When you ask a liberal what it means to be free, you will probably get an answer similar to this: to be free means to be able to do whatever you want within the boundaries of some kind of Rawlsian mutuality test. The original Rawlsian test was “the maximum regime of liberty possible under the circumstances of perfect equality and reciprocity of that liberty,” although in his later works, especially Political Liberalism and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, he changes the words “the maximum” to “a sufficient,” to deal with the fact that several figures on the libertarian left were using his work to undermine elements of the welfare state and identity politics.
If you ask a conservative the same question, you will probably get an answer similar to this: to be free means that your government or constitution has built a space of free action bounded only by laws for mutual protection, and within those boundaries you are free to do as you want without government coercion. Certainly, conservatives will disagree on the precise character of those boundaries, whether they include moral protections or merely physical protections, and the degree to which the space of free action protects you from private action or merely public action, but I doubt there is serious disagreement in the abstract definition given above.
This essay is designed to complement the previous essay on individualism published by Social Matter on October 20th, which argued for a new perspective on what it means to be a person, or individual, which drew from classical sources to set a framework for a post-liberal revival of individuality, rightly understood. This article continues that inquiry by framing the question of what it means to not just be an individual, but to be a free individual. The word liberty has been tarnished by liberalism, which claimed to enshrine liberty at the center of its ideology, but instead reduced and perverted liberty into a subhuman form, concerned solely with superficial matters, much as it did with the concept of individualism.
Both the conservative and liberal definitions of liberty are incorrect because they are fundamentally the same definition. They reduce the operator of liberty to the will and the object of liberty to the appetites. The liberal and conservative agree that liberty is the will pursuing objects of consumption but disagree on the primacy of the appetite, or the primacy of the will. From this conception of liberty, we have numerous conundrums along the lines of: Can a free person choose to surrender their freedom? Obviously, the flaw in this statement points to an error in the formulation of the concepts, for if we define freedom as having choice, and freedom permits us to give up our choice, one can be free to not be free.
Any definition of liberty rooted in the will and the appetites will be caught in this sort of paradox because of the limitless and irrational character of the will and the appetites. Let’s use another analogy; imagine a heroin addict. According to the liberal and some conservative paradigms of liberty, this person is free to choose to use heroin. Now, put aside the ideological paradigms impressed upon you by society and apply common sense. Is the heroin addict free? Can he truly choose what he wishes to pursue? Of course not; the heroin addict has only one choice, to pursue the next hit. If prostitution is required to acquire more heroin, then the addict becomes a prostitute. If crime is required to acquire more heroin, the addict becomes a criminal. The addict, de facto, is identical to the slave because he has little real, meaningful choice, only to obey or disobey, to pursue the drug or suffer the consequences of withdrawal.
If we once again apply common sense and a clear understanding of human nature, as found in Albert J. Nock’s Three Laws, especially Epstean’s Law, it is doubtful if the latter of those choices is a real choice. Yet, under a liberal regime, especially one where drugs are legalized, there are no physical limits placed on his actions, and so he is considered to be free.
The end of liberal liberty is always slavery because to be ruled by your passions is to be a slave to your passions. Will is always subsumed by appetite because will without purpose is not strong enough to resist the endless demands of human desire.
This is the absurdity of the notion of liberty as conceived of as will seeking to fulfill appetite. This critique applies to all liberal, conservative, and libertarian definitions of liberty because whatever modifiers and contingencies are placed on the definition of liberty, all of these ideologies are essentially identical in terms of the root emphasis on will and appetite.
This is the essential link, therefore, between modern concepts of liberty and individuality, both of which elevate the unmoored Will to Devour to the essential human act. The objects of liberal identity, body modification, sexual acts, and consumer goods, are all objects of consumption and the primary goal of liberal politics is to “free” individual to consume more, in both a qualitative and quantitative sense. The Free Liberal Individual forms their identity by the Will to Devour. To be free means to eat without restraint. Even ethnic authenticity is a consumption item, and to achieve it one must buy consumer goods. What is racial liberation? Why, it means to be thousands of dollars in debt to the credit card company but to possess clothing, cars, beauty goods, and to fulfill the “ghetto fabulous” lifestyle. Not desiring consumer goods means not being racially authentic, as it is defined for each discrete group. In their pursuit of freedom and identity, they desire no restraint on their Will to Devour in order to attempt to establish a sense of identity and freedom in their lives through consumption.
Your Lexus-driving nouveaux riche Southern Baptist devotee of Russell Moore, in contrast, is the white version of the racially authentic black or Hispanic liberal. An example is Moore’s international adoption program; foreign children are the new consumer good which you absolutely must have in your house if you wish to identify as a “Good Evangelical.” They can put the kid right there between the tacky collection of Jamaican wood carvings from the Carnival Cruise onboard shop and their faux-sophisticate painting from a street vendor in New Orleans who promised it was “avant garde.” Of course, they don’t know what that means, except that it sounds French, so it’s haute couture, but it’s not like they understand anything their Ugandan orphan is saying either. Art is for pretending like you’re a sophisticated modern Christian, unlike those dirty bad-thinking redneck fundies.
Let me propose something completely radical, a rejection of the notion of liberty as an aspect of will, either to devour or to power. What if liberty was understood as a form of knowledge and an expression of reason in the classical sense, not reductionist rationality in the Enlightenment sense? Classical reason is best defined as a sense of openness to the wonder of reality. The beginning of philosophy is an erotic attraction toward that which is true, beautiful, and good, the desire to possess, but the truth of the Philosopher is that Sophia cannot be fully possessed, only partially observed and more importantly, loved.
Christ tells us that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The Vulgate has the verb here as facio, facere. Make is the proper translation, not set. The truth changes and transforms us, as opposed to “set us free” which implies liberation from external coercion, in conformity with the liberal notion of liberty. The knowledge which makes us free must therefore be knowledge about ultimate reality, knowledge about ourselves, and knowledge about purposes and ends. It also cannot be superficial knowledge, or a “fact statement,” because this knowledge fundamentally changes us as individuals, working a periagoge (Plato) in our souls.
There is such a candidate for a type of knowledge, which Aristotle calls hexis in the Ethics and in the Topics. I have already written something on this issue here, for reference on this theory of hexis and identity. What this refers to is a type of knowledge that is so integrated into one’s personality that it becomes a core element of who you are. Imagine an older man who you knew as a child and you deeply admired, such as a grandfather or wise uncle. What is the trait you would use to describe this man? Dignified? Hard working? Reverent? Now image this man wearing shorts sagging down, a backwards baseball cap, and watching Oprah on a Sunday morning. It is incomprehensible because that image is fundamentally not who that man is. Just picturing the image is absurd. Those attributes you listed before are hexeis, fundamental elements of his personality, but are themselves forms of knowledge, according to Aristotle, because they are not inherent characteristics to Mankind. They are learned.
When a child is born, the only characteristics of their personality are those inherent to the Race of Man. As they grow, they are taught certain behaviors by repetition, often requiring the use of discipline and rarely involving rational explication of their purpose. Steal food from your sibling and Dad will whip your ass. Use courtesy with elders or Dad will whip your ass. I’m a Southerner, what can I say? The point is that repetition of behavior forms a habituated characteristic in the person. People begin to comment that your parents have such polite and well-behaved children. Discipline becomes less frequent as the behavior becomes more automatic. At this point, however, we do not yet have a characteristic of personality, just a trained behavior.
At some point, the child becomes a rational adult capable of self-reflection upon his own character. This is the point that Aristotle tells us habituated behavior has the potential of transforming into a true hexis, or an element of your identity and individual personality. As an adult, you have no control over what you were taught and habituated to as a child, but you are capable of understanding and judging yourself. Aristotle claims that a person who knowingly embraces the good behaviors taught by his parents can, with the help of a mystical process he doesn’t understand, transform these behaviors into permanent characteristics of his personality, or hexeis. This mystical process is called periagoge by Plato and renovatio by St. Paul, wherein good behavior is transfigured into good character.
In this manner, Aristotle posits that a child, who is taught to be good and embraces that good as an adult, becomes a Good Man. Good is no longer an adjective of behavior but of personality. But wait, our resident Aristotelian critic will say, you are saying that God makes hexeis and Aristotle says hexeis can be vicious as well as virtuous! In response, I can only say that I absolutely agree.
In John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, he takes Cicero’s De Inventione, wherein Cicero translates Aristotle’s hexis to the latin habitus, and borrows elements for his own theory of politics. In his discussion of the virtues, he makes the statement that liberty, too, is a habitus. He never really develops the argument, but uses it to describe how a child is raised in a free community, wherein he becomes habituated to behaviors having to do with liberty, inevitably grows up to be a free man. John of Salisbury has stumbled, I believe, upon the answer to liberal notions of liberty. Liberty is a hexis, a type of knowledge which forms an essential part of an individual’s personality stemming from habituated behaviors and beliefs which are primarily involuntary but are freely embraced by the individual.
I do not mean to take this as an embrace of Machiavelli’s notion of liberty as a political sentiment. It certainly includes a sentiment which resents illegitimate and external authority but this is not the whole of liberty. The transformation from habituated behaviors to hexis requires a mystical force to turn behavior into character. The only such power lay in St. Paul’s renovatio, also restated elsewhere as renatus. The free man is created by an act of God, because God is the only power capable of transforming human nature from its natural depravity into virtue. The act of becoming free begins at the center of man, in the liberty of the soul from sin, expands outward to free the personality from vice, continues outward to free the body from addictions and weakness, and finally it frees the individual from immoral social relations. This is not an antinomian liberty, however, but a state wherein man orients himself toward order to liberate himself from the bondage of the disordered life.
Neither is this a magic state where all one’s problems are fixed. One cannot be a hardworking person without working hard, and one cannot be a generous person without giving money. Neither can one be free without engaging in behaviors that are free. In fact, it is more exerting to be free than to be a slave, because the burden is higher. To be morally and intellectually free requires one to practice virtue and study great works. To free your body requires one to stay physically fit and healthy. Can you be truly free if you are a hundred pounds overweight, or if your body rules over you in other ways?
Let me be clear, here, I am not arguing for asceticism here; to require food and sleep is not slavery because replenishment is a natural and healthy function which increases your capabilities. Being obese, physically unfit, or unhealthy does diminish your ability to live in a state of order and personal liberty. This struggle is neither easy, nor is it fast.
As an academic, I struggle to find time to get to the gym and sitting in an office for most of the day limits my exercise. Unless I should decide to surrender to my job and accept servitude, however, I must resist the trend toward weakness.
Freedom in a social sense is the last and least meaning of the concept of liberty. It does not mean atomization; atomization is fundamentally incompatible with liberty because it makes us dependent on immoral and unjust relationships. A wage slave or a market slave is bound to serve the will of a master who is more than likely deeply wicked or amoral at best. Being free means being antifragile, able to provide for your basic needs without recourse to participating in disorder, and it also means being embedded in a natural, functional, and hierarchical set of communities.
For all but the greatest of men, the strength to be free requires a group. When that group is functioning according to principles of order grounded in the Will of God and order of Creation, the act of submitting to authority is not restricting but liberating. When you submit to your minister’s command to cease from immoral behaviors, you free yourself by submitting and enslave yourself by rebelling. When you exist in right relationships with moral people around you, you have the capacity to voluntarily choose the Good. Cicero stated that “I make myself a slave to the law (justice, ius) in order that I might live free.” Because your will is placed in subjugation to Right Reason (not your judgment but objective Right Reason grounded in ontologically fixed principles), your choice naturally aligns with what is right, good, proper, and true.
When your will is not in subjugation to reason, when it is out of control and driven by your desires, this is a state of abject slavery, wherein man, who was made a little lower than the angels, chooses to live like a dog. Liberals do live like dogs, whether they are the wealthy sort or the poor sort. The Kardashians have little to distinguish them from the average ghetto rat other than a bank account. Your upper-middle class Moore-approved Southern Baptist has more than a few skeletons in that tacky, over-decorated closet.
So, you say, I am not that person. I am not self-controlled; I am slovenly in my appearance. I don’t read books any longer than the sports section, and I work a shitty job because I’m afraid of being fired. Does that mean I am not free? Yes, actually, it does. Aristotle talks about natural slaves, who are incapable of living up to the standards of a free person. Before you surrender, however, try an experiment. Fake being free. Pantomime virtue, self-control, and intellectual curiosity. Pretend like you enjoy going to the gym. Act like you’re ambitious and seek self-improvement. Imagine that you’ve rekindled your childhood faith in Christ and throw yourself into your church community. Do this for twenty or thirty years and come back to me. We’ll talk about freedom again, and perhaps the Lord will have worked an act of renovatio in you in the meanwhile.