Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Freedom and Aquinas

Peter Kreeft: The Meaning of Freedom in Aquinas; August 2019 (video)

This will be a bit disjointed; just trying to capture thoughts that resonated with me.  Some of my thoughts are mixed in here.  I suggest if something doesn’t sound quite right, it is likely my thought and not Kreeft’s.

Paraphrasing / summarizing Aquinas: The reason a thing is good is not simply because God wills it; rather, God wills it because it is good.  In other words, the will of God is an absolute, and the intrinsic reasonability of the good is also an absolute.

An excellent argument for free will, from Aquinas (but also what C.S. Lewis uses in Mere Christianity): If there is no such thing as free will, then all moral language – all praising, blaming, rewarding, punishing, counseling, commanding, and the very concept of justice, are meaningless. 

Aquinas would quote Augustine more than he did Aristotle.  Two types of freedom: one, the liberty to arbitrate within yourself to make a choice between alternatives, and two, the freedom from everything that takes away from all your freedom – basically, the freedom from addiction.  And the master addiction is to sin.

The whole point of free will is to gain something positive – happiness, joy, flourishing (beatitudo).  In today’s world, we find many errors regarding freedom, and Aquinas offers many arguments to refute these.  One error is determinism.  If you don’t believe in free will, then you are left with determinism.

Another error is a higher determinism: fate, necessity – history follows that line.  Then a view that has done enormous harm: voluntarism: the will doesn’t have to listen to the intellect, that authority doesn’t have to listen to reason.  This started with William of Ockham and continued with Luther.

Another error is its politicization.  You get this in every tyranny and in totalitarianism.  Another error is the opposite of this error: pure individualism; I am responsible only to myself and no one else.  Finally, a romanticism: feelings are the most powerful thing in us – ignoring reason and the will.

What would Aquinas say if he lived today about what we get wrong about freedom?  Our culture’s attitude is paradoxical and ironic.  On the one hand, we value freedom enormously – perhaps more than any society in history.  But most of us feel that we have less freedom than we had before.  How is it that we value something more but have less of it?  Perhaps it is because we do not understand the meaning of the word freedom.

We also have this paradox regarding power: we have far more power over nature than we ever did before, yet most of us feel impotent in the face of this – as our technology becomes more important, we become smaller.

Freedom has become an idol, an addiction.  Maybe we are all Gollum, and freedom has become our one ring.  His was a ring of power.  But freedom is also power – power to act.

We all repeat: all power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Why don’t we say the same about freedom?  All freedom tends to corrupt, and absolute freedom corrupts absolutely.

So, how to sort out this confusion?  We are confused in perhaps four ways about freedom.  The first is the distinction between the church and the state as visible public institutions, thus the distinction between religious freedom and political freedom.  The second is the distinction between the private and public sectors of life, thus the distinction between private and public freedom. 

These two have been mashed together, causing confusion.  Separating church from state (ineffective as it is, given the co-option of many religious institutions) – in other words, affording religious liberty to each individual – has grown into keeping the private religious voices out of the public political square.  It is illegal to pray in public schools, but not illegal to blaspheme anywhere; it’s illegal to display the ten commandments on public buildings (but don’t tell the Supreme Court this); quoting St. Paul about homosexuality got an Australian rugby player banned for life.  Believing some things in the Bible are now hate speech.

Third is the distinction between persons and ideas.  This is the confusion driving the first two above.  “Do not judge ideas” is an idea; “do not judge moral ideas” is a moral idea; “do not make universal claims” is a universal claim.  “There are no meta-narratives” is a meta-narrative.  This moral relativism is today focused primarily on the sexual revolution.  But there is no reason it stays limited to this.  It will spread.

Finally, the distinctions between three different kinds or meanings of the word freedom: first, positive freedom – freedom for rather than freedom from; teleological freedom: beatitudo, fulfillment.  This is what Augustine calls liberty – the freedom to attain your end.  Second, free will or free choice – freedom from determinism.  The third is political freedom; freedom from tyranny or oppression or slavery.

This is about the relation between freedom and truth.  Modernity demands freedom from religious and moral truth, rather than freedom for it.  It is no longer the truth that will make you free; it is freedom that will make your truth.

All but the materialists (of which there are many) believe in some version of free will or free choice; most believe in political freedom – at least as long as their side wins.  Almost no one believes in teleological freedom – the freedom to become what we are designed to be according to natural law; in other words, we have each claimed the right to be God.  We each claim to be a god – this is our freedom. 

As we are now each god, every game is open to us – including communism, transgenderism, fascism, etc.  In other words, every game that has been opened since the Renaissance hinted at – and the Enlightenment fulfilled – the removing of the immanent God, the God who permeates the world.  This is why democracy is the god that failed.  The will of the people is higher than the natural law.  Tyranny and democracy are not mutually exclusive.

How long can this last?  Kreeft says not long: insanity is not favored by natural selection. 

He then begins a Q&A at about the 48-minute mark.  To just touch on a couple of points:

Are we purposely cultivating ignorance?  Yes, of course – take, for example, sex education.  What is sex for?  It is for people, to make babies.  But we teach that babies are accidents.  It’s become almost illegal to invoke the natural law.  Natural law has lower standing than Naziism in the classroom – Gramsci was right, the battle will be won in the classroom.


Kreeft isn’t a fan of blogs: “people use blogs to bloviate.”  I have no comment.


The last question and answer is way too Christian – not for me, but for this bloviating blog!  For those interested, it will take only two minutes of your time, here.


  1. "has grown into keeping the private religious voices out of the public political square"

    So true. Freedom for religion has turned into freedom from religion.

    “Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” - G.K. Chesterton

    "Kreeft isn’t a fan of blogs: “people use blogs to bloviate.” I have no comment."

    Ahh what does he know! =) A lot, but this is more than just a blog.

    1. Religion has been removed from the public square, meaning religion has been removed from the public.

  2. 1. Read the encyclical letter Libertas by Leo XIII on free will.
    2. Read the articles on Faith by Saint Thomas in the Summa. There are three ways to hold something to be true, based on te differing roles of the intellect, the will, and grace.

  3. Very nice write up. I like the exploration of the topic of free will into discussions about what "Freedom" is- it is my opinion that is an area that Catholic church has right despite the many areas of disappointment, especially regarding the current Pope.

    If we don't have free will, we are nothing more than automatons and our actions have no meaning.

    That aside, the ending of your write-up is what struck me.

    I was briefly convinced by my sister in Canada to join "Facebook" in it's early days as a way to keep up with family separated by great distances. (I have close/immediate family in SoCal and Canada while I'm in SC)

    I think I was a member for 6 months, back in around 06/07 if I recall properly. But I found it an exercise in narcissism and didn't really use it to keep up with family. I like talking on the phone, or on occasion video chat(but I prefer the phone).

    For the same reason I never signed up for Twitter(nor do I want to) or any other "bloviating" app/platform. I do have a Linked-In account, but I refuse to post my picture and I don't make comments on it. I use it strictly for networking with my customers and the occasional co-traveler in intellectual endeavors.

    I have no doubt that Kreeft is right regarding many blogs, apps/platforms, etc.

    HOWEVER, blogs like this one are of a different nature. When you "bloviate", said thoughts are open for discussion among many here- assuming they can keep reasonable decorum. That is the differentiating characteristic between your typical bloviating blog and this one for example.

    What technology has done is create a global coffee house/pub or dining room table so to speak(HT to Hoppe). The quality of said discussions are still up to the people involved, but this technology is what exposed me to libertarianism back in 06'(despite never knowing it after attending 3 different colleges) via Ron Paul(thank you Dr. Paul!) and the ideas of "liberty" and philosophy in general that I would have had no chance to be exposed to otherwise.(most likely)

    So "bloviate on", but I think inherently we all know there's a difference between intellectual discussion and bloviation.


    1. I have been and remained pleased with the quality of discussion here, Nick. Thanks.

  4. Thank you this.

    A very courageous man, Professor Kreeft.

    And absolutely correct.

  5. re: What Is the Relationship Between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility?

    Consider the Lord’s opening statement in Isaiah 10:5: “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger.” At first glance, this makes no sense. If Assyria is functioning as an instrument of God’s judgment, why is He pronouncing condemnation on the Assyrians? “Woe” is an onomatopoeic word (meaning the word sounds like what it means; in this case, a cry of agony) that warns of calamity or massive judgment to come. But how can a people come under divine denunciation and judgment while at the same time functioning as a rod of God’s anger? The rest of the verse says, “the staff in whose hand is My indignation.” Assyria, this pagan, godless, idolatrous nation, is the instrument of divine judgment against God’s own rebellious people.

    In fact, the next verse says, “I send it against a godless nation [Judah, the southern part of the kingdom] and commission it against the people of My fury” (v. 6). The Jews are thus designated as the people of God’s fury. God holds Israel fully responsible for their disbelief; fully responsible for their idolatry; fully responsible for their rebellion and their rejection of Him, His Word, and His worship. So He commissions the Assyrians to come against them. Notice verse 6: “To capture booty, and to seize plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets.” That’s strong, decisive language.

    Now here you have a divine decree in action. God grabs Assyria by the nape of its national neck and assigns it to be the instrument of His fury against the godless people of Judah who have rejected and rebelled against Him. And then He says in verse 7, “Yet it [Assyria] does not so intend, nor does it plan so in its heart.” Assyria is the instrument of God’s judgment—and the Assyrians themselves are clueless about it. It was never Assyria’s purpose, motive, or intention to serve God. They had no interest in the God of Scripture—they didn’t even believe in Him. Rather, Assyria planned in its own heart to cut off many nations. This was just another opportunity for the Assyrian power to knock off another neighboring nation, as they’d already done to Calno, Carchemish, Hamath, Arpad, Samaria, and Damascus (v. 9). Verses 10 and 11 depict Assyria’s confidence in its ability to conquer Judah: “As my hand has reached to the kingdom of the idols, whose graven images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her images just as I have done to Samaria and her idols?” All Assyria knows is that it has destroyed other nations who, in its judgment, had greater protection and greater gods than the God of the Bible. The Assyrians simply intended to do to Judah what they had done to the rest of the nations. They thought they were acting in complete independence. They had no idea that God was using them as agents to deliver His judgment.

    source: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-relationship-between-divine-sovereignty-and-human-responsibility/

  6. Aquinas' thoughts on natural law and how they support political freedom is an enduring good which came out of his life. His theology was problematic though as highlighted in the linked article.