The Modern Abuse of a Word

There is no word in the modern vocabulary so abused as the word “freedom” (with the notable exception of “literally,” the misuse of which figuratively kills me). It’s abused in pithy political sound bites: “freedom isn’t free.” It’s abused when we solicit advice: “you’re free to do as you like.” And it’s even abused within our faith: “Christ has set me free” (which is invariably followed by “so you mustn’t judge me for my sins!”) At root we have forgotten what it means to be free and so our politics, relationships, and faith have all been misconstrued under the false banner of modern freedom. So what then do we mean by freedom and what does it truly mean?

In the classical sense, human freedom is predicated on our ability to follow our teleological orientations. That is, goals have been etched into our inherent being and it is in our ability to see these goals through to completion that our freedom truly lies. Some goals we share with all animals, such as the desire for food or water. But for mankind, ultimately, the goal is intellectual or spiritual: the desire to understand the world and know God. For Aquinas, developing upon Aristotle’s philosophy in a distinctly Christian way, human freedom is exemplified in our teleological desire for God (the good): “the object of the will is the end and the good. Therefore all human actions must be for an end.”1 In this way, to “choose” anything which stands opposed to the freedom to pursue this end, namely sin, is not a freedom at all, but an impediment to true freedom, as St. Paul relates in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “‘Everything is lawful for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is lawful for me,’ but I will not let myself be dominated by anything.”  For this reason St. Augustine says that the saints are such, not because they are able not to sin (posse non peccare), but because they are not able to sin (non posse peccare).2

The birth of modern freedom begins with John Locke, whose principles of Liberalism are immortalized in our Declaration of Independence. For him freedom is “the Idea of a Power in any Agent to do or forbear any Action, according to the determination or thought of the mind, whereby either of them is preferr’d to the other.”3 Without delving too deeply into the technicalities of his thought, human freedom is predicated on the choice between two mutually exclusive, yet real, options as an act of the will. It is here in the so-called “Enlightenment” that the human will is raised to almost deific proportions, the seat of reason and authority, whereby any limitation on the choice of the will, even by our teleological orientations, is an imposition on human freedom. That said, a standard still exists, external to the individual, for which goodness might be exercised in freedom. As de Tocqueville says, “It was never assumed in the United States that the citizen of a free country has a right to do whatever he pleases; on the contrary, social obligations were there imposed upon him more various than anywhere else.”4 The common good, or res publica, of society might act as a check against man’s absolute freedom; but this is a practical necessity of social living rather than a good in itself, for if Rousseau is right, then society itself is the corruption of man’s freedom and inherent goodness.

If man is inherently good then the freedom to do as I like must be good as well, for surely nothing evil may come of a good will! Here is where we are brought into modernity (or perhaps postmodernity, if we want to be overly scrupulous). No longer does telos guide human freedom towards the good, nor does the res publica act as a check against selfish or destructive behavior. Herein lies the denigration of freedom, and thereby the abuse of man himself. Christians are not alone in recognizing the danger of this trend. Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay Two Concepts of Liberty distinguished how a society built solely on the idol of absolute freedom will implode upon itself, and thus cannot be “the sole, or even the dominant criterion of social action.”5 In order to save ourselves, and save our culture (meant in the widest possible sense) we must restore the true notion of freedom.

C.S. Lewis has likened the question of freedom to a piano player.6 The skillful master who has dedicated his life to the craft can be given the sheet music to one of Beethoven’s concertos and play it perfectly, while the amatuer might slowly plink away the notes, making mistakes here and there. Now without question we should say the the master performed the piece more beautifully than the amatuer. How can we then say that his freedom was constrained because he only played the notes that were written as they were written? It is only with purpose, with telos, that true melody came forth, likewise it is only with true purpose and orientation that our freedom might be fully realized. Modern freedom is a cacophony, let us instead hear the beautiful concerto written by the expert composer.


  1. St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I–II.1.1c.
  2. St Augustine, Corrept. 12.33.
  3. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding bk. 2, ch. 21, § 8.
  4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America vol. 1, pt. 1, ch. 4.
  5. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty pt. 4.
  6. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity bk. 1, ch. 2.

1 thought on “The Modern Abuse of a Word”

Leave a Comment