Our world is groaning under the destructive influence of toxic ideologies, poverty, and war. As a student of the Humanities, specifically Christian Civilization, I realized there is one root cause in these issues: the quest for freedom.
My studies have exposed me to the shaping of the world from the Ancient to the Classical, Medieval to Renaissance, up until the Modern Era. I learned that people and authorities both religious and secular have pursued freedom in two different senses: the true sense and the unlimited sense.
Napoleon Bonaparte gives us an example of someone who used freedom in an unlimited sense. Rising from the ranks during the French Revolution, he won the support of the French people but was blinded with power. He decided to build up a Pan-European Empire by censoring media and invading different lands around Europe. Consequently, he lost the support of the Church, and his empire declined.
In contrast, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati fought against the Fascists for the betterment of Italy during the 20th century. He helped the poor and the sick throughout his life using the riches of his family, and most importantly, he surrendered and fully dedicated himself to Christ. Thus, he was respected by the poor and the Church after his death.
True freedom is structured. It gives us responsibilities and even helps us protect the freedom of others, but absolute freedom, where people are free to do anything they want without any governing authority to guide them, can only lead to dangerous consequences.
The Follies of Youth
When we pursue whatever seems to be good to us, even if it would harm others or ourselves, we pursue a temporary good that eventually proves itself false. I think of my peers, who say they want to have the freedom to do anything they desire, without anyone ruling over them.
At a party with people around my age from different walks of life, I watched them drinking and getting wasted. Sometimes they even pressured each other into it because “they are old enough to decide; they are free to do anything they wish in their lives.” Some friends, drinking all they wanted at wild parties, fell unconscious or publicly embarrassed themselves. They put themselves at risk for health problems, or even accusations of harassment and assault.
Freedom rooted in guiding authority can instead lead us to contribute to the betterment of others by keeping serious with our studies and responsibilities, balancing leisure time and most especially prayer life. I choose to involve myself with youth groups that organize visits to the poor and the elderly, or join movements that serve as an avenue to those willing to be in service of others. These advocacy groups promote human dignity by respect human life, marriage, and family. With my reliance on guided freedom, I am able to ground myself in my true nature as a human person with a body, a soul, and a mind. Though I am still a work in progress, this inspires me to apply myself on behalf of others.
The Dignity of the Person
Thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and Aristotle developed the ontological definition of freedom as the faculty of human beings to exercise their will to achieve moral good and to love good. This defines freedom as a manifestation of the intrinsic value of the human person, realized through his thoughts, words, and deeds.
As one exercises his will to act or speak, he is showing his value as a human person. His freedom shows his capacity as a human person to do good and avoid evil. Doing good involves helping others through one’s own freedom, guiding them to properly exercise true freedom, and leading others into the truth towards which our human nature is inclined. Thus we avoid the consequences of the misuse of freedom, which history shows us is the degradation of oneself and of others.
This is the freedom we seek, not the absolute freedom to do as we please. The continuous degradation of this original essence of freedom and, as a result, the dignity of the human person, is due to basic misguidance on the use of freedom. Freedom isn’t for us to do everything and anything that we want, but rather frees us to love and be of benefit to others, however we want.
The reality of today’s world however, is that popular culture, often through political means, advocates more for absolute freedom. Leaders of the day feed off this narrative, only to be driven back into chaos when absolute freedom does not deliver the bliss it promises to the masses who supported it.
We must protect our own freedom and the freedom of others, as St. Pope John Paul II explains in Towards a Just Use of Freedom:
If I am free, I can make good or bad use of my freedom. If I use it well, I in my turn become more “good” as a result, and the good I have accomplished has a positive influence on those around me. If on the other hand I use it wrongly, evil will take root and begin to spread both in me and around me. It is often said: what matters is to be free, released from all constraints or limitations, so as to operate according to private judgement, which in reality is often pure caprice. This much is clear: such liberalism can only be described as primitive. Its influence, however, is potentially devastating.
The stakes are high. If freedom is used well, we can expect improved happiness and quality of life, while pursuing absolute freedom will perpetuate the harms our society suffers from. In any way we can, we must continue practicing true freedom for the happiness of ourselves and others, to realize the dignity and liberty we were born to.