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.