Note on Freedom

‘To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness.’ (‘David Bentley Hart, ‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ p. 70-71)

So conceived, freedom is both a lot more and a lot less than simple volition – the term ‘free-will’ seems to not be of much help. Freedom isn’t just one more thing that you have – and I think that’s why so much of the debate about freedom goes in circles. It simply can’t be defined as one more quality among others that a person possesses.

It’s more of an anthropological (broadly) question, I guess – and it’s also teleological. Obviously, if one doesn’t think that there is a human nature that is oriented to some good, then freedom can only be volition (which, as seen in the previous post, is more limiting than freeing), if there can be any concept of freedom at all. It seems to me that if one takes a materialistic line which denies human nature in the metaphysical sense, then one is pretty much left with no account of freedom, at least as far as I can tell.

Maximos the Confessor developed some pretty interesting thoughts on freedom and the will – he made a distinction between the gnomic and the natural aspects of the will in human nature. The natural is basically the creature living in accordance with the principle of its nature, working towards the fulfillment of its being – which the Christian tradition says is unity with God. Again, teleological. Gnomic willing is basically what most people would describe as ‘free will’. It’s simply deliberating over a course of action. What Hart noted in the previous post, however, is that the gnomic willing really only imprisons us – if I choose X, my choosing X comes at the expense of choosing Y later on. Our ‘free choice’ results only in fewer options to choose from later. Our natural nature, natural will, is aligned to God – after the Fall, our knowledge of God is lost and replaced by knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer develops this theme a lot in ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’), and as such, our gnomic will,  our deliberation, has to decide from among options what to do, because our natural (pre-fall) knowledge of God is lost. This, as stated above, simply leads to imprisonment by choosing X at the expense of Y:

‘All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it before it has even chosen. Moreover these possibilities are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent on other limited and limiting potentialities.’ (ibid)

In a nutshell: human freedom, apart from knowledge of God, leads only to imprisonment. The more one aligns themselves with God, the more free they become, but Christian freedom is of a different flavour than most – Christian freedom is freedom for obedience, to quote Donald Bloesch.



3 thoughts on “Note on Freedom

  1. gaudetetheology December 30, 2012 / 1:06 am

    I was very struck by the Latin phrase Augustine used that is commonly translated as “free will”: liberum arbitrium. The Latin cognated with “arbitrary” gave me a better sense of how this free will was meant in the sense of having the ability to choose, the capacity for choice: over against non-rational animals as they were then apparently understood as being little more than instinct-driven machines.

    I liked this description quite a lot:

    What Hart noted in the previous post, however, is that the gnomic willing really only imprisons us – if I choose X, my choosing X comes at the expense of choosing Y later on. Our ‘free choice’ results only in fewer options to choose from later.

    but I don’t see as much of a contrast in your conclusion as I suspect you intended:

    …human freedom, apart from knowledge of God, leads only to imprisonment. . . . [but] Christian freedom is freedom for obedience

    As I normally hear this issue talked about, the difference between obedience and imprisonment seems to be arguably merely a matter of consent: if one consents to confinement, then the confinement is not a prison. (A shaky argument, if you ask me.)

    But perhaps you are grounding this not only in the teleological, but also in the eschatological: where human “gnomic willing” inevitably narrows our experiences of life, union with God inherently broadens and deepens our experiences of life. It would then be this breadth and depth that is meant by Christian freedom: more a fullness than a freedom. Does that make sense?


    • whitefrozen December 30, 2012 / 1:12 pm

      It does – the eschatological is implicit in my post above. Without those two things, I don’t think a good account of freedom can be had.


  2. theamagireport December 30, 2012 / 1:06 am

    Your 4th paragraph talks about the gnomic aspects of free will–if you’re intrigued by that check out Harry Frankfurts take on 1st and 2nd order desires and how if the alternatives along with the 1st and 2nd order desires are oppressed then humans won’t be able to make the best, rational decisions possible. It’s really insightful. Check it out on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it’s under the “ownership” section.

    Indeed, very interesting… Check out my site for some interesting commentary on liberty and free will!


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