In countries more interested in maintaining the façade of self-government than its substance, eligible citizens are penalized for not voting. If the vote is the symbol of freedom, they are, in Rousseau’s words, forced to be free. This self-contradictory freedom may make sense to people surrendered to the bondage of their passions, or, as Saint Paul calls it, “the law in our members” (Romans 7:23). One could be excused for arguing that, for people thus naturally self-enslaved, Aristotle’s ancient justification of slavery (Politics Book 1, Chapters 4-7) may hold some truth. But the government of the United States was framed by and for a people determined to fulfill the promise of humanity, given by God when he endowed our material nature with the faculty of rational thought.
On account of that faculty, we are capable of standing aside from the ebb and flow of material energy that informs our passions, in order to consider it as part, and yet apart from us. We can conceive of ourselves, as it were, simultaneously participating in events and distantly observing them. We can also conjure them in advance, subjecting them to imaginative alterations that allow us to envisage various possibilities. In a word, we may consider them as choices to be made, rather than experiences we must simply and inevitably endure.
This capacity for choice is what we mainly have in mind when we use the word “freedom.” But our freedom is obviously not the same as that of water, dropping from heaven, or freely flowing down a mountainside. Our freedom implies, at least in theory, the capacity to stand still, and take stock of objects and events in a way that is not simply constrained by them.
Descartes wrote the famous words “I think, therefore I am.” But thinking is a peculiar way of being; one in which “thought … is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not.” (Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Act 1, Scene 3.) Our way of being in thought is an aspect of our existence in which its will (i.e., the future it implies) is, at least in theory, subject to our will. We can see events as they are likely to unfold. But we can also see them as they might unfold if we had the power to affect them in some way.
That possibility of power is known to us, to a limited degree, on account of our experience with our bodies. We can, for example, see the fly coming toward our eye and raise our hand to brush it away. If a boulder is dropping toward us from above, we can step aside to avoid being crushed. But in the latter instance, we know that, in the moment of our actual existence, its size and speed may outstrip our capacity to escape. Like the boulder, our existence is governed by factors that limit our possibilities. Our thought is not, as such, subject to the same limits. With barely a thought, we can whisk the imagined boulder into oblivion. We can exercise the sort of infinite power we associate with the name of God.
Given this aspect of thought, we may be sorely tempted to amend Descartes’ assertion with an addition: “I think, therefore I am God.” Yet there is in our makeup a sense of constraint that sometimes physically imposes itself. If we try to look directly into the midday sun, it forces us to shut our eyes. We may still want to look, but that force adamantly resists us. This reflexive force prevails upon us even before we are apprised of the dark consequence of doing so.
Our body has been informed of that consequence by nature, even as the biblical Eve was informed of the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit. But the moment in which we are tempted to defy it introduces us to a will that is not simply in things as they exist. It is in us, in consequence of the faculty of thought that can, in theory, transcend and manipulate existence, even when the force our existence represents strenuously opposes it.
We have a capacity of will in us capable of resisting the one programmed to serve and preserve our existence. We can try to look directly into the midday sun, despite the encoded disposition that adamantly resists our own. In that very struggle, we experience the distinction between the two. Both somehow belong to us, but, depending on the circumstances and our disposition, we claim one over the other, in thought, if not in effect.
The awareness of our capacity to make that claim encourages us to believe that, in some aspect of our being we are, absolutely, free of all constraint and limitation, free to be whatever we wish, unfettered by the determinations and provisions of the will that makes us what we are. Is this the moment when we hear and are most tempted by the Serpent’s sibilant prognostication that we shall be as God? Is it the moment when we forget, as Eve did, that we are already so, by God’s will, to the full extent commensurate with our existence?
In the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob tells Moses to call Him by the name of Being. What does that make us, if not a form of being in existence? That very word, “existence” (from a Greek root that means being hurled or standing at a distance), conveys the distinction of Being from itself that lets us – and every other existing thing – be in existence. If it were otherwise, wouldn’t we be so consumed by Being Itself as to be ourselves no more?
The U.S. Army once recruited using the slogan “Be all that you can be.” But the Being that is in all, and is all, does not, in being any one of them, stop Being itself. Rather Being alone ceases, in order to become the being who makes all of them, individually and altogether what they are. The mode of being in and through which God provides for existence in this way is the form (outward semblance) of being through which all things are made. As a word represents to our thought the appearance of the object it specifies, so the Word that is with God and is God represents itself in the form of all objects in existence.
But if the Word is their form, what else is their substance than the presence of God within that form? Who represents their nature – in God, but set apart, distinct from the very Being that comprises them? Who but the one made to be in God’s image and likeness, but at the same time possessed of a will of its own? Who but the one who therefore represents the freedom with which God accepts the myriad cuts, bonds and limitations that make all existence possible?
In Christ, the Word of God, made of our flesh, we are called to represent God’s freedom so that by freely choosing to walk in Christ’s way, we remember to all the world the absolutely free goodwill of God – Whose choice of Creation expressed the primordial, everlasting and only true meaning of Love. But if this is the meaning of Love, what love exists except in freely conforming ourselves, for God’s sake, to the righteousness of God: Doing right according to His will so that we and all existing things may work together for good.