne in just one historical moment alone (cf. Jn 16:12f.). For the Christian, the exegesis of the Decalogue accomplished in the words, life, passion, and Resurrection of Christ is the decisive interpretive authority, which a hitherto unsuspected depth opens up. Consequently, man's listening to the message of faith is not the passive registering of otherwise unknown information, but the resuscitation of our choked memory and the opening of the powers of understanding which await the light of the truth in us. Hence, such understanding is a supremely active process, in which reason's entire quest for the criteria of our responsibility truly comes into its own for the first time. Reason's quest is not stifled, but is freed from circling helplessly in impenetrable darkness and set on its way. If the Decalogue, unfolded in rational understanding, is the answer to the intrinsic requirements of our essence, then it is not the counter-pole of our freedom, but its real form. It is, in other words, the foundation of every just order of freedom and the true liberating power in human history.

We can hardly be surprised that the demonic parody of freedom is so attractive to so many, but can not be sanguine about it either.

[Originally posted: November 21, 2004]

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2006 11:08 PM

OJ - Thank-you for this. It is something that I have tried to deal with (whimsically) in my writings.

Those who worship science or "enlightenment" should ask themselves why a great mind like Pascal would dedicate his life to battling the demon who was Voltaire.

The greatest divorce in history was that of science and philosophy. Ask yourself "why", not "whether", time stands still at the speed of light. That is far more interesting.

In books yet unwritten, a character of mine named Ursahn, who has spent his whole life running away from this conflict and that conflict, finally comes face to face with the "law". It is something that he didn't even know he was searching for.

When he finds it, he finds freedom, and a reason to stand and fight.

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 22, 2004 9:23 AM