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Gunton on Freedom

May 19, 2010

In The One, the Three, and the Many the late Colin E. Gunton works through the lectures of Sir Isaiah Berlin on the title Two Concepts of Liberty . Berlin arrives at a point that defines human beings not as individuals, but as social beings. All humanity is related. This concept reminds me of a statement made by Wendell Berry when he writes, “All things are connected; the context of everything is everything else.” in The Way of Ignorance.

Berlin arrives at this conclusion after outlining the two concepts of negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom seeks liberation from the many.

I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity.

Positive freedom seeks liberation to one’s self free of external constraints. This concept of freedom “derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master.” The one reaches for dominion over the many–leading finally to despotism.

Gunton notes that Berlin displays how positive freedom ultimately “transmorgifies” into negative freedom. The movement toward one’s self is a movement from all others.

Next, Berlin suggests that the concept of freedom is intrinsically tied to human nature. Nothing more than what constitutes the nature of human being can be sacrificed without at the same moment letting go of freedom. If the negative concept of freedom is a constant shedding of “interferences,” then the minimal, Berlin replies (paraphrasing Gunton), is

That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature.

Gunton continues by pointing out Berlin’s understanding that “freedom from interference . . . derives from the fact that there is a plurality of goods, not some single purpose in life that can be rationalistically discovered and imposed.” (I need more context to determine what this means. I know that the use of the word “fact” departs from what Gunton would argue, but perhaps not Berlin.)

At this point Gunton writes that Berlin has arrived at a place where “no finally satisfactory individualist account of freedom” exists. Man is a social being. This becomes Berlin’s weakness according to Gunton.

Is freedom no more than my not being prevented from doing what I want? It is here that arises the irresistible desire for some ontological account of freedom, for an account tied to what I am and not simply what I want.” -Gunton

For Gunton this unveiled the gap filled only by a right understanding of the Trinity. Only a Trinitarian conception of being (of the person) gives adequate space to the individual (the one) without collapsing the one into the many.

Gunton notes that “freedom is both something exercised and something received.” Freedom is reciprocal. Gunton argued for a relational element intrinsic to the nature of freedom, not in a self’s progression toward isolation, but in the individual’s movement toward communion.

It remains in general true that the modern individualistic concept of freedom tends to separate the person from other people, rather than simply distinguishing them from each other in relation. That is to say, it is essentially and irremediably non-relational. -Gunton

Now the question that led me back to a review of Gunton came from reading a statement by Wendell Berry in Standing By Words. He stated that form “enforces freedom,” that form and freedom are not antithetical concepts, that the argument for form was not an argument against freedom. So how does form, limits, law “enforce” freedom?

On a metaphysical level Gunton argued that freedom is relational. Inherent in what it means to be human is to be free–free to be human. Any pursuit that directs one to be more or even less than human rejects the limits of human beingness and makes one a slave. Pride enslaves one to the self, and to be less than human is to be a slave to sin and death. I get this, but what about on, what we can call, a practical level?

Regardless of what I believe and what I do (take the classroom as an example), I must evaluate my intent. I must not endorse any act, behavior, or practice that “frees” me from others, that isolates me because it is what I want. Rather, I must act in such a way that “frees” me toward others, that permits me to fully be what I am — a person-in-relation.

Out of relation springs new possibilities. The freedom in relation is the freedom toward the possible, the unknown. New realities take form in the free relations of living beings.

Submission to form does not draw the question, “What does this benefit me?” Such questions are blinded toward true freedom. Rather, I am gifted the space to partake in something greater, or simply other, than myself. As such, my soul is enlarged. It is not, “What do I get out of it?” but, “What I receive as being a part of it.” Honoring form grants true freedom — the freedom to be.

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