This is a portion of a speech delivered by Michael Knowles at Georgetown University on Tuesday, September 26, 2023.
There is a crucial fact about liberty, a fact at odds with our mistaken, modern, liberal notions of what liberty is. Modern liberal culture tells us that liberty is the right to choose. This is how most people today — even conservatives — think about liberty. But this is not the way our forebears thought about liberty. This is not the way our civilization has understood liberty for most of history. From the ancient pagan Greeks all the way up through the medieval and Renaissance Christians right up until just a few hundred years ago, liberty was understood quite differently.
Even Lord Acton, an ardent liberal and favorite of libertarians, famously admitted that liberty is not the ability to do what we wish but rather the right to do what we ought. The nineteenth-century Spanish writer Donoso Cortes put it even more clearly. He said:
“When man came from the hands of God, he understood the good; and because he understood, he willed it; and because he willed, he executed it; and by executing the good his will desired and his intellect understood, he was free. That this is the Christian signification of liberty is clear from the following words of the Gospel: —‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’ (John 8:32).”
We know that liberty cannot merely be the absence of external constraint when we consider the case of the heroin addict. According to the modern, liberal conception, the freest man is the one with the fewest external constraints. So, according to that definition, the freest man in America is the heroin addict in San Francisco. As long as he’s got a few bucks in his pocket — no matter how dubiously he acquired them — that man can shoot up dope in a filthy alleyway, and no cop is going to stop him. He can loiter, he can defecate in the streets, and he can sleep on the sidewalk until he freezes and dies of exposure. Man, isn’t he free? I don’t think so. He’s a slave — a slave to his appetites, his passions, his lower will. And he knows it. He probably wishes to break his addiction — he almost certainly does — but his appetites cloud his intellect, and his defective will succumbs to temptation until it destroys him.
Anyone who’s ever had a bad habit — or a good habit, for that matter — knows that the more you do something, the easier it is to do, and the harder it is to do the opposite. The more you do drugs, the easier it is to do more drugs, and the harder it is to stop doing drugs. The more you learn, the easier it is to know things, and the harder it is to fall into error. This fact of human nature reveals a second error with the liberal definition of liberty: namely, that the better we become — or the worse we become — the less free we should be.
It’s an unfamiliar thought today. What I mean is: so long as we have no habits, tastes, or inclinations — so long as we’re perfectly neutral — then we are perfectly free, according to the liberals, because we are perfectly disposed to choose between alternatives. But the moment we begin to develop habits and tastes and inclinations — which of course happens to all of us all the time, whether we want it to or not — then suddenly we are less free to choose between alternatives. The moment we start shooting heroin, the less able we are to choose not to shoot heroin. The moment we start learning, the less able we are to err.
Taken to its logical conclusion, we see the absurdity of the liberal definition of liberty in the case of God. Because according to the liberal definition, God himself is not free. Because God cannot sin. His very being precludes him from evil. And yet does anyone seriously believe that God, the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, is not free? Even an atheist must admit that the very concept of God demands that he be not only free but perfectly free. So how can this be?
It’s for the same reason that we all know intuitively that the heroin addict is not free. Because freedom is not impartiality between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Freedom is not synonymous with choice. On the contrary, choice is a defect of our liberty, which actually consists of willing and understanding. Human beings, uniquely among the animals, possess intellect and will. That’s what distinguishes us from the other animals. Other animals possess instinct. A chihuahua can sometimes figure out where we keep the dog food and eat it. But a chihuahua cannot write a poem or contemplate justice.
And as a consequence, neither chihuahuas nor any other non-human animal is free. We put human beings on trial for committing crimes because we are expected to know better and act better. Crimes are an abuse of our liberty. We do not put chihuahuas on trial — even if the little chihuahua bites a kid at the park — because chihuahuas can’t abuse their liberty, because they don’t have liberty, because they don’t have intellect or will.
Liberty, therefore, is not the maximization of choice but the perfection of our understanding and of our will. And since God alone understands and wills perfectly, God alone is perfectly free. And we will be free only inasmuch as we align our wills and our intellects with God.
I know that all of this probably sounds strange in an age when Reddit-tier atheism reigns supreme in politics, but this is how the wisest men of history have understood the defining feature of human nature.