Hart on pre-modern freedom

August 7, 2009

This is the last of the excerpts from Atheist Delusions that I will post.  Early next week I will post some thoughts about the book as a whole.  This excerpt recalls for the reader the ancient concept of freedom.  The emergence of a new, very different concept of freedom was one of the principal occasions for the birth of “the modern age”.  Surrounded, as we are, by the modern age, the older view of freedom can be difficult to grasp.  Hart lays it out well.


“In the more classical understanding of the matter, whether pagan or Christian, true freedom was understood as something inseparable from one’s nature: to be truly free, that is to say, was to be at liberty to realize one’s proper “essence” and so flourish as the kind of being one was.  For Plato or Aristotle, or for Christian thinkers like Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, or Thomas Aquinas, true human freedom is emancipation from whatever constrains us from living the life of rational virtue, or from experiencing the full fruition of our nature; and among the things that constrain us are our own untutored passions, our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices.  In this view of things, we are free when we achieve that end toward which our inmost nature is oriented from the first moment of existence, and whatever separates us from that end — even if it comes from our own wills — is a form of bondage.  We become free, that is, in something of the way way that (in Michelangelo’s image) the form is “liberated” from the marble by the sculptor.  This means we are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.  For to choose poorly, through folly or malice, in a way that thwarts our nature and distorts our proper form, is to enslave ourselves to the transitory, the irrational, the purposeless, the (to be precise) subhuman.  To choose well we must ever more clearly see the the “sun of the Good” (to use the lovely Platonic metaphor), and to see more clearly we must continue to choose well; and the more we are emancipated from illusion and caprice, the more perfect our vision becomes, and the less there is really to choose.  We see and we act in one unified movement of our nature toward God or the Good, and as we progress we find that to turn away from the light is ever more manifestly a defect of the mind and will, and ever more difficult to do.  Hence Augustine defined the highest state of human freedom not as “being able not to sin” (posse non peccare) but as “being unable to sin” (non posse peccare): a condition that reflects the infinite goodness of God, who, because nothing can hinder him in the perfect realization of his own nature, is “incapable” of evil and so is infinitely free.”

David Bentley Hart
Atheist Delusions.

3 Responses to “Hart on pre-modern freedom”

  1. M. Carlson Says:

    Wow. I’ve come back a few times since the “Cream” post about traditional music, and I can’t thank you enough for introducing this book. I b’lieve it’s just what the doctor ordered and will definitely be sending away for my own copy.

  2. DanielB Says:

    I recently wrote a chapter on Plato’s conception of freedom, and I’m not sure that Hart’s right about Plato, at least textually. He does use the term “freedom” (“eleutheria”) to describe something like “emancipation from whatever constrains us from living the life of rational virtue” at Laws 635c-d, but otherwise, he doesn’t describe self-control as freedom but as a sort of “power” (“dynamis”). “Freedom” in Plato usually had a more straightforward class meaning that was contrasted with slavery. In the Republic VIII, where it has less of a class meaning, it simply takes on its modern meaning of lack of restraint and it is possible to have too much of it.

    I think Plato had all the beliefs Hart describes, but I think the terminology used is a little anachronistic.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Daniel. It’s always good to have the input of someone who actually knows that he’s talking about. The language might be anachronistic, and that’s unfortunate in a sense, but Hart is trying to write for a general audience, and for him I think it makes sense to use the language that he does.

    It is good to hear from you again, M. Carlson. I’m glad to hear that you’ve found these quotes interesting. Tomorrow I’m planning to post a longer discussion (well, monologue) about the book. Meantime, I’m kicking back with good old Paddy Tunney. Thanks.

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