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Three of the terms used most frequently in Catholic social thought—and now, more generally, in much secular discourse—are social justice, the common good, and personal (or individual) liberty. Often, these terms are used loosely and evasively. Not a few authors avoid defining them altogether, as if assuming that they need no definition. But all three need, in every generation, to recover their often lost precision. Otherwise, the silent artillery of time steadily levels their carefully wrought strong points and leaves an entire people intellectually and morally defenseless.

I have tried, in three short essays, to find some precision in these three realities and to define them in terms as dear to the left as to the right—that is, in ideologically neutral ways. If I have failed in that task, perhaps someone can do it better. The more of us who try, the better.

In this, my final essay, I will examine personal liberty.

What Is Personal Liberty?

“By its liberty, the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature,” Jacques Maritain once wrote. No one has reflected more deeply on the phenomenology of the human person than Karol Wojtyla—John Paul II. The person, in his view, is an originating source of creative action in the world. The human person is able to reflect on his or her own past, find it wanting, repent, and change direction. He or she is able to reflect on possible courses of action in the future, to deliberate among them, and to choose to commit to—and take responsibility for—one among those courses.

Only the human person is free to choose which among his or her many impulses to follow. An animal’s freedom is to do what simple instinct impels. A human’s freedom is to discern a higher, more complex, and more demanding rationality in the field of action. A human person is free to become a gentle master of all his or her instincts, so as to choose appropriately among them. He or she is free, in short, to do what a person ought to do.

In our time, alas, many people have come to think of human liberty as the ability to flow with their instincts, let go of restraint, and do what they feel like doing. Such people like to invoke animal images of their dream of liberty: They are “born free” like a lioness on the African plains or “free as a bird.” They look on animal nature as innocent and unrestrained, separated from social customs, traditions, mores, and moral rules imposed from outside the animals’ own instincts, urgings, and longings. Woody Allen very neatly expressed this sort of impulsiveness when he said, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

But is this not a paradoxical claim? Some people claim to be compelled to follow instinct. They claim to have lost the liberty to persuade their hearts, lost all will to resist, lost all ability to do anything other than what the heart wants. We all know that pull of the heart. But true liberty demands that we open ourselves to other pulls and other persuasions, while listening to the calming voice of wisdom. Experience teaches us, in this way, that human liberty is not constituted by bondage to impulse, even to prolonged and seemingly irresistible impulse. Such bondage describes the liberty of wild animals, but it does not describe the liberty available only to the fully developed human animal—the free person.

Another way of describing this difference is to say that animal freedom is given to us with our instincts. But human freedom must be wrested from our instincts—cultivated, learned by practice, gained slowly by trial and error. For the most part, human freedom is taught to us by spiritual guides, by favorite teachers, by historical narratives, and by the moral example of our parents or loved ones. Animal freedom, with its contradictory impulses, often generates war within the breast. Human freedom derives slowly as we learn to find, within a large number of instincts, the most fruitful inner order that brings not only peace, but also wisdom.

It is not easy, for instance, to learn how to reflect, to gain the inner calm necessary to deliberate, and to find the courage to choose the more difficult path, the more demanding way. To achieve this inner order and (relative) harmony, we need, as it were, bodyguards of the soul: certain firm habits that protect various capabilities of the self.

Let me elaborate. Liberty consists in an act of self-government by which we restrain our desires by temperance and self-control and curb our fears by courage, steadfastness, and steadiness. We do so in order to reflect soberly, deliberate well, and choose dispassionately and justly based on the merits of the case under consideration. Moreover, we seek to act in such a way that others can count on our commitment and our long-term purpose. Such practices of self-government are found in a recurrent and habitual way only in persons of considerable character.

It is the great fortune of the United States that our first president, George Washington, was understood by all who knew him to be the prototype of this sort of liberty. He was a man of character and a man one could count on. He was decisive and self-starting—a leader who, by his very virtues, was worthy of the admiration and affection of his countrymen. He was a model for the liberty the nation promised to all who wished to earn it.

Liberty of this sort does not come from either the positive or the negative actions of the state. Rather, the Constitution of the American republic deliberately allows this liberty scope and clearly depends on its widespread realization. The liberty of self-government must be acquired one person at a time. This personal task is rendered easier when the surrounding public ethos not only teaches it, encourages it, and proffers many examples of it, but also proffers examples of the self-destruction wrought by its absence. In this sense, personal liberty is much favored or much impeded depending on the social ecology of liberty. In any case, the American conception of liberty is one of “ordered liberty”—a liberty of self-mastery, self-discipline, and self-government.

Personal liberty is not well described as “unencumbered” liberty or “rugged individualism,” as “libertinism” or “hedonism” or “egoism,” or as “letting go” or “going with the flow.” Personal liberty is not the liberty of doing whatever one wishes. It is the liberty to reflect on what one ought to do and the liberty to choose to take responsibility for doing it. Here in America, it is the liberty our forebears taught us. John Paul II, speaking of America, referred to this country’s historic contribution of the social ideal of “ordered liberty.”

This is the liberty to which certain liberals in nineteenth-century France looked when they suggested the design for the Statue of Liberty. They meant this statue to stand in contrast with the image of 1789: the prostitute on the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. They decided on a woman as the symbol of liberty (they were, after all, French), but not the loose courtesan of Paris. This Liberty is a sober, serious woman, with one arm raised to hold aloft the torch of light and reason and her other arm cradling a tablet representing the book of the law.

My own favorite expression of this liberty is by Katharine Lee Bates, in the third verse of “America the Beautiful”:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.

America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

The United States of America has given many bad lessons to the world, and as a nation and a culture it has many tragic flaws. But one good thing it has brought into the world is the reborn ideal of ordered liberty: the ideal of republican civic virtue and the idea of freedom as the capacity of women and men, whatever may befall them, to do as they ought. American history has brought us many stories of courage and self-control.

Personal liberty, then, is not an intuitive, but a learned concept—a socially learned concept. It is not so much a personal achievement (although it is that, too; one’s mother or father cannot stand in one’s place) as it is a social achievement—a cultural achievement. It requires an entire cultural ecology to support it, strengthen it, encourage it, and teach it. Accordingly, its embodiment appears more frequently in some cultures than in others, and more strongly in some generations than in others. Personal liberty is a fragile achievement, and a single generation can decide to turn out the lights, surrender, and walk away from it.

It is by this fragile and precious liberty that (in the words of Jacques Maritain) “the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature.”

As I said at the start, I have tried, in these three short essays, to find the often lost precision in the terms social justice, the common good, and personal liberty and to do so in ways that transcend left and right. I invite your comments.

Michael Novak, a member of the editorial board of First Things, holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is No One Sees God. The three pieces in this series of essays, prepared with the assistance of Elizabeth Shaw and Mitchell Boersma, are derived from Novak’s speech on November 13, 2009 at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Conference, “The Summons of Freedom: Virtue, Sacrifice, and the Common Good.”

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