“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
“But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? […] Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
–Mother Teresa (National Prayer Breakfast, 1994)
Aristotle began his treatise on politics by noting that a polis is a “species of association” and that “all associations come into being for the sake of some good” (Politics I.1252a1). It’s similar to the idea C.S. Lewis had in The Four Loves when he said that friendship is two people standing side-by-side looking at the same thing. Associations rise naturally and thus inevitably (for we are communal creatures, made in the image of the Trinity), but they always arise from a common goal, ideal, or end. We are all Christians by association, for example, because we all look to Christ as our common Head and Christlikeness as our common goal. Therefore—regardless of race, class, gender, age, or geography—we call each other brother or sister, each a citizen of the city of God.
This raises the question: what does it mean to be an American?
If we take Aristotle’s insight seriously, our answer has to (in some way) center around a good that is held in common. And despite the poisonous socio-political discourse we have in this country—one that assumes a zero sum ‘us-vs-them’ ethos that specializes in division and demonization—we really do have one common goal as Americans, i.e., freedom.
This should be obvious, regardless of our rather fractious and tribal political landscape, which are actually the many exceptions that prove the rule. If every tribe of every political stripe is full-throatedly against the other tribes, it is because each one is jockeying for a position of power that grants them the most freedom. For example, American libertarians obviously want freedom, but technically so do American socialists: they want their fellow American free to live their fullest and most flourishing life, which can be easily derailed by unaffordable healthcare or education. Until those impediments to your self-actualization are neutralized, you’re not really free. So the argument goes.
You can see this thread of freedom cut through all of our tribal morass, at least ostensibly. Regardless of the mission statement (and often contrary to their individual actions on the ground), there is always an implied ‘freedom from’ in any American movement. So Black Lives Matter wants ‘freedom from’ police brutality and systemic racism. The Tea Party wanted ‘freedom from’ government corruption represented in over-taxation and over-regulation. Occupy Wall Street wanted ‘freedom from’ crony capitalism. The Religious Right wants ‘freedom from’ cultural and moral rot. The Gun Control lobby wants ‘freedom from’ gun violence, and the Gun Rights lobby wants ‘freedom from’ government overreach regarding the 2nd Amendment. Every tribe wants ‘freedom from’ misrepresentation in the media and by all the other tribes, and (in the worst cases) many tribes want ‘freedom from’ the other tribes all together (e.g., Antifa and the Alt-Right). This drive for freedom is perhaps not uniquely American (the Scots certainly had a legacy of freedom-loving); but it is still distinctly American, a defining characteristic at least.
It is also a conundrum.
The Founders—being a batch of classically trained Enlightenment types—would have understood freedom (re: “liberty”) as any conservative or Christian (or even any Aristotelian or Ciceronian) would have, i.e., the proper means for and product of virtue. This is the meaning behind Benjamin Franklin’s strange assertion (echoed in various ways by other Founders) that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” Aristotle put it even more simply in his Ethics: if you would be happy, then you must be good. This isn’t because virtue is some hoop to jump through or some chore to check off (“You can play outside after you clean your room”). Rather, it’s because happiness—ευδαιμονια for Aristotle, meaning a state of complete wholeness and harmony—is the inevitable fruit of virtue.
For the Founders, this state of ευδαιμονια is only possible if you are free in the civilizational sense, i.e., free to do what is good. In a barbaric tribal system, it is harder to pursue the good, because the survival of the tribe trumps every other consideration, and neighboring tribes need to be checked against. Worse still is an isolated ‘state of nature,’ similar to the titular character in The Book of Eli. Alone and consumed with your own survival (however noble your purpose), you’ll allow any atrocity because it’s “not your concern.” Only within a civilized polis—a place of law and order, and of cultural institutions that safeguard that law and order by imparting moral wisdom—are you free to be good, i.e., you are truly free.
This is a different kind of freedom than the one discussed earlier. The notion of ‘freedom’ for the average modern American (regardless of their tribe) is a freedom from. The freedom of the Founders (and Aristotle, and the Bible) is a freedom for: for virtue, for ευδαιμονια, for the common good. “For you were called to freedom,” says Paul. Freedom for what, exactly? Not “for the flesh” (i.e., to be free from any imposition on our will), but rather for loving service to one another. It is a freedom for Christlikeness and Godliness, because under the yoke of sin we are not free to love like Christ and God love. On the contrary, we can only ultimately bite and devour each other.
Regardless of what religious tradition she called home, Mother Teresa’s prayer breakfast statement on abortion is still spot on. “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love,” because abortion (barring an extreme medical necessity) is another American ‘freedom from.’ Freedom from the consequence of actions for the sexually promiscuous, freedom from responsibility for either father or mother (or both), freedom for us all from the complex ethical and social demands placed upon us when we are confronted by “the least of these” in the face of the unwed mother caught in financial straits, the rape victim wracked by shame and pain, and the teenage mother or father whose immaturity has placed their whole future in jeopardy. These things are all impediments to our autonomy, and it’s so much easier to just be free from them.
Yoda got one thing right: it is “the quick and easy path” that threatens to turn you into “an agent of evil.” Things are quick and easy when you are free from consequence or responsibility. It’s easier being apathetic. It’s easier being a coward. It’s hard to not only reckon with the reality of my neighbor but also to love them sacrificially as Christ did. It’s easier to defer to politicians and the ‘political process.’ It’s easier to attend a rally, to wave the flag of a particular ‘issue’ and do no more. It’s easier to just vote and go home. It’s hard to demand of our leaders (by firstly demanding of ourselves) that we actually care about the good of our neighbors, both the unborn and the unwed, in our state, in our city, in our neighborhood, in our very house. It’s easier to be free from, hard to be free for.
But a true polis is not built on freedom from. It is only built on the virtue of freedom for.
About the Author
Jonathan received both his MA and MFA from the University of Memphis, where he is currently a PhD candidate. He teaches at the Center for Western Studies, is a native Memphian, and an avid lover of both great literature and animated movies. He has written for The CiRCE Institute and has been published in The Chesterton Review. He is fond of pie.