“God created things which had free will. That means creatures, which can go wrong or right… If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will… though it makes evil1 possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” 2
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once suggested that Western societies have developed a burdensome overdependence upon the rule of law. It may seem a counterintuitive suggestion particularly when levied against the West. Is not the western world, after all, the last bastion of freedom? A man of Solzhenitsyn’s rearing should be the last to criticize a well-established legal structure and, what is more, a system of government that at least as far as the average American can discern, adheres to said laws; yet Solzhenitsyn states quite clearly,
“The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired great skill in interpreting and manipulating law… Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point-of-view, nothing more is required.”
For stating such controversial notions, Solzhenitsyn quickly developed an uncomfortably honest reputation. Such is the beauty found in the truth—not that it will justify our actions, but that it most often will rebuke them. Solzhenitsyn understood this, yet as time passes, the world he left shows with each new day how quickly and easily such an understanding is forgotten.
With increasing incidence, man believes that his freedom is the highest and is turning to the law to precisely determine his freedoms. To go make matters worse, he holds an erroneous view of the meaning of freedom that strays farther from the truth with every new suggestion. So concerned is man about his freedom through the law, that he either neglects willingly or embraces fully his ignorance of the deeper, truer law inborn in every living human—what Solzhenitsyn referred to as human obligations.
II. Man’s Views of Freedom and Evil
Man’s free will renders him equally capable of good as evil, and freedom like any other good thing can very easily be abused. The popular understanding of freedom in modern society is understood as man’s right to do as he will, with the impishly imposed caveat that one man’s choices should not infringe upon those of his neighbor3, because it is believed that this unhindered lifestyle is the only sure path to happiness. Man’s love of self leads him to buy into this socio-geocentricity, making his happiness of critical importance. This in turn breeds a society in which evil may thrive. Modern man relates all too easily with the libertarian ideal that he is an island, believing that his choices, and therefore his consequences, are his and his alone. When man adopts this view, both he and the society in which he lives are opened up to all kinds of evil.
This mindset is dangerous, for no action is without consequence.4 It stands to reason that the greater a man’s ability to choose, the greater the consequences shall be. As he relies more heavily on the law to determine the scope of his freedom, his soul grows sluggish and over time he forgets his obligations to his neighbor. Such reckless and ill-advised expansion of individual freedom makes evil all the easier to commit and all the more likely to be committed, due to man no longer being bound to such parochial concepts of good and evil. Those who today hold fast to such traditional ideas as the importance of the nuclear family as the center of a healthy society, temperance both in public and in private, self-control, responsibility, charity, and so on are chastised as remnants of the Dark Ages whose opinion should be treated as such. These ideas are very quickly, and very literally, being outlawed in the modern-day.
Up to this point I have mentioned evil a number of times, but have at best only implied how it factors into a society so frantically concerned with their ever-expanding freedom. It is a fairly simple point to make. Man grows dependent on the law to determine his freedoms, thereby allowing the law to determine right and wrong. When man’s moral and ethical foundations are so easily altered, the very idea of right and wrong appears negotiable. The door is now open for traditional ideas of evil to become acceptable as common social practice due to the nebulous nature of right and wrong. If right and wrong defy definition, who is to say which behaviors or actions are and are not right? St. Augustine proposed that evil is the absence of good, the privatio boni; if the good cannot be definitively decided upon, neither then can concept of evil. With laws responsive to the whims of public opinion governing right and wrong in the public square it is only a matter of time before both concepts are both discarded altogether.
So dense is the array of moral and ethical specters haunting society that it now relies upon laws the original purposes of which were to merely uphold and support moral and ethical behavior in the first place. This is the logical path from which emerged human rights,5 which are the legal determinations of man’s entitlements. What is truly good for our fellow man is now so far from common knowledge that we must have it canonized in order that we may always have a reference point.
It is prudent to remind that the purpose of this essay is not to disparage the rule of law; rather it is to demonstrate that the letter of the law alone will not suffice if man is to be that for which he is intended. The law can be a most valuable and righteous gift. However, there inevitably comes a time in the employment of all good things at which that which was once good begins to be less so. To that end,
“… a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed, but a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either… A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.”
Man needs the law, but not to determine right from wrong. It was Cicero who famously wrote that, “Law ought to be a reformer of vice and an incentive to virtue.” 6 Such is the case, however, that we presently have rights defended by law only because it is the law from which they draw definition. Man is free to think about himself and himself alone to the world’s end, but this only illustrates that what man is free to do should not be assumed good strictly by virtue of being a choice of free will.
III. The Law and Human Obligations
Human obligations, in contrast with human rights, are not written and archived laws, but rather are those duties and responsibilities for which all men across the full expanse of time are obliged to fulfill. When a child says to his playmate that an action is not fair in some such game of their imagination, he is appealing to a baseline ideal of fairness that is not taught, but rather is inbuilt. To fulfill such obligations is to satisfy the innate urge felt by all men and women when confronted with an opportunity to genuinely and humbly serve another.
Another word for obligation is, of course, responsibility, and there can be little doubt that one thing the present generation has so difficult a time with understanding and, what’s more, undertaking is individual responsibility. An apple tree is obligated i.e. responsible for producing apples. It may not determine mid-bloom that it would rather be a rock, because its nature is to be, simply, an apple tree. Once it ceases to produce apples, it is useful only as firewood. Think, also, of salt. It cannot be sweet, because salt by its very nature is salty. Once salt loses its saltiness, what good is it?
The term “human obligations” is not oft used, due likely to its philosophical foundation being unknown to the many and disdained by the few. To be held to account under the law is one thing, because the law can be changed under enough pressure; to be held to account under a natural law, to be obliged to act a certain way for no other reason than simply being born a human, and with no option of recourse is another thing entirely. Believing such a notion necessitates a belief in all manner of other pre-Enlightenment nonsense such as a God (or gods), angels and demons, a heaven and a hell, prophecies and visions, burning bushes, talking asses, and so many other characters that may or may not go bump in the night. Such Dark Age superstitions have no place in our empirical world.
It has become exceedingly common to demand either service or satisfaction from another, and exceedingly rare that one demands service of himself towards another, with the notable exception being those instances when he will himself profit. Man believes he has served the good because he has fulfilled the law; when man’s behavior exceeds or abuses his law given freedom, the very last thing he wishes for is to wake up to today’s consequences for yesterday’s acts of freedom. It comes as no surprise, then, that human rights gain so much focus while human obligations, i.e. human responsibilities garner none.
This moral legislation removes the onus of moral responsibility from the individual to the institution, whereas a human obligation boldly proclaims that the onus for fulfillment rests squarely on the individual. Far easier is it to say to your neighbor, “You owe me,” than it is to say, “I owe you.” Barring some catastrophe of human suffering, society seems to be losing its will to serve, opting instead to be served; yet the only edifice large enough to serve so great a body of claimants is the state. When such catastrophes occur, compassion rules the day; when all is well, our focus returns to our own trifling affairs. As Pope Francis put it, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”7
There have been in recent months reports of cities punishing private citizens, organizations, and ministries from breaking bread with their homeless brethren. While the legal reasons for this prohibition are many and varied, the root reason is that in the view of the state, individuals cannot meet the needs of their neighbors, and therefore should be legally prohibited from doing so. In such instances, the message is clear: it is wrong for a man of charitable heart to act thereupon. Doing so will incur legal consequence. It would seem that the human obligation of helping those in need is trumped by the law. Confusingly, such laws put forward that it is not the act that is illegal (and therefore wrong), but rather by whom this act is performed. How very curious. It is written on man’s heart to help his neighbor, but it would seem that this is not enough.
This is all just the materialist/spiritualist debate in new clothes; the former deals with right and wrong, and therefore good and evil, according to what has been made by man, while the latter settles on right and wrong according to the inner longings and still small voice found in all on whom the imprint of the Creator rests. All men, having been forged from the nothingness of pre-existence eternity, and having been thus forged by the same perfect, everlasting Source, share one common trait, if just the one—that they all come from God and exist for the purposes to which He has appointed them. Men may submit to or dissent from His will, but the obligation is no less in place. Man is not his own man, but a man of God, and therefore a man with a designated purpose.
IV. A Joyous Conclusion
This essay may come off as overly critical of man’s pursuit of unbridled freedom and over-dependence on the law to deliver such an end, but such is our veil of tears. What is good and beautiful and true need not be so complicated that it must be written down and protected with the full authority of the government. These permanent things—not our laws, but rather our obligations—find their goodness, beauty, and truth in their remarkable simplicity. Man has deferred his obligations towards decency, honor, and virtue—obligations that though shirked are no less expected of each individual—to the letter of the law. If the law says that a private citizen may not seek to help those in most dire need, then it is no longer right to act charitably outside the confines of some government-funded program. The law has spoken. To these laws does man look for his moral direction, for when he lives in accordance thereto, nothing more is required. To offer the terminal quote from Solzhenitsyn,
“The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”
Man is conditioned, and dare I say plagued, by a burdensome reliance upon the law to determine what he may and may not do. Freedom has ceased to be what man may do by virtue of negative rights, and is now, rather, defined evermore by what the law explicitly says he may do. Man relies far too heavily on the law, and focuses at far too great length on his own rights, all the while failing to realize, or perhaps simply failing to accept, that the more zealously he seeks his legal freedom, the more enslaved he becomes. He believes that there is light to be found at both ends of the tunnel, not realizing he is only wandering further into the cave.
I am not, after all of this, advocating for anarchy. As previously stated, the law is valuable and good and in many cases actually quite just. In the wrong hands, however, the law is naught but a tool for the completion of a job, the fulfillment of an agenda. Thomas Aquinas taught that all human or positive laws were to be judged by their conformity to the natural law, but it is coming to pass that those responsible for making our laws are doing so in opposition—intentional or not—to the natural law. It is for precisely this reason that it is of the utmost importance than we know was is truly good, that we may recognize the echoes of an unjust law coming down the lane.
This essay need not end on so dour a note. Where the truth is found, so too is found joy, and the truth is that in adhering to God’s law, i.e., our human obligations, our noblesse oblige, our natural laws, and so on, we are in a very real sense free—yes, free, as in freedom in its truest and purest sense—from the laws of man. Bonhoeffer in the introduction to his masterpiece The Cost of Discipleship wrote that “Discipleship means joy.”8 What joy, then, comes through the fulfillment of our human obligations? Put simply, the joy that can only be experienced when one is free from worry. By dense, complicated, and ever-evolving law does the modern man determine the virtue of his actions, and if he is found wrong then some judgment will be soon to follow. From human obligation, however, man is presented a much clearer path forward, one that enables every man to live according to the natural longings from deep within.
As stated above, what Solzhenitsyn dubs our human obligations are indeed what Christians know to be the Will of God for each man’s life. The teachings, and indeed the life, death, and victory of Christ illustrate as clear as crystal just what our obligations as humans are—to look after the poor, the sick, the homeless, the orphans and widows, to minister to the downtrodden and to bring the good news to the four corners of the earth. I choose to end this essay with as clean and beautifully simple a summation of human obligations as I can recall. These are but the lens through which all of a man’s actions should be evaluated.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”9
“Against such, there is no law,” indeed. All that man is entitled to is contained in this verse, all of this, and nothing more. Let the chips fall as they thereafter will. Actions can be outlawed, the love and joy that lies at their root, if they are good and true, cannot be touched.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
1 Please note that my use of the word “evil” is used not necessarily to represent evil in the sense that it is sinful behavior, but rather in the manner employed in the headline quotation from Lewis.
2 Lewis, C.S. “The Shocking Alternative.” In Mere Christianity, 48. Reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 1952.
3 My fellow Imaginative Conservative contributor, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, recently published a fantastic treatment on the condition of modern freedom that goes into greater detail than I can here spare.
4 For more on this, consider this piece from fellow contributor Nicholas Van Cleve.
6 Cicero, De Legibus (Keyes translation), bk. 1, sec. 58.
7 Evangelii Guadium, 53
8 Bonhoefer, Dietrich. “Introduction.” In The Cost of Discipleship, 48. Reprint, New York: Touchstone, 1995.
9 Book of Galatians, 5.22 (ESV)
Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Court” by William Hogarth, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.