Freedom for Excellence… or Indifference?

We talk a lot about freedom in Western culture. Freedom of speech... Right to choose... But do we even know what we're talking about?

Often when people talk about freedom, what they are referring to is the capacity to say "yes" or "no" simply on the basis of one's own inclinations and according to one's own decisions. 1Vibrant Paradoxes by Bishop Robert Barron, pg. 185 They are talking about a lack of restriction, guidance, or rules. Personal choice is paramount. 

We might call this the Freedom of Indifference.

But there is a more traditional definition of freedom. In the Freedom for Excellence, my will does not take primacy. I mean, the ability to choose is a given; I have free will, the potential to pursue good or evil. All of us are capable of saintliness, and all of us are capable of the greatest atrocities—as history has proved over and over. What God gives us is not the freedom to do whatever we want, but is instead the disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of the good first possible, then effortless. 2Vibrant Paradoxes by Bishop Robert Barron, pg. 185, emphasis mine

Let me give you an example.

I will remind my readers that I am still a babe in the world of traditional art. With just two years of experience, I still find some difficulty in portraying an image that has captured my heart. But as I discipline myself in the techniques necessary to paint a picture, I become more and more capable of doing so. The "rules" and "restrictions" that control my motions are the very things that drive me to excellence. So if I want to paint a picture of a particular castle on an 8x10 slate of wood, I will not be able to do that by painting on my bedspread. I won't get the details necessary by only using a 3" brush, nor by using a single colour of paint. If I want it to be a good representation, I have to follow certain rules such as correct perspective, colour, shape, tone, and texture. Furthermore, the more time I invest in painting subjects accurately, the more proficient my mind becomes at seeing those aspects and letting that knowledge travel down my arm into my paintbrush. As time goes on, I become more and more free to paint until someday, ideally, it is effortless.

It is the same with writing—the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph format, etc. are what free us to write an effective message. Or with football—the more you understand the rules of the game, memorize the plays, develop the physical prowess, become familiar with the ball, build a team, etc. the better player you will be. This also applies to speaking a language, playing an instrument, board games, driving, and virtually anything else for which there is a standard of excellence.

See how it is not the will that takes priority, but some other goal or aspiration, a greater good.

For the freedom of indifference, objective rules, orders, and disciplines are problematic, for they are felt, necessarily, as limitations. But for the second type of freedom, such laws are liberating, for they make the achievement of some great good possible.

— Bishop Robert Barron, Vibrant Paradoxes

In a moral and just society, an arbitrary freedom cannot be our foundational right. If our "right to choose" is our greatest good, then what reason do we have to condemn murder or theft or rape? The murderer, thief, or rapist was merely exercising their "freedom". 

If, instead, our aim is to create a society where the freedom we possess is for the realization of truth, life, goodness, beauty, and justice, then the laws and customs we put in place do not restrict us but guide us to excellence.

This misunderstanding of freedom is, I would argue, why freedom of speech is being undermined today. If the things I say and believe are the product of my will, then opposing speech is, by its very definition, an attack on me personally.  When freedom of speech is the mere the ability to say whatever I want, that freedom can and will be trumped by a "right" that popular opinion deems more important—such as someone's "right" not to be offended. 

If, however, freedom of speech is the function by which we may seek and defend objective truth, then we must be allowed to bring all opinions and ideas into the public sphere, so that they may be examined, compared, dissected, and, as necessary, corrected. The closer we get to the truth, the more free dialogue will become.

The same goes with the abortion debate—if the most important thing is a woman's right to do whatever she wants with her body, there is no reason to preserve the tiny life within her if it is unwanted. If, however, we seek the good of every human being, upholding their dignity and right to life itself, then no, a woman cannot end her pregnancy, but she should seek the medical attention she needs, receive support, counselling, and/or protection, and have the most beneficial options laid out for her, such as adoption or financial aid. Far from trampling the mother's rights, such a goal saves both lives.

I, for one, think that the mere ability to choose is boring. That's how you end up with blank canvasses being passed off as modern art. I would much rather see a culture that is alive, colourful, vibrant, textured... a culture as beautiful as a painting by a master with the greatest skill.

Orava, Oil on wood

About this Painting

This is the castle where my great great grandmother on my mother's side was raised. According to the story, she was knocked up by the gardener and disinherited. She moved to Canada where she worked as a hat maker to provide for herself and her infant son. She eventually married and raised a family. When she passed away her husband remarried, and his jealous new wife burned all of her things, including journals, clothes, and photographs—which is too bad, because those would have been super cool to look through. This castle, however, still stands as a historic landmark in Slovakia.

It is a dream of mine to visit there someday and experience in person this beautiful remnant of my family history.

Fun Fact: This castle is where the 1922 film Nosferatu, the first adaptation of Dracula, was filmed.

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