The Personalist Project

Inner Free Acts
Thus I can act in the outside world, realize states of affairs or prevent them, but I can also take inner stances, respond by speaking a free “yes” or “no” to something. Besides such actual free responses, which I experience here and now and direct to an object, there are also superactual free responses in a person. These continue to exist in us even when we do not actually experience them or think of them. As we know many things superactually even when we do not think of them, so we find also that concretely lived free acts and responses do not exhaust themselves in our actually experiencing them. Both our responses to individual beings (such as our love for our wife or child) and to general types and whole spheres of value, such as attitudes of reverence, the virtues of justice, of purity, etc. can last in the form of superactual acts. They manifest themselves in our emotions, feelings, concrete responses and actions, etc. All virtues and vices are superactual acts. They profoundly influence the concrete actual consciousness of a person and are as it were a basso continuo which accompanies the actual melodies of our daily life. Finally, there is the so-called fundamental moral option for or against all morally relevant goods, for or against God and the whole world of values. This response has the most universal scope of objects at which it is directed. If it gains sturdy roots in a person, it becomes more than an “option,” it becomes the most fundamental moral attitude; this attitude may also be called the general moral attitude.

Cooperative Freedom and the Gift of Self as Supreme Fulfillment of Persons
It is clear that we cannot directly realize superactual attitudes and virtues by a simple fiat. We can engender freely general moral intentions, yes, but they neither immediately take root in the person nor acquire instantaneously the personal depth proper to superactual virtues. Similarly, we cannot, by a simple fiat of our will, bring about affective responses such as grief or love, joy, compassion, or repentance, however appropriate also these spiritual affections are to their objects, as Dietrich von Hildebrand has shown in his books The Heart and The Nature of Love. Yet this does not imply that we have no freedom or responsibility with respect to our superactual attitudes or to our spiritual affective responses such as love, repentance or grief. We come to recognize here two further important manifestations of freedom: (1) the indirect role of our free acts, and (2) cooperative freedom.

(1) A single free action of helping someone lies within the power of our immediate freedom (in spite of the difficulties and limitations we may experience with respect to its actualization), and has an immediate and direct effect in the world and on our conscious life. Yet each action has also indirect effects on ourselves; it will influence and gradually change our superactual attitudes and the kind of emotional responses (love or hatred, warmth or envy and bitterness) we give to others. This applies to good as well as to bad actions. We cannot directly bring about with our free fiat attitudes towards persons or values which result indirectly from many free actions nor can we immediately evoke affective responses of repentance, compassion, or love, which often arise in our nature without participation of our freedom and which nevertheless can be morally and humanly speaking adequate or inadequate to their human or divine object. Now the fact that all of these acts and feelings do not obey our immediate free command does not impede that they are in many ways influenced indirectly by our free acts. Thus the free acts of repeated adultery will give rise to an impure and unfaithful attitude and to kinds of feelings towards his wife and other women which the faithful husband will not experience. Thus we come to understand that our freedom has an enormous indirect influence distinct from direct freedom by which we bring about free acts.

(2) Even more amazing is what we might term „cooperative freedom.“ Besides indirect freedom exerting great influence on such data of the moral life as virtues and vices and our affections, we also have another important capacity: namely that of cooperative freedom, of relating freely and in a particularly intimate way to those realities in us that arise without freedom. We can conspire freely with the tears of repentance that arise in us, or suppress them; we can freely disavow feelings of hatred or identify ourselves with them. We can cooperate with emotions of love and form them freely from within by sanctioning them. We touch here upon what constitutes the very heart of human freedom.

Recognition of cooperative freedom even modifies what we have said about freedom at the beginning of this series, describing freedom in terms of being „the lords over the being and the non-being of our acts.“ This characterization of freedom in terms of autonomy does not describe adequately many aspects of freedom such as the freedom in the grateful receiving of gifts, in gratitude as such, and in cooperative freedom. In many cases, of which the highest involve divine grace, we find in our soul gifts and experiences of joy or love which arise in us without depending on our freedom. Yet inasmuch as such movements of our soul are adequate or inadequate to their object, good or bad, we must not let them arise in us without involvement of our freedom. When they are bad, we ought to disavow them, thereby not immediately eradicating them but „decapitating“ them, as it were. We can freely speak a ‘no’ to our feeling of intense envy, when we realize its evilness and inappropriateness. This is not an act of repression but, on the contrary, an act of conscious confrontation with ourselves. By disavowing feelings of envy, the person disassociates herself from them. Thus they become movements of the soul for which we are no longer responsible in the way in which we are responsible when we let envy grow in us without taking such a free stance. Much more profound is the interpenetration of freedom and affective responses – or other non-free experiences and gifts in us – in the positive case. When a deep love or feeling of repentance is granted to us – a feeling or movement of our soul which we never could have given to ourselves – our freedom is not fated to remain outside such gifts. It can join in with the gift. We can freely sanction our affective response or an attitude of our will of which we recognize that it gives a due response to an object or a person and that it has gift-character and does not stand simply within our power. By such a free sanctioning of these acts, we integrate them into our free life. Analogously, we can appropriate and accept into our freedom all intentional and good acts which arise in our soul, including our acceptance and conviction of the truth. Also in the sphere of the intellect we can integrate by a free sanction, and affirm from within, convictions which arise organically and without being free acts from our cognition. Given the rationality of the conviction and its character as a theoretical and adequate response to reality (states of affairs), we can also sanction it or add to convictions resulting simply from knowledge (being convinced by the object known) convictions which have the character of free real assent. We can speak a free yes to truth, a response which takes on a new role when it is not merely based on evident knowledge but on probable knowledge or on faith. We can turn that which is given to us as a gift into a free act, by freely sanctioning such gifts. Gift and freedom interpenetrate each other here. We might speak of a spiritual wedding of our will with our affections and with other noble movements or acts in us, including the assent to truth. By affections which well up in us as gifts, such as deep emotions of love, our will is enriched and allowed to partake as it were in the wealth of those affections and of other movements of the soul which possess gift character. Thus the deepest dimensions of freedom do not actualize themselves simply by the free center of the person alone. They are not even only formed by, as well as dependent on, the value of the object which gives purpose and meaning to our freedom. Rather, the deepest dimension of human freedom requires a gift which precedes it and in cooperation with which alone freedom can attain its supreme dignity. This is true in a special way of the deepest act of freedom realized only in love and in the gift of Self, in which we give to the other not only a response or something in ourselves, do not only perform acts, but give our very self to the other. This self-donation in love requires, in its fullness, on the human level, also the gift of the affective response to the beloved person which we cannot produce but sanction by our free will. In this ultimate sense, then, „to be free“ means to cooperate with gifts on the natural (and, as the Christian believes, also the supernatural) order. Without using our freedom in cooperation with such gifts we can never attain the highest perfection to which the person is called nor fulfill what it means „to be a person.“

Three Levels of Freedom that Belong Essentially to the Person
We said that already on purely philosophical grounds freedom inseparably belongs to personhood. Now we have to make some fundamental distinctions within what we call freedom, namely between: 1) freedom as a faculty (power) inseparable from personhood; 2) freedom as ability here and now to perform free acts; and 3) freedom as activation of this ability in actually performing free acts. Only the latter two imply the conscious life, self-determination and other traits of freedom spoken of above. The faculty of freedom or the free will (sense 1) belongs substantially to the person qua person and exists in every person even prior to awaken to consciousness. This is not true of freedom in the senses (2) and (3). Certainly, also the faculty of freedom is ordained to be exercised in conscious actualizations of it in which alone we encounter and experience freedom, and from whence alone we gain the metaphysical insight into its bearer, the person, and into the existence of the free power and of free potentialities which must exist prior to their actualizations in free acts. On the other hand, and equally certainly, neither the actual ability to perform free acts nor the actual use of it in these acts themselves is inseparable from personhood. They are not found in embryos and new-born babies, unconscious or comatose patients and in persons afflicted by certain types of grave mental retardation or psychic compulsion, and are absent in all human beings during sleep. But it is a most wrong consequences many bioethicists draw from this by holding that embryos and infants or mentally impaired persons are not persons. While they cannot exercise their freedom, they still are free: to be a person entails the fundamental metaphysical faculty, a capacity in principle to perform free acts. As faculty, freedom resides on the level of the substantial being of the person or, more precisely, is inseparable from the substantial spiritual being of the person.

Comments (6)

Bill Drennen

#1, Aug 28, 2009 1:12pm

This is so awesome I have to read it several times! Thanks a million! This all bears directly on our discussions on emotions in the other thread and I hope others there get to read this. Can it be linked over to that thread?

I learned only recently as I shared in the other thread just how much I choose my emotions and what an empowering lesson that is in my own growth and in my relationships.

Rhett Segall

#2, Sep 3, 2009 10:24am

Dear Dr. Seifert:

I wonder if you might address from the perspective of freedom the phenomena in St. Paul‚Äôs classic expression ‚"The good I will that I do not, the evil I will not, that I do.‚" (Rom. 7:19)

Suppose a husband decides to always speak reverently to his spouse. Nonetheless on occasion he is sarcastic and rude. He is aware of this and is contrite and resolves to change. Yet time and again he fails. This seems to me to exemplify Paul‚Äôs conundrum. On the level of ‚"inner freedom‚" he sanctions reverence and disavows nastiness. But his ‚"cooperative freedom‚" is unable to effect the reverential response. I suspect too that on a certain level his inner freedom is choosing to be irreverent. Theologically this is sin.

I’m not sure if this reflection responds in any way to your philosophy of freedom but wonder what you think.

Josef Seifert

#3, Sep 5, 2009 11:37am

Dear Bill,
thanks so much for these comments. I suppose putting a link to other threads would have to be done by the Jules or Katie van Schai..
Josef S

Josef Seifert

#4, Sep 5, 2009 11:38am

Dear Rhett,

Thank you very much for your excellent question.
I do indeed think that this word of St. Paul ‚"The good I will that I do not, the evil I will not, that I do.‚" (Rom. 7:19) is most closely related to the philosophy of freedom and to human experience.
Perhaps there are even a number of different truths about freedom included in this text:
1.  In your example of the husband it may be the case that he does not sufficiently deeply will not to be sarcastic and rude and does not recognize these relatively little sins of sarcastic or rude comments and therefore ought to meditate more on the love of kindness and respectfulness and reverence and on the evil of acting irreverently and rudely. For ethical knowledge is the beginning of acting morally well and on the other hand, the deeper our will to be good is, the less likely we will be to sin and to ‚"do what we do not want to do‚" and the more likely we will be to do the good we will (in our depth).
2.  It could also be that the husband does very deeply recognize these values and will not to commit wrong acts, but that his will is not superactual enough and does not yet have firm and superactual roots and reign in his soul.  Then renewing this good will and attitude daily in some meditation and firm inner resolutions will help him to reach that level.
3.  Perhaps the indirect role of his free will, acting often well, will lead him gradually to reduce and to overcome these faults. In other words, by repenting each time he fails in this way and by speaking often reverently and lovingly, gradually he might overcome this fault more and more because each single good act has also some indirect effect on our future actions and affective movements and responses in our soul.
4.  Perhaps a more consistent use of his cooperative freedom (sanctioning each good movement of his heart and mind and disavowing his sarcasm and irreverence each time they happen, repenting them), while not immediately uprooting them, will gradually contribute to overcoming them more or less completely.
5.  Perhaps he has also to look for the roots of this sarcasm and rudeness (perhaps he has to work on having more self-less love, overcome some secret lack of trust in the love of his wife and in the love of God, reach a greater purity of heart, a greater readiness to forgive others who have wounded him, and will only then be able to overcome sarcasm and rudeness).
6.  Another truth of Saint Paul‚Äôs words is more theological than philosophical: that we cannot be perfect without a special divine grace because our nature is too wounded by original and personal sin to avoid each sin even though this is what we should do and will in our depth of heart.  Therefore we should always also pray to God that he helps us with his grace since our own free acts are too weak and our nature too fragile and as Catholics, use the gift of the sacrament of confession and penance).
Kind regards

Josef Seifert

Rhett Segall

#5, Sep 5, 2009 2:10pm

Dear Josef:

Thank you for your response which opens up many avenues of reflection!

The many levels of your analysis reminds me of the maxim that a person is not a “problem to be solved” but a mystery with inexaustible depths.


Josef Seifert

#6, Sep 5, 2009 2:13pm

Dear Rhett:
this is a very beautiful way to interpret my response.

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