On Freedom

To me the question whether liberty is a good or a bad thing appears as irrational as the question whether fire is a good or a bad thing? It is both good and bad according to time, place, and circumstance, and a complete answer to the question, In what cases is liberty good and in what is it bad? would involve not merely a universal history of mankind, but a complete solution of the problems which such a history would offer. I do not believe that the state of our knowledge is such as to enable us to enunciate any ‘very simple principle as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control.’ We must proceed in a far more cautious way, and confine ourselves to such remarks as experience suggests about the advantages and disadvantages of compulsion and liberty respectively in particular cases.

 –Stephen, J. F.  Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.  1873.  From this essay by Russell Kirk.

 Certainly Freedom is to be preferred to Slavery.  But Slavery is not the only opposite of Freedom.  Another way to use the word Freedom is the way one uses it when its opposite is Restraint.  And in this case it is less clear that Freedom is the good.   

 Jesus promised that we would “know the truth, and the truth would make [us] free.” And it will.  But the kind of freedom he was thinking of, and offers, is the kind that is the result of truth– not an unmoored lack of restraint.  When we are bathed in truth and filled with truth, we won’t experience any of the negative sensations that we associate now with restraint, as we do the good and refrain from doing the bad.  But until then, we can’t have freedom– the lack-of-restraint kind– as a first principle, because we’re not genuinely free yet in our own souls; we are still dragged down by the lies in our bones, that only Christ can cure.  And even when we are free of these lies, there will still, I expect, be a kind of limitation that we will experience. 

Imagine, for example, learning to play the tuba in the New Jerusalem.  We are humans and we won’t stop being humans there; from everything I know of the human condition, a person who wants to learn to play the tuba in the New Jerusalem will have to practice, will have to play scales and take lessons and take time.  We feel this kind of thing now as partly negative; we will not experience it as negative then, but we probably will still experience it as a limit.

The difference is that we will also experience that limit as an occasion to rejoice.  Can we start to do this now?  Am I right about this?  Can we rejoice even now in the limits which mean that we have to read a book one word at a time, instead of pressing it to our foreheads and absorbing the knowledge directly?  Can we rejoice in the boundaries of our skin that mean that I am sitting here, partway down Manhattan Island, and not elsewhere?  Can we rejoice in logic– in the limit that is implied by the fact that A is not and never will or can be not-A?

Remember that what we are celebrating in this season is that God chose these limits for himself.

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