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Josef Seifert

Are we free?  Are we persons?

Jun. 7, 2009, at 3:16am

The Immense Importance of the Question whether We Are Free

There is hardly anything that could be more fundamental for personalist philosophy, for the understanding of the human being qua person, than the comprehension of the nature of freedom and an answer to the question whether we humans are in fact free. Already a purely philosophical grasp of the person is enough to see the inseparable link between person and freedom so that one can say on purely philosophical-rational grounds: an “unfree person” is a contradictio in adiecto, a contradiction in itself — just like an “iron wood.”

Freedom belongs so essentially to personhood that no being can be called a person if he or she, in principle and as subject awakened to rational conscious life, were entirely determined from without, by physical forces, by his or her own nature, by other persons or even by God — rather than being capable of engendering acts by her free center, by her herself. Even a child’s pre-philosophical experience of freedom is enough to see that if a person were not free, responsibility and morality could not exist, good and evil would be illusions, there would be no guilt, no merit; praise and blame would be just as senseless as punishment and reward, and moral conscience that urges us to do the good when we hesitate doing it and makes present to us our obligations, warns us not to commit evil, or reprimands us for having done something wrong, would be based on a big delusion; promising, breaking or keeping promises, or giving a gift would all cease to be what they are and be reduced to their semblance; gratitude or reproach would all be absurd nonsense — all these dimensions so essential to personal human life would be deprived of their foundation if human persons were not free.
Thus it is not amazing that we encounter profound statements on human freedom in philosophers and cultures of all epochs — in Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, and many others.

Aristotle left us with possibly the most metaphysical characterization and affirmation of human freedom, stating: “For he [man] is the lord over the being and over the non-being of his actions.”

Aristotle calls freedom in other texts “the first principle,” “the cause” and the “master of action”. Hence the common (partly Hegelian) opinion that only Christianity introduced the idea that all human beings are free is not true. We find it very clearly expressed in ancient thought, not only in Plato and Aristotle, but also in Seneca’s magnificent texts insisting that even slaves are free qua human beings.
Nonetheless, what remains true in Hegel’s position is that a full acknowledgment of human, angelic and divine freedom is indeed far more clearly and centrally contained in the contents of the Christian faith than in any other religion or philosophy: Christianity (but in the last analysis also Judaism and Islam) would be an absurdity without human and divine freedom: Without the person possessing freedom, which implies that the free subject is not wholly determined by nature or by any cause extrinsic to herself, none of the chief Christian beliefs would be true. One might say without exaggeration: the entire internal structure of the Christian faith, at least its logical conditions, would break down without humans and angels, and without God truly possessing freedom.


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