Scholar Michael Novak asks whether freedom in the U.S. can survive without virtue . . .
“By its liberty, the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature,” Jacques Maritain once wrote. No one has reflected more deeply on the phenomenology of the human person than Karol Wojtyla, better known as Blessed Pope John Paul II.
The person, in his view, is an originating source of creative action in the world. The human person is able to reflect upon his own past, find it wanting, repent and change direction. The person is able to reflect upon possible courses of action in the future, to deliberate among them, and to choose to commit himself to — and to take responsibility for — one among those courses.
Only the person is free to choose which among his many impulses to follow. Animal freedom is to do what simple instinct impels. Human freedom is to discern a more complex, higher, and more demanding rationality in the field of action. It is to become a gentle master of all one’s instincts. It is, considering all this, to do what a person ought to do.
In our own time, alas, many people think of human liberty as the ability to flow with their instincts, to let go of restraint, to do what they feel like doing. They like animal images of their dream of liberty: “born free” like the tigress of the jungle or “free as a bird.” They think that animal nature is innocent and unrestrained, separated from moral rules imposed from outside their own instincts. Woody Allen very neatly expressed this impulsiveness: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”
Experience, however, teaches that human liberty is not constituted by bondage to impulse. Liberty consists in an act of self-government by which we restrain our desires by self-control, and curb our fears by courage. We do so in order to reflect soberly: deliberate well and choose justly. Moreover, we seek to act in such a way that others can count on our long-term purpose. Such practices of self-government are found in persons of considerable character.
It’s our great fortune that America’s first President, George Washington, was understood by all who knew him to be the prototype of this sort of liberty — the man of character, by his very virtues worthy of the admiration and affection of his countrymen, a model for the liberty the nation promised to all who would wish to earn it.
Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush anchored liberty in virtue, and virtue in religion: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion.
Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”
Liberty of this sort comes neither by the positive nor the negative actions of the State; rather, the U.S. Constitution deliberately allows it scope, and plainly depends on its widespread realization. The liberty of self-government must be acquired, one person at a time. This personal task is rendered easier when the whole surrounding public ethos teaches and encourages it. In this sense, personal liberty is much favored or impeded, depending upon the social ecology of liberty. In any case, the American conception of liberty is “ordered liberty,” a liberty of self-mastery, self-discipline, self-government.
In brief, personal liberty is not well described as “unencumbered” liberty, as “rugged individualism,” as “libertinism,” or “hedonism,” or “letting go.” It is not the liberty of doing whatever one wishes. It is the liberty to reflect on what one ought to do, and the liberty to choose to take responsibility for doing it. Here in America, it is the liberty our forebears taught us. It is what John Paul, speaking of America, called its historic contribution of the social ideal of “ordered liberty.”
My own favorite expression of this liberty is the third verse of “America the Beautiful”: O beautiful for pilgrim’s feet, whose stern impassioned stress/A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness/ America! America! God mend thine every flaw!/Confirm thy soul in self-control/thy liberty in law.
America has given many bad lessons to the world, and it has many tragic flaws. But one good thing it has brought to the world is the re-born ideal of ordered liberty, the idea of freedom as the capacity of its people to do as they ought. American history has brought us many stories of courage and self-control.
Personal liberty is not an intuitive, but a socially learned concept. It is not so much a personal achievement as a cultural achievement, and it requires an entire cultural ecology to encourage and teach it. Its embodiment appears more frequently in some cultures than in others, and more in some generations than in others. Personal liberty is a fragile achievement, and a single generation can decide to surrender and walk away from it.
It is by this fragile but precious liberty that “the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature.”
Michael Novak is a renowned philosopher, author and theologian. The winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion, he is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was co-authored by his assistant, Mitch Boersma.