I have a thing for Freedom. I'm not talking about a desire for freedom, or a fixation upon it. I simply mean that freedom – as a subject, an intellectual concept – is a topic to which I find myself returning frequently.
For years this interest has grown, once I had come to understand that Freedom was the central idea of Modernity: that notion that stands at the center of all Modern philosophy and culture, as the crown jewel of the philosophical movement called The Enlightenment. Raised in the United States of America, a country began as an experiment in Enlightenment political philosophy, I was indoctrinated with everyone else in my generation in this particular philosophy, assuming with everyone else in my country that this take on freedom was unquestionably true, a matter of undoubted fact: there is no greater, unqualified good than Freedom. In my generation, this belief was the case even moreso than ever before, with the culture of the 1960s and 1970s having elevated notions of individual freedom to the highest status in all of the history of human thinking.
So, when I began to get into my undergraduate education in the History of Ideas, it was quite a shock to realize that this way of looking at things hadn't always been around, that it was one more idea about the Way Things Are in a world full of ideas about the Way Things Are. I was stunned to think, for the first time, that this vision of Freedom wasn't necessarily true, and that perhaps I needed to find out more about where this idea came from, and what arguments there were for it, before I decided to go ahead and just sign off on it and agree.
And that was a stunning thought, too: I cannot think of a more forbidden idea for our culture.
The question, of course, is not so much of whether freedom is a good. The question is whether it is an unqualified good: that Freedom cannot accept any restraint, any qualifications, or any limits. For then, the argument goes, it would not be freedom at all! Freedom is only freedom, we are told, in the absence of restraint or limits.
So I had long assumed that the opposite of Freedom was Non-Freedom, or perhaps we could better call that Slavery. Now, that is an opposite, and an obvious one. Today on the bus down to Dan and Amy's to babysit the kids, however, as I was re-reading Francis Sullivan's book chapter "The Ecclesiological Context of the Charismatic Renewal" as part of my current dissertation work, I realized that there was a different way of conceiving the notion of Freedom and its opposite.
Slavery is the non-real or evil opposite of Freedom. If you know your basics of Catholic philosophy, you know that evil is not a reality. There is nothing that exists that is evil as such. Evil is not found in nature. You've never stepped in a big pile of evil. You never have to walk around an evil daffodil, and even if you're eaten by a shark or a goldfish, they were not evil sharks or goldfish. Evil is something found only in behavior or will. Evil is not a thing in itself, it is a lack of a thing: a lack of goodness. It is like a vacuum: it is powerful only because of its non-existence. Evil is the mis-use or mis-application of a good.
In always conceiving of Freedom in relation to its evil opposite of Slavery, I think we have reinforced the Modern notion of Freedom as a good only when it is absolute and unrestrained. The problem is, of course, that we use our claim to absolute freedom to do great harm to other people, trampling them in our relationships in the name of our personal freedom. Something wasn't working in that equation.
But there is a good and real (that is, something that exists in itself) opposite of Freedom as well, and this is Communion. Communion is a social expression or instantiation of what Christians recognize as the ultimate aspect of reality: Love, eternal and living in the three interpenetrating Persons of the Trinity. Relationship in love, or "Communion," equally restrains and limits Freedom, but does so without violating the goodness of Freedom. Freedom is not an absolute good: when it tramples on the good of relationship we see this most clearly.
Of course, I'm sure everyone pretty much knew this or intuited it, but I hadn't ever put it quite so clearly or succinctly in my head, and so I was kind of struck by the idea, and the way that it could help me better articulate the goodness of Freedom, and what Freedom truly is, by being able to describe it in terms of its real and good opposite.