Commentary

Freedom’s Meaning: What Once United Us, Now Splinters Us Up and Divides Us

John Horvat II
By John Horvat II | March 6, 2017 | 11:37 AM EST

(Wikimedia Commons Photo)

In his masterwork, “The City of God,” Saint Augustine offers a definition of a people that can shed some light on why we are so fragmented today. He states that a people is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.”

In the face of a growing social disintegration, this definition points to the source of our discord. It is not only differences in opinion about economic systems or political policies that divide the nation. Rather, it lies in the fact that we no longer unite to agree, share or love.

Agreeing, sharing and loving are by their nature social acts that unify. They presuppose principles around which we might gather. Such activities also assume social institutions that serve as a point of reference where we might unite. Clearly the principles and social platform upon which we used to share the things we loved have declined and eroded.  

What Has Happen to Freedom?

Ironically, the cause of this disunity can be found in today’s twisted notions of freedom.

If there is one thing that has always united, and can even still unite Americans, it is our love for freedom. Indeed, the mere mention of freedom has always served as an inebriating rallying cry that opens up seemingly infinite possibilities of realizing dreams. This concept is found in our myths and is intertwined in our national narratives. Soldiers fight and die for freedom.

However, the idea of freedom that so united us in the past now divides us. Freedom used to be the means by which we celebrated our diversity. Today, it splinters us up and sets us in radical discord with each other. It has become the point of contention that is tearing the country apart.

The problem is not freedom itself. It is what freedom has come to mean.

Freedom Inside a Framework

In the classical sense, freedom is not the act of doing whatever one wants. Rather, freedom has long been defined in terms of self-restraint whereby individuals avoid being enslaved by their passions. It involves choosing the means toward something judged to be good. Freedom presupposes a moral order that helps us discern the good. Freedom buttresses the rule of law; it does not undermine it.

Perhaps a better way to understand freedom is that which allows us to live fully inside a broad framework of family, community and faith. These social institutions serve as benevolent handrails not odious fetters upon our future. They facilitate freedom and enable us to be a people by helping us unite to “share the things we agree to love.” 

America was founded in this context of ordered liberty. It served as a point of unity that allowed Americans to prosper and express themselves with amazing variety. Inside this context, it is also understood that freedom is not without cost. It must often be bought with sacrifice and even blood.

Freedom Without Restraint

The traditional notion of freedom has long been in conflict with the more modern ideal that came from the Enlightenment. This concept is a freedom without rules or restraint best expressed in the rambling impressions of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau saw freedom as obedience to the law one gives oneself. Law originates in the individual who is the supreme judge of right and wrong. Each is deemed autonomous and self-determining. The ultimate goal in life is the remaking of the “self” to achieve self-realization and self-fulfillment. There is a denial of any limits or boundaries to experience; nothing is forbidden.

This distorted vision of freedom repudiates social institutions as obstacles that inhibit individual expression. It proclaims a freedom from God and His law. It is constantly undermining its foundations by introducing elements of chaos and frenetic intemperance, which it labels diversity. This freedom denies duty and demands entitlement.

This individualist notion of freedom helps explain why we cannot be united as a people. It is because, in this lonely regime, one cannot agree to share the things we love for so little is shared or loved together.  It also explains why we are so divided. In a regime where all make their own rules, there is no limit to the fantasies and illusions that serve to justify sin, vice and discord.

A Fragmented Nation

Thus, we are fragmented because this second notion of freedom now dominates the culture. We can no longer live off the legacy of ordered liberty, a fruit of Christian civilization that has sustained our society. Our social capital has been spent. Things are breaking down.

Properly speaking, it has not resulted in the polarization of the nation since there are not two clearly defined poles. Rather what we are seeing is the splintering up of America as postmodern individualists self-identify into innumerable groups, genders and categories.

That is why the Culture War is so important. With the splintering of society, many Americans are searching for what we lost. With the grace of God, the institutions and principles of Christian society can have amazing regenerating qualities if strongly affirmed. If we are to be a people once again, we must rally around what Russell Kirk called those “permanent things” that we once loved and agreed to share.

John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order, as well as the author of hundreds of published articles. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.