Freedom without relationships

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput recently wrote in advance of next month’s Napa Institute. He quotes two great thinkers, and I’m sharing those quotes and a bit of Chaput’s thoughts:

[Charles] Péguy once said that “Freedom is a system based on courage.” We’re never truly free until we have the courage to accept the idea that truth might actually exist outside and above ourselves; and then have the courage to seek it and live it.

Freedom isn’t license. A large menu of equally bad or meaningless choices is not freedom. Freedom is the ability to see what is right and the character to choose it. That’s why freedom requires courage. Freedom and truth always have a cost. They always place obligations on our behavior. And those obligations always remind us of our relationship with others – with other people, and also with God. The freest person is the person who can see the world and himself honestly in the light of truth, without fear or excuses or alibis. Honesty is hard. But honesty is the beginning of humility, and humility is the beginning of sanity.

“Freedom isn’t license. Freedom requires courage, because it always has a cost in terms of our obligations to others,” to paraphrase. This passage reminded me of an old understanding of the knights and chivalry of the Middle Ages, which was that if you looked over the entire society, it was the knights who were most free despite their service and obligations. They were the most free specifically because they were the ones who chose to live a life of service, whereas a peasant or a local lord was stuck in the sense of being born into something and serving only those inherited and basic and unending duties. The important thing to notice was that even though the knights lived a much freer life, they weren’t abstractly emancipated from their countries or neighbors in the modern way that we have become free and independent individuals of the sort that Yuval Noah Harari describes. What good is freedom without relationships?

[Henri] Bergson once wrote that “The motive power of democracy is love.” For democracy to work, it needs to be powered by something more than the sum of everybody’s opinions and appetites. The kind of “love” that Bergson meant is sacrificial. It’s much more than a warm feeling or a habit of kind thoughts. It demands that we judge our own and other people’s behavior by a hard standard of justice.

Democracy requires the kind of love that places the common good above personal comfort or individual appetite. And the “common good” is never just a matter of people’s material needs. The common good is always about what best serves the well-being of the whole person and the whole of society. In other words, it always has a spiritual foundation in the truth about human dignity. Without that spiritual foundation, society – to borrow a thought from St. Augustine – is just an organized gang of thieves.

We tend to think of “human dignity” as the state where our will is satisfied that our personal good is fulfilled. This is self-referential thinking that leads nowhere. Peter Lawler’s writing on the notion of human dignity having emerged from the older idea of human beings possessing a “noble” character is a place worth starting if you’re interested in reading and thinking more on this.