Freedom is our American birthright, the reason for the revolution, the ongoing goal of later struggles. But what is freedom?

In the ancient world, a free person was a non-slave. The Latin-derived version of the word, liberty, comes from the word for a free person, liber. We sometimes say a free person is “self-directed.” But can this self-direction take place in a vacuum? In the strange words of Jesus, “the truth will make you free.” Why? At the least, the freedom of someone who is deceived in every respect about the world around her is hardly worth having. Freedom that deserves the name surely needs at least some truth. Perhaps, the more the better?

For much of the ancient and medieval Christian worlds, and particularly the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, freedom was to be achieved in a world where human nature already carries, or rather is, the potential for a variety of excellences. Nature is suffused with already existing values, and meaningful freedom requires self-mastery, for it only comes through the achievement of our potential in excellences, or virtues. “Dare to know,” as Kant rightly encouraged us—but in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, moral laws and virtues are to be known through being discovered, not created and given to ourselves. The creativity of freedom can, in fact, flourish within moral limits—and it often has, as in the artistic and intellectual flowering of the high Middle Ages. (I am not defending here those flawed societies, but we appreciate their achievements far less than we should.)

True freedom, in the account I am defending, contributes to everyone’s flourishing. Its required virtues include justice, and, even more strongly with the incorporation of Christian ideals, love. Love for ourselves is a duty, not an option, but so is love for those around us, for our societies, for all of humanity, and for the creation itself—and all can potentially flourish together. The common good of a country, for example, is much more than the sum of the goods of the persons in it, since the sum of the goods that can be achieved in a society through time is exponentially greater than the sum of the goods that the same individuals acting alone could achieve. The same is true for the world as a whole. Aristotle is sometimes accused of creating a hedonistic ethics, based on selfishly seeking one’s own happiness, but the constitutive virtues of that happiness, which enable us to flourish, include from the start a profound concern for others. (Aquinas strengthens Aristotle’s requirement.) The more such virtues are practiced by individuals, the more each person is just to and aids others, helping all to grow in real freedom.

Our Declaration of Independence presents quite a different account of the meaning and origins of society and government. The Declaration begins with the rights with which each individual is endowed by the Creator, and then states that the reason for government is the protection of those individual rights. As Patrick Deneen points out, this is a recapitulation of Locke’s account (seminal for modern liberalism) of the state of nature and the social contract. Deneen notes that for Locke, as each individual comes of age he faces radical choices concerning what family and even society belong to—he is, in effect, thrust into his own state of nature, which he leaves only by his choice. But Locke’s account, despite the prominence given by Jefferson to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” represents a radical break with the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition. To begin conceptually with individuals in a state of nature is to deny Aristotle’s dictum that man is a political animal. Society is then not natural, but a mere human creation. It is not naturally ordered to the flourishing of all, but only contractually ordered to the manufactured goal of safeguarding the rights of one individual against another.

In this framework, individual freedoms are always in conflict, because freedom has no inner telos of excellence that includes justice and love. It is merely “the right and the opportunity to do just what we wish.” Lacking inner direction, freedom must be fenced in from without, or chaos results. When individuals are taught as they grow up that the bedrock reason for government is to secure their rights, they understand the goods they choose in their inner freedom to be paramount; the common good to be a derived and secondary factor; and government to be always an imposition, even when it imposes for good reasons. Thomas Jefferson is certainly an American hero, despite accurate accusations of crushing hypocrisy. But getting past some of his behavior to the truth of his thoughts is not the answer. Together we need to overcome another Jeffersonian legacy: a gravely defective notion of freedom.