Friday, February 3, 2012

On Absolute Freedom

I would like to give you today a very short reflection on the idea of "absolute freedom" in the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor, written by Pope John Paul II in 1993. The encyclical is based on philosophy of truth, which in today's society has become distorted into something it is not.

Veritatis Splendor #32 states: "Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values." What exactly, then, is this notion of absolute freedom, and what are its consequences?

First, it must be stated that properly speaking, freedom is directed towards truth. St. Anselm, in his work On Free Will, writes that God, being most perfect, and being truth itself, is most free of all things, created and uncreated. Freedom is not merely the capacity to sin or not sin; it must go beyond this because sin is not possible in God. If sin was possible in God, it would create a duplicity in God because of the simplicity of God (cf. Summa Theologica prima pars question three for a detailed explanation of this: Get it here). Therefore, if we wanted to say that God sinned, or that God is sinful, we would have to go so far as to say that "God is sin," which would be completely contrary to everything according to reason and revelation. God is free, and because of his sinless state, He is most free.

Anselm teaches that sin diminishes the will's capacity for free will, and so as man, we are most affected because of our inclination to sin. However, Anselm says something even more: man himself, depending on his sinfulness, can have a limitation of freedom. He would argue that those who are more free are those who are able to choose the good instead of the evil. In other words, we are talking about holy people. Those who have limited freedom are sinners (which we all are eventually, especially the writer of this article), so the more free we are, the more we have accepted God's grace and risen above the mundance and truly embraced freedom!

How different is Anselm's idea of freedom and free will from modernism's idea of freedom and free will! A modernist would say that as long as you are free to do something, then you should do it. They may even go so far as to say that you "ought" to do it. As long as you are free, then you can choose to do whatever you want, even if it is a sin.

Thinking about this mentality in light of the Veritatis Splendor quote above, we can see that perhaps the writing of John Paul II were prophetic in modern day. For many, freedom has become an absolute, whereas for thousands of years, truth was the absolute. When freedom becomes the absolute, then nothing else can be absolute (two absolutes are unreasonable: you can't have two absolute gods because the definition of God means that one is all powerful). Something that is absolute must contain all else, so then Absolute Truth and Absolute Freedom cannot exist side-by-side. If freedom is indeed the absolute, then we must look to "truth" as something that participates in freedom, and that truth exists solely for the seeking of freedom, instead of freedom in seeking truth. So the modernist idea of freedom has flipped on its head freedom, and as a result, truth.

In the modernist idea of freedom, it must also be said that truth must necessarily become subjective. One idea of absolute freedom will look different from another because "we are just free," and freedom is not really a criteria for determining whether or not we ought to do something. The only criteria is that if "we are free to do it, we can do it." As a result, morality, values and the determination of good and evil would rest in the notion of freedom, instead of freedom resting in truth. Veritatis Splendor says that as a result of this absolute freedom, "Human freedom would... be able to 'create values' and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom" (#35). Instead of being free to have values based in truth, we have values based on freedom and an absolute, and an "end," since those who fall into absolute freedom would that you do anything ultimately because they are free to do it.

Now, you might say, "if you believe in absolute freedom, can you not still make good choices?" Yes, but a person who looks to freedom as an absolute will also be partaking in ultimately a subjective or relativistic idea of morality, and someone like this would have to be OK with someone else taking positions completely different from you, because they are free (again, not based in truth, but in freedom). For example, "Jack" might be completely against abortion, but "Jill" might be OK with it. In both examples, they might view morality as whatever is most freeing for them, and as a result, "Jack" must necessarily say that it is OK for "Jill" to be in favor of abortion. One can take this analogy even further: "Jack" says that abortion is murder, but "Jill" says that it is not murder. Because "Jack" and "Jill" are not basing their ideas on objective truth, we would have to then say that their truth becomes subjective based on how each one views how freeing their positions are. If their position brings them more freedom than another position, then they must take the former position. Ultimately, absolute freedom falls flat in trying to actually make a truth claim that is universal: "Jack" might say "there is truth," while Jill may say "there is no truth," which one is sure Jill will say truthfully.

As a result of this, can we really say that absolute freedom exists, especially if there is no standard on which to base it? Freedom, if viewed absolutely, would ultimately fall apart because absolute freedom means that we have freedom to sin or not sin. Where would that then leave God, as it is not in the nature of God to sin? Absolute truth, on the other hand, does not need the dialectic seen with absolute freedom (to sin or not sin); absolute truth does not require us to say that absolute truth is the ability to tell the truth or not tell the truth, or any other kind of dialectic. Because of this lack of dialectic, we can say that God is truth, and that leaves no duplicity in him.

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