How we are to evaluate and challenge creatively the heirs of modern liberalism depends on what we take freedom to be, and not to be. Our era has rightly exalted the human person, but it has done so by way of a one-sided view of freedom that makes moral and religious authority alien and even antithetical to our humanistic ideals. How do we respond “without panic,” as David Yeago puts it, to an age of hyper-liberalism?
It is the defect of all ideologies to think that the human person is reducible to some one simple principle, a uniquely explanatory core element, be it the will to power, the laws of physics, the struggle between the id and the superego, or the dialectic of class warfare. In reality man is complex, and human freedom a composite affair. Unfortunately, modern culture focuses (maladroitly) on only one constituent element of the act of human freedom: the act of choice, electio in the terminology of the scholastics, the act by which we embrace voluntarily one preferred means to the realization of our happiness. And so a culture of autonomous choice is one in which freedom is defined in primarily negative terms: as non-compulsion from without and self-determination for any possible realm of goods from within.
The problem with focusing exclusively upon this aspect of human freedom is not that it is unreal, but that it is incomplete. The focus on autonomous choice ends up in tension with any normative account of the human good. It does so because my freedom to choose any good I wish can only be protected from external compulsion if I am allowed to determine for myself every X (fill in the blank): the meaning of human existence, the content of moral norms, when life begins, the relative (un)importance of religious claims, and the norms of human sexuality. Consequently, as we have discovered in our postmodern age the exercise of human freedom is seen inevitably to need to extend ever further into the domain not only of practical reason (what is to be done) but also of speculative reason itself (what is the truth)
Needless to say, this is not what Thomas Aquinas thinks is happening in any true and integrally free human act. He sees the structure of the free act as composed of twelve distinct moments, of which elective choice is only one. Six of these moments pertain to knowledge, while six qualify the activity of the will.
Let us say that the rural Georgian in me is cast into a fit of nostalgia by reading David Yeago’s account of his childhood in Virginia. I formulate the sane plan to relocate from Manhattan to somewhere in the Appalachians. Therein my will is moved first by the love of a particular good perceived and desired. The judgment that this particular good should be worthy of possession moves me to form an intention to seek it out. After prudent reflection on how to go about accomplishing this goal, I consent inwardly to a formulated plan. Freedom takes on a definite shape, as it were, in the act of choice. I elect one path rather than another (Appalachia vs. Manhattan; travel by train rather than by car). I then command myself to act (the intellectual engagement of what Aquinas calls the imperium), and I cast myself into action as I board the train headed south.
The pursuit of the good ends (perhaps standing on the front porch of a mountain home in rural Virginia) in the apprehension that I have come to possess the good. Therein I attain to the final end of the activity of freedom: delight in the possession of that which is loved. We move from desire, through intention, consent, choice, and engagement, to happiness and joy.
Reducing freedom to the act of choice alone, liberalism unintentionally cultivates an internal drama of incoherence. For it seeks incessantly to extend the prerogatives of free self-determination into the most extensive domains of political life. But to do this, liberal theory seeks to suspend any commitment to the speculative principles that safeguard an enduring sense of human dignity and the metaphysical good of human liberty.
Why? Because any normative account of human nature, or natural law, would be inherently dangerous: Such knowledge sets out to guide, and thus delimit, our choices according to objective measures. Public reflection on our natural end as human creatures is deemed intrinsically socially oppressive—because intrinsically normative. Thus the liberal ideal of freedom leads us into a willful ignorance of the speculative truth about ourselves, and it causes us at times to prefer our elective freedom to the detriment of our plenary excellence or human nobility. From the wound of a reductive use of human freedom there arises the wound of intellectual nescience.
How then might we be healed of this two-fold wound? This is a question we must answer, for as Yeago points out, the task ahead of us is to discern how we can affirm aspects of modernity, not on liberal terms, but in a robustly theological and metaphysical way.
In the face of liberal modernity, we must provide a dense account of the human good, and indeed a primarily theological account. Human freedom has to be understood ultimately in light of the mystery of God, the love of Christ, and the beauty of the natural law. The therapy of the desires we need requires that we present the authentic good anew in its radiance and in the splendor of its truth. As Aquinas knew, knowledge of the good plays an essential role in the free human act.
Yet we need something more fundamental, something reparative to heal the hearts of our contemporaries and reawaken a desire for the authentic good. For once the will becomes distended by the exaggerated desire for the freedom of indeterminate choice, it cannot easily be remedied only by imposing the disciplines of legitimate authority. These indicate, but they do not rectify. It is authentic spiritual love, an ethics of oblative love, that allows the tormented human will to unfold and flourish in truth.
Our task as religious persons, then, is to seek to persuade with the truth, especially by addressing the human person’s innermost desire for an authentic spiritual love. The truth is not a weapon, but rather the basis for a deeper vision of the human capacity to love to which denizens of a liberal epoch might consent. Such a vision must address realistically the complexities of our age, but also demonstrate—both philosophically and theologically—that biblical, spiritual love can resolve the question of how we ought to live out our freedom in that same age. Ultimately, only the true love of God, one’s self, and others, liberates the human being. And a genuine appetite for spiritual love also disposes the human person to receive the fullness of the truth, including the truth about the nature of the human person and the normative content of the moral life.
Here, perhaps, we find the crucial element of the Christian modernity that Yeago calls for: Norms can be accepted more readily as they are seen to nourish our spiritual appetite to thrive in love. To choose God, to choose to have the child, to choose mature and chaste ways of loving, to choose Christ so as to love and to be loved, in the truth. We need in our time to promote this genuine healing that comes only from within, one that only oblative, spiritual love, or caritas, can provide.
Is a non-modernist Christian modernity possible? As I read David Yeago’s paper, I found myself thinking of another alienated southerner coming to terms with modernity. We find Hazel Motes at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, having put out his own eyes by the use of chemical lime, winding himself in barbedwire as a penance. The landlady who discovers him in this state remarks, as an echo of disapproving modernity, “Son, that’s from the Middle Ages. People have quit doing it.” O’Connor’s Homeric saint, blind and yet peering into the truth of a mystery both past and future, turns to look at her and through her to us, and says, matter of factly, “Well, they ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.”
O’Connor was quite sensitive to the distended forms of freedom to which liberal modernism often gives rise, and she did not hesitate to see therein the extending shadows of premeditated valuelessness. She wrote in a letter in 1955: “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe.” But she was also a thoroughly modern Catholic, and her presentation of Hazel Motes is not meant to be as alien as we might initially think. His grotesque condition is meant to be read as a revolt against his own inner nihilism. He does not lose his humanity. On the contrary, he stills a modern restlessness, turning against the dictums of liberalism itself: His is not the will to pure, undifferentiated autonomy, but the will to joy through sanctity and love of God.
So, yes, of course our liberal colleagues stand at the door and doubt. To them we appear as blind men, having wrapped ourselves in the ascetic, intellectual barbedwire of a medieval theory of freedom. We are informed that a “normative” account of human freedom appeals blindly to an era that is irretrievable. This is something no one does anymore. Least of all, right-thinking people, people who want human beings to live freely but without overt reference to universal ontological and moral claims. To which we, like the reluctant prophet Hazel Motes, should respond in good liberal fashion, “Well, I do it.” For being bound to the truth out of love is a free act as good as any other. But this one alone heals the human heart in its depths, in the modern age or in any other.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.