Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Two Kinds of Enslavement

I am not a big fan of 1984, Brave New World or Hunger Games, but this First Things piece by Andrew Wilson does an interesting job using them as a jumping off point for talking about the two kinds of enslavement and the two kinds of freedom:
In the modern West, people generally think of slavery, captivity, and the need for liberation in Orwell’s sense, rather than Huxley’s. Our vision of freedom is primarily socio-political, with the greatest threat to human flourishing being the other, whether the Nazi, the slave-owner, or the autocrat. Oppression comes through pain, not pleasure; the essence of liberty is to be without external constraint. Humans are free if they are able to choose, to will their own future, to decide for themselves what they will do with their lives. By this definition, modern Westerners are all free, with the exception of prisoners and the incapacitated.

Many of the ancients saw things more like Huxley. In what could be called a more religious or philosophical vision of liberty, the greatest threat to human flourishing is the lack of wisdom, phronesis, or virtue. Whereas moderns understand freedom in terms of unconstrained individual choices, many ancients regarded the forces underlying individual choices—passions and desires which might in turn be foolish, selfish, or carnal, much like those depicted in Brave New World—as something from which people needed to be freed.

The essence of eleutheria, in the vision of writers from Aristotle to St. Paul, was being free to become what one was originally designed to be, rather than simply being free to make decisions (decisions which, of course, might stunt one’s progress towards ultimate fulfillment). Thus humans could be enslaved, not just to the other, but to the self. One needs redemption from the flesh as much as from the powers. Under such a vision of liberty, modern Westerners might not be as free as we would like to think.

One of the moral concepts which it seems almost impossible to over-emphasize given the conflicting messages coming from our mainstream culture is the understanding of how our actions shape us. Virtue is a habit to the good. Vice is a habit to the bad. With each action, we build ourselves into people with more of a tendency to do good, or more of a tendency to do bad. (Or, perhaps in between, more of a tendency to be blown hither and thither by events without making moral choices at all.)

Another important thing to keep in mind is that a Catholic understanding of moral freedom is directional: Developing the habits toward evil which are vice reduces our freedom to become what we are meant to be, to achieve the purpose for which we were created. Looked at from the perspective of vice, developing habits towards the good (virtue) reduces our "freedom" to do evil -- though do to our fallen natures we always find evil moderately easy. But forming ourselves towards the good is not, from a rightly ordered point of view, a real loss of freedom.

Wilson's conclusion is also somewhat timely given recent headlines. As the media grants Pope Francis a sort of honeymoon period of secular adulation, there seems to be in many quarters an expectation that the Church will turn to emphasize much more a modern, secular vision of freedom: a "freedom from" in which political and economic factors which keep people from doing whatever they want are decried. Any close reading of Francis's statements, however, strikes me as placing a dual emphasis on both combatting external oppression and also pursuing virtue and thus escaping the slavery of vice.

At its worst, the Church has missed the mark on both of these, sliding sometimes into gnosticism (with insufficient concern for the physical world, and the despotic powers that plague every generation), and sometimes into materialism (with insufficient attention given to true spirituality, and the need to fight against the Huxleyan tendency to trivialize, despoil, and consume). But at her best, she has battled both Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias, contending against the tyranny of the other and the tyranny of the self, and embodying an eleutheria that truly liberates captives, whatever their chains may be.

All of which means that, if we are representing Jesus properly, there will be times when our work looks very similar to that of a secular human rights organization, as we seek release for captives. But there will also be times, if we are representing Jesus properly, when we look utterly inexplicable to those same organizations for our incessant talk of freedom from sin, the flesh, and the self. Many today, like citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games and the Judeans in John 8, will look puzzled and tell us that they have no particular need of freedom, because they have never been enslaved to anyone. “But anyone who sins,” we will reply, “is a slave to sin. And if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”


Joseph M said...

Good thoughts.

A couple quibbles: In Brave New World, the slavery to vice becomes a slavery to external forces as well. The people are slaves to the system that provides for their indulgences.

Both books remain pointedly relevant. The lying that is Newspeak and Doublethink is rampant now, as is the slavery to vice that leads to external slavery.

mandamum said...

The dystopia I've been thinking about a lot lately is the one set out in The Handmaid's Tale. I think it's sort of fascinating that we seem to be entering a culture where people are used to produce children for others, but it's (surprise surprise, I know) *not* those scary religious people, who instead have been sounding the alarm. I'd really love to see a dystopia written with a focus on those enslaved or robbed by a system that divorces children and sex....

Enbrethiliel said...


I was skimming this post before I looked at the title, and it was when my eyes landed on the word "flourishing" that I guessed it would be about freedom . . . and sure enough . . . =)

One of my friends says that when the US founders wrote the phrase "the pursuit of happiness," what they really meant was the pursuit of excellence. Freedom isn't about being able to do whatever you like, but about being able to flourish in virtue and skill.

Blackadder said...

Okay, the Hunger Games I get, but not liking 1984 and Brave New World? What's up with that?

Darwin said...

I liked 1984 and Brave New World better than Hunger Games, certainly, as they're simply much better written books, but they're not particular favorites by any stretch. I think that mostly I just don't like dystopia as a genre. The basic approach is to take one bad element of society and blow that up to tremendous size in order to make it obvious, but I keep finding myself saying, "But that's not how societies really work! It's never just one thing!"