What's Tony Thinking



This past spring I reviewed a book by the Notre Dame political scientist, Patrick Deneen, The Failure of Liberalism. 

While I thought the book was somewhat over-stated, Deneen offered a perspective on freedom that I’ve continued to ponder.

Deneen’s contention is that for moderns, shaped by the Enlightenment, freedom means freedom from external constraint or restraint. Freedom from an external enemy or  oppressor.

This would apply to countless “freedom movements” of the modern era, from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights movement to the gay liberation movement.

This understanding of freedom — freedom from an external enemy or authority — is also at work in every adolescent rebellion against parents, school, church, society.

The problem there is someone else — some oppressor. Of course, there’s truth in this view. But it’s a partial truth.

Popular American understandings of freedom are along these lines. “Don’t tread on me.” “No one can tell me what to do!” “I am free to do what I want with my body, property, life, etc.”

Deneen argued that this understanding of freedom misses a great deal. It neglects earlier, classical thought which emphasized that freedom was largely about the capacity of each of us to master our appetites, passions and character flaws. In other words, freedom is not just from an external power or authority. It is freedom from ourselves and the tyranny our own desires, drives — even demons.


David Brooks had this second way of thinking about freedom in mind in a recent column. Here’s Brooks,

“The old philosophers realized that the first threat to liberty is actually the tyranny of our own desires. People get enchained to alcohol, to drugs, to empty calories. They get enchained by their own selfishness, vanity and greed.”

The problem with putting all our eggs in the basket of the first type of freedom — freedom from external authority or constraint — is that we gain “freedom,” only to discover we are still and possibly even more enslaved — by our own desires, compulsions, or “selfishness, vanity and greed.”

I haven’t said much about President Trump of late, giving you and me a break. Still, he seems to me to a personification (maybe even a cartoon) of our limited and skewed understanding of freedom. He wants to be free to do what he wants to do. He doesn’t want America to be constrained by international agreements or norms.

But his personal life and behavior suggest that he is subject to the tyranny of his own desires.

My point is not so much to comment on Donald Trump as to say, he embodies some strengths but also some serious weaknesses of our nation. Freedom is all about freedom from external restraint; not so much about mastering our own desires and demons.

Countless political revolutions and freedom movements after failed after the revolution has itself succeeded because the freedom fighters of one day turned into the tyrants of the next.

And countless adolescent rebellions against the constraints of parents or society have run aground on addiction or other self-destructive behaviors because individuals have not mastered their own desires and demons.

Freedom in the second and older sense entails a word which — tellingly — we don’t use much any longer. “Character.” A person of “good character” is not just a conformist or rule-keeper. She or he has come to grips with them selves, with their own drives and desires, their own capacity for selfishness, vanity and greed.

Interestingly, there is a parallel to this in Islamic teaching. Islam speaks of two jihads or struggles. The lesser jihad is the struggle waged against an external oppressor or enemy. The greater jihad is the struggle with our selves, our inner enemies and challenges.

One might wonder if Muslims have forgotten the order, making of the lesser jihad the greater. But if that’s true, they aren’t alone. Americans — have committed the same error.

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