Two Ideas of Freedom

Published December 1, 2001

The Inaugural William E. Simon Lecture

On December 5, 2001, some four hundred people gathered at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the Ethics and Public Policy Center to hear a lecture and attend a celebration. The former was the first annual William E. Simon Lecture, a project established in 2001 by the William E. Simon Foundation in honor of the late Secretary of the Treasury. Simon was an ardent defender of political and economic freedom, and among his many accomplishments was his authorship of two books on the theme of freedom: A Time for Truth (1978) and A Time for Action (1980). Appropriately, then, the inaugural lecture in this series honoring him was George Weigel’s “Two Ideas of Freedom,” which examined Isaiah Berlin’s famous “two concepts of liberty” and explained why a richer understanding of freedom is required in America’s third century and the new millennium of world history.

After the lecture, guests joined the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s staff and board at a gala reception to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Center, founded in 1976 by Ernest W. Lefever, in consultation with Jeane Kirkpatrick (now chairman of the board) and the late Paul Ramsey. The mission of the Center was—and is—to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues. At the celebratory reception, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, vice chairman of the board, paid tribute to Ernest Lefever and his three successors as president: George Weigel (1989–1996), Elliott Abrams (1996–2001), and Hillel Fradkin, appointed in November 2001.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the John M. Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy and heads the Catholic Studies project. After serving for seven years as the Center’s president, he stepped down in 1996 to write Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. The book appeared in English in October 1999 and has since become an international best-seller, published in nine languages. Weigel’s most recent book is The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored.

The Ethics and Public Policy Center is pleased to make this printed version available both to those who heard George Weigel’s provocative lecture and know that it merits further attention, and to many others likely to be interested in a deep but emphatically practical reflection upon freedom in our times—what freedom is and must be, and why wisdom is its necessary partner. At a time when we are engaged in a struggle to defend our freedom and our democratic way of life from dangerous foreign enemies, Weigel’s lecture offers us some urgently needed guidance.

Ethics & Public Policy Center

Introductory Comments
It is a distinct honor to deliver the first annual William E. Simon Lecture and to do so on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The conjunction is an altogether appropriate and happy one. Bill Simon, a friend and benefactor of many here tonight, was a forceful exponent of political and economic freedom. Ernest Lefever founded the Ethics and Public Policy Center during a period of national moral and political malaise in which freedom’s future seemed in grave peril. For twenty-five years, the Center has worked to deepen the conversation in the nation’s capital on the religious and moral dimensions of the great public policy questions of our time, questions about the demands placed on a free people who would live their freedom wisely by building a free and virtuous society at home and defending freedom’s cause abroad. That is why, to honor both the late William E. Simon and the Center’s silver jubilee, I have chosen to speak tonight on the idea of freedom in our time.

Berlin’s Wall: Negative vs. Positive Liberty
On October 31, 1958, Isaiah Berlin gave his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. Entitled “Two Concepts of Liberty,” it was, according to Berlin’s authorized biographer, “the most influential lecture he ever delivered.”[1] Indeed, one can argue that “Two Concepts of Liberty” was one of the most important political essays of the twentieth century, for it clarified an important element in the forty-five-year-long contest between the imperfect democracies of the West and the pluperfect tyranny of the Soviet Union. Moreover, Berlin’s essay defended the liberal democratic project in such a way as to reinforce the liberal anti-communist consensus that historians still associate with men like President Harry Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and Henry M. Jackson. As things turned out, that consensus held just long enough that, deepened intellectually and reinforced politically by conservative and neo-conservative thinkers and political leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, freedom’s cause finally won out over Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism.

A wide-ranging historian of ideas who had grown up in Riga and Petrograd, Isaiah Berlin had seen first-hand the human and political effects of passionately held ideas. He knew in his bones that ideas are not intellectuals’ toys: ideas have consequences, for good and for ill, in what even intellectuals sometimes call the “real world.” In “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin mounted an extended defense of what he understood to be the liberal idea of freedom against its principal modern political competitors, fascism and communism. At the same time, he raised an alarm against what he regarded as the tendency in social-democratic theory to weaken individual freedom in the name of other social goods. As the title of his lecture signals, Berlin’s basic intellectual move was to distinguish between “negative liberty” and “positive liberty,” and then to defend the former as the only concept of liberty that could be actualized in the “real world” of inevitably conflicting interests, diverse concepts of the good, and competing human projects.

“Negative liberty” for Isaiah Berlin is freedom from: freedom from interference in personal matters, which implies the circumscription of state power within a strong legal framework.[2] As biographer Michael Ignatieff summarizes Berlin’s argument, the primary purpose of a liberal political community is to create the public circumstances in which men and women are left alone “to do what they want, provided that their actions [do] not interfere with the liberty of others.”[3] “Positive liberty,” on the other hand, is freedom to: freedom to realize some greater good in history. At the heart of the fascist and communist projects, Berlin warned, was a determination to use political power to liberate human beings, whether they liked it or not, for the realization of some higher historical end. That determination, he argued, inevitably leads to repression.

Isaiah Berlin was not a libertarian. Rather, the man who had first worked at the intersection of ideas and power during his World War II service at the British Embassy in Washington was a Russo-English exponent of classic American New Deal liberalism: a liberal who believed that government had the obligation to help ensure the economic, social, and educational conditions under which people could truly exercise their liberty. Berlin broke with the social-democratic left, though, in insisting that liberty, equality, and justice were, are, and always will be in tension. To adopt an example from Ignatieff: a progressive income tax may arguably be just; according to Berlin, however, it was absurd to argue that such a tax did not constitute an infringement on someone’s liberty for the benefit of someone else’s.[4]

Isaiah Berlin was never willing (or perhaps able) to sort out the tensions or define the boundaries between liberty and justice. Still, his insistence that politics is not therapy, his resolute refusal to deny the reality of conflicts among social goods, and his insistence that utopian politics inevitably become coercive politics (and, in the modern world, extraordinarily brutal coercive politics) were all important ideas to defend, in Europe and America, against the coercive utopians of the twentieth century. In this specific sense, Isaiah Berlin was a champion of pluralism in an age in which too many other political theorists had cast their lot with monisms of one sort or another—monisms, otherwise known as totalitarianisms, of a most lethal sort. A robust pluralism, Berlin suggested, was both an expression of liberty rightly lived and the surest guarantee of political liberty.

So high marks to Isaiah Berlin for identifying the perversion of liberty that was at the root of the totalitarian project, and for defending a concept of liberty-as-noninterference that, in setting legal limits to coercive state power, has deep resonances in the American political tradition. Forty-three years after “Two Concepts of Liberty,” though, one has to ask whether Berlin’s analysis of the problem of freedom reaches the crux of the matter today.

In a thoughtful assessment of Isaiah Berlin’s achievement, Norman Podhoretz has argued that, despite its important contribution in its time, Berlin’s essay is at bottom intellectually unsatisfying: it does not propose a principled, but only a pragmatic, defense of pluralism, and it fails to grapple satisfactorily with a problem that Berlin notes but never seriously addresses—the problem of moral relativism. For while Berlin correctly recognized, in Podhoretz’s words, “the spinelessness that can develop from the rejection of any absolutes and the correlative failure to develop rock-bottom convictions,” his liberal skepticism about the possibility of philosophically defensible “rock-bottom convictions” could not provide an antidote to “spinelessness.” [5] The response to the events of September 11, 2001, in at least some of the higher altitudes of the intellectual class in both the United States and Europe illustrate with almost painful clarity the truth of Podhoretz’s critique of Berlin on this point. To that diagnosis I would add another disease to which relativism is susceptible, especially when it encounters the afterburn of New Left thought and politics in the United States: the absolutizing of moral relativism, and indeed its erection as a kind of constitutionally mandated national political creed.

In the final analysis, though, Isaiah Berlin’s “two concepts” are unsatisfactory because Berlin does not drive the analysis deeply enough, historically or philosophically. His “two concepts of liberty” are both children of the Enlightenment, and in his essay there is virtually no reckoning with the possibility that pre-Enlightenment thinkers might have some important things to teach us about freedom. Berlin himself concedes that “conceptions of freedom directly derive from what constitutes a self, a person, a man,” and goes on to argue that, given “enough manipulation of this definition of man . . . freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes.”[6] But this is to dodge the crucial question, which is precisely the question of the truth about man—the truth about the human person—on which any defense of human freedom with real traction must ultimately rest. Isaiah Berlin’s philosophical anthropology, his concept of the human person even as homo politicus, is exceedingly thin. The net result is to reduce freedom to a matter of one human faculty—the will—alone.

And here, I suggest, is a clue that can lead to a deeper analysis of the problem of freedom today. For the identification of freedom with the will is not, contrary to much conventional wisdom, an Enlightenment innovation. It is the product of a great intellectual chasm that opened up in the High Middle Ages. The nature of that fissure can be depicted in what we might call a tale of two monks — appropriately enough for our purposes tonight, because the logo of the Ethics and Public Policy Center features a woodcut of a monk at work in his scriptorium. Permit me to take you back, then, to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when two men of genius had two very different ideas about freedom—ideas that would prove to have immense human consequences.

A Tale of Two Monks

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican friar known to the history of theology as the “Angelic Doctor,” was born c. 1225 in his family’s castello near Roccasecca in the Roman Campagna, and died in 1274 at the abbey of Fossanuova, southeast of Rome, en route to the Council of Lyons. His monumental achievement, in such epic works as the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae, was to marry the wisdom of a millennium of Christian philosophy and theology to the “new philosophy” of Aristotle that had been rediscovered in Europe (largely through the mediation of Arabic philosophers) in the early thirteenth century. This intellectual marriage yielded a rich, complex, and (to use the precisely right word a few centuries before its time) deeply humanistic vision of the human person, human goods, and human destiny. Embedded in that vision of the human person was a powerful concept of freedom.

According to one of his most eminent interpreters today, the Belgian Dominican Servais Pinckaers, Aquinas’s subtle and complex thinking about freedom is best captured in the phrase freedom for excellence. Freedom, for St. Thomas, is a means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfillment of human destiny. Freedom is the capacity to choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit—or, to use the old-fashioned term, as an outgrowth of virtue. Freedom is the means by which, exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human beings. Freedom is something that grows in us, and the habit of living freedom wisely must be developed through education, which among many other things involves the experience of emulating others who live wisely and well. On St. Thomas’s view, freedom is in fact the great organizing principle of the moral life—and since the very possibility of a moral life (the capacity to think and choose) is what distinguishes the human person from the rest of the natural world, freedom is the great organizing principle of a life lived in a truly human way. That is, freedom is the human capacity that unifies all our other capacities into an orderly whole, and directs our actions toward the pursuit of happiness and goodness understood in the noblest sense: the union of the human person with the absolute good, who is God.

Thus virtue and the virtues are crucial elements of freedom rightly understood, and the journey of a life lived in freedom is a journey of growth in virtue—growth in the ability to choose wisely and well the things that truly make for our happiness and for the common good. It’s a bit like learning to play a musical instrument. Anyone can bang away on a piano; but that is to make noise, not music, and it’s a barbaric, not humanistic, expression of freedom. At first, learning to play the piano is a matter of some drudgery as we toil over exercises that seem like a constraint, a burden. But as our mastery grows, we discover a new, richer dimension of freedom: we can play the music we like, we can even create music on our own. Freedom, in other words, is a matter of gradually acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with perfection.

Thus law has a lot to do with freedom. Law can educate us in freedom. Law is not a work of heteronomous (external) imposition but a work of wisdom, and good law facilitates our achievement of the human goods we instinctively seek because of who we are and what we are meant to be as human beings.[7]

Aquinas was fully aware that human beings can fail, and in fact do evil—often great evil. No exponent of Aristotelian realism like St. Thomas, indeed no one formed by biblical religion as well as ancient philosophical wisdom, could deny this. Yet even in the face of manifest evil Thomas insisted that we have within us, and can develop, a freedom through which we can do things well, rightly, excellently. Evil is not the last word about the human condition, and an awareness of the pervasiveness of evil is not the place to start thinking about freedom, or indeed about political life in general. We are made for excellence. Developed through the four cardinal virtues—prudence (practical wisdom), justice, courage, and temperance (perhaps better styled today “self-command”)—freedom is the method by which we become the kind of people our noblest instincts incline us to be: people who can, among other possibilities, build free and virtuous societies in which the rights of all are acknowledged, respected, and protected in law.[8] It was not for nothing that John Courtney Murray, the great American Catholic public philosopher of freedom, called Thomas Aquinas “the first Whig.”[9]

Our second monk, William of Ockham, was born in England about a dozen years after Aquinas’s death, joined the Franciscans, was educated and later taught at Oxford, and died in 1347 in Munich after a life of considerable turbulence, both intellectual and ecclesiastical. Those who have never studied philosophy will recognize him as the author of “Ockham’s Razor”—the principle (still used in the sciences as well as in philosophy) that the simpler of two explanations should be preferred. Professional philosophers consider him the chief exponent of “nominalism,” a powerful late-medieval philosophical movement that denied that universal concepts and principles exist in reality—they exist only in our minds. According to the nominalists, there is, to take an obvious and critical example, no such thing as “human nature” per se.“Human nature” is simply a description, a name (hence “nominalism”) we give to our experience of common features among human beings. The only things that exist, according to nominalism, are particulars.

Often presented as a crucial moment in the history of epistemology, nominalism also had a tremendous influence on moral theology. And because politics, as Aristotle taught, is an extension of ethics, nominalism’s impact on moral theology eventually had a profound influence on political theory. If, to return to that obvious and critical example, there is no “human nature,” then there are no universal moral principles than can be “read” from human nature. Morality, on a nominalist view, is simply law and obligation, and that law is always external to the human person. Law, in other words, is always coercion—divine law and human law, God’s coercion of us and our coercion of one another.

The implications of Ockham’s nominalism for the moral life and for politics are not hard to tease out of this brief sketch of his basic philosophical position. In his history of medieval philosophy, Josef Pieper writes that, with Ockham, “extremely dangerous processes were being set in motion, and many a future trouble was preparing.”[10] Servais Pinckaers, perhaps today’s premier Catholic analyst of the history of moral philosophy and moral theology, goes so far as to describe Ockham’s work as “the first atomic explosion of the modern era.” The atom he split, though, “was . . . not physical but psychic,” for Ockham shattered our concept of the human soul and thereby created a new, atomized vision of the human person and, ultimately, of society.[11]

With Ockham, we meet what Pinckaers has called the freedom of indifference. Here, freedom is simply a neutral faculty of choice, and choice is everything, for choice is a matter of self-assertion, of power. Will is the defining human attribute. Indeed, will is the defining attribute of all of reality. For God, too, is supremely willful, and the moral life as read through Ockhamite lenses is a contest of wills, a contest between my will and God’s imposition of his will through the moral law.

Ockham’s radical emphasis on the will is an idea with very serious “real world” consequences. Not only does it sever the moral life from human nature (which, for a nominalist, doesn’t exist), but at the same time, and because of that, it severs human beings from one another in a most dramatic way. For there can be no “common good” if there are only the particular goods of particular men and women acting out their own particular willfulness.

Here, in the mid-fourteenth century, is the beginning of what we call today the “autonomy project”: the claim that human beings are radically autonomous, self-creating “selves,” whose primary relations to others are relations of power. From its Ockhamite beginning, as Pinckaers writes, “freedom of indifference was . . . impregnated with a secret passion for self-affirmation.”[12] Thus, over time, freedom was eventually led into the trap of self-interest from which Immanuel Kant tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue it by appeals to a “categorical imperative” that could be known by reason and that would, it was hoped, restore a measure of objectivity to morality.[13] On a long view of the history of ideas, and freely conceding the twists and turns of intellectual fortune along the way, William of Ockham is the beginning of the line that eventually leads to Nietzsche’s “will to power” and its profound effect on the civilization of our times.

Freedom, for Ockham, has little or no spiritual character. The reality is autonomous man, not virtuous man, for freedom has nothing to do with goodness, happiness, or truth. Freedom is simply willfulness. (And if, at this juncture, you hear Frank Sinatra singing “I did it my way” in the back of your mind, you are not mistaken.) Freedom can attach itself to any object, so long as it does not run into a superior will, human or divine. Later in the history of ideas, when God drops out of the equation, freedom comes to be understood in purely instrumental or utilitarian terms. And if the road on which Ockham set out eventually leads to Nietzsche, it also leads, through even more twists and turns, to Princeton’s Peter Singer (author of the major article on “Ethics” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica), and his claim that parents ought to have a few weeks to decide whether their newborn child should be allowed to live. Ideas, indeed, have consequences.

From the Greeks down to Aquinas, every moral philosopher of note had assumed that the pursuit of happiness is the primary moral question. With William of Ockham, the profound linkages among freedom, virtue, and the pursuit of happiness are sundered: morality is mere obligation, freedom is mere willfulness. When Western thought took a decisively subjectivist turn in the seventeenth century, and when that subjectivism eventually gave birth to a principled skepticism about the human capacity to know anything with confidence, the result, which is much with us today, was the emergence of an intellectual culture of radical moral relativism lacking any thick notion of the common good. By positing a profound tension between freedom and reason (or, in his construction, will and reason), Ockham created a situation in which there are only two options: determinisms of a biological, racial, or ideological sort, or the radical relativism that, married to irrationalism, eventually yields nihilism. In either case, freedom self-destructs.[14]

I suggest that this tale of two monks sheds light on why Isaiah Berlin’s “two concepts of liberty” are finally unsatisfactory. Although Berlin concedes at the outset that “political theory is a branch of moral philosophy,” he simply does not conjure with the “atomic explosion” that Ockham created in moral theory or with its results in political thought.[15] When Berlin writes that “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity,” such that “political liberty is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others,” he is taking an Ockhamite tack from the outset.[16] Berlin openly admits that his “positive liberty” begins in “an act of will.” In fact, however, his formulation of “negative liberty” also assumes that freedom is essentially a matter of the will.[17] “Negative liberty” is simply that which allows me to avoid too many collisions with the wills of others.[18] But this concept of “negative liberty,” as Norman Podhoretz correctly noted, doesn’t tell us much about how we resolve the inevitable conflicts between wills without raw coercion, or even why we should do so. “Negative liberty” accurately describes one important aspect of the political organization of freedom: the need to circumscribe and regulate coercive state power by law. But Berlin’s “negative liberty” cannot provide an account of why that freedom has any moral worth beyond its being an expression of my will. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are drastically disconnected here.

Berlin goes so far as to suggest that, for a “schoolman” like Aquinas, as well as for the Jacobins and communists of the modern period, it is legitimate to force others into living their freedom rightly.[19] That kind of crude coercion was certainly true of Jacobins and communists, but it is no part of a Thomistic theory of freedom. For the philosophical anthropology that underwrites Aquinas’s freedom for excellence, an anthropology that contains thick moral convictions about the inalienable dignity and value of every human life, also demands a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics. Indeed, as the history of the past three decades has shown, it is today’s devotees of “negative liberty” as reinterpreted by postmodern radical skeptics and relativists who are the primary exponents of coercion in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity”—even if that coercion is mediated through split decisions of the United States Supreme Court.

Isaiah Berlin could not escape—and perhaps did not even recognize—Ockham’s trap. That is why his “two concepts of liberty” ultimately break down. And that is why we require, as individuals and as a society, a deeper understanding of the nature of freedom today, an understanding that challenges the freedom of indifference with freedom for excellence.

The Idea of Freedom We Need
In addition to illuminating a crucial episode in the history of ideas, this tale of two monks also sheds light on grave public issues today. And in doing so, it reminds us that a “clash of civilizations” is being played out within our own society, as well as between ourselves and hostile forces bent on our destruction.

In the aftermath of the communist crack-up in 1989–1991, there was a tremendous amount of euphoria in what was then rightly called the “free world.” This euphoria went far beyond the undeniable satisfaction of seeing a great evil overcome, and more than one otherwise sober-minded observer was heard to propose that the democratic project—the great carrier of the modern quest for freedom—was now inevitably and irreversibly triumphant. In the first year of the new century, we have been abruptly reminded of the fragility of freedom—of the hard fact, chiseled in stone on the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall, that “freedom is never free.” Which is to say, we have been reminded of the fact that democracy is always an unfinished experiment, testing the capacity of each generation to live freedom nobly.

The first wake-up call came in the aftermath of dramatic advances in genetics, including the decryption of the human genome, and the biotechnologies that this new knowledge rapidly spawned. Suddenly, Francis Fukuyama’s image of the “end of history” seemed overrun by Aldous Huxley’s “brave new world.” Human beings, it became clear, would soon have the capacity to remanufacture the human condition—precisely by manufacturing or remanufacturing human beings. The new tyranny on the horizon was not the jackbooted totalitarian state of Orwell’s 1984; that was the tyranny that had haunted our dreams during what Jeane Kirkpatrick once aptly described as the “Fifty-Five Years’ Emergency”—the civilizational crisis that ran from Hitler’s military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Rather, the new and ominous possibility on the near-term horizon was something quite different: the happy, if thoroughly dehumanized and massively coercive, dystopia of Huxley’s brilliant imagination. Do I exaggerate? I think not. Scientists and biotech industry executives now talk freely of what Leon Kass has called the “immortality project.” Here, they confidently tell us, is a possible future world without suffering, even without death—except perhaps death freely chosen as a remedy for terminal boredom. But as Huxley presciently discerned decades before the unraveling of the DNA double helix, such a world would ultimately be an inhuman world: a world of souls without longing, without passion, without striving, without surprise, without desire—in a word, a world without love.

And here, too, we can find long-term radioactive traces from Ockham’s “atomic explosion” in the fourteenth century. For Ockham’s was a world without purpose, a world of willful means detached from ends. But so is the brave new world as Aldous Huxley described it. As one of the World Controllers muses in Huxley’s novel,

Once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose—well, you didn’t know what the results would be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition some of the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them . . . take to believing . . . that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refinement of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstances, admissible.[20]

Tyranny thrives in a world in which means always trump ends. The freedom of indifference cannot sustain a truly free society.

The national debate over cloning and embryonic stem cell research over the past year ought to have given us pause, and precisely on this point. With rare exceptions, the first great public debate of the biotech era was conducted in almost exclusively utilitarian terms (when it was not reduced to appeals to compassion that did not constitute anything resembling a serious argument). What can be done to put this urgent and unavoidable debate onto more secure moral-philosophical ground? I suggest that doing so will require a rigorous reckoning with the degree to which the freedom of indifference has become the operative notion of freedom in much of our high culture, in the media, among many political leaders, in considerable parts of the mainline Protestant religious community, in the sciences, and in the biotech industry. Challenging the freedom of indifference with freedom for excellence is essential if we are to deploy our new genetic knowledge in ways that lead to human flourishing rather than to the soul-less dystopia of the brave new world.

There will be—there already are—appeals to “pluralism” in these debates. Pluralism, however, is not mere plurality, as John Courtney Murray never tired of repeating. Plurality is sheer difference: a sociological fact, a staple of the human condition. Pluralism is a civilizational achievement: the achievement of what Murray called an “orderly conversation”—a conversation about personal goods and the common good, about the relation between freedom and moral truth, about the virtues necessary to form the kind of citizens who can live their freedom in such a way as to make the machinery of democracy serve genuinely humanistic ends.

That kind of orderly conversation cannot begin with the radical epistemological skepticism and moral relativism that inform today’s Ockhamites and their defense of freedom as willfulness. It must begin, as Jefferson began the American democratic experiment, with the assertion and defense of truths. As Father Murray once wrote, “the American Proposition rests on the . . . conviction that there are truths; that they can be known; that they must be held; for if they are not held, assented to, worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a true City.”[21] It must begin, in other words, and to return to the wiser medieval monk, with a reaffirmation of freedom for excellence as the freedom to which we, like the Founders, can pledge our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.

The second challenge to what many commentators are now calling America’s “holiday from history” came, of course, on September 11, 2001, a day of infamy that in a very real sense marked the beginning of a new century and a new millennium. The world has changed, and the change seems irreversible. The holiday from history is over. The Republic and the freedoms it embodies are in grave peril from a new form of irrationalism and nihilism that expresses itself through a perverse and distorted form of monotheistic religion. The struggle against this new and present danger may well last a generation or more.

The roots of this new struggle run deep into history. Some argue, and I would not disagree, that they run more than 1,300 years into the past, and that what confronts us today is the contemporary expression of a civilizational contest that has ebbed and flowed for well over a millennium. Because its roots run so deeply into the religious and cultural subsoil of history—because we have been forcefully reminded over the past three months that the deepest currents of world-historical change are religious and cultural—analyzing the causalities that brought us to September 11, 2001, is no simple business. Yet amidst the inevitable complexities of history understood as an arena of moral responsibility, there has also been some welcome, and perhaps long overdue, simplicity.

For in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, there was a remarkable resurgence of simple, indeed robust, moral clarity in a country that had long been told, by everyone from Alan Wolfe to Jerry Falwell, that it was awash in moral relativism. That moral clarity and the resolve that accompanies it seem to have retained their vigor among the vast majority of our people. Among certain parts of the intellectual class, however, they lasted, by my count, approximately ninety-six hours.

This seems to be the statute of limitations in the commentariat on radical moral relativism and its “real world” political offspring—appeasement strategies, moral equivalence theories, “root cause” analyses of terrorism, nonsense about “violence begetting violence” (as if a justly conducted war were the same thing as turning a 767 into a weapon of mass destruction), self-loathing anti-Americanism of the most vulgar sort. Thus far, these intellectual and moral aberrations have been reasonably well confined to the farther fringes of the chattering classes in the United States. But they are well advanced among intellectuals and commentators in western Europe, where I spent five weeks in October and early November. And this fact has everything to do, I suggest, with four things we have pondered this evening: the deterioration of the idea of freedom into willfulness, the detachment of freedom from moral truth, an obsession with “choice,” and the consequent inability to draw the most elementary moral conclusions about the imperative to resist evil—or to recognize evil as such, rather than to deny its reality by an appeal to psychiatric or quasi-Marxist political categories.

The response to September 11 has demonstrated the essential moral common sense of the American people. At the same time, the national recommitment to civil tolerance and the basic human decencies in a religiously diverse society has demonstrated the enduring power of the Judeo-Christian tradition to ground those commitments, which are not being sustained today by ACLU-style theories of liberty or by alternative religious traditions. So let us gratefully take note of the fact that, at a moment of national emergency unprecedented in two generations, the American people are acquitting themselves with the dignity, decency, and determination that come from deeply rooted moral convictions.

What, however, will sustain us over the long haul? There has been a remarkable resurgence of uncomplicated, unapologetic patriotism over the past three months: flags, not yellow ribbons, are the icons of the day. But can this welcome recovery of patriotism be sustained unless it becomes, once again, the expression of a nobler concept of freedom than mere willfulness? Is happy hedonism that for which we are prepared to make the sacrifices that will be required of us? Or is it more likely that the acids of the relativism that accompany a merely negative concept of freedom as “noninterference” will eventually erode today’s resurgent patriotism, too—to the point where appeasement will once again become a respectable word in the national political vocabulary?

A society without “oughts” tethered to truths cannot defend itself against aggressors motivated by distorted “oughts.” That is the truth of which we should have been reminded when reading those chilling letters from the hijackers the week after September 11. The answer to a distorted concept of the good cannot be a radical relativism about the good. It must be a nobler concept of the good.

And that brings us back, at the end of the day, to our tale of two monks.

Freedom for excellence is the freedom that will satisfy the deepest yearnings of the human heart to be free. It is more than that, though. The idea of freedom for excellence and the disciplines of self-command it implies are essential for democracy and for the defense of freedom.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.


[1] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin (New York: Henry Holt, 1999), 225.

[2] Berlin notes, however, that negative liberty is “not, at any rate logically, connected with democracy or self-government. Self-government may, on the whole, provide a better guarantee of the preservation of civil liberties than other regimes. . . . But there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and democratic rule.” Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 202.

[3] Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, 226.

[4] Ibid., 228.

[5] Norman Podhoretz, “A Dissent on Isaiah Berlin,” Commentary, February 1999, 34.

[6] Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” 206.

[7] This summary is adapted from Servais Pinckaers, O.P., Morality: The Catholic View (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 74.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] John Courtney Murray, S.J., We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday Image Books, 1964), 43.

[10] Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems in Medieval Philosophy (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 150.

[11] Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 242.

[12] Ibid., 339.

[13] On this point cf. ibid. 348–49, and Pinckaers, Morality, 66.

[14] For a lengthy discussion of the freedom of indifference, see Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, 327–53; a summary chart contrasting freedom for excellence and freedom of indifference may be found in Pinckaers, Morality, 74.

[15] Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” 193.

[16] Ibid., 194.

[17] Ibid., 203.

[18] Ibid., 216.

[19] Ibid., 219.

[20] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Bantam Modern Classics, 1968), 119–20.

[21] Murray, We Hold These Truths, 9.

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