What makes the secular and the Christian outlook on freedom and appetites different is the direction of our gaze. Contemporary secular freedom, as expressed in America today, directs us to look inward, toward our appetites. Our Christian freedom, on the other hand, directs us to look outward, toward those whom we can love.
Polemarchus has just cajoled Glaucon and Socrates to stay the evening at his place in Piraeus, much to the delight of Polemarchus’ father, Cephalus. The old man in Plato’s Republic yearns for conversation, the son says, and Socrates has no problems egging Cephalus on, asking for a “report about” old age (328e). Cephalus says his friends “complain about the lost pleasures they remember from their youth, those of sex, drinking parties, feasts, and the other things that go along with them” (329a). We can almost hear the sigh and eye roll of Polemarchus—who had enticed Socrates and Glaucon with the promise of an exciting pass-the-torch relay horse race—as his dad discusses missing wine, women, and song. Unlike others in his cohort, however, Cephalus finds no deprivation in his condition; instead, he relies on the authority of Sophocles to make his point:
Indeed, I was once present when someone asked the poet Sophocles, “How are you as far as sex goes, Sophocles? Can you still make love with a woman?”
“Quiet, man,” the poet replied, “I am very glad to have escaped from all that, like a slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master.” I thought at the time that he was right, and I still do, for old age brings peace and freedom from all such things. When the appetites relax and cease to importune us, everything Sophocles said comes to pass, and we escape from many mad masters. (329b-d)
Socrates lets this answer go for now; his own description of the soul as reason, spirit, and appetite (or desire) comes later (Brown). He does, however, continue to prod Cephalus to see whether his comfort in old age isn’t actually a result of his fabulous wealth.
I realize eavesdropping on old (and by now ancient, as we call them) Greek men considering their carnal urges past and present seems a strange place to begin a discussion on Christian freedom. But when Cephalus, either on his own or through Sophocles, describes his bodily appetites as savage, tyrannical, and mad masters from whom enslaved humans might enjoy freedom, he is not far from what Philipp Melanchthon, centuries later in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession, uses to explain our sinful nature: We “are born with sin [Psalm 51:5], that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with the inclination to sin, called concupiscence” (Apol II.1). While Melanchthon is at pains to avoid dwelling on concupiscence, lest we get the wrong idea and think that we can fear and trust God on our own and that original sin only includes the “inclination to sin,” he does discuss the “vicious turning to fleshly things” as well (Apol II.25). Luther more simply states in the Large Catechism that before we are redeemed, we are “captive under the devil’s power, condemned to death, stuck in sin and blindness” (II.27). This sin holds us captive, just as the Cephalus describes of his appetites as younger man. But through Jesus’ redemptive act, “those tyrants and jailers are all expelled” (LC II.30). To come to the topic at hand, as Christians we are as Paul describes, “set… free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). We need not wait for old age to demonstrate to us how we are naturally trapped into pursuing our own appetites—either Cephalus’s “sex, drinking parties, feasts, and the other things that go along with them” or Melanchton’s “wrath, lust, the desire for glory, wealth, and so on” (329a; Apol II.42). Thankfully, we also need not wait for freedom from these mad and tyrannical masters who would so happily enslave us.
If only living as a freed Christian were as easy as letting Christ break our bonds and continuing on our merry way until we are called to heaven. Our daily struggle against sin remains all too clearly for those of us who suffer the pangs of conscience. Like Paul, we stand in disgusted wonderment at how easily we return to our appetites as if to beg a return to servitude:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Rom. 7:15-20)
Our sinful nature persists within us, though it is no longer our master; that title belongs to Christ. But it is always present, and sometimes even an invited guest or side-kick. From Plato to Paul, learned Christians and non-Christians alike have argued that we, as human beings, have an appetite problem. That is, we have selfish, carnal desires that either are our masters already or are striving for mastery over us. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian outlook as persons beset and/or besotted by these desires is that Christians need not be ruled by them. We have been set free, no AARP card required. But what is that freedom for?
In a letter largely about Christian freedom from earthly regulations, Paul describes how we ought to use our freedom by contrasting our new and old lives. He warns the Galatians against using “your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,” which leads to a list that sounds much like Cephalus’ and Melanchthon’s: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (5:16, 19-21). Instead of focusing on these desires or on imposing Mosaic laws on others, we ought to “through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:13-14). We are free both from ceremonial laws and from desires that we might, instead, better love—and serve—one another. And if we think that Paul’s explanation holds only within the church, Jesus reminds us that our loving service is a form of witness for those outside the church as well: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Cephalus is happy that he is free from appetites so that he might enjoy philosophical discussion—though maybe not with someone whose conversational skills earn him comparison with an electric fish. God has set for Christians a higher purpose for our freedom: loving service to one another that both enlivens those within the church and interests those without it.
Thus far I have argued that we all have problems with appetites, but that sanctification offers Christians freedom from those desires—limited as that freedom may be by our fallen selves and world—and that we are to use that freedom to serve others. What makes the Christian and the secular outlook on freedom and appetites different is the direction of our gaze. Our Christian freedom directs us to look outward, toward those whom we can love. How can we best serve them? Contemporary secular freedom, as expressed in America today, on the other hand, directs us to look inward, toward our appetites. In this secular world, the question becomes how can we all best serve ourselves?
There are two major schools of secular political thought regarding personal freedom. For J.S. Mill, the utilitarian, we should be free to pursue our desires insofar as we do not harm others by doing so. Particularly destructive desires, like the taking of life, then, would not be allowed. But we might argue that under such a system, you can go ahead and take your own life as long as you’re not harming anyone. Followers of John Locke, the social contract guy, might disagree. For Locke, we should be free to pursue our desires insofar as we don’t run afoul of others’ natural rights and the natural law, which might require you to look after yourself (since it’s only reasonable to do so). As Americans, we seem somewhere caught between the two. We think some things are reasonable—you don’t hear many serious arguments about the age of consent, for example—but we also want to maximize personal gratification of desires as long as it doesn’t cause harm. Why shouldn’t I ride my motorcycle without a helmet? It’s not harming you directly—though it might cost more to patch me up if I survive an accident, which might harm either the government or my insurance company, and thus very indirectly harm you. A more timely question might involve why should or shouldn’t I wear a mask, patronize a business, or help fill my church’s pews?
If we want to answer these questions according to the sense of American secular freedom, then we should consider how our country was founded. Before the Revolutionary War, in fact, in the summer before the First Continental Congress, Nathaniel Niles—politician, judge, and preacher—delivered “Two discourses on liberty,” or two sermons on civil and religious liberty.[*] After establishing before lunch on June 5th that perfect liberty comes from “the being and due administration of such a set of laws, as tend to the highest good of the society,” an option that sits well with neither Mill nor Locke, he spends the afternoon contrasting the earthly liberty such governments allow with the Christian liberty afforded followers of Christ (42). Instead of focusing on individual utility or natural morals or rights, Niles, who for the record supported neither uprising against King George III nor enslaving Africans, makes the somewhat vague overall health of the community the goal of a civil government (42). Earthly governments necessarily miss the mark, he argues with some understatement, because there is an
inconvenience, that arises from the depravity of human nature, which leads every man, in a greater or less degree, to look on his own things and not on the things of another; to seek their own private interest, without regarding the interests either of their fellow men, the angels, or the deity, any farther than they may seem subservient to the private interest. (44)
Indeed, royalist though he appears, Niles admits that the “history of Kings and other rulers in every age” confirms that “Instead of improving their power for the good of the community,” those in power “make use of the common interests as means of aggrandizing themselves and their families” (45). The result, if your system depends on everyone, especially those in power, acting for the common good, is that though there might be “some spices of liberty scattered in earthly states,” “the highest degree of liberty that can reasonably be expected in earthly states is very low” (45). If God gives you a King, then you should follow that King, he concludes. And while you are permitted to point out your government’s wrongs, you can’t expect much out of fallen humans who are blinded to the common good by their self-interest, which has as its goals items listed by Cephalus, Paul, and Melanchton. Perfect freedom would orient us to service, to the good of all, if only we were capable of aiming at it.
Nearly 15 years later, the framers of our founding documents decided that if self-interest is unavoidable, then we need to make the most of it. In the 51st Federalist Paper, James Madison argues for the necessity of the separation of powers in our national government. To prevent one person from becoming a tyrant, a predicament fresh on his mind in 1788, we should give “to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others” (331). Such checks on power are necessary because, the more secular Madison also suggests, the human desire for power is innate:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. (331)
A phrase following this remarkable passage summarizes the solution and the problem. We are creating, he writes, “opposite and rival interests” to “supply… the defect of better motives” (332). We framed our government, that is, with the understanding that humans will inevitably want to pursue their own interests, desires, and appetites. Built into our founding documents, then, is an understanding of our human self-interest, and our desire to gratify that self-interest above all else. It’s a far cry from de Tocqueville’s rosy depiction of an America filled with capable civil servants.
American freedom, then, is a freedom that only exists within strict boundaries designed to make the most of our desires. If we look at how we have structured our government, both in its branches pitted constantly against each other, but also in its states pitted constantly against the national entity—both of which are powerfully on display currently—then we have acknowledged a secular idea of freedom that, like even Niles must admit, tries to twist self-interest into something useful. Whether it’s more utilitarian or Lockean is for the philosophers to debate. What interests me here is that American society was set up with the understanding and encouragement for each citizen, like each branch of government, to pursue as much as her ambition will allow within the bounds set by the law. It even requires, as Madison states, us to stoke our ambition so that it can cancel out the ambition of our fellow citizens. Instead of focusing on serving others or tamping down our desires, we should follow them to the utmost—in the name of ensuring justice.
The alternative possible focus on common good is, in fact, what Niles considers as Christian liberty. While the heads of civil governments are doomed to self-interest, “Jesus Christ aims, with the utmost strength and uniformity of design, at the highest good of the whole” (47). Niles need not cite more than Christ’s willing sacrifice to demonstrate how our heavenly leader sought and seeks to serve others and the common good without thinking of his own interests. With such a leader and exemplar, we see that the liberty afforded in God’s kingdom can effectively be directed outward, to others, instead of to the self, though he is quick to point out that we cannot fully enjoy that liberty here in “the wilderness of this world” (48). Above all, Niles urges his restive countrymen, they should not forsake the pursuit of Christian liberty, with love and service to the highest good, for what would be a bloody pursuit of civil liberty, with more personal freedom to act on one’s sinful interests and desires. His 1774 views, however, would not win in the court of public opinion, and the colonies were headed to war.
We might argue that the form of freedom the Revolutionary War and the ensuing work to form a new government works with Christian freedom because it allows free Christian worship and practices. Madison, in the same Federalist paper, suggests that a diversity of “interests and sects” is indeed necessary to the health of a republic. Christian churches, as one of those “sects,” thus play an important and protected role in the health of our overall governmental structure. But in their fundamental outlook on the direction and appraisal of human desires, American liberty and Christian freedom are, in fact, quite opposed. While our nation’s fundamental structure grants us freedom by requiring that we pursue our desires as a check on others doing the same, our God sets us free from desires and requires that we struggle against them so we may love and serve others instead.
To discriminate closely between the underpinnings of American and Christian freedom might seem but a ploy to spark division. After all, patriotism and elements of American Christianity are powerfully intertwined, as I have never noticed so profoundly since moving to Appalachia, though even in my home midwestern denominational churches, the Christian and American flags grace the sanctuary on equally built standards. Yet I began reflecting on this division when prompted by a group of mainline Lutheran pastors and their online discussion about COVID-19 precautions, and my interest has only continued as our nation grapples with the consequences of pursuing personal economic goods and necessities versus pursuing community health and welfare.
Unfortunately, God nowhere reveals in Scripture whether or not one ought to wear a mask for the sake of the community. The closest analogue we might find are the laws about those with Hanson’s disease—leprosy—having to present themselves to authorities before they might be readmitted to society. But the words we now find bandied about in regards to opening businesses and baring our noses and mouths indicate that we can find some wisdom in God’s Word to guide us. Those who would buck the measures designed to contain contagion depend on a vocabulary of American rights and personal freedoms. They are, in effect, appealing to the secular and American notions of personal determination and satisfaction of appetites ensconced in our founding documents and political ethos. They are correctly, according to Madison’s intent, pursuing their ambition over and against that of their neighbors and attempting to check the power of the government over them. That is to say, I am unsurprised by the uniquely American resistance to measures that many other nations have endured—unhappily endured, but endured the same—and that have curbed the spread of illness there.
These competing ideas of freedom, however, call into question how the Christian should act. Indeed, we have duties to support our families and to labor productively to that end. But in the light of our Christian freedom to serve others, there seems to be little debate about measures that do not conflict with those duties and which, in our observance of them, promote the health and welfare of others. The desire for complete physical comfort—which we already subdue by wearing socially appropriate clothing—is something I have been set free from; I can choose, then, to wear a mask to serve others. The desire for a philosophical conversation among friends in my home is also something I have been set free from; I can socially distance to serve others. My literal appetite, too, for a jaunt to the local pizzeria is something I can forego; delivery or cooking at home will feed my family and serve my neighbor. As Christians, I think this is an important time to carefully consider why we might revolt against not a King but perhaps our governors or our medical authorities: Is it because we are pursuing American or Christian freedom? Where are we, with our choices, directing our gaze: toward our own appetites or toward others?
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.
* Niles’ arguments came to my attention through Patrick J. Deneen’s March 6, 2013 article, “Liberalism’s Logic and America’s Challenge: A Reply to Schleuter and Munoz,” in Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute.
Brown, Eric. “Plato’s Ethics and Politics in The Republic.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Fall 2017.
The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Edited by Edward A. Engelbrecht. Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Madison, James. “The Federalist No. 51.” The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States. Edited and introduced by Robert Scigliano. Modern Library, 2001.
McCain, Paul Timothy, ed. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
Niles, Nathaniel. “Two discourses on liberty; delivered at the North Church, in Newbury-port, on Lord’s Day, June 5th, 1774, and published at the general desire of the hearers.” I. Thomas and H. W. Tinges, 1774. Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011.
Plato. “The Republic.” Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Translated by G.M.A. Grube and C.D.C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.