At the Heart of Liberty

As Americans gather this weekend to celebrate the Fourth of July, one can’t help but be nostalgic for the Founder’s vision for our country.  Each year I go back and read the Declaration of Independence and reflect on the great gift God has given us in our country.  What becomes obvious in reading this founding document is that the overall theme is one of liberty.  Americans are called a “free people” that has been endowed with liberty by their Creator.  This liberty was understood as not, what Lord Acton would write a century later, “the power to do what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”  One has to wonder how the Founders would respond to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s most recent contention that the Bill of Rights guarantees “certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.”  In other words, his belief is that freedom exists only for the sake of personal autonomy.  By equating freedom with autonomy there is a great danger that true freedom will be greatly compromised.

If freedom and autonomy are not the same thing, then how is freedom to be understood?  To answer this question we begin by looking at human nature itself, just as the Founders did in the Declaration of Independence.  They found it self-evident that man was created with the inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  They thought man was made for a very particular end and that end was called “happiness.”  Although it was probably not in the sense that Jesus used it in the Beatitudes, but most assuredly they used happiness in the Aristotelian sense of a naturally virtuous life.  They listed the two rights only because they were indispensable means to the pursuit of happiness.

What made this self-evident to the Founders was that in looking at man, they knew he had the power both to reason and to will.  They also recognized that man’s will had two categories to it—the necessary and the free.  The necessary meant that no matter what, man must will the good in its universal aspect.  In other words, man cannot choose contrary to his own good.  He may be wrong as to what the good consists in, but universally man will always choose the good (i.e. happiness).  We are not free to choose our own end, it is written into our very nature.

The will is also free insofar as in this life we are not confronted with the universal good, but particular goods.  Our free will is given to us to choose the means by which we will achieve our fixed end.  In other words we have liberty in pursuing happiness and the Founders saw the role of government to protect and promote these “inalienable rights” by which man thrives.

Some may dispute the contention that we cannot choose contrary to our own good.  What about someone diving on a grenade to save his platoon?  One could argue that only someone who sees a good beyond this life that is obtained by selfless acts would do something like that.  Only someone who ultimately (even if they don’t explicitly say it) believes “he who loses his life will save it” would do that.  In fact even the person who commits suicide is acting a manner they think is beneficial to them.  They believe that what awaits them after their death is better than what they are enduring now.

Some of the confusion stems from equivocating on the terms surrounding freedom.  We tend to equate free will with freedom and freedom with liberty.  But these terms should remain distinct if we are to avoid falling into the pitfall that ensnared Justice Kennedy.  When we speak of free will, we are really referring to freedom of choice.  Freedom of choice is the mechanism by which we choose means to achieve our destiny.  This includes freedom from coercion so as not to be interfered with.  As we will see in a moment, this tends to be the current American understanding of liberty as well.

But liberty is something distinct.  It is freedom in its truest sense.  It is a conscious willing of the true end that fulfills our nature.  It is found only in the person who has completely mastered himself so he is not constrained by impulses from within (i.e. concupiscence) nor can he be coerced or forced from the outside to deviate from the good.  This is the truly free man.  It is the “liberty of the sons of God” (Romans 8:21) that St. Paul speaks of because he knows that only the man who is in Christ has liberty.  It also helps us understand how grace can never “force” us because it acts in cooperation with our liberty which is ordered to our true good.

The point is that Thomas Jefferson listed liberty among the inalienable rights not because he was looking for a catchy word but because he recognized this was the highest freedom in man.  He recognized only when man acted in liberty could he properly pursue his end or happiness.  He knew that when this liberty was not protected and promoted, both individual men and society would greatly suffer.  That is why they sought to be free from what they viewed as a tyranny when their liberty was threatened.

As proof of how far we have gotten from this understanding, read Justice Kennedy’s most famous quote from Planned Parenthood vs Casey in 1992, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  If liberty truly means to determine one’s own concept of the meaning then freedom, liberty and autonomy are all the same thing.  These are not merely the ramblings of a single Supreme Court Justice, but instead a reflection of our culture as a whole.  Freedom of choice is a god in our culture.  It is an end rather than a means.  Personal freedom is the highest good and all things are subordinate to it.  This is nothing more than a recipe for slavery as we are blown to and fro by our whims and the incoherent ramblings of Supreme Court Justices.  Slowly but surely we are all becoming enslaved to personal freedom and in great need of a Declaration of Independence of our own.  On this Fourth of July, let liberty ring!

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