Freedom has an origin. We have come to take freedom for granted as an evident fact, one of the obviously given realities of the world, or else we dispute that reality, just as we might dispute other ostensibly obvious things, such as the existence of nature or the existence of God. If the question of freedom has become in the past century one of the classics of philosophical controversy—“free will” versus “determinism”—it is a sign that the ground of its evidence has become occluded, just as it has for the other questions just mentioned, namely, those of the existence of nature and of the existence of God. And indeed the ground, in the end, is the same in all three cases. At the core of the question of freedom ultimately lies the question of God, who is the source of both nature and freedom. To the extent that we allow the question of God to be eclipsed, which is to say that we block the intellect’s natural and essential access to God, whether we do so as individuals or as a culture, we do not simply begin to draw bad inferences regarding the existence or nonexistence of freedom; we become incapable of raising proper questions to begin with, incapable of thinking fruitfully about freedom and inquiring into its reality in a genuinely productive way.
To say it again, freedom has an origin. There can be no freedom if there is no God at the origin of all things, no God who is at once Creator and Liberator of the world, who is free of his very being, whose nature it is to be both free and freeing. To be both free and freeing, this God must be able to give rise to a world that has its own reality in itself, its own principle of self-originating self-motion, which exists in some fundamental way in itself and from itself. This God must not, then, stand in radical competition with this creaturely reality but must be able to share its reality himself, which is to say to enter into its history and to establish that history tout court, giving a liberating, theological sanction to what is in its essence a wholly natural reality. And this God must be able to do so because he is already in himself, in his own inner being, something like a reciprocity of wills, a reciprocity of freedom joined in love—a love that both generates and results from a nonreductive relation that can be perfectly, numerically one without being any less a reciprocity between abiding others.
If such a God is in fact the real origin of freedom, then the fate of freedom will be bound up with the fate of the self-revelation of this God in the actuality of created nature and of history. God’s self-revelation has been received by an effectively infinite number of people, and it has been analogously different, not only in every individual case, but more generally at different historical periods and geographical locations. Nevertheless, the figures we have chosen to study in some depth are paradigmatic and collaborate in their polarities, which span the extremes of the spectrum of possibility in a given period, to present an illuminating picture of the arc of freedom in the West, the rise and fall of the great classical Christian tradition. Plotinus represents a culminating point of the pre-Christian classical tradition, the point at which that tradition flourishes and allows its fruit to be taken up into the Christian form. It is not an accident that this bearing of fruit coincides with the first great insight into freedom, since freedom is exactly this fruitful generativity. As we saw, for Plotinus, the perfection of freedom is essentially a superabundant perfection, which has its own goodness always both in itself and out beyond itself. A key principle arose here: freedom requires a principle that simultaneously transcends the act-potency distinction and establishes that distinction in its properly asymmetrical order. This simultaneity is the meaning of generosity, the essence of gift, which creates things as good and as fruitful in their goodness. Plotinus, we might say, inaugurated the Western tradition of freedom by opening up an insight into this radically original generosity, even if he ultimately lacked the theoretical resources to sustain it.
In Plotinus’s vision we thus find the absolute priority of perfection, everywhere throughout the universe, both physically and metaphysically, with a single exception, a single instance of an excess of perfection, which is the absolutely unique source, or origin, of all perfection, namely, the One. Here there is an ambiguity. As radically generous, the One does indeed transcend the difference between act and potency and establish that distinction, but—perhaps because the One, for Plotinus, has not actually revealed himself in history and so cannot help at this point but be defined, so to speak, as the negation of such an actuality—there is an inclination to invert the order at the highest principle, as the simple reverse of all that follows. In the One alone, potency of a certain paradoxical sort has a certain priority over the perfection of actuality. Because of the primacy of potency in God, actuality can have a priority everywhere else. The potency of the origin comes to expression in Plotinus’s tendency, in fine, to give the spontaneity of the will priority over the receptivity entailed by relation to the good in his interpretation of the free love that is God, even in his affirmation of both of these aspects at once as a response to the Euthyphro dilemma. A tension certainly lies in this point, which will return in a more aggressive form in the late medieval discussion of the relation between God’s potentia absoluta and ordinata, but the pure generosity of the One in Plotinus, and the primacy of the tradition that springs from it, in a sense defer the problem this could pose. The perfection of freedom, and so the absolute primacy of actuality, is first received by all other things outside of the One because, in the One, it is nothing but given, nothing but gift. The nonreductive subordination of freedom to goodness turns thus on the absolute primacy of gift, which allows a universal priority of actuality that does not entail any restrictive limitation.
But this primacy of generosity, precisely to the extent it is given, must be received; it demands a personal response by virtue of being offered in a free way. The actual community of tradition that communicates freedom, in other words, has to be inherited; freedom can be possessed only in a real relation to its origin, in the ontological dependence of participation in the goodness of God as absolute first cause of all things, but a real relation that has been actually appropriated. We see once again that the quality and nature of freedom will depend in some fundamental sense on what is made of the claim that thus invitingly imposes itself. The priority of perfection holds sway throughout the whole of the classical tradition, but its meaning undergoes a development, a certain complexifying self-appropriation and simultaneous deepening and expansion of relationality, by virtue of Christian revelation and the synthesis it brings with the biblical tradition of the Jews. In Augustine, this synthesis reveals itself in the more directly “interpersonal” drama that unfolds from within the essence of freedom. The will for the good reveals itself to be a will for love—or indeed will as love—and love reveals itself to be as much gift as it is desire; it reveals itself as covenantal bond, and one that involves an evidently existential and dialogical drama of pursuit and choice. Dionysius then brings out the unsurpassable perfection of reciprocity: eros is not only a feature of creatures in ontological dependence on God, as in Neoplatonism generally, but, mysteriously, the reality of God in himself and (only) therefore also of God in relation to creatures. This implies a kind of immanentizing of the Plotinian paradox, so that the world itself comes to reflect God’s goodness as its own and for that reason reveals an unsuspected depth of nature. In Maximus the Confessor, who may be seen as bringing the ancient tradition to a certain culminating conclusion, the absolute priority of nature, so conceived, can be understood as not excluding the drama of choice, the actual self-determining operation of the will, which it might seem to do if nature is interpreted as limitation. Maximus achieves this by appropriating the Aristotelian sense of nature (as internal principle of motion) more directly as a “being-moved by God,” and recognizing God as moving, so to speak, in the actuality of history. He thus interprets the freedom of the will specifically in the concrete relation of God in the hypostatic union of Christ, and indeed in the historical deed undertaken by Christ. It is not a coincidence that he also recognizes the paradoxical relation between act and potency that freedom entails, a paradoxical relation now explicitly manifest within the temporal order of history. The Greeks and Jews, nature and history, come together in a fruitful way here.
The drama of freedom may be interpreted as shifting from its Christological source to a more general anthropological principle in the early Middle Ages, but at the same time it is just here that the basic thrust of the classical tradition begins to weaken. In the place of the absolute simplicity of divine goodness, as unadulterated generosity, we have a new division within goodness in St. Anselm: goodness in itself is no longer simply identical with goodness for another, in this case, the choosing self. There is a certain division here between the natural and the personal. The potency of the individual human will acquires a new prominence and finds itself now interacting with divine freedom in some sense as two “cooperating” agents, which encounter each other inside of what is no longer the given reality of nature but now a more empty, “logical” space of potency. We see here that the paradoxical unity (which would preserve the difference and asymmetry) of act and potency collapses into a sequential parsing out of the moments. Bernard recovers, and brilliantly foregrounds, the paradox in his account of the “nuptial union” of man and God in grace, but it is now a paradox of love rather than a paradox of nature. It has been displaced. Potency begins to take on a reality of its own, interpreted separately from the perfection of actuality given in both nature and history. Neither of these thinkers, it is worth pointing out, draws very extensively or profoundly on the tradition that precedes him but instead uses the more individually sourced “tools” of logic and rhetoric in a more unmediated encounter with scripture.
It is at this moment that the classical tradition experiences what is no doubt its most fulsome resurgence. In the high medieval figures of Aquinas and Bonaventure, we have an astonishing recovery of creation, the very principle of the being of the world, as radical gift, and indeed as the gift of the Trinitarian God of love, incarnate in Jesus Christ. Here we have the richest possible resources for a philosophy of freedom. But if the resources are present, they have arguably been as yet only partially tapped. In Bonaventure we have the opening up of a thoroughly Trinitarian notion of God and of being that provides the ground for a profound sense of human freedom as an active gathering up of the whole person—not just the faculty of the will—in love but one that does not eliminate in principle ontological substance and the primacy of actuality that comes with it; and in Aquinas, we have what is perhaps the most complete synthesis of the elements of an integral philosophy of freedom in history, an affirmation of choice and the potency of the will, the receptive spontaneity of human freedom in pursuit of the good to be realized inside of God’s more comprehensive causal act, the metaphysical key to which is a reinterpretation of the absoluteness of nature in relation to the superabundant actuality of being as the actus essendi that perfects all perfections. Here we discover a perfect created reflection of the transcendence of the act-potency polarity that is the mark of generosity. A fully adequate philosophy of freedom would bring these two developments together and deepen the paradoxical unity of nature and person, actuality and potency, spontaneity and receptivity, and goodness and power. But this possibility remains a task to be carried out. What we see in the waning of the Middle Ages, in any event, is a tendency to settle on one side of the paradox or the other, determination by the good or self-determination, and thus a tendency to leave in place a partial vision of freedom.
The partiality of the vision stands out strongly in our final two figures. Here, instead of a paradoxical simultaneity of nature and freedom, intellect and will, act and potency, we have a fragmentation that forces an accordance of primacy in a unilateral way to one aspect or the other. Godfrey represents a repristination of the classical axiom of the primacy of act over potency, but now after the complexifying of this axiom in the metaphysics of gift, from Plotinus to Aquinas and Bonaventure. Now the primacy of perfection no longer has the form of generosity, and so the phenomenon of freedom tends to find expression in the all-but-automatic self-imposition of goodness, within an a priori necessity, as it were, from above. The radical championing of freedom in the name of Christian revelation, which we find in John Duns Scotus, is almost inevitable as a reaction to the one-sided “intellectualism,” “naturalism,” and “actualism” of Godfrey. Scotus’s understandable insistence on the absolute novelty of the active will, which can never be simply derived from its antecedent conditions but must arise spontaneously, from itself, is not the introduction of a foreign idea from out of the blue. He may be seen to be recovering a theme from the tradition that disappeared from the late-medieval horizon, namely, freedom as superabundant power, an ever-renewed source of novelty. But this effective power is no longer a reflection in human nature of the super abundant actuality of being, which is itself a natural reflection of God’s infinitely free generosity. Instead, it becomes a compensatory reaction to and so against the lack of goodness in reality, which has now become ontologically poor. The real world is a mere limited and limiting possibility of what could have been and could yet still be. If the richness of gift, if superabundant actuality, is still evident at all, it is now outside of the world that actually is, and demands to be made evident by means of man’s own productive activity.
The four figures in our study who evince to varying degrees a problematic conception of freedom turn out to be those that do not receive the whole tradition, the Jews and the Greeks, and so do not fundamentally affirm the givenness of being as the very source of freedom. They foreground instead some essential aspect of freedom, which thus intensifies but also threatens to grow out of proportion. In Anselm, we have the normativity of freedom as a distinct power ordered to goodness; in Bernard, the perfection of freedom in love (which tends to eclipse the original gift); in Godfrey, the determination of the will by the object; and in Scotus, the subject’s self-determination. All of these aspects are indispensable, but they introduce problems when affirmed in a fragmentary way, outside of a reception of the whole. As partial, the theories of Anselm and Bernard remain ambiguous, since these theories may be taken up into a more integrated view and transformed accordingly. This transforming assumption is something we arguably see in Bonaventure and Aquinas. But there is less ambiguity in Godfrey and Scotus insofar as they foreground a part with a new absolutizing tendency: Godfrey absolutizes the act-potency polarity in a relentlessly one-sided way, while Scotus overturns it completely. They thus return to partiality, post-integration, and offer it as the whole itself.
I have emphasized repeatedly in my work on the subject the importance of the transcendence of the act-potency polarity that establishes their asymmetrical relation for the proper interpretation of freedom. It is crucial to see the connection between this primacy and the meaning of generosity, especially if we recall the link we have sought to recover between generosity and freedom: liberty as liberality. The key to this link is the given, that which always already is, that which is offered prior to any deliberation, choice, or action but which is at the same time offered for choice. If generosity is affirmed as absolutely first, that according to which every other aspect takes its bearings, then what is actually given will have a positive significance, prior to what might come later but now exists only in potentia. Two questions thus present themselves as decisive in this respect for the theme of freedom, both of which concern the meaning of the given: the question of nature and the question of tradition, both in terms of human history and in terms of God’s self-revelation.
The chasm that separates the rise of the classical Christian notion of freedom from its fall comes to expression perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the almost-perfect inversion that the concept of nature undergoes. In the first part of our investigation, nature has what we might call an absolute status, which is not called into question in the Christian appropriation of Greek thought, and so the biblical reconfiguration of the terms of philosophy, but only transformed and in a certain sense radicalized. Nature, which represents the highest category in the Greek mind, if it enters into a moment of ambiguity in Plotinus in his speculative ventures into the inner life of God, finds a kind of definitive establishment in the fathers, which is recalled in an even more systematic way in Bonaventure and Aquinas. To be sure, the gift of redemption offered in Christ exceeds the original gift of being in creation, but this ought not to be taken simply as the supplanting of nature by grace. Redemption is a kind of re-creation, a transformative renewal of the first, and so in some sense a new, surprising, and nevermore-to-be-surpassed establishment of natural goodness. Part of the question here concerns the precise definition of nature. For Maximus, we saw, the self-motion of nature is ultimately identified with a “being-moved by God.” If this is the essence of nature, grace is not its simple opposite, and there is no principle in the world that could supplant nature and remain a principle of order. To affirm the absoluteness of nature is in this case nothing more or less than to affirm the absolute primacy of God, and so the givenness of nature is inseparable from the givenness of the gift of creation and redemption. For Maximus, it is the natural will that is in perfect conformity to the holiness of God, and so the natural will that is identical with perfect freedom.
One cannot but experience a certain intellectual shock to pass from this affirmation to that in John Duns Scotus, according to whom the natural will, far from representing the perfection of freedom, turns out to be perfectly opposed to it. The natural will is essentially enslaved to the extent that it subordinates itself to the naturally given. The givenness of what is natural is no longer a sign of the absolute primacy of God but the denial of God, or at least the denial of the freedom that the presence of God necessarily entails if properly understood. What accounts for the transition from nature as the paradigm of freedom to nature as the perfect opposite of freedom?
It would be too much to say that the principle of nature has always represented something of an extrabiblical intrusion into the Christian spirit and that Scotus’s assertion of freedom over nature represents a triumph of the biblical vision of reality over the pagan resistance to the reality of God. This view would see the primacy of the will and its capacity for spontaneous gift of self as the preferential option for the Jews and their notion of freely instituted covenant, over the Greeks and their idealizing of the megalopsychos. In fact, this interpretation of freedom does justice neither to the Greeks nor to the Jews, and a fortiori it fails to grasp the Christian notion of freedom. The Jewish notion of covenant is not a pitting of election over against natural givenness, which would tend to degenerate into a merely liberal notion of contract, but the establishment of a bond, which is in some sense an extension of kinship, and so expansion of the actuality of substance, so that two wills become one in reality and truth, without ceasing to be two. And the Greek form is a reception of the other in the mode of a procession from one’s innermost self. Both of these forms turn out to be complementary in the one mystery of love as gift. It may be that the discrete agency of individual wills, the spontaneous and unpredictable decisions of the person acting in history, present a certain tension with the transcendence of eternal nature, undisturbed by the incessant changes of history. In this respect, the emphasis on the will as a power to choose among alternatives, in independence of prior restraints, which we discover in the nonmarginal figures of Anselm and Bernard, would have to be properly integrated within a deepened sense of nature and of being as gift. This represents a task still to be carried out in all of its dimensions, but we have to trust that the Christian vision must make such a thing possible. For at the heart of the Christian vision is an affirmation of the absolute compatibility of person and nature, spirit and substance: the reciprocity of Persons in the Trinity, each of which is definitively and absolutely itself and not the others, coincides with the absolute simplicity of the divine being; the unoriginate fontality of the Father is not a hierarchical priority that must subsequently be coordinated with the other Persons but is relational from the very origin; the procession of the Son, which is in some sense a “natural” begetting per intellectum, is no less absolute in God than the “free” procession of the Spirit, per voluntatem; and the incarnation of God in the hypostatic union is not only a reception of the actual flesh of human nature in the physical womb of Mary but a reception of human culture and tradition in the “spiritual womb” of the Holy Family—and this reception of nature and tradition occurs without any diminishment or compromise of the absolute perfection of divinity.
The second question is the significance of tradition, of that which is given prior to any individual operation of the will. The Christian vision opens up the most radical dimension possible in response to this question as well: Hans Urs von Balthasar has observed that tradition has its beginning already inside of the Trinity, insofar as the Son does not possess the Godhead merely “of himself” but receives it from the Father, who “hands it over” to him (traditio). With respect to the problem of freedom, we see that it is not a matter of indifference whether the Greek inheritance, as pre-Christian, is conceived as pagan thought that presents a problematic restriction, which must be overcome by the novelty of Christian revelation, or is understood as a positively given first insight into the nature of freedom, the significance of which abides even as it is taken up and transformed or made new. It is not possible to make a kind of indeterminacy basic in the notion of freedom, as Scotus does in his critique of the philosophical tradition, and at the same time to affirm the absolute generosity of God, from whom we receive the real world as given. If undecided indeterminacy is most basic, the identity of liberality and liberty is undermined, even if the connection between the two is then insisted on in a compensatory fashion in a second moment. If, by contrast, freedom is generosity, if gift is absolutely first, actuality has to precede potency as a perfection, and this means that the givenness of nature and the givenness of tradition have to be recognized as fundamentally positive elements of freedom. The internal principality of nature is the first movement of freedom, recapitulated in all subsequent movements, and the received forms of tradition liberate. Inside the positive significance of the given, freedom retains its participatory character; it subsists in ontological dependence on reality, in and through nature, and on its original source, in and through the tradition. The God that reveals himself already in Plotinus’s speculative ventures thus introduces a drama of decision in the first Christian thinkers of the tradition. If the perfection of God’s gift is recognized herein, this acquires a kind of normative character for all that follows. It is not possible subsequently to affirm the abstract content of the idea disclosed in Plotinus, now outside of the actuality of the Christian tradition in which that idea was actually received and developed. To take the content outside of the actual concrete form of the tradition is in fact to distort the content in a radical way. It ceases to be an actual ontological dependence, or participation, and becomes instead a mere extrinsic imitation. As we have seen, the superabundant potency of God, which was shared by all things after the One in the form of the positive priority of actuality and so the radical primacy of receptivity in everything after God, becomes a multiplication of superabundant potencies: there are as many originally indeterminate and purely spontaneous powers as there are individual wills, and none of them participates in a more basic perfection first given in nature and tradition. (We recall that Scotus explicitly rejects a participatory account of the will’s causality.)
The absolute primacy of indeterminate potency, which coincides with a radicalizing of contingency, a supplanting of actuality as the principal category or quality of being, represents a fundamental and definitive break, both conceptually and in actu, with the classical Christian tradition and its organically given reality. The connection with the prior tradition may henceforth be subsequently affirmed, and particular elements of the tradition may be recovered and safeguarded, but they will no longer be able to mean the same thing. What was originally given can now only be cobbled together in a manner that leaves in place the priority of potency. It has to give priority to potency because it does not start from the actuality of the traditional inheritance. This is why we cannot fully address the question of freedom, even at the “purely philosophical” level, without reckoning with the question of the hermeneutics of tradition, and more concretely without engaging the metaphysical and theological inheritance of the West. Whatever conclusions we may reach there, it is necessary to recognize in the present context that what was a paradoxical unity of apparently opposed features inside the organic continuity of tradition cannot but devolve, outside of the givenness of truth, into a dialectical process, which attempts to compensate for the actual wholeness it replaces. We thus find the establishment, at the end of the Middle Ages when the classical Christian tradition founders and begins its long dismantling, of a pattern that reappears in the early modern thinkers of freedom. In the place of a paradoxical simultaneity and reciprocal (but always asymmetrical) dependence of act and potency, intellect and will, reception and innovation, being and doing, perfection and fruitfulness, and limitation and excess, we have constant self-subverting imitations. The greatest figures in this modern revolution in freedom are those who are neither mere rationalists nor mere voluntarists, neither simple libertarians nor simple determinists, but who attempt to hold all of the disparate elements together: Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Kant, to name just some of the most influential. But none of these reflects the dawning light of freedom as purely and radiantly, as generously and generatively, as the original thinkers of freedom in the West.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Retrieving Freedom: The Christian Appropriation of Classical Tradition. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.