Saturday, July 4, 2015

Freedom: We love it, but what is it?

When I sold off a bunch of books a few months ago (several hundred, in fact), I inadvertently got rid of one that I really wish I still had — The One Minute Philosopher by Montague Brown (published by Sophia Institute Press).  In this book, on facing pages, Brown defines a common term and another term that is often confused with it (such as “patriotism” and “nationalism”), with the intention of showing not only what each term means precisely but also of distinguishing between them.

I was reminded of this book today when I woke up and realized that today is July 4, when we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and all the things that we enjoy by virtue of being Americans — the chief of these being freedom. What do we mean by freedom, though? Lately, it seems that one man's freedom is another man's oppression.

The American ideal of freedom

The right to speak freely in the public forum is especially vital to avoid tyranny.
The right to speak freely in the public forum
is a vital safeguard against tyranny.
The American flag has long been a potent symbol of freedom, but lately other flags (of various hues and configurations) have become controversial emblems in American society. When I think of “freedom” in the context of being an American, some of the images that spring to my mind are Norman Rockwell’s famous illustrations of “The Four Freedoms.” The idea of these “four essential freedoms” had its origin in a State of the Union address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Roosevelt was trying to convince the American people that the United States should help to defend Europe against the spread of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, and he held up these “four essential freedoms” to stir up enthusiasm for this effort. A couple of years later, after the U.S. had, in fact, become embroiled in the European war (as well as war against Japan), the iconic illustrations of illustrator Norman Rockwell revived the idea that these four “freedoms” are essential to the American way of life.

Today when I look at these “four essential freedoms” defined by Roosevelt and movingly illustrated by Rockwell, I see that they are not all cut from the same cloth; there seem to be two different ideas about freedom at work here. First there are the freedom of religion and freedom of speech — these I'll call the “freedom to” — freedom to speak, freedom to worship (or not) as we choose. These are essential rights that were not only endorsed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence but also enshrined in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, as essential to a free society, safeguards against the kind of tyranny which first caused the American colonies to declare independence from the British monarchy.

To be free from fear is a universal human aspiration but it cannot properly be asserted as a right.
To be free from fear is a universal human aspiration
but it cannot properly be asserted as a right.
These “freedoms to” (speak and worship) are regarded as basic civil rights. But can we also claim a “freedom from” as a right? “Rights,” properly speaking, are things we can exercise for ourselves, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Roosevelt might have defined the final two of his four freedoms as “freedom to prosper” and “freedom to defend oneself from aggression.” By saying that people have a “right” to be “free from” want and fear, he is referring to something that not everyone can do for himself. When he first included these two, President Roosevelt was trying to build a case for the American government, and military, to act on behalf of others (the British, French, etc.). When Rockwell illustrated them, he also was depicting not something we do for ourselves, but something provided through a greater agency than we are capable of ourselves. In other words, “freedom from” is not something we ourselves are responsible for, but something that may have to be provided by one greater than ourselves.

We have to be careful when we talk about “rights.” Peter Singer, a very sloppy modern philosopher, has caused no end of trouble by claiming that animals have “rights,” but he would probably be the last person to assert that animals have any “responsibilities.” Yet every right, properly speaking, has a corresponding duty. Humans have free will, while animals do not. By virtue of our free will, we are free to choose, but we have a duty to choose well. If we exercise our civic right to free speech, for instance, we have a responsibility to speak as truly as we are able. When we choose to speak falsely — to lie and mislead others — we abuse that right. 

If we think of freedom, and rights, in purely political terms, we may notice that the difference between these “freedoms to” and “freedoms from” correspond roughly to the difference between Americans on the political right (those who prize the right to do for ourselves) and those on the left (who emphasize the need for the government to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves). But today of all days I do not wish to engage in political polemics; instead, I’d like to take a look at the Christian understanding of freedom, which transcends, and illuminates, the merely political.

The Christian understanding of freedom

The notion of freedom is absolutely fundamental to the Christian understanding of Man. At the very beginning of human history, as depicted in the second chapter of Genesis, we see that we humans were created to be free: the first man and woman were given the whole Earth, without constraint, except for a single prohibition: not to taste the fruit of “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” We should note that here, as in many other places in the Bible, to “know” something does not refer simply to intellectual, but to experiential, knowledge. Now, all of Creation was good, so Adam and Eve already experienced (knew) the good. Therefore, the prohibition “not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” really meant “not to know (experience) Evil,” since they already knew Good. This was the only thing forbidden to them — yet it was perfectly in their power to disobey this prohibition. They had free will — they could avoid that fruit, or they could defy God, take a bite, and experience the consequences of their actions, which turned out to be all kinds of evil.

No society is truly free which suppresses authentic religion.
The right to the exercise of freedom,
especially in moral and religious matters,
is an inalienable requirement of the dignity
of the human person.” CCC 1738
I don’t want to dip any further into theodicy than to point out that our First Parents did not make themselves free by throwing off God’s authority; rather, they abused the freedom they already possessed when they chose to rebel. God created them to be free, but they chose to be something other than as He had made them — they chose to know (experience) evil. This suggests that “freedom,” at least in a Christian understanding, does not mean simply “license.” License indicates absence of all constraints, even the God-given sort. When Adam and Eve defied the Divine prohibition, they acted licentiously. And as soon as they did that, they were no longer truly free.

Nor were they truly independent. From the moment of our First Parents’ disobedience the human race has had to toil for the bread we eat, yet it is still God who provides the soil, the seed, and the rain to make it grow. Our pioneer ancestors were certainly mindful of this truth, but as our lives have become more comfortable, we have lost sight of our own radical dependency upon Divine Providence. Little wonder then, that Franklin Roosevelt could assert that we have a fundamental “right” to be “free from” unpleasant conditions such as want and fear. Philosophically speaking, however, something can only be called a “right” if the bearer of that right has the power to fulfill or to be that which the right asserts. So if we claim a “right” to be free from want, we are asserting that we can provide for our own needs — that is, we are denying our dependence upon Divine Providence. This is different from being “free to” — free to provide for our own needs, to the best of our ability, or free to defend ourselves against an aggressor. Since our abilities and our strength are limited, we might fail, so there can be no guarantee of a right to be “free from” any adverse condition.*

The Church is an instrument of Divine Providence when she provides for the needy.
“Christian morality, when adequately
and completely practiced, leads of itself
to temporal prosperity, for it merits
the blessing of that God who is the source
of all blessings.” Rerum Novarum 28
I’m sure Adam and Eve, and all their progeny down through countless generations, would have loved to be “free from” — free from want and fear, disease and worry and death. But on our own, we cannot be free in that way, at least not since that Original Disobedience. We might say that everything that happened between the Expulsion from the Garden until the Incarnation was an opportunity for humankind to learn just how inadequate our own efforts are, and how greatly we depend on the Almighty for any good that comes our way. To acknowledge our human limitations can be a liberating, if humbling, experience. If you don’t believe me, look at the example of the New Eve who, when given a choice by God, chose humility and submission to the Divine Will rather than exerting her own will. Her humble “fiat mihi” completely overturned the act of her original predecessor, who was enticed by the promise that “you shall be like gods” when she reached for the forbidden fruit.

The truth about human freedom

Some will ask, what is freedom then? Is it merely submission to a Divine Overlord? If that’s the case, then what is the point of free will? There are various gnostic sorts of heresy — Mormonism is one — which claim that when Eve succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation and bit that fruit, she did the human race a favor by making a “grown up” choice. In this way of looking at things, getting thrown out of the Garden was a good thing — it showed that humankind was now ready to “go it alone” and pull itself up by its bootstraps. Thus, disobedience was a kind of emancipation proclamation, and the Satan is a Promethean figure who made it all possible.

It is easy to fall into this kind of heresy if we don't have an adequate understanding of the true nature of human free will and its purpose. These questions are dealt with in the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deals with Man’s freedom. Paragraphs 1731-38 elaborate the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Because we have the gift of reason, we have the ability to choose our actions. This distinguishes us from animals — they act by instinct or necessity, we by reason and choice. In this way, we bear the image of God, who is all-knowing and all-good. To the extent that we use our free will to choose the Good, we become more like God. Conversely, to the extent that we neglect or refuse to use our God-given reason to make good choices, we demean the divine image in us by acting no better than animals. This is why the Catechism says that “[f]reedom characterizes properly human acts. It makes the human being responsible for acts of which he is the voluntary agent. His deliberate acts properly belong to him.”

To the extent that we act willingly (voluntarily, freely), then, we are responsible for our acts, accountable for the choices we make. (Ignorance and duress can mitigate our responsibility for our actions, of course.) Now, Scripture has it that “the Truth shall make you free,” so the more we act in conformity with Truth — i.e., the more we choose the Good — the freer we become. Mary, in voluntarily submitting to the will of God, in giving her fiat, chose the ultimate Good and therefore exercised human freedom most perfectly of all mortals. That is why she is called Full of Grace.
Mary's fiat restores what was lost by Eve's disobedience
Mary’s willing fiat restores what was lost through Eve’s willful disobedience.
 Grace, as the catechism points out, is what makes true freedom possible:
[T]he more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world. (CCC 1742)

The Catechism, in fact, recognizes just one fundamental human right: “Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect.” (CCC 1738) Notice the duty that accompanies the right — respect for each other’s freedom, because of our natural human dignity. The paragraph goes on to say: “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.” (Italics in the original)

The impostors and the truth

A Christian anthropology clarifies the differences between true freedom and its impostors. It is not license — in fact, it is the opposite of license, for it recognizes God’s just authority. Nor is it mere independence — a willful independence can cut us off from the source of grace that makes true freedom possible. What about liberty, then? Are liberty and freedom identical?

Even liberty is an impostor when it masquerades as freedom. Liberty is a legal concept, while freedom is a moral concept. Liberty can be conferred or denied by a legal authority. Naval personnel are said to be “given liberty” when they are permitted to leave their ships in port; slaves are “given their liberty” when their legal owners emancipate them. Saint Paul was put in chains by the Roman authority, and he submitted to that authority, yet he never surrendered the freedom that he had in Christ Jesus.

Catholic Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently caused a minor uproar when he said, “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.” He might just as truly have said that they did not lose their freedom just because they were denied their liberty. George Takei’s intemperate response to Thomas’s statement was born of a misunderstanding, for Takei apparently assumed that Thomas was denying or overlooking the lack of liberty imposed upon the enslaved and the interned (Takei has since apologized for over-reacting, and for failing to understand what Thomas intended). In fact, Thomas was speaking out of a Catholic understanding, which recognizes that even slaves possess an innate human dignity that allows them to make reasoned, voluntary choices (to be free) even while living under constraint.

So while we celebrate our American freedom, let us remember that, while we must respect the freedom of others, we are truly free only when we act in conformity with the Truth, which is found in its fullness in Christ Jesus. To act otherwise is not to be free, but “is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin’” (CCC 1733).

“For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)
*There is a beautiful Anglican collect (now added to the treasury of Catholic prayers through the Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans) which is a wonderful reminder of the limits of our human freedom, and our dependency on God for freedom from adversity. I include it here for the benefit of those who may not know it.

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended against all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Don't Shoot the Elephant or You'll Kill Education

blind men and elephant public sculpture India
The Asian parable of the blind men and the elephant
is as potent as Plato's myth of the cave.
I don’t usually touch on hot button issues on this blog, preferring instead to focus on perennial wisdom that can benefit us all. To my mind, too much bloggery deals with narrow, sectarian rants (of the right and the left), radiating heat but very little light. I prefer to try to preserve a space in which we can put cant aside and try to contemplate truth, as it can be seen refracted and reflected in literature, history, philosophy, art, and the other liberal arts. You see, I have this funny idea that if we all look toward the light, from whatever direction our perspective may take, we can all be illuminated and, in that way, united, even if we disagree about the things we see. Perhaps we will even recognize the limitations of our own personal perceptions, like the proverbial blind men who each grasped a different part of the elephant. Individually they had their own (equally limited and erroneous) ideas about what they were touching, but when they combined their perceptions, they realized that what they collectively beheld was much greater, more magnificent and wondrous, than what anyone of them individually suspected. (If you aren’t familiar with this parable, read it here. It is every bit as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Tradition, Truth and the Literary Epic

Homer by JW-Jeong on
Were Homer's epics inspired
by ancient tales of Gilgamesh?
Yesterday, by a piece of serendipity, I discovered that there's a revised edition of Charles Rowan Beye’s Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, which now contains a chapter on Gilgamesh. I want it! I read the earlier edition years ago when I was in graduate school at the University of Dallas, and it made an indelible impression on me, as well as my teaching. The key idea I took away from it was an understanding of what it means to be “literary.” I mention this now because it has a bearing on my reading of the flood accounts I’ve been discussing, particularly the ones in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Metamorphoses.

What does it mean to be “literary”?

As the original edition of Beye’s book points out, Homer’s epics are regarded as marking the beginning of the Western literary tradition because they were the first great stories in fixed, written form to survive and influence later poets. Scholars agree that Homer was drawing on a long oral tradition of myths and legend. Because they had no literary predecessors, neither of Homer’s great epics is “literary” in the sense of making allusion to a previous written tradition. Or at least, that’s what I would have said before I read the Epic of Gilgamesh. Now it seems pretty clear to me that Homer must have been familiar with some version of that earlier, Mesopotamian epic. And Greek scholar Charles Rowan Beye seems to agree. In commenting on the second edition of his book on ancient epic, he says:
The important addition in this 2006 book is the chapter on the Gilgamesh poems.  I spent a considerable time gathering the results of the latest research in order to present a full account of these Sumerian-Akkadian texts.  There is no doubt in my mind although it cannot be proven other than by inference that they had real influence on the Iliad and Odyssey texts.  This connection means that students and teachers of so-called western literature have to enlarge the canon certainly to include these narratives.  Literature can no longer be said to begin with Homer.  
However, we can never know to what extent Homer expected his readers to be familiar with Gilgamesh, or to recognize the way in which he (apparently) appropriated some of its themes and tropes for his own poems, so perhaps Homer’s epics really are not “literary” in the narrow, specialized sense in which I am using that term. I believe it’s likely that Homer would have expected his readers to be familiar, not with Gilgamesh, but with the many Greek heroes who appear in his poems — their character, their milieux, their deeds — as depicted in myriad stories passed down from (even more) ancient times in the oral tradition.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Zooming in on Ovid's flood

Second installment on the Great Flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Fresco of poet Ovid
Ovid artfully wove telling details into his poem.
It is up to us to notice them, if we would
understand the poem.
(If you haven't read the first installment, find it here.)

I take frequent walks along the shore of the lake on which I live, a practice that probably serves my mental and spiritual health even more than it helps me keep physically fit. As my feet wander along the seawall, I let my thoughts wander, too, even while I keep my eyes trained on the world around me. Sometimes I gaze out over the water to see the far shore and sometimes I stoop to look at the tiny wildflowers blooming under foot. In fact, I would say it’s the looking, as much as it is the walking, that I relish. I take my camera with me when I walk, and its zoom feature gets quite a workout — zooming out to capture the panorama, zooming back in to snap a tiny blossom being sipped by an even tinier insect.

Not everyone seems to appreciate the value of a leisurely ramble. When I see others out walking (which doesn’t happen as frequently as you might expect), usually they are looking neither at the landscape as a whole nor at the particular beauties it contains — the exercisers remain intent on keeping their heart-rate pumping along at the prescribed rate, while the multi-taskers talk constantly on their phones while they wait for their dogs to “do their business,” so they can rush back home and do more important things. They are all too busy to notice the things that my camera and I see.

Reading, like so much of life, is all about seeing what is to be seen — not only what is visible in a cursory glance, but also patterns that lie beneath the surface to give meaning to the words, not to mention all sorts of little hints and clues “hidden in plain sight,” which provide an extra level of enjoyment and meaning to the attentive reader. When we read, if we would read well, we should be mindful of both the wider landscape and the tiny, particular beauties. A really adept reader is one who has mastered the arts of “zooming in” and “zooming out,” and who knows when to do which.

When I looked at Utnapishtim’s account of the great flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh, I began with a panoramic view of the poem and then zoomed in to see how Utnapishtim’s story fitted into the larger story of Gilgamesh. Ovid’s Metamorphoses requires a different technique, I believe. The poem is what Aristotle would call an episodic story, a string of discrete event with no real temporal or causal connection. There is neither a clear plot nor an indentifiable protagonist. The story of the great flood that destroys (almost) all mankind is merely one tale of transformation amongst many others. Therefore, I propose first to zoom in to look at the flood episode, and then will slowly to widen the focus to see what meaningful connections can be found between this episode and the rest of the poem.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Metamorphoses: Putting Ovid's flood in context

blank billboard w/ "you are here" in center
Without context, we can't tell where we are,
or what we're looking at.
Recently, we took a close look at the account of the Great Flood that appears in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and found that, although it superficially resembles a similar account found in the Bible, its meaning was shaped by its context in the story. Context is always crucial for understanding anything — if see a circle drawn on a page, without seeing it in relation to something else, you can’t tell if it’s mean to represent a ping pong ball, the Earth, or a freckle. The same is true when we are reading — you can’t understand what a story is intended to mean if you don’t know something about who is telling it, to whom he’s telling it, and in what circumstances or for what purpose. So as we now consider the Great Flood account in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, once again context will be crucial if we want to see what Ovid was getting at.

Before we look at the context of the Flood account within the larger poem, then, we need to consider the rhetorical context, that is, who wrote it, when, and for whom, as well as the kind of thing it is.

A poem without peer

Let’s start with the last first: what kind of writing is The Metamorphoses? It’s a long poem that knits together many stories from Graeco-Roman mythology, and sets them in order, roughly, from the creation of the world up to the poet’s present day. All of the myths woven into this larger whole were selected because they are stories of literal transformation (metamorphosis) — people being changed into things, and (less frequently) things into people, at the whim of some god or other.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Can the Epic of Gilgamesh still speak to us?

The real test of literature is whether it continues to speak to us, after generations or even millennia. We’ve almost finished our examination of the Epic of Gilgamesh and its account of the Great Flood. All that’s left is to ask what enduring truths, if any, we find in this poem. Is this poem simply an archaeological curiosity, or does it still have something to offer modern readers?

Disney's dream of having
himself cryonically preserved
was overruled by his survivors --
his remains were cremated.
At first glance, it might seem not. The world that gave rise to this poem is very remote from us, not only in time but in culture. Its human figures seem barbaric and its callous and capricious gods are inscrutable — even Utnapishtim does not  try to explain their actions. But when we consider enduring truths, we have to move past cultural differences, which can be distracting. As a whole, it seems to me, the poem is about learning to accept our human limitations, something that can be especially difficult for a man like Gilgamesh, who excels ordinary mortals in so many ways. He has power, wealth, wisdom, beauty, strength in abundance, making him believe that he can (and should be able to) grasp at immortality as well.

Our modern world may not have the kind of super-powerful kings that dominated the ancient Near East, but that is not to say that we don’t have plenty of rich, powerful people who try to exercise godlike power over us “mere mortals.” Are those who use their wealth to limit population in parts of the world that they deem over-populated (Africa, Asia, Latin America) so very different from the Mesopotamian gods who decided that humankind had become too populous and needed to be destroyed by a flood? The daily news seems to be full of stories of the rich and famous who feel free to seduce innocents and crush the weak, much as Gilgamesh before Enkidu humanized him. So it would seem that the problems posed in the Epic of Gilgamesh are still with us.


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