Skip to main content

The Charles Gore Lecture 2002: Freedom and its Loss - Hopes and Fears for the Political Order

Lecturer: The Revd.Canon Professor Oliver O'Donovan

Tuesday, 12th November 2002 at 6:15 PM

"Freedom" is a term with a range of meanings, and tonight we shall need to notice three of them. First and most formally, it is the power to act, the ownership of one's behaviour that distinguishes intelligent agents from creatures of instinct. This is a power of individual human nature, and the assertion of freedom in this sense always imports some kind of individualism. We know the freedom-as-defiance of the existentialist philosopher - or of the teenager who refuses to get out of bed in the morning. But freedom so asserted is abstract and unproductive. To give the term a moral significance, we must understand it in terms of the orientation of individuals to society.

And so there arises a second and more substantial sense of freedom: the realisation of individual powers within social forms. This is the sense in which freedom may be "lost". "Loss" of freedom does not mean that the social orientation of human beings can be utterly thwarted. But they can be deprived of the structures of communication within which they have learned to act, and so they can find ourselves hurled into a social vacuum in which they do not know how to realise their freedom effectively. "What I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up," said Yhwh to Baruch. "And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not!" (Jer. 45:4f.) In such a circumstance one is "free" to go where one will, but one has "lost" the forms that made it worthwhile to go anywhere. They have to be painfully reinvented, step by step, out of the bare struggle for survival. But what we can say of the individual in these circumstances, we can say equally of the society. It, too, is not free, unless it can sustain the forms which make for its members' freedom.

"Freedom" is a term used almost exclusively to focus attention on the possibilities of its own loss. We have no corresponding negative term in regular use in English - for when we exclaim that "Britons never never shall be slaves" our words have a quaintly exuberant sound - yet when we speak of freedom it is usually to warn against, or object to, that negative possibility for which we have no regular name. Freedom is the looking-glass in which we search our features anxiously for signs of unfreedom. But the collapse of any vital condition may occur in a multitude of ways; so what appear as straightforward descriptions of freedom turn out to be hugely various political ideals, some of them in tension with others. Freedom can be the absence of legal restrictions, or the security of lawful government; it can be the independence of a people owing nothing to any other, or participation in an international network of peoples; it can be revolutionary innovation or cherished tradition; it can be a participatory republican constitution, or a monarchy in touch with the soil and language of the people; it can be the liberty to disagree in public, or it can be the private security of home and property - all depending on where we see the threat arising. That is why it is no easy thing to construct a positive programme around the idea of freedom. Politicians who praise freedom too profusely in flourishing circumstances are viewed with understandable suspicion. Yet when some concrete threat emerges, whatever it may be, "freedom" is the first word on our lips.

If freedom is the realisation of individual powers within social forms, it follows that members of a free society experience freedom. A people that boasts of "freeing itself" from foreign domination or tyranny, yet whose citizens live in misery or frustration, has achieved no freedom worth the name. "Freedom" refers to a certain conformability of society to individuals and of individuals to society; it is a fit between the communications which the individual hopes for and those which the society sustains. As such, it is measured in terms of more and less. Even in the most oppressive circumstances it is not wholly absent. Those who survived under totalitarian regimes taught us that the all-important thing was simply to exercise freedom in whatever fragmentary ways remained open. Yet this was combined with reflection on "lost" freedoms, the forms of communications that should have been available and were not.

Communications are sustained by tradition, and tradition is a continuity of practices, learned, repeated and developed. In specialist communities those practices revolve around skills and around the knowledge that supports them. But what kind of practice forms the tradition of a whole society? Supremely, the practice of recounting history. History sustains social identity, not only the history of the distant past, but that of the immediate past, too. The daily news bulletin contributes to our sense of ourselves as decisively as the history of the last war. The subjects of histories are places, loci of social tradition. But because places differ materially from one another, so do their histories; and because histories differ, so do the societies which recount them.

Freedom, then, has to do with a society's particular historical way of existing. Societies cannot be free if they cannot sustain their historical identities. They are not, as some philosophers have dreamed, unchanging or immortal. The accumulation of new experience and the operation of forgetfulness transform them, so that over time their identity becomes unclear. The sense in which the society of Great Britain today is continuous with Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, Pictish, Gaelic, Norman societies etc. is highly debatable, even given the comparative stability of political institutions on this island. Societies, unlike individuals, are only more or less the same as themselves. But, like individuals, when subjected to sufficient pressure, they die.

That a society should be free is not merely a matter of its being in the place, but of its having a tradition of communications shaped by the place and handed on from generation to generation. What it means for Greeks to be free is that there is a place, Greece, where they may live together and share in a society; that the traditions native to this place, its language, intellectual discourse, geographical experience and cultural practice, may be sustained unimpeded, mediated by each generation of Greeks to the next with the enrichment of their own experiences and achievements. To "be" Greek supposes that one has been educated among Greeks since one's youth, though not necessarily that one was born in Greece or had Greek parents. A national identity can, to a limited extent, be exported and sustained at a distance (though not indefinitely, and not without continuing interaction with the homeland.) It can also be disrupted and broken, not only by calamities but by new experiences, traumatic or otherwise, which put in doubt the significance of previous generations' experience. Revolutions in knowledge or technology have the power to disrupt cultural communications and destroy political identities.

Social identity, then, is an important contributory element in the freedom of an individual. There can be no "freedom" in having many spheres of action to engage in, unless one can rationally conceive of a whole that connects these spheres together. From the communications of youth, in the first place, and, later, through ways in which we are given to interact with others, we realise more or less effectively who we are. In realising personal freedom we discover how the material content of our own communications came from others; and as we discover what we have received, we recognise the significance of our social identity. Even the rebel depends upon his society to react against. So when the conditions for social identity collapse, it is felt as personal damage by every member, and the resulting loss of a sense of personal stability may often be expressed in outbreaks of wild and irrational violence.

Yet there is more to personal freedom than simple participation in a tradition. The individual is called by God to his or her own vocation. William Temple once declared that he was "not first myself and then an Englishman...I am, so to speak, 'the Englishman' expressed and interpreted in a particular way". That is preposterous. There can be no freedom in a social identity unless it is a context to discover what one is personally. Roger Scruton understood the matter better when he wrote about his early "glimpses of England": "At the time they were like revelations; in a certain measure they told me who I was, and why; and their very fragmentariness inspired me to complete the picture - to complete it not in the ruined world around me, but in myself." There is an eloquent difference between the term "identity", used both of societies and of ourselves viewed objectively, and the term "vocation", used only of ourselves viewed as subjects. Two interlocking histories, the history of the society and the other constituted by the vocation of the individual, are complementary to one another, but are not fused. Neither is susceptible to straightforward observation and description; each has to be sought for, each made the goal of reflective moral commitment. Vocation takes us beyond identity, to a fulfilment in service that extended to us by God. And this provides us with a third sense of the term "freedom", as the individual's discovery and pursuit of his or her vocation from God. It is to this that Christians have pointed when they have spoken of an "evangelical" liberty.


The success of a society lies in enabling its members to imagine their own fulfilment, and where this imagination fails, so does freedom. When I sense a contradiction between the law of my being and the law of my society, I feel trapped. Such a sensation is not uncommon in the small change of life. It may be a perennial accompaniment of other more pleasant experiences of sociality. But when it is widespread and unrelieved, it produces acute symptoms of social collapse: conflict, suspicion, and violence.

At the root of these is a failure in the communication of wisdom. "Keep listening, but do not comprehend," the prophet was to tell his people, "keep looking, but do not understand.' Make the mind of this people dull." The gross and uncomprehending mind, the eyes no longer capable of observation, are a feature of every profound social malfunction. Wisdom is our appropriation of the good offered to humankind; it is inexhaustible, limitlessly open to participation, defining the relations of all other goods we encounter and the communities that they sustain. Society fails in wisdom when it fails to comprehend its own communicated goods in relation to the supreme good - God himself, and also the Word and Wisdom of God which gives form to the universe of beings. Its structure of shared meanings becomes falsified, and it comes to be held together by a distorted idea of itself. This may take the form of an overt "ideology", a theory based on claims for some class, race, or civilisational pattern, or it may take the form of a pretended refusal of ideology - "pretended", because communities must have some understanding of themselves, and the understanding that there is no need for an understanding is the falsest of understandings, one which refuses the question that should never be refused, the question of how true it is.

We sometimes speak of the need for a social "vision" which can make sense of personal identity in the social ensemble. This language will serve us well enough if we remember that not any vision will do, only a true vision. There are visions that offer reconciliation, making mighty promises of individual fulfilment within the social whole, only to shepherd us into some project of domination or some struggle for a materialist Utopia. We are right to distrust a certain kind of social visionary. False visions have a measure of success in attuning identities, since their falsity incorporates, a measure of truth - yet their loss of touch with reality causes them to fail in the end. So Augustine understood the success of the Roman empire to be the fruit of "good traditions" (boni mores) which never amounted to real "virtues", because they were founded on the delusion of imperialism.

Yet human societies are not infinitely capable of wisdom, and all societies fall short of truth in some measure. How, then, can there be any degree of success, even relative success, in sustaining freedom? We find answers to this question offered from two sides.

One answer, with an emphasis that may fairly be called "communitarian" but may also be called "conservative", stresses the strongly formative role of our society in shaping our self-understandings. Through the enfolding perspectives of tradition our attention is first drawn to ourselves; so that our self-awareness must accommodate itself to reality as our society conceives it. Even a limited social truth may thus offer some scope for the individual to discover a role. Personal self-imagining has to be rescued from pure fantasy and fitted into the constraints of reality by disciplines of observation and critical intelligence. It is the task of education, the principal task, perhaps, of that necessarily conservative and directive undertaking, to equip us with the skills to distinguish fantasy from objective truth. Even art - or should we not say, especially art? - depends on and perfects such a discipline, for its whole expressive power turns on its capacity to render the artistic vision within the canons of public communication.

In forcing us to come to terms with reality, society eases us into social roles that are actually available, tasks that can actually be performed. Its first duty is to prevent us from becoming crackpots; it warns us not to try to manufacture gold by alchemy, and not to try to bring peace to the world by conquering it. But did it not also once use to warn us not to try to fly through the air like birds? And does not that discredit all its views on what is, and is not, possible? Not at all. It was no credit to the Tailor of Ulm that he thought men could fly, since he failed to imagine correctly the modalities of flying. The people of Ulm were right: the tailor was a crackpot, and suffered the fate of crackpots. What, then, of the Wright brothers, who succeeded where the Tailor of Ulm failed? They succeeded because they took society's warnings seriously; only by taking the measure of what experience has shown to be impossible can anyone discover the narrow crack in the rock which leads to the hidden chamber of some new possibility. Society does not have to know everything; it is enough if it knows what its members need to know in order to lead effective lives. Attunement of identities can take place in the half-light of a sufficient wisdom.

So much for the conservative point, and it must be given due weight. Yet when everything has been said along these lines, there is a further point to attend to, which may equally fairly be called "liberal". The social mediation of reality has to act as midwife to a personal vocation that is not simply a social role. From the communicative process there must come a moment at which the individual stands apart and looks on the social system as it were from outside - the famous "view from nowhere". From this moment arises the uniquely historical character of human communication: each comes to hold as "mine" what began as "ours", and then gives it back to the community as "ours" again. For a moment society must withdraw, like John the Baptist, and point its disciples beyond itself to where this reflective stance is accessible. "Blessed is the man..": that is how the moral catechesis of ancient Israel began, focussing our attention on ourselves as individuals. "Blessed is the man who does not stand in the counsel of the ungodly, walk in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful" (Psa. 1:1). The "counsel of the ungodly" or "the company of evil-doers" (Psa. 22:16, 26:5) is the first object against which society arms the individual, warning that it is moral weakness to be too gregarious, too wholly responsive to social pressures. And the society which so arms the individual admits that it can itself be a "company of evil-doers", against which he must be armed. The moral horizon which Kierkegaard called "becoming an individual", anti-social though it may seem, is in fact the horizon to which a society must direct its members, if it is to fulfil itself as a society.

It is all the more important to appreciate the liberal insight at this juncture of our civilisation, when our appreciation is inevitably tinged with a sense of loss. A de-natured late-liberalism, shaping itself ideologically even to the point of religious persecution, and indistinguishable in some ways from the Marxism it once combatted, parts company from classical liberalism precisely here. The liberal tradition used to defer to a point of transcendence within the individual, something which social identity could not account for, something which gave the individual an independent view upon society. This was not in fact a view "from nowhere"; it was precisely a view from "the conscience". By instructing the individual that conscience had precedence over every social demand, the liberal tradition did not throw him back upon the chances of an untutored imagination. It presumed that conscience had a source beyond both society and individual, that it was more than an echo of social claims, more than a projection of individual dreams. It presumed this because of its monotheistic faith, which lay at the heart of its logic. Until the early years of the twentieth century Augustine's now controversial thesis, that there can be no "right" in a society which does not acknowledge the right of God, appeared to be the uncontrovertible bedrock of a liberal society. A polytheistic society negotiates multiple claims with no cohesion but what it imposes on them, so that, in effect, it enforces its own sovereignty. Late-liberalism, one may say, in taking up the banner of "pluralism", has made itself self-consciously polytheistic again.

If early-modern and mid-modern liberal societies were successful in securing their members' cooperation and participation - and it is hard to deny them a measure of success - this was due to the moment of self-abdication instilled by their monotheistic faith. Through that religious moment they directed their members to become critical moral intelligences, taught them to see themselves as answerable directly to God. Thus they envisaged themselves as open to authoritative criticism and correction, and this lay at the heart of the reconciliation they effected between individual and social identities. In the face of conflicting expectations and hopes, a liberal society could make itself accountable before the throne of God's justice. This opened up a variety of self-understandings for the dissenter, who could assume the role of critic, prophet, even martyr - all roles that could be socially learned and socially respected. It could even move a dissenting member to respond to it not merely with revolt but with compassion.

In abandoning their deference to transcendence, late-liberal societies have followed a perilous course. Losing the conciliatory strength of religious humility, they have gambled on majority support for a narrowly materialist and sensual sphere of public communications, inculcating by all means at their disposal the purely material expectations that conform to them. This strategy of moral under-education presumes as impoverished a view of human nature as classic liberalism presumed a rather exalted one. In the long term it can only have the effect of creating deep and profound alienation among the spiritually alert, those to whom society ought to be able to look for its renewal. And it must finally run aground on the fact that the sensual majority to which it appeals is merely an abstraction. The discontent that any human being can feel at being underestimated can, and surely must, undermine this a-moral majority, generating high waves of inarticulate dissatisfaction. The warning is commonly heard that if liberalism does not look out for its own foundations, it may "provoke a reaction"; and such a warning is solemn enough, given what the loss of liberal traditions would mean to our society. But the warning that needs hearing is even more solemn than that: liberal society, proceeding on its present course, may deserve a reaction, simply because it is incapable of taking the spiritual capacities of its members seriously.


So far we have traced the loss of freedom back to a failure of wisdom. But Augustine is famous for the privileged place he assigns to pride as the first cause of sin, an account remembered especially because of the deep influence it had upon Milton in his portrayal of Satan. He applied this idea also to an interpretation of Roman civilisation, and especially to the growth of empire: "the swelling pride of an ambitious mind claims for itself, and loves to hear quoted in its praise, the verse, 'to spare the lowly and strike down the proud'". His account of sin as pride, then, has two poles: a protological pole, which derives all sin from an original act of pride, and a historical pole, which finds pride paradigmatically embodied in the ambitions of empire. This proved attractive to the realist school of political thinkers in the mid-twentieth century. Reinhold Niebuhr found Augustine's bipolar analysis of sin a model for the totalitarian developments of that period: "the religious dimension of sin is man's rebellion against God, his effort to usurp the place of God. The moral and social dimension of sin in injustice. The ego which falsely makes itself the centre of existence in its pride and will-to-power inevitably subordinates other life to its will and thus does injustice to other life." This suggested to Niebuhr a democratic strategy of checks and balances to control the will to power. It was a congenial theme to a democratic tradition still rooted in the seventeenth-century problematic of how to control tyrannical aspirations in absolute monarchs.

But there are difficulties in harnessing Augustine's interpretation to this democratic programme, and they arise at both poles of his theory. When we explore the protological pole more fully, pride is only one thread in a rather complex weave. Satan's pride, as Augustine understood it, was not directed downwards against subordinates, but upwards against God. It was more envious than tyrannous. A synonym Augustine frequently uses is "complacency", or "self-love - to the extent of contempt of God," suggesting that the core of the primal sin is narcissism. A further complexity arises when Augustine turns to describe the sin of our first parents. Only an angel could sin in naked pride, because only an angel could stand before the presence of God. So Eve was deceived. Human sin, unlike angelic sin, is veiled in epistemological ambiguity. Social, rather than solitary, Adam's sin was evoked by false communications which kept the rebellious character of the will a secret. A third stage is reached with the sin of Adam and Eve's descendants, different again: the "wound" of human nature is now presupposed as a perennial necessity, evident in the passionate resistance of carnal instinct to the control of reason.

Already, then, at its protological pole, the concept of sin as pride is not a monothematic one, but opens out into a psychological spectrum where deception and shortsightedness play a part as well as impotence and envy. One might sum up the difference between Augustine and Niebuhr by pointing out the role of the "will" in Niebuhr's analysis, and contrasting it with Augustine's dominant motivational category, "love". Talk of "will" focusses on a point of sheer choice, and brings everything to the issue of who conquers who. Talk of "love" opens up the motivational structure to perception and misperception.

When we turn to the historical pole, the complexity is still in evidence. Rome's imperial self-aggrandisement is the result of an illusion. Polytheism is a deception practised upon Rome by demons; enslavement to the sensual and material is its natural corrollary. So the paradigm of social sin which Rome affords cannot be narrowed down to the question of unbridled power. "Will-to-power" fails to capture the kind of ascendancy which Augustine conceived Rome as wanting. There was not only libido dominandi, but also and more importantly, cupido gloriae. The lust that consumed Rome was a lust for a certain way of appearing, not merely a matter of imposing will, but of eliciting admiration. There were brutish and oppressive moments in Rome's conquest of the world; but the ambition which drove Rome on to high achievement was the glory of "sparing the lowly", being the benefactor of humble dependents, bestowing law and peace, becoming the focus of the world's appreciation. Its pride, as Augustine saw it, was the pride of civilisation, rather than the pride of oppression.

From this we see how Augustine's unitary account of sin as pride can join hands with Aristotle's observation that sin is multiple. A single protological concept, such as "pride", cannot serve as a complete phenomenology of sin, which will always be diversified. The function of protology is to locate sin in relation to the freedom of human agents vis à vis God, rather than to describe sin. There is scope, certainly, for seeing the pride of primal sin worked out in the will-to-power; but an exclusive focus on power restricts our observations too narrowly. Lord Acton's over-quoted dictum, that "all power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely", deserves modest credit for noting just one among many psychological phenomena that can produce loss of freedom. Individual power-holders may be corrupted by power; but they may also be corrupted by weakness, and by indolence, stupidity, even by compassion; they can be corrupted by not having to take responsibility and by being protected by others. The exercise of power is determined by the possibilities which society itself has afforded. In a social description of sin we are taken beyond the idea of a particular actor's misdemeanours to the distorted relations which constrain possibilities for acting. Here Niebuhr's stress on the collective seat of the will-to-power is a helpful warning against liberal simple-mindedness. Are Israeli governments alone responsible for a decade of disastrous and oppressive policies towards the Palestinians, or must not Israeli voters, not least those in the weakest groupings, also take their share of the blame?

There is scope, too, then, for seeing the rebelliousness of the primal sin worked out in anarchy and the loss of social disciplines. But neither can this be passed off as a complete phenomenology of social failure. A popular version of this thesis exploits the narcissism of the primal sin with the aid of developmental psychology: sin is self-absorption, Ichverfangenheit. Each individual progresses from childish solipsism to adult sociality; individual sin is an under-developed capacity for social recognition. We have not yet broken out of our self-referring egg into the world of relations, in which we confront the other as a subject like the self. So social sin is simply under-socialisation. This forms the obverse of the Niebuhrian picture: not "moral man and immoral society", but "immoral man and moral society". But in locating the essence of wrong in heightened self-consciousness, and the overcoming of wrong in a heightened consciousness of other people, we would fail to notice ways in which individual self-consciousness can be virtuous, over-awareness of others vicious. Kierkegaard, as though to parody this theory, reverses it: it is becoming an individual, he tells us, not becoming socialised, that is the test of spiritual maturity.

There is scope, finally, for seeing the envy of the primal sin worked out in excluding structures, as often in Liberation Theology. Social failure may consist not only in under-socialising, but in wrong socialising. Patterns of community may erratically or irresponsibly cut out participants who ought to be included. Vigorous communications are compatible with narrow circles, from which large numbers are left out. But this account, too, fails to provide a general phenomenology of social wrong. For exclusion may also be necessary, a means by which communications are structured and specialised: there could be no practice of medicine or law, for example, unless insufficiently skilled persons could be excluded from offering these arts in public. Correspondingly, there are forms of inclusion which are simply subversions of community: we may reflect on what "inclusiveness" means when criteria for welfare-provision or tax-breaks for the needy are so loosely drawn as to turn them into money-spinners for the comfortably off.

So it is that we are sometimes required not to communicate - that is the lesson that Ezra taught to post-exilic Judah, little to our modern taste. This focusses a painful paradox about exclusion: it can be both necessary and potentially destructive to community. We have not learned the lesson of Jesus's dealings with the Samaritans unless we have learned that barriers need to be overcome. The openness of God's communication creates a constant presumption in favour of more inclusive rather than less inclusive communication. Yet this presumption cannot simply be wielded as a weapon against all defined boundaries. There is a way of demonising "structures" which is naïve and unhelpful. A measure of definition is necessary for spheres of communication if they are to be aggregated into a society. Excluding barriers can create inclusive communities; inclusions result in barriers that exclude others. To take one fundamental example: a sphere of privacy is among the social possibilities created by orderly exclusion; without it we could not experience the intimate inclusiveness of families. Totally inclusive communication is nothing but the communication of the Kingdom of God; and God himself holds that in reserve, while human communications, called to "partake of the divine nature", must first "flee from the corruption that is in the world through lust" (2 Peter 1:4).

In sum, we cannot arm ourselves with a single explanatory principle of evil and hope it will yield us a complete phenomenology of freedom's loss. Description of social evil must be prepared to range in an exploratory fashion. Yet there are certain perennial points of reference, to which the traditional protologies of evil draw our attention. In the course of this exploration we have identified two complementary ones: in any society there will be a question both of what is communicated, and of how. In relation to these two interlocking questions we can see failure as a failure of truth, and as a failure to admit participation. Our experience of freedom's loss arises at a point where falsehood converges with envy.

© This material cannot be reproduced without permission


Twitter logo Tweet this