Dostoyevsky says somewhere that one should speak either of things one knows or of things one likes and, as probably all the people who have no gift to give freedom to others, I like freedom, so this is the only reason why I feel I can speak about it.
Nowadays when people have thought out quite a great deal about freedom, and when science has progressed, it seems very often, and to many, that it is very difficult to speak of freedom at all. What amount of freedom is there, which we really possess? And if you turn simply to the elementary faith of basic Christianity, to the fact that we were created and that we are all moving towards our judgement, that we do not make ourselves, that we are determined both by an act of God which gives us the nature which we possess and by all the complexities which enrich, twist, change and determine this nature in the course of life, it may appear that the theme of freedom is really a pure illusion. Indeed we are called out of non-existence by a one-sided act of God. We exist because we are willed into existence. Once this has happened we are in possession of a human nature which we have not chosen, a human nature which we have, for better or worse, inherited, already transformed, moulded, changed by tens and hundreds of generations before us, and with all this, in the God we are not in a position to contract out of things. We cannot at any moment simply say, “I refuse to go on. I drop out of existence.” We can indeed drop out of life but we cannot cease to be. Even if we kill ourselves we still have an objective physical presence and reality. But even if we could escape that physical presence and reality, not to speak of our eternal soul, we can never under any circumstances escape the fact that we have being, so that we are prisoners from every angle. We originate without any act of freedom on our part. We move inescapably towards an eternal existence, and all we possess in order to become whatever we become is given and determined us.
And so to use an image which is far below these heights of speculation, we look terribly like one of those insects which children catch and put under a glass or inside of a glass. The insect moves forward and backward and round, and in whatever direction he goes, he finds the glass. The only thing – and at this point my analogy holds, I think – the only thing that the insect can do to escape is to fly, to move upwards, to go beyond those limitations which are the limitations of the glass, of the earthly conditionment. But this is not as simple to do in terms of freedom as it is perhaps for a winged insect to do in terms of escape.
So that we come quite close to a vision of a tension between freedom and determination, in which determination is obvious and in which freedom is anything but obvious. And if we recognize that freedom exists at all – and to this we will come in a minute – it still remains that there is a problematic element in the whole thing: a problem to be solved and something to understand about freedom which is quite different from the candid assertion that where there is a will there is a way and that it’s enough to want to be free in order to be free.
That has been, I think, remarkably clear in the words of the Russian writer Khomiakov, who says that the divine will is freedom for His saints, the law for the unredeemed man, and damnation for the devils. And it is important for us to realize that it is the same and one divine will which is these three things. It can be freedom for the ones, it can be final hopeless imprisonment for the others it is a creative limitation for those in between.
Now let us turn to freedom and try to think a little together about what that means. Usually we define freedom in terms of choice: where there is no choice between two alternatives or numbers of possibilities we do not recognize that there is freedom. And we are so accustomed to that, that it is rather rare that we realize that this freedom is already marred, that there is something wrong in this vision of freedom in terns of a choice, because any choice implies always a choice between life and death, good and evil, God and the devil. It may be a great deal of evil or little evil, a great deal of good or not much of it, but the alternative is always between plus and minus. And although it seems to us that to be able to choose without being determined, conditioned from the outside, indifferently according to our whim, is freedom, in reality it is already an aspect of enslavement and adulteration of our very nature. Because if instead of speaking of good and evil, which are big words and which do not give us a clear image of what they mean, we think in terms of concrete good and evil – health and illness, for instance – isn’t it obvious that equanimity, indifference is the choice, the ability to choose for illness as freely as one chooses for health, in itself speaks of the fact that we are profoundly wounded by some sort of lack of integrity. And this is made extremely clear in the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible in I think the 7th chapter of Isaiah, which is read on the eve of Christmas in Orthodox churches. It is applied to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the passage reads as follows: “A Child will be born who, before He can distinguish good from evil, will have chosen the good.” At this point you may say there is no freedom because there was no wavering, no hesitation, no indifference to either. On the other hand you can say this is the only healthy situation, because a healthy moral structure as a healthy organism, as a healthy society does not indifferently vacillate between life and death, between destruction and building, between integrity and disintegration. It goes to what is integrity against disintegration, life against death, good against evil, God against the devil.
So that this definition of freedom in terms of a choice which is determined by no inner law, which is an unconditioned choice and which is as legitimate one way or the other, is not a definition of the freedom of a healthy moral or physical organism. To be indifferent to the possibility of disintegration or to the possibility of life is already adulteration of the system.
So that, although in practice in the life which we lead, our freedom expresses itself continuously in acts of choice, in acts of approximation, in situations in which we are in a state of tension, being attracted in one direction and called in the other, it still remains that this is not a sufficient definition, of what freedom is. Of course we all know that we spend our life wavering in one direction or another. God calls, the devil beguiles. And we have within ourselves these 2 lows of which St Paul speaks, of which one wars against the other. But this inner war, this civil war within ourselves is already a state of lack of integrity, of lack of harmony.
Those who have already heard me speak know probably that I have an unhealthy passion for semantics and for trying to find the meaning of things in the meaning of words. And so I will indulge in this exercise at your expense now and try to find out, or to define, a little what freedom is. Now it isn’t possible to define the meaning of a concept by holding to one language and to the way in which a word is used in the 20th century. So I would like to look into the meaning of three words: liberty, freedom, and the Russian word ‘svoboda’, which means the same thing.
The Latin word ‘libertas’ is a lawyers’ expression apart from being an expression drawn out of the concrete social situation. Early Latin society knew slaves and free men, and in terms of children it knew children born in free families and children born those of slaves. The child born in a free family was free by birthright. He was called a ‘liber’, The child born in a slave’s family was called a ‘puer’. He was a child in the general sense but he could never accede to the term of ‘liber’. And this is important, because if you think now of what that implies, first of all on the level of human relationships in society, and then if you extrapolate to what it means in terms of divine-human relationship, you will find that a liber is a child who is free by birthright but whose freedom is not guaranteed by birthright, because in all these societies divided into slaves and free people the slaves were not always original slaves. They belonged to conquered nations, to defeated neighbours. People could come down in society and become slaves. So that the freedom was not defined simply by the fact that you were born free but by the fact that you were capable of defending your freedom and of being a free man. And this applies in law in a certain way, but internally it applies also to those who were socially slaves, to which I will come in a moment. So that, this child born free must in order to become capable of being a free man, receive a free man’s education. This free man’s education consists in training Him in such degree of mastery, that he is his own overlord and no one will be his lord, in such a degree of authority that no one can steal it from him. And that implies – and we see that so well in feudal society in the West, as we can see it in Roman society in the First centuries of Roman life, this implies an arduous, a strict education in self-mastery which is the only way of reaching freedom. So that from the point of view of the child who is to be made a free man, his life at home is one of the most strenuous forms of enslavement. He will never be allowed to go slack, to be weak, to be overcome and possessed and ruled by passion. He will be trained in mastery, which begins by discipline and obedience.
Now, we are accustomed, when we speak of discipline, to think in terms of military drill. Discipline to us is the state in which we are when an outer, more powerful, more exacting will has authority to make us do what we do not wish to do. But this is a derived form of the meaning. Originally discipline is rooted in the idea of the disciple, of the one who is being taught. And discipline is primarily the state of one who becomes someone’s disciple, who wishes to be taught and trained and who therefore submits to the other, – to someone who is not an outer will in the sense in which a non-commissioned officer is an outer will and an authority and a power over the private soldier, He submits to the outer will because he sees in his master what he wishes to become, and in order to become what his master is like, he is prepared to be moulded by him. St Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that we cannot learn anything unless we are prepared to obey our master, because we must very often learn the meaning of things after the moment we have learned the things themselves. We cannot – and particularly in the spiritual or in the intellectual life – first get things explained and then do them. We must first very often learn to do things in an act of surrender in order to rule then from the inside and discover in them a significance and a meaning which could not be conveyed from the outside.
So that, we discover at this point that if this liver wants to possess his freedom which was given his at the outset but which he can lose by the simplest accident of political or social life. He must learn discipline and mastery, and that the way to learn it is obedience, submission – or rather – surrender – so that through listening to a master he discovers first what he is taught and then beyond the words and the gestures that convey to him what he is to do and what he is to learn, he must discover the meaning of things and become capable of perceiving not only the words and the signs but the intention and the spirit and the meaning of things. This way of becoming free is essential. Only then can we be free if we are prepared to surrender our infantile liberty to a way which is mature, which is well-intentioned, to someone who is to us an image. And if you transfer this terminology, which you cm see very clearly exemplified in early Roman life, to the relationship between man and God, we discover something which is extremely important: that indeed God, with regard to us, is like the pater familias with regard to the liber in the family. But exactly in the same way, ideally, He is not an outer authority. He is a perfect image, He is a terminal ad quem, something towards which we move and not a power that crushes us from heaven downwards. We are not called to become slavish and slavishly subjected to God. We are called to be trained by Him in order to grow into that freedom which will make us truly, really God’s own children.
Now, this relationship, this situation, is possible only if there is something else to it than authority in the modern sense of the word, that is, overwhelming power or a power that can determine our life, our situation, and of times our being – against our will, whether this will is good or ill. And this indeed is brought forth very forcibly in the meaning of the English word “freedom’, of the German word “Freiheit”, and the words which are connected with the some Saxon and Germanic roots, – because at the root of the word “freedom” there is a word which is spelt frae (and which I will not dare pronounce either in English or in any other language because one never knows what happens to letters when they become English words) which in the time when it was used did not mean simply a free person. It meant ‘beloved’. Preceded by “my” or “mine” it meant “my beloved”. And it is only in this relatedness of the beloved” and the lover that freedom was conceived both in Germanic and is Anglo-Saxon roots.
This leads us just one step further from what I said before about “libertas”, because it brings into focus what is at the very heart of what I tried to convey: that all these things become true and creative only if there is the spark which is love. And if we go back to the word “libertas” in connection with freedom, you will realize that if the one who determines whose disciples we are, the one whom we obey, the one to whom we surrender because we are both loved and, however incipiently, loving, then the whole process mist result in our becoming to the full in as perfect a way as is possible for us all that we can be. And there is a study made in one of Khomiakov’s linguistic essays on the meaning of the Russian word “svoboda” which underlines the fact that it is rooted in two words which means “to be oneself”. But to be oneself does not imply opposition or contrast. It implies even less choice and indifferent choice. To be oneself is something which is beyond comparison: we are not ourselves simply because we are different from others. There is a point beyond which being different or not does not make sense. Being different defines what Orthodox theology calls an individual. Being ourselves defines what Orthodox theology would call the person. I know that the word “person” is now submitted to complicated analysis, but I would, like simply to explain what it means.
An individual, from the simple meaning of the word, is the last term of fragmentation. It is that thing which can no longer be divided, in the same sense in which an atom is what cannot be cut in twain or divided further. When we say that so and so is an individual, we simply assert that in this complex fragmentation of “mankind, of nations, of races, of churches, or whatever, one cannot go dividing farther without losing the integrity of the things. If you try to divide me beyond what you see here, the final result will be a corpse and a departed soul, but it will not be me in any workable, in any earthly sense. So that the individual is a term of fragmentation, the last – one cannot go further – and as it is a term of fragmentation of something which is a whole, it possesses characteristics that belong to the whole, only grouped together, adjusted together in a way which makes us recognizable. Each of us has size, volume, colour, sounds different, etc. But these common characteristics which do not belong to any one of us in particular. You can find my voice elsewhere, you can find someone else’s face elsewhere, etc. The person is something much more elusive than this. It is elusive because it has reality but it cannot be simply pinned down in terms of contrast or of a position. The person ultimately is what in each of us is unique, unrepeatable, which exists only once and is not differentiated from others because its characteristics are grouped differently from the characteristics of other person, but because there is no such thing as each of us.
It is made clear, or conveyed, by an image which we find in the Book of Revelation in which we are told that those who belong to the Kingdom of God will receive – each of them – a white stone with a name written on it, which, says the Book, no one knows except God and him who will receive it. This signifies that the name written on it is not just a nickname by which we are known practically, John, Peter or Mr. So-and-so, which could be multiplied by infinity without making any difference. The name of which the book speaks of is that name which coincides exactly with all that we are, which is identical, if you want, with what we are. And if you wish to use imagination and not Scripture as such, you could say it could very well be the name by which God called us out of radical absence to posit us in existence. Whatever the case, it signifies that between this person and God there is a relatedness which is unique and unrepeatable, and not only unique and unrepeatable but incommunicable. I can know who I am and what I am, but no one else can, because if we could know one another the way we are known of God, we would be identical with each other. And in that sense not only our uniqueness would no longer exist: we would not exist at all any more.
In those terms, to be oneself in that full perfect sense, not of a germinal possibility but of a completely blossomed out reality, is freedom, “svoboda”. And so if you think of these different terms which I have tried to go through, you will see that although in practice freedom can be defined in term of a hesitating, approximative choice, ultimately freedom is a relationship between us and God, between us and each other, and a relationship which is not yet freedom but it is becoming free in this process of becoming the children of God, of becoming beloved and loving in response, of becoming ourselves as we have been invented, thought out and called to be by God Himself.
You may say that this is a very poor freedom in the end, because if all the freedom I can possess consists in discovering what I have got to be, irremediably, hopelessly, and say that that’s what I am, it may be consoling freedom but no freedom in the true sense. It wouldn’t be freedom to the true sense if something else did not happen to fulfill this quest of ours. And what can fulfill this quest of ours is a true relationship of sonship and fatherhood with the One who has willed us into existence and who wants us not only to be ourselves in a creaturely, limited way, but who has called us to become partakers of the divine nature, who has called us to be by participation, thanks to participation, what the Only-begotten Son is. And if we see our vocation in becoming by participation that God is, then the ultimate point of freedom is such integration into the divine freedom itself that we become free with the freedom of God Himself.
Well, I think this is enough as introduction to the subject. I have not touched at all – and intentionally – on the question of evil, but I think that the question of freedom is itself is big enough and can be discussed.