By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

Recently an entry came up on a Facebook page – it was an image of a word carved into the sand on the shore of a beach. The word was: “Freedom”. The story behind this Facebook entry is as follows: A married couple with three children have recently separated. One of their children has been seriously ill, in and out of hospital for the last three months. When I last spoke to the husband – he told me that he was unwilling to put up with such stress and anxiety any longer. It was two days after he told me this, that he informed his wife that he was leaving the family.  One morning he came to the house, took his belongings, filled the car, and left. He has since been on a holiday – a cruise tour, and has sent a real estate agent to the family home in order to put the house on the market. The children are devastated; the wife who gave up her job in order to look after the sick child is now seeking welfare support. He cries – “Freedom”, from a distant shore.

The 19th century English political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, in his classic work, On Liberty, defined the limitations to the exercise of a person’s freedom by way of the maxim: that a person is free to do anything they wish, as long as it does not adversely affect a third party. Mill’s law seems to give the individual an enormous scope for the application of personal freedom. But is this really the case? Let us take a scenario. Jim is a young man who enjoys a drink; he is single and lives alone. A number of times a week, Jim drinks to excess and falls into a stupor. A single man in his own home, with no other responsibilities after hours – Mill would say that Jim is within his liberty to do so. However, Jim also works, Monday to Friday. If his drunkenness begins to impinge on his ability to do an honest day’s work; or his ability to drive to work is hampered because of his drinking; Mill would say that Jim’s liberty has been exceeded for he has now caused or is threatening the welfare of a third party. Let us extend the scenario now to Jim no longer being a single man – but a married man without children. If Jim’s drinking bouts mean that he can no longer give his wife the attention she deserves and expects – then his ‘freedom’ to drink must be curtailed. Add into the mix, children to whom Jim is responsible, Jim’s ‘freedom’ is further restricted by the additional responsibilities demanded of him. Therefore Mill’s definition of ‘freedom’ does not offer carte blanche to the individual; for the more responsibilities that are given us – the less one can act with complete disregard of anyone else but self.

Thus the path to exercising true freedom is intertwined with the choices one takes up in life, choices which the rational man or woman make in order to create a path to personal happiness. If Jim wishes to remain single, so be it. If he chooses to marry, he then must realize that his freedom is not forfeit, but that it is exercised within the context of sharing a life with someone else. The birth of children means that more of his personal time, must be sacrificed in order to fulfill his life’s vocation. To then later regret these life’s choices by abandoning both wife and child – is not an exercise of freedom, but rather a neglect of it; because the exercise of freedom is inextricably linked with responsibility – and the neglect of this responsibility is in essence, an abuse of freedom, at least according to Mill’s third-party maxim. Thus the husband who posted the Facebook entry at the beginning of this essay, rejoicing in “Freedom” would in fact be considered by Mill not an exponent of liberty, but quite the opposite.

So vital to society is the notion of liberty and freedom, that Mill proposed that citizens should be educated and later examined as to how best to exercise their freedom. This might sound draconian, a philosopher speaking to us about how we can best use our liberty – but Mill was the great voice of social protest in 19th Century Victorian England, a man who sought to defend the rights of women and children – and he had seen too often the price that they paid when husbands ceased to fulfill their responsibilities. Richard Reeves in his biography of Mill, John Stuart Mill: The Victorian Firebrand (2008), indeed presents a scene from Mill’s young adulthood, where Mill discovers in a London park, the swaddled body of a dead infant. Reeves concluded that Mill’s great ardor for social justice was born from this incident.

According to Mill, liberty, perfectly exercised requires a maturity hitherto not fully explored. People must know how serious freedom is – and how it can be misused and abused. The individual must seek to fathom the repercussions of their exercise of liberty – to take responsibility. So in the case of the opening vignette, and the cry of freedom from the shore; what are the repercussions? Well, the individual may perceive himself to be free; but this sense of freedom is in reality a blinding of himself from that which he created. His new-found ‘freedom’ is actually a sense of emotional or mental release – but it is also in effect, an abandonment of those who have grown to be reliant on him. The wife and children must leave a home; the children change schools, leave friends – all these changes have ramifications on the family unit – and on broader society who are called in now to assist such a family circumstance. His decision also pre-supposes that his wife, will not abandon their children.

The Catholic Church posits the following about ‘freedom’ in Its Catechism: “(1731) Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude… (1733) The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin.’”

Underlying the Church’s discussion on human freedom is the twin notion of self-sacrifice and surrender; for if we were to all exercise freedom only for selfish ends – for pleasure, hedonism and ease – humanity would turn in on itself. The perfect exercise of freedom is that which seeks to tie itself closer and closer to Perfection Itself – God. No more evident is this highlighted than in the great scene of Christ’s Passion – the scene in Gethsemane where a choice was made to do the Father’s will. In a modern world in which the self is so often promoted over the common good – it is important to remind ourselves that none of us is an island – and that every decision has an impact.

Mill’s maxim as to the exercise of liberty, although astute, does have its limitations – for Mill speaks of a third human party of whom to avoid the adverse effects of our actions. To the Christian this does not go far enough – for a Christian’s obligation rests not only with his neighbour – but first and foremost with God; for our every action is seen by, and accountable to, Him. As such the concept of freedom holds a greater degree of breadth and depth, when viewed in the light of the Unseen Seer; for our actions are no longer relative, but have an Absolute context to them. In addition, there is also the qualification added by the Greek philosopher Plotinus in his Enneads: If man were all of one piece – I mean, if he were nothing more than a made thing, acting and acted upon according to a fixed nature – he could be no more subject to reproach and punishment than the mere animals. But as the scheme holds, man is singled out for condemnation when he does evil; and this with justice. For he is no mere thing made to rigid plan; his nature contains a Principle apart and free.” (Plotinus, 2005, p. 159)

It is the deliberate choosing of a particular course of action that separates man from the beasts – a choosing that daily requires of him the exercise of personal freedom; which aside from life and love themselves, is the greatest gift that God has given the human person; a gift that can be precariously used and chosen for good or ill.