“I am perplexed by my own data and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the original idea with which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution of the social problem but mine.” Shigalyov’s Conclusion from Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed (Translated by Constance Garnett, Barnes and Noble Classics: New York, 2005), 402.
If I had to pick a quote which describes the world today, it would be hard to find one more prophetic than this. You can almost hear the current cancel culture, the book banning, the insults, the refusal to listen to reason. All of this in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have gone from “my body my choice” to others having a duty to wear a mask and receive an experimental vaccine with no long-term safety studies. We have gone from freedom of speech to being banned from social media for unpopular speech. We have gone from the right to live to the duty to die in the form of euthanasia, abortion, and the exploitation of human embryos for scientific research. What is wrong with our culture? Clearly, we are very sick and have lost our way. But the seeds of our current demise were implicit in a false understanding of human freedom.
Pope John Paul II diagnosed our problem with freedom well when he said: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Freedom is fundamentally inseparable from truth. This is why our Lord Jesus tell us: the truth will set you free” (St. John 8:32). Jesus is Himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (St. John 14:6). So when we live in Christ, we live in the truth, and when we live in the truth, we are free. To be free, we must be virtuous and live the way Christ lived in accordance with the Beatitudes (St. Luke 6:30-26). This is the authentic meaning of freedom that our culture should have embraced instead of the license and depravity that was embraced as “freedom.”
Why Unbridled “Freedom” Leads to Despotism
Freedom by definition cannot be unlimited; it has finite boundaries and limits. The chief limit to human freedom is human nature. However much people want to fly like a bird, they cannot. However much they may want to run like a cheetah, they cannot. To be free is to live in accordance with our nature as created beings. Freedom means accepting our creaturehood and our lack of control over many aspects of our lives. When we accept the truth about God and the truth of who we are in relation to Him, our lives are properly ordered. We have ordered freedom because the freedom is ordered to Truth, that is, Christ.
What effect does truth have on freedom? Truth keeps freedom anchored in the objective good of the human person. Truth ensures that freedom does not go beyond those things which are in accord with the good of the human person. Truth, in other words, defends freedom. When the truth is removed, something will fill the void left by truth. What then remains in the absence of objective truth that reigns in freedom and preserves it? Simply one thing, a thing which Nietzsche knew well: the will to power (Emrys Westacott, Nietzsche’s Concept of the Will to Power, Nietzsche’s Concept of the Will to Power (thoughtco.com). Specifically, once objective truth is gone, the will to power is free to dominate the person who is no longer protected by truth.
When Rights Become Duties in Healthcare
The assisted suicide and euthanasia lobby have pressed to allow assisted suicide in the United States by using the euphemism “death with dignity.” They argue that dignity means the right to control the time and manner of your death. This contradicts the objective reality that we are creatures and that only God determines the timing and circumstances of our death. By rejecting the objective truth that our lives belong to God, the assisted suicide and euthanasia lobby have redefined dignity to mean complete autonomy. In states that have legalized assisted suicide, the right to die then becomes the duty to die (Helena Berger, Assisted suicide laws are creating a “duty- to-die medical culture, The Hill, 12/17/2017, Assisted suicide laws are creating a ‘duty-to-die’ medical culture | TheHill). Why? Because the truth that our lives belong to God and that we should not seek to end them has been removed and can no longer protect our right to life. So we see that once we remove the objective truth that life belongs to God, once we define freedom as the right to die when and however I choose, there is no longer adequate protection for the right to life.
The Path Forward
So what is the path forward to true freedom? We need to reclaim the objective truths that guard, secure, and guide freedom. Most of all, we need to introduce people to the Truth, Jesus Christ, the one who sets us free to love.