The concept of human freedom, at least in today’s society, is often an abstract, theoretical concept whose definition is variant and may change depending upon different situations. This complicates any attempt for governments to create national laws and, furthermore, for any kind of international treaties or resolutions to be made. For laws, treaties, and policies that respect the dignity of the person to be implemented, a widespread understanding of true freedom is essential.
On the level of the individual, freedom must be understood in the sense defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose school of thought is derived from the Classical understanding of natural law, especially reflecting Aristotelian philosophy. This understanding of human freedom starkly contrasts with the contemporary conception of freedom that floods our society as the freedom of the will to pursue power. Aquinas’ definition of human freedom counters commonplace societal values. George Weigel succinctly explains the Thomistic definition of freedom as the “means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfillment of human destiny… the capacity to choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit- as an outgrowth of virtue…the journey of a life lived in freedom is a journey of growth in virtue.” Even more simply stated, freedom is the “matter of gradually acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with perfection” (Weigel, Two Ideas of Freedom). Growing in virtue, acting wisely, and forming good habits, as described by Aquinas and, notably before him, Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics, is the means to human excellence and human happiness. The journey to true freedom, as outlined by these two great thinkers, is one pursued by individuals themselves. A noble yet necessary challenge to live and pursue virtuosity as an individual, this challenge becomes even more complicated when you consider the fact that humans form societies, governments which interact on the national and international levels.
We live within various systems that all too often misunderstand the definition of freedom. And even if these systems would understand freedom properly (as the means to pursue excellence), how should this definition inform the role of government? Should it be a government’s job to secure the education of the citizen, and educate the citizen in virtue? This question surrounds an incredibly controversial topic of modern society, as it crosses with the themes of morality, privacy, individualism, relativism, as well as many others that have been the source of argument throughout the history. Freedom, as understood on the political level, varies across time periods and nations.
Often times, Americans struggle to understand that many other countries interpret free speech with limitations. In fact, the French Constitution and its Law of 1881, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights all protect freedom of speech but specifically allow for limitations to be put into place by the State, and the State has exercised that right (Library of Congress).
One could argue that many Americans do not understand the concept of limits when it comes to free speech because our own government has put very few legal limitations on it. Our first amendment states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (United States Constitution). In the two Supreme Court cases R.A.V. vs City of Paul and Wisconsin vs Mitchell, “the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that acts, but not speech, may be regulated by law” (American Bar). As outlined in our constitution and now the personality of our nation, the concept of freedom in the U.S. is more closely aligned with negative liberty, whereas other countries, such as the Colombia in its 1812 Constitution, adopt a spirit of positive liberty. Article 2 of the Colombian Constitution states, “Freedom has been granted to man not in order to do good or evil without distinction, but in order to choose to do good.” Freedom understood here stems from the Thomistic tradition, and is starkly different than the freedom understood in the minds of most Americans.
In the U.S., what kind of balance needs to be drawn? How can we apply Aquinas’ definition of freedom to politics? Moreover, what does “freedom” mean in the political sense, and how does a government go about securing the rights and well-being of its citizens?
I would argue that the State has limits, and cannot be the source of morality for its citizens, nor should it attempt to exercise excessive control in all elements of its citizens’ lives. The United States as a nation was founded upon religious freedom: our ancestors immigrated to escape oppressive regimes and prevent those in power from exercising too much control. Limiting the control that the government can exercise is clearly present in the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers. However, we must not disregard the crucial role of the State in securing the rights of its citizens and enabling their true freedom.
In terms of enabling the true freedom of its citizens, there are concrete measures that the American political system can take. First and foremost, our government must realize that the purpose of its existence is to protect and secure the rights of each individual, which comes from the fact that each person possesses intrinsic dignity which is universal and inalienable. In order to protect the human person and allow for a more authentic conception of freedom, the American political system must return to this most fundamental question.
In conjunction with the role of government, it is essential that a true understanding of freedom also come from society itself, as a top-down and bottom-up approach to inciting change is the most effective way to incite change throughout our culture and nation. Thus, citizens must work to promote and defend human dignity and encourage the government to promote human dignity through judicial measures. For this to occur, there must be a shift in societal values and, essentially, a series of ripple effects. In terms of the concept of freedom, American society and government often pursue freedom as an end, viewing freedom as the ability to do whatever s/he wants: freedom of volition. On the contrary, limits must accompany freedom, for only with limits, direction, discipline, and rules will we as humans be able to attain a higher level of virtue and excellence. I think that this idea of freedom, understood as accompanied by limits and as a means to live an excellent life, is lacking within American politics and society. Here, our common interpretation of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution serves as a concrete example.
So, what must American politics and society do to truly be freer, and to protect and defend the rights of its citizens? We must return to the most basic, fundamental question of who the human person is in order to arrive at the truth about the dignity of the person, as Pope John Paul II proclaims in his Centesimus Anus, “Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.” This task must be pursued at the individual level so that it filters into a society which can, in turn, push the State toward protecting the individual, who must come before the State. Practically speaking, the State exists to protect and foster the family, and enable the growth of the individual through the arts and culture. Only when a State and society pursue the excellence of the individual and family are its members truly free.
Written by Jacqueline Arnold, a current intern at the WYA North America office.