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What is freedom and how our understanding of it affects everything

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

In our society and culture today we operate from a false understanding of freedom, and it has an impact on how we think and how we feel.

We view freedom today as a freedom of indifference or a freedom from. This view of freedom stems from William of Ockham in the fourteenth century. The traditional view of freedom, freedom of excellence or freedom for, is derived from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas developed it further. It is a richer and more adequate understanding of freedom that is much needed. This freedom speaks to us more, in the depths of our conscience and memory. We must penetrate this true meaning of freedom if we are to live a happy, fulfilled life.

For St. Thomas Aquinas, the natural inclinations to goodness (see my article on: "Are Humans Fundamentally Evil?") happiness, being, and truth were the very source of our freedom. They formed the will and intellect, whose union produced the free will. Freedom comes after reason and after the will. He argued that we are not free in spite of our natural inclination to the good and truth, but because of them. "The Sources of Christian Ethics," by Servais Pinkaers is my resource for understanding the difference between these two ways of looking at freedom and highly recommended.

He uses the analogy of the person who really knows how to play the piano. Claiming this is the person who has acquired real freedom to play. He can play whatever he wishes because he understands the laws of music and piano just as the person who understands language is free to express himself. Likewise, our natural and basic moral inclinations do not limit our freedom; the more developed, the freer we become. We see then the ability to choose between various things in conformity to their good ends shows the perfection of freedom. The alcoholic who cannot say no to their next beer is not free — the person; however, through reason, can perry off any restraints that limit freedom.

When you view life and your values as a freedom of indifference or freedom from, you tend to seek things that are immediately gratifying. We shall not delay gratification because freedom means we should not be encumbered by anything. If we view life and values as a freedom of excellence or freedom for, you do not view self-restraint or self-discipline as a restriction of freedom. It leaves room for us to achieve our highest potential rather than get what I want when I want it. Freedom seen here is the power to act in accord with the good. Perfect freedom reaches its perfection in the person who lives the virtues.

Ask yourself how you understand freedom and how this understanding might affect your desire and ultimate happiness.

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