The Brothers Karamazov: II. The Nature of Freedom

Choice vs. Freedom

There is an important distinction, which most people overlook, between free choice of the will, commonly known as free will, and freedom. Choice is consequent of multiplicity, but freedom is consequent of power of being or becoming. For example, when a person is present at a crossroad, he has a choice between one way or the other, but he does not necessarily have the freedom to walk in either. It is one thing to consider abstractly the question, “To be or not to be”, it is quite another to actually be.

The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno first saw the great gulf between potential choice and actual freedom, and posited that freedom (represented by motion) is impossible: Given the premise that space is infinitely divisible, to move from one point to another, one must cross the infinitesimal and yet infinite space between the two points, which is impossible for a finite being.

We might solve Zeno’s paradox by premising that both space and time are infinitely divisible, it is potentially possible to traverse the infinitesimal and yet infinite space in infinitesimal and yet infinite time. What thus comes into existence is both finite and potentially infinite, because it is bound and constituted by the fabric of space-time, and it can come into existence only by the power of Being that is actually infinite.

Ergo, man is given the freedom of being, as a synthesis of finitude and infinitude, by God who is infinitude.

Desire vs. Freedom

One evidence of man’s infinitude lies in his desires. It is curious how insatiable man’s desires remain, although his physical needs are satisfied. On the one hand, desire may signify telos, the aim of all human life, according to Aristotle, is happiness; on the other hand, desire may signify deficiency, a state of imperfection, for man desires what he feels is lacking in himself. Dostoevsky observes that most men mistake this deficient state of being for freedom:

“You have desires, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid to satisfy them and even increase them.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right to increase one’s desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their desires.”

Man desires happiness, the ultimate good, but finds a power at work in him that drives him away from his most cherished desire. As St. Paul wrote, “For to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find…O wretched man that I am!” It is perhaps the same type of self-reflection that led Chesterton to write that Original Sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”.

Christian Freedom

According to the Christian doctrine, the Son of God has come to make man free. Just as God bestows on man the freedom of being in the physical dimension, so He bestows on man the freedom of being in the spiritual dimension. This latter freedom is the “liberty of the children of God”, for man is constituted in Christ, by grace through faith, to be a child of God, and derives his being and freedom from Him. Like Father, like son.

Through the teachings of the saintly character Elder Zosima, Dostoevsky expresses a desire for true freedom, “freedom of the spirit”: Each one of us is given an opportunity to come into being in this world, we’re given space and time, the stage so to speak, to shine forth like stars, to manifest the eternal Freedom and Love of God which is in Christ.

True freedom consists in love, for God is Love, and the inability to love is Hell.

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