Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Inherent Limitations on Human Freedom

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Inherent Limitations on Human Freedom

Article excerpt

THAT THE ESSENCE OF HUMAN NATURE is to be free is a common theme of many otherwise disparate philosophical traditions. From Augustine to Sartre, the fact of human freedom has been the point of departure for the consideration of humanity's essence. If philosophers are correct about the centrality of freedom, then every action humans undertake ought to be characterized by freedom in some way. This fact is made intelligible in light of the Thomistic doctrine, agere sequitur esse, or action follows from being. (1) Indeed, St. Thomas argues that the very purpose of a substance's existence is the characteristic operations by which it manifests its actuality. As he puts it, "All things created would seem, in a way, to be purposeless, if they lacked an operation proper to them; since the purpose of everything is its operation. For the less perfect is always for the sake of the more perfect: and consequently as the matter is for the sake of the form, so the form which is the first act is for the sake of its operation, which is the second act; and thus operation is the end of the creature." (2) If this is true, then it follows that the very existence of freedom in human nature is justified by the performance of free acts, since the substantial act of existence is necessarily fulfilled only in the second act, the characteristic operations or activities that substance undertakes.

In this article, therefore, I analyze the manifestation of human freedom in terms of the various activities proper to humans. This enables us to better grasp the existential significance of human freedom, for it is in these activities that freedom is fully realized. I base my analysis on the thought of Aquinas; moreover, I use many neo-Thomistic philosophers who have reflected critically on the idea of freedom in response to the Kantian notion of autonomy that has led modernity to define freedom in a radically different (and ultimately nihilistic) way. A true notion of freedom must recognize limits imposed by nature that are not acknowledged by the idea of autonomy.

In the fundamental, natural act of existing, human are essentially free; however, it is the "second acts," the characteristic operations, that bring this freedom to perfection. These operations fall into three main categories: man thinks, man does, and man makes. (3) That is, man acts to know the world, he acts to fulfill desires, and he acts to impose perfection on objects for use and enjoyment. These acts, though, aim to achieve different kinds of objects: knowledge aims at the true, doing pursues the good, and making aspires to beauty. If man is free, freedom must be evident in each of these characteristic activities. Yet given that the nature and object of these activities differ, the way in which freedom is manifested must differ accordingly. That is, since the object of thought is truth, we must be able to exercise freedom in such a way that it does not obstruct the pursuit of truth; since the object of doing is the good that we desire, we must exercise that freedom so as to not obscure what is truly good; and since the goal of making is to produce things of beauty, we must not believe that our freedom entails the ability to define beauty itself. In other words, because humans act to attain some transcendental property, the nature of that property conditions the way in which human freedom is exercised.

But is this a coherent picture where freedom is simultaneously constricted? Is not the essence of freedom the lack of natural constraints? On the contrary, the inherent limitations of freedom are not only not contradictory, but are necessary for freedom to achieve its goal. Since action follows from being, the act itself must manifest freedom in order to fulfill the potential of our nature. However, if the operations are to achieve the true, the good, or the beautiful, then there are limits to what the human agent can do in order to be considered free. Moreover, these constrictions on freedom will vary according to the degree of immateriality aimed at in the act. …

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