Freshman year, a friend asked of me, half-hopefully, half-skeptically, “what is freedom?” It’s a fair question. We found ourselves slumped across couches in a common room overlooking an ivied-brick quad because we had followed the path laid out before us: assignments, graduations, competitions, applications, a big purple folder, now another stack of assignments. Had we freely chosen our way past these well-worn milestones, or we on some kind of pre-determined path set by our genetic dispositions and societal expectations?
At the time I struggled to explain why I thought that we did have freedom to choose what we did and who we became. But a couple weeks ago a lively discussion with several friends at the WYA house brought some welcomed clarity to the issue. Guided by Aristotle’s perennial wisdom, Weigel’s careful reflection, and Victor Frankl’s grounding testimony, we recognized that human freedom couldn’t simply be “freedom from restriction,” freedom to do whatever we felt like. Individuals’ “freedom from restriction” is always undermined both by the human community and by the individual’s own natural, conflicting inclinations. One man’s desire restricts another’s as my inclinations also restrict each other. Is freedom then meaningless?
Aquinas and Aristotle offer a different understanding of freedom. They propose that human beings’ disparate inclinations are not the demise but the source of freedom. Though we long for many, often contradictory things, our individual and communal desires are united in one shared desire to know the truth. We long to know the truth about how our individuals’ and communities’ desires might be brought to peaceful resolution. If we cannot perfectly realize this true order we still can each choose to move towards it. Each moment we are free to choose the action before us that seems most to accord with our perception of the true ordering of reality.
If freedom is accepting and embracing the best possible course of action before him, then it is a freedom that no person can take from another, as Frankl’s accounts of Nazi camps powerfully attests. And in embracing the best action—whether by walking “through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread,” by listening to another, or even by welcoming a pile of homework—we give testimony to the truth that we’re not just a plaything in the hands of our chance circumstances. We’re free to choose to accept and love the good in life before us, freeing others to do the same.
Written by Amy Elise Nolan, a WYA Intern in New York City.