As our physical and political freedoms are increasingly curtailed by Leviathan due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we are hopefully becoming more aware of the value of what we are losing. Hopefully, it will be the occasion for a more urgent and honest reflection on the true meaning of freedom.
Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, by D.C. Schindler (456 pages, University of Notre Dame Press, 2017)
This is the heart of the diabolical: an image that is not an image, but presents itself as the real thing—indeed, in a certain sense (as we shall see), as better than the real thing.
One can say, “It is possible to be and to not be at the same time and in the same respect”; “The part is greater than the whole,” though one cannot think such things. But yet, they are grammatically correct phrases. Transcendent power of language: one can say both the thinkable and the unthinkable. Power to use the purely irrational. I can say, “I do not exist.” And with that I can found “I exist” on pure non-being. I say it! Who will stop me? Let them stop me. I will say it again. Myself, and myselves. Before long, a society of myselves. The liberty of speech is discovered: speech set loose from intellect. . . . Free, finally. In the beginning, the word of man.
Floods of fire beneath the skin.
Wound never healed,
Dissolves the one.
Floods of fire, hollow relief.
No need of senses in the void that we seek.
Transcend in supremacy.
Worn from deep.
Echoes in the eyes.
Glances overwhelmed with woe.
Fill the rivers with dreadful famine.
Falling among victims,
bending to the sovereign of the eternal light.
—Postvorta, “Epithelium Copia”
As our physical, political, and even spiritual freedoms are increasingly curtailed by Leviathan and a docile clergy due to the Coronavirus pandemic—for our safety of course—we are hopefully becoming more aware of the value of what we are losing. It should be the occasion for a more urgent and honest reflection on the true meaning of freedom. If the reader would like some guidance in his reflections, no one is better than D.C. Schindler, and his 2017 book, Freedom From Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, is the best scholarly book I’ve read on the topic, and perhaps, along with Leo XIII’s Libertas Praestantissimum, the best ever written. It is primarily a metaphysical treatment, and a deep and soaring one at that, but Dr. Schindler is uncannily adept at bringing it down to earth. In his best chapter, he describes in vivid and penetrating detail the “varieties of the diabolical,” the counterfeits of freedom in the contemporary notions and practices of: choice, self-determination, autonomy, rights, privacy, equality, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, voting, technology, the free market, academic freedom, freedom of information, and power. The human source of these diabolical counterfeits is, for Dr. Schindler, the thought of John Locke, the main intellectual architect of the United States of America.
The metaphysical demon that Dr. Schindler exposes and exorcises in this book is the subordination of act to potency, which is the underlying principle of Locke’s thought, as Dr. Schindler reveals in over one-hundred pages of brilliant exegesis and rigorous analysis of the relevant texts in Locke’s major works. The effect of this apparently innocuous metaphysical error is nothing less than a transformation of every aspect of human life into a counterfeit:
Instead of enjoyment, there is labor, instead of goods, there are uses, instead of substance, we have property, instead of property, we have money, instead of bonds, we have boundaries, instead of connection, we have contract, instead of order, we have regulation, and so forth. Locke’s political theory represents a conquest of the ordering principle of human life, which then allows that principle to retain its rule only if it changes its meaning. (124)
As Dr. Schindler explains in detail, diabolical is the opposite of symbolical, which is a “joining together.” Reality, both physically, morally, metaphysically, and spiritually, is inherently symbolical, an intergral whole of interdependent parts, and so to attempt to divide the parts from one another is essentially a demonic activity. There is no more primordial unity in ceation than act and potency, and though these cannot be actually divided, for act is always the act of some potency, and potency only exists due to a prior actuality, they can be thought in isolation from one another, and the illusion of their division can infect and distort our perception of and relation to reality. One such illusion is “modern liberty,” in which, as Dr. Schindler depicts it, potency is conceived as not only separate from, but also superior and prior to actuality. Locke laid the metaphysical and anthropological groundwork for this counterfeit of true freedom, a counterfeit shared and developed by later thinkers such as Spinoza and Kant.
To better understand why the conceptual inversion of act and potency was so practically disastrous, and why a notion of freedom based upon it is essentially diabolical, a metaphysical presentation of the traditional account (Aristotle and Aquinas) of act and potency will be helpful. God is pure, infinite act, with everything else a mixture of act and potency. God doesn’t have actuality, but is actuality, for He is, period, as His essence is “to exist,” and thus infinite and perfect. All other beings receive their existence from God, and are thus finite and imperfect participations in existence, always already in potency, lacking in themselves the fullness of Being. Creatures are syntheses of existence, esse, and essence, essentia, the latter the limited manner in and through which they receive esse. All beings are a mixture of potency and act, and thus can be said to “exist” (in this sense, God doesn’t “exist”—for He is existence), for to exist means to receive existence. Thus, neither pure act (God) nor pure potency (prime matter) truly exist, for neither is capable of receiving existence, the former because it simply is existence, and the latter, because it simply is the possibility of existence and does not yet “have” existence. Even in heaven we will not be fully actualized into pure act, though we will be as actual as we can be as divinized creatures participating intimately in God’s infinite act.
Freedom for human beings is the capacity with which we have been gifted to directly participate in the actualization of our potency, instead of merely passively undergoing such actualization like a plant or irrational animal. Every conscious moment of our lives presents the occasion for us to become more actualized by the exercise of our rational powers of intellect and will in freely chosen actions. The purpose of the potency we have, then, is to get rid of it, that is, to actualize it out of existence, so to speak, and we do so through our participation in the gift of reality, in the reception of this gift at every moment in apprehension and love of the transcendental actualities of truth, goodness, beauty, and being that we encounter in their particular participations that constitute our finite existence. Unlike God, we must seek our actualization ad extra, in radical dependence upon the gift of the other. It is in and through our symbolical relationship with reality, coming to us primarily through finite creatures but expanding out into the infinite reality of God, that we find our perfection, but it is a relationship that we can choose not to cultivate, or even to divorce ourselves from, through the misuse of our freedom, from rejecting the gift, through sin.
The conception of freedom in liberal modernity is otherwise. It rejects all dependence upon and participation in the other for the apparently more godlike and dignified freedom of pure self-determination and self-sufficiency. Modern liberty is essentially the refusal of the gift of reality:
For all of their differences, Locke, Spinoza, and Kant thus appear to share a common core in their conception of freedom, which we may justly characterize in general as “modern liberty”: a view of freedom as spontaneous and unconditioned causality, or as active power that produces effects as a result of self-originating energy rather than receiving determination from outside of itself. What we wish to suggest at this point is that such a conception of freedom, because it relentlessly separates potentiality from actuality, represents, in its depths, a flight from reality. (147)
It is hard enough to become saints, that is, people who consistently choose to be in radical touch and love with natural and supernatural reality, in a culture that is based upon and pervaded by metaphysical and theological truth, one in which the true nature of and relationship between act and potency is expressed and embodied in its discourse, institutions, and practices, where creation is seen as a gift from God. How difficult it is when this is not the case, as it was, is, and will be to some extent in every culture before the Second Coming and the New Jerusalem; but how much more difficult it is in a thoroughly diabolical culture that quite effectively presents itself as just the opposite! This is the situation that Dr. Schindler presents to us as liberal modernity, where images take the place of and eclipse the realities they depend upon, where means become ends, and where nothingness presents itself as reality.
The greatest boast of liberal modernity is the amount and extent, compared to pre-modern or non-liberal regimes, of freedom and choice that it affords its inhabitants. It was able to do this by transforming the raison d’être and goal of political and cultural life from the corporate imposition of a particular conception of happiness and the good life to the corporate imposition of the freedom for every citizen to choose this conception for himself and live it out as fully and completely as possible (with all others doing the same—be tolerant!) according to his own lights. But this transformation came with a great price, as Dr. Schindler explains:
Because man has no relationship with anything—other people, the world, God—that is not mediated at some level through the will, a reinterpretation of the meaning of the will and its freedom will inevitably be what Nietzsche called a “revaluation of all values.” What is at issue is not simply a new hierarchy of values, a replacement of higher values by things previously held in lower esteem, but indeed a transformation of what it means to value and be valuable tout court, or, more adequately put, a transformation of the meaning of goodness and its principal mode of manifestation. It has been said that Darwin’s late modern interpretation of evolution stands as a “universal acid”: the inner logic of his idea eats away at all other traditional ideas, not only on the biological level but also on all levels of human existence; it dissolves everything in its wake. One might say that the notion of modern liberty we are discussing is even more radical and therefore more subtle in its effects. It is not so much an acid as a sort of alchemical reagent. Instead of dissolving things, it leaves them standing, but eliminates their original essence, their native goodness, transforming realities into gold—that is, a conventional representation of value without any organic relation to its own given nature. There is nothing at all left untouched by this transformation. (148)
Creation is an expression of the goodness of God, first encountered by us in particular material beings through and desired by the senses, and then recognized and willed as such by the intellect and will in freely chosen acts. The actuality of goodness is always already something in which we participate and to which we respond, for we are in a state of perpetual potency to the Real, which we can, nevertheless, willingly permit to actualize us unto perfection through our active receptivity to it. Insofar as we consistently and persistently respond to reality properly, that is, in humility and gratitude as a gift, in thoughts informed by the truth and actions governed by the natural, infused, and theological virtues, including especially the action of repentance when we inevitably fail to respond accurately, we fulfill our purpose on earth, to obey and ultimately live in the Divine Will. The choices we make in life are determinants, not of this supernatural end, but of the various possible and thus optional means to this end for us in our idiosyncratic situations. The end, of course, is not idiosyncratic but universal, and thus we neither choose nor determine it, for the created truth, beauty, and goodness that transcendentally pull us to our end through their superior actuality are the ineluctable objects of the human intellect, heart, and will respectively. We can only choose the means, that is, the goods which participate in but are not God, but when our choices are in accordance with and ordered to the Divine Will, it is as if we are choosing the end in every graced choice of means. In this way, we choose the uncreated God in every created choice we make.
In the Lockean world of “options,” however, we do not participate or share in the actuality of goodness, but determine it. It is not only the means that become optional for us, but the very end, indeed, reality itself becomes a mere option, and one that cramps our style, as it were, and this includes above all the Reality of God. In what I take to be the most powerful—and controversial—passage of the whole book, Dr. Schindler reveals that at the heart of the “good liberalism” of Locke (as opposed to the “bad” liberalism of, say, Rousseau and Comte) is nothing less than the absolute rejection of the Incarnation. I quote the following long passage both because of its brilliance and because it articulates trenchantly the main argument of the book:
Following the logic of our interpretation, we can say that Locke’s call for political toleration amounts in fact to a “potentializing” of the ultimate. Locke does not deny the existence of God or the truth of religion; indeed, he affirms these as indispensable, to the extent that atheists have to be excluded from toleration. What Locke does deny, however, is the actuality of religion—in other words, he denies the objective authority of any concrete, historical form that religion might take. But of course a religion cannot exist except concretely in history. If a religion, which means the effective manifestation of ultimate meaning, exists concretely in history, it necessarily makes a claim on me prior to my act of will, because it makes a claim on everything without exception. To recognize this claim is to see that actuality precedes potency, and if this is true ultimately, it will be true, so to speak, all the way down. And this will mean that freedom will necessarily have to be interpreted as sharing in actuality, a response to the good that precedes me and makes my choice of it possible; the actualizing of the will in this case comes to mean being brought into an actual world, a tradition, and a hierarchy of goods. Actual religion is therefore incompatible with an interpretation of freedom primarily as active power. Locke can affirm freedom as power only by transforming at the same time the status of religion. It can no longer be a single truth that precedes political agents, but it has to become an array of possibilities, any one of which individuals are free to accept, at least within the constraints of political order. Within these constraints, I am permitted to affirm any religion as true, and practice it thus in public, as long as I recognize that this has a new meaning that would strike an ancient thinker as confusing, if not simply confused: it is true “for me.” Notice that the potentializing of religion in this way allows one to neutralize the implications of the existence of God without having to shoulder the burden of responsibility that would come with rejecting God outright. In short, the precondition for the emergence of the modern concept of freedom is not the denial of God, but the denial of his actual self-revelation in history. Modern liberty, at its core, is a rejection specifically of the incarnation, God’s coming in the flesh.” (127)
Jesus commanded us to “let your yes be yes, and your no be no,” and warned that “the lukewarm he shall vomit from his mouth.” We owe a committed, unwavering, heartfelt, and irrevocable yes to God at every moment, for we are literally nothing apart from Him, as He upholds our very existence in each moment. We receive our moment-to-moment existence as a perpetual gift. Metaphysically speaking, we owe the same yes to the actuality of Being, for we, as potencies perpetually seeking actuality, are nothing apart from it. Pace Locke, we are existentially and essentially poor but graced participants invited to a wonderful cosmic dance that begins in the world and continues in eternity. Neither God nor Being is an “option,” and insofar as modern liberty construes it that way, we must reject it as we do any temptation from the devil.
We see today that the vast majority of Catholic Bishops have allowed the panic-and-power possessed, Incarnation-rejecting state to dictate to them whether they and their priests can minister to the flock. As we witness the Church relegate its ultimate authority over souls and the common good to a counterfeit, we must conclude that the human element of the Church has been infected with the “potentializing of the ultimate.” But as D. Stephen Long has written, if the Church does not act as the Church, the mystical body of the living God and ultimate source of all reality and goodness, then we become free from reality, ignorant to and alienated from the goodness of God that surrounds and pervades the world:
Beginning with the flesh of Jesus and its presence in the church, theology alone can give due order to other social formations—family, market, and state. The goodness of God is discovered not in abstract speculation, but in a life oriented toward God that creates particular practices that require the privileging of certain social institutions above others. The goodness of God can be discovered only when the church is the social institution rendering intelligible our lives. . . . For a Christian account of this good, the church is the social formation that orders all others. If the church is not the church, the state, the family, and the market will not know their own true nature.
Dr. Schindler tells us in the last sentence of the book that, to the “empty power” that is the diabolical counterfeit of Love, “the response can only, finally, come from a rekindling of the embers of love for the actual good, embers that never altogether die out.” God is the source and plentitude of this actual good, as well as the love of it which we are commanded to will, and we have access to His goodness and knowledge of His will for us through the God-man who incarnated it on earth, and who shares His oneness with the Father with us right now through grace, the fullness of which can be found in the Catholic Church that is His body. We have to first know the Divine Will so that we can love it and ultimately become united to it, living in it, and not just in accordance with it. As a companion piece to Dr. Schindler’s book to help us with the task of rekindling the embers of love, I would highly recommend the mystical writings on Living in the Divine Will by the Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta, and The Crown of Sanctity, the best introduction to her teaching.
I would also recommend, especially now when we are deprived of the Mass and the Sacraments, practicing silent contemplation, twice a day for 20-30 minutes, morning and evening. Father John Main (who died in 1982) taught profoundly about this, and gives us a method that helps to do this, by reciting a sacred word in the heart during the time of meditation. I recite in my heart “Maranatha-Jesu” for 30 minutes in the morning, and “Jesu-Abba” for 30 minutes in the evening. In this way we can powerfully express our radical poverty before God, turn our attention away from self to Him, and allow Him to fill us with His wordless presence.
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The featured image is a portrait of John Locke painted in 1697 by Godfrey Kneller. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.