Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Soul of Freedom

Thomas Merton 1915- 1968 Posted by Hello The following is taken from Thomas Merton's book, No Man is an Island. Merton was a Trappist monk in the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsmani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. His works are still popular today. The best known of them remains Seven Story Mountain.
... If I do nothing except what pleases my own fancy I will be miserable almost all the time. This would never be so if my will had not been created to use its own freedom in the love of others. My free will consolidates and perfects its own autonomy by freely co-ordinating its action with the will of another. There is something in the very nature of my freedom that inclines me to love, to do good, to dedicate myself to others. I have an instinct that tells me that I am less free when I am living for myself alone. The reason for this is that I cannot be completely independent. Since I am not self sufficient I depend on someone else for my fulfillment. My freedom is not fully free when left to itself. It becomes so when it is brought into the right relation with the freedom of another. At the same time, my instinct to be independent is by no means evil. My freedom is not perfected by subjection to a tyrant Subjection is not an end in itself... Why should my will have been created free, if I were never free to use my freedom? If my will is meant to perfect its freedom in serving another will, that does not mean it will find its perfection in serving every other will. In fact, there is only one will in whose service I can find perfection and freedom. To give myself blindly to a being equal or inferior to myself is to degrade myself and throw away my freedom. I can only be become perfectly free by serving the will of God. If I do, in fact, obey other men and serve them it is not for their sake alone that I will do so, but because their will is the sacrament of the will of God. Obedience to man has no meaning unless it is primarily obedience to God. From this flow many consequences. Where there is no faith in God there can be no real order; therefore, where there is no faith obedience is without any sense. It can only be imposed on others as a matter of expediency. If there is no God, no government is logical except tyranny. And in actual fact, states that reject the idea of God tend either to tyranny or to open disorder. In either case, the end is disorder, because tyranny itself is a disorder. If I did not believe in God I think would be bound in conscience to become an anarchist. Yet, if I did not believe in God, I wonder if I could have the consolation of being bound in conscience to do anything. Conscience is the soul of freedom, its eyes, its energy, its life. Without a conscience, freedom never knows what to do with itself. And a rational being who does not know what to do with himself finds the tedium of life unbearable. He is literally bored to death. Just as love does not find fulfillment in loving blindly, so freedom wastes away when it merely "acts freely" without any purpose. An act without the purpose lacks something of the perfection of freedom, because freedom is more than a matter of personal choice. It is not enough to affirm my liberty by choosing "something." I must use and develop my freedom by choosing something good.
I think that Merton's description of freedom is very fine, and not just because it intrigues and annoys libertarians and socialists alike. This is a mature description of freedom; it acknowledges others, the others' freedom, and more than that, the Other that makes freedom possible and meaningful. It works from simple premises - we are not and cannot ever be fully independent. We need other people even to live, and God to even exist. I love the middle ground he stakes out between service and servitude. While it is a struggle to stay in those bounds, that struggle in itself is of great value. We learn much about ourselves through it. Today we are likely to think of a society that is based on a recognition of God as tyrannical theocracy and while that remains a real threat when men bend what we think of God to suit their personal ambitions, so too is the encroachment of a secular society that sees no limit to what man or government can or ought to do. To that threat I regret to say I think too many today are blind. A society that recognizes God as a just and merciful bulwark against which man and his government shall not encroach is safer, I think, than one that trusts to human knowledge and human kindness alone. The most difficult passage is the one about obeying other men because it is a sacrament of God. This would seem to include a Catholic Christian's submission to church teaching, of course, and that is no small thing. Apostolic succession is not an easy pill to swallow and it's fraught with dangers for the teacher and the student. Seeing others as reflections of God, however, is not confined to only those who teach the word of God. It includes everyone - employees and employers, the government and the governed, and all of the relations in a family. It means in a fuller sense recognizing that we all have roles in society and seeking out a role that we can fulfill. A Catholic might call this, loosely, a vocation. Having found a vocation, we then seek to be "light" and "salt" in it. The light peels back the darkness with wisdom or new knowledge. This has to be done with respect for others and to take into account that what we offer might be wrong. The salt preserves, leavens, and draws out what is good in the other. Together the salt and the light are produce just criticism that brings out the best in us, and through us in the vocation that we pursue. Our most basic and difficult vocation is to learn about the good and how it is best pursued. What sorts of trade offs are most just? That is, I think, the best use of freedom. The other important point is that heiarchy and authority are to be resisted only when they deviate from the Natural Law. They are not inherently bad, not any more than one glass of wine is bad. Six glasses of wine, on the other hand...

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