Freedom of the Will


-by Nicene Guy

“False freedom, the fool’s freedom—the freedom to do whatever (s)he may want whenever (s)he feels like doing it—ultimately leads to his/her enslavement to the passions. It also threatens to strangle the real types of freedom, at least to some extent.

The first real type of freedom, which must ultimately underly any other type of freedom, is the freedom of the will. The philosopher Mortimer J. Adler describes this form of freedom as being the one “natural freedom, neither affected by circumstance nor dependent on acquired developments” (Ten Philosophical Mistakes). He continues by stating that:

“This natural freedom is the freedom of the will in its acts of choice. Freedom of choice consists in always being able to choose otherwise, no matter what one has chosen in any particular instance. As contrasted with a freedom that consists in being able to do whatever one wishes, it might be described as freedom to will as one wishes.”

Russell Hittinger calls the Natural Law and its resulting natural moral compass (conscience) our first grace. If this is so, then freedom of the will as the ability to always choose otherwise is the gift which enables this grace. It means that no matter how far we as individuals have fallen, and how poorly we have chosen, we may yet turn back, choose rightly, leave the self-destructive cycle of evil. This also implies that we are morally culpable for our actions—blameworthy in the case of sin and vice, or praiseworthy in the case of virtue [1].

The other two forms of freedom require first that we have freedom of the will. One is primarily internal, the other primarily external in nature.

1.  The internal form of freedom, which is sometimes called “moral” freedom, is the right ordering of the whole person so that (s)he is predisposed to virtue and against vice, so that his/her mind has control of his/her passions, and above all, so that (s)he is free to resist temptation. To return to Professor Adler:

“Only through acquired moral virtue and practical wisdom does anyone come to possess such freedom. It is a freedom from the passions and the sensuous desires that leads us to do what we ought not to do, or not to do what we ought to do. When, in the conflict between reason and the passions, reason dominates, then we are able to will as we ought in conformity to the moral law, or to normative rules of conduct” (Ten Philosophical Mistakes).  (Ed. NOT being a slave to our passions.  The freedom to choose to do other than what our passions tempt us, compel us to do.  To choose according to reason, as opposed to desire.  True freedom.  Colloquially, one of the forms of “self-discipline”, truly possible ONLY through His Grace!)

2.  While freedom of the will leaves us always able to choose differently, repeated choices in favor of virtue or in favor of vice can make us more pre-disposed to one or the other.  (Ed. habit is an important part of the moral life, as in ALL things, practice perfects, be it virtue, be it vice.  Lesson:  choose wisely, choose habits even more wisely, occasions of virtue, occasions of vice[2]) Temptation becomes harder to resist, or it becomes easier to resist, based on our choices. It is much easier to commit a sin for the second time than for the first, especially if we rationalize (let alone internalize) that sin. Virtue or vice can become a sort of “second nature.” What was unnatural to us becomes connatural, as Prof. J Budziszewski explains:

“One of the strangest and most intriguing things about human nature is its openness to what Plato and subsequent philosophers have called ‘second nature.’ We are designed in such a way that things which are not a part of our design can become so habitual, so ingrained, that they seem as though they are. Another old-fashioned term for this is “connaturality.” Consider the grace of a classically trained ballerina. Human beings do not spontaneously move like that; she must learn that exquisite poise, that heartrending beauty in movement. To that end, she retrains every nerve, muscle, and reflex until clumsiness would take effort, artlessness would take art, and her very walking looks like dancing. It isn’t that grace become effortless for her even then, although she makes it look as though it is. But her limbs have internalized the aesthetic of the dance; beautiful movement, or at least beautiful movement of that kind, has become connatural. It is second nature to her….

[In a sense], every acquired discipline, including moral discipline, goes against our natural inclinations. Consider the ballerina again. The young dancer persists in unpleasant practice for the sake of an end which is so fascinating delightful, and vitalizing that the boredom, pain, and exhaustion of the means are worth enduring. That is just how it is with the virtues. Initially, it is difficult to be good, to be brave, to be true—difficult, and most unpleasant. Yet, if with the help of grace, one persists in this unpleasant discipline, then one can see a day coming from afar when it will be more difficult and unpleasant to not be good, honest, and true than to be that way. On that day, the actions that virtue requires will be second nature” (The Line Through the Heart).”

3.  The third kind of freedom, which is an external sort of freedom, requires not only the first kind to make sense, but also needs the second to be reasonably widespread in order to flourish. This third type of freedom is sometimes called “political freedom” or “social freedom,” and it was summarized by Lord Acton as being “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Pope St. John Paul the Great re-stated this point, in the context of the challenge of finding freedom in Truth. In his Homily in Camden Yards, he said that “Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth….Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

It should be evident that political freedom, at least, is ultimately in some conflict with the false freedom to do whatever we want (and when we want). To be sure, the two are intertwined to the extent that severe political restrictions against the one can result in (or be the result of) an attempt to restrict the other. If you are a virtuous person, that is, if you enjoy moral freedom and have developed a desire to good and eschew evil, then a law requiring you to participate in an evil act or prohibiting you from doing a good one is also a law against letting you do something which you want to do.

Political freedom, like moral freedom, is a type of ordered-freedom, in that it requires and acknowledges an ordering of rights along with responsibilities. This order is disrupted by demands that we each be given the right to do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it, however we want, and with whomever we want. If I have an absolute right to something, then somebody else now has the duty to provide it to me, regardless of their own desires. As David Warren explains:

“The idea of the autonomous “prince” is modern. The medieval idea of hierarchy precluded it. The man at the top was lynchpin for a regime consisting of persons in various ranks of nobility, but in a curiously invertible pyramid, for though each in his place is servant to a master above him, he is also servant to the servants of those below him in station, pledged to their defense. The idea of “public service” survives today, but with a much different flavor. This is because the individual has ceased to be defined as a soul, a “being,” with duties. He has been redefined as a cypher or “function” with “rights.” Where to the old Christian view, rights followed from duties in the same man, to our post-Christian view the arbitrary rights of one man translate to duties for unaccounted others. (My right to a free lunch translates to your duty to pay for it, &c.) In this sense, all modern political thinking is in its nature totalitarian.”

The right to do whatever I want, or to be treated however I’d like, ultimately imposes a set of often capricious duties upon those around me. All men may be equal under the law, or the law can attempt (and fail) to make them all socially equal, but not both. As Mr. Warren notes, “‘free and equal’ [is] a direct contradiction of terms, and therefore [the two are] never imposed without hypocrisy.” The fool’s freedom leads to the destruction of our political freedom, and then to the discouragement of our moral freedom.

As for moral freedom—this can be discouraged, but it is difficult to eradicate entirely from all members of a populace. The well-ordered social and political freedom which we enjoy relies at least in part of the well-ordering of the individual souls in a society, that is, on moral freedom. Therefore, social-political freedom should help to encourage and inculcate moral freedom, even if it cannot actually instill the virtues in a given individual.

And likewise, a fool’s freedom leads to tyranny, which in turn practically requires that at least some of the virtues be stamped out, that moral freedom be discouraged. The reason for this is aptly demonstrated in an exchange between St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (Cappadocia, Asia Minor) and former monk, and Imperial Prefect Modestus [3], who was sent to demand that the saint adhere to the Arian creed formulated at Rimini. Saint Basil refused to embrace this heresy, leading to this exchange:

MODESTUS: What, do you not fear my power?

BASIL: What could happen to me? What might I suffer?

MODESTUS: Any one of the numerous torments which are in my power.

BASIL: What are these? Tell me about them.

MODESTUS: Confiscation, exile, torture, death.

BASIL: If you have any other, you can threaten me with it, for there is nothing here which affects me.

MODESTUS: Why, what do you mean?

BASIL: Well, in truth confiscation means nothing to a man who has nothing, unless you covet these wretched rags and a few books: that is all I possess. As to exile, that means nothing to me, for I am attached to no particular place. That wherein I live is not mine, and I shall feel at home in any place to which I am sent. Or rather, I regard the whole earth as belonging to God, and I consider myself as a stranger or sojourner wherever I may be. As for torture how will you apply this? I have not a body capable of bearing it, unless you are thinking of the first blow that you give, for that will be the only one in your power. As for death, this will be a benefit to me, for it will take me the sooner to the God for Whom I live, for Whom I act, and for Whom I am more than half dead, and Whom I have desired long since.”

If we live in a society which, in the name of promoting the fool’s freedom and equality, is increasingly oppressing political freedom, then we must strive all the more to gain moral freedom. This is a difficult task under the conditions of a society which at best is indifferent to moral freedom. Still, even such a society produces a few men who are heroic witnesses to the possibility of freedom in truth, to that freedom which cannot be totally eradicated by political action.

Thank God for the witness of the saints.”

Amen.  Amen.  Amen.  Praise Him!!!  Praise Him!!!  Our Savior, praise Him!!!! Thank you, Jesus!! Thank you, God, forever and ever!!!



[1] Praiseworthy, in the sense that a virtuous person should be held in higher esteem as a model for emulation than an unvirtuous person. On the other hand, “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).

[2] “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

[3] Found in Warren H. Carroll’s A Hisory of Christendom vol. II: The Building of Christendom. Prof, Carroll quoted this from Palanque’s Christian Roman Empire, History of the Church II, 63, and added the names for clarity. He further notes that after the exchange,”The prefect—and later, Eastern Emperor Valens himself—retired abashed.” Such is the power of moral freedom, virtue, and a bit of grace.

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