A Better Concept of Freedom
First Things (1 March
Copyright (c) 2002 First Things
Reproduced with permission
Adapted from the inaugural William E. Simon Lecture, delivered in
In this commentary on Isaiah Berlin's lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty"
George Weigel's practical reference points are features of American
political life following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
What is of interest from the perspective of the Project are his observations
on conflicting notions of freedom that are implicit in many of the
controversies involving the exercise of freedom of conscience in health
On October 31, 1958, Isaiah Berlin gave his inaugural
lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford.
Entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty," it was, according to Michael Ignatieff,
Berlin's authorized biographer, "the most influential lecture he ever
delivered." Indeed, one can argue that Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty"
was one of the most important political essays of the twentieth century, for
it clarified an important element in the prolonged contest between the
imperfect democracies of the West and the pluperfect tyranny of the Soviet
Union. Moreover, Berlin's essay defended the liberal democratic project in
such a way as to reinforce the liberal anti-Communist consensus that
historians still associate with men such as President Harry Truman,
Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon
Johnson, and Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and Henry M. Jackson. As things
turned out, that consensus held just long enough to ensure that, deepened
intellectually and reinforced politically by conservative and
neoconservative thinkers and political leaders in the 1970s and 1980s,
freedom's cause won out over Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism.
A wide-ranging historian of ideas who had grown up in Riga and Petrograd,
Isaiah Berlin had seen firsthand the human and political effects of
passionately held ideas. Berlin knew in his bones that ideas are not
intellectuals' toys: ideas have consequences, for good and for ill, in what
even intellectuals sometimes call "the real world." In "Two Concepts of
Liberty," Berlin mounted an extended defense of what he understood to be the
liberal idea of freedom against its principal modern political competitors,
fascism and communism. At the same time, he raised an alarm against what he
regarded as the tendency in social democratic theory to weaken individual
freedom in the name of other social goods. As the title of his lecture
signals, Berlin's basic intellectual move was to distinguish between
"negative liberty" and "positive liberty," and then to defend the former as
the only concept of liberty that could be actualized in the "real world" of
inevitably conflicting interests, diverse concepts of the good, and
competing human projects.
"Negative liberty" for Berlin is freedom from: freedom from
interference in personal matters, which implies the circumscription of state
power within a strong legal framework. As Ignatieff summarizes Berlin's
argument, the primary purpose of a liberal political community is to create
the public circumstances in which men and women are left alone "to do what
they want, provided that their actions [do] not interfere with the liberty
of others." "Positive liberty," on the other hand, is freedom to:
freedom to realize some greater good in history. At the heart of the Fascist
and Communist projects, Berlin warned, was a determination to use political
power to liberate human beings, whether they liked it or not, for the
realization of some higher historical end. That determination, Berlin
argued, inevitably leads to repression.
Isaiah Berlin was not a libertarian. Rather, the man who had first worked
at the intersection of ideas and power during his World War II service at
the British Embassy in Washington was a Russo-English exponent of classic
American New Deal liberalism: a liberal who believed that government had an
obligation to secure the economic, social, and educational conditions under
which people could truly exercise their liberty. Berlin broke with the
social-democratic left, though, in insisting that liberty, equality, and
justice were, are, and always will be in tension.
Berlin was never willing (or perhaps able) to sort out the tensions or
define the boundaries between liberty and justice. Still, his insistence
that politics is not therapy, his resolute refusal to deny the reality of
conflicts among social goods, and his insistence that utopian politics
inevitably become coercive politics (and, in the modern world,
extraordinarily brutal coercive politics) were all important ideas to
defend, in Europe and America, against the coercive utopians of the
twentieth century. In this specific sense, Berlin was a champion of
pluralism in an age in which too many other political theorists had cast
their lot with monisms of one kind or another-monisms, otherwise known as
totalitarianisms, of a most lethal sort. A robust pluralism, Berlin
suggested, was both an expression of liberty rightly lived and political
liberty's surest guarantee.
Isaiah Berlin thus deserves considerable credit for identifying the
perversion of liberty that was at the root of the totalitarian project, and
for defending a concept of liberty-as-noninterference that, in setting legal
limits to coercive state power, has deep resonances in the American
political tradition. And yet, forty-four years after "Two Concepts of
Liberty," one has to ask whether Berlin's analysis of the problem of freedom
is truly adequate.
In a thoughtful assessment of Berlin's achievement ("A Dissent on Isaiah
Berlin," Commentary, February 1999), Norman Podhoretz has argued
that, despite its important contribution in its time, Berlin's essay is at
bottom intellectually unsatisfying: it does not propose a principled, but
only a pragmatic, defense of pluralism, and it fails to grapple
satisfactorily with a problem that Berlin notes but never seriously
addresses-the problem of moral relativism. For while Berlin correctly
recognized, in Podhoretz's words, "the spinelessness that can develop from
the rejection of any absolutes and the correlative failure to develop
rock-bottom convictions," his liberal skepticism about the possibility of
philosophically defensible "rock-bottom convictions" could not provide an
antidote to "spinelessness." The response to the events of September 11,
2001 in at least some of the higher altitudes of the intellectual class in
both the United States and Europe illustrates with almost painful clarity
the truth of Podhoretz's critique of Berlin on this point. To that
diagnosis, I would add another disease to which relativism is susceptible,
especially when it encounters the afterburn of New Left thought and politics
in the United States: namely, the absolutizing of moral relativism as a kind
of constitutionally mandated national political creed.
In the final analysis, though, Berlin's "two concepts" are unsatisfactory
because he does not drive the analysis deeply enough, historically or
philosophically. Both of his concepts are children of the Enlightenment, and
there is virtually no reckoning in his essay with the possibility that
pre-Enlightenment thinkers might have some important things to teach us
about freedom. Berlin himself concedes that "conceptions of freedom directly
derive from what constitutes a self, a person, a man," and goes on to argue
that given "enough manipulation of this definition of man . . . freedom can
be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes." But this is to dodge the
crucial question, which is precisely the question of the truth about man-the
truth about the human person-on which any defense of human freedom with real
traction must ultimately rest. Isaiah Berlin's philosophical anthropology,
and even his concept of the human person as homo politicus, is
exceedingly thin. The net result is to reduce freedom to a function of a
single human faculty: the will.
Contrary to much conventional wisdom, the identification of freedom with
the will is not an Enlightenment innovation. It is rather the product of a
great intellectual chasm that opened up in the High Middle Ages. The nature
of that fissure can be discerned in what we might call a tale of two monks.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican friar known to the history of theology
as the "Angelic Doctor," was born c. 1225 in his family's castello
near Roccasecca in the Roman Campagna, and died in 1274 at the abbey of
Fossanuova, southeast of Rome, en route to the Council of Lyons. His
monumental achievement, in such epic works as the Summa Contra Gentiles
and the Summa Theologiae, was to marry the wisdom of a millennium
of Christian philosophy and theology to the "new philosophy" of Aristotle
that had been rediscovered in Europe (largely through the mediation of
Arabic philosophers) in the early thirteenth century. This intellectual
marriage yielded a rich, complex, and (to use the precisely right word a few
centuries before its time) deeply humanistic vision of the human
person, human goods, and human destiny. Embedded in that vision of the human
person was a powerful concept of freedom.
According to one of his most eminent contemporary interpreters, the
Belgian Dominican Servais Pinckaers, Aquinas' subtle and complex thinking
about freedom is best captured in the phrase, freedom for excellence.
Freedom, for St. Thomas, is a means to human excellence, to human happiness,
to the fulfillment of human destiny. Freedom is the capacity to choose
wisely and to act well as a matter of habit-or, to use the old-fashioned
term, as an outgrowth of virtue. Freedom is the means by which,
exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for
truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human
beings. Freedom is something that grows in us, and the habit of living
freedom wisely must be developed through education, which among many other
things involves the experience of emulating others who live wisely and well.
On St. Thomas' view, freedom is in fact the great organizing principle of
the moral life-and since the very possibility of a moral life (the capacity
to think and choose) is what distinguishes the human person from the rest of
the natural world, freedom is the great organizing principle of a life lived
in a truly human way. That is, freedom is the human capacity that unifies
all our other capacities into an orderly whole, and directs our actions
toward the pursuit of happiness and goodness understood in the noblest
sense: the union of the human person with the absolute good, who is God.
Thus, as Pinckaers notes, virtue and the virtues are crucial elements of
freedom rightly understood, and the journey of a life lived in freedom is a
journey of growth in virtue-growth in the ability to choose wisely and well
the things that truly make for our happiness and for the common good. It's a
bit, Pinckaers says, like learning to play a musical instrument. Anyone can
bang away on a piano; but that is to make noise, not music, and it's a
barbaric, not humanistic, expression of freedom. At first, learning to play
the piano is a matter of some drudgery as we master exercises that seem like
a constraint, a burden. But as our mastery grows, we discover a new, richer
dimension of freedom: we can play the music we like, we can even create new
music on our own. Freedom, in other words, is a matter of gradually
acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with
Law is thus intertwined with freedom. Law can educate us in freedom. Law
is not a work of heteronomous (external) imposition but a work of wisdom,
and good law facilitates our achievement of the human goods that we
instinctively seek because of who we are and what we are meant to be as
Aquinas was fully aware that human beings can fail, and in fact do
evil-often great evil. No exponent of Aristotelian realism like St. Thomas,
indeed no one formed by biblical religion as well as ancient philosophical
wisdom, could deny this undeniable truth. Yet, even in the face of manifest
evil, Thomas insisted that we have within us, and we can develop, a freedom
through which we can do things well, rightly, excellently. Evil is not the
last word about the human condition, and an awareness of the pervasiveness
of evil is not the place to start thinking about freedom, or indeed about
political life in general. We are made for excellence. Developed through the
four cardinal virtues-prudence (practical wisdom), justice, courage, and
temperance (perhaps better styled today, "self-command")-freedom is the
method by which we become the kind of people our noblest instincts incline
us to be: the kind of people who can, among other possibilities, build free
and virtuous societies in which the rights of all are acknowledged,
respected, and protected in law. It was not for nothing that John Courtney
Murray, the great American Catholic public philosopher of freedom, called
Thomas Aquinas "the first Whig."
Our second monk, William of Ockham, was born in England about a dozen
years after Aquinas' death, joined the Franciscans, was educated and later
taught at Oxford, and died in 1347 in Munich after a life of considerable
turbulence, both intellectual and ecclesiastical. Even those who have never
studied philosophy will recognize his name as the author of "Ockham's
Razor"-the principle (still used in the sciences as well as in philosophy)
that, as a general rule, the simpler of two explanations should be
preferred. Professional philosophers consider him the chief exponent of
"nominalism," a powerful late-medieval philosophical movement which denied
that universal concepts and principles exist in reality-they exist only in
our minds. To take an obvious and critical example, there is for nominalists
no such thing per se as "human nature." "Human nature" is simply a
description, a name (hence "nominalism") we give to our experience of common
features among human beings. The only things that exist are particulars.
Often presented as a crucial moment in the history of epistemology,
nominalism also had a tremendous influence on moral theology. And because
politics, as Aristotle taught, is an extension of ethics, nominalism's
impact on moral theology eventually had a profound influence on political
theory. If, to return to that obvious and critical example, there is no
"human nature," then there are no universal moral principles that can be
"read" from human nature. Morality, on a nominalist view, is simply law and
obligation, and that law is always external to the human person. Law, in
other words, is always coercion-divine law and human law, God's coercion of
us and our coercion of each other.
The implications of Ockham's nominalism for the moral life and for
politics are not hard to tease out of this brief sketch of his basic
philosophical position. In his history of medieval philosophy, Josef Pieper
writes that, with Ockham, "extremely dangerous processes were being set in
motion, and many a future trouble was preparing." Pinckaers goes so far as
to describe Ockham's work as "the first atomic explosion of the modern era."
"The atom he split," though, "was . . . not physical but psychic," for
Ockham shattered our concept of the human soul and thereby created a new,
atomized vision of the human person and, ultimately, of society.
With Ockham, we meet what Pinckaers has called the freedom of
indifference. Here, freedom is simply a neutral faculty of choice and
choice is everything, for choice is a matter of self-assertion, of power.
Will is the defining human attribute. Indeed, will is the defining attribute
of all of reality. For God, too, is supremely willful, and the moral life as
read through Ockhamite lenses is a contest of wills between my will and
God's imposition of His will through the moral law.
Ockham's radical emphasis on the will is an idea with very serious "real
world" consequences. It not only severs the moral life from human nature
(which, for a nominalist, doesn't exist). At the same time, and because of
that, it severs human beings from one another in a most dramatic way. For
there can be no "common good" if there are only the particular goods of
particular men and women who are each acting out their own particular
Here, in the mid-fourteenth century, is the beginning of what we call
today the "autonomy project": the claim that human beings are radically
autonomous, self-creating "selves," whose primary relations to others are
relations of power. From its Ockhamite beginning, as Pinckaers writes,
"freedom of indifference was . . . impregnated with a secret passion for
self-affirmation." Thus, over time, freedom was eventually led into the trap
of self-interest from which Immanuel Kant tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue
it by appeals to a "categorical imperative" that could be known by reason
and that would, it was hoped, restore a measure of objectivity to morality.
On a long view of the history of ideas, and freely conceding the twists and
turns of intellectual fortune along the way, William of Ockham is the
beginning of the line that eventually leads to Nietzsche's "will to power"
and its profound effect on the civilization of our times.
Freedom, for Ockham, has little or no spiritual character. The reality is
autonomous man, not virtuous man, for freedom has nothing to do with
goodness, happiness, or truth. Freedom is simply willfulness. Freedom can
attach itself to any object, so long as it does not run into a superior
will, human or divine. Later in the history of ideas, when God drops out of
the equation, freedom comes to be understood in purely instrumental or
utilitarian terms. And if the road on which Ockham set out eventually leads
to Nietzsche, it also leads, through even more twists and turns, to, for
example, Princeton's Peter Singer and his claim that parents ought to be
able to wait for a few weeks before deciding whether their newborn child
should be allowed to live. Ideas do indeed have consequences.
From the Greeks down to Aquinas, every moral philosopher of note had
assumed that the pursuit of happiness is the primary moral question.
With William of Ockham, the profound linkages among freedom, virtue, and the
pursuit of happiness are sundered: morality is mere obligation, freedom is
mere willfulness. When Western thought took a decisively subjectivist turn
in the seventeenth century, and when that subjectivism eventually gave birth
to a principled skepticism about the human capacity to know anything with
confidence, the result, which is much with us today, was the emergence of an
intellectual culture of radical moral relativism lacking any thick notion of
the common good. By positing a profound tension between freedom and reason
(or, in his construction, will and reason), Ockham created a situation in
which there are only two options: determinisms of a biological, racial, or
ideological sort, or the radical relativism that, married to irrationalism,
eventually yields nihilism. In either case, freedom self-destructs.
I suggest that this tale of two monks sheds light on why Isaiah Berlin's
"two concepts of liberty" are finally unsatisfactory. Although Berlin
concedes at the outset that "political theory is a branch of moral
philosophy," he simply does not conjure with the "atomic explosion" that
Ockham created in moral theory or with its results in political thought.
When Berlin writes that "I am normally said to be free to the degree to
which no man or body of men interferes with my activity," such that
"political liberty is simply the area within which a man can act
unobstructed by others," he is taking an Ockhamite tack from the outset.
Berlin openly admits that his "positive liberty" begins in "an act of will."
In fact, however, his formulation of "negative liberty" also assumes that
freedom is essentially a matter of the will. "Negative liberty" is simply
that which allows me to avoid too many collisions with the wills of others.
But this concept of "negative liberty" doesn't tell us much about how we
resolve the inevitable conflicts between wills without raw coercion, or even
why we should do so. "Negative liberty" accurately describes one important
aspect of the political organization of freedom: the need to circumscribe
and regulate coercive state power by law. But Berlin's "negative liberty"
cannot provide an account of why that freedom has any moral worth beyond its
being an expression of my will. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
are drastically disconnected here.
Berlin goes so far as to suggest that, for a "schoolman" like Aquinas, as
well as for the Jacobins and Communists of the modern period, it is
legitimate to force others into living their freedom rightly. That kind of
crude coercion was certainly true of Jacobins and Communists, but it is no
part of a Thomistic theory of freedom. For the philosophical anthropology
that underwrites Aquinas' freedom for excellence, an anthropology that
contains thick moral convictions about the inalienable dignity and value of
every human life, also demands a commitment to the method of persuasion in
politics. Indeed, as the history of the past three decades has shown, it is
today's devotees of "negative liberty" as reinterpreted by postmodern
radical skeptics and relativists who are the primary exponents of coercion
in the name of "tolerance" and "diversity"-even if that coercion is mediated
through split decisions of the United States Supreme Court.
Isaiah Berlin could not escape-and perhaps did not even
recognize-Ockham's trap. That is why his "two concepts of liberty"
ultimately break down. And that is why we require, as individuals and as a
society, a deeper understanding of the nature of freedom today-an
understanding that challenges the freedom of indifference with freedom for
In addition to illuminating a crucial episode in the history of ideas,
this tale of two monks also sheds light on grave public issues today. And in
doing so, it reminds us that a "clash of civilizations" is being played out
within our own society, as well as between ourselves and hostile forces bent
on our destruction.
In the aftermath of the Communist crack-up in 1989-1991, there was a
tremendous amount of euphoria in what was then rightly called the "free
world." This euphoria went far beyond the undeniable satisfaction of seeing
a great evil overcome, and more than one otherÂ wise sober-minded observer
was heard to propose that the democratic project-the great carrier of the
modern quest for freedom-was now inevitably and irreversibly triumphant. In
the first year of the new century, we have been rudely reminded of the
fragility of freedom-of the hard fact, chiseled in stone on the Korean War
Memorial on the National Mall, that "freedom is never free." Which is to
say, we have been reminded of the fact that democracy is always an
unfinished experiment, testing the capacity of each generation to live
The first reminder came in the aftermath of dramatic advances in
genetics, including the decryption of the human genome, and the
biotechnologies this new knowledge rapidly spawned. Suddenly, Francis
Fukuyama's image of the "end of history" seemed overrun by Aldous Huxley's
"brave new world." Human beings, it became clear, would soon have the
capacity to remanufacture the human condition-precisely by manufacturing or
remanufacturing human beings. The new tyranny on the horizon was not the
jackbooted totalitarian state of Orwell's 1984; that was the tyranny
that had haunted our dreams during what Jeane Kirkpatrick once aptly
described as the "Fifty-Five Years' Emergency"-the civilizational crisis
that ran from Hitler's military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 to the
collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Rather, the new and ominous
possibility on the near-term horizon was something quite different: the
happy, if thoroughly dehumanized and massively coercive, dystopia of
Huxley's brilliant imagination. Scientists and biotech industry executives
now talk freely, if usually behind closed doors, of what Leon Kass has
called the "immortality project." Here, they confidently tell us, is a
possible future world without suffering, even without death-except perhaps
death freely chosen as a remedy for terminal boredom. But as Huxley
presciently discerned decades before the unraveling of the DNA double-helix,
such a world would ultimately be an inhuman world: a world of souls without
longing, without passion, without striving, without surprise, without
desire-in a word, a world without love.
And here, too, we can find long-term radioactive traces from Ockham's
"atomic explosion" in the fourteenth century. For Ockham's was a world
without purpose, a world of willful means detached from ends. But so is the
brave new world as Aldous Huxley described it. As one of the World
Controllers muses in Huxley's novel,
Once you began admitting explanations in terms of
purpose-well, you didn't know what the results would be. It was the sort of
idea that might easily decondition some of the more unsettled minds among
the higher castes-make them . . . take to believing . . . that the goal was
somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the
purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some
intensification and refinement of consciousness, some enlargement of
knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But
not, in the present circumstances, admissible.
Tyranny thrives in a world in which means always trump ends. The freedom
of indifference cannot sustain a truly free society.
The national debate over cloning and embryonic stem cell research over
the past year ought to have given us pause, and precisely on this point.
With rare exceptions, the first great public debate of the biotech era was
conducted in almost exclusively utilitarian terms (when it was not reduced
to appeals to "compassion" that did not constitute anything resembling a
serious argument). What can be done to put this urgent and unavoidable
debate onto more secure moral-philosophical ground? I suggest that it will
require a rigorous reckoning with the degree to which the freedom of
indifference has become the operative notion of freedom in much of our high
culture, in the media, among many political leaders, in considerable parts
of the mainline Protestant religious community, in the sciences, and in the
biotech industry. Challenging the freedom of indifference with freedom for
excellence is essential if we are to deploy our new genetic knowledge in
ways that lead to human flourishing rather than to the soulless dystopia of
the brave new world.
There will be-there already are-appeals to "pluralism" in these debates.
Pluralism, however, is not mere plurality, as John Courtney Murray never
tired of repeating. Plurality is sheer difference: a sociological fact, a
staple of the human condition. Genuine pluralism is a civilizational
achievement: the achievement of what Murray called an "orderly
conversation"-a conversation about personal goods and the common good, about
the relationship between freedom and moral truth, about the virtues
necessary to form the kind of citizens who can live their freedom in such a
way as to make the machinery of democracy serve genuinely humanistic ends.
That kind of orderly conversation cannot begin with the radical
epistemological skepticism and moral relativism that inform today's
Ockhamites and their defense of freedom as willfulness. It must begin, as
Jefferson began the American democratic experiment, with the assertion and
defense of truths. As Father Murray once wrote, "The American
Proposition rests on the . . . conviction that there are truths; that they
can be known; that they must be held; for if they are not held, assented to,
worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a
true City." It must begin, in other words, with a reaffirmation of freedom
for excellence as the freedom to which we, like the Founders, can pledge our
lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.
The second challenge to what many commentators are now calling America's
"holiday from history" came, of course, on September 11, 2001-a day of
infamy that, in a very real sense, marked the beginning of a new century and
a new millennium. The world has changed, and the change seems irreversible.
The Republic, and the freedoms it embodies, are in grave peril from a new
form of irrationalism and nihilism that expresses itself through a perverse
and distorted form of monotheistic religion. The struggle against this new
and present danger may well last a generation or more.
The roots of this new struggle run deep into history. Some argue, and I
would not disagree, that they run more than 1,300 years into the past, and
that what confronts us today is the contemporary expression of a
civilizational contest that has ebbed and flowed for well over a millennium.
Because its roots run so deeply into the religious and cultural subsoil of
history-because we have been forcefully reminded over the past few months
that the deepest currents of world-historical change are religious
and cultural-analyzing the causalities that brought us to September 11, 2001
is no simple business. Yet amidst the inevitable complexities of history
understood as an arena of moral responsibility, there has also been some
welcome, and perhaps long overdue, simplicity.
For in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington,
there was a remarkable resurgence of simple, indeed robust, moral clarity in
a country that had long been told, by everyone from Alan Wolfe to Jerry
Falwell, that it was awash in moral relativism. This moral clarity, and the
resolve that accompanies it, seems to have retained its vigor among the vast
majority of our people. Among certain parts of the intellectual class,
however, it lasted, by my count, approximately ninety-six hours.
This seems to be the statute of limitations in the commentariat on
radical moral relativism and its "real world" political
offspring-appeasement strategies, moral equivalence theories, "root cause"
analyses of terrorism, nonsense about "violence begetting violence," and
self-loathing anti-Americanism of the most vulgar sort. Thus far, these
intellectual and moral aberrations have been reasonably well confined to the
farther fringes of the chattering classes in the United States. But it is
well advanced among intellectuals and commentators in Western Europe. And it
has everything to do, I suggest, with four themes that arise from the modern
expression of Ockhamite nominalism: the deterioration of the idea of freedom
into willfulness, the detachment of freedom from moral truth, an obsession
with "choice," and the consequent inability to draw the most elementary
moral conclusions about the imperative to resist evil.
There has been a remarkable resurgence of uncomplicated, unapologetic
patriotism over the past months: flags, not yellow ribbons, are the icons of
the day. But can this welcome recovery of patriotism be sustained unless it
becomes, once again, the expression of a nobler concept of freedom than mere
willfulness? Is happy hedonism that for which we are prepared to make the
sacrifices that will be required of us? Or is it more likely that the acids
of the relativism that accompany a merely negative concept of freedom as
"nonÂ interference" will eventually erode today's resurgent patriotism,
too-to the point where appeasement will once again become a respectable word
in the national political vocabulary?
A society without "oughts" tethered to truths cannot defend itself
against aggressors motivated by distorted "oughts." That is the truth of
which we should have been reminded when reading those chilling letters from
the hijackers the week after September 11. The answer to a distorted concept
of the good cannot be a radical relativism about the good. It must be a
nobler concept of the good.
And that brings us back, at the end of the day, to our tale of two monks.
Freedom for excellence is the freedom that will satisfy the deepest
yearnings of the human heart to be free. It is more than that, though. The
idea of freedom for excellence and the disciplines of self-command it imÂ
plies are essential for democracy and for the defense of freedom.
Homo Voluntatis, Willful Man, cannot exploit the new genetic
knowledge so that it serves the ends of freedom and avoids the brave new
world. Homo Voluntatis cannot explain why some things that can
be done should not be done. Homo Voluntatis cannot defend
himself or the institutions of democracy against the new dangers to national
security and world order. Homo Voluntatis cannot give an account of a
freedom worth sacrificing, and even dying, for.
There are, indeed, two ideas of freedom. Both ideas have consequences.
One of them is worthy of this nation. One of them will see us through to a
future worthy of a free people.