The concept of human freedom—at least in today’s society—is often an abstract, theoretical concept whose definition is variant and may change depending on different situations. This complicates any attempt for governments to create national laws and, furthermore, for any kind of international treaties or resolutions to be made. For laws, treaties, and policies that respect the dignity of the person to be implemented, a widespread understanding of true freedom is essential.
On the level of the individual, St. Thomas Aquinas offers the most consistent and fruitful definition of ‘freedom.’ His understanding starkly contrasts with that contemporary conception that floods our society and can be broadly defined as the freedom to pursue power. In Two Ideas of Freedom, George Weigel succinctly explains this Thomistic definition as the “means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfillment of human destiny… the capacity to choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit—as an outgrowth of virtue…the journey of a life lived in freedom is a journey of growth in virtue.” Or, more simply, freedom is the “matter of gradually acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with perfection.”
Growing in virtue, acting wisely, and forming good habits, as described by Aquinas and Aristotle—from whom Aquinas derives his perspective—is the means to human excellence and human happiness. The journey to true freedom is one pursued by individuals themselves. Further, though it is a noble yet necessary challenge to live and pursue virtuosity as an individual, this is even more complicated when you consider that humans comprise societies and governments which interact on the national and international levels.
The State has limits, and cannot be the source of morality for its citizens, nor should it attempt to exercise excessive control in its citizens’ lives. The United States as a nation was founded upon religious freedom, founded as a way out of oppressive regimes and seeking to prevent those in power from having undue license in these matters. Limiting the control that government can exercise is present in the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers as a foundational principle. Nonetheless, it is crucial that our government realizes that the purpose of its existence is to protect and secure the rights of each individual—rooted in the idea that each person possesses intrinsic inalienable dignity—and acts in such a way as to promulgate this attitude among its citizens.
In conjunction with the role of government, it is essential that a true understanding of freedom also come from society itself, as a both top-down and bottom-up approach to enact change is the most effective way to do so. Thus, citizens must work to promote and defend human dignity and encourage the government to promote this dignity through judicial measures. For this to occur, it is necessary that a shift in societal values occurs and—essentially—that this shift ripples into other aspects.
In terms of the concept of freedom, American society and government often pursue freedom as an end, viewing freedom as the ability to do whatever one wants, or freedom of volition. On the contrary, limits must accompany freedom, for only with limits, direction, discipline, and rules will we be able to attain a higher level of virtue and excellence. This idea of freedom, understood as accompanied by limits and as a means to live an excellent life, is lacking within our society.
So, what must American politics and society do to truly be freer, and to protect and defend the rights of its citizens? We must return to the most basic, fundamental question of who the human person is in order to arrive at the truth about the dignity of the person, as Pope Saint John Paul II proclaims in his Centesimus Anus, “Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.” This task must be pursued at the individual level so that it filters into a society which can, in turn, push the State toward protecting the individual, who must come before the State. Practically speaking, the State exists to protect and foster the family, and enable the growth of the individual through the arts and culture. Only when a State and society pursue the excellence of the individual and family are its members truly free.