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15 septembre 2007 6 15 /09 /septembre /2007 08:02
At the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVIth, Christopher Dickey and Melinda Henneberger wrote: “Today the 78-year-old pontiff presides over the (…) empire of the 1.1 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church (…). The way he leads it will have an impact on issues central to the future of humanity, from the challenge of radical Islam to the scourge of AIDS, the shape of the European Union and, not least, the ferociously divisive politics of red and blue.” This text which was published in the Polish edition of “Newsweek”, was translated  in a very telling manner: the final expression, “the politics of red and blue”, was rendered as “konserwatyzm i liberalizm” - conservatism and liberalism.
These two notions have often been used as if they formed a binary opposition. In the common perception conservatism opposes progress, and liberalism opposes any restriction or limitation. Even taking into account all possible shades of meaning, we may conclude that conservatism can be broadly understood as “an attitude that attaches greater importance to the preservation and care of the traditional and enduring than to innovation and change. The typical conservative defends individual and collective material and cultural possessions, fears and resists revolution, and accepts progress only as a gradual development from the existing [political] system.” On the other hand, the concept of liberalism is most often connected with the idea, that “political philosophers … have the liberal idea of freedom if they claim for man, by reason of his humanity, the right, within limits strictly or loosely defined, to order his life as seems good for him”.
This, of course, refers primarily to political philosophy. I would rather comment on some wider tendencies observed in contemporary popular anthropology, especially in certain ideas concerning human upbringing. Here we may observe a similar tendency to oppose “conservatism” to “liberalism”. As in other cases, this opposition requires an underlying philosophical presupposition; one which may be asserted consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously. This assumption holds that one of the most important features of authentic human progress is an enlargement of the range of individual freedom. For example, the political construction of the European Union, according to Timothy Garton Ash, involves “an enlargement of the area of freedom”. But in making an assertion of this type, we are faced with an immediate philosophical dilemma: to what concept of  human freedom do we turn ?  Thus right from the start we face a large host of important – and difficult – problems.
Nevertheless, today we have to contend with false idea of freedom. The main problem is, that in ordinary life, people conceive of freedom in a purely “negative” sense. They understand freedom as merely freedom from limitations or obligations: the less limitations that are imposed on them, the more they are free. It does not matter whether we speak of formal or informal limitations, of extrinsic or intrinsic ones. This way of  thinking seems to many people so obvious that they do not make the slightest effort to submit their view to a more serious and deliberate analysis. But if we limit ourselves to this popular way of thinking, it becomes one of the most dangerous threats to individual human freedom as well as to the tissue of social relationships.
First, this purely “negative” way of conceiving the notion of freedom rends the process of upbringing of young people almost impossible. Such a process always entails an imposition of limitations and obligations – regardless of how they are presented. Teaching the young the importance of limitations can facilitate the cultivation of key values necessary for human flourishing; nevertheless, limitations will always remain limitations. But a faulty presentation will risk an attitude of revolt. In this case it is very difficult for young people to integrate external, imposed limits with their own need for self-affirmation and self-realization.
Nevertheless, in our dominant Western world-view in which the individual dignity of each person is emphasized, it often happens that a person reacts negatively to any value imposed from outside. In general, people do not like to be moralised. Why? I suppose it is often because they feel humiliated if they are ordered to live according to values that they do not understand. If they are neither able to understand a set of values, nor live in accordance with them, it is easy for us to understand how they would perceive these values as simply arbitrary – and therefore essentially meaningless – restrictions. Hence, the whole process of the interiorization of moral values is quite difficult. Yet, regarding problems of forming mature responsibility, civil formation, or preparing citizens to contribute to the development of society (not only in respect to a local but also national, or even European society), the more difficult these problems seem, the more urgent these values are needed.
But what is even more problematic this “negative” idea of freedom impairs an individual’s ability to arrive at any serious decision. Each serious decision has its long-lasting consequences, which usually involve some limitations. Thus, if an individual is afraid of restrictions (as limiting his or her personal freedom), this kind of fear compromises the decision-making process and even potentially compromises the living out of one’s vocation. We may just observe such a  phenomenon in contemporary Western culture. In several countries there is not only a significant decrease in number of candidates to religious life, but also to matrimony as well. Educators, psychologists or sociologists point out that these difficulties result from a belief that an individual is incapable of making a decision with life-long consequences.
The realm of human morality is very difficult and very delicate. According to the tradition of the ancient and the mediaeval thinkers, the most fundamental question for every human being, myself included, is: ‘how do I achieve happiness?’  First of all I want to be happy, and this is an inalienable feature of my human nature. However, the answer to the question: ‘am I happy?’ to large extent depends on how I conceive the concepts of good and freedom.
As a Christian (and even more as a Dominican brother), I look to the prophetic teaching of the contemporary Church. As the encyclical “Redeemer of Man” states: “What is in question is the advancement of persons, not just the multiplying of things that people can use. It is a matter – as a contemporary philosopher has said and as the Council has stated - not so much of <having more> as of  <being more>”. This point is also found in “Gaudium et Spes”: “In man himself  [in woman as well, of course] many elements wrestle with one another. Thus, on the one hand, as a creature he experiences his limitations in a multitude of ways. On the other, he feels himself to be boundless in his desires and summoned to a higher life. Pulled by manifold attractions, he is constantly forced to choose among them and to renounce some. Indeed, as a weak and sinful being, he often does what he would not, and fails to do what he would. Hence he suffers from internal divisions, and from these flow so many and such great discords in society”. And it is precisely due to these limitations and internal divisions that the problem of moral formation takes on such great importance. Thus, if we ask on what Europe’s future depends, we must concur with Stefan Wilkanowicz: “upon the quality of the Europeans themselves”.
In light of the above analysis we can draw only one conclusion. It is untenable to hold that human freedom consists in merely the absence of external limitations. We must posit that the very essence of freedom is radically different. Freedom is to be primarily understood in a positive sense, i.e. as freedom to do good. From this perspective, I am free inasmuch as I am capable to do good. This change in approach entirely shifts the paradigm. For example, we know from experience the extent to which a good, successful marriage allows one to do many good things, how it improves one’s creative capacities and ultimately promotes human flourishing. In my own case, I have experienced the liberating influence of the religious vow of obedience. Based on my experience I have concluded that in order to ensure fully human integration, it is necessary to discover the liberating role of the good (as well as the liberating role of truth, and even of beauty!).
To cultivate such a positive approach to the concept of freedom is by no means easy. First, we must reflect upon the question: in what sense and to what extent is our human sensibility, our human capacity to discern the good, objective (or, at least, sufficiently inter-subjective)? In other words: to what extent we may come to a common understanding as to what is good or right, and what is bad or wrong ?  In the past, such agreements were based on a shared understanding of  human nature. To-day, in our contemporary pluri-cultural world, it is much more difficult than it was in the Middle Ages, dominated by the scholastic tradition, with precisely elaborated system of concepts. Nevertheless, if we do not want to be completely lost within the vagaries of the purely ‘negative’ concept of freedom, a genuine debate is indispensable.
Further, the debate requires a great effort on the part of the participants in order to guarantee suitable level of intellectual honesty – both of ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’. On one hand, believers have always been threatened by the temptation to apply an ‘intellectual shortcut’ (of the type of ‘God of gaps’): if God has really revealed His Word, then an individual who acknowledges His revelation is always right at the outcome of the debate. On the other hand, non-believers risk a certain kind of moral indifferentism: if God (understood as an ultimate Principle of truth, good and beauty) is unknowable, then every individual is to discern moral values on his/her own, and so society is left to decide what is good or bad within the framework of democratic procedures. Both these temptations require prudence; otherwise they may result with a kind of intolerance on one hand, or moral relativism on the other. One of the most serious challenges to our democracy is the conviction, that if all people are equal, then all kind of opinion is of the same value.
Contemporary thought should take account of  the Aristotelian concept of moral conscience. According to the St Thomas Aquinas’ presentation of Aristotle’s thought, an individual is able to discern (and not to decide) in his/her conscience what is good or bad. It is worthwhile to pursuit this course of thought; otherwise we cannot get out of a ‘vicious circle’ in which our contemporary debates on freedom seem to be entangled. No kind of ‘political correctness’ can ever replace the moral conscience; just the opposite, it may lead an individual or entire social groups towards a kind of totalitarian mentality.
*  *  *
To conclude my short and provisory remarks, let me relate an example of one such debate.
In 2000, a group of intellectuals from several countries met in Gdańsk and formulated the document “The Charter of Human Duties and Responsibilities” (see Appendix). What was the purpose and the aim of this initiative? In our contemporary debates on politics, on social issues, on culture and so on, we talk quite a lot about human rights. But the discussion of human rights must always be balanced by discussion of human duties and responsibilities. For example, it is obvious then if want to ensure the rights of children, we must immediately take into serious account the duties and responsibilities of their parents, teachers, educators. This simple relationship must be taken into serious consideration, especially as we observe a tendency, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, just to run away from the hell of human duties to the paradise of rights. We claim that our rights have to be observed, but we don’t realize that they simultaneously impose obligations. Without both rights and responsibilities no social order is possible.
As we analyse this “Charter of Human Duties and Responsibilities”, we may notice that this involves very delicate areas of human activity: responsibility for the common good, respect for  justice, service in the name of the truth, respect for life and nature, and respect for family.
At first glance the Charter seems to have a very general character, but it results from the universality of this message. The Charter is not intended as a juridical text, it is simply an appeal to remind ourselves of the internal dimension of our human nature. Whereas a reminder of our natural human rights is a help in face of danger form outside, so this admonition of our fundamental human duties is intended as a help in face of dangers from inside: false pride, egoism, unordered ambitions and lusts; these latter constitute – according to the text from “Gaudium et Spes” – much more serious threats for a human being. 
Furthermore, there is the issue of justifying a document of this type. How can we say that these duties and responsibilities are in fact a logical consequence of human rights? Of what kind of logic may we speak? It seems, it is not enough to appeal to a logic of pure reason. Instead, we must make an appeal to the dignity of the human person, which is something that goes far beyond human consciousness and rational logic. There is something that can be termed the ‘mystery of the human being’. To grasp this logic, to enter into the realm of its consequences, requires more the logic of an intellectus than of a ratio - much more the logic of frόνησις (a kind of an intuitive common sense, a sapiential insight into reality) than that of an eπistήμη (a rational knowledge, as e.g. science or philosophy).
Of course, to follow this way of sapiential insight we should be aware of our prejudices. Every epoch has had its own prejudices: the epoch of scientism, the epoch of ‘political correctness’ and the epoch of post-modernism. One of these prejudices is the blanket rejection of the insights of Christian thought. While there is much to be gained from post-modern analysis of our pluri-cultural society, the Christian tradition provides a vehicle for even a more profound understanding of the human subject’s contemporary situation.

fr Marek Pieńkowski OP, ESPACES centrum, Kraków, Poland 
Fribourg - septembre 2005
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