Contrasting Concepts of Freedom

I have posted an expanded version of the talk on freedom that I gave at a recent Catholic-Shi’a conference to the ViQo website, and The JosiasI attempt to give an account of freedom as understood in the Catholic tradition, and contrast it with the modern, liberal account. Here’s a snip from the introduction:

One can consider freedom on many different levels. For the sake of clarity I shall distinguish between three such levels: 1) exterior or political freedom, 2) interior or natural freedom, 3) moral freedom. The secular and Christian concepts of freedom differ on all three levels. I shall summarize the differences briefly before considering each view more closely.

1) For the Christian tradition external freedom means not being subordinated to another’s good, not being a slave. Politically such freedom is realized by a political rule that orders people to their own true common good— a good that is truly good for them. For the secular tradition of the Enlightenment in contrast, external freedom means not being commanded by another to act in one way rather than another. Negatively this kind of freedom is realized by limiting the scope of government to the preservation of external peace, leaving each citizen free to seek whatever he thinks is the good. Positively it is realized by the participation of all citizens in political rule— so that everyone can claim to be “self-ruled.”

2) Interior or natural freedom is taken in the mainstream of the Christian tradition to mean the ability of man to understand what is good, deliberate about how it is to be attained, and choose means suitable to attaining it. Unlike the animals, man is not determined by instinct, but is able to deliberate about his actions. On the secular view, however, internal or natural freedom is taken to mean a completely undetermined self-movement of will. On the secular view man is free not only to deliberate about how to attain the good, but to decide for himself what the good is.

3) Moral freedom, according to the Christian tradition, means knowing what the true good for man is, and what means are necessary to attain it, and being able to make use of those means. Moral freedom means being liberated from bad habits and disordered passions that lead us away from what we know is the good. To be morally free is to live in accordance with the nature that God has given us— it is to be virtuous and wise. For secular culture on the other hand, moral freedom means not being determined by cultural pressures, rejecting conformity for the sake of “authenticity” and “originality” deciding on one’s own peculiar way of living human life, based on one’s own “freely chosen” (i.e. arbitrarily chosen) “values.” (Read the rest here or here).


4 thoughts on “Contrasting Concepts of Freedom

  1. Pingback: The American Election and the Virtues and Vices of Liberal Politics (and Politicians) | Sancrucensis

    • Well, you certainly make a strong case for “political” as opposed to “royal” rule. To some extent I agree with you; I think that the best form of government is a mixed regime (dominium politicum et regale). But I think that your account is somewhat one-sided. To be excluded from the common good is indeed unjust, but to say that not being able to have attain to political office independent of the will of the king is to be excluded from the common good seems to me to go too far. Being a ruler is indeed a noble way of participating in the common good, but it is not the only way. As St. Pius X put it:
      «[The Sillon holds that] the Future City in the formation of which it is engaged will have no masters and no servants. All citizens will be free; all comrades, all kings. A command, a precept would be viewed as an attack upon their freedom; subordination to any form of superiority would be a diminishment of the human person, and obedience a disgrace. Is it in this manner, Venerable Brethren, that the traditional doctrine of the Church represents social relations, even in the most perfect society? Has not every community of people, dependent and unequal by nature, need of an authority to direct their activity towards the common good and to enforce its laws? […] Further, – unless one greatly deceives oneself in the conception of liberty – can it be said with an atom of reason that authority and liberty are incompatible? Can one teach that obedience is contrary to human dignity and that the ideal would be to replace it by “accepted authority”? Did not St. Paul the Apostle foresee human society in all its possible stages of development when he bade the faithful to be subject to every authority? Does obedience to men as the legitimate representatives of God, that is to say in the final analysis, obedience to God, degrade Man and reduce him to a level unworthy of himself? Is the religious life which is based on obedience, contrary to the ideal of human nature?»


      • Thank you for taking the time to read and reply. You make a good point about the common good which I will have to think over. I think, though, that I am presenting both Aristotle’s and Livy’s views faithfully. I think they see political freedom, in a society of men, as including roles in governing. Nor would they see that this relinquishes from obedience, but obedience is to laws rather than men. So I don’t think these are simply modern ideas.

        I am also interested in your thoughts on Pericles’ Funeral Oration. He praises Athens in much the same way as an American might praise his city and its life of political and social freedom, in virtue of which he exhorts them to love Athens and her glory. In your view, is he treating Athens as a common good?


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