Sunday, November 25, 2007

Freedom from the Self

Tomorrow night our initiative "The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy" will sponsor a roundtable reconsidering the "Regensburg Lecture" of Pope Benedict XVI. We are especially delighted to feature Georgetown's own Father James V. Schall, who has written a wonderful book on the Pope's lecture.

Father Schall has published innumerable articles and books - he is perhaps our greatest essayist, modeling himself quite explicitly on the exemplars of Chesterton and Belloc - and has transformed not a few students through his sequence of "great books" over the years. Whether you have ever read Fr. Schall or not, I draw your attention to a recent interview, in two parts, here and here, in which he explores a variety of themes ranging from education, the current Pope, and the future of the West and its relation to Islam.

I was particularly arrested by one passage early in the first interview, in which he is asked: "What is the hardest thing to teach, in the sense of the receptivity of the students to it?"

Schall answers: "The Truth." And then he continues:

Yves Simon has a very insightful section in A General Theory of Authority that he titled "Freedom from the Self." In an age of self, and self-expression, this notion that our very selves can be obstacles to our own freedom comes as a shock. "Freedom from our very selves?" What can this mean? The whole idea of virtue is that we will only see ourselves if we choose a proper end and means to achieve it. The old monks used to speak of "conquering ourselves." They spoke of this inner war of ourselves against ourselves as the most difficult and perhaps dangerous enterprises of all. It is a Platonic idea, to be sure. All disorder of the world originates in disorder of soul. If we do not learn this truth, nothing else will much matter; we are bound to get it wrong, because we choose to see things wrongly.

Thus, if we do not know we have a soul, if we are just a bundle of emotions and drives, we will never be sufficiently free of ourselves to see what is not ourselves. No freedom is more precious than that of seeing clearly, delightedly what is not ourselves. We are, as it were, self-insufficient. And that, in a way, is the best thing about us. We look to others to know what we really are. We are not merely coupling and political animals, as Aristotle said, but, as he also said, beings who wonder about what it is all about. The beginnings of this wonderment are precious moments in our lives. It often happens through first loves, or through being struck by something we never saw before or even heard of. It can even happen in a university class.

Fr. Schall is certainly right to understand that this is The Truth that needs above all to be taught, and which might be the hardest thing to impart in our contemporary culture. We have come to understand our "selves" to be what we truly are, and the effort to satiate the appetites of our selves as the only legitimate pursuit against which no obstacle - neither self-mastery, nor familial or cultural norms, or even law - can stand against. At the deepest level, all the various aspects of the contemporary culture that we decry - on the Right, the loss of family values, on the Left, the environmental crisis - come back to our inability to understand and accept this truth to which Fr. Schall points us: the truth that human freedom consists in a form of self-mastery, aided by the customs and laws of our families and communities. The ways that we currently degrade both the culture and the natural world is directly attributable to our inability to govern ourselves, to see our "selves" as a source of our problems rather than some kind of external phenomenon or cause. To use a wonderful example from Jason Peters, we are prone constantly to complain how bad traffic is without considering for a moment that we were part of what constituted the gridlock.

I think of Father Schall's words particularly in these days when all around us the Powers increasingly acknowledge the undeniable evidence that we are running out of many of the essential resources of our modern age. The response from every "leader" of every party - and similarly, from every man and woman on the street - is identical: we need and we will find another way to run our society without oil, water, topsoil - you name it. Over mulled wine a few nights ago one of our neighbors - nice, nice people - expressed some gladness at the rising price of oil, since now we will have the incentive to invent a new energy source ("They already have it, you know - it's just the oil companies that aren't letting it out," she said in conspiratorial tones.) If you read many of the "comments" in my various posts about the depletions we are facing, invariably we read that we shouldn't worry, that we'll invent something new and we won't have to really change a thing.

I'm probably just way too subtle for my own good, or I'm doing a lousy job of trying to get across the most basic concern that motivates the very reason for this "blawg," but my argument is not that we are doomed because we are running out of stuff. My constant attention to the problems we face is not intended as a wake up call for innovation and invention: it's rather to insinuate the possibility that we are destroying ourselves by degree because we refuse to govern our appetites or even see these appetites as problematic. I'm highly dubious that we will "invent" our way out of the need to govern ourselves, and am dead certain that nature and the order of the world will not indefinitely brook our misbehavior. We should be mindful that our near-automatic response to the fact of depletions that surround us - that we MUST find other means to continue running our current way of life - is directly the result of our unwillingness to understand that "the disorder of the world originates in disorder of soul". The problem is not intrinsically the various depletions we face (but, boy, are they problems): the problem lies in the more fundamental motivation of our thoughtless response that avoids considering whether our behavior has anything to do with the problems we face, and might in fact further exacerbate those problems, as well as create greater ones, the longer we refuse to face this possibility.

Above all, Fr. Schall instructs us, we must learn that we are "self-insufficient." In this remarkable and delightful phrase, Fr. Schall refutes one of the most pernicious and false beliefs of our time - that we are or ever can be "self-sufficient." Our frailty and insufficiency is at the heart of the most fundamental truth we must learn - a truth that much of modern life is arranged to obscure and permit us a kind of self-deception. Such understanding calls to mind the great reminder of Vaclav Havel, that "we are not God." Only with that understanding can we begin to govern ourselves - understanding our "selves" as not the whole of what we are - and begin to value something other than the feeding of the insatiable selves that are the most fundamental obstacles to a true form of freedom.


Anonymous said...

Powers increasingly acknowledge the undeniable evidence that we are running out of many of the essential resources of our modern age.

Exactly which "essential resources" are we running out of here? And which "powers" are we talking about? Not the NYT, I hope.

If we look at the CPI, we see everything dropping (long term) in price based on GDP comparisons to past eras. Oil might be a single exception.

Sardonicus said...

As a Catholic lawyer, I increasingly question the ability of law to produce a "just" society. The question I see is usually, "What law will limit people's [or more often, corporation's] ability to destroy the environment. To which I respond that no law will do that unless we master our own consumption and other unvirtuous behavior. Our society somehow believes that one can consume sex at a rapacious rate and then assume that material consumption will not be drawn in along with that. But, unvirtuous behavior in one area will bleed into others...


Anonymous said...

I appreciate clarification of your blog's intent. Perhaps the phrase "JEREMIAD not CASSANDRA" capture it best for me.

Now I see how the Laschian (Lasch-ist?) or Berryian perspective can overlap but is not limited to eco-doomsdaying or eco-cultural criticism.

Is there any chance that the pro-family movement and the enviros can work togther and create a narrrative?

Huckabee is described as a "progressive" by Jonah Goldberg at NRO because he thinks government can help people live better and healthier and cares about climate change. JG thinks his presidency would be more dangerous than Ron Paul even if the worst of the Ron Paul accusations are true, because Paul is a true "hands-off me" type. So little clarity in that description.