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Freedom to Pursue the Good Life 

 

It  seems paradoxical to argue that Plato has a doctrine of freedom. After all, Plato repeatedly attacks democracy for its freedom. He even argues that the ideal city has very little room for the kind of freedom that is valued by the twenty-first century neo-liberalists, who view tradition, convention, and all forms of constricting behavior as things of the past. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Plato does not have a doctrine of freedom. Although Plato does not value the freedom that modern people cling to as if it is their life force, Plato does in fact value a freedom that is much greater and will lead whoever chooses it towards the good life. In fact, Plato’s understanding of freedom is incorporated into Christian conception of freedom. True freedom is the result of the just and ordered soul. True freedom gives its bearer the ability to attain what he truly desires: knowledge of the Good, or in the Christian sense, God. True freedom is necessary for the good life.

There are two opposing definitions of freedom: freedom of indifference and freedom for excellence. Freedom of indifference is “the power to choose between contraries. (The choice between good and evil is essential to freedom). Freedom resides in the will alone.”[1] Freedom for excellence, on the other hand, is “The power to act freely with excellence and perfection. The choice of evil is a lack of freedom. Freedom residing in reason and will together.”[2] Freedom of indifference is the modern, more liberal view—it is a “freedom from” any form of constraint. Freedom for excellence is the freedom that Plato advocates, a “freedom to” do something, and it best represents human freedom because it is founded on the good.

Plato’s conception of freedom, freedom for excellence, requires his conception of justice. In Plato’s Republic, the central task given to Socrates is to prove that it is better to be just and receive punishment than to be unjust and go without punishment. The main strand of his argument rests on the fact that the just man is truly free. Justice in the soul, according to Socrates, is the harmony and inner order of the reason, spirit and appetites. Reason, with help from the spirit, rules over the appetites such that the appetites do not enslave the other parts.[3] Therefore, the just man “does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself.”[4] The just person has a unified and well-ordered soul.

True freedom, then, is the fruit of the just soul. This must be the case because, if the soul is ordered well, reason will rule over the appetites. Reason, aided by the spirit, ought to rule over the appetites because the appetites enslave the person’s soul. Appetites direct the soul away from its true desire—the Good—and towards unnecessary pleasures and desires. The appetitive part of the soul, if it is not directed by reason, “omits no act of folly or shamelessness.”[5] If the appetites rule, there is no self-restriction and it becomes a genuine free-for-all. The appetites make sure that no feelings of shame deter one from doing heinous acts. Any feelings of shame constrain the appetites from feasting on whatever they desire. Every man aims at the good, but one’s vision of the good can be skewed. Justice is the remedy for this because it gives one self-control. Freedom, then, is the ability to choose and seek the Good. Freedom allows one to see past the shadows and towards the Good itself, which is the truest pleasure. But, to achieve this, one must first be released from the “leaden weights” of the unruly appetites.[6] One is truly free if one is willing to follow the demand of reason rather than being coerced by unruly desires or external forces. Once one is freed from unruly appetites, one will be free to live the good life.

The freedom that Plato advocates is a “freedom to” do something, and in this case, to seek the Good. For Plato, this means enslaving oneself to the person with the stronger reason.[7] This conception of freedom is very troubling for those who value the liberal tradition because the very notion of enslaving oneself is repulsive. Freedom in the democracy is freedom of indifference; it is “freedom from” any kind of constraint. Freedom, to the democracy-loving person, is the ability to choose to do whatever they want—good or evil. This means giving in to all of the desires and letting the appetitive part of the soul take over. The modern view is that the person who acts on all of his desires is being his most genuine self because he is able to do what he truly wants, and this is how that person would define the good life. There is no structure or ordered values, and there is no value placed on virtue. Freedom no longer requires virtue, thus the sensible thing to do is to remove it. Virtue is practically dead in this view, where freedom is indifferent to the Good. Freedom from constraint, even the constraint of virtue, is the most important thing.

Although freedom from constraint might initially be appealing, this cannot be true freedom because the person who gives into his every desire is a slave to himself and a slave to his desires. The soul becomes unjust when the reason no longer rules over the other parts of the soul, and this creates a lack of unity. The soul, then, is in conflict because each part of the soul is trying to satisfy its own desire. The problem with this disunity is that the three parts of the soul are not able to be satisfied unless they are working in harmony. Each part attempts to seek what it truly desires, but it only finds the shadow of the true pleasure, leaving the soul forever insatiable. Unlike reason, the spirit and the appetites are inexperienced in truth, and therefore, mistake false pleasures for real ones. This is why they are never fulfilled.[8] Ignorance and false belief constrain the mind just as much as chains and bonds constrain the body. Further, since everyone is attracted to the Good by nature, those who have mistaken values are in a state of inner conflict, or civil war, and for this reason cannot be free.

Freedom of indifference is flawed in multiple ways because it suggests that man neither loses nor gains freedom according to his choices; man is only free when he has the ability to choose between good and evil. If man always desires God, then how can the appetitive person, who constantly chooses what he does not truly desire, be free? Further, how can this state of choosing the undesirable be a good thing? Freedom of indifference, the freedom that Plato is indirectly arguing against, ought to be repulsive to man because it is based on the idea that the power to sin is essential to the nature of freedom. Man ought not want the power or opportunity to sin or to be vicious because it pulls man further and further away from what he truly wants—the Good, namely, God. One’s soul must be ordered properly in order to approach God. Freedom for excellence means the freedom to choose the Good. In other words, when one’s soul is not properly ordered, one is not free. The Good is what man aims at, and therefore, when he chooses the Good, he is most free.

When the soul is properly ordered, all the parts “will attain the truest pleasures possible for them,” since they are able to know the truth and know what is best for them.[9] With reason in charge, each part is able to properly seek what they desire. The pleasure that one receives from the temporal, diminishes over time, but the pleasure one receives from knowledge never diminishes. For this reason, seeking knowledge of the Good is the truest pleasure and what we all truly desire.

Freedom of indifference, i.e., the modern view, is very appealing at first, just as freedom for excellence, Plato’s doctrine of freedom, is very unappealing at first. Freedom of indifference suggests that man is free when man has the power to do what he wants. Further, it implies that all men have the same amount of freedom; no man is freer than another. The notion of equality that is implicit in freedom of indifference is attractive because the modern liberal democracy highly values equality in every sense of the word. Freedom for excellence inherently assumes inequality, and this is part of the reason it can seem so foreign to our conception of freedom. The notion that freedom can mean that there are times when one might not be free, is difficult to grasp. However, freedom for excellence needs to be developed over time, and if developed correctly, by properly ordering one’s soul, one’s freedom will reach its perfection—life with God. It is a gradual process but what one gains from it is significantly better than the alternative mode of freedom. If freedom of indifference is the true definition of freedom, then humans would lose their freedom when they approach God because this freedom rests on the power to sin. For this reason, freedom for excellence, advocated by Plato, is the best representation of the freedom that exists with God.

The good life, then, is the result of the just and free soul. The good life is the ability to seek and attain the Good.[10] This must be so, since being able to seek the Good satisfies all parts of the soul to the greatest end of each, making the just person free and happy. The good life is the ability to do what one truly wants and it is available to anyone who chooses it by ordering their soul toward God. Freedom for excellence is essential to living the good life.

 

 

[1] SERVAIS PINCKAERS, THE SOURCES OF CHRISTIAN ETHICS, 3RD EDITION, TRANS. SR. MARY THOMAS NOBLE (WASHINGTON, D.C.: THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS, 1995), 375.
[2] PINCKAERS, SOURCES OF CHRISTIAN ETHICS, 375.
[3] PLATO, REPUBLIC, IV, 442a-b. UNLESS OTHERWISE MENTIONED, ALL SUBSEQUENT REFERENCES TO PLATO ARE TO THE TRANSLATIONS FOUND IN PLATO, THE COMPLETE WORKS, 2ND EDITION, ED. JOHN M. COOPER (INDIANAPOLIS: HACKETT PUBLISHING COMPANY, 1997).
[4] PLATO, REPUBLIC, IV, 443d.
[5] IBID., IX, 571c-d.
[6] IBID., VII, 519a-b.
[7] IBID., IX, 590c.
[8] IBID., IX, 584e-585a.
[9] IBID., IX, 586d.
[10] IBID., IX, 588a.
REFERENCES:
PINCKAERS, SERVAIS. THE SOURCES OF CHRISTIAN ETHICS, 3RD EDITION, TRANS SR. MARY THOMAS. WASHINGTON D.C.: THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS, 1995.
PLATO, REPUBLIC. THE COMPLETE WORKS, 2ND EDITION, ED. JOHN M. COOPER. INDIANAPOLIS: HACKETT PUBLISHING COMPANY, 1997.